Sunday, April 29, 2007

Religion and Society & C-Span2

Today I watched about an hour of a panel on Religion and Society on C-Span; it was a converstation moderated by Thane Rosenbaum and dominated by Christopher Hitchens' personality, if not by his anti-religious argument.

During the question and answer session, after one man was shouted down by the panel for asking an apparently-forbidden question (I couldn't hear it), another man stood and asked (I'm paraphrasing): "Yeah, let's take a moment to bring science back into this if we can. We live in a world where, thanks to the advances of scientific understanding, our species has mollified (sic?) itself sixfold, and yet more Americans expect to be raptured than believe in evolution." I didn't really listen to the end of his question, because it seemed a softball that any of the men on the panel would've been happy to reshape in their own words. "Here, here!--Science!" Yawn.

Even if I'm totally alone in my generation, I want to say this: intellectuals between 40-60 (boomers and their younger cousins) seem increasingly willing to blame religion as the sole source of the world's problems -- this from the generation who blamed capitalism as the sole source of the world's problems right up until they made their fortunes in the stock market and bought a yacht or a new set of golf clubs. Christopher Hitchens, in particular, explicitly argued that religion (not just radical religion) is always and everywhere a source of trouble. Hitchens even suggested that religion effectively teaches radical solipsism, and that the ontologies of the major world religions all teach people to believe that they are somehow cosmically important. Imagine: the Baby Boomers calling other people self-centered!

I think all of this talk of panacea from the Boomers, whether it involves economic or religious revolution, is based in shallow and dead interpretation. Most of the panelists agreed, for example, that the book of Revelation is a dangerous thing -- "Yes," said Rosenbaum (I'm paraphrasing), "Isn't the problem radical religion, though, and not religion qua religion? I mean some of these people go to mass and then go to the opera." Okay, maybe. But the unstated assumption dominating the entire conversation this Sunday seemed to be: going to church or temple or whatever is okay just as long as you don't actually believe any of this stuff.

Obviously, I'm simplifying -- but not by much. The Boomers and 40-somethings seem willing to turn the ancient holy texts into so many straw-men whenever it suits them. Hitchens kept emphasizing that religion claims to explain the cosmos... well, yes, sort of: if you think you know what G-d is and what the universe is, you have all the answers you need! I'll give two brief examples; one short and one long:

1. The panel mentioned the story of Abraham sacrificing his child as a frightening story--One of them asked, in a mocking & simplifying tone, "if you hear the voice of G-d telling you to kill your child, you should kill your child?" Of course, if you're a second-grader, that's a very good reading of that part of the scripture...

2. My favorite passage in the New Testament (Mark 13: 32-37):
No one knows, however, when that day or hour will come -- neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son; only the Father knows. Be on watch, be alert, for you do not know when the time will come. It will be like a man who goes away from home on a trip and leaves his servants in charge, after giving to each one his own work to do and after telling the doorkeeper to keep watch. Watch, then, because you do not know when the master of the house is coming -- it might be in the evening or at midnight or before dawn or at sunrise. If he comes suddenly, he must not find you asleep. What I say to you, then, I say to all: Watch!

The way I see it, there are at least two readings of this passage. For the second-grader, this passage will be about "the rapture," which you can read all about in Revelation--there will be trumpets and 7-headed dragons and stuff (and, dear second-grader, feel free to read all of that stuff like you would read the next Harry Potter installment.). In my reading, this passage can very easily be understood as an allegorical treatment of death. After all, I don't know when I will die. And I suppose it may be like being surprised as a servant might be surprised by his master's unexpected return. And maybe I should be very aware until then -- maybe I should "Watch!" So: do I expected to be "raptured?" Well, yes -- the way I expect the sun to "set" tonight... not literally, perhaps. But your little poll might not capture the nuances of my religious beliefs.

This reading would certainly seem too radical for many a Christian; it's true, I have effectively "reduced" the Bible to less-than-literal meaning. But if I believe it, this is still religion, it seems to me -- and I cannot see how it is one of the fundamental causes of evil in the world.

When I teach my sophomores to read Moby-Dick, I push them to leap beyond the literal interpretation. "Why's it always gotta be about some symbol or higher meaning?--can't it just be about chasing a whale?," they ask. Of course it can, but a well-trained reader will understand that the story is about so much more than literal whale-hunting. No one would suggest that I have "reduced" the eminence of the book by pushing my students away from a literal interpretation. But!--if I dare to suggest that the phrase "Son of Man" might also be a metaphor, even if I claim it's a metaphor far surpassing in brilliance the metaphor of the white whale...

So: this is a manifesto of sorts. The world does not need to rid itself of religion; rather, it needs a better, more mature, deeper understanding of what is meant in the holy texts. Maybe this is one of the limitations placed on me by my I.Q. -- but I cannot imagine someone being simply too intelligent for Moby-Dick. Similarly, I am not convinced that the holy texts of the major world religions can be intellectually outgrown... all I can say here is: I've tried!

Hitchens' reading of the Bible, for example, seems about C-level work if I have my future-professor hat on. The very last thought that enters my head as I read the old book is "It's all about ME!"

I have often asked my students to write an interpretation of a certain scene or symbol in any of the good books we read for class. One of my favorite moves is to give them 20 minutes or so for that labor, and then to ask them to flip the paper over and write, on the other side, what their interpretation reveals about them. I'm not saying Hitchens isn't a genius, but I wonder what he would write on the other side of the paper after interpreting religion as pro-selfishness.

1 comment:

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