C. S. Lewis is popular but wrong; we are not little Christs

C. S. Lewis is popular but wrong; we are not little Christs.

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) was one of the most popular Christian writers of the twentieth century, and our century as well. Though he would have disliked being called a theologian, that is exactly what he was, even as he had no formal theological training. In fact, this is exactly what makes his works on Christianity so popular.  Mere Christianity, begun as a series of radio lectures during World War Two, is almost conversational in tone.  It is still taught in adult Christian education groups (Urban).  By the way, the fact that Lewis had no formal theological training does not imply that he lacked intellectual standing, having taught medieval history at both Oxford and Cambridge.  He also wrote the fictional Chronicles of Narnia.  Unless noted, all pages numbers refer to Mere Christianity.

Most critics of Lewis as theologian are Christian evangelicals, and others, who believe he was too loose with doctrine, such as saying that other religions might contain a portion of truth about God.  My take is somewhat the opposite.  He is too literal about what it means to follow Christ.  For Lewis it means to become “little Christs,” which to me makes no sense at all.  Nevertheless, there is a charm and simplicity to his religious writing which has no equal, though perhaps G. K. Chesterton comes close.

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Emmanuel Levinas says we can’t talk to God, only each other

Emmanuel Levinas says we can’t talk to God, only each other.  When we care for others in words and deeds, we come as close as we can to God.

Emmanuel Levinas is popular among philosophers because “he introduces God into the scene without making so much ontological noise,” as Ryan Urbano puts it (p 75).  In other words, Levinas lets us talk about God without talking about God.  It’s true, but it’s not because he is shy about using the G—word.  

For Levinas, God is experienced in the ethical encounter with the other.  Religion is Levinas’ term for this ethical relationship.  For Levinas, there is no direct relationship with the Divine. 

The Divine can only be accessed through the human other to whom the self is infinitely responsible. (Urbano, p 51)

We know God when we act ethically toward another person.  We do not keep God alive by trying to prove his existence, a waste of time.  Everything I can ever know about God is experienced in caring for others. 

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The question “Do you believe in God?” is the wrong question

The question “Do you believe in God?” is the wrong question.  “How do you believe in God?” comes closer to the mark. 

The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, saw religion as an infantile illusion, one in which God would comfort and protect us from the harshness of the world as our parents once did (Future, pp 30-31, 43).  But this is not all psychoanalysis has to say about religion.

Jung and myth

For Carl Jung, a follower of Freud in his younger years, a rebel in his later years, religious myth is a great achievement.  As myth, religion is neither true, nor false.  The categories don’t apply.  A myth is generally the story of an epic hero sent on a journey to found or save a people, either by defeating an enemy, or solving a problem.  Moses did both.  So did Jesus Christ: the enemy is sin and death; the solution is believe that Christ is the Son of God, and act accordingly.

It is no repudiation of God to reject him because almost all of what we know about God and Jesus comes through stories.  We live by and through narrative.  Stories are how we make sense of our lives, and our world.  The Bible is a series of stories, one reason it prospered while the gnostic gospels failed.   Not enough good stories.  About religious myths, Jung says

The religious myth is one of man’s greatest and most significant achievements, giving him the security and inner strength not to be crushed by the monstrousness of the universe (Jung, Collected Works, vol. 5, para. 343)   

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Reinhold Niebuhr and the things that are not: leaving room for faith

Reinhold Niebuhr and the things that are not: leaving room for faith.

For a period in the 1950’s, it seems as almost half the State Department was quoting Reinhold Niebuhr.  But did they understand the man they were quoting?  They had reason to be influenced by Niebuhr.  His Irony of American History is generally considered among the most important books ever written on American foreign policy.   Arthur Schlesinger Jr. spoke for many agnostics in wondering whether Niebuhr’s wisdom on human nature had anything to do with his Christian theology (Crouter, p 96).

It’s important to understand what Niebuhr’s theology brings to his politics.  His theology not only adds; it is necessary.  Consider “The Things That Are and The Things That Are Not,” which takes its title from First Corinthians 1:28. The King James version that Niebuhr uses reads    

Yea, and things which are not [hath God chosen], to put to nought things that are.

The NIV translation reads

God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are. 

The NIV translation, as far as my weak Greek can tell, is better, for “things which are not” (tὰ μὴ ὄντα) is in this context not a philosophical term, but a category which includes things that are despised or contemptible. 

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He only promises that we do not suffer alone.

“Twenty centuries of Christianity,” I said.  “You’d think we’d learn . . . In this world, He only promises that we don’t suffer alone.” 

A Marine chaplain says this in a short story by Phil Klay about the Iraq War (p 167).  The story is fiction but the point is real.  Most people pray for God to protect them, their families, and their friends.  Many pray only in moments of death and desperation.  But it’s the wrong thing to pray for.  Pray to feel the presence of God.  Period.

Of course it’s not this simple.  Lots of people, including me, pray for more.  Some pray for salvation.  It’s perfectly human, but it’s the wrong way to think about God.

Religion is about meaning, and religion is about suffering.  Buddhism has one answer, don’t cling.  Don’t cling to life, don’t cling to attachments, and don’t cling to yourself.  Christianity has another answer: God will suffer with you.  Your suffering will not be lessened, but you will not be alone.  You will be less subject to your suffering.    

Nietzsche argued that God is dead because there is no longer a convincing answer to the question “why do I suffer?” (Genealogy of Morals, III.28)

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Simone Weil and Donald Trump, the world as force and affliction

Simone Weil and Donald Trump, the world as force and affliction.

Simone Weil wrote during the years leading up to the Second World War.  She died in 1943.  There is much that is curious and troublesome about her life—and death.  She died of starvation by her own hand.  Born a Jew, Weil is generally regarded as a Christian mystic.  Until the end of her life she refused baptism.  I see her as a woman with deep insight into the experiences of force and affliction.  We all know who Donald Trump is.

The Iliad, a poem of force,” her most well-known work, addresses the founding document of Western Civilization.  Generally seen as an epic of war and heroes, Weil reads it as an account of what force does to people: those who use force, and those who suffer it.  It subjects both to the empire of might. 

Whoever does not know just how far necessity and a fickle fortune hold the human soul under their domination cannot treat as his equals, nor love as himself, those whom chance has separated from him by an abyss.  The diversity of the limitations to which men are subject creates the illusion that there are different species among them which cannot communicate with one another.  Only he who knows the empire of might and knows how not to respect it is capable of love and justice. (p. 181)

We live in an age of force, and contempt for those who suffer it.  “Loser” has become a common term of abuse.  About the concept of a loser, Weil reminds us that Christ was the greatest “loser” of them all.  He lost so that we might be saved.

Weil’s is a heretical reading of the New Testament.  Christ is the incarnation of God, come to earth to suffer as men and women suffer, and to die as testimony to this fact.  The resurrection, so central to Christianity, is unimportant to her.   

If the Gospel omitted all mention of Christ’s Resurrection, faith would be easier for me. The Cross by itself suffices me.   (Weil, Letter, p. 55)

Resurrection is not important because Christ represents not God’s power, but his willing weakness, a rejection of all who equate God with might.  Instead of being a God of might, God is the one who becomes one with the victims of history.

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Kierkegaard and the leap to faith

Kierkegaard and the leap to faith.

I’ve decided that the only way to understand religion is in terms of what Søren Kierkegaard called the “leap.” (CUP, p 340)  He never used the term “leap of faith.”  I’m still struggling with Kierkegaard.  My post is a series of comments on some important ideas of his.  There are others. 

I am particularly interested in the religious implications of his earlier works, those not explicitly Christian.  When people refer to Kierkegaard as the first existentialist, it is to these earlier works that they refer. 

One influence on my decision to study Kierkegaard was reading some of Reinhold Niebuhr’s sermons, prayers, and religious essays (2015).  Far from being a “Christian realist,” as I may have portrayed him here, Niebuhr was first of all a man of faith.  But what does this mean? 

Truth as subjectivity

It means that through an act of “imaginative reorientation,” one chooses to see the world as gift, and Christ as our savior, because doing so makes life more meaningful.  Reasons can be given, but the world as gift and Christ as savior becomes a reality by acting as if it were so.  This is what Kierkegaard means by “truth as subjectivity.”

Truth is not just a proposition.  Truth becomes a way of life.  This is exemplified in Christ’s claim that “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).  Christ not only claims to teach the truth; His life is the truth (Evans, p 62).  Our lives can never be the truth, but we can seek to make the ideals represented by Christ’s life and teachings our own, in so far as this is humanly possible.  In this way faith becomes a reality. 

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Making sense of original sin with Reinhold Niebuhr

The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith—Reinhold Niebuhr      

adam-and-eve-798376_1280Making sense of original sin with Reinhold Niebuhr.

I never took the concept of sin seriously until I read Reinhold Niebuhr.  I think this is mostly because I didn’t read Niebuhr until I was in my sixties, when I began to take a lot of things in life more seriously.  If so, then perhaps I should say that Niebuhr is a particularly good interpreter of a concept that hovered just out of my range until now.

Communal idolatry

For Niebuhr, sin is most clearly seen and expressed in communal idolatry.  This is the context of the epigraph that opens this post.  We see sin every day in the actions of groups, and above all nations.  I discussed communal idolatry in a previous post, so I won’t spend much time on it here. 

In sin, we worship the idols of the group.  And not just extremist groups or nations.  In the midst of World War Two, Niebuhr argued that the American idealization of liberty could itself degenerate into a form of idolatry.  As Andrew Bacevich puts it in his introduction to a new edition of The Irony of American History, Niebuhr

went so far as to describe the worship of democracy as “a less vicious version of the Nazi creed.” He cautioned that “no society, not even a democratic one, is great enough or good enough to make itself the final end of human existence.” (Bacevich, p xii; Niebuhr, 1944, p 133)

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It’s mostly good that the gnostic gospels didn’t make it into the Bible

sky-1122414_1920It’s mostly good that the gnostic gospels didn’t make it into the Bible.

Several decades ago, the gnostic gospels seemed to be making a comeback after a couple of thousand years of loss and neglect.  Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels was published in 1979, and for the first time in a long time people outside the schools of theology began to talk about them.  Often favorably, as if the gnostic gospels contained a purer, less institutionalized form of Christianity. 

I bought into this in a vague way (most of what I thought about religion then was pretty vague), but recently I read The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, a collection of forty-six texts that are generally referred to as gnostic, though not all are.  One is a selection from Plato’s Republic.  Most seem to date from the second and third centuries CE, but the Gospel of Thomas, the most well known gnostic gospel, may have been written around the same time as the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  To make things complicated, the Gospel of Thomas contains both orthodox and gnostic elements.

After some more reading, I decided that on the whole I’m glad the gnostic gospels didn’t make it into the New Testament, or a new canon. 

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Ecclesiastes is a very dark book

dandelion-463928_1920Ecclesiastes is a very dark book whose message can easily be taken to be that everything is meaningless, so what’s the point of anything, including living?  We read in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbath 30b) that the Rabbis tried to keep the Book of Ecclesiastes out of the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament.  I can see why. 

The popular parts are taken out of context.  As a child of the 1960’s, who is now in his sixties, I remember when “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)” by the Byrds was a big hit.  Written by Pete Seeger, the song is a musical recitation of Ecclesiastes 3.1-8.  Sung at too many weddings by young men and women with daisies in their hair, it might just as well have been sung at funerals, but as far as I know it wasn’t.  But I didn’t go to many funerals in those days. 

Grand mimetic incoherence

Ecclesiastes has been called a work of “grand mimetic incoherence.”  The incoherence of the style mimics (mimetic) a fundamentally incoherent reality (Berger, p. 163).  One moment the author, conventionally called the Teacher (Kohelet), tells us that

            Meaningless! Meaningless, says the Teacher

            Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless. (1.2)

Nice way to begin a book that says that everything is wearisome, whatever has been done will be done again, there is nothing new under the sun, and in the end, a man’s wisdom and acts count for nothing.  Soon he will be dead and forgotten, his achievements momentarily eclipsed by another who will soon go the same way.

A few verses later we find the author, who purports to teach the wisdom of Solomon, arguing that God will bring the righteous and the wicked to proper judgment (3.17).  And back and forth it goes for twelve chapters: all is meaningless, but God has everything in hand, we just don’t know his plan. 

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