Semi-Daily Journal Archive

The Blogspot archive of the weblog of J. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics and Chair of the PEIS major at U.C. Berkeley, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Sabbath Theology Blogging

Sabbath Theology Blogging

Our texts of the day:

"Be excellent to each other!" --Bill and Ted.

"Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house." --Aragorn of the Dunedain.

Over at the New Repubic's open university weblog, people are blogging about theology. I feel that I should say a word, particularly as I was struck and disturbed by Jacob Levy's contribution. As always from Jacob, it was highly intelligent, well argued, and thoughtful. But I cannot help but think that it was wrong:

Open University: THOSE WHO TAKE THEIR THEOLOGY SERIOUSLY CONTINUED: by Jacob T. Levy: It seems to me that if religion is meaningful it's serious business; if one is committed to divine truths then one is committed to the falsehood of rival claims. By my human standards "No man comes unto the father but through Me" is a terrible way to run a universe; but if there is a God I have no reason to think that His rules will conform to my contingent, twenty-first-century Western liberal human standards.... I don't think Unitarian Universalism is somehow a better religion than Catholicism or Mormonism or Orthodox Judaism just because its god seems to be so nice... my sympathies for the aesthetic and moral-psychological experience of religious belief tends to run the other way....

And so: Pope Benedict.... For a religious leader to want a smaller, purer church rather than a larger one that gets watered down so as to not effectively constrain its believers seems to me, well, like what religious leaders ought to want. That as may be, surely religious believers are in the business of drawing distinctions with, and denying the truth of, other religions....

I don't expect Catholics to take their theology less seriously than Muslims do; I certainly don't expect the Pope to take his theology anything less than wholly seriously. And what is a Catholic, committed to the truth of Catholicism, to think of Mohammed's additions to and transformations of the Christian bible?... At a minimum he or she will think it false--and, because false, evil.... [S]ince Christians (and Jews) are theologically committed to seeing Mohammed as a false prophet, they're hardly likely to feel themselves obliged to offer him the same respect and reverence as those for whom Mohammed's status as a prophet is central to their declaration of faith do....

In the post-Reformation west we've come to the view that religious argument ought to be conducted with words, not swords. But that is very different from supposing that the words in which religious argument is conducted ought to be nice touchy-feely ones--much less from supposing that religious argument ought not to take place at all...

As to Levy's second point--that religions in some sense ought to take their theology with deadly seriousness, I found it disturbing. And I have here an opposing view, by somebody who some might think has some small authority on this issue. To argue the case that it is not about having the right theology, let me turn the microphone over to the first-century Rabbi Yeshua ben Yosef, God-Saves the Anointed One of the House of David, Jesus the Christ:

NETBible: Matthew 25: 31ff: When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory. And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth sheep from the goats. And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand: "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in. Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me."

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying: "Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?"

And the King shall answer and say unto them: "Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done unto me."

It strikes me that Bill and Ted's injunction to "Be excellent to each other!" has much more sense--and is far more Christian (in the good sense of "Christian") than volumes of deadly serious theology committed by Pope and Imam.

I found Levy's first point to be even more disturbing. It is, if I may paraphrase, that we shouldn't let the fact that the Unitarian-Universalist God is a good God who guides all to heaven by their various roads while the Calvinist God is an evil God who before the beginning of time condemned all but a tiny remnant to eternal damnation and torture in hell make us conclude that Unitarian-Universalism is a better religion than Calvinism.

I probed what Jacob was thinking a little bit, and wrote:

Did you just say--with Hume--that if there is a God there is every reason to expect that he will be--by our lights--not Good but Evil? This bears on your belief that: "I don't think Unitarian Universalism is somehow a better religion than Catholicism or Mormonism or Orthodox Judaism just because its god seems to be so nice and inclusive..." Why not? A religion whose God is the echo inside your brain of the bad relationship you had with your father when you were three can hardly be called a good religion, can it?

To which Jacob replied by asserting what I take to be total moral relativism via human ignorance:

Brad, the "by our lights" disclaimer has to do all the work--and would prevent me from being as cutely hubristic as Hume was. If there is a God then why should we expect our (contingent, flawed, culturally-specific, temporally specific) lights to be the right ones by which to judge him? Why should we expect to understand how the pieces fit together, and whether the pieces that we perceive as evil are necessary to some good that we'd recognize as greater if only we were able to perceive it? I might not like it, but I know enough about the limits of my moral knowledge not to think that dispositive.

[I]s the echo inside your brain of the bad relationship you had with your father. Now "bad" is doing all the work. If we are the equivalent of moral and spiritual children, are we best served by a parent-god who never does what parents do: provide discipline, structure, order, and teaching? Or, if we're going the deconstructive echo route: is a good religion the echo in my brain of the moral beliefs I happen to hold even in the absence of the religion? What's the point of that?

[You've got me channeling C.S. Lewis, which is a bizarre position for me to end up in...]

But we are not that ignorant about what "good" and "evil" really are, are we? I mean, if the priests told us that God had commanded us to slay all the Amelekites, we would say that the priests were false priests and their God a false God--not that the slaying of the Amelekites is "necessary to some good that we'd recognize as greater if only we were able to perceive it"--wouldn't we?

I would respond by channeling C.S. Lewis's friend J.R.R. Tolkien:

"Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house." --Aragorn of the Dunedain.

Evil deeds do not cease to be evil just because a God does them. John Calvin's God, who treats almost every soul he creates not as an end but as means, and damns and tortures them for eternity to accomplish some other goal that we will never comprehend, is a doer of evil--if the word "evil" has any meaning. The Unitarian-Universalist God who uses her infinite power, infinite wisdom, infinite patience, and infinite mercy to eventually get us all on the Big Raft to Heaven by our various roads, that God is a doer of good--if the word "good" has any meaning.

If you presume that (a) there is a God who (b) is good, then priests who preach a God of Evil are ipso facto preaching a bad religion, are they not?


One more word: The discussion started with Sanford Levinson's pointing to an article by the creepy Richard John Neuhaus:

Open University: THOSE WHO TAKE THEIR THEOLOGY SERIOUSLY: by Sanford Levinson: With regard to Richard John Neuhaus, I warmly commend an article in which he addresses the question whether Mormons are really Christians. It's interesting not only in itself, but also, of course, with regard to the likelihood of right-wing (and traditional) Christians to support Mitt Romney.... Perhaps this is all irrelevant to the Christian Right, that it doesn't matter whether a candidate is presumptively damned unto eternity (as are, for many traditional Christians, Jews).... [W]ill Romney be allowed to describe himself as a Christian (assuming he does) without being called on it by Neuhaus and others who take their theology seriously?

I want to complain that Levinson does not explicitly lay out what Neuhaus is doing, how it self-destructs, and how it appears to be profoundly opposed to the teachings of Jesus.

Neuhaus, after all, could ask the question: "Are Mormons Children of God?" The answer would be: "Yes, we are brothers and sisters." He could ask the question: "Do Mormon Believers Teach That One Should Do Good, Fear God, and Eschew Evil?" Once again, the answer would be: "Yes, we are brothers and sisters." But Neuhaus asks the question, "Is Mormonism Christian?" to which he gives the answer: "No." And from this answer Neuhaus draws conclusions:

  • Mormon theology is a "bizarre phantasmagoria of fevered religious imagination"--and that's a bad thing. (Let's not ask how anybody who takes the Revelation of St. John the Divine to be Holy Writ can think that bizarre imaginative phantasmagoria are bad.)
  • The relationship between Mormonism and Christianity is like the relationship between Islam and Christianity.
  • Dialogue between Mormons and Christians is not "ecumenical" but rather "interreligious."

"Ecumenical"... like so many other things, the root is "oikos"--house. "Ecumenical" dialogues are inside-the-house-dialogues, dialogues with people who you trust and like enough to invite into your house to warm themselves by your fire and toast marshmallows. If a dialogue is not "ecumenical" but "interreliglous"... well, you are saying that they're not your friends, not people who you invite in to sit by the fire. What Neuhaus is about a a Karl Schmitt move: a division of the world into "us" and "them," into "friends" and "not-friends" with Mormons on the side of the not-friends--off in the corner with the Muslims, actually--and all that would follow from that.

Now one could say a great many things about this Karl Schmitt lets-divide-the-world-into-friends-and-not-friends move of Richard John Neuhaus. But let me once again turn over the heavy lifting to that first-century Rabbi Yeshua ben Yosef, God-Saves the Anointed One of the House of David, Jesus the Christ:

NETBible: Mark 9:38 ff: John answered him, saying: "Master, we saw one casting out devils in they name, and he followeth not us. And we forbad him because he followeth not us."

But Jesus said: "Forbid him not. For there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name that can lightly speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is on our part. For whoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward."

Jesus tells his disciples exactly what to do with weirdos who claim to be acting in his name: embrace them as brothers.

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