Sunday, April 16, 2006

We GODda talk

So I was driving home from work on Thursday night and I tuned in to Christopher Lydon’s newest show on PRI, Radio Open Source (in the Boston Area it’s carried by WGBH).

The show that night was a thouroughly engaging interview with Northwestern University’s History Professor Garry Wills, author of the new book What Jesus Meant.  The book’s title was inspired by the catchphrase “What Would Jesus Do?” [WWJD] – the answer, of course being not what the Republicans are doing, but in fact what Wills has to say is more interesting than that.

Religion and secularism has been on the radar screen even more than usual in the U.S. even since the 2004 elections, in which “moral values” were reported to be one of the top reasons people gave for going to the polls.  Democrats have been openly debating whether they should attempt to soften their secularist image and embrace God more in order to win over more swing voters.  (As if there’s ever been a Democratic Presidential Candidate who didn’t mention God in practically every single speech;  as if it was news that there has never been any chance of an avowedly atheist politician in this country winning an election for any major office.)

But Wills’s own opinion on the matter is a fresh and fascinating take on the issue, and is backed up with ample scriptural evidence.  His Op-Ed essay of April 9, entitled “Christ Among the Partisans” (behind the NYT’sTimes Select” firewall — unortunately so, as it should be required reading for all voters in this country:  and not just for “all thinking people” — as Adlai Stevenson put it, we need a majority!) begins tersely but thunderously, and without compromise:

THERE is no such thing as a "Christian politics." If it is a politics, it cannot be Christian. Jesus told Pilate: "My reign is not of this present order. If my reign were of this present order, my supporters would have fought against my being turned over to the Jews. But my reign is not here" (John 18:36). Jesus brought no political message or program.

Make no mistake:  these are the opinions of a deeply committed believer.

He goes on (I’m tempted to paste the whole thing in here):

This is a truth that needs emphasis at a time when some Democrats, fearing that the Republicans have advanced over them by the use of religion, want to respond with a claim that Jesus is really on their side. He is not. He avoided those who would trap him into taking sides for or against the Roman occupation of Judea. He paid his taxes to the occupying power but said only, "Let Caesar have what belongs to him, and God have what belongs to him" (Matthew 22:21). He was the original proponent of a separation of church and state.

Those who want the state to engage in public worship, or even to have prayer in schools, are defying his injunction: "When you pray, be not like the pretenders, who prefer to pray in the synagogues and in the public square, in the sight of others. In truth I tell you, that is all the profit they will have. But you, when you pray, go into your inner chamber and, locking the door, pray there in hiding to your Father, and your Father who sees you in hiding will reward you" (Matthew 6:5-6). He shocked people by his repeated violation of the external holiness code of his time, emphasizing that his religion was an internal matter of the heart.

The Romans did not believe Jesus when he said he had no political ambitions. That is why the soldiers mocked him as a failed king, giving him a robe and scepter and bowing in fake obedience (John 19:1-3). Those who today say that they are creating or following a "Christian politics" continue the work of those soldiers, disregarding the words of Jesus that his reign is not of this order. [emphasis mine]

(Matthew 6:5-6 was of course also the inspiration behind Magnificent Obsession, though in that book it’s almost reduced to a kind of Science Fiction or Fantasy concept.  (I think they sucked all the bizarre quasi-SciFi-quasi-Christianity out of the story for the 1954 movie  See this movie's record at the Internet Movie Database with Jane Wyman.)

It is difficult for a nonbeliever to judge much of what Wills says, particularly about the mysterious uniqueness of Jesus:

Some may think that removing Jesus from politics would mean removing morality from politics. They think we would all be better off if we took up the slogan "What would Jesus do?"

That is not a question his disciples ask in the Gospels. They never knew what Jesus was going to do next. He could round on Peter and call him "Satan." He could refuse to receive his mother when she asked to see him. He might tell his followers that they are unworthy of him if they do not hate their mother and their father. He might kill pigs by the hundreds. He might whip people out of church precincts.

The Jesus of the Gospels is not a great ethical teacher like Socrates, our leading humanitarian. He is an apocalyptic figure who steps outside the boundaries of normal morality to signal that the Father's judgment is breaking into history. His miracles were not acts of charity but eschatological signs — accepting the unclean, promising heavenly rewards, making last things first.

He is more a higher Nietzsche, beyond good and evil, than a higher Socrates. No politician is going to tell the lustful that they must pluck out their right eye. We cannot do what Jesus would do because we are not divine.[again, emphasis mine]

My first reaction is to point out that history is full of prophets and sages who spoke and taught in paradox and whose morality seemed impossible to capture in easy-to-understand rules.  And it’s also fugll of organized religions packagine and tidying up the teachings of those prophets.  Nonetheless, I am confident that Wills’s interpretation is far, far closer to what is actually written about Jesus in the Gospels than anything the so-called “Christian Right” is saying.

Not that this should be news.  The hypocrisy and wrong-headedness of the conservatives’ appropriation of Christianity as their own should be clear, and not merely for such obvious examples as Jesus’s injunction about camels (or ropes) and needles regarding the Republicans’ wealthy donors.  The entire Gospel Story is one of Jesus’s enmity with the “fundamentalists” of his day:  the “Scribes and Pharisees” who put strict adherence to the letter of the law in its minutest details above all other considerations.  How the so-called “moral majority” can’t see themselves as the Pharisess is beyond me:  the Matthew / Grand Obsession quote above should be enough to tip them off, but they’re too busy worrying about following all the right rules so they can get into heaven to really pay attention.

Yet, as George Lakoff (linguist, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant  and founding member of the Rockridge Institute) would say, the Right has “framed the debate” very effectively.  Everyone assumes that the choice is between grown-up, hard-nosed respect for the tough lessons of the scriptures, or some sort of wishy-washy, I’m-ok-you’re-ok, feel-good secularism.  Rubbish.  The hypocrisy, ignorance, and sheer intellectual dishonesty of the Right when it comes to their mis-use and mis-appropriation of the scriptures is trivial to expose.

For instance, it always makes me see red when I hear someone bleat on about how “the Bible forbids homosexuality” when even a beginner’s level of Biblical Scholarship should show what shaky ground they’re standing on — especially if you hear a Christian say it.  There are only three places in the entire Bible that make even the slightest mention of homosexuality:  the story of the Cities of the Plain, the one clear, unambiguous injunction in Leviticus (which is what most people are referring to), and some rather ambiguous comments in Paul.  Of these, the first must be dismissed immediately:  the story of Soddom and Gomorrha is about betrayal of trust and violation of the code of hospitality, not homosexuality, and as I will get to in a moment, the third is also pretty flimsy.  But in fact, the second, the Levitical “abomination” reference must be dismissed by any believing Christian, since it is universally accepted by all Christian creeds and confessions that the new covenant of Christianity nullifies the entire Jewish Law Code!  It is the hight of screaming hypocrisy to single out a single passage from a Law Code that also forbids eating pork or shellfish, or touching a woman who is menstruating, or mixing the wrong kinds of plants together in the same field.  In fact, unless you are an Orthodox Jew — where you really do believe that every single jot and tittle of Leviticus and Deuteronomy must be obeyed — Leviticus is shaky ground even for a Jew to rely on.  You can’t cherry-pick the parts of a Jewish Ritual Purity Code and decide that “God really meant this part, even for gentiles!” without the slightest evidence.  As for Paul, the only part of the Bible having to do with homosexuality that is applicable to Christians, his reference appears to be about male prostitutes, but even if it weren’t, unless you’re also willing to follow his advice regarding the subordination of women (that they should not be allowed to speak in Church, for instance), then again you’re cherry-picking.

Wills makes essentially the same argument regarding abortion, at least in the interview that you can listen to on the Radio Open Source site:  since there is not a single reference to abortion in the Bible, he says, all arguments must rely on “natural law” and “natural reason”.  And there, “reasonable people can differ”.  “The Bible Says So” is not something you can really argue (if it’s true), but “I gay sex revolts me” or “I believe a foetus is a human being” is.

As I said, this topic has been on the radar screen for some time, and before I sign off I’d like to leave you with two more references.

First, Slavoj Žižek’s NYT op-ed piece from March 12 which he wrote the wake of the Muhammad Cartoon Crisis and in which he declares that “Atheism is a European legacy worth fighting for”:

More than a century ago, in ''The Brothers Karamazov'' and other works, Dostoyevsky warned against the dangers of godless moral nihilism, arguing in essence that if God doesn't exist, then everything is permitted. The French philosopher André Glucksmann even applied Dostoyevsky's critique of godless nihilism to 9/11, as the title of his book, ''Dostoyevsky in Manhattan,'' suggests.

This argument couldn't have been more wrong: the lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted -- at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations. In short, fundamentalists have become no different than the ''godless'' Stalinist Communists, to whom everything was permitted since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress Toward Communism.

Sadly, it’s another Times Select item, because I agreed with pretty much everything he said (of course I have a copy and can furnish it upon request).  It puts me in mind of the story of a Conservative Catholic guest at a dinner party who insisted that she could never vote for a Democrat since they are “against religion”.  Her argument?  “When has religion ever hurt anybody?”  Most jaw-dropping aspect of this?  The question was posed at the dinner-table of a Polish Jew. 

Actually, I was surprised at the time that his essay didn’t get whole hell of a lot more play in the blogosphere.  Oddly enough, most of the people who wrote the tiny trickle of letters and blog-comments in response to Žižek's essay back in March (at least the ones I found) seemed to have interpreted it as advocating some sort of weak-kneed, liberal “appeasement” for the Muslim rioters (it makes you wonder if some people even bothered to read the essay), something it most emphatically did not do:

While a true atheist has no need to boost his own stance by provoking believers with blasphemy, he also refuses to reduce the problem of the Muhammad caricatures to one of respect for other's beliefs. Respect for other's beliefs as the highest value can mean only one of two things: either we treat the other in a patronizing way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple "regimes of truth," disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth.

What, however, about submitting Islam — together with all other religions — to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as serious adults responsible for their beliefs.

Dare I say it?  Amen! 

But maybe I’m being a bit too hasty.  Two days after Žižek's essay, a certain Paul Myers, professor at the University of Minnesotta, and a self-described “godless liberal”, posted an essay to his “Science Blog” Pharyngula.  Though he made no reference to Žižek (and in fact I think his posting came out purely by coincidence), he seems to be following the advice of subjecting “all … religions … to a … ruthless, critical analysis”.  It was entitled:  No respect for Christianity…so stop demanding it.  It starts with another defence of atheism, which is fine:

I like Avedon Carol, but she just doesn't get it. Explaining that the Right has successfully portrayed the Left as "godless" and then talking about how wrong they are because the Left is full of good religious people and that there are atheists on the Right too is simply perpetuating the idea the Right wants spread—that atheists are bad, a taint on the culture, and that a good way to demean a movement is to mention that its got atheists in it. Thanks, but no thanks. Can we instead just try to get across the message that freethinkers are good people we aren't ashamed of for a change?

… but goes beyond that to insults:  “I will not hesitate to express my scorn every time one of my "allies" in this "coalition" thinks the way to better the country is to promote more belief in false fantasies.”

Although I do have some sympathy for this sort of argument (you may have noticed my slight tone of exasperation above where I start with "As if there’s ever been..."), I don’t think this kind of approach is likely to win any friends, and, frankly, I’m not quite so convinced of the rightness of my own beliefs as to belittle those of others.  I have to say that this guy hasn’t learned any more humility on the subject in the meantime:  witness today’s commentary, entitled Easter brings out the insipid:

Why, no, no sighs of pity here. The resurrection is a made-up story; it gives me no hope at all. It does give hope to con-artists everywhere, though, I'm sure.

I don't find the story particularly sublime, either. "Absurd" is a better word for it, and for that reason I don't find it moving at all. How does it tell us anything about the nature of this god? He's simultaneously omnipotent and human, killable and not killable, capable of creating whole universes yet unable to pull out a few nails. If Christians weren't so thoroughly indoctrinated into the whole mess from an early age, instead of being moved they'd be baffled.

Ouch.  No, I don’t see much value to the progressive movement in alienating every believing Christian, even the progressive ones.  Žižek did call for the “ruthless, critical analysis” to be respectful.  Doesn’t seem like much to ask.

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