"Is it a gun/is it a knife/is it a wallet/this is your life":
Sometimes it feels like nothing ever much changes.
Dawkins and Pinker replied that you ask them to show you their evidence — the basis of their claim to be taken seriously — and then you show them yours, and you contrast the precious few facts they have with the enormous body of data collected and vetted by credentialed scholars and published in the discipline’s leading journals. Point, game, match.
Not quite. Pushed by Hayes, who had observed that when we accept the conclusions of scientific investigation we necessarily do so on trust (how many of us have done or could replicate the experiments?) and are thus not so different from religious believers, Dawkins and Pinker asserted that the trust we place in scientific researchers, as opposed to religious pronouncements, has been earned by their record of achievement and by the public rigor of their procedures. In short, our trust is justified, theirs is blind.
Fish goes on to note Dawkins' rather startling (and no doubt unconscious) reversion to the argument from doctrinal authority when he declares that when questioned about their theories, scientists can refer to studies and "cite chapter and verse" in support of their position. Fish parlays that into a typically fishian point about the subjectivity of all authority, and up to a point I'm with him, but the issues isn't quite as subjectivistic as I think he wants to make it.
On the one hand, Fish is right that we all start from some set of first principles or another -- even Stephen Pinker, even Richard Dawkins. And in matters of first principles, there really is no way to determine in some "objective" sense which set of first principles is the "true" set. If I choose to cite "chapter and verse" from the Bible and claim that as my set of first principles, how is that in any way necessarily inferior to someone who chooses to cite "chapter and verse" from a scientific study, particularly when they are citing technical studies that are not widely read and not likely to be understood by their audience, who will ultimately resort to saying something like "Well, I believe in evolutionary theory because Richard Dawkins!" There is, for ordinary laypeople, no real engagement with the actual data of scientific theories, and so we take it on faith as much as we take religious doctrines on faith.
On the other hand, to take a religious doctrine on faith is a different sort of thing than to take a scientific theory on faith, and therein lies the tension. Dawkins and Pinker rightly reply that their data are publicly accessible and anyone who wants to investigate it honestly can, and will likely come to the same conclusions (say, about climate change). Or they might not, they might point to some authentic hole in the data that will open up new avenues of investigation, and that is all to the good. That's how science is supposed to work. When it's corrupted, say by global warming skeptics who are wholly owned subsidiaries of oil companies, then the process of scientific investigation is thwarted.
But to take a religious doctrine on faith is not about "evidence" in the same way that a scientific theory is about evidence. The evidence of a religious claim is rooted in precisely the kinds of experience that are inaccessible to science, in the same way that aesthetic judgements or statements about personal states of being are inaccessible to science. To use two examples that I've deployed frequently in the past: What scientific theory will tell me whether its true that Picasso's Guernica is the greatest piece of 20th century art? In the same vein, what scientific theory will tell me whether my mother truly loves me? Science can't help me on either of those fronts because they are not scientific questions, namely questions about the physical or natural world, it's processes and its states. The problem with Pinker and Dawkins is that they expect science to do too much. They expect it to be capable of answering questions that it is simply not set up to answer.
What that means is that, while it may not be possible to argue from first principles that one should prefer a scientific worldview to a religious worldview, it is absolutely possible to argue that scientific and religious worldviews answer different kinds of questions, and therefore can be true and valid in their own, quite different ways. This is not quite the same as Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA principle, which says that these domains have nothing to do with one another. Rather, they may investigate the same phenomena, and come to very different kinds of conclusions, while still informing one another from within their own domains.
Religion makes a mistake when it thinks that it can provide answers about the nature of physical processes as physical processes. But science, at least as practiced by Dawkins an Pinker, makes a mistake when it thinks that science can provide answers about questions of ultimate concern or the nature of God. It lacks the tools to meaningfully answer such questions. But at the same time, one can rationally make the kinds of distinctions that would allow religion and science to meaningfully converse with one another on the basis of their own domains, and even chastise one another when they cross over to the wrong side of the argument. Unfortunately, these days the state of the debate is such that crossing over the wrong side is more the norm among the talking heads then the exception, as the Christ Hayes conversation regrettably demonstrates.
A century ago, something like 10% of the country belonged to a conservative Protestant denomination. That's grown steadily ever since, and today it's around 30%. So there's really no mystery to explain here. Conservative Christians have become more outspoken and more politically powerful simply because they've grown more numerous. Sometime in the 70s, their numbers finally passed a threshold where they became a serious voting bloc, and they've been growing more powerful every year since then.
What's more, at the same time this has happened, America really has become more secularized. No, religion isn't under assault, and a lot of the rhetoric from the Christian right is grotesquely over the top. Still, it's simply a fact that liberals have engineered a growing separation of church and state over the past few decades. Classroom prayers led by teachers have been outlawed. Your local city hall can't put up its traditional Nativity scene. Christmas assemblies focus on generic songs without any religious content. Judges can't festoon their courtrooms with copies of the Ten Commandments. Religious schools are denied federal funding. Etc.
In other words, the at the same time that conservative evangelicalism was genuinely growing, and learning to flex its political muscles, the United States was becoming increasingly more secular.
Kevin doesn't have a problem with this trajectory, and even though I don't share his religious outlook, neither do I. But it's worth noting what this means for the role of religion in public life: If during the same period, a religious group is coming into its own in terms of numbers and political clout, and its central moral concerns seem to be increasingly ignored, this is a recipe for social conflict, which is exactly what we've seen over the last 30 years. Kevin is right that there's no mystery here. It's human nature and demographics at work.
But for those of us who think that a broadly liberal and secular society are preferable to the imposition of a narrowly construed conservative evangelical set of moral principles, the difficult question remains: Can we create a modus vivendi with conservative Christianity, or will the conflict continue to intensify? I think that there are paths forward toward a way of living together, but they mostly revolve around conservative evangelical accepting the reality of religious pluralism, or in other words, letting my side win.
I suspect the odds of that taking place are slim, I have difficulty seeing a way forward that gives any significant ground in terms of public discourse to the religious right. After all, what would that entail sacrificing? Gay rights? Contraception? Prayer in schools? The establishment of the "Christian nation" principle"? None of these are acceptable from the perspective of someone who embraces liberalism and pluralism in public and religious life. But if that means that conflict can only intensified, that raises it's own troubling questions, not least of which is: Where will this ultimately lead?
Tony Jones continues his survey of alternative theories of atonement to replace the penal substitutionary theory. This week he connects the theology of Jürgen Moltmann to the Trevon Martin case:
In this conception of the atonement, the reality of sin is not denied. Indeed, the consequences of sin are great. God has allowed humanity an almost limitless amount of freedom. Moltmann borrows from the Jewish tradition of Kabbalah to posit that God has withdrawn himself enough to make room for a creation that is other than God. But with that freedom come the chaos that eventuates with the experience of godforsakenness.
Further, sin has a social nature. We attempt to counteract our experience of godforsakenness by filling our lives with striving, often at the expense of others. This inexorably leads to wars, violence, oppression, and inequality. Jesus’ life, and particularly his death, show God’s ultimate solidarity with the marginalized and the oppressed—with those who most acutely experience godforsakenness.
In other words, Jesus was with Trayvon, lying on the sidewalk, with a bullet in his chest. If Trayvon was able to cry out to God–and even if he was not–Jesus was there, with him, dying.
The call for us who live is to identify with Christ’s suffering and death, much as he has identified with us. In his death, we are united with his suffering. And in identifying with his resurrection, we are raised to new life.
In the crucifixion, God opens the Trinity to us. The eternal love of the Trinity is made available to us in the ultimately humbling act of death on a cross, and our experience of godforsakenness is overcome, for we are now welcomed into the relation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This particular approach to the atonement has always had a deep resonance with me. I stumbled across Moltmann's The Crucified God in a used bookstore when I was in college, not realizing at the time what I had in my hands. I picked up Theology of Hope and God in Creation in the same trip, but it was only a year or two later that I began to pick these books up and delve into what they had to say about God, Christ, and the human condition. If I can be said to be influenced by a single theologian more than any other, it would be Moltmann.
And what Tony points out here is at the heart of the reason why. Moltmann's theology is based on the idea that God is fundamentally in solidarity with the human condition, that the incarnation of Jesus Christ is the sign of that solidarity, and through Jesus Christ God comes to experience and redeem the entirety of the human condition, including God-forsakenness and damnation.
Of course, this perspective has come in for a lot of criticism over the years, and often for understandable reasons. It seems at points to be contradictory, and Moltmann has not always successfully sewn up those contradictions to the degree he might have. But the power of the basic idea, that of God's solidarity with the suffering and the dispossessed through the incarnation, carries so much weight that it can almost completely overcome those contradictions. It is true in a profound way, even if it is not completely true or true in every way, and my first impulse when talking about Jesus Christ is to root my words in the theology of Jürgen Moltmann.
Tony points to an important implication of Moltmann's theology, one that ought to leave any Christian deeply uncomfortable, but one which I also think contains deep truth. It is this passage:
If that is to be taken seriously, it must also be said that, like the cross of Christ, even Auschwitz is in God himself. Even Auschwitz is taken up into the grief of the Father, the surrender of the Son and the power of the Spirit…As Paul says in I Cor. 15, only with the resurrection of the dead, the murdered and the gassed, only with the healing of those in despair who bear lifelong wounds, only with the abolition of all rule and authority, only with the annihilation of death will the Son hand over the kingdom to the Father. Then God will turn his sorrow into eternal joy…God in Auschwitz and Auschwitz in the crucified God—that is the basis for a real hope which both embraces and overcomes the world, and the ground for a love which is stronger than death and can sustain death.
This can be seriously misread to say that Christianity ultimately even gets to claim ownership of the suffering endured in Auschwitz, but that's not Moltmann's intention. Rather, he wants to say, and has said repeatedly, that the God of both Jews and Christians, and of Jews first and primarily suffers for and with God's people the Jews in Auschwitz. And for Christians, this suffering is understood in the same manner as Christ's suffering on the cross. For Jews, this is often understood under the idea of God's Shekinah, or indwelling presence among God's people. But both convey the same basic idea -- that God's identity should be understood to be rooted in God's identification with and suffering on behalf of God's people.
In the end though, a difficult question remains for anyone who holds to this doctrine: Does God only suffer for God's people, or will God exercise power to somehow bring justice to God's people and against their oppressors. Moltmann has tried out several answers to this question, none of which has ever been wholly satisfactory.
At Religion Dispatches Elaine Pagels discusses the book of Revelation. Of particular interest is her read on the difference between the way the book should be read, and the way it so often is read:
American Christians assume that what prophecy does is predict specific events to happen. And of course that’s the way the Book of Revelation has been read. I got fascinated with the way this book has lived for 2000 years—from the Franciscans, the Catholics, and the Protestants battling over it in Europe, and then during the American Civil War, with people on both sides reading it. And in World War II and the Iraq War as well.
They read it, as you say, as predicting this means this, orthe beast is this. But prophesy, as we know, is a highly interpretative art, and the way this book lives and has lived for two thousand years is by interpretation and reinterpretation. The way this book has lived has to do with the openness of these vivid symbols for John of Patmos—like the headed beast, bright red, or the Whore of Babylon, or 666, or the Battle of Armageddon—about how those have been read and interpreted throughout the centuries.
I haven't read Pagels' book, but I remember well the course I took on Revelation at Andover Newton. One of the best Bible courses I took. But I also remember a comment by Richard Bauckham on the meaning of Revelation from his brief commentary (I'm paraphrasing here): The central question of the book of revelation is who wears the mantle of the beast. In other words, "who is Rome today?" Whoever fulfills the role of Rome, imposing its power across the world, acting as a global hegemon, plays the role of Rome, and wears the mantle of the Beast.
This is an idea that should be deeply disturbing to American Christians.
As I watched Katniss Everdeen fight to the death, I became aware that I could just as well have been a citizen of Panem, watching the Hunger Games on a giant screen, rooting for favorites, desensitized from the film’s artfully-orchestrated-so-as-to-maintain-a-PG-13-rating-but-still-incredibly-disturbing violence.
She goes on to connect the themes of the novel, and to a lesser extent the movie, to some of the overarching themes of Christianity:
As in Christianity, violence in "The Hunger Games" also serves a purpose: It is not gratuitous. It is not voyeuristic. But there’s a difference as well: We the viewers are not witnessing a past event. We feel like we are seeing the Games in real time, that we are part of Panem and, by virtue of sitting in the audience, part of its dysfunction.
That powerful revelation encourages us to contemplate the ways that we are complicit in violence in our own world and the ways in which we do not object.
So perhaps the great irony revealed by the film is that we are not meant to see it. We’re not intended to watch its violence, because this story, as Gale says, is meant to be protested. Which means that, ironically, "The Hunger Games’ " greatest triumph would be an empty theater and streets full of people demanding the kinds of changes needed in Katniss’ world and in our own.
I'm still working my way through the first novel, and I'm unlikely to get to the movie any time soon, but this does cause me to reflect a bit on my own media violence consumption: From The Walking Dead to Game of Thrones to Mass Effect, I consume and (via video and role-playing games) participate in a lot of simulated violence. It's never really bothered me on a moral level because I do recognize a distinction between real and simulated violence. And I always go back to the Aristotelian concept of catharsis when all else fails.
But underneath all of that is the very real question: Not "is simulated violence anesthetizing me to real violence," for which the answer is clearly no. But "is reveling in fantastic worlds and narratives anesthetizing me to the real needs and problems of the world I'm living in. And all too often I fear the answer to that is yes.
In The New Yorker, Joan Acocella reviews a new book on evangelical Christianity in the United States, particularly focusing on the Vineyard Fellowship. The book, by T. M. Luhrman, is called When God Talks Back.
I don't know much about the Vineyard churches, but the review gives a sense of a church that is heavily focused on the idea of a close, intimate, individual relationship with God, that is much more rooted in the idea of developing a deep emotional bond than it is of any particular doctrine, theology, or practice.
Of particular interest is their attitude toward larger issues of public life, like hunger, poverty, politics, and just the general question of human suffering:
Another odd thing about the Vineyarders, at least as described by Luhrmann, is that they seem to perform no social service. Unlike other serious evangelical groups, which are making headway as missionaries in Africa, there appears to be very little spreading of the faith, or even just of well-being—schools, hostels, soup kitchens—on the part of the congregations Luhrmann joined. Maybe she left out their charitable projects on the ground that her book, as its title tells us, is about the Vineyarders’ relationship with God. But I don’t think so, because now and then she comments dryly on their self-concern. Her fellow-congregant Hannah, she says, got mad at God, “not because he allowed genocide in Darfur, but because little things happened in her life that she did not like: ‘I was upset with him for making me a dorm counselor.’ ” Vineyarders may implore God to help fellow-members of their church, but otherwise, in Luhrmann’s account, pretty much everything seems to be about themselves.
Similarly, the book makes almost no mention of politics. To many secular observers, the trend toward conservatism is the most notable and disturbing thing about evangelicals, but I remember only one or two vague mentions of domestic politics in “When God Talks Back.” Forget politics, though. The Vineyarders seem to have no theology—they never try to reconcile reason with faith, nor do they try to account for the existence of evil in a world that is, presumably, ruled by a good God. Their solution to suffering, Luhrmann says, is to ignore it. One of her interviewees was crushed by the sudden death of a friend. Her pastor brought this up in the Sunday service. Luhrmann summarizes his response: “That’s the way it is. ‘Creation is beautiful, but it is not safe.’ He called everyday reality ‘broken.’ ‘God is doing something about it. There’s a fix in progress. It will be okay.’ What should you do? Get to know God. ‘Learn to hang out with him now.’ ”
When I lived in New Jersey, I attended a large evangelical church a few times, and was very interested in their organizational structure, specifically the way that the very large congregation would divide up into small groups, much as they do in the Vineyard churches. I was also intrigued by the "cell structure" of the church, where after it reached a certain size, it would split off and form a new church, by intent (rather than the way it's more commonly done, because of a fight). I thought there were resources to be plumbed there for new ways mainline churches could organize themselves, while leaving some of the spiritual baggage that I didn't much like behind.
But I do remain disturbed by the apparent lack of social concern that I observed in that church, and that Luhrman apparently observed in the churches she examined. Of course, the opposite pole seems to be an excessive concern with vary narrowly partisan politics, which is no good either. And thus I'm back to my continual quandary: How to be involved as a Christian in public life without trying to transform the entirety of the public into my version of Christianity.
I continue to think that there's a lot for the mainline churches to learn from the church that I visited, particularly the small group model of organization, that can help keep people connected around common interests in the midst of a big congregation. This is, I think, where the idea of the church as a community of friends can begin to come to fruition. But can the mainline churches incorporate this model without incorporating the theology of the churches that gave birth to them? That remains an open question for me, one that perhaps I'll have the opportunity to explore at some point in the future.
Fred Clark of Slacktivist draws the parallels by imagining how a 6th season of The Wire might have turned its focus to yet another venerable Baltimore Institution:
If you’re interested in reviving or renewing the institutional church, then before consulting those many books, I recommend that you watch all five seasons of The Wire.
It shouldn’t be hard to draw the parallels and to make the analogies that will allow you to imagine exactly what Season 6 would look like, set in your own city or town. Look at the top brass of the BPD — the cronies and careerists and ladder-climbing, power-seeking incompetents obsessed with their own importance. Look at the mid-level leadership, the lieutenants and sergeants “gaming the stats” because they have more incentive to do that than to do the job itself. Look at Lester Freamon, natural police and a master of the craft, exiled to the Pawn Shop Unit for 13 years and four months because he did the job instead of playing the game. Look at Bunny Colvin, punished for the unpardonable sin of effectiveness.
Do any of these people look familiar? Do any of these stories remind you of anything? The characters, stories and themes of The Wire resonate in any institution. Not only in the church, but certainly there.
All I have to do is imagine any current Bishop in any diocese in the country trying to cover up an abuse scandal, and the whole season more or less writes itself. Clearly Jimmy McNulty would be working for the families of the victims (and cutting corners as he always does), someone will get murdered and Bunk will investigate, and the slimy report dude will make some shit up to land another Pulitzer.
At the blog Experimental Theology, there is a discussion of the traditional Christian "works of mercy," which are rooted in Matthew 25 (with an assist from Tobit16-17). These works are: Feeding the hungry, giving water to those who thirst, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and those in prison, and burying the dead.
As Richard Beck, the author of the post, notes: "These are the actions that define the Christian lifestyle. The irony, of course, is that few Christians actually do any of this."
Frank Schaeffer, one of the founders of the modern religious right, who has long since moved on, talks about the predictions that he and many others on the religious right used to (and still do) make about our inevitable social decline:
In fact the very opposite of the social breakdown we predicted has happened. Those Godless abortion-loving, philandering, divorced gay New Yorkers and other Americans in most urban areas are experiencing the lowest crime rates in almost half a century. And when they go to work it is as part of the most productive generation in American history. And this is at the very time evangelicals are losing their influence over the country. (They backed Rick Santorum and that's not working out too well not to mention that their own young people are leaving their churches in droves and are mostly as pro-gay rights as most other Americans.)
And if anyone is crazy enough to attack us our mighty unparalleled military -- full of gays and women – can exact terrible retribution around the globe.
Moreover the greatest creative leap forward in human history since the Renaissance – the invention of the internet and everything that goes with it – is the creation of post-hippie Godless America.
He goes on to argue that, if you look not at the problems that are the product of the fevered imaginings of right wing Christians, but at our actual problems, they can be blamed directly on the Christian right.
Sure we have big problems, but here’s the point: Not one of our actual problems has anything to do with what we said would happen. In fact the opposite is true. Our problems relate directly to the activities of often conservative religious people and their ideas. Global warming, the fact that Jim Crow is alive and well in our new American apartheid system directed against our mostly incarcerated black male population, the war on women by Roman Catholic bishops and Republican evangelicals… these things come from the heart of the conservative ethos.
It is the Jewish/Christian belief in the exploitation of nature that has led to global warming. It is the race-baiting conservatives using the Bible as their guide that has kept racism alive here. It is the evangelical/Roman Catholic belief that the misogynistic Bible is literally true that has kept the anti-woman agenda alive and the gay bashing going.
Our most pressing problems can be fairly laid at the door of conservative favorites from corporate American capitalist greed, to right wing think tanks and political leaders and the neo conservatives who have done so much to abuse our military and reduce our international prestige by goading us into one useless war after another. And meanwhile corporations and billionaires have been freed to wreak havoc on our political system by a Republican conservative Supreme Court.