Monday, July 28, 2014

Hart's Amibition

As I'm reading and quoting from David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions, I thought I ought to include a brief explanation of just what the book is. The book's subtitle is The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, and essentially what Hart has written is a polemical "historical essay."

Hart's book overtly responds to the ridiculously bad version of history the New Atheists are promulgating. Given how notoriously terribly New Atheist versions of history tend to be, this is neither difficult nor particularly ambitious. The New Atheists constitute Hart's explicit target, and they certainly formed the inspiration for this volume, but he's actually up to something significantly more ambitious. What the New Atheists tend to present is a cartoonish caricature of triumphalist history permeated by immense self-satisfaction and deep scorn for the past--and the people who inhabited it. It is patently ridiculous. But in reality it's just an absurdly exaggerated and excessively simplistic version of a narrative of history that is much more common, perhaps even universal, in the contemporary West.

So while Hart ostensibly takes aim at the historical misconstruals of New Atheists, his real target lies behind them. He's really taking aim at the whole modern account of itself: "the reigning historical narrative that most of us imbibe from school, the press, popular entertainment, even frequently our churches--in short, the entire fabric of our society."

So. Yeah. Ambitious.

Hart recognizes that serious historians have mostly abandoned the modern self-account of triumph over superstition, but he also notes, correctly, that this tired narrative retains most of its cultural cache. In contrasting the two--serious history versus popular accounts--he paints a portrait of the academic historian that is at once marvelous, heroic, sad, and more than a little pitiful. Which is to say he pretty much nails it:
For everyone whose picture of the Middle Ages is shaped by the dry, exact, quietly illuminating books produced by those pale dutiful pedants who squander the golden meridians of their lives prowling in the shadows of library stacks or weakening their eyes by poring over pages of barely legible Carolinian minuscule, a few hundred will be convinced by what they read in, say, William Manchester's dreadful, vulgar, and almost systematically erroneous A World Lit Only by Fire. After all, few have the time or the need to sift through academic journals and monographs and tedious disquisitions on abstruse topics trying to separate the gold from the dross. And so, naturally, among the broadly educated and the broadly uneducated alike, it is the simple picture that tends to prevail, though in varying shades and intensities of color, as with any image often and cheaply reproduced; and the simple picture, in this case, is the story that Western society has been telling about itself for centuries now.

Friday, July 25, 2014

"The most important function of historical reflection is to wake us from too complacent a forgetfulness and to recall us to a knowledge of things that should never be lost to memory." -David Bentley Hart, in the Introduction to Atheist Delusions (which is less a philosophical polemic than a historical essay on the emergence of Christianity)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Daniel Silliman:
All that talk, however, of that imagined idyllic past when Biblical morality was given due deference and Christians had a respected place in the public square is haunted by the Sunday when churchgoers came back from a place called Old Troutman Field with bits of Sam Hose's chopped-up body. 
Silliman has a wrenching reminder on his blog to be cautious with our nostalgia. No matter how cynical or pessimistic you wish to be about the state of the country, "going back" is neither possible nor should it be, ultimately, desirable.

Because this was America, a Christian country, the Sunday crowd that killed Sam Hose was coming from church. More than 500 came from nearby Newnan. Hundreds came from Palmetto, a city slightly to the north. Word of the in-progress lynching reached Atlanta right as people were leaving their morning worship services. According to historian Philip Dray, the news sparked "a mad rush of worshippers to the train station seeking the swiftest possible passage" to the lynching.
Lord, have mercy.

If you have time and attention--and if you can stand to--please read the whole thing. It is detailed and unsparing and brutal and horrifying. It's almost unbearable and hard even to believe that it happened.

Here's a story about meditation, fear and loathing, and a ruined mind.

I was prompted to write this by the last few paragraphs of this Rod Dreher post on meditation.

A couple months ago my wife and I were volunteered by our parish administrator--who happens to be a close friend--to give a ride home to a woman visiting our church. As it turned out, our church is a twenty-minute drive from her neighborhood, so we had a little while to become acquainted. This mostly involved semi-coherent, disjointed rambling on her part. She continued to talk nonstop for ten minutes after we stopped driving. I would have said "after we pulled up to her house," but she didn't want to be dropped off there because, she said without any elaboration, her neighbors were black, so we stopped in a random parking lot in the neighborhood. She finally did get out of the car, but only after my wife interrupted her monologue to say that we had to be going, which was true. I was a bit slack-jawed and trying to formulate words, whereas my wife was better able to keep her head about her, for which I am grateful. If my wife hadn't spoken up, I'm not sure how long she would have kept talking.

That morning I was lay reading and serving. So I was standing in the narthex preparing to process when our kindly senior curate approached me and, smiling his warm and gentle smile, whispered, "Mary's here." I had no idea whom he meant and for a moment thought perhaps he was making some statement about the presence of the Mother of God at the mass but that didn't make much sense, so I just said, "Who?" He continued to smile brightly, clearly expecting me to know what he was talking about, and repeated, "Mary. She's here." I shook my head in confusion, so he pushed open the door to the outside and pointed Mary out as she stood among the various congregants hurrying into church. I had no idea who she was and said as much. "Oh," he replied, "Your wife will know. I'll go tell her."

My wife was obviously just as perplexed when our curate approached her, but she followed Father Dan outside, and then she came back in with Mary. The two of them sat together through the service. I admit my focus that Sunday was not completely on the mass, and in reality I spent a good deal of time covertly observing and puzzling about our visitor. Mary was short and stout, though by no means obese. She had on a flowing dress with muted colors and wore a headscarf tied around her long, graying hair. Her wide eyes travelled around the sanctuary throughout the service, and she didn't particularly seem to be listening or attending to the prayers or sermon. I initially thought that she might be a foreigner, perhaps an immigrant from eastern Europe.

We took her home after coffee hour, and her sad, confusing story came tumbling out. "Tumbling" is an understatement. None of this was told in any logical or chronological order. Instead she jumped from detail to detail, now talking about something that happened the previous week and then jumping back years in time without any break or notice. She frequently contradicted herself, often within nearly the same breath ("I hate it here, but my daughter loves it." "So your daughter likes Charlottesville?" "Oh no, she hates it here."). Bearing in mind these inconsistencies as well my own confusion and noting the extreme unreliability of this particular narrator, here is what had happened to her, as best I can reconstruct.

For starters, Mary isn't a foreigner. She came of age in the 1960s or 70s in Ithaca, New York--or, at least, she lived their for some time, she attended Cornell, and that's where she had moved from most recently. She referred to her younger self as a liberal (a "stupid" or "naive" liberal or something like that) and a hippie and said she "grew up singing 'We Shall Overcome' and all that." Some years ago, she underwent a shattering divorce and an attending descent from the upper middle class into, at one point, total poverty. She noted how when she was a well-off liberal she thought that living in poverty would be a wonderful experience. More recently--it sounded like maybe a few years ago--she became interested in meditation and Tibetan Buddhism. She found a Lama to whom she became intensely devoted, so much so that when he moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, she followed.

And she underwent a major transformation which she ascribed to the enlightenment gained through meditation. Essentially, she transformed from a generic ex-hippie liberal into a paranoid, terrified (and terrifying) racist preaching race war. She railed against "the blacks" and made a few furtive statements against Jews. She said they were destroying the country and were bent on the annihilation of white people. She said she knew this from meditation and also from things she was reading on the Internet. She said--and this is where I pretty much lost my ability to process everything she was saying--that shortly after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, she had a vision while meditating. Barack Obama appeared to her in the midst of fire and blood and said of the shooting, "I did this. It was me. And I hate you." She was convinced that this was a genuine, authentic appearance of the president, that he had caused the shooting, and that he had it out for her now.

She said that she had started having trouble meditating, and that recently she became completely unable to meditate at all. She wasn't meeting with her Lama anymore. She didn't clarify whether he stopped seeing her, which caused the breakdown of meditation, or whether she left him on her own. But as a result she was beginning to wonder if she needed to examine other "paths" of spirituality. She first visited an Episcopal church in her neighborhood ("It was wonderful; they were very welcoming." "I didn't feel comfortable; they were not nice to me.") and then found us. I'm not certain how she picked our church--an Anglican parish outside of town--though I suspect the phone book and our church's name beginning with "A" has something to do with it. A woman from the neighborhood association gave her a ride to the church and arranged for her ride home. Mary had us drop off her off in the vicinity of her house because, as she said without further explanation, all her neighbors were black. She said she might want to come back to our church, and we did give her our phone number, but she never called. We haven't seen her since. We didn't get her phone number, we don't know her last name, and we only know generally the area where she lives.

On the one hand, this is a great relief. When we told our rector about it, he was not particularly keen on seeing her again, and I can't say we were either. On the other hand, this woman is clearly suffering from some kind of terrible mental or spiritual oppression--probably both. I am glad to know that her neighborhood association knows who she is (as the woman from the association more or less handed Mary over to my wife, she told Mary how good it was that she could "get out of the house"), but it seems like all other forms of community and family have collapsed or fallen away. And she has a daughter in high school, who has been a witness to the transformation and who, according to Mary herself, considers her mother is a bigot, a racist, and a terrible person.

She was not clear on what her Lama's role was in this transformation. Obviously race hate and race war don't square up to the teachings of the Dalai Lama. Still, militant, xenophobic Buddhism is a thing that exists, prominently in Sri Lanka and India. I'm not aware of a strain of that in any form of Tibetan Buddhism, but then I have only a passing familiarity with Buddhism. Possibly her Lama had some direct role in the transformation. Perhaps he was unaware of the transformation, though that seems unlikely given how openly she was sharing her new ideas with complete strangers. But it seems equally likely that he was troubled by and opposed to it, and it's possible that he stopped seeing her because of it. I have no way of knowing. Further, while she attributed her "awakening" to meditation, she was not a reliable narrator. Her breakdown could have occurred completely independent of or prior to the meditation. Given that she suffered through a divorce and descent into poverty prior to meditation, this seems quite plausible.

Whatever the causes, her story was terrifying on many levels--not least in the way that a person, firmly established and past middle age, can undergo a dramatic and destructive transformation from a generally mainstream existence to one on the fringe's of society, infused with radical paranoia, fear, and hatred.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Call for More Hubristic Theology

"I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children." -Matthew 11:25 

"Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" -1 Corinthians 1:20

Yesterday I wrote that "a comparatively chastened view of the role of theology... is not necessarily bad." My thought was that fundamentalists, as well as plenty of other Christians, need a more chastened view of theology and Scripture, but on further consideration I think that's not quite right.

What is needed--and what Science, Creation, and the Bible actually argues for--is not a chastened view of theology or Scripture, but rather more hermeneutical humility. In other words, the problem is not that Christians put too much importance on Scripture, but rather that some have too little sense of their own limitations when interpreting it. The problem, then, is not taking Scripture seriously enough.

There's a powerful strain of thinking embedded in evangelicalism that claims, as Alan Jacobs puts it, "that, thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit, the whole of Scripture is transparent to the humble but earnest interpreter." The Bible, many evangelicals believe, ought to be immediately, easily, and equally accessible to every earnest reader, no matter their education or intelligence.

Surprisingly, I've encountered a different yet comparable sort of oversimplification among Roman Catholics. In stark contrast to these reformers, Roman Catholicism places very little faith in the interpretative ability of the individual Christian, to the extent that Roman Catholic laity have a reputation for biblical illiteracy. I can't say that this reputation is undeserved. Still, it should be pointed out that young Christians of all denominations seem uniformly illiterate about Scripture--a grand success for ecumenism!

Despite or, perhaps, in keeping with this skepticism of lay interpretation, Roman Catholics invest an enormous amount of faith in the interpretive fidelity of saints. I am not specifically speaking of the authority of Tradition as a whole here. I'm talking about this rather odd idea that there is a necessary and automatic connection between the holiness of the saint and the saint's doctrinal purity. Not through learning, erudition, or study but simply by virtue of his saintliness, then, the saint interprets Scripture correctly and authoritatively.*

[*A couple examples: I've heard R.C. friends argue for the primacy of the Vulgate over all other versions and texts not so much because of its firm place and sanction in Tradition--not to mention its central place in the Counter-Reformation--but simply because we know that St. Jerome translated (the bulk of) it, whereas the translators of, say, the Septuagint are not clearly known and probably were not Christians. Additionally, I've been told numerous times that, when it comes to commentaries on Scripture, one should only read the saints. I don't know enough R.C. theology to know exactly how widespread this view is, but I can say that it's common among a certain branch of conservative Roman Catholics.]

Connecting these two very different positions is a uniform assumption that earnestness and holiness ensure interpretative correctness. The difference--and it is substantial--is that Roman Catholics look to those whose holiness is ecclesiastically guaranteed. But both assume that education and learning are basically irrelevant to correct interpretation.

The Jacobs quotation above comes from an article he wrote praising Robert Alter's beautiful, erudite, and complex translations. In it Jacobs complicates oversimplified depictions of Tyndale and Wycliffe's vision of interpretation. Yes, they and many other Reformers believed that all things necessary for salvation are clear and plain in Scripture, but they did not therefore think that the Bible as a comprehensive whole could be equally understood by the ignorant and learned alike.

The evangelical idea of Scripture's equal openness to all readers regardless of knowledge has the appearance of elevating Scripture, and it no doubt contributed to Protestantism's laudable tradition of lay reading and study of Scripture. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic exhortation to study the lives of the saints no doubt has had beneficial effects on countless lives.

Even so, I am convinced that both positions result not in greater respect for but rather a trivialization of Scripture. Yes, every believer ought to read Scripture, and the Word of God is efficacious for all who hear. And, yes, the lives of the saints provide incredible guides for living faithfully. But it simply is not the case that zeal for God and personal holiness communicate hermeneutical correctness.

I want to be careful myself to avoid a pat interpretation of the astonishing words of Jesus and St. Paul. As probably a million pastors have said, though, childlike faith is not the same as childishness. There are a thousand different ways in which Christ's life--and, more particularly, his death and resurrection--confounds the wisdom of the ages, both then and now. We can read the words of Jesus and St. Paul as an endorsement of our own understanding over and against that of scholars, if we'd like. We can denounce scholarship as so much foolishness. Or we can see in the words of Christ and St. Paul a call to hermeneutical humility, a call to respect the deep complexity and richness of Scripture. As Jacobs puts it, "transforming oneself into a little child is the arduous work of a lifetime. Christ’s yoke is easy and his burden light, but we don’t like bending our necks to receive it--and no translation, however it accommodates itself to our language and understanding, can change that."

Contrary to the typical depiction, the problem of anti-intellectual fundamentalists--whether evangelical or Roman Catholic--is that they do not take Scripture seriously enough. So then, the response should not be to call for a more chastened view of theology, but rather to give theology and Scripture their due.

It is certainly the case that throughout church history some have expected things of theology and Scripture that they were never intended to provide--a specific political structure for nations, a modern scientific treatise on cosmology, a step-by-step explanation of the mechanism of the Eucharist. A lower view of theology would not help in these cases. The corrective, rather, involves elevating one's respect for Scripture--which requires less arrogance in one's own understanding.

In society at large today, one hardly need fear a too high view of Scripture. Instead, we live in a time when theology and Scripture are seen as purely private matters--and as obscene when presented in the public sphere. The kind of scandal that once accompanied a public display of sex now attends any assertion of theology's significance to the public.

In other words, theology is already plenty chastened. What it needs now is a little more verve.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Sham of Dividing Metaphysics and Method

"We have no interest in simultaneously being metaphysical theists and methodological non-theists."
-A Biblical History of Israel by I. Provan, V.P. Long, and T. Longman III (2003).

To briefly continue a thought developed in my long(winded) post from a couple months ago on "Knowledge, Coauthors, and Intended Audiences," I am struck again by the difference in the approach of this volume versus Science, Creation, and the Bible, also coauthored by Longman along with Richard F. Carlson. In the latter, the authors write, "Science as a whole should not be classified as atheistic but rather as methodologically naturalistic, not metaphysically naturalistic." As I mused in my earlier post, much of the difference might have to do with co-authorship and audience. Moreover, the former speaks of historical work, while the latter directly addresses science.

Even still, the two volumes work from incompatible epistemological premises. Science, Creation, and the Bible offers a comparatively chastened view of the role of theology--which is not necessarily bad, except that it's paired with a view of science that could perhaps stand a touch more chastening itself. As I pointed out before, "they have too much faith that, so long as it stays within the bounds of the discipline, science remains at heart an empirical exercise" that can be methodologically non-theist without being metaphysically so. In contrast, the authors of A Biblical History recognize that those who become "practical or methodological nontheists" may "find themselves in danger of sliding eventually into metaphysical nontheism." In other words, the boundary between the two is very permeable.

If we suppose, as A Biblical History does (and I agree) that "a connection always exists between the kind of world one believes in and the kind of history that one writes"--in short, if we think that such a division between metaphysics and method, between belief and practice, is ultimately a sham when it comes to historical work, why should the same not apply to science?