In the wake of the election in the fall there was a spike in anti-Semitic attacks. A spate of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers at the end of January suggest that the threat of violence has not let up. Until last year with the rise of the white supremacist “alt-right,” I thought of anti-Semitism as something that was largely over. I realize the naiveté of that position now. Reading Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of this World, I’m struck by his case for how prevalent a low-level (sometimes not even very low-level) anti-Semitism is in Protestant Christianity. Read more
Posts from the ‘Religion’ Category
I’ve watched a couple episodes of Leah Remini’s exposé of Scientology that has been airing on A&E. In the first episode, Remini interviews a woman is encouraged to cut herself off from her daughter who has left the Church of Scientology and has become a vocal critic of it. Remini explains this process of “In Scientology you are also led to believe by disconnecting from your son or daughter or brother or divorcing your husband is because you are helping them to get back in the good graces. By you saying, “I’m not talking to you,” we’ll straighten you out. You will come to your senses, and come crawling back to the church to get help.” I grew up in a church that employed this sort of “church discipline” with the same thinking that the pain of being cut off from people would compel you to change.
These same people would argue against what they called “legislating morality.” What they mean is, you can’t make people not racist or sexist through the law, and they see laws aimed at protecting people from racism and sexism as actually aimed at changing the privately held views that some people have about others. By calling it “legislating morality” those on the right make it seems like those laws violate individual rights or privacy in some way. Those kinds of arguments continue to be made about whether business owners should have to serve customers whose sexuality they think is wrong or provide reproductive healthcare to women.
Through this past campaign season, I began to realize something I’ve personally experienced writ onto a larger scale. Social conservatives actually want to make the lives of certain people–gay people, trans people, people who have sex without being married–unpleasant, difficult and unhappy following the same logic of Scientologist disconnection or Christian excommunication. Not having healthcare or visitation rights or shared parenting and inheritance rights, not being able to have your driver’s license changed to the right sex, to use public restrooms without harassment, to have your testimony believed by law enforcement will “straighten you out” or make you “come to your senses” about sex and sexuality. I just want to point out that this approach is akin to parental discipline. As much as conservatives bemoan the government’s involvement in making society better and call it paternalistic, this approach is more emphatically paternalistic that busing kids to produce desegregation is. The paternalism that certain people have to have about other people’s lives where they think that by creating difficult conditions in their lives that could only be changed by changing what those certain people find wrong about other people’s lives will actually change those people, discipline them into their view of righteousness, is immense.
The initial concern of those who did not approve of the way they thought morality was being legislated seemed to be that how we think about the world should not be a matter of legislation. Indeed, while some people think sexism is right and do so with the full protections of the First Amendment, we have decided pretty much that as a community we won’t allow for at least overt sexist policies and practices. These same religious conservatives who criticize legislating morality want the law to make people’s lives more difficult and painful in order to get them to live otherwise. This disciplinary strategy–not even in a Foucaultian sense but in a parental sense of disciplinary–aims to use the law to cause people to suffer with the “loving” motivation of getting them to change. This disciplinary strategy would seem to be a means not only of changing the way that people live but of the way they think about what is good and right, about what they want.
It’s one thing to disagree with people, but another to want to discipline them into agreeing with your view of how they should live by making them miserable.
There’s a debate swirling in the PCA circles I grew up in about how one should respond to doubt in Christianity. It started with Nicholas Kristof’s interview with Tim Keller in the New York Times that led to this response from Pete Enns, a dispute that was written up here. Enns is concerned that Keller does not take seriously the questions sympathetic sorts have for Christianity about things like the virgin birth and the resurrection. As Enns argues, these aren’t just questions about the compatibility of such claims with science but more the inconsistency of the Biblical texts themselves on these points. The problem for me was never these particular points but with the account of the specific workings of a substitutional atonement understanding of Christianity. Why was God restrained by a formula that demanded the death of God in order for things to be right with human beings? How could a cosmic formula or justice or call it what you will constrain an all-powerful God? How did believing or failing to believe certain things about what happened two thousand years ago have a metaphysical effect on the destiny of my soul? Read more
One of my side projects has been thinking about how the shift from polytheism to monotheism parallels a shift from politics to philosophy in ancient thought, as I discussed here awhile back. I am particularly interested in how the dichotomy between the false and the true god only becomes possible with monotheism, just as the dichotomy of false and true knowledge only becomes relevant with the introduction of philosophy, the arena of being and knowledge, against politics, the arena of appearance and opinion. I was looking forward to what Whitmarsh could add to the discussion in his new book, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. I was interested in how ancient atheism fit into this production of the true. If Assmann’s account of polytheism as a domain of shared opinion and shared gods is accepted, it would seem that denial of the existence of gods put people outside the realm of even those who had political opinions. While there is a brief discussion of Assmann (26), Whitmarsh does not attempt to think atheism within that structure. In fact, this lacuna points to a larger problem with the book: it makes the case that there were ancient atheists, but it does not lead to further insight about what that might mean for the social and political world. Instead, the point seems to be, atheism is fine because it is not new. And also, “clever people could not possibly believe in gods,” as Barbara Graziosi reads Whitmarsh.
In this post, I discuss the ways that Whitmarsh’s treatment of mythology, Plato and Socrates, and Christianity lead to flatfooted readings that fail to consider the robust complexity of Greek thinking about the gods. Read more
In his book The Price of Monotheism, published in German in 2003, Jan Assmann argues that monotheism changes the shape of religion by construing the one god as the only true god among false gods. Assmann argues that a certain kind of monotheism–revolutionary monotheism–finds its one god incompatible with any other god, because the god is not only superior but true, real, existent in a way that others are false (this is the position of the Deutero-Isaiah faction of the Old Testament). This incompatibility stands in contrast to pagan polytheism and its evolutionary monotheism which saw gods as compatible, eventually recognizing that there were many different names for the supreme god, who was a chief god, but not any more a god than the other gods. The compatibility of the pagan gods allowed them to make binding agreements with one another, which they made by swearing each to their own god(s) who was compatible with the others’ god(s). Revolutionary monotheism’s incompatibilty explains why they could not contract with other peoples. Read more
Grace: it’s not about life after death, it’s life after debt.
By some lucky happenstance (grace?) I finished reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel Lila in the same week. In his book, which is discussed at length in this seminar at Crooked Timber, Graeber attempts to establish that human relationships are not reducible to and do not originate in economies of credit and debt. Graeber argues, as I have long thought, that Nietzsche’s exercise in taking the calculability of all human relations to its logical conclusions in his Second Essay in On the Genealogy of Morals is not meant to defend but to mock such a schema. Graeber points out that there is something insulting about considering your relationships with others in terms of debt. To consider a relationship one of debt suggests a calculability to it, a way of measuring what is owed, a way of holding one another responsible because of the IOU between you. When I was in junior high and high school, my mother did not like us getting rides from our friends’ parents because she felt like that obligated her to give rides to our friends. She didn’t like giving rides. Fine.* I think about Aristotle talking about how friendship is the opportunity to exhibit virtue to others, to have someone to be generous to. But still, human relationships are always in excess of debt, irreducible to what is owed, made obscene by the sense that it is merely the keeping of obligations and demanding that they be met (this is likely why I’m not a Kantian).** It is this element of human relationships that Graeber calls communistic. Read more
On New Year’s Day, I visited my Uncle Jon in Chicago. He is a member of JPUSA, a Christian commune in Uptown. He’s a feminist progressive Christian who is more aware of his white male privilege than any Christian man I know, so it’s refreshing to spend time with him. He was telling us about his changing views on evangelism. He described a certain perspective on efforts at conversion that he called, “dive bombing.” “Dive bombing” is when you come from above and attempt to strip your target of their (false) understanding of the world so that you can then replace it with yours. This approach, he pointed out, is very condescending. And it works by establishing that someone else is wrong. So it’s basically gaslighting evangelism. Read more
Since I last posted on the question of whether what we think makes us good or bad people, my thoughts keep returning to how difficult this question is. To reiterate, when I say, what we think might make us good or bad people, I don’t mean whether we think about doing what we might generally acknowledge to be bad things — that you think about how to hurt someone might set you on the path to being a bad person, or that you think hateful thoughts toward someone is likely to make you hurt them, or you think it is good to get ahead by taking advantage of other people. I think the value of those kinds of thoughts is less controversial. What I am considering is whether the ways you think about what is–what we call ontological claims–makes you a good or bad person. Read more
When I was growing up in the PCA (one of the conservative evangelical – read: fundamentalist – Presbyterian denominations, stands for Presbyterian Church of America), there was a strong sense that thinking the right things about God and about your position in relationship to God was a critical part of being a Christian.