These high-minded questions conceal a frightening Olympian agenda. Harris is really a social engineer, with a thirst for power that sits uneasily alongside his allegedly disinterested pursuit of moral truth. We must use science, he says, to figure out why people do silly and harmful things in the name of morality, what kinds of things they should do instead and how to make them abandon their silly and harmful practices in order “to live better lives.” Harris’s engineering mission envelops human life as a whole. “Given recent developments in biology, we are now poised to consciously engineer our further evolution,” he writes. “Should we do this, and if so, in which ways? Only a scientific understanding of the possibilities of human well-being could guide us.” Harris counsels that those wary of the arrogance, and the potential dangers, of the desire to perfect the biological evolution of the species should observe the behavior of scientists at their professional meetings: “arrogance is about as common at a scientific conference as nudity.” Scientists, in Harris’s telling, are the saints of circumspection. Jackson Lears in The Nation
Lears' point is that new atheists like Sam Harris aren't just reductionist in their rejection of religion, but their embrace of an aggressive ideological positivism can be just as dangerous as any fanaticism that comes from the right. Right-wing ideologues are more in the news these days, but I think an argument can be made that the Harrises and Kurzweils of the world are wittingly or unwittingly working for an alternative, transhuman future that is more ominous than anything envisioned in the feverish imaginations on the Right.
Atheists get things mixed up when they blame religion when the real problem is an unbalanced ideology, whether secular or religious in its style. Religious wars were the cause of absurd levels of violence and destruction in 17th century Europe, but the most massively destructive violence in Europe's recent history has been motivated by secular ideologies like Fascism and Communism. Stalin's, Mao's, and Pol Pot's purges were not motivated by religious zeal. Religious attitudes and behaviors can be a part of an ideology, but insofar as a religion has a genuine faith dimension to it, that part of it cannot be contained within any ideology, and it usually works at cross purposes with fanatical ideological agendas.
Rationalists don't understand faith because they think about faith claims as head-centered truth propositions. Nothing could be further from the truth. Faith is not believing in an unproveable assertion as opposed to not believing it. It's not an intellectual kind of thing. At root faith is an irreducible experience--an intuition, gift, discovery--whatever the best word for it might be. It's about having one's life turned upside down by a realization about how things are, and then trying to make sense of the world from this inverted perspective.
And so faith propositions are simply attempts to describe how the world looks from that perspective. That "making sense" is what is known as theology, but as with any human endeavor, there's good theology, and there's bad theology. Bad theology is inpsired by instinctual fear and desire; good theology by a spirit of grace and freedom. Instinctual fear and desire, whether it's religious or secular, are at the root of the problem, not faith.
All of us, whether we are aware of it or not, have a mix of experiences that are composed of both transcendent and instinctual impulses--from above and below, so to speak. To be human means always to experience a mix of both whether we are aware of the sources of these impulses or not. Those who live right-side up, live in a practical, utilitarian way in which instinctual fear and desire are primary. For them the logic of freedom and grace is also a presence in their lives, but it is secondary. To live a life turned upside-down by faith means to live as if the logic of grace and freedom is primary and the logic of fear and desire secondary.
To be a man or woman of faith means to be more consciously aware of the transcendent role grace plays in his or her own life, but also in everyone's life. People of faith don't have some special access to grace, but their awareness of it compels them to strive more consciously to live according to its expansive, liberating logic. They see more clearly, or should, that the point of this striving is to subordinate instinctual fear and desire to the logic of freedom and grace. Those who are more successful than the rest of us in this struggle, because it is not at all easy, we call saints. It's one thing to understand it; it's another thing to live it. And there are many who live it without understanding it. The only important thing is to live it.
So the human task, from the point of view of faith, is to live within the tension of grace and instinct, but in such a way that grace plays the dominant role. Churches are useful to the degree that they support individuals and communities in the struggle to live that task, and they are harmful to the degree that they obstruct it. And my problem with the ideological religious right is that they don't understand the task and cannot understand it so long as they are institutionally fear-centered rather than grace-centered. By their fruits you will know them.
And my problem with more moderate churches is that they miss the point, too, insofar as they are desire-centered--that is, insofar as they see their primary goal as to deliver happiness, peace, and prospertiy to their congregants. From an upside-down-perspective, those concerns can never be primary. To live one's life centered either on fear or on desire is to live in a way that has nothing to do with the spirit of Christianity, which rather often leads to the taking up of burdens. Nothing could be clearer to me. In the Old Testament following the law leads to prosperity and Canaan; in the New Testament it leads to Calvary, to the paradox of losing one's life in order to find it. That's not a formula that makes sense in the rightside up world, a world driven by fear and desire.
There is an antinomian strain at the heart of Christianity that has been from the beginning subversive of conventional attitudes and practices. I don't mean this in the sense of anything goes, but Jesus, and later Paul, made it clear that there were more important things than following the rules and conforming to traditional conventions. Jesus and Paul both understood that if one is truly a citizen of the "kingdom", then one is governed by the logic of grace and freedom, and while that logic often overlaps with traditional wisdom and practice, it is not constrained by it or subordinated to it.
The worst kind of theology is an attempt to take religious language born of a subversive impulse directed toward turning things upside-down and to co-opt it into a project to reinforce right-side-up ideological or conventional thinking. For me the sign of genuine faith lies in its being in some way a sign of contradiction to mainstream--liberal or conservative--right-side-up thinking.
Our culture, consciously and unconsciously, has appropriated a utilitarian, pleasure- mazimizing model of what human happiness means, and it has made us ridiculously superficial. Consumerism and utilitarianism go hand in hand, and the churches are as coopted by it more than they are a sign of contradiction to it except for a few cautionary bromides against overdoing it. In such a cultural milieu, it is difficult to have any real sense about how sacrifice and suffering can be redemptive and transformative.
Liberalism in the Anglo-American sphere, at least, has a strong historical link to utilitarian thinking, and its pleasure maximizing approach to ethical and policy choices. And I'd argue that because this utilitarian model influences Liberals more than it influences Conservatives, "liberals" are more prone to give up when things get difficult or when they aren't fun anymore. That's why the right wipes the floor with liberals in almost every conflict between them. Liberals make fine bureaucrats or academics, but substantive progressive change in the Anglo-American tradition has come mainly from people with faith commitments, people who are willing to pay a price for what they believe.
Our respect for the military in a consumerist culture is largely rooted in the memory of a time when the embrace of these older virtues was commonplace--when courage, discipline, loyalty, sacrifice, and suffering, not for their own sake, but for the attainment of a larger purpose, were a highly respected ideals for everybody. They are not expected of anybody now outside of the military, and we expect the military to take the full burden when some kind of sacrifice is called for--sacrifices that the rest of us, especially if we are liberal, well-educated, and affluent, wouldn't dream of making ourselves. There is a scapegoating dynamic going on here that I'd like to explore in Girardian vein in another post some time.
[BTW:Nobody has more respect than I do for the men and women who put their lives on the line in the belief that they do so for a greater good. It's not their fault that their missions, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, serves no such lofty purposes but rather the ambition and greed of elites who irresponsibly sent them there.]
Dietrich Bonhoeffer while in prison wrote about a religionless Christianity in a world come of age, and thinking about what that means has been a central concern of this blog. His was a profoundly Christ-centered life, and yet he wrote to Bethge about how he felt more comfortable in the company of non-believers than believers. I sympathize. I think that it's because he experienced with conventional believers a meaning disconnect because their world was too right-side up, too "ideological", too much governed by fear and desire, and the meanings of the religious language understood from his upside-down perspective simply did not mean for him what they meant to them.
Bonhoeffer's idea about a religionless Christianity in a world come of age has not become popular, particularly among Christians, because it's a Christianity that does not offer much comfort. It's a Christianity for grownups. Its primary objective is not to promote human flourishing in the ordinary sense; it has rather more subversive purposes. It promotes, if the situation requires it, an austere life, one that has the appearance of normalcy but which understands that normalcy and its complacent assumptions are a sterile illusion. It is committed to a larger sense of purpose than that, one that often requires sacrifice and deprivation, and that's not something most people, especially conventional Christians, are interested in.
A religionless Christianity is not interested in institutional stability and preserving traditions and maintaining cultural identity; it's interested in being real. It's interested rising to the challenge to do the work that must be done because that's what is called for in this moment, here and now. And this is what it means to live a life of faith, because faith is the discovery that parallel to or underneath the ordinary workings of the world ruled for the most part by the logic of power and greed, fear & desire, runs an upside-down logic, the logic of grace and freedom.
That logic seeks to subvert the dominance of the "normal", especially when normal means a life in all its fundamentals committed to "getting more"--even getting more happiness. A religionless Christianity eschews ideology, but it's for celebration--it's for compassison, for beauty, for remembering, and for mutual support. A religionless Christianity is always about celebration when what is celebrated is the Real.
[Ed: This is a repost from May 2011]