Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

From faith to stoicism

July 11, 2021

Kenneth Copp was raised a Pentecostal Christian, but as a young man, he converted to the Amish faith because he thought it represented a deeper spirituality.

Later in life, reading the Bible with a critical eye, he came to disbelieve in the inerrancy of Scripture and then in the existence of an afterlife and of God.

His skepticism estranged him from his family and his community, but he still thought the Amish way of life is a good one and, in his lonely way, he continued to live by it.

The video above tells his story.  For background, click on Award at Camden International Film Festive: The Seeker by Lance Edmands.

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‘Wokeness’ and the backlash against liberalism

May 13, 2021

During most of the history of the Western world – that is, of nations with a Catholic or Protestant heritage – it was taken for granted that you cannot have a unified society unless you have unified morality supported by an official religion.

Much blood was shed in order to impose or maintain that unity.

Sometime around the end of the Wars of Religion in the 17th century, the idea of what we now call liberalism emerged.

That idea was that we agree to disagree, and unify around rules that enable people of different religions and different heritages to live together in peace. The central liberal virtues were freedom, reason and toleration.

The history of the Western world since then has been an expansion of tolerance to include more and more marginal groups.

This expansion has generated backlash – blood-and-soil nationalism, Bolshevism and fascism.

All these movements are based on narrow, but valid, ideals,such as social justice and patriotism.  All, to my mind, represented the failure of liberalism.  But as substitutes for religion, none of them provides the consolation of Christianity or any other universal religion.

“Wokeness,” too, is based on narrow, but valid, ideals – inclusiveness and alertness to social injustice.  In and of themselves, these are all good things.  The problem is that “wokeness” can be a fanatic, persecuting ideology.

Now you may think that it is a foolish exaggeration to compare “wokeness” in all its forms to totalitarian ideologies such as Bolshevism and fascism. 

You’re not in danger of being put in a concentration camp for misgendering someone; you’re not in danger of being stood up against a wall and shot for objecting to diversity training.

And many things that are done in the name of “wokeness” are good.  We can all benefit from examining ourselves for biases; we can all benefit from being more culturally sensitive.  The Black Lives Matter movement may actually succeed in bringing about reform of policing.

Also, as a practical matter, the “woke” movement is far from the worst threat to civil liberties.  “Wokeness” is not responsible for the USA Patriot Act, the torment of Julian Assange, policing for profit, support for foreign governments with death squads, and much more.

But the perpetrators of all these other abuses are hypocrites.  They pretend to be defenders of the U.S. Constitution and a “rules-based” international order.  They don’t reject freedom and democracy in principle.

What we’re seeing in the USA is a broad and deep mass movement — the biggest such movement in my adult lifetime, including the civil rights movement of the Sixties — that explicitly rejects the premises of liberalism.

I remember back in the Fifties people defended McCarthyism on the grounds that it wasn’t as bad as Stalinism.  Well, that was true, but it was possible to be against both. 

Loss of jobs and destruction of reputations for saying the wrong thing, or having the wrong attitude, are not the worst things in the world, but they’re no joke, either.  They signify the rejection of the liberal compact — the idea that you have your ideas, I have my ideas and that is our individual right.

Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of young people think of the rights to freedom of speech or to due process of law as obstacles to the achievement of a just society.  This is no small thing.

Many are full of rage, for understandable reasons.  They face a bleak future in an unforgiving economy.  But their rage is directed against almost random targets, not against the powers that be.  In fact, the powers that be can deploy “wokeness” to divert attention from themselves.

What the prevalence of “wokeness” shows is the failure of liberalism to inspire loyalty.  Maybe this was an inherent weakness all along.  Maybe what’s doing on today is an unfolding of weaknesses that were there all along.  If so, wishing for a revival of liberalism will not revive it. 

LINKS

Excesses of Wokeness

A Witch Hunt on Instagram by Katherine Jebsen Moore for Quillette.

Jordan Peterson at McMaster University: ‘Don’t let them provoke you’ on YouTube.

Stop Firing the Innocent by Yascha Mounk for The Atlantic.

We All Live on Campus Now by Andrew Sullivan for New York magazine.

Analyses of Wokeness

The Elect: the Threat to a Progressive America from Anti-Black Antiracism by John McWhorter on his It Bears Mentioning Substack blog..

Postmodernism and the Faith of Social Justice by James Lindsay and Mike Nayna for New Discourses.

The Successor Ideology by Ross Douthat, Coleman Hughes, Wesley Yang and Reihan Salam for the Manhattan Institute.

The Enduring Relevance of Czeslaw Milosz’s ‘The Captive Mind’ by Robin Ashenden for Quillette.

Is Zionism racist? Should Israel exist?

April 8, 2021

Kibbutz ceremony, 1951 (Wikipedia Commons)

It isn’t possible to understand Zionism without understanding that Jews have a basic, understandable fear of being wiped out.

In medieval times, Christians regarded Jews as Christ-killers.

In modern times, blood-and-soil nationalists regarded Jews as disloyal foreigners.

Both forms of antisemitism were existential threats.

One of the doctrines of Christianity is that Jesus is the prophesied Jewish messiah. The question arises: Why don’t the Jews recognize their own messiah?

One easy answer is that Jews must be an exceptionally wicked people.  And from there, it is an easy to to saying they must be persecuted, killed or expelled.

In modern times, Jews were allowed out of their ghettos to participate in civic life. But a new question arose. The basis of nationhood was blood and soil—a group of people of the same lineage occupying the same territory.

But Jews are of different lineage, and they have no territory.   How do they fit in with modern nationalism?  They don’t.  And from there, it is an easy step to regard all Jews as potential or actual traitors.

This form of antisemitism inspired the Dreyfus case., in which a French Jewish artillery officer was falsely accused of treason.  The older form of antisemitism inspired the Beilis case, in which a Russian factory manager was falsely accused of the ritual murder of a Christian child.

Justice eventually prevailed in both cases, but the founders of the Zionist movement believed that Jews needed a homeland of their own—not just as a refuge from antisemitism, but because they were a nation with the same right to a homeland in which they were in the majority..

That was one of the roots of Zionism.  The other was a fundamentalist religious nationalism, inspired by Biblical prophecies, that links the Jewish people to their ancient homeland.  There are fundamentalist Christian Zionists, based on the same prophecies.

Zionism in its early years was a controversial movement among Jewish people.  Jews in western Europe and North America mostly regarded themselves primarily as Americans, Britons, French, Germans and so on who happened to be a different religion than their fellow citizens.

This changed during the Second World War.  Hitler’s attempted genocide of the Jews was matched by an unwillingness of Allied nations, including the USA, to accept more than a token number of Jewish refugees.  The British government did its best to prevent Jewish immigration to Palestine, lest they provoke the Arabs into revolt.

I am old enough to remember the Allied war propaganda during the Second World War.  Hitler’s antisemitism was not emphasized.  Knowledge of the Holocaust was suppressed.  I think now that Roosevelt, Churchill and other Allied leaders feared to give credence to Hitler’s claim that the war was being fought on behalf of the Jews.

After the war, Europe was filled with “displaced persons” camps.  All the DPs had homelands to which they could return, except for the Jews.  So a lot of them headed for Israel.

Invading a country and driving out the inhabitants is now regarded as a crime against humanity.  But if I had been one of those Jewish DPs, I wouldn’t have cared.  All I would have cared about was having a place I could call my own.

Of course, if I had been a Palestinian Arab at the time, I wouldn’t have cared about the plight of the Jewish refugees.  I wouldn’t have seen any reason why I should lose everything because of events in Europe.

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Use and abuse of the doctrine of original sin

February 9, 2021

When I was a small boy, I used to dread the Easter sermons in the church my parents sent me to.

The pastor, who was a fine man, would preach about how Jesus suffered and died on the cross for our sake.

Jesus, literally the best person who ever lived, a man who loved everyone and harmed no-one, had his hands pierced with nails and his side with a sword, and was given vinegar to drink.

And why did he have to suffer and die in this horrible fashion?  Because of people like me.  Because we were so sinful.  Because that was the only way to save us from the consequences of the sins we had committed.

My feelings of guilt did not make me a better person.  I was selfish, lazy and weak, and at the same time self-righteous.

I felt I was better than irreligious boys my age because I at least was aware of how much of a sinner I was. But then I thought that having pride in a sense of guilt was just as bad as any other form of pride.

Adults did not understand me. They thought I was a nice boy because I was obedient, agreeable and an “A” student in school.

Mary McCarthy, in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, remarked that religion is good for good people and bad for bad people.   I guess this applies in my case.

Bertrand Russell, in The Conquest of Happiness, wrote that people eaten up with guilt are egotistical.  We are preoccupied with ourselves.  We would be happier if we had objective interests and if we thought more about other people and less about ourselves.  This applies in my case, too.

I thought I might get rid of my feelings of guilt if I had sufficient faith, as great Christian figures of the past had done.   But I lacked faith.  I doubted everything.

I shared my doubts with my Sunday school teachers.  My doubts did not bother them.  They were, if anything, pleased that I took religion seriously, which so few boys my age did.

They did not take my doubts seriously. They told me that my doubts would resolve themselves when I became a mature adult.  However, neither of these things happened.

So far as I know, I was the only person in the church congregation, young or old, who felt as I did. 

My guess is that a large number were not bothered because they did not absorb the message Dr. Norment was trying to convey.  My guess is that the rest understood it through a filter of common sense.

The common sense way to hear Christian message would be to think: Yes, I am imperfect.  I try to be a good person and very often fail.  I repent of my failure, and try again, and, in the meantime, I do not judge others harshly for their failures.  That wpuld be a healthy way to respond.

As for myself, I resolved my problem by ceasing to fight my doubts about Christian doctrine.

I joined a small Unitarian fellowship in my native city as a young adult, just before the Unitarians merged with the Universalists to form the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)

The Unitarians and Universalists are two small sects that originated in the 19th century USA and were noted for not having any binding religious creed.  We committed to living by living by certain principles rather than believing in certain doctrines.

Interestingly, Unitarianism and Universalism had their roots in early Christian heretics that St. Augustine regarded as his enemies—Arius, who taught that God was a unity, not a trinity; Origen, who taught universal salvation; and Pelagius, who taught that people were not inherently sinful, but capable of choosing between good and bad.

For me, they provided a moral community to which I could belong while being open about my thoughts and doubts.  I am a Unitarian-Universalist to this day.

I’m bothered by the readiness of some contemporary UUs to accept the idea of white guilt, which is very like the doctrine of original sin.  Feelings of guilt are not the best motivation for striving for justice, because your focus is on yourself and not the needs or wishes of the people who are actually suffering from injustice.

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Saint Augustine and original sin

February 5, 2021

In his Confessions, St. Augustine sought the truth about himself and his motives, and the truth about the nature of God and His creation. 

What’s interesting to me is that he didn’t see his investigation of subjective truth, about himself, and of objective truth, about the nature of time and free will, as two separate things.  He saw them as different sides of the same thing.

What’s also interesting is that he didn’t see religious revelation as opposed to philosophical reason.  He saw them as mutually reinforcing.

I recently read The Confessions of St. Augustine for a couple of reasons.  One is that I just got finished reading Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, which said fanatic mass movements such as fascism and Bolshevism were imitation religions, and I thought it worthwhile to read an account of actual religious belief.

Another is that there is a move afoot to abolish the teaching of the ancient classics on the grounds that they are irrelevant, and I thought it worthwhile to read an ancient classic to see whether it is relevant or not.

What follows is not a summary of the Confessions, but my personal reaction to it.

The main thing I got out of it was an understanding of how fundamental the doctrine of Original Sin is to Christianity.  This is the idea that sin is something baked into your nature that you can’t get rid of, no matter what you do.

Augustine condemned himself because, as a little baby, he didn’t care about anything except his selfish hunger for his mother’s milk. 

He condemned himself for what most people today would regard a normal desire for career success and for the approval of his peers.

He even criticized himself for being excessive in mourning the death of good friends.  It meant that he may have loved them more than he loved God.

He criticized himself for taking pleasure in the beauties of nature, or of art, unless it was combined with gratitude to God.

One act that particularly tore at him happened when he was a teenage boy.  He was part of a gang that invaded a walled orchard and stole pears.  He thought it was particularly evil because he didn’t need the pears.  He committed the theft because it was forbidden and because of peer pressure, not for the sake of pleasure or benefit to himself.

I have to say there is something to his last point.  I do think there is such a thing as evil, which is hatred of the good.  I think is different from mere badness, which is the inability to resist temptation.  But if this minor act of juvenile delinquency were the worst thing I myself had ever done, I would be well pleased with myself.

I do not see Augustine’s attitude toward sin as a distortion of Christianity.  Just the opposite!

Jesus taught that the great commandment is to love God with your whole heart, soul and mind.  He also taught a second commandment, to love your fellow human beings as yourself.

If you take these commandments literally, they are almost impossible to fulfill, even by people who are extremely spiritual and compassionate.  Who can say that the only thing they care about is God and his love?  Who can say they give other people’s needs the same priority as their own?  By this standard, who can escape sin?

All religions teach the need for atonement for wrongdoing and the need to make restitution to those you have wronged.  But none of them make repentance for sin the center of their religion in the way that Christianity does.

Only a Christian would say sin is inescapable.  Only a Christian would say that there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents than ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance.

One thing wrong with many people today, especially secular liberals, is that they no longer believe in God, except in a vague, metaphorical sense, but they still have a sense of sin. 

Not being Christians, they don’t know how to get rid of it, and this can shape their beliefs in strange ways.

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Recalling Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer

January 21, 2021

I first read Eric Hoffer’s THE TRUE BELIEVER: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements shortly after it was published in 1951.

It was a big influence on me as a teenager.  Later on I thought it explained a lot about the 9/11 attacks.  I think it is very relevant today.

A number of writers in the early Cold War era tried to understand the psychology of totalitarianism—what it was that made Nazis and Communists willing to commit mass slaughter and also sacrifice their own lives.

Eric Hoffer went further than most.  He described the similarities not only between fanatic Bolshevism and fascism, but also fanatic Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Jacobinism and nationalisms of all kinds, including Zionism.

His book is highly readable, full of quotable aphorisms.  A lot of his statements are overly sweeping and forceful, but he said his intention was to provide food for thought, not to be the last word on anything.

Eric Hoffer

Hoffer himself was an interesting character.  The son of Alsatian immigrants to the United States, he was born in New York City in 1902.  Orphaned at the age of five, he went blind at seven.  Mysteriously, his sight was restored at the age of 15, and he became a lifelong voracious reader.

He traveled across the country working at odd jobs, and spent 25 years as a longshoreman on the San Francisco waterfront, retiring at age 65.  He was completely self-taught.  He died in 1983.

He did not regard mass movements as necessarily bad.  Sometimes, he thought, they were the only means of bringing about necessary change.

Nor did he think that religious believers, patriots and political activists are necessarily fanatics.  But he did think a fanatic minority is a more powerful driving force than a reasonable, moderate majority.

The fanatic John Brown did more to end U.S. slavery than all the moderates who drew up reasonable plans for compensated gradual emancipation.

People do not join mass movements because they are poor and oppressed, but because they are frustrated, Hoffer wrote.  Joining a movement satisfies what Abraham Maslow was to call higher-level needs—the need for self-esteem, the need for inclusion, the need for hope and the need for meaning.

If you have no pride in yourself, you can take pride being part of a holy cause.  If you are lonely, you can lose your sense of separateness by uniting with others in a mass movement.

If your future seems hopeless, you can accept the promise of a golden future, either in this lie or the next.  If your life seems boring and meaningless, you can become part of a dramatic struggle for righteousness.

One category of people who never become fanatics are those who are completely embodied in a traditional way of life, Hoffer wrote.  Thinking of themselves are part of family, a community and an unquestioned way of life, they see no need for change. 

Fanatic religious zealots either want something they don’t have, or want to regain something they think they have lost.

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Religion and the U.S. political divide

December 23, 2020

It’s striking how religious divisions in the United State coincide with political divisions. It’s also striking how little the religious divisions have to do with theological beliefs.

Roughly 80 percent of white American evangelical Protestants vote Republican. Roughly 80 percent of Americans with no particular religion vote Democratic.

But this is not based on theological beliefs. Black American evangelical Protestants have the same theological beliefs as white evangelicals.

They believe in being born again and accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. But black evangelicals are as reliably Democratic and white evangelicals are Republican.

I can remember the 1950s, when theological beliefs were important. Evangelical Protestants thought Mormons were a “cult.”

Prior to the Second Vatican Council, many Unitarians and Universalists thought that Roman Catholics, not evangelical Protestants, were the people you had to watch out for, precisely because of their theology.

Nowadays sectarian religious beliefs are less important. The division is between those who cling to traditional religion, of whatever kind, and those who embrace modern and secular ways of thinking.

Conservative Protestants, Catholics and Jews are on one side and liberal Protestants, Catholics and Jews are on the other.  People who used to think each other were bound for Hell are now political allies.

The argument is not over specific religious doctrines, but over whether and how much to accept what’s called modernity, including, in recent years, the sexual revolution.

My hope used to be that the old-time live-and-let-live liberalism offered a way for people of differing opinions to live together, but this does not seem to be on offer.

LINKS

Secular ‘values voters’ are becoming an electoral force in the US – just look closely at 2020’s results by Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College.

What the election tells us about religion in America by Jennifer Rubin for The Washington Post.

In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace by the Pew Research Center.

The legacy of Trump

December 13, 2020

What I Saw at the Jericho March by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.  Very revealing.  This craziness isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

It’s No Longer Enough to be Merely Anti-Trump by Kevin Drum for Mother Jones.

COVID deaths highest in U.S in rural Republican-leaning Kansas county by Trevor Hughes for USA Today.

Speculation swirls over Ivanka Trump’s potential run for US Senate in Florida in The Guardian.  [Added 12/14/2020] (Hat tip to Steve from Texas).

Ivan Illich on what’s wrong with the world

October 16, 2020

Ivan Illich (1926-2002) was a Catholic priest and philosopher famous in the 1970s for his criticisms of modern institutions, including compulsory education. modern medicine and most technology.

I read his Tools for Conviviality when it first came out in 1973.  He thought technology should be limited to what he called tools—devices such as sewing machines (my example, not his) that served the needs of households, rather than textile machinery in factories, to which human beings had to adapt themselves’  I thought his ideas interesting but impractical.

Now it seems that our high-tech civilization may not be sustainable, due to global warming, exhaustion of natural resources, and the fragility of complex supply chains, not to mention war and revolution.  So maybe Maybe Illich’s ideas are worth a second look.

On the recommendation of e-mail pen pals, I recently read THE RIVERS NORTH OF THE FUTURE: The Testament of Ivan Illich as told to David Cayley.  It contains a short biography of Illich and a series of interviews by Cayley, a writer and broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., in 1997 and 1999.

This is deep stuff, and I don’t think I fully understand it.  What follows is what I got out of the book, not a summary of what’s in the book.

Illich’s contention was that the modern world is a product of the corruption of Christianity.  The basic ideas of secular liberalism, such as the equal dignity and worth of all persons and the duty of the strong to protect the weak, originated in Christianity, but have become distorted by being torn from their Christian context.

Jesus taught that the two great commandments were to love God with all your heart, soul and mind and your neighbor as yourself, Illich wrote.  To illustrate what he meant, he told the story of the Good Samaritan.

A member of a despised group, like a Palestinian Arab in Israel today, helped a stranger, a Jew, who had been beaten, robbed and left by the roadside.  Nobody would have said that the Samaritan was obligated to help. Two high-status members of the Jew’s own community had passed by on the other side.  But the stranger acted as his neighbor.

It was the custom among early Christians to set extra place at the table in case a hungry stranger came by in need of food and shelter.  The stranger could be Jesus–who showed us that God in the form of human flesh. 

Over time Christian villagers set aside separate buildings for the poor.  And then the church came to set rules about giving, such as tithing.  And now we have the modern, impersonal welfare bureaucracy.

So charity has become a matter of following rules and helping organizations.  There are individuals who would do what the Good Samaritan in the parable did, but they are rare and generally regarded as eccentric.

Illich said the corruption of Christianity was in the “criminalization of sin.”  Sin is a breaking of the relationship between a human and God, including the image of God manifested in another human being, he wrote.  But the church came to define sin as a breaking of certain rules.

But given human nature as it is, what would you expect?

Jesus told the people that Moses gave them laws “because of your hardness of heart”—meaning they were not capable of being guided by the law of love.  But are people today any different from what they were 2000 years ago?

Consider what Jesus expected of his Apostles.  Quit your job.  Leave your family.  Give away all your possessions to the poor. Don’t plan for the future; God will take care of you.

Love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.  Love even your enemies.  Criticize yourself, not other people.  And if you pretty much do all these things, don’t pat yourself on the back.  Any repentant sinner is just as good as you are.

It is really something that the first generations of Christians were actually able to live at that level of intensity.

It’s not surprising to me that later generations developed a dialed-down version that ordinary people, even people as weak and selfish as I am, could accept.  Even so, in every century, there was a St Francis of Assisi or Dorothy Day who tried to live out the original teaching/

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The Father Brown detective stories

September 29, 2020

I greatly enjoyed reading a complete edition of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories., which were published from 1910 through 1936.  I’d read some of them of them before, but now I’ve read the whole canon, except for a couple published after his death.

Like the Sherlock Holmes stories, they have a real or apparent crime, clues to the solution buried in the details of the story and then the solution revealed.  But while Holmes is presented as an eccentric genius, Father Brown is as unassuming little round-faced man whom everybody underestimates.

And while Holmes is a master of arcane knowledge, such as being able to differentiate different types of cigar ash, Father Brown’s deductive powers are based on his knowledge of human nature, and whether a poet, an actress, an Oxford don, an Anglican vicar or some other human type are behaving in character or not.  In one story, the solution hinges on understanding the motivation of a dog.

Father Brown says he understands criminals because he has the ability to tap into the criminal in himself and imagine what the criminal in question would do.  As he explains, “You see, I had murdered them all myself…. I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully. I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.”

It is a kind of spiritual exercise, he says.

Brown’s abilities are shaped by his experience as a priest and confessor.  When asked by Flambeau, a master criminal who has been masquerading as a priest, how he knew of all sorts of criminal “horrors,” Father Brown responds: “Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?”

He also states how he knew Flambeau was not really a priest. “You attacked reason. It’s bad theology.”

The stories contain rational solutions of the mysteries and explanations of how Brown worked them out.  He always emphasizes rationality.  Some stories poke fun at initially skeptical characters who become convinced of a supernatural explanation for some strange occurrence, but Father Brown easily sees the perfectly ordinary, natural explanation.

He says he is able to see through superstition and fake mysticism precisely because he is familiar with the actual supernatural and true mysticism.

Chesterton’s agenda is to advocate for Christianity and specifically for Catholicism.  He was formally converted to Catholicism in 1922,  He does this not by arguing for Catholicism, but by debunking alternatives to Christianity and by showing Father Brown’s intellectual and moral superiority.  The priest alone of all the characters is more interested in the criminals’ repentance than their punishment

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The way we think now

July 8, 2020

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity  [William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming“]

Statue of George Washington in Portland, Oregon

During my lifetime, I’ve seen the crumbling of elite institutions that once exercised moral authority.

Mainstream churches no longer preach the Christian creed.  Elite universities no longer commit to disinterested scholarship.  Elite newspapers no longer try to present the facts accurately and objectively.

They are being taken over by cultural radicals.  Despite or maybe because of their compromises, mainstream churches and newspapers are rapidly losing public support, and elite universities survive mainly because they are gatekeepers for the top professional and managerial jobs.

The cultural radicals have created their own set of taboos about race and gender, which, in certain sectors of society, you defy at your peril.   You can lose your job for expressing approval of ideas and values that have existed for centuries or maybe millennia.  It is widely considered unacceptable to say that “all lives matter” or that there is a biological difference between men and women.

I’m not surprised or shocked that there are who think this way, which they have every right to do.  I am surprised and shocked that there has been so little pushback against them from the nation’s supposed intellectual and moral leaders.

While there is a revolution in cultural and moral values, the structure of wealth and power stands unchanged.  The CIA, NSA and FBI, the Pentagon and the armaments industry, the Wall Street speculators, Silicon Valley monopolists—all these entities are more powerful than ever.

The power that rests on moral authority has been eclipsed.  The power that rests on money and brute force shines as brightly as ever.

The nation’s elite – the ruling class, the Establishment, call them what you will –  lack moral conviction and moral confidence.  What happened?

Lost Certainties

Someone said that 19th century America was held together by belief in three things – Protestantism, patriotism and progress.

I think this is so.  The old-time USA was much more violent than the USA today, prone to riots, strikes, insurrections and vigilante justice, even apart from the Civil War.  But there was a consensus that lay beneath all this.

Protestants believed that God ruled the world, that salvation came through Jesus, and that God’s justice.  Patriots believed that the USA was the embodiment of democracy and freedom.  Progressives believed that each generation would be better off, materially, than the ones who came before.

I myself, born in 1936, was taught to believe in all three.

This consensus was not necessarily a commitment to the status quo.  People who shared these beliefs brought about the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women and the regulation of monopoly capitalism.

The problem was that these ideas did not stand up to close intellectual scrutiny.  Once people started to question them, they could not go back to believing in the old way..

Biblical scholarship made it hard to believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.  Once you studied the topic, your choices were to reject scholarship, reject Christianity or believe in the Christian story in a vague way as an allegory or myth.

Historical scholarship made it hard to believe that the USA is the embodiment of freedom and democracy.  Once you studied the topic, your choices were to reject scholarship, reject patriotism or believe in American ideals as seldom-realized aspirational goals.

There are lots of reasons why it has become hard to believe in progress, which was possibly more foundational than the other two.

Life has been getting worse for the majority of Americans. This is largely because of bad economic policy, but even if this changes, life will still be hard because of climate-related catastrophes, exhaustion of natural resources and new pandemics in the coming bad years.  So progress, too, has become an aspirational goal, not a reality.

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‘Woke-ness’ vs. Americanism: a religious conflict

August 30, 2019

As I think about what’s called ‘woke-ness’ as a quasi-religion, I better understand the attacks on the symbols of American patriotism.

I’m thinking of the removal of the Betsy Ross flag from Nike sneakers, demands for removal of statues of Thomas Jefferson and the recent New York Times magazine edition that said the true founding of the United States was not in 1776, but in 1619 with the arrival of the first slave ship.

Americanism is also a quasi religion.  What’s going on is the attempt to substitute a new religion for an old one.  The attacks on symbols of American patriotism are like the early Christians’ attacks on statues of the pagan gods or the early Protestants’ attacks on images of Catholic saints.

‘Americanism’ is an odd word.  Nobody I know of speaks of Canadianism or Mexicanism.  It reflects the fact that being a patriotic American has always implied adherence to a creed—although we Americans have always fought over the definition of that creed.

Debates in American history have generally taken the form: “I am a true American and you are not.”  Both sides in our Civil War believed they were the champions of liberty and self-government as defined by our nation’s Founders (with a capital “F”).

We Americans historically have regarded the Declaration and the Constitution as like Holy Writ, equivalent to the Bible, and criticism of these sacred documents as equivalent to blasphemy.   We settle arguments by citing these documents.

The Pledge of Allegiance is a sacred ceremony.   The American flag is a sacred object.  Criticize them at your peril.

Americanism provides a sense of community.  Trying to be a good American can give life a sense of meaning.  Americanism can also provide a rationale for persecution.

The advantage of Americanism is that, in principle, it is open to any believer, regardless of race, creed or national origin.  No matter where you were born, you are in principle eligible to become an American. [1]   This isn’t true of China or most other countries.

I have always thought of myself as a patriotic American and an adherent of the best ideals of American history and culture.[2]

The triumph of “woke-ness” as a quasi-religion requires the displacement of Americanism as a quasi-religion.  Reverence for the old is an obstacle to creating reverence for the new.

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Social justice as a substitute for religion

August 30, 2019

Critics of the new social justice movement—the movement that’s variously called “anti-oppression,” “political correctness” or “woke-ness,” among other things—say it is like a religion.

It has dogmas and blasphemies.  You can be fired for saying the “n-word.”  It enacts a drama of sin and repentance.  It gives believers the sense of righteousness, sense of community and sense of meaning that earlier generations might have got from religion.

This argument is often made mockingly, but below are links to two article that make it in all seriousness.

Of course the fact that something is religion-like doesn’t mean that it’s bad.  Almost all people need something to provide community and meaning, and they’re lost if they don’t get it somewhere.

LINKS

Gay Rites Are Civil Rites by Scott Alexander for Slate Star Codex.

Postmodern Religion and the Faith of Social Justice by James A. Lindsay and Mike Nayna for Aero Magazine.

Rev. Dr. Thandeka on white privilege

June 24, 2019

In colonial Virginia, there was a law that white indentured servants could not be stripped naked and whipped.  They could be whipped while fully clothed, but only black servants and slaves could be whipped naked.  So the white servants enjoyed “white privilege.”

Rev. Dr. Thandeka

The Rev. Dr. Thandeka, a Unitarian Universalist theologian, says this is an example of how the idea of “white privilege” is used to persuade white people to accept being exploited and abused.

She wrote a series of posts (linked below) on her web log about how the idea of white privilege has been used through American history to divide poor black and white people and maintain the status quo.

She questioned the value of mainstream Christian churches trying to promote racial equality by means of instilling white guilt.  As an alternative, she proposed certain spiritual practices to help people of all colors better understand their common humanity.

I think she’s basically right.  Her analysis is considerably oversimplified, but when you’re stating your case in just a few paragraphs, you can’t always make fine distinctions.   I think her main points are important and true, and deserve to be more widely discussed.

The name Thandeka, which means “beloved” in the Xhosa language, was given her by Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa in 1984.

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This life is all you’ve got, so make the most of it

May 29, 2019

There are two main arguments about religious beliefs.  One is about whether they are factually true—whether you really will go to Heaven or Hell, or to a reincarnated new life, when you die, for example. The other is about whether religious faith is a good thing regardless of whether it is true.  Many lack religious faith and regret the lack.

THIS LIFE: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom by Martin Hägglund (2019) Is aimed at unhappy disbelievers.  He made the case that you can be a better and happier person without religious belief than with it

Hankering for Heaven or Nirvana won’t free you from the pain and risk of life, Hägglund wrote; it is better to face the fact that this life is all you’ve got, and to make the most of it.

Secular faith is the faith that your finite life really is worthwhile, despite its risk and pain.  Spiritual freedom is the power to choose what makes your life meaningful.

Your life’s meaning can be devotion to your loved ones, to a vocation or avocation or to work to make the world a better place.  It evidently goes without saying, because Hägglund doesn’t explicitly say it, that it does not include devotion to money, power or sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.

I sometimes talk to people who tell me they’re spiritual, not religious.  I tell them that I myself am not spiritual at all.  They often tell me that actually I am spiritual, even if I don’t know it or won’t admit it.

Hägglund did the same thing in reverse.  He argued that religious people who try to make the world a better place really are more secular than religious, because they care about this world rather than the hypothetical next world.

He began by writing about the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis and his grief for the death of his wife, Joy Davidian.  Lewis confessed in A Grief Observed that his Christian religious faith did not console him or shield him from the pain of the loss of his beloved.

Friends tried to tell Lewis that he and his beloved would meet again in Heaven, but, as he pointed out, there is no support for this idea in Scripture.  The whole point of Heaven is that it would be qualitatively different from Earthly life, not a continuation of it.

Lewis believed that an endless continuation of earthly life would eventually become unbearable.  As he remarked somewhere, all that is necessary for Hell is eternal life, plus human nature as it is.  He thought Heaven must be some sort of timeless transcendent state of being beyond out comprehension.

Hägglund argued that the desire to exist in a timeless transcendent state makes this life meaningless, because nothing in this life would count compared to that.  He said the same is true of use of Buddhist meditation practice or Stoic philosophy to cultivate a serenity that makes you indifferent to the pain of loss.  Hägglund said the price of that is to never care deeply about anything or commit strongly to anything.  He thinks that is an unworthy way to live.

The conflict between this world and a transcendent hope are shown in the life of Saint Augustine, he wrote.  Augustine’s Confessions show his struggle to free himself from caring about things in this world so that he can devote himself exclusively to God.  Augustine even worried about whether church music would cause people to come to church to enjoy the music rather than pray to God.

Hägglund contrasted Augustine with writers such as Marcel Proust and the contemporary Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, who treasure and lovingly describe the ordinary details of life.

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The burning of Notre Dame cathedral

April 16, 2019

Hat tip to Gavin Ashenden.

Notre Dame Cathedral took centuries to build.  One student estimated that it took more than 20 percent of the surrounding area’s resources for 150 years. Could we today commit to something that magnificent that would take even decades?  Yves Smith on her Naked Capitalism blog wrote—

Even if Notre Dame can be restored, the project is likely to take more than a generation, meaning even in best-case scenario, many people will never be able to see it properly again in their lives.  [snip]

The great medieval cathedrals, through their enormous scale and soaring vaults, with their narrow stained glass windows that help pull the eye upward, tell worshipers and later visitors of how small they are compared to God and his works. Yet their seeming solidity and scale also suggests the faithful can find refuge.

All of our technological prowess hasn’t found a way to create spaces that inspire the same sort of awe of these centuries-old houses of worship.

Modern visitors were further humbled by the audaciousness of its accomplishment: a project executed across generations, reaching heights that seem daunting even now, marshaling the skills and hard work of many artisans and laborers.

In other words, Notre Dame provided comfort and hope against that gnawing knowledge in the back of our heads of the certainty of death and the impermanence of human action.  Even though all those who built Notre Dame were long dead, something of them lived on through the cathedral….or did at least till yesterday.

Rod Dreher of The American Conservative recalled the beginning of Kenneth Clark’s famous TV series on Western civilization—

Standing in front of the Notre Dame cathedral, Clark asks, “What is civilization?”  He says he can’t define it in abstract terms, “but I think I can recognize it when I see it.”  He then turns to the cathedral, and says, “I’m looking at it right now.”

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In religion, more of U.S. is ‘none of the above’

April 1, 2019

Click to enlarge

Americans with no religion are now as numerous as Evangelical Protestants or possibly outnumber them slightly.  I can remember when admitting you were an atheist could get you in trouble.

Forty-some years ago, Mainstream Protestants were the largest religious group, followed by Catholics.  Evangelicals were fewer than either, and the “nones” were a small minority.

Evidently increasing numbers of Americans reject organized religion, and many others stick to strict religion, but few of us want to bother with easy religion.

Doug Muder shrewdly observed on his Weekly Sift post today that, if you eliminated immigrants and only surveyed the native-born, mainstream Catholicism might be declining in the same way that mainstream Protestantism is.

LINKS

‘Nones’ now as big as evangelicals, Catholics in the US by Jack Jenkins for Religious News Service.

Why America’s ‘nones’ don’t identify with a religion by Becka Alpert for Pew Research Center.

Rod Dreher and the Benedict Option

July 20, 2018

Conservative American Christians have lost the culture war, according to Rod Dreher.  While the United States may have a Christian veneer, American society is not based on Christian values.  True Christians are becoming a minority group.

Dreher’s best-selling book, THE BENEDICT OPTION: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017), is about how Christians can survive and thrive as a minority.

American society is being shaped, or rather dissolved, by what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “liquid modernity,” Dreher wrote.   There are no stable structures—political, economic, social or moral.  Everything is changing, so nobody can commit to a fixed role or even a fixed identity.

The result, according to Dreher, is moral disintegration.  Some 41 percent of American babies are born out of wedlock.  Pornography is everywhere.  Materialism and consumerism prevail.  The educational system is geared toward teaching how to achieve personal economic success, and nothing more.

The election of “someone as robustly vulgar, fiercely combative and morally compromised” as Donald Trump is not a solution to American’s moral decline, Dreher wrote, but a symptom of it.

The churches by and large do not resist this because they have been hollowed out.  He said this is true not only of the liberal churches (which he mostly ignores), but Evangelicals and Catholics.  Few young people have any understanding of the religious doctrines they supposedly believe in.

The prevailing implicit religion is what another sociologist, Christian Smith, called moralistic therapeutic deism—his term for what he found to be prevailing beliefs among young 21st century Americans.

Its tenets are (1) God created you, (2) God wants you to be a nice person, (3) the main goal in life is to be happy and feel good about yourself, (4) you can call on God when you have a problem and (5) good people go to heaven.

The problem for this for Dreher is not just that it ignores basic Christian teachings, such as sin and the need for repentance, and the need for prayer and worship.

It is the absence of understanding that there is a social order, a natural order and a supernatural order of which the individual is only a part, and that individuals cannot flourish if they cut themselves off from the order of things.

Dreher wrote that Christians today need to do what Saint Benedict did at the dawn of the 6th century A.D.  Benedict withdrew from the Roman society of his day and organized a new community based on a balance of work and prayer.

The Benedictines did not withdraw from society.  Hospitality was one of their principles.  But neither did they allow themselves to be absorbed by the prevailing society.  Instead they created an alternative that, in due time, became an example to others.

Most of The Benedict Option consists of reporting on contemporary Christians who are trying to do in our time what Saint Benedict did in is.   He begins with the Monastery of Saint Benedict in Norcia, Italy, which was suppressed by Napoleon in 1810, but revived by Father Cassian Folsom, a 61-year-old American, along with others in December, 2000.

Not everybody is called on to be monks, but all Christians can learn from their practice, Dreher wrote.  Families should set aside specific days and times for prayer, Bible study and serious religious conversation, and stick to that schedule, even when inconvenient.

He interviewed Czech and Polish Christians about how they survived under Communism, not by fighting the Communist governments directly, but by manifesting an alternative to life based on materialism.

He wrote about efforts large and small by Evangelicals and Catholics in the United States to build community and preserve authentic Christianity.

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Witch hunting then and now

June 14, 2018

Puritans in 17th century New England believed that Satan was real and ever present.  To doubt that the devil was a clear and present danger was an indication that you yourself were under the influence of the devil.

In 1692, in and around Salem, Massachusetts, many people, mostly women, were accused of being witches.  Nineteen were executed and six more died awaiting trial.

If you were accused of being a witch, the way to save your life was to confess your sin and accuse other people of being witches.

The great playwright, Arthur Miller, saw a parallel with the search for hidden Communists in his own time, and wrote The Curcible, which was staged in 1953, in order to bring this out.   I read this play as part of a monthly play-reading group hosted by my friend Walter Uhrman.

The events of the play did not follow the exact historical record, but Miller did a good job of depicting the Puritan culture and attitudes, especially its pervasive sense of sin and guilt.

Possibly the central character, John Procter, like the Thomas More character in A Man for All Seasons, was more concerned with his individual integrity, like a 20th century person, and less with salvation a 17th century Puritan would have been.

Miller did not explicitly draw a parallel with events of his own time, but the parallel was there to see.  Intellectuals and other public figures accused of being Communists or former Communists were blacklisted if they refused to confess or name others, just like accused witches in 1692 Salem.

His play drew the ire of the government.  He was denied a passport to view the opening of the play in London in 1954.  When he applied for a passport renewal in 1956, he was subpoened to testify before the House un-American Activities Committee.  He readily told about his own past political activities, but refused to testify about anybody else.

He was charged with contempt of Congress, and a federal judge sentenced him to a fine and prison term, but his conviction was overturned on appeal in 1958.

The same syndrome of accusation, confession and new accusations, but on a larger and more lethal scale, operated in the Soviet purge trials in the 1930s and in the Spanish Inquisition.  There were many witch trials.  An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft from the 14th through the 18th centuries.

In the 1990s, many Americans were caught up in a literal witch hunt.  Satanic cults were thought to be a real menace, and innocent people went to prison on false charges of abusing children in Satanic rituals.

Today the threat to basic civil liberties in the United States is greater than it was in the 1950s, although it doesn’t involve rituals of confession and naming names as in the Salem witch trials or the Congressional investigations of the 1950s.  In that sense, The Crucible is yesterday’s news.

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The beauty of Isfahan’s ‘Pink Mosque’

May 12, 2018

Click on Huffington Post for still photos and background information.

Donald Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia

May 24, 2017

I came across this picture a couple of days ago and wondered what it was.

It is a ceremony conducted Monday in honor of the opening of the Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Saudi Arabia.

The participants touching the glowing orb are Egypt’s President Abdul-Fatah Al-Sisi, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and President Donald Trump.

The name of the center is ironic, because Saudi Arabia is the center for extremist ideology in the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia pays for missionaries to spread Wahabism (or Salafism), a highly intolerant version of Islam.  Wahabists believe that Shiites and other Sunnis are not true Muslims.

Hassan Rouhani

King Salman and his son, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, are  waging a bombing campaign against Shiite villagers in Yemen, is stepping up aid to rebels in Syria and is trying to organize a Sunni Arab military alliance against Iran.

Voters in Iran, meanwhile, have re-elected President Hassan Rouhani, the moderate reformer who negotiated the nuclear deal with the USA.

Rouhani is more democratic and peaceable than the hereditary Saudi rulers.  He has won honest and contested elections.  The range of choices in Iranian elections is limited because the ayatollahs vet candidates.  But you could say the same about U.S. elections, except that our candidates are vetted by big-money donors.

The Saudis seek regime change in Syria and Yemen; Rouhani seeks increased trade and investment.   In Middle East geopolitics, the Saudi monarchy is the aggressor, the Iranian clerical regime is the one on the defensive.

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Can the Saudis lure the US into a war with Iran?

May 19, 2017

Prince Salman meets with President Trump in March

The young new ruler of Saudi Arabia, Prince Salman bin Mohammad, is trying to organize an alliance of Sunni Muslim nations against Shiite Iran.

And President Donald Trump is expected to endorse an anti-Iranian “Arab NATO” during his forthcoming visit to Saudi Arabia.

This is a terrible idea.   It doesn’t benefit Americans and it risks a war that would be disastrous for both Americans and people in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia is an enormously wealthy nation, but it is thinly populated and militarily weak.  It depends on the United States for its defense.  In return, the Saudis buy billions of dollars in armaments from American companies and pump oil in sufficient quantities to keep world oil prices low.

So the United States since the 1970s has sided with Saudi Arabia and also Israel against their geopolitical rivals in the region.   Once Saudi Arabia’s chief rival and threat was Iraq.  Now it is Iran.

This has nothing to do with making Americans safe from terrorism, and everything to do with promoting the strategic and economic interests of Saudi Arabia.

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Robert Bolt’s ‘A Man for All Seasons’

May 17, 2017

A Man for All Seasons is a play about Sir Thomas More, a scholar, humanist, statesman and devoted husband and father, who also was a hero who went to his death rather than swear to a false statement.

It may be my favorite play.  Offhand I can’t think of one I like better.  It was first performed in London in 1960.

I saw it in Washington, D.C., in the early 1960s.  Recently I took part in a reading of it organized by my friend Walter Uhrman.

The things I liked and admired about the play are its language and characters; its staging and lighting, which gave it a timeless relevancy; and its non-banal affirmation of human dignity and integrity.

More was beheaded on the order of King Henry VIII for his refusal to affirm that the Pope was wrong in refusing him permission to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn.

The play is about More’s struggle to find a way to stay alive without sacrificing his integrity, and his final decision to choose integrity over life.

There is a passage I particularly like about the rule of law—the principle that nobody is above the duty to obey the law and nobody is below the right to protection of the law.

   WILLIAM ROPER:  Arrest him.
    SIR THOMAS MORE: For what? ……
    MARGARET MORE: Father, that man’s bad
    THOMAS MORE: There’s no law against that.
    ROPER: There is!  God’s law!
    THOMAS MORE: Then God can arrest him……
    ALICE MORE (exasperated): While you talk, he’s gone.
    THOMAS MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law.
    ROPER: So now you’d give the Devil the benefit of law.
    THOMAS MORE Yes.  What would you do?  Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
    ROPER:  I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
    THOMAS MORE (roused and excited)  Oh? (advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil himself turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? (he leaves him)
    This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (quietly) Yes, I’d give the Devil himself the benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Here is another passage I like.

     SIR THOMAS MORE: … If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good and greed would make us saintly. And we’d live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes.
     But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human at all, why then perhaps we must stand fast a little… .

 In the play, there are two opponents to More’s point of view.

One is Thomas Cromwell, the ruthless Machiavellian power-worshiper, who is tasked with the mission of forcing More to give him or, failing that, providing a justification for sending him to his death.

The other is a figure that Bolt calls the Common Man, an actor who introduces each scene and also plays the part of More’s servant, a boatman, a jailer, a juryman and, in the last scene, the headsman.

He represents the common sense view of the ordinary person, who tries to stay out of trouble and who goes along to get along.

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Rev. Barber at the UUA General Assembly

April 20, 2017

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), president of the interfaith Repairers of the Breach and president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, is a leader of a broad progressive coalition that is changing the balance of political power in his home state.   I think it is important to know who he is and the moral basis of his movement.

He is rooted in a specific religious tradition, the African-American church movement, but is able to unite a broad coalition of Americans of different races and religious backgrounds, including us Unitarian Universalists.

Click on 2016 Unitarian-Universalist General Assembly for a speech that outlines his thinking.  Click on The First Reconstruction, The Second Reconstruction, The Third Reconstruction and / or ‘Resist the One Moment Mentality’ for highlights of his speech.

The revolutionary power of early Christianity

January 25, 2017

QUO VADIS by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1896)  tells a story of the coming of Christianity to Rome in the time of Nero.  It depicts the discontinuity between Christianity and the Greco-Roman pagan world, and what happens when people actually live by the Sermon on the Mount.

This would be a revolutionary moral change today.   It was an even more revolutionary change then.

quovadis41daeylwxl-_ac_ul320_sr224320_Unlike in Christianity, worship of the Greco-Roman gods had nothing to do with morality nor with hope and heaven.   The pagan gods were regarded as powerful supernatural beings who had to be appeased with worship and animal sacrifice for the sake of one’s family or one’s city or nation, but who otherwise did not care about you.

Many of the Roman upper classes had come to believe that religion was a useful superstition for keeping the common people contented.

This had nothing to do with leading a virtuous life, which was the province of philosophy, and only a select few were followers of philosophy.

Christianity represented a moral revolution.  St. Paul, St. Peter and the Christians depicted in this novel practiced universal love, unconditional forgiveness and the sharing of all wealth and property—something unprecedented in any mass movement.

The Christian missionaries taught that in the Kingdom of God, there was no distinction between rich and poor, free and slave, man and woman or Roman, Greek or Jew.  They created communities whereby poor people could band together and provide for their own needs, independently of the oppressive and indifferent Roman state.   The collision of the pagan and Christian view of life is the subject of this novel.

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