Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.



Total Pageviews

Saturday, September 11, 2010


My first father-in-law, James Griffin, was a self-made man. Although he never finished high school, he worked his way up the corporate ladder to the Vice-Presidency for Public Relations of Sears Roebuck and Co. Griffin was what I think of as a social Catholic. During the almost thirty years that I knew him, I never spotted in him the slightest suggestion of genuine religious belief or sentiment, but he had been made a Knight of Malta by the Pope for his fund-raising prowess, and was, at one point, head of the Catholic Boy Scouts of America. Since my plan to marry his daughter, Mary Cynthia, was a "scandal to the faithful" in Shaker Heights, where the Griffins lived, Cindy and I had to be married in Appleton Chapel in Harvard Yard by a compliant Episcopal priest. I still remember Jim Griffin, at the reception, chatting amiably with David Riesman as though he knew who Riesman was and shared his progressive view of the world.

Griffin was considered a "good Catholic," but of course he was really no sort of Catholic at all. That is to say, he did not take with life-altering seriousness the spiritual and doctrinal message of the Roman Catholic faith. In that way, he was as one with many other Americans whose Catholicism or Protestantism or Judaism does not interfere with their secular pursuits.

All of these essentially secular Americans, who turn up in Gallup Polls as church-goers and believers, stand in stark contrast to the smaller, but still enormous, number of Americans who take their religion really seriously, and actually attempt to live their lives as their faith teaches them to do. I have in mind the wacko preacher in Florida who conceived the brilliant idea of burning some Qu'rans, and the Senatorial candidate who is opposed to masturbation as "lust in one's heart," and the Creationist evolution-deniers, and the ever helpful American Protestants who have been encouraging their African co-religionists to kill homosexuals.

Book burning is, of course, an old Christian custom, not at all some weird Fascist aberration invented by over-enthusiastic Nazi Gauleiters. The Inquisition was as likely to burn a heretical book as a heretic, and if Wikipedia is to be believed, the Chinese, in this as in so much else, stole a march on the West. "Following the advice of minister Li Si, Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the burning of all philosophy books and history books from states other than Qin — beginning in 213 BC. This was followed by the live burial of a large number of intellectuals who did not comply with the state dogma."
We in the West look on in horror, and properly so, at the stoning to death of women in Iran. But they are here merely following the law laid down in Leviticus 24, a book which all good Muslims accept as prophetic. If, as scores of millions of Americans claim to believe, that Book is the Word of Almighty God, then it is for us to obey it, not to interpret it until it conforms to our modern sensibilities. Now, those with a smattering of biblical learning will of course quote Jesus, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." But let us recall that Jesus himself said, in Matthew 17, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil."

The simple fact is that the religious beliefs of serious Jews, Christians, and Muslims are vile, absurd, and totally incompatible with even the least evolved secular moral sensibility. To excoriate the Reverend Terry Jones for his proposal to burn a collection of Qu'rans, and then insist indignantly that President Obama is a Christian, as though that were a quite acceptable thing for a modern man or women to be, is rank hypocrisy. It is the book burners, the woman stoners, the homosexual killers, who are truly religious. Theirs is the real face of religious faith.


C said...

Prof. Wolfe,
I agree completely with you about the religious phenomenon of people who speak religiously, go to church, etc and yet have no real religious commitments. Please, however, don't lump all of us that do take religious commitments seriously into the Floridian preacher mold. I am horrified and appalled by actions of figures like Terry Jones, and so are all of the Christians I know (this is anecdotal, of course--my sample size is small and biased, since I would certainly distance myself from anyone who did defend Terry Jones). I truly do not understand why people like him think they are following God's commands, since it's made pretty clear that the Jesus's ministry is not about judging people, and the judging that Jesus does is all directed at the religious hypocrites of the day. I take Jesus's claim to fulfill the law to be referring to his death specifically, and the claim that hjis death provides atonement for sin, not to individual laws in the Old Testament (that is, he is referring to God's ultimate law, rather than particular laws). In other words, I don't take that statement to be Jesus's endorsement of stoning adulterers (and Jesus specifically steps in to stop that on at least one occasion, and on other occasions, breaks such laws to fulfill the higher law of providing food to the hungry, healing the sick, etc). I am the first to admit that I still wrestle with questions about my religious beliefs, but don't think questioning how to interpret difficult passages means that I take my religious belief less seriously (I suspect Terry Jones doesn't spend much time agonizing over interpretation, but just because the Bible is taken to be the word of God doesn't mean that it doesn't need to be interpreted).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Let me begin by offering a blanket apology, not only to you, but to any others whom I have offended by the intemperateness of my rant. I tried to signal my awareness of its lack of gravitas by the title, but even so.

Let me see whether I can say, quietly and without gratuitous insults, what I find difficult about your view, which is of course the view of countless millions, or hundreds of millions, of people in all of the great world religions.

I am presented with a book which, it is said, is The Word of God, a revealed truth not available to unaqided human reason. Let me empasize that. Reason by itself might arrive at the conclusion that there is a Prime Mover, or an Uncaused Cause,from which the universe flows. Unaided Reason might also [as Kant thought] arrive at the conclusion that some universal moral principle, such as the Categorical Imperative, commands us all to act in a certain fashion. People who believe these things are commonly called Deists [as opposed to Theists], and many people, among them Thomas Jefferson and many of the Founding Fathers, were of this persuasion. But unaided reason could not possibly arrive at the conclusion that Jesus is the Son of God, nor could unaided Reason arrive at the particular set of laws and prescriptions and proscriptions that are to be found in the Old Testament. Only a Divine Revelation could tell us such things, and I take it that the acceptance of that Divine Revelation is, in one way or another, the sine qua non of religious faith in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions.

Now, you, like most decent believers, seem to wish to use unaided reason to determine which parts of Revelation to be taken literally [that Jesus is The Son of Man, that He rose from the dead, that He is The Redeemer], and which to interpret and take metaphorically or in some enlightened manner [that Jesus, when he spoke of fulfilling the Law,was refering to the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the death and resurrection of the Messiah, and not to dietary or other prescriptions]. From my secular perspective, I can certainly understand and sympathize with that inclination, but from the perspective of someone who accepts the Bible as a Divine Revelation, I cannot for the life of me see how you can justify this sort of picking and choosing. If someone chooses to pick the laws about stoning as literal truth and the bit about the resurrection as meant metaphorically, what possible RELIGOUS basis could you have for disagreeing with him?

Robert Paul Wolff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Paul Wolff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Noumena said...

Despite what the fundamentalists might have you believe, a lot of theists believe that revelation isn't just handed to us by God, clear and perfect and epistemologically secure like some spiritual version of sense-data. Since Vatican II, for example, plenty of theologically sophisticated Catholics will tell you that the basic function of the Church's traditions is to perpetuate 2,000 years of more-or-less continuous debate over the real meaning of everything in the Bible, not to boss around the laity or throw up a smokescreen of Latin mysticism. Both Alasdair MacIntyre and Ernan McMullin (both Catholic philosophers and professors emeritus at Notre Dame) make comparisons between biblical interpretation and the natural sciences: inquiry a long process that moves in fits and starts (and sometimes completely backwards) from ignorance to knowledge. Just like you can't read off sophisticated facts about electrons by looking at an diffusion pattern, you can't read off facts about, say, what to do with homosexuals from Leviticus (the laws of the Old Testament don't necessarily apply after Jesus) and some of Paul's random asides.

For the record, I'm not a theist. One picks up a few things after five years at the self-described most prestigious Catholic university in the US. :-)

C said...

I take no offense from your original post (I took the post title as indicative of your intention), but I also feel compelled to speak out about the differences that do exist between someone like Terry Jones and someone like me. I agree with what Noumena said about how many theists see the issue of biblical interpretation. One argument is that each book in the Bible is written in a different literary style, and is intended for a different purpose--i.e., the books of prophesy, the historical books, the poetic books, etc. The laws given in the Old Testament are about a particular people in a particular time (and function as histories/stories that explain the background of the Jewish people, not what current Christians ought to be doing). Christians take the teachings of Jesus to be instructive in terms of how to interpret the rest of the Bible, so (for example) when Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, he says to love God and to love people. As such, I think that informs how we ought to interpret the rest of the Bible. There is much more to be said (and I am sure there are those who could give a better explanation as well), but there are some pretty sophisticated explanations for how we interpret the Bible as well.

At any rate, although the self-identifying Christians who get the most noise are the Terry Joneses of this world and there doesn't seem to be much difference between the average self-identifying Christian and the rest of the population, there are communities of Christians whose beliefs shape them to reach out in different ways, to live as Jesus did, reaching out to the poor, the outcast, the sick, and so on.

David Pilavin said...

To C:

You write:

"The laws given in the Old Testament are about a particular people in a particular time (and function as histories/stories that explain the background of the Jewish people, not what current Christians ought to be doing). "

So, according to that approach, when God commands to stone fornicators and to burn witches, He is indeed prescribing something which is just and righteous [and indeed, obligatory] for Jews at the time to do - but not for modern Christians?

In other words, not only it was OK for the Old Testament Jews to act thus but it was not OK for them to act otherwise [after all - it is God who gave the command - did not He?] but for modern Chrisitans it is the other way around?

David Pilavin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.