Wednesday, October 25, 2006

That Which Has Been Cultivated Popularly

Terry Eagleton has given us a rather breathtaking response to Richard Dawkins over at the London Review of Books. He provides the best, carefully articulated characterization of functioning Christianity I've seen in a long time. And do note his use of the phrase "popular culture." Has my mind reeling.

Google a sentence and read the thing in its entirety (me still a little thick in the link department). In the meantime, here's an excerpt. It's downright Chestertonian at times:

Dawkins holds that the existence or non-existence of God is a scientific hypothesis which is open to rational demonstration. Christianity teaches that to claim that there is a God must be reasonable, but that this is not at all the same thing as faith. Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster. This is not to say that religious people believe in a black hole, because they also consider that God has revealed himself: not, as Dawkins thinks, in the guise of a cosmic manufacturer even smarter than Dawkins himself (the New Testament has next to nothing to say about God as Creator), but for Christians at least, in the form of a reviled and murdered political criminal. The Jews of the so-called Old Testament had faith in God, but this does not mean that after debating the matter at a number of international conferences they decided to endorse the scientific hypothesis that there existed a supreme architect of the universe – even though, as Genesis reveals, they were of this opinion. They had faith in God in the sense that I have faith in you. They may well have been mistaken in their view; but they were not mistaken because their scientific hypothesis was unsound.

Dawkins speaks scoffingly of a personal God, as though it were entirely obvious exactly what this might mean. He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms. For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

This, not some super-manufacturing, is what is traditionally meant by the claim that God is Creator. He is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even if the universe had no beginning. To say that he brought it into being ex nihilo is not a measure of how very clever he is, but to suggest that he did it out of love rather than need. The world was not the consequence of an inexorable chain of cause and effect. Like a Modernist work of art, there is no necessity about it at all, and God might well have come to regret his handiwork some aeons ago. The Creation is the original acte gratuit. God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it, not a scientist at work on a magnificently rational design that will impress his research grant body no end.

Because the universe is God’s, it shares in his life, which is the life of freedom. This is why it works all by itself, and why science and Richard Dawkins are therefore both possible. The same is true of human beings: God is not an obstacle to our autonomy and enjoyment but, as Aquinas argues, the power that allows us to be ourselves. Like the unconscious, he is closer to us than we are to ourselves. He is the source of our self-determination, not the erasure of it. To be dependent on him, as to be dependent on our friends, is a matter of freedom and fulfilment. Indeed, friendship is the word Aquinas uses to characterise the relation between God and humanity.

Dawkins, who is as obsessed with the mechanics of Creation as his Creationist opponents, understands nothing of these traditional doctrines. Nor does he understand that because God is transcendent of us (which is another way of saying that he did not have to bring us about), he is free of any neurotic need for us and wants simply to be allowed to love us. Dawkins’s God, by contrast, is Satanic. Satan (‘accuser’ in Hebrew) is the misrecognition of God as Big Daddy and punitive judge, and Dawkins’s God is precisely such a repulsive superego. This false consciousness is overthrown in the person of Jesus, who reveals the Father as friend and lover rather than judge. Dawkins’s Supreme Being is the God of those who seek to avert divine wrath by sacrificing animals, being choosy in their diet and being impeccably well behaved. They cannot accept the scandal that God loves them just as they are, in all their moral shabbiness. This is one reason St Paul remarks that the law is cursed. Dawkins sees Christianity in terms of a narrowly legalistic notion of atonement – of a brutally vindictive God sacrificing his own child in recompense for being offended – and describes the belief as vicious and obnoxious. It’s a safe bet that the Archbishop of Canterbury couldn’t agree more. It was the imperial Roman state, not God, that murdered Jesus.

Dawkins thinks it odd that Christians don’t look eagerly forward to death, given that they will thereby be ushered into paradise. He does not see that Christianity, like most religious faiths, values human life deeply, which is why the martyr differs from the suicide. The suicide abandons life because it has become worthless; the martyr surrenders his or her most precious possession for the ultimate well-being of others. This act of self-giving is generally known as sacrifice, a word that has unjustly accrued all sorts of politically incorrect implications. Jesus, Dawkins speculates, might have desired his own betrayal and death, a case the New Testament writers deliberately seek to rebuff by including the Gethsemane scene, in which Jesus is clearly panicking at the prospect of his impending execution. They also put words into his mouth when he is on the cross to make much the same point. Jesus did not die because he was mad or masochistic, but because the Roman state and its assorted local lackeys and running dogs took fright at his message of love, mercy and justice, as well as at his enormous popularity with the poor, and did away with him to forestall a mass uprising in a highly volatile political situation. Several of Jesus’ close comrades were probably Zealots, members of an anti-imperialist underground movement. Judas’ surname suggests that he may have been one of them, which makes his treachery rather more intelligible: perhaps he sold out his leader in bitter disenchantment, recognising that he was not, after all, the Messiah. Messiahs are not born in poverty; they do not spurn weapons of destruction; and they tend to ride into the national capital in bullet-proof limousines with police outriders, not on a donkey.

Jesus, who pace Dawkins did indeed ‘derive his ethics from the Scriptures’ (he was a devout Jew, not the founder of a fancy new set-up), was a joke of a Messiah. He was a carnivalesque parody of a leader who understood, so it would appear, that any regime not founded on solidarity with frailty and failure is bound to collapse under its own hubris. The symbol of that failure was his crucifixion. In this faith, he was true to the source of life he enigmatically called his Father, who in the guise of the Old Testament Yahweh tells the Hebrews that he hates their burnt offerings and that their incense stinks in his nostrils. They will know him for what he is, he reminds them, when they see the hungry being filled with good things and the rich being sent empty away. You are not allowed to make a fetish or graven image of this God, since the only image of him is human flesh and blood. Salvation for Christianity has to do with caring for the sick and welcoming the immigrant, protecting the poor from the violence of the rich. It is not a ‘religious’ affair at all, and demands no special clothing, ritual behaviour or fussiness about diet. (The Catholic prohibition on meat on Fridays is an unscriptural church regulation.)

Jesus hung out with whores and social outcasts, was remarkably casual about sex, disapproved of the family (the suburban Dawkins is a trifle queasy about this), urged us to be laid-back about property and possessions, warned his followers that they too would die violently, and insisted that the truth kills and divides as well as liberates. He also cursed self-righteous prigs and deeply alarmed the ruling class.

The Christian faith holds that those who are able to look on the crucifixion and live, to accept that the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body, might just have a chance of new life – but only by virtue of an unimaginable transformation in our currently dire condition. This is known as the resurrection. Those who don’t see this dreadful image of a mutilated innocent as the truth of history are likely to be devotees of that bright-eyed superstition known as infinite human progress, for which Dawkins is a full-blooded apologist. Or they might be well-intentioned reformers or social democrats, which from a Christian standpoint simply isn’t radical enough.

The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you. Here, then, is your pie in the sky and opium of the people. It was, of course, Marx who coined that last phrase; but Marx, who in the same passage describes religion as the ‘heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions’, was rather more judicious and dialectical in his judgment on it than the lunging, flailing, mispunching Dawkins.

Now it may well be that all this is no more plausible than the tooth fairy. Most reasoning people these days will see excellent grounds to reject it. But critics of the richest, most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook. The mainstream theology I have just outlined may well not be true; but anyone who holds it is in my view to be respected, whereas Dawkins considers that no religious belief, anytime or anywhere, is worthy of any respect whatsoever. This, one might note, is the opinion of a man deeply averse to dogmatism. Even moderate religious views, he insists, are to be ferociously contested, since they can always lead to fanaticism.

Some currents of the liberalism that Dawkins espouses have nowadays degenerated into a rather nasty brand of neo-liberalism, but in my view this is no reason not to champion liberalism. In some obscure way, Dawkins manages to imply that the Bishop of Oxford is responsible for Osama bin Laden. His polemic would come rather more convincingly from a man who was a little less arrogantly triumphalistic about science (there are a mere one or two gestures in the book to its fallibility), and who could refrain from writing sentences like ‘this objection [to a particular scientific view] can be answered by the suggestion . . . that there are many universes,’ as though a suggestion constituted a scientific rebuttal. On the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity, he is predictably silent. Yet the Apocalypse is far more likely to be the product of them than the work of religion. Swap you the Inquisition for chemical warfare.

Eagleton rocks.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Flann O'Brien

The following is from Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman. It's doing my head in. "Joe" is the name the narrator's given his own soul.

...I was deprived of definition, position and magnitude and my significance was considerably diminished. Lying there, I felt the weariness ebbing from me slowly, like a tide retiring over limitless sands. The feeling was so pleasurable and profound that I sighed again a long sound of happiness. Almost at once I heard another sigh and heard Joe murmuring some contented incoherency. His voice was near me, yet did not seem to come from the accustomed place within. I thought that he must be lying beside me in the bed and I kept my hands carefully at my sides in case I should accidentally touch him. I felt, for no reason, that his diminutive body would be horrible to the human touch--scaly or slimy like an eel or with a repelling roughness like a cat's tongue.
That's not very logical--or complimentary either, he said suddenly.
What isn't?
That about my body. Why scaly?
That's only my joke, I chuckled drowsily. I know you have no body. Except my own, perhaps.
But why scaly?
I don't know. How can I know why I think my thoughts?
By God I won't be called scaly.
His voice to my surprise had become shrill with petulance. Then he seemed to fill the world with resentment, not by speaking but by remaining silent after he had spoken.
Now, now, Joe, I murmured soothingly.
Because if you are looking for trouble you can have your bellyful, he snapped.
You have no body, Joe.
Then why do you say I have? And why scaly?
Here I had a strange idea not unworthy of de Selby. Why was Joe so disturbed at the suggestion that he had a body? What if he had a body? A body with another body inside it in turn, thousands of such bodies within each other like the skin of an onion, receding to some unimaginable ultimum? Was i in turn merely a link in a vast sequence of imponderable beings, the world I knew merely the interior of the being whose inner voice I myself was? Who or what was the core and what monster in what world was the final uncontained colossus? God? Nothing? Was I receiving these wild thoughts from Lower Down or were they brewing newly in me to be transmitted Higher Up?
From lower down, Joe barked.
Thank you.
I'm leaving.

It gets better from there. O'Brien couldn't find a publisher for this particular work when he was alive. I stand amazed in the presence...If anyone's read (or is looking to read) it. Me want to talk.

Check it,