Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Angelic v. Demonic

I read this yesterday. I'll first admit, I didn't get this out of it:
Theological debates are meaningless to me because I'm agnostic and have no interest in any particular faith tradition, and tedious because participants are too often convinced that they've got a handle on The One True Religion while often failing to perceive a rather important implication of that: it's a pretty lonely religion.
I mean, I understand if you don't have a dog in the fight, debates about ideas are pretty boring. I often feel that way about political discussions, when I step back and realize (based on the traffic here, if nothing else) that absolutely no one of consequence is listening to what I say, and I'm having absolutely no influence on policy or politics. Besides, it's almost always as abstract as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Which was a mean-spirited joke in the Renaissance about the unimportant obsessions of the medievalists, not a description of an actual debate. But I digress....

There is a point when religious and theological discussions have to answer basic questions like the one put to Robert Langdon in Angels and Demons: "Do you believe in God?" Turns out it was an ironic question from the interlocutor, because Langdon, a non-believer, gave the priest the right (and also honest, though it wasn't right for that reason alone) answer. Which is a lesson about such questions, one of many I thought the film raised: never assume you know what the questioner means.

It's an old legal trick, which may be why a dilettante philosopher cum theologian like myself is/was also a dilettante attorney. But one thing studying the law makes you do is look at things with a relentless logic matched, so far as I know, only by Zen Buddhist priests, some rabbis, and (by reputation, at least), the Jesuits. Funny, huh? Even mathematicians tend to assume the world is essentially Platonic, a leap of faith no true priest, imam, rabbi, or pastor would ever make. Indeed, the central conceit of "Angels and Demons" is that the villain is not a true priest, although he is a true believer. And he certainly makes a leap no one else follows.

Maybe that's what prompts Ron Douthat's harsh reaction to the film, one I don't think is warranted. Maybe he's upset because the rigid assurance of the villain of the piece looks too familiar. (I don't know Douthat's politics, but the villain of "Angels and Demons" is pretty easily understood as an all too familiar figure in America today: the neocon.) Or maybe he just means what he says, and he prefers a more traditional reading of Church history and doctrine. But I didn't read Douthat's comment (nor can I, now) as a declaration that there is only one true religion, or even one true Christianity. Every declaration of belief, every confession of faith, is by definition a statement that other confessions and declarations are wrong, at least for the professor or confessor. That's as unavoidable as declaring your allegiance for a political party or simply a political candidate. And it that's "lonely," then we are all existentialists now, and Sartreans to boot. Douthat and I would probably disagree on what the one "historically plausible Jesus" would look like; but we can both agree the stories of Dan Brown are not historically plausible in any sense of the word.

It is a dividing line question, though: "Do you believe in God?" It can't be other than a dividing line question, because it puts you in one category, or the other. Today many people are quite happy, almost anxious, to tell you that they don't believe, or that they do. And they do it with a clear eye to dividing the world into two groups: those who are with them, and those who are against them. Thrillers like Dan Brown writes, of course, need those two groups: the "good guys" and the "bad guys." Maybe Rod Douthat needs them, too; I don't know. Still, there are such questions; and sooner or later, you have to insist upon them, if only to know where another person, a person who (ideally) matters to you, stands (the only point of finding out where a person who doesn't matter to you stands, is to use the issue as a cudgel, rather than as a way of understanding them).

In fact, to the extent Douthat is arguing that Brown is too accomodationist to modern sensibilities, that he re-casts the kerygma of the Gospels in modern American "love me, love my life!" terms, I agree with him. To me, this is the heart of Douthat's argument:

In the Brownian worldview, all religions — even Roman Catholicism — have the potential to be wonderful, so long as we can get over the idea that any one of them might be particularly true. It’s a message perfectly tailored for 21st-century America, where the most important religious trend is neither swelling unbelief nor rising fundamentalism, but the emergence of a generalized “religiousness” detached from the claims of any specific faith tradition.

The polls that show more Americans abandoning organized religion don’t suggest a dramatic uptick in atheism: They reveal the growth of do-it-yourself spirituality, with traditional religion’s dogmas and moral requirements shorn away. The same trend is at work within organized faiths as well, where both liberal and conservative believers often encounter a God who’s too busy validating their particular version of the American Dream to raise a peep about, say, how much money they’re making or how many times they’ve been married.

These are Dan Brown’s kind of readers. Piggybacking on the fascination with lost gospels and alternative Christianities, he serves up a Jesus who’s a thoroughly modern sort of messiah — sexy, worldly, and Goddess-worshiping, with a wife and kids, a house in the Galilean suburbs, and no delusions about his own divinity.

But the success of this message — which also shows up in the work of Brown’s many thriller-writing imitators — can’t be separated from its dishonesty. The “secret” history of Christendom that unspools in “The Da Vinci Code” is false from start to finish. The lost gospels are real enough, but they neither confirm the portrait of Christ that Brown is peddling — they’re far, far weirder than that — nor provide a persuasive alternative to the New Testament account. The Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — jealous, demanding, apocalyptic — may not be congenial to contemporary sensibilities, but he’s the only historically-plausible Jesus there is.
The historically plausible Jesus said demanding things like:

Don't get the idea that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. After all, I have come

to pit a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.

A man's enemies will be the members of his own household. Matthew 10:34-36, SV
A sentiment that is certainly true in "Angels and Demons."

Jesus also said welcoming things like this:

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I'll follow you wherever you go."

"And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have dens, and birds of the sky have nests, but the sone of Adam has nowhere to rest his head."
To another he said, "Follow me."
But he said, "First, let me go and bury my father."
Jesus said to him, "Leave it to the dead to bury their own dead; but you, go out and announce God's imperial rule."
Another said, "I'll follow you, Sir; but let me first say good-by to my people at home."
Jesus said to him, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is qualified for God's imperial rule." Luke 9:60-62, SV
Or this bit of comfort:

Some who were there at the time told him about the Galileans, about how Pilate had mixed their blood with their sacrifices. He answered them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were the worst sinners in Galilee, because they suffered this? Hardly. However, let me tell you, if you don't have a change of heart, you'll all meet your doom in the same way. Or how about those eighteen in Siloam, who were killed when the tower fell on them. Do you suppose that they were any guiltier than the whole population of Jerusalem? Hardly. However, let me tell you, if you don't have a change of heart, all of you will meet your doom in a similar fashion." Luke 13:1-5, SV.
A distorted picture of Jesus in the gospels only because I have picked a few specific examples to make a point, one I think Douthat has in mind. There isn't really much about the Jesus of the gospels in "Angels and Demons," which is just fine for the story; but unless you think the Roman church doesn't have much to do with the teachings of Jesus either, Brown's is a very distorted view of Christianity. Douthat is right about that: Jesus was not all about you, and what makes you feel better.

Atrios picks up the tail end of that Douthat quote in his objection (and he's welcome to it; I'm not trying to start an argument of Douthat here). But in context, I find little to disagree with. If something is not particularly true, what's the point of it? If my politics are not particularly true, how do I blog about them? If my religious beliefs are not particularly true, how do I hold to them? If my love for my wife, my daughter, my friends, my family, is not particularly true, what good am I?

And the fact is, "The 'secret' history of Christendom that unspools in 'The Da Vinci Code' is false from start to finish." There's really no argument about that. The argument Douthat makes about "lost gospels" and "persuasive alternative[s] to the New Testament account" is an unremarkable one. Perhaps it's the exclusion of the religious community Atrios objects to, but every community inevitably means some are included, some excluded. As Dom Crossan points out, it is the community that decides whether an experience is even religious, or not.

Hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares, visions and apparitions are not the same as delusions and hallucinations. If you wake up screaming because a giant figure is ready to attack you, that is a nightmarish dream. You spouse reassures you, saying it is just a bad dream, urging you to go back to sleep. And you do. Buf if you call 9-1-1 that night to report an intruder and summond ADT the next day to put in a security system, you are moving from dream to delusion. It is part of reality to know which is which. If you come down from the mountaintop and report a revelation from Archangel Micheal, you have seen an apparition. If you keep insisting that Bigfoot-with-Wings is up there and that everyone should go see it, you are beyond vision and into hallucination. If is part of reality to know which is which....Trance and ecstasy, vision and apparition are perfectly normal and natural phenomena. Altered states of consciousness, such as dreams and visions, are something common to our humanity, something hard-wired into our brains, something as normal as language itself...And only when their human normalcy is accepted can a proper response be offered. That response should not be, We deny the fact of your vision. It should be, Tell us the content of your vision. And then we will judge, nother whether you had it or not, but whether we should follow it or not.
John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), ix-x.

If you haven't chosen to follow it, the visions, even the distinctions, may seem odd; but if you do follow them, they make sense. Either way, while I may disagree with Douthat's conclusions, it's hardly accurate to say he's strictly arguing for a "true religion" of "One." More accurately, he just doesn't like the picture of Christianity painted by Dan Brown. But even a "liberal" Biblical scholar like Dom Crossan doesn't care for Dan Brown's version of history; and I doubt Rod Douthat and Dom Crossan would agree on much else.

Indeed, the picture Douthat paints in his critique of Brown's presentation of religion is a theology little distinguishable from the "Gospel of Wealth" of Joel Osteen. The archives of the Vatican, for example, as envisioned by the film, would be the envy of any museum in the world (not least for its holdings, but also for the facilities that hold them). There's something bizarrely bourgeois and materialist about the Vatican the film imagines, right down to the superlative security gear that would be the envy of the White House (Nixon had nothing on the Pope!). But hey, it's a thriller! And Hollywood can never imagine how real people live. Even "Roseanne" lived in materialistic splendor compared to most working class families I've ever known. It's not a documentary; it wasn't meant to be. Still, Douthat makes a good point: the kerygma of the Gospel is not about wealth and health and happiness in this life, right here, right now, hallelujah! But to critique the film on that basis overlooks one of the best lines in the film, said to the agnostic Langdon by the religious head of the Swiss Guard:

"My church comforts the sick and the dying. My church feeds the hungry. What does your church do? Oh, that's right, you don't have a church!"
It's not Joyce, but it's not meant to be (talk about a guy who hated the Church!). Now, that's exclusionary, too; and yet it's not an assertion of "one true religion."

I do think the fascination with the "lost gospels" and the "Gnostic gospels" is largely a matter of ignorance. But, by the same token, there's a lot of ignorance swirling around the canonical gospels; indeed, just as much. Ironically, I've been looking at a Catholic university for my daughter, and this morning I noticed their words on their college seal: "Sapientia et Doctrina." Wisdom and doctrine: two poles of understanding that I would agree to myself. Wisdom arises from knowledge, but it is something much more than that alone. Doctrine arises from the community, but it alone is not enough to guide a life by. Of course, my doctrina might well not be the doctrina of this university. Does this make either of us exclusionary? I suppose it could, but it doesn't have to. It doesn't mean we are so open minded as to accept everything as equally valid but then, who is? As for Douthat, people who cling to the "truth" of the canonical gospels without any understanding of the culture they came from, or of history for the past 2000 years, are living in glass houses and throwing stones at people who find any value or interest in the Nag Hammadi and other documents; and to that extent, I part company with Douthat. But only to that degree. I suppose he's trying to proclaim the One True Religion, and yes, that is a lonely profession in the best of circumstances. But it's not necessarily the wrong confession.

Who among us doesn't believe in the One Truth Thing? And who among us is angelic enough, or demonic enough, to keep from making our confession sound exclusionary, if we are pushed to acknowledge it?

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