Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Meeting half way

When I started this blog I wasn't sure what I was looking for, then it became a search for how the philosophy of science began. Lately I have been asking the question about how or even if religion was reformed. What we call the reformation occurred alongside the beginnings of what we call science. It is almost impossible to disentangle the two. On March 24th I went down to Minneapolis to meet Tony Jones and listen to him talk about his new book on the history of how the resurrection has been interpreted. Two days later I went to a lecture on "The True Meaning of Humanism". Tony has been very responsive to my incessant questions, but Randall Poole, the lecturer of that talk, gave me answers without my needing to even ask. He's a professor at a local Catholic college. I wish I'd known about him 10 years ago.

His talk followed a similar arc of history as mine from last November. Although he is coming from a believer's theological point of view, he agreed completely with my theme that the religion practiced today by the fundamentalists is very much like the religion of Augustine in the 4th century and the politics of those two eras also have parallels. Over half way through his talk I was starting to wonder how he was going to get out of it without renouncing his faith. Our themes departed in the Enlightenment era.

He teaches at the College of St. Scholastica and, according to him, it was that saint along with St. Benedict that developed a humanists theology in the early centuries of Christianity. Their teachings survived the brutal, anti-humanist centuries of Roman Catholic rule and began to emerge again in the 13th century.

He mentioned Kant and Locke but did not give them anywhere near the credit I did. In Locke especially, I find concepts and nearly exact phrases that are passed into the Constitutions of the 18th century democracies. I do not find these words or concepts in the Bible. Poole finds human dignity and hope in the words of the humanist Christian writers. That may be true, but I do not see a strong connection to Christ when they write on humanism.

In my talk, I mentioned the myths surrounding Constantine, everything from how he invented Easter to "corporate religion" to writing the entire New Testament. The break from the more egalitarian, inclusive culture of the early Christians to the Church supported by the Roman army actually occurred over centuries. It can be seen in the subtle debates between Peter and Paul and more clearly in the gospel of John. It continued with Marcion and the Arians. Poole points to the debate between Augustine and Pelagius as a pivotal moment.

The problem with all of this is rarely do we progress to higher forms of human dignity via a debate among intellectuals. When Martin Luther King Jr met with President Johnson, they didn't debate civil rights, they debated the timing and political expediency of enacting civil rights legislation. Abraham Lincoln didn't come up with the idea of freeing the slaves, he just knew it was an idea who's time had come. The United States and the French Revolutions weren't invented on paper in a University and then implemented by some sort of international coalition. They were messy affairs involving corrupt people taking advantage of the idealists and the frustrations of a mass of people who were tired of being oppressed by monarchies.

You can see this clearly in the results. The United States, a country founded on freedom, started with classes of people defined by their sex and the color of their skin being denied the right to vote. Many other human dignities were also denied to them that didn't need to be explicitly stated in the Constitution. The difference though, is those founders knew they lived in a changing world. Change was not something invented in the 18th century, although the pace may vary, it is always part of the human experience. They simply recognized the futility of making proclamations that would stand until the end of time. They created a system that has increasingly included more of the marginalized and the disenfranchised with each succeeding generation.

Because of these new ideas, instead of living with the results of power struggles between elites, we actually have a say in how power is distributed. We expect leaders to not only win a debate, but to provide the evidence of how they arrived at their conclusions. We have learned how to study our world so we can better understand ourselves. We can determine what makes it better. We can find and correct wrongs with our systems without needing to go to war or depose a dictator.

Before I go too far down that road, I'd like to finish this installment with an attempt to meet Randall half way. As he said in his talk, in response to an excellent question about inclusivity from a student, he believes he has come more than half way. I see no reason to argue about where "half way" is and plenty of reason to acknowledge that Randall has come further than anyone I know, without leaving his religion.

For my part, I will give him that something extraordinary took place in the first century. Whether it was a single man or a loose collection of authors, a story was created that has endured. In the midst of brutal oppression, it is a story of peace. It's a story of loving your enemies and finding your own power, your own humanity. I mentioned Tony Jones' new book. At his book signing, he read from the conclusion,
What the ruling powers meant for the unclean, Jesus made clean. They threw Jesus over the boundary of socio-moral disgust meaning to silence him, but instead Jesus pulled everyone over the line with him redeeming the previously untouchable, revealing that we're all 'unclean' and tearing down the wall that religion had erected. 


There is no question that powerful symbolism is in the gospels. But that's as far as I can go. There is a lot of symbolism that is not mentioned by liberal theologians, like blood sacrifices and apocalyptic visions. One version of religion may have been torn into but as with most overthrows, the power structures remain and it is only new faces occupying them. Leaderless, Utopian communities don't last because it's hard to find people to clean the streets and maintain the plumbing. 

If we're all 'unclean', then no one can be King and no immutable book of law can be maintained. Administrators of justice have to be answerable to everyone else and new knowledge has to be constantly incorporated. Democracy, with all its problems is the best version of that we've come up with so far. Religion never came close to suggesting it as an alternative. 

Randall said early in his talk that we should judge any religion on its humanistic values. He then did an excellent job of judging many Christian leaders throughout history, declaring many of them anti-humanist. He gave me the names of many Christians who were early humanists and influenced others. Eventually they influenced the liberal philosophers and then the modern politicians, leaders of civil rights, women's rights, gay rights and religious reform. 

I look forward to learning more about these early leaders. One reason we know about them is they maintained their belief in the official religion of the state. Those who did not, were not published. There was no such thing as self publishing. There were such things as lists of books that were anathema to the Church. It is no coincidence that things changed rapidly when writing could be copied quickly and cheaply using a printing press. 

I'm sure Randall is aware of all of this and would be able to respond. The talk was recorded and should be available soon. I'll return to it then.

For a list of all of the Alsworth lectures, click here.

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