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Friday, November 10, 2017


I am home, and out of cyberpurgatory.  I can access my blog.  I missed you all, more than I thought I would!  There is a great deal to say about many things, but first, while I plow through the mass of junk mail that has accumulated, let me post an essay I wrote eleven days ago in Paris.  I shall return later today to start commenting on the passing scene.

The Incompatibility of the Judeo-Christian and Secular World Views

Exactly five hundred years ago today, Martin Luther sent to his bishop a set of ninety-five theses for consideration and discussion, an act that is conventionally identified as the launching of the Protestant Reformation [whether Luther actually nailed the theses to the church door in Wittenberg is open to dispute, but it makes a good story.]  This challenge to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church came at a time when more and more thinkers in Europe were broadly challenging the Judeo-Christian world view.  These challenges, rooted in a secular conception of the universe that arose originally in the thought of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and was given modern expression in the Physics of Newton and the philosophy of such thinkers as David Hume, have resulted in a secular understanding of the human condition that stands in stark contrast to that of both Luther and his churchly opponents.  Since semi-millennia do not come around very often, this is perhaps a good time to ask a question that has exercised some of the greatest thinkers of the West:  Are the Judeo-Christian and the Secular world views compatible?

Lord knows, there have been no end of efforts to demonstrate that they are, most famous and influential of them perhaps being the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas.  In these remarks, I shall attempt to answer the question definitively.  My argument will necessarily take me very far afield from the topics customarily considered pertinent to the issue, so perhaps I should begin by alerting you to where I shall end up.  The simple answer to the question posed is No, the Judeo-Christian and Secular world views are entirely incompatible.  Now let us get started.

Let me begin with a question that may never have crossed your mind:  Could Phileas Fogg have met Sherlock Holmes?  Well, let us see.  They both lived in London.  Fogg set out on his around-the-world trip in 1872, when Holmes, according to some calculations, was eighteen, so they overlapped.  They traveled in the same or intersecting social circles and although Fogg might never have needed the services of a consulting detective, he could on occasion have dined at the Diogenes Club, where he would have met Holmes’ older brother, Mycroft.

But of course it is a trick question.  Holmes did not live in Fogg’s London, Fogg did not live in Holmes’ London, and in fact neither of them lived in London, England.  Holmes lived in a fictional world created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Fogg lived in a fictional world created by Jules Verne.  Neither of them lived in Pip’s London or Uriah Heep’s London or Mr. Pickwick’s London.  Indeed, Pip, Uriah Heep, and Mr. Pickwick could never have met, because each lived in a different London created by the same author, Charles Dickens.

Some authors choose to appropriate a real city or country or hill or island as the backdrop for their stories.  Others create entirely new locales.  For example, Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton’s famous novella [which we all had to read when I was a student at Forest Hills High School in New York City seventy years ago], is set in the town of Starkfield in the Northwest corner of Massachusetts, roughly where the real Williamstown can be found.  There is no Starkfield there and never has been, although there is, to be sure, a Northwest corner of Massachusetts.

If Starkfield is not a real town, if Verne’s London and Conan Doyle’s London and Dickens’ many Londons are not real cities, then what are they?  If I may ask the same question in a suitably pretentious manner, What is the ontological status of the locales for these and all other fictions?   The simple answer is, They are fictional worlds, but while that is to be sure true, it does not advance our inquiry very much. 

I know that the London of Sherlock Holmes is not the real London because the real London of that era did not have residing in it a consulting detective named “Sherlock Holmes.”  It also, incidentally, did not have a number 221B on the real Baker Street that did in fact exist in that city.  But we can say a good deal more than that.  The London created by Conan Doyle had in it just exactly as many people as are mentioned in or implied by Conan Doyle’s stories.  There was no one in that London living next door to Mrs. Watson’s boarding house, because no one is ever mentioned in any of the stories as living next to the building in which Holmes and Watson had second floor rooms [or at least I do not recall any, and I was, at one time long ago, a devotée of the Sacred Works.]  There was, however, someone living across the street, because in one of the stories someone [Colonel Moran?] is described as drawing a bead on a shadow he mistakes for Holmes but is really a bust propped up in a chair by Holmes and moved periodically.

The same could be said of every other fictional world.  There are very few adult men in the town in which Tom Sawyer grew up, an odd fact pointed out to me by my first wife, who is a literary scholar of considerable accomplishments.    It is not the case that Mark Twain simply fails to mention the adult men; they do not exist in the fictional world of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  Even the laws of nature do not always obtain in fictional worlds.  When the writers of the television show and subsequent movies of Star Trek: The Next Generation decided they needed the Starship Enterprise to venture somewhat farther afield, they invented Warp Drive, by means of which space ships could travel faster than the speed of light, something that, as we all know, is not possible in the actual world.  Somewhat more mundanely, early in Dickens’ great novel Bleak House a character walks from Tom’s All Alone, a slum neighborhood in the London of the novel, to an upscale neighborhood, a walk that takes him most of the day.  Later in the novel, a character makes the same walk in very little time.  This is not an error on Dickens’ part, like Conan Doyle’s notorious inability to recall which of Dr. Watson’s limbs had been struck by a Jezail bullet.  In the London of Bleak House, space is normatively encoded, and physical distance is a metaphor for moral distance.  Dickens is saying that the people who live in the two neighborhoods are more alike than might appear at first inspection.

The simple truth, which great authors labor mightily and successfully to make us forget, is that the world of a novel is created by and consists entirely of the words that the novelist has written.  The novelist calls a fictional world into existence by writing, or, as we might imagine, speaking, and the world thus conjured has all and only the properties the novelist confers upon it by his or her words.  Thus, literally nothing exists in a fictional world save what is presented or implied by the words on the page.  What is more, everything in a fictional world exists not simpliciter but from a narrative point of view, that of the narrator created by the author, whether that narrator be omniscient, as is most often the case in novels, or unreliable, as is the narrative voice famously in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.

And now, you may begin to see why I have addressed the compatibility of the Judeo-Christian and Secular world views by a seemingly irrelevant digression on fictional worlds, for according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the universe has been called into existence by the Voice of God and exists therefore, as does a novel, from a divine narrative point of view.  Recall the very first words of the Bible, in the King James translation [I leave to one side the ontological status of translations]: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.  And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.  And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”  Or, even more directly, the opening verse of the Gospel According to John:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  God speaks the universe into being [or roars it into being, as C. S. Lewis would have it in The Chronicles of Narnia.]

Like a fictional world, the universe, in the Judeo-Christian reading, has a narrative structure, in which there are narratively significant moments and spaces.  In this tradition, there are four ontologically and spiritually distinct episodes, marked off from one another by five spiritually and ontologically world-changing moments.  The Judeo-Christian story begins with the first Moment, the Creation, after which Man, which is to say Adam and Eve, is [or are] innocent and free of sin, living naked and unashamed in Eden.  This first episode ends with the second Moment, The Fall, as a consequence of which all mankind bears the stain of Original Sin.  God punishes Adam by driving him from the Garden and cursing him with the necessity of Labor.  He punishes Eve by cursing her with her own form of Labor, which is Childbirth.  This second episode in the Divine Narrative ends with the third Moment, when God gives The Law [or the Word] to Man through the intermediation of his chosen messenger, Moses.  Thus begins the third episode, the period of The Law, which, inasmuch as it is God’s Law, must be obeyed to the last jot and tittle if Man is to know God’s pleasure and salvation.  Man’s inability to abide perfectly by God’s Law leads first to a search for ten righteous men whose obedience to the Law can stand in for that of all Mankind, and finally to the hope that one perfect man will appear, the Messiah, whose fulfillment of God’s Law will lift the curse of God’s anger from Mankind.  The hope is realized by the fourth Moment, the Incarnation and Passion of Jesus, through whose perfection the Law is fulfilled, initiating the final episode in the Divine Narrative of the World, the period of Faith.  The episode of Faith is brought to an end by the final Moment, the Second Coming and Last Trump, with which the Divine Narrative draws to a close and the history of the world ends.

These Moments and Episodes are not conventions or literary tropes or the organizing devices of historians.  They are the structure of God’s divine Story, and hence they are the structure of reality itself.  Spiritually, all that matters is where in the unfolding of this story one finds oneself.  Regardless of wars, revolutions, economic upheavals, or aesthetic fashions, two persons whose lives are located in the same Episode are in all ways that matter identically situated with regard to the universe.  An Egyptian living in 1000 B.C. and a first century B.C. Aztec are living in the same Episode of the Law, though neither of them knows that.  A Celt born in 18 B.C. and living until 17 A.D. straddles the fourth Moment, and thus is born in the time of the Law and dies in the time of Faith, though she may have no awareness of either.  These are not culturally specific designations.  They are part of the structure of Being itself.  Or so the Judeo-Christian world view has it.

To be religious in the Judeo-Christian tradition is to believe that one lives in this Divine Narrative.  It is not to go to Mass or keep kosher or say nightly prayers or sport the bumper sticker WWJD [“what would Jesus do?”]; it is to understand oneself as living in one of the Episodes of the Divine Narration.  It is to conceive oneself as being a character in God’s story.

The secular conception of the universe is utterly and incompatibly different.  For the secularist, there is no Narrator.  The world is not a story told by God.  There are no ontologically privileged Moments separating objective Episodes of a story, save perhaps for The Big Bang [the origin of the universe, not the T.V. show.]  There are no ontologically privileged places, such as the Garden of Eden or Golgotha, nor are there world-historical characters in a divine story – Eve, Cain, Moses, Jesus, Peter.

My overview of the secularist world view is so much shorter because the world view of the secularist is nothing less than the totality of natural science.  [The correct secularist account of social reality is extremely complex, and a matter for another essay.]  Many books, each as long as the Judeo-Christian Bible, would be required to give an account of that world view, and the books, no sooner than they were printed, would have to be revised.  There may be no more people in Conan Doyle’s London than are mentioned or implied in the Sherlock Holmes stories, but as Hamlet observes to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and Earth / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Do I hold to the Judeo-Christian or the Secularist world view?  Well, as my mother said to me seventy-one years ago, when the question of a Bar Mitzvah arose, “Robbie, you are the product of a mixed marriage.  Your father is an agnostic and I am an atheist.  You can be Bar Mitzvah’d, and have a big party, and get lots of presents, or your father and I will give you one hundred dollars to buy yourself whatever you want.”

I took the money.


s. wallerstein said...

Welcome back!

We have something in common: I also refused to be bar mitzvahed, although I didn't get
a 100 dollars for it (which was a lot of money back then) and your mother was wittier than mine.

When you shut the door to the synagogue at age 12, it's highly unlikely that you're going to return in your old age on your knees or even on your feet.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Welcome back Professor; you have been missed! An excellent essay with which to make your return!

Aardvark said...

Interestingly enough, in Phillip Jose Farmer's "The Other Log of Phileas Fogg", both Phileas Fogg and Sherlock Holmes appear. So they both coexist in a third fictional London.

Paul Kern said...

Welcome back Professor, you've been missed!! Wonderful essay but let me push back a little. Isn't secularism, as we know it and as it manifests historically defined in relation to the Judeo/Christian narrative and therefore an outgrowth of this narrative? To paint briefly and simply, doubt exists as a parallel and comingled conception of the world. You note Luther's challenge to church hierarchy which is a response to church exploitations but also perhaps influenced by discoveries of new lands and peoples not mentioned in biblical lore. Galileo's telescopic discoveries build on this doubt moving the Archimedean point beyond earth but not rejecting God but broadening the narrative. Enlightenment thinkers likewise reject the church but still assemble "natural" metaphors that harken to an a priori formulation. "Truth" is still debated/conceived in divine/material or absolute/relative terms. As much as I'd define myself as an atheist I'd say that my atheism/secularism is informed by my Judeo/Christian antecedents.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Aardvark, I just love that! Sort of like "Pride and Prejudice and Vampires".

Paul Kern, that is a very interesting point, which I did not adequately consider. Would an atheist/secularist in a Muslim or Buddhist tradition have a different conception of the universe, one shapoed by the religious tradition against which she was writing? I wonder.

s. wallerstein said...

One of Nietzsche criticism of democratic secularism is that it is basically Christian ethics, without the metaphysics.