Monday, January 06, 2014

On Being Here

Now what?

There is a problem here, and again, it's one of generalization:

It was this doubt and uncertainty that the evangelicals of [Molly] Worthen’s history tried to exorcise, and of course they might as well have tried to recreate the social conditions of New Testament Galilee. What philosophers call the “background,” [Charles] Taylor writes, has shifted from one in which a naive theistic construal was almost ubiquitous to one “in which everyone’s construal shows up as such; and in which moreover, unbelief has become for many the major default option.” This transformation cannot be undone but by another, equally earthshaking transformation, and such events cannot be brought about deliberately.

Context is important for quotes, I'm always telling my students; so let's put this quote in context.  The subject is the rise of the evangelical movement, and, in the case of the reference to Molly Worthen's book, the effort by evangelicals in the 20th century to respond (to make it brief) to Modernism.  I mean by that the movement, similar to, say, Romanticism, of literature, arts, philosophy, that came out of both the 19th century sense they had attended God's Funeral (Arnold's "Dover Beach" and Hardy's "God's Funeral" being mile markers for the discussion), and the collapse of faith in both God and civilization (who were, after all, one and the same thing) in and after World War I (e.g, why the "Lost Generation" was "lost"). Taylor's effort is aimed at explaining the change that has occurred in (at least) the 20th century.  Robbins quotes him this way:  “It’s a commonplace that something that deserves” the title of secularization “has taken place in our civilization,” Taylor writes. “The problem is defining exactly what it is that has happened.” 

So now we have the context, let's look at the assertions.  Taylor argues our "background" has shifted from that "almost ubiquitous...naive theistic construal" to one "in which everyone's construal shows up as such; and in which moreover, unbelief has become for many the major default option."  Which is true, only if you reduce all of human history down to the 20th century as the province of cartoon characters with about as complex a weltanschaaung as a Chick tract. (Read the article at Slate; it's worth it.)  I mean:  really?  People were simple before we got here, but they're complex now?

I don't even have to bring up examples from the Roman Empire of the 1st century C.E. to challenge that notion.  It's completely idiotic.

I find Worthen's argument, at least as Robbins presents it, to be far more insightful.  No doubt the evangelicals she writes of "tried to recreate the social conditions of New Testament Galilee."  But are the stories of wandering faith healers (Jesus was hardly unique in that assertion) that different from the stories of wandering faith healers today?  Except today they tend to be on TeeVee (yes, in rather regular pendulum swings of popularity and obscurity, but still, the more things change....).  And yes, this has always fascinated me:

What’s interesting is that the proposed solutions often rested upon the methodologies of secularism itself. Worthen recounts evangelical attempts to reinforce premodern dogma using the tools of modern empiricism, sociology, and anthropology—the very regimes of knowledge they often condemned for displacing Christ.

I've always been interested in the willingness of evangelicals to embrace the "world," especially as they could turn it to their own purposes.  Usually they are quite forthright about this, if not entirely intellectually consistent:  basically any piece of technology or social construct that can serve their purposes is "from God," and any technology or social construct they don't find useful in evangelism, is a tool of Satan.

But Taylor just kind of goes all stupid on me with assertions like this:

Taylor uses the example of a person possessed by evil spirits in first-century Palestine: It simply wasn’t open to those around such a person “to entertain the idea that this was an interesting explanation for a psychological condition, identifiable purely in intra-psychic terms, but that there were other, possibly more reliable aetiologies for this condition.” We, on the other hand, “cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on.” We can’t help “living our faith also in a condition of doubt and uncertainty.”
In one sense, perhaps there were "more reliable aetiologies for this condition," but that's rather like saying life in the past would have been simpler with cell phones.  You don't get there without radically shifting not only the technological/physical world, but the cultural/social world as well.  As to the "condition of doubt and uncertainty," consider, from the Gospel of John, early in the 2nd century C.E  The speaker is Jesus.:

"Father, glorify your name!"  Then a voice spoke out of the sky, "I've glorified it and I'll glorify it further."  The crowd there heard this, and some people remarked that it had thundered, others than an angel had spoken to him....Although he performed ever so many miracles before their eyes, they did not believe in him...."  John 12: 28-29, 37 (SV).

And there is also the famous statement from Paul to the Thessalonians: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." The very idea that faith is a unitary thing without any "condition of doubt [or] uncertainty" is belied by the scriptures which supposedly form that faith.  There are the complaints of Isaiah and Jeremiah; the insistence by Israel that Moses talk to God on Sinai, and leave them out of it; the demand of Israel for a king to rule them, because everybody else has one (despite God's insistence they'll be sorry).  I could go on, because the idea that faith makes life simple and easy, is a ludicrous one.  I should note, in the context of the passage from John, it is clear the audience there are all Jews who have "followed the Law."

And I haven't even touched on the Jewish tradition of midrash.  Interpretation alone introduces it's own degree of "doubt and uncertainty."

Perhaps doubt and uncertainty is meant to describe a condition in which faith is difficult, or even impossible.  In which case, I would point to the Psalms ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?") or Ecclesiastes, or the Book of Job (which never explains anything to Job), or the Book of Jonah (more a book of wisdom than of prophecy).   And that's just a bit of what I know from the Christian canon.  Aware that there are different construals?  How many languages and cultures do you imagine were present in the Roman Empire, even in Jerusalem itself?  What does Tayler imagine the Exile was like, or the destruction of the Temple by Roman soldiers?  And that had happened before the Gospel of Mark was written.

Robbins is more sensible, though he doesn't critique Taylor.  In fact he ends praising Taylor, and it may be Taylor thinks he does a service to modern readers by appealing to their historical prejudice (or just sheer ignorance).  I find the complexity of history allows me to associate myself with the clouds of witness who come before me, but I can set aside the discussion of Taylor's thesis because Robbins provides this wonderful quote from Marilynn Robinson, whom I really need to get around to reading:

People who insist that the sacredness of Scripture depends on belief in creation in a literal six days seem never to insist on a literal reading of “to him who asks, give,” or “sell what you have and give the money to the poor.” In fact, their politics and economics align themselves quite precisely with those of their adversaries, who yearn to disburden themselves of the weak, and to unshackle the great creative forces of competition. The defenders of “religion” have made religion seem foolish while rendering it mute in the face of a prolonged and highly effective assault on the poor.
Because that's really where the issue is, for Christians at least:  not to rescue the concept of "faith" or "belief" (like Robbins, "I often think the notion of 'belief' is more trouble than it’s worth," but I would add the notion of "faith" to that; at least outside a theological context), but to recover the true basis of the sacredness of Scripture:  an address to the question "How should we then live?", and to focus us on the importance, not of self, but of Other.

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