It is hard to keep track of the many current crises, both domestic and international. You can’t tell the combatants without a scorecard. But it is clear that quite a number of them are rooted in the hatreds cherished by one religious group against another. Yes, I know it is possible that these sectarian tags are merely masks for other issues, but generally I think that explanation is an error made by secular-minded analysts who just cannot imagine that religion could mean enough to religious believers that they would actually shed blood over it. But they would, and they do.
The Sunni Jihadists hate Christians and Jews, but not as much as they despise Shi’ites, who are fellow Muslims. Among the Sunnis, the Wahabi faction (whose name inexplicably adorns the pseudo-Islamic crest of the ridiculous Shriners) deems all non-Wahabis as non-human! Needless to say Shi’ite are pretty ornery, too. And there are other religious wars, notoriously between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland and even Buddhists versus Hindus in Sri Lanka. Muslims attack Hindus, too. And the too-tender sensibilities of Hindus in India and Muslims all over the globe are successfully censoring public discourse.
I could go on about this for several pages. It is nearly enough to make me accept the argument of Sam Harris (who is certainly right about the dangers of Islam) that all religion is dangerous and should end. He says that the legions of moderate religious believers serve as a kind of human shield preventing us from leveling the blame where it belongs. But I know of too many positive religious believers whose faith is what impels them to selfless good on behalf of others. I do take his sweeping generalization seriously in the case of Islam, where it is more clear to me that even the much-invoked “moderate” Muslims are part of the problem, not the solution, insofar as they stand by silently.
But I raise the spectre of religious hatred and its disruptive ramifications in order to place a recent and ongoing American controversy in what I perceive to be its proper context. I have in mind the proposed Arizona law (vetoed but about to be repeated in several other states) that, as a safeguard to religious freedom, allows fundamentalists to refuse to serve homosexuals in restaurants and other businesses. “This train don’t carry no sinners.”
There are other reasons this law is ill-conceived and ludicrous. For one, does the pious opponent of homosexuality give a litmus test to, require a no-homosexuality pledge of, all potential customers at the door? And why stop there? Why not turn away suspected adulterers? Dishonest businessmen? Liars? The door is opened to the colonial-era absurdity whereby congregations would allow to receive Holy Communion only those whose spiritual worthiness they could be sure of. Eventually Roger Williams, founder of the Baptist movement in America, realized the foolishness of this procedure when he had decided he could be sure of only his wife’s spiritual worthiness and refused to share the communion table with anyone else. It was a self-imposed reductio ad absurdum, and he snapped out of it, instituting open communion to any and all comers. That’s basically what Christians need to do in their restaurants. If they don’t, they might as well go the whole way and post signs reading NO UNSAVED ALLOWED.
Second, have these restaurateurs, bakers, wedding photographers, etc., forgotten who started their religion? Historical Jesus versus Christ Myth debate aside, what sort of character is depicted in the gospels? He, uh, dined with tax-collectors and sinners, right? He preached against sin but embraced sinners. Please tell me how so-called Christians can decide, as a matter of policy, for Pete’s sake, to tell homosexuals to get lost and take their offending penises with them! Blessed are the peacemakers.
But here’s my biggest gripe. For a religious group to claim the right and the freedom to exclude outsiders because of ethical and religious differences of opinion is to start down the path to a religion-versus-religion no man’s land. No violence to speak of yet, but the poisonous seed has nonetheless been planted. We already have plenty of cause to bemoan the “identity politics” slicing and dicing of America into competing pressure groups. Don’t make it worse! In fact, who has noticed that the proposed Christian shunning of Gays is exactly parallel to the recent liberal call to boycott Chick-Fil-A because the owner of the chain said he disapproved of same-sex marriage? I opposed that boycott every bit as much as I supported same-sex marriage. Similarly, I oppose abortion, but I decry the assassination of abortion doctors. We have to have a civil society. “Let’s hang on to what we’ve got. Don’t let go, girl; we got a lot.”
We have the advantage of thinking after Emil Durkheim, who understood that religion is epiphenomenal to society: a mystification of society in order to reinforce the strictures and system that are necessary for a livable order. The pragmatic rules are prior to the mythology that seeks to give them an extra, supernatural warrant in order to scare those who are too stupid to see that everyone must hold up his end of the thing, or too selfish to care.
The fear of death is no doubt one of the main reasons for being religious. But another of the things we fear is social chaos. That is the entropy which soon threatens us with death. We want safety and security in this life and the (imagined) next. We want to ensure the social compact which put an end to the War of All against All. How? Religion/society threatened those who were too stupid or selfish with extra warrants. “Okay, smart guy! It’s not just that crime doesn’t pay. It’s also a question of God sending you to an unremitting hell after death! We may not be able to catch and convict you, but God will!”
But if we recognize all this, isn’t the jig up? Doesn’t it work only as long as we believe in the divine origin of morality and the divine enforcement of it? No. Thomas Aquinas explained how, even if God created humanity and decreed its laws, the latter stem pragmatically from the former. Because God made humans social animals, as Aristotle saw, a stable social system defined by laws (e.g., against stealing, murder, rape, defrauding, breach of contract) is needful. These God did not arbitrarily decree (as if he’d ordered: “Thou shalt walk upon thy hands every other Monday from 2-4:30 PM.”) but rather derived from the natural good of the creatures he had made. Even God dealt with morality inductively and even situationally—as Aquinas had learned from Aristotle.
The things that are right will vary with the individual and his situation. We must pursue the Golden Mean. Should we dive into the freezing river to rescue Little Nell? For Schwarzenegger it would not even be challenging. We should blame him if he had not dived in. For some pencil-neck like Barney Fife, it would be foolhardy and not praiseworthy. For the average man, it would be a genuine risk requiring courage, worth the effort since there is a real chance it might work. So the content of virtue varies with the individual; there is no “one size fits all” stipulation.
Indeed, all of prescribed moral behavior is to be based upon Natural Law, the rules of optimum functionality. How do things (society) work best? Where this principle goes astray is when one retains a false inference of Aristotle’s, namely that each bodily organ has but a single intended function so that to use it otherwise is wrong. For instance, the reproductive system. The erectile tissue seems to have been retained by evolution because it encourages sexual activity which adds to the species. If it weren’t for the function of reproduction, no erectile tissue. True enough. But does that mean it is immoral and perverse to make non-reproductive use of erectile tissue? Aquinas said yes: it is wrong to “misuse” sex for simply having fun with the one you love, as wrong as it would be to use your bare hands for a hammer. I reject this, of course, because non-procreative sex does no harm. To think it does is an error but does not discredit the Aquinas-Aristotle approach in general, just a poor application of it.
Thus, even for Aquinas, though the atheist, the secularist, may fail to see the ultimate divine origin of society and humanity, he can easily enough discern what is necessary for us to live peacefully together. There will be gray areas, but the theist admits he has many of those too, where neither reason nor revelation speaks clearly (as any Christian discussion of medical ethics will make abundantly clear).
The atheist cannot deter people with supernatural threats, but then they seem not to deter many believers anyway! In Tillich’s terms, the theist and the atheist may share generally or exactly the same laws and mores, but the former holds them theonomously, recognizing that the law of the Creator governing him is authentically the law of his own being,
I think this is what Leibniz intended when he said that, though we are in every respect determined, this means just the opposite of being forced against our will. Even our will itself is the product of forces over which we had no control. So we have our will and desires from a source outside ourselves (whether blind factors like DNA and environment or a personal Designer), but it is genuinely our will, and we rejoice to embrace it. Schleiermacher and Tillich would say that theonomy is the state of recognizing that we ourselves are not the source of our own selves, our will, and inclination, the acknowledgement of “absolute dependence.” On the other hand, “autonomy” would be simply the absence or neglect of that sense of dependence. “I am the master of my fate.” Well, on one level, yes. You have been dealt a particular hand of cards, and it is up to you to decide how to play them. Looking even more closely, we might find that our choices as to how to play them is already established by subtle traits pre-programmed into us, but at least we will be doing our “duty to self,” finding it satisfying, not an alien compulsion, as with someone under the gun: “Dance!”
We will not regard our inherited inclinations as a heteronomous command from an alien authority. The atheist can see the same moral system as believer but from the standpoint of autonomy. And that is good enough. Aquinas freely admitted that unaided reason could discern the requirements for the good life, and that Aristotle had.
What the theist has (he supposes) that the atheist lacks (and it may not be much of a lack after all) is a Kantian categorical imperative, a transcendent obligation to keep the moral law, his duty to his divine creator.
Is there a categorical imperative? No, but I want to keep the category, even though, or especially because, it is an empty one. That way we will remain aware of what our morality is not. We must remember the strictly hypothetical, prudential, conditional character of our duties and choices. I get this from Nietzsche, who said that there is no Truth, nothing in the Truth category. But if we eliminate the “Truth” category we will be tempted to forget the difference and to assume our fictions are the Truth. No! They are only fictions, and we mustn’t forget that. If we do, the result will be just what you are bemoaning: philosophers forgetting that they are merely framing hypotheses and coming to imagine they are absolute dogmas.
For the atheist, a pragmatist, the obligation is but a hypothetical imperative: Assuming you want to achieve A, then this is the best route to get there. But then maybe you want B. No one’s telling you which destination is best. The atheist seems to have no absolute duty to do the (strategically) best thing. He will not have “sinned” against anyone if he takes the longer route with less scenery. Precisely because there is no absolute duty hanging over him that would carry an absolute penalty for flouting it. The atheist can think freely and not cower in terror of flunking the theology exam right after he dies, and going to Hell.
Most atheists would likely say the “merely” hypothetical imperative is sufficient. Virtually everybody will feel it is in their best interests to adopt the purely pragmatic Social Compact: minimum regulations to safeguard our freedom to do our own thing. If I want to live in such a society, am I not obliged to heed the rules?
One might respond, yes, but only pragmatically. If you rejected social norms, as obviously many do, you might be jailed or killed by the majority who are acting not according to some transcendent moral authority but in the self-interest of the majority who (unlike the ACLU) don’t want things to unravel. It is a sense of fairness.
But then is that very sense of fairness to which we feel unconditionally obliged not also an advantageous fiction used to build the kind of society most of us want: a safe and free one? Yes, again, it is “merely” pragmatic, hypothetical. But so what? The question we have to ask is: Is it stable? Will such thinking secure the society everyone wants to live in?
Admittedly, issues like adultery, fornication, contraception, abortion, and capital punishment achieve far less agreement in practice. Are these acts always wrong or only if it has certain consequences? I think I see two issues here. First, these questions are genuinely ambiguous, demonstrating how our imposition of moral categories is to some degree arbitrary, since life is messier than textbook definitions. Yet it is only by using these definitions as Cartesian coordinates that we can understand the difficulties at all. Right and wrong do not inhere in the universe but are rather guidelines for human life based on how life seems to work best for most. Second, the ambiguity stems from the impossibility of anticipating all possible cases. Cases in which there seems to be no genuine ambiguity are those in which it seems impossible to imagine a scenario when the act would have beneficial effects for all involved: rape would be a prime example. We cannot envision a situation in which it would not degrade the rapist and violate the rapist’s victim.
One might even argue that to believe in a transcendent moral source of authority in God could open the door to chaos. Just look at the Shi’ite fanatic who thinks Allah has summoned him to set aside generally applicable moral rules such as that against killing the innocent.
Divine Voluntarism is the flip side, or the hidden face, of moral Nihilism. When Origen said, “God knows who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews!” he meant that no man knows, no one knows who wrote it. Likewise, to say, “Only God can give moral guidance” is to despair of finding moral guidance from mortals. But in fact, we invent morality rather than discovering it. And this fiction, again, slips over into our “Truth” category, with terrible results.
Yes, the universal sovereign is the conscience of the individual. And a conscience is inevitably social, formed by mutual obligation between friends, customers, and the other partners in explicit or implicit contracts one has all over the place. Even the solitary conscience, the final court of appeal, need not atomize us or make us into individual atolls, but takes into account a broader social reference.
Again, justice is not inherent in the universe but rather is a grid we impose upon it, a game we have decided to play, and sometimes the rules are inevitably a bit arbitrary.
You’re not going to like this. As a matter of fact, I don’t like it either. You may feel free to shoot loads of barbs my way, though I won’t have time to respond to them. I just feel like I ought to float an idea. Make of it what you will. And don’t think I don’t realize this is an exercise in armchair speculation. I am a policy maker only in the kingdom of my own imagination. So are you.
Not too long ago, the President and his sock puppets were seeking to bamboozle, er, I mean convince Congress and the American public to okay his misbegotten plan to “punish” the Syrian Fuehrer Assad for gassing his own citizens for the crime of wanting a monster like him out of office. I agreed with the great majority in rejecting the whole enterprise. I had supported George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were noble experiments. They have proven failed experiments. Why walk right back into the lab for another round of trials? I used to regard it as racist to disdain the Middle Eastern nations as not yet ready for democracy. Whether it is racist or not, it now appears to be true. Democracy cannot function in the midst of endless, fanatical sectarian terror. And we ought to have learned that the whole area is a quicksand pit. Good luck with it, Arabs.
Our reluctance to continue in the job of World Policeman inevitably raises the question of Isolationism. President Bush was probably right at least about this: if we don’t fight the terrorists on their own ground, we will more and more fight them on ours. So if we shake the dust from our feet and leave the Islamic countries to their fate, we are going to have to decide how to fight the battle that will follow us home. And I have an idea. This is the part I don’t like any more than you will.
Remember the Cold War policy of Mutual Assured Destruction, MAD for short? We upped the stakes as high as they would go, warning that if either we or the USSR unleashed a nuclear assault on the other, there would be an apocalyptic response. It was a suicide pact and succeeded in making any direct warfare between the parties moot. It just wasn’t a viable option, and neither was any conventional conflict that might lead to it.
But this will not work in preventing the kind of asymmetrical conflict we have with Islamist Jihadis. But this might. I am thinking about a policy of Retaliatory Assured Destruction, a response to any terror strikes on American soil provably linked to Al-Qaida and affiliated demons. In the wake of such a terror incident we would launch annihilating nuclear strikes on any of the countries known to harbor Al-Qaida and not already trying desperately to liquidate them. Such an announced policy might prompt Pakistan, Afghanistan, whomever, to get busy fast trying to exterminate the vermin lest they go down with them. And if they do go down with them, then they asked for it. I’m not talking about regime change. We’ve seen how futile that is. We train the armies of the new government only to have them turn around and shoot our trainers. To hell with that. To hell with them. We will have to play hardball once it’s the only game in town. Israel’s been in spring training for a long time now. We should be, too.
Isn’t this barbaric? Yes, but I fear the world situation as it appears to be shaping up will leave us no other options. If we indulge our tender consciences, we will become accomplices in the demise of Western Civilization (pardon the redundancy).
Europe is on its way to Islamicization. Nice knowin’ ya! The Eiffel Tower will become a minaret. “Idolatrous” art in the Louvre will go the way of those Buddhist rock reliefs in Afghanistan once the Taliban took over (unless we forcibly air lift the treasures out of there—sounds like a good movie plot). You know the crazy Salafists in Egypt want to destroy the “pagan” Pyramids, right? Well, at least we’ve got pictures of all that stuff. These bastards are the locusts from the bottomless pit.
You understand, I’m not hoping any of this will happen; I’m just thinking about the worst case scenario. Somebody has to.
“Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2)
It isn’t the best of times, that’s certain, but I fear it is not the worst of times either, for, I fear, things are very likely to get a lot worse. It seems to me that the utter fools who guide the affairs of this nation are charting a course into what they imagine is a bright future of millennial bliss; the trouble is that they are so foolish, so completely deluded, that they cannot recognize the difference between Paradise and the Great Tribulation. Not only do they think they are following the right road signs; but once they get to hell, they will continue to think it is heaven. They are like poor Kafka whose policy was to keep going full speed ahead even and especially when one discovers he has taken the wrong path. For instance, though the Affordable Care Act was promised to drive down premiums and deductibles and to leave no one uninsured, the results are already manifesting as the exact opposite. A sane person might pause and gain his bearings, then realize things have gone terribly wrong. The sane thing would be to cut one’s losses and to turn back, retrace one’s steps, then make a new start. But this our idiot rulers cannot bring themselves to do. Perhaps they just are too proud to admit they made, or could make, a mistake.
There is violence in the streets, and it is a game to the perpetrators. And since the assailants are African-American, the mainstream media claims it is all an urban legend. None of it ever happened, because none of it ever could have happened. For everyone knows that African Americans do not commit crimes. Or at least Whites lack the right to say they do. That would be racist! As anomic black youth target Jews for assault in the “Knock Out Game,” Political Correctness is clubbing America itself.
Similarly, it is in bad taste, downright “insensitive,” to blame Islamofascism on Muslims. Hell, no! To say that would be “profiling.” There is no Islamofascism, only Islamophobia. Neville Chamberlain has returned under the alias of John Kerry. Though the fanatical Iranian mullahs continue to vilify Israel and to vow to wipe her off the map, our government views Israel as the villain.
The Communist Core Curriculum seeks to replace the drug-induced stupor of our youth with propaganda-induced stupor, softening them up, like dreaming humans in the womb-pods of The Matrix.
Our culture is so morally blind, so delusional, that it thinks it best to take the guns away from law-abiding citizens so they cannot commit the “crime” of self-defense against the assaults of the perversely romanticized savages and predators that run amok in our “liberal” society.
There are plenty of people who blame our social disintegration on the exclusion of religion (except for Islam, of course) from public life. If we all got back to the Bible and to Christian (i.e., Victorian) morality, everything would be just peachy. If we had prayer and Bible reading in the schools, everything would be okay. Our trouble, these people tell us, is that our ethics have no transcendental standard or basis. It is all subjective and self-serving. In one sense, this diagnosis is palpably and tragically absurd. The belief in a divine objectivity of morality founded on the will of the Creator is simply what Francis A. Schaeffer used to call (even as he was committing it) an “upper-story leap.” One feels things would be better with a divine moral compass, so one pretends to have one. It is like me thinking it would solve my problems if I struck it rich and then writing a bunch of rubber checks on a shopping spree. Thinking you need something doesn’t mean you have it.
But in another sense, these believers are quite correct: our disintegration as a country and as a civilization is the natural issue of the loss of a religious center. Peter L. Berger’s classic work The Sacred Canopy spells it out. Traditional societies possessed a worldview and value system anchored in a common, inherited mythology of creation. The social and moral order, actually established by the forgotten human founders, were ascribed to the gods, who were believed to enforce their laws and to render their mores unchallengeable. The myths, beliefs, values, traditions, and laws were like bricks forming a great dome or canopy. The keystone was the myth and ritual, the religion. Without that keystone, that universal rationale, the canopy would collapse. The result would be cultural confusion, anomie, and dissolution.
Such a sacred canopy presupposed a unanimity of behavior and belief. Oh sure, there would be anomalous individuals, crooks, schemers, traitors, like old Korihor in the Book of Mormon. But such a weirdo knew he would be in big trouble once his shenanigans were discovered, so he might think twice. The system reckoned with the possibility that such an oddball would manage to remain undetected, but it had an answer for that, too: the promise that God or the gods would see what you did in secret and make sure you received karmic justice. But if the system crashed, everyone became an oddball, a bunch of ricocheting and colliding billiard balls.
The system might crash because of a conquest by an alien people with superior power. The old gods were defeated, the old ways trampled upon. In such cases people repair to the Stockholm Syndrome. “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Any order must be better than no order. “Better Red than dead.” I believe our system is in the process of crashing. The government Leviathan seeks to control all aspects of national, even personal, life, using its velvet-covered brass knuckles (e.g., the IRS, the NSA) to smash down dissent and opposition. The government spouts ass-covering, self-serving propaganda, round-the-clock disinformation to keep its enemy, its own citizens, in the dark and off balance. Surveys show that most Americans do not feel they can trust one another. Political Correctness bullies and shames speech it does not like, shaming Conservatives while seeking to lift the stigma of shame from parasitic government dependence and shattered, fatherless families.
Liberals champion their own self-righteousness, meanwhile embracing the unscrupulous, amoral power tactics of Saul Alinsky. In the name of pious reverence for the sacredness of all human life, they hold candle light vigils for convicted mass murders and rapists, while stuffing the abortion clinic dumpsters with tiny, innocent human bodies. It is not only cold-blooded hypocrisy of the worst sort, that of actual deceptive pretense, it is also a classic case of Slave Morality: the mutual agreement to abdicate and abolish moral responsibility. If the child rapist and the serial killer cannot be held guilty for what they do, how can anyone blame me for my mere peccadilloes? You scratch my white-striped back, and I’ll scratch yours.
Modern societies like ours are wonderfully pluralistic. But that comes at a price. There is no more a common faith to keep in place a set of common values. We enjoy a heady mixture of cross-fertilizing religious and nonreligious and antireligious opinions. And we have been able to manage this creative chaos for generations by the expedient of a little invention called Civil Religion. What we did in effect was to acknowledge that the increasingly religiously diverse American population, in order to stick together, needed to adopt a second religion, one that wouldn’t be called a religion but would perform the same functions as the original Christian faith once shared by almost all Americans. This would be the “religion” of Patriotism, of what we now call “American Exceptionalism.” Corresponding to the Church Fathers we would have the Founding Fathers. For a Bible we would have, of course, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Our holy days would include the Nativity, namely July 4, and saints’ days like Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthdays. Lincoln became the Christ-figure, Washington the Moses who led us to freedom against the tyranny of George III, the modern-day Pharaoh. Instead of (or alongside of) the Cross would be the American flag. Patriotism presupposes a transcendent commitment to country and countrymen. We all stand for American values and virtues. Patriotism, Civil Religion, was the substitute religion uniting us. And it was great: you could be a good American, and a good believer in America and in Americanism, whether you were a Shintoist or a Shi’ite, a Buddhist or a Baptist, an atheist or an agnostic.
This last was especially important to me because, though I affirm the smorgasbord of American religions (= world religions), I have studied them enough so that I can no longer honestly believe in the doctrines of any of them. But Civil Religion did not present that problem for me. I could believe in that.
Give me that old Civil Religion, Give me that old Civil Religion, Give me that old Civil Religion, It’s good enough for me.
It was good for Colonel Ingersoll, It was good for Colonel Ingersoll, It was good for Colonel Ingersoll, And it’s good enough for me!
But one day I heard an atheist campus activist saying how she was planning a classroom presentation about how atheism is inconsistent with patriotism of any kind. She had apparently come to believe that any form of devotion to something outside her individual life would constitute degrading worship. I knew she had discovered the polite secret of Civil Religion: that it was a religion. And as such, she and her compatriots felt, patriotism is incompatible with the autonomy of the atheist.
I do not share that particular objection to religion. If allegiance is deserved I am happy to provide it. But since the Sixties, more and more Americans have ceased to believe that America does deserve honor and respect. Many have imbibed the propaganda that America ought to be spelled with a “K,” implying it is like Nazi Germany. Indian-slaughtering, African-enslaving Americans are supposed to be the root of all evil. We deserved 911. And, as our penance, we must take a back seat, politically and economically, to more “righteous” forces like economy-paralyzing Socialism, Jew-hating Islamofascism, and anti-humanist eco-lunatics. I regard these America-hating Leftists as victims of neurotic self-hatred and survivor guilt. Like Father Paneloux in Camus’s The Plague, they feel they must share the world’s misery or else be held (or hold themselves) responsible for it. The only way to evade blame is to join the blamers.
Such people frequently label themselves “World Citizens,” which mainly seems to denote that they have lost any sense of special pride in their own country. They have apostatized from Civil Religion, and so society drifts apart like puzzle pieces cast into a flowing river that may carry them anywhere, and to no common destination. So-called World Citizens might appear to have a real point: if everyone could transfer their loyalty, their patriotism, to a higher focus, that of humanity as a whole, wouldn’t that be a nobler ideal than that of nationalistic patriotism? But it’s a fool’s game, and it dreams of a fool’s paradise, as it entails gaining peace by the expedient of surrender, the single and non-negotiable demand made by our adversaries. “Well, if that’s what it takes…!” And thus are many quite happy enough to sacrifice the freedom they once enjoyed and made their totem.
While some like to think they are lifting their gaze to a loftier perspective of World Citizenship, others are lowering theirs to a dangerous myopia, unable to see farther than their noses, or, perhaps more accurately, their mirrors. I am thinking of the constant griping of various ethnic, political, religious, and anti-religious factions who want things their own way, and to hell with everyone else. Public workers union members simply do not care that money is drying up; like children, they indulge in magical thinking, insisting on getting ever more money and benefits, even though the very extravagance of their demands are what bankrupted their cities in the first place. American Indians (apparently not many of them) are somehow offended that sports teams call themselves the Braves, the Redskins, etc. Maybe they have a point. The teams took these names because American Indians were models of bravery and virility. But these Politically Correct carpers are making the Indians models of whining and self-pity. Do you want your team named for whiners?
I can’t use the word “Christmas” because some non-Christian (uh, like me?) might hear it and be “offended”? Katy Perry can’t wear a Japanese kimono because she’s not Japanese? That makes her a colonialist exploiter of Japanese culture? Used to be you couldn’t insult an ethnic tradition, and rightly so; but now you can’t even like or praise their tradition! They’ve got the copyright, apparently.
And don’t get me started on Muslim advocates of Shariah law in America. Time to retire the old motto E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one.” Anybody know the Latin for “out of one, many”?
The sacred canopy is shattered. The bricks have fallen in an avalanche. Religion has fragmented (itself a positive development. “Let a hundred flowers bloom!”). Patriotism has fallen, those who still espouse it having been reduced to the proportions of a Hasidic sect, not enough to provide the basis for a healthy commonwealth. I am now thinking this is what it looks like when a civilization starts to go down. I hope everyone will still be enjoying their self-righteous bickering and their jaded cynicism when someone, maybe Islamists, come a-knockin’. Maybe it is they who will pick up the pieces. They certainly possess more purpose and guts than we do. Too bad they’re insane savages. And if you read that and get your nose out of joint, eager to shout “Islamophobia!” You’re just making my point for me, you poor, pathetic fool.
Gilbert Gottfried once quipped, “Why are they still talking about Jesus when I’m around?” Of course, he was intentionally drawing attention to his own insignificance by the act of ironically comparing his own “greatness” with the perennial interest in Jesus Christ. But it’s sort of a good question, or raises a good question. Why is there still so much talk, incessant talk, about Jesus? Well, obviously, Christian believers will never cease making him the talk of the town (I might say, “toast of the town,” but that might bring to mind Eucharistic impieties that I don’t intend)? I guess it’s kind of like the Elvis that will not die, even though he did. Fan worship.
Or just plain worship. In fact, the more distance I get from having any sort of “faith” in Jesus, and the more perspective I get on Jesus, it seems obvious to me the disconnect between the worshipped deity called Jesus and any historical personage who may ever have lived on this earth. For Christian believers, “Jesus” has simply replaced the name “Jehovah” for the amorphous and abstract Godhead, even though churches do not seem to mind reducing him to a cartoon character who plays softball with Sunday School kids. And that makes me wonder (though it’s hardly the only thing that does) if that is not the same thing that was going on in the early days when the God/god Jesus was brought down to earth in the mythical tales we read in the gospels.
Oh, I know full well that Christian apologists have arguments at the ready to “prove” that the gospel character Jesus really lived on earth in a datable past, but really, they might as well argue that Achilles, no, Superman, really existed. The only reason they cannot see the enormity of what they are trying to do is that they are so inextricably attached to the God named Jesus. And this makes it all the more absurd that they spend so much effort defending the very opposite: that he was a real human being. They wouldn’t even be interested in him if that’s what he was, any more than they are curious about the Buddha or Apollonius of Tyana. Jesus the ostensible man is not the Jesus deity that motivates their self-contradictory quest.
And please don’t think I do not recognize the fact that my own continuing interest in Jesus is the product of my experience as a Christian. Of course, it is a hangover, an echo, and one that may finally be fading. But nonetheless, I do keep beating the resurrected horse, mainly I guess because of the silly things that are said about him again and again in public discourse. People keep writing bad books about him. I have a review coming out soon in American Rationalist on Reza Aslan’s book Zealot. I am annoyed at this book, not because I reject his main thesis that a good case can be made for Jesus having been an anti-Roman revolutionist, but because the whole damn book is an unacknowledged rehash of a much superior work from sixty years ago by S.G.F. Brandon.
I wrote another review, this time of Bill O’Reilly’s best seller Killing Jesus: A History. His “co-author” (i.e., ghost writer), Martin Dugard, deserves much or most of the blame for it. That review is due out from American Rationalist, too, but almost the minute I finished it, I realized I could do a whole book on Killing Jesus, and within 24 hours I had a contract for it from Prometheus Books. It looks like the book may beat the review into print. My book is tentatively called Killing History: Jesus in the No-Spin Zone. The book is by no means a history, more of a “historical novel” or docudrama, merely paraphrasing and harmonizing the gospels. There are whole chapters of (novelized) historical background data. Far more than one needs in order to understand the gospel texts or the ostensible events in the life of Jesus. So why is it there? Mainly as an attempt to knit the mythical Super-Jesus into the history of the New Testament era, something the gospels themselves do not do a very good job at. The point is to historicize the myths. The authors should have done a bit of homework like reading R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History. But then, if they had, they couldn’t have written Killing Jesus. As it is, it is O’Reilly and Dugard that have killed any historical Jesus, replacing him with their Sunday School version.
The other day, I was watching FOX and Friends, as I very often do. I think you know how politically conservative I am. (And believe me, I know how stupid you think I am because of it. But that’s okay.) They were interviewing John Anderson, the spirit medium who claims to be dialing up the dead for grief-stricken suckers. It was just sickening to hear the hosts talking to this guy with the same respectful gravity they accord Dr. Mark Siegel or Dr. David Samadi on the topic of new medical advances. No difference! I cringe just as much when they talk with the priest whom I cannot help calling “Father Capon,” the Roman Catholic equivalent of Jay Carney. O’Reilly himself sits across the desk from the charlatan Deepak Chopra as if he were talking to Henry Kissinger. Of course, all this is the product of Nielsen Ratings epistemology. They at least pretend to take for granted everything their audience share believes in.
And this is why religious figures and beliefs are taken for granted on FOX, and by O’Reilly. Not exactly a pretense, but rather a party line. They seem to see conservatism as a party platform. If you accept traditional values, you have to accept belief in God and in Judaism and Christianity, ignoring their points of theological disagreement. If you are against abortion and Obamacare and gun control (I am against them all), then you must of course be a champion of conventional religion. And you will promote the traditional, simplistic image of Jesus Christ. He has become the Ronald MacDonald of the whole franchise. That, Gilbert, is why they keep talking about Jesus, even when they could be discussing you.
I very much regret this situation. But it is easy to understand. O’Reilly usually calls his enemies the “secular progressives,” and that is no caricature. I can think of choicer things Id like to call them. He is right when he bemoans the war on Christmas and on Christianity. Of course he is. It is merely secular progressive propaganda to ridicule him for that. To me, it is infuriating when “Westboro Atheists” insist on making themselves hateful by insisting that public expressions of Christianity be scoured from a largely Christian culture, ostensibly to safeguard Church-State separation, but really (I can’t help thinking) to have it their own way. More of the same bullshit propaganda is the constant suggestion that if you’re a Republican, you’re a theocratic fundamentalist.
Obviously, I don’t believe in the Christian religion anymore, either. But I don’t hate it. What I do hate is Politically Correct suppression of traditional sensibilities. It is the Secular Humanist version of the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China. That is why, and it is the only reason, I hesitate to answer to the name “atheist,” though, in the end, I do. I am.
Have I not strayed from my topic? Nope. The sad fact is that, though it’s nothing new, if you advocate a genuinely historical approach to Life of Jesus studies, you are asking for pariah status. You are perceived as using scholarly tools as one more device to undermine traditional American values.
And what makes it worse is that often this seems to be the case. It can be no accident that so many ivory-tower academics produce “historical Jesuses” in their own images. Jesus turns out to be a feminist, anti-traditional family, pacifist, socialist, environmentalist community organizer like these academics themselves. He is, in short, their “personal savior,” a ventriloquist dummy to mouth their own views and to lend them divine authority. Their Jesuses sound an awful lot like the guy whom Jamie Fox once described as “our Lord and Savior, Barack Obama.” He spoke for many Leftist scholars who would never admit what they are doing.
I am sorry I have, in good conscience, to excoriate Bill O’Reilly on his Killing Jesus, the number one source of misinformation about Jesus in the world today. But if one were to replace this book with others by Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, Richard Horsley, or John Dominic Crossan, one would not be much better off.
Conservatives and Liberals (oh, excuse me, “Progressives”), why don’t you just say what you think and marshal your best arguments for it, if you think you have any. Just leave Jesus the hell out of it.
The other week, a variegated bunch of friends crowded into our living room for our Heretics Anonymous discussion group. They were exchanging opinions sparked by my presentation of quotes from Mary Midgley’s book Wickedness. I could hardly believe it! We were actually sticking to the topic! It used to take us about two minutes to stray from (really, to veer off) the path! But I guess people always like to discuss morality. After all, that’s a lot easier than living morality.
Well, anyway, eventually religion had to come up. I prize very highly the diversity of our group. There is a fair number of atheists and agnostics, but there are also a traditionalist Catholic or two, as well as an evangelical Protestant. This man and I disagree diametrically when it comes to religion, though all our discussions of it are enjoyable and enlightening. He and I agree very closely when it comes to politics. How can that be? How could we start from such divergent theoretical positions and wind up so close together on the issues?
My friend John hurled the challenge to us atheists and humanists: how could we have any moral standards at all without a belief in God as a transcendent law-giver? Without such a metaphysical North Star, wouldn’t any ethical opinion amount to mere subjectivity? Mere preference? And then why say that Hitler was “wrong”? On what basis can we say any more than that we happen not to like his antics? Of course, John wasn’t charging that we had no moral standards, just that we seemed not to have a theoretical basis for it, or right to it. This good question comes up very frequently, as it should. It always has. Dostoyevsky said, “If there is no God, then all things are permitted” (which forms the premise of the movie Psycho III). Is that true?
Nahh. Here’s why.
First, let’s get one thing straight. If right and wrong are dependent upon the dictate, the sheer will (which is to say the whim) of God, then we have the very moral nihilism feared by theists who warn us that morality is arbitrary without a deity to define and to decree it. In the same way, we must reject the Presuppositionalist argument that there could be no logic if God did not create it. If either logic or ethics is determined extrinsically by divine say-so, as when someone at Parker Brothers invents a new board game and stipulates the rules, then the whole thing is arbitrary. If God were to decide tomorrow that rape and murder would be deemed righteous acts tomorrow (and Frankist theology did pretty much say this), why then, they would be. Or if God decided that A would henceforth be the same as non-A, then that would be the way of things, “the new normal,” until he decided to shake things up again.
This is called “Divine Voluntarism” or “Divine Command Theory.” Theists are uneasy about this, but they don’t like the other horn of the dilemma either, which would be to posit that God decrees what is already right, forbids what is already wrong. God does not make the deeds right or wrong but rather knows what good and evil already are. But this means he obeys standards that he did not create, and to which he is subordinate.
(The “Intelligent Design” creationists have the same problem: they imagine an “almighty” creator who must accommodate his creative acts to already-established physics parameters.)
Theists try to sidestep the dilemma by maintaining that God simply is good(ness), so that he is just acting (and decreeing) in accord with his own nature. But this does not work. It is a case of what Derrida called “the supplement of copula.” This is when you try to span a gap by trying to say both facing cliffs are really the same one, so that you don’t need to get across; you are already there! Baloney. To see this, you only need to remind yourself of the difference between synthetic and analytic judgments. (You were just reading Kant the other day, right?) An analytic judgment is a tautology, mere definition: a bachelor is an unmarried man. Nothing new is being predicated of “a bachelor.” “An unmarried man” is simply what we mean by “a bachelor.” By contrast, if we say, “A bachelor is a happy man,” we are saying something new about our bachelor. This would be a synthetic judgment, adding one fact to another.
Okay, if we say, “God is good,” it will be either an analytic or a synthetic judgment. In the first case, we are saying, “good” is just a synonym for God and adds nothing new. “Good” means “whatever God is.” We are back to Divine Voluntarism. But if we say it is a synthetic judgment, we are predicating of God something not already contained in the definition of God. And that means we have already defined “good” and decided that God can be characterized as one who obeys the law of goodness.
Thomas Aquinas mapped the way out of the labyrinth. He said God created a particular kind of world, populating it with a particular kind of creatures, with particular needs. We are social animals. We require each others’ help, nurture, protection, and respect. We require a stable society without the constant threat of terror, rape, theft, murder, etc. Thus these acts are ruled out for purely pragmatic reasons. We classify them as “wrong,” “immoral,” “evil.” And “we” includes all cultures worldwide and throughout history. There have never been societies which countenanced such deeds. No coincidence, because human nature is everywhere the same. Sure, there are secondary matters on which societies have differed, but that’s the point: they’re secondary, varying according to accidents of environment and tradition. For instance, all cultures consider adultery wrong, but it is defined differently depending on how a society defines marriage.
Aquinas said, then, that good and evil are anything but arbitrary given the conditions of the specific world God created. They are necessary to wholesome, fruitful, secure social existence. Those who threaten to unravel society must be fended off: imprisoned, reeducated, executed, defeated in war. Up to this point all this is pretty much a social contract model.
But what makes it morally culpable for Charles Manson, Jeff Dahmer, or Baby Face Nelson to decide, “To hell with the majority! I’m doing what I please!” From our standpoint, we have to try to stop them. But that would be a matter of power relations. What gives people the moral duty to protect the wholesome interests of the majority? That, Aquinas explained, is where the will of God comes in. He is our creator, and we owe him obedience. To switch over to Kant’s categories again, Aquinas would be saying that God’s having created us introduces a categorical imperative for us to obey the laws. If not for that, we would have only a “hypothetical” or “prudential” imperative to keep the law. A hypothetical imperative is just a matter of the best strategy. “If you want that job, you’d better dress for success.” “If you want to get a passing grade, you’d be well advised to do some studying.” “If you want to get there quickly, I’d suggest the highway.” But if you don’t, then who cares? It has nothing to do with morality.
Insofar as we want a stable, workable society, we will outlaw rape, murder, theft, etc., and punish or eliminate transgressors. This will be a hypothetical imperative. If there is no creator God, there is no categorical imperative. But does that make much difference? Who really needs a convincing philosophical argument that rape is immoral? Is there anyone who is waiting to make up his mind on the issue till the debates are concluded? Do we have to prove to Nazis that they are wrong before we go to war against them?
Pyrrho and the ancient Skeptic philosophers were right, it seems to me: you just don’t need definitive certainties to get along in life. Pragmatics and probabilities seem to be sufficient rules of thumb.
Not that anyone is in any better position. Those who tell us that without God we have no right to morals are by no means able to prove there is such a metaphysical anchor. They have painted themselves into a corner, and they just try to escape by means of a flying leap. “I need a metaphysical guarantee? Okay, I’ve got one! God!” But saying doesn’t make it so.
I am sad to report that I regard the impending future of our society, our country, with very grave pessimism. Many years ago, when my daughters were little girls, I remember telling them once, “Girls, if you ever find yourselves thinking the world is run by idiots who have no idea what they’re doing, I just want to tell you that you’re right. That’s a correct perception!” At that time I didn’t know how dismal it would become. Government ineptitude had not risen nearly so high. It didn’t yet seem that the Imp of the Perverse ran the place. He does now. Political Correctness did not yet strangle discourse and decisions as it does now. One heard only of the “Loony Leftists” making a farce of the United Kingdom. But surely “it can’t happen here,” can it? It has. One cannot express dissenting opinions without vituperative zealots spewing abusive invective. Society has become rude and uncivil to an astonishing degree. At least it has among intellectuals and the self-congratulatory cognoscenti.
One of the axiomatic stupidities that rule public policy in our day is that the exception must become the rule. The minority must have things their way, and if they do not, it is tantamount to discrimination and oppression. Is it not so? Let’s take inventory.
One dare not sing Christmas carols in school since the kids belonging (involuntarily) to other religions might feel left out. Why not sing “Dredel, Dredel,” too, and explain Hanukah to the class? Are you afraid that would “offend” the Nazi kids? In the UK, they omit teaching about the Holocaust because it offends the Muslim kids whose anti-Semitic parents tell them it never happened. (Ever notice how the only people who deny the Holocaust are those who would love to see another one?)
It is unfortunate when the crippled and handicapped (or I guess you can’t call ‘em that?) cannot gain access to everything in public places. So business owners have to remodel and rebuild (or close up shop if they can’t afford it) as if everybody were handicapped.
Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate birthdays (believe it or not, because John the Baptist got beheaded at Herod Antipas’ birthday party). So nobody can have birthday parties in school any more.
I love peanut butter. My battle cry is “Give me peanut butter or give me death!” How tragic that some kids are allergic to the stuff. So they remove it from school cafeterias altogether? If they can’t have it, nobody can!
One terrorist smuggled explosives aboard an airplane in his sneakers, so now we all have to remove our stinking shoes. Another tried to ignite a bomb in his briefs; I’m surprised we don’t have to take our friggin’ underpants off as we stand in the security line! Some nut tried to bring liquid explosives on board, so we can’t bring shampoo. We make commercial flying an obstacle course on the off chance some villain might blow up a plane. (How about banning all flight since it is always possible a plane might get hit by lightning?) Of course, we could obviate that need to have all travelers run the TSA gauntlet if we profiled people who fit the terrorist stereotype, but, oh no! That would be racism!
But the fear of profiling is itself racist. It assumes that, if you admit terrorists are usually Arabs, then you must regard all Arabs as terrorists! What? Huh? What’s the logic here? They seem to think that if you admit a tiny minority of Arabs are terrorists, you will have to, like the PC police, make this exception into the rule and accuse all Arabs of being terrorists! See, it’s just like I told my daughters: utter stupidity among those who rule us.
Let’s ban firearms since criminals use them. That’s the exception becoming the rule, too. Somebody please explain to me what’s wrong with the slogan, “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” They’re discovering the truth of that in the UK and Australia these days, the hard way. I bet you’ve heard the joke about the guy on his knees looking for his keys in the light of a street lamp. A friend comes up to him to help him search. “So this is where you dropped them?” The guy replies, “No, it was over there.” “Then why aren’t you looking there?” “No light there.” That’s the “thinking” of gun confiscation fans. No law they make will affect criminals, so (to look like they’re doing something) they pass laws to affect law-abiding citizens, preventing them from committing crimes they wouldn’t commit anyway, while leaving the felons only mildly inconvenienced.
Remember that little bastard who gunned down people at a theatre screening a Batman movie? Predictably, the mavens of moralism urged that Hollywood reduce violence in movies and that government ban violent videogames. Yes, it looks as if some (already insane) movie goers and gamers were inspired to commit mayhem by their favorite entertainments. But does it make sense to treat the exception as the rule? Why punish the innocent for what the guilty did? That’s what you’re doing.
The tender feelings of griping atheists (“Westboro atheists”) must not be wounded by the public display of religion. Of course they claim they are merely safeguarding the separation of church and state, but I don’t buy it. It’s not like battling against the teaching of Creationist pseudo-science in public school classrooms. It’s just a scorched earth policy, like the Red Guards in Maoist China. I am an atheist, but I cannot see this crusade as other than one more variety of the “indignation industry” (George Will). (I bet some of you are thinking I’m a fascist just for quoting him. See what I mean?). A few of my buddies would like to have a country free of religion, so everybody else has to accommodate them.
Religionists are veterans at this game. Personally, I loved incense in church, but my Episcopalian church would not use it for fear that, hypothetically, somebody might have asthma. If they did, wouldn’t you think they’d find another church? I used to shake my head in frustration when my Baptist deacons nixed innovative ad strategies on the off chance somebody out there who was already not coming to our church, might get their nose out of joint and not darken our door. Let’s let the tail wag the dog. Even if there only might be a tail.
I guess none of that should come as a surprise, since the Bible advocates the same silliness. In 1 Corinthians we read that those with a more enlightened view ought nonetheless to self-impose the legalistic strictures of the neurotic “weaker brethren” lest they be offended.
Not that I would miss beauty contests, but eventually there will be none, since the very nature of the event presupposes that some are beautiful and others are not. (And this “discrimination” happily co-exists with a crusade to shame fat folks like me.) There will be no prom dances so the wallflowers will not have to feel neglected. The celebration of Christmas will be discouraged (though not actually outlawed—I’m not that paranoid. Not yet anyway) because some people feel depressed around the holidays. Just wait. It must happen.
We are headed for the lowest common denominator, exactly the enforced mediocracy depicted in the movie Harrison Bergeron. Excellence makes the mediocre feel bad. Well, maybe they should try being more than mediocre. Maybe instead of whining that no one should (accidentally) “offend” them, the whiners should grow up and let it slide off their backs. Maybe the “Occupy” parasites (including the Occupier-in-Chief) should realize that the way to end inequality is to make more people prosperous, not to make everybody poor, which is where crypto-Socialism is taking us.
Nietzsche’s Mad Prophet came announcing his message “too soon!” The light hadn’t yet spanned the galaxy from the exploding star. But now it has. Now the slave army rules, imposing their cringing cowardice on everyone else. They may not have begun as cowards, but they allowed themselves to be intimidated, “guilted,” by the contemptible whiners. And now we must all cater to them. Such is the pathetic survivor guilt of liberalism. And now we are all whimpering slaves—even proud of it.
Humor is one of the biggest things in my life. Let me tell you why. For one thing, I find that mockery is about the only defense I have against the constant barrage of maddening stupidity and irritating nonsense that I cannot really shut out. Sure, the miracle of the mute button is a real help, a valuable weapon in the arsenal. But often the commercials are upon me before I know it, and my reaction is to hurl blistering rejoinders at the screen. “Just doing my job,” I reassure my family. Of course I could just turn off the damn TV set, but I guess I feel compelled to watch the news to chart the rapid decay of our society and of our once-great position in the world. And I do find some few fiction programs entertaining enough to follow. Naturally, comedy ranks high among them.
My favorites include, of course, Monty Python movies and what I regard as the Golden Age of Saturday Night Live, the seasons featuring Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, Nora Dunn, Julia Sweeny, Jan Hooks, Dana Carvey, etc. King of the Hill continues, even in syndication, to amaze me with its deft balancing of sentiment and wisdom on the one hand with scathing satire on the other. Seinfeld remains a favorite for its freak show depictions of exaggerated character types and its Möebius strip plotting. I wouldn’t have imagined anyone could have upped the ante on cringe-inducing behavior beyond George Costanza and Peggy Hill, but The Office managed to do it on a weekly basis. Two of the absolutely funniest things I have ever seen were mere moments, only a second or two in length, and both on The Tonight Show. On Johnny Carson’s next to last show, Robin Williams (whose movies I would pay not to have to watch) did this missed-it-if-you-blinked bit depicting the scarecrow Mahatma grooving to the surfing music in a hypothetical Gandhi Goes Hawaiian movie, while some years later Jay Leno had Any Serkis on, and he used his Gollum voice to sing a few bars of “You’re the One that I want” (“I’ve got chills, they’re multiplyin’”). And I savor inspired moments of exquisite absurdity like that Odd Couple episode where Speed reads Scrooge’s lines like an auctioneer. It can be either silly or profound; it doesn’t make any difference.
I think humor is about the highest faculty of human beings. It is a special attainment of transcendence, providing an almost out-of-body perspective on our own thoughts, beliefs, and behavior. To be able to laugh at the irony of one’s own suffering, to be able to poke fun at one’s own folly as easily as you might laugh at the folly of others—that is a godlike trait! Paul Tillich crystallized what should have been obvious: he said we can tell if we have degraded the Sacred to the status of an idol the moment we can brook no criticism of what we hold dear. He called the courage to subject one’s own faith and its object to searching scrutiny “the Protestant Principle.” And the same goes for humor, making fun of what is sacred to us. There is nothing particularly funny about the truly Sublime, but we need to remain alert to the ironies and even stupidities of our representations of our Ultimate Concern so that we will not be tempted to elevate our representations to the status of the Real Thing. I love the Bible, for example, which is why I feel free to make fun of it. I am having fun with what I so love. If I “believed” in it as I used to as a kid, I should be making an idol of it, which is exactly what I used to do. Lucky for me, I have put away childish things. (At least those childish things. You’re going to have to pry my comic books and action figures out of my cold, dead, fingers.)
Because of what Tillich said about the needful role of criticism in warding off the danger of idolatry, I have long believed that satire is the true prophecy. Some of the most effective prophetic criticism in the Bible (I am thinking of the Second Isaiah’s lampooning of idol-makers and Acts’ send-up of faithful prayer that does not even entertain the possibility that it will actually be answered) is outright comedy, and with a pretty sharp edge to it. When a critique of something, anything, makes us laugh, we are caught red-handed, forced to admit the clay-feet fallibility of what has been satirized. Don’t bother spinning some defense of the government’s policy that you’ve favored, not once you’ve laughed at Jay Leno making fun of it. Your laughing has already betrayed what you really believe on the subject. Too late to back pedal now.
Even as an atheist, I seem always to default to the Bible. Remember the story where the king of Israel calls in his yes-men prophets to give their (“God’s”) blessing on the military venture he wants to embark on? His ally, the king of Judah, is suspicious. He knows good and well these pocket prophets know where their matzoh is buttered and are scared to disagree with the king. So he tactfully asks if there is someone with a tad more objectivity they can consult. Grudgingly, his royal colleague summons the wise ass prophet Micaiah ben Imlah, who mocks the king, telling him to go ahead, all systems go! Then he tells the king that his pet prophets have all been beguiled by God, who has sent a “lying spirit” to give him a bum steer. The king does not like this message and blames the messenger.
Medieval kings were smarter in this regard. They understood that, if they really wanted a fresh perspective, they had to make sure that the voice knew it was safe. At least this was the case with the court jester. He could feel free to say what he thought, taking some of the sting of criticism out of it by adding “Just kidding, your majesty!” Like comedians invited to roast the President at Correspondents Dinners. If the king (or president) didn’t like what he heard, he couldn’t do much about it because it would make him look like a poor sport in the eyes of his guests, just like Herod Antipas in Mark 6:26, who couldn’t back down from what his guests had heard him say. The jester, in our day the stand-up comic, is the true prophet.
But there is still an element of risk attached. Remember Norm MacDonald who some years ago did the Weekend Update segment on SNL? I loved thus guy. He got the audience, not to laugh, but to gasp at his jokes, they were so brutal and so biting (and so deserved!). Until one day when a friend of O.J. Simpson, one of Norm’s favorite targets, pulled some strings and got MacDonald kicked off. “O Jerusalem, you who stone the prophets sent to you!”
If human beings possess one quality as precious and as advanced as the faculty to see the humor in things, I suppose it might be the ability to take a joke aimed at oneself and welcome the element of truth in it, because most of the time we seem to regard ourselves as holy idols beyond all criticism.
Is it true that you have to learn life’s lessons the hard way? I don’t believe that. In fact that maxim sounds to me like an excuse, a cheap rationalization that comes in handy for folks who know they shouldn’t take some destructive course of action but plan to anyway. The single note of wisdom detectable in this sentiment is applicable only in retrospect, not in prospect. If you have passed through a rough patch that wasn’t your fault (or even if it was), you will be well advised to take stock, to learn what you can about life and especially about yourself, from your experience.
But if you blunder on into the path of what you already know will be a mistake, you won’t even learn anything from the ensuing mess. This is because you will have made it a policy. Like the guy in the joke who thinks it unmanly to submit to the legal speed limit and looks at the sign and thinks “A hundred dollar fine? I can afford that!” You will be like the Sunday Catholic who, abusing the penance system, goes out carousing Saturday night, planning on confessing it all the next morning. It’s pure charade. And giving yourself the go-ahead to do something stupid is the same charade. And you’re the one who’s going to pay for it.
So what’s the alternative? Childish naiveté is no good. You do need to learn wisdom. But I think there are ways to learn that wisdom vicariously. Think of it as almost a good kind of cheating, copying from the paper of someone else who has learned life’s lessons the hard way. One way is simply to listen to advice from people older than you. Of course, there is an initial possible roadblock: you may be such a thick-skulled adolescent that you can’t see the value of someone else’s experiences. You may have to learn that the hard way, smart guy. As for me, I’d prefer to ask directions from someone who has already been down the road I’m embarking on.
And then there’s reading. Over the ages, many people have bequeathed us their hard-won wisdom in the distilled form of proverbs and aphorisms. The Book of Proverbs in the Bible is a prime example. If you read it sometime, even in a cursory manner, you may be surprised how little its advice depends on any religious belief at all. It does not contrast believers with unbelievers as other portions of scripture do. Nor does it contrast Jews with Gentiles or pagans. In fact, some of the material comes from Arab and Egyptian sources. That’s because the sayings concern themselves with life in this world. I guess you could sum up the gist of Proverbs in the words Jesus tells his disciples in the gospel: “Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.” And that’s part of the wisdom: one can be shrewd in the way of righteousness. You have to learn the rules of the game. You don’t have to cheat at the game. The Epistle of James contrasts “the wisdom from above” with “diabolical wisdom.” I should nominate Machiavelli and, especially, Saul Alinsky as masters of wicked wisdom: the hardball tactics of winning at any cost. They’re experts in diabolical wisdom; Alinsky even dedicated one of his how-to manuals to Lucifer, after all. Of course, I’m not saying there is a real devil—except for Alinsky and certain prominent followers of his in our government.
One need not get one’s ration of proverbs from the Bible if you cringe from all things religious like Dracula from the cross. Abe Lincoln or Yogi Berra will do. It doesn’t matter who said it. The only authority a proverb possesses is that of the ring of truth. You hear or read it, and immediately it crystallizes what you have learned but not yet correlated. You suddenly say to yourself, “That’s right! I should have thought of that!” “That makes sense! Of course!” And you go forward, forewarned and forearmed. You learned it the easy way from someone, it doesn’t matter whom, who learned it the hard way. Call it vicarious wisdom.
Nor does it have to be wise sayings. Traditionally, gaining wisdom was supposed to be the goal of reading novels. Granted, sourpusses have long condemned readers of frivolous novels as wasting their time on “worldly amusements.” Excuse me if I take a friendlier view of popular genres. I have for decades understood the moral value of superhero comics and seen the value of science fiction and heroic fantasy for expanding my imagination. But let me focus on “great literature.” Apologetic school marms have always tried to convince bored students who’d rather be out playing ball (or, today, taking drugs) that it was worth slogging uphill through Shakespeare or Dickens or The Old Man and the Sea because of what one can learn from them about life. And they were right, though one can hardly blame the kids for hating that stuff. They’re not ready for it yet. (I only know that reading Shakespeare is, for me, like reading a foreign language, whereas, when I see it performed on film, it is lucid.)
Great novels, those I as a nerdish fantasy fan regard as “mundane,” are libraries of other people’s lives. You as their reader are like a vampire devouring their lives and experiences. Or how about this? You will be just like God as some theologians view him: God experiences worldly loves, hates, ideals, losses and lessons, none of which come properly to him as an eternal, omnipotent Entity, through us, via his omniscience. You see, you’re like the deity floating above the mortal world. The novels and their striving characters are like earth’s ephemeral inhabitants, experiencing things precisely because of their temporality and finitude.Like God, you may never know the fear of the battlefield or the anguish of betrayal, or the satisfaction of achievement or the thrill of reciprocated love. Not firsthand. But others have, and you can siphon it off! You can experience it secondhand, vicariously. What a bargain!
Until Northrup Frye, literary criticism was pretty much secular homiletics (sermonizing), the job of literature instructors to edify their students as if the latter were a congregation. I love the Twilight Zone episode, “The Changing of the Guard,” starring Donald Pleasance as an elderly Literature professor in a prep school, forced to retire. On the verge of suicide, he is dissuaded by the ghostly visitation of several old students who perished in World War Two, taking to their graves noble ideals learned from the old man’s lectures in their youth.
Frye realized that literary criticism should be a study of how literature works, a grammar of narrative, figures of speech, symbolism, structure, etc. This is the approach I mostly take. Other critics examine literature for what it tells us about socio-sexual-political-colonialist assumptions which the texts embody. Some of that stuff seems to be political polemic, not really concerned with the text for its own sake. But I appreciate the approach. It is impossible for me to read Pride and Prejudice as its original readers did precisely because the cultural codes jump out at me in a way impossible for the intended audience who swam in that same sea like oblivious fish. And yet this enriches the text for me instead of impoverishing it.
So I appreciate the various modern approaches to literature. But I want to stick up for the school marms and the old-time Lit professors. Why not cash in on the life experiences of characters in literature (not to mention biographies and autobiographies)? Why reinvent the wheel? It’s not a question of shying away from the adventurous living of your own life. No, it’s simply a matter of getting a healthy head start.
To be frank, Diana Butler Bass’s book Christianity after Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (NY: HarperOne, 2012) made my skin crawl. I see in it a hybrid of the worst of evangelical pietism and politically correct liberalism (“progressivism”). Not that it is unique in that. I have cringed at the same trend among seminarians and clergy for many years now. Her larger goal is to chronicle the steep decline of institutional “Churchianity,” whether evangelical, liberal Protestant, or Roman Catholic, and to herald a tectonic shift toward a people’s Christianity that is better described (and often self-described) as spiritual rather than religious. She offers oodles of sociological data, but it immediately becomes clear her aim is more prescriptive than descriptive. Her description is correct, I think, but, unlike Professor Bass, I do not see in these trends a Hegelian-like movement of the Absolute Spirit. The mere fact that it is happening doesn’t mean it is the ineluctable will of God, which fanatics and ideologues think they know.
Christianity for the Tender-Minded
Professor Bass’s program seems to me to mirror the foolish policies of the current administration: it owes a great and massive theological debt and has long since run out of any intellectual capital with which to pay it. She affirms the increasing unwillingness of Christians young and old to swallow the catechism they have long been spoon-fed. So far, I’m with her. She then appeals to the great Wilfred Cantwell Smith (The Meaning and End of Religion, 1964).and others to suggest that belief was never really the point anyway. I even agree with that: as Tillich said, “ultimate concern” would seem to be the core of the thing. But then again no one ever valued pat, glib belief without a depth of commitment behind it. Isn’t it more of a distinction between “necessary” and “sufficient conditions”? I mean, you can have worthless faith that is merely skin-deep, and you can have heart-felt faith that makes a difference. What remains to be seen, however, is whether you can have the concern without the belief. Remember Hebrews 11:6b: “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” It is not some kind of a qualification without which you are not entitled to seek God, like claiming a man has to be circumcised to be saved (Acts 15:1). It is a simple matter of a logical premise: why would you seek what you don’t believe exists?
Well, Professor Bass urges us to replace the what with the how, content with style or technique. The old German Pietists (Spener, Tersteegen, Count Zinzindorf) knew that hollow orthodoxy was useless and that true belief had to be grounded in the “heart-warming” experience of faith. But Dr. Bass cannot mean only this, since she is prescribing the “how” as the remedy for doubt, implying that the cognitive assent to theological propositions is just not where it’s at. Yet all her gushy talk of seeking and finding Jesus in a soup kitchen or a prayer session or a quilting bee obviously implies some sort of “Jesus is God” Christology, doesn’t it? Unless she is just using the name “Jesus” as a catch-all term for the divine presence that she (thinks she) feels. In that case, she has, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, reduced theology to “connotation words.”
Similarly, Bass appeals to scriptural texts as some kind of norm again and again. Does not this how presuppose a very definite what? And the belief in a coming Kingdom of God that will spread justice and peace over all the earth—that doesn’t presuppose a definite belief that something’s going to happen? If not, then what on earth is the point? The urgency that Christians try to behave like Jesus—does this not simply take for granted that the gospel portrait of Jesus represents the real Jesus? And that Jesus is for some (theological) reason the norm? Otherwise, why not Frodo? Or is there much of a difference in Bass’s self-described “romantic” Christianity?
Certainly her use of scripture, stories of Abraham as well as Jesus, is as ahistorical and as touchy-feely as Rich Warren’s. She psychologizes and historicizes the biblical characters and makes them into pop-psychological object lessons. The depiction of Jesus as a first-century Leo Buscaglia overseeing the self-realization of his disciples (cf., Peter’s Caesarea Philippi confession, according to Bass: “You are the One for whom my heart has waited!”) is comical. Bass’s Christianity is not only “romantic,” i.e., artsy and emotion-colored; it is the stuff of women’s talk shows. Bass represents only the latest stage of the subjective sentimentalizing of religion described by Ann Douglas in The Feminization of American Culture (1978).
In all this, Bass means to cater to Christians who can no longer suppress their doubts. But plainly what she proceeds to do is simply to take God, Jesus, the whole thing, for granted. Her implicit message is not: “Here, friend, let me remove your burden of having to believe the unbelievable.” That was the approach, e.g., of John A.T. Robinson. Honest to God, 1963). It is rather “Let’s just forget about critical thinking, and then your doubts will not bother you.” This is to make a methodology, even a fetish, of intellectual flimsiness.
I say she owes a great theological debt because her approach is parasitic upon a version of belief, namely evangelical Christianity, that she is rejecting. It certainly appears that the atonement upon the cross has as little role in her thinking as it does in Process Theology or New Thought. Yet she wants people to “encounter Jesus” as if he were the same old imaginary friend that is so central to traditional fundamentalism. You supposedly don’t have to believe in the resurrection, but she wants you to experience the power of the resurrection as she did in a chat with an ecumenical council of local bank tellers one morning. Schaeffer was right: all she has left is connotation words.
The Relevance of an Implausible Ideal
But maybe that’s not quite all. Bass is very confident that Christians must pursue the agenda of Political Correctness, especially the code-slogan of “social justice” which amounts, finally, despite the cosmetic denials, to Socialism: forced income redistribution and a shut-down of Capitalism. These strategies, the policy of the current administration, are wrecking the economy. Political liberalism is already a sheer-faith position, forged in the mind-game laboratories of academia where paper ideology is king. Like-minded politicians legislate these ideologies, demanding that the stubborn facts of economic reality shall obey them. They “call things that are not as though they were” and expect creation ex nihilo. It is like an old science fiction parody by L. Sprague de Camp in which Congress got together to rescind the Law of Gravity, and everything began to float off into space! The joke, of course, is that one cannot regulate the “laws” of nature, try as one might. But this is what Socialist ideologues seek to do. And when their economies, for instance, of Eastern Europe, are ruined by this strategy, they have their rationalizations at the ready—just like Harold Camping and the Jehovah’s Witnesses when their predictions of the Second Coming fall through—again and again. Jim Wallis used to say that the criterion for Christian action was not success but obedience. One might paraphrase that maxim this way: what counts is not results but rationalizations.
Liberalism is, I say, already a religious faith, though secular liberals do not seem to realize it. Bass’s type of “progressive Christianity” makes the religious character of it explicit, though insofar as they are eroding the theology that might justify it, her social justice Christians are becoming just as arbitrary. But they have not yet made the connection that if one cannot count on a miracle-working deity to pull a miraculous harvest out of a hat in the Millennium, there is no pay-off. But maybe they are planning for that, judging from their pious talk of “living simply.” They are blithely embracing a strategy that must grind the economy to a halt, since makers of consumer goods would be left idle and poor. But this is okay with Bass and her fellows, since they (like all liberals) are deep down ascetics anyway and want everyone else to join the fun.
Let me pause to mention Bass’s “romantic” approach to realizing the kingdom through token efforts, conscience-salving efforts I should say, to “make a difference” re world hunger by shopping at Whole Foods, etc. Here we are witnessing magical thinking akin to that of the Melanesian Cargo Cults, whose confused adherents knew that Westerners were doing something right, judging from their manifest prosperity and military power, so they marched and drilled in the public square with broom-handle rifles and chattered into orange-crate radios, hoping these childish mimicries would cause the European god Jesus to bring them a boatload of Western goods. The gestures of the PC righteous are just as futile. I remember seeing those STOP APARTHEID NOW bumper stickers and thinking, “I’ll be sure to take care of that the very next chance I get.” I recall seeing a sign posted on a Society of Friends meeting hall that read PEACE SITE. My thought: “That’s a relief—no first strike from the Quakers!”
The Velvet-Covered Brick of Liberalism
But the strategies of Bass’s progressive Christians do not stop at that. They are plainly disciples of the current administration and its prevaricating messiah. They identify Democratic victories at the polls with the Fourth (or Fourth and a Half) Great Awakening and the indefatigable march of its Kingdom of God agenda. Are they naïve or just duplicitous in decrying Religious Right theocracy schemes, while advocating for their own zero-tolerance Leftist theocracy? From Harvey Cox to Jim Wallis to Diana Bass, they are surer than mortals have a right to be that they know what God is up to in the world, and thus they feel no qualms about legislating that. Would that they would heed the wisdom of the Apostle Paul: “Now we see in a glass darkly.” Or even the wisdom of Paul Simon: “God only knows. God makes his plans. The information’s not available to the mortal man.”
Not to open Pandora’s Box yet farther, but I just cannot fathom how self-proclaimed Christians of any stripe can have the slightest sympathy with the pro-abortion ideology when their own Lord and Savior narrowly escaped King Herod’s abortion clinic. But Bass blithely lumps Operation Rescue activists in with the Tea Party, whom, in accord with the Obama media line, she caricatures as “nativists.” The glib identification of the liberal agenda with the onward-marching will of God is just staggering. Here the smug arrogance of secular progressivism is reinforced by the pious zealotry of evangelical triumphalism. The worst of both worlds.
At one juncture in Christianity after Religion, author Bass shrugs off the anticipated reader suspicion that she is just stuck in nostalgia for her radical-chic evangelical college days. Forgive me if I think that is precisely what has happened. She has resolved to keep her Sunday School piety, come hell or high water, even as she saws off the epistemological limb it is hanging from. She imbibed sophomoric “social justice” slogans, mixing them with the seeming sophistication of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, hence her “romanticism.” It is a stance that disdains reality for a comfortable, self-congratulatory fantasy world of Prius-drivers and Obama voters. She and her fans are mired in the “Young Evangelicalism” set forth by my old pal Richard Quebedeaux in his 1974 manifesto. Those were heady days. I was thrilled to embrace the dream. But it is long since time to put away childish things.
The future’s so bright I have to wear shades — or is it just dark?
What would maturity mean? It would mean a “great awakening” from the pleasant dreams of both evangelicalism and progressivism. It would amount to the “great noon” of Nietzsche, when religious crutches are cast away with the vigor of someone who thinks he has been healed by Ernest Angley or Peter Popov.
Dr. Bass is right on target when she highlights the onrushing of religious and inter-religious pluralism in America. As classmates, roommates, office mates, team mates, and marriage mates drop the old religious barriers that traditionally divided them (and personal acquaintance is an irresistible battering ram to those tottering walls), I believe that Americans will of necessity cease to make their inherited religions their primary (or even secondary) identifiers. Since, as Rousseau said, “It is impossible to live at peace with those we regard as damned,” people will allow their religious identities to recede into the background, right next to their ethnicities. It will be something to appreciate, even to cherish, but no longer the main thing, just as the Law of Moses, which is the very Word of God in the Old Testament, has become merely “the customs of the Jews” in the Book of Acts.
Pluralism next begets secularism, as it already has in our pluralistic republic, where the “sacred canopy” (Peter Berger) of our laws is not the Bible or the Koran, but rather a purely pragmatic social compact that keeps us off each others’ toes. And then there is modernity with its scientific worldview. Technology with the access to once-forbidden heresies that it provides has already eroded traditional religiosities in various parts of the world. It was such influences from the secular West that spawned Islamo-Fascism as one of Anthony Wallace’s Revitalization Movements. Usually such reactions are doomed at the outset, since, if the horse hadn’t already escaped the barn, the frantic rancher wouldn’t be wishing he had locked it and resolving to keep it locked from now on. Until recently I expected that Islamo-Fascism would pass like a destructive hurricane and be gone, clearing the way for world peace to arrive through the eventual adoption of democratic Capitalism and the free market. When people have abundance, a condition made possible for the first time in human history by the very same Capitalism now deemed Politically Incorrect, there will be no need for war.
But now I see that bright prospect endangered. It appears that America is haplessly following “progressive” Europe into the financially suicidal path of the socialistic welfare state. It is like the character in Stephen King’s horror story “Survivor Type” who survived as long as he could amputate and consume his own flesh. Progressives are following the wrong biblical precedent, that of the primitive church in Jerusalem, which pooled and redistributed its members’ resources, bringing collective bankruptcy in its wake and causing them to hit Paul’s churches up for hand-outs.
The moral decadence of our society is manifested in our abortion mills and the increasing toleration of infanticide as well as the judicial system’s indifference to child rape and murder. But moral decadence can take the form of inflated morality as much as a deflation of it, as witness the courts’ compassionate preference for the murderer over his victim. Liberalism erases distinctions between the predator and his prey when it opposes the execution of the former, as his life is imagined to have equal value with that of the latter. Consider the tragic moral confusion in Bass’s anecdote about the Amish community who embraced the murdering dog who killed their own children. Nietzsche could have asked for no truer example of the slave morality of sniveling Christianity. Once we declare universal forgiveness we lower the standard of responsibility for ourselves and others. If I don’t hold you responsible, you won’t hold me responsible. “We’re all sinners, after all.”
Environmentalists consider humans the enemy of “the planet” and unapologetically advocate policies that will make us pesky humans suffer. Add to that the ludicrous attempt to dress animals up in the suits and cravats of “rights” when they certainly accord none to each other in the nature of the case. (We must be humane to animals, but it is an obligation of our own character, not of their imagined rights.) Think of the myopic madness of pacifism which only facilitates the victory of an aggressor. Morality has gotten way out of hand here, becoming dangerously counterproductive.
All this denotes a rot that is hollowing out our resolve to survive. We face a virulent foe in worldwide Islamo-Fascism, and we are too cowardly even to admit the threat exists. We call it “Islamophobia” when anyone dares decry the dangers of Islamo-Fascism. We are too lazy and faithless to prevent Jihadist states from gaining nuclear weapons. We have made ourselves weak and spineless, hoping that international problems will just go away, that our enemies will be as slow to act as we are. If there is a second Shoah, a nuclear one this time, well, that will be too bad. We will put on our required mourning clothes and say, “Never again! And this time we’re not kidding!”
There is a chance that the Islamist hurricane will destroy Western Civilization because we will have proven ourselves unworthy of surviving it. To use Garrett Hardin’s once-controversial analogy, the one person in the lifeboat whose tender conscience bids him jump overboard to make room for another will only have succeeded in ensuring that there is no longer any conscience in the lifeboat. If medieval barbarism against women, homosexuals, and freethinkers should one day prevail, the effete and naïve “romantics” and “progressives” will have abetted the process. But that will be all right with them. It will give them a chance to play the martyr, an essential role in the aesthetic of victimhood.