"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

"Where Are You Going Now, My Son, Where Will You Be Tomorrow?"

I was listening to Bart Ehrman on "Fresh Air" (he's not the best Biblical scholar, IMHO, and as a theologian he makes a decent historian, which is to say he stated a number of anachronisms about the "triumph" of Christianity under Constantine, as well as stepping on his own thesis once or twice).  But I come not to bury Ehrman, nor to praise him; I was struck by his discussion of his "conversion" from evangelical Christian (he's a graduate of Wheaton College) to what he now describes as "a Christian agnostic."  What struck me was his story of beginning to doubt by encountering, in college English, the Victorian poet of doubt (his designation), Matthew Arnold.  He was referring, of course (well, to English majors it's "of course"), "Dover Beach."

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

He didn't quote that much of the poem, only the last few lines; but it's a good starting place for identifying the mindset of the mid-Victorian intelligentsia.  Ehrman identified the doubt with Darwin's theory of evolution, and the rise of science, and matters that simply introduced doubts that God was active in human history, or that miracles were real, or that Jesus could even have been resurrected (all points Ehrman says he now denies as credible).  The latter, as Ehrman points out, being a victim of the then-new Biblical criticism which led (he didn't mention this) to the Fundamentalists at the beginning of the next century.  I don't disagree with his summation; it's the consensus analysis of what happened in the 19th century, and I accept it.  What struck me was how much we decide the times we live in will be the times everyone will live in ever after.

Arnold couldn't imagine a world like the one he'd been born into existing in the world he knew as an adult.  That world had changed, radically and fundamentally, a good three decades before his birth; but culture catches up slowly with technology, and it was technology, on the back of science, that ushered in the change culture had to catch up to.  It was a long process, but by the mid-19th century people like Arnold were convinced God was not dead but had never existed, and yet religion was still needed to keep the ignorant masses in check and under control (see, here, the "ancient world" view of humankind limned by Niebuhr in his lectures noted below.  Both the Renaissance and the Romantic Revolution looked back to more than just the poetry or artwork of Greece and Rome; they also reclaimed, over and over again, the pre-Christian view of humanity, a view Christianity itself never really wholly abandoned.).  So the ignorant armies clashing by night are the (literally) benighted souls lacking the insight wisdom bestows; lacking it, and incapable of ever knowing it.  And all this occurred because the light of Christendom could no longer shine in Europe; at least not as he imagined it once did.

Rudolf Bultmann expected the same thing to happen, over again, almost 100 years later.  His effort to "demythologize" Christianity was based on the idea modernity could only see stories about miracles and resurrections as mythology and never as even an expression of truth.  It all sounds terribly serious and final; and that's what's ultimately funny about it.

By now, per Arnold's expectation, and Bultmann's, we should have given up on religions altogether.  But Arnold and Bultmann are looking at the world they lived in from the perspective of the world they were born in.  They couldn't imagine Christianity as existing other than what they knew as children.  They couldn't abandon their first knowledge to take up that knowledge afresh, with new attitudes.  To make a crude and perhaps timely comparison, I don't see "Black Panther" the way so many people obviously do (once wtas enough for me, and I don't passionately recommend it.  Clearly tout le monde thinks otherwise.).  I see a movie with not enough character development and some childishly unrealistic opinions about monarchy and technology.  But it is also easy to see the movie as a vanguard for the concept of strong women, intelligent women, brave women, capable women, and all of them Africans, and even young.  These characters are already ahead of the world of cell phones and driverless cars, and looking back at us laughing about what they will do next.  This is not a brave new world for them, this is merely the present.

The Industrial Revolution split the staid cultures of Europe; the shock was immediately registered by the Romantics, then absorbed more broadly by the Victorians (the IR began in England, after all).  World Wars I and then II shook Europe to its moral core (the "Lost Generation" didn't lose their GPS, they lost their moral bearings).  And technology, again, has shaken the world just as Millenials are taking the stage in large numbers.  Social media is being abandoned to their parents and grandparents; these kids see a future beyond that, and with activism over guns in America, they are already claiming it.  Will they need to reconcile Darwinism with Christianity, biblical criticism with miracles, technology with theology rooted in the 13th century?

Probably not.  And if they hang on to religion (and why wouldn't they?), it won't be the religion of 19th century hymns (still my sentimental favorites, but already sadly out of date and fading fast), any more than it will be the religion of rock bands and "multimedia presentations" (another already dated term from my feckless youth).  Robin Lovin in the introduction to my copy of Niebuhr's Nature and Destiny points out how much has changed since Niebuhr's day, not just the concept of "inclusive language," but the very assumptions Niebuhr makes that, frankly, don't draw much interest from us anymore.  There is much about Niebuhr that is useful, but there is also much about him that is already dusty.  He may yet speak into the ages, but he can be rather like reading J.R.R. Tolkien's stilted echt archaic dialogue.  Tolkien meant to sound grand and venerable, but hearing his characters speak in a modern idiom, even as they talk of orcs and trolls, in Peter Jackson's films, makes the books almost unreadable now.  Some things we set aside quickly, like the 19th century hymns of my youth, which have almost no appeal to anyone younger than me anymore.  But does that mean Christianity is no longer possible?  It might seem so to me, but history proves me wrong when I look at Arnold's despair or Bultmann's concern.

Generations born into the "brave new world" we see coming take it for granted and don't miss the old verities that have lost their virtue.  This isn't the future we feared or dreamed about; this is their present.

Grant that thy Church may be delivered from traditions which have lost their life, from usage which has lost its spirit, from institutions which no longer give life and power to their generation; that the Church may ever shine as a light in the world and be as a city set on a hill.


Often what we think vitally important, the next generation ignores as wholly irrelevant.  My generation started the "sexual revolution" mostly because it seemed vitally important to enjoy sex rather than be ashamed of it (I oversimplify to make a point).  We ended up, in the words of George C. Scott in "Hospital," being more obsessed with sex than the Victorians.  Millenials haven't improved on Boomers so much as not started with that obsession in the first place.  Is this now Huxley's brave new world where you are invited to "hug me 'til you drug me?"  No, but it's funny to watch old episodes of "Star Trek" (any of them) and realize how bourgeois and staid sexual mores are among humans 500 years from now.  We can't let go of where we started because to do so would render us unrecognizable as what we recognize as human.  Well, we can, but it takes an effort of the heart.

I've recounted before the story of my parents asking me if a friend I'd known since childhood was a lesbian (she was then an adult dying of cancer, in a relationship with a woman even her childhood church shunned her for).  I had to say "yes" (was I going to lie?), and they thought that was just fine.  It was about love, and they loved my friend no matter who she loved.  They loved her, so they accepted her for who she was, even as they'd grown up taught to despise homosexuality.  We can change, and we do change; but when we set out to imagine the world that is coming, we imagine the changes to our idea of the world we fear will mean destruction.  Bart Ehrman, it seems clear from his interview, couldn't let go of the God of the fundamentalists without letting go of God altogether.  This is not a flaw in him that should be complained of, but it is not the fault of his idea of God (or of God, for that matter), either.  I could tell throughout the interview he was still looking at history and scripture and even theology through the lens of Christian fundamentalism, as much as he thought he'd gone beyond it.  I saw that, and still do, as a weakness; but my own theological and spiritual journey has not made me wiser, except as it has made me more humble.  The effort of the heart is incumbent upon all of us.

 There is a wisdom in the old words of that old prayer, if we can hear it.  The truths of the gospel are not always those things nearest and dearest to our hearts.  The strength of the gospel is that it is reborn again and again,  in each generation if necessary.  The virtue of the gospel is that it doesn't depend on what we love best, to be true, or for that truth to be carried on.


Blogger rick allen said...

I've always thought it odd, Arnold's metaphor of the ebbing of the tide, because the tide doesn't keep withdrawing, but it oscillates, and flows back. Certainly faith ebbs and flows, in the lives of civilizations and in the lives of individuals. But the Sea remains.

It's funny you mention Arnold because I've lately been spending much time with another Victorian Englishman. I finished Newman's "Fifteen Sermons preached before the University of Oxford" last month, and I was surprised, in spite of how Newman seems oblivious to so many of the specific developments that led so many Victorians to lose their faith, to find an understanding of faith and reason giving both their due without confounding their spheres. And, in recognizing the danger of faith devolving into bigotry, I very much like the criterion Newman proposes for its prevention: love.

I don't pretend to know where the world is going. If most kids I know are at all representative of Millennials, I'm not too concerned that they'll do worse than we did. I'm surprisingly increasingly not too worried about the future, but I'm equally increasingly appreciative of the past, and find theology from all eras a heartening and enjoyable pursuit, however little it seems to appeal to our passionate and wired-in successors.

10:03 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

I always thought Arnold didn't think his metaphor through. IOW, I completely agree with you (I would quibble about faith and reason having separate spheres, wannabe medieval theologian that I am), especially the final paragraph. Plato thought the kids were reading too much. I remember that when I worry that they read too little.

10:41 PM  
Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

"I very much like the criterion Newman proposes for its prevention: love."

Such a good way of putting what has to be the bottom line in judging whether or not something is consistent with Christianity, such a good sieve for separating out what merely claims to be in accord with the teachings of Jesus or not.

It's probably a mistake to think you can compartmentalize one mind into "faith and reason" or "belief and knowledge" because even all of reason depends on a choice to accept what you choose to believe. Reading Joseph Weisenbaum's Computer Power and Human Reason was what led me to understand the artificiality of any ultimate bright line between those two imaginary categories. I think the desire for all of human thought to be as certain as Newton's physics were for the time when that was never feasible or possible led to some pretty bad results.

8:48 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home