— Paul Tillich (via ferretdokhtar)
In the West we were raised with a certain way of approaching disagreements. We internally call up the ancient Greek model of logic. “If A is true then not A is false.” This is a great way of thinking about certain questions. (In the East they are more comfortable with the idea that A and not A can both be true. For more on this read The Geography of Thought by Richard E. Nisbett.)
This logical formula starts to break down, however, when applied to imprecisely defined abstract notions.
As an example, let’s say I wanted to argue that Americans are good people. I could make a list of all of our good traits and conclude that we are great folks. The knee-jerk counter argument would be that Americans are bad people. You might list all of Americans rather annoying and destructive habits and conclude that Americans are jerks. Of course Americans are both good folks and jerks. In fact, depending on the type of day she has had, a single American might qualify as both a good person and a jerk.
There are a lot of these types of overly broad arguments when it comes to religion.
Is religion (or belief in God) good or bad for the world?
I have written a couple of articles on this subject before, (see Is Religion Good for You? and my review of Upton Sinclair) but the question of whether “religion” is good or bad is overly vague. What do you mean by “religion”? No one practices “religion” they practice particular religions. The way that people argue this question is generally by making a list of either good or bad outcomes of religious observance. Those on the good side focus on those things and write off terrorism, closed mindedness and other negative aspects of religion as being “fanaticism” or “not real religion” or “a perversion of real religion.”
Whereas those who argue that religion is bad will dismiss the positive role that religion plays for many people or the positive things organized religious people can do. Religions are made up of human beings and as such are, like people, both good and bad. It may make sense to argue whether a particular belief or practice is generally positive or negative and in what specific way, but arguing over religion as a whole seems far too vague to be useful. Those who argue in favor of religion do not need to deny that the Crusades and modern terrorism have religious motivations. On the other hand, if religion did not exist human nature would not change. Fanatics would still be produced. They would just be motivated by some other grand calling. Likewise, the sense of the divine and the deep meaning that practicing worship in community has for people should not be written off by the non-religious. On the other hand, the religious should not assume that those who are not religious have no access to meaningful experience or any framework for ethics. Morality is not only a property of religion.
2. Is human nature essentially sinful or essentially good?
Human beings are essentially human. One of our biggest challenges as human beings is figuring out how to get along with all those other people. It can be hard. Not only are those other people completely unreasonable so much of the time, but we’re not really a picnic either. On the other hand, it is impossible to imagine a life without other people. A life of complete solitude would be meaningless. Other people, in all their complexity, give meaning to our lives. They give us love, they are sometimes compassionate and graceful and can inspire us and support us. We all have our sinful moments. The word “sin” means to fall short. We all fall short of our highest aspirations from time to time. On the other hand, we often live up to them, even surpass them. To focus on the fact that we fall short and to define human nature as falling short is only half of the picture. And while we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, we have to admit that human beings are not only good and have the capacity for bad as well.
Which is more important tradition or progress?
This is one that I find a great deal in the gay marriage debate. Those who are opposed often argue that the law should not be changed because it goes against tradition. The underlying assumption is that tradition is, by definition, good. As with religion, there is no one thing called “tradition.” Rather, there are many traditions. It was traditional for barbers to treat illness with bloodletting. It was traditional to perform animal sacrifices. It was traditional to consider wives to be property. It was traditional to wear powdered wigs and corsets. These are all traditions we’ve decided we no longer need. The question should not be “is it traditional” but “is it a tradition worth keeping?” I think we can safely put animal sacrifice into the “not worth keeping” category without getting rid of traditions that are worth keeping like devotional art, the mass or Passover Seder. The other side of this is that not every change is progress. The Germans have a word “schlimbesserung.” It means “a so called improvement that actually makes things worse.” Arguing that something is the “modern world view” is not the same as saying it is better than the previous world view. The question is not is this traditional or is this modern. It is rather is this a valuable practice or not? Why or why not? (See my other articles on tradition here and here.)
A follow up, of sorts, to my first article on tradition.
When you start to read books on the history of Christianity it becomes clear that many of the ideas and approaches that seem non-traditional and novel are actually as old or older than the approaches considered “traditional.” I have read many a 19th century text making the same arguments that might be published in books today as shocking new ways of approaching religion.
I was recently reading the book American Jesus by Stephen Prothero, which talks about how our distinctly American ways of understanding Jesus and Christianity have evolved. One of the things that surprised me was the prominence of Unitarians and their kind in shaping our national religious culture. In spite of having our patron saints Emerson and Channing, I don’t recall learning much in Sunday school about Unitarian history. We learned about other religions and their traditions but I do not remember having a sense of Unitarians having traditions and history of our own. Instead, I had a vague sense of Unitarianism being modern and forward thinking. Unitarians, I generally believed, reacted against the ills of mainstream religious culture. We did not create or influence the mainstream.
Prothero points out that the forms of Christianity that came to the United States did not put Jesus at the center of their theology as we do today. The second person of the trinity was present in the faith of the Puritans and Calvinist of course, but the focus was on the first person, God. Christ “functioned as more of a principle than a person.”
The shift towards a “personal relationship” with Jesus came from a place you might not expect, what we would now call the religious left, Unitarians, Transcendentalists and Universalists or more accurately, the dance between traditionalist and “the religious left.”
Thomas Jefferson’s approach to scripture was to try to get back to the original teaching of Jesus and away from all of the interpretation that had built up over the years. The Jefferson Bible removed all of the miracles and supernaturalism and got down to a few core teachings that Jefferson believed were authentic to Jesus. Even though his theology would not resonate with many modern Christians, his focus on the fundamental teachings of Jesus over institutional traditions became a hallmark of American religion.
Thomas Jefferson’s influence on American religion can be overstated. His theological views, unorthodox upon his death in 1825, remain unorthodox today; the overwhelming majority of Americans are now Christians who affirm the creedal view of their Savior as fully divine and fully human. Nonetheless, they have inherited from Jefferson a strategy for understanding Jesus and Christianity that continues to drive religious change, from both the left and the right. That strategy begins with a bold refusal. It starts when a religious reformer refuses to equate Jesus with the Christian tradition. The religion of Jesus, the reformer asserts, is not the same as the religion about Jesus; and what really matters is what Jesus did and taught. The second step is to isolate certain beliefs or practices in the Christian tradition as unreasonable or antiquated or immoral. The next step is to use the cultural authority of Jesus to denounce those beliefs or practices as contrary to true Christianity—to call for religious reform. As these alternative understandings gain ground, Jesus is gradually unmoored from the beliefs, practices, and institutions that in the past had restricted his freedom of movement. He loses no authority among the traditionalists, who continue to see him as they had, but he gains authority among the innovators. As his authority expands, Christians are all the more likely to champion reforms.
This opened the door for a form of Christianity that encouraged members to think of Jesus as someone with whom they could have a personal relationship and to try to get back to fundamentals of the religion of Jesus.
Prothero also referenced the “Unitarian Controversy of the early nineteenth century… That controversy, which ran from 1804 until the establishment of the American Unitarian Association in 1825, touched on the doctrine of the Trinity, but centered on human nature. While traditionalists affirmed Calvin’s dogma of the total depravity of human beings, Unitarians defended the more optimistic view that human beings were essentially good.”
An interesting historical note is that one of the reasons the UUs merged was that the Universalist church, which had once been very popular and growing, started to lose its appeal as many other mainstream Protestant faiths toned down their talk of hell and started adopting a more universalist approach themselves. “God is love and he loves everyone” is the chorus of a popular Christian song right now. Rob Bell’s Love Wins expresses a more universalist Christian theology. So, in a way, the success of universalism also became the universalist church’s down fall. When Methodist churches started to focus more on heaven and the goodness of people than on damnation and sin a lot of Universalists jumped ranks.
Christianity has never been a monolith. In fact, the earliest Christian writings we have in the Bible, the letters of Paul, seek to address heated arguments within the early Jesus movement as to what was required to be a follower of Christ. At the fourth-century Council of Laodicea, early Christians met to close the canon of the Bible. Some argued that there should be one Gospel. Others fought for four, one for each corner of the earth. As you know from glancing at your New Testament, this side won out. (I touched on this in an earlier essay on the “What is a Christian" question.)
A view that is orthodox in one era is heresy in another. Some of the heresies are older than some of the orthodoxies. Some former orthodoxies are modern heresies.
For example, approaching the Bible as the literal, inerrant word of God is actually a fairly new method for interpreting scripture gaining prominence only in the 20th century. (There are many sources on this. One that I can think of off hand is Pedagogy of the Bible by Dale B. Martin because I happen to have read it recently.)
If a non-literal approach to the Bible predates that of Biblical literalism, why is it that we consider literalism traditional and a less literal interpretation as new? I believe it has less to do with history and more to do with a sense of identity. Liberal religious types value their sense of identity as free thinkers and agents of social change whereas fundamentalist types value their sense of being part of an ongoing tradition with firm foundations. We accept each group’s self-definition.
The interesting effect is that a viewpoint that is, in fact, a minority opinion becomes the working default assumption of what counts as mainstream thought. Almost every book that I read on the Bible or Jesus scholarship spends a great deal of time arguing against the proposition that the Bible should be approached as the literal, inerrant word of God (God’s instruction manual, if you will) even though, as I have mentioned here before, a poll done by a Christian organization of Christians showed that only 30% of self-identified Christians approach the Bible in that way. Why is it that almost every discussion of Christianity addresses a minority view as though it is the default assumption? It is only because it has been dubbed the “traditional approach.”
Rather than using our self-definitions, and seeing the people who value tradition most as the most traditional, what if we were to view a more questioning approach to the Bible as mainstream American thought and to view fundamentalism as a modern counter-cultural faith? How would our dialogue change?
When I was a college exchange student in Lancaster, England (well before the film V for Vendetta, I should note) I was walking out of the Boots department store when a girl came up to me.
"Penny for the guy," she said.
"Penny for the guy."
"What guy?" I asked.
She flashed me the culturally universal expression for “duh” Then she pointed to a scarecrow leaning against a bench.
"Penny for the guy," she said again.
That guy is dead, I thought. We stood there for a moment blinking at one another, her small hand outstretched.
"You want me to give you a penny for that guy?" I asked.
"Well, some people give me 20p or 50p."
I understood that the scarecrow would not be shopping and did not need a penny, much less 50p. I also understood from the girl’s expression that her baffling request had some context that made it perfectly standard and normal and that it was my confused reaction that was odd. I reached into my pocket and gave her a silver coin.
"For the guy," I said, putting an end to the exchange.
I would ask someone later.
The opening sequence of the film (and the play) Fiddler on the Roof features Tevye joyously and unforgettably celebrating his culture’s traditions.
On the surface, Fiddler on the Roof is about a Jewish community in early 20th Century Czarist Russia. More essentially, however, it is about the conflict between tradition and change. Which traditions are simply outmoded and which are essential to our sense of history and balance as a community? How do you allow for positive change without losing the value that comes with tradition?
One of the vital roles that religion plays in society is tradition keeper. In the church and other religious institutions people record and remember the every day lives of their members. The history that is kept in church is different from that taught in schools. It is not the history of monarchs, kings, politicians and powerful political and economic interests. It is the history of our seasons, our harvests, our births and deaths. This is where our sacred ordinary lives are recorded, if not in name, in rituals that tie generations together.
The other side of this, however, is that in its role as tradition keeper, the religious institution tends to be the segment of society most resistant to social change.
As Mark Twain wrote: “Who discovered that there was no such thing as a witch — the priest, the parson? No, these never discover anything. At Salem, the parson clung pathetically to his witch text after the laity had abandoned it in remorse and tears for the crimes and cruelties it has persuaded them to do.”
Does this tendency towards inflexibility mean that religion is inherently outmoded or bad? I do not think so.
The problem I see with the idealistic atheist argument, most poetically rendered in John Lennon’s Imagine, is the assumption that if you eliminated religion all of the world’s people would live together in peace. If you eliminated religion you would change human nature.
If there were no religion we would still have all of the conflicts that arise when people try to come together in community. There would still be tension between the needs and desires of the individual vs. the demands of society. How much should a person compromise to get along? When is conformity positive courtesy that allows a community to have a cohesive sense of being “us,” and when is the demand to conform simply wrong?
If there were no religion, you might not have Catholics fighting Protestants or Muslims fighting Jews, but you would still have cultures and communities with traditions and ideologies that would inevitably come into conflict with those of the neighbors. You might be able to eliminate the use of sacred texts that would allow each group to claim “God is on our side,” but you would not eliminate certainty, inflexibility, and passionate belief in conflicting ideologies. (Think Republican vs. Democrat. They do quite well at vilifying each other without a Republican or Democratic Bible.)
This is not an argument for God or religion, nor against them. What I am saying is that the question of whether “religion” is “good” or “bad” is overly simplistic and will not yield much in the long run. It is more likely to serve as a distraction from the real underlying question of the role of the individual in society.
— Mark Twain
— Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were
A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a panel on the Dian Rehm show discussing same sex marriage. One of the panelists, who opposed legal recognition of same sex marriage, explained that those who are in favor of legal same sex marriage tend to frame their arguments in terms of rights while those who are opposed tend to frame it in terms of tradition. (This guest did not bring the term “Biblical marriage" into his argument.)
It seems that those who hold the “tradition” view believe society bestows an honor on those to whom it grants the status of marriage. It is a celebration, a recognition and a welcoming of the couple into the larger community. Some feel that the marriage of same sex couples is not something that society ought to sanction or bless.
What I found most interesting about this guest was that he said that there was nothing stopping gay couples from gathering with their families and holding a ceremony to honor their commitment. He was not opposed to that, only to the government legally recognizing the marriage. When it comes to the legal status of marriage he said (I’m paraphrasing a bit because this was a couple of weeks ago) “We have to decide if it is a benefit to society to allow that.”
What is odd about this is that government recognition of marriage is the one part that completely ignores the spiritual, romantic and community aspects of the union. The government doesn’t care if the couple is serious, or committed or in love, or what their parents think, or if they go to church or wear white or plan to raise a family. The government cares if you filled out the right forms and paid the correct fee.
Just as the government is not honoring the proud parents when it issues a “certificate of live birth,” the government is not bestowing a blessing with a marriage license. Governments are not in the blessing business.
The reason the government provides a legal status of marriage is to make it easier for everyone else. By granting couples the status of marriage, many legal processes are streamlined. We do not have to reinvent everything for each couple or each relationship. We have processes for co-parenting, joint property, divorce, inheritance that, as long as there are not too many complicating factors, simplify things for the rest of us. We don’t need long explanations of what the intentions of the two parties are because they have defined it using this legal umbrella term of “marriage.”
Not including same sex couples who have similar intentions in our legal category creates a lot of extra headaches, litigation and work for our system.
What is interesting to me about the panelist’s tradition argument is that he believes gay couples should actually be entitled to the blessing, the honor and the welcoming embrace of community. He would open all of the tradition to them, as he has no problem with them having wedding ceremonies and living as committed couples with all of the community acceptance of their status.
Listing a person of the same sex as spouse on an insurance form, however, seems to be the problem.
The fact of the matter is that “marriage” is not one thing. There are legal aspects and social aspects to marriage. Marriage is a property arrangement and can also be a spiritual bond. Even though we call everyone we’ve given this legal status “married” no two marriages are alike.
If same sex marriage is not a question of rights, but of tradition, shouldn’t it follow that a person who holds this view would not care one way or another about one’s legal status (render unto Caesar…) but would be opposed to the honor and blessing of a ceremony recognizing the union of the couple? Is this not where the blessing and tradition lies?