Tag: religion

katharsis culture

A great many people have criticized the use of the term “cancel culture,” but have done so for different reasons. One group of people simply wants to deny that cancellation is a widespread phenomenon; others are aware that something is going on but don’t think that “cancellation” is the right way to describe it. I myself don’t have a problem with the use of the phrase, but I think there are more accurate ways of describing the very real phenomenon to which that phrase points. I think the two key concepts for understanding what is happening are katharsis and broken-windows policing.

In an essay that I published a few years ago, I talked about the prevalence among those committed to social justice, especially on our university campuses, of a sense of defilement. The very presence in one’s social world of people who hold fundamentally wrong ideas about race and justice is felt as a stain that must somehow be scrubbed away. As long as such people are present, one experiences akatharsia: impurity, defilement. The filth must be cleansed, the community must be purged. (I’m choosing the spelling “katharsis” rather than “catharsis” to focus on this archaic meaning.)

This kind of thing is sometimes referred to as scapegoating, but it isn’t, not at all. Essential to scapegoating is the belief that the unclean social order can be made clean by casting out or sacrificing something that is itself pure and undefiled. In the cases I am discussing here, the logic is more straightforward: the one who is perceived to bring the defilement must himself or herself be expelled. Scapegoat rituals have a complex symbolism. Katharsis culture doesn’t.

Now, such katharsis may be accomplished in several ways. Sometimes it involves actions for which the term “cancellation” is the best one: an announced lecture is canceled and the lecturer disinvited, or a television program that had been scheduled is canceled. But katharsis takes many other forms. For instance, James Bennet had to be fired from the New York Times because by authorizing an editorial by Senator Tom Cotton in the newspaper he had defiled its pages. The op-ed itself could not be erased, so, through a compensatory kathartic action, Bennet had to be removed.

Our society has largely forgotten the symbolism of defilement and purgation, so we don’t know how to call it by its proper name. When people feel that they have been defiled, what they say is that they feel unsafe. Everyone knows that such people are not in any meaningful sense unsafe; it is a singularly inapt word; but people use it because living in a publicly disenchanted world has deprived them of the more accurate language.

All this explains why Ben Dreyfuss’s preference for the language of “snitching” is not especially helpful. But that word does capture something relevant, which is the way that katharsis culture always involves appeals to authority: rarely do we see attempts at direct action against the sources of defilement — which is good, because that would require the more drastic and clearly illegal actions we saw on January 6 in Washington D.C. Rather, the existing authorities are asked to assume a sacral role and to enact the necessary purging. This return of archaic religious impulse, then, serves to reinforce existing power structures rather than to undermine them, which is why so many leaders accede to the demands of the mob: it’s good for their authority, it establishes them more firmly in place. And also, like George Orwell in “Shooting an Elephant,” they are being driven by the mob which they may seem to be leading, and in the eyes of that mob they can’t bear looking like fools. Thus they are doubly incentivized to carry out the sacral duties of their leadership position.

But there is another element to this behavior that likewise could be described in religious terms but might be more easily graspable if a more mundane analogy is invoked. Those who demand the expulsion from their community, whatever they perceive their community to be, of the producers of defilement do not just address their acts to the presently guilty: they seek to address all of us as well. The message is: Our vigilance is constant and you cannot hope to escape our surveillance. No matter how small or insignificant you are, we will find you and we will punish you. This ceaseless surveillance of public space by self-appointed cops, then, is a kind of broken-windows policing. It’s a way of letting everybody know that the space is watched, the spaces cared for. If trivial offenses are so strictly punished, more serious violators have no hope of escaping undetected.

In this sense, the hyperaggressive and absolutist pursuit of purging the unclean thing – no one ever thinks it adequate for people like James Bennet to be to apologize or to take a leave of absence or even to undergo anti-bias training, they’re always given the ultimate punishment possible – is meant less for the offender of the moment then for all the bystanders: thus Voltaire’s famous line about the British Navy hanging admirals pour encourager les autres. You can see, then, that what I’m calling katharsis culture has a double character, the sacral and the disciplinary. We are all invited to look upon the holy rite — to look, and to tremble.

The Return of the King

In Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Susanna Clarke imagines an alternate history of England, one in which the north of England was ruled for 300 years in the Middle Ages by John Uskglass, the Raven King, who one day disappeared and never returned – though his people long for him to this day. (“This day” being the early nineteenth century.)

There’s a moment late in the book where a thoroughly modern and thoroughly nasty gentleman named Lascelles, an ally and confidante of the dourly pedantic magician Gilbert Norrell, notes with scorn and mockery a recently renewed devotion to the Raven King. This leads to a telling exchange with Norrell’s servant, one John Childermass.

“If I were you, Mr Lascelles,” said Childermass, softly, “I would speak more guardedly. You are in the north now. In John Uskglass’s own country. Our towns and cities and abbeys were built by him. Our laws were made by him. He is in our minds and hearts and speech. Were it summer you would see a carpet of tiny flowers beneath every hedgerow, of a bluish-white colour. We call them John’s Farthings. When the weather is contrary and we have warm weather in winter or it rains in summer the country people say that John Uskglass is in love again and neglects his business. And when we are sure of something we say it is as safe as a pebble in John Uskglass’s pocket.”

Lascelles laughed. “Far be it from me, Mr Childermass, to disparage your quaint country sayings. But surely it is one thing to pay lip-service to one’s history and quite another to talk of bringing back a King who numbered Lucifer himself among his allies and overlords? No one wants that, do they? I mean apart from a few Johannites and madmen?”

“I am a North Englishman, Mr Lascelles,” said Childermass. “Nothing would please me better than that my King should come home. It is what I have wished for all my life.”

It is understandable that people would long for the return of a King as a great as John Uskglass was. The talking beasts of Narnia likewise long for the return of Aslan – long for it so much that they are easily deceived by a donkey wearing a lion’s skin.

The return of the King. It’s a thought that may inspire at least a tickle at the back of the neck even for the most worldly and cynical of us. And as appealing as the thought of the King’s return is, equally appealing, perhaps, is the thought that one who remains faithful in dark days will be commended on that great day of restoration by the Sovereign.

Some have even lived to see such a moment. Upon the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy, the steadfast British royalist John Evelyn wrote in his diary,

29th May, 1660. This day, his Majesty, Charles II. came to London, after a sad and long exile and calamitous suffering both of the King and Church, being seventeen years. This was also his birthday, and with a triumph of above 20,000 horse and foot, brandishing their swords, and shouting with inexpressible joy; the ways strewn with flowers, the bells ringing, the streets hung with tapestry, fountains running with wine; the Mayor, Aldermen, and all the companies, in their liveries, chains of gold, and banners; Lords and Nobles, clad in cloth of silver, gold, and velvet; the windows and balconies, all set with ladies; trumpets, music, and myriads of people flocking, even so far as from Rochester, so as they were seven hours in passing the city, even from two in the afternoon till nine at night.

I stood in the Strand and beheld it, and blessed God. And all this was done without one drop of blood shed, and by that very army which rebelled against him: but it was the Lord’s doing, for such a restoration was never mentioned in any history, ancient or modern, since the return of the Jews from their Babylonish captivity; nor so joyful a day and so bright ever seen in this nation, this happening when to expect or effect it was past all human policy.

These intense monarchial feelings, these profound heart’s desires, may be embedded more deeply within us than we typically realize. Over at the Hedgehog Review, I wrote — extending some previous work of mine — about Emile Durkheim’s belief that we had transitioned irreversibly from elementary forms of religious life to a secularized modernity:

The relevance of Durkheim to our present moment arises, it seems to me, rather paradoxically from the strong possibility that he was wrong in his belief that the transfer to a modern social order was both imminent and irreversible. Certainly it seems that in our current moment some of the features of traditional society that Durkheim calls particular attention to have undergone a kind of revival. Perhaps this is their Indian summer; or perhaps the fundamental impulses of traditional societies are harder to kill off than Durkheim thought they were.

Among the atavistic impulses we thought we had outgrown is this longing for a sacred kingship. I have been reading Isaac Ariail Reed’s extraordinary book Power in Modernity: Agency Relations and the Creative Destruction of the King’s Two Bodies, which demonstrates the various ways that that central doctrine of medieval politcal theology, the king’s two bodies, keeps returning to life, though in transfigured ways that can sometimes make it unrecognizable.

And late in the book Reed contemplates the rise of Nazism:

It is against this landscape of meaning that Carl Schmitt wrote of the importance of the discretion that accrued to judges; of the need for a sovereign to use his own judgment to decide both that there is an emergency and what to do about it; and of the grounding of all political concepts in the theological — a triptych of concerns that suggests rather strongly a particular kind of replacement for the King’s Two Bodies. In his book on Hobbes, published in 1938, Schmitt gave intellectual expression to the resentments that drove the Nazi revolution and regime. He first linked the emergence of modern, Weberian bureaucracy to the death of divine kingship as an ordered format of rule. He then preached about the inevitable collapse of liberal democracy, which he called a “fool’s paradise” with no real legitimacy. Into this breach, he could only imagine one solution: an entirely homogeneous demos could delegate to a single sovereign, who, because he was of the body of the people, would be trusted and endowed with absolute power. In this way would the dictator’s second body be born of the body of the people. It is a figuration that is still with us.

Indeed it is. As we have recently seen, people will even wish to die for Donald Trump — who is no Hitler but rather, essentially, a Shift the Ape who wears the lion’s skin himself rather than putting it on Puzzle the donkey. And Christians — Christians! — will gather on the Mall in Washington D.C. to luxuriate in the propwashed benediction of the Presidential helicopter.


O sacred monarch, do not leave us. But if you do, we your faithful people will await your coming again in glory in 2024.

To all of this, I can only summon my readers to hear the Word of the Lord:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only — you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king…. But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to their voice and set a king over them.”

Here endeth the reading.

testing the spirits

There is no infallible means for discerning when a religious believer has been spoken to, directly and personally, by God. However, there is a reliable way to disconfirm such a claim. When a person demands that other people immediately accept that he has been spoken to by God, and treats with insult and contempt those who do not acknowledge his claim to unique revelation, then we can be sure that no genuine message has been received, and that the voice echoing in that person’s mind is not that of God but that of his own ego.


For decades now, James Wood has been writing about his Christian upbringing, but he has gotten progressively worse at it. For instance, compare his 1996 essay in the London Review of Books with his new piece in the New Yorker. Both essays emerge from the same perspective: a kind of bemusement at the world he was raised in, an attempt (one he knows will have limited success) to explain that world to an uninformed and possibly uninterested audience. But in 1996 he certainly knew what Christians think and believe, whereas in 2020 he seems to have forgotten — and doesn’t seem interested in recollecting, either.

Let me draw my examples from a single paragraph:

Modern Christians in the West like to think of themselves as believers who have left behind any cultic relationship with a usable God. Doubtless not a few of them harbor a special disdain for American Evangelicalism, with its gaudy, prosperous instrumentalism. Certainly, if belief were plotted along a spectrum, at one end might lie the austere indescribability of the Jewish or Islamic God (“Silence is prayer to thee,” Maimonides wrote) and at the other the noisy, all-too-knowable God of charismatic worship, happy to be chatted to and apparently happy to chat back. But it is still a spectrum, and, indeed, any kind of petitionary prayer presumes a God onto whom one is projecting local human attributes. In this sense, you could say that Christianity is essentially a form of idolatry.

The quote from Maimonides is accurate but scarcely to the point, especially as an intended contrast to “chatty” evangelicals, to what one of E. M. Forster’s characters calls “poor little talkative Christianity.” Does Wood think Jews don’t talk to God, and don’t believe He talks back? Does he think Jews don’t petition God? Has he never heard of the Psalms?

He continues,

The difficult, unspeakable Jewish God becomes the incarnated Jesus, a God made flesh, who lived among us, who resembles us. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer blamed Christian anti-Semitism on just this idolatry of the man-God: “Christ the incarnated spirit is the deified sorcerer.” They called this “the spiritualization of magic.” Evangelicals are hardly the only Christian believers to draw this Jesus, the deified sorcerer, near to them. I’m reminded of that whenever I see professional soccer players crossing themselves as they run onto the field, as if God really cared whether Arsenal beats Manchester United.

Again, one has to wonder what Wood is thinking — or rather not thinking. Can he not imagine any other reason for an athlete to pray than to secure victory against his opponents? If he were to ask players why they cross themselves as they come onto the pitch, he would learn that the great majority of them are praying to be protected from injury. Many players pray for everyone on both teams to be so protected. Javier Hernandez, the Mexican striker, kneels and prays on the pitch before each match to thank God for the opportunity to play the game.


And yet it does not occur to Wood that there could be any explanation for praying before an athletic contest other than pleading for conquest. He cannot imagine any reason for drawing near to Jesus other than siphoning some of the power of a sorcerer. But surely there was a time when he knew these words: “Come to me, all who are weary and heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.”

At one point, early in the essay, Wood writes of his account of his childhood church experiences, “I know how unbalanced this is. I’m sure I should have seen all the human goodness and decency — there was plenty of that around, too.” He writes as though, having not seen the goodness and decency then, he is somehow forbidden to see it now. He just plows ahead with what seems to me a studied incomprehension, an almost desperate determination to put the least charitable, least human, construal on every manifestation of religious belief and practice. I almost want to ask him what he’s afraid of.


An update on this post:

I occasionally read NYT news stories now, for a very particular reason: the newspaper’s two chief religion reporters, Elizabeth Dias and Ruth Graham, are former students of mine, and I am so proud of the careers they have made for themselves — they are both outstanding at what they do.

So I read whatever they write, but not much else, from the news side anyway. (Sometimes friends send me links and I will usually read those stories.) In general, I simply can’t rely on the NYT, any more than I can rely on Fox News, to tell the truth about anything that I really care about — and my suspicion has increased, if that’s possible, in the year since I wrote that post, thanks to the gradual conquest of the NYT newsroom by “insurrectionists” who openly disdain fair-minded reporting in favor of whatever stories and angles they think will serve their political agenda, AKA Justice.

Recently Elizabeth and Ruth were interviewed in the Times itself about “the challenges of covering religion during a pandemic in a campaign season,” and one thread that ran through the whole interview was reporting under conditions of mistrust. Elizabeth: “I’ve found conservatives are increasingly wary of talking with us no matter what the story is.” Ruth: “The rising distrust of the media among a lot of conservative religious people is a major challenge, and one that is not going away.”

Now, I’m not one of the conservatives they’re talking about — QAnon true believers, MAGA-hat wearers — at least I don’t think I am; maybe Elizabeth and Ruth would disagree. But in any case, if in the highly unlikely event that either Elizabeth or Ruth wanted to interview me about religion, I would be really hesitant. I trust them — I trust them both implicitly — but I don’t trust their editors or the newsroom in which they do their work. I don’t feel I could reasonably expect the final published version of any such story to be … well, to be anything but driven by an ideological urgency in which any white male small-o orthodox Christian such as myself is an Enemy of the People.

This is I think the inevitable outcome in a journalistic world increasingly shaped by Manichaean binaries of the kind that the Right used to specialize in (remember RINOs?) but that the Left now owns the rights to. Consider for instance an idea that I’m sure is highly popular in the NYT newsroom, Ibram X. Kendi’s claim that everyone is either a racist or an antiracist — with the implicit but necessary corollary that he and people who agree with him wholly get to (a) establish the categories, (b) define the categories, and (c) put any given person definitively in the category they choose. What category do you think I am going to be in, regardless of what I have written or said?

In such an environment it’s hard for me to see what good would come of my being interviewed in the New York Times, at least about matters Christian — even if I were being interviewed by people with the honesty and integrity that Elizabeth and Ruth possess. I just think that’s where we are right now.

wokeness as Counter-Reformation

My old friend Jody Bottum thinks that the various Woke movements amount to a kind of post-Protestantism. I think this is wholly wrong. Wokeness is aspirationally Roman Catholic in its structure. It already has:

  • magisterial teaching that one must hold de fide in order to belong
  • the pronouncing of anathemas upon those who dissent from that magisterial teaching
  • a distributed Inquisition devoted to unearthing and prosecuting heresy
  • an ever-growing Index of Prohibited Books

Wokeness despises the fissiparousness of Protestantism and wants to replace it with Real, Substantial, and Visible Unity under its banner. It’s basically a secularized Counter-Reformation.

QAnon: costs and benefits

Adrienne LaFrance on QAnon:

In Toledo, I asked [a woman named Lorrie] Shock if she had any theories about Q’s identity. She answered immediately: “I think it’s Trump.” I asked if she thinks Trump even knows how to use 4chan. The message board is notoriously confusing for the uninitiated, nothing like Facebook and other social platforms designed to make it easy to publish quickly and often. “I think he knows way more than what we think,” she said. But she also wanted me to know that her obsession with Q wasn’t about Trump. This had been something she was reluctant to speak about at first. Now, she said, “I feel God led me to Q. I really feel like God pushed me in this direction. I feel like if it was deceitful, in my spirit, God would be telling me, ‘Enough’s enough.’ But I don’t feel that. I pray about it. I’ve said, ‘Father, should I be wasting my time on this?’ … And I don’t feel that feeling of I should stop.”

Why do people believe such things? After all, there is no evidence that anything Q says is true; there is no reason to believe in Q’s Gospel. Or even to believe that Q is a single person. Or, if Q is a single person, that he or she isn’t doing it for the lulz.

The answer, I think, is pretty straightforward: Believing in Q has many benefits but very low marginal costs. Believing in Q gives people a sense of having tapped into the hidden meaning of things, an explanation for their low social status, and a strong network of like-minded people. WWG1WGA, as the QAnon mantra goes: “Where we go one, we go all.” These are significant benefits!

And those marginal costs? I suppose time spent on matters Q is time one can’t spend on Netflix; and if educated people mock and laugh at the followers of Q, well, weren’t they already mocking and laughing at people like Lorrie Shock? How does believing in Q change anything in that respect? Nor does Q-following affect the ability of those followers to do their jobs or raise their children.

Again: significant benefits, low marginal costs. Looked at from that point of view, belief in Q demonstrates a kind of rationality.

LaFrance writes, near the end of her excellent report,

The Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are thriving religious movements indigenous to America. Do not be surprised if QAnon becomes another. It already has more adherents by far than either of those two denominations had in the first decades of their existence. People are expressing their faith through devoted study of Q drops as installments of a foundational text, through the development of Q-worshipping groups, and through sweeping expressions of gratitude for what Q has brought to their lives. Does it matter that we do not know who Q is? The divine is always a mystery. Does it matter that basic aspects of Q’s teachings cannot be confirmed? The basic tenets of Christianity cannot be confirmed. Among the people of QAnon, faith remains absolute. True believers describe a feeling of rebirth, an irreversible arousal to existential knowledge. They are certain that a Great Awakening is coming. They’ll wait as long as they must for deliverance.

In order to evaluate this view of the matter, I think we need to press hard on the word “adherents.” People who spend a lot of time chasing down Q on the internet don’t really qualify. Even the occasional IRL meetup won’t do it. A movement gains genuine adherents when the costs of belonging to it — financial, social, intellectual, legal — reach a kind of critical mass of pain. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of every church.

Remembering David Martin

The great sociologist of religion David Martin has died: you may read an overview of his incredibly wide-ranging career, written by a former colleague, here. (I was fascinated to learn there that he wrote a so-far-unpublished book on “secularization through the lens of English poetry”!) Today I am giving thanks for his life and witness, and remembering in prayer his family: his wife Bernice and his daughter Jessica Martin — my friend, and a priest whose sermons I sometimes quote or post in toto here.

Much attention will be given, in reflections on Martin’s career, to his work on secularization, and rightly enough, given its influence. But it will be very hard for us to get our minds around the totality of that work, for what it did, above all, was complicate all previous work on secularization. And the primary way it complicated that work was by decentering the Western European account (WEA, I’ll call it) of secularization, which Western intellectuals have always had a tendency to see as the normal or expected path of change in religious practice and experience. But, as Martin wrote in his concise and accessible Forbidden Revolutions (1996), “We can observe at least four distinct trajectories in Christian cultures: Eastern Europe, Latin America, Western Europe and North America. If social differentiation is the working core of the theory of secularization, it takes at least four forms, which do not necessarily converge.”

That WEA model of secularization, Martin argues, “acts as an implicit guide and censor on what we permit ourselves to see” — and therefore obscures from us how secularization happens, if it happens at all, elsewhere. The influence of the WEA model led to it being imposed in Eastern Europe, “the guiding spirit [of] an explicit programme to enforce secularization.” To a somewhat lesser extent attempts at enforced secularization happened in certain Latin American countries as well, and Forbidden Revolutions describes how stubborn practitioners of the Christian faith were able to resist such imposition. Why that resistance took Catholic forms in Eastern Europe and Pentecostal forms in Latin America is the meat of Martin’s story.

Forbidden Revolutions is not generally thought of as one of Martin’s central works — it’s less academic and more Christian than his most celebrated texts — but I find myself thinking of it often these days, even though I only read it once, many years ago. I think perhaps it is time for me to return to it. In the meantime, thanks be to God for the life and work of David Martin. Rest eternal grant unto him, O LORD: and let light perpetual shine upon him. May he rest in peace.

Plutarch and the end of the oracles

In my History of Disenchantment class, we’ve been discussing Plutarch’s essay on the cessation or the silence or the failure of the oracles. (The key word there, ekleloipoton, seems to be an odd one — I’m trying to learn more about it.) I read it long ago, but this is the first time I’ve taught it, and goodness, what a fascinating piece of work.

It was widely recognized in Plutarch’s time (late first and early second century A.D.) that the great oracles of the ancient world — the most famous of them being the one at Delphi, of course — had largely ceased to provide useful guidance or had fallen silent altogether. Some of the once famous shrines had been abandoned and had fallen into ruin. But no one understood why this had happened. Plutarch’s “essay” is a fictional dialogue — narrated by one Lamprias, who also takes the leading role in the conversation and may well be Plutarch’s mouthpiece — in which a group of philosophically-inclined men debate the possible reasons for the oracles’ failure.

In the opening pages of the dialogue, some of the participants deny that there is any real problem. They point to the inaccessibility of some of the shrines, and the lack of population in the surrounding areas: for them the issue is merely one of low demand leading to low supply. But this view is not widely accepted; most of the philosophers are uneasy about the oracles and feel that something is up. And after all, if low demand leads to low supply, why is there low demand? Even if the oracles are located in remote places, surely people would take the trouble to make a pilgrimage there if they believed that by doing so they could receive wise guidance for their lives.

To one of the participants, the answer to the whole problem is obvious: The gods are angry at us for our wickedness and have punitively withdrawn their guidance. But, perhaps surprisingly, no one finds this a compelling explanation. For one thing, it’s not clear to them there was any less wickedness in the earlier eras when the oracles flourished; and more to the point, are oracles given by the gods in the first place?

If they are, then shouldn’t they continue forever, since the gods themselves are immortal, unless they are specifically withdrawn? Not necessarily, says one: “the gods do not die, but their gifts do” — a line he says is from Sophocles, though I don’t know its source. Maybe the oracles lived their natural course and have now fallen silent, as one day we all will.

But what if oracles do not come from the gods, but rather from daimons? In that case the oracles might die because the daimons do. This leads to a long discussion about whether daimons are mortal, and if mortal or not whether they are necessarily good. (The one truly famous passage from this essay — in which someone recounts a story about a sailor instructed to pass by an island and cry out “The great god Pan is dead” — assumes that Pan was not a god but rather a daimon, the son of Hermes by Odysseus’s famously loyal wife Penelope.)

And this in turn leads to a very long conversation about the beings that populate the world and whether there might be other worlds populated differently and, now that we think about it, how many worlds are there anyway? (The most popular answer among the discussants: 185.) As I told my students, this is by modern standards a bizarre digression, especially since it takes up about half the dialogue, but our standards were not those of Plutarch’s time; and in any case the discussants might plausibly say that we can’t come up with a reliable solution to the puzzle of the silenced oracles unless we have a good general understanding of the kind of cosmos we live in.

In any event, the discussion eventually circles back around to the initial question, and in the final pages Lamprias gets the chance to develop the argument that he has been hinting at all along. In brief, he contends that oracles are always situated in or near caves because from those caves issue “exhalations of the earth”; and that certain people with natural gifts and excellent training of those gifts may be sensitized to the character of those exhalations, and in that way come to some intuitive and not-easily-verbalized awareness of what the world has in store for people. It’s almost a Gaia hypothesis, this idea that the world as a whole acts in certain fixed ways, and those “exhalations” attest to the more general movements of the planet. But these processes are, like all processes in Nature, subject to change over time. As a spring might dry up, or a river after flooding alter its course, so too the conditions for such exhalations might change so that there is nothing for even the most exquisitely sensitive and perfectly trained priestess to respond to.

The first and overwhelming response to Lamprias’s explanation is: Impiety! One of the interlocutors comments that first we rejected the gods in favor of daimons, and now we’re rejecting daimons in favor of a purely natural process. That is, Lamprias’s position is fundamentally disenchanting. To this Lamprias replies that his position is not impious at all, because they had all agreed earlier that in addition to humans and daimons and gods, none of whom create anything, we also have, abobe and beyond all, The God, “the Lord and Father of All,” and He is he first cause of all things, including exhalations of the earth and priestesses.

But whether it’s impious or not, Lamprias’s account is disenchanting, because it removes power from spirits and gods and concentrates them in a single transcendent Monad. His monotheism is a big step towards the religion of Israel, which tells us in the very first words of its Scriptures that the sun and moon and stars are not deities at all, but rather things made by YHWH, who alone merits our worship. Lamprias’s position, like that of the Jews, looks to those accustomed to polytheism as a kind of atheism. And by their standards that’s just what it is.

he’s always the boss

LARRY: Well, she’s, she’s seeing Sy Ableman.


LARRY: She’s, they’re planning, that’s why they want the get.

RABBI SCOTT: Oh. I’m sorry.

LARRY: It was his idea.

RABBI SCOTT: Well, they do need a get to remarry in the faith. But this is life. For you too. You can’t cut yourself off from the mystical or you’ll be — you’ll remain — completely lost. You have to see these things as expressions of God’s will. You don’t have to like it, of course.

LARRY: The boss isn’t always right, but he’s always the boss.

RABBI SCOTT: Ha-ha-ha! That’s right, things aren’t so bad. Look at the parking lot, Larry. [Rabbi Scott gazes out, marveling.] Just look at that parking lot.

— The Coen Brothers, A Serious Man

Christians, Pagans, Jews

Richard Schragger and Micah Schwartzman discern a renewal of Christian critiques of paganism and they’re not happy about it. On Twitter, Schwartzman has applied his argument to a recent column by Ross Douthat in what I think are unhelpful ways — but I also think Ross’s column blurs some issues that invite the unhelpful response from Schwartzman. Let’s see if we can do some disentangling.

The key reference point for Douthat’s column and Schragger and Schwartzman’s essay is a recent book by Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac, in which Smith attempts to reclaim and update the argument made by T. S. Eliot in The Idea of a Christian Society that English culture was then (80 years ago) faced with the increasing dominance of a kind of “modern paganism.” Wrote Eliot, “The choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one.”

But what does Eliot mean by “pagan”? Alas, he never clearly defines it. But when he says that he thinks England has reached “the point at which practising Christians must be recognised as a minority (whether static or diminishing) in a society which has ceased to be Christian,” that seems to be what he means by a “pagan society.”

For C. S. Lewis, this is just carelessness. In a passage from a lecture in which he does not mention Eliot but clearly has him in mind, Lewis says,

It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are ” relapsing into Paganism”. It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t. What lurks behind such idle prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal; that Europe can come out of Christianity “by the same door as in she went” and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.

And elsewhere in the lecture Lewis says, “Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not.”

What’s interesting about Smith’s book is that he knows this critique by Lewis, indeed he quotes it — but then he ignores it, and instead uses “pagan” in the frustratingly loose, and in my view indefensibly inaccurate, way Eliot uses it.

Because Smith uses the term “pagan” in this way, Schragger and Schwartzman assume that every Christian critic of paganism does the same. In this respect they’re careless, and indeed, I don’t get the sense that they’ve paid much attention to the writings they’re denouncing. In their first footnote, where they purport to list such critiques, they name an essay by Adrian Vermeule in which the term “pagan” is used only in a historical sense, and they don’t even get the title of Rod Dreher’s book right. In Schwartzman’s Twitter critique of Douthat, he assumes that Douthat is using “pagan” to mean “non-Christian” — but it’s not obvious that that’s right.

In fact, Douthat (following Smith in this) demonstrates awareness of multiple forms of post-Christianity:

  • “First, there is a tradition of intellectual and aesthetic pantheism that includes figures like Spinoza, Nietzsche, Emerson and Whitman, and that’s manifest in certain highbrow spiritual-but-not-religious writers today. Smith recruits Sam Harris, Barbara Ehrenreich and even Ronald Dworkin to this club; he notes that we even have an explicit framing of this tradition as paganism, in the former Yale Law School dean Anthony Kronman’s rich 2016 work ‘Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan.’”
  • “Second, there is a civic religion that like the civic paganism of old makes religious and political duties identical, and treats the city of man as the city of God (or the gods), the place where we make heaven ourselves instead of waiting for the next life or the apocalypse.”
  • Third, “there are forms of modern paganism that … offer ritual and observance, augury and prayer, that do promise that in some form gods or spirits really might exist and might offer succor or help if appropriately invoked. I have in mind the countless New Age practices that promise health and well-being and good fortune, the psychics and mediums who promise communication with the spirit world, and also the world of explicit neo-paganism, Wiccan and otherwise.”

But like Smith and Eliot before him, Douthat (as I read him) seems content to describe all these as forms of paganism, rather than what they actually are, which is three wholly different ways of looking at the world. I think faling to maintain these distinctions leaves us vulnerable to misunderstanding all three movements. And when Christian critics of such movements blur those lines, that leads to a further blurring by those, like Schragger and Schwartzman, who mistrust those Christian thinkers. I think all this blurring leaves us with two big problems.

First, it leaves us unable to respond appropriately to something really interesting, which involves Douthat’s third category: those who — from the right and the left, as I noted yesterday — are genuinely attempting to renew paganism as such, are striving to disprove Lewis’s account of “the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal.” How many of these people are there? And how successful are they likely to be in their project of restoration?

Second, we’re faced with a kind of Jewish problem, which is what Schragger and Schwartzman, in their essay are primarily interested in. S&S argue that when people like Eliot and Smith and Douthat seek the renewal of some kind of Christian society — Douthat recently wrote, with tongue just barely touching his cheek, that his ideal ruling elite for the Americas is “a multiracial, multilingual Catholic aristocracy ruling from Quebec to Chile” — and present that society as an alternative to paganism, then that tends to cast Jews as pagans. (This is especially true of what Eliot called “free-thinking” Jews, that is, people who are ethnically Jewish but lack religious belief.) Here again some distinctions need to be made, this time among several groups who resist the secularization of Western societies:

  • Those, like Eliot, who seem interested in the cultural and indeed legal dominance of a kind of generic Christianity (it’s hard for me to see just how specifically Anglican Eliot’s ideal is);
  • Those — like Milton Himmelfarb (whom S&S quote) and Will Herberg (whom they don’t but should) — who appeal to a highly generalized “Judeo-Christian” inheritance which they typically want to be dominant in civil society but not enshrined in law;
  • Proponents of Catholic integralism —perhaps including Douthat, whose comments on integralism over the years have oscillated between wariness and admiration — who want Roman Catholicism to regain what they believe to be its proper temporal as well as spiritual power.

For the first group, it’s hard to see how Jews don’t get lumped in with pagans; for the second group, Jews and Christians are theoretically cooperating in the project, though given the numerical disparity between the two groups, keeping the Judeo- in Judeo-Christian might well be a challenge; and for the third group, all of us non-Catholics are effectively pagans, as I have argued.

Maybe it’s because I suffer from nostalgia for the philosophical thinness of liberal proceduralism, but I’m suspicious of all these models. They all, it seems to me, think about politics from the position of power, from some imagined world in which Our Boys are the ones making decisions. In contrast, I find myself recalling and admiring — as I often have in the past — George Washington’s great letter to the leader of the Newport synagogue in which, responding to their gratitude for his tolerance of their religion, he says, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.”



Neopagans come in many styles, from celebrants of white-supremacist revisions of Norse religion to witches who cast binding spells against Donald Trump, but they generally have a few things in common:

  • They’re interested in the past only insofar as it supports what they already want and believe on thoroughly presentist grounds;
  • They hate Jews;
  • They hate Catholics almost as much as they hate Jews;
  • They hate other Christians almost as much as they hate Catholics.

Tim Larsen on John Stuart Mill

My friend Tim Larsen has written an absolutely fascinating brief biography of John Stuart Mill. (It appears in the Oxford Spiritual Lives series, of which Tim is also the editor.) Everyone knows that Mill had little time for or interest in religion, and that his father James Mill, aide-de-camp to that great enemy of faith Jeremy Bentham, was even more hostile than JSM himself. Given JSM’s secular and rationalist upbringing, it cannot be surprising that, as he put it, “I looked upon the modern exactly as I did upon the ancient religion, as something which in no way concerned me. It did not seem to me more strange that English people should believe what I did not, than that the men I read of in Herodotus should have done so.”

However, as Tim shows convincingly, this statement is seriously misleading to the point of being simply untrue. The same must be said for the familiar family story. James Mill was a licensed preacher and had turned to the life of a writer and public intellectual only after failing to get the kind of pastoral position he thought he was qualified for — a fact he carefully hid from his children — and probably didn’t become a complete unbeliever until he was in his mid-forties, by which point JSM was already a ten-year-old, or older, prodigy. James’s wife Harriet was a Christian, each of their nine children was baptized in the Church of England, and probably only two of them (JSM and his youngest sibling George Grote) departed in any significant way from standard-issue Victorian religion. JSM grew up learning not only the Bible but the worship of the Church of England. Nothing about that religion was strange to him.

Moreover, Tim also demonstrates that throughout the course of his life JSM held to a minimal but stable theology, which he summarizes thus:

Even from a scientific point of view and without any intuitive sense or direct experience of the divine, there is still sufficient evidence to warrant the conclusion that God probably exists; God is good, but not omnipotent; the life and sayings of Christ are admirable and deserve our reverence; the immortality of the soul or an afterlife are possible but not certain; humanity’s task is to co-labour with God to subdue evil and make the world a better place; the affirmations in the previous points such as that God exists and is good cannot be proven, but it is still a reasonable act to appropriate these religious convictions imaginatively not he basis of hope.

(One of the most interesting parts of Tim’s book is his exploration of the potent role “hope” played in Mill’s moral and intellectual lexicon.) There is much more than I might comment on, especially Mill’s alliances with evangelical Christians in his campaign for the rights of women — his rationalist friends were generally cold to this idea — and the interestingly varied religious beliefs of his family, but I will just strongly suggest that you read the book. Its subtitle is “A Secular Life,” and JSM’s life was indeed secular, but not in a modern sense. As Tim puts it, in the Victorian era, even for atheists “the sea of faith was full and all around.”

not for fun

At the beginning of Two Serious Ladies, the great Jane Bowles novel, one little girl asks another to play a new game. “It’s called ’I forgive you for all your sins,’” she says. “Is it fun?” asks the other. “It’s not for fun that we play it, but because it’s necessary to play it.” This, undoubtedly, is just why religion is so queer; it’s not for fun that we play it.

— Michael Warner, “Tongues Untied”

religion and public life revisited

I’m late to this party, but there’s something to be said for taking time to think things over. The already-much-discussed book review in First Things by Romanus Cessario, in which Cessario defends the kidnapping of a Jewish child by Pope Pius IX, raises many important issues, and I want to focus on just one of them here. But first some clarifications.

First of all, there can be no question that Cessario is not simply defending Pio Nono’s action within the context of the governance of the Papal States, but is also laying down a more general principle. Thus:

No one who considers the Mortara affair can fail to be moved by its natural dimensions. It is a grievous thing to sever familial bonds. But the honor we give to mother and father will be imperfect if we do not render a higher honor to God above. Christ’s authority perfects all natural institutions — the family as well as the state. This is why he said that he came bearing a sword that would sunder father and son. One’s judgment of Pius will depend on one’s acceptance of Christ’s claim.

The lesson is clear: If you accept Christ’s claim, you will support Pius’s decision; if you do not support Pius’s decision, then you are ipso facto denying, or at the very best questioning, “Christ’s claim.” Cessario reaffirms this view when he says, in his last paragraph, “Those examining the Mortara case today are left with a final question: Should putative civil liberties trump the requirements of faith?” Civil liberties are merely “putative”; Pio Nono acted in accordance with the requirements of faith. He could do no other and be faithful to his vocation and his office. And the “claim of Christ,” and the consequent “requirements of faith,” surely do not change from time to time and place to place. (Note that Cessario does not have any questions to pose to those who support Pio Nono’s actions.)

A second point of clarification: As Robert T. Miller points out in this post, that Edgardo Mortaro was Jewish is culturally significant, in that time and place and perhaps in ours as well, but theologically not to the point. For doctrinally speaking what underlies Pius’s action was not the fact that Mortara was ethnically Jewish but the fact that his family was not Catholic.

The operative assumption in Cessario’s argument is not that the child’s parents were Jewish but that they could not reasonably be expected to give the child a Catholic upbringing and education. Hence, if it is right to terminate the custodial rights of Jewish parents if their child somehow gets baptized, it will be right to do the same to parents who are pagans, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, or — it certainly seems — Protestants and even fallen-away Catholics. I don’t deny that, as a historical matter, the Mortaras were treated so badly because they were Jewish — of course, they were. I mean only that Cessario’s argument to justify Pius’s actions in the case would, by its terms, apply to many parents other than Jewish ones, and it helps in keeping the analysis clear to think in the broader terms in which that argument is cast.

Miller concludes his post by asking Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things, to “disavow the position Cessario takes on the Mortara case and to reaffirm the journal’s historical commitment to the freedom of religion as understood in liberal states.”

Writing in response, Rusty very straightforwardly does the former: “The Edgardo Mortara episode is a stain on the Catholic Church. Whatever one thinks about the efficacy of baptism, forcibly separating a child from his parents is a grievous act. And even if one can construct a theoretical rationale for doing so, as Romanus Cessario does, it was wildly imprudent of Pius IX to take Edgardo from his parents, given the scandal it brought upon the Catholic Church, a scandal that continues to this day.” The latter request he does not explicitly address, though much of his post does so implicitly.

However, Rusty certainly does not apologize for running Cessario’s review. He argues rather that “Cessario, however, wants to challenge me. I must not imagine complacently that my natural moral sentiments and the modern liberal principles I endorse will always happily correspond with the demands that flow from ‘the reality of the Lord’s things.’” He adds, further, that “Cessario, a priest, is perhaps more perceptive that I am about our spiritual challenges” — which, for what it’s worth, I do not read as a qualification of his repudiation of Pius’s action, though I suppose some have taken it as such.

Rusty goes on, quite movingly, to describe his own family situation: his wife is Jewish and his children have been raised as Jews, and going to church alone has been his portion for many years now. So in this light you can see what he means, and that what he means is quite powerful, when he says that Cessario wants to challenge him.

And yet, it should be said — and I hope I can say it without seeming to minimize the painful complexities that Rusty has experienced — that the challenge that Cessario poses to people who, like Rusty, already believe that the Pope stands at the head of the One True Church is different, and less offensive, than the challenge it offers to non-Catholic Christians; and that challenge is less scandalous still than the one Cessario poses to non-Christians — primarily, though not only, Jews.

Which leads me, finally, to the one point I want to make. Imagine that I, an Anglican, were the editor of First Things, and I published an essay by a priest of the Church of England arguing that Elizabeth I was perfectly justified in carrying out her lengthy persecution of English Catholics, since she was ordained by God as His royal servant implementing the True Biblical Faith in England, and the Roman Catholic Church by contrast is the Whore of Babylon as described in the Revelation to John. Imagine further that I responded to criticism by saying that I don’t agree with that argument but find that it challenges me in salutary ways. Would Catholic readers of the magazine be mollified by that explanation? I suspect not — even if my wife were a Catholic and my children were being raised in that communion.

Of course, the real-world First Things would never run such an essay, any more than it would run an essay by a Muslim arguing that the right and proper place of Christians and Jews in the world is dhimmitude under a restored Caliphate, or one by a Jew arguing that Christianity in all its forms is necessarily and intrinsically anti-Semitic and should therefore be repudiated and marginalized by all right-thinking people. As I have noted several times on this blog and elsewhere, the Overton window of acceptable positions for First Things articles has been moving for several years now, but moving in only one direction: towards an increasing acceptance of the claims of the Roman Catholic Church over against other religious communities. Whether it might be defensible for non-Catholics to be in a position of dhimmitude vis-a-vis Catholicism is a question to be asked in the pages of First Things; but the legitimacy of Catholicism is never similarly open to question. For some time now it has been quite clear who at First Things are the first-class citizens and who need to make their way the back of the cabin. And this cannot be surprising, given that the entire editorial staff of the journal, as far as I tell, is Roman Catholic.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But the Institute on Religion and Public Life, which publishes First Things, describes itself as “an interreligious, nonpartisan research and educational 501(c)(3) organization.” To what extent can the Institute’s flagship publication be “interreligious” when its entire staff belongs not just to one religion but one communion within that religion? Certain questions about “religion and public life” — First Things calls itself “a journal of religion and public life” — will perforce be explored narrowly and (I think) in limited ways if one religious communion always takes the role of arbiter, if its core commitments are always considered normative while others’ fall under deeper scrutiny.

I have made arguments similar to this one before, and they haven’t been heeded or even acknowledged. But is is precisely because I believe in the stated mission of First Things, and regret its dramatically constrained current understanding of that mission, that I have become involved with Comment, which I believe is trying, in its currently small way, to take up the torch that First Things has, in my judgment, dropped. But I would be very pleased if First Things would pick it up also and we could carry it together.

the poison of consequentialism

From this conversation:

Rebecca Traister: … the argument for keeping Clinton … was in part that the power he wielded could theoretically shore up or increase the very set of policies and protections that are supposed to ameliorate the gender-imbalanced conditions that make sexual harassment so pervasive, i.e., it was to some degree a compromise on a feminist issue designed specifically to further a feminist agenda. I don’t think there’s the same moral symmetry with Trump voters: that they’ll vote for a man who spews open racism or is accused of groping women specifically because they think that if elected, he’s going to strengthen defenses for women or for people of color; in some cases, the opposite. This week, Kellyanne Conway said that voters should pick Moore because he’ll help pass the tax bill. Is there a line of logic that says that voters upset about pedophilia charges should vote for the accused pedophile, despite their distress, because a lower corporate tax rate would lead to a systemic reduction of child abuse?

Ross Douthat: It’s not precisely the same, but many of Trump’s supporters framed it as “we’re compromising Christian values by electing a man who doesn’t live up to them, because that’s the only way in order to further a Christian agenda on abortion or religious liberty.” There’s some overlap with your view of how feminists thought about Clinton there.

You know what both of these arguments sound like to me? “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

Or consider this story that Rod Dreher recounted the other day:

Back in 2002, I interviewed a Catholic woman who had been blackmailed by her confessor into having an affair with him, even though she was married. She finally broke down psychologically, and sought professional help from a psychiatrist who was known to be a faithful Catholic. (I interviewed him too, and he confirmed her account.) When she and her psychiatrist went to the local bishop (who is now dead, by the way), the bishop told her he had sent the priest away overseas (as he had — that I confirmed), and that if she pursued charges against the offending priest, or made his abuse public, then he, the bishop, would be forced to go after her publicly for her messy past.

She quoted him as saying, “I have to protect the people of God.”

Protect the people of God … by destroying this woman who is one of the people of God. As I have suggested in a different context, consequentialism poisons character.

Vladimir Nabokov on his mother’s religion

She found a deep appeal in the moral and poetical side of the Gospels, but felt no need in the support of any dogma. The appalling insecurity of an afterlife and its lack of privacy did not enter her thoughts. Her intense and pure religiousness took the form of her having equal faith in the existence of another world and in the impossibility of comprehending it in terms of earthly life. All one could do was to glimpse, amid the haze and the chimeras, something real ahead, just as persons endowed with an unusual persistence of diurnal cerebration are able to perceive in their deepest sleep, somewhere beyond the throes of an entangled and inept nightmare, the ordered reality of the waking hour.

Speak, Memory

the “decline of religion”

Here’s something C. S. Lewis wrote in a 1946 essay called “The Decline of Religion”:

The `decline of religion’ so often lamented (or welcomed) is held to be shown by empty chapels [in the Oxbridge colleges]. Now it is quite true that that chapels which were full in 1900 are empty in 1946. But this change was not gradual. It occurred at the precise moment when chapel ceased to be compulsory. It was not in fact a decline; it was a precipice. The sixty men who had come because chapel was a little later than ‘rollers’ (its only alternative) came no more; the five Christians remained. The withdrawal of compulsion did not create a new religious situation, but only revealed the situation which had long existed. And this is typical of the ‘decline in religion’ all over England.

I think it’s pretty obvious that the situation that obtained at Oxford and Cambridge when chapel attendance was made optional is closely analogous to the religious situation in America today. Everywhere in America, and even in the deep South, being a Christian has ceased is rapidly ceasing to be socially rewarding or even acceptable.* More from Lewis:

One way of putting the truth would be that the religion which has declined was not Christianity. It was a vague Theism with a strong and virile ethical code, which, far from standing over against the ‘World’, was absorbed into the whole fabric of English institutions and sentiment and therefore demanded church-going as (at best) a part of loyalty and good manners as (at worst) a proof of respectability. Hence a social pressure, like the withdrawal of the compulsion, did not create a new situation. The new freedom first allowed accurate observations to be made. When no man goes to church except because he seeks Christ the number of actual believers can at last be discovered.

That’s what we are discovering. The question is whether American churches will have the intellectual and spiritual integrity necessary to recognize and accept how completely they have relied on the social appeal of a “vague Theism” and how little they have spoken to those who go to church because they seek Christ. What’s at stake here is merely life or death.

*I changed that on reflection — where I live in central Texas, and in the many parts of the Southeast, being known to have a church community is still an index of trustworthiness in some business and social contexts. 

making God

To develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society.

— Mission statement of Way of the Future (2017)

In a sense there is no God as yet achieved, but there is that force at work making God, struggling through us to become an actual organized existence, enjoying what to many of us is the greatest conceivable ecstasy, the ecstasy of a brain, an intelligence, actually conscious of the whole, and with executive force capable of guiding it to a perfectly benevolent and harmonious end. That is what we are working to. When you are asked, “Where is God? Who is God?” stand up and say, “I am God and here is God, not as yet completed, but still advancing towards completion, just in so much as I am working for the purpose of the universe, working for the good of the whole of society and the whole world, instead of merely looking after my personal ends.”

— George Bernard Shaw, “The New Theology” (1907)

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.


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.”


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.

The Satanic Temple — which has been offering tongue-in-cheek support for the fallen angel in public arenas that have embraced prayer and parochial ceremonies — is bringing its fight over constitutional separation of church and state to the nation’s schools.

But the group’s plan for public schoolchildren isn’t actually about promoting worship of the devil. The Satanic Temple doesn’t espouse a belief in the existence of a supernatural being that other religions identify solemnly as Satan, or Lucifer, or Beelzebub. The Temple rejects all forms of supernaturalism and is committed to the view that scientific rationality provides the best measure of reality.

According to Mesner, who goes by the professional name of Lucien Greaves, “Satan” is just a “metaphorical construct” intended to represent the rejection of all forms of tyranny over the human mind.

— An After School Satan Club could be coming to your kid’s elementary school – The Washington Post. I do love me some metaphorical construct.

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.

fake pluralism

I am (or try to be) a partisan of pluralism, which requires respecting Mozilla’s right to have a C.E.O. whose politics fit the climate of Silicon Valley, and Brandeis’s right to rescind degrees as it sees fit, and Harvard’s freedom to be essentially a two-worldview community, with a campus shared uneasily by progressives and corporate neoliberals, and a small corner reserved for token reactionary cranks.

But this respect is difficult to maintain when these institutions will not admit that this is what is going on. Instead, we have the pretense of universality — the insistence that the post-Eich Mozilla is open to all ideas, the invocations of the “spirit of free expression” from a school that’s kicking a controversial speaker off the stage.

And with the pretense, increasingly, comes a dismissive attitude toward those institutions — mostly religious — that do acknowledge their own dogmas and commitments, and ask for the freedom to embody them and live them out.

It would be a far, far better thing if Harvard and Brandeis and Mozilla would simply say, explicitly, that they are as ideologically progressive as Notre Dame is Catholic or B. Y.U. is Mormon or Chick-fil-A is evangelical, and that they intend to run their institution according to those lights.

I can live with the progressivism. It’s the lying that gets toxic.

Ross Douthat. NO. KIDDING. I have never in my life co-signed anything more fervently than I co-sign this.


Religion, opium for the people. To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness, and serfdom, it promised a reward in an afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murder we are not going to be judged.

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)

what religion is

The term “religion” now delimits a particular, limited sphere of activity, a form of life like golf or novel-writing in scope and meaning. The precise nature of the subordination will differ depending upon the polity within which it is enforced, but it will always be there and always enforced. The nation-state brooks no rivals when it comes to establishing a hierarchy of order and subordination, and if some particular set of Christians or Muslims or Jews gets uppity, refusing to acknowledge the state’s hegemony in this matter of establishing hierarchies of loyalty, and claiming, perhaps, unrestricted loyalty and authority in ordering the lives of their adherents, then the state will respond quickly, and usually with violence.

In the American case, the establishment of the appropriate set of hierarchical relations between the state and particular religious groups is now so firmly in place that it has come to seem inevitable and natural, even to those who have been categorized by the state as religious. American Jews and Christians have become, for the most part, just what you would expect of those who have embraced the category “religion” for their Christianness or Jewishness – that is, hobbyists and cheerleaders. The former because their Christianity and their Judaism have become for them a part-time leisure activity; the latter because, so far as the question of the relation of their Christianness or Jewishness to the state comes to mind, they will think of it as one of unambiguous and enthusiastic support – that is, as cheerleaders.

The emphasis in early Christian writings was not on complexity, irreducible or otherwise, but on the beauty, order, lawfulness, and harmony found in the world that God had made. As science advances, it brings this beautiful order ever more clearly into view. Every photograph from the Hubble Space Telescope, every picture from the ocean’s depths, every discovery in subatomic physics, shows it forth. As Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, “God [has] manifested himself in the formation of every part of the world, and daily presents himself to public view, in such manner, that they cannot open their eyes without being constrained to behold him.” And, “[W]ithersoever you turn your eyes, there is not an atom of the world in which you cannot behold some brilliant sparks at least of his glory… . You cannot at one view take a survey of this most ample and beautiful machine [the universe] in all its vast extent, without being completely overwhelmed with its infinite splendor” [emphasis mine]. Note that “atoms of the world” are not irreducibly complex, nor is “every part of the world.” Irreducible complexity has never been the central principle of traditional natural theology.

But whereas the advance of science continually strengthens the broader and more traditional version of the design argument, the ID movement’s version is hostage to every advance in biological science. Science must fail for ID to succeed. In the famous “explanatory filter” of William A. Dembski, one finds “design” by eliminating “law” and “chance” as explanations. This, in effect, makes it a zero-sum game between God and nature. What nature does and science can explain is crossed off the list, and what remains is the evidence for God. This conception of design plays right into the hands of atheists, whose caricature of religion has always been that it is a substitute for the scientific understanding of nature.

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.

against humanism

The language that has been developed over the centuries for talking about the mental and spiritual side of life is not some feeble, amateurish ‘folk-psychology’. It is a highly sophisticated toolbox adapted for just that difficult purpose. The vocabularies of the sciences are also well adapted for their own purposes, but this means they cannot be used anywhere else. Physical truths can only be answers to physical questions. Indeed, the great achievement of Galileo, Newton and their friends consisted in narrowing the scope of those sciences to concentrate them on topics where their methods were wholly suitable. People who are now led by that success to treat them as a panacea for other kinds of problem are being naive.

The moral of all this is, I think, that Hitchens is simply wrong. The poison does not come from religion itself but from political misuses of it. The kinds of idea that we class as religious actually range from the excellent to the awful, from the poisonous to the most nourishing. But there is a general tendency for new imaginative ways of understanding life to emerge from religious thinking – that is, from thoughts which go beyond current human horizons. This is bound to happen simply because they have quite new kinds of truth to convey. Thus the Greeks, when they came to grasp the idea that the earth as a whole bountifully supplied all their needs, worshipped it under the name of Gaia, mother of gods and men. And thus Pythagoras, when he discovered a new mathematical order pervading phenomena from the heavens to the laws of sound, naturally conceived that order as something greater than humanity; something therefore that should be deeply venerated.

In this way many of the moral insights we value highly today – for instance, the coherence of the cosmos and the value of the individual soul, as well as the conviction that All is Number – have originally been shaped in religious contexts. If we decide to drop those contexts as obsolete we lose half the meaning of the ideas themselves.

— Mary Midgley

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.