Gary Wills: "The Myth About Marriage"

The Catholic writer, in a post at the New York Review of Books blog:

Those who do not want to let gay partners have the sacredness of sacramental marriage are relying on a Scholastic fiction of the thirteenth century to play with people’s lives, as the church has done ever since the time of Aquinas. The myth of the sacrament should not let people deprive gays of the right to natural marriage, whether blessed by Yahweh or not.

Skepticism in Montaigne's Day

A surprising and interesting passage from Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question  and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, which I’m reading now:

There was only one exception to [Montaigne’s] “question everything” rule: he was careful to state that he considered his religious faith beyond doubt. He adhered to the received dogma of the Catholic Church, and that was that.

This can come as a surprise to modern readers. Today, Skepticism and organized religion are usually thought to occupy opposite sides of a divide, with the latter representing faith and authority while the former allies itself with science and reason. In Montaigne’s day, the lines were drawn differently. Science in the modern sense did not yet exist and human reason was only rarely considered something that could stand alone, unsupported by God. The idea that the human mind could find things out for itself was the very thing Skeptics were likely to be most skeptical about. And the Church currently favored faith over “rational theology,” so it naturally saw Pyrrhonism as an ally. Attacking human arrogance as it did, Pyrrhonian Skepticism was especially useful against the “innovation” of Protestantism, which prioritized private reasoning and conscience rather than dogmas.

You Can't Handle the Truth

Early on in Janet Reitman's Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion:

Scientology, as its critics point out, is unlike any other Western religion in that it withholds key aspects of its central theology from all but its most exalted followers. This would be akin to the Catholic Church telling only a select number of the faithful that Jesus Christ died for their sins.

Later, in the chapter “The Seduction of Tom Cruise”:

Cruise, in the meantime, had reached OT 3, the vaunted Wall of Fire. For seven years, he’d waited to discover the hidden truths that he’d been promised would change his life. When he did, he had what many former Scientologists say is not an atypical reaction — “He freaked out and was like, What the fuck is this science fiction shit?” as Marc Headley put it — and he took a step back.

“From my recollection, Tom went kind of crazy when he reached that level,” said Karen Pressley. “You have to remember that this was before the Internet became popular, and everything about Scientology was still veiled in secrecy. So as a dedicated Scientologist, following the roles, he would have never heard of Xenu, body thetas — any of that stuff. Finding out that this was what Scientology was about I’m sure came as quite a shock.”


I hadn’t planned it, but I finished my first complete read-through of a single Darwin book just as he’s back in the news. Last fall, I posted about Adam Gopnik’s terrific essay on the man and his writings, which was in part a response to the beautifully packaged, heavy-as-hell collection From So Simple a Beginning. This bad boy rests with great pressure on the abdomen, as it holds all of Darwin’s four major works: The Voyage of the Beagle (1845), On the Origin of Species (1859), The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). My goal this year is to read the second and third, and, as of earlier this week, I’m halfway there.

First, a word from E.O. Wilson (interviewed here, in a fascinating Charlie Rose interview), who edited the book and provides an introduction:

The revolution in astronomy begun by Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543 proved that Earth is not the center of the universe, nor even the center of the solar system. The revolution begun by Darwin was even more humbling: it showed that humanity is not the center of creation, and not its purpose either. But in freeing our minds from our imagined demigod bondage, even at the price of humility, Darwin turned our attention to the astounding power of the natural creative process and the magnificence of its products.

I’ve written before about those books you read and then can’t imagine not having read, and Origin belongs in this camp. It’s certainly a feat of a book, and – I’m here to say – very readable for the non-scientist. Lots of things go through one’s mind reading this text: what a massive amount of information he’s handling, and with such skill; how curious he is, and how patient; how unboastful he is, as he notes our profound ignorance of certain matters and what should be our shared awe at what is coming into focus (“What can be more extraordinary than these well-ascertained facts?” he asks at one point, suggesting that it’s the facts that are extraordinary, not him); how careful he is with language; how willing he is to acknowledge the reader’s position in all this (“This may not be a cheering prospect,” he writes in the final chapter, with one of my very favorite lines); and, lastly, how brave.

On to a few quotes. In his own introduction to the book, Darwin wants the reader to know “I have not been hasty in coming to a decision,” which is certainly an understatement. He closes chapter one this way:

Over all these causes of Change I am convinced that the accumulative action of Selection, whether applied methodically and more quickly, or unconsciously and more slowly, but more efficiently, is by far the predominant Power.

Later, closing chapter five:

Whatever the cause may be of each slight difference in the offspring from their parents – and a cause for each must exist – it is the steady accumulation, through natural selection, of such differences, when beneficial to the individual, that gives rise to all the more important modifications of structure, by which the innumerable beings on the face of this earth are enabled to struggle with each other, and the best adapted to survive.


Man does not actually produce variability; he only unintentionally exposes organic beings to new conditions of life, and then nature acts on the organisation, and causes variability.


How strange it is that a bird, under the form of woodpecker, should have been created to prey on insects on the ground; that upland geese, which never or rarely swim, should have been created with webbed feet; that a thrush should have been created with habits and structure fitting it for the life of an auk or grebe! and so on in endless other cases. But on the view of each species constantly trying to increase in number, with natural selection always ready to adapt the slowly varying descendants of each to any unoccupied or ill-occupied place in nature, these facts cease to be strange, or perhaps might even have been anticipated.

Lastly, I’ll close as he does, with this very special passage:

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse: a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Carl Sagan, Classic Agnostic

From a terrific new Point of Inquiry podcast interview with Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan and editor of his posthumous collection The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God:

D.J. Grothe: Would you say that he – even if he was, in quotes, “spiritual” – was he in any way anti-religious?

Ann Druyan: He was certainly anti-fundamentalist. He was anti-superstition. He was anti-believing in things without the proper amount of evidence for their existence. He was against all those things, and he thought all of them were pernicious, [that they] exerted a really negative influence on human existence. And among those beliefs, I think he thought a belief in the afterlife was especially poisonous, because of how it robbed life and death of their natural significance. And how it prevented so many people from living in the present. So yes, he had all those beliefs, but he was a classic agnostic, in that he truly believed that we don’t know the answers to any of these questions. He saw no evidence for the traditional view of God. But he also believed it was too much to state flatly, based on our pathetically small knowledge of nature and the universe, how the universe came to be, and who was involved – if anyone – in making it come to be.

James Wood on Sam Harris

The excellent literary critic and novelist James Wood has explored religion in all three of his books: The Broken Estate; The Book Against God; and The Irresponsible Self. In a forthcoming New Republic essay called “The Celestial Teapot,” ostensibly a review of Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, he begins by writing of his own turn away from religion:

I have not believed in God since I was fifteen, and now, at forty, I suspect that I am too late to change. But the velocity of that flight from belief has not been constant: there have been hesitations, interruptions, acute nostalgias. Like many raised in a religious household, I often find myself caught in a painful, if comic, paradox, whereby I am involved in an angry relationship with the very God whose existence I am supposed to deny. There is the joke of the atheist out fishing with a believing friend. The atheist casts his net and draws up a stone on which is carved: “I do not exist. Signed: God.” And the atheist exclaims: “What did I tell you!” Contradictory this kind of atheism might at times be, but those contradictions feed, perhaps constitute, its brand of militancy; it is because God cannot be entirely banished that one is forced to keep on complaining rather than merely finalize one’s elegies. 


We are in the midst of that tragedy, and America is drowning in God’s attributes. The Lord will increase your salary, teach your children, raise your self-esteem, boost your career, be a lifelong friend, and take you into his heart if you only take him into your heart. He is love, and gentleness, and charity, unless he is forbidding homosexuality or stem-cell research or punishing New York with September 11 for its high proportion of gays, lesbians, and degenerates. He greatly dislikes evolutionists, largely because he created the world six thousand years ago. He certainly dislikes Nancy Pelosi–and now, alas, Pastor Ted Haggard. The Bible is his inerrant word. According to recent polls, 53 percent of Americans are creationists, and 87 percent–or 260 million people–claim to “never doubt the existence of God.” An avowed atheist cannot be elected president. And so on. You know the stupefying recital. Many millions across the world are absolutely sure they know what God is like, and what he likes. Heine’s unbelieving joke, reported by the Goncourt brothers, rises up: on his deathbed, while his wife was praying that God might forgive him, he interrupted her to say, “Have no fear, my darling. He will forgive: that’s his profession.”

I happened to read Sam Harris’ new book this afternoon in the bookstore – it’s just 90 pages – and it’s a lucid and timely piece of work with a few flaws. Wood himself sees a few. (“I have an almost infinite capacity for the consumption of atheistic texts, but there is a limit to how many times one can stub one’s toe on the thick idiocy of some mullah or pastor.”) I suggest reading the whole piece yourself. It seems TNR has decided to offer the review as a free web piece, if only you’ll take the time to register with a name and password. Wood is always worth it.

Colbert's Either/Or

From a “Colbert Report” segment called “Ecu-Menace” (watch), in which Stephen Colbert (a Catholic, in life) questions the Pope’s efforts to reach out to Muslims:

I know Roman Catholicism is the one truth faith because Roman Catholicism tells me it’s the one truth faith…I’m sorry, Islam: Inherent in my belief is your wrongness. I mean, you better be wrong. I hate to think all those people in the Spanish Inquisition were tortured for nothing…[following, among other things, a motor-mouthed recitation of the Nicene Creed]…Now what I just said is either the complete truth, or the Muslims are right and I’m an infedel. What they call a kafir. Now, I’ll tell you one thing I respect about fundamentalist Muslims: At least Muslims have the balls to say I’m wrong. Even though they believe Mohammad ascended into Heaven on a horse. Which is ridiculous. Horses can’t fly. Jesus flies. He flew up to Heaven….If different religions have to agree, let’s agree on the one thing we both believe: That the other guy is going to hell.

Bart D. Ehrman: Misquoting Jesus

I just finished Bart D. Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. Its not sweepingly impressive like Karen Armstrong’s A History of God (which I read last month), but it’s focused and research-based and valuable. Many would agree with Ehrman, after all, that the Bible is “the most significant book in the history of Western civilization.” What he’s after is understanding what to make of the manuscript variances, which he says number higher than all the words of the New Testament. (Some are small, of course. Others consequential.) Misquoting includes some memorable tidbits (among them that Paul and other apostles “taught that Jesus was soon to return from heaven in judgment on the earth”) as well as a pair of interesting statements about irony:

I would like to end this chapter simply with an observation about a particularly acute irony that we seem to have discovered. As we saw in chapter 1, Christianity from the outset was a bookish religion that stressed certain texts as authoritative scripture. As we have seen in this chapter, however, we don’t actually have these authoritative texts. This is a textually oriented religion whose texts have been changed, surviving only in copies that vary from one another, sometimes in highly significant ways. The task of the textual critic is to try to recover the oldest form of these texts.

And later:

One of the ironies of early Christianity is that Jesus himself was a Jew who worshiped the Jewish God, kept Jewish customs, interpreted the Jewish law, and acquired Jewish disciples, who accepted him as the Jewish messiah. Yet, within just a few decades of his death, Jesus’s followers had formed a religion that stood over-against Judaism. How did Christianity move so quickly from being a Jewish sect to being an anti-Jewish religion?

Gopnik on Darwin: He's Crafty

The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik has a fabulous, illuminating essay called “Rewriting Nature: Charles Darwin, natural novelist,” in the October 23 issue. (Print only, as far as I can tell.) Gopnik explores Darwin’s writing style – his methods of shaping his material into sentences, into chapters, into books. “Darwin’s strategy was one of the greatest successes in the history of rhetoric, so much so that we are scarcely now aware that it was a strategy,” Gopnik writes. “His pose of open-mindedness and ostentatiously asserted country virtue made him, in his way, as unassailable as George Washington.” Gopnik examines this strategy by putting specific Darwin sentences under the microscope:

Darwin’s ability to look pious while demolishing every piety can be seen at its best in what may be the single most explosive sentence in English, which appears in the last chapter of “The Descent of Man”: “We thus learn that man is descended from a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in its habits, and an inhabitant of the Old World.”

We can be startled by its boldness today; we know what its effect was in 1871. Yet how beautifully it is situated within the book, after hundreds of detailed pages on sexual selection, on peacocks’ tails and mammals’ tusks, by which point it is presented not as a thesis to be demonstrated (although that was exactly what it was) but as a conclusion forced inexorably on the unwilling author. And then the sly use of words – the “hairy” quadruped (unnecessary for the point but necessary to make the image maximally disturbing) and the dynamite of that tail and those pointed ears, with their specific invocation of the diabolical, and the use of the domestic verb “furnished.” There are a thousand ways the sentence could have been written in order to minimize its damage to belief; for example,“Those primates closest in organization and structure to man may have had their early origins among arboreal quadrupeds native to the old world.” But, a decade after “The Origin,” he writes, instead, the mortar sentence,the one that makes the minimal noise incoming and does the maximum damage on arrival. There’s your grandfather: in a tree on all fours, his ears sticking straight up and his tail swinging through the branches.

The books Gopnik writes about here include the recently published brick From So Simple a Beginning, which includes Darwin’s four essential volumes; Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The Importance of Everything and Other Lessons from Darwin’s Lost Notebooks; Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction; Randal Keynes’s Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution; and George Levine’s Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World. I splurged on the first a few months ago but haven’t yet dug in.

John Danforth

This week’s guest on “Speaking of Faith” is St. Louisian John Danforth (“Conservative Politics & Moderate Religion”), former Ambassador to the United Nations, three-term Republican Senator, and special envoy to Sudan for President Bush. His new book is called Faith and Politics. I haven’t listened to the SOF piece yet, but I just read an interesting interview he’s given to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. From the latter:

Q: In your book you write that ‘no political agenda can claim to be God’s will.’ That argument is not going to persuade people who believe it can.

A: No, you’re not going to persuade everybody, but let’s have other people weigh in on this discussion, too. Let’s hear from the people who do not believe that the kingdom of God can be reduced to a political platform. And let’s hear from people who believe that the commandment that we love our neighbors as ourselves takes precedence over bashing gays, for example.

Q: How would that look, then, if more people were interested in reconciliation? Can you give an example?

A: Let’s stick with the gay issue. This issue has become politicized for the purpose of appealing to the Christian conservative base of the Republican Party. It’s difficult for me to imagine that, aside from that effort, that many people really think that gay marriage should be incorporated into the Constitution of the United States.

The Constitution is about the structure of government; it’s about the relationship of the government and the people. It’s not about behavioral issues.

The gay marriage issue gained currency in Republican politics because only one side was heard from. It’s time for other people to say, 'Wait a second.’

I feel the same about stem cells. Some people say that the Christian position is against stem cell research. That’s true for some Christians. But a lot of Christians would say: No, when Jesus sent the disciples out into the world, he sent them out, in Matthew’s Gospel, to heal every disease.

I’m not for muzzling anybody. I’m for having people who believe that America has become too polarized - and for religion to be more than a series of wedge issues - to be more outspoken than they’ve been to date.

Q: What are your thoughts on gay marriage?

A: My personal view is that marriage is between a man and woman. But that’s neither here nor there. I also believe in not humiliating people, and I believe in honoring people and understanding that some people are just not drawn to people of the opposite sex.

The government should recognize that when there’s a committed relationship, certain legal rights should go along with it. And then let the churches figure out what they mean by marriage.

Karen Armstrong: A History of God

I just finished Karen Armstrong’s A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It’s a major achievement and totally compelling from start to finish. Since it’s a former bestseller, this may not be news to you. Quoting sparingly:

The Jews have often been criticized for their belief that they are the Chosen People, but their critics have often been guilty of the same kind of denial that fueled the diatribes against idolatry in biblical times. All three of the monotheistic faiths have developed similar theologies of election at different times in their history, sometimes with even more devastating results than those imagined in the Book of Joshua. Western Christians have been particularly prone to the flattering belief that they are God’s elect. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Crusaders justified their holy wars against Jews and Muslims by calling themselves the new Chosen People, who had taken up the vocation that the Jews had lost. Calvinist theologies of election have been largely instrumental in encouraging Americans to believe that they are God’s own nation. As in Josiah’s Kingdom of Judah, such a belief is likely to flourish at a time of political insecurity when people are haunted by the fear of their destruction. It is for this reason, perhaps, that it has gained a new lease of life in the various forms of fundamentalism that are rife among Jews, Christians and Muslims at this writing. A personal God like Yahweh can be manipulated to shore up the beleaguered self in this way, as an impersonal deity like Brahman can not.

Later, completing a fascinating chapter on the Trinity:

Yet by making Jesus the only avatar, we have seen that Christians would adopt an exclusive notion of religious truth: Jesus was the first and last Word of God to the human race, rendering future revelation unnecessary. Consequently, like Jews, they were scandalized when a prophet arose in Arabia during the seventh century who claimed to have received a direct revelation from their God and to have brought a new scripture to his people. Yet the new version of monotheism, which eventually became known as “Islam,” spread with astonishing rapidity throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Many of its enthusiastic converts in these lands (where Hellenism was not on home ground) turned with relief from Greek Trinitarianism, which expressed the mystery of God in an idiom that was alien to them, and adopted a more Semitic notion of the divine reality.

Later in the book:

When the Christian Waraqa ibn Nawfal had acknowledged Muhammad as a true prophet, neither he nor Muhammad expected him to convert to Islam. Muhammad never asked Jews or Christians to convert to his religion of al-Lah unless they particularly wished to do so, because they had received authentic revelations of their own. The Koran did not see revelation as canceling out the messages and insights of previous prophets, but instead it stressed the continuity of the religious experience of mankind.

Closer to the end, Armstrong introduces The Brothers Karamazov:

Ivan, described as an atheist by the other characters (who attributed to him the now famous maxim: “If God does not exist, all is permitted”), says unequivocally that he does believe in God. Yet he does not find this God acceptable, since he fails to provide ultimate meaning for the tragedy of life. Ivan is not troubled by evolutionary theory but by the suffering of humanity in history: the death of a single child is too high a price to pay for the religious perspective that all will be well. We shall see later in this chapter that Jews would come to the same conclusion. On the other hand, it is the saintly Alyosha who admits that he does not believe in God – an admission that seems to burst from him unawares, escaping from some uncharted reach of his unconscious. Ambivalence and an obscure sense of dereliction have continued to haunt the literature of the twentieth century, with its imagery of wasteland and of humanity waiting for a Godot who never comes.

Armstrong’s book is the kind that you read and then can’t imagine not having read.

Moyers: Faith & Reason

I didn’t see any of the Bill Moyers PBS special “Faith and Reason,” but I caught nearly all of it via Podcast. You can head to the content-rich site and listen to, watch, or read parts of Moyers’ conversations with several significant authors from around the world. A few notable quotes, beginning with Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, when asked how she experiences God:

How do I experience God? (Pause) You know that in Buddhism we say, We do not believe in God or disbelieve in God. We keep it as an open question. So I don’t use the word ‘God’ much. I’m not at all even slightly offended by the word 'God,’ and I know it means a lot of different things to different people. So if I had to have a definition it would be that open space of mind that allows for ultimate possiblities and doesn’t narrow down into a security-based or fear-based view where my way has to have precedence.

Agnostic novelist Martin Amis:

We’re about eight Einsteins away from getting any kind of handle on the universe … Why is the universe so incredibly complicated? Why is it so over our heads? That worries me and sort of makes me delay my vote on the existence of some intelligence.

Belgian writer Anne Provoost:

Every people at some point probably has said this ‚Äî they have said, 'This group of people is The Chosen.’ Whenever you have a proclamation of being chosen, it’s always a self-defining process. It’s always the people who are chosen who say they are chosen. They never say that about the other. If you’re going to do that as a group, if you’re going to say, 'I’m chosen,’ it loads you with a very heavy burden.

Novelist Margaret Atwood talked at length about stories and myths, bringing in The Life of Pi and then stating the following:

We like the story with the Tiger better. We like the story with God in it better than we like the story without God in it, because it’s more like us.

This of course brings to mind Stanley Elkin’s great comic novel The Living End, which closes with a series of statements from God answering those questions we always wanted answers to. From the closing pages:

“Goodness,” a saint shouted. “You get off on goodness.”

“On goodness? Me?” God laughed. “On goodness? Is that what you think? Were you born yesterday? You’ve been in the world. Is that how you explain trial and error, history by increment, God’s long Slap and Tickle. His Indian-gift wrath? Goodness? No. It was Art! It was always Art. It worked by the contrasts and metrics, by beats and the silences. It was all Art. Because it makes a better story is why.”

Christ held up his damaged hands. “It makes a better story?” He was furious. “Because it makes a better story? Is this true? Is it?

“Sure it’s true,” God said.


This week’s Speaking of Faith podcast – a repeat – is one of the most fascinating I’ve heard. Host Krista Tippet speaks with Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Doubt: A History. From the wholly quotable transcript:

Hecht: The great doubters have tried to figure out how you can live, and they’ve very much respected the answers that religion has come up with. They just have to fill in certain parts differently because they don’t think that the world is being guided or has been created or is being judged by anyone. And if you don’t think that you’re being watched and if you don’t think that, for instance, morality comes from some outside source, it immediately gives you an incredible amount of responsibility. We can start to think about morality in different ways and start to celebrate the aspect of humanity that generates this thing. And it doesn’t mean you have to question the religious morality because, indeed, the doubters suggest that that came from humanity in the first place. So there’s no reason to throw it out.


I’ve thought of doubt more as negation than as positive theory for how to live. And I’ve been moved and changed by seeing the kinds of suggestions that were made for how to live, and to see that those suggestions are really so close to the kinds of religious suggestions, they just avoid the one where someone’s taking care of it all and you can just place your faith in them. But religion does an awful lot of other types of work — just reminding us of death, and reminding us that the community is larger than the self, and reminding us of the real reasons why we do things, and reminding us that those real reasons get lost in the minutia of daily life. Doubters, without reference to the supernatural, work over those same themes and come to various answers, some which are similar to the religious and some which are quite different. That has been an education for me.


Tippett: It’s interesting to me that, as I think, in the last couple of years, religion has come more to the surface of things. I think 9/11 had something to do with this, both in terms of the way religion got into the news and the way people responded to it. I think it was bubbling under the surface. But what I’m also noticing and what you write in your book is that, at the same time, it seems like people are feeling a need to articulate what you just said — doubt, or a lack of belief, as a position that has some integrity.

Hecht: The point that I want to make is that, you know, in the grandest scheme is that right now the truth is I don’t think that there is much pride in doubt or much recognition that it has a rich history. And I think that that’s really crucial right now, especially because of the way that belief is coming up again as part of policy. That kind of idea, it’s got to be met with the voices of people who are looking at things from the other side. And right now, you know, well, I think I’d like to contextualize this a little bit and say that America in the beginning of the 20th century was a wonderful time to be a doubter. You know, Thomas Edison tells The New York Times he doesn’t believe in an afterlife. You know, that’s something that most people believe in an afterlife wouldn’t tell The New York Times today. It was thought of as — the whole idea of nonconformism, of questioning, of bucking the dominant idea was celebrated as part of what democracy desperately needed, really, from John Stuart Mill and Harriet Mill onward, that idea of liberty as being something you have to keep enacting, otherwise you’ll lose it.

The Golden Rule

Salon offers a lively interview between Steve Paulson – from the terrific radio program ‘To the Best of Our Knowledge’ – and historian and former nun Karen Armstrong:

SP: You say one of the common messages in all these religions was what we now call the Golden Rule. And Confucius was probably the first person who came up with this idea.

KA: All these sages, with the exception of the Greeks, posited a counter-ideology to the violence of their time. The safest way to get rid of egotism was by means of compassion. The first person to promulgate the Golden Rule, which was the bedrock of this empathic spirituality, was Confucius 500 years before Christ. His disciples asked him, “What is the single thread that runs through all your teaching and pulls it all together?” And Confucius said, “Look into your own heart. Discover what it is that gives you pain. And then refuse to inflict that pain on anybody else.” His disciples also asked, “Master, which one of your teachings can we put into practice every day?” And Confucius said, “Do not do to others as you would not have them do to you.” The Buddha had his version of the Golden Rule. Jesus taught it much later. And Rabbi Hillel, the older contemporary of Jesus, said the Golden Rule was the essence of Judaism.


SP: You’re saying these ancient sages really didn’t care about big metaphysical systems. They didn’t care about theology.

KA: No, none of them did. And neither did Jesus. Jesus did not spend a great deal of time discoursing about the trinity or original sin or the incarnation, which have preoccupied later Christians. He went around doing good and being compassionate. In the Quran, metaphysical speculation is regarded as self-indulgent guesswork. And it makes people, the Quran says, quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian. You can’t prove these things one way or the other, so why quarrel about it? The Taoists said this kind of speculation where people pompously hold forth about their opinions was egotism. And when you’re faced with the ineffable and the indescribable, they would say it’s belittling to cut it down to size. Sometimes, I think the way monotheists talk about God is unreligious.

Man & God

Two interesting interviews I happened to catch today: Philip Roth on “Fresh Air,” discussing his new novel Everyman, as well as aging and mortality and religion (“I have no taste for delusion”); and physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne on a “Speaking of Faith” program called “Quarks + Creation.” In the first of those, Gross and Roth – who have clearly spoken before – talk about cemeteries and burials.

Gross: So do you have a plot picked out? Do you know what kind of cemetery you’d want to be buried in?

Roth: Where would it be easiest for you to visit my grave? I’ll pick a plot that’s convenient, so we can continue this interview series into eternity.

In the second interview, Polkinghorne tells host Krista Tippett about a development in theological thinking during the last century that describes the act of creation as “the act of bringing into being a world in which creatures are allowed to be themselves, to make themselves.” He continues: “The theologians like to call it kenosis from the Greek word, and so that God is not the puppet master of the universe, pulling every string. God has taken, if you like, a risk. Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity. And that sort of world of becoming involves God’s accepting limitations, and I believe, accepting limitations not knowing the future.”

Tippett responds: “Well, and really that’s a kind of theological way of describing evolution, in a sense, this becoming this creation that creates itself.” The interview continues:

Polkinghorne: Yes. Absolutely. Yes, and in fact, I mean, people ‚Äî you know, Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, and people think that was a great parting of the ways between science and religion, a big clash; all the scientists shouting, “Yes, yes, yes,” all the obscure religious people — the clergy, of course — shouted, “No, no, no,” and they just went their separate ways. Quite untrue. … A lot of scientists had doubts about Darwin, actually, for a while. And some religious people — from the start, an English clergyman called Charles Kingsley said that God could no doubt have snapped the divine fingers and brought into being a ready-made world, that God had done something cleverer than that: God had made a world in which creatures could make themselves. And so that’s the picture that God brings into being a universe, it has great potentialities, great possible fruitfulness, but creatures are allowed to explore and bring that fruitfulness to birth. And that seems to me a very beautiful and fitting form of creation, a better world, so to speak, than a world which was ready-made. But it has a necessary cost. It has a shadow side.

Tippett: Yes. Right. That’s what I wanted to ask you, the question, if all these terrible things happen, what does that say about the nature of God?

Polkinghorne: Absolutely. I mean, the greatest difficulty, religiously, obviously is the way the world is. It is beautiful and it’s fruitful, but it’s also ugly and terrifying, and dreadful things happen in the world. And the problem of evil and suffering is a very great problem. Now, this scientific insight helps us a little bit with that. If creatures are going to make themselves, to explore this potentiality, there will be blind alleys and ragged edges in that exploration. That’s bound to happen. And, I mean, a very simple example is this: What the engine that has driven the three-and-a-half-billion-year history of life on Earth has, of course, been genetic mutation. I mean, for two billion years or so there were only bacteria. Then things complexified because genes mutated and new possibilities came along. So that’s been a tremendous fruitfulness. But, if that’s going to happen, it’s inevitable that other cells will mutate and will become malignant. You can’t have one without the other. So, though the fact there is cancer in the world is obviously an anguishing fact about the world, it’s not, so to speak, gratuitous. It’s not something that a God who is a bit more competent or a bit more compassionate could easily have eliminated. It’s the shadow side of a world allowed to make itself.

Tippett: What does that way of looking at the world say about something like the recent tsunami?

Polkinghorne: Well, if God allows creatures to be, God will allow tectonic plates to be.

Tippett: So creatures, not just human beings, but every aspect of nature?

Polkinghorne: When I say creatures, I’m thinking of the whole created order, different parts of it. For example, we believe that having tectonic plates is an important necessity for a planet that’s going to have life because, between the plates, new material wells up from inside and replenishes, so to speak, the surface of the earth. But, of course, if there are going to be tectonic plates, not only will that happen, but sometimes they will slip. And when they slip, that will create an earthquake or, if it’s under the sea, will create a tsunami. I mean, again, it’s a hard answer. I mean, it’s not a —

Tippett: It’s not a compassionate answer.

Polkinghorne: Well, it’s not a — I think it has an element of compassion in it, but it’s not a sentimental answer, that’s for sure. I mean, a great Oxford theologian said — there was this tremendous earthquake in Lisbon in … and it killed 50,000 people in one day. And he said, “Well, it was God’s will.” I think the hard answer was that the elements of the earth clashed and behaved in accordance of their nature. They are allowed to be just as you and I are allowed to be. It’s not an easy answer, but I think, actually, it is the true answer.

It’s a fascinating idea, if not one I’m on board with.

Gopnik on Judas

In record time – are there ‘advanced copies’ of gospels? – The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik offers a take on the Gospel of Judas. From the article:

Yet the Judas Gospel is an eye-opener anyway. First, because it is useful to be reminded, in a time of renewed fundamentalism, that religions actually have no fundament: that the inerrant texts and unchallenged holies of any faith are the work of men and time. Any orthodoxy is the snapshot of a moment. That the Church has long had answers to gnosticism, in all its varieties, does not mean that gnosticism was always doomed to heresy. Bart D. Ehrman has recently written, touchingly and convincingly, of his own migration away from a fundamentalist Christianity on the basis of an increasing understanding of how time-contingent and man-made the foundational Gospels really are. As Borges once suggested, had Alexandria, where gnosticism flourished, triumphed rather than Rome, we would have had a Dante making poetry out of the realm of Barbelo.

I was impressed with Ehrman, author of Misquoting Jesus, when he was on “Fresh Air” a while back.