Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The End of 'Christendom'

Having just finished Harvey Cox's book (which I recommend), I find myself thinking Cox's thoughts, and thinking about his thoughts.

He makes the not unsurprising point about how he was been surprised by the resurgence of religion (not just Christianity) in the world. Following the lead of most 19th century thinkers (and such contemporaries as A.O. Wilson), Cox expected religion to fade from public view as the European Enlightenment opened our eyes to the truth which is only available through the good offices of Empiricism (pace, Immanuel K.). But his observations set me to wondering: did religion ever really disappear from public discourse in European ("Western" seems almost too broad a designation, to me) culture?

It has been noted that John Cheever's stories, which hardly seem religious at all, are shot through and underpinned with religious ideas. Not as firmly as the work of Walker Percy or Flannery O'Connor, but critics are, apparently, starting to see it. I've been reading the early stories of John Updike, and I've been surprised to realize how religious his stories are, as well. Not, like Cheever's, in any "evangelical" sense, and yet not in the clearly Roman Catholic vein of Percy and O'Connor, either. It's sometimes a subtle thing, sometimes not, and sometimes not present at all. But it is there often enough to be note-worthy, and it is certainly not there to be discarded as "mythology" or a vestige of an "immature culture.".

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously scandalized the logical positivists with the conclusion to his first great work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." The conclusion doesn't fit their basically empiricist view that what one cannot speak of cannot be deemed valuable, indeed cannot have true existence. They found their greatest hope was, at heart, a mystic. In what is probably the most famous anecdote about Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell relates in his autobiography that he once asked Wittgenstein if he was thinking about logic, or his sins, and Wittgenstein answered: "Both." Wittgenstein also contributed a great deal of valuable points to the philosophy of religion, including a very lucid insight, which doesn't wander far from the Tractatus, that in matters of religion the believer and the non-believer simply speak in terms which do not contradict each other, but which cannot be explained to each other, either. It is a solid ground for a minimum of tolerance on both sides.

Jacques Derrida, one of the most famous of modern philosophers, is largely known for his theory of "deconstructionism," itself an outgrowth of both his response to the dominant French philosophical school of structuralism, and of his studies of Heideggerian phenomenology. Although Jewish by heritage, and agnostic in confession, Derrida was a Professor of Humanities, teaching in the field of Philosophy of Religion, at UC Irvine. His later work focussed on that field, and he produced many excellent books on the topic, including a study of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling and a lucid analysis of the effects of "televangelism" and religious fundamentalism in general, on the world.

Perhaps these are mere patches of ice, and do not a winter make. Certainly there are many avowedly atheistic and agnostic writers in the 20th century, and any profession of faith among professional philosophers is still largely a career-endangering move, at best. But perhaps this means only that Christianity has been marginalized in European culture, which is a good thing. After all, as Cox concludes in his book, Jesus was first found among the poor, the hungry, the marginalized, the dispossessed, and he told us to continue to look for him there, even unto today. And it is there that we find him, consistently and persistently.

If we have to reflect that, in one way or another, perhaps that is good.

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