The Death of Christianity by Lawrence Swaim: A Response

The Crucifixion by Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velazquez

Tikkun recently issued a series of articles by a number of different theologians entitled “Christianity Without the Cross“. Each writer was asked to respond with their own thoughts on how central the Cross (and Crucifixion) is to Christianity and whether a “modern” Christianity might not be better without an emphasis on the Cross. This series of articles was meant as a response to/fleshing-out of Lawrence Swaim’s “The Death of Christianity” (unfortunately, most of this article is behind a paywall–though you can try this link, although I don’t think this will work without a Tikkun subscription–but the outline of his thought is clear in the excerpt available at the former link). So let’s begin with Swaim’s article. Swaim essentially finds the doctrine of “blood atonement” both central to Christianity and morally repugnant. I’ll address each of these claims in turn. We should also note here that from the outset, Swaim seem more concerned with social and political issues rather than theology itself; however, he grounds his whole work in theology, so his theological position is central to understanding the whole thing, in my opinion. So in this response, I am focusing solely on his theology: I do not intend to deal at all with this social or political claims.

First, it’s simply incorrect to argue that Christianity is centrally dependent on this “blood atonement” doctrine, best known in two forms: the satisfaction theory and the penal substitution theory; this approach wasn’t even fully fleshed out until Anselm explicated it in the 9th century–so for a good 800 years, alternate doctrines of the atonement were not just alive and well, but much more central to Christian thought! (Though some have argued that traces of it are present in earlier thought, scholars are still in debate about this, and, as I’ll suggest below, I don’t think there’s a good argument there). Furthermore, the latter penal substitution approach which Swaim seems particularly upset with wasn’t developed until after the Reformation began. So right off the bat, Swaim is operating with a Christianity=Western Protestantism (and really, more specifically, Calvinist/Reformed Western Protestantism) which is both inaccurate and insulting to all the other Christians, in the West or elsewhere. Swaim’s oversimplification of the issue is easily summed up with this quote: “Blood redemption, the central doctrine of Christianity, is the train wreck of Western civilization.” (Emphasis mine; this quote can be found in the beginning of paragraph 11 in the full version of the article).

The fact of the matter is that the earliest Christians seem to have had a radically different understanding of how Jesus’ death was salvific. For one, St. Paul makes it clear that it was not Jesus’ death that was salvific in and of itself, but rather his Resurrection: “…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Cor 15:17). Jesus’ death does not show the promise of salvation: his victory over death does. This is absolutely crucial, and Swaim is both right to critique the satisfaction/penal theories for de-emphasizing this and yet sorely mistaken in missing how central this older Resurrection-focused soteriology is for any serious Christian theology.

So what are these other theories of atonement? First, the Christus Victor model seemed to have been especially popular among the Roman and later the Germanic converts to Christianity. This model portrays Christ as a sort of cosmic warrior who came to earth to battle evil and who, in his resurrection, defeats sin and evil in a sort of military action. The Ransom model, alternatively, understood Jesus’ sacrifice as not an offering to an overly-litigious god, but rather to Satan, the incararnation of evil itself. This approach has serious flaws vis-a-vis God’s sovereignty, but it clearly casts God as offering Jesus as a sacrifice not to Godself, but to God’s evil opponent, in order to save humanity, or indeed the whole universe. In this view, the Resurrection is almost a sort of “trick” that God plays on Satan: Satan thought he had killed a divine Person, but in fact, this person arose after death, undefeated, displaying God’s power and love over the forces of sin and death.

Other models are even more intriguing and, I think, from a modern perspective, very promising–and I am shocked and disappointed that Swaim seems either ignorant of them or doesn’t find them worth his time. The Recapitulation model, in particular, is extremely powerful. In this view, Jesus came to show humanity how to live in a godly, loving fashion, and we are called to follow his example, with the promise that if we do, no matter what evils befall us in life, we will, in the end, find ourselves in God’s presence. Such a view fits very well with Chardin’s “evolutionary Christianity” approach and thereby ought to be dusted off and re-analyzed by modern theologians. Swaim’s failure to do so reflects, I think, on the shallowness of his thought on this subject. (One might note that each of the doctrines explored above was developed during the second era of Christian intellectual development: the “Patristic” period, roughly 100 CE to 700 or 800 CE, while the theory/theories Swaim focuses on were developed subsequently.)

And such a view is also in full accord, I think, with the traditional Eastern Orthodox understanding of Jesus’ work. For the Eastern Orthodox, Jesus became incarnate in order to reveal to humans how to achieve divinization: in Greek, theosis. God became human in order that humanity might be come god-like. Such a view is focused, again, more on the Resurrection than the Crucifixion, but of course does not deny the reality: those who choose to turn to God and act in obedience to God are often met with hostility and violence.

It is this centrally important lesson of the Crucifixion that Swaim seems also to miss. It’s hard not to see in his approach a very comfortable, middle-class worldview (I should point out that though I researched Swaim a bit on the internet, I do not know his class background, and am only commenting on his intellectual position and what appears to me as its most likely social/class setting). The Crucifixion is so violent, so messy, so unfair: can’t we just move beyond this? But of course, for many people in this world, Christianity is appealing precisely because it talks honestly about the realities of death, torture, and suffering. James Cone makes this point much better than I can in his entry in the “Christianity Without the Cross” series: “Legacies of the Cross and the Lynching Tree“. He points out that so much of the power of African-American Christianity comes from an understanding of how a lynched black person hanging from a tree is Christ on the Cross, in a metaphorical/theological yet nonetheless ontologically real way. Cone’s point suggests that a Christianity without the Cross would be a bunch of feel-good self-elevation that ignores all the blood, the mess, the suffering of Jesus’ life for a cleaned-up story of ethical teaching and reassuring symbols.

How quickly we seem ready to forget that if we want to follow Christ, we must take up our Cross and follow him! (eg. Matt 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23) Where does Swaim think we are following Christ to? A 3,000-square foot suburban colonial house to share some good whiskey and watch Frasier? Swaim almost seems to be aping Peter:

From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.”But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” Matthew 16:21-23

Swaim seems to believe exactly what Peter is reported to have thought here: that Messiahship, that good, modern religion, means glory and civilization and beauty and an easy road ahead. But the whole point of the Resurrection is that it is a promise that despite the evils of this world, if we choose to love–to act in obedience to God’s love–then we will act as effective channels for God’s grace in the world, and act as God’s agents in building the Kingdom of God. We are not promised that this will be an easy road, or that building the Kingdom means disavowing all the messy, terrible suffering of this world: we are called to face that suffering, others’ and our own, with confidence and compassion, humility and love. Swaim’s sterile, bourgeois theology strips Christianity of all its realist impact, and renders the whole faith meaningless.

Furthermore, although I think that these other theories of atonement we’ve discussed are, on the whole, much better than the satisfaction/penal approaches, Swaim’s single-minded rejection of this latter paradigm seems to also betray a complete misunderstanding of Trinitarian theology in the first place. Even if one insisted on a penal substitutionary model of the atonement, this should never be seen as God offering some other being as a sacrifice for God’s supposed anal legalism; Trinitarian theology insists that Jesus was and is truly God: so in this framework, God offers Godself as the sacrifice. This isn’t bloodthirsty or cruel: it reveals the deeply self-giving (kenotic) reality of God as pure love. Swaim’s inability to recognize this absolutely central pillar of any theory of atonement is both shocking and depressing: there are, apparently, prominent Christian thinkers and writers who don’t even understand Trinitarian theology, which is supposed to be the foundation for our community! (cf. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds)

But what really worries me is that an institution I had a lot of respect for, Tikkun, would publish this without recognizing the deep theological ignorance at its heart. [UPDATE: Tikkun did publish a critical response to Swaim by Kavin Rowe] It’d be like publishing an article about Judaism written by someone who didn’t know about the central importance of the Torah–and its diverse interpretations. Swaim seems only concerned with his own understanding of a pseudo-historical Jesus, who he casts, much like liberal theologians before him, as basically a clone of a middle-class Westerner: Jesus is presented as a bourgeois teacher, calling on people to lead ethical lives but with little interest in the mystical, the apocalyptic, or even the theological. Of course such a reading is only possible by excising much of the Gospel text on dubious grounds. But I’ve talked about this before.

For now, let me finish by pointing you back to the seven “Christianity Without the Cross” articles themselves; I hope to have specific comments on each of them soon. As I mentioned above, I found Cone’s article to be very well written and relevant…I was less pleased with most of the others. But that complaining will have to await another day and another post!

Let me finish by reiterating that I only intend here to critique Swaim’s theology: some of his other points, especially his critiques of right-leaning Christianity, are obviously not without value. But once they are cast in such a theologically ignorant and uncritical context, they are basically lost in this forest of bad theology. Lawrence Swaim may be an excellent political or social thinker, and he may do great work with the Interfaith Freedom Foundation–I really don’t know, and I certainly don’t here intend to dismiss him outright. But his theological thinking is confused and poorly-informed at best, and is just the sort of thinking that I think is driving so many people away from a liberal Protestant establishment increasingly afraid to even call itself “Christian”. Surely, let’s admit the failures of the past; but this revisionist dismissal of everything that even smacks of religiosity is certainly not the path forward.

[UPDATE 2: Small changes for the sake of clarity were made to paragraph 3 on 12.28.12]

Talking About God, Part 5 1/2: Answers for Dianne

A reader named Dianne had a number of questions for me after reading a few of my “Talking About God Posts”. Her questions cut right to the heart of Christian theology, pushing a lot of the chaff to the side and getting right to the central questions. You can read her comments yourself, but I’ll summarize her questions here:

  1. Why is the Resurrection so important? Why not just focus on Jesus as an exemplary moral teacher?
  2. How can Christians have any confidence in the historicity of the Gospels?

Now, when I first sat down to answer her, I spent a good 2 hours writing, only to realize that what I had written wasn’t really an answer to these questions: I had jumped forward to discussing an ontology of the Resurrection, bypassing her more existential and historical questions. So I’m going to roll that work into a second post, and here try to hone in on what Dianne is getting at.

In response to her first question, why the Resurrection is important above and beyond simply appreciating Jesus’ ethical teachings, it seems to me the central answer is this: if Jesus was just an ethical teacher who got in trouble for those teachings and then killed, why should we listen to him? He might have been smart, kind, wise, and committed, but it’s arguable that an ethical system that gets you killed is not an ethical system one should follow. If Christianity ends on Good Friday–if there’s never an Easter Sunday–then the Gospels should be a cautionary tale: “don’t try this at home kids, you’ll get crucified.” It’s only in light of the Resurrection that we can say with confidence and hope, that though you very well might get crucified, in the end those who accept crucifixion in service of justice and truth are vindicated.

Reflecting on this leads us to wonder why Jesus’ followers themselves would have continued their community after Jesus’ death. What I said applies to us, but it would have applied much more so to Jesus’ disciples. He had just been killed for leading their community! The smart thing would have been to lay low. Instead, they begin preaching not only Jesus’ ethical and spiritual message, but asserting a crazy and ridiculous story: that he had died but had risen. Indeed, without Easter morning, it seems highly unlikely that any community would have been sustained after Jesus’ death. As the writer of the Acts of the Apostles himself realized when he included this passage (5:33-38)

When they heard this [the apostles’ claims about Jesus as the Messiah] they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking if of human origin, it will fail…

Whether this passage reflects a historical event or not, it communicates a clear truth: without understanding Jesus as having been victorious despite his death, it seems unlikely that the community around him would have blossomed the way it did in the decades after he died.

Furthermore, it’s important to remember how many of Jesus’ teachings weren’t a collection of easy ethical injunctions. He certainly insisted that we not judge one another, that we care for the poor and marginalized, and that love should be our guiding ethic. But he also spoke about a final judgement, about the need to take up one’s cross, and about the mysterious kingdom of God. Jesus was not just an ethical teacher. He was as interested in what we today would call mysticism and teleology as he was about social justice, precisely because he recognized that any real ethics had to be holistic: it couldn’t be, on the one hand, a bunch of feel-good, sentimental platitudes, nor could it function as a hard-headed utilitarian pragmatism. Only a view of the world that radically recognized the reality of God and our relationship with God could yield a lifestyle that would be transformative–both for society and the individual.

A Jesus relegated only to ethics lessons is a Jesus stripped of much–most–of what he was really concerned with. This is my central complaint against liberal theology: in an attempt to strip the Gospels of their more mysterious, challenging, ‘supernatural’ elements, liberal theology yields a ghostly apparition of Christ–and, importantly, one who is, conveniently, well suited for a secular, capitalist age. But I don’t think this reflects the reality of Jesus’ life and ministry. Efforts to build a view of Jesus in this vein, like the work of the Jesus Seminar, are often couched in terms of reclaiming the “real” Jesus. But like so much else, this effort seems blind to its own biases. Those who wish to see Jesus as an irreligious ethics professor–surprise, surprise!–find just such a Jesus, just as those who wish to see Jesus as a gun-toting homophobic racist somehow manage to twist him into that as well.

Placing the Resurrection at the center of our understanding of Christ is, at its most basic, simply being true to how his friends and disciples understood Jesus after his death. Whatever the Resurrection was, exactly–and I want to point out that asserting it as true doesn’t necessarily mean taking any hardline, specific “empty tomb” position–it was clearly an experience that radically reshaped the lives of Jesus’ community. To refuse the Resurrection its place as a historically real experience–whatever its ontological or scientific veracity–is to rewrite the history of the Christian community.

To summarize, what I’m saying here is that our historical understanding of Jesus and Christianity–no matter what our personal opinions on it might be–can never be separated from the communal experience of the Resurrection, because it was precisely that experience that has yielded the texts, ideas, and communities we now pore over and participate in. Addressing what we as modern individuals actually believe about the Resurrection will be the topic of a follow-up post. For now, though, let’s move on to Dianne’s second question.

We’ve just now talked about how the whole body of knowledge about Jesus is based on the experience of his Resurrection, that to separate that knowledge from that experience is to alienate that knowledge from the context in which it formed. But this knowledge, these stories about Jesus: what do we know about them? Are they valid sources of information, or just mythical nonsense?

Whereas there has (regrettably) been relatively little popular attention paid to the points I raised above, the historicity of the Bible is a totally different animal. For nearly two centuries, this issue has been front and center in theology. As I discussed in my post on liberal theology, it has shaped entire communities and schools of thought. If you really want to delve into this, you’re going to have to look somewhere beyond this blog, because this isn’t my specific area of interest! You’d do well to look up Rudolf Bultmann, Dom Crossan, and NT Wright for a start. The Jesus Seminar, mentioned above, also has a wide range of decorated Bible Scholars (in fact, Crossan works with them). Just searching on Amazon something like “gospels history” or “historicity of the gospels” will yield dozens of books.

But I can make some basic statements on the question of the historicity of the Gospels, if not as a Biblical scholar then just as an individual believer. For me, there’s one central perspective that needs to be born in mind. So here we go:

First off, I’m not a fundamentalist; I don’t think every word of the Bible is literally true–in large part because many of the words in the Bible are meant as allegory, poetry, and metaphor. But even when we look at those sections that do purport to be more directly historical, I’m more than happy to admit the presence of errors–because I worship God, not a book. The number of contradictions and errors are too many to count, really. Did Jesus overturn the tables in the temple at the beginning of his ministry, as in John, or at the end, as in the Synoptics? Was humankind created last, after all the other animals, or first, before them? Genesis chapters 1 and 2 don’t agree. Did the resurrected Christ appear to large bodies of his followers first in Jerusalem, or did he appear instead to disciples in Galilee? We could fill paragraph after paragraph with these questions.

But pointing out that a document isn’t 100% accurate in every statement is not the same thing as saying that the document is 100% false. Imagine if that was the bar we set for journalism, or science textbooks. Darwin didn’t understand the concept of punctuated equilibrium, for example. He assumed that evolution always occurred at a steady, even pace. Does that make his whole body of work worthless? Newton, likewise, knew nothing of protons and electrons; was his physics therefore complete bunk? Of course, the Bible isn’t anything like scientific writing, so maybe these aren’t the best comparisons. The Bible is more like history or journalism. But historians are constantly updating and improving their interpretations of historical events. And journalists often report on news with only limited information, piecing things together as best they can, improving their picture of events as more information is available. Should they not do this? Should we not report on events until years after the fact, when we can be 99% certain of every claim made?

Furthermore, it’s important to point out that not all claims–in the Bible or in anything else–are of equal weight and importance. Whether Jesus overturned the money changers’ tables at one time, or many months later, doesn’t substantially alter the faith of Christians. Likewise, when the opening chapters of Genesis are understood for what they are–allegorical discussions on the meaning of existence–the radically different pictures given by chapters 1 and 2 can be seen as differing ways of talking about that meaning, rather than conflicting claims about factual events. For the New Testament, much of what is in the Gospels is of a secondary or tertiary nature. When scholars–on either side of the debate–engage in years-long debates on a single word of the text, one can’t help but feel that they are spinning their wheels, wasting time on near trivialities. But there are also, clearly, claims made in the Bible that are of great importance: their truth or falsity radically determines the meaning and validity of Christianity. We might not be too concerned with exactly when and where Jesus was born–but that he was born is clearly crucial. Likewise, whether Jesus delivered the beatitudes on the mount or on the plain doesn’t really affect their meaning–but if he never said anything like them, that’s a whole different issue.

And here we come upon another important point. Humans often forget details. But we have exemplary memory for salient facts and experiences. As an example (a good one, at least, for Americans reading this), try to remember September 11, 2001. I imagine you can immediately remember one thing about that day: two planes flying into the World Trade Center. But what did you eat for breakfast? When did you get up? What were you wearing? I, for one, couldn’t tell you the answers to any of these questions. Does that call into question my claim that, in fact, on that day, two planes slammed into the World Trade Center? I don’t imagine anyone would make that argument (unless they were outlining a radically Idealist or solipsist ontology, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion). So clearly, it’s quite possible that a person–and a community–could retain valid knowledge about some experiences while forgetting lots of other events, or some of the details surrounding those events.

And it seems to me that the experience of the Resurrection is just such a salient experience. Whatever else might be said about it, the idea that, because some of the details of the stories about Jesus’ life are in dispute, all claims made by the Bible are therefore bunk, is ridiculous. Of course, this is the very bar that Biblical literalists have set–and it’s really them, not critics outside of the Church–that bear the blame for this line of skepticism, since, as I said, I know of no other text that any secular scholar would hold to this high of a bar. But when we reflect on the differing degree of importance in the various claims, I think we can agree that the writers of the Gospels–and the memories which those writers were recording–don’t stand or fall all together. It’s quite possible that folks remembered certain events well, while remembering others less-so. It’s also important to remember that people will certainly remember events differently precisely because they were in different places, with different backgrounds, when a given event occurred. People living in Galilee would probably point to their experience of the Resurrection–again, whatever it was or wasn’t–as beginning in Galilee, while those in Jerusalem probably remember Christ having appeared there first. That doesn’t call into question the veracity of their claims, it simply recognizes a simple and obvious truth about human experience.

Of course, there is also the issue of whether we ought to have any confidence in the claims about the Resurrection itself. For me, this can be divided into two parts: addressing alternate explanations for the experience of the Resurrection, and talking about what exactly it means to speak of ‘the Resurrection’ in the first place. In my next post, I’m going to flop things around and actually address the second issue first. At a later point, I’ll delve into the first question, on alternate explanations–though I should point out that writers much wiser and more knowledgeable than I have already tackled the issue, and I’ll mostly just be summarizing their views, so you could easily search out that work on your own.

Dianne, I hope this post shed some light on my thinking on these issues! I know I have, at best, just knocked a tiny chunk out of the very tip of the iceberg, but of course this a blog, not a multi-volume textbook! Thanks again for your thoughtful questions and I look forward to further dialogue!

Talking About God, Part 4: Defining God

In the previous three posts in this series, I discussed fundamentalism, skeptical atheism, and liberal theology: an outline of their origins, their basic contents, and how they are affecting contemporary theology. I’d like now to turn from just describing currents of thought that either are fundamentally (hah!) flawed or, in the case of the latter 2, useful to an extent but still fall short. I’d like to talk about more current approaches to theology, and how traditional spirituality can be interpreted in modern language and thought-forms without losing its core character. That’s not an easy task, but it’s an essential one if Christianity (and other traditional faiths) are going to remain relevant in the future.

First off, though, some people might stop us right here, before we begin, and tell us we’re wasting our time. Certainly, they might say, Christianity has been disproven, discredited, and otherwise made irrelevant. The modern worldview is incompatible with Christianity, and it’s proven itself more useful and more honest. So why bother?

Fundamental to this question is a deeper and more basic set of questions. What exactly are we talking about when we talk about Christianity? Is it a totally cohesive set of ideas? Or is it a collection of ideas, some useful and some not? Can some of the traditional dogmas be ejected without compromising the faith? Are there central tenets that have to be retained for the faith to maintain any semblance of identity? These are crucial questions that we have to answer to make any progress in a modern interpretation of Christianity. At the same time, they’re also very subjective questions. There’s plenty of room for disagreement. From here on out, though, I’m going to give my two cents. But I want to make it clear that I’m not laying my opinions down as fact. I’ve thought a lot about this, and will defend my positions passionately. But I’m sure I’m wrong about at least a few of the positions I’m going to lay out here. Hopefully the process of asking and answering, over and over, will act to smelt out an answer, or at least  a set of guiding principles as we try to make progress on this impossibly complex task.

Continue reading

Talking About God, Part 3: ‘Liberal’ Theology

In Part 1, I discussed the rise of fundamentalist theology; in Part 2, I discussed the parallel rise of skeptical atheism. Now I’d like to turn to a sort of “compromise” between the two, generally referred to as liberal theology–though this name can be confusing. In this case, the term liberal shouldn’t be confused with any political or social movement or ideology. Although someone might subscribe to both a liberal theology and a liberal political ideology, there’s no reason they would have to, and in fact plenty of political conservatives might subscribe to a liberal theology, and plenty of liberals, and even more left-leaning progressives and radicals, might have a lot of problems with liberal theology (I would fall into that group, for example). In this context, liberal is meant to signify that this theology re-interpreted a lot of traditional stories and dogmas in a new, or ‘liberal’ way. In a lot of ways, it was an attempt to craft a Christianity that could stand up to the scientific scrutiny of the 19th century. And as such an effort, it was and is laudable. However, it also tended to take on a bourgeois-friendly, apolitical character. It largely re-casted Christianity as an uncontroversial set of moral principles, stripping Christianity both of its intense spirituality and its politically and socially radical nature. In that sense, it shares in some of the criticism of fundamentalism–liberal theology may have, at least in part, been advanced to create a religious system that meshed well with the developing capitalist, industrialist order. That said, its academic contributions can’t simply be ignored, and its impact on Christianity is undeniable. Whatever future the faith has, liberal theology will have a role to play. So let’s dig a bit deeper into exactly what it is.

Over the course of this post, I will try to make three main points: liberal theology hollowed out Christianity, re-casting it as a capitalist-friendly set of morality tales. It also brought a scientific-minded approach to Biblical hermeneutics that was simultaneously a good step forward yet flawed and limited in a variety of ways. Finally, liberal theology must both be willing to draw from Christian traditions as well as contemporary science and philosophy as it helps to build the foundations of a truly modern theology.

Continue reading

Talking About God, Part 2: Skeptical Atheism

I opened the previous post with a quick introduction into three of the dominant ways that modern people think and talk about God: fundamentalism, atheism, and a compromised or “liberal” theology. I then went on to outline how fundamentalism is primarily a political and social ideology rather than a real theology–its genesis and raison d’etre are, I believe, almost entirely political; philosophical and spiritual ideas are brought in to buttress the political ideology, not for their own merit. The result is a predictably shallow and unconvincing theological approach that, outside of the committed True Believers, is less than irrelevant. In this post I’d like to talk about contemporary atheism: how I think it began, what I think it’s responding to, and in what ways its useful and accurate, and in which ways it may be lacking. Like in the last post, I’m not going to cite anything, even though I’m making some historical claims. That’s mostly because I’m sitting in Korea and don’t have access to a lot of the books I’d like to cite. I hope to fill in this lack of citations in a month or two when I get back to the States. For now, please excuse my unsupported claims. In any event, I’m more interested in discussing broad outlines rather than historical specifics, and I think my basic position holds water even without full citations.

Modern atheism’s rise, I think, parallels that of fundamentalism closely. I do, though, want to make clear that unlike the hostile and dismissive tone I took with fundamentalism, I think there’s plenty to defend in skeptical atheism, even though I don’t embrace this position myself. Particularly as a response to fundamentalism, atheism is valuable, and in a lot of ways probably acted as a catalyst for the resurgence in good theology in the 20th century. Folks like Paul Tillich, Richard Neihbur, and even Karl Barth probably a great deal to atheism, since in so many ways it has focused contemporary Christian theology on central–and long-neglected–issues.

Though doubt is of course nothing new, for thousands of years, belief in gods, or God, or something along those lines, was generally seen as self-evident–creation stories relied on deity/ies in order to explain the world humans found themselves in. The real revolutions in spiritual insight were largely clarifying and deepening people’s understanding of God: moving from polytheism to henotheism to monotheism, for example. Or expanding the role of God from tribal protector to governor of the world to foundation of the universe, for another. But something crucial happened in western Christianity, starting in the 13th or 14th century. With the rise of what we might call “proto-science”, intellectuals were increasingly interested in analytical or reductionist reasoning; they were finding that if you took things apart, reduced them to the their constituent pieces, you could understand the wholes much better. The approach worked so well for so many things, that theologians began to think about their work in a similar way. Contemporary “radical orthodox” theologians trace this development back to Aquinas, essentially arguing that he was the watershed between a more traditional understanding of God as utterly mysterious and beyond rational grasp and a newer theology that treated God as a thing that could be observed and measured.

Karen Armstrong talks a lot in her books about the “Axial Age”, a period of one or two hundred years when, throughout the Mediterranean, India, and China, a huge revolution in spiritual and philosophical thought occurred. Socrates, Plato, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Siddhartha, Lao Tzu, and the writers of the Upanishads all lived in this narrow band of time. And all of them had some strikingly similar things to say. They all described the world as a united whole, governed by an inscrutable Law, or God, or Way. Proper living meant not fighting the universe, or begging it for special favors, as most previous religions had advised, but rather in harmonizing oneself with what Plato called “the Good”, what Siddhartha refers to as “Dharma”, what Lao Tzu called “the Way” and what Isaiah called “the Lord God”.

It was during this time that the tribal henotheism of the Israelites transformed into a true monotheism: Isaiah spoke of God not only as looking out for the interests of the Israelites and Judeans, but as the God of all people, who would ultimately deliver the whole world. He spoke of a future in which not only the Hebrews, but “all flesh would see the glory of the Lord.” It was a huge shift, and in a lot of ways I think it’s accurate to say that it was with Isaiah and Jeremiah that Judaism, as we know it now, was really launched. The religion that preceded it might be better referred to as Israelitism, or Hebrewism, for it functioned as an ethnic ideology in which the Hebrews claimed that their god would lead them to military and cultural victory over surrounding people. It’s with the destruction of Israel (the northern part of the Hebrews’ territory) by the Assyrians and the exile of Judah (the southern part, centered on Jerusalem) to Babylon about 150 years later that launched a sort of existential crisis within proto-Judaism. God, it seemed, was no longer on the Hebrews’ side. The tribes of Israel were scattered to the East, most never to be heard from again. The ruling elites of Jerusalem were serving in the court of the King of Babylon, so famously described in Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps….How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” And at that point, you’d expect that the Hebrews–and their religion–would be over, absorbed into the storm of ethnicities around them as a much more powerful political force swept them out of the way.

But that’s not what happened. The Hebrews living in Babylon not only kept their ethnic, cultural, and religious identity, but they totally transformed the latter into what would become the most dominant religious trajectory of the entire world. That trajectory began as religious thinkers at the time began to reflect–if God had abandoned the Hebrews, allowed them to be defeated by heathens, that meant that not only had the Hebrews fallen short of their religious duties (a common, even dominant, theme of earlier prophets) but also that their God’s power was not limited to the territory of Israel and Judah–if God was helping the Babylonians and Assyrians, that meant that there truly was no God of Israel, and no God of Assyria, and no gods of Babylon. It meant that there was one God, ruler of the whole universe, who was leading not only the Israelites, but the whole of humanity. This realization, reached in Babylon, would return with the exiles upon their return to Jerusalem as the Persians defeated the Babylonians. Judaism was launched. It may have been at this time that resurrection theology grew to fruition as well, as people grappled with how God would exact final justice when it seemed that so often the good were punished and the wicked prevailed. God’s rewards and punishments were increasingly seen as eternal and universal, rather than immediate and particular. The faith that was evolving was one of universal hope, the Kingdom of God was a coming state of peace and intimate knowledge of the Source of Everything, not just a political state of affairs.

This radical reworking of “Hebrewism” into Judaism shifted the faith away from ritualistic concerns and towards ethical ones. This is why many people have referred to this as the launching of “ethical monotheism”. The prophet Amos captured the mood perfectly. He has God say: ““I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5: 21-24, emphasis mine). For all the moralizing of contemporary Christianity, at its root, Judeo-Christian belief is a cry for liberation, for justice, and for peace.

Crucially, for our discussion, the concept of God that underpinned this nascent Judaism had to differ greatly from the tribal, war-like deity of the past. This was a universal God, a just God, an almighty God. This was a God that was leading not just Israel to victory, but the whole world, the whole universe, to Reunion. This was something radically different. This understanding of God could no longer see the deity as a sort of superhuman being, a kind of spiritual superperson. This God was something a whole order of magnitude greater and different. God was not a being at all–not even the supreme one–God was being itself, the foundation of existence. Utterly transcendent.

I’ll have a lot more to say about transcendence (and imminence, yay!) in Part 4. But for now I want to shift back to the main focus of this post. The point of all this historical blathering on (I do promise it had a point) is that the idea of God arrived at around 500 BCE in Babylon among the Hebrew/Jewish diaspora there was of a transcendent God, the foundation of all being. It’s worth pointing out that even the name of God in Hebrew, which may have been/probably was something like Yahweh, can be translated as “I am that which is becoming”. Of course, it can also be translated in other ways, but it’s not hard to see how this name captures a transcendent streak in Hebraic thinking, even before the Babylonian exile. That streak came to fruition in folks like Isaiah, and the dominant way of thinking about God throughout the Judeo-Christian-Islamic world for the next 1500 years would keep God’s transcendence front and center.

But that changed–at least in western Europe–and to understand the rise of modern atheism, that change has to be understood. The exact details of the change are a bit tedious, but in the 13th and 14th centuries, as mentioned above, a major change took place. Scholasticism, best epitomized by Thomas Aquinas, slowly moved away from the mystical, transcendent view of God, and began to describe God as the “Supreme Being”. They then set out to prove that such a Supreme Being must exist, and thereby hoped to build a sort of un-scalable wall around the Catholic faith. But in so doing, they abandoned the central tenet of monotheism, without which the whole system of thought and belief falls apart. The huge watershed of the Axial Age amounted to the recognition of God as a transcendent yet immanent mystery, a non-dual reality, the intersection of all seeming contradictions, the beginning and the end of all things. Scholastic thought attempted to break this picture down and analyze its pieces.

But the very nature of something that is non-dual is that it can’t be broken down further for analysis. For example, when Buddha says that the Dharma is neither personal nor non-personal, he was expressing the fact that the true nature of the Dharma is beyond reason. Reason assumes opposites and contradictions. That’s how logic works: we describe things by using opposites and terms that contrast. When I say that a dinosaur is big or a mouse is small, I’m relying on the opposing definition of those two adjectives. But God, as the foundation, source, and sustainer of all things, cannot be defined in these terms, since these terms exist as products of God. To paraphrase a central tenet of Taoism, a god that can be described is not the true God.

Anyway, I’ll dig more into this in Part 4 of this series. For now, suffice it to say that this critical distinction between God and all other concepts was essentially abandoned by Scholastic theologians. And so the idea of God that became prominent in Western Europe in the Renaissance and thereafter–and crucially during the science-promoting Enlightenment–was a sort of ersatz theology that lacked the crucial Axial insight. In other words, the theism that atheism arose to challenge and reject was not a truly Jewish or Christian theism. It was a compromised vision of God that had already attempted to analyze God through means that are inappropriate. This led not only to problematic and even silly proofs of God, but also a caricatured understanding of him among the lay faithful that was easily ridiculed. When God is seen as an angry man in the sky who rewards or punishes people based on their creedal allegiance, atheism makes plenty of sense. Michelangelo’s seminal image of God painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome really captures the problem: there’s God, a balding, bearded white man in Mediterranean robes, reaching out with his hand to zap Adam to life, ET-style. Looking at that image, it’s palpably clear why Jews and Muslims alike forbid any pictural rendering of God.

So skeptical atheism arose as a response to the Scholastics’ ersatz theology–and rightly debunked it. But as we rediscover the full and true nature of what theism was and should be, the skeptical atheist response has much less to say. It’s not even clear that skeptical atheism really disagrees with a transcendent-immanent theism–this will largely depend on the individual atheists and theists involved. The broader point though, is that, at least in reference to the sort of “theism” that was popular in the West for the last half millennium, we may really be able to talk about a post-theism, post-atheism sort of theology and philosophy. Ironically, this newer theology may largely simply be a return to our roots. It’s worth pointing out that even in the Christian world, the loss of a transcendent view of God was almost exclusively a Western one–the Eastern and Oriental* Orthodox Churches didn’t embrace the Scholastics’ God-as-a-thing theological approach, and retain to this day a much richer vision of God. The same is obviously true for religious folks outside of Christianity, and it may be that fact–as well as the co-option of Christianity by political elites–more than anything that has led to many people searching for “spiritual truth” outside of traditional Western spirituality. We ejected many of our central truths more than 500 years ago. But I think we can get them back.

This understanding of the history of theism and atheism isn’t necessarily hostile to atheism–as I said before, in a lot of ways, this understanding owes a lot to atheism. And it certainly wouldn’t embrace the sort of anti-scientific nonsense that has such currency in fundamentalist circles. Nonetheless, it would certainly place huge emphasis on the insight that in trying to understand the transcendent-immanent foundations of existence, science itself will be of limited use, since in trying to understand God we are not trying to understand anything, or anyone. We are trying to arrive at a state of non-dual experience, the coincidence of contradictions, to borrow from Nicolas de Cusa. Anyway, I’ll talk more about all of this in Part 4. This post is already 2500 words long–so it’s time to wrap up. Next time, in Part 3, I’ll discuss the liberal theology that arose in the 19th and 20th centuries–both its contributions and its limitations.

*I realize that this term is sometimes offensive–but in this case, “Oriental” does not refer to people from eastern Asia, but rather to a specific group of churches in Africa, the Middle East, and India. It’s the name that’s been used for centuries, and has been retained in modern usage despite the confusion it sometimes generates.

Talking About God, Part 1: Fundamentalism

“God” is a word that is at once fundamental and mysterious. Most people talk about God–affirmatively or dismissively–as if they are talking about something they are well acquainted with. God is understood as a celestial father, or an impersonal force, or a wrathful ruler, or an-loving presence. God is attested to in a variety of scriptures; people claim to have experienced God in a variety of revelations and mystical experiences. The more skeptical dismiss God as a psychological aberration or a political ploy. So what is God? When we are talking about God–that is, when we are doing theology–what is it that we’re talking about?

I’m more interested in talking about what I think God is (and isn’t…we’ll get to the problems with this language in a bit) rather than in dismissing all the approaches to thinking about God that I disagree with. For one thing, there are a lot of ideas about God. Most of them are either outdated or crazy, and there’s centuries worth of literature that enumerates, in excruciating detail, just why those approaches are so wrong. But I will touch briefly on the main currents of thought present in the West now, as I see them. I will now launch in a very long discussion of them, since once I started writing, I realized I couldn’t really say anything worthwhile in just a few hundred words.

Basically, I think you can talk about three broad approaches to thinking about God: one is fundamentalism, which argues that there is a book somewhere that tells us everything we need to know about God. The book is assumed to be revelation, that is, the unadulterated Word of God, unquestionable, and without which any knowledge of God is impossible. The second is complete skepticism, which dismisses the idea of God outright as either a psychological aberration, a holdover from our primitive days that we need to evolve beyond; a cynical political invention used to manipulate poor and/or foolish people; or an idea that intellectually deficient people hold on to as they face the brutal reality of life. Third, there are people who attempt to build a sort of compromise approach. They don’t deny or assert God in any particular way. They often believe in God in the same way that we believe in black holes: they’re interesting, but irrelevant. This is approach is common among folks who ascribe either to agnosticism or who believe in God and may even define themselves as belonging to a specific religious group, but who don’t really assert anything in particular. Often, these folks treat their religion more as a cultural or social group that they enjoy being a part of. While this approach to spirituality has plenty of things going for it–it tends to be highly tolerant, for example–it also strips religion of most of its social criticism and spiritual insight. A compromised theology is unlikely to inspire people to change themselves or their society. It is easily co-opted by the society around it, and lacks any “prophetic” potential to really challenge anyone or anything.

OK, so let’s talk about these each in turn really quickly fundamentalism now and I’ll address the others in subsequent posts (Parts 2 & 3). Fundamentalism is pretty ubiquitous in the US these days. Most people probably assume its the default form of Christianity, and probably think that most Christians are die-hard fundamentalists. The reality, though, is that fundamentalism is a relatively recent phenomenon. While there have always been people who have insisted on a very literal reading of the Bible, for the most part, the dominant thinkers in both Eastern and Western Christianity didn’t, for centuries on end. It was the rise of modern science, which overturned many traditional mythologies, that really launched fundamentalism as a major theological force within western Christianity. With geology, biology, and physics all questioning traditional creation myths, histories, and ontologies, some Christians felt backed into a corner. But it’s worth pointing out that the initial reaction of many prominent theologians to, for example, Darwin’s Origins of Species was positive; they immediately perceived that evolutionary theory could be easily dovetailed to an understanding of God as a creative agent in the world. It would take a less-than literal reading of some passages of the Bible, but most serious readers of the Bible for centuries had known that most of the Bible was never meant to be read literally anyway. It used metaphor, analogy, myth, and poetry to discuss things that can’t be easily discussed–or in some cases, discussed at all–with literal language.

But quickly, a number of church leaders, especially within some Protestant denominations in North America, came out railing against Darwin, modern geology, and any other science that challenged their comfortable interpretations of religious truth. Even though Jesus himself directly challenged religious orthodoxy, a large number of Christian leaders were uninterested in any contemporary challenges, and worked to turn lay believers against the new sciences.

It would be easy to dismiss this as simply an act of ignorance or creedal closed-mindedness, but the truth is probably a lot more complicated. Ultimately, fundamentalism is a lot more about politics than theology. Wealthy elites always need a system to keep the people beneath them in line. Normally, they do this in at least two central ways: first, they pay some small proportion of people decent wages to act as police or soldiers, who then keep the status quo in place through force or threat of force. This is obvious, but in some ways is less insidious than the other major approach: the elites also cultivate ideologies–political, religious, economic, and otherwise–that act to legitimize their position in the society. If they can convince a large enough minority of those below them that they (the elites) deserve their wealth, power, and privilege, those same elites can save a lot of money on police and military security, and much of the work of maintaining the status quo will be done for them by the very people they are exploiting.

Now, some more skeptically-minded folks (who we’ll get to in a bit in a subsequent post because this post is already nearly 2000 words long) might, at this point, argue that religion itself is nothing but a very old and complex form of social manipulation by elites. This is a tempting answer, since it ties everything up in a neat bow, but unfortunately, much of the reality of religion is left outside the knot. For one, religions have launched far too many riots, revolutions, and resistance movements to explain their existence so simply. And these upheavals are not the result of some peripheral aspect of religion; most religions’ central texts are full of contempt and condemnation–and often damnation–for the wealthy and powerful. The idea that they were designed to act as an opium of the masses doesn’t fit the history or the texts. The truth is more complex than that. However, such skeptical dismissals of religion aren’t all wrong–it’s clear that many, really, all, religions, once they become popular enough over a given group, are often appropriated by elites for their own ends. So even if the vestments weren’t sewn in the first place to act as the Emperor’s New Clothes, they certainly are often custom-tailored to the purpose later on.

Fundamentalism represents the primary approach to this appropriation in the modern era. While I’m now definitely diving out of theology and more deeply into politics, I don’t think one can understand fundamentalism without talking about politics. The initial reaction of a number of theologians and Christian leaders to Darwin’s Origin of Species, as I mentioned above, was actually positive. They saw his theory of natural selection as a newer, more scientific way of interpreting God’s creative agency in the universe. But within a few years, that sort of open-minded critical engagement with science was being dismissed, especially in North American Evangelical Christianity, as surrendering to an ominous new threat. Battle lines were drawn, with “Bible-believing” Christians on the one side and the Enemies of Civilization on the other. Industrialization had created vast new wealth, but had also plunged millions into not only horrific poverty, but grindingly inhuman work. The social order was being completely overturned, and many elites recognized a serious threat to their power within society. And a number of Christian leaders decided to step in, ally themselves to those within power, and offer their services to keep at least one sizable segment of the population from embracing any unsettling new ideas–scientific or political. They overlooked the fact that at its heart, the Gospel message is one of liberation, of equality, and of rejection of power, wealth, and privilege, and instead crafted–like so many church leaders before them–a modified Christianity designed not to nurture, enlighten, and liberate their fellow Christians, but rather one customized to keep their fellow Christians in their place.

In the 20th century, the clearest demonstration of this is the “Culture Wars” which were launched by conservative thinkers in the 1970s. Christian allegiance was reinterpreted to mean toeing the line on a limited number of issues–especially a rejection of gay rights and an absolute ban on abortion. Other issues much more central to the Gospel–combating poverty, resisting war, denouncing wealth and power, building loving and compassionate societies–were all sidelined or completely ignored, because they represented a threat to those in power. Gay rights and access to abortion are largely unimportant to powerful people, who have the money, access, and immunity to pursue whatever sexual lives they choose, and the resources to access, for example, contraceptives or abortions if they need. Money can buy anything, even if its illegal. So these two issues are great ones for the elites’ fundamentalist allies to focus on, since by focusing millions of Evangelicals on them, other questions will be left unaddressed, and the status quo can be much more easily maintained. The fact that this has led many Christians to hate, persecute, and even attack and kill homosexuals, their allies, abortion providers, women who seek abortions, and their allies, is seen by fundamentalist leaders not as deeply un-Christian and shameful, but rather as evidence that the Culture Wars are being won.

So what does all of this mean for theology? What does all of this political maneuvering have to do with our understanding of God? Well, the fundamentalist vision of God is one crafted not out of intellectual or spiritual exploration or research, but one that has been designed to fit into the fundamentalist social framework. So, through fundamentalism, politics invades theology and subjugates legitimate theological questions to partisan interests. Not surprisingly, then, the fundamentalist vision of God is not only childishly simplistic, but out of line with Biblical and Patristic theological viewpoints. Fundamentalism isn’t a re-capturing of Christianity’s traditional core, its an utterly warped caricature of that core.

The heart of the most central prophet books of the Tanakh (Old Testament) as well as the Christian Gospel was and is a cry for social justice. Isaiah, for example, in chapter 10:1-3, warns “…those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees,to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches?” Psalm 12, verse 5: “Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise,” says the Lord. “I will protect them from those who malign them.” Jesus told his disciples, “[i]f you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” In the Epistle of James, chapter 2:3-4, the writer warns his readers that “if you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”

The heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition has always been social justice. God was seen time and time again as the Avenger who would punish the wealthy and powerful for their arrogance, selfishness, and oppression. Fundamentalism’s primary role is in distracting modern Christians from this reality and convincing them that their faith obligates them to toeing a partisan line designed to make it easier for rich people to exploit them. The very heart of the Christian faith is the crucifixion and resurrection: a poor peasant from a peripheral province of a vast empire is killed by the State for sedition. His resurrection was seen then as the proof of God’s promise to overturn the corrupt worldly order and institute the Kingdom of Heaven, where, in the words of Isaiah, chapter 40:4-5: “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together…” Fundamentalism is the modern incarnation of the effort by those in power to obscure this message, and replace it with a reactionary one designed not to inaugurate the Kingdom of Heaven, but to keep the current social order intact for as long as possible. As such, fundamentalism is a betrayal of Christ’s message and a huge failure on the part of the church.

OK! So that ended up being way longer than I originally intended. I recognize that my “history” of fundamentalism is very simplistic; I wasn’t trying to describe all the specific historical causes involved in creating the modern fundamentalist movement in all its complexity, but rather in explaining what I think essentially motivates it. I’ll address the other two major modern approaches to theology in later posts, and then try to outline the alternative(s) that many people are developing and that I think is(are) crucial for the future of spiritual systems in general and Christianity in particular.

Augustine & Newt: A Response to Linda Hirshman

Linda Hirshman has a piece in Salon today vis-a-vis Newt’s less than stellar marital track record. Her main point is laudable: she’s rightly concerned that all the attention paid to politicians’ sex lives distracts voters from the more crucial issue of whether the polices they’re proposing will actually be good for the country. Fair enough, a point well made and definitely something we ought to be talking more about. So I’m glad she wrote about it.

But! She ended up relying on the age-old Augustine bashing to drive her point home. And its here that I have to complain, but just a bit (um, Update: I actually end up complaining a whole lot. Sorry!) She makes two assertions that I think are faulty and poisonous to the whole discourse. First, she claims that the whole obsession with sexuality is a peculiarly Judeo-Christian thing, and seems to imply that if we could get over that cultural baggage, we’d be much better for it. Second, she says that “[m]ost of the fault for this misallocation of our moral indignation lies, of course, in the unruly sexuality of fourth-century Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo.” Ouch! This is both wildly untrue and a gross over-simplification of Augustine’s life and thought. But let’s talk a bit about that first claim before we get to good old Augie.

The idea that sexual hang-ups are the primary and exclusive legacy of Judeo-Christian culture is as common as it is untrue. First off, sexuality is generally treated as an important, emotionally-charged, and taboo issue in almost every human society. Sure, it takes different forms, and certainly some cultures are more prudish than others. And in that regard, you could certainly target Christianity as more on the prudish side of the spectrum than some other faiths. But Buddhism, for example, is at least as concerned with the control of the libido as Christianity. Siddhartha made it clear that sexual desire had to be completely abandoned on the path towards realizing Nirvana. Confucian philosophy, which is more social and political than it is spiritual, nonetheless felt that female modesty was crucial in order to protect the lineage of a woman’s father and husband. Islam (which is arguably in the Judeo-Christian orbit, but nonetheless clearly has unique cultural and spiritual aspects as well) is well-known for being highly protective/oppressive/prudish about womens’ bodies and often stresses the need for sexual control. Concern over sexuality is not a Judeo-Christian thing. It’s a human thing. Certainly, there’s plenty to criticize in Christianity’s impact on sexual mores in the West, but to take the whole vast burden of sexual hangups that we humans feel and lay it on just one religio-cultural tradition is absurd.

But Hirshman goes even farther, actually claiming that almost all of the blame actually lies not just with one religion, but with one man–Augustine of Hippo. Augustine is certainly famous for asking God for “chastity–just not now.” And Augustine was quite honest about his years of fornication and his inability, for years, to cease it, despite the fact that he thought it was wrong. But instead of seeing this as evidence of Augustine’s sexual hangups, it could just easily be seen as his being very honest, both with his readers and with himself.

As I just mentioned above, the idea that being unable to rein in one’s sexual urges is a spiritual deficiency is hardly limited to Christianity. In fact, even utterly non-spiritual people might well reflect on the fact that being unable to control one’s libido at all could lead to all sorts of problems, and that giving oneself totally to lust can easily distract us from other important facets of our lives. Seeing an unrestrained libido as less than a good thing is hardly automatically or obviously stupid, retrograde, or repressive.

That said, again, I’m not defending Christianity’s whole record on sexuality–there’s a lot to criticize! But certainly we can engage in that criticism in a more sophisticated way, pointing out specifics and building a strong case, instead of just dismissing an entire 2000-year old religion. A bit of research into the issue could have given Hirshman a much more nuanced view on the issue, and also allowed her to make her point more clearly and forcefully, I think. One obvious detail–almost trivial I’ll admit, but hey! fact-checking is important!–Hippo, Augustine’s home is not in Italy, as Hirshman seems to think; it was located in Africa, near modern Tunisia.

But the problems with Hirshman’s article aren’t limited to problems of historical research and interpretation. She goes on to basically ask, hey, what’s the big deal about adultery? and compares cheating on one’s spouse to any other breach of contract–she compares it to ” wearing a dress to the party and then taking it back to the store”. While I appreciate that she’s pointing out that people who cheat on their partners aren’t necessarily awful human beings, I think her comparisons here are way off the mark. She herself essentially admits as much a few lines later, admitting that, for example, Hilary Clinton was clearly deeply hurt by Bill’s philandering. But immediately after, she suggests that it all worked out, because Hilary almost become the President. Huh?

The idea that our broken relationships, our failures to care and love for each other, are no big deal as long as we do well in politics or business is incredibly cold and mercenary. And at the end of the piece, I’m left wondering what exactly Hirshman is getting at. She begins the whole whole piece by warning us that “[w]hen all morality collapses into sexual morality, the voters will become so fixated on whom the candidates are screwing they don’t notice …  it’s them.” Yes! This is, like I said at the outset of this post, a really good and important point! But by the end of the piece she seems to be living in a world where only politics matters, where our personal lives not only shouldn’t be discussed in public, but really shouldn’t be a big deal, even to us. After noting how Newt Gingrich’s second wife has gone through so much and been treated poorly, she concludes the piece by noting that “it’s so gratifying at least to see him bleed a little.” But seeing him bleed a little isn’t going to help us build a more progressive society, and she seems to be getting derailed by the very personal aspect of politics that she seemed to want to discard at the beginning.

In short, this is a piece I would love to see written…again…by Linda Hirshman. Her main point is right on target, but she tries to pull in so many threads and tie it all together with an over-arching worldview that just doesn’t knot well. I think if she had stuck to the details of the issue at hand, she could have wound up with a much better take-down of the Republicans’ (well, and Democrats’) hypocritical public attitude towards sex. On the other hand, if she really wants to write about how this all ties into Christianity, Augustine, and English Common Law, fine! But she needs to do a lot more research first.

This post appeared on both my main blog as well as my Open Salon blog.