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Holding the center

Religious liberals reject the idea that a religion is a collection of beliefs that are either true or false.
By Doug Muder
Spring 2009 2.15.09

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Liberal religion has been caught in crossfire in recent years. From one side fly the spears and arrows of the fundamentalists: They have the Truth, we don’t, and unless we change, we’ll soon find ourselves in Hell. From the other side flash the phasers of the newly aggressive atheists: Unless we join them in a full-throated denunciation of God, scripture, ritual, and all things religious, we are fellow travelers with the theocrats and jihadists.

Oddly, our attackers agree on many things: For both, religion is primarily about belief, and the important beliefs of a religion are defined by a literal interpretation of its scripture. For the Rev. John Hagee and Sam Harris alike, Christianity stands or falls on a line-by-line reading of the Bible. If the Bible is true, we should all be Christians of the most conservative kind. If it is false, we should reject Christianity utterly. Likewise for Judaism and the Torah, Islam and the Qur’an, and any other faith with a holy book: A religion is a collection of beliefs, which must be either true or false.

The unwillingness of religious liberals to accept those ground rules strikes both sides as wishy-washy; we have not staked out a genuine position, but try to make an impossible compromise between religion and irreligion. Fundamentalists are fond of quoting Revelation 3:16 (KJV) at us: “Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth.” And in The End of Faith, Harris describes us like this:

Religious moderation is the result of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance—and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism.

In other words, we escape the unavoidable contradictions between the Bible and common sense simply by imagining that the Bible says something more reasonable than it actually does.

Two recent books, The Religious Case Against Belief by James P. Carse and A Secular Age by Charles Taylor, walk directly into this crossfire and defend the liberal center against extremes of both sectarianism and secularity.

James P. Carse, who directed New York University’s Religious Studies Program for thirty years, responds directly to the recent run of atheist bestsellers. In The Religious Case Against Belief, he argues that “these critics are attacking not religion, but a hasty caricature of it.” Carse lays out a distinction between belief systems and religions: In a nutshell, belief systems provide the comfort of clear answers; religions provide a sense of wonder in the contemplation of mystery. (Carse does not mention this somewhat obscure example, but a minor character in the 1990s television series Millennium embodies the attitude Carse describes as religious, writing this in his journal: “God doesn’t move us by telling us the facts. He moves us by pains and contradictions. He’s given me a lack of understanding. Not answers, but questions—an invitation to marvel.”)

Carse’s description of belief systems echoes much of the atheist critique of religion: Belief systems are closed and strident, pretending to knowledge that they do not have. Lacking mystery, they do not invoke a creative response in their followers, and that makes them brittle. Belief systems—he gives Nazism and Soviet Communism as examples—seldom last a century after they rise to prominence.

By contrast, he writes, “there is a deeper vitality in the Christian faith, as in all the great religions, that no single belief system can fully represent.”

The great religions spin off multiple belief systems, each of which in time becomes rigid and crashes. But the creative mystery at the religion’s core survives each crash unblemished.

In an expository move that will doubtless leave antireligious readers fuming, Carse appropriates the humanist hero-story of Galileo’s confrontation with Pope Urban VIII. To Carse, Galileo’s appreciation of his own ignorance and the corresponding open-endedness of his worldview demonstrates a proper religious attitude. The Pope’s demand for intellectual conformity, conversely, is typical of belief systems. Through the eyes of religion, Carse writes,

we may begin to acquire the art of seeing the unknown everywhere, especially at the heart of our most emphatic certainties. . . . The challenge is not to make religion intelligible, but to use knowledge religiously.

To Carse, fundamentalists and the new atheists alike are presenting belief systems: rival certainties that would move mystery to the sidelines. The two are frequently in agreement because belief systems require boundaries—“a line at which thinking stops”—as well as the threat of unbelievers on the opposite side.

[T]he act of belief is always an act against; it requires an opponent who holds the contrary belief. . . . If believers need to inspire fellow believers to hold firmly to their position, they need just as much to inspire nonbelievers to hold to theirs.

The greatest threat to the believer, then, is not the unbeliever, but the religious: the person whose appreciation of mystery causes him or her to see a world larger than the one that the believer has cleaved neatly in half.

Carse’s portrait of religion necessarily lacks the crispness of his portrait of belief. If he claimed to have perfectly mapped the mystery of religion, after all, he would just be laying out a new belief system. And so he uses phrases that evoke rather than define. Where belief systems rest on “the authority of power,” religions rely on “the authority of poetry.” The religious captivates rather than captures. Carse makes repeated allusions to works of literature and art, which survive by being irreducible to any fixed interpretation.

If we could agree on what Oedipus Rex is about we could focus on the agreement and ignore the play. But the play defies replacement by anything besides itself.

Similarly, Christianity survives through its inability to completely answer the question Jesus asks in Mark 8:29: “Whom say ye that I am?” Decade by decade, Christianity gets further from a definitive answer—and that is precisely the measure of its health. To reduce the mystery of Jesus to a belief, Carse writes,

means at the very least that we have to hide from ourselves how much we do not know; we have to call in our selected Jesus and close the door against the clamorous horde of alternative Jesuses surrounding our enclosure. . . . [Then] there is no need to re-examine the events of the New Testament, nor to read through the libraries of works by those who have, nor to wonder what history has yet to uncover.

In contrast to both fundamentalists and atheists, Carse sees scripture as the beginning of mystery, not its end or even its essence. A religion is not a book any more than a pearl is the grain of sand that provokes its formation. Instead, a religion is the living community that is engaged and moved to wonder by a set of mysteries.

What provides Islam its vitality . . . is not just that Muslims find the Qur’an still endlessly interpretable, but that they cannot stop interpreting.

The demand that interpretation stop is precisely the moment when religion ends and belief begins. And the impossibility of satisfying that demand is why belief always eventually fails.

In Breaking the Spell, his 2006 book, Daniel Dennett attempted to undermine religion by retelling its origin story in his own terms. Religion, he contended, arises as an accidental (and parasitic) artifact of human evolution. Charles Taylor, a Canadian political philosopher, returns the favor in A Secular Age by retelling the origin story of secular humanism. As Dennett aimed to shake religion’s favored stories (that it arises from divine revelation or intuitions of a transcendent reality), Taylor argues against secular humanism’s flattering autobiography—that it is the kernel of common sense that remains after science and reason strip away the illusions created by myth and superstition.

Instead, Taylor claims, secularity is “the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life.”

Taylor does not dispute that today humanism appears to be a stripped-down common sense. But he attributes this appearance to a sweeping change in common sense, not a stripping away of the illusions encrusting it. He sees this change—and not the separation of church and state or a decline in belief and practice—as the real essence of secularity.

[T]he change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.

To make this case, Taylor presents a fascinating (though time-consuming) reconstruction of the everyday mindset of pre-modern Europe. Rather than simply being a different set of opinions about miracles or death or what lies beyond the clouds, premodernism (as Taylor presents it) comprises a different conception of categories so basic that we typically do not think about them consciously at all: self, society, time, and space. Interpreting life through a different set of unconscious frames, pre-modern Europeans did not just think about the world differently, they experienced it differently.

To give just one theme among many, the pre-modern world was specific in a way that is difficult for us to grasp today. A medieval village’s shoemaker, for example, would not have known what to do with the idea that he was a worker in an economy. His rights and privileges came from his unique relationship with the local noble—and their families’ relationship back several generations—rather than from general notions of human rights or national citizenship. We expect to see events play out according to universal laws, but the premodern mind expected the spiritual, social, and even physical possibilities of a situation to vary with time and place. On holy ground, during festivals, at times exalted by the performance of high ritual or marked by exceptional signs and wonders—it seemed reasonable to expect the world to behave differently, and to interpret whatever might happen in a different light.

Getting from this premodern mindset to secular humanism, Taylor explains, required far more than just dispelling illusions. Humanist tenets (for example, that there are no conscious agencies higher than the human mind and no higher goals than human flourishing) may seem natural to many people today, but they first had to become comprehensible via a feedback loop of changes in ideas, practices, and institutions that played out over centuries. Often, these changes were motivated not by a desire to be free of religion, but to live out religion more perfectly.

The point of retelling an origin story is to reorient our attitudes in the present. Dennett hoped to make us question religion’s parasitic hold; Taylor wants us to see the unconscious scaffolding that lets our conscious modern worldview stand so effortlessly. He does not push us to deconstruct or tear down this world, but only to appreciate that it is a construct—one that might be constructed differently by others or by ourselves in the future.

As his story ends, present-day believers and unbelievers alike share what Taylor calls the Immanent Frame: a way of conceiving reality in which ideas and matter reside in separate spheres, time and space are homogeneous, and matter behaves according to general laws that do not require supernatural intervention. Believers and unbelievers differ only in a question that many UUs will recognize from their own discussions: Is the Immanent Frame open or closed? Do all the questions that we can raise from within this frame find their best and most satisfactory answers there, or do we still feel driven to postulate a transcendent realm beyond it?

Taken together, Carse and Taylor provide a basis for defending that most maligned of liberal virtues: tolerance. We tolerate many views not because we devalue our own, or because (having no stomach for conflict) we choose to avert our eyes from the mistakes of others. We tolerate because the mysteries must remain open. There are still many Jesuses to meet, and many worlds to be constructed.

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