Cultured Despisers Never Die: They Just Take New Names.

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On Religion: Speeches to Its’ Cultured Despisers was a witty and influential book by Freidrich Schleiermacher, first published in 1799.  Considered a sort of Ur-text for modern Protestant theology, Speeches tried to save religion from the sneers of thinkers who prided themselves on their Enlightenment views.  If you were ever a college student, you were probably a Cultured Despiser too.

There is a way, though, in which they never quite move on.  Today’s Cultured Despisers are the proponents of Scientism: the belief that science conquers all and renders the humanities and religion superfluous.  We’ve been through Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (whom I otherwise liked a lot) and we now have Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist/linguist, who likes to think that what he does is “hard” science as opposed to the mushy thinking of lesser disciplines.

Pinker has been in the news increasingly because of his TED Talks and his theory, really, that the world is getting better and better.  We are the most “civilized” we have ever been. Not surprisingly, such a rosy evolution is due to Science and, in particular, the triumph of Science over Religion.  In Pinker’s words, “the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures…are factually mistaken.” (“Science is Not Your Enemy,” The New Republic, August 6, 2013).

While the notion that human beings are becoming ever less violent is a happy one, it seems belied by the facts of history.  It was last taken seriously as part of the pre-WWI belief in the inevitable triumph of progress.  Remember Emile Coue:  “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better?”  While I suspect that a theory of inexorable human progress is at least arguably un-Christian, the greater concern is Pinker’s mistaken assumption that religious fundamentalism is a justifiable stand-in for religion in general.* What is true, rather, is that science and religion both depend upon metaphor for intelligibility.

My real beef with Pinker is his belief that religion (contra science) is a closed system which cannot take in new discoveries or information.  Just as the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides taught that the truth ought be accepted from whatever source it comes, so have Christian theologians argued that “the religion of the incarnation” cannot be hostile to new knowledge because truth is always an ally.   One of the earliest modern examples of this is the Anglican Lux Mundi (“Light of the World”), a collection of 12 essays by a group of Oxford theologians in the late 1880s.

It simply strikes me as a silly (and banal) argument to be having.  Experiences of faith and awe do not fit neatly into categories or “non-overlapping criteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould once described science and religion.  The truth is that virtually nothing worth describing can be described without interpretation and metaphor.  Not love.  Not grief.  Not freedom.  Not art.  Not poetry.  Not music.  Not physics.  Not really.

When what we see exceeds our ability to explain (whether it’s redemption or the multiverse), we none of us give up our belief in ultimate intelligibility.  We continue on, probing, in expectation that the belief will be justified.  And that, regardless of which category we are overlapping, is called faith.


* The errors of fundamentalism ought not be mistaken for the errors of religion.  See Leon Wieseltier, “Crimes against Humanities,” The New Republic, September 3, 2013.

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Believing in Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

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One of my favorite lines in Alice in Wonderland comes when the White Queen tells Alice that, as a youth, she sometimes believed in at least six impossible things before breakfast.  There are plenty of people, I suspect, who believe that is exactly what Christians do:  believe in impossible things.

I took a Logic course in college that required students to construct syllogistic proofs for God’s existence.  Aside from making us feel extremely clever, the method was kind of a non-starter for convincing the avowed agnostics of my acquaintance.   The Jewish biblical scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel explains why in his wonderful book, The Prophets, when he states outright that “there are no proofs for the God of Abraham, there are only witnesses.”

Still, even firm believers undergo crises of faith and doubt – when the world seems too dark and cruel to admit of the compassionate and just God at the center of our faith.  Natural disasters and tragedies can produce great crisis, but so can flinging oneself too long and hard at human problems that just keep coming without relief; all those times when on the evidence, death seems to win hands down.

ImageA few years back, the private letters of Mother Teresa were published, disclosing that the Saint of Calcutta had endured a crisis of faith for decades.  For anyone who missed the news stories of the time (2009), while she was pouring out her life for the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta, Mother Teresa worried about the possible hypocrisy in the disparity between her belief and what she was publicly saying and doing.

Fortunately, it occurred to her at some point that the gap she was experiencing brought her close to the Christ, who in every Gospel save one, cries out on the cross:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus and Teresa shared the feeling of utter dereliction:  distant from the perceived certainty of God and God’s purpose.

What keeps people of faith from succumbing to such an experience?  Most of us need, from time to time at least, to feel the comfort of God’s presence, the sense that what we are doing in our lives has meaning, especially when those lives are coming apart.  When we lose the intellectual certainty we thought was part of our faith, we think we’re in trouble.  We forget that our knowledge of God resides in our sense memory and experience as much as it resides in our heads.  We forget Heschel, who happens to be right on this score.  We have never had proofs.  We have always, only, had witnesses to the God of history.

Mother Teresa was a witness.  Whether or not she felt God’s presence, she trusted – or acted as if, which may be the same thing  – that God would provide what she needed to continue caring for people the rest of the world had thrown away.  “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean,” she reportedly said, “But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”  Martin Luther King, Jr. was a witness.  In the midst of death threats and constant opposition, he kept right on acting out the ways of a God of love.  Abraham Joshua Heschel was a witness – who said that his feet were praying when he marched to Selma, Alabama for equal rights.  Once we are looking, we see God’s witnesses everywhere.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams pointed out once that people rarely come to faith because arguments and proof have persuaded them.  Far more convincing is the sight of  “a world we’d like to live in,” he said, glimpsed through the trustworthy lives of God’s witnesses   That’s been true from the beginning and the living of faithful lives is still the most important thing we have to present to the world.

Alice is a delightful work of fiction, though we know that human beings sometimes do believe in impossible things.  The difference for people of faith is that we often have the proof of God’s people doing them anyway.  And that makes all the difference.