Now available in Polish at Racjonalista. Thanks again to Malgorzata.
I’ve been stymied over the last few days trying to untangle the issue of true belief. For some time now we have been told that the men who hijacked the planes that brought down the Twin Towers in New York, flew into the Pentagon, or were brought down by some courageous passengers in a Pennsylvania field, are not representative of Islam. People who criticise the new atheists are forever accusing them of misrepresenting true Christianity, which is not, we are to suppose, represented by Christian fundamentalists. Indeed, with some justice, but also with a fair degree of self-serving diversion, Christians who do not want to be identified with American fundamentalists have been saying for some time that modern Christian fundamentalism is really, that is, really and truly, a modern version of Christianity dreamt up fairly recently by Christians who took science as their model of what a real religion looks like. And then it is added, of course, that it couldn’t be further from the truth. Real Christianity, we are to understand, unlike fundamentalism, is quite at home in the modern university, and can pull its own weight in academic discussion, as well as at those places where it interfaces with science. Some Christians, like the people at the Faraday Institute in Cambridge — another “institute” funded by the Templeton Foundation — go so far as to suggest that, not only can Christianity be shown to be consistent with scientific discovery, but that hard science, when examined closely, actually supports specifically Christian beliefs.
It’s that last point that I find truly puzzling. Like people who find embryology in the Qu’ran or nuclear war in the Mahabharata, Christian theologians who actually claim support for Christian beliefs in contemporary science just have to be wrong. And, of course, when you actually look at the theological work that they do it becomes abundantly clear that this is not really what they mean. What they mean is that, if we take the theories of science, we can find some plausible “workaround” that allows the Christian to claim that, when all is said and done, at least science does not make Christian belief impossible. Christians can still hold onto their beliefs, like Linus to his blanket, despite the fact that those who are making these claims indulge in so much special pleading, and continue to make such obvious attempts at diverting attention from the most serious conflicts by keeping up a running patter which at least looks like it is taking science into account, that their unease with science is rather brutally plain to everyone but themselves. And when they start talking about myth, and tell us that of course Christians don’t actually believe — in a strong sense of this word — that Christian doctrines like the virgin birth, the resurrection, or the ascension into heaven actually took place in the strict and literal sense of the word (as, we will see in a moment, Rowan Williams does), but are useful organising principles for the religious communities for whom these narratives form the central justifying story for their belonging, their ritual, and their creeds; no one is meant, we are assured, to think that these things happened in quite the simple way that fundamentalists assume that they did.
I have to admit to finding this — what surely amounts to — prevarication incredibly annoying. It is almost as if religious believers — or should we just take them at their word and call them religious narrators instead? — are attempting to have their cake and eat it too, and they can chop and change from one point of view to the other without apparently recognising that this kind of duplicity is involved. Talk about religious belief, and the theologian turns around and tells us that religion is not about belief; it’s more a matter of practice, of ritual, of community, of somehow “living the myth” in the real world where, of course, they know the difference between believing and — well, what? — what is it that religious people do when they take their religious myths and express them in song, story, and sacred ritual? What is the status of the affirmations made in the Nicene Creed, for example, used in the context of the eucharistic liturgy? When the gathered faithful begin to recite or intone the words “I believe …” or “Credo in unum Deum,” or, as more modern translations of the original creed say, “We believe …,” what is it that they are doing? Are they expressing belief, or solidarity, or their mutual sharing in a tradition which, while it once bore the actual beliefs of the gathered community (the ecclesia), now expresses a sense of traditional belonging to the same, continuing historical community, no matter how changed it has become over the centuries, and no matter how tenuous their relationship to those original and originating beliefs?
I remember, some years ago, a woman telling me that she could no longer say the creed during the liturgy, and, at the time, while I tended to agree with her, and did not myself believe, sensu proprio, the beliefs expressed in it, it was useful, I suggested, as expressing our historical link to the communities that went before us. It connected us with those communities, huddled together, on a cold morning, around the tomb of a martyr, where they gathered to celebrate their oneness in Christ through the sacred mysteries of his body and blood – and, of course, a whole lot of other malarkey. It’s hard to believe now that I said things like that. But the problem that I want to express by telling you this is that some such form of circumlocution is necessary when dealing with religious beliefs in the modern world. Failing that, you end up, and must end up, a fundamentalist of some sort, and then you begin to say things like N. T. Wright (former bishop of Durham in England), when he appeared on Canada’s evangelical TV programme “100 Huntley Street,” not quite suggesting that the church was wrong about hell, but holding that it is important to retain a place for hell in our understanding, whether a place of fire or not. In the gospel of Mark Jesus is made to speak of a place “where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched,” something which seems clear enough in all conscience, and sufficient to ground the common Christian image of a place of eternal fire and suffering. N.T. Wright, however, suggests a more “theological” view. Here is the key :
Notice especially the avuncular, scholarly way that Wright has of speaking; but note also that the inhumanity (implied in the notion of hell) is still there, the cruelty, the lack of human compassion. Perhaps most telling are the words, “I fail to see why we should speculate about that.” Here is a transcription of the words in the clip:
Hell is, if you like, I was going to say it’s where God isn’t. Even that isn’t true, cause ultimately God will be all in all. But it is as though within Gods all in all-ness, there will be an absence, a loss, the possibility of there being creatures who once were human, but now are not. I don’t know what the word ‘where’ would mean at that point. Because I don’t know what location is like at that point. And I fail to see why we should speculate about that. I just think it’s a state of being, of creatures that once were human, once did reflect the image of God, but have chosen to do so no more. And I have to say, people often ask me about this, and I don’t like talking about it, partly because I know a great many people and love a great many people, some of whom, as far as I can see, are saying precisely that to God. And I shudder to think, of those people saying: “I truly don’t want to be human, thank you very much …,” because they are lovely human beings at the moment, and you can see glimmers of God in them. [my italics]
The question is, of course, why Wright thinks it appropriate to speculate about any of this, why he thinks that there is, if not a place, a state of being called hell. Isn’t that just as speculative? He’s not willing to speculate about the location of hell, but he has no hesitation in speculating about the nature of what “being in hell” means. He just thinks of it as a state of being less than human. What does it mean just to think something like that? It is interesting that Mehdi Hasan (a Muslim British journalist who pretends to be a lefty) said something similar about those who are not Muslims, who, he says, live their lives as though they were animals. Just consider the implications of what these men are saying. We are truly human, they say, and you are not. Wright says, of some of the people of whom this is true, that they ”are lovely human beings at the moment.” If they are lovely human beings at the moment then they are lovely human beings. It is offensive to suggest that they will become something else, or, as Hasan claims they are already, more akin to “animals” (in a derogatory sense, for of course we are animals), just because they don’t believe that some people’s religious speculations are true.
There’s a lot of pretend thought going on here just to be able to affirm things that are written in ancient holy books which have no real relevance to us today, because there is no basis upon which we can hold their various claims about the supernatural world or our ultimate destiny to be true. And it is simply hopeless for people to claim that the fundamentalists have got it wrong when they read these books literally, for the sophisticated theologians do their level best to interpret the words in ways that they think the original writers would have meant their words if they had been writing now (or some equally questionable principle of interpretation). But they’re not writing now, and pretending that there is a hermeneutical way around the words that makes what they are saying as valid now as when they were first written is a bit of cheap theatrics. It cannot be taken as serious thought. That’s why history has to be written again and again, because the past is another country.
But consider what Christians have to do in order to go on speaking about hell, if they don’t want to speak, as Jesus did, about fires which are never quenched and worms that never die. Whether it is a place of fire or not, there is, we are to suppose, punishment, which is hard to think of non-locally, though it is left deliberately unclear as to in what the punishment consists, and what its effect is on the individual, though it is held to be at the very least dehumanising. But what could it mean to suggest that those who refuse to bow down and worship a god are living like animals, if, in fact, as Wright says, they can be lovely human beings (at the moment)? But a more ridiculous thing is Wright’s idea (available on a separate clip) that there will be a “coming together” of heaven and earth, and a new creation, in which those who have died in the faith of Christ will be resurrected, that is, recreated, to new life. There is simply no reason to believe this sort of stuff, and if it is claimed that this is different than the fundamentalism that so many “sophisticated” believers hold to be beneath their dignity as thinking people, it is hard for me, at least, to see where the difference lies.
Consider a sophisticated theologian, like Rowan Williams, who fudges the issues when questions cut too close to the bone, as he did in this interview with Richard Dawkins.
But fudging the issues like this is not obviously more sophisticated than the fundamentalist who takes the beliefs literally. For, after all, while Williams is being a bit more cagey, he does acknowledge that he believes in the virgin birth, the resurrection and the raising of Lazarus. But when it comes to the things that he fudges, using, as Dawkins says, poetic language, you can’t say that he believes anything obviously ridiculous, because it’s not clear that he believes anything at all relevant to the question that was put to him. He’s simply unwilling to be caught out stating beliefs which are obviously inconsistent with the world of knowledge in which educated people live today, except, of course, if you are an archbishop, and dare not question the basic certainties, for those few central beliefs without which Christianity would be a kind of mythical humanism. But if the chips were down, he’d have to side with the simple believers rather than with those who do not believe, even though he has intellectually more in common with the latter, because he goes on, in a quite unreconstructed way, to speak of the long period of historical preparation for the coming of Jesus. We need to know whether this is a mythical narrative for Williams, or whether he means it, quite simply, as in some sense plainly true of history, that there was a moment when something actually happened which can be reasonably called “nature opening itself up to its own depths” (whatever that means). And if the latter, then he’d have to acknowledge that fundamentalists are saying, possibly in a less refined way, what he is saying.
And this brings us, finally – ”Thank Ceiling Cat!” you are probably thinking if you have reached this point — to the central point of this essay. Kunwar Khuldune Shahid, in a perceptive piece in Pakistan Today (hat tip to Ophelia for linking and discussing it at Butterflies and Wheels — Tacitus in Karachi) points out that the Taliban are not corrupting the message of Islam, they are living it. As he says with exemplary clarity:
It is so painfully amusing to note how the ‘moderates’ and armchair revolutionaries, would sit there with a glass of [w]ine in their hands, uninhibitedly hanging out with the opposite sex, not having offered a prayer or fasted for ages, claiming how the Taliban – who lead their lives strictly according to the Shariah – are infesting their religion of harmony. The poor chaps are only doing what their scriptures – the ones that the pseudo intellectuals extol, or don’t have the cojones to criticize – tell them to do. When you are being taught, through the scriptures that are universally recognized by the followers as ‘authentic’, that all the non-believers or threats to the grandeur of your ideology should be killed, you will kill them, where is the misinterpretation here?
Now, if I’ve got the foregoing right, you should now be thinking how like N.T. Wright the Taliban are. Wright should be uncomfortable saying that those who do not worship his god are really only animals who look like humans, even lovely human beings at the moment, for, just like the Taliban, you know that the next logical step is genocide. For what is the point of saying, of some people that you know, that they are lovely human beings at the moment, if you do not mean that they are not really human beings at all, that their being lovely human beings is mere appearance, because they have chosen not to reflect the image of God, because they happen not to share your particular religious convictions? It is not only offensive, it is dangerous to use language like this, and this is something Shahid sees so clearly. He can see the danger, but we cannot — we, who live a comfortable distance from places like Pakistan. He lives with the danger all around him. Indeed, it takes considerable courage to write and publish what he wrote in the place where he lives and works. Wright can pretend to be thoughtful, even scholarly, but he is using the same dehumanising language that the Taliban use, the kind of language that lets you kill little girls for wanting to learn, because wanting to learn leads you away from the strict teachings of holy writ, leads you, in Wright’s words, to choose not to reflect God’s image. And when people’s beliefs force them to speak of other people as in the process of dehumanising themselves, because refusing to bow down and worship their God, they are speaking of them as less than human already, even if only in anticipation, and then you can see the flash of the sword beneath the apparently benign words of religious conviction.