Sunday, September 16, 2007


Sitting outside at the Cafe Flore, my long-time haunt, with only intermittent Internet access. Beautiful windy Sunday afternoon in the old town ... totally sexy young gay guy holding forth beside me on some sort of enthusiastic self-discovery theme. Like old times at the Flore in the early 80s when I sat here afternoon after afternoon consuming the battles of Napoleon, drinking too much coffee, arguing with passing fellow gay libbers, taking the sun in considerably less clothing than I prefer nowadays.

That's not why I am writing. I have been having a little trouble settling on a book to read ... sometimes these little interludes in reading can get protracted when you work for a living because the stretches necessary to devour a book do not present themselves daily.

[Overheard conversations are both alluring and annoying ... in a discussion of acting and life, the cute one is trying to defend the notion that notwithstanding artifice, there is a baseline of honesty which one cannot breach. His interlocutor is trying to defend the notion that a certain level of dishonety is necessary and not be bothered about. I'm with the cute guy. As this develops, I am more and more intrigued.]

So I tried mowing through Karen Armstrong's The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, but it is all a little obvious and vastly too vast ... when an author disposes of the first three dynasties of Chinese history in 10 pages, and when I learn nothing from it ... well, it was just too boring. So I thought I would take a detour through Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization as a post script to having read Justin Pollard's richly rewarding biography of Alfred the Great: the Man who Made England. I heard Cahill speak last year at MRU (where I work) and he gave a riveting and entertaining off-the-cuff lecture about death. I subsequently read his Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe. He's great fun ... like being a culture-vulture tourist in history. But it slowly dawns on his reader that this is a great, long-winded, undeniably fascinating and well-written but nevertheless revanchist defence of Catholicism. It gets a little nettlesome, and evidently his craftiness was somewhat less subtle when he wrote the Irish book.

I am no fan of Augustine ... this will not surprise. I like to argue that two of the most disastrous lives in religious thought are Paul and Augustine who between them managed to muck up any possibility that Christianity might be liberation with their death-obsessed loathing of the senses. This is what Cahill writes concerning Augustine's flirtation with Manicheism:

For a while, [Manicheism] let Augustine off the hook ... it absolved him from any responsibility for his raging lusts ... it was a made-to-order religion for a smart young provincial who needed to explore every dark corner of the the boiling city and experience every dark pleasure it had to offer and at the same time think himself above the herd. But it couldn't keep up with Augustine's fearlessly inquiring mind. Like Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormonism, it was full of assertions, but could yield no intellectual system to nourish a great intellect. [my italics]

Ah, the conceit of the Catholics. Sublime. To paraphrase the Mohammedans, there is no system but the one system ... the Catholic system. Everything else is sterile. (I would certainly agree that Jehovah's Witness-ism and Mormonism are sterile, but that is a subset of the sterility of religion.) Then there is the knowing nodding about dark pleasures. What is so bloody dark about pleasure? Why do intellect and system and genius have to start with the rejection of the senses? This is an obscene conceit whose only proof is its own infinite repetition. And it is a little rich to imply that the "system" was in place when Augustine more or less invented the bulk of Catholic doctrine out of thin air and his own self-loathing. Christians in those days were a fractious lot who barely agreed on anything including, and especially, the nature of Jesus.

There is a lot of this sort of religious conceit about its own exclusive depth these days, and more intensely in the last little while. The obvious deadliness of religion in the current era is such that even the supine press has to note the rise in atheistic or secular revulsion at all of it. After each new atheist tome, there are various backhanded ... Cahillesque, if you will ... defenses of religion ... to whit, that morality is only possible with religion, that atheism is sterile, the poetry of the spheres kind of lunacy. And then there is the argument, which is at the core of Cahill's unadmitted defense of Catholicism, that European civilization is founded on Catholicism or Christianity, that there is no Europe without it, and by implication that we should be worshipful towards it.

I'll get back to this in a moment. But this rising debate between consistent atheists and secularized apologists for religion takes place in the context of a political period that I like to call post-post-colonialism. Among humanists ... terminology for delineating who we are talking about in these zones tends to be vexatious, but secondary, I think, to the argument ... among humanists, I think there is a rising but embarassing understanding that colonialism was a multivalent as opposed to a monolithic phenomenon. Colonialism was not an exclusively moral impulse, but rather the moral reflux that followed upon the history. That is to say that the long progress of European civilization put it in a position of rising power and military and technological superiority at a time when many of the places it conquered were in political torpor and all of them were technologically weaker. This historical judgment is not moral, but that is not to say that a morality did not flow from the circumstances, and that we can readily reject that morality after the fact ... that is, now.

But how do we explain the political, military, and technological superiority of Europe at the moment when colonialism's rather short reign began? Is it Catholicism, or Christianity, or the Protestant Reformation? Is it climate? Is it the millennium and a half of competing micro-states? Is it the Enlightenment?

An a propos review appeared today in the New York Times, "The Political and the Divine", a review of The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, by Mark Lilla ... you will have to read this right away, as the Times shoves everything into its vault after only seven days ... I know they are trying to make money, and I subscribe online precisely in order to have access to their vault, but it is a sad drag on the national conversation that everything in this flagship publication disappears in a week. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein starts by writing that "Some of us have been taking the European Enlightenment a little bit for granted." And she goes on to note, not without some sympathy, that Lilla argues that "Hobbes's thinking on the religious impulse [i.e., that it arises because man is a frightened ignoramus] [is] both historically pivotal and psychologically simplistic ... The religious impulse isn't merely a matter of man's cringing self-protective fear; it can also be an expansive response toward the universe, morality and freedom, and a strain of post-Enlightenment thinking, featuring thinkers of the caliber of Kant, struggled to do justice to religion's expansive aspects."

According to Goldstein, Lilla argues that the Enlightenment occurred only because of "Christianity’s own fundamental ambiguities — torn between a picture of God as both present and absent from the temporal realm, an ambivalence powerfully represented by the paradoxes of the Trinity — that made it 'uniquely unstable,' subject to a plurality of interpretations that became institutionalized in sectarianism, and hence to several centuries’ worth of devastating upheaval.” Goldstein has a lovely turn of phrase. In reference to this, she writes: "Or as I would less soberly paraphrase his point: Christian political theology encouraged the development of Enlightenment progressiveness the way that runaway mitosis encourages the discovery of cancer cures."

There's something here, of course. The Europe we know ... and the larger European civilization which through its bastard child, The United States, dominates the world, arose through, or leastwise in the company of, Christianity. But Christianity proved susceptible to science and rationality in a way that, straightforwardly, Islam has not proven itself, notwithstanding the monotonously reiterated fact that it once was more scientific than its contemporary Christ-lovers.

Here is where we return to Cahill. The fact that seculars ... the children of the Enlightenment ... need to contemplate the role of religion is not an entrée to a revisited Catholicism. It did happen the way it did, and we need to know and understand it. But that is not, ipso facto, an argument for a return to a church which, every day these days, proves what a decrepit wheezing old biddy it is.

[Alas, the fascinating discussion next to me ultimately foundered on the shallow shores of multiculturalism ... identity and background and colonialism and all that. The cute guy ended up being silent for quite a stretch as the studly other guy lectured him on how he should think. All the vitality of the discussion drains away ... cutey tries to start it up again by returning to his favorite word ... liminal. I want to chime in, but I am twice their age and cranky as hell. It eventually resurrected itself ... they are quite a vital pair. ... omigawd, cutey has an iPhone. The other guy is actually quite a stud, Brazilian, I think. It feels like they are cruising each other, but are lost in this by reason of the deep discussion. I've had that experience where the intellectual nature of the conversation makes it impossible to leap back to the sensual ... a bit like having Augustine sitting in on your moves. ... Eventually they part, but not before being certain that each of them plans to end up at Martini's at Valencia and Market. If I weren't such an ole fart, I'd go just to watch what ends up happening.]

1 comment:

Matte Gray said...

One of your finest blogs so far, Stephen. Loved how you worked in the dialog between the two guys in the cafe.