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.
It is Good Friday as I write, but I am not attending church again this year. The symbols and rituals just don’t mean anything to me anymore. And my decades-long scrutiny of the (underlying? superimposed?) theological doctrines has made them seem altogether irrational and contrived (not simply unsubstantiated, which one might almost be able to forgive). The whole thing has done so much harm (even while it has given so much comfort and inspired so much goodness). Yet I do not “pray” (wish), as many atheists seem to do, that religion should perish from the earth. I do not wish religion had never begun. If, a la George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, religion had never been born, I am quite sure something just as bad (and good) would have appeared to fill the same niche. It is not as if religion were some imposition from without, whether by ancient space aliens or fallen angels. Human nature cast it up and would again.
There is a 1970s Adam Warlock comic series in which the world falls under the dominion of a fascistic religious cult. The hero contrives to go back in time to prevent its rise. He succeeds, but when he returns to his own time he finds the insignia of a nearly identical new cult festooned everywhere. In fact, that is just what happened in the twentieth century when Communism displaced and replaced Christianity in Russia. Just goes to show everybody but certain of my fellow atheists that religion is not the problem; zealotry is. And iron-fisted zealotry can be and has been secular as easily as religious. Certain prominent atheists contend that the problem with secular totalitarianism is that it is “acting religious.” That is so stupid that it must be disingenuous.
My disagreement with religion and religious people is, I hope, a gentleman’s disagreement. As a humanist, I cannot despise the cultural fruits of religion, including the art, literature, music, and even the fascinating theology it has given rise to. That doesn’t mean I can’t condemn the atrocities it has also spawned. But I cannot share, and dare not share, the loathing that many of my atheist compatriots harbor toward religion and religious folks. One reason is that, insofar as atheists adopt such disdain and hostility, they are mirroring and mimicking the very things they so hate about religion. As a humanist I have to approach all things human as an anthropologist does, as a sympathetic observer seeking to understand human nature and motivation, and to appreciate the products thereof. In fact, “anthropologist” is almost a synonym for “humanist” in my lexicon.
A few weeks ago I was interviewed for Ahmadiyya Muslim Television. My gracious hosts were, of course, members of the sect. Do you think I should have taken the opportunity to “witness” to them about atheism? To try to disabuse them of their beliefs? The notion is grotesque. I just wanted to learn about these friendly emissaries from a different “cognitive universe.” And that’s the way I feel about Mormons, Moonies, Satanists, Communists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals and others who cherish beliefs different from mine. I don’t especially want them all to be like me. Sure, I think I’m right and they’re wrong, and I am happy to engage in friendly debate in the right forum. But I don’t want to be an atheist evangelist, an atheist imperialist. Are you over religion? Then be over religion.
This is why I cringe every time I hear about the latest attempts of the Freedom from Religion Foundation to scour every expression of faith from the public square. Just today I dropped by Town Hall to pay my utility bill, under the wire, I might add, and I was disappointed to find the place closed in observance of Good Friday. But my instinct was not to get on the phone with the ACLU and to start legal proceedings. I believe that the FFRF and like-minded zealots are operating from a basic confusion. They see as a church-state issue what I believe is better understood as a culture-state issue. For local government to allow a manger scene on public property or to allow crosses to adorn veterans’ graves is in no way tantamount to a legal establishment of religion, though making churches tax-exempt probably is. Posting “Thou shalt have no other gods besides me” in public schools is.
But not everything is. To forbid Easter egg hunts or Christmas carols in public schools for fear the Buddhist or Manichean kiddies would be “offended” is like canceling “Italian day” in the cafeteria for fear that Poles and Jews would feel discriminated against. (And why not have latkes or knishes some other day of the week?) We want to affirm cultural diversity, not suppress it, don’t we? Atheists of all people ought to see that religion is no more than someone’s culture. But the atheists I am talking about seem to share the belief of the religious that religion is something metaphysically more than that. Only for them it is demonic, not divine. Are not these atheists then being superstitious, like the fundamentalist Christian who believes in the devil?
Don’t you see what’s really going on here? To contend that so much as a mention of one faith amounts to discrimination against members of other faiths is a formula for the suppression of all faiths, and that is the goal. Who is “offended” at the expression of, even the friggin’ mention of, religion? Why, of course, only thin-skinned religion haters. And this is all done in the name of “sensitivity”?
Which brings me to the recent reports of some idiot professor at a Florida university who commanded his students to write the name of Jesus on a sheet of paper, put it on the floor, and stomp on it. The fool reportedly was trying to show the kids that there is no power in a “mere” name or word. There isn’t? You mean like “African-American”? Like “Progressive”? Like “Pro-Choice”? Of course all these words are full of meaning and radiate meaning. Not inherently; there’s nothing magical in the shape of the letters. But what is the whole point of words? We fill them with meaning, and all communication presupposes a common fund of agreed-upon meanings. Obviously, this professor wanted his students to grind the name of Jesus into the linoleum precisely because it has a commonly acknowledged meaning and power.
And lawsuits over the coins? Personally, I don’t care what is stamped on the coins. They could put “What, Me Worry?” on ‘em for all I care. To get upset over “In God We Trust” seems obsessive, neurotic, like Dracula cringing from the cross. “God” on the coins does not constitute a theocracy. It is not even a first step toward a theocracy. It is ludicrous fanaticism to get worked up about it. Do you as an atheist ridicule the scruples of first-century Jews who would not allow Roman coinage to be used in the temple? Well, you’re just as picky. Look, if you don’t want all those theophoric coins and bills, I’ll be happy to take them off your too-pure hands.
Stunts like this remind me of what neo-evangelical E.J. Carnell wrote about fundamentalism as “orthodoxy gone cultic.” When a fundamentalist makes a nuisance of himself trying to convert his neighbors or classmates, he is essentially just accumulating status points in the eyes of his fellow cultists who will praise him as a “soul-winner.” I can’t help thinking that the “victories” in the nuisance suits brought by the ACLU and the FFRF function the same way. They are much celebrated at atheist conventions and clubs (“Score one for our side!”), but they just irritate everyone else. This is atheism gone cultic.
I am not only an atheist; in my role as a New Testament scholar I do not even believe there was a historical Jesus. I certainly do not mind causing a bit of discomfort among those too comfortable with their assumptions. Accordingly, I applaud the various billboards posted by American Atheists, FFRF and other secularist groups proclaiming “You know it’s all a myth” or “There’s probably no God,” etc. I’m all in favor of the Zen slap to wake people up. An unexamined faith is not worth believing. You’re doing the pew potatoes a favor. But, though I hate to say it, I think conservative Catholic TV host Eric Bolling is right to compare the litigious atheists with the Westboro Baptists. They are making themselves appear as horrific, bullying nuisances.
The part of this whole mess that upsets me, given the sort of stuff I write, is that the kind of scorched-earth “sensitivity” censorship which these secularists practice will sooner or later be turned against them (and me!) when, for sensitivity’s sake, the public criticism of religion will be banned and/or bullied as “hate speech.” In fact, we are inviting it insofar as we make ourselves look like hate-spewers, “Westboro Atheists.”
I watched the very first Superbowl with my family, at least some of it. I thought it might be interesting. But it wasn’t. Not to me, anyway. And it still isn’t. Today is Superbowl Sunday, and I’m watching a rerun of Iron Man 2, let’s see, for the third time. I’m aware that most of America is gathered around the video altar rejoicing in good-fellowship and a huge feast of munchies. Sounds fun, except that I just can’t be in the same room with football. I think I know what Jews feel like when everyone else is celebrating Christmas. Just as Jews observe Hanukah instead, which never seems to be as big a deal as Christmas, my family and I had home-made pizza as we watched the movie Groundhog Day last night, as we have for the last… what? Fifteen, sixteen years at least. (In fact, there seems to be some sort of parallel between the movie’s premise, in which a man lived the eponymous holiday over and over again for at least twenty years.)
I do not exactly disdain football, or sports in general, though I admit that is my first reaction. I can’t dismiss an interest in sports as the province of dullards. My brother isn’t close to being one, nor is S.T. Joshi, nor was Paul Kurtz. But I am, as I have always been, utterly and completely baffled. Dr. Kurtz used to say how maybe secular humanists are just tone deaf to religion and its appeal. That is how I would have to describe my indifference (to put it mildly) to sports.
Keep in mind that I admire athletes. I envy their ability and discipline. I readily admit they are superior to me! And I can certainly understand devotion to a team when one’s relative is a member, or when the team is representing one’s school or town, though I have never been able to share it. (Maybe it has something to do with forced attendance at a high school pep rally, which had all the marks of a Nurnberg rally.) But why do people enthusiastically follow sports teams with which they possess no natural connection? Some years ago, when I walked into my classroom at Mount Olive College, a student asked which I rooted for: NC State or UNC. This stumped me: why on earth would I give a fig about either one of them? Why did these Mount Olive students? I still don’t get it. Do you?
I have sometimes heard it said that sports gives men something to talk about, while women spend their time discussing matters of emotional and personal importance. Going back to those halcyon days at Mount Olive again, once a couple of the (male) faculty invited me to drop in at lunchtime at the Southern Belle, a local café and hang-out. There was a surprisingly large group of young professional men and faculty sitting around a few shoved-together Formica tables—talking about sports. Honestly, I felt as if I had somehow blundered into a group of foreigners chattering in some alien language. I can tell you, it wasn’t long before I made some excuse and got the hell out of there. I had not one thing to say. I’d have been more conspicuous had I stayed and said nothing than by getting up and leaving quickly. Nice guys, but totally mundane.
I, on the other hand, am an incurable nerd, just this side (I think) of Asperger’s Syndrome. I love comic books, science fiction movies, Sword-& Sorcery fiction (which I also write), Lovecraft and Tolkien. These interests are my spectator sports, demanding no participation outside the imagination. But then football games are spectator sports for everybody but the guys on the field. What is the difference? I’m not sure I know, but let me give it a try.
I couldn’t care less about any sports team, but there are teams I follow. They’re called the Avengers, the Justice League, the Justice Society, the Legion of Superheroes. What is the difference? Both interests involve vicarious combat. Sports are often thought to channel and dissipate violent urges. And that’s a real service to society. (And you know by now, don’t you, that the business about Superbowl Sunday being the worst day of the year for wife-beating is malicious misinformation.)
What I get from superhero fiction is not that. Partly, I think, I like it because it is a fantasy compensating for the lack of justice in the decaying society we live in, wherein the innocent suffer at the hands of violent felons and then from a legal system that adds insult to injury by taking the side of criminals. And there’s no real chance that will ever change. I can only relish the complete fantasy that the bad guys might get theirs, and that is why I so appreciate the Punisher, the Eradicator, Rorschach (“Used to mollycoddle criminals, let them live.”). Wouldn’t it be great? But it’s like imagining a man can fly. Justice? Yeah, right–when pigs, or men, can fly. That’ll be the day.
But there’s also the mythology angle. The superheroes of text (Conan, Doc Savage, John Carter) and image (Superman, Spider-Man, Iron Man) are like Hercules, Achilles, Theseus, even Apollo and Zeus. There is an element of transcendence and the igniting of the imagination. It gives what religion gives to believers, but without requiring belief. Does it “save” you? Well, it saves you from the crushing, numbing grind of the mundane. It does me.
H.P. Lovecraft once referred to a fellow-writer as a “self-blinded earth-gazer.” Forgive me, but that’s what I think of the sports fan—if that’s all he is. Of course, you can be both, and more. Like my brother Byron. Like Joshi, the world’s leading authority on Lovecraft.
And what about the nerd, the geek, the dweeb? I believe the stereotype (not necessarily an exaggeration!) is of a one-sided personality: everything crammed into one side of the brain with little to no wiring on the other. Aren’t these brainy folks active in the real world, too, by virtue of their tech-savvy? Yeah, sure, but my guess is their scientific genius just happens to prove useful in the real world. For them, it’s just more computer games! Which is the way it ought to be!
If I am not a dweeb, my saving grace is that I do have another aspect to me, not that it puts me in touch with the real world, mind you, and that is my religious scholarship. I have something else going on. And I readily admit that most football fans are about more than the pigskin. Or they may be. I guess I know as little about them as I do the Hottentots. But let’s agree to disagree: you take the Superbowl, I’ll take Superman.
I served as the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Montclair, New Jersey, for nearly six years, an experience full of significant moments and wonderful people. I learned much. One thing I learned is that I am in no way cut out to be the pastor of a church, not even a liberal one such as First Baptist was. (It had been the first pastorate of the famous “Bootleg Baptist,” Harry Emerson Fosdick many years before.) I believe I dealt with my congregation with genuine pastoral concern, but I just could not live up to (i.e., conform to) the requisite social role, the professional persona. For one thing, I am a slob. For another, I am an academic. I loved church tradition, despite my virtual lack of theological beliefs even then. But I was not cut out for congregational politics or for the administrative tasks, especially since we were a shrinking congregation, and money troubles seemed to devour all other concerns. And I was clueless there. Finally, not only did I leave, being pressured out, but my departure occasioned a congregational split, as several of the few remaining members left with me and continued to meet in my living room. We called ourselves, at first, Holy Grail Universalist Church, then simply the Grail.
These Sunday morning meetings were much less structured than ordinary church services. Baptist churches have very rudimentary liturgies anyway, but the Grail had none. Not that I dislike liturgy; I always enjoyed that of the Episcopal Church. But we weren’t set up for it. With the group we had, it would have been out of place. We were there to discuss ideas and issues. Existential issues, moral issues, issues of speculative spirituality. We thrived on what I liked to call a spirituality of inquiry. I believe that dogmas function as sleeping pills for the soul and that open questions cause the stretching and nourishing of the soul. (How to define “soul”? You tell me.) I bought a lectern from a local antique shop and would stand at one end of our small living room and speak from a prepared text, just as I had done at First Baptist, for about a half-hour. Sometimes I had to speak with a co-star, as our clever cat Helix would hop up onto the lectern, then onto my shoulder, before I was finished.
I sought to explore reflective questions and to challenge my hearers to introspection and authenticity. I had never beat the drum for any doctrine even in the liberal Baptist days, so this was little different. The edge of my critique of religion did become sharper, though. Eventually, in fact, the increasingly negative, critical character of the whole enterprise was one of the major factors in my calling it quits. But while it lasted, it was great. After I was done speaking and woke everybody up (just kidding—there was only one guy who regularly started to snooze), I would sit down and we’d go around the circle discussing the morning’s topic. Anybody could say whatever he or she wanted. And there was no budget, no church property to keep up, nothing mundane to keep us dragging along the ground. And the discussion was genuinely personal and profound. I still thought of these good folks as my parishioners, my flock, and I loved them.
But finally I decided I had said all I had to say. In fact, I came to feel I was done with living in New Jersey, a state I loved and still love, though I love North Carolina, too. In fact, as you know, Carol and I decided to move back here. And as soon as we did, I returned to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in nearby Goldsboro. This was the church I had come to love in the mid-eighties and had always missed even when I was pastoring First Baptist. I came to sense (and still feel) that there was no place for me in New Jersey anymore. All the exciting avenues I had been pursuing for some years seemed to be going nowhere. So I was glad to leave.
But what made me decide to leave the Grail? As I’ve said, I eventually realized my increasingly anti-theological “preaching” stank of the same fatal irony one often observes in the Unitarian Universalist Association: having a religion that was all about being non- religious. As a religion, it was like Sanka, or as the Mormons used to call it, “Coffee-Near.” It had become obvious that what we were doing (at least for me) was essentially a therapeutic transition from religion into irreligion. Later still I came to realize that organized atheism and humanism were also substitutes for religion. As Marjoe Gortner once quipped, “Can God deliver a religion addict? Yes he can!” But organized atheism seems to be the methadone to religion’s heroin. At least that’s how it looks to me. I could be missing something, as I often do.
But there was a deeper dimension to my discontent. I realized that in conducting what I viewed as a tiny conventicle of the intellectual elite, I was not much different from the fundamentalist or Pentecostal minister presiding over a “righteous remnant” of “true believers,” only I guess we were “true unbelievers.” Wasn’t it time to leave the club house and grow up? It’s not that I no longer wanted anything to do with the intellectual discussion of issues religious, moral, and philosophical. Carol and I tried to start up a new branch of our Heretics Anonymous discussion group once we got back to North Carolina, and we did, though it has been more difficult to get it on track than we expected.
But we didn’t start up a new Grail. We didn’t even try. For one thing, I wanted to go to St. Stephens Sunday mornings. But I haven’t been to church for over a year now. I just lost interest in it, though I may well return–who knows? So I do have Sunday mornings free. So why no North Carolina Grail?
I guess it’s this: I am uncomfortable with the role of an ostensible spiritual leader, as if I had any right to stand behind the lectern and tell anybody anything. Christian clergy of all stripes seem to feel they have a hot-line to heaven, but I know I do not. Even the very liberal ones think they can speak with moral authority. But do they have that right? It all seems to boil down to that business about the pastoral role. I want to be a compassionate friend, sure. But a “spiritual leader”? Personally, the more someone does come across as a “spiritual leader,” whether Christian, New Thought, New Age, whatever, the more suspicious I become. If they maintain a front, a persona, it is inevitably in some measure an act, a schtick. I prefer the unpretentious. I prefer to be unpretentious. And that seems to be incompatible with the “Moses down from the mountain” persona of a spiritual leader. It is not mine to be a role model. I possess no authority and want none.
No, the only role I will accept, besides straight scholarly teaching (and at First Baptist they complained that I did too much of that, and they were right), is the Socratic one, to stimulate and to facilitate the thinking of others. And I believe this column is the proper forum for that. Why? Because it is a hit-and-run venue. It has the same advantage as the Internet generally: authorial suicide. Roland Barthes wrote of “the death of the author.” As soon as his work is launched into the public sphere, it must stand alone. The text speaks for itself, albeit in partnership with its readers who help co-write it by virtue of the way they interpret it. And the writer cannot intervene to correct them. After all, his reading of “his” text will only amount to one more interpretation of it. The author has no privileged priority of interpretation. His word will not return to him. This column is like an arrow. It may bring you a message. You may dodge it. Or it may find its mark. Or it may miss. But the arrow is all you need be concerned with. It simply does not matter who fired it. This is why I seldom add a comment to those contributed by readers (though I enjoy reading them all). The issue is not whether “the Price is right,” as if I needed to defend “my views,” as if they constituted some sort of party platform. It is enough that my remarks get you thinking and sharing your thoughts with fellow readers. Have at it!
As for me, I am Zarathustra, and there is no Zarathustra.
What is a prophet, and what is the gift of prophecy? The ancients had it that prophecy was information, news of the future that had not yet happened, but which must happen. Perhaps the Fates or the Norns had decreed it, woven it into their tapestry, like the tapestry of Nephren-Ka that “precorded” every day of the future, rolled back by the priests of Nyarlathotep each new morning.. Or perhaps it was determined by the resolution of Jehovah who knew the future no more than we do but decree and create it with ineluctable power that no lesser agency might resist. But either way, a divine entity had vouchsafed such knowledge to a mortal, and he reported on it. In principle it was no different than a teacher informing her students of what had happened in the past.
By contrast, I have much more respect for the powers of the futurologist, he who cannot see the future except as its unfolding seems to him implied in contemporary events. He can discern the signs of the times and infer where events are heading. What is a curtain to others, concealing the future’s great and secret show is for the analyst a window through which he can see a shifting illusion of change. And if that mirage becomes real with the passage of time, we acknowledge that he had truly seen, that is, extrapolated, the future.
A prime example would be Russian political scientist Andrei Amalric In 1970 he wrote a book called Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1985? (The American publisher got him to change the date to the apocalyptic 1984.) In it he took a long look at the Union of very disparate Soviet Socialist Republics and ventured that the union could not resist the centripetal force of competing and incompatible ethnicities, languages, politics, and traditions. It would unravel in a mere 15 years. Well, he was five years premature, but otherwise he was exactly right: little Estonia, followed by the other Baltic States, Then the rest, seceded, and nobody could do anything about it. I couldn’t believe it! How did Amalric know? Did some god or angel inform him, like Jehovah telling Abraham of his plan to destroy Sodom? No. Amalric had the wits to assess the relative weight of major factors and to discern the signs of the times. Precisely like Isaac Asimov’s character Hari Seldon in Foundation.
And, I may add, just like H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s racist and nativist views, though at his best he was no more of a racist than Jimmy Carter with his talk of neighborhoods preserving their “ethnic purity.” He disdained “race mixing,” “miscegenation,” as illustrated in “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” where the text Deep Ones but the subtext intends Polynesian Islanders, equally repulsive to Lovecraft. We are children of the 1960s and of its legacy. We categorically reject racism and embrace the wonderful, glittering diversity of the human race in all its variations. I know I do. I always have.
But we are cheating ourselves if we fail to hear some important news from Lovecraft, a warning, much like Andrei Amalric’s, of what HPL could see coming. What he saw impending on the historical horizon was the overthrow of Eurocentric, logocentric, that is to say rationalistic cultural hegemony. The battlements of the historic West would be assaulted by non-Westerners with creeds based on emotion and superstition, with reason their first casualty. Chaos should ensue. He saw a revolution not like the American, French, or even Russian Revolutions where the have-nots toppled the castles of the haves, but rather a Copernican Revolution, where the dominant worldview would crash and burn In Nietzsche’s terms, it was not like the earth snapping the chains that bound it to the sun to soar freely through the universe. That metaphor stood for the death of God and of objective truth and the resultant freedom of Nihilism. Rather, what Lovecraft foresaw requires a different Nietzschianism: that of the Superman allowing himself to be stung and bitten to death by a horde of insects, taken down by a thousand threats and judgments one does not feel at liberty to defy. But the Superman must defy! He cannot be defeated unless he forgets who he is and lets his sword from sleepy, nerveless fingers. Yes, admittedly Lovecraft portrayed the carriers of this plague as Mediterraneans, Africans, Asians, and Arabs, mestizos and half-castes. That is the shrill voice of Lovecraft the racist. Let us turn a deaf ear to that. But not to the warning itself.
And, as Nietzsche’s Mad Prophet said, that warning has been a long time arriving at its destination. And the time is now. We now live in the time of the teetering of reason and Western Civilization that Lovecraft predicted. We do not see aberrant cultists committing ritual murder and human sacrifice. We do not hear of Yog-Sothoth or of the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. , too, fictional idioms in which the warning was conveyed. What we do hear and see, however, is religious zealots massacring thousands with airplanes, subway explosions, and suicide bombs. We hear of honor killings, people killed over hair styles, fanatical hatred of Jews and infidels. Instead of the , these poison winds flow forth from the Koran. It seems that Abdul Alhazred was the father of a multitude of mad Arabs. And, as the worshippers of the Old Ones sought to clear the earth of human life and prepare for the reign of their gods, today’s “Islamism” is determined to raise up the worldwide caliphate, a regime of holy, scripture-quoting tyranny. Freedom is a vice to such madmen. And they are dedicated to extinguishing it in a rain of blood. It is for all the world like the dreams of the Cthulhu cultists who sought to hasten the day when they should reign and impose upon all unbelievers a jihad of bloody terror.
Bin Laden as Alhazred
Lovecraft describes Alhazred as only an indifferent Muslim, a closet worshipper of Yog-Sothoth. Thus he does not indict Islam as his civilization-threatening cult. And that is correct: it is only a minority of Muslims who are sympathetic to Jihad. A mere 10%. Of course that works out to a “mere” one hundred million! the remainder, they are singularly unwilling to take a stand against the fanaticism of their Jihadi brethren. They may constitute inert dead weight, but you can see which side of the scale they weigh on. In this case, I’m afraid Sam Harris is correct: the moderate majority serves to camouflage the deadly minority. You see this when oblivious Politically Correct liberals reject all criticism of Islamist terrorists as “Islamophobia.” They commit the Sweeping Generalization fallacy. Most Muslims are fine folks, so the same must be true, they imagine, of all Muslims. Thus for me to denounce Islamo-fascists is somehow supposed to be a vilification of all Muslims, so these PC fools bemoan timely warnings as hate speech. It is all quite sad.
If the amphibian Deep Ones stood for Polynesian Islanders, frightening to the paranoid Lovecraft, the Cthulhu cultists correspond in our day to Islamism, Jihadism. What makes Lovecraft’s fiction prophetic is that it is coming true as fact. And, as HPL intimated, we do not possess the decisive courage to turn back that assault. Whining Islamists demand and gain special treatment, for instance Shania law courts and special exemptions from airport security measures made necessary by their co-religionists and no one else. Major publishers are already censoring themselves avoid riling up Muslims. British schools are skipping teaching the Holocaust because it offends Muslim extremists who like to pretend it never happened, meanwhile planning to drive Israel into the sea—as they themselves constantly remind us.
Don’t you see the pattern here? Western civilization, the one that invented democracy, rationalism, religious toleration, equal rights for the races, the sexes, and for homosexuals, is being bullied into appeasement, “Finlandization.” What blithering, dithering fools we have become! How decadent and sententious, inviting our conquerors with an open door!
I am a New Testament scholar, and as such I cannot ignore the perilous parallel with the insidious logic of 1 Corinthians, whose author bids those Christians who enjoy freedom of faith, action, and thought, to forego these freedoms so as not to “offend” the “weaker brethren” who are bound by neurotic legalism. Well, he could never have imagined the neurotic legalism of those who declare fatwahs on infidel cartoonists or who want yodeling banned as an offense (somehow!) against Islam! Paul, or whoever may have written it, did not seem to realize that these “weaker brothers,” self-styled victims of offense, offended at the freedom of others, turn out to be the stronger brothers, before whose petulant whining all others must yield. Today, out of spineless politeness to the tender feelings of terrorists, we mute criticism of them. For fear of being called “Islamophobic,” we stifle criticism of Islamo-fascism.
Let no one accuse me of stirring up hatred for the sublime faith of Islam. I have studied it and appreciated it for decades. I love it now. I love it when Muslims proudly share the treasures of their culture with the rest of us. I have read the Koran four times in various translations and intend to read it again and yet again.
What shall we do? We must understand when we are being played for fools, our freedoms turned into tricks and traps against us. It is possible to turn swords into ploughshares and to have them be all the deadlier. We must stop tying ourselves in knots, disrupting our free travel and speech and commerce, allowing the mere possibility of Islamist threats to sacrifice our freedoms, bringing about precisely the result the terrorists seek. We must stop pretending that terror may as easily come from the stooped Italian grandmother in line for the airplane because we are afraid of being accused of “profiling.” We will perish from the same obtuseness exhibited by Wilmarth (in Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness”) who just could not recognize his danger.
We face terror and murder and the slow erosion of freedom from people who proudly proclaim their love for death and martyrdom. Death is no deterrence to them.
What would be? What might count as a weapon against them? I have heard of two ideas, so loathsome to our enlightened sensibilities that we will not allow ourselves to consider them, though we must. First, we ought to alert every terrorist, every Islamist combatant, that if they are caught they will be executed with bits of pork stuffed into every orifice. According to their barbaric superstition, this should bar their entrance to the Playboy Club in the sky. That might make them think twice (or once).
Second, we ought to let it be known that if there is another terror strike against the West, or if the fanatics should, say, try to level the “idolatrous” Pyramids and Sphinx, as the Egyptian Salafist sect urgeswe will not hesitate to unleash upon holy Mecca that monstrous nuclear chaos which Alhazred mercifully cloaked under the name Azathoth.