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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Religion and Politics Again

Religion is important to and cannot be separated from American politics. (You never thought I would say that, right?)

Spinoza, my newest mentor, says that religion is the extension of ethics.  He teaches that the intellectual love of God, whom he identifies with Nature not just as an object (natura naturata) but also as an subject (natura naturans), as the highest responsibility of humanity.  This I think relates well to the notion of God as Universal Love (John) and as the objective of the "unrestricted desire to know" (Lonergan) and the tenet that human knowing is the "beginning of infinity" (Deutsch).  But Spinoza's religion would be totally devoid of "superstition" including miracles, supernatural beings and events, holy writs, which turn people away from their responsibility to use reason. He was the first to use historical criticism of the Bible and to demythologize theology.

Aristotle and disciples say that politics is the extension of ethics since the personal flows into the communal and individual behavior is developed and shaped with others in the republic.

Therefore, I say ethics, right thinking and action arising from our common humanity, is both religious and political.

Old man that I am becoming, I remember President Eisenhower counseling all Americans to participate in a religion whatever one. Many of our priests ridiculed this because of course Roman Catholicism is the true religion.

But Ike was acknowledging what many thinkers then had observed: 1) that there is an American civil religion with its beliefs, rituals, and symbols through which all citizens became one nation, and 2) that the religious denominations were avenues into that civil religion, especially Protestant, Catholic, Jew (the name of Will Herberg's important study), but also Unitarian, Universalist, and Humanist associations.

I think that what is happening today is that the American civil religion is under great stress for a number of reasons:
1) a tension within the denominations due to theological/liturgical reforms (that terrible John XXIII!), the movement towards rights of "people of color,"immigrants, women, gay and lesbian, and the new transnationalism;
2) the 60s and 70s critique of idolatry in the civil religion; e.g. burning of the flag and other holy symbols, questioning of long held beliefs related to rights and the role of government, secularization of rituals (e.g. Christmas, Presidents' Day, and especially war) and addition of new ones (e.g. MLK Day);
3) new influential denominations arising that are not Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish; e.g. Mormonism, Islam, New Age; and
4) divisions, economic and cultural, more starkly defined because of mass communications.

So I think we are in the throes of a developing new civil religion; that is, we are a culture refining its principles.  There are those of us (usually older) who want to go back to that "old time religion which was good enough for you and me" and there are those of us who want to push on to the totally rational and secularized "new world order."

In Biblical studies we learned how the twelve tribes of Israel became one nation by pulling together all their diverse traditions including the stories of their different gods into one story and one god.  Their story is not very coherent or consistent, and admits of many interpretations, as any objective study of the scriptures will tell you.  But it was apparently good enough for a time which was pre-philosophical and more so pre-enlightenment or scientific.

The constant struggle for the Israelites remains with us today as we continually try to become one people: avoiding both idolatry and iconoclasm in our story.  Idolatry is making our beliefs, rituals, and symbols divine or absolute; it is a claim of eternity and infinity for human products.  Iconoclasm is throwing out the baby with the bath by rejecting the importance of symbols, rituals, and beliefs for transcending to infinity.

So while there needs to be a strict separation of the institutions of religion (church, mosque, temple and its products) from the institutions of state (government and its products), there really can be no separation of religion and politics.  The polity is made up of people's stories.

Can we share our stories?  The stories of the little town of Oklahoma portrayed by the Post yesterday or of the Amish community recently portrayed by PBS just trying to keep their values; and the stories of us Takoma Parkers, loving our liberal, urban, racially-mixed, sexual-orientation-diverse, secular-humanist, energy-efficient, higher-taxed-for-better-services community. And all the stories of communities around and in between.  Can we do it without name calling and demonization?  Can we do it with respect?

I hope so.  I have faith that we can.  I have a faith in humanity and its potential for eternity and infinity.


Anonymous said...

From Pat Amer:

I have signed on to your blog. Thanks for the invitation! I'm not sure how a blog works, so you may wish to instruct me. Meanwhile, my comments and observations by email.

Have you read Ronald Dworkin's Justice for Hedgehogs (Belknap/Harvard, 2011)? Dworkin is a chaired professor of law and philosophy at both New York University and London University. He is a few years older than you and I, and this book is his magnum opus. In it he argues carefully and quite persuasively that there can be and is objective truth in matters of ethics and morals, as in science, but of course in a different way, which he explains. He then derives an ethics from first principles, expands and articulates it, and shows some aspects of how it applies in one's life, in that subdivision of ethics known as politics, and in that subdivision of politics known as law. A brilliant piece of work.

Dworkin is no more religious than Pinker; his ethics is derived from close argumentation, with little or no use for the teachings of organized religion. I don't think you can write about an ethics derived from and based on reason alone without being familiar with Dworkin's work. I think this book belongs on the shelf with Kant, Spinoza, and Aquinas.

If you have read it, do you agree? If you haven't, you must.

I've finished Pinker's Better Angels. A bit of a slog. I am quite persuaded that violence has declined, but his conclusions and recommendations are somewhat broad and vague. We should all be more rational and self-controlled, of course. I note that prominent among the inner demons are violence, revenge and pre-emptive revenge, kinship affinity, dominant-submissive behavior, and acquisitiveness, precisely the genetically based anti-social behaviors I noted in The Five Commandments of Jesus, and against which the Five Commandments are directed. So we're talking about the same world. One can certainly blame institutional Christianity for ignoring the Five Commandments for two millenia; this is one accusation against organized religion Pinker does not make. Chesterton was right when he said, "Christianity has not been tried, and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and not tried." It hasn't been tried by the clergy and hierarchy, for sure.

If you wish to post either of these comments on your blog, I don't have any objection. The Dworkin comments seem to relate to your Feb 29 blog. I'm not sure where the Pinker comments go.

I am quite in agreement with you that an excellent ethics can be based on reason alone, and that organized religion has made very little contribution to ethical thinking.

On another subject, Roger Haight's new book, Christian Spirituality for Seekers, will be published in the fall by Orbis. It is an attempt, and in my view a brilliant one, to restate the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius in a form accessible by and presentable to non-Christian seekers. I think he is faithful to Ignatius while successful in making it relevant to the 21st century. I have read it in draft, as I closely copy-edited it for Roger.

Betty and I are well and busy, with singing (me in the All Saints Episcopal Church choir, and both of us in the Mary Green Chorale), yoga (both of us), and my own work on the All Saints Vestry. I hope you and Bernie are the same.

Rollie in Takoma said...

Pat, I will be sure to read Dworkin's book and let's have a dialogue on it. Thanks. Roger's and yours as well.