Sullivan, Christ, Religion, Politics–and Calls to Prayer in Istanbul

Andrew Sullivan had a couple interesting posts about faith v. logos [science, archaeology, etc.] recently (@ May 21/22–The Daily Dish). He disapproves of those (he mentions “the Straussian Right”) who praise religion for what it does for people but who don’t believe in the or any religion’s tenets. He also disapproves of believers who try to have it “both ways”: believing in the Bible (for example) and science. His post raises some interesting issues about language. A few short excerpts, followed by brief annotations:

Christianity is in crisis – and in a deeper crisis, in my view, than many Christians are allowing themselves to believe. I start from a simple premise. There can be no conflict between faith and truth. If what we believe in is not true, it is worth nothing. The idea that one should insincerely support religious faith because it is good for others or for society is, for me, a profound blasphemy if you do not share the faith yourself.

I don’t mean to downplay the current crisis with Catholicism and the Pope; it is awful. But at the same, Christianity has always been in crisis. It was born of political (Roman occupation) and religious (Jesus v. established Jewish groups) crisis. Saul/Paul of Tarsus may as well have been Paul of Crisis. Further, simply to have faith is to put oneself in crisis–at odds with a world driven by economics, consumerism, pragmatism, and cynicism. As to “there can be no conflict between faith and truth”: why not? I think of Keats’s formulation of Negative Capability, a quality he thought one ought to possess–the capacity to hold in the mind two apparently conflicting notions at once, not to favor one, and not to reject both. Also, why not consider that there may be multiple forms of knowledge and hence multiple forms of truth? Consider the scientist who accepts the basic premises of evolutionary theory, conducts her research accordingly, and also believes in a universe that is somehow related to God. Darwin believed in God, after all, and the Jesuits & the Church have accepted (and encourage the teaching of) evolutionary theory.

So the solid architecture of the faith we inherited has been exposed more thoroughly in the last few decades than ever before. There is no single authoritative text, written by one God, word for word true.

The texts of Christianity have always been contested, and the alleged exposure of “a solid architecture” [does he mean erosion, not exposure?] was probably at its height in the Victorian period, when there really was religious panic, not just because of Darwin but because of the Higher Criticism: treating Jesus and the Bible historically.

The same, I think, is true of the papacy as an alternative to Biblical literalism. This is in some ways a more durable defense against logos than Biblical literalism, but it is just another form of fundamentalism, deploying total obedience to total authority as an alternative to a living faith that can both doubt and yet also practice the love of God and one’s enemies, Jesus’s core instructions.
So we are left in search of this Jesus with a fast-burning candle in a constantly receding cave where we know that at some point, the darkness will envelop us entirely.

I came very late to the Christian/Catholic party, converting from agnosticism about a decade ago. One of many things that has struck me is that Catholicism is largely a parish-faith. Many parishes simply pay the Pope and the Vatican no mind, and indeed the Apostle’s Creed doesn’t exactly urge parishes to focus attention on either. Neither the pope nor the Vatican is mentioned in the creed. Christ is, however. I’m sure there are Catholics who aspire to pay “total allegiance” to the Pope. I just haven’t met any.

With genial amusement, I note that Sullivan selects “the love of God and one’s enemies” as Jesus’s “core instructions”–this, after saying there are no solid texts on which to base faith. Well, how does he know these are the core instructions, then? Partly because they crop up often in those “suspect” texts–and partly because he thinks they should be the core instructions. Of course, believers always make this move because they/we are human. We pick and choose, and I’m no different in this regard than Sullivan.

His concluding metaphor is fascinating because it seems Neo-Platonic. Back to the cave! It seems to me “we” [those with Christian faith] found Jesus long ago, so I’m perplexed by the new one-candle search party. Also, I rather think that if we plunge into a cave looking for Jesus with our wee candle, we’re more likely to be enveloped by light; at the very least, that would make for a better story.

Being in Instanbul for over a week has put this matter of faith v. logos in new light. There are multiple calls to prayer everyday, and multiple Imams sing the call, and the calls are severally broadcast. So the air is filled with calls to pray, and yet the city’s logos–its work, family-raising, commerce, politics, arguments, research–never stops. Faith and logos are woven together comfortably. You will see a businessman (suit and tie) coming out of a mosque, having washed feet, hands, and face before and after prayer, shaking his hands dry, and going back to business–his calendar’s “one o’clock.” He will whip out a mobile phone and start talking about most logistic things indeed. No crisis. Maybe Sullivan and others need to relax and listen to Keats: both/and, not either/or.


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