A “Rigorous” Theology

[Re-printed from earlier today]

David Brooks is at his customary acute in reviewing The Book Of Mormon. But he misses, in my view, a critical step. Here's his bottom line on religion:

The only problem with “The Book of Mormon” (you realize when thinking about it later) is that its theme is not quite true. Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False.

That’s because people are not gods. No matter how special some individuals may think they are, they don’t have the ability to understand the world on their own, establish rules of good conduct on their own, impose the highest standards of conduct on their own, or avoid the temptations of laziness on their own.

The religions that thrive have exactly what “The Book of Mormon” ridicules: communal theologies, doctrines and codes of conduct rooted in claims of absolute truth.

So David uses the limits of human reason and self-restraint to make a pragmatic case for fundamentalism. And this is, indeed, a core problem – perhaps the core problem – for organized religion in modernity. Mark Lilla pursues this theme in his under-appreciated book, The Still-Born God, which, in a gripping narrative, exposes the failure of liberal Christianity in modern Germany – a failure that led, in part, to Nazism. Since the godless totalisms of the 20th Century have now collapsed under the weight of their own lies, new totalisms – literal, fundamentalist, anti-enlightenment versions of religion – have taken their place.

And this is in part the argument of The Book Of Mormon, which was written and composed by atheists. It is that religion, even if obviously based on a massive scam, is nonetheless useful and even admirable in its encouragement of moral life. That's what I meant by describing the musical's message as "religion is both insane and necessary."

But the ultimate test of religion for a non-atheist is not: is this or that religion useful? Or even: is it necessary?

It is, rather: is it true?

And The Book Of Mormon rather deftly shows that, by any rational perspective, the literal Dali_Crucifixion_hypercube doctrines of Mormonism are manifestly untrue – perhaps because they are more easily exposed because they are so recently concocted. And that's why, to my mind, it is insufficient or condescending to argue that the literal truth claims of fundamentalist religion are irrelevant, as long as they reliably lead to happiness of morality. On this, I side with the new atheists who do literalist believers a service by taking them at their word.

My own view is that if Christianity is a useful lie then it should be abandoned by thinking people. If being a Christian requires one to believe literally that the world was created de novo 6,000 years ago, or that our species literally emerged one day from an actual garden of Eden, then I am not a Christian. It's my view that if something is not true, it cannot be countermanded by a God who is Truth itself. And so a sincere modern believer has no choice but to make distinctions between kinds of truths – metaphorical, spiritual ones and empirical, literal ones.

We cannot deny Darwin without also denying God, to put it provocatively, since God cannot be in contravention of Truth. And sincere Christianity is a faith, it seems to me, that can embrace the deepest truths about human existence and salvation as revealed by Jesus without also embracing every empirical nugget in the flawed, mis-copied, mis-written, second generation oral accounts of the life of Jesus, let alone the even older myths and stories the Jewish people told about themselves through the millennia.

And so, on Good Friday, we cannot know what actually happened in those last minutes on the Cross. Did Jesus cry out in despair, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me"? Or did he utter in completion the words "It is accomplished"? This is the literal choice we have between the Gospels of Matthew and John. They cannot both be empirically right. And they are not signs merely of the confusion that often comes from individuals' last words and moments. They indicate radically different ideas of Jesus' moment of truth: was he so human that even then, he still did not know for sure that his self-sacrifice was for something – or so divine he knew in advance the itinerary he tried not to choose in Gethsemane?

To my mind, the truth is both at a deeper spiritual level; even if both is literally an impossible position to take on Rt-picempirical grounds. Ditto the Resurrection. Was it a literal, take my shroud off and walk out experience? Or was it something more mysterious? Again the Bible tells us all sorts of contradictory things: Jesus is tangibly physically resurrected; he is strangely altered; those close to him can see him after his death and yet not recognize him at all on the road to Emmaus. These cannot all be literally true and yet they all point to a mystery at the core of our faith: He is risen.

My difference with David, I think, is that I still believe; and I refuse to believe in something that has been disproven, however socially useful or salutary or admirable its social or personal effects may be. Fundamentalism, in this sense, is not a rigorous theology. It is rigid resistance to a rigorous theology. It's a form of denial and despair. It is rigorous only within a theological structure that does not account for the growth and expansion of human knowledge. It is therefore, to my mind, an expression of a lack of faith rather than an excess of it. And the use of fundamentalism by those who do not even believe in it – for whatever purposes, good, bad or indifferent – is the real blasphemy.

Does a force exist that is behind everything we are and see and know? Is that force benign? Does that force love us? Was the only way that truth could be revealed was by God becoming man and sacrificing himself to show us the only way to save ourselves? Today, in the darkness of the Cross, I say yes to these questions, which go to depths that literal parsing of parables or Gospels misses entirely. Which is why Scorsese's version of the Passion is so much deeper and truer than Gibson's.

Perhaps this is too much for us. We are not gods, as David says. But in the face of this difficult task of faith, we have God to fall back on. Precisely because we are human. And we were given reason for a reason.

In the beginning was reason. And reason was with God. And reason was God.

This beginning of John's Gospel – I'm translating logos as reason – is my faith. And it is why fundamentalism is not my faith. You cannot set truth aside, even if you cannot fully see it. And you must not use truth, as if its truth did not finally matter; it must stand alone. As we must. Till the hour of our death as well.