Friday, May 9, 2008

Perry Miller and the Puritans

Random thoughts sparked by The Lead and my long buried memories of reading Perry Miller:

Jim Naughton has pointed to the excellent article by Tim Townsend, "Love Thy Neighbor," in the recent edition of the Columbia Journalism Review. The closing section, detailing Townsend's run-in with the dark forces of the blogosphere is sobering, to say the least.

I noticed the following passage in the opening about New England Puritans, as described by Perry Miller, the famous historian of American intellectual history:
What Winthrop had in mind was a political system whose top priority would be, as the historian Perry Miller wrote, “the duty of suppressing heresy, of subduing or somehow getting rid of dissenters—of being, in short, deliberately, vigorously, and consistently intolerant.” The Puritans believed they, like the Israelites of the Hebrew scriptures, had a covenant with God. And they believed that fellow colonists like Roger Williams, who preached religious tolerance, could go straight to hell. Or barring that, Rhode Island.
("Love Thy Neighbor" p. 1).

Anyone who studied Perry Miller and the Puritans know that while this was, indeed, a part of the history, the New England Puritans were a complex and fascinating lot, with some brilliant minds and positive contributions to American culture along with the negative. The dark side, however, comes through even in this excerpt from a summary of Perry Miller's work:
By the late 1650s, the Puritan experiment in New England experienced significant challenges. Of the great founders only Richard Mather (father of Increase) remained. New England Puritans were increasingly an isolated Protestant sect, particularly in light of the relative religious toleration adopted in England. "New England had become, by remaining faithful to its radical dedication, a stronghold of reaction" (p. 9) Moreover, "New England was no longer a reformation, it was an administration. It was no longer battling that most of the populace should be left out of church-fellowship, but was striving to keep church-fellowship alive" (p. 11). .... During the second half of the seventeenth century, other factors emerged to further erode the original vision of the city upon a hill. Trade emerged as an end unto itself, not to serve God; younger generations in increasing numbers failed to meet the tests for church membership; old social hierarchies and orders were upset; social vices such as drunkenness and extramarital fornication became more prevalent, and the colonial status within the empire changed. Ministers responded to the perceived erosion of religious values and mission with the jeremiad, a new literary form that took aim at all the sin and strove to make sense of the changes in society. The jeremiad was a way of "making intelligible order out of the transition from European to American experience" (p. 31); it was, according to Miller, "purgation by incantation" (p. 34).

Ministers were increasingly on the defensive. Largely at their behest, the Half-Way Covenant was adopted as a means of assuring the perpetuation of church membership. They found, however, that the measures, though enacted, were bitterly divisive....
Donald A. Duhadaway, Jr, "Perry Miller and the Puritans."

Covenants formulated by the Puritans seem to have never been a good idea.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

I smell a rat

The Lead tells us that The Telegraph is reporting:
The Vatican said last night that the time has come for the Anglican Church to choose between Protestantism and the ancient sacramental Churches of Rome and Orthodoxy. Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, told the Catholic Herald that the Anglican Communion must “clarify its identity” and stop hovering between the Catholic and Protestant traditions. He said: “Ultimately, it is a question of the identity of the Anglican Church. Where does it belong? Does it belong more to the Churches of the first millennium – Catholic and Orthodox – or does it belong more to the Protestant churches of the 16th century?
Add this bit of news to the following perspective from Alasdair MacIntyre. As you may recall, McIntyre was the author whose premise Archbishop Rowan Willliams addressed in his recent lecture on "Religious Faith and Human Rights" (excerpt here at "You can't make this stuff up"). McIntyre is a British philosopher, former Marxist, now Roman Catholic, who has taught at U.S. universities since 1969.

I recently picked up McIntyre's book Whose Justice, Which Rationality?, which addresses some of the questions that Archbishop Williams talks about in his lecture. Basically, both men agree that some kind of academic (well, they would call it "rational") formulation of morality and justice is necessary and that religion and philosophy should endeavor to do this. Rowan, however, speculates how some basic universal human rights might be formulated across cultures based on his notion of human "embodiment."

I am not interested now in the substance of their philosophy but rather the posture from which they begin to speculate. Take this from McIntyre, for example:
Private citizens are thus for the most part left to their own devices in these matters. Those of them who do not, very understandably, abandon any attempt to think through such issues systematically are generally able to discover only two major types of resource: those provided by the enquiries and discussions of modern academic philosophy and those provided by more or less organized communities of shared belief, such as churches or sects, religious and nonreligious, or certain kinds of political association.

* * * *
We thus inhabit a culture in which an inability to arrive at agreed rationally justifiable conclusions on the nature of justice and practical rationality coexists with appeals by contending social groups to sets of rival and conflicting convictions unsupported by rational justification. Neither the voices of academic philosophy, nor for that matter, any other academic discipline, nor those of the partisan subcultures, have been able to provide for ordinary citizens a way of uniting conviction on such matters with rational justification. Disputed questions concerning justice and practical rationality are thus treated in the public realm, not as a matter for rational enquiry, but rather for the assertion and counterassertion of alternative and incompatible sets of premises.
Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (U. Of Notre Dame Press: 2003) at p. 3 and p. 5-6.

Now I'm all for looking for ways people can better understand themselves and each other and to guide public policymaking and the law. Reason certainly has a role to play (and the absence of it is often a lamentable fact of public life -- as anyone in the U.S. surely knows after watching CNN and Fox News last night). But these gentlemen seem to really believe that top-down thinking is what is needed, and if they could only somehow reassemble and/or rework the historical (mostly religious, notwithstanding Rowan's foray into "embodied" states) bases of Western ethics and morality AND (this is key) have the results handed down and imposed by the ruling elites (church and/or state, both apparently informed by the academicians), to us poor "private" citizens who do not have the time and the talent to work it all out for ourselves, then, well, things would be much better. The suggestion from the Vatican that what is needed is an alliance and maybe someday a single hierarchy of the "orthodox" to fully articulate and impose such rules only adds further insult, but seems to be along the same line of thinking as that of McIntyre and Williams.

Aside from the high-on-the-distant-academic-hill posture both seem to take, there is something fundamentally at odds with what contemporary science (neuroscience, development psychology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, etc. ) tells us about how most healthy human beings develop a sense of morality and act upon it. There is great controversy within and across these fields, but I suspect that today most everyone scientifically informed would agree that humans do not simply "learn" morality from a set of rules expressly given to them (at least not in terms of conventional moral instruction in the classroom or similar settings). In other words, the notion of a "tabla rasa" mind on which any rules can be written by those who choose to teach them is inaccurate, at best. However it is that we acquire some sense of morality, it seems to come very early in life, and is only later developed and expanded upon by experience and the social environment. Even then, what we learn as social conventions can be overridden by our deeper, perhaps unconscious notions and feelings about what is moral, what is right or wrong, which we have even when there are no specific rules to follow or some authority to strictly enforce them. Writing or rewriting social rules does not necessarily change our behavior, nor does making them more logical or consistent necessarily make them more attractive or persuasive.

While it still may be useful to rationally sort out and better articulate what we think we know is right and to consider, to the extent we can, altering our belief systems when our ideas, communications , or behaviors are illogical, it is doubtful that most people think or act based on the kind of reasoning supposed by McIntyre -- even those, like himself, who have the time and grey matter to ponder various questions. What I find particularly interesting are those studies among children that suggest that healthy children can distinguish between morality and social conventions (i.e. notions of what is right and wrong without any authority to back them up or enforce them as distinct from those that are authority-dependent), but children with psychopathic tendencies have great difficulty drawing the distinction. In other words,
[Psychopaths] identify both kinds of transgressions as transgressions, as infringements of the rules, but they are unable to say which are wrong only because of the rules. Because they cannot make this distinction, they seem to be missing the ability to make moral judgments at all. Hence their emotional deficit explains and underlies a deficit at moral cognition, and not merely moral action.
[From Moral Minds" by Neil Levy at Neuroethics]. Some have speculated that it has something to do with the lack of empathy among the latter group, and that empathy has something to do with the development of moral faculties. [All this from various sources, inspired by Dan's read of Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong by Marc Hauser, including the post " the article "Do the Right Thing" by Rebecca Saxe at the Boston Review, and an interview with Hauser, "Is Morality Innate and Universal?" at Discover magazine.]

All this makes me wonder at those who truly believe that a well-articulated and detailed set of moral rules -- especially those supposedly immutably set in scripture, or even those crafted by a Magisterium and/or academic philosophers and theologicans -- is necessary for the purpose of teaching people so that they will simply follow what they are told (as if we were all psychopaths and had no internal sense of right or wrong and thus needed the rules laid out in front of us at all times). I can understand why reflection, consideration, and discussion of moral issues, the history and rationale behind our rules and principles, may be both good and helpful for some purposes, but the implication that "private citizens" will not and cannot ever be "moral" in any but incoherent (and, therefore, presumably undesirable) ways by simply living in and growing up in human society, rather than "learning" morality from a closed, entirely logically consistent philosophical system, seems rather astonishing to me.

It at least gives me pause reading about Marc Hauser's research. which suggests that one's religious beliefs (different religions or lack of any) make no difference in how one makes moral judgments. While these results are not unassailable, one wonders if some kind of innate moral sense (or at least one developed very early in life) works together with what parents and others in the social environment model in their behaviors to make us "moral." While the rules of social convention and later the rationalization of both one's moral sense and the rules may enforce certain moral values, I wonder if they are not more after-the-fact understandings of what we already think we know and feel. That does not mean that they are immutable for a lifetime, but the notion that if everyone only understood and agreed to abide by and strictly enforce certain rules (even assuming God's grace is factored in for the Christians), and that if we had REALLY smart and wise people articulating the rules (whether from their own systems of thought and/or based on how they interpret holy texts), we'd all be better off seems to lose sight of the complexity of human thought, emotions, and behaviors, and the physical bodies in which they originate and act.

At a later date, I want to work through some of this and consider what I think, as a layperson, that science can tell us about the contexts in which we both act and try to rationalize moral sensibility, ethical principles, and the laws and social conventions that may be formulated based, at least in part, on reason. The whole "Nature and/or Nurture Debate" at Jake's the other week has got me thinking about these matters a great deal. But for now all I can suggest is that the McIntyre/Williams approach from academic philosophy needs to be compared to various ideas from both social and physical sciences (and all the cross-disciplinary thinking going on in and beyond the margins), and all of it needs considerable scrutiny in the light of commonsense and experience.

[P.S. I apologize for my repetition, dense language, and tortured sentences. This did not help my blog-readability score -- or attract readers -- I'm sure. But it's the best I can do for now. ]

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The private drama of salvation

Thanks to a recommendation from Mystical Seeker and link from Adrian Worsfield (Pluralist Speaks), I've been reading Bruce Sanguin's, Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos: An Ecological Christianity. This part leaped off the page at me:
Take salvation. The word itself means to make whole, or to heal. For at least the last 300 years, the church has regarded the planet as a kind of background stage upon which the drama of private salvation has been played out. Most of Christianity continues to be involved in what Thomas Berry calls a "redemption mystique." We are obsessed with our sinfulness and whether we're "saved." The purpose of Jesus' death, according to this fall/redemption model, was to redeem us from our innate depravity, thus saving our souls for eternal life, in a heavenly realm, somewhere beyond this universe. The vast majority of Christians are so focused on their own "salvation," or on saving others, that they are blind the deterioration of the very ecosystems that sustain their private dramas. Even in those denominations, like my own, that have moved beyond thinking that God is primarily concerned with the salvation of private souls, we still focus almost exclusively on the human realm of creation. It's time we place the salvation (healing) of the planet in the foreground of our mission concerns.
Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos (Wood Lakes Publishing, 2007) at pp.29-30.

The ecological crisis is something that has increasingly drawn the attention of some Christian evangelicals, as reported in the press here in the U.S. for the last year or so. But the point is still a valid one, that a great many people who profess to be Christians are almost exclusively focused on the "private drama" of their own salvation. Even Martin Luther might be surprised at the extent to which people today preach, talk, and blog about our individual relationships with God.

It's something we might all keep in mind, but quite frankly, this struck me most in terms of where, I think, the neo-Calvinists get off track with their focus on sin and damnation. It should go without saying that we all sin, individually and collectively, and that we dare not be complacent when we fall short. But it seems bizarrely self-centered and anthrocentric to act as if the fate of all Creation turns on our individual struggles and efforts to "save" ourselves and other individual human beings. Yes, God loves each and every one of us and each is as valuable as the next, as well as our companion creatures, elements, and energy in Creation. But our private dramas are not the be and end all, and what good we can do, with God's grace, is not for us, not for getting us into heaven (what or wherever), but for the whole shebang.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Remembering Aslan

Screenshot of Aslan from the movie The Chronicles of Narnia:
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe © Walden Media

The movie, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005 Walt Disney version), was shown on network television last night. I happened to catch the end, which never fails to move me deeply on account of the memories it stirs of my first reading. Although this version has some weaknesses in other areas, including the final ending, it does a magnificent job of portraying the events immediately preceding and following the sacrifice of Aslan.

As many will recall, (*spoiler alert for those who do not know the story), Edmund, the boy who was tempted by the White Witch and betrayed his brother and sisters and all the good creatures of Narnia, is rescued and finally apologizes for his conduct. The White Witch, however, reappears and demands that Edmund be presented to her, citing the law that anyone who commits treachery in Narnia must be punished by her by death. Edmund's brothers and sisters and all the other good Narnia creatures, who had just been rejoicing at his return, look on despairing, not knowing what will become of Edmund. Aslan, the wise and powerful Great Lion, speaks. He acknowledges that the White Witch has correctly stated the law but he asks her to step aside to confer with him privately. They go off together and then return to the throngs of creatures on both sides who await their decision. Aslan looks sad and resigned. The White Witch looks elated but wary. Aslan then announces that the White Witch has renounced her claim on Edmund. The children and the creatures devoted to Aslan are happy and relieved. The White Witch then asks how can she be sure Aslan will keep his promise. Aslan roars loudly, causing her to retreat in haste.

Aslan and his followers return to their camp and prepare for the great battle. Aslan seems dejected and the others worry. Later that night, Lucy and Susan cannot sleep and discover that Aslan has left the pavilion and run and find him. He agrees to take them with him as long as they agree to go back when he asks them to. They travel on, the girls riding on his back, their hands deep in his fur and mane. He welcomes their comfort but remains sad and gloomy. Finally they all reach the Stone Table, the point where he must part with them. The girls turn back but instead of leaving, hide in the bushes.

The White Witch and her monstrous followers arrive. The Witch orders Aslan bound. He lies down and does not resist. His eyes show his pain and humiliation. The Witch, who appears to be about to kill him, stops suddenly, and thinks to order that Aslan be shaved. Her followers relish this task, holding up chunks of the great mane, and kicking and jeering at the supposedly all powerful Aslan. The Witch then has Aslan placed on the Stone Table. She raises her knife above him but pauses to tell him that while his death will appease the Deep Magic, and satisfy the need to punish Edmund as traitor, once Aslan is gone there will be nothing to prevent her from killing Edmund anyway. Aslan looks up in pain. Lucy and Susan, who are watching, turn their eyes away as the knife comes down, and look up to see him dead.

The Witch and her followers leave, Aslan's body remaining on the table. When all are gone, Lucy and Susan go to Aslan and embrace him once again. Tearfully they try to remove the ties that had bound him. They spend the rest of the night with him, crying with their arms and hands around him. Then morning comes. The girls notice mice running over Aslan's body. Susan tries to shoo them but Lucy stops her when she sees that they are nibbling the remaining cords that bound Aslan. Suddenly there is a loud, deafening noise, and the Stone Table cracks in two. Aslan's body vanishes. Then the girls look up and see Aslan standing, alive again. They rush to him and wonder if they have seen a ghost. But he reassures them he is real, as they feel his warm breath on them again. Aslan explains that if the White Witch had read further in the Deep Magic, she would have known that when a willing, innocent victim is killed by a traitor, the Stone Table will crack and death will be reversed.

This is not quite the end of the story because the great battle remains to be fought and the White Witch killed, but it is the apex. What surprised me when I first read it was that I knew it was coming, in part because I had heard something about the scene somewhere and knew of C.S. Lewis's reputation as a Christian writer, and in part because of all the Christian imagery and ideas planted in the story all along. Yet, when reading the book and even seeing the movie scene for the umpteenth time, I still felt suspense, tremendous dread, anguish and concern about what might happen and how it would all turn out.

Maybe I'm just one of those deeply affected by a story well told (or dramatized). Yet these scenes move me in ways that even I cannot explain. When I first read the book, I was already well into middle age, back in church, drawn to the Eucharist, accepting of the creeds, first received as a Lutheran, and later confirmed as an Episcopalian. The Lutheran pastor who had brought me back had given me copies of The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity (which I gratefully skimmed but put aside in favor of Luther's Large Catechism), and later I tried to read Narnia off and on, in the spirit of my newly found Anglicanism. But it took ordering the complete set a few years later, thinking my son might want to read them, that finally got me from The Magician's Nephew through to those scenes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And once I got there, I cried and cried. And something changed, something that had begun when I took my first Eucharist, later observed Lent and Holy Week, the Stations of the Cross, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil, but had not yet been completed. It was as if something was still held back, though I did not know it, something that broke through some otherwise unmemorable weekend afternoon, book in hand, as Aslan came to life, died, and was resurrected.

Watching the movie again last night it struck me, what I think I realized at the time, that here at last was a Jesus I could really know, touch, and hold, like Lucy and Susan. Somehow, after many years of finding the figure of Jesus off-putting -- only finally being able to separate him from his fundagelical image by abstracting him, even as suffering and dying on the Cross, and taking him whole in the bread and the wine as a faceless, formless Trinitarian One -- that big, warm-blooded, furry, wild and powerful but compassionate Aslan finally made me feel what it is like to really know Jesus, to see and know what he did for us, and what it meant for him to give and for us to receive his sacrifice, just as if I had been there and witnessed it myself. Somehow this took me from a desperately wanting to not just believe but to see and feel something that was not just out of books or even creeds. Faith became flesh.

I suppose this all seems hopelessly sentimental. Responding to Narnia this way at all takes a certain kind of cultural mindset about animals and fantasy literature. I noticed in this morning's Epistle there was a reference to lions, the kind who devour people and other animals. And for those, like me, who may think of Aslan in part due to our relations with pets (cats and dogs), such feelings no doubt would not be shared by people in places like Rwanda where dogs scavenge and eat dead humans killed by war or genocide.

But I know a great many bloggers out there who have not only enjoyed but learned from their relationships with their pets. These relationships are especially important to humans who have struggled with betrayal and hurt from fellow humans, who can appreciate the faithfulness of their pets (yes, I know, cats and dogs differ in how they express and act on it), and can know something of God's love through them, as part of Creation. I'm not saying pets are human, and certainly not that Aslan is the equivalent or perfect representative of Jesus, but there is something marvelous about the simple, direct way Lucy and Susan reach out and touch Aslan, and he allows them to touch and embrace him, follow, weep over him, and finally be the first to see his return from the dead. It is that simple and direct relationship that many of us jeopardize when we get too bound up in doctrine or theology. And it is one I am thankfully reminded of whenever I see this story.