Giving Up on Spirituality

The New Oxonian

Ah, remorse. If I believed in its sanctifying effects, I would be a saint.

Not for anything downright wicked, exactly, but for an article I wrote a few years ago called “The Soul of Spirituality.” In it I argued that the term is spacious enough–or fluffy enough–to accommodate all kinds of people who just can’t make up their minds about religion. Talk about wrong.

Now I think that my defense of the word was a little like asking for a bigger ballroom for bad dancers.

It isn’t that I don’t “believe” in spirituality. It’s that people who are advocating spirituality as a meeting place for religious and non-religious people are digging semantic holes while seriously confused people are filling them up with goo.

That was the late, great Tony (Antony) Flew’s point before he was seduced into a kind of vague, sentimental, tentative religiosity by some intelligent design advocates.

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Love, Marriage and Jim Obergefell

So we are living in the post-Obergefell world wherein the Supreme Court of the United States has decreed that “marriage equality” is the law of the land.

This means, according to experts, there is no longer “marriage for some” but marriage for all—or   “just marriage.”  The analogies are as tempting as they are fallacious: democracy for all, liberty for all, fair distribution of justice for all—and in America,  guns for all.

I say fallacious because democracy, freedom and justice describe the conditions under which most people—in the West anyway–would choose to live.  They are not, as such “institutions.”   They are mechanisms, implemented and extended differently from country to country, for achieving a society that operates in the pursuit of that elusive rogue, The Common Good.

Marriage is not a mechanism.  It is an institution.  It is older than all forms of government and exists in democratic and non-democratic, totalitarian, tribal, theocratic and socialist societies alike.  It always has.  In fact it can be argued that the mechanistic view of marriage—marriage as a thing limited to achieving an end, such as reproduction—is precisely what has changed with the recent Supreme Court decision, though some version of this mechanistic view will continue to dominate thinking in most religious traditions for a long time.

Marriage as the normative man-woman arrangement for population increase was there for the Romans.  It was there in Palestine when, questioned about marriage,  Jesus replied, “Why ask me: you know the routine. When you’re married, stay married.”  His hard to cipher attitude toward divorce is one of the reasons Luther decided to take marriage off the list of seven sacraments and demoted it to an ‘ordinance’.

I am not especially fussed that same-sex marriage has been ruled legal by a sweeping and typically incoherent opinion of US judges. Having satisfied themselves that the petitioners were not trying “to change the institution of marriage,” the judges responded with same paternalistic resignation that caused your father to turn over the car keys when you were fifteen with the admonition, “As long as you don’t drive too fast.”  Ennui had set in. Boredom had set in.  The tide was full; the time as the writer of Ecclesiastes said, had come. Divorce had become easy.  Marriage should not be different.

There is a theory that marriage equality has come at a time in human history when marriage itself has become, at least in the West, dogmatically empty and socially unsustainable.  The reasons most often given for this grim assessment are changes in lifestyle corresponding  to changed understandings of gender and social roles.  –Ironically the same reasons given for opening the institution up to a larger clientele.

The campaign for same sex unions did not cause this impoverishment of the idea of marriage, the theory goes, it simply residuated from it.  It did this by asserting that freedom, justice and liberty cannot be achieved if the “equal right” to marriage is not extended to gays and lesbians.  Marriage, an institution formed in patriarchal contexts that depended on subordination of the sexes, eschewed romantic and sexual love as, at best, distractions, and was rooted in ideas of contract and financial benefit (usually though not always to the bride’s family)  was now to be about equality, love, and justice.

Even though the battles for gay marriage was fought inside liberal Christian denominations before it was adjudicated in the courts, it was contested at the expense of squandering most of the orthodox ritual, tradition and doctrine concerning the sacrament in its full-blooded iteration: Poetically expressed in the 1559 Anglican Book of Common Prayer (which became the template for many shorter protestant versions of the service)

DEARELY beloved frendes, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of his congregacion, to joyne together this man and this woman in holy matrimony, which is an honorable state, instytuted of God in Paradise, in the time of manes innocencie, signiflyng unto us the mistical union that is betwixt Christ and his Churche: which holy state Christe adourned and beautified with his presence and firste myracle that he wrought in Cana of Galile, and is commended of sainct Paul to be honourable emong all men, and therfore is not to be enterprised, nor taken in hande unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly, to satisfye mennes carnall lustes and appetytes, lyke brute beastes that have no understandyng ; but reverently, discretely, advisedly, soberly, and in the feare of God, duely consideryng the causes for the which matrimony was ordeined. One was the procreation of children, to be brought up in the feare and nurtoure of the Lorde, and praise of God. Secondly, it was ordeined for a remedy agaynste sinne and to avoide fornication, that suche persones as have not the gifte of continencie might mary, and kepe themselves undefiled membres of Christes body. Thirdly, for the mutual societie, helpe, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, bothe in prosperity and adversitye, into the whiche holy state these two persones present, come nowe to be joyned. Therefore if any man can shewe any just cause, why thei may not lawfully be joyned together let hym now speake, or els hereafter for ever holde his peace

Matrimony (lit. the estate of ordaining motherhood) was a deadly serious thing, established by God for specific purposes, not to be entered into lightly.  It was linked, in the Aristotelian calculus theologians used, to the consequent idea of family,  and implicitly tied the inward reality of the ritual to the “mystery of creation” whereby God made two sexes to complete his work.   Marriage was the final form of an act begun on the first day and realized in the Genesis 2 story of the creation of the man and woman.

“The man said, This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman’ ….. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2.23f)

It was, perhaps, the most powerful symbolism attached to any ritual of the Church with the exception of the Eucharist.  So powerful that whoever wrote the Epistle to the Ephesians calls the Church the Bride of Christ admonishing it to be as pure and chaste as a virgin, fit to bring forth the fruits of grace.

What the 1559  ordinance does not mention, of course, is the word love except in a chain of verbs that includes honoring, serving and obeying.  Conversely, what gay couples roundly rejected was the word “contract” (as in “civil contract”) as being a sufficient equivalent to “marriage. “  Marriage equality was the first specifically rights-based ruling rooted in the logic that to deny people of a particular sexual orientation a status given by the state to people of a different sexual orientation was discriminatory.   Since the Reformation the state had progressively usurped the role of the church (in the form of civil magistracies that recorded and certified marriages), at the same time returning to priests and pastors the right to serve as official state-authorized ministers of vows and recorders of  deed.  Only the Catholic and Eastern churches doggedly withstood  this encroachment by saying that the state lacked the power to finalize a sacrament, so that marriages conducted in a judge’s office were no more than expressions of intent until ratified by the Church.  That little theological river remains to be crossed and won’t be anytime soon.  To do so would undermine about 1500 years of Catholic  theological reflection on the nature of marriage.  By the same token, the liberal protestant traditions will fare much better with the decision,  since for them marriage lacks sacramental authenticity.  While this makes marriage equality easier for the liberal Protestants, it makes it easier only because the definition of marriage is theologically chaotic in those traditions.


Beyond Marriage


From a strictly historical perspective, the understanding of both “traditional” and “same sex” marriage in the late twentieth century had become so heavily suffused with the Hollywood teleology of the wedding- as-happy-ending  that a deeper understanding of its significance in human culture was almost totally ignored in the polarization of slogans:  Marriage was either “between a man and a woman,” or it was a “loving relationship between two people regardless of sex or sexual orientation.” The old view emanated from a theological position based in natural law as interpreted through sacred texts; the new view was thought to be based on human social values like equality and freedom to choose. One view was teleological (marriage must be defined in terms of its purpose, utility or final form), the other in terms of entitlements and rights.

The post-Renaissance development of love relationships in the West had led finally to the unavoidable question of whether the thinking of the Church had become outmoded: institutions like marriage are subject to social change and pressure.  Thus, if society changes, can institutions designed to accommodate the assumptions and beliefs of earlier times continue to govern our understanding of the institution?   Conservative Christians  and many Catholics and orthodox Jews said yes.  Their certainty was rooted in an assortment of biblical texts, assumed to be authoritative, composed millennia before these social changes occurred.  Their defense of traditional marriage was not so much rooted in history as simply tethered to the past.  The gay community—or the small part that was actually interested in having a discussion about the sacramental nature of marriage as opposed to its legal recognition–said No. If the Church is a living voice intended to speak to people in the modern world, it must speak to be understood and in a language people can understand.  Yet this position could easily be challenged as amounting to a rejection of the normativity which the Church often uses as an entitlement to speak on a range of other moral issues where precedent, texts, the words of the founder, or centuries of teaching and practice are used to alter and reform existing norms.   It is one of the reasons it has become increasingly easy to bypass the opinion of liberal protestant churches with their comparatively skeptical attitude toward the use of “”orthodox” authority from the past while listening in rapt attention to any “modern”  or liberalizing word spoken by a pope, who claims to represent the living  voice of unbroken tradition.

Writing in this week’s Time magazine, the editor of the American Conservative (a publication I regret to say I don’t read very often) had this to say:

“…the Court majority wrote that gays and lesbians do not want to change the institution of marriage, but rather want to benefit from it. This is hard to believe, given more recent writing from gay activists like Dan Savage expressing a desire to loosen the strictures of monogamy in all marriages. Besides, if marriage can be redefined according to what we desire — that is, if there is no essential nature to marriage, or to gender — then there are no boundaries on marriage. Marriage inevitably loses its power.

In that sense, social and religious conservatives must recognize that the Obergefell decision did not come from nowhere. It is the logical result of the Sexual Revolution, which valorized erotic liberty. It has been widely and correctly observed that heterosexuals began to devalue marriage long before same-sex marriage became an issue. The individualism at the heart of contemporary American culture is at the core of Obergefell — and at the core of modern American life.”

The first of these two paragraphs contains both a truism and a cheat: It is undeniable that marriage equality has come at a time when marriage itself is socially weak.  But the attack on monogamy is not specific to gay marriage.  The sexual revolution was largely a heterosexual revolution dampened by epidemics of HIV AIDS and STDs and only coextensively a feature of the gay revolution.  Gay marriage is not the final act in a drama that begins with gay promiscuity.  Promiscuity, adultery, or what the Book of Common Prayer calls “fornication” is not unique to 2015; it existed in 1559 and 1776 and 1943.  Whatever the restraining power of chastity or monogamy as a perquisite of the marriage union, this aspect of the institution has been weakening for two centuries or more,  if indeed it ever was really definitive.  There is nothing to be said for the idea that marriage equality is related, in any way, to loosening the bond of monogamy.

The second paragraph is more sober.  Marriage equality may well be an expression of erotic liberty, if by that we mean the right to have pleasure with persons of the same sex in the same way heterosexuals enjoy pleasure with people of the opposite sex.  The question in this case goes back to the question of purpose as opposed to the question of rights: Is the purpose of marriage the legitimation of sexual pleasure, or does it have some deeper and more fundamental purpose. Eschewing the teleological, what is the meaning, the essence of marriage?

But underlying both paragraphs is a more troubling message:  If marriage is now defined strictly in terms of conjugal rights by extending those rights to same sex as well as heterosexual partners, it is very difficult to see what the battle was about: The need for legitimation? The need to express love on paper? The blessing of the state?  The push for final sacramental legitimacy within religious traditions? My guess is that compared to achieving this final goal, winning over five justices of America’s highest court will be a piece of cake.

Transformative Views on Abortion and Marriage

The New Oxonian


I am tapping away at two “related” books—a history of the question of abortion (foeticide, in an older language) and infanticide in Jewish, pagan and Christian culture, and a short history of the “sacrament” of marriage in Christianity. I won’t do spoilers here. If you want the straight story, you will have to read the books.

But I think it is fair to say that writing books can be transformative, even if you don’t especially want to be transformed.

I have been a proponent of the “right to choose” since Roe v Wade became the law of the land, in conscience before that.

My mother as a college student remembered helping her room-mate slip out of St Louis to a “doctor” in East Saint Louis, then an Illinois slum of the city, to have her problem “taken care of.” The doctor, a black midwife, was a compassionate but undertrained woman…

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Genetics 101: “Please Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful”

The New Oxonian

Genetics 101

by admin Posted on December 9, 2011

A recent response from a reader aptly named “Hunt” about atheist criticism and tactics quotes one of the mavens of the movement (now that new atheism is not new they seem to want the name back), Greta Christina, who runs a site called Greta Christina.

I am taking Hunt at his usually impolite word when he says she says,

“People don’t dislike atheists because of  our tactics; they dislike atheists because of who we are”

I don’t have any idea of what that throwaway line means either (“I don’t like you because you’re a mean and nasty old bugger Uncle Crank. I dislike you because you’re an uncle”).  But giving Ms Christina the benefit of a doubt, since I have occasionally smiled at her postings, let me just say that “Hunt” has ripped another page out of the Atheist Surefire Response…

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ISIS and The Limits of the Grotesque: The Anniversary Edition

Saturn Devourng His Children

The essay below was published in June 2015, when ISIS was still on the move and the greatest threat I saw (as an historian) was the danger to cultural patrimony. A number of blogs published during that period exhibited a worry that ISIS was the radical embodiment of Islam’s natural iconoclastic view of history, which sees the period before the Prophet as as aberrant and dark (Jahiliyyah ( جاهلية‎‎ ǧāhiliyyah/jāhilīyah or ignorance) and that all cultural tokens from that period  regardless of beauty, provenance, or antiquity–as idolatrous symbols of religious error.  The attack on these symbols extends from the destruction of the ancient buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, to the assault on Palmyra.

As ISIS’s territory shrinks, or seems to be shrinking, the culture commandos have decided to embrace a more diffuse and harder-to-control experiment, one that relies on individuals or small groups being “self-radicalized” against the Other, the vast numbers of non-Muslims who live in European and to a lesser extent American cities. It is still unknown whether this  last ditch effort to bring holy war to the “Crusaders” will have any permanent effect on the success of ISIS.  My guess is that it is a symptom of failure and contraction:  the flailing spasms of a movement suffering from a lack of good leadership and clear strategic goals. After all, the difference between a caliphate–a concept charged with theological and political significance in the minds of most Muslims–and murder is vast.  ISIS now seems to be  in the diminished position of needing to claim credit for te most vicious and successful of these attacks, making the perpetrators ex post facto “soldiers” in the army of God.

The following comments from June 2015, however, still have some relevance: Europeans and Americans, not to mention Indonesians, Israelis, Pakistanis and others–have probably reached saturation point with respect to the narrative of violence that ISIS has created.  The bloody and horrific images  coming out of the Micdle East, once confined to reports of the Arab-Israeli conflict, have now spread over the whole map of the Middle East and North Africa and far beyond, to Paris and Nice, to Brussels and Orlando.  Obama, Merkel, Hollande and Elio di Rupo merely look exhausted and from a political standpoint ineffectual.  The natural response to their  piled on clichés (“Our thoughts go out…”) and threats (“We will not let this stand…”) is ennui, not amazement.   For the great majority of people who see this violence on a computer screen or television, it becomes another episode in a series of stories with the same plot and the the same villains.  It has lost the element of surprise and it has ceased to  captivate us; it dulls our moral interest.  It has become normal.  The question then becomes, How can an enemy whose actions are predictably vicious awaken moral outrage sufficient to transact their defeat–especially when”defeat” in the conventional, measurable sense (the sort American conservatives rally for) is impossible and in the martyrdom culture within which it exists, not defeat at all?


STALIN  did not actually say “The death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of millions is a statistic.” But had he said it, he would have been right.

The mawkish anticipation of new and better terror after September 11, 2001 is one of the saddest commentaries on the rubber-necking proclivity of the human soul: the part that delights in seeing hurricane damage, fatal car crashes, planes lost from radar, and manned spacecraft decimated in the noonday sky. And, yes, beheadings and bombings.

While some of these catastrophes are what theologians like to call “natural evil”—things that happen without our being able to prevent them—like earthquakes and avalanches—and another portion accidental– there has been no shortage of what theologians (yet again) like to call “moral evil”: the man-against-man form of catastrophe. And as we all know, a reliable source of this kind of evil is religious extremism.

Interestingly, we used to call natural disasters “acts of God” (as insurance policies sometimes still do) and moral evil “man’s inhumanity to man.” That was until we realized that we did God no favours by saddling him with Nature’s quirkiness and that moral evil is nothing other than human decision-making at its most contemptible.

According to Alan Bullock (Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, 1993) the two leaders separately killed upwards of 15,000,000 non-combatants. Of the 5,000,000 Jews killed by Hitler, only about 170,000 were German Jews, the majority being exterminated in areas that would finally fall to the Soviet bloc. The number of people killed by ISIS varies wildly from between 60,000 to 170,000 using systematically unreliable sources. The number of ISIS fighters killed by all forces, including the US-led Coalition, has been put at 10,000. These are statistics, which as we know (according to either Disraeli or Mark Twain) are the superlative degree of lying. More significantly, however, statistics often do not horrify. They are meant to horrify but their real value lies in propaganda—to encourage the enemy to think his side is down in the score or to encourage voters to think their side is up.

In the long run, catastrophe is a matter of optics, not numbers—though numbers can help in the visualization of catastrophe if they are strewn on a battlefield or found floating in a flood plain. The 9-11 apocalypse was all the more effective because of its lack of visual morbidity: everyone knew that thousands of people were trapped in the inferno, but apart from a few isolated shots of people jumping from the 60th floor of the World Trade Center tower, the affect on viewers did not come from numbers but from the visualized reality of fire and pluming smoke–the instruments of death. This was scale and magnitude not witnessed since Hiroshima, and in terms of immediate effect as measured by viewership not even then.

Lacking the ability (as of now) to reproduce the grand and violent premiere of the Third Millennium, the new terrorists have resorted to different optics: torture, mass execution, beheadings of westerners, and the destruction of sacred archaeological treasure, valued more in the West than in the regions where it is situated. While the sheer number of these atrocities may be significant, they are far more significant because they are not statistics but symbolically grotesque occasions of horror. They are, in fact, market- tested ways to evoke horror in a way that the decimation of a Shi’a village or two will not do. It is maximalized optical downsizing, from the level of epic to the level of epithet, from the grand to the well-constructed small—in short from the statistical and abstract to the tragic and personal.

However. There comes a time in the rubbernecking business when the horror recedes or rather appetite wanes.. The sight of a head being held aloft by a masked man speaking the dulcets of central London begins to bore us. The sight of a hundred Yazidis, face down in a ditch created to be their mass grave and shot in the head, has been seen one too many times. Execution by bullet is suprisingly quick and dull, like swatting a fly and too clinical to be good theatre. The sight of sledgehammers being used on Assyrian icons is of interest only to the 3% of the population who know where ancient Assyria was and why anyone should care about its treasures, most of which have long since been carted off to the museums of Europe by academic thieves and explorers in a competition for colonial prestige. The only questions that can be posed is, Are these people savages? The answer is yes. Turn the page.

In other words, after a while, the outrageous ceases to be outrageous. One too many heads will have been severed. One too many truck bombs will have gone off on the way to a peace-loving, unpronounceable, faraway market town. Just as the line of traffic that clogged the road when the smell of death was crisp along the highway–the ambulances racing, and the twisted metal contorted into a death trap—the lookers and gawkers and commiserati will begin to move on. They will lose interest. This one is like the last one. Besides, they have to be someplace before 5 pm. They will lean on their horns, frustrated by the mess they have helped to create by their devotion to catastrophe.

The problem with the optics of terrorism is that we seem to be hard wired to reach of state of ennui about such things: Not another beheading. Not another village gone down the drain. Not another four hundred girls rounded up and fucked into conversion. It’s for the psychologist to explain why these peak experiences of the terror we are witnessing cannot be sustained or expected to hold our attention. But it must have something to do with the sense that we have seen this movie one too many times now. We know how it comes out.

The bad news is not for We the Curious but ISIS because there is every chance that the members of this community take themselves seriously and have begun to believe in their own invulnerability (and the attention span of onlookers and potential recruits). It is bad news because the recruits will sense the loss of affect before the leaders in Iraq and Syria realize they have lost the battle for religious hearts and murderous minds. They too will begin to wonder what happened to the audience, why the visual pornography they are peddling as part of their recruitment campaign has begin to look dull. The amplified chants will continue to ring above the beleaguered towns of Syria and the oases of Mesopotamia, but they will be hollow and fewer people will listen. ISIS will simply fall apart.

Not because any military operation will drive the last nail into the coffin of their irrelevance but because the onlookers will have become tired of the show. They will want the mess they have helped to create untangled. They will want to move on. It seems to me that is where we are, or are fast approaching, in this drama.

God and We the People

The New Oxonian

At the end of the film Henry V, a single tenor voice intones, Non nobis, non nobis, Domine…

He is joined by a few others, until in the end a whole chorus (with orchestra) crescendos to complete the verse: Sed nomini tuo da gloriam. The passage is from Psalm 115,  the bit of the Roman Easter liturgy where the priests, hearing the lines,  would kneel in abasement: “Not to us, not to us, O Lord, but to your name give glory.”

The verse became a familiar song of the Knights Templar during the Crusades, but its most famous use was in 1415 when the English, against  heavy odds and a superior army, defeated the French at Agincourt.

It was easy to see the battle in biblical terms–and the English never tired of attributing their unlikely victory to divine intervention. Except, of course: Henry V of England and Charles VI of France were…

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High Noon and Gun Control

The New Oxonian

My friend Joe Segor, whom I’ve had a couple of enjoyable evenings with in Miami, had a good comment on “A Secular Argument for Gun Control.”  He writes:

“An excellent essay. Unfortunately, it won’t convince the gun nuts. Not even those who can understand the argument. The people at the top of the NRA are there to protect the arms industry. Most of the rest have a fanatical belief in the right to own firearms. A friend of mine is rational on every subject except guns. He is beyond persuasion.”

I couldn’t agree more.  Usually I let my occasional comments rest quietly in the Comment section where they die a peaceful death in 24 hours (or earlier).  But here is what I said to Joe:

“I doubt any gun nut would make it through the first paragraph, or even stumble on the site unless they think New Oxonian is…

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