"To call oneself a Muslim, a Jew, or a Catholic, what do the continuities have to be?" he asked. "You cannot simply erase the entirety of the religion that preceded you and call yourself a Jew. You can say that there is this tradition that is X,Y, and Z, interpret as you choose, state your reasons. It's a free country, this is the kind of Jew you want to be. What worries me is that the new forms will be so disconnected from the traditions that something called Judaism will survive but that the tradition in its richness may not. That is my deepest fear about my faith."At this point I rebel. I submit that I am profoundly interested in what is true or false about the universe, while only a little interested in what any particular religion has to say on the matter. For someone like Wieseltier, that question and other fundamental questions can only be approached through a religious tradition. This has long been the way serious people have thought about such things, so I suppose it must work for them. For me it is a dead end. When it comes to "what is true and false about the universe" I accord zero value to revelation and not much more to tradition. It seems to me that if your approach to fundamental questions starts from the sayings attributed to Iron Age shamans, you are the one who is not being serious. Doesn't it bother you that the prophets of other traditions have revealed completely different universes? How do you know yours are right and theirs are wrong? And why should Iron Age shamans know any more about such things than you or I do? Why are our insights less valid than theirs? They knew nothing about evolution or quantum mechanics or the age and size of the universe; why should their notions of what it all means trump ours?
Professor Molly Worthen, another panelist, expressed a related concern.
"Call me old fashioned, but yes, I would say, to be a good Catholic you have to believe in God," she said. "There's a problem with the hyper-individualization of Millennial religion. The advantage of an institution is that it forces you into conversation with people you might not agree with. It forces you to grapple with a tradition that includes hard ideas. It forces you to have, for at least part of your life, a respect for authority that inculcates the sense that you have something to learn, that you're not reinventing the wheel, but that millennia have come before you. The structure of institutions, for all their evils, facilitates that. And we may be losing that."
Wieseltier posited that it's being lost because Americans are trying to bring to their religious experience the same level of customization that they expect when shopping. "They treat their tradition as consumers–or let's say, consumers with loyalty to one store." More than other panelists, his forecast was gloomy. "On the question of what is true or false about the universe," he said, "Americans are not interested anymore."
In his comments on this discussion Rod Dreher complains about people who call themselves Catholic but have no interest in church teaching:
I told my friend about how difficult it is to have a meaningful conversation about religion because nobody takes religion seriously, not even most religious people. I used to get into arguments with Catholic friends over Catholic teaching, which I defended (even after I left the Catholic Church). It would drive me nuts because I would build an argument based on official Catholic teaching … and get nowhere. Though identifying as Catholics, these folks felt not the least obligation to yield to the teaching authority of the Catholic institution.Again, it seems to me that if your approach to fundamental questions is to "yield to the teaching authority" of any particular church, you are the one who is not serious. I do not accept submission to authority as a valid argument or a valid reason for belief. I do not accept any such limitations to my quest for understanding. I seek answers wherever I find them, and I always start with what science has discovered: that we have lived for only a tiny fraction of the history of a single planet that orbits an average star in a galaxy of a hundred million stars, in a universe of at least a hundred billion galaxies; that we evolved through largely random processes from simpler organisms, and that no clear line can be drawn between us and the rest of life; that humans have created ten thousand different cultures and ways of living, each with its own view of these fundamental questions. These points, it seems to me, are essential for any serious understanding of our place in the universe. Augustine and Aquinas did not know them, so why should I yield to their authority? I don't say this to be flip or contrary, but exactly because I take these questions seriously and want to know the truth.
I was joking with my sons the other day that none of the available religions is really acceptable for people of our outlook. Christians have all that crazy theology, Islam is too mixed up with the legal obsessions of the seventh century, and Judaism forces you to decide how seriously to take Leviticus and Deuteronomy, plus you have to worry about Israel. It was a joke but I think it captures the situation of many modern people. We find theology maddening; we are attracted to tradition but refuse to be bound by the parts that seem wrong to us; we want ethical guidance but doubt that medieval monks, the rabbis of ancient Babylon or Bedouin warrior priests have the right advice for the citizens of post industrial society; we want ways to think about our place in the universe that don't deny either the findings of science or the emotional promptings of our minds. Where are we to find such thinking? Not in any church I know of.