Minding the Flock: The Ordinariate

"You won't mind if I take a few sheep back with me?"

If you’re paying attention, the Pope is rolling out the red carpet to Tiber-crossing Anglicans. Having been offered a special corner in the Latin Church called the “ordinariate,” conservative (who like to be called “traditional”) Anglicans can now flee their postmodern Church, that Babylon where even women can be ordained priests and bishops, and not have to worry about their souls turning pink. It’s all good.

According to The Telegraph citing (the Catholic) Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols:

“Hundreds of Anglican churchgoers will join [five bishops and uncounted numbers of priests] in the Ordinariate – a structure introduced by Pope Benedict XVI to provide refuge for those disaffected with the Church of England. The number of worshipers who leave the Church is predicted to double as the new arrangement finally begins to take shape.”

Of course, this is not what John XXIII and Paul VI had in mind when they talked about “ecumenism” in the last century. But two things have since become clear: One is that the Catholic Church is still the “Hippopotamus” of T.S. Eliot’s famous poem on the topic of slow change. –Not quite the rock of ages, but ageless in other ways.

The second is that the Church of England has other ideas. Change and adaptation to the culture prevent religion from ossification. (Look at the religions that don’t change, runs the argument). And if consultation with Rome was ever a condition of implementing change, it hasn’t been evident in the last generation of stalled “unity” discussions between Canterbury and Rome. Given the choice between As in Rome and As at Home, the English as a rule will pick home.

In fact, the C of E has always been more protestant than Catholic, in a uniquely British kind of way, since its sixteenth-century founding. It was born of dissent, tested in the political fires of the English reformation, and doesn’t necessarily regard its martyrs as any less Christian than the ones Rome stubbornly insists on canonizing for their fidelity to the Catholic cause–a cause that included in its day a hit list with the Queen’s name on it.

So let us not be fooled by the pointy hats and outward appearances of Christian charity that were on display during the papal visit in September. The Pope and the Archbishop do not like each other. Why should they? The pope was in town to beatify the nineteenth century’s most famous escapee from the Anglican Church, John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman and to reinvigorate devotion to the English martyrs like Edmund Campion and bishop John Fisher.

If you ask me, the cameras didn’t hide the tension very well: at the entrance to Westminster Abbey–the first pope ever to set foot in the place, the media intoned with wearying regularity, serenaded by the vastly-superior-to the-Sistine-Choir Westminster boys–the pope looked for all the world as though their rendition of Max Reger’s postmodern, atonal “Benedictus,” was a musical joke. (Has he tasted the liturgical wares in Detroit recently, I wondered.) And I have no doubt that when he prayed side by side with the Bish at the tomb of Edward the Confessor, whose bones are the centerpiece of the whole stone pile, Benedict was praying for the conversion of England–or at least for the success of his scheme to poach traditionalists from his host’s field.

We come in peace, for the lambs.

But never mind all that. Ecumenism isn’t dead simply because, when confronted with an invitation to snuggle up with foreign princes, the English heart flies back to the passions of the Reformation. All over, that. Time to make up, have done, move on–stout fellow. After all, the English do not hold grudges. Not like the Italians, I can tell you. And the Germans! Don’t mention the Germans.

Ecumenism is dead because in Rome’s view the English church has an obedience problem. It isn’t simply that the Archbishop of Canterbury is not a pontifical figure in the “worldwide Anglican communion” (cough), but that he is not a significant authority-figure in the Church at home or anywhere else.

Who was surprised when after the Pope’s third reference to himself as the “successor of Peter,” sitting opposite the splendidly mitred Rowan Williams, the Archbishop took a tutorial moment to remind his guest that “Christians differ as to the significance of the Petrine office.” Unspoken: (Pope) “My bloody predecessor sent Augustine here when the people on this soggy island were worshiping stones.” (Archbishop): “We’d have kicked your sorry arse back to Rome two centuries earlier if Becket hadn’t managed to get himself killed and become so damned popular.”

Of course the immediate reasons for the death of ecumenical dialogue are meant to be much more obvious: saith the Telegraph quoting Bishop Andrew Burnham, one of the episcopal poachees whose bags are packed:

“…Clergy have become dismayed at the liberal direction of the Church of England and the way traditionalists have been treated…There’s only a certain amount of time you can accept being described as the National Front of the Church of England…We’re seen as out of date for not accepting women’s ministry as equal, but the debate concentrates on sociology rather than theology… [And] there is no doctrinal certainty anymore. It has become more relative. “I’m sad about leaving as I owe a lot to the Church of England, but this [the Ordinariate] is a joyful opportunity.”

The creation of the ordinariate, created unilaterally with no conversation between Rome and Lambeth Palace on the move (though discussions between disaffected Anglican bishops and the Vatican had been going on for some time), is probably just a lid on the pickle barrel of a nice 1960’s idea: ecumenism belongs to an era of poster-philosophy and the cozy belief that there’s more that unites Christians than divides them.

All over, that. Have done, move on–stout fellow.

Attribute and Affect

I have argued against theologians like Richard Swinburne that they play a dangerous game in moving from abstracted notions of God to specific characteristics of God and the doctrines of Christianity. In the long run, the snowman they build feature by feature is still snow. It will melt. Both believing and unbelieving philosophers of religion have played this game for a very long time–perhaps since the time of Aquinas–but the bottom line is: No one is an atheist on general principles. There is some X that you reject, and that X comes with attributes or “properties” attached. Any working notion of ontology requires not merely existence but attribution.

This is why the most damaging arguments against ontology, going back to the eighteenth century, begin with the criticism that “existence” is a state (being) and not a property. Anselm had argued against his hypothetical unbeliever that God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived [to exist],” and then took the leap to existence by stating that the existence of the greatest conceivable thing can not be merely conceptual since perfection requires actuality. Anselm limited this state of perfection to being and not to racehorses or desert islands because ordinary things can be conceived in degrees but not in states of perfection. God thus becomes a supreme case of perfection existing in actuality because it cannot simply exist in the mind for — “Si enim vel in solo intellectu est potest cogitari esse et in re quod maius est” (Proslogion 2). Now that you have the snow, it is possible to add goodness (Aquinas’s summum bonum), and the so-called Omni-properties of God (knowledge, presence, benevolence, etc.) as well as the Not-properties of God: infinite, immutable, impassible, etc. Snowman, meet your maker.

It is perfectly possible to believe in snow without believing in snowmen. But in historical theology we have long come to accept that the God of the western tradition, and by and large the God rejected by the first brave souls of the pre-Enlightenment, like John Biddle in 1615, is more slush than shape–to wit, Biddle on trying to make sense of the Trinity:

“The major premise is quite clear inasmuch as if we say that the Holy Spirit is God and yet distinguished from God then it implies a contradiction. The minor premise that the Holy Spirit is distinguished from God if it is taken personally and not essentially is against all reason:First, it is impossible for any man to distinguish the Person from the Essence of God, and not to frame two Beings or Things in his mind. Consequently, he will be forced to the conclusion that there are two Gods.Secondly, if the Person be distinguished from the Essence of God, the Person would be some Independent Thing. Therefore it would either be finite or infinite. If finite then God would be a finite thing since according to the Church everything in God is God Himself. So the conclusion is absurd. If infinite then there will be two infinites in God, and consequently the two Gods which is more absurd than the former argument.Thirdly, to speak of God taken impersonally is ridiculous, as it is admitted by everyone that God is the Name of a Person, who with absolute sovereignty rules over all. None but a person can rule over others therefore to take otherwise than personally is to take Him otherwise than He is.”

Granted that the early atheist thinkers were less concerned with the Big Picture than with dismantling inherited beliefs member by member. Many had long since concluded that the wheels of theology spun around doctrines rather than biblical texts, which had been gratuitously laid on or cherry picked to support beliefs that otherwise had been fashioned by councils without any scriptural warrants at all. A classic case, as it relates to Biddle’s long winded dilemma, above, was the so-called Johannine Comma. Based on a sequence of extra words which appear in 1 John 5:7-8 in some early printed editions of the Greek New Testament:

ὅτι τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες [ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὁ Πατήρ, ὁ Λόγος, καὶ τὸ Ἅγιον Πνεῦμα· καὶ οὗτοι οἱ τρεῖς ἔν εἰσι. 8 καὶ τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες ἐν τῇ γῇ] τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ τὸ ὕδωρ καὶ τὸ αἷμα, καὶ οἱ τρεῖς εἰς τὸ ἕν εἰσιν

and which were included by the King James translators, thus:

“For there are three that bear record [in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 8 And there are three that bear witness in earth], the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one…”

Is this not the Trinity, beloved of both Catholic and Protestants since the fourth century? Well, no, because the italicized words are absent from Greek manuscripts, and only appear in the text of four late medieval manuscripts where they seem to be the helpful clarification of a zealous copyist, originating as his marginal note. Think of it as new snow.

The point of these examples is that modern unbelief is highly confused about the difference between snow and snowmen, between being and somethingness. Simply put, what does it mean to say “I don’t believe in God,” if (as many atheists have reminded me) that is all an atheist is required to say to be a member of the club? My query is really the same at Robert Frost’s poetical question in “Mending Wall”: “Before I build a wall I’d ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out,/ And to whom I was like to give offense.”

I maintain that it is impossible to accept Anselm’s ontological argument. Kant was right. “Existence is not a predicate.” The ontological argument illicitly treats existence as a property that things can either possess or lack: to say that a thing exists is not to “attribute” existence to that thing, but to say that the concept of that thing is exemplified–expressed and experienced–in the world. Exemplification requires attributes. That is why the obscure language and syllogisms of philosophy (for the above, e.g.: “S is p” is true iff there is something in the world that is S, satisfying the description “is p”) have never really appealed to robust varsity atheists. But Kant’s critique of ontology slices both ways: if ontology is defeasible because existence is not a predicate, it means that the statements God exists is not falsifiable because there is nothing in the world corresponding to God, at least not of the S is p variety.


Many atheists know this, and they also know that their rejection of “theism” (a very funny word derived from the Greek θεός — a god, hence, a-theism, being without such a belief) is not based on snowflakes but fully formed snowmen: the God of “Christian (or Jewish, or Islamic) “theism” who comes to us in a manifestly literary, messy, and inconsistent way in scripture. You cannot be an atheist in the abstract; you have to be an atheist in terms of attributions that have been applied in specific historical moments and which can be traced to particular historical contexts–such as the legislative “creation” of the Trinity in 325 AD. You must be walling out something.

I am perfectly at home with this kind of unbelief, comfortable with the truism that most people are atheists with respect to 99% of all the gods who were ever believed to exist. The statement is inadvertently poignant because it suggests that what we find it easy to contradict or reject are specific “attributes” or characterizations, and then to construct from these a more complete rejection of the whole picture. Every clever schoolkid knows the game and the logic: How can a God who is all good tolerate famine, cancer, premature death? How can a God who is all-wise put the prostate near to the male urinary tract (was he cutting costs?); Why would a God who is all powerful not create us, like Adam, in a post-adolescent, decision-making state free from high school, acne, and nagging parents? Note that what is being rejected are the attributes laid on this God, attributes which are construed from “S”: the state of existence as we know it.

Conveniently, for unbelievers, the rejection of attributes is facilitated by books thought to reveal the nature and purposes of God himself, especially the Bible and the Koran. The existence of texts that were never designed for use in philosophical and theological argument is a treasure chest for unbelievers–full of informal literary proofs that the God made from scriptural snow doesn’t correspond to the God made from theological snow: His whole story is an epic tragedy that could have been avoided if he had but exercised his omniscience and power at the beginning of time, avoided making fruit trees, or refrained from making Adam, or simply said “Apology accepted” when the First Couple betrayed his sole commandment. The manifest insufficiency and limitedness of this literary deity measured by the philosophical yardstick brought into the Church with theology–moments of remorse (Genesis 6,6) and petulance (6.1-16) and violence–flood, war, disease, death–makes the job of the skeptic a walk in the Garden.

What the unbeliever discovers in an amateur way is the composite nature of tradition: God-traditions that developed in Jerusalem and Athens being spliced together with sometimes implausible ingenuity and impossible contiguity. The illegitimate move is for the skeptic to conclude that the process of development is in some sense a “system” of untruths devised by ignorant or malicious men to keep the facts hidden or science suppressed. The real story, like all real stories, is much more complicated. But science does not emerge from the total exposure of the God traditions as deliberately false–the wreckage of a false system on the shoals of fact. It arises because of the inadequacy of the explanatory power of religion: the appearance of nature beneath the melting snow, to cop a phrase from Emerson.

End of winter

I think it is important, if only at an educational level, for unbelievers to avoid the error to which their commitment easily gives rise. One is a version of what W.K. Wimsatt called in 1954, in conjunction with literary criticism, the “affective” fallacy. He used the expression to mean that the ultimate value of a piece of literature (or art) cannot be established on the basis of how it affects a reader or viewer:

“The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does), a special case of epistemological skepticism [ . . . which . . .] begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism [with the result that] the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear.”

Applied to the God traditions, atheists are fairly quick to judge religion solely on the basis of its (presumed) affect on believers, such that the details of the question of God’s existence and the implications of belief for everyday life disappear. We can see this tendency especially in the writings of atheists who cherry pick the toxic texts of scripture to conclude that believers who accept such stories as true are delusional or dysfunctional. I remember listening passively at an Easter Vigil celebration many years ago as the following, called the “Song of Moses” from Exodus 15, was read out:

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:

‘I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
2The Lord is my strength and my might,*
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
3The Lord is a warrior;
the Lord is his name.

4‘Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea;
his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.*
5The floods covered them;
they went down into the depths like a stone.
6Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power—
your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy.
7In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries;
you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble.
8At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up,
the floods stood up in a heap;
the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.
9The enemy said, “I will pursue, I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them.
I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.”
10You blew with your wind, the sea covered them;
they sank like lead in the mighty waters.

11‘Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in splendor, doing wonders?
12You stretched out your right hand,
the earth swallowed them.

Invested with the spirit of Monty Python, I struggled not to laugh: God is great–just look how many Egyptians he killed, how many wives would now be husbandless, how many daughters fatherless. The vast majority of worshipers around me listened inattentively. Some slept. It was the drone of words. The same liturgy would have been performed in 1278. But no one would have heard very much because it would have been executed only in Latin.

To be affected by such passages (even if the effect is indifference) is a function of human perception. To conclude that the people who endure such banality in the name of religion need to be rescued from their belief in the God who seems to like to drown people or reduce their sinful cities to ashes is the affective fallacy. For every smitten, leprous evildoer and every reference to Israel behaving like a whore, there are passages of immense beauty, human pathos, literary quality and even historical importance.

To deny this human quality is to make the text disappear in the interest of sticking to a narrow and unformed reaction to it, normally based on a lack of familiarity with Hebrew (or Hellenistic) literary tradition, story telling, and historical context. Ironically, it is precisely this same lack of familiarity that permits a fundamentalist to accept “the Bible” in its undifferentiated and inspired totality as the word of God–whose imperfections can be overlooked as part of a divine plan that the book does not reveal in its entirety: 1 Corinthians 13.12.

A healthy skepticism is always preferable to uninformed credulity. But I maintain that unbelievers are often terribly credulous when it comes to their view of the positions they have taken. The fact that biblical passages can be shocking to modern sensibilities has no bearing on their “truth” at a literary, cultural, or experiential level. Nor can the value be determined by taking an average of nice texts and nasty texts without exploring individual judgments and categories. “Everything,” Jacques Barzun once told a resolute graduate student who had made up her mind about what a poem really meant, “is a seminar.” Without the seminar, we turn impressions into conclusions, and that is where the affective fallacy leaves us.


To say that one does not believe in the God whose attributes are those (more or less, and with no consistency) described in the Bible puts the unbeliever in the company of hundreds of thousands of believers. To say that one does not accept the God of theology, with or without the reconcilable attributes of literary biblical tradition, probably would not greatly reduce that company.

The remaining issue, as John Wisdom once put it, is whether believing in a God without attributes is possible at all, or no different from not believing in God.

Atheist Nation Celebrates the Holidays

The Intellectual Highground

Nothing puts atheists in a worse mood than the holiday season. All these dimly-lit people and brightly-lit window displays, making merry over things that never happened, spreading lies, propagating falsehood, singing their rancid carols, and worst of all teaching impressionable, if rather preposterous, children to believe in intellectual crap when they could be playing Megaman 11 or Worms Reloaded–which they got last Christmas. How obscene, how humiliating: Behold, little Buddy praying by his bedside for Megaman, versions, 12-16 (“conveniently boxed as one item” from Amazon.com) to a non-existent deity, having just lodged the same request with the sex-offender in the Santa suit at the mall. No wonder America is going to the red dogs and blue dogs. “Isn’t anybody listening to the Voice of Reason?”

God to a six-year old

Help is on the way.

To combat the forces of Darkness and Superstition, the American Humanist Association and some allies have launched a new ad campaign to put the Grinch back into Christmas. An article by Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times charts the new ecumenical spirit of the quest, spearheaded by the same blithe folk who brought us the “Good without God” bus-o-rama and the “Just be Good for Goodness Sake” billboard extravaganza. The campaigns are financed by “a few rich atheists” with money to throw to the wind, and buoyed by research being done by the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life (Trinity College), headed by the eminently reasonable Mark Silk and based on Barry Kosmin’s American Religious Identification Survey, showing that as many as 15% of Americans are “Nones,” i.e., have no religious identification or association.

It is pretty obvious and at the same time hopelessly obscure how Nones relate to atheism (atheists hope they do: this is largely, sad to say, a recruitment push for membership and dues), but as Goodstein points out in her article, the combined membership of the sponsoring organizations numbers only in the thousands. The best course might be to see whether Nones can be divided into groups: Certainly Nones, Possibly Nones, and None Just Now, Thanks–but I mix my politics and religion, which is never a good thing.

Possibly None

I will be blunt: This whole business is idiotic. It is hard to imagine that people like Todd Stiefel, one of those well-endowed atheists with cash to burn, are really on a rampage because of passages like the one he cites from the Bible:

“The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open.” (from Hosea 13:16, New International Version).

Reassuringly if a little obtusely Stiefel says that “It [our democracy] has not been based on [verses like these] and should never be. Our founding fathers created a secular democracy….We must denounce politicians that contend U.S. law should be based on the Bible and the Ten Commandments.” I agree. Anyone who wants Hosea 13 added to our Bill of Rights should be tied to a chair, gagged, blindfolded, and made to listen to Diane Rehm read slowly through the whole Book of Leviticus. Presumably (or is it implicitly?) he is willing to throw serous money at billboards so that America does not become a country that kills babies. He will find many friends among Catholics and Evangelicals on that score.

Diane Rehm

If you think ripping open pregnant women is bad, read the story of the wandering Levite in the Book of Judges (ch. 19) where a consummately self-absorbed kidnapper–a Hebrew–offers his concubine to some Village- of- the- Damned- crazed youth who want to have sex with him, gang rape her, leaving her for dead–whereupon the Levite butchers her semi-conscious person into twelve pieces and forwards a limb to each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Please: Don’t quote Hosea to me when there are passages that would make Tarantino wince.

The Levite's Discovery

But to be serious: Do the sponsoring organizations (which include besides AHA the American Atheists and the Freedom from Religion Foundation) think that these stories are read to Christian (or Jewish) children at bedtime? Is it bloody likely that a craven priest in Spokane is going to substitute the Legend of the Lethiferous Levite for St Luke’s Nativity story on Christmas Eve? I know that atheists feel they know a great deal about the mindset of the religious principles they reject, but one has to wonder why this isn’t reflected in their anti-Christian strategies?

Or are the campaigns only a reflection of the sponsors’ shocking ignorance of ancient myth and legend, whereof the Bible is a treasure hoard. I get the sense that the sponsors need to begin with the Brothers Grimm and then read backward in literary time to get a sense of how the grotesque has been used in history for both entertainment and moral instruction. Most “reasonable” people who are slightly sophisticated about the contours of culture know this. Many very nice religious people know this. They know that scaring people to death has been used by religion and nasty aunties for a long time to get people to change their wicked ways, clean up their act, and lead a better life. The question is, why don’t atheists know it? The shock of discovery seems entirely their own; it will not surprise the educated or awaken the irreligious passions of a Certainly None.

We don’t do that any more–scare people to death to make them good. Even very religious people don’t do that any more. The last really good sermon on hell was preached in 1917 by the torture-obsessed priest in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist. And I can’t name the last time I heard a robust sermon on Hosea 13.16. Given that real life lascivious priests are frightening enough, it seems unnecessary to reach back to the first millennium BCE for material.

Hell as you like it...

The intellectual isolation of the atheist from wider cultural movements and shifts in perception is one of the great stories of our time. Almost no one is covering it. If the question they are asking about religion is, Don’t these damned believers know what’s in the Bible, the answer is somewhere in the range between probably not to possibly so; but even if they do, they probably know that the Bible is not recommending carving up your girlfriend. And probably can guess that when you find blood and gore of this magnitude the story is about something else. Phrases and words like “symbolism,” “surface meaning,” “allegory,” “folk legend” and “myth” come to mind. Put it under the heading “Things Atheists Missed in College,” along with a good course in comparative religion, ancient history, mythology, and anthropology. It’s only people who have never studied myth who can write in such a yawningly banal way about religion being one.

I find myself constantly challenged on panels with atheists to lecture them on their understanding of words like “superstition,” the “supernatural” and above all “myth.” They in turn find me niggling and pedantic. But really, does the average atheist, village or city style, assume that the toxic texts of scripture are “in” the Bible for moral edification or because they reflect a time and culture different from lunchtime in Chicago?

Richard Dawkins lectures me, London 2007

Which brings us to the question, Who are these ads for? We’re told that a key reason for the aggressively confident style of the campaign (not to mention the unusual spirit of ecumenism that currently reigns in the atheist camp), is owing to their determination to get their “market share [of the Nones].” Leaving the most grievous puns aside, they are also inspired by the need to resist the Myth of the Not Lying Down Dead Horse, that America is a Christian Nation. And as we all know, there is nothing like a Billboard over the Lincoln Tunnel that announces, “You know it’s a Myth. Believe in Reason.” to get uncommitted people thinking and committed people scrambling for the nearest AHA meeting. Add a Hosanna to that and you’ve got something. (Tip for vandals: Spray paint “I’m Lucifer, and I approve this message” on the sign.)

In a particularly poignant way, weary commuters will also be treated to the cheery salvo of The United Community of Reason (not to be confused with Christians United to Oppose Rationality), a group in Washington. Their idea of decorating for the holidays includes spreading the good news of Reason on billboards and ads on bus shelters in about 15 cities: “Don’t Believe In God? Join the Club.” Fortunately, number-wise, the club can actually meet in the bus shelter. Add a few Nones and they can meet at a subway stop, except in cities where there are subway stops no one gives a rat’s whisker about organized atheism.

Far be it from me to lecture atheists. But please accept, along with an eggnog salute, the following advice. Grow up. Learn a little about what Being Clever means. I know we live in a world defined by short attention spans, coffee mugs, T-shirts and bumper stickers. But it’s completely unclear to me whether your ad campaigns will change a single mind, or even whose single mind your campaign is designed to change.

This is not a “struggle.” The upward march of unbelief is not the forces of liberation against the sources of slavery and oppression. I’m afraid religion beat you to that metaphor. It’s called Exodus. No one is paying attention because no one except your club members actually cares about the private conclusions of people who want to turn being disagreeable into a civil rights event.

Launch of Consider Atheism Campaign: Attended by Several

The slogans are insipid and can only have been vetted by very small committees of Like-minded People–and that’s a real problem, The modern atheist seems to get off on being distaff, minority, contrary, and ornery–the legate of a long free-thought heritage. Would your heart beat faster if you could persuade society that overturning a Salvation Army worker’s collection pot is an act of charity–extra points for snatching the bell? Would you praise a convert who defaced a nativity scene at Christmas, or saved a turkey’s life at Thanksgiving. Don’t be ridiculous, you say: that’s not what this is about. Don’t be ridiculous, I say: this is what you have made it.

Two last things in this little lecture:

Give up using the name humanism. You’re ruining it for people like me who don’t mean by it what you want it to mean. Equating atheism with humanism is a cheap trick, a cop behind the billboard (maybe one of yours?) kind of trick. Be proud of being an atheist. I know I’m not. You are not the American Humanist Association. You are full- frontally and outwardly the American Atheist Association.

And stop this ridiculous invocation of secular saints from Socrates to Einstein. Virtually none of the people you pray to became famous for being atheists and you know it. Not even Darwin. Certainly not Socrates. And Einstein: who knows?

“Yes, you can call it that,” Einstein replied calmly. “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious.” (Quoted by Isaacson in Einstein, 2007)

1933, on a deserted beach in Santa Barbara, California

But the point is, you cannot claim the intellectual upper hand in arguing against “God and religion” and then resort to the authority-argument to win your case. Even if you were joined by all the Nones in America, yours is a lonely lot. Especially at Christmas. Accept it. Live with it. And take down those absurd posters.

Vox Populi: A Theology of Messy Democracy

The Right to Vote

The elections are over. The election is upon us. Long live the Democratic Process! And a tip of the hat to the founding fathers, who in their prescience must have known that the fundamental metaphor for twenty-first century politics would be an endless and pointless NASCAR race.

Now we sigh deeply, wipe away a wanton tear, and try to adjust to the fact that barely two years after the election of Barack Obama (Hope, Change, Fired Up, Ready to Go) America has lost its energy, its nerve, and possibly its mind, and decided it wants to sit on the stoop and watch the civilized world (which it has just voted to quit) pass by for a spell.

Meantime, we will half-hear as the political assessors talk their heads off about what went wrong and whether Obama is listening, whether he gets it, whether the sting he was stung stung enough to hurt, whether he is paying attention or is just out of touch with the American people, and why someone with such a hoity toity education is tone deaf, can’t communicate, and acts sooo professorial. Just who does he think he is?

The assumption on almost everyone’s part is that a (virtual) vote of no confidence conveys a kind of popular wisdom because it is an expression of the collective will of the people and in this Man Up Democracy, vox populi vox dei, People Rule. A little attention to the full quotation from Alcuin to Charlemagne in the eighth century yields a slightly different flavour, however: “Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, Vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit.” : “And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.” Leave it to an ingenious country like America to prove Alcuin spot on.

Alcuin, proved right in 2010

I am not a political scientist, not a “political analyst” (read: sports announcer in ill-fitting gray jacket), not even much of an activist, though I do have longish hair and wear turtlenecks. Ideologically, I am a proservative, a progressive who is afraid of the consequences of progressive ideas. I am not even sure I care very much about politics unless it has the capacity to catch my attention, as it did a couple of years ago when Obama struck me as a rare bird in a nasty profession, and may still prove too rare to escape extinction in 2012.

But after last Tuesday I’m fairly certain I will not be paying attention again for a long time to come. Maybe not again in my lifetime. I have talked to many people who feel the same way–even worse, because my cynicism is greater than theirs, and my immunity to bitterness and disappointment slightly more developed. I once stretched my student budget to the limit to attend a Van Cliburn concert, and was virtually giddy the evening of the performance. Even by my pathetic expectations, he was not up to his standard, pleaded the flu before he sat down to play, and cut the program short by thirty minutes. It’s a bad analogy, I know, but I think that is vaguely similar to the performance-reality gap America is dealing with right now. The question really is, whose fault is it?

"Not mine."

I do not think politics matters very much because I do not think it has the power to change things. War and science, and occasionally poignant ideologies, perhaps the odd book, have the power to change things (usually because they lead to war or new technologies), but because people do not change very much, the collective voice of the people is only ever going to be an expression of their state of mind and emotional condition at a certain moment. Modern American elections are fought with only emotion in view–not government, leadership, not the social welfare of the people, and certainly not ideas. The idea of what is “good for me” and what is “best for the country,” for example, are not complementary: Obama worked for the latter and ran afoul of the former. There were no ideas in this election, if you except (as I think you have to) the idea that taking your country back is an idea.

Besides being terribly depressing for smart people, the election was terrifying because it displayed, for the first time, that the American Constitution is not well adapted for the new millennium. The tears and cracks become more obvious with every passing election season and every Supreme Court decision. But the Constitution, which is political sacred writ in the United States, especially among those who have never read it, is an eighteenth century playbook for eighteenth century ideologies about limited government, seldom amended, and largely unable to serve as a proof-text for social reform. Only its plagiarized Lockean preamble (the only bit ever quoted extensively) has lofty rhetoric. The remainder reads like a tax form, like most constitutions throughout history.

But when you think about what it–the Constitution–put into place–the “system” of checks and balances, the bicameral legislature, the separation of powers, the electoral college, the cumbrous protocol for amending the sacred text, and the oligarchical method of interpretation by a panel of men and women who, for all practical purposes are political appointees with private agendas–you have to lose a little sleep. What it also put into place is the scourge of elections to the “lower house” every two years–a practice based on the need to “refer” to the mood of the people frequently in matters directly affecting them, but totally unsuited to an attention-deficient population who are accustomed to doing their Christmas shopping in September. It is true that the closest ancestor of our representative system, the British Parliament, also has provisions for “bringing down a government,” but in the best of times, and as an encouragement for the people to take government seriously and weigh their reserve power carefully, the normal (legal) stretch between elections is five years.

To put this a little more cogently, if this were England, and the “executive” was simply the leader of the party in power, Obama would be out the door. But, as it is, he survives to limp along until 2012 as the mercy of his persecutors. This is democracy, American-style, in action. This what America wants for the rest of the world.

There is a new apocryphon in the press, so popular that it is has a life beyond facts. It is this: Aristotle said democracy “is the worst form of government except for all the rest.” Aristotle, who was not known for his humor, never said any such thing, but it is instructional to look at what he did say in the Politics:

Book III -“But the citizen whom we are seeking to define is a citizen in the strictest sense, against whom no such exception can be taken, and his special characteristic is that he shares in the administration of justice, and in offices. He who has the power to take part in the deliberative or judicial administration of any state is said by us to be a citizens of that state; and, speaking generally, a state is a body of citizens sufficing for the purposes of life.

For tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy, of the needy: none of them the common good of all. Tyranny, as I was saying, is monarchy exercising the rule of a master over the political society; oligarchy is when men of property have the government in their hands; democracy, the opposite, when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers.”

Book VII
“The citizens must not lead the life of mechanics or tradesmen, for such a life is ignoble, and inimical to virtue. Neither must they be farmers, since leisure is necessary both for the development of virtue and the performance of political duties.”

That kind of language will strike every Tea Party operative as elitist because it shifts the blame for the wretchedness of a political outcome such as the recent American election away from a “tone-deaf” ruler to a dumb and blind electorate who vote their gut, not their head, and call it conscience. Equally, it will strike liberals as offensive, not because it emphasizes “smart politics” (which liberals profess to like) but because it sees the citizen-voter as a subset of the whole population and not the whole population. Both liberals and conservatives appeal to the archetype of the Working Man, not the educated “man of leisure” who is simply ridiculous and probably unemployed in our system. (Additionally, the Republican Working Man works in a bank or on Wall Street.) Regardless, both groups depend on the myth of the popular will, as opposed to the idea of informed citizen choice; neither group can afford to stray very far from the modern concept of “constituency” because constituencies vote. In the era of special-interest voting, scientific polling and frontier politics, Aristotle’s ideas about democracy being inherently defective don’t wash well with either political party. Democracy, George Bush famously said, on being told the death toll in Iraq had reached 4427 in 2003, is “messy.” A grateful nation returned him to power in 2004.

Aristotle was both an embarrassment and a challenge for the founders, who weren’t certain whether “mechanics and tradesmen” in addition to men of property and leisure (who had time to read Aristotle) should be factored into the process. Slaves and women were another matter. As every schoolchild used to know, that did not really happen until the nineteenth century for black Americans, and for women not until the twentieth. Enfranchisement on the strict basis of “legal” citizenship (or rights) as opposed to philosophical formation was considered an end in itself. But what was achieved by virtue of stressing the value of participation and inclusion was highly problematical, and the founders weren’t around to fix it. The rights of citizens had been a slogan since the time of our own and the French Revolution. What happens when Leviathan grows so many legs he can no longer walk? Government by whim and need, faction and passion–but worst of all ignorance.

Which brings me to the theology of the whole sordid affair that has emplaced in the chambers of the most powerful legislative assembly in the world a clutch of Know-nothings unlike anything this Needy and often Know-nothing Democracy has ever seen. I am talking, of course, about biblical Israel.

The Old Testament is more relevant to the current crisis than our Constitution because the suspicion of monarchical government originates there and not in Aristotle. The founders had monarchy on their mind, and they had concluded with the philosopher that monarchy unchecked was tyranny, a system that operated only in the interest of the ruler. (They were wrong of course: the English had fought their own civil war and had debated monarchy much more thoroughly than the colonists ever had by the time the Declaration was issued in 1776.) But as men of literary accomplishment, they also knew that monarchy was regarded by the ancient Hebrews, and even the early Christians, as the source of calamity and political distress. Polemicists like Paine referred to George III as a “Herod of uncommon malice” who could rightfully be deposed because “God’s favor has parted from him.”

George III: "Temperance"

It’s amazing, in reading through the historical books of the Bible, from 1 Samuel onward, how king after king is a disappointment, a disgrace, a mistake in God’s eyes. Kings are given to men as a punishment (Saul) and even when very famous (David, 2 Samuel 11.4) are not very nice. British monarchical history seems to follow the biblical pattern (perhaps this is why “Zadok the Priest” is still sung at Coronations?); the American presidency, while young compared to English history, seems doomed to follow suit, though no Shakespeare will arise to sing the praises or recite the flaws of an Eisenhower or a Coolidge.

If there is one thing worse than bad kings, however, it’s people. People, according to ancient Hebrew calculus, are rotten, passional, fickle. They are incapable of paying attention, following the right path, or doing the right thing, or keeping the faith, or enduring hardship, or working together, or solving problems. In metaphor, they “chase after false gods,” and always come back depressed, defeated, and empty-handed. It’s not a track record that would necessarily lead to the vox-populi philosophy.

In the biblical scheme of things, the God of Israel, is “constant.” His constancy is not “personal,” however; it’s embodied in his law and justice, a theme that actually undergirds the judicial philosophy of most modern constitutional democracies. The justice and goodness represented in the Hebrew idea of God through myth remains, primarily, a concept or abstraction in Greek thought. Because certain questions, Euthyphro-style (Which god likes what?) don’t arise in the monotheistic context, the Hebrew vision is crystal clear: People are ingenerately unable to keep to his standards of justice and righteousness. Coaxing, threats, punishment, don’t seem to do the trick (and the Bible is not famous for subtle approaches like irony and appeals to self esteem). So the burden falls roundly on the people–who would change gods if need be–to figure out what kind of system would work. They choose kings.

The writer of I Samuel imagines the following scene: The Judge Samuel has experienced a succession crisis. In old age, he appoints his sons as “judges” (tribal chiefs, fair-minded warlords) to succeed him. They turn out, as sons often turn out, to be bunglers and scoundrels who “took bribes and perverted justice.” In despair, Samuel agrees to the demands of the elders for a monarchy, “a king over Israel.” The people have “voted”–for their own subjugation. They want to be like their more prosperous and successful neighbors. Monarchy is all the rage. Samuel confers with God, and God instructs him to warn the people what they have in store for them when the newfangled system is in place. It is worth quoting:

“Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the LORD will not answer you in that day. But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us.”

And so it began. A history of tyrannical, faithless, lustful, war-hungry, greedy, and immoral men, punctuated (but not in time to have done Israel or the hybrid kingdom of Judaea any good) by a few good rulers. Passion gives you the form of government you want until you don’t want it anymore.

Is there a convergence between Greek and Hebrew political thought, these widely divergent cultures from the first millennium BCE? Of course. Both show the common ancient opinion about the “will of the people.” The people can’t be bothered with the consequences of any political decision, whether it’s shouted or registered on a touch screen. They vote their passion.

The Voice of the People

That is why Aristotle cautions against “need” and ignorance in the choice of political operations. People will choose tyrants who promise them bread, and execute the tyrant when the bread doesn’t appear on the table or costs too much. On the biblical side, they will choose kings who lead them to victory, then rue the day when their sons die in battle. No wonder the two streams of thought have had inordinate influence on the way we think about politics and government in the West.

Democracy was not an option for the Hebrews, and not what we mean by democracy for the Greeks. Given the amount of money the plutocrats inject into political campaigns in the United States in order to keep their hands on the wealth, it is arguable that American democracy isn’t what Americans mean by democracy either–but that’s a different point. In a naive and unexamined way, Americans think that certain phrases like “majority rule,” “the will of the people,” and “representative government” are self-authenticating, even though they smack of power rather than statecraft. Loftier ideas like “good government,” “sound counsel,” and “wise leadership,” even “justice for all” betray their biblical origins: there is not enough time to cultivate ideals like that when the complete political reality of our time, the definitive feature of messy democracy is change on demand. From where we sit, democracy means sending the menu item you thought you’d like, but didn’t, back to the kitchen.

The recent election has proved two things to me. First, we can never count on the American people to do the right thing, whether they choose kings over republics or republics over kings. The political history of the world, as every historian knows and every political “analyst” conveniently forgets at election time, is a history of disappointment, punctuated by remorse, followed by revolutions and wars.

That is the religious and political history of Europe. It is also the history of America in its revolution, its Civil War, and its most recent political spasm, the triumph of the Tea Party para-revolutionaries. When the frighteningly ignorant and undereducated Christian fundamentalist, Sharron Angle of Nevada, announced that Americans were ready for “Second Amendment remedies” to the current “regime” she was using language (probably scripted) in a deliberately provocative way. Alas, however, she may have been right. But I did not hear a single “analyst” with the historical presence of mind to suggest that both John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald (to name only two successful assassins) used these remedies. The phrase “We’ve come to take our government back” may sound more like a football cheer than a threat, but the underlying idea that a particular government is “owned” by a class of people and has been unlawfully seized by the unrighteous is not democratic rhetoric: it is populism gone berserk, Israel shouting for its king. This time, however, the king is not a man: it is their enthroned Echo.

America has fought only two continental wars, one against its colonial masters, the other against itself. Lincoln’s exegesis of Gettysburg–that it was a battleground to test whether the idea of equality and union could survive in a nation without much history (a scant eighty-seven years at the time) to guide it–has not been settled. Lincoln was depicted in the lore of his generation as a Hebrew patriarch: “We are coming father Abraham, 300,000 more.” was one of the most popular songs of the Civil war era.

But he was hated by at least as many thousands. John Wilkes Booth’s shout as he leapt onto the stage of Ford’s theater on the evening of April 14, 1865 summed up the feelings of the Tea Partiers of his day: “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus to tyrants, always”). He served exactly four years, one month, and twelve days as President.

What is it about the Lincolns, the Kennedys and so far, thankfully, nonviolently, the Obamas of this land that awakens the crouching demons of American democracy, the shouters, the haters and the merely suasible, and entitles them to bring their swords?

Some fairly impressive scholars think that the Civil War was merely the first outburst of regionally and socially stratified tensions that are even worse in the twenty-first century than in the nineteenth and twentieth. America, lacking a common enemy–the British, the Nazis, or the Communists–turns predator on itself and sees in the faces of Others traits it has managed to overlook. Until now. Some of us think that people are no smarter and may–if these absurd and destructive elections are any barometer–be getting less smart all the time. They are to enlightened government what obesity is to nutrition. And some of us think that the United States Constitution is simply inadequate (not imperfect, inadequate) to cope with the growing realities of this system of government.

Contrary to what the “winners” of this election say publicly: there is no divine mandate here. There is no country to be “won back,” no regime in place. There is no guarantee that America will survive the savagery of the masses and massively under-informed. The Constitution is not a magical formula, just a rather dull diagram for a political order that seems hopelessly out of step with the times.

As to the victors, the “voice of the people,” may God give them the king they desire, one who looks, feels, speaks, and thinks just like them.