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Acts of the Apostates
Robert M. Price
Obviously, nothing I say can be taken seriously. I have moved through several different schools of thought and written serially from several different vantage points. I was never so naive as to imagine I was saying the final word about anything. I knew I might change my mind again, and more than once. My thought was that, whatever viewpoint I espoused had a proper place in the crossfire of ideas, and I only wanted to be Socratic anyway: to get folks thinking for themselves. It hardly mattered whether they agreed with my own views at any particular moment. And I guess I never wanted to be taken much more seriously than that. Still don't. But I have lately undergone yet another twist of the dial and have been invited to account for it. Here goes.
I had become a fundamentalist in my youth, then gradually found my way out of it, probing the limits of its theological coherence, primarily by means of a critical scrutiny of apologetics, which for me gradually gave way to genuine Higher Criticism of the Bible. I found after a while that the evangelical model of authority and interpretation of scripture just made no sense: once you forced its defenders behind their screen of hedges and dodges, it was all revealed as PR, mere spin. I went on to liberal theology, I guess really left-wing Neo-Orthodoxy, with Bultmann and Tillich as my favorites. I will skip some detours, but reading Don Cupitt (especially his great 1980 book Taking Leave of God [NY: Crossroad Books]), together with Jacques Derrida, made me lose patience with even this form of faith. I looked into Unitarianism, then Secular Humanism. I wrote a lot and led discussion groups from this standpoint. I was a public spokesman for various humanist and atheist organizations. And though I have not changed any of my major opinions, I have been attending church for the last two years and consider myself a Christian again. What happened and how?
An airport is, of course, a place and a symbol of transition. I happened to be sitting in two of them when important moments of self-realization came to me in the Winter of 2000 and the Spring of 2001. The first time, I sat there awaiting some relatives of a friend at whose wedding I was to speak. I was reading a book I'd meant to get to for a long time, Ressentiment by Max Scheler. I was a big Nietzsche fan (still am), and I was intrigued by Scheler as a Protestant philosopher who had effected a kind of Christian version of the Superman doctrine much along lines I had once preached in a sermon. As I read Ressentiment, I was stopped in my tracks by this paragraph: "An 'apostate' is not a man who once in his life radically changes his deepest religious, political, legal, or philosophical convictions... Even after his conversion, the true 'apostate' is not primarily committed to the positive contents of his new belief and to the realization of its aims. He is motivated by the struggle against the old belief and lives only for its negation. The apostate does not affirm his new convictions for their own sake; he is engaged in a continuous chain of acts of revenge against his own spiritual past. In reality he remains a captive of this past, and the new faith is merely a handy frame of reference for negating and rejecting the old. As a religious type, the apostate is therefore at the opposite pole from the 'resurrected,' whose life is transformed by a new faith which is full of intrinsic meaning and value." (Ressentiment. Trans. Lewis B. Coser and William W. Holdheim (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1994), pp. 47-48). I knew on the spot that Scheler had nailed me. Me, the "secular humanist." I knew at once that simply for the sake of my own psychological well-being I would have to return to religion on some terms I could accept, if only to reintegrate my present with my past.
And as it happens, I had for some time reached an understanding of religion that would make this navigable. Back in the last days of my doomed Baptist pastorate I had begun to realize that the religious person, the worshipper, need not trouble himself or herself to try to believe improbable things, claims of the supernatural constantly belied by everyday experience. No, all that is necessary is that one should, for the duration of the liturgy, set aside such unbelief, precisely in the make-believe manner one adopts while engaged in fiction or drama. While engrossed in moving novels, plays, films, etc., one does not scruple over what is possible or impossible (unless it is a matter of cheap special effects or of bad direction). Instead, one indulges in what Coleridge called the "poetic faith" of the "temporary willing suspension of disbelief." This is the only "faith" one needs on order to benefit from or participate in religion, or so it had long seemed to me. I just had temporarily lost the urge to do it. But on a visit to North Carolina, where I had lived for a while in the mid-eighties, I dropped in one afternoon at my favorite acre of Sacred Space, the sanctuary of Saint Stephen's Episcopal Church, where I had once served as lay reader and chalice bearer. I was hooked and began to daydream about moving back to the area, attending church there again.
I sat in another airport, this time in Raleigh, after I did in fact return. This time I was on my way to a debate in another state. Somebody gave me a travel survey to fill out while waiting. I put down my novel (about the discovery of a Gospel of Judas--I love these things) and starting checking items off. I got to the (unexpected) question about "religious affiliation." Uh-oh! The question was posed! I had to decide! Would I check "none"? Or would I go on record (not much of a record, I admit) as a Christian? I checked "Christian." I knew that another turning point had snuck up on me.
Epistemologically, I was still a humanist, like Pythagoras: "Man is the measure of all things." I still didn't believe in divine revelation and don't now. I hoped to propagate a kind of humanism here in the traditionally religious South like that once described by Mormon science fiction writer Orson Scott Card. He said that if you believe in separation of church and state and in the scientific method, you are a secular humanist, no matter what your religious identity. Yes! It was a matter of methodological atheism, not metaphysical atheism, and of the purely pragmatic Social Contract. A freethinker need not reject religion, right? As long as he or she arrives at religion by a process of free thought? But finally I just lost enthusiasm for the organized humanist movement.
Secular Humanism had long since shown itself to me as aesthetically barren, tin-eared, left-brained. Not surprisingly, just like many of the crankish but endearing folks who always show up in Humanist groups. Like Unitarianism, its cousin, Humanism feared and shunned mythology, thinking it to be the camel's nose under the tent, reintroducing supernaturalist credulity sooner or later. Humanists differed among themselves on the question of the need for community rituals and symbolic acts. Those who, again like Unitarians, sensed the need for such things stumbled through amateurish ad-hoc experiments in reinventing the wheel, all the while denying that what they were doing was religious. Worse yet, it was, like Unitarianism, a religion about not being religious! The result was self-vitiating and ironic, not to mention pathetic and depressing. I recall one afternoon after I had spoken to an Humanist picnic, hearing them gather to sing "You Are My Sunshine." You could tell their souls cried out to sing hymns, but they couldn't; the Girl Scout version was all they could half-guiltily allow themselves. How sad to see Humanists denying Christmas to their kids and trying to crank up enthusiasm for some lame "Solstice" holiday instead. Like George Costanza's family holiday Festivus. It reminds me of Hitler's quip after seeing a big Nordic ritual choreographed by the cultist Himmler: "Well, it'll never replace Silent Night!"
Unitarians and Humanists who are trying to come up with colorless, secular "celebrations" are only proving again and again how right Bultmann's diagnosis of classic liberal theology was: failing to grasp that myth is the irreplaceable language of religion, they deal with scientific modernity by just chopping off every article of faith they can no longer literally affirm. WHat they need to do is to interpret the myth, not to eliminate it and see what dry bones may be left.
The consistently Secular Humanists seem to realize that religion is anchored in the primal experience of awe and wonder and is the direct outgrowth of it, the natural vocabulary for it. But what do they decide to do then? To stamp out all wonder and awe. They are absolute reductionists, rejoicing to debunk and devalue aesthetic experience and spirituality as a series of worthless brain-chemical misfires. They promote a Secular Humanist Newspeak that erases words like "spiritual." Are these guys "humanists" if they are hell-bent on reducing the human organism, robbing it of its (admittedly vague) sense of transcendence? Even of ego-transcendence inside your head? -- which they seem to identify with outer-world supernatural transcendence, when in fact the latter is but the symbol for the former.
But aesthetic color-blindness is not the only problem I came to have with the Humanist mindset. They are great on the morality of knowledge (though I had to admit the force of the objection raised by some psychic debating with a Humanist colleague of mine. He said the Humanist skeptics are really naturalistic "paradigm police," dismissing any possible evidence in advance. I admit, most claims for the paranormal turn out to be nonsense, but it disturbs me that the not-so-hidden agenda of Humanism appears to be the glorification of the dull and the mundane.
Humanism, as I encountered it, seemed strangely reticent to adopt Humanist (Maslovian) psychology, something I took to be natural ally. It would have supplied the sorely missing element of self-criticism, self-development. Especially in their inexplicable defense of Bill Clinton it became clear to me that Secular Humanists embraced a variety of moral nihilism, the same stuff dispensed by Democratic spin doctors: public "morality," i.e., adherence to socially liberal policies, is all that matters. Nothing else does. This surprised me all the more since everyone I ever worked with in the movement seemed to have sterling moral character! All admirable people with whom it has been a pleasure to associate. But they were better than their creed. My stomach would churn every time I saw Humanists represented by the likes of the reptilian Alan Dershowitz or the mad scientist Peter Singer.
Humanists, especially in the context of war, betray themselves as morally clueless when, despite the atrocities of Saddam Hussein's regime, they condemn the Coalition war on Iraq as a simple dramatization of George W. Bush's alleged fundamentalist Armageddon scenario--and this only because he sees it as a matter of "good versus evil." What a self-condemnation! I mean, forget the specific issue of the war. Maybe it was a good idea, maybe not. But Humanists are saying it is findamentalism to believe in good versus evil! What? You mean you have to be Pat Robertson to believe in good and evil? Or if you do, you are reduced to Robertson's level? I don't think so. I have a creepy feeling when I hear our Humanists bemoan that America is not as secular as Europe, and then I think of the moral vacuity of France, Germany, and the rest, especially as revealed in recent events. I could not relish promoting that.
But of course these folks do believe in good and evil; they believe America is evil. Some will admit it. Some say I've got them wrong, that they do love America, but to me they sound like they only mean they are mighty glad the country allows them the freedom to excoriate it at every opportunity and to get away with it. They just like the sophomore anthropology student who has discovered a facile cultural relativism and concludes that every culture is value-free and right--except for his own! He blames it for his own previous blindness and bigotry.
I always used to maintain that a real Humanist must be like an anthropologist: nothing human can be alien to a Humanist! And this made me think twice about supposed efforts by Humanists to preserve church-state separation, the real point of which seems often to strip public life of any religious reference. Humanists seem not to be able to tell the difference between theocratic control over the state and the simple recognition of the cultural background of most of its citizens. Would they raise a stink in France about their cultural Catholicism and try to eliminate every public vestige of it?
A year or so ago I was talking with a prospective donor to one Humanist organization. He mentioned that he had already donated heavily to various causes including population control, euthanasia rights, and abortion. I couldn't help seeing a pattern. How odd for humanism to be so committed to clamping the lid on those dratted human beings! Humanist misanthropy? How astonishing to hear Humanists, great liberals, using Hitlerian arguments such as the old saw that we might as well save unwanted or disadvantaged kids the trouble of living. Let's make the decision for them, shall we? Once a bunch of us were dining in a swank Boulder restaurant. One woman told the harrowing tale of her long-ago escape from the Concentration Camp. Minutes later, a philosophy prof commented as to how any argument for abortion would also legitimate infanticide--and that was fine with him! I turned to a friend and whispered, "This lady escaped from the Nazis--and you're sitting by one!"
I often said I believed that people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were merely leading a rearguard action against inevitable secularization and modernity, and that if they weren't already doomed, they would never have tried such last-gasp tactics as forming the Moral Majority and its propaganda. I still think that. I do believe one ought to take every opportunity to stop pesky fanatics from gumming up the works, eliminating evolution from textbooks, etc. And it is such fine work that first attracted me to Humanism and makes me still participate in some of their projects. In combating pseudo-scholarly propaganda, they are on the side of the angels, I mean, on the right side. But other than that, why attack religion? I got some high-level atheists mad at me on that one. They thought I was altogether too friendly to their favorite whipping boy. And in the end I guess they were right. Though I haven't changed my mind on any big issue, I have realized I feel more at home in the aesthetic symbol-cosmos of Christianity.
But I do see a bit more in Christian liturgy than aesthetics. I see a moral vision there (and in other faiths as well) that I do not see in Humanism. I catch a breeze of what I would call an ethic of grace, of going the second mile, of love above and beyond the call of duty. It is that character of "beyond what is required" that makes it "gratuitous, of grace." It is a dimension of ethics that no one could be blamed for not embracing, yet it is uniquely noble. I won't go into the gigantic subject here, but it encourages us to treat people better, with more compassion, than we would really have to in order to survive and thrive. But here is another irony! In theological terms I am something of a Niebuhrian "Christian Realist." I think that absolute pacifism is suicidal and tragically naive. It takes two to do such a tango. We all have to decide that "war is over if we want it." And if your enemy does want it, you may not want it but had better get ready for it. Anything else is political snake-handling. Anything else is like the fanaticism of Kant who said our obligation to tell the truth obliges us to admit to the murderer that his intended victim is indeed hiding in our basement.
But it is at this point that my former Humanist colleagues show themselves more Christian than I! They embrace dogmatic pacifism, as if wear will just go away if they chant hard enough. If they march long enough. These are but the magical, infantile gyrations of the Cargo Cultists of Melanesia who drilled with broomstick rifles and talked on orange-crate radios, as if such imitative magic would drive out the colonial powers. Ironically, it is the atheists and skeptics who embrace a Mennonite ethic of martyrdom. But I say to them what Paul said to the Corinthians: you embrace a stance like that, and you have only this life to count on, and you are of all men the greatest fools!You see, I am still not a supernaturalist. And though its not the same issue, I don't believe in immortality either. But to me those are questions like the possibility of ESP--not really theological.
Where does this atheist Mennonite ethic come from? Exactly where elite liberalism in general does. Liberalism is a function of survivor anxiety. The liberal witnersses the suffering of those who lack his or her own advantages and feels somehow guilty, like the Hiroshima survivors studied by Robert J. Lifton (Boundaries: Psychological Man in Revolt (NY: Vintage Books, 1970; Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima), for not suffering the same things. The liberal seeks to atone for these irrational guilt-feelings by means of magical thinking and impotent gestures. I believe these are neurotic behaviors, as Freud described them, arising as side-effects of repressing the trauma, in this case, of survivor guilt.
I have lost all interest in debating theism and atheism, because I no longer think that is the most appetizing way to cut the pie. Wittgenstein and Cupitt make sense to me: God language is not descriptive of external facts. It is a function of religion, of worship. It is a different language game, which is why, when people thank God a relative survived a crash, they are not callously making the ones who perished victims of the wrath of God. They do not mean to make a literal theological statement. God-language doesn't function that way. God-language is not properly a factor in forecasting the weather ("Looks like Zeus is going to make it rain today!") or in explaining the World Trade Center disaster ("Looks like Jehovah got sick of the ACLU and the abortionists!") I am no longer enthusiastic about trying to prove that Zeus doesn't exist in the same was Osama bin Laden does.
I suppose that, all in all, I feel I am part of the religious community, though I really detest conservative and liberal religious institutionalism alike. And don't get me started on the absolute disgrace of the Catholic Church. I don't give a damn about the policies of my own denomination. I just want to go to church. I am also involved with the Westar Institute, AKA the Jesus Seminar, and its efforts to revitalize intellectually responsible religion and to make religion a force for civilization and peace in the new century. I am occupied with the critical study of the Bible for the sake of understanding it better. I challenge fundamentalists over who is the bigger fan of the Bible. I say it is I, and that I do not feed the Bible into the theological meatgrinder like they do. I do not use it as a ventriloquist dummy as they do. I do not make the Bible look absurd by heaping meaningless and inapplicable accolades, such as inerrancy and infallibility, upon it. I love the Bible. I do not fear it. But neither do I hate it, like my Humanist and atheist friends seem to. They seem to think the Bible is another Mein Kampf. But that is hag-ridden fundamentalism in reverse. I don't want that either.
As for me, I have nothing to prove. I do not intend to
approach churchgoing as a mission field. I knew a woman in my congregation who
was a militant charismatic and attended just to make a nuisance of herself
trying to get all these polite dead-wood Episcopalians "saved." She
left while I was away. And now that I'm back, I have no intention of taking her
place, which, in my case, would be evangelizing for heresy and enlightened
religion. Nope, I'm keeping my mouth closed and soaking in the stained glass. I
view my position as something on the order of ancient Gnostics who went to
church among people they knew would never understand, much less accept, their
views, so they kept them to themselves. Likewise, I plan to save my heresies
for the secular classroom and for my writings.
Robert M Price
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