Tagreligion

litmus tests and revulsion

In trying to explain to National Review why she doesn’t apply a religious litmus test to judicial nominees, Sen. Dianne Feinstein in fact revealed that she does indeed have a litmus test. She says, “I have never and will never apply a religious litmus test to nominees — nominees of all religious faiths are capable of setting aside their religious beliefs while on the bench and applying the Constitution, laws and Supreme Court precedents.” But she is worried about an article Prof. Amy Barrett in which she acknowledged that situations might arise in which a Catholic judge’s faith commitments were at odds with what the law declares.

So Feinstein’s litmus test for nominees like Amy Barrett is this: Are your religious beliefs weak enough that you can effortlessly “set them aside”? The same logic was at work when Sen. Dick Durbin denounced Barrett for using the term “orthodox Catholic”: “Do you consider yourself an orthodox Catholic?” he demanded. (“Are you now or have you ever been … ) And again when, a few months ago, Bernie Sanders challenged Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, about his views on soteriology — a branch of doctrine that has no possible bearing on public service.

What all these lines of senatorial questioning have in common is an open revulsion towards people for whom religious belief is consequential. It doesn’t really matter what you think the consequences are, or whether they bear on your job in any way: if you simply think that your religious beliefs matter, that is sufficient to bring you under suspicion.

And again, the form the suspicion takes is that of revulsion, revulsion tending towards outrage. It is hard to tell how much of the revulsion is performative and how much heartfelt, but of course the performative eventually becomes heartfelt. As Bertolt Brecht teaches us, “weeping arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from weeping.” And in any case the claim, explicit or implicit, that religion matters is easily perceived as a challenge to those who don’t think it matters, or (more likely) who have never really thought about whether it does, and that is provocative. So look for much more of this kind of response in the years to come.

the wisdom of Xún Zǐ

On his blog this morning, Rod Dreher publishes a fascinating letter from a reader in China, who suggests that the work of Xún Zǐ might be a good entryway into Chinese culture.

As it happens, I wrote about Xún Zǐ in my book on original sin. I introduce him after briefly describing the thought of Confucius’s disciple Mencius, who believed that human beings are intrinsically good. Here’s the relevant passage:

But some generations later there came along another great sage, one who also considered himself a faithful disciple of Confucius, who believed that Mencius had gotten it all wrong. His name was Xún Zǐ (310-237 BCE), and it is probably not coincidental that he lived in what has long been called the Warring States Period, when the unifying power of the Zhou dynasty was weakening and the social order crumbling. “The nature of man is evil,” Xún Zǐ wrote; “man’s inborn nature is to seek for gain. If this tendency is followed, strife and rapacity result and deference and compliance disappear. By inborn nature one is envious and hates others. If these tendencies are followed, injury and destruction result and loyalty and faithfulness disappear.” If we feel a pang of compassion or anxiety for a child falling into a well, that is because the life or death of that child does not affect our interests — we do not gain by it. If we knew that we would gain by that child’s death, then not only would we feel no anxiety, we’d give the kid a good push.

But then, someone might say, people often, or at least sometimes, do virtuous deeds. If our nature is evil, where does goodness come from? Xún Zǐ has a ready reply: “I answer that all propriety and righteousness are results of the activity” — this word carries connotations of creativity and artifice — “of sages and not originally produced from man’s nature…. The sages gathered together their ideas and thoughts and became familiar with activity, facts, and principles, and thus produced propriety and righteousness and instituted laws and systems.”

So it would seem that the news from Xún Zǐ is not so bad after all, and not so different from the model of Mencius. Yes, we have an innately evil nature, and come into this world predisposed to greed and strife; however, these tendencies are correctable by the judicious enforcement of well-made laws. The one thing needful is that the sages, who have “gathered together their ideas and thoughts and became familiar with activity, facts, and principles,” are the ones given charge of “laws and systems.” Philosophers rule — or should.

So for Xún Zǐ inborn evil is not so much a curse as an annoyance. Thanks to basic human intelligence, which allows us to see when things aren’t working properly and then take the necessary steps to address the problems, we can find sages (“sage-kings,” he later says) to establish laws and social structures that mitigate evil and build up good. And, not incidentally, Xún Zǐ believes that “Every man in the street possesses the faculty to know [humanity, righteousness, laws, and correct principles] and the capacity to practice them.” Therefore, almost anyone can become a sage; there is no reason why there should ever be a shortage of them.

It’s Xún Zǐ’s matter-of-factness that’s noteworthy here, and really rather attractive. What his philosophy indicates is that one can have a very low view of human nature without being what William James, in his classic Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) calls a “sick soul”: a person tormented by consciousness of sin and helpless in the face of temptation. James spoke of such people as “these children of wrath and cravers of a second birth,” and it was almost axiomatic to him that their personality is antithetical to the confidence and assurance and warmth of what he calls “the religion of healthy-mindedness.” But Xún Zǐ, for all his insistence on the depths of our innate sinfulness, seems the very embodiment of healthy-mindedness. How is this possible? It turns out that what matters more than your view of “human nature” is your view of the relative importance of nature and nurture. For Xún Zǐ human nature is evil, but nature is also easily controllable and eminently improvable. All you have to do is put the philosophers in charge.

faith

We’re in a society that thinks entirely about faith, because of our sense of encroachment by Islam, and our defiance against that because we have our own way of being, which of course is based in Christianity. But no one is Christian. So we’re trying to defend an ideal which we can’t really define ourselves, which we almost entirely don’t believe in. And we’re coming up against something which is quite overwhelming and encroaching and dictatorial – some aspects of Islam – and yet at another level, there’s something so beautiful and glorious about it. And so I feel as if this conflict is entirely about faith, and yet the one thing no one wants to talk about is faith.

Nicola Barker

I often think I’m the only person in the world who cares about this, but … here’s a very nice piece on dystopian fiction that uses the terms “sacrament” and “sacramental” far too loosely. It’s an unfortunately common trope (especially but not only among Christians) to use “sacramental” as a synonym for “meaningful” or “comforting” or “reassuring.” Experience or objects can be deeply meaningful, even life-transforming, without being sacramental. Sacrament requires not just meaning but the divine promise of meaning: the Eucharist is a sacrament because God promises to be present in it. And the same is true of the other sacraments. Where there is no promise, there is no sacrament, though for the attentive person there will often be deep meaning.

the weakness of religion

I am by most measures a pretty deeply committed Christian. I am quite active in my church; I teach at a Christian college; I have written extensively in support of Christian ideas and belief. Yet when I ask myself how much of what I do and think is driven by my religious beliefs, the honest answer is “not so much.” The books I read, the food I eat, the music I listen to, my hobbies and interests, the thoughts that occupy my mind throughout the greater part of every day – these are, if truth be told, far less indebted to my Christianity than to my status as a middle-aged, middle-class American man.

Of course, I can’t universalize my own experience – but that experience does give me pause when people talk about the immense power of religion to make people do extraordinary things. When people say that they are acting out of religious conviction, I tend to be skeptical; I tend to wonder whether they’re not acting as I usually do, out of motives and impulses over which I could paint a thin religious veneer but which are really not religious at all.

Most of today’s leading critics of religion are remarkably trusting in these matters. Card-carrying members of the intelligentsia like [Christopher] Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris would surely be doubtful, even incredulous, if a politician who had illegally seized power claimed that his motives for doing so were purely patriotic; or if a CEO of a drug company explained a sudden drop in prices by professing her undying compassion for those unable to afford her company’s products. Discerning a difference between people’s professed aims and their real aims is just what intellectuals do.

Yet when someone does something nasty and claims to have done it in the name of religion, our leading atheists suddenly become paragons of credulity: If Osama bin Laden claims to be carrying out his program of terrorism in the name of Allah and for the cause of Islam, then what grounds have we to doubt him? It’s not like anyone would lie about something like that as a strategy for justifying the unjustifiable, is it?

Me, nine years ago. I still hold this view.

transcendent experience

I became interested in ecstatic experiences when I was 24 and had a near-death experience. I fell off a mountain while skiing, dropped 30 feet, and broke my leg and back. As I lay there, I felt immersed in love and light. I’d been suffering from emotional problems for six years, and feared my ego was permanently damaged. In that moment, I knew that I was OK, I was loved, that there was something in me that could not be damaged, call it ‘the soul’, ‘the self’, ‘pure consciousness’ or what-have-you. The experience was hugely healing. But was it just luck, or grace?

Interesting how from its title onward — Religion has no monopoly on transcendent experience — this piece is absolutely desperate to avoid considering the possibility of a living God. People often say that it’s quite unfair that God expects us to believe in him if he doesn’t make himself evident to us. But what if he does and we choose to interpret the experience in some other way?

Thus C. S. Lewis at the beginning of his book Miracles: “In all my life I have met only one person who claims to have seen a ghost. And the interesting thing about the story is that that person disbelieved in the immortal soul before she saw the ghost and still disbelieves after seeing it. She says that what she saw must have been an illusion or a trick of the nerves. And obviously she may be right. Seeing is not believing…. If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical question.”

choices

From all the irrefutable testimonies of human misery there is no logically sound path to the great heavenly Physician; from the fact that we are sick it does not follow that we can be cured. It is possible, as Pascal repeatedly argued, that the human condition, including all its sorrows and evils, as well as its splendours and greatness, is unintelligible and meaningless unless it is seen in the light of sacred history: creation, sin, redemption. If so, it appears that the admissible options are: a meaningful world guided by God, spoilt by men, healed by the Redeemer; or an absurd world, going Nowhere, ending in Nothing, the futile toy of an impersonal Fate which does not distribute punishments and rewards and does not care about good and evil. Promethean atheism might appear, on this assumption, a puerile delusion, an image of a godless world which rushes on to the Ultimate Hilarity.
— Leszek Kolakowski, Religion

“the death of gods is a chain reaction”

A mythology, if it is to be effective, must be all-encompassing. The death of gods is a chain reaction; each drags another down into the abyss. Abyssus abyssum invocat. Hence the necessity – of which experienced priests are well aware – of maintaining the mythology as a system in which every detail is equally important and equally holy. The logic of mythology is familiar to every priest; it is there in his mind when he says: today you will miss Mass, tomorrow you will curse God, and the day after that you will become a Bolshevik. This is why only Stalinism, because it was all-encompassing, was a viable mythology. Stalin’s priests said: today you will admire a painting by Paul Klee, tomorrow you will cease admiring socialist-realist architecture, the day after that you will start to doubt the leap from quantity to quality, and the day after that you will renounce your loyalty to Caesar. And since Caesar’s rule is the rule of the people, you will be an enemy of the people. So by admiring a painting by Paul Klee you become an enemy of the people in potentia; you are ‘objectively’ an enemy of the people, a spy and a saboteur. The power of this strategy, confirmed by centuries of historical experience, is undeniable. And its collapse had to be as total as its rule had been: a chain of divinities, collapsing like a pack of cards. What folly to imagine it was possible to extract just one!

— Leszek Kolakowski, “The Death of Gods”

the limits of pluralism

Much of the history of religion in America has been written to emphasize the triumph of pluralism. Perhaps rightly so. That has meant, however, that those who have never conceded the premise that all or most religions, or even most Christian denominations, are more or less equal, have not been taken as seriously in our histories as they might. Even today there are vast numbers of Americans who, although committed to live at peace with other religious groups, believe it is a matter of eternal life or death to convert members of those groups to their own faith. Like it or not, such evangelistic religion has been and continues to be a major part of the experiences of many ordinary Americans. The dynamics of such religious experience need to be understood if one is to understand large tracts of American culture. Indeed, the tensions between religious exclusivism and pluralism are among the leading unresolved issues shaping the 21st century world.

– George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life

On August 2, 1100, the English king William Rufus was killed by an arrow while hunting in the New Forest, probably in an assassination, possibly by a genuine accident. We really don’t know. In modern times, though, that story developed an unexpected afterlife through the work of a bizarre scholar called Margaret A.  Murray (1863-1963). Murray was a distinguished Egyptologist, who developed a grand unified theory of European witchcraft. She argued that the records of witch-trials were not simply fictitious, but actually contained accounts of genuine underground pagan cults that flourished within a notionally Christian Europe.

This theory was not wholly new to her, and she had plenty of predecessors over the previous decades, including feminists like Matilda Joslyn Gage. However, Murray brought the idea to a mass audience. That theory was expressed in Murray’s enormously influential 1921 book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, and in The God of the Witches (1931). These books inspired countless horror novels, and Murray’s writings are even cited in H. P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu. They also largely inspired the actual creation of the Wicca movement, the supposedly revived witchcraft created by Gerald Gardner in the 1950s. Notionally, that too was a revival of an ancient pagan cult.

Dark Majesty and Folk Horror. A fantastic post by my colleague Philip Jenkins, with a follow-up here. Philip should write a book about these matters, the bogus academic roots of neopaganism.

back when he was famous

“Well, God is almighty, I guess. But I think he’s on vacation right now because of all the crap that’s happening in the world, ’cause it wasn’t like this back when he was famous.”

— A 16-year-old boy from Texas, as reported in Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2009)

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

A lot of times in our culture there’s this de facto humanist swagger that says, “Oh yeah, religion. We used to do that shit.”  But my advice would be, to anyone who wanted it: reconfigure your understanding of “religion,” and make it exactly that which will give you that airport state of mind more often. And then go into the existing traditions and cull through them to make it that. Or to try to find the authentic elements of those traditions that are really about that. ‘Cause that’s really what they’re about.

George Saunders. Listen to the whole thing to find out what he means by “that airport state of mind,” but basically he means that heightened state of awareness and love for the people closest to you that you feel when you’re saying goodbye to them at the airport.

It’s an old, old story by now, isn’t it? — the idea that you can carefully remove everything you don’t like about “religion” — like picking the anchovies off your pizza, and who ordered anchovies, who does that, some idiot — and keep all the stuff that makes you feel good. No obligations, no beliefs you’re not sure you can sign on to, just “mindfulness” and a full, full heart. As Jake says in The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Understanding Father Neuhaus

I did not know Richard John Neuhaus intimately, or even well; we met only a couple of times, and corresponded a bit over the years. But I was involved with his magazine, First Things, for a long time, and read almost everything he wrote, and talked often about him with mutual friends. So I was excited when Randy Boyagoda’s biography of Father Neuhaus appeared, last month, and I read it as soon as I could. It’s a superb work, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the varying intersections of religion and politics, especially in America during the second half of the twentieth century and the first years of this one.

The book has been widely reviewed already, and I want to zero in on a couple of those reviews because I think they raise some important issues about Neuhaus and about those “intersections” I just mentioned. The first is by Jeet Heer and the second is by Damon Linker.

For Heer, Neuhaus was a “holy hustler,” a hypocrite: “when religion and politics clashed, Neuhaus chose politics…. Toeing the Republican party line seems to have mattered more to Neuhaus than bearing witness to the life and words of Christ…. Neuhaus tailored his Christianity to match GOP dogma, often wilfully ignoring mainstream Christian theology and even the plain meaning of the gospels.” (For Heer “mainstream Christian theology and even the plain meaning of the gospels” seem to be about “reproductive freedom, environmentalism, feminism and gay rights.” But never mind.)

Linker’s view of Neuhaus is expressed more gently but does not greatly differ: Neuhaus “decided to lend his considerable talents to encouraging the folly” of a political party that thinks and acts “like a church.” The general lesson he draws from Neuhaus’s support for the Bush administration’s foreign policy, and for the Republican party more generally, is this: “When philosophical, theological, or historical ideas are blended with political passions and convictions, the result is very often a species of propaganda.”

Linker focuses on the Neuhaus of the early 21st century, because that’s when the two men worked together; Heer — and this may explain the angrier tone — reads Neuhaus’s later career as a betrayal of his early work as a political radical. (At one point during the Johnson administration Neuhaus said that the Vietnamese people were “God’s instrument for bringing the American empire to its knees.”) But there is a general picture of Neuhaus that both men share: he was a man who, possibly because of a love of power and influence, mixed religion and politics so thoroughly that he sacrificed the integrity of his theological and moral convictions, and lost the ability to bear politically-independent witness to Christian truth.

I don’t agree with this interpretation of Neuhaus, but in this post I’m not going to contest it. Instead, I want to assume, per argumentum, that it’s true. What then? What comes then, I think, is the question of how and why Neuhaus took this route. Linker doesn’t ask the question in his review, though he raises it in his book The Theocons; Heer just assumes that he knows the answer: Neuhaus’s lust for power. But that doesn’t explain why Neuhaus turned right; after all, he could have sought influence with the Carter administration, or later with the Clinton, and climbed the ladder of influence more quickly. So why did he make the political turn he did, when he did?

Some of the answers are in Boyagoda’s biography, for those willing to seek them out.

In 1961 Neuhaus was the pastor of a Lutheran church in Brooklyn with an overwhelmingly black congregation, and he did almost all his pastoral work among poor black people. To supplement his extremely meager pastoral salary he took a job as a hospital chaplain, and one day he came home from that job and wrote a letter to his dear friend Robert Wilken:

I just saw “baby boy Washington” enter life with a cry. He does not yet know how much he will have to cry about. His mother is unmarried and does not want him. He will be turned over to the city for a life of not being wanted. This is true for more than one third of all the hundreds of babies delivered here. I don’t think his prospects are very good for finding love, happiness, joy, purpose…. I am not depressed — only filled with wonder. Wonder at the glory and tragedy of life in this city. In a little while I will drive home and can count on being struck again by the New York skyline — a never failing object of adoration. The city and the potential of the civilization it represents — to this I am religiously committed. And to the ways of the God who brought it into being. “What is man, that you keep him in mind?” Little baby boy Washington — fear not, He has redeemed you. He has called you by the name you do not yet have, you are His! I cannot guarantee you that this is true. It may be a pious illusion. But it is better than what is called the truth by men, but just must be illusion. You are not alone.

Neuhaus believed that God “brings into being” each of those whom Jesus calls “the least of these”; that God calls them to Himself, redeems them — that God loves the unloved and unwanted; that every life, including life in the womb, is immeasurably precious to Him. In the 1960s he was a man of the left because he knew that the left was populated by many religious believers (Jewish as well as Christian) and because he thought that even the irreligious had in their secular way a care for “the least of these” that resembled his own.

Boyagoda shows very clearly that as the Sixties moved into the Seventies Neuhaus found his allies moving farther and farther away from him. The religious left became less and less willing to challenge even the grossest injustices and abuses if they emerged from their own end of the political spectrum. In 1975, “when he and a few others tried — and failed — to win broad support among his leftist colleagues for a public condemnation of the new Communist government in Vietnam because of its broad human rights abuses and specific targeting of religious minorities, he knew it was really over: for his onetime allies, leftist political solidarity trumped concerns over the higher dictates of religious freedom and human dignity.”

Moreover, the left with increasing insistence severed the cause of the poor from the cause of the unborn — something Neuhaus found tragic. Boyagoda again: “By the early 1970s Neuhaus began to understand his commitment to the rights of the poor and the racially oppressed as of a piece with his commitment to the rights of the unborn, which would occupy an ever greater primacy in the coming years. From the beginning, however, this integration of rights for the poor and rights for the unborn placed him at a critical distance from a Left in which private rights — made possible by and indeed protecting implicit race and class privileges — trumped responsibilities for others.”

The point needs emphasis: not just the unborn were at risk from the left’s changing direction. In the 1970s Neuhaus wrote, as quoted by Boyagoda with clarifying brackets,

A distinguished medical proponent of abortion on demand once assured me that no one should be forced to be born who was not guaranteed “the minimal requirements for a decent existence” [essentially, the standard family, education, and economic elements of secure and stable middle-class American life]. When I [Neuhaus] pointed out that, by his criteria, most of the people I work with in Brooklyn should have been aborted in the womb, he responded with utmost sincerity, “But surely many, if not most, of the people who live in our horrible slums would, if they could be objective about it, agree with me that it would have been better for them not to have been born.”

So much for baby boy Washington, beloved of the Lord. Boyagoda rightly notes that this encounter “afforded [Neuhaus] his most visceral sense of why he could no longer be a clergyman of the Left.” Thus his long slow turn towards the right, towards the Republican party, where, Neuhaus came to believe, the moral language he thought essential could still be heard, as it no longer could in the Democratic party. (Thus also, though it’s not my subject here, his eventual move into Catholicism.)

Fast-forward a few years, to Neuhaus’s attempt to influence the presidential campaign of George W. Bush. When Bush professed reluctance to “lead with the abortion question” because of its political volatility, Neuhaus responded,

”The only way of preventing it from becoming the lead question is to settle it securely with your supporters to whom it matters most.” Here Neuhaus turned openly strategic: “Let me urge you as strongly as I can to view the pro-life position not only as a moral imperative but as a big political plus,” which he detailed by citing polling data that pointed to ultimately limited and soft support for hard-line abortion policies, which in turn would provide “a great advantage to any leader firmly and articulately supportive of the goal: ‘Every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life.’” Having underlined this statement in his letter to Bush — who would use it repeatedly in his future presidency to articulate his pro-life policy goal — Neuhaus concluded by offering his prayers, and an offer of further assistance should Bush seek it.

And this, from an endnote:

After recalling their 1998 breakfast meeting, in which Bush assured Neuhaus of the strength and quality of his pro-life commitments, Neuhaus called it a decision that would “define the relationship of your Administration and of the Republican Party to the Catholics of America or at least to the great majority of those who are observant Catholics — and to prolife Americans more generally.” Thereafter, he issued a blunt warning to Bush, that even if “Catholics and prolife Americans have nowhere else to go in national politics” than the Republican Party, as Neuhaus knew some of Bush’s counselors were suggesting, “if you endorse the taking of innocent human lives, these people, and I with them, will lose their enthusiasm for your Administration and the Party.”

With all this in mind, here’s (a simplified version of) my reading of Neuhaus’s political transformation: Over time he came to believe that the American left had effectively abandoned its commitment to “the least of these,” had decided that, in Boyagoda’s clear formulation, “private rights — made possible by and indeed protecting implicit race and class privileges — trumped responsibilities for others.” The moral language that he had learned from his Christian upbringing and pastoral training and experience simply had no purchase in a party dominated by a commitment solely to the “private rights” of self-expression, especially sexual self-expression. He turned to those who showed a willingness to hear commitments expressed in that moral language, who appeared to be open to being convinced. In return he gave them his loyalty, his public support, for the rest of his life.

It may well be that this was a devil’s bargain, one that Neuhaus should never have made. Indeed, I am (most days, anyhow) inclined to think that it was. He who would sup with the Devil must bring a long spoon, and Father Neuhaus’s spoon wasn’t nearly long enough. He did enjoy rather too much the perks and privileges of influence; he did, all too often, turn a blind eye to the immense faults of the institutions to which he had pledged his loyalty.

But I think we have strong documentary evidence that Father Neuhaus made his bargain out of a genuine and deeply compassionate love — a love that pulled him all his life — for those whom the world deems worthless. In trying to realize this love in the medium of politics, that cesspool of vainglory and vanity, he sometimes befouled himself. But we all befoul ourselves; few of us do it in such a noble cause.

Thomas Merton’s very tone conveyed a spiritual and intellectual authority which made his divagations into Orientalism sound rock solid; but Salinger in those days was still obliged to work with the cap and bells of his profession—by which I don’t mean that he was funny about his Eastern discoveries but that he was doomed to entertain whatever the subject. His story “Teddy” provides a far too slick introduction to Oriental wisdom (the magazines he trained under might have been okay at times for fiction, but they were death on wisdom). But when, in “Seymour: An Introduction,” he attempts to reduce the slickness by stirring some seriousness into the entertainment, his message strains mightily against his style in all its too-perfect shapeliness, causing Buddy Glass to apologize more than once for his helpless wordiness.

So let us suppose the following: that Salinger swiftly became dissatisfied with this half-baked condition, half-slick and half-serious but really not enough of either, but yet was unwilling simply to retreat into his early triumphs, whose high polish might by now even have begun to strike him as a bit phony; so he simply decided to suspend publication then and there until such a time as he found a new style worthy of his subject. And if that should take forever, what is forever to a mystic?

— Wilfred Sheed, many years ago

Aslan’s thesis requires us to believe that the Gospel writers were crafty enough to invent a Jesus who regularly called for humility, service and the “love of enemies” but stupid enough to leave traces in their works of a Jesus who endorsed fighting Roman enemies. It’s the stuff of conspiracy theorists: dismissing evidence that contradicts your theory as “manufactured,” while simultaneously interpreting the massive lack of evidence as proof of suppression.

The discipline of history cannot work like this. Rarely can a theory be taken seriously that is not based on evidence attested across sources. Deleting, cherry-picking and imagining are no substitute for the even-handed sifting of evidence that characterizes historical enquiry. This is why almost no one followed Reimarus back in the eighteenth century and why Brandon’s revival of the thesis in the mid-twentieth century is typically found today only in a footnote. I predict Aslan’s work won’t even find its way there.

Worse for Reza Aslan, there is overwhelming positive evidence that Jesus, far from being a closet zealot, directed his teaching against that tradition. That his message focused on love and, in particular, love of the unlovely and the enemy, is richly attested across the historical traditions left behind by those closest to him.

— How Reza Aslan’s Jesus is giving history a bad name. This makes me wonder whether there’s not something to Allan Nadler’s claim (cited in the quote below) that Aslan is trying to create a Jesus who is a good deal more like Mohammed than the Jesus of the Gospels is. Thanks to Gabriel Rossman for linking me to this.

Aslan’s entire book is, as it turns out, an ambitious and single-minded polemical counter-narrative to what he imagines is the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus Christ. The straw-man Jesus against whom he is arguing, however, is a purely heavenly creature, far closer to the solely and absolutely unearthly Christ of the second-century heretic Marcion, than the exceedingly complex man/God depicted by the Evangelists and painstakingly developed in the theological works of the early Church Fathers.

Aslan dismisses just about all of the New Testament’s accounts of the early life and teachings of Jesus prior to his “storming” of Jerusalem and his subsequent arrest and crucifixion. He goes so far as to insist that Jesus’s zealous assault on the Jerusalem Temple is the “singular fact that should color everything we read in the Gospels about the Messiah known as Jesus of Nazareth.” Everything! Aslan goes on to assert that the very fact of his crucifixion for the crime of sedition against the Roman state is “all one has to know about the historical Jesus.” Still, as the New Testament constitutes the principal primary source for these facts as well as for anything else we can know about the “life and times of Jesus,” Aslan has little choice but to rely rather heavily on certain, carefully selected New Testament narratives.

— Jewish Review of Books » What Jesus Wasn’t: Zealot. So The Gospel narratives are a tissue of lies — until they happen to say something an author agrees with, at which point they become absolutely trustworthy.

So parenting has been hard in all times and places, and all times and places have put their unique (and imperfect) spin on it—parenting being hard because living is hard. Having said that, I suspect that the particular flavor of parenting in our time has something to do with our relative affluence—I think we live in a time of just soul-crushing materialism. And by this I mean both that (1) we value material possessions way too much and (2) we believe way too much that the only true or real thing is what can be immediately seen and measured—that is, we live in profoundly anti-spiritual times, and operate under the unfortunate de facto assumption that we just happen to be built such that our mental abilities enable us to know exactly everything there is to know about the universe, just as we are, no strain or work or faith in the reality of things unseen. This is a fundamentally worldly and limited viewpoint: what we see is what there is, period.

credulous skeptics

Of course, I can’t universalize my own experience – but that experience does give me pause when people talk about the immense power of religion to make people do extraordinary things. When people say that they are acting out of religious conviction, I tend to be skeptical; I tend to wonder whether they’re not acting as I usually do, out of motives and impulses over which I could paint a thin religious veneer but which are really not religious at all.

Most of today’s leading critics of religion are remarkably trusting in these matters. Card-carrying members of the intelligentsia like Mr. Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris would surely be doubtful, even incredulous, if a politician who had illegally seized power claimed that his motives for doing so were purely patriotic; or if a CEO of a drug company explained a sudden drop in prices by professing her undying compassion for those unable to afford her company’s products. Discerning a difference between people’s professed aims and their real aims is just what intellectuals do. Yet when someone does something nasty and claims to have done it in the name of religion, our leading atheists suddenly become paragons of credulity: If Osama bin Laden claims to be carrying out his program of terrorism in the name of Allah and for the cause of Islam, then what grounds have we to doubt him? It’s not like anyone would lie about something like that as a strategy for justifying the unjustifiable, is it?

— I wrote this four years ago and still think it’s a true and important point. Just sayin’.

The engagement of understanding is, then, a continuous, self-moved, critical enterprise of theorising. Its principle is: Never ask the end. Of the paths it may follow, some (we may suppose) will soon exhaust their promise. It is an engagement of arrivals and departures. Temporary platforms of conditional understanding are always being reached, and the theorist may turn aside to explore them. But each is an arrival, an enlightenment, and a point of departure. The notion of an unconditional or definitive understanding may hover in the background, but it has no part in the adventure…

Here, theorizing has revealed itself to be an unconditional adventure in which every achievement of understanding is an invitation to investigate itself and where the reports a theorist makes to himself are interim triumphs of temerity over scruple. And for a theorist not to respond to this invitation cannot be on account of his never having received it. It does not reach him from afar and by special messenger; it is implicit in every engagement to understand and is delivered to him whenever he reflects. The irony of all theorizing is its propensity to generate, not an understanding, but a not-yet-understood.

— Michael Oakeshott, On Human Conduct (1975);  cited here as a possible, rare instance of an ‘absolute secularity’, incorruptible by revelation, only for a commenter to point out at once how similar it is to both some kinds of reading and some kinds of religious belief. (via unapologetic-book)

Sometimes one feels that the center might be a little too serene. The emphasis on “joy” and “fullness” inevitably asks secularism to provide what Bruce Robbins calls an improvement story—to bring the good news about the consolations of secularism. Yet Lily Briscoe’s (or Terrence Malick’s, or my philosopher friend’s) tormented metaphysical questions remain, and cannot be answered by secularism any more effectively than by religion. There are days when Philip Larkin’s line about life being “first boredom, then fear” seems unpleasantly accurate, and on those days I might be more likely to turn to a tragic Christian theology like Donald M. MacKinnon’s than to this book, in which the tragic or absurd vision is not much entertained. Thirty years ago, Thomas Nagel wrote a shrewd essay entitled “The Absurd,” in which he argued that, just as we can “step back from the purposes of individual life and doubt their point, we can step back also from the progress of human history, or of science, or the success of a society, or the kingdom, power, and glory of God, and put all these things into question in the same way.” Secularism can seem as meaningless as religion when such doubt strikes. Nagel went on to conclude, calmly, that we shouldn’t worry too much, because if, under the eye of eternity, nothing matters “then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.” This is impeccably logical, and impishly offers a kind of secular deconstruction of secularism, but it is fairly cold comfort in the middle of the night.

Les Murray, “Poetry and Religion”

Religions are poems. They concert
our daylight and dreaming mind, our
emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture

into the only whole thinking: poetry.
Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words
and nothing’s true that figures in words only.

A poem, compared with an arrayed religion,
may be like a soldier’s one short marriage night
to die and live by. But that is a small religion.

Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition;
like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete
with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?

You can’t pray a lie, said Huckleberry Finn;
you can’t poe one either. It is the same mirror:
mobile, glancing, we call it poetry,

fixed centrally, we call it a religion,
and God is the poetry caught in any religion,
caught, not imprisoned. Caught as in a mirror

that he attracted, being in the world as poetry
is in the poem, a law against its closure.
There’ll always be religion around while there is poetry

or a lack of it. Both are given, and intermittent,
as the action of those birds — crested pigeon, rosella parrot —
who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut.

© 2017 Snakes and Ladders

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

css.php