Monday, July 14, 2014

How it goes with "sophisticated" Christianity

Last night, I was checking around and stumbled upon a short piece in Publishers Weekly about Terry Eagleton, a "left-wing intellectual," by his own description. It stuck out at me enough to warrant a quick look because a good and thoughtful friend of mine, about two years ago, pointed out to me that nothing that the New Atheists were putting out seemed to be addressing the kind of sophisticated Christian views appealed to by folks like Terry Eagleton. Do note that Eagleton is a Marxist and thus most likely to be an atheist himself, but he has taken a huge issue with New Atheism and, true at least to his Catholic roots, seems to have a soft spot for "sophisticated," reflective Christianity. (To my eye, it's hard to tell exactly what Eagleton is after other than to tell pretty much everyone that they're wrong.)

It's pretty clear that, for whatever purposes he clearly thinks will benefit the world, Eagleton is not sympathetic to New Atheism whatsoever. My friend, who I think matches Eagleton roughly in his views about Christianity (though this is to guess about both of them), insists that Eagleton has taken to task Hitchens and Dawkins (whom Eagleton "affectionately" combines into a single character, "Ditchkins"), neutering their critiques of religion. At the time, I read a little Eagleton and couldn't figure out what the hell he was talking about. It seems to me that neither is aware that Eagleton has done so on what amounts to a very long-winded and high-minded Courtier's reply, which is saying that "Ditchkins" hasn't engaged with serious and "sophisticated" theology and, thus, can be easily dismissed as blowhards.

I guess Eagleton has another new book recently out (Culture and the Death of God), which puts the total now at something over 40 of them, and that's why he's in Publishers Weekly, but reading him talking about his opinions got me thinking about "sophisticated" Christianity, and it is on that topic, not Terry Eagleton or his views in particular, that I want to say a few things.

"Sophisticated Theology" and "sophisticated" Christianity

These two ideas aren't exactly the same thing. Sophisticated Theology™ refers to the rubbery contortions of theologians and apologists, executed in an attempt to maintain a belief that the things they're talking about aren't ridiculous and, if examined fairly and clearly, patently untrue. Since theism is transparently false, Sophisticated Theology™ is a kind of sad quasi-intellectual game that smells more and more of dishonesty as time goes on.

"Sophisticated" Christianity is more like what Eagleton indicates when he praises "reflective Christianity" and when he indicates that Dawkins and Hitchens are "talking out of the backs of their necks" about Christianity, "relying on simplistic caricatures of Christianity that simply viewed religion and fundamentalist religion as the same thing." I will be focusing on "sophisticated" Christianity here, not the intellectually dishonest contortions of theologians hoping to get to keep talking professionally about "God" as if that was an academically respectable thing to do. Basically, Sophisticated Theology™ is a warped and nugatory intellectual effort while "sophisticated" Christianity is a warped and toxic cultural effort.

Eagleton's thinking reveals that there seem to be two kinds of Christians, the everyday rubes, who are largely indistinguishable from fundamentalists, and the cautious reflective kind who engage in their religion, if I'm reading him right, with more cultural and political savvy. Indeed, it seems his idea of "sophisticated" Christianity is more political than anything. In the short Publishers Weekly piece, he is quoted twice in that vein. The piece itself reads, "At Cambridge, Eagleton began to see a relationship between politics and Christianity, and he encountered a version of Christianity that 'made a sort of political and ethical sense to me.'" Later it quotes Eagleton more fully where he says,
The average view of Christianity is such a caricature, and Christianity is in large part to blame for that, but I wanted to point out that a new configuration of faith, politics, and culture can be born out of Christianity's recognition of itself as a this-worldly religion that, like Marxism, is concerned with the fight for justice, redemption, solidarity with the poor and powerless, and making a better world in the here and now.
How sophisticated.

Measuring "sophistication"

If we suppose Eagleton is right, I think we can see what makes "sophisticated" Christianity so "sophisticated" (other than being able to be construed to align with values that he, himself, holds). I think the operative element that determines how "sophisticated" a Christian (or other religious, as the case could be) interpretation happens to be is how little one cares if it is true or not.

The sin of fundamentalists and New Atheists alike, if I'm reading Eagleton's nuance correctly, seems to be concerning themselves with whether or not the religious beliefs in question are actually true. We must suppose that Eagleton and other sophisticates (here, that left-wing thing seems to rear up unpalatably, even for someone who is generally quite liberal, such as myself) are savvy enough to know that Christianity isn't true in the literal sense, but that doesn't matter because taken as a symbolic and cultural force, it can be tortured into making a lot of sense. It resonates with people, I guess, and therefore it doesn't much matter if it is true or not. Silly, crude New Atheists, just like fundamentalists, wasting their time with whether or not a thing is true before wanting to commit to it.

It seems profoundly weird, I must admit, to be arguing that religious fundamentalists and "New Atheists" are on the same end of some spectrum, but indeed, we are. We both consider the question, "Is said religion actually true?" to be one of significant importance, and thus we, diametrically opposed though we are, find ourselves on the same side of a fence, separated from sophisticates who realize that truth is so pre-postmodern. Finding oneself facing such absurdities, though, is what we can reliably come to expect when dealing with overly left-wing intellectuals, knaves and rubes are all of us huckleberries by comparison.

For clarity, I'll repeat: the measure of "sophistication" when it comes to religious views (at least when viewed from a distance, off to the left side) is how little importance one places in the matter of whether or not the religion is actually true. "Sophistication" when it comes to religion somehow means believing people shouldn't really believe the beliefs of a belief system because that would be, well, silly.

I used to be pretty sophisticated

As I am wont to do, I want to make sense of this apparent nonsense--the idea that someone can accept (or reject) something without particularly caring whether or not it is true. Luckily for this effort, I used to be pretty damn "sophisticated" when it comes to Christianity, so I might be able to tap into what's going on here.

Thinking back to the time I spent as a "sophisticated" Christian, during my long and slow deconversion from actually being Christian, what sticks out most is that I didn't think Christianity was literally true, or anything like that, but rather felt that it was symbolic. I went pretty far with this, though I never committed to finishing the project before my faith broke all the way.

I was quite sure that the Bible must have been written by enlightened men who were simply talking in a symbolic, metaphorical code about some very deep truths about our world, humanity, spirituality, and culture, and I went so far as to believe that terms like "Son of Man," "Satan," "Jesus," and even "God" were merely emblems for other ideas. If one could only come up with a way to translate, I thought, from the symbolic code the Bible is written in to what it really means, one would have at his fingertips profound, immutable truths of immense value. I really believed that. Moreover, I actually thought for a portion of this time that doing something similar for all of the world's major religions would reveal the same profound, immutable truths, if one could just get his magic decoder rings right. How savvy!

This isn't, of course, quite what Eagleton is on about, but it serves as a similar basis for that. In effect, I believed that the Bible--no, the contents of all of the religions of the world--should be understood symbolically and metaphorically, and in those senses is representative of what is "true." I was lying to myself. That's not what true means.

I didn't think it was possible or polite, frankly, that Christianity could be false, so I lied to myself about both it and the plain meanings of simple words so I could square the circle. The reasons I thought it impossible that Christianity could be false aren't important and are the usual bad ones (it's so old! so many people believe it! it's ancient wisdom! there must be something to it!). What matters is that I was lying to myself. I couldn't imagine Christianity as false, so I made it "true" by making it false (by making it all metaphorical and symbolic).

The thing is, and I think this applies more generally than just to myself, I was pretending the truth of Christianity didn't matter because I knew it wasn't true but couldn't let it go. I wanted to fit in. I wasn't ready to break free of the Christian culture that reared me. Whatever. At bottom, I wanted to appear savvy and high-minded without ostracizing myself by being fully honest, which would have entailed rejecting Christianity. I was the face of "sophisticated" Christianity.

Yes, yes, reflective

Apparently, being reflective on Christianity, on one's own cultural context and the powerful (symbolic) ideas contained in the belief system, is critical to being "sophisticated." Reflective I was, though obsessive might be a better term for it, but what I wasn't was squarely honest. I was both warping the notion of "true" to the point of breaking and pretending it didn't matter, and a great deal of time and effort (that honestly should have been going into studying physics and mathematics) was being pissed away reflecting upon the "deep, hidden meanings" of Christian thought.

What being reflective meant, at least in my case, was working very hard to take what can be taken from the Christian stories and applying that to my own individual and cultural situation (inter alia, as I was studying other world religions at the same time to try to draw their ancient wisdom into it and make it all into one coherent set of profound truths). This is "sophisticated" belief--forcing what can be forced from religious nonsense onto one's views of one's own situation. What doesn't matter in this process is what is true and false, or what is helpful or damaging and misleading--all that matters is how the ancient wisdom can be shoehorned into a savvy, sophisticated, high-minded view of the world that, most distinctly, lacks in both intellectual rigor and courage.

Don't fall for it

High-minded nonsense is a siren's song. In the very way it presents itself, as if the "sophisticate" embracing it is smarter, more savvy, and more worldly than oneself, it trolls people into taking it seriously and engaging with it, or at least into giving it undue respect. This tendency is what caused the postmodernism crisis, and it is a pseudo-intellectual trap that needs to be avoided. Just a bit of forthright honesty is often enough to get around it since, quite often, "sophistication" of this kind can be effectively measured in terms of how unseriously the sophisticate is treating the notion that what they are talking about is actually true.

We're not under any obligation to pretend that "sophisticated" Christianity is any better than fundamentalist Christianity, or any other religion, except that to note that it has less obvious deleterious effects, which is really to say less crude ones. Where fundamentalism engages in yelling, shaming, hating, killing, and blowing up, the kinds of base physical problems that really stand out to us, sophisticatism rots away our intellectual and moral integrity by keeping the poison--for it is probably true that religion does, indeed, poison everything--in our veins.

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