Sunday, March 04, 2007

Faith Matters

And the Lord said, "Don't you hear what the corrupt judge says? Do you really think God won't hand out justice to his chosen ones--those who call on him day and night? Do you really think he'll put them off? I'm telling you, he'll give them justice and give it quickly. Still, when the son of Adam comes, will he find trust on earth?"--Luke 18:6-8, SV
Atrios touches on a valid point here:
Faith is not a uniquely Christian concept, but it has elevated importance in Christianity.
The question is: why?

"Faith," so my thesis goes, is an important concept to Christianity. Sadly, it is also a poorly understood one. Viz:

The American journalist HL Mencken once wrote: "We must accept the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart." In Britain today, such wry tolerance is diminishing. Today, it's the religious on one side, and the secular on the other. Britain is dividing into intolerant camps who revel in expressing contempt for each other's most dearly held beliefs.

"We are witnessing a social phenomenon that is about fundamentalism," says Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark. "Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube, the hardline settlers on the West Bank and the anti-gay bigots of the Church of England. Most of them would regard each other as destined to fry in hell.
"You have a triangle with fundamentalist secularists in one corner, fundamentalist faith people in another, and then the intelligent, thinking liberals of Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, baptism, methodism, other faiths - and, indeed, thinking atheists - in the other corner. " says Slee. Why does he think the other two groups are so vociferous? "When there was a cold war, we knew who the enemy was. Now it could be anybody. From this feeling of vulnerability comes hysteria."
Although the precis to the article sums it up:

Britain's new cultural divide is not between Christian and Muslim, Hindu and Jew. It is between those who have faith and those who do not. Stuart Jeffries reports on the vicious and uncompromising battle between believers and non-believers.
That has become the divide insisted upon by fundamentalists, but of course it was the division which spawned the imperial (and empirical) reach of Europe. The missions in San Antonio, Texas were founded by Franciscan monks acting as agents of the Spanish Crown, and their aim was as much to convert the "heathen" natives to the "right" belief as it was to extend the reach (and so access to valuable natural resources) of the Spanish King. This was hardly unique in European history.

Belief, however, has become the central issue in this new battle (and why must we always battle? For power, of course. Except the illusion that anyone has power is the pernicious lie no one wants to accept as untruth. But that's another matter....). John Gray gets both the diagnosis, and the fundamental error, right:

John Gray, professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, whose book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia will be published later this year, detects parallels between dogmatic believers and dogmatic unbelievers such as Hitchens and Dawkins. "It is not just in the rigidity of their unbelief that atheists mimic dogmatic believers. It is in their fixation on belief itself."

Gray argues that this fixation misses the point of religions: "The core of most religions is not doctrinal. In non-western traditions and even some strands of western monotheism, the spiritual life is not a matter of subscribing to a set of propositions. Its heart is in practice, in ritual, observance and (sometimes) mystical experience . . . When they dissect arguments for the existence of God, atheists parody the rationalistic theologies of western Christianity."
Not to mention the fact those arguments have already been fully dissected by the theologians and philosophers of religion who pay attention to them.

The article points out that, much as the discussion in left blogistan insists, British society seems to want to "airbrush" religion from the public sphere. The response of Christianity, as exemplified by the Roman Catholic church in this article (which does not speak for Christendom, however you define that term, any more than Katherine Jefferts Schori speaks for The Episcopal Church), is that:

Again, western secular culture - if not of Dawkins' stamp - is seen as the worm in the apple, corrupting not just British society but the church itself. By contrast, for liberals in the church, whose number includes many gay vicars, the evangelicals' hostility to homosexuality seems unChristian, as does their stance on gay adoption.
What's missing here is the historical irony: that the Roman Catholic church especially is Western culture, to a degree that simply cannot be ignored or "airbrushed" out because it is no longer the dominant church in Europe. So when did the Church itself come to feel so estranged from the culture it created? When did the issue become simply one of "Do you believe, or do you not believe?" And where is that question in the Bible?

Only, in the sense in which we ask it today, in the Gospel of John. John draws, or appears to, the line between believers and non-believers, and though that line seems to be drawn between those Jews who accept the Messiah, and those who do not (all the main characters in John's Gospel are "Jews" [the term itself is an historical anachronism for us, but that, too, is yet another matter]). Which is one more reason that gospel is the favorite of evangelical and fundamental Christians today: with very little translation, they can apply it directly to their concerns and their perspective on the world, and especially on "Western culture," a culture they have shaped as much in America as the Church of Rome shaped the culture in Europe.

Some of the argument being carried out is, frankly, silly, and should be embarassing to those engaged in it:

The gay adoption issue also outraged many non-believers, among them philosopher AC Grayling, author of Life, Sex and Ideas: The Good Life without God. "These groups are trying to be exempt from the effort to be a fair society, and we are faced with the threat of a possible return to the dark ages. We are trying to keep a pluralistic society, and elements in the Christian church and other religions are trying to destroy it."
Aside from the pitifully uninformed view implicit in the label "Dark Ages", there's the equally alarmist view that the Church is: (a) so monolithic a force (would that it were so, eh, Archbishop Williams?) and, (b) has so much authority (again, if Rowan Williams can't even control the Anglican Communion, what power has he over society? The Roman Church may well prohibit adoption by gay couples, but last I looked, the Roman Church didn't have exclusive control over all adoption agencies in Europe or America.).

The article draws a parallel between the current situation and the other great foolishness of post-Enlightenment Christianity, the debate over evolution:

"At that time the church was feeling very threatened and uncomfortable with non-religious society," says Hanne Stinson, executive director of the British Humanist Association. "There is a parallel with today - the church is feeling very threatened."
And this is precisely the question: why does the church feel threatened, if not because the raison d'etre of Christianity is constantly posited, by at least one set of representatives of the religion, as the central importance of faith? Except "faith" here doesn't mean "trust," which is the New Testament Greek word so often translated into English as "faith," it means "belief." This is the crux of the biscuit; this is where the throw away our birthright for a mess of pottage. We take up the Hellenistic notion of "belief," which is implicitly subject to verification, and discard the Hebraic notion of "trust," which implicitly rejects verification. If you must know the outcome before you act, you cannot act on trust; and, as well, you can never act. "Belief" is irrelevant, except as a reason to take action, and even then you have to trust your belief is sound, and take the consequences when it isn't. But belief is constantly subject to verification, and can never be resolved. It is, as Hume pointed out about our knowledge of the world, only verifiable in reflection. Just as we cannot accurately predict cause and effect, or even verify it, we can only justify our belief by the consequences. When the cue stick strikes the cue ball and sends the 8 ball into the side pocket, is that proof of cause and effect? Or is it simply a series of actions we expected, because we've seen them before? Do we "know" cause and effect is true, or do we merely "believe" it? Even Kant's irremovable Idealistic goggles of categorical imperatives don't settle that issue, they merely fudge it. We always act on trust; we merely call it either "empirical knowledge" (and Hume was right; no such thing exists) or we call it our "belief."

But the thorn on the rose we refuse to impale our hand on in order to grasp the blossom, is trust; it is faith. Aye, there's the rub.

Children's author Philip Pullman argues that atheism should be taught in schools. "What I fear and deplore in the 'faith school' camp is their desire to close argument down and put some things beyond question or debate. It's vital to get clear in young minds what is a faith position and what is not, so that, for instance, they won't be taken in by religious people claiming that science is a faith position no different in kind from Christianity. Science is not a matter of faith, and too many people are being allowed to get away with claiming that it is."
But it is, of course; depending on how you define "faith." That point is actually quite settled among the philosophers (logical positivism has been described as the only philosophical school which came to a definite end; and it's an accurate description). But it continues to rage among the laity (such as Dawkins and Harris).

And notice these words in the news article:

This is a thought taken up by Azzim Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought. "I refer to secular fundamentalism. The problem is that these people believe that they have the absolute truth. That means you have no room to talk to others so you end up having a physical fight. They want to close the door and ignore religion, but this will provoke a violent religiosity. If someone seeks to deny my existence, I will fight to assert it."
And these; this conflict is not a universal one, but a European, a Western, one:

Another reason for secularist rage at people of faith, one might think, is exasperation on the part of militant atheists that religion has not died out as they hoped. "It has taken centuries and centuries to wrestle away from the churches the levers of power," says Grayling.

Tamimi contends that this was not quite what happened. Rather, he suggests that Christians were complicit in their marginalisation from power. "Christians did that to themselves - they allowed religion to move to the private sphere. That would be intolerable for Muslims." Why? "Partly because secularism doesn't mean the same for Muslims from the Middle East. The story of secularism in the Middle East is not one of democracy, as we are always told it was in the west. Instead, it is associated with tyranny - with Ataturk in Turkey, for instance. Islam is compatible with democracy, but not with this secular fundamentalism we are witnessing."
The "story of secularism" is the story of "faith," of religion reduced to "What I believe," of religion withdrawn, as Tamimi says, into "the private sphere." And Christians weren't forced into that; they allowed that. O my people. What have we done to ourselves?

Stephen Moore says of Derrida: "Derrida's own relationship to literature is more complex; finding the literture that mosts interests him to be more advanced philosophically than most philosophy, he prefers to mine it rather than deconstruct it. (Stephen D. Moore, Postructuralism and the New Testament: Derrida and Foucault at the Foot of the Cross, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress 1994), p. 29.) I realize I'm guilty of the same thing; mining that which interests me, rather then deconstructing it or even fully critiquing it. But this is the beginning of a question with an involved answer. If the son of Adam returns looking for faith on earth, what will he be looking for?

P.S. This, on the other hand, is just stupid. Alan Colmes is exactly right:

COLMES: Mr. Rush, this is Alan Colmes. I have a question. Are you questioning Barack Obama's Christianity?

RUSH: Yeah.

COLMES: Who are you to do that?

RUSH: Anyone just the same as anyone else who can make a discernment about someone's faith.
But it raises another issue, or at least reminds me of one: the question of belief, and the question of faith. Gen. Wesley Clark, in an interview on Democracy Now!, mentioned in response to a question about torture that such things were not permitted in the country he "believed" in. A curious admixture of the secular and the religious, there, not dissimilar (except in intent) from the attacks on Barack Obama because of the church he attends. Why do we say we "believe" in America? And what do we mean? Questions of identity abound, which will lead us, to some degree, to consider Deuteronomy. But that will involve mining another source; some lectures given by Walter Brueggeman last week in Houston. I'll be back for that.

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