Tuesday, February 28, 2006

It's not worth doing well...


Holiday from the Enlightenment: "Features � Science and Humanities2006-02-27Holiday from the Enlightenment
God is back in fashion among intellectuals. But even spiritual movements today are motivated by Western fundamentalism: the Enlightenment. By Heinz Schlaffer"

Notwithstanding that, the recurrence of religious needs in the Western world is among the conditions for the Enlightenment. What all new religious converts wish for is nothing other than a comfortable Christianity that has been cheered up by the Enlightenment... Today's religious fantasies focus solely on Christianity's positive side: the promise of a meaning to life, the dear ego's continuation after death (in Heaven, of course, and not in Hell), the feeling of emotional security and personal distinction, the consolation offered by pretty ceremonies. When the new Pope and the writers Martin Mosebach and Hans-Josef Ortheil extol the latter as an advantage of the Catholic faith, they fail to see that the ceremony of Hinduism on Bali far surpasses the Christian competition as far as beauty goes. Wouldn't they do better to become Balinese Hindus?

This new yet old Christianity of the intellectuals is a wellness religion, one which has inherited from the Enlightenment the right to a maximisation of happiness..Followers of this cosy religion reap its benefits without foregoing a thing: neither pre-marital nor extra-marital affairs, neither whoring nor sodomy (as past generations of Christians called such deadly sins). What people are after is a religion that serves up gratifications rather than bans.


Sounds good to me. Very good in fact--and so good that I buy it.

In this remarkable screed, reminiscent of Kierkegaard's Attack Upon Christendomin which K. expressed horror at Professor Martensen's characterization of the genial Bishop Mynster as a "witness" for the Christian faith, a retired German professor rages about cheerful, Laodicean Christians who enjoy the comfort and "pretty cermonies" without taking the tough stuff, the sin and salvation story, the restrictions and penitential practices, seriously. Both agree that if Christianity isn't worth doing well then it isn't worth doing at all. But whereas Kierkegaard argued, modus tollenswise that Christianity was worth doing and, therefore, that it was worth doing will, the German professor suggests, modus ponenswise, that it is not worth doing well--"The Christians of the Middle Age" he writes,"... performed heavy penances and suffered privations to cleanse themselves of sin. Who has time today for such tortuous ideas and painful mortifications?"--and so is not worth doing at all.One man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens.

I don't see why Christianity should be worth doing well--but I don't buy the conditional either. Most of us, including me, are second-rate at best and make a half-assed job of most of what we do. It's better than nothing. In fact, as Barry Schwartz cited in an earlier post suggests, the the Royal Road to the Good Life is satisficing. As far as Balinese Hinduism goes there is a very good reason why we aren't Balinese Hindus: we don't live in Bali and it isn't feasible to move there. Bali is an expensive tourist island in Indonesia and I doubt that most of us could even afford to retire there. Moreover, Hindu myths are not our myths and the history of South Asia is not our history: Hinduism isn't our culture religion. The best we can do is to make the best of Christianity--jettison the penances and privations, repudiate the Biblical literalism, intollerance and superstition, and enjoy the good things it has to offer: the art, architecture, music, liturgy, and mysticism, the romance of it.

What is this business of religion really all about? At bottom the fact that we think, or at the very least hope, that there's something beyond the brute facts of the material world and the mechanical principles according to which it operates--even if we do not believe that that Beyond intervenes and only hope that we can catch a few glipses of it here and now, in the experience of art, natural beauty and religious practice, and hope against hope that we may be able to contemplate it in another life. This hope is in any case tenuous.

As for religions, they're the packaging--they provide the art, myth and ceremony for facilitating that contact with the Beyond, if there is a Beyond, or at the very least producing desirable, lovely and intense experiences. Some religions are richer in those good things and better at doing this job than others: Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Christianity in its Orthodox, and to a lesser extent, Catholic and Anglican, incarnations are rich and good at this; Islam, Judaism, low-church Protestantism and other aniconic, moralistic, preachy religions are not very good at delivering, though all religions can be tweaked to get the job done. We do the best we can with what we've got.

We're culturally and geographically constrained. We can't be Hindus or Buddhists because there are no Hindu or Buddhist temples on the ground. Adopting their "philosophies" is nothing. It's always seemed surprising to me that while quite a few Americans take up Buddhism to the extent of adopting the "philosophy" and meditating, they don't build temples: without temples and cult there is no religion. We can't, most of us, be Orthodox: even with temples on the ground, that history isn't our history. Without radical enculturation, and probably conversion at an early age, it isn't a real possibility for us. Like it or not, we are Latin Christians--that is our culture religion.

Kierkegaard would be horrified, and lots of people, both believers and unbelievers, follow him in this. There is a gut feeling they share--you shouldn't be pragmatic or self-indulgent when it comes to religion. But why? We don't have this idea when it comes to other departments of life. We aren't shocked if people say they took up a particular profession because it was available, because they were good at it and because they enjoy that line of work. Why do we expect more or different when it comes to religious practice?

2 comments:

Andrew Brown said...

As for religions, they're the packaging--they provide the art, myth and ceremony for facilitating that contact with the Beyond, if there is a Beyond, or at the very least producing desirable, lovely and intense experiences. Some religions are richer in those good things and better at doing this job than others: Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Christianity in its Orthodox, and to a lesser extent, Catholic and Anglican, incarnations are rich and good at this; Islam, Judaism, low-church Protestantism and other aniconic, moralistic, preachy religions are not very good at delivering, though all religions can be tweaked to get the job done. We do the best we can with what we've got.

This has got to be wrong. The big three religions in the world today are Roman Catholicism, Islam, and evnagelical protestnatism. The last two are, at least officially, aniconic, and certainly by any measure worse at delivering the goods you claim religion is for than Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. None the less, they are growing, often by conversion, sometimes at the expense of much more attractive religions. So most people must be making their choices on quite different grounds and must desire different goods from their religion than Johann Sebastian "Fuck yeah yeah yeah" Bach.

H. E. said...

[M]ost people must be making their choices on quite different grounds and must desire different goods from their religion than Johann Sebastian "Fuck yeah yeah yeah" Bach.

Of course they are. These religions deliver material benefits most people can't get elsewhere. They promise healing--an attractive proposition when you don't have the National Health. They give people who have no control over the circumstances of their lives hope in power of prayer. They provide education, charity and social services; where corruption is endemic conservative religious organizations are the only institutions that play it straight and support the interests of the downtrodden.

Maybe most importantly, they give people direction, motivation and hope; they provide wisdom literature, horse sense, pep talks and programs for living that help people better themselves. This is what Pentecostals do for the poor in Latin America, what the early Methodists did for the working class in the UK and what conservative evangelicals are doing for the working class in the US. If you're living on the edge, poor, can't afford to assume risk--or wallow in decadent aetheticism--puritanism works: get your life together, plan for the future, don't drink and gamble away your paycheck, get out of debt, work hard, cultivate self-discipline. That's "the purpose-driven life." Guaranteed to work if you go with the program. Your life will improve--and then your children, or grandchildren can be decadent aesthetes.

But when the state or other institutions are honest, effective, and provide rule of law, education, social services, when people have access to technology, health care, have money, choices and some control over their lives they don't look to religion for these goods. In a generation or two that old time religion collapses. Or morphs into the package of sentimentalities and aesthetic products that only a few people with special interests, like me, consume.

Practically speaking, the Episcopal Church where I am has been trying to attract a wider clientele by adopting some of the superficial features of growing religious groups and styles clergy imagine will appeal downmarket. They're running a Melanesian cargo cult: they imagine that if they make the right moves the cargo will come. But it won't because what attracts the clientele they want are precisely the deep features of conservative Protestantism (and Islam) they deplore--the social conservativism, strictness, puritanism and superstitious notions about the power of prayer. And it's patronizing: "We're going to give you people the music and decor people like you like. We're not going to use big words you can't understand or do fancy stuff that makes you uncomfortable."