Friday, November 23, 2007

Things I should know better than to comment on

This sounds like a fascinating book. It made it to the NYTime Notables List of Holiday Books, so hopefully it's not just the review that intrigues. Here, for example, in a nutshell, is the problem of post-Enlightenment Christianity:

The real issue seems to be that he infused her with religiosity without providing her with a workable theology, an intellectual framework with which to understand, or at least abide, the central contradictions of Christianity. If God exists, she asks her father, why does he allow so much suffering? “Ah,” he responds unhelpfully. “The $64,000 question.”
The "he" there is

a Lutheran minister who moved from parish to parish during her childhood, working for a poverty-level wage. As a minister, he was devoted to good works, helping parishioners erect a do-it-yourself church in the dead of winter and tending to the elderly and infirm. But he was also, as her meticulous, and meticulously nonjudgmental, narrative demonstrates, an awkward man, overly abstracted about his own intimacies.
Now there are no small number of assumptions worked into that description, some of them perfectly legitimate, some of them, shall we say, overly-culturally determined. Ah, but how can we know the dancer from the dance. Just as the reviewer reminds us of the '70's:

(Remember when a politicized Christianity meant fighting poverty and war? It’s no less a touching throwback to the 1970s than Blue Nun wine, track lighting and split ends, each of which gets an amusing mention here.)
So we have to consider that any period is peculiar to itself, and it's all a matter of how you divide it up. Looking backward, for example, we might run up against the culture of medieval Europe; or, of you don't want to go quite that far back, consider the "God is Dead" movement of the '60's; which was started by theologians, not radical atheist ancestors to Hitchens and Dawkins. Surely that, too, would leave a man wondering if there was "an intellectual framework with which to understand, or at least abide, the central contradictions of Christianity." Which brings us almost immediately to the question of the "Great Separation." Because there's another book on the notable list, about that. (I'm preparing my private Christmas list, can you tell?) And we're we're back to the problem of contradiction, or, if you prefer, ambiguity. Or, if you really prefer, Kierkegaard's paradox. As Johannes de Silentio said, the "thinker without a paradox is like a lover without feeling--a paltry mediocrity." But on the other hand, too much of nothin' makes a man feel ill at ease. So:

Those unusual circumstances were provided by Christian theology — but not, as some recent religious apologists have argued, because the Judeo-Christian framework itself promotes rationality and tolerance. Rather, it is Christianity’s own fundamental ambiguities — torn between a picture of God as both present and absent from the temporal realm, an ambivalence powerfully represented by the paradoxes of the Trinity — that made it “uniquely unstable,” subject to a plurality of interpretations that became institutionalized in sectarianism, and hence to several centuries’ worth of devastating upheaval.

In some sense, Lilla is saying that Christianity is just too philosophically interesting.
I blame the Hellenes. Which is to say this is not a new argument at all. Walter Kauffman noted in his introduction to his translation of Buber's I and Thou that separating Christianity from Greek rationalism was impossible (how do you separate the tapestry from its threads?), but a large part of the modern enterpries in theology has been the continuing effort to at least try. Which is where process theology came from (and where it's going).

What's really interesting is that Lilla connects the problem to a simplistic understanding of theology and religion promoted by Hobbes, one that sounds very familiar to any browser of blogs today:

and the answer [Hobbes] gives is: because man is a frightened ignoramus. Knowing enough to be terrified of his own mortality but knowing little else about objective nature and thus understandably alarmed, man creates an omnipotent being who can be supplicated and obeyed, a conception that then ends up tormenting him with new fear. Religion, Hobbes thought, comes from a dark place in the psyche.
Not so fast, says Lilla:

The religious impulse isn’t merely a matter of man’s cringing self-protective fear; it can also be an expansive response toward the universe, morality and freedom, and a strain of post-Enlightenment thinking, featuring thinkers of the caliber of Kant, struggled to do justice to religion’s expansive aspects.
So the "stillborn God" is the product of liberal theology which wants, essentially, to make man the master over the divine. An almost Greek act of hubris. Creon in Antigone could predict what happens next. But since our lives are not ruled by the dictates of playwrights, the response is more muddled, and even less easy to anticipate:

The “stillborn God” of the title is what Lilla calls the deity of liberal theology, a post-Hegelian movement, active particularly in Germany, that “wedded romantic soulfulness with the modern conviction that man attains happiness by freely developing his capacities, not by submitting them to God’s authority.” As the christening indicates, Lilla believes this fuzzy God to have been a dud, but, paradoxically, one that helped prepare the way for a far more fiery and apocalyptic breed of political theology.
Interestingly, though the review never mentions it, this is the critique of "liberal theology" contained in Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society. Hmmm...maybe everything old really is new again. That marriage of soulfulness and modern conviction which we now call "self-actualization" is precisely what Kierkegaard was reacting against, too, even though his aim was to fully realize the "individual." Ironically, precisely what he went for is now precisely what is used to justify self-actualization and the "It's all about ME!" trend of modern American society and even modern American Christianity. Well, Neibuhr is only remembered for a short prayer he wrote for a summer worship service and almost immediately threw away, so fame and immortality are never what you mean them to be.

What, then, do we make of this muddle? There are questions of theodicy here, and of ecclesiology; and the questions of ecclesiology are always questions of church in society. There are personal questions here, and social ones. There are questions of abstractions, and problems of concreteness, of transcendence in the quotidian. Being a pastor can indeed be a difficult calling, especially if you can't find a way to set aside your self-interests; but set those aside, and what do you have at all? Society cannot seem to say, and theology seems almost barren of comfort. Maybe it's time for a radical disconnect. Maybe it's time for Advent...again.

Of course, that's still more than a week away. Still, I suppose we can start getting ready to...get ready.

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