(Con)Texts in Religious Scholarship

Excellent article by Jon Levenson, Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, on texts in contexts.

Levenson beings by retelling how he was trained in the classical historical-critical method of Biblical studies, particularly the Albright school of archaeology.  [Personal sidenote: one of my Hebrew Bible professors (Jim Lindenberger) was also an Albright student].

Levenson describes this method:

The goal was to place the Hebrew Bible in its historical context, and we could do that only if we could reconstruct the cultural world in which its many documents were written—an arduous task but one that bore, and continues to bear, much good fruit.

But Levenson already recognizes a problem with this method (for all the admitted good it has done):

Almost from the beginning, though, I felt there was a certain problem with this. What the biblical texts meant in the world of their authors is in considerable tension with what they mean today—including what they mean personally to the professors and students who devote themselves to that historical task. But the very method rendered that question of what they mean today one that could not be asked. It belonged somewhere else, to the theologians, for example, or to the preachers. Of course, when the theologians or preachers interpreted the book in light of ongoing tradition and contemporary experience, the historical-critical scholars were none too reluctant to accuse them of taking the Bible out of context.

Levenson discusses (and hints at) the rife possibility of secularization in this process.  That is, everyone is going to have an interpretive tradition (religious or otherwise), but if they can achieve this knowledge through simply the academic “neutral” viewpoint, then why is the religion necessary?  The historical method growing largely out of Protestant exegesis de-emphasized tradition (which was considered too Catholic)–Levenson critiques this vivew from a Rabbnic Jewish perspective and relates it interestingly to Catholic views of tradition.  I would call this sense of getting to the original context (following Habermas) neo-positivism–especially when related to the fields of archaeology, historicism:  i.e. whatever is the case is what is right.  Neo-positivism’s main flaw in Habermas’ mind is that it is a non-liberating praxis.  And I think this is what Levenson is getting at as well.  It can not get us to the question of how do I live?  How do I find truth?  In Luther’s question:  How do I find a Loving God?

When applied more to hermeneutics (and less to archaeology or history), this notion of entering the mind of the original readers derives from the Romantic tradition (also Protestant) of Schleiermacher and later Dilthey. i.e. Text without (our contemporary) context.  The only con-text given priority is the ancient one.  But of course it is our reconstruction of the ancient context.  [For a more detailed discussion of this point, here.]

In other words, this whole system Levenson describes is a product of the modern wave.  In that sense I would say it is in a sense of a kind of faith.  I wouldn’t make a sharp distinction between secularism and faith (i.e. religion) because in the manner just mentioned, I think secularism is a faith (or worldview).

A faith in the scientific method, a faith in reason, human progress in knowledge, combined in these religious scholarship with a notion that the original setting has some quasi-mystical/revelatory power than will simply be unleashed when we return to it.

That faith has been largely critiqued and it’s promise of a final fulfillment/enlightenment has been shown to be false (true but partial/negated but preserved).  What replaces this outmoded vision, is one Levenson describes as brining our own context into the story.  This is essentially a postmodern turn (a healthy one in this case I would say but one that certainly has its own pitfalls and blindspots).

Levenson makes a particularly brilliant point here imo:

Personally, I believe that the danger of projecting the forms of one’s own religious life onto the ancient data, though real, is only half the story. The other half is the impoverished religious imagination that so easily results when those who study the religious literature are themselves a-religious. Secularity does not guarantee objectivity; sometimes it can impede it.

That double standard is a particularly nasty one in the context of academia.

The Theo-Politics of Witchcraft

This video is getting some circulation now.  The Pastor in the video is a man by the name of Thomas Muthee.  He has an interesting record to say the least.  Read about it here from CSMonitor. Muthee believes very strongly in the existence of demonic spirits and fighting against them.  He prays over Palin that the evil of witchcraft be driven.

Steven Benen at Political Animal has some thoughts/questions on the matter.

He writes:

Just to clarify, the pastor’s interest in witches and witch hunts is not metaphorical — he means it literally.

To muddy the waters for a second, while I obviously know what Steve means here, his understanding/use of metaphorical is less helpful not more.  Northrop Frye understood that the metaphorical is the literal meaning of the Bible.  In other words, metaphor is concrete.  Benen is using language (according to Frye’s schema) in its third paradigmatic form: representational (think modern, scientific language/discourse).  Truth is what can be precisely represented, really described.  Therefore in this pattern, metaphorical means something more like symbolic or abstract.  When applied to say demons/evil it would be something like Ricoeur’s Symbolism of Evil or Wink’s The Powers.    (more…)

Current Reading

[David Hume]

Current Reading: The Emotional Construction of Morals by Jesse J. Prinz.

Prinz’s website here. Prinz on Bloggingheads here.

It’s in the tradition (self-consciously) of Hume. A sentimentalist (i.e. morality is about emotional responses) account backed up by new cognitive science data: mRIs and so forth. [You can actually see a magnetic scan of Prinz’s brain on his website. Pretty cool…and somewhat weird].

For readers who know my philosophical proclivities (and for those who don’t) I’m come much more from a Habermasian-Apelian view of intersubjective ethics. Or discourse ethics. That is, the view expounded by Prinz assumes an entire language game (in Wittgenstein’s lingo) or in C.S. Peirce’s language, it’s a philosophy of two-ness (not thirdness). There is no interpretation in an intersubjective space.

On the positive side, Prinz, articulating well the tradition he stands in (and he’s very good writer and clear thinker imo) puts strong emphasis on the bodily nature of all cognition. I would say that means (a la Wilber) the body and mind co-arise and work that shows the material/behavioral components of tetra-arising, then all to the good on that front. The emotional construction of morals begins a quasi-postmodern turn in the tradition of bio-phenomenology from Maturana and Varela. In Wilberian terms, this account is an inside reconstruction (1st person pov) of an outside view (3rd person pov). In this graphic, zone #3 of the upper half of the page. The Habermas-Apel coordinate would be zone #1 on the bottom half of that map.

His view I think could be helped by a Whiteheadian expansion of Humean sensation (even including updated emotional-neuroscience tracking) to a notion of prehension.

But one thing I admire strongly about Prinz’s book is that he has the guts to say what I think is the inevitable (il?)logical conclusion of such a empiricist-sentimentalist-non intersubjective view-3rd person only view of things: namely it ends in Nietzschean moral relativism.

This interestingly is the exact argument made (from a very different starting and end point) by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue. In a modernist frame, to echo Max Weber, is and ought become separated. [But not then re-integrated according to Wilber]. Once they become separated–but still especially in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition–assume in a sense that they are related or that reason can give such an account, Nietzsche eventually comes along and undercuts the whole thing.

Prinz comes out and advocates forms of relativism and subjectivism in moral philosophy. And again I think he is dead on the money when he sees that taking a Humean view; I think that is a flaw in the empiricist tradition (he doesn’t obviously).  But at least he’s more honest than most (imo).

The “E” Word–Eugenics and Down’s Babies

Dylan Matthews posting on Ezra Klein’s blog takes on a Michael Gerson’s post where the eugenics charge is out there. Gerson argues that Sarah and Todd Palin keeping their baby to term, though they knew he would be afflicted with Down Syndrome, highlights the reality that genetic screening can and does lead (in his mind) to a neo-eugenics because the vast majority of screened Down’s babies (something like 90%) are aborted.

Gerson sees this as parallel to the tragic and brutal history of Eugenics particularly in America in the 20th century–politically worth noting that such a movement was part of the progressive/liberal establishment. The idea that through rational application and essentially breeding techniques applied to humans, higher average intelligence and therefore greater perfection would be achieved. A kind of this worldly salvation.

D. Matthews counters:

It’s worth looking back at what eugenics actually was before throwing the term around willy-nilly. As practiced in the United States, eugenics involved the forced sterilization of grown women, without their knowledge, with a disproportionately large number of African-American and American Indian women affected. In other words, it was the practice of denying women reproductive choice and autonomy. Kind of like, oh I don’t know, Sarah Palin and Michael Gerson want to do.

This might seem like a gotcha post, but there’s a really serious point here. Eugenics wasn’t murder. Eugenics was the denial of choice. The victims weren’t the prospective children of the sterilized. The victims were the women. So it’s not only false when Gerson uses “eugenics” as synonymous with abortion, it’s extremely disrespectful to the victims and to the concept of women’s personal autonomy generally. There are plenty of rhetorical devices Gerson can use to try to restrict women’s freedom. He’s a good enough speechwriter, so he ought to know them. He didn’t have to choose one that uses the victims of patriarchy to reinforce male privilege. That’s truly perverse.

Now Matthews’ historical analysis is valid–American eugenics involved forced sterilizations–but only to a point. American eugenics wasn’t ultimately a matter of patriarchy as Matthews wants to make it out to be, but rather a class-ist mindset. The individuals were sterilized because they were considered deficient. They were labeled “imbeciles, morons” etc and were assumed not to have been able to raise their own children AND would have spread those genes throughout the gene pool, thereby (according to this logic) diluted an uplifting/intelligent seed in humanity. [Click here for a photo from the era depicting this mindset.]

From Matthews’ telling these women were sterilized just because they were women and it was about male power. That view is undercut by the fact that say Margaret Sanger, the birth control (hence choice by that measure) activist was also a founding mother of eugenics and the policy of sterilizations.

Now you will search in vain for a number of laudatory posts on Michael Gerson on this blog. I’m not usually in the position of defending him, but in this case, I think Matthews’ rebuttal (such as it is) only strengthens Gerson’s case.

The issue is not whether the victims were the mothers or potential children (contra Matthews) but the depiction by those in power of others as “weak” or “incorrect” and therefore a problem to be expunged or fixed. The parallel then is between declaring a lower class woman in 1910 retarded and forcibly (against her will) sterilizing herself and aborting a baby because it is considered “defective” because it’s a Down’s baby.

Further, the reason they were sterilized as previously mentioned was because of fear of their genetic heritage infecting further generations.  Also a fear that because these women were declared to be unable to control themselves, they would out breed the better educated/more moral (in the eugenicist’s view) segment of society.  If it could be shown that the medical establishment by and large supports abortions in these cases and the rationale behind doing so is to eliminate the mutation from the gene pool, well then you are right back in many regards to the earlier forms of eugenics.  I’m not convinced that rationale is proved, but I think it’s a legitimate one to raise. (I assume Gerson would label the medical establishment as holding such a prejudice as axiomatic).

Now I think it’s laudable that the Palins are raising their boy. I had a close friend in college whose brother was a Down’s child and she was adamant that he was a wonderful person as he was. This is not romanticize what is obviously a difficult complication to an already difficult challenge (raising a child). I’m not for politically halting abortions in that case, so in that sense I’m with Matthews.

But for me that isn’t the end of it (not even the beginning of it). I’ve never been in such a situation and to be totally honest I wish I never were, but I could imagine one(s) in which the parents legitimately struggle with the issue during a pregnancy and come to the conclusion that they are not ready or capable to raise such a child and abort. Tragic but I can understand it.

On the other hand, to the degree that the scenario Gerson lays out is real (and I imagine it has to be in some, many? cases), that the de facto split second, “obvious” conclusion via the medical staff is that abortion is the proper response, then we are legitimately into dark ethical territory where humans are considered problems and there are solutions to those problems. And yes solutions here should be heard as an echo to the Nazis.

Again, to be clear, the death camp echo should be heard ONLY INSOFAR AS, (ONLY IN THE DEGREE TO WHICH) the decision to abort is based on a non-sympathetic, non-reflective, non-empathetic moment. i.e. There is no thought at all that the parents/mother should keep the child. If it’s automatically to be aborted, that is beginning of evil in my opinion.

Published in: on September 10, 2008 at 12:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Conservative Left Wingism

James Poulos writes:

At any rate, the main distinction to be drawn here is between cultural conservatives, who are willing to bet the future of their country on the practical virtue and persuasive power of their practices, and social conservatives, who mistakenly seek to create a nonentity (’society’) in order to get people who don’t share their culture to act, in public, at least somewhat more like they do. Or so I’d argue, anyway…Republicans would do well to work to protect and maintain significant parts of working-class culture (but not others: a story for another day); they would do ill to try to ‘create’ in America something meant to give us all a sense of being in a more ‘blue-collarish society.’

He also sees (unnerving) parallels between the right social cons and left wing traditions towards society creation, particularly disturbing when done from the top-down. This is why I said that I thought Palin should focus on her story, her gifts, and an argument from McCain rather than be the attack dog against Obama.

When sticking to the former she was a culture conservative–in James’ formulation. She legitimately defended her culture. And as Conor Friedersdorf (James’ blogging confrere) correctly points out Obama had it coming on her line about how people from small towns don’t appreciate big city politicians saying one thing to them and another to a shi-shi San Fran audience.

But when she went into full on attack dog mode, I felt like we were seeing the social con side come out. [Disclosure: I found that section fairly revulsive]. The social con side that possibly wants to decide what books you should/shouldn’t read at the library. Or more creepily from my perspective (as a seminarian!!!), equating certain political outcomes with God’s will.

Another line of conservatism that this point about a conservative left-wing societal creation impulse would hold of course is neoconservatism (in foreign policy). Neocons of course were former Trotskyites/left wingers so that makes perfect sense. They transferred their allegiance for a utopian societal creation from a domestic sphere (they became anti-New Deal/Great Society) to foreign countries (“remaking the Middle East.”)

McCain/Palin then at its best is a cultural conservatism–McCain defending the military ethos, Palin the family life/marriage-work mix, both helping to foster republican (little r) civic virtues.

McCain/Palin at its worst however is the combination of these two top-down right-wing enforcement streams: neo and social conservatism.

We’ll see if McCain can turn it around here tonight and pivot to the center in the upcoming campaign, but my fear is the headed the way of the latter.  If so, it’s going to get very ugly.  And it’s not just the sexism thing that is going to be lobbed out, the racial waters are inevitably going to get roiled again.  It’ll be the worst of the Dem primary all over again–as opposed the positives of having the first woman and first A-A on the tickets.

My fingers are crossed for the former, but my head tells me differently.

(Dis)Proving the Necessity of God

Matthew pointed me to this article by Dennis Prager on the need for belief in God (and by God he means a conflation of the Biblical Hebraic god with the Deistic god of the US Framers).

Now as a religious person myself I find this line of argument he takes up so counterproductive to the defense of faith. It’s full of so many partial truths overblown, no truths, it’s a mess.

This will be long as he makes numerous point each of which requires rebuttal, but the overall way of stating my general disagreement with Prager’s view is: 1) it unnecessarily drives a wedge between Judeo-Christians and secular individuals in America as well as Judeo-Christians and believers of other religions who are upstanding American citizens 2)it rightly condemns moral relativism but incorrectly asserts without God (and his God in particular) moral relativism is the inevitable end result. (more…)

Smithian Expansion on a Douthian Retort to Sullivanian Musings on Warrenism

Intra-Atlantic blogging to the hilt on this one.

Andrew quotes the following passage from Rick Warren’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. This is Warren speaking:

I believe in the separation of church and state, but I do not believe in the separation of politics from religion. Faith is simply a worldview. A person who says he puts his faith on the shelf when he’s making decisions is either an idiot or a liar. It’s entirely appropriate for me to ask what is [the Presidential candidates’] frame of reference.

Sullivan opines:

The entire basis for Western secular government, which rests on the capacity of people to distance absolute truth from political affairs, is based on idiocy or lies? I wonder if Warren has ever read Locke, or Hobbes, or Machiavelli or would even understand the term secularism if it knocked him square off his pedestal.

To which Douthat comments:

You know, I can pretty much guarantee that Andrew has read a lot more of Locke, Hobbes and Machiavelli than Rick Warren – and of any relevant political philosopher you care to name, for that matter. Yet oddly, the bumptious Warren seems to have a stronger grasp of what separation of church and state has actually meant in the American political tradition, both historically and philosophically, than my vastly more erudite colleague.

I think Douthat is correct in that assessment. But there’s another (deeper?) problem with Sullivan. Back to a piece of the Sullivan quote for a sec (my emphasis):

The entire basis for Western secular government, which rests on the capacity of people to distance absolute truth from political affairs

If I’m reading him correctly that means religion offers absolute truth. If that were the case then I can see Sullivan’s fear of Christianism, Islamism, or any kind of Religion-ism in public affairs. [Militant secularism (as opposed to simply secular governance) would also fit this mold and one could argue Sullivan is pushing down that road.]

But the point is that an absolute truth is poisonous to pluralist secular society because it is uncriticizable and therefore can be imposed over a pluralistic society with no recourse to defend dissenting viewpoints, whether of a different religious persuasion than the majority or of a non-religious nature as such.

I however don’t think religion offers absolute truth. Or if you prefer in a less theologically suspect way our human ability to understand revelation and its embodiment in religion (not limited to but definitely including ethics) is always flawed and imperfect. The practical result of which is more or less the same.

Sullivan is here (again if I’m understanding him correctly) assuming the same call it “metaphysical status understanding” of religion as the fundamentalists. The both assume religion offers absolute truth–and in this case specifically a certain kind of Christianity as that religion.

There are a number of problems with the notion of religion as providing absolute truth. 1)It’s excessively cognitivist (i.e. faith is a set of mental beliefs or picture representations about how things really are) 2)Whose religion is the absolute one? And how do we tell?

But if one were to not hold religion as providing absolute truth then it would seem the fears of it entering public discourse would abate, no? Assuming of course the religion in question were willing to accept the basic parameters of a secular state that does not choose sides in terms of life goals/views between religious and non-religious persons and that the religion if brought into the public sphere and deployed to justify a certain position is open to being publicly challenged and not assuming it has privileged space because of its religious background.

[Interesting in this regard that Warren said faith–not religion–is a worldview not the worldview.]

Or to broaden Douthat’s point, it’s not just in America where this tradition holds (though strongest there to be sure). I read this passage this morning (coincidentally right before reading Sullivan’s post) from atheist German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and I thought it appropriate:

It [religion in a secular society] is expected to adopt a self-reflexive critical stance towards the limits of enlightenment. The conception of tolerance of pluralistic liberal societies not only requires believers to recognize that they must reasonably reckon with the persistence of disagreement in their dealings with non-believers and members of other faith. The same recognition is also required of unbelievers in their dealings with believers in a liberal political culture…

The neutrality of state power vis a vis different worldviews, which guarantees equal individual liberties for all citizens, is incompatible with the political generalization of a secularized worldview. Secular citizens, in their role as citizens, may neither deny that religious worldviews are in principle capable of truth nor question the right of their devout fellow-citizens to couch their contributions to public discussions in religious language. A liberal political culture can even expect its secular citizens to take part in the efforts to translate relevant contributions from religious language into a publicly intelligible language.”
(italics in original, boldface mine)

–pp.112&113, Between Naturalism and Religion, Jurgen Habermas.

This is part and parcel of what Habermas (and others) calls post-secular society.

Habermas writes:

In the post-secular society, the conviction is gaining ground that the “modernization of public consciousness” affects and reflexively transforms religious and secular mentalities, though not simultaneously. Both sides can then take each other’s contributions to controversial public debates seriously for cognitive reasons as well, assuming that they share an understanding of the secularization of society as a complementary learning process. (emphasis and quotation in original).” –Habermas, p.111

In other words, Sullivan is treading dangerously close to if not outright falling into a serious “pre-post fallacy”. Namely that a post-secular understanding of the role of religious and secularist mentalities in a secular society is inherently a return to a pre-secular understanding (i.e. a return to religious theocratic rule). Now, to be fair, in the US context, the potential danger of the latter (pre-secular theocratic) is strong and should not be underestimated–at least in certain geographic regions.

But Warren’s attempt at this civility conference might be pointing towards a post-secular (complementary) process. Might not, have to see how it plays out. But I don’t think it should be prejudged nor the former (post-secular) is possible and even exists in certain pockets.

Edit I: In the other half of his post Sullivan takes aim at Warren’s views on foreign policy and there I think, Andrew’s critique is more on target.

Consciene and Consciousness

Came across this article in The Nation by Jeff Sharlet via Arts and Letters Daily (h/t to A&LD). It is a review of Martha Nussbaum’s new work Liberty of Conscience and Steven Waldman’s Founding Faith. Sharlet you may recall is author of The Family.

While Waldman’s book has its flaws, and Sharlet is right to point out that there is (or at least can be) a sloping curve towards eroding pluralism, Sharlet I think too much sides with Nussbaum (surprise it’s The Nation). (more…)

non-theistic kids camp

Michael D at Balloon Juice points to this ad for Camp Inquiry ’08 whose mission is as follows:

This is a place where kids can be themselves. We work toward helping youth confront the challenges of living a non-theistic/secular lifestyle in a world dominated by religious belief and pseudoscience. Grounded on the conviction that kids can begin establishing habits of the good and ethical life early on, Camp Inquiry 2008 adopts a three-part focus: The arts and sciences, the skeptical perspective, and ethical character development comprise an integrated approach to this “Age of Discovery.” Campers, counselors, and teachers will address key issues around individual identity, forging trusting relationships, establishing a sense of local and global community, and living with respect for the natural world. (my emphasis)

Now as I’ve said many times before I have no problem with (in fact I support) the building up of atheist religions. Or better a secular humanist religion. Insofar as they see themselves as not out to be anti-religion but rather simply themselves and work in a liberal society respecting differences towards some common good buildup.

A couple of things are clear here. This isn’t science camp. Science camp would be about science only. Again I think it’s interesting to explore the arts and ethics as well as science but what we are really discussing here is a worldview. In other words, it’s just like church camp. So the idea (contra Michael D.) that this is about teaching kids “inquiry” versus “dogmatism” is just atheist dogmatism itself. The children are still being taught what to think and even how to think. Just described as “inquiry” versus (according to this logic) the evils of religion. The idea that you can teach context (how to think) but not content (what to think) is highly problematic if not complete BS, especially in the minds of youth. The two are inherently intertwined. (more…)

Habermas on post-secular society

[Edit note:  On the use of worldview colors from Spiral Dynamics, see here.]

Brilliant integral essay by Habermas on the notion of post-secular society.  In the best sense of the word integral.

Secular society he defines as the European Enlightenment.  When governments in Europe became secular in order to stem the Wars of Religion.  During this period different religious groups continued to exist and in mixed confessional countries (e.g. Habermas’ own Germany) each religion basically self-segregated (in Germany Lutherans in the North, Roman Catholics in the South).  For Habermas this was a uneasy modus vivendi of don’t bother me/I won’t bother you.  But nothing deeper than that.

Habermas critiques both radical multiculturalism (religiously premodern [blue] or culturally postmodern [green]) as well as the ideology of secularism (e.g. Richard Dawkins [orange]) as both unliberal in their formations.  He wants a balance between shared citizenship and cultural difference (yellow holonic social discourse).

His conclusion:

Were secular citizens to encounter their fellow citizens with the reservation that the latter, because of their religious mindset, are not to be taken seriously as modern contemporaries, they would revert to the level of a mere modus vivendi – and would thus relinquish the very basis of mutual recognition which is constitutive for shared citizenship. Secular citizens are expected not to exclude a fortiori that they may discover, even in religious utterances, semantic contents and covert personal intuitions that can be translated and introduced into a secular discourse.

So, if all is to go well both sides, each from its own viewpoint, must accept an interpretation of the relation between faith and knowledge that enables them to live together in a self-reflective manner.

Published in: on July 25, 2008 at 10:50 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: ,