Sunday, December 16, 2007

Is God Dead?

Due to circumstances beyond my control, the sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent this year has been postponed. This will have ot suffice in its place, at least until I can get it written (if ever). The management regrets the inconvenience, but is grateful it doesn't have to stand up in a pulpit this morning and try to deliver the following as a sermon:

There are many places to start with this review of what appears to be a fascinating book (sadly the review gives Nietzsche credit for killing God, and says nothing about the theological movement of a mere 4 decades ago; space limitations, I'd like to think), but begin here:

A word repeated in Taylor’s book is “disenchantment,” derived from Max Weber, who saw Enlightenment reason turning into modern rationalization as intelligence is used not to get to the bottom of things but to organize life from the top down, through structures of hierarchy, specialization, regulation and control. Taylor agrees that this “disenchantment of the world” leaves us with a universe that is dull, routine, flat, driven by rules rather than thoughts, a process that culminates in bureaucracy run by “specialists without spirit, hedonists without heart” — what Weber called the “iron cage” of modern life.
Sounds like Pullman's "Magisterium," no? (Yes, I know the term is from the movie, not the books; work with me a moment). Sounds a lot like the standard critique of American fundamentalism and Evangelicalism and "mega-churches," from outside Christianity and even from within it: that people go to such churches to be told what to think (I've heard that criticism more than once from within my own denomination, the United Church of Christ). Then there are the blogger critics of religion, who insist all religion is about mind control and thought enforcement and living a life that is "dull, routine, flat, driven by rules rather than thoughts, a process that culminates in bureaucracy run by 'specialists without spirit, hedonists without heart'". Gee, wonder where they ever got that idea?

Could it be the beam in their own eye?

The fact is, of course, we can only see what we can see. The reviewer seems to blame that limitation on post-modern philosophy, but I'd say it goes back at least to David Hume in the 18th century. There all the troubles of modern philosophy began, and Anglo-American philosophy split off finally from Continental philosophy (a schism not unlike the break of the Roman Catholic Church following the Protestant Reformation), and the two not only can no longer reconcile, but no longer even speak the same language. And there's what I've come to recognize as the modern rub: the question of language. Oh, not that that's such an insight, after Wittgenstein and Austin and company, but the more direct question as first put forward by Ol' Ezra:

"Hang it all, Robert Browning! There can be but one Sordello!
But Sordello, and my Sordello?"

In a fractured and fracturing community, whose Sordello do we get to speak of? Whose is the common language we will rally 'round? And will we merely rally 'round it, or use it as the spear to slay the dragons of all those other vocabularies which chew at our boundaries and threaten our identities? Sadly, all the evidence is that what we are seeking today is not just an alternative, but a decisive victory over our enemies. We don't just want new styles of architecture and a change of heart; we want bulldozers to plow under the monuments of the past, of those who don't speak like we do. We don't want to be the restorers of the breach so much as we wish to be the supplanters of the past; in this case, what is barely past. And therein lies the problem, because the past we want to supplant is not just "their" past; it is our past, too.

Part of the problem in this is deciding which past we will supplant, and which past we will replace it with. For example, if this is a fair representation of Taylor's argument, then I disagree with him for much more fundamental reasons than the review reaches:

The Weberian outlook is bleak, and Taylor puts it aside to find a far more hopeful vision in the sociology of Emile Durkheim. In contrast to Weber, Durkheim saw the forms of society as containing not impersonal functions but deeply implanted sacred practices, and he saw religion rooted in the roles and rules of modern social systems resisting the chill of alienation. Whatever intellectuals may think, people value religion as providing a framework of meaning, a realm of unifying symbols and a sense of belonging. Some observers have been surprised by the resurgence of religion in recent years. “In a sense,” Taylor observes, “part of what drove the Moral Majority and motivates the Christian right in the U.S.A. is an aspiration to re-establish something of the fractured neo-Durkheimian understanding that used to define the nation, where being American would once more have a connection with theism, with being ‘one nation under God.’”
As the reviewer points out, we were never this "one nation under theism." Consider this, published during Thomas Jefferson's campaign for the Presidency:

The Bible would be cast into a bonfire, our holy worship changed into a dance of Jacobin phrensy, our wives and daughters dishonored, and our sons converted into the disciples of Voltaire and the dragoons of Marat.

Yale College President Timothy Dwight, on the possibility of Jefferson's election
It was Jefferson's "separation of church and state," of course, which made American religion what it is today (although yes, that is another topic). But in learning from the past, let's look honestly, not simplistically, at the past.

This, however, is a very interesting point:

“A new poetic language can serve to find a way back to the God of Abraham,” he exhorts.
It's one that come up before, and recently, and not surprisingly both in connection with politics, and in politics:

“We cannot abandon the field of religious discourse,” Barack Obama, the most eloquently convincing of them all, said back in June of 2006. “Because when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations toward one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome - others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.”
Again, a tempting argument, but again, I'm reminded of Auden speaking to the late Yeats:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world? That's laughable, says Auden. Look around the world after World War I. Look around the world after World War II. Was better language going to solve those problems? Did Orwell teach us nothing? Anthony Burgess even gave us a delightful object lesson in the abuses of language and power: A Clockwork Orange. No, language is not the cure here, nor is it even the disease. We need new ways of thinking, but promoting that is much more difficult than changing the lexicon. How, then, do we respond to those who "...others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends”? Warner goes on to argue that the split is already happening, and we simply have to be willing to reap the harvest:

The Christian conservative vote is, apparently, splintering. Younger evangelicals are increasingly said to be interested in putting their faith to greater use than bashing gays, promoting guns and putting God on the presidential ticket. That would seem to indicate that we’re facing a moment of opportunity: a chance to expand and amplify the reach of the voice of religious moderation. The silence I’m hearing makes me think, though, that as a society we’ve come to accept the slippage of prejudicial and hateful attitudes into religious doctrine as somehow normal. Whether that’s due to cynicism or due to cowardice, it’s very troubling.
We probably have, but when was that ever different? Does no one remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker? Marjoe? Elmer Gantry? What American President in recent memory hasn't invoked God while bombing and killing innocents around the globe? A "slippage of prejudicial and hateful attitudes"? Has she not read Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail"?

Ecclesiastes was right; there is nothing new under the sun. Which brings us to this quote from Nietzsche, also mentioned in this review:

“An omniscient and omnipotent God who does not even take care that his intentions shall be understood by his creatures,” Nietzsche wrote, “could he be a God of goodness?”
Could an omniscient and omnipotent God, however, who makes His intentions perfectly clear to everyone, also be a God of goodness? That's actually one of the central questions of the Gospel of John, albeit a very subtly posed one (as it should be). Some will recognize it as the question of free will. How do we make everyone understand God without making everyone think as we do? Even the Hebrews didn't think that was necessary, or even possible. Even they argued with God (and still do, I understand). But you see that we are back to the problem of modernity, as identified by Weber. An "iron cage," indeed.

I'm guided, you might have guessed, by the example of Dr. King, who didn't want to convert everyone to Christianity, or even convert all Christians to his way of thinking. His ambitions were never so grandiose, so all-encompassing. He was never struggling to realize some Grand Unified Theory of Society. He simply understood that people of good will could be appealed to, that their consciences could be reached, by the proper application of direct action (he makes this very plain in his "Letter"), and that in reaching their conscience, people of good will would eventually act through their government to support the cause of justice for all people, and especially the ones involved in the struggle for justice through direct action. He knew this because he knew people of good will would want to see justice done, and they first had to see the harsh reality of injustice, which those of us who remember the pictures of police dogs attacking marchers, and marchers being rolled down the street with water cannons, those of us who remember "Bull" Connor, learned to our shame and sometimes, despair. He didn't try to build new buildings or change hearts or even create new words; the old words were good enough, the buildings weren't the problem, and as for the heart, he knew his scriptures too well to be fooled by such an appeal to his ego:

The heart is deceitful above any other thing,
desperately sick; who can fathom it?
I, the Lord, search the mind
and test the heart,
requiting each one for his conduct
and as his deeds deserve--Jeremiah 17:9-10
It is by our deeds that we are known; our words just follow and make excuses or explain. Taylor, the review notes, says this about the modern condition (a statement that could have come as well from one of Kierkegaard's pseudonyms):

At present, he writes, “we live in a condition” in which we suspect our own beliefs as having been influenced by sources other than the self and its reasons, with the human subject the mere effect of forces alien to our being. “We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time,” he writes, “looking sideways, living our faith also in a condition of doubt and uncertainty.” Has religion, then, come to end in doubts about ourselves?
The doubt and uncertainty are not flaws in our faith; they are the ground of it. We are not all meant to be Abrahams, setting out for a new country on the word of an unknown God. Even Abram doubted, and three times told the kings whose kingdoms he wandered into that Sarai was his sister, not his wife. If Abraham did not hesitate on Moriah, holding the knife over Isaac, the image is one too terrible for the rest of us. Israel ran quivering into their tents when the God who had liberated them from slavery spoke to Moses atop nearby Sinai. Even Jesus himself cried out from the cross the words of the Psalmist: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Doubt? Uncertainty? What makes us think certainty is the ground and the birthright of our being, and the enemy of faith? Do we want to merely swap one world of regulation and control for another?

The Santa Claus mythos applies here, in a way that may seem to undermine my own beliefs, but doesn't. Santa Claus is not real, but we make him as real as we can because the idea of Santa Claus is so appealing. But, of course, we insist that we must believe in Santa Claus, or he will cease to be. This is the modern variant on the myth, the one that makes us responsible for keeping the dream alive. What dream are we keeping alive, and why? And is the universe really so dependent upon our attention that without it, for even a moment, some portion of it, some one good thing, will vanish like a burst soap bubble? Aye, there's the rub: just how important are we in the scheme of things? Sartre argued for an ethic which made us responsible for not only our choices, but for choosing for all humankind. It is a terrible burden indeed, but an interesting way of making us responsible without any appeal to transcendence, even the transcendence of the community over the individual (which is where Aristotle began the ethical discussion). But is choosing Santa Claus a choice I make for all humankind? Well, try denying it too publicly before too many children and, especially, their parents. But is it our insistence which keeps the idea of Santa Claus going? Or is it our agreement that this is indeed, for whatever reason, a good thing, an idea that means more than the number of shopping days between the fourth Thursday in November and December 25th?

Isn't it the ultimate cynicism to hate Santa Claus? We may doubt, as children, as we get a bit "too old." We may finally disbelieve. But do we ever really doubt Santa Claus? Do we ever really disbelieve Santa Claus? Which is not an argument for the existence of Santa Claus (that would be absurd); but it is pointing toward a question. No doubt, in some ways, Santa Claus is just another system of regulation and control ("you'd better watch out!"). But in many ways Santa Claus is a transcendent figure, an icon. Who doesn't look at that picture atop this post and want some good feelings, at least, to be attached to it? Is it power and authority which established that? Did we fight a war on Christmas and win those hopeful wishes? So what would we expect a war for religious vocabulary, a war over public piety, to win for us?

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