Friday, August 18, 2017

The Fraud of Theology

In an interview with The Washington Post, one of Donald Trump’s advisors on theological matters, Robert Jeffress, supported Trump’s apocalyptic August bluster against North Korea, by citing Romans 13. At the beginning of that chapter of the epistle, Paul recommends that Christians obey their secular rulers, because “the authorities that exist have been established by God” (13:1). But in a NY Times article, Steven Paulikas, an Episcopal priest, contends that Jeffress tore that scriptural passage out of context and perverted Christian theology in Jeffress’s fetishizing “message of violence over the clarion call to love of Romans 13:8,” which speaks of love of others as the fulfillment of Jewish law. That latter idea of the Golden Rule seems to derive from Rabbi Hillel who lived a century before Jesus is supposed to have lived.

Paulikas’ point about context is that “Paul is telling Christians to obey the Roman authorities in temporal matters such as taxation, not justifying the authority of one ruler over another,” such as Trump over Kim Jong-un. But Paulikas seems to be forgetting Rom.13:4, which says the secular authorities “are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Just because a ruler’s power derives from God doesn’t mean the ruler can’t misuse his power. For example, Jews considered Moses to be an instrument of God’s wrath against the Pharaoh. Instead of being commanded to obey the Egyptians, the Jewish slaves (who never historically existed) rebelled against Egypt to build their own society in Israel, according to Exodus. So if Christians can construe Kim Jong-un as a “wrongdoer,” they’re free to interpret Rom.13 as meaning that Trump might be “an agent of wrath” who will “bring punishment” upon North Korea.

Moreover, while Paulikas calls it a “clarion call,” meaning that the call for love of others trumps the advice to obey secular authorities, the context actually indicates that this allusion to the Golden Rule is just a digression and an extended figure of speech. It’s just a fancy way for Paul to make his point that his readers should “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law” (13:8, my emphasis). The rest (13:9-10) pursues the tangent about love as the fulfillment of Jewish law, a digression invited by that turn of phrase about the only “debt” that should be left standing (the obligation to love others). It’s like saying, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. And fish don’t need land transportation, because they live underwater. Did you know that fish come in a variety of sizes and colours? And fish taste differently too, especially if you choose to add a sauce. The best way to catch fish is with the special lures I sell at the local shop, which I’m pleased to announce is open six days a week.” The intended main point, of course, is that women don’t need men, the rest being a tangent that follows only from the rhetorical way of expressing that point. Likewise, the main point in the middle of Romans 13 is that Christians should pay all their secular debts, not that love is all-important.

Mind you, if secular authorities as well as their subjects can misbehave, as Jeffress would have to be assuming, there’s no longer an imperative to obey any particular secular ruler, since perhaps President Trump is as bad (as sociopathic, psychotic, and otherwise loathsome, etc.) as the North Korean leader, in which case Jeffress’s case falls to pieces, after all. Alas, this criticism is mooted by the rest of the context which Paulikas doesn’t address, in Rom.13:11-14, which begins, “And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.” So the overriding reason for Christians to obey their secular masters, to pay their taxes and avoid debts, besides the interest in avoiding secular punishment, is that the whole natural world was about to end in any case, so presumably there would be no time to make like Moses and rebel against society to establish a new earthly one. And of course, once this bit of context is entered into the hermeneutic ledger, both Jeffress’s and Paulikas’s arguments come to nothing, since obviously the Kingdom of Heaven didn’t arrive in the lifetime of those early Christians. The Jewish Temple fell in 70 CE, but the apocalyptic significance of that event was only subjective, since it mattered much more to Jews than to the Romans, for example. The secular world as a whole endured for two millennia and persists to this day despite Paul’s assurances that the contrary scenario would unfold. So this entire theological discussion of Trump and North Korea falls apart because Rom.13 itself implodes. 

Theology, Fiction, and Reason

In any case, Paulikas’s discussion raises a deeper, more interesting question, when he lays out an assumption that’s crucial to his article. According to Paulikas, “There is such a thing as incorrect theological and moral thinking, and the best way to neutralize it is with an intellectually and morally superior argument on the same terrain. Only good theology can debunk bad theology.” 

Is it true that theological statements, as such, can be correct or incorrect, and that the best way to conduct theology is by offering an intellectually superior argument? If so, theology would be a lot like Western philosophy. In fact, theology would be indistinguishable from a branch of philosophy called the philosophy of religion, because argumentation is philosophy’s specialty. And if we’re meant to yoke theology with the burden of engaging in hyper-rationality, as in the testing of hypotheses with excruciating attention to empirical detail, theology would instead fall under scientific cosmology and other sciences. In that case, theology would be dismissed in Laplace’s manner, since scientists have no need for the God hypothesis. Moreover, theology’s assumption of supernatural metaphysics would be barred by science’s methodological naturalism.

The reason Paulikas seems confident in asserting that theological statements should be rationally evaluated is that he confuses the literary, textual sort of analysis in which he engages in his criticism of Jeffress’s support of Trump, with what Paulikas presumes is a separate discipline called theology. The giveaway is Paulikas’s appeal to “the context” of Romans 13, and indeed Protestants in general, who are those Christians who seemingly idolize the Bible, can be counted on to argue explicitly about the scriptural context of this or that verse, in virtually every one of their writings. Their “arguments” are actually textual analyses and belong in the field of literary studies. This is to say that Protestant “theologians” should be regarded instead as literary critics whose operating assumption is that the Bible is a work of fiction, in which case the question isn’t whether a biblical statement is factually correct, but whether an analysis of the text is coherent. Likewise, the Christian religion that built up around this work of fiction would be comparable to a zealous fan base, such as the cult of Star Wars. Fans of Star Wars aren’t interested in whether the contents of the movies or books are factually “correct” in terms of having anything to do with events transpiring in a real, faraway galaxy; instead, they argue vociferously over questions that arise only within the fictional universe. Given that Han Solo said such and such in the fictional narrative, is it plausible that he would have fired his gun first in the Mos Eisley cantina? Similarly, you could argue about the correctness or incorrectness of biblical interpretations on literary grounds, as Paulikas seems to have done in his appeal to context in his dispute with Jeffress, and as I did in my above criticism of both of their interpretations of Paul’s epistle.  

To understand theology as being the literary criticism of a great work of fiction, namely of the myths told in texts held to be scriptural or ultimately authoritative by an ardent fan base is to view religion as Yuval Harari does in Sapiens. He writes, Any large-scale human cooperationwhether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe—is rooted in common myths that exist only in people's collective imagination (30). He thus contends that the ancients regarded their religions much as we regard the brands of our favourite corporate suppliers of goods. Effectively, the gods were idols, that is, entertaining characters that signified collective differences in brand loyalty, and the myths were treasured fictions that defined and maintained group identity and kept the peace in large societies that otherwise would have collapsed for the reason discovered by the philosopher Sartre: hell is other people. Ancient religions were one with their corresponding secular empire, and the theocratic synthesis operated in some ways like a modern corporate monopoly. Compare the Aztec or Babylonian religions, for example, to Apple or to Google. In either case, you have a massive secular power the deeds of which are justified by a set of stories—in the modern case, bogus economic models, advertisements, propaganda, intertextual allusions in other cultural works such as movies or television shows—that imply social conventions essential for maintaining group cohesion by fostering enthusiasm for the brand and thus a corresponding way of life for the fans.  

Religious people today will be loath to think of their scripture as being comparable to the oeuvre of J.K. Rowling or to the blockbusters of George Lucas, and that’s because the Scientific Revolution has established a division between purely literal, natural, physical, factual truth, on the one hand, and subjective impositions of meaning and value on the other. The ancients may have had a semblance of some such distinction between, say, mere mundane, practical questions and matters of ultimate significance. But they had no globe-spanning enterprise that cemented the dichotomy and thus thoroughly disenchanted what we now think of as the whole universe of natural time and space. Instead, the more or less animistic ways of thinking in the ancient world took the natural world to be infused with spirits, including immanent deities or other such powerful agents, and thus with purpose, meaning, and moral value. So if you told an Aztec farmer that Quetzalcoatl is only a fictional character, he wouldn’t have taken it as an insult, because for him what we call the world of cold, indifferent natural facts is instead itself halfway fictional. There was no ironclad fact-value distinction, so only if you belittled Quetzalcoatl in something like the way a Star Trek fan might slight the greatness of Darth Vader in Empire Strikes Back would the farmer set upon you with pitchfork in hand. To question Quetzalcoatl’s existence would have been as nonsensical as making a point of saying that Darth Vader doesn’t really exist. You would have been subjected to medical treatment on the assumption that you’d have to be insane to bother being an atheist, just as you’d have to be churlish to interrupt the showing of a Harry Potter movie to announce that there’s really no such thing as magic wands; you’d be booted from the theater, not because your statement is “incorrect,” but because you’d have spoiled the entertainment.

Again, the fictional status of the gods would have been taken for granted, but only because fictions were elevated as the best available theories that both explained how the world worked and kept civilizations running. Now that after the rise of science the value of fictions has instead been demoted to being a private matter of opinion, to equate the Bible or the Koran with a Harry Potter novel is to take for granted that the scriptures might be factually correct on some point or other only by accident, given the authors’ need for verisimilitude to enable the reader to suspend disbelief and enjoy the story. Moreover, to kill in the name of a religion would necessarily be as insane as waging war to convert Star Trek heathens to the cult of Star Wars. Violence caused by confusion between entertainment and reality does still happen, as in the case of football hooliganism in Europe and elsewhere. But the pressure on religious individuals like Jeffress and Paulikas to insist on the objective, absolute correctness of their theological statements, as opposed to conceding their mere aesthetic status, is overwhelming primarily because of science’s impact on modern epistemology and metaphysics.

Modern Theology as a Fraud

So if theology isn’t a kind of literary criticism, nor is it a branch of philosophy or of science, what else might it be? There is an even less flattering alternative, which is that modern theology operates as a massive con. Theological statements are shape-shifters, their meaning kept nebulous in the service of self-deception. Take Paul’s assurance that Christ would soon return to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, and put aside how premodern Christians might have understood the truth of that prediction. Today, we know that Paul’s theology would fail drastically as philosophical argumentation or as scientific investigation. Moreover, Christians can’t afford to concede that Paul’s eschatology is entirely fictional—and not just because the religious entertainment would have to compete with the secular variety, such as with the Hollywood superhero movie, but because religious fictions, when viewed as such, can no longer function in the ancient fashion, as the glue that binds together a population. Again, this is because the world in general has been disenchanted, as Weber put it, so a fiction no longer has universal scope. The animistic dream of a living universe is dead, and all fictions are only so many futile diversions or protests against nature’s indifference, whispered in terror of the dark.

Paul’s theological statement is really just fiction and it was always just so, but Christians today can’t accept it as such. Instead, they maintain the statement is factually correct, as Paulikas presumes, yet the Christian must evade not just the rock of an admission of theology’s mere literary status, but the hard place of the philosophical or scientific standard of inquiry. Thus, to avoid Paul’s prediction of the imminent end of the world being dismissed as obviously false on empirical grounds, the theologian will say the prediction is “rational,” “factual,” or “correct” even though it refers not to any ordinary temporal or otherwise natural matter. One of the epistle writers himself ventured that since a day is like a thousand years to God (2 Pet.3:8), when he implies that his first-century audience is living through “the last days” (3:3), that could mean Christ would nevertheless return millennia after all their deaths. This is semantic sleight-of-hand, though, since the epistles were addressed not to God but to human readers. From our vantage point, at least, the equivocation suggests, then, the advent of a duplicitous genre, the theological charade, which takes place in a halfway house between the literary analysis of fictions and the rational discovery of facts.

Again, knowing that theology has always been merely fictional, whereas the ancients wouldn’t have understood our distinction between fiction and fact, we might be inclined to credit the author of 1 Thess.4:14-15 and of Cor.15:50-52 with prodigious chutzpah because he had the nerve to maintain that even though Christ’s second coming hadn’t happened before some of his readers had gone and died, there was nothing to fear because they could still be resurrected even after their corpses have been turned to dust; after all, as those epistles say, the archangels themselves would descend and blast God’s trumpet to raise the dead even before the living are raptured, awarding all with “spiritual bodies” since nothing as corrupt as flesh could enter God’s kingdom in any event.

Certainly, a twenty-first century theologian who cites approvingly that ad hoc Pauline defense of the seemingly already-falsified predictions of the world’s end that was supposed to have occurred in the first or second century must be perpetrating a farce rather than interpreting or arguing in good faith. (The defense is ad hoc despite the superficial plausibility of saying that flesh couldn’t be expected to enter Heaven, because if matter can’t enter the kingdom of God, it’s not literally a kingdom either and we’re led to a mystical disavowal of any theological specificity. Likewise, “spiritual body” is oxymoronic: if God’s domain is ghostly, what makes the resurrected self a body distinct from anything else? How is the personal self retained without anything analogous to a brain? Of course the matter must be entirely mysterious, which means Paul’s apology to his readers—who had had their hopes up about the imminent end of the world, only to watch some of their fellows die before the saviour had returned—amounts to brazen hand-waving, whereas Paul might have admitted he’d been wrong and recommended that his readers shouldn’t waste their life on his nonsense.) The breezy New Testament prediction along with the apologetic epicycles and rigmarole are presently fictions that can’t be enjoyed with a suspension of disbelief unless they’re read as somehow factual despite all rational appearances to the contrary. So theology must now be akin to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme or to any other massive fraud in which certain insiders, such as cynical televangelists or church officials cook the books and pull the levers behind the curtain to preserve an illusion for the multitude of victims.

In short, those who are currently religious have the benefits of enjoying their myths as socially meaningful and as objectively correct, even though these folks take upon themselves none of the responsibilities of literary critics or of philosophers or scientists. No need to deal with the cognitive dissonance involved in suspending disbelief in a story that isn’t supposed to be merely fictional, as you go back and forth in your experience between the real world and what is secretly just an imaginary one. No need to base your cherished belief on logic and on empirical evidence, when statements about gods and miracles can be interpreted as being so hallowed as to deter open-ended scrutiny from those who are thusly misled. You can engage in literary analysis of the Bible as though it were just a work of fiction, citing contexts to support your interpretations of passages, and you can credit theological statements as being backed by fallacious arguments, ensuring the superficial facticity of some such statements even while retreating to faith, dogma, church authority, or private religious experience whenever the rational going gets tough, and even while simultaneously treating scripture as if it were just poetic fiction subject to infinite and unfalsifiable, personal interpretations. It’s a shell game, a fraud of sustaining the illusion that theology has a viable intermediate position between literary critique and rational investigation of the real world. For moderns living in disenchanted nature, the way to mythopoeic reverie is lost, just as the adult can no longer experience truly childish glee—not without a fraud like theology or the secular enterprise of creating technological substitutes for gods, miracles, and the spirit world. 

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