I get a huge kick out of Donald Trump, and this is not just because I like what he’s doing. I’m talking about his unfiltered remarks like asking the clergy at the National Prayer Breakfast to pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings on Celebrity Apprentice. I loved every crack, every dig, every barb he let fly during the debates. I just may be in the minority here, I realize. I even like the way he brags on himself and his achievements. But Trump is not my point here. He’s simply a prominent example of what I want to discuss this time. Is it bad to brag? Not necessarily.
Many of the President’s critics seem to pounce on anything he says, just because he is the one saying it. They like to suggest that Trump’s boasts are dead giveaways that he is deranged and should be removed from office. Others, with less of an axe to grind, are content to accuse Trump of overcompensating for an inferiority complex. That may be, but it is a little disturbing to me when bold self-confidence is taken as a symptom of insanity.
It is of course pathetic when people boast who have nothing to boast about. But I think the contempt we automatically feel should morph into compassion, even if it’s only to think, “Poor schmuck!” But what if the boasting is justified? Sometimes it is. Some people are great and have done great things. When they brag, they are simply being realistic. I won’t say that, in that case, it is humility or modesty, but it almost is.
I find it more offensive when people clothe themselves in false humility, either because they are fishing for compliments or because they superstitiously fear being struck down by Karma if they do openly rejoice over their talents or their accomplishments. Such humility may mean that a gifted individual is shirking his destiny. I just watched the old movie Abe Lincoln in Illinois, which depicted unassuming Abe as just wanting to be left alone. His shrewish wife, Mary Todd, made life miserable for him, but she was right to recognize his destiny and to nag him into fulfilling it. Was Abe’s humility an admirable trait? One level, yes. But on another, this seeming virtue was a stumbling block. Conversely, the braggadocio of someone like Trump may just mean he is full, not so much of himself, but of his destiny. I’m no mind reader, so I don’t pretend, as others rush to do, to psychoanalyze a man at long distance, through the TV. I’m exploring something in the abstract.
Proverbs says “Don’t praise yourself; let others do it.” I like that. But I feel like proper humility is, again, essentially just realistic self-assessment. If you’re talented, admit it and show you are thankful or lucky. There is no pretension there, and it’s pretension that I hate. I guess the dividing line is what you are trying to achieve by acknowledging your greatness. Are you fishing for compliments? That is pathetic. But when the great remark on their greatness as a simple observation, what’s so bad about that?
Many years ago, the pastor of my church plainly viewed himself as a new Kierkegaard. But that was okay with me, since he was a new Kierkegaard. He wasn’t trying to get you to think he was the new Dour Dane. You could just pick up on his self-understanding. If he had been self-deluded, it would have been ludicrous. Quite a difference.
“The difference is that they’re not in love with themselves. Instead, they’re in love with their mission.”
Sometimes great people chafe those around them with their self-absorption and their tendency to take their followers’ efforts for granted. You may not like their “dictatorial” style, their headlong pace, their insistence on their own way. But don’t you see? That’s part of the package! It’s not necessarily narcissism; it’s momentum. The difference is that they’re not in love with themselves. Instead, they’re in love with their mission. I have been lucky to know and to work with such individuals.
Paul Kurtz was one such. It was sometimes hard to work with him. He tended to alienate donors who, e.g., wanted their contributions directed to some particular project, often of their own invention. Paul always responded, “Thanks, but why don’t you just donate the money and let us decide what to do with it?” He’d hire people to do some job but then wouldn’t let them do it. These were flaws, but they were side-effects of his strengths, without which there would have been no Council for Secular Humanism, no Center for Inquiry, no Prometheus Books, no Free Inquiry.
Bob Funk, co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, was another powerhouse, another human locomotive. You could climb aboard, but he was the conductor, and people occasionally got run over. But no Funk, no Jesus Seminar. No Westar Institute. No Fourth R. No Five Gospels, and so on and so on. You just had to get used to it. Was his endeavor something you wanted to lend your energies to? If so, you had to get used to not being pampered. Maybe not even appreciated. Ask any soldier.
I never met him, but Arkham House publisher, naturalist, poet, and author August Derleth was yet another one. He was a dynamo. He made plenty of omelets and did not hesitate to break some eggs. He cut corners. He lived a sloppy life in some respects and invited numerous criticisms, but these volcanic doers and achievers are hurtling onward and cannot always contain themselves or pause to ponder every decision. Such is the price they, and we, pay for the creativity and dynamism that create the things we remember them for.
Should they pause and submit their ideas to an oversight committee? There might be less controversy, but less would be achieved. Here I believe Ayn Rand was right: the collectivity dilutes and smothers the unique greatness of the gifted individual. Nietzsche was right, too: the Superman must not allow himself be bound and gagged by the Lilliputians who hate him for being a living rebuke to their cowardice and mediocrity.
The danger, of course, is that an impatient achiever may exceed the prescribed limits of his power. Such an executive may become a dictator. You remember how the Roman Republic made provision for a legally empowered dictator in times of emergency when there’s no time to weigh all opinions. (Here, for some reason, I can’t help thinking of the time I was invited to address an Ethical Culture Society meeting about the historical Jesus question. They went around the circle having everyone present pose their questions for me to address all at once. But when they were finished, the meeting was over! No time left! They felt, as they admitted, that it was more important to hear all the members out than to hear the invited speaker! Ayn, are you listening?) I suspect what the Romans did would be impossible today, to our peril. Even when decisiveness is needful, I think we will be paralyzed with dithering and debating.
I do have one suggestion for curbing megalomania, for of course even the genuinely great (Greek megalé) can suffer from megalomania. I think the key to perspective on oneself is having a sense of humor about oneself. Be able to see the comical dimension of yourself. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Catch yourself being pompous and think how silly others look doing the same thing. Go ahead and brag if you’ve got something to brag about, but be just as quick to laugh at yourself. That ought to do it. That’ll puncture your hot air balloon. As a windbag, I know whereof I speak.
I have many times pointed out that, despite my polemics against Christian apologetics and my critiques of Christian theology at vital points, I have no interest in persuading individuals to discard their allegiance to the Christian religion. None of my damn business, I always say! Some readers must think I am being disingenuous, intentionally misleading people, or sincerely deluding myself. Some fellow atheists no doubt wish I would just come right out and declare opposition, enmity, to Christianity and join them as comrades-in-arms. But I don’t want to, and it’s not from any desire to lull Christian readers/listeners into a false sense of security before I lower the boom. So I thought it might be worth trying to explain my approach in positive terms: what I am trying to do, not what I deny doing. And of course the natural way to begin is to compare myself with Satan. Here goes.
No, I’m not a Satanist, though I have occasionally thought how fun it would be to declare myself one. Just imagine the publicity: the first Satanist New Testament scholar! What a riot! It might even get me a spot on TV, you know, one of those quick “freak show” features. But no.
If you are a Bible Geek listener, you have probably heard me explain how the Satan character began as a special son of God or angel in charge of divine sting operations. The Satan (at first it wasn’t even a proper name, but a noun meaning “the Adversary” in the sense of a prosecuting attorney) was so zealous for the honor of his Lord that he kept close tabs on mortals and was quick to sniff out any whiff of pretense on the part of God’s ostensible servants. What was their real motivation? Let’s find out! So the Satan would mount a scenario to “try men’s souls.” Was Job really as pious as his reputation would suggest? Try taking away his material wealth, his family, then his bodily health and see if he’s still such a big fan of the Almighty. Is King David’s reliance on God’s mighty arm absolute, or does he have back-up plans in case God disappoints him? Maybe whisper in his ear that it might be prudent to take a census of available soldiers?
Obviously, all this is completely mythological. And that’s not just compared with modern, materialistic science. No, there is a far more serious clash with theology: the scenario of a deity sitting on his throne up in the sky, surrounded by a flock of godlings including a special agent in charge of security—it is sheer, polytheistic myth. Is that the god you believe in? No, of course your God-concept is defined (or redefined) by the philosophical reasonings of Saints Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, even if you’ve never heard of them. You’re kidding yourself if you think you’re getting your God straight out of the Bible. It’s far from being that simple. Do you believe “God” needs an intelligence agency? Isn’t he supposed to be omniscient? You take that for granted as “baked into” the very definition of God, but the Bible writers sure didn’t. But back to Satan.
Satan became a villain subsequent to the massive Persian (Zoroastrian) influence on post-Exilic Judaism. Jewish thinkers saw the utility of the Zoroastrian concept of Ahriman, the nefarious anti-god responsible for all the evil in the world. That would seem to get God off the hook! So the once-innocent Satan was retconned as a Jewish Ahriman. But not consistently. If you wanted to harmonize the conflicting concepts of Satan, I guessed you’d say he went from seeing if you’d get caught in the act sinning to trying to get you to sin. From testing to tempting.
But even in the New Testament, he’s most often depicted doing his old job, testing the servants of God, to see what they’re made of, as when Satan meets Jesus in the desert and asks if he’d want to change rocks into rock candy, leap tall buildings in a single bound, and swear fealty to him instead of God. He seems to be putting Jesus, newly crowned Son of God, through his paces. Like Yoda.
My diabolical task, as I see it, is that of the loyal opposition. I have too much experience, much of it quite positive, with religion in general and Christianity in particular, simply to fight against it tooth and nail. It would be pathetic and quixotic. It would say more about me than about Christianity. I would have turned into a crazy, bitter ex-boyfriend. No thanks.
I have seen so much of Christians of all stripes and of Christianity in its many variations that I cannot pretend there is no good side to it. There is much to be loved, and I still love it. And this sentiment seems to me basic to any study of religion, period. You have to try to understand Islam, Buddhism, etc., from all sides including the inside. Unless you see what is loveable about it, you will never see why its adherents love it.
I disagree with Christians in their beliefs (even while agreeing on many moral questions), but that doesn’t make me their enemy. Remember the saying, “Love the sinner and hate the sin”? My motto is “Love the believer but reject the belief.” Thus when I refute Christian apologetics, I am trying to defend the Bible, which they and I both love, from an opportunistic abuse of it. When I critique points of Christian doctrine, I am weighing it in the balance, challenging Christians to purify their creed, to get their act together. I am demanding they stop selling an inferior product. I may even suggest how they might go about it. For instance, getting rid of the sadistic superstition of hell which corrupts moral motivation and demeans a supposedly righteous and loving God. (I was already doing this a few paragraphs up when I pointed out the difference between biblical and philosophically chastened God-concepts.)
Personally, I have come to the opinion that the patient is too far gone, but that hardly settles the question. And no matter who is ultimately correct, it has to be in everyone’s best interest for Christianity to purify itself, to reduce the amount of mind-twisting nonsense it requires its adherents to sign on to.
So you see, I am playing the role of Satan, trying to keep Christians and Christianity honest, to make them honest, exposing their intellectual dishonesties, their suppression of their better judgment, out of loyalty to a party line. Such faith-based fudging corrupts and vitiates the faith in whose name it is deployed.
I once scoffed at the claim made by fundamentalists, advocates for “Scientific Creationism,” that Secular Humanism is in fact a religion, a variety of paganism. Their aim was to dismiss Evolutionary Biology as the “creation myth” of this rival faith. And if it is okay to teach the Secular Humanist creation myth, why can’t you teach Creationism in public schools? Of course, fundamentalists did not mean to say (to admit) that their account of divine creation in six days is itself a myth. They were just saying that Evolution and Creation were alternative accounts of origins and of the diversity of life-forms, each account with its own reading of the data of biology, geology, paleontology, etc. They were willing to admit that their own version was dictated by religious presuppositions, and they wanted evolutionists to admit that their version was equally the result of “religious” presuppositions.
As I say, I have always rejected such claims, and I still do. As I read the works of Creationists and Evolutionists, it seems to me that Creationism’s approach is completely deductive. They feed the scientific data through a theological meat grinder, like old Procrustes, the predatory innkeeper who directed his taller guests to place their legs through holes in the footboard of the short bed, after which he would employ his trusty hacksaw. If the guest was shorter, Procrustes would handcuff him to the headboard and place his feet in stirrups, then start cranking the rack! The guest would fit the Procrustean bed come hell or high water! The “scientific theories” offered by “Scientific Creationists” are farcical pseudoscience.
I agree with the late, great philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend (Against Method) that it doesn’t matter where one derives one’s heuristic paradigm. “The only axiom that does not inhibit research is ‘anything goes!’” Velikofsky got his astronomical model from the Bible and other ancient sources (though not in the same manner as Scientific Creationism). But so what? Might as well test it out! On one or two of his guesses he lucked out. Harry Rimmer and Henry O. Morris got their “paradigm” from Genesis chapters 1 and 6-9? You can’t laugh it off a priori. If you did, that would be the genetic fallacy. You have to check it out: how naturally, how economically, does it seem to fit the data? Does it depend on a lattice of ad hoc hypotheses? If so, well, next contestant, please! This is where and how Scientific Creationism strikes out.
Evolutionism, by contrast, proceeds inductively, forming a tentative hypothesis, trying to connect the dots provided by the evidence. Scientists are not trying to accommodate the data to an alien framework, whittling square pegs so they can be jammed into round holes. And, as Ed Suominen and I have argued in Evolving out of Eden: Christian Responses to Evolution, it turns out that there is no place left for a Creator as a needful causative factor. Not only do the data not require an Intelligent Designer; the data is incompatible with such a Being. He or She or It dies the death of a thousand cuts by Occam’s Razor. One does not start out with a commitment to Atheism or philosophical Naturalism; such a belief is instead the result of the inquiry.
So Creationism and Evolutionism are not on a par. Evolutionism is not religious in the sense Creationists claim, as if scientists were having to manipulate the evidence into conformity to prior (atheistic) beliefs. But in recent years I have begun to think that in another, equally important, sense, Secular Humanism is after all a religion, a set of incorrigible dogmas held, essentially, by faith. I think playwright David Mamet sums it up pretty effectively.
The new religion will not be identified as such. It will be called Multiculturalism, Diversity, Social Justice, Environmentalism, Humanitarianism, and so on. These, individually and conjoined, assert their imperviousness to reason, and present themselves as the greatest good. (Mamet, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, p. 39)
But hold on! Mamet is talking about political Liberalism, not Secular Humanism, right? True, but my point is (and this will not surprise you) that Secular Humanism is almost completely committed to Leftism. There is no place in it for those who, though Atheists and Naturalists, are of a politically conservative bent. I served as the Director of the New York Metro Center for Inquiry until the higher-ups fired me because I voted for George W. Bush. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not bitter about it.
Nothing could change my fond affection for the late Paul Kurtz and my friends Tom Flynn, Eddie Tabash, Joe Nickel, Jan Eisler and others still affiliated with the Council for Secular Humanism. And in retrospect, my departure was inevitable precisely because of our political differences. I didn’t expect it, but clarification is nothing to regret, much less to resent.
And what became clear to me was the indistinguishability of Secular Humanism and Political Leftism. It has become even clearer very recently when Director Tabash sent out an announcement that the primary mission of CSH/CFI going forward would be to battle the policies of the incoming administration of Donald Trump, for whom I happily voted.
I am a skeptic vis-à-vis the Paranormal, the Supernatural, Superstition, and Metaphysical Idealism (especially including Theism). It seems quite natural to me to be equally skeptical toward political ideologies, especially those which refuse to take seriously hard facts of human nature, both individually and collectively. I am skeptical of Utopianism, Globalism, and Socialism. Their most vocal adherents are dogmatic, intolerant, and naively optimistic. They are, as Freud said of conventional religion, projecting a wish world onto the real world. They shame, shun, and despise all who do not share their faith. The complacent arrogance of these believers who simply disdain conservatives as fools and villains (I am frequently their target, not that I’m complaining) is, as I see it, exactly like that of cock-sure evangelical apologists who write off religious skepticism as a smokescreen for moral turpitude.
Secular Humanism bears another prominent mark of religious faith: the Chicken Little apocalypticism of Climate Change. Global Warming believers repeatedly set deadlines for melting ice caps, species extinctions, rising sea levels, etc., etc. In short, the Great Tribulation. And like the doomsday deadlines of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hal Lindsey (The Late Great Planet Earth), these predictions are embarrassed again and again. Judge Rutherford, Harold Camping, Al Gore—what’s the difference?
By contrast, political conservatism is pessimistic, skeptical, chastened and sober. True, I am no climatologist, but “you don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” (John 3:8). I practice the hermeneutic of suspicion. I ask “Who benefits?” and it seems to me that the whole business is intended to promote two things: first, the gradual transfer of power from elected officials into the hands of unelected technocrats, producing “a state whose parameters, definitions, and prescriptions are controlled by a self-selecting group of ‘experts’ who can never be proved wrong” (Mamet, p. 36).
And second, Globalist redistribution of Western wealth (instead of encouraging capitalistic development, teaching the poor nations to fish instead of just giving them a fish). It even morphs into pious asceticism, the back-patting self-righteousness of needless self-denial. “So the new [religious] group, which is the Left, is prepared and is in the process of sacrificing production, exploration, exploitation of natural resources, and an increasing standard of living upon the altar of ‘global warming.’” (Mamet, p. 40).
One thing that makes me suspicious about climate apocalypticists is that they fudge data. They intimidate the rest of us, telling skeptics to just shut up because “the science is settled.” But it ain’t. They boast that 99% of scientists believe in it, so that, if you don’t, you’re a Flat Earther, as dumb as a Creationist. But I can’t help suspecting that the Birkenstock is on the other foot. I gather the number is more like 52%. And there are reports, including leaked e-mails, that reveal the fudging of data and the enforcement of orthodoxy by barring dissenting views from publication. Sounds like cynical apologetics to me. Oh, I admit Global Warming might be real anyway, but I’m not joining the parade. I am firmly convinced of the Secular “creation myth” of evolution, but I remain wary of its apocalyptic myth. (You may be rolling your eyes at that, but doesn’t that very reaction denote your orthodox intolerance for heresy?).
Mamet is correct:
This new group will, of course, like any group in history, create taboos and ceremonies of its own. But to ensure solidarity these new observances must absolutely repudiate the old; and the cult will indict these previous observances as, for example, paternalism, patriotism, racism, colonialism, xenophobia, and greed. (p. 39).
What else are Politically Correct speech codes and denunciations of “cultural appropriation”? The quota systems and ethnic self-segregations, the trigger warnings and micro-aggressions, the equation of patriotism with jingoism and racism? The Cromwellian-Orwellian crusade to eradicate expressions of traditional faiths in public life? It all amounts to the Shariah of the Left.
I used to say that Secular Humanism was not an alternative kind of religion but rather an alternative to religion. I was wrong.
So says Zarathustra.
 The survey of AMS members found that while 52 percent of American Meteorological Society members believe climate change is occurring and mostly human-induced, 48 percent of members do not believe in man-made global warming.
Furthermore, the survey found that scientists who professed “liberal political views” were much more likely to believe in the theory of man-made global warming than those without liberal views.
“Political ideology was the factor next most strongly associated with meteorologists’ views about global warming. This also goes against the idea of scientists’ opinions being entirely based on objective analysis of the evidence, and concurs with previous studies that have shown scientists’ opinions on topics to vary along with their political orientation,” writes survey author Neil Stenhouse of George Mason University.
If you’re a Roman Catholic, November 1 is All Saints Day. If you’re a Protestant, November 1 is Reformation Day. So what did I do back in the early nineties when I served as pastor of First Baptist Church in Montclair, New Jersey? Well, naturally, I invited a Catholic monk to preach to us on Reformation Day. (I also invited a Sunni Imam to speak to us on Trinity Sunday, but that’s another story.) Here I would like to draw attention to one particular aspect of Catholic-Protestant differences summed up in the Reformation: the democratization of biblical learning. History is now repeating itself.
In the beginning (don’t you like the sound of that phrase?) the question of lay versus professional access to scripture was entirely moot since most folks were illiterate and the labor involved in hand-copying the Bible made it simply impossible for private individuals to have their own copies anyway. But the Reformation spearheaded by Luther and his pals and the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press coincided and changed everything. It soon developed that anybody (Protestants at least) could read the Bible and actually had the opportunity to do so. But both events are now so far behind us that it feels like the circumstances they introduced have been with us forever. But they weren’t.
We have forgotten (because we never knew) that the Bible was not written for the common reader in the first place. The sacred documents were produced by scribes and priests for the use of their elite colleagues. For one thing, that sure explains the Book of Leviticus! Can you stand the tedium? Have you ever tried to do some casual reading in the Talmud? I wouldn’t recommend it unless you happen to be a Rabbinical student. But if you are, then Bon Voyage! In the same way, Leviticus is a handbook written for the use of Levitical priests, hence the title. It’s just like the Sama Veda in Hinduism.
Today the Bible is widely read, even memorized, but (I dare say) almost just as widely misunderstood for the same reason. It takes some hard-earned expertise to know what to make of it. But wait a minute—am I saying that Psalm 23, the Sermon on the Mount, and 1 Corinthians 13 are beyond the grasp of the average reader? Of course not. Or maybe I am. To put it more charitably, or to be fair about it, we might recall what Augustine said about scripture: it is a river in which a mouse can wade and an elephant can swim. Millions of faithful Bible readers go through the Book of Psalms again and again, but they frequently find themselves startled awake from their pious reverie and stymied at strange-sounding references to the king, his battles, and God killing dragons. What on earth? Similarly, people delight to read the gospels for their edifying content, failing to notice (as I did for so long) the contradictions in reports of the same events or sayings. Or if they do notice them, they treat them as momentarily annoying gnats to be waved away. But my axiom is this: there is nothing more pious than understanding the text. For its own sake, but also because otherwise you are likely to make the Bible into either a ventriloquist dummy or a Rorschach blot.
Once the sacred text became available to public scrutiny, the Catholic Church discouraged, even forbade, its flock to read it. Why? Because they didn’t want to put a machine gun into the hands of a Chimpanzee. (Reminds me of the time S.T. Joshi quipped, “Lovecraft is being read by the wrong people.”) Better leave the Bible to the pros. Common laity would just not be able to make sense of what they’d read, and they’d launch off in all sorts of heretical directions. And they did, though they wouldn’t have described it that way. But this wasn’t exactly the problem, was it? Martin Luther, the arch-heretic himself, was no uneducated layman. The guy taught scripture at a university! He was a Catholic monk, for Pete’s sake! He was skilled in the use of what scholarly tools were then available. His “sin” was to disagree, to reject the Church’s party line. The Catholic hierarchy said that if everyone were to read scripture for themselves, every man would become his own Pope. But what they were really afraid of was that everyone would become his own Luther! And everyone did.
Well, maybe not everyone. Most Protestants continued to understand scripture, even when they did read it for themselves, within the specific boundaries laid down by the hierarchy; they were just changing the channel, now reading the text the way their new church authorities (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc.) said to. Eventually the Catholic Church seems to have realized that the issue was not so much the pew potatoes reading the Bible instead of following orders. Rather, it was a question of which/whose tradition they would follow in interpreting it. Once they grasped that, in the early 60s the Catholic leaders changed their tune: “Go ahead and read it! We want you to! Just remember who tells you what it means.”
Something quite similar is happening today. Bible scholarship from “unauthorized” perspectives has spread like never before via the Internet. Fundamentalist apologist Josh McDowell has warned his partisans that the Internet has become the greatest threat to the Evangelical movement in that it makes atheist thought and arguments readily available to curious Christian youth who would never have encountered them otherwise.
There are also various websites which have sparked a great revival of interest in the theory that Jesus did not exist as a historical figure. As you would expect, conventional biblical scholars (whether Christian believers or not) are disdainful of such sources, as they regard them, of religious misinformation. The late, great New Testament scholar Maurice Casey deigned to address such heretics in a couple of books published just shortly before his death. In them he scorned these non-professional scholars for lacking proper credentials, referring to them as “Blogger So-and-So.”
This condescension is not exactly snobbery, as is sometimes suggested. What is implicit (explicit?) in such language and such polemics is an agenda of safeguarding the reputation and influence of a professional guild. Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann put it well in their great book The Social Construction of Reality: “The outsiders have to be kept out… If… the subuniverse [of meaning] requires various special privileges and recognitions from the larger society, there is the problem of keeping out the outsiders and at the same time having them acknowledge the legitimacy of this procedure. This is done through various techniques of intimidation, rational and irrational propaganda…, mystification and, generally, the manipulation of prestige symbols.”
If this consideration were not operative, we should never be hearing the carping about whether “Blogger So-and-So” has the right degrees or even any degrees at all. All we should be hearing is whether Blogger So-and-So’s arguments make sense. And not simply that they don’t but why they don’t. Personally, I do have the relevant degrees and, though I am a Jesus Mythicist myself, I have not hesitated to critique Mythicist arguments from several authors whose books I find unconvincing. And I think my criticisms are severe enough to risk personal alienation from their authors.
Some scholars who reject Christ Mythicism do not mince words and freely admit that they would automatically reject any candidate for a university teaching post in New Testament if the candidate, though appropriately credentialed, espoused the Christ Myth theory. Until recent years, the same barrier faced scholars like the great Thomas L. Thompson who advocated what is now called “Old Testament Minimalism.” No more. Why not?
As Michel Foucault said, every age, every generation, upholds (whether they know it or not) an “archive” of “accepted” knowledge, information, and assumptions, the sharing of which makes it possible for scholars to come together for discussion. It is not bigotry when someone like me finds himself the odd man out and not invited to the party. It’s just that you have no game if the players cannot agree to a common set of rules. But what do you do if you are one of those wallflowers at the dance? Well, of course, you start your own party.
I believe I witnessed such a sorting out process in the evolution of the Jesus Seminar. When John Dominic Crossan and Robert W. Funk started the group, it seemed like just about every prominent New Testament scholar was on board. But the diversity of perspectives soon revealed itself as an obstacle to the Seminar’s mission rather than a formula for its success. One by one, various factions dropped out. Those who approached the gospels from the standpoint of Social Science were frustrated that their approach was not in the forefront. The Narratology people thought they were getting short shrift. The “apocalyptic Jesus” scholars had to suffer in silence on the sidelines. And the very first meeting I attended was sufficient to show me I would sooner or later have to go my own way. Why not? Let a hundred flowers bloom!
I find myself belonging to a specific “community of interpreters” (as Stanley Fish calls them) that is definitely persona non grata in academia. I call it “ultra-radical criticism” or “New Testament Minimalism.” In most ways it is a revival of the Dutch Radical Criticism of Bruno Bauer and W.C. van Manen. For years I edited The Journal of Higher Criticism to provide a forum for such scholarly work. I was involved in the sadly abortive Jesus Project sponsored by the Center for Inquiry. But these days my efforts are pretty much restricted to offering my Bible Geek podcasts and my books and conducting the occasional independent study course with interested independent scholars.
Nor is it only me. That’s what I meant about the Internet and the Blogosphere. These are intangible refuges for freethinkers who do not buy into the dominant paradigms of professional biblical scholarship even while attempting to uphold the same standards of quality. Often they achieve that; other times they don’t. These refugees are rather like the monks (and the Muslim savants) who kept a tradition of learning alive during the Middle Ages.
There’s even a parallel to a still earlier phenomenon, the catacombs of Rome where various outlaw religious communities met in a time of official persecution. But just as the faithful gathered in those dank and torch-lit chambers to venerate the saints and martyrs of their communities, so do we ultra-radicals huddle together to rediscover and learn from the great critical scholars of the past: F.C. Baur, D.F. Strauss, Wellhausen, Kuenen, Van Manen, Bultmann, Schmithals, and the rest. Their prophetic voices are seldom heard in the ivory towers of academia these days when Green politics and Political Correctness have replaced theology even in seminaries, when Post-Colonialism and Queer Studies and Eco-Feminism (not to mention Evangelical apologetics) have usurped the title of “Biblical Scholarship.” It has, I believe, become a kind of Dark Age for those who once attempted to study the Bible for its own sake, not for the sake of political manipulation and evangelistic propaganda in the hands of powerful interests on the Left and on the Right. Meanwhile, you’ll find me among an unpopular Underground of kindred minds down here in the intellectual catacombs. There’s nowhere I’d rather be.
Once Tony Soprano shared an insight with his therapist. He had “mother issues,” you see. Pretty serious ones: she wanted to have him rubbed out—and tried! Anyway, Tony said our mothers are like buses that drop us off and drive away. We ought to be grateful for the ride. Instead, we chase after the bus, desperate to get back on. Naturally, the wisdom of Tony is applicable to much of life, but here (all too predictably) I want to apply it to our interest in the Bible. What’a ya gonna do?
I am right now working on a book called Bart Ehrman Interpreted. Like me, he was once a fundamentalist, then an evangelical, then an agnostic, and finally an atheist. It happens to a lot of us. In this evolutionary path many factors are at work, but one of the biggies, one might even say the fulcrum, is the Bible and our devotion to it. We get on the Bible Bus in our early years, eager to ride it to heaven! We have been told it will get us there as we take an exciting ride through the exotic neighborhood of the Old Testament, the shining landscape of the New Testament, the farther lands of Church History and Theology. So in order to appreciate these sights all the more, we study up on the guidebook, the Bible and commentaries on it. But every once in a while we are surprised to hear the sputtering ring of the stop signal, and the Bible Bus pulls over to let someone off. This surprises and concerns us! Why would anyone want to disembark from the Bible Bus? It’s so comfortable! The company is so pleasant! The group singing is such fun! Why? We are mystified.
That is, until we find ourselves reaching for the stop cord and getting up from our seat. Now we know why the others did the same. The closer we studied that guidebook, the more troubled we became. There were certain… discrepancies. Hell, was the bus actually going anywhere? We could swear we saw some of the same sights more than once! Were we just going in circles? Were we even moving?
Occasionally we look at the neighborhood we got dropped off in, and it looks pretty drab compared to the storybook paradise we used to think we were headed for. And in that moment, we think, as Tony Soprano said, of chasing that bus, or maybe waiting for another one to come along. But when one does, we realize we don’t have the required fare to get on. We’re plumb out of credulity! We’ve lost the overriding will to believe, otherwise known as the will to make-believe. So we start exploring the new neighborhood. Most of us sooner or later find new accommodations, discovering that living in the real world is not so bad, that it’s pretty good in fact, better than the fantasy dreamscape that once beguiled us.
But there are some of us, like Bart Ehrman, me, and a huge number of others, who manage to sneak back onto the bus, but we’re riding on the bumper! We feel good being back on the Bible Bus—but without getting in! We got hooked on the Bible, and the hook went deep. It might be pretty hard to get it out without disemboweling ourselves! The Bible has become part of us, like it or not. But then what’s not to like?
We hopped off the bus in the first place because the bus was arriving at a crossroad. We wanted to understand the biblical text better and better, as all Bible-believers are supposed to want to do. But even to have gotten to this point we had already worked our way half-way off the bus without realizing it, because everybody in the seats around us wasn’t really that curious about the Bible. They just wanted to cling to the proof texts that promised them admission to Heaven. In fact, they may have been reluctant to explore the rest of the Bible precisely because it might complicate the picture, might loosen their tight grip on that hand full of cherished, out-of-context verses.
And that’s what had happened to us. We saw the crossroads approaching: we would have to decide whether we were more interested in Christian faith or in the Bible, because we saw we couldn’t have both. We had found that the religious beliefs about the Bible were a hindrance to understanding the Bible. “Hmmm… here’s a contradiction! But, oh yeah, there can’t be any contradictions in the Bible! So I guess they’ll have a clever solution to the riddle when I get to heaven!” But we got tired of that after a while. We began to wonder. “Suppose it is a contradiction? How would that have come about? Two different sources editorially combined? Two different writers’ opinions? But if they’re only opinions, that means they’re not ‘revelations’… But it makes more sense that way! Do I want to find out the truth? Or do I want to keep chanting those proof-texts?” That’s where we got off.
And back on, on the bumper—and under the bus, to see exactly how it worked.
Hegel and Kant couldn’t and probably wouldn’t have used a stupid analogy like the one I’ve beaten to death here, but they were making a related point. For them, the Bible and supernaturalist religion were storybook versions of moral instruction for the childish of mind. Kant said that the miracles were like parables, simply a means to an end; if they got their point, their lesson, across, fine. But if not, who needs ‘em? And if they do their job, who needs ‘em either?
It’s much like Zen. The monks found the old doctrines and techniques ineffective in producing Satori, Enlightenment, so they invented new gimmicks like the answerless riddle of the koan (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”) designed to launch you off the track of mundane reasoning into a higher stratosphere. The main insight of Zen was that, a la Kant, if the old trappings of religion did not do the trick, to hell with ‘em!
But, as I said, even if they did, who needs ‘em? If they served their purpose, if they got you there, isn’t it kind of like keeping the Coke bottle after you’ve finished the soda? I love the Buddhist parable of the Raft. Imagine a man fleeing an angry mob through the forest. Luckily, he has a good head start. He stops short at a riverbank. He’s got to get across! But there’s no bridge, no stepping stones, and those crocodiles aren’t helping either! What are his options? After a moment’s thought, he begins gathering bamboo stalks and binding them together with tough vines. Soon he’s got a makeshift raft and begins poling it across the river, just as his pursuers arrive at the river. They shout curses and shake their fists, but there’s nothing more they can do. (I’m tempted to say their quarry gives them the finger, but I guess that’s inappropriate for a Buddhist parable.) Well, he makes it across. He’s safe! Now what do you think he ought to do with that raft? Out of gratitude to the raft, should he strap it onto his back and carry it around like a tortoise shell? Of course not! What a useless encumbrance it would be! Better just to dump it and get moving!
In the same way, the various features of religion are purely instrumental in nature. I just ate a couple of yummy fiber brownies. Is there any reason to keep the wrappers? No, they served their modest purpose, and now it’s time for them to exit Stage Garbage Can. You discard them precisely because they did what they were designed to do! One might object that this analogy is apt only for Eastern religions, where the goal is one’s own Enlightenment. In a paradoxical sense, it is “self”-centered. But in Western religion it is (supposedly) quite different: religion is centered on God. Worship benefits the worshipper, sure, but in the same way turning toward the sun benefits green plants, because it nourishes them. We are made to worship our Creator, so things are out of whack if we don’t. But God deserves the acclaim.
And yet I think the difference is finally overcome, since in Vedanta Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism one seeks to break down the (illusory) wall between Self and Other, to realize the unity, actually the identity, of the individual atman “within” and the universal Brahman or Sunyata “without.” This amounts to the humble self-abnegation of the individual in favor of the all-inclusive One. This seems to me quite parallel to the worshipper losing himself in the Worshipped.
Anyway, I think the Bible contradictions that shook us loose from fundamentalism are in effect biblical koans. They bring us to the end of faith and bid us jump off the track of conventional religious belief. They catapult us into Enlightenment (think equally of the European Enlightenment or of Eastern mystical Satori), and once they do, we can discard them—because they’ve served their purpose! The Bible nudged (or slapped) us awake so we wouldn’t miss our stop.
Political opinions are like scientific theories: they are cognitive frameworks through which we seek to make sense of the flood of disparate information. Otherwise we are left standing amid a roaring storm of raw data. We realize we must “come in from the cold” of confusion. Furthermore, we need to. We have to formulate a strategy to go further. We need to draw a map if we are to get anywhere, especially where we want to go, whether it is scientific research one is pursuing or a decision on how to vote.
As Thomas Kuhn explains in his classic study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a workable paradigm is one that will enable predictability. “If we’ve got it right so far, this or that ought to happen next.” “If we are understanding how these factors work together, we ought to get these results; so-and-so should turn up in the next experiment.” If you don’t get the results predicted by your theory, your theory is apparently wrong. Back to the drawing board! No shame in that. You learn from your mistakes. You reduce the possibilities. It’s the process of elimination.
Suppose the experts have long rallied around a consensus paradigm that has worked pretty well, but there remain stubborn anomalies: things, phenomena, that resist incorporation into the paradigm. Clashing data that we wouldn’t have expected. What to do? There are two possible courses. One might propose ad hoc hypotheses for this and that bit of troublesome data, contrived though they may sound even to those who propose them. Are you going to give up the theory that deals successfully with 90% of the data because of the square pegs constituting the remaining 10%? I’ll get to the second option presently. But how about a couple of examples to flesh out the abstraction?
I guess the classic instance would be the astronomical paradigm shift Kuhn discusses so well. The trouble centered around the problematic “retrograde motion” of the planets. Classical Ptolemaic astronomy posited geocentrism: all the heavenly bodies rotated around the earth in regular circular orbits. Ptolemaic astronomers knew something was amiss because the planets didn’t quite follow their expected courses. Every once in a while they appeared to double back, bob around, then continue on their way. Aristotle thought the planets were sentient beings and just felt like doing a little Two-Step now and then. Later astronomers took a different approach, positing a super-complex system of wheels within wheels, like gears in a watch, atop which the planets rested, borne along on this elaborate mechanical lattice. And it worked! Reverse-engineered from the observed motions of the planets, the system of “epicycles” did fit the phenomena (and sailors still use sextants to navigate on the basis of the Ptolemaic system). But of course it couldn’t predict any new results.
But Nicolai Copernicus thought he could do better. Suppose the earth was merely one of the planets rotating about a central sun? In this case, the retrograde motion of the planets was not real motion on the part of the heavenly spheres. Instead it was all the result of shifting perspectives. The orbits were regular, but our platform of observation was moving, too! This allowed a much simplified method of calculation. Eventually Copernican, heliocentric astronomy won the day. Ptolemaic astronomy was consigned to the Museum of Obsolete Theories.
From this case we can derive the major criterion for preferring one paradigm over another: the paradigm that makes the most economical sense of the data, and without having to posit far-fetched ad hoc hypotheses, is the better model. It’s an application of Occam’s Razor: the simpler explanation is the best. Is the truth always simple? Maybe not, but until we find out differently, we have to go by probability. And almost by definition the simpler explanation is more probable. Why bother multiplying redundant explanations when a simpler one cuts to the chase? There’s just no reason to add in needless complexities.
The second option for dealing with anomalous data is to start with it, theorize a new paradigm based on it, then see if the result can be reconciled with the old paradigm. Newton and Einstein found they were able to make new sense of what had remained baffling for Copernican astronomy, but without having to overturn the whole system. Their adjustments didn’t amount to a new set of contrived epicycles posited to rescue the old paradigm. It all proceeded inductively, and the data now made mutual sense in the same framework, all given equal weight.
It may take a long time for a new paradigm to prevail among the experts, because it must prove itself the superior option, and that quite properly requires a lot of detailed scrutiny. It is possible that some experts who have a big investment in the old paradigm (because most of their professional work was based on it) may have selfish reasons for opposing the new model, but usually that will only prolong a needful process, and most experts will welcome the new approach once they see its advantages. After all, they’re in the game because they want to get closer to the truth, not to defend some hobby horse or party line. At least one hopes so.
The same procedure obtains in biblical studies. For instance, scholars had long pondered the relation between the Synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They have much in common, almost verbatim. Why? It seems the three texts are interdependent in some way. But which way? Eventually, most scholars came round to accepting the Two Document Hypothesis, also called Markan Priority. In short, the paradigm runs like this: Matthew and Luke each independently copied material from Mark, making various changes in detail. This would explain the material shared by all three gospels. But there is also a large amount of sayings and stories shared by Matthew and Luke but with no parallel in Mark. Where did this stuff come from? There must have been a second prior source that Matthew and Luke used just as they did Mark. We call that one “Q” from the German word for “source,” Quelle. (Still awake?)
Scholars who accepted this way of making sense of the Synoptic material soon spotted anomalous data, sand in the gears of the paradigm: what to make of several places where Matthew and Luke do not quite agree with Mark but do match each other’s wording? Doesn’t that suggest that Matthew was using Luke or vice versa? It might! Starting with these data that did not fit the Two Document Hypothesis, some scholars have proposed various alternative models. Some say Mark combined material from Matthew and Luke, fusing (harmonizing) them as best he could and leaving the rest on the cutting room floor. Others suggest that Matthew used Mark, and then Luke used both Mark and Matthew. Still others think Luke used Mark, and then Matthew used both Mark and Luke. Thus there needn’t have been a Q document. When, e.g.,
Luke sometimes matches Mark but other times matches Matthew, this would be because he sometimes preferred Mark’s original, sometimes Matthew’s revised version.
I am a partisan of the Two Document (i.e., Mark and Q) Hypothesis. The scholars who advocate the alternative solutions I just mentioned obviously feel it necessary to junk the formerly regnant model, just as Copernicus overthrew the Ptolemaic model. I do not. I think the Two Document Hypothesis requires only minor adjustments. It seems to me that the Matthew-Luke agreements against Mark simply imply that Matthew and Luke were using an earlier edition of Mark which contained the reading Matthew and Luke have in common, and they preserved the original Markan wording. But the specifics don’t matter for our purposes. I’m just trying to give a general impression of how the contest between theoretical paradigms works.
But things get more complicated still! There are also so-called “incommensurable paradigms,” which are invulnerable to change. You see, the closer you look, the more it begins to look as if the criteria for the plausibility of a paradigm (and for whether their adjustments look like special-pleading “epicycles” or rather extensions of the paradigm to incorporate hitherto-anomalous data) are functions of the paradigm itself, i.e., contained within the paradigm. For example, what are readers to do with the fact that, though all four gospels show Peter denying Jesus three times, each gospel has Peter talking to different bystanders? Fundamentalists, who take it on faith that there can be no contradictions in the Bible, find it perfectly natural to posit that Peter denied Jesus six or even eight times, in order to fit in all the denials with their varying details. If the explanation comports with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, it automatically looks good! That’s their criterion for plausibility.
But critical scholars do not hesitate to say that the gospels contradict one another and that the various gospel writers simply changed the details for whatever reason. To them it seems patently ludicrous to suggest that Peter denied Jesus six times. Why? Because these scholars have rejected inerrantism as a workable paradigm. And why? On account of a different, equally important Protestant axiom: scripture must be interpreted according to the “plain sense,” what the words would seem to mean prima facie. Otherwise you can treat the Bible like a ventriloquist dummy, making it mean whatever you want it to. And no one would read the gospel texts as recordingt six denials unless they were desperate to get out of a tight spot.
There can be no real communication, not even any debate, between these factions. There is no common ground. As Stanley Fish (Is There a Text in this Class?) says, we are dealing here with two insulated “communities of interpreters.” Within each herme(neu)tically sealed community of interpreters there can be much debate and dispute, as when fundamentalists argue over whether the inerrant Bible teaches free will or predestination. Or as when critical scholars discuss what might have motivated the various gospel writers to recast the walk-on roles of the various bystanders in whose ears Peter denied Jesus. But debates between the two communities are useless. They cannot help talking past one another. Everybody ends up where they started.
This is where politics comes in. Having political discussions with your friends (who are not likely to remain your friends for long!), you quickly notice you are getting nowhere, and so are they. Each of you is starting from within a self-contained paradigm from which your opponent’s perspective seems baffling. Recently I was a guest (or was that “sideshow freak”?) on a podcast where I was called to account for my support for Donald Trump. My stunned hosts could not conceive of an atheist skeptic supporting Trump, opposing abortion, doubting Global Warming, etc. Likewise, I could not believe my ears at their arguments for “gun-free zones,” etc. Each side has different criteria for plausibility, deductively derived from their paradigm itself. These criteria will determine how one views data that seems to challenge one’s position. It was clear to me that neither side can make any headway until they dare to question their presuppositions, to ask themselves the question emblazoned on a bumper sticker: “What if you’re wrong?”
Each side of the political divide lives in what Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (The Social Construction of Reality) call a “symbolic universe,” an internalized paradigm for construing data. Each side engages in “cognitive world-maintenance.” Each individual is reinforced (like a religious believer) in his convictions by surrounding himself with those who share his viewpoint. For instance, if you watch FOX News, as I do, and you hear people mock “Faux News” it is at once obvious they have never watched it. They are parroting the biases of the ideological “in-crowd” whose mockery is what Berger and Luckmann call a “nihilation strategy” aimed at discouraging one’s fellows from ever taking seriously any arguments from the other side. I am familiar with nihilation tactics from religious apologists who reassure their minions that biblical critics hold “skeptical” views only because they begin by arbitrarily rejecting the supernatural. That is nonsense, but they need to believe it in order to pre-empt any serious consideration of critical views. Political conservatives and liberals explain how the opposing faction suffers from psychological handicaps which incline them to their ill-founded opinions. Have you ever seen a more blatant example of the genetic fallacy?
Paul Watzlawick (How Real Is Real?) discusses the “self-sealing premise,” a belief or opinion or party-line that is invulnerable to disconfirmation by any objection, refutation, or contrary data. There is always a quiver full of explanations, excuses, rebuttals, whether consistent with each other or not. Remember, any argument supporting the presupposed position automatically sounds good, persuasive, and more than plausible to the one who offers it. And the defender is not pretending to believe these rebuttals: he really finds the excuses and alternative readings of the evidence to be convincing no matter how lame they sound to outsiders. (This is the larger reality of which the phenomenon of “confirmation bias” is the iceberg tip.)
This all raises the spectre of falsifiabilty. Karl Popper pointed out that some assertions are revealed, not as false, but as meaningless when the one making the assertion cannot think of any state of affairs that would falsify his assertion. You cannot really even define the state of affairs that is being asserted if you cannot specify what conditions would be inconsistent with it. My favorite example here is, not surprisingly, a theological one. If a religious believer asserts that God is in loving, providential control of the world, we would sort of expect this “hypothesis”
to have predictive value. Wouldn’t it seem to imply that God would protect us from tragedy and atrocity? But the facts do not seem to bear this out. Does the believer admit he was wrong? Not at all! He retreats to the position that God is in control, but that “he moves in mysterious ways.” But then we have to ask: if God’s being in providential control winds up looking just like God not being in control, what’s the difference? What, if anything, is even being asserted? If nothing counts against the claim, then there really is no claim.
And it is the same with political stances. You advocate policies that will, you claim, create more jobs and revitalize the economy, but there are no discernible results. Rather than going back to the drawing board or admitting that your opponents were right, you either “reinterpret” the statistics or stonewall with excuses, perhaps blaming the disastrous results of your policies on the previous administration’s policies which, you say, screwed up the economy worse than you first thought, so you double down on your failed policies. And when they fail again, you will sink still deeper into denial and excuse-making. The policies themselves have become the most important thing, not the goals to which they were originally dedicated.
Next step? Whatever destructive results the policies bring, even once they become undeniably obvious, will be considered noble simply because they are the results of the policy and the ideology underlying it. This is what happens when gun control advocates insist on reducing gun ownership by non-criminals. You would have assumed that safety and crime-reduction were the desired goals. But if, as in Chicago, New York City, and Brussels, the reverse happens, well, that’s still good. These murders were “collateral damage,” an unfortunate by-product of the inherently noble crusade to eliminate those nasty guns. Of course, criminals won’t cooperate, but let’s get rid of as many of those unholy and unclean guns as we can, and you can take them away from law-abiding citizens. “Oh,” you say, “but once we tighten gun laws, gun-owners ipso facto become criminals!”
Fossil fuels are inherently evil and unclean, so we must try to get rid of them. If this will destroy whole industries and many people’s livelihoods and make energy too expensive for the shivering poor, well, that’s just collateral damage! It’s all like pacifism: self-imposed martyrdom for the sake of ideals derived from abstract systems of political theory.
Theory is paramount in politics. Government ideologues attempt to reshape the world to make it conform to their theory’s picture of the world, as when George W. Bush sought to impose Western-style democracy on alien cultures, or when Obama thinks all he needs to do when Russia invades Ukraine is to pontificate that Russia is “on the wrong side of history.”
Worse yet, their policies assume the world already does correspond to the picture their ideology paints. Muslims can’t be terrorists, so they’re not! If you think otherwise, my friend, you suffer from Islamophobia! Crimes must be equally distributed among all population groups, so to claim one group commits a disproportionate amount of crimes can only be racist slander.
Committed to an ideology, the ideologue is living in an impenetrable bubble. Freud’s characterization of religion fits equally well here: “the projection of a wish-world onto the real world.”
Peter Berger (in his The Heretical Imperative)speaks of “relativizing the relativizers.” Once a sociologist of knowledge (like him) succeeds in showing the largely psycho-social origins of any individual’s beliefs, the ground is cleared. We are left with no escape, no option but to try to bracket what we have been taught to think, what we would like to believe, and to try our best to look at the facts inductively. And to ask ourselves why we are inclined to one or another interpretation of the facts. Look, I know that voting is a forced choice. You’ll never get to the polling place if you think you have to master all the facts on every question. But you owe it to yourself (and everyone else) to take a cold, hard look at the facts, and at yourself as the evaluator of facts. Take your best shot. Take what Don Cupitt calls “the Leap of Reason,” launching yourself out of your confining paradigm like baby Kal-el rocketing out of exploding Krypton!
Richard Dawkins has ventured the opinion that theologians are experts in a subject without any subject matter. I take him to mean they are engaged in nothing but “mental masturbation.” They are, he thinks, like a group of Star Wars fans I once knew who believed the events of the movie were real, but in a different universe (in which they would have much preferred to dwell). Or imagine a self-proclaimed zoologist who specialized in werewolves, unicorns, and dragons. There is a large element of truth in such comparisons and thus also in his disdain. And yet I can’t help thinking he is engaging in overkill.
I am sure Professor Dawkins does not discount the importance of numerous fields like Anthropology, Psychology, and Sociology of Religion, much less the History of Religion, because these fields of study serve purposes valuable to secular intellectuals and to society at large. To put it bluntly: you need to know your enemy. The world is aflame with murderous religious fanatics, and we need to understand what motivates those who kill “infidels” with clean-conscience and abandon. We need to know the harm such jihads of madness have done in the past if we want to gauge dangers in the present.
Biblical Studies are, obviously, relevant if only to, as Robert Ingersoll did, demonstrate that the threatening gun is loaded with blanks, to render the Bible useless as a tool of oppression. It is imperative to debunk the notion that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, and this is true even if you think what the Bible says is not so bad, because it is still used as a ventriloquist dummy to impart divine authority to those demagogues who claim its inerrancy for their own opinions. I can think of people on the Left as well as the Right who make Scripture into their own private Charlie McCarthy.
My friend Hector Avalos has called for “the end of Biblical Studies” (in his great book of that title). What, is he trying to put himself out of a job? No, he means to call the bluff of those who merely use scholarship to defend the Bible in the manner of apologetics—spin-doctoring. A good example would be the study of “Biblical Archaeology,” which was essentially founded as an elaborate campaign to defend the accuracy of the Bible against the skepticism of the Higher Critics of the Nineteenth Century. Now this axe-grinding pseudo-archaeology has been revealed as cut from the same cheap cloth as “Scientific Creationism.” The new Ark replica unveiled by Ken Ham is a prime example of both.
What is less obvious as a piece of biblical PR, and from an unexpected quarter, is the sophisticated (but sophistical) production of scholarly studies that attempt to show that the Bible really supports equal rights for women and homosexuals, opposes colonial imperialism, fosters ecumenism, etc. The goal here is twofold. First, there is the cynical, Grand Inquisitor-like attempt to use the voice of unearned authority to trick the pew-potatoes into voting for so-called “Progressives” because the Bible is “really” on the Left, and so you should be, too. It is propagandistic manipulation, what some Liberation and Feminist Theologians call “a useable past.” You know, like the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984.
But the flip side of that coin is that such scholars also seek to rehabilitate the Bible’s reputation by arguing that it has good “Progressive” things to say (and that the bad stuff is either irony or interpolation). Why do they want to do that? Possibly to justify clinging to a self-identification as a Christian of some type.
I understand Hector to be calling the bluff of both Conservative and Liberal scholars who are grinding “the axe of the apostles.” I don’t read him as demanding that the study of the Bible be banned or boycotted. Rather, I would describe the situation as analogous to a bunch of neo-polytheists urging everyone to take Hesiod’s Theogony and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as infallible and historically inerrant. Classicists would enter the fray to demonstrate the mythic-fictional character of those works, but they would not discourage the study of these great old texts.
I think another friend of mine, John Loftus, means the same thing when he urges universities to drop Philosophy of Religion courses. So much of it has been (again) apologetics, propping up the faith of those would-be believers whose intellectual consciences forbid them to exclaim, “Oh, to heaven with it!” and just “believe.” (Still, you can teach Philosophy of Religion with a critical approach.)
I’m not sure Professor Dawkins stops there, however. I remember hearing him deride the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation as “a rabbi turning himself into a cracker.” The line got lots of laughs, but I didn’t join in the general hilarity. I knew from this joke that the noted atheist was not bothering to try to look at the question from the inside, the only place it makes any sense, and where it does make sense. It is its own language game, though most of those who play it are not aware that’s “all” they’re doing.
If you’ve been on the “other” side, whether religiously, politically, whatever, then switched sides, you know you can’t simply dismiss the old frame of reference as nothing but gibberish. You know there is a method in the madness, that it’s not just madness, even if you can no longer affirm it. I think of how, when I first read about Deconstruction, I thought it was crazy. But, as Mary Midgley said, when we call something “crazy” it just means we don’t understand it. And then I realized there had to be something to it that was not then apparent to me. So I read more, trying to see it. And I finally did see it.
In fact, I now see what first seem like absurdities as opportunities to expand my mind to see (and possibly embrace) new perspectives. I tried to convey this to a student in an Adult School course I later taught about Deconstruction. Though a very learned man, he went in with an attitude of unremitting determination to see and expose Deconstruction as nonsense. What a shame, because, if it wasn’t nonsense, he’d never be able to see it. You have to have an attitude of teachableness, and this man, for all his intelligence, did not. His loss.
Well, I have been on the side of theologians and believers. Though I have long since switched sides, I remember what it was like. And I know that theology is not a subject without subject matter, like Unicornology. Whether you are a believer or an atheist, you may approach theology as a subdivision of the history of thought that deserves at least as much respect as, say, ancient or medieval Philosophy. You most likely don’t find the views of Parmenides and Xeno to be persuasive. You don’t buy the idea that what the senses report to us has no relation to external reality, an infinite expanse indistinguishable by divisions or distinctions, and so on. But were the Eleatics just gushing verbal salad? You’re the fool if you think so.
In the same way, I just cannot look at the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas or the theological systems of Karl Barth and Paul Tillich and X it all out as a bunch of glossolalic gobbledygook. The interplay of competing concepts is exhilarating to explore! All the more if it is initially strange to you!
Theology thinks it is telling us about God. I don’t think there is a God. But theology has much the same attraction as mythology. Both are the cartography of dream worlds. Doesn’t that mean
Richard Dawkins is right after all: it’s just a stupid waste of time? No. Hans Jonas and Rudolf Bultmann explained how “every statement of theology is at the same time a statement of anthropology,” and that is the basis of demythologizing. To demythologize is to decode stories of, and beliefs in, God(s), to reveal the self-understandings of those who produce and who live by the myths. People who inherit or embrace (factually erroneous) myth systems assimilate their dictates and definitions. The systems of belief are projections of the “symbolic universes” (Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann) inside the heads of believers. This is the truth of the formula “As above, so below.” Theology does have subject matter: human beings.
I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
And answer’d “I Myself am Heav’n and Hell:”
I don’t know if you will be familiar with the name or the thought of Friedrich Schleiermacher, and if you’re not, that helps prove my point: that this nineteenth-century thinker (one of my greatest heroes) had something to say about religion that clarified it in his day and would clarify it again today if it were more widely known. He was the first to turn the Wheel of Dharma for theology after the Copernican Revolution in epistemology wrought by Kant. Let’s back up.
Immanuel Kant, raised as a Lutheran Pietist in the century before Schleiermacher, demonstrated the impossibility of gaining true knowledge apart from the senses (and the processing of sense data through our built-in array of the Categories of Perception and the Logical Functions of Judgment). There could be no “revealed knowledge” such as theologians had always claimed as the indispensable basis of their doctrines. So what sort of reconstruction of religion might be possible?
Kant himself (like Hegel, I believe) viewed religion, with its miracle stories and ancient myths, to be essentially a symbolic language for morality. If all that stuff helped you learn the lessons of righteousness, great. But if it became an end in itself, if it distracted from morality, or worse yet, as in the devastating wars of religion (still fresh in memory in Kant’s day and new again in our own), if it prompted horribly immoral behaviors, then to hell with it. Religion was like a cartoon version of morality for children, and eventually the time arrives to put away childish things. So Kant decided that “enlightened piety” consisted in morality. Ethics is the essence of religion.
Schleiermacher believed Kant was right about the unavailability of extra-sensory knowledge, the lack of revelation. But he could not agree with Kant’s view of the essence of religion. In his view, Kant had reduced religion to ethics. Just ethics? Sure, morality is indispensable, non-negotiable in importance. But if religion simply boils down to morality, religion is revealed as superfluous. And Schleiermacher thought that completely inadequate. Kant was selling religion short. He had missed the essential thing about religion. And what was that?
Schleiermacher distinguished between three aspects of religion. First was knowledge. This was information about God and his unseen world. It could not be discovered but had to be revealed. But, in the wake of Kant, it turned out there was no such knowledge. The second was practice, specifically ethics. We have seen how Kant subtracted knowledge, emptied that category. Ethics was what was left of religion. Schleiermacher thought Kant had jumped the gun, skipping a third aspect of religion, one which should now be recognized as the essential aspect, in fact, the very essence of religion.
That aspect is piety, which Schleiermacher defined as “a sense and taste for the Infinite” and “the feeling of absolute dependence” upon the great totality of Being, God understood in pretty much a Pantheistic sense (Schleiermacher was much influenced by Spinoza). Schleiermacher explained that all life is contingent upon a web of many factors: your parents happening to fall in love, your food not being poisoned, the roof above you not falling in, etc. And much depends upon you in turn. We are all relatively dependent upon all these factors, but upon the great overarching Whole each of us is absolutely dependent. Everyone is, but not everyone lives in conscious, grateful awareness (“feeling”) of it. Those who do are pious in Schleiermacher’s sense. This awareness is intuitive, a thing more fundamental than cognitive knowledge, i.e., knowledge of discrete things, available to us through the senses.
Schleiermacher thought we could draw certain inferences from our subjective religious experiences, experiences of “God.” These would count as “knowledge” only in the sense Kant described as the fruit of “practical reason” as opposed to “pure reason.” This was the way Kant arrived at his “practical” argument for God’s existence. Technically, Kant admitted, we cannot know there is a God, but if there is no God to guarantee moral standards, then the whole thing is an illusion. Are we really prepared to accept that? It seems a better bet to proceed on the working hypothesis that there is a Creator who instilled within us the universal moral law and provides an afterlife in which our character development may be brought to completion. This is, roughly speaking, the kind of inference Schleiermacher thought we can derive from religious experience, from “God-consciousness.”
So what’s the difference between Kant and Schleiermacher on this point? For Kant, this experiential argument was just a way to secure a reason for morality, while Schleiermacher saw it as a source from which some sort of religious doctrines might be derived. To use traditional terms, Schleiermacher was willing to be satisfied with faith and not to lay claim to genuine knowledge. Henceforth, for Liberals, theology was no longer a matter of systematizing revealed knowledge (e.g., from scripture), but rather of interpreting religious experience.
But soon after Schleiermacher, Liberal Protestantism took a more purely Kantian direction, defining religion as essentially moral. Albrecht Ritschl, the second founder of Liberal Theology, moved the rudder, and the result was the influential Social Gospel Movement championed by Adolf Harnack, Wilhelm Herrmann, and especially Walter Rauschenbusch. As I understand the current religious climate, Liberal (what used to be called “Mainstream” or “Mainline”) Protestantism as represented by, e.g., the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterians, the United Methodists, the United Church of Christ, and the American Baptists, have moved much, most, or all of the way in the direction of Rauschenbusch, Ritschl, and Kant. Religion has become essentially moral, specifically political. For these denominations, Christianity has become a subset of the Democratic and Green Parties.
As you know, much of Conservative Protestantism has likewise become heavily politicized. I believe that only a tiny fringe repudiated by the vast majority even of fundamentalists wants to impose a theocracy, a Christian counterpart to Islamic Sharia (though I have heard of a small movement of radical Christian theocratic terrorists in Latin America).
For the purposes of the point I am trying to make here, let me distinguish Conservative and Liberal political Protestantisms this way. The Conservatives still (erroneously) believe there is revealed information, infallible commands from a deity. This would seem to make them more potentially dangerous than their Liberal counterparts, but in fact there turns out to be little practical difference since Liberalism is not Libertarianism. Liberalism tends to impose, to regulate, to centrally plan, to patronize, to ostracize and vilify because the end is held to justify the means.
That is the ironic result of “situation ethics,” once a banner of personal freedom. This is the same danger inherent in the larger approach of Teleological ethics, which seeks to escape/avoid the legalism of Kantian Deontological ethics. Results, not rules, make an action right.
But there is an ironic vestige of the otherwise discarded faith that “calls things that are not as though they were.” We expect Liberal Protestantism, in the wake of Harvey Cox’s The Secular City, to be pragmatic, bare-knuckled, disabused of illusion in its pursuit of its social ideals. But there remains a worrisome Hegelian confidence in humans’ ability to discern what God is up to in the unfolding of history and whose side he is on to achieve his aims. That is implicitly theocratic, isn’t it?
And this species of hubris begets another: the faith that ignores likely consequences and that acts against the odds, assuming a diplomatic stance of “believing all things” that one’s nation’s enemies may promise one. That is no more noble, and is considerably more dangerous, than the “faith” by which Jim Bakker pursued various construction projects for which he lacked the funds, believing God would send him the money. I call it “political snake-handling.”
Is there a contemporary version of what Schleiermacher called piety? I should think
devotees of contemplative prayer, “practicing the presence of God,” would qualify. They are certainly striving for God-consciousness. But, within the Christian fold, those who take this approach are more likely to be Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. I am dealing with Protestantism here, the quadrant of Christianity Schleiermacher lived in.
As Unitarianism represents the extreme of the Kantian religion-as-morality trajectory, I should call New Thought (much of which has gone beyond specifically Christian symbolism) the stripped-down version of Schleiermacher-style religion. Of all Christian varieties, New Thought believers focus most clearly on a rather abstract, near-pantheistic God understood as a universal Source of abundance. One strives to remain open and receptive to that fund of endless possibility. This spirituality combines the feeling of absolute dependence and constant God-consciousness.
Nor is this a matter of coincidence, or of reinventing the wheel. It is instead a case of heredity. You see, New Thought owes a significant debt to the New England Transcendentalists and their belief in the Oversoul. And the Transcendentalists’ great source of inspiration was–guess who? Schleiermacher. New Thought seems to me the last redoubt of Schleiermacher’s spirituality. It may be judged a bit debased, often reducing God to a genie to conjure with, but even then it is refreshing in its lack of the hypocritical pretense to “radical discipleship” made by some political Christians.
I have often suggested that moral decadence need not be a decrease in morality. I understand it also to refer to a kind of cancerous growth of hyper-morality. I could just call it that, but I use the word “decadence” to differentiate what I mean from the fanatical zealotry in an individual resulting from some psychological quirk, like neurotic hyper-scrupulosity, a moral version of Obsessive Compulsion Disorder. I use the word “decadence” to denote a dangerous cultural senescence or senility in which a civilization loses perspective and begins to embrace fanciful sentimentalism as a moral code. This is especially dangerous when there are serious, real-world issues that demand attention but get neglected because of this ethical fiddling while Rome burns.
A few examples may help. I regard it as decadent, cancerously mutated, morality when people crusade for Animal Rights. (Don’t worry; I do not want to paint vegetarianism with the same brush. That is a separate and eminently defensible point, though I am far from a vegetarian.) There is a foolish confusion here. We humans have the duty to treat animals kindly, not to be cruel to them. But rights belong uniquely to human beings because we are located in a framework of social relations, even if we are pre- or post-rational (babies and the senile and comatose). Animals are not. Is it murder for a lion to kill and eat an antelope? Is the lion violating the rights of the antelope? Can they sue one another over grazing territory or prey-poaching? Do they talk and say, “What’s up, Doc?” But look at the antics of PETA activists. Somewhere along the line they have made a wrong toin in Alba-quoi-que.
It’s even worse when Animal Rights zealots are happily pro-abortion when it comes to human beings. But it’s not exactly inconsistent. Both positions stem from an “Earth First” anti-humanism. Leftists have a neurotic (and dangerously decadent) hatred for their own country. Like a freshman Anthropology student, they espouse value-free cultural relativism—except for America. It is a reverse “American exceptionalism” whereby one hates America as uniquely evil and despicable. One has to, like Noam Chomsky and Saul Alinsky, fabricate libels and myths of “Amerika” to justify this hatred. The sins of Muslim terrorists and Socialist Totalitarians can be forgiven or explained away, but not only are America’s sins excoriated, but her many virtues must be denied.
“Internationalism” and “World Citizenship” are foolishly and even nefariously naïve, imagining that the “collective” opinion of all nations should be our lodestar, when in fact international bodies tend to be tools manipulated by the Anti-Semitic, pro-terrorist, economy-destroying states that dominate them.
Well, the PETA fanatic hates his own species in precisely the same way. Some go so far as to say the earth would be better off without humans, and that we are a plague on the world which should be wiped out, though few go so far as to advocate any action toward that end (like the red-haired scientist in the movie Twelve Monkeys). But the tendency is in that direction, something you need to point out in order to show how wrong-headed some things are. Animal Rights believers are in effect saying that biological Darwinism is just as reprehensible as Social Darwinism and, come to think of it, is actually the same thing.
Hyper-moral decadents live in a world of paper games and official statements. When the disastrous results of that kind of economic and foreign policies become tragically evident, there will be more vacuous idealistic bluster to shift the blame and to make lemons into NutraSweet Lemonade. As Freud said of religion (of which hyper-moral decadence is a certainly a variety), “Progressivism” is an exercise in projecting a wish world onto the real world. This is cultural senile dementia.
Another symptom of hyper-moral decadence is to always make the exception into the rule: the tiny minority rules. Everything must be changed for them. In my view, groups like the ACLU and the Freedom from Religion Foundation are busy pulling on the loopholes of the social order in order to unravel it. Criminals have more rights than their victims. Separation of Church and State is interpreted as restricting any public display of religious symbolism, implying that tolerating it and promoting it are the same thing. Military combatants must be read “their” Miranda Rights.
Because a microscopically tiny group of self-described Transgender kids feel they are in the wrong body (why isn’t that considered Body Dysmorphic Disorder?), adolescent boys and girls must have Unisex showers. I suspect that whole condition is like “Recovered Memory Syndrome.” I wonder how many kids would become gender-confused if school counselors, promoting certain ideologies, did not lead them into thinking so. I’m not a mind-reader or a medical man. I don’t pretend to know.
But I do know this: many will automatically denounce my question as definitive proof that I’m a bigot. Thus, they highlight another aspect of today’s hyper-morality (and in this case, I’d call it “post-morality”): an impatience with rational debate, an attitude I am used to encountering with unreasoning and ax-grinding religionists. Silence the bigot! Shout down any non-“progressive” heresy! “We already know we’re right!” This is the essence of Fascism, but the unbelievable historical amnesia of today’s youth forbids them from learning the lessons of history. If they’ve ever even heard his name, they probably think Santayana lives at the North Pole.
Yet another symptom of today’s cultural dementia is the abandonment of logic as a tool of Dead White Male oppression. Radical Feminists have explicitly argued that, since Aristotle was a male who lived in a patriarchal culture, formal logic can be dismissed as oppressive. How convenient! Using the genetic fallacy as the excuse to topple a system of logic that would have shown you how abysmally stupid the genetic fallacy is! Just the other day I heard Geraldo Rivera brushing off the evidence marshaled against Hillary Clinton because it was presented by a “Right-wing” organization. In other words, because I don’t like their results I can simply assume they fudged the whole thing. Oh, I know that, as my beloved ultra-Leftist history professor Robert Beckwith taught me years ago, “Figures don’t lie, but liars sure figure!” But you have to examine the evidence no matter who marshaled it or why.
Another very chic logical fallacy is that of hasty generalization. The whole Black Lies Matter movement, founded upon debunked falsehoods about police murdering black youths (“Hands up don’t shoot!”), is based on vilifying policemen in general because of the actions of a tiny minority, the logic being that if any black youths are killed by police, this must mean that all cops are at war with black youth simply for being black. In practice, according to this ideology, there can by definition be no black criminals because to accuse one is to accuse all, and that would be racist. Any criticism of any blacks becomes racism. Since it would be racist to suggest that the disproportion of blacks in prison is due to the fact of disproportionate black crime would be racist, too, since we know that is impossible. Crime rates must be equal for all ethnicities. If you suggest that, no, there really is a disproportionate crime rate among blacks but that the reason for it, far from the absurd claim that blacks are genetically predisposed to crime, is the decay of the African-American family because of disastrous government welfare policies, even that will be condemned as racist. Merely pointing out a difficulty in the black community is racist, implying blacks can do no wrong. And the resulting Politically Correct hatred of the police, leading to their refusal to fight crime lest they be pilloried and even arrested for it, shows how absurd things have become. Just as absurd as W.B. Yeats saw that they would.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Ever notice that muggers and burglars on TV are almost always white? This is, obviously, because the depiction of a black criminal would supposedly implicate all blacks as criminals. That in itself would be a ludicrous hasty generalization. But the “solution” is to imply that the reverse is true: criminals must never be depicted as black. Either all of them are, runs the murky logic, or none are.
In the same way, hyper-morality decrees that no one criticize Muslim terrorists because to do so would be to vilify all Muslims. Of course, it would not, but the PC cries of “Islamophobia!” imply (unwittingly and falsely) that all Muslims are terrorists. If to condemn some Muslims is to implicate all Muslims, which we must not do, then to defend all Muslims even if some are terrorists, is to imply all Muslims are exonerated. If we say any are evil, we are saying all are, and since that is obviously false, then all Muslims must be innocent, right?
Our multicultural hyper-sensitivity functions as a Trojan horse for the open society to be subverted by its enemies. Decadent, naïve societies, engaged as they are in a Mad Hatter’s tea party, are inviting and facilitating their own demise. They are spreading their own blood on the water: “Come and get us! We’re ripe!”
“What if they gave a war and nobody came?” You may not show up, but rest assured, they will.
So says Zarathustra.
Patronize me! Please! As several of you have advised me to do, Qarol and I have set up a Patreon account. This is a wonderful way of bringing into the 21st century the venerable tradition of patronage: donors supporting artists, philosophers, and scholars, leaving them free to devote more time to their valuable work. In the past, it was only wealthy aristocrats who patronized creators, but Patreon democratizes patronage, inviting interested supporters to contribute whatever they can each month. As Father Guido Sarducci said about those “thirty-five cent sins,” “they mount up!” As you know, I am busy at (too) many things: this blog, my many book projects, the Bible Geek podcast, debating and speaking, and editing fiction anthologies (plus writing my own stories). I have no teaching position because my well-known writings have made me notorious, but I still must share what I know, share it with you.
It would be a very great help to me and my family if we could receive enough support on a regular basis to pay our bills and to allow Carol to leave her (low-paying) job to become my partner and administrative assistant. I would also love to pay my volunteer Bible Geek producers for their heroic efforts on my behalf and yours. Also, Qarol and I would like to share our Heretics Anonymous discussion groups with you, on-line and in person. Your generosity will help us cover our current projects and enable us to expand our efforts. I hope you will consider it! Thanks! https://www.patreon.com/robertmprice
Last night I was watching The Flash and heard Barry Allen say to his foster-father something to the effect of, “You’ve always said that everything happens for a purpose, and I’m beginning to believe it.” I’m not convinced (though, admittedly, I have no connection to the Speed Force, so what do I know?). Let me see if I can demythologize the notion.
Back when I was an Evangelical Christian, I noticed something suspicious about all the big promises about answered prayer and discerning the will of God, plus the teaching that Christians could rest assured that we would lead a charmed life. We could be confidant that God would take care of us. Naturally, it didn’t take very long to realize these promises were false, because equivocal, though we discovered that the hard way. What I mean is that no one had told us about the fine print. Did God always answer prayer? “Well, er, yes, he does, but, heh-heh, sometimes (in fact most of the time!) the answer is a big fat No.” Oh! So that’s the way it works! Bait and switch, no?
But no Christian can dismiss the whole thing as a con game and still qualify as a Christian. His fellow believers, suspecting this, would assure him it wasn’t an option. If you’re a Christian, you have to pray; it’s part of the job description. (And this pops another theological balloon: salvation by grace, since prayer turns out to be a non-negotiable practice of piety.) So what do you do? You keep on praying and you utilize the magic word “faith” as permission to ignore the clanging bell of cognitive dissonance. That is, you undertake to ask God for this or that blessing, for healing, for guidance, etc. You can find some scripture verse that assures you God wants this for you, so you can approach him with confidence! Believe and you shall receive! B…u…t… you don’t. It doesn’t happen. And there’s another cliché designed for that disappointment: “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” How foolish you were to think you, a puny mortal, could know the will of the Creator God! So you reproach yourself in proper Christian humility. But you know what’s going to happen the next time you need something from God. You will quickly forget the human incapacity for reading the mind of God, and you will be back on your pious knees, asking God for some boon. And round and round you go.
There was a clue that should have tipped us off, but we ignored it, were implicitly taught to ignore it. We were told to add to any request the proviso, “if it be Thy will.” Aha! If! In other words, God must already have had a plan for you, and you, like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, were willing to acquiesce in it if necessary. Why kick against the goads? But if you thought about it long enough to put two and two together, you saw the irony: surely God must know what he’s doing; he needs you to tell him what to do? If God decided to set aside his plan and answer your prayer instead, it would become like “The Monkey’s Paw,” backfiring in ways you hadn’t foreseen. You might as well stop telling God his business.
This is why Meister Eckhart said a praying Christian should say no more than “Thy will be done.” What is such a prayer designed to effect? You’re no longer asking God to grant a request. So what would you be doing when you prayed such a prayer? You would of course be trying to sensitize yourself to the leading of the Spirit, to reorient yourself to be willing to accept what comes to you from the hand of God. And that, friends, is Stoicism.
Stoicism is an ancient Hellenistic philosophy founded by Xeno of Citium in the third century B.C.E. It was a mutation from Cynicism and upheld the Cynic tenet of “living in accord with Nature by reason.” Stoics were pantheists and believed that the divine Logos permeates all things (kind of like the Force) and controls all things. The only good thing is virtue, and everything that happens to you is, and should be viewed as, a kind of chisel to chip away at your character. You are entitled to enjoy the pleasures of life; just maintain a degree of inner detachment to possessions, hobbies, relationships. That way, you will not feel devastated when you lose these things, as you sooner or later will. Ultimately, these are adiaphora, indifferent things. Take ‘em or leave ‘em. Because ultimately, virtue is the only real good. Tragedy strikes? Hey, go ahead and cry, but buck up! You can choose how you will react to it. You can decide that this unpleasant event will nonetheless be an opportunity for character growth if you accept it as such. “Why kick against the goads?” was a Stoic proverb. How foolish to curse your luck; do you know better than God? He sent it to you, smart guy. Acquiesce; you’ll be glad you did.
And this is what all the Christian talk about God’s providential care boils down to: he approves or sends all events your way to assist in the process of your moral sanctification. Sure, you may not like it in the moment, but you will thank God for it one day, all the sooner if you cooperate. “Good” things are all that will happen to you, that is, things conducive to your sanctification. That makes plenty of sense; it’s just not what they told you at first. But you should have suspected as much if you’d ever read James 1:2-4. “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Today’s idea that “everything happens for a purpose” is more vague, kind of slippery. It does not necessary entail theism. It might fit better with Pantheism, since there seems to be no thought of a personal Controller weaving a tapestry, every thread in the right place, with a definite finished product in mind. No God plotting out everything as a vast novel. It sounds more like the impersonal Dominoes game of Karma. But even this is not demythologized enough for me.
I think that the idea of events being somehow aimed at you (“Special delivery for Mr. Price!”), a form of the doctrine of predestination, is the result of our confusing two very different things. We look back at what has happened to us and we know we can’t change the past. We are stuck with it. But we seem to be inferring that it couldn’t have been avoided beforehand even if we had known what was on the way. This assumption becomes theologized as God’s word (his promise or command) which shall not and cannot return to him void, i.e., having failed in its purpose. I think Stoicism shares this confusion. But, fortunately, the value of Stoicism does not require it.
Forget about second-guessing the past: what if you had done things differently? Why did God make this happen to me? Who cares? The thing is: it has happened, tragic or trivial. Now what are you going to make of it? What are you going to do with it? You’d be wise to cut your losses, to calculate, “What can I learn from this?” “How does this reshuffle the deck?” “What’s the lay of the land now?” “Where do I, where can I, go from here?”
What new opportunities might suddenly have opened up before you? Opportunities for lessons learned, for introspective self-scrutiny, character growth. Why not? The Stoics were right: why waste the opportunity? Why fail to make lemons into lemonade? Is it better just to curse the luck? I don’t see how. This is just common sense. Use the big word “philosophy” if you want. Try to inflate it into theology if you prefer. But I think that is a distraction. It makes you agonize over insoluble pseudo-problems. Or put it this way: theology breeds questions that, as the Buddha said, “tend not unto edification.”