Monday, July 7, 2014

Serious Religion

Conor Friedersdorf is in Aspen at the Ideas Festival, and he recorded an interesting exchange in a panel discussion on religion. A woman in the audience suggested that American religion is evolving into something less divisive, which worried Leon Wieseltier:
"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."

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."
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?

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.


Unknown said...

I get the impression that the discussion at Aspen was less about the source of truth than about claiming identity. The idea is that you can't be a Catholic unless you take church teaching seriously. The quoted persons were troubled by what they see as the fundamental unseriousness of taking the bits you like from, say, Buddhism and Catholicism, and combining them, and then claiming you're actually a member of one religion or another.

It seems to me the ultimate issue at this panel was the compatibility or not of religious identity and social tolerance. The panelists seem to be complaining that modern Americans tend to value the latter over the former, to the extent that they soft-pedal a serious engagement with what religion has really meant in the past, in the name of tolerance and mellowness.

In this sense, what's important is not what medieval theologians said about things like gravity, but what they said about other religions.

John said...

The discussion took off from the questions you describe, but both Wieseltier at the conference and then Dreher on his blog equate too much concern for tolerance with a lack of interest in truth. Identity vs. tolerance is a hard and interesting problem for any diverse society, and I have no complaints about anyone trying to establish a meaningful identity. What bugs me is the assumption that people who pick and choose various elements from various religious traditions are not serious -- not serious about tradition, not serious about identity, not serious about truth. We are just like shoppers in a mall, searching for exciting tidbits. Grrr.

Unknown said...

I'm afraid that, to me, your original post looked more like an attack on most (perhaps any) religion as a source of truth (especially about issues like creation) rather than a defense of the seriousness of religious eclecticism. Not that I would disagree with such an attack.

G. Verloren said...

The problem I have with the sort of thinking displayed by Wieseltier and Worthen is that it treats religion as immutable, when in reality religion changes all the time.

Religion has never -not- been changing, never -not- been undergoing a process of constant evolution that stems directly from human questioning and discovery.

When the Galilean Carpenter looked at the culture of his home, of Roman Judea, he didn't simply accept the world as he found it, he defied it and spawned a radical counter-movement whose teaching were directly rooted in upending the established order of deference to tradition. And although this movement would eventually become a separate religion in the form of Christianity, no one at first called it that, and none of its earliest membership viewed themselves as anything other than Jews.

Islam is much the same, drawing from the textual sources of the other Abrahamic faiths, but reinterpreting and modifying them to suit a separate cultural situation. Buddhism evolved from Hinduism as a counter-cultural movement, in essentially the same way that Christianity evolved from Judaism.

What we see today as distinct philosophies and separate religions were, at various times, considered parts of the parents.

And that's not even touching upon things like syncratic religion. Latin America is primarily considered to be Roman Catholic, yet only a great fool would fail to recognize the tenacity of native Pre-Columbian elements that linger throughout the region to this very day.

Granted, some of these elements are mere minority oddities, but others are supremely pervasive. You can't simply dismiss figures such as Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, or Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte as not being part of Catholicism when many millions of otherwise unremarkable Catholics accept them as a non negotiable part of their faith.

G. Verloren said...

On the topic of an extant religion whose outlook I would today consider acceptable? The closest I've come across for myself would probably be Shintoism - and that's chiefly because it exists not as an organized body with rigid structure and beliefs, but precisely because it exists today only as a sort of folk religion.

The Japanese are happy to follow a strange mix of Shinto, Buddhist, and Christian traditions for different aspects of their faith needs, but they aren't terribly concerned with the exact details, and are happy to update or even excise problematic aspects of the old beliefs as needed. Traditional Japanese legends of youkai, yurei, and kami live side by side with Buddhist figures from half a dozen different points of origin, and they all celebrate a curious form of Christmas together that's even more removed from Christianity than the mainstream American version.

To me, this seems wonderful. It's a curious fusion of vastly different traditions, with a focus on keeping only those aspects which please people.

The traditional Shinto gods and spirits were a lot darker and nastier originally, but the focus is no longer on those aspects which are deeply problematic. The petty, heirarchical, patriarchical qualities of the old gods are downplayed or ignored today. Modern youkai stories are less interested in supernatural muder, rape, and worse, and more interested in instilling a sense of wonder about the natural (and spiritual) world.

Buddhism in general is was full of this local syncratism, with each new region it moved into during it's historical spread providing a new wealth of local mythological figures to add to the collective roster. The tradition continued when it came to Japan, and even Zen Buddhism is more recognizeable in the form of Daruma Dolls than in Bodhidharma himself.

I don't want my religion to be what I turn to for the purpose of answering deep, difficult questions about the nature of reality and the universe. That's not what religion is -good- at giving us, unless we're willing to accept answers that don't really hold up to logical scrutiny.

But you know what religion -is- good at giving us? Comfort. Joy. Beauty. Wisdom. Community. The sorts of things that we value for very -human- reasons, not for logical or even terribly practical ones.

When I look at the collective Japanese folk traditions, I see exactly those things. Their mish-mash of faiths as it stands today is more about aesthetics, cultural identity, and comforting ritual than as it about hardline doctrine and theology.

You don't go to a Shinto shrine to hear sermons about sin and redemption and morality and how you're supposed to act, think, or be - you go to share in something strange and beautiful with other people; to reflect on the natural world and humanity's place in it; and to heal the soul and calm the mind.

Americans go to Church out of duty and obligation, while the Japanese visit shrines to ask the Kami for small favors and blessings. Their gods don't exist to judge and to punish, but to guide and to comfort.
A young driver is scared about passing the test to get their license? They visit a shrine, make a wish, and buy a charm that promotes "Safe Driving". A young couple just bought a house and has great hopes for the future? They pay to have the new home ritually purified and blessed, in the hopes of a happy life there.

These are such simple, beautiful, human acts, with no moralizing or judgement or condemnation or guilt attached. They're about fostering hope and peace, rather than imposing rules and threatening punishment.

A religion that promotes pleasant things, places, and experiences? That calms and reassures us? That doesn't even require serious belief, but which is happy to accept the prayers of the doubtful in times of need? That's more concerned with serving our human needs than it is about insisting on doing our critical thinking for us? Sign me up!

John said...

Andrew Sullivan had the same response to this discussion as I did, but he expressed it in an even more anti-religion way:

"I’d go further and argue that it is precisely because of a concern with the truth that so many have abandoned institutional religion. When a church teaches scripture in a way that simply ignores the huge amount of historical evidence about the sources of those scriptures, it is not interested in truth, but in its authority. When a church advances a version of “natural law” that is based in the science of the 13th Century, rather than of the 21st, it is showing contempt for the kind of truth-seeking Aquinas was engaged in, not respect. When it maintains utterly specious distinctions between men and women in which women are always somehow second-class, truth-seekers will go elsewhere. When its understanding of sexuality is concocted by failed celibates with profound sexual dysfunction and with histories of sexual crime and abuse, who can blame truth-seekers for looking elsewhere? It seems to me that it is because the churches have shown such profound contempt for truth that they appear crippled by modernity, and therefore have less appeal and traction. And their suppression of debate about these areas is ipso facto a flight from truth."

Unknown said...

203But surely you do not claim to be a Catholic, and I'm not sure Andrew Sullivan would either (although he might claim to be Lapsed or Disappointed Catholic). Wieseltier and Worthen are *not* saying that everyone should look for the truth about sexuality or evolution to, say, Catholicism. They *are* saying that if you don't accept a lot of what the official Catholic religion says, you're not really a Catholic. You may be a wonderful person, but you're not a Catholic. (Wieseltier, of course, would never look to Aquinas for the truth of human sexuality or anything else; he'd look to Torah and Talmud.)

For myself, I don't look to traditional religion for my notions about the truth. But I think it's fair to say that a person who claims, for example, to be a Muslim while arguing also that Jesus is God Incarnate is doing more than making a mere personal choice. That person is radically redefining the limits of Islam, and shouldn't be surprised if many Muslims say that person is no longer a Muslim.

John said...

Indeed that is Wieseltier and Dreher's main point. What set off both Sullivan and me was the insinuation that people who are not serious about tradition don't care about the truth. There is among Catholics (at least) a common belief that agnostics are unserious people, people who are more into carousing than fundamental questions. I suspect that many Orthodox Jews feel the same way about lax Jews -- their unserious attitude toward the Talmud is one aspect of an unserious approach to life. I have encountered this often enough to be prickly about any insinuation that because I don't subscribe to an ancient religion I am a frivolous person. C.S. Lewis says this quite explicitly on the first page of the Screwtape Letters, where one demon tells another that arguing with people is a mistake because "reason is the enemy's territory;" instead, you have to titillate and distract them. I cannot tell you what is on any page of the Screwtape Letters beyond about 4 because this contempt for non-Christians made me crazy. To Lewis, anyone who took the time to reflect profoundly on universal questions would obviously end up as a religious believer, so anyone who is not in a church is obviously shallow and foolish.

Ok, so maybe I leaped past the main point of what Wieseltier and Dreher were saying to focus on my own obsessions. We all have faults. I could have worse ones than hating to be called frivolous. And I probably do.

Unknown said...

And some of us have the flaw of insisting on what we see as the correct reading of something, to the point where it becomes a tiresome, persnickety pedantry. But we do give folks an opportunity to use the word "persnickety."

Julian said...

You say you are interested in truth or false in regard to the purpose of life and the reality of the world but then you automatically reject organized or revealed religions for no other reason then personal preference or emotional bias. How do you know your view is the correct one and not a particular religion? You are subject to the same criteria in your choice of worldview, the rational decision if the presence of multiple worldviews means not knowing which one is correct is to be undecided on the matter not automatically choose to reject revealed religion without any evidence.
How do you know that one of the revealed religions could not be true? If one of them is true, then the others are false. So the rational choices are one of them is true or none of them is true. A study of all worldviews, a more comprehensive and open-minded analysis then automatically excluding some, has convinced me that Catholicism is leagues above other religions in its claim to legitimacy as the only God revealed religion. This is based on logic, evidence, and systematic and comprehensive thinking. I am not saying for you to accept this on my statements but to examine all worldviews and study them objectively without already eliminating them completely irrationally. Do you have universal knowledge to know for a fact beyond all doubt that God does not exist and if he does exist will not reveal himself at any cost. That seems like pure arrogance and close-minded thinking. Truth has to be open to all possibilities and elimination based on solid reasons. The intellectual life demands nothing less.

It is definitely possible that God has revealed himself and formed a religion. I would say that Christ being God is the most rational explanation and has overwhelming evidence for being true compared to the alternative choices of his identity. Evidence not irrefutable proof, don't fall for the ideology of Scientism which attempts to explain fields it has no power of examining. Philosophical methodology is more apt to the study of religion. I suggest reading Truth in Religion by Mortimer Adler, a rational examination of all possible worldviews.