Wednesday, July 17, 2013

In the spotlight, losing my religion....

The problem with popularizing theology, as with the problem of popularizing philosophy, is that in doing so you can get it all wrong.

Karen Armstrong here, speaking to Oprah, says that the secret truth of all religions is that one can only say what God is not, even though she claims the Bible is a "starter kit" about what God is.

So already we have a kind of jumble that's pretty much a "do it yourself" kit for religion, which of course appeals enormously to people like Oprah Winfrey, because: a) it puts you, the individual, in charge, and b) it means that whatever you think God is, God is.  That this plays right into the anti-theist charge that any concept of "god" is mere sophistry cannot be denied, but let that go; intellectual rigor is not this "scholar's" point, at least not here.

The more substantial problem is that Armstrong takes an idea as old as Christianity itself, and makes it the the only theology available.  Christian mystics constructed the idea of "negative theology," not as an intellectual escape hatch from all those hard-to-answer or defend questions of theology (which, after all, is the study and discussion of the nature of God), but as an acknowledgement that God is not encompassed within human understanding (and one response is that anything not within human understanding simply is not; but leave that aside for the moment).  There are various negative theologies, all aimed at giving an intellectual framework to the notion that God is, ultimately, ineffable.  Negative theology is a way to talk about that ineffability, by talking about knowing the nature of God through discerning what God is not.

There is something valuable and subtle about negative theology; but it is not a substitute for a theology.

Unless you are Karen Armstrong, who turns her concept of God into a description of a wall; or a snake; or a whip; or a tree trunk.  She abandons, in other words, the humility that negative theology is supposed to engender (God is ultimately beyond our experience or understanding) and replaces it with "God is whatever we think God is, because no one can say what God is!"

Nice work, if you can get it; but lousy theology, and really pretty lame scholarship.

I mention this not to gratuitously bash Ms. Armstrong, but to note a new trend in reporting on American Christianity (I know Ms. Armstrong is British, but she appeals to that most American of Americans today, Oprah):  the idea that the most valid religious experience is one that denounces religion in favor of some much more secular viewpoint.  A man decides the thin skein of doctrine and theology he grew up with in the Pentecostal church can no longer sustain his faith, so he abandons faith in God for the equally tenuous faith in human reason, and by his atheism becomes a subject worthy of an NPR radio story.  Another also abandons his evangelical theology, but again keeps the basic premise that fervor is what matters, and defines Jesus as a Zealot; defines Jesus, as he tells Terry Gross, as someone he wants to worship.  Nothing wrong with that, either; except that we all do it, and writing a book about it doesn't mean you have a better insight than others.  It just means that, once again, to the man with a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.

So, to Karen Armstrong, who wants God to be a much more convenient proposition, God is simply indefinable, and what cannot be defined cannot impose constraints; or, for that matter, raise pesky intellectual problems.

Let me take the words of Reza Aslan for my example:

[The Apostles] were farmers and fisherman. These were illiterates; they could neither read nor write, so they couldn't really espouse Christology, high-minded theology about who Jesus was. They certainly couldn't write anything down. Instead the task of spreading the Gospel message outside of Jerusalem, of really creating what we now know as Christianity, fell to a group of urbanized, Hellenized, educated Jews in the Diaspora; [and] for [the Romans], having grown up immersed in this Hellenized, Romanized world, the concept of a God-man was something quite familiar. Caesar Augustus was a God-man. What we really see in these 20 years after Jesus' death is this process whereby this Jewish religion based on a Jewish revolutionary becomes transformed into a Roman religion, where Jesus is transformed from a Jewish conception of a Messiah to a kind of Roman demigod.
All of which is accurate; it comports with what I learned in seminary.  Does it mean, though, that all of Christianity is wrong?  That I must throw out the baby with the bathwater, consider the scriptures merely a "starter kit," and set out on my own to define God for me?

Well, I suppose I could; but it would seem more admirable if I engaged my faith community in how to understand this information within the framework of what I learned as the Sunday School version of Jesus.

I like, by the way, the dismissive "Christology, high-minded theology about who Jesus was."  Simply to answer the question reportedly put by Jesus to his disciples "Who do you say that I am?", is to engage in Christology.  You don't have to label it with a Grecian term in order to do it, and you don't have to be high-minded about it to try to answer the question.

I find the reasoning that avers that Jesus can't be Christ because the idea is too akin to Roman notions of divinity an interesting one.  On the one hand, no less a scholar than Dom Crossan uses the very idea of Jesus as Messiah as the explanation for his crucifixion and for the ultimate crucifixion of Paul, as well as an impetus for Paul's theology, which Crossan argues set up and continued the idea of Jesus of Nazareth being a political counterpoint figure to Caesar in Rome.  So, you see, you can do it without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  But there's also underlying Aslan's argument a need for purity that is wholly unrealistic, and to understand this we need to understand the concept of the holy.

Derrida is helpful here.  He points out that holy, heilege in German, (the change of language helps us realize this doesn't involve just English or English speakers), means "set apart in order to be kept pure."  It's a word almost wholly connected with religion, but it could be accurately (if oddly, given its connotations) used to describe a bandage in a sterile package:  the bandage is set apart, sealed off, so it can remain sterile, which is to say, pure.  Of course we don't connect "sterile" and "pure."  We think of "pure" as describing something singular, like a precious metal which has no admixtures in it.  "Sterile" means something germ-free (and so "clean") or something unable to reproduce (which may bring in connections to sexual reproduction as "dirty," but that gets us unto contemplating how "dirt" is simply matter out of place, and then we're off on a whole 'nother pursuit).  But to be sterile in the germ-free sense is to be pure for the purpose of medical treatment, like a sterile bandage.  And both can mean to be "holy," because that's why we call things holy:  they are pure, they are singular, they are set apart and should not be contaminated with admixtures or "dirt."

God, therefore, is holy.  And if God is holy, God is singular.  And if God is singular, God cannot partake of human concepts or of things which are not God, such as Roman demigods or Caesar's who claim themselves to be "Son of God."  If Jesus was declared "Son of God" in his lifetime, it would have been a political declaration, since that was a title claimed by Caesar.  The Gospels say the cross was decorated with a sign "Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews."  Had it said "Son of God," it would have been no less political in the Empire; but it would be quite confusing to say so today, after centuries of reserving that title for divinity, and that divinity a single historical person.  The need to keep God holy, then, often undergirds ideas like Aslan's, that Jesus couldn't have called himself "son of God" because it would be too much like a Roman, and not enough like a Jew.

Which also sort of avoids the work of Paul, a Roman citizen and a Jew, who declares Jesus divine by virtue of the crucifixion (Jesus' faithfulness to God even unto death) and the resurrection (the sign of God's favor), which is the "first fruit" of a general resurrection Paul seems to have anticipated within his lifetime.  Is that a version of a Roman demigod?  It's a very odd one, although resurrection was a Hellenistic notion of a display of divine favor (and more useful than becoming a constellation, which was an early version of much the same idea).  And was Paul, by the way, literate?  Not in the way we think.  He could read, but writing was a menial task unconnected to reading.  It's clear Paul dictated his letters, much the way an executive or professional today would direct a secretary to turn his words into neatly typed prose.  Typing is still the menial task left to others by those who do the "writing."

Do I mean, then, that Jesus never called himself divine?  I am less sanguine about the issue than Aslan, largely because Aslan demands a purity in his concept of God which the world does not allow.  Did God create the culture of Abrahamic faith, or did the culture of the region where the tribes who came together to become Israel, create their understanding and expression of the nature of God?  I think it more likely, as well as reasonable, that culture is the shaping force; but that doesn't mean concepts of God are merely cultural and wholly human inventions.  I just don't think you can know the dance apart from the dancer.

The pursuit of holiness, in other words, leads you in circles.  As Yeats also noted:  

'Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,' I cried.
'My friends are gone, but that's a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart's pride.

'A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.' 

I'm not so concerned with purging my religion of Hellenisms or Romanisms, in other words.  Many a Christian mystic has focused more on what God is, than on what God is not, and yet they've kept true to the notion that God is, ultimately, ineffable.  They are also quite comfortable with the notion that God is known bodily; more than one Christian mystic describes the encounter with God as akin to sexual ecstasy.  I'm more comfortable with that theology than with one that insists we can know nothing (which means we can't know anything about God, except that somehow the hole has a donut) or that our God must be so heilege as to be beyond human comprehension; or perhaps, too entwined in human comprehension.


  1. "....the most valid religious experience is one that denounces religion in favor of some much more secular viewpoint"

    Yes, and it's largely done for the same reason I believe you're finding Karen Armstrong annoying, it's a media presentation as intellectual discourse. While I liked her History of God well enough and her book on the Buddha, too much of it seems to be trying to ingratiate an audience. I'm finding that the more I go on, the more I see of things the less I'm impressed by secularism, I simply don't any longer believe that a society can be decent, democracy can exist and self-government can happen without a deep and effective consciousness of God. It was the secularism of the "founders" that allowed them to overlook that the slaves they kept were people possessing equal rights, that allowed them to continue with the genocide that was begun by previous generations with an increased vigor, that allowed them to sow the spore that would break out in the civil war and the aftermath of that which we are still living with into the constitution and government.

    I no longer believe that a secularized society or one that is far removed from the deepest faith in the endowment of equal rights and a moral obligation to observe those rights, equally, can escape being depraved. And that means believing in the one who endowed us with those rights and obligations.

    I'm no theologian but I am ever increasingly impressed with theology as a serious, important and profoundly intellectual AND spiritual study.

  2. "Luther constructed the idea of "negative theology"."

    I'm not familiar enough with Luther to know what exactly he meant by "negative theology," but I'm fairly certain he didn't originate it. I've always associated the idea with Pseudo-Dionysius. The following, from an audience by Pope Benedict in 2008, gives, I think a decent overview:

    "I think it is the first great mystic theology. Moreover, the word "mystic" acquires with him a new meaning. Until this epoch, for Christians, this word was equivalent to the word "sacramental," that is, that which pertains to the "mysterion," sacrament. With him, the word "mystic" becomes more personal, more intimate: It expresses the path of the soul toward God.

    "And, how is it possible to find God? Here we observe again an important element in his dialogue between Greek thought and Christianity, in particular, biblical faith. Apparently what Plato says and what great philosophy says about God is much more elevated, much more true; the Bible seems very "bárbara," simple, precritical, we would say today. But he observes that precisely this is necessary so that we can thus understand that the most elevated concepts of God never reach his true greatness. They are always beneath him.

    "These images bring us to understand, in reality, that God is above every concept; in the simplicity of the images, we find more truth than in the great concepts. The face of God is our incapacity to truly express what he is. In this way he speaks -- Pseudo-Dionysius himself says -- of a "negative theology." It is easier to say what God is not than to express what he really is."

  3. True dat.

    I should have corrected it before the final draft went to press.

    I really need an editor.

  4. "I simply don't any longer believe that a society can be decent, democracy can exist and self-government can happen without a deep and effective consciousness of God."

    I think that's overstating it, but I do think a healthy society needs something greater than the sum of its (current) human parts (of course, the USA is far, far even from that!). To be all 12 Steppy, a healthy&just society needs "a Power greater than itself." I think the Founders did have "Nature and Nature's God", but that clearly wasn't sufficient to see the people they OWNED as, well, people. And their equals, as citizens.

    But anything that smacks of theocracy is a non-starter, even w/ "Why can't everyone else just become an Episcopalian?" *me*. ;-)

  5. I didn't say a government, I said a society. If there is one thing clear about the history of theocratic governments it's that it corrupts religion producing governments as corrupt as one that is without a sense of moral obligations in the people comprising it.

    Jefferson, Madison, Washington, etc. all endorsed the teachings of Jesus, none of them did to their slaves has they would have done unto them. Washington did a far better job than Jefferson, who actually became far worse as he grew older in his treatment of slaves. Though Washington didn't emancipate his slaves during his lifetime and his family didn't even emancipate those who escaped and began new lives during his lifetime and after, as in the case of Oney Judge Staines and her children.

    Not every religion contains an effective belief in equally held rights that are inviolable, matched with effective moral obigations to respect those rights on an equal basis. But materialism either doesn't hold those or hold those in a way that will be effective in enough people to produce a societal effect. Materialism seems to be a lot better at denying those are more than whims or illusions.

    A secular, neutral government is essential, a secular society is a recipe for disaster. I used to believe the opposite, after a decade of interaction with materialists and other species of atheists and the religiously hostile and indifferent, I can't ignore what I've seen.

  6. But anything that smacks of theocracy is a non-starter, even w/ "Why can't everyone else just become an Episcopalian?" *me*. ;-)

    so nothing personal in it, part of the problem is the tendency toward either/or: either one believes in a transcendent deity, or one accepts only materialism as the answer to all things; either one is a fundamentalist Xian, or one is a fundamentalist atheist; either one believes in the importance of God and wants a theocracy, or one....

    Well, you get the idea. The FF's weren't all that good on slavery, for example, but Xians of many stripes managed to work to repeal it without establishing a theocracy. Same thing with Dr. King and the civil rights movement.

    We can do this, in other words. We really do know how.

  7. The older I get, the more I want to return to simplicity. The closest we come to knowing God is the Christ in the Gospels who taught his followers the Two Great Commandments, to love God and love your neighbor as yourself, and the Golden Rule, to do as you would be done to. If I remain focused on the two teachings, which I see as the heart of the Gospel, my way forward seems clearer.

  8. Maybe I'm off topic, but I don't know what kind of person I would be without God and the Gospel,
    whether I would care at all about anything except me and mine.