Sunday, April 6, 2008

Cold Comfort

As I’d already noticed, Philip Kitcher seems to want to be the Good Cop, or the Good Atheist, to Richard Dawkins’s Bad Cop/Atheist. “See,” he’s saying, “I’m not one of those mean, inhumane atheists who want to take away all your hope… well, actually, I do, but I feel really bad about it.” Like most would-be conquerors, he promises liberation -- in the form of the “enlightenment case”:

Despite its scope, this is not a war against all religion. For there are other kinds of religion, “spiritual religions,” as I shall call them, that don’t require the literal truth of any doctrines about supernatural beings. Some professing Christians and professing Jews have heard the dispatches from the enlightenment front, and responded by abandoning commitment to the literal truth of virtually all the sentences in their respective Bibles [Living with Darwin, 132].

Spiritual Christians abandon all of the standard stories of the life of Jesus. They give up on the extraordinary birth, the miracles, the literal resurrection. What survive are the teachings, the precepts and parables, and the eventual journey to Jerusalem and the culminating moment of the Crucifixion. That moment of suffering and sacrifice is seen, not as the prelude to some triumphant return and the promise of eternal salvation – all that, to repeat, is literally false – but as a symbolic presentation of the importance of compassion and of love without limits. We are to recognize our own predicament, the human predicament, through the lens of the man on the cross.

Spiritual Christians place the value of the stories of the scriptures not in their literal truth but in their deliverances for self-understanding, for improving ourselves and for shaping our attitudes and actions toward others [152f].

Kitcher seems not to have explored religion very widely or deeply, or he’d know that his “spiritual religion” is familiar as the liberal Protestantism and reform Judaism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These movements also thought they could escape superstition and found an enlightened religion by eliminating the supernatural from the Bible. But they never had much success among most believers, scoring only with the relative few who already had “heard the dispatches from the enlightenment front”. Ernest Renan’s Life of Jesus (1864), Adolf von Harnack’s What Is Christianity? (1901), and others attempted to recover a historical Jesus compatible with Euro-American post-Enlightenment culture, free of miracle, apocalypticism, and other embarrassments. The critical Biblical scholarship that emerged in Europe along with liberal Protestantism quickly found that Jesus could not be separated from supernaturalism. Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906) put Jesus back into his apocalyptic matrix, and later scholars reluctantly accepted that whatever else he may have been, the historical Jesus was probably an exorcist and faith-healer, and a preacher of salvation (and damnation) if not a self-proclaimed Savior.

“The teachings, the precepts and parables” that remain after Kitcher’s enlightenment supernaturalectomy of the New Testament aren’t much help either. I presume that among “the teachings” he doesn’t include Jesus’ prediction that the supernatural Kingdom of God would be established on earth within the lifetime of his followers, a theme that runs through the gospels, nor the threats of damnation and the promises of salvation. “All that, to repeat, is literally false.” Nor, I suppose, does Kitcher want to keep Jesus' hostility to family and to marriage and the flesh. Those Christians I’ve encountered who claim that they simply follow Jesus’ teaching quickly make it clear that they mean only those teachings that they like.

The parables are even less help. Some of them are merely sermon illustrations, edifying little fables like the one about the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30ff). Others are not so edifying, like the one where a king kills everyone who refuses to come to his son’s wedding, throwing it open instead to beggars and pariahs (Matthew 22.1ff / Luke 14:16ff). But among the meanings of the word “parable” is “riddle,” and many of the parables are so obscure that it’s plausible that Jesus meant them not to be understood. In Mark 4:12, Jesus even says that he taught in parables deliberately so that “those outside” would not understand and so would not find salvation, while he explained the parables’ meaning only to his disciples. There’s certainly nothing supernatural about this teaching; would Kitcher accept it as part of his “spiritual religion”? Scholars and other interpreters disagree widely as to how to understand Jesus’ teachings. Wikipedia has a good essay on the complexities of the parable of the Wicked Husbandmen, showing how difficult it is to distinguish what Jesus taught from what the gospel writers put into his mouth; it’s not untypical.

As for the crucifixion of Jesus, it’s true that it at least is historical and not supernatural: after two millennia, it’s easy for forget that Jesus’ humiliating and scandalous death was a stumbling block for belief, and I agree with the scholars who don’t think the early Christians would have invented it. But what does it mean? Kitcher assumes that it’s a “moment of suffering and sacrifice [which] is seen … as a symbolic presentation of the importance of compassion and of love without limits.” Death by crucifixion was more than a “moment of suffering” (more like hours or days), and was Jesus’ death in particular a “sacrifice” or “a symbolic representation” of anything? “Sacrifice” in this context carries all sorts of supernaturalist baggage anyway, from its context in Judaism and other religions of offerings to gods. Does Kitcher still want to see Jesus as the Lamb of God, whose sacrificial death atoned for the sins of the world? I suspect he has not really thought this through very well.

I recently discussed one Christian’s explication of Jesus as a political rebel executed by the Romans for threatening their rule in Judea. In this view, Jesus’ death was neither more nor less a sacrifice than that of any other insurgent, from Spartacus to Che Guevara. Most insurgents, however courageous, are not very suitable to build a religion on, for they tend to dish out violence as well as take it. They may endorse “compassion and love without limits”, but “Kill ‘em all, let God sort ‘em out” is usually there as well, and expressed in practice as well as theory. Somehow I don’t think Kitcher wants to see Jesus as Rambo of Nazareth either.

Kitcher concedes that his notion of “spiritual religion” is vulnerable to attack from “two directions”: “those who have grown up in a more substantial [!] faith, who have not appreciated the force of the enlightenment case and who see no need to abandon supernatural religion”, and “secular humanists [who] will see spiritual religion as a last desperate attempt to claim a privilege for traditions whose credentials have been decisively refuted.” He’s transparently trying to present himself as a nice middle-of-the-roader here, moderating between two extremes; it’s a dubious ploy, because there are usually more than two or even three alternative viewpoints in any controversy. The examples I’ve given, which could be multiplied, should show that even on his own terms, Kitcher’s “spiritual religion” has some serious flaws.

A thread that runs through discussions like Kitcher’s is the “enlightened” elite versus the superstitious masses. Of course it’s those elites who call themselves enlightened, and of course they take for granted that in a better world they will be calling the shots. Kitcher keeps referring to “the enlightenment case” against traditional religion, though he wants his secular buddhas to preach enlightenment to the mob humanely, with compassion and hope. (Hope for what, I can’t quite make out.) Susan Jacoby structures her book The Age of American Unreason around the conflict between a tiny few enlightened “freethinkers” like Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the ignorant armies of the majority, with their video games, horoscopes, junk science, and literal Bibles. “Junk science” is a sticking point there, since much of the ruling class, like Larry Summers of Harvard, don’t meet her high standards of freethought. I suppose she dreams of a posse of philosopher-philosophers, independent of the corridors of power, who will guide the nation and ultimately the world into Utopia. But I wouldn’t trust Kitcher or Jacoby – or myself -- let alone Dawkins or Harris or Dennett, to run or even supervise a society. If religion, “supernatural” or “spiritual,” ever goes away, it won’t be imposed from above, it’ll have to be from below. To impose it (say, by requiring schools to teach that “God is dead” as Sam Harris reportedly advocates, or by “quarantine” of those who believe in supernatural religion as Dennett fantasizes), would be the opposite of freethought, a violation of the very Enlightenment ideals these guys claim to embrace.

But it certainly sounds familiar, doesn’t it? There’s a powerful Manichaean streak in the thought of these secularists, even Kitcher. On one side, there’s light and wisdom; on the other, darkness and foolishness. On one hand, the road that leads to life; on the other, the way to perdition. But which is which? I’m not entirely sure myself, because I’m not much of a Manichaean, and I don’t think that right and wrong, truth and falsehood, light and darkness, knowledge and ignorance, are distinct substances which can be separated easily. For now I’ll end with this verse of Dorothy Parker’s:

Partial Comfort

Whose love is given over well
Shall gaze on Helen’s face in Hell.
Whilst they whose love is thin and wise
Shall view John Knox in Paradise.