A little controversy has been stirred up by a N.Y. Times columnist that I have long followed — David Brooks. I tend to like this guy; he is Big Hearted in spite of being a Conservative, of sorts. He is all about ‘restoring relationship’ and ‘mending the social fabric,’ my paraphrases of his positions. He tends to think that in the past (somewhere and some time) ‘we connected’ with each other and ‘nature’ better than we do now. We have “broken communities”, now; he has written.
That’s cool and suggestive; and he tends to take a psychological approach to such matters, where I a philosophical approach. He ends his recent and controversial article by writing, “On the other side of justice, we reach the beloved community and multiethnic family of humankind. This vision has a destination, and thus walks not in bitterness but in hope.”
But in this recent article (link above), he falls back on his religious belief, obviously. I knew he was Christian, that was evident at points in his columns. But it seemed a more generous and newer sort of spiritual nature, as if you could see him really getting into “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” Its a Left Wing Christianity, if you will, and this article was motivated by his interview with Esau McCaulley, a Professor of The New Testament (?) at Wheaton College and a member of The Times editorial staff (pictured above).
The article is pretty sappy with very religious language such as, “There is a relentless effort to rebuild relationship because God is relentless in pursuit of us“(my emphasis). But it made several interesting points, I believe; and this in contrast to much of the ire it aroused. In The Times (online), it received nearly 900 comments along with reactions from other media sources such as Professor J. Coyne (biology!) on his blog site.
Coyne called it another case of “religion coddling” by The Times, and as one of America’s most outspoken atheists, he had little to say for it except, of course, he too wants social justice. Other comments equally derided its religious stance as vacuous. A commentator from Shaker Heights, Ohio (up north by Cleveland), one Alexander Kelly, pounded home the frequently heard contention that the universe is without meaning; “no grand plan” exists for it. “It is absurd.” It contains “no teleology” and that is, in fact, liberating because it allows us each “to make our own meanings” for it! (Now that is a jumble of confusions as profound as any religious view, as I soon will soon demonstrate.)
My post will take a middle ground. No remotely literal interpretation of the Divinity of Jesus, or anyone or anything else, is acceptable in this day and age. Yet, religion and spirituality of many forms still exist and have done so since the beginning of The Evolution of Human Culture. Religion is not simply stupidity and fraud. To make sense of our world in a way that has the greatest benefit now and in the future, Religion should be understood as a “Natural Phenomena” (see Dan Dennett’s, Breaking The Spell). Religion arose naturally and functioned in some ways to our benefit.
(See —“Folk Religion” post series https://wordpress.com/post/naturereligionconnection.org/6061)
Religion, in the guise of “folk religion”, was a harbor for ritual and story-telling.; an accomplice in the formation of the original self-conscious human groups and in the basic discovery (or invention) of language and custom. I will go no further in telling this general story here, but will return shortly to some of the ideas I found interesting in Brooks.
Hey, It’s All Meaningless
But first allow me to return to some of the criticisms of religion and specifically that old bugbear “the universe is meaningless!” Of course, when people say this, they do not literally mean it. In their lives, and here on Earth, they find many things highly meaningful! Our above commentator cried, “all is absurd”, “there is no teleology”; yet, his very comments had meaning and the very statement he wrote had a purpose to serve and a goal to achieve: a Teleology. I assume he felt his statement was also successful in that, and therefore we can add, I believe, that Value exists along with Meaning in this not so absurd universe, after all.
What people mean when they say “there is no meaning”, is they have an Abstract Picture of Things in their Mind: long ago No Thing In The Universe found its situation meaningful. Well, of course, we would agree, and our commentator describes this situation long ago as ‘just billions of subatomic particles’ smashing and melding around into each other.
My point is twofold. First, this very Picture of Things is itself meaningful but for something that is, as if, sitting outside it, and viewing it from afar. Maybe nothing inside the picture experiences meaning (not those atoms, for sure), but we do and our commentator does. He finds this picture very significant, very meaningful, but from afar. As if he were God, looking down on It All, and All of it At Once. Or as if he were the Ideal Super Physicist, him or herself with total physical knowledge of All and of All At Once. So, for even this perspective, Meaning does exists, just not for any Real Thing In The Picture, only for some idealized thing and from outside that picture of everything as nothing but atoms and chemistry. This Picture of Things does Not succeed in getting rid of meaning. Meaning is real, but this Picture just puts it in a very awkward position.
Second, our commentator does not believe that Real Things can eventually develop, or occur only sometimes and only in some places. To be Real is to be Universally Present in All Places and at All Times, he believes! I do not know who made this rule (actually it was some faction in ancient Greek philosophy), but many believers in the Oppressive Significance of physics and chemistry take it as Gospel today. So, The Universe is absurd on these grounds, they believe; because meaning was not in it at the start, or in it everywhere. This is not a very useful, beneficial or coherent picture of ourselves and our situation especially to carry into the future. New Things can happen, including Meaning and Life and Language and other more complex realities. And New Things will continue to happen, maybe even some really good ones.
“Sin” is something Wrong that is more than just “a Problem”
Brooks and McCaulley advocate the use of the idea of “sin” to understand and heal some of our most profound social and personal ills. Many commentators were repulsed by this suggestion, but here is the sense I make of it. Killing someone in a fit of anger because of an act committed by them that offended you, is not a good thing. But it is not at the same ‘level’ as the almost arbitrary acts of mass murder that we now frequently face. Telling a lie occasionally is not a great thing to do, but lying all the time and doing so as The President of the U.S. and thus contributing to a massive and growing divide and distrust within the nation, is at a new level of malfeasance. And it is not simply a matter of size, number or frequency of these wrongs.
It is about gravity. There are some acts that shake, or strike at, the foundations of our human solidarity. They endanger the togetherness that functions to make us persons and components in larger-scale, language-using, highly interconnected society. These are “sins” because this fundamental violation strikes at the roots of our way of life. If these acts became more prevalent culture would crumble and we, we all, would return to nature as only animals (not the Culture possessing animals we are now.) That would be a loss of level, a decline in complexity.
The further value of this concept of “sin” (or of something similar; the young Karl Marx wrote of “Alienation” from our “true being”) is that in response to sin, “forgiveness” is most appropriate and effective, says Christianity according to McCaulley and Brooks. Recriminations, retribution and punishment are not what is ultimately sought, but Healing, Re-unification, and Conversion are. The sinner will accept their error and return ‘to the fold’ , so to speak.
Interestingly, in contemporary philosophy there are some similar contentions based on the analysis of modern Moral Language and in Ethics. Here, the point of punishment and recrimination is not merely retribution but the reformation of the perpetrator and their recognition of their former waywardness. As if a person in a state of hysteria is then slapped in the face, regains their composure, and then says “Thanks, I needed that.”
(Lot and his wife fleeing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, painting by John Martin 1852 [left]. A different “Don’t Look Back!” command [right], but this time given by Hades to Orpheus: ‘If you look back, Eurydice will be condemned to the underworld forever.’ Well, Orpheis did look back but Hades still let Eurydice out every spring and summer. I guess Hades is a softer touch than Yahweh, as far as gods go. Painting by Edward Poynter, Orpheus and Eurydice, 1862.)
Brooks and McCaulley contend that the Life of Jesus is exemplar of this forgiveness, modesty, love. After all, remember that McCaulley is professor of The New Testament, not the Old (where sin is dealt with very harshly by Yahweh). This is “the ethic of self-emptying love — neither revile the reviler nor allow him to stay in his sin,” Brooks writes laying it on very thick. Forgiveness and conversion avoid social justice becoming “as if group-versus-group power struggles are an eternal fact of human existence… (and) we all have to armor up for an endless war.”
But It Is Not God’s Love!
I do like that. Let us avoid a war of group against group fighting for priveleges and for the scraps of production, especially if that is to occur in the name of “Social Justice”. I, also, agree there is something ‘deep’ that tends to hold persons to persons; that is an obligation or a need not easily denied; that is a kind of ‘hidden connection’ yet maybe right before our eyes. But, that Reality is more a sociological, psychological and philosophical Truth, than a theological one. And to miss it, or violate it, is more than just your average mistake, more than to simply mess up: It is kind of “sinful”. It is a real basic violation of yourself and others.
Two of the earliest depictions of Jesus in existence.
(Known as “Bust of Jesus”, left, a mural on the wall of the catacomb Commodilla in Rome, painted in the late 300s. Right, painted on a wooden board around 600 C.E., “Christ Pantocrator”. Pantocrator is Greek, meaning “He who has authority over everything.” This painting is preserved in a monetary in Egypt, one of the oldest monasteries in the world. Both show Jesus with a beard, and this portrayal is thought to be a successor of the earliest versions that portrayed Jesus younger, beardless and with short tunic –more in the Roman style, and somewhat like an Orpheus figure as pictured earlier in post– for which there are few examples.)