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Tish Harrison Warren And Gentle Christianity

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6 months ago

I want to comment on Tish Harrison Warren, an op-ed columnist recently added to the New York Times, who covers religion and morality from an Anglican perspective. She seems like a nice woman who exemplifies the most decent and humane instincts not only about life but as a reflection of her Christianity. I consider her one of the many people I have met or read about who give Christianity a good name even while I diverge on the basic principles of Christianity, such as the Atonement, or Original Sin, or a Virgin Birth, or history unfolding a great plan for humanity despite the fact, as Christopher Hutchins pointed out, there was an awful long history of suffering that preceded Christianity two thousand years go and Christ did not do much about it before that and, indeed, since His appearance. Christianity has also created a great deal of suffering, including the idea that people should love their oppressor, yielding a regime that is much like North Korea. But however gifted Hutchins was as a polemicist, and whatever are the outlandish and implicitly cruel policies conveyed by Christian thought and feeling, I am a sociologist of religion and so I can recognize that Christians, despite their fundamental beliefs and emotions, can behave and feel themselves to be decent people with benevolent impulses, Tish Warren one of them, and so I want to understand what she is saying in her own words for the weight that carries, rather than for what the history of Christianity may carry with it. So I have no need to insult her, just understand what her own words say about particular matters and what, in general, her particular stance on Christianity conveys.

As a general strategy, Ms. Warren does not look for explanations that justify Christianity. She is not proving God to exist or how history had to be, which is what Vico defined as the nature of religious history. Rather, she is  consequentialist, which means she shows what are the advantages of Christianity given its structures and practices, which she believes to be very enlightening, akin to an Orthodox Jew I knew who was pleased to note that washing one’s hands after going to the bathroom was part of Jewish ritual and so preceded the modern idea of the health advantages of sanitation.  He thought Judaism was enlightened, and there might well have been sanitation as one of the functions of religious practices, but that was not the reason for the practices, which was obedience to strictures set out by God and punishment, even if it just meant becoming an apostate or a lax believer, if the practices were not observed. A kind of commandment whereby obedience was merited over choice, was the hallmark, at that moment, of religion, and for some still the experience of learning and following religious practice .Be careful what consequentialists can convey.

Warren’s Easter sermon, which is what her N. Y. Times opinion piece on April 17, 2022 amounted to, was crisp and thoughtful. It was entitled “What John Updike and Gerard Manley Hopkins knew about the power of Easter”. Citing those two authors, she says that Jesus is literally resurrected rather than a metaphor which would take the zing out of the event, and then she proceeds what can be made of the fact of Resurrection, which is that all things are possible, that people can change themselves and the world. It is a powerful sermon precisely because it is so direct, so unironic, and I hesitate to be curlish by criticizing her beliefs, in that she is entitled to believe whatever she cares to, and believing in a literal Christianity is hardly an unusual view, but she is placing her column in the New York Times, after all, and so not a private or intimate sense of things, and so offers herself to have her beliefs examined, in my case, to say some simple truths, however offensive they may seem to a believer. First,  citing poets, who may be wise, does not provide proof of their assertions. Neither do some words in a Book reconstructed half a century after the reported facts. Moreafter, after all, these are only words carried down from history two thousand years ago and might be part of the folkloric tales of the time. Why believe they are true? I would think that if Jesus had risen, He would appear at least every Easter in Central Park to remind him of that fact, or at least reverberate throughout the thousands and thousands of Churches with a big boom to announce the anniversary of this great event. Some kind of evidence, somehow. Ms. Warren uses the rhetorical flourish of having doubts and doubts about doubts as a way to dismiss doubts but does not say what her doubts were and how she answered them. Rather, as a consequentialist, she moves beyond what the facts are to the benefits that are provided from having established the truth of this cardinal fact, that Jesus was resurrected.

And what that amounts to is very thin. She says that Easter shows that anything is possible in that people can break out into newness, as in personal relationships, and so that is liberating, a benefit from the insight of the Resurrection. But that is awfully thin gruelin that there are also relationships where people are bitter and yet engaged in mutual death spirals. It is like saying that Easter is like springtime, full of rebirth when, in the other side of the equator, it is the beginning of winter, the time when things close down. Moreover, there are any number of other ways to begin anew, such as by studying French literature or turning to new friends, or trying a new job, none of which need that very general metaphor of rebirth. So the big deal of the Resurrection becomes a platitude. 

Warren, in another essay concerning the Easter season, published on April 29, 2022, is entitled “Easter isn’t just one day. Its a whole season devoted to joy.’ She wants to connect the emotions of these contemporary times to something deeper as that is revealed by Christianity. The attempt to associate passing fancies and public moods with deep thoughts is to be admired, though the logic is a bit leaky. Harrison says that people are in need of joy, and to that I would agree, Spinoza having said that there is never a surplus of joy. She anchors the emotional climate to a survey that has measured happiness for the past fifty years, and is at an all time low. She admits that happiness is less than joy, but a substitute measure. The trouble is that this measure has always been problematic because happiness is whatever the people posed may mean by it. Some mean they are comfortable physically or economically or have inner satisfaction or that the Mets are doing well. Hard to say. But never mind, because adding joy to the world is her goal whether the curve goes up or down. 

Warren thinks that the liturgical calendar calls for people to work on getting joyful. Religion is therefore an assistance or reminder to get joyful. But that seems to me a dubious proposition because, as she says so herself, Easter, as the Resurrection of the Lord, should be joyful enough or reason enough to be joyful because He overcame death and suggests that the rest of us will too (likely story). Isn’t that sufficient alone to be joyful? Warren wants supplementary proof and resorts to the sight of turtles in his neighborhood, those charming enough creatures if you don’t get too close or think of them as images of creatures trapped in their carapaces, an image which might well not be considered joyful. Moreover, the claim to nature is always weak. First, Harrison is invoking serenity rather than joy. You are at peace within nature rather than filled with the entirety of the universe, as much of it as you can hold of it, both natural and social, as Spinoza again would say.. And second, whatever animal had emerged out of the muck of evolution would be familiar enough to make a person placid even if it had six eyes and six stunted legs so long as it wasn’t one of the dangerous animals that now resided. And so on, in other essays, Harrison makes you calm and constructive rather than dour or mean. Better to be nice and soothing but she is brought to it a bit easily.

As I see it, Warren does not need Christianity for the existential reasons offered for more than a century and a half. Unlike Doestoevsky, who thought there could be no morality if there was no God, Harrison thinks most people, I would surmise, can be decent and mostly people go along with being nice because it is awful to be mean. And people do not need the solace of religion because, like Harrison, they can be soothed by nature. So what is the addition, the add-on, that makes religion worthwhile if morality and beauty and serenity are off the table? I think there are four general reasons or motives for adopting Christianity as well as other religions and they cover the range of most arguments in its favor, only the third of these arguments faintly but profoundly plausible and the fourth argument even a bit more plausible than that.

The first is that people are inherently evil, whether as a legacy of Adam and Eve or as a metaphor for everyone having a bad seed that permeates the nature of every person and whereby the tendency to be evil can manifest itself at any person in any time. So people have to curb or overcome their inherent evil by atonement and ever vigilance and the forgiveness of the Almighty. People are like ex-alcoholics in that they are one day away from falling off the wagon and manage this inclination through community and reflection on one’s own bad tendencies, ever wary of how a little immorality can fester into a big one. That is the message of Dostoevsky, reawakened as a pretext for saying there are some really bad people. People can decide to kill off old ladies just as an impulse and the rest of a life is ruined by that event. But that doesn’t make much sense. Yes, there are really bad people, like Putin, but most people just want to get through their lives.. As a nun once said to me, the overwhelming majority of congregants lead moral and upstanding lives and never think to trespass mightily. Even Presbyterians who thought that god would decide who was to be damned or saved thought that they were likely to face the better alternative just because they seemed to be righteous and pious. So the evil doers are to be thought of as aberrations orsports and to be pitied even if controlled or incarcerated so as to keep them from creating more harm rather than disdain as a blemish on humanity. Why hate those who can’t help it? You don’t hate the tiger who bites you. Evil is therefore an imposition on religion or from religion just so there is someone to disdain so as to highlight the fact that some are good. But good isan end in itself and so doesn’t need the opposite tol exist for it to be viable. Harison would seem to adopt that wholesome attitude.

The second view for why religion is necessary despite the fact that people can manage without it is that religion provides a comprehensive explanation for the phenomena of the universe. Christopher Hitchens says that science alleviates all need for superstition because explanation is or is always possible through science and he cites the theory of evolution as having solved the problem of how animals and humankind have arisen. But the theory of evolution is clearly incomplete because it cannot explain how giraffes got so tall or why horses did not remain so small. What evolutionists refer to is comparative anatomy to show some attributes as useful and some as not, such as a prehensile finger while an appendix, which is not useful and creates infections, have not disappeared. What a successful evolutionary theory would have to explain are the chemical transformations that have gone in the period of eons that would serve as the basis for the overt physical changes, and that is beyond, at the moment, biology’s ability. Moreover, other sciences are also muddy, as is the case with why there are so many subatomic particles. The lack of science therefore is unnecessary for religion in that religion provides an explanation instead of the one offered by religion. It is also the case that many religionists claim that they do not rely on science at all, whether present or proposed, because they are there for something very different, which is the why rather than the how the universe evolves. The mechanisms for doing that are to be left to scientists and so are not in conflict with evolution or any other science, insisting only that God’s plans were carried out in natural means. So people are no more or less befuddled by the plan of God’s existence whether or not they are scientifically more advanced, however slight an advance has been accomplished over the millennia.The answer to religion is with the why itself, a claim that there is no need to a why if there is only a how, people having substituted one for the other and satisfied enough with the prospect of that unless there is some other reason to cling to the why of things when the word itself loses its meanings in the course of millenia and still retained for some other reason that is not philosophical but something else that motivates their beliefs.

A third recourse of believers is that God is so powerful and that people should be intimidated into believing whatever is said of God. The religion that is the most authoritative because it is the oldest contestant or the most emotional one should be the religion most  listened to because it yells loudest in the marketplace. The answer to that is offered by Christopher Hutchins by turning the tables on God so that God rather than mankind is filled with evil. For who could be more evil than an all powerful being who has disregarded the suffering of all creatures including humanity until only a mere two thousand years ago and since then is mighty churlish in giving only a few miracles? One would expect that he would set up roadstands everywhere at which people would be rid of their ills and their sins. But that doesn’t happen even though, apparently, God could do it, could become a great medical doctor. God has an answer to that in “Job”. He is told he is so powerful that He does not have to answer and this is a somewhat paradoxical answer in that He offers an answer that is no answer at all but the lack of any need to answer. 

This claim is at least mildly plausible. Consider what would happen if an atheist died and found that there after all was an afterlife and that merely acknowledging that fact would give you eternal bliss. The atheist would have to acknowledge that he or she had been wrong as could be experienced in the fact that consciousness had continued to exist after death and there he or she got glory. In that case, might always makes right because the reality of facts trump opinion. Whatever it makes acceptable, whatever Hitchens preaches to the contrary, which is that God is like North Korea in that we must love our oppressor and that can’t be a good thing. Goodness and morality have nothing to do with it if God really exists and governs the universe., however much we treat morality, most of the time, as being independent of custom and power, and coterminous with God, morality not suspended by God at least most of the time, but in Job, that suspension made when you get down to the basics.Whether to accept a reasonless God is a matter of taste that some people find satisfying so given are they to obeying authority, and other people insist their moralities are superior to God, at least until they have seen the post-life promised land.

The fourth reason to adopt religion even though people can be moral and live decent lives without it is because people need purpose. They have a need to see themselves as part of a plan not just for themselves but also for society at large as it moves along through the millenia. People have to deal with a quirk of time, which is that we do not know the future and yet want to see individual and collective humanity as leading in accord with a plan, the absence of which appears absurd and very cold. It is not enough to do things; it is necessary that in some way these things have to have happened, not a matter of caused deterministically because all subsequent events are the resultants of prior conditions, but because there is an eye of God that sees the trajectory of action, whether towards justice or enlightenment or heightened pleasure for more and more of the people, that a weak but perhaps satisfactory end for the progress of life. Atheists can claim that individual and collective ambition are self created, people deciding what they want to accomplish in their lives, but that seems very pale in that these aims are arbitrary and self-designated while celestial aims are foretold and in some sense necessary, required to unfold rather than happening by chance, Wanting such elevated ambition or planning gives people some satisfactions of accomplishment but are more important because every one’s life is part of an overall pattern that is self-justifying and certain. Obedience is not for itself but for the sake of a person knowing that Paradiseus certain, their own individual lives part of an encompassing one where every individual person’s account is seen like a sparrow’s fall and so enhanced by that. It is a spectacular vision even if it means subject to the ideas of obedience and inevitability that an atheist might do without, and so to their pity, whatever are their pleasures and the inevitably more petty individual aims. The atheist might seem to be offering only cold gruel in the belief that what they are asserting is only the honest unvarnished truth about what really is but even the deluded can think they know the truth and so truth is a cheap commodity and especially the truth they offer is of a universe that is aimless and full of gratuitous cruelty not compensated by celestial justice or by a God that cares for you.

But honesty is an atheist’s virtue in that the believing Christian seems to me inevitably caught up in being self absorbed. The Christian is awed by his own entry into this elite company, every day or every service having become sanctified, something attained rather than either inevitable or reduced only, to an atheist, as the individuality by which every soul is to be savored as having an unalienable consciousness-- unalienable, at least, till death separates body into nothingness and mourned for that every event, whether for bad people or for good ones. Morality will not save you. But perhaps that is too judgmental for the already stated reason. Christians can also be modest and use awe as a way to take themselves down a peg or two. They may not be self-aggrandizing even if their mentality might lead them to think themselves so special. We are again caught between the emotions associated with religion and which Warren proclaims rather than the emotions associated with the dogmas religion proclaims.

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