Better stop sobbing now

11 02 2015

I have no sympathy for Christians who whine that President was unfair to Christianity at the National Prayer Breakfast.

Not just because I am not a Christian, nor because I disagree more generally with these folks’ politics.

No, the reason for my “get over it” response is their unwillingness to grapple with the violence woven into the history of the belief they hold dear. It’s as if they can only hold to Christianity if Christianity without [recent] flaws.

Oh, wait, that’s pretty much exactly what they mean, even if they didn’t mean to mean it.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a couple of posts on the response to Obama’s remarks, as does Jamelle Bouie, and they do a fine job of tag-teaming the No-True-Christian phalanx: here is this example and this example and this example and, oh look, another example of how Christianity was used to justify violence and oppression.

Reference to the historical record is crucial (even if the tres or quinque solas types want to claim history’s got nothin’ on them) if want wants to make or rebut historical claims—that’s kinda the whole point of historical claim-making.

But I want to focus here on the bad faith of those who seek to wash Christianity of its sins: they cannot abide criticism of their faith, not because God will punish them if they don’t savage the critics—I’d think such a position bonkers at best and murderous (see: killers acting to uphold the honor of the Prophet Mohammaed) at worst, but it has its own kind of insane integrity—but because it is “offensive” to and displays “contempt” for Christians.

And, yes, I get why these folks don’t like having the unsavory bits of Christianity against the unsavory bits of Islam—We’re good and they’re bad so how dare you!—but honest to pete, is their faith so thin that it is bruised by mere mention of imperfection?

I’m a pinko, and there has been all sorts of nasty shit—war, oppression, mass murder—done in the name of pinkoism. I can say Oh, but I’m not a Bolshevik/Leninist/Stalinist/Maoist, that’s got nothing to do with me, and nothing to do with Real Socialism, but that would properly be understood as a bullshit response.

I am an adherent to a tradition which has all too often failed miserably, murderously, to uphold its promises of liberation and the creation of a truly human society, and it would not be in any way unreasonable for you say, Uhhh, so why do you hold to ideas which have been used to justify those miserable, murderous failures?

And whether or not your motives were bad in asking this, I’d still respond, with both acknowledgement of the flaws in various incarnations of the socialist politics and a defense of the socialism itself—because I am fucking serious about my belief in socialism. As long as I think it possible to avoid or overcome the problems of previous socialist regimes, I will continue to think socialism is a program worth pursuing.

In other words, even though socialism has been flawed six ways to Sunday, I still think there’s something there worth hanging on to. I take socialism as it is, and as it has been, and what I think it could be. It ain’t perfect, but it’s all right.

Now, I understand that it’s easier to hold to imperfection in political than in religious programs, and my general sense that, well, to quote Leonard Cohen, there is a crack in everything, means that I can still see that’s how the light gets in. I don’t require perfection because I don’t think it’s necessary (which is also handy, given that I don’t think it’s possible).

Still, even you do believe that Christ were perfect, and that Christianity is the only path to salvation, it’s not clear why you can’t accept the bountiful historical evidence that that belief in something perfect has nonetheless been used to justify war, oppression, and mass murder. It’s a hard acceptance, sure, but if you want to argue on behalf of the Christian movement within history, then you have to engage that history, not wave it away or scourge those who dare to refer to it.

Again, radical sola types may not bother with history one way or another—all that matters is God, and we can’t really expect much of humans, etc.—but those who are incensed at the mere suggestion that Christian history might fairly be compared to Islam’s history clearly do believe that this history—the actions of Christians in the world—matters.

So to those who think history matters but are unwilling to look closely at it, I can only ask, Why not?

Because if you cannot accept the imperfections of Christianity in this world and still have faith in it, then I question whether you can have any faith at all.

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Whisper words of wisdom

24 11 2010

Allow a moment of sympathy for the Roman Catholic Church.

No, really.

The old girl is over 1500* years old, and the world now is not the world of its founding or expansion—a tough spot for an institution based on both spreading the Word and upholding eternal truths.  Yes, the One True Church has had to deal with interlopers and usurpers—in particular that centuries-long unpleasantness sparked by a disgruntled monk—but always, always, she has held true.

(*Given the un- and dis-organization of early Christian communities, a conservative estimate seems best. Oh, and for the purposes of this post, ‘the Church’ is defined narrowly as the institution, not the laypeople.)

Truth—ay, there’s the rub. Or, perhaps, insert the requisite LOLcats image here: ‘The Truth: I haz it.’

Consider the view of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, newly elected preside of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops:

“You get the impression that the Holy See or the pope is like Congress and every once in a while says, ‘Oh, let’s change this law,’ ” he said. “We can’t.”

The key is to convince [would-be] parishioners of the Church’s position:

He said he was chagrined when he saw a long line of people last Sunday on Fifth Avenue. “I’m talking two blocks, a line of people waiting to get into …” he said, pausing for suspense. “Abercrombie and Fitch. And I thought, wow, there’s no line of people waiting to get into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the treasure in there is of eternal value. What can I do to help our great people appreciate that tradition?”

Hence the dilemma: We have this great tradition. . . that many reject.

The whys of the rejection are likely numerous—people don’t think the traditions are great, don’t think they’re immutable, don’t believe the Church is the best or only repository of those traditions, etc.—but that people are able to reject them means that those trying to sell the eternal value of those traditions have to figure out how to persuade the rejectionists to change their minds.

A number of commenters on the Dolan piece note that this amounts to a view of ‘Change your mind so we don’t have to’—a reasonable take on the Church’s position.

But those same commenters are also missing the point: the Church does in fact hold the position that there are eternal truths, that it is the guardian of those truths, and that to compromise on those truths is to call into question the point of the Church itself. Granted, some of those commenters are doing just that, but others seem to think that the Church simply needs to ‘get with the times’ when in fact the Church thinks it’s the times which need to get with the Church.

This is Ross Douthat’s view, expressed in his usual fuzzy, befuddled, obedient manner:

Here the Church struggles and struggles, in ways that it doesn’t on other controversial issues, to make its teaching understood and its moral reasoning transparent. . . . Orthodox Catholics sometimes argue that the problem is simply that the teaching hasn’t been adequately explicated and defended, whether by bishops or priests or laypeople — and there’s truth to this. But the problem probably runs deeper than that: It isn’t just that the arguments for the teaching aren’t advanced vigorously and eloquently enough; it’s that the distinctions that the Church makes bump up against people’s moral intuitions more than they do on other fronts, and the Church’s arguments often take on a kind of hair-splitting quality that’s absent on other hot-button questions. (As in: The natural law permits me to rigorously chart my temperature and/or measure my cervical mucus every day in an effort to avoid conception, but it doesn’t permit me to use a condom? Really?)

So Douthat sees that even those who generally follow the Church’s teachings nonetheless squint at the reasoning behind the pronouncements on Truth—in this case, the anti-contraception Truth. Thus, should these same laypeople follow their own reason to the Truth?

Not exactly:

Now for a serious Catholic, the argument from tradition and authority is a real argument, not just the dodge that many people assume it to be. And the fact that the Church’s moral reasoning seems unpersuasive may just reflect the distorting impact of a contraceptive culture on the individual conscience.

Again: the problem, dear (un)believer is with you.

But what if the Church does try, however fitfully, to make practical sense of its moral stance in an im- or a-moral world, as with condom use in paid-for sex? You get it from all sides, from those of us skeptical of the morality of its stance to those who consider it an impermissible detour from the straight and narrow.

John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and a moral theologian, urged the publisher not to publish the Pope’s book, Light of the World, arguing it would only create a ‘mess’. That a Vatican spokesman later clarified that the Pope’s comment related not just to male but also to female prostitutes, was almost unbelievable, given the implications regarding contraception:

Indeed, Dr. Haas, of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, could barely countenance Father Lombardi’s comments that broadened the debate to include women. “I don’t think it’s a clarification; it’s a muddying of the waters,” he said. “My opinion is that the pope purposely chose a male prostitute to avoid that particular debate.”

And if Benedict was in fact opening that debate? “I think the pope’s wrong,” Dr. Haas added.

Well.

The Church has to hold the line because, were any slack allowed, the meaning of the line would cease, as would that of the Church itself. Yet not to loosen the line means that people will flee, if only to save themselves from suffocation—and in so doing, to call into question the meaning of the line and that of the Church itself.

It is a true dilemma, and for that reason, I am sympathetic.

But—you knew I’d throw a ‘but’ in—the Church itself is the author of this dilemma. It set itself up as the One True Church, the path to salvation, the authority on all matters God, so much so that authority itself was reified. The point of the Church became the Church.

This is, of course, an ancient dilemma, one which runs through the history of not just Church but Christianity itself. Early dissenters (including Pelagians and some gnostics, among others) argued that God was carried within and thus no formal structure was necessary; a thousand or so years later protesters lay the Bible before the people and told them that was all they needed. (That those Protestants set up their own structures is another issue.) Sola fidelis, sola scriptura.

But the Church, the Church said No. The Church said We are the One True Faith. The Church said, in effect (if anachronistically): Who you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?

The Church, in other words, rested the faith on its authority, rather than its authority on faith. In doing so, the truth of the authority calcified into the Church’s Truth and, as such, could be neither compromised or countermanded. The Church is the repository of God’s Word, its guardian and keeper; to doubt this authority is to risk losing the keys to the Kingdom itself.

This risk has kept many inside, as, I hasten to add, have faith and love for the Church itself. But those on the outside, especially those faith-seekers on the outside, see the lines and the walls of the Church and wonder Where is God in all this?





Are we not men?

13 09 2010

This is cheap, I know, but Martin Peretz doesn’t deserve the cost of real thought:

On a spring day in May 1631, Count von Tilly celebrated a mass to thank God for his conquest of Magdeburg, the chief city of the Protestant Reformation, boasting that no such victory had occurred since the destruction of Jerusalem. He was only slightly exaggerating—the cathedral in which the mass was held was one of three buildings that had not been burned to the ground. His Catholic League troops had besieged the city since November, living in muddy trenches through the winter snows, enduring the daily jeers and abuse of the Protestant inhabitants of the city. Once they stormed through the gates their zeal, rapacity, and greed knew no bounds. The slaughter was unstoppable. Fires were set throughout the city, children were thrown into the flames, and women were raped before being butchered. Fifty-three women were beheaded in a church where they sought refuge. No one was spared—twenty-five thousand Protestants were massacred or incinerated, and of the five thousand survivors some few were noblemen held for ransom, but all the rest were women who had been carried off to the imperial camp to be raped and sold from soldier to soldier. News of this atrocity quickly spread throughout Europe, hardening the sectarian lines of a conflict that had begun thirteen years before and that would rage on for another seventeen

. . . The slaughter at Magdeburg, for all its horror, was not the first nor the last such event. During the Peasants’ Rebellion in the 1520s, over one hundred thousand German peasants and impoverished townspeople were slaughtered, many of them when they rushed headlong into battle against heavily armed troops, convinced by their leader Thomas Müntzer that true believers were immune to musket balls. In 1572, seventy thousand French Huguenots were slaughtered in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. The Franciscan monks who had preached that killing heretics was the surest way to salvation were pleased, but apparently not as pleased as Pope Gregory XIII, who was so delighted to receive the head of the slain Huguenot leader Coligny in a box that he had a special medal struck commemorating the event. And finally, lest anyone imagine that the barbarity was one-sided, Cromwell’s model army sacked the Irish town of Drogheda in 1649, killing virtually everyone. They burned alive all those who had taken refuge in the St. Mary’s Cathedral, butchered the women hiding in the vaults beneath it, used Irish children as human shields, hunted down and killed every priest, and sold the thirty surviving defenders into slavery. Cromwell, without the least sense of irony, thanked God for giving him the opportunity to destroy such barbarous heretics.

Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity, pp. 129-130.





God sometimes you just don’t come through

27 10 2009

Goddammit. Time to write the goddamned God post.

Bad way to start? Too. . . insulting? Too glib-without-being-funny?

Look: Two lines in and already I’ve succumbed to the meta!

Okay. Let this post be born again. . . . All right, all right, I’ll stop.

Long discussion over at TNC’s joint on atheism and belief and who’s better and worse and why [not] believe, et cetera. As Emmylou sang, Yet another battle in the losing fight/Out along the great divide, tonight.

Ta-Nahisi Coates writes a great blog, and he attracts great commentators, but this thread follows the usual  progression:

  • God kills!
  • No He doesn’t!
  • Yes he does!
  • Well, okay, maybe, but so does Hitler/Stalin/Mao
  • It’s about ideology
  • It’s about human nature
  • It makes no sense to talk about atheists as a group
  • Then why are there atheist groups?
  • Those are activist groups. Atheism is simply a-theist, i.e., without god(s)
  • To not believe requires faith
  • ????
  • ‘Lack of belief is not a belief. True. But belief in a lack is.’
  • ????
  • Religious people are mean
  • Atheists are mean
  • Mean people suck
  • Flying Spaghetti Monster!
  • Faeries!
  • Unicorns!
  • [sigh]
  • You need to read more
  • No, you need to read more
  • You’re dumb
  • If I’m dumb, you’re super-dumb [Oh, wait, that was a couplet from The Brady Bunch, Jan to Peter]
  • Can’t we all just get along?

In other words, same as it ever was.

[Tho’ as an aside, can I vent a wee? To state that ‘is’ and ‘is-not’ are, in fact, the same, is a kind of infuriatingly useless word game. If you don’t believe in God, then you believe in a no-thing, which is itself belief, which means atheism is a form of religion. If all you’re doing is engaging a Wittgensteinian wit—for which that actual Wittgenstein would probably eviscerate you—fine; but if you think you’re making a serious point, you’re not. These arguments are not simply about the formal structure of language, but the content contained, however unsteadily, within that language. And yes, at some point, I’ll probably bore you with another post about why this distinction matters.]

Ahem.

So. I’m a-gnostic (lack knowledge), which may have a-theist (lack god) implications, but I’m not particularly dogmatic about it.

I doubt, and I’m fine with my doubt.

When I was a kid, I believed in God. I was an altar girl (the first, which somewhat discombobulated poor Father K., tho’ to his credit he brought me along) at the local Episcopal church, and, overall, I thought God was pretty cool.

Jesus was fine. I liked looking at the various crucifixes in the church, but, honestly, I thought more about God than Jesus. (I clearly lacked an understanding of the subtleties of the Trinity.)

I read a children’s bible. I wore a cross. I prayed. I mostly didn’t pay attention, but when I did, I thought it was all good.

Things changed, of course. Everyone has his or her own [de-]conversion story; mine has to the do with the rise of the Religious Right, and my disdain for any belief that could be connected in any way with the Moral Majority.

Have I ever mentioned that I started reading Ms. in the eighth grade?

Anyway, baby, bathwater: Out!

Things changed, again. I never really believed, again, but I did start to think about religion and belief, to learn more about its varieties—to pay attention.

Oh, so, so much more to this story, but let me, pace Lenin, telescope my history: I got to like hanging out in (empty) churches, a close friend and her husband became much more deeply involved in their faith (they don’t like the term ‘born again’), I read a grown-up bible, I had some good conversations with a local (NYC) Episcopal priest and. . .

. . . I still don’t believe.

Let me amend that: Some days I believe (in a non-specific way), some days I don’t, and some days the belief and unbelief is layered on top of one another.

Faith, however, I completely lack. That there may exist a God does not mean (S)He wants or has anything to do with us.

Faith seems to me far more dangerous than belief, tho’ I’m not sure why. Perhaps it seems more uncontrollable to me, or more personal, or that it is far more often deployed as a weapon than belief.

Okay, I know: stop making sense.

C. might argue that, insofar as I accept the information gleaned from scientific processes, I have faith—if only in the reliability and validity of those scientific processes. And Karl Popper (the great orthodox-science defender) admitted that one cannot use the logic of the sciences to defend the use of the logic of the sciences; at root, he noted, there is a leap.

A leap of faith? I dunno. Seems more like a jump-start to me: it’s up to the engine [science, reason] to actually move the vehicle along. If one’s methods don’t work—if they are neither verifiable nor reliable—then they are to be abandoned. Faith won’t see you through.

But religious faith, it seems to me, is itself the engine—the faith is itself the point. And while some might seek natural justifications for supernatural faith, such justifications are kind of beside the point. They might have a role, but, again, they won’t see you through.

A few weeks ago I blew out a bunch of words about Legos and coins—those of us who seek to put their lives in lock-step, and those of us who cobble bits together, precariously. As a coin-er, I’m not much troubled (there are exceptions) by gaps and inconsistencies, unknowns and uncertainties.

I can’t be, given how often my ground shifts.

Is it faith that keeps me going? Doubt? I don’t think it matters. I am no longer pained by the fact of my existence, by the justification of my self.

I just go.





God: Gotta love ‘im!

6 08 2009

Just finished GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

Summary: I believe what I believe. Christianity is true because Christianity is true. Non-Christian perspectives do not make sense from a Christian perspective.

Uh-huh.

Orthodoxy is one of those books oft urged on non-believers as a way of allowing us to make sense of, and perhaps, bring us to, faith. It’s not quite an exercise in apologetics, not least because its argument, such as it is, is less about proclaiming and defending the doctrines of the church than in ridiculing alternative beliefs: His critiques of contemporary thinkers are scattershot, mixing and mashing them up so as to be better able to dismiss them all as incomprehensible, and his discussion of doctrine is almost non-existent.

No, the book seems more a matter of Chesterton explaining himself to himself, a turn-of-the-century version of the Talking Heads lyric Well, how did I get here? As such, it’s a kind of brief theological psychology, with reason dragooned into the role of the therapist.

Read this book if you’re interested in Chesterton, or if you particularly enjoy the alleged wit of reversal, along the lines of ‘you think A is B, but B is A.’ O ho ho! Imagine an entire book of such bon mots:

Descartes said, ‘I think; therefore I am.’ The philosophic evolutionist reverse and negatives the epigram. He says, ‘I am not; therefore I cannot think.’

If the apple hit Newton’s nose, Newton’s nose hit the apple.

If Nietzsche had not ended in imbecility, Nietzscheism would end in imbecility.

And on and on, epigram substituting for argument.

Allow me my own: I came looking for the argument from the man, but found the man in the argument. Alas, biography is not philosophy.

See, that’s not so hard now, is it?

Perhaps I should give the last word to the long-departed Mr. Chesterton (substitute ‘book’ for ‘novel’):

A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.