Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Reza Aslan DESTROYS Biblical Literalism

I’m going to do the unthinkable and discuss a Salon article. The lede:
Professor Reza Aslan, who holds a master’s in theological studies and a Ph.D. in sociology focusing on religion, has bad news for biblical literalists: The Gospels are “replete with historical errors and with contradictions,” and for over a thousand years, religious leaders did not take the Bible as literal fact.
Even though I don’t have a master’s in theological studies, I think I’m prepared to call that last clause into question. But first, a little more from the article:
“We come from a world in the 21st century in which we assume that biblical literalism, the notion that the Bible is literal and inerrant, is just sort of an inherent part of belief in the Bible.”  
Aslan explains that biblical literalism is actually a relatively modern phenomenon.
“Let me just say that one more time,” Aslan continued. “In the 2,000 year history in which the Gospels have existed, the idea that what you are reading in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is literal and inerrant is a little more than 100 years old. It was the result of a very interesting movement, a backlash to Christian liberalism and the Scientific Revolution at the end of the 19th century … by a group of American Protestants who began a movement that was launched by a series of tracts that were written called ‘The Fundamentals’ and that is where we get the term ‘fundamentalism’ from. It’s a very new phenomenon.”
There are three stages to this argument. First, the Bible is an error-ridden document, both in that it says false things about the world and in that it contradicts itself. Second, the proper method of interpreting the Bible is therefore to find a deeper truth in its words that stands apart from its superficial factual claims. Third, pre-modern interpreters of the Bible believed both of those theses, and a reading of the Bible as both true and literal is an invention of the modern world.

All three of these theses are extremely common in liberal religious circles. Born of a desire to simultaneously condescend to ignorant Alabamans and shore up faith in the face of the four horseman of the non-Apocalypse, they add up to a religious system that affirms the value of the Bible, disputes Fundamentalists’ claims to represent the authentic Christian tradition, and firmly rejects a superstitious, anti-scientific attitude to the world. I want to say here that the first thesis is obviously true, that it’s up to us whether we accept the second, and that the third is a laughably gross historical falsification. It’s that one which I’m going to argue against.

The claim that Fundamentalism is new is an ingenious piece of historical narrative, and is more than compensated for its lack of truth by its comforting implications. What if the medievals were actually on the side of Liberal Protestantism? What if the ancient church was filled with partners in our skepticism? That would imply that Darwinism and modern Biblical criticism are no real obstacles to faith; that we have just as much of a religious foundation to rely on as Maimonides and Aquinas.

But the claim is wrong, and ironically wrong to boot: as it happens, not taking the Bible literally is the phenomenon that’s actually recent. The reason that few people talked about the factual truth of the Bible before the early modern period is not that said factual truth was considered unimportant. It’s that it was taken completely and utterly for granted. With the possible exception of parts of Genesis and books like Esther and Judith, denying that the Bible was a source of literal historical truth would have been like denying today that microscopes tell us anything about molecules. (Actually, the one exception was the very early Christians, who made a fierce and concerted effort to convince the gentile world that their Messiah really had performed miracles and risen from the dead.)

Historical Christian belief in Biblical inerrancy is hard to demonstrate, if only because the evidence for it is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to know where to start. It might be helpful, though, to note how much of the entire medieval cosmology of Christianity was based on the literal truth of Scripture. For example: without the historical factuality of the Adam and Eve story, almost nothing that Augustine (or Aquinas or Luther or Lombard or Tertullian or Irenaeus) says about Christ’s redemptive mission makes any sense. By Augustine’s account, that is, man was mired in sin by his own fault, and faces destruction absent Christ’s intervention. But this fault was incurred in a distinct historical moment: Adam’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden. If that moment never occurred, all of Augustine’s Christianity falls apart. And that’s just on one point—I don’t even need to mention the importance that the literal Resurrection had to early Christianity.

But, Aslan objects here, what about the more minor points of the narrative? The Church fathers, he says, were so unconcerned about the inerrancy of the minor details of the gospels that they deemed them dispensable in their emphasis on the story’s deeper truth. But for a better treatment of how Christians dealt with the the internal contradictions in the gospels, I refer you to a fantastic Wikipedia article on the subject. Before the eighteenth century, as it turns out, Christian interpreters found more ways to harmonize the gospels with each other than our decency allows us to even think of. In fact, what struck the ancient Christian far more than the contradictions in the gospel was the extent to which they related the same basic story. Nor should we underestimate the power of a determined effort to ignore inconvenient elements of the text. Marcion, for instance, uncomfortable with the Old Testament references in Luke and the letters of Paul, simply chopped them out of his editions of those texts. As far as I can tell, Aslan sees the contradictions in the text and concludes that they must have been obvious to everyone. In fact, no one who wasn’t actively hostile to the New Testament—Jews and Muslims, for instance—was at all capable of seeing them.

In any case, before the eighteenth century, even the atheists, who believed that religion was at best a noble lie crafted by princes to keep their populations in check, had no reason to doubt the general factual foundation of the Bible. The author of Theophrastus Redivivus, a seventeenth-century screed against religion, thus drew conclusions about Judaism from the Old Testament, which was held to testify to the Jews’ original instruction at Moses’s feet. Moses by Theophrastus’s account might have been a clever prince rather than a true prophet, but he certainly existed.

At this point, the objection usually comes up: weren’t there allegorical readings of the Bible dating back to the beginning? What about Augustine’s reading of Genesis? And don’t Jesus and Paul themselves give explicitly non-literal interpretations of the Old Testament?

The first part of the answer is that yes, pre-modern Christians and Jews obviously laid allegorical meaning onto their texts. Nevertheless, it was commonplace to the ancient and medieval mind that a text could contain many stacked layers of meaning, including a literal one. God, for instance, tells Abraham to go out of his land. No self-respecting Early Christian would have denied that this was a real event that took place. But that didn’t stop Paphnutius, John Chrysostom, and others from reading it as an allegorical injunction to leave Earth itself; that is, to despise the cosmos and take refuge in spiritual life. (The Greek gē has the double meaning of “country” and “Earth”.) Much later, Pico della Mirandola, who never once doubted that Jacob really spent a night in Bethel, was able to give an elaborate allegorical interpretation of the ladder-vision, saying that “all things appeared in figures to the men of those times.”

The reason no one doubted the Bible’s basic, literal truth was that there were no possible criteria against which it could be measured. This is difficult for us moderns to grasp, who are raised with the tools to find external evidence for every text’s reliability; and with the instinct to discount the text if we can’t. But before the early modern period, there were no means of questioning the historical circumstances supplied by tradition for a given ancient work’s composition. Thus even the most ardent atheist in 1650 had to reckon with the Bible as a true record of history. (Spinoza, for instance, gave a long list of naturalistic explanations for the supposed miracles recounted in Exodus.)

Clearly just algae.
And in the case of believing Christians—who represented the overwhelming majority of European society—the Bible was itself the criterion by which truth was to be judged. This belief could take two forms. The first was that natural reason always leads the clear thinker to accept the gospels’ truth, and that there was no such thing as a truth that departed from Scripture. The second, more radical form, was that any evidence at all apart from the word of God is a seduction by the devil. John Calvin thus says this about the Holy Supper:
I do not at all measure this mystery with the measure of human reason, or subject it to the laws of nature. I ask you whether it is from physics we have learned that Christ feeds our souls from heaven with his flesh.
In other words, Jesus’ words to his followers at the Last Supper, as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels, are to have more weight with a Christian than the most persuasive doubts of a scientist. The modern method of evaluating the Bible is thus completely—and perfectly logically—inverted. Instead of measuring the Scripture by the evidence of our senses, Calvin would have us measure our senses by the Scripture. When an evangelical today asks why he should he should believe the Origin of Species over the Bible when the former was written by an Englishman and the latter by God Himself, he’s participating in an extremely old epistemological tradition.

So yes, if you asked a medieval Christian whether the Bible was literally true, he probably wouldn’t have understood the question. But that’s not because he didn’t believe in the Bible’s literal truth; it’s because its falsity would have been a meaningless proposition.

By the way, as for Aslan’s odd claim about the modernity of the word “Fundamentalism”: he seems to be bizarrely conflating the existence of a phenomenon with the existence of our contemporary word for said phenomenon. No one uttered the word “theism” either before the seventeenth century, clear proof that no one ever believed in God before then. And Jesus never used the English word “ruckus”, which means that there’s no way he could have possibly overthrown the moneychangers’ tables in the temple.

Aslan seems to be arguing that ancient and medieval Christians held by Rudolf Bultmann’s early-twentieth-century interpretation of the New Testament. Bultmann is famous for arguing that the spiritual truth of the New Testament—that is, God descending to earth to save mankind—is so important that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to get caught up in the sordid details of what he did on Earth, and certainly shouldn’t get fixated on the miracles. I think this is a perfectly fine way of looking at things. There is, after all, no disembodied logical hand that will suddenly throttle us for applying bizarre hermeneutics to our sacred texts.

And after all, a nonliteral reading of both testaments does have the advantage of soothingly affirming a liberal religious mindset. It allows us to gleefully cleave to what we see as the inner truth of the Bible while jettisoning the parts we don’t like, like all the weird rules and scientific oddities. (Those uneducated and homophobic Southern Baptists, of course, aren’t wise enough to separate grain from chaff, and could do with a few educational brunches in Cambridge, MA.) As I’ve said before, I don’t have anything against buffet religion.

am, though, opposed to any historical falsification committed for the sake of picking-and-choosing with a clean scholarly conscience. We can believe what we want, but we shouldn’t say that our ancestors believed it too. There is, of course, no logical or even moral demand to stand up for historical truth either, but that’s what backbones are for.



A summer villa in Tibur. 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

RUFUS: I’m home!

AGRIPPINA:  Welcome! I have something to tell you. It’s very good news.

R: I like the sound of that! Is your sister finally pregnant?

A: Even better, if you can believe it. We’ve been rescued from death!

R: I didn’t know we were in trouble in the first place.

A: That’s not what I mean. Just before the Jewish War, there was a man in Jerusalem—named Jesus—who died and came back from the dead, and went up to heaven. But Jesus is the king of the world, and more powerful than all of the gods. If we only agree to repent and be his servants, we get eternal life too!

R: Who told you this fairy tale?

A: Cinnama, and at first I didn’t believe it. But then I thought some more...

R: If you believed everything the slaves said, you’d end up drinking hemlock to cure your gout.

A: But it makes so much sense!

R. All right. First of all, how do we know Jesus actually came back from the dead?

A. Whoa, whoa. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that he literally came back from the dead. That’s what the closed-minded fundamentalists in Antioch say.

R. What? It’s just a story?

A. Not just a story, Rufus. It’s a metaphor that has the power to change our lives if we interpret it spiritually.

R. Oh. Well, so is the play I saw last night. Have I told you about this yet? The main character ended up sleeping with his mother, who had disguised herself as his mistress!


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Unconquered Son

In AD 274, when the Roman Empire seemed on the brink of collapse, the emperor Aurelian declared the creation of a new feast: the festival of Sol Invictus, the “unconquered sun.” The holiday, which was first held 1,740 years ago to the day, was a celebration of the very heavenly event that we’re experiencing right now: in the days after the winter solstice, the days are gradually, and extremely slowly, beginning to get longer. This was a profoundly happy event in the Roman consciousness, not least because the lightbulb hadn’t been invented yet. Sol Invictus was a symbol of the triumph of light over darkness; of life over death.  Unlike Apollo, the older sun-god, Sol was not associated with poetry, beauty, or anything human or refined. He was a simple personification of light, warmth, and joy. The fact that his feast-day was in the middle of the dark winter was especially poignant: it was an affirmation that though he might hide, he would never die, and that his day would come again.

Meanwhile, it’s Christmas Eve today. As I write this, it’s a gray, dripping day outside in New York. But I’m inside with a mug full of warm tea and an inbox full of warmer emails. And Handel’s Messiah is playing on WQXR:

You’ve almost definitely heard that the current date of Christmas was meant to correspond with a pagan holiday. Sol Invictus’ feast happens to be that supposed pagan holiday. The theory goes like this: early Christian bishops in the Roman Empire, seeing their flocks so attracted to the ubiquitous candlelighting rituals in honor of Sol, decided to take advantage of this folk practice, and to redirect the Christians’ superstitious energies to the celebration of Christ’s birth. So they fixed the date of Christmas on December 25th, and that’s how it’s been ever since.

There’s a second, much more interesting hypothesis, which a professor suggested to me: since Christianity was already widespread in the Empire by 274, it’s possible that Aurelian himself was attempting to capitalize on Christianity’s success. In other words, it could be that the pagan holiday of Invictus Sol was based on Christmas. This theory is just as unsupported by any evidence by the first, and slightly less probable, but much more entertaining. 

A relief of Sol Invictus.
Any resemblance to enormous statues, oxidized or unoxidized, is purely uncoincidental. 
I would like to propose a third theory: the two holidays are indistinguishable, and commemorate exactly the same events.
First, consider what’s being celebrated on the day of Sol Invictus: for the month of December, the world had seemed like it was going to be swallowed up forever by darkness. (It never gets cold in Rome, but the days get just as short as they do in the States.) And there’s almost no force as unstoppable as human pessimism. So even though it had happened countless years before, the return of the sun was surprising—so impenetrable had endless night come to seem. The bewildering victory of life over death had been acted out in heaven. The shadow was just a passing thing; it would be only a matter of time before the entire world was covered in sunlight and spring blossoms.

But daylight wasn’t the only thing that seemed doomed to extinguishment to the ancient mind. Human life was in the same danger of permanent darkness. Ancient Europe, like modern Europe, was immersed in an atheist, fatalist philosophy: the only spiritual comfort around was bitter embrace of the overwhelming fact of death. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” was on the lips of emperors and slaves alike. Invictus Sol might be invictus, but human beings only had eyes to see him for threescore years and ten.

And then, in a manger in Bethlehem, light really came to the world, and human life triumphed over death. A child had come to earth with the news of eternal life; a message that would soon be taken seriously by the most learned philosophers. All of a sudden, for thousands of souls—soon to be billions—there was hope for a life that would overcome winter. Christmas is an expression of the most radical optimism conceivable.

So the two holidays are really responses to the same thing. Actually, not quite the same: even though the feast of Sol Invictus commemorates an enormous, cosmic event, it comes with a promise of only temporary relief from darkness. There will be another winter. Christmas, meanwhile, celebrates something that happened in the arms of a mother. But it promises a far more permanent, mirthful triumph over the dark: the death of death.

As a dutiful pagan, then, I’ll be toasting tonight to the lesser soli invicto atque maxumo. But a merry Christmas to everyone in God’s flock. And even though there’s no real war on Christmas, I’d like to suggest starting one with a preemptive strike on its behalf.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Stifled Love: A Waltz from Horace

This is the next installment in my series of translations. My goal is to keep the meter of the original, and hopefully some of the feeling. [Edited 18 May 2015]

Ode III.13: To Neobulë.

It’s the fate of wretched maidens to suppress their loving yearnings,
and they dare not drown their sorrows with a sweet wine
in their terror of the fierce tongue of their uncle.

Aphrodite’s flying boy has snatched away your wicker basket,
and your yarn—ah, Neobulë, what has done this?
It’s the splendor of fair Hebrus Liparæus.

Him, who bathes his oiled shoulders in the waters of the Tiber,
who rides better than Bellerophon the horseman;
neither outrun nor outwrestled by his rivals.

Just the same in open meadows, when the frightened herd is fleeing,
he can deftly spear a stag; and just as nimbly
draws a boar out from within the knitted branches.

Miserarum est neque amori dare ludum neque dulci
mala vino lavere aut exanimari
metuentes patruæ verbera linguæ.

Tibi qualum Cythereæ puer ales, tibi telas
operosæque Minervæ studium aufert,
Neobule, Liparæi nitor Hebri,

simul unctos Tiberinis umeros lavit in undis,
eques ipso melior Bellerophonte,
neque pugno neque segni pede victus;

catus idem per apertum fugientis agitato
grege cervos jaculari et celer arto
latitantem fruticeto excipere aprum.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Poem for Late Autumn

Horace III.xviii

Thou, Faun, O lover of the fleeing wood-nymphs,
come through my acres and the sunny country
softly, and keep off from my youthful nurslings.
Come, I beg, gently!

I will for my part kill a tender yearling,
nor shall we lack love's ever-present steward—
deep, brimming wine-jugs—as the ancient altar
billows in sweet smoke.

On the green meadows prance the sheep assembled,
as mid-December comes again upon thee;
idle and merry in the mead the peasants
rest with the cattle.

Wanders the fierce wolf through the fearless sheeplings;
wind-tossed trees strew thee with their wild frondlets;
gladly the ditcher slams the hated soil
thrice with his strong foot.

Man was once so audaciously artful that Jupiter snatched
pre-Raphaelism away, leaving us with modern painting.   

Faune, Nympharum fugientum amator,
per meos finis et aprica rura
lenis incedas abeasque parvis
æquus alumnis,

si tener pleno cadit hædus anno
larga nec desunt Veneris sodali
vina crateræ, vetus ara multo
fumat odore.

Ludit herboso pecus omne campo,
cum tibi Nonæ redeunt Decembres,
festus in pratis vacat otioso
cum bove pagus;

inter audacis lupus errat agnos,
spargit agrestis tibi silva frondes,
gaudet invisam pepulisse fossor
ter pede terram.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Notes for Yom Kippur

I will begin with a story. This is how Nietzsche told it in the Birth of Tragedy:
There is an ancient story that king Midas hunted in the forest a long time for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without capturing him. When at last he fell into his hands, the king asked what was best of all and most desirable for man. Fixed and immovable, the demon remained silent; till at last, forced by the king, he broke out with shrill laughter into these words: “Oh, wretched race of a day, children of chance and misery, why do ye compel me to say to you what it were most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is for ever beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. The second best for you, however, is soon to die.”
The meaning of this has been hidden from me for years. A couple weeks ago, I had a thought which shed some light on the problem.

It began with longing for God, an experience that I can only compare to panting, unslaked love. As it appears to my mind, the concept of a loving God is the most ludicrously happy idea imaginable. In the presence of God, the fear of the void is a misconception, because the deepest ocean is a puddle in his eyes. (From Jonah, which Jews will read this Saturday afternoon: “The waters surrounded me even unto death, the deep encompassed me; seaweed enwrapped my head. I went down to the roots of the mountains; the earth was barred against me evermore. Yet Thou didst bring up my life from destruction, O Lord, my God.”) And even if the deep does take us, a funeral is a celebration, because it lets us finally rest in God’s bosom. And then the night will pass, and we will wake to a rosy dawn. This assurance, this soft comfort, is what I think Tolkien means here:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.​ 
Similarly: the closest I’ve ever come to bliss has been during the singing of Adir Venaor, a poem that my congregation reads several times on Yom Kippur. From ages six to twenty, it was an experience that insisted to me powerfully: it’s all okay! don’t worry! It was a glimpse of the star over Mordor; an annual drink from the well of God’s love.

And so to be violently deprived of God, to live in a modern world filled with fog and darkness, is an awful curse. If the well runs dry, then life is the shadow of a dream, and all is vanity. Who then can distinguish between beast and man, who both go down to the dusty earth? This all leads to the most fervent prayer of the atheist:

As the deer thirsts for streams of water, so does my soul long for you, God.

There is nothing bitterer to me than this longing. Among humans, unrequited love is unbearable, but it passes—you can find a person to cling to and love. To an atheist, the desire for heaven is permanently stymied, because heaven is empty, and will be forever.

And with the loss of God comes the loss of his promises. We moderns—unlike the medievals—are in Solomon’s position: we have nothing to suggest that our suffering will be alleviated here or made up for later. We can contemplate eternity, but now that we know that the sky is a thin layer of air that quickly gives way to infinite space, it’s hard to know where that eternity could be spent.

Being alive is painful for that reason alone. We are born on earth, pulled from the dark lake of eternal sleep, and taken achingly close to heaven. We look upon the light of the sun, we breathe the night air, and watch the wheeling stars—and then we are thrown back into the deep.

Even more terrible is our eternal love for other people, which death makes a cruel mockery of. My grandmother died this summer. Yes, she was in her eighties. Death often happens to people that age. It was natural and painless. But that doesn’t make it any less awful, any less scandalous. I am angry that I will never hug her again. I am angry that I will never meet my great-grandfather, and be kept from him by the thinnest veil of two decades. I am angry that I will leave everyone I know when we all wander our own ways into the night. The Archpoet sang: Quisquis amat taliter volvitur in rota. Whoever loves so fiercely is turned on the rack.

This gives me an glimmer of Silenus’ point. We’re given a foretaste of eternal love, and then it’s forced on us mockingly that we can’t have it.

But while death is painless and life painful, the fact remains that it’s incredibly wonderful—if briefly—to be above the surface of the lake, to dry off and warm up by the fire. Silenus might have been right on the first point, but his second piece of advice (to die soon) is wicked deceit. However mixed with pain and decay, the light of the sun and the embraces of a lover are intoxicatingly wonderful. Memento mori necnon vivere. Remember that you will die, but remember to live first.

Have a joyful Day of Atonement if you’re celebrating it.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Why I’m Protesting The Death of Klinghoffer

The Metropolitan Opera is mounting a production this fall that was last seen in New York in 1991. Written by John Adams, The Death of Klinghoffer tells the tale of the hijacking of a cruise ship by a team of Palestinian terrorists, and the murder of a disabled Jewish passenger at their hands.

Obviously, given its subject matter, the opera has become the center of a bitter controversy. Last week, on opening night at the Met, a squad of 300 protesters gathered in Lincoln Square with picket signs and bullhorns. The charges: Klinghoffer glorifies terrorism, it puts the Jewish victims on the same—if not lower—grounds as their murderers, and it is insensitive to the memory of Klinghoffer himself, whose family resents the appropriation of his death to make lefty art.

These charges might be true; I don’t know enough to judge. Let’s say they’re not. I’m still going to grab my bullhorn and incendiary sign, and join the protest more enthusiastically than the most committed member of the Anti-Defamation League. This is reason enough: The Death of Klinghoffer is terrible art.

Before I make that point, let me show you the context that I’m judging it in. The following is an excerpt from Così fan tutte, Mozart’s opera about the fickleness of love. The plot is preposterous and thin, but the music and poetry are straight from the mouths of the seraphim:

Mozart does something extraordinary here. We’re in the middle of a childish deception: Fiordiligi has been seduced by a stranger from Albania, unaware that he’s in fact the disguised best friend of her fiancé. Surging over this comical affair, though, is a heavenly harmony that can set the heart of a mortal on fire. As a wise Youtube commenter on this clip says, 

tennesseelvr Apr 13, 2010
the musical master of the “feeling intellect” Mozart; unparalleled genius of the heart and soul; God s gift in this chaotic existence!

Let me give another example, this time from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Wolfram von Eschenbach is locked in a singing competition with Tannhäuser, a man who has spent an aeon in the Venusberg. There, he enjoyed all the carnal delights of the gods, and was so saturated by delight that the pale world has no savor for him anymore. Wolfram sings beautifully about the chaste evening star, charming the audience with his tranquil contemplation of beauty. But Tannhäuser, who has scaled to the heavens, has known the evening star (both intellectually and Biblically), and cannot keep himself within decent bounds when he hears it mentioned. Breaking into a wild song to love, he shocks the proper society around him.

This and the previous excerpt are examples of the heights that the opera can take us to. There is nothing under the sun that so unvaryingly leads us heavenward. In that sense, as the sage above said, it’s the closest thing we have to a gift from the gods. And that’s the standard that I judge Klinghoffer by.

At this point, you might remember what you know about Wagner: he was a vicious anti-Semite, right? He was indeed, down to the bone. But since aesthetics are a different ballgame from morality, that didn’t detract in the slightest from his ability to write music of throbbing beauty.

This might be a good time—if there ever is one—for me mention that I am a moderate fan of fascist art. Much more than most others in the twentieth century, the Nazis and their fellows in Italy understood the way to make a person thrill with aesthetic excitement. On the streets of Rome, the temples put up by Mussolini with their white columns and Latin inscriptions are finer than any of the faceless office buildings built in the 50s. And as I walked this summer in the ruins of the Nazi rally grounds in Nuremberg, mingled with my dumb horror at history was a strong sense that Hitler knew how to build something that was really impressive. The same is true in music: Carl Orff’s work is much more beautiful—and thrilling—than Schoenberg’s, the Jew whose music was thrown out of the Third Reich. The fierce reactionary movement that took place in visual art, meanwhile, was a vast improvement over the surreal daubings of the Weimar Republic.

This is all meant to convince you that I have no trouble whatsoever with anti-Semites making art, or even with anti-Semitic art at all. As I write that, it strikes me that I don’t believe it entirely: my disgust and horror for anti-Semitism itself often bleeds into aesthetic intolerance for anti-Semitic art. But only sometimes; and what’s more, there’s nothing morally virtuous whatsoever in finding the art of evidoers ugly.

This, meanwhile, is an artistic sin that I will never forgive:

Note the utter absence of hummable melody, the ragged, unrhyming English libretto, the clanging, unmelodic orchestral lines, and the pounding insistence on political significance at the complete expense of artistic craft. The last of those faults is perhaps the most grave. Lorenzo da Ponte, when writing the libretto for The Marriage of Figaro, explicitly removed anti-aristocratic references from his source text in order to keep the focus on the art. Let that be a lesson to us and to all our children.

I’m obviously not saying that the Death of Klinghoffer is anywhere near as bad as the death of Klinghoffer. That’s apples to rambutans. In this case, though, my wrath might have some effect in preventing it from happening. Ironically, though perhaps fittingly, the Met has already agreed to replace worldwide broadcasts of Klinghoffer with Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which is as rollickingly anti-Semitic as the opera gets. Nothing this summer has pleased me more.

[Edit: It’s been pointed out to me that this is wrong: it’s going to be Rossini’s Barber of Seville, not Die Meistersinger. This is even better news: it lets us leave this ugly debate behind, and it’s more melodic to boot.]

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Woods and the Waters

I just got back from one of the most grueling experiences of my life: I hiked the Great Range in the Adirondacks, making a trek across half a dozen of the tallest mountains in New York State. The feat has been added to my ledger of accomplishments, which will be read aloud on the Last Day when my soul is weighed on the Scales of Adventurousness.

On a chilly evening, my companion and I showed up at the trailhead about an hour before sunset. We began hiking into the woods, and it wasn’t long before we were walking in complete darkness. All we could see was the ground immediately ahead of us, lit up by a tiny headlamp. Around us were dark woods for miles. As we climbed higher, the towering pines grew withered and bent.

“I’m glad I’m an atheist,” my companion remarked eventually. “If I believed in demons and witches, this would be way too scary.” 

“Ha!” I answered. “A Medieval man would have never left town.” 

A little later, we camped on a mountaintop. We had a clear sky overhead, and looked out onto a sea of clouds. A few mountain peaks poked above the surface of the clouds, making little islands off in the distance. The stars were out, and a dark red moon was rising.

The next morning, we woke up to overcast skies and a damp mist. Packing up our tent, we continued along the ridge. The cloud surrounded us by noon, and the early-morning mist turned gradually into a steady rainshower as the day wore on. Soon, we found ourselves on a wind-whipped alpine tundra, surrounded by rocky cliffs. As if to mock us, the fierce wind and rain turned icy, pelting us with sharp hailstones. We took shelter behind a slab of rock and, soaked to the bone, decided that the safest plan was to climb down the cliff to get below the treeline.

All hardships defy.

And as I inched my way down, telling myself in my best counselor-voice to stay calm and keep moving, I had a song stuck in my head:

He’s got the woods and the waters in his hands;
He’s got the woods and the waters in his hands; 
He’s got the sun and the moon right in his hands;
He’s got the whole world in his hands.

But there was nothing in the world I believed less at that moment. I was a tiny ape crawling on a barren slope, shivering and exposed. I had enemies massed against me, but they were neither evil nor clever. They were the indifferent rain and the tuneless wind. And if there was anyone who could protect me from them, he certainly wasn’t with me on that peak.

And it struck me that the attitude I’d had the previous night was woefully misguided. We paid a price for renouncing spirits in the woods. The empty woods at night are safe, because they hide neither lurking witches nor real dangers. But the spiritless mountain peak is another thing entirely. There is no God up there to protect us from the vultures—the real, drab vultures—that plunge their beaks into our side.

And that’s something I feel acutely even when I’m not on a mountain. There is no such thing as cosmic malice. There is no Satan to renounce. But there is still death: a mute and unembodied shadow. We curse it, but it makes no conceptual sense that it could be listening. We might as well talk to the Krebs Cycle.

As I’ve said too often, it wasn’t always so in human souls. Just a couple centuries ago, evil was a tempter to be scoffed at, and ultimately to be defeated. And if you could escape the hungry wolf, you could take shelter in the shepherd’s arms. So after killing our ancient foes—the spawn of superstition—we’re left with a last enemy far gloomier, and with no comforter to help us.

So it’s not just that modernity is boring. It’s also much more frightening than any children’s book. And the fear that accompanies it isn’t the picturesque, imaginative evil that the Medievals were so thrilled to be surrounded by. It’s a barren, gray nothingness that eats away at us. One can’t write poetry about it. Maybe it can give birth to a fine work of philosophy or a rollicking Swedish movie.

I want to close with a literary point. When I was little, there were two books that kept me awake in terror.

The first was Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins, a book about a man who spends all eight nights of Hanukkah in a haunted hilltop synagogue. He’s visited nightly by increasingly hideous demons, and he outwits all of them with a dollop of homespun Yiddish wisdom. On the eighth night, the King of the Goblins shows up. The following picture is burned into the soul of any Jewish kid born in the 1990s:

At this point, my five year old self would shrivel in fear. But Herschel, after making the right prayers to the Almighty, proceeds to trick the Goblin King into lighting the menorah for him. Hanukkah is saved, and rejoicing ensues in the shtetl at the bottom of the hill.

The second book was far scarier. It preoccupied me much more. And though by now I’ve grown quite fond of Herschel and his goblins (who, on a second reading, are pretty friendly after all), I’m just as terrified now as I was as a toddler by Harold and the Purple Crayon.

Harold has nothing in his world. Literally nothing: he stands against a blank background. Imaginative and full of energy, he creates scenery with his trusty crayon, sketching out a universe for himself to inhabit. The sea is just a swish of his crayon, and so is the sun. He proceeds to have a thrilling adventure. But at the end of the book, as Harold crawls into a bed of his own drawing, an awful truth dawns on the careful reader: Harold doesn’t have a friend in the world. There are no objective dangers facing him, but there is no great comfort either. He lives in a landscape of his own imaginings; there is no one beyond his world to reach out a hand and keep him company. So his imagination is enough to conquer boredom, and he certainly gives no place to ancient customs that would oppress his creativity. What his imagination can’t do is bring him home from the lonely and dark modern sea. All is vanity; a meaningless tapestry of purple wax.

When I was five, this translated to “where is his mom? doesn’t he want to see his mom?“ And come to think of it, that’s a far more cogent statement of what’s wrong with the book—and with modernity—than anything else I’ve been able to say in this post.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

An Epicurean's Guide to Life

Bored, I gave myself an hour to translate a poem. The result is Martial's guide to life (Ep. X.xlvii), translated by me into bad English.

The parts, dear Martial, of a happy life
are these: a bit of wealth by birth, not sweat;
a burning hearth and not a field of strife.
Stay out of court, and shirk your social debt;
relax your mind and make your body strong.
Be simple and stand by an equal friend;
have parties just as plain as they are long.
Don't drown your stress in wine, but let it end;
warm up a lonely bed, but whores abhor;
sleep well to flee the darkness of the deep.
Be what you are and do not hope for more—
fear not your final day, nor tempt its sleep.
Vitam quae faciant beatiorem,
Iucundissime Martialis, haec sunt:
Res non parta labore, sed relicta;
Non ingratus ager, focus perennis;
Lis numquam, toga rara, mens quieta;
Vires ingenuae, salubre corpus;
Prudens simplicitas, pares amici;
Convictus facilis, sine arte mensa;
Nox non ebria, sed soluta curis;
Non tristis torus, et tamen pudicus;
Somnus, qui faciat breves tenebras:
Quod sis, esse velis nihilque malis;
Summum nec metuas diem nec optes.
This, by the way, is by the last good painter in the West.

Friday, May 16, 2014

“Not Aristotle, but the Holy Spirit:” John Calvin on Faith

A certain rationalist and enlightened picture of religious belief has pervaded the West since Maimonides. According to this account, all faith is divided into two parts. First, there is a set of theological claims about the world that the believer assents to. This belief can come about in many ways, from fever-dreams to philosophy, but the soundest belief is the one founded on dispassionate reasoning and unprejudiced empirical analysis of the world. Second, there is devotion—given the truth of the propositions that he has determined, the believer decides to behave in a certain way towards the God he has discovered. These two aspects of faith are partly separable from each other: I can know God but not care about him, but it makes no sense to obey God without having worked out exactly what it is that I believe in.

John Calvin thoroughly denies that picture of religion, giving an account of religious faith that completely elides the distinction between belief and devotion. To Calvin, faith is not the result of human investigation: it comes only from God. The tenets of faith do not lie in the open to be discovered by the curious beachcomber. Faith certainly involves assent to certain objective propositions, but that assent cannot come from anywhere but the work of the Holy Spirit. I think that Calvin, not Maimonides, shows us the way to modern belief.

Above all, Calvin insists that there is no backdoor to faith. The precepts of faith are not, like scientific propositions, statements about the world that we can agree with without God’s bringing our minds to them. Consider this statement, the foundation of Calvin’s theological epistemology:
When we call faith “knowledge” we do not mean comprehension of the sort that is commonly concerned with those things which fall under human sense perception. For faith is so far above sense that man’s mind has to go beyond and rise above itself in order to attain it. Even where the mind has attained, it does not comprehend what it feels. But while it is persuaded of what it does not grasp, by the very certainty of its persuasion it understands more than if it perceived anything human by its own capacity. Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.ii.14
Calvin makes two strong claims here. First, faith is not derived from evidence that is visible to human eyes. After all, the world of sense is subject to all kinds of mutually contradictory interpretations, and there is nothing within the finite world that describes the infinite. Belief in God, of course, is real belief, but it is not a belief that corresponds to anything perceptible in the world. This makes Calvin’s second claim striking: that the human mind is, in fact, capable of being persuaded into faith that is stronger than any ordinary belief. The logical implication is unavoidable: the mind must be firmly persuaded without the eyes’ seeing. Only God, that is, can convince believers of the principles of their faith.

Calvin does not restrict this account of faith to belief in Christ. His claim extends even to a more general apprehension of God in the world. Even non-Christians, says Calvin, have a sense of the majesty of the universe—not, crucially, as the result of their own observations, but because God creates them with an innate sense of himself in their minds (see I.iii.1).

When it comes to knowledge of Christ, though (as distinct from a vague sense of a God who created the universe), human reason is all the more insufficient, for only through the Holy Spirit can Scripture be believed. Despite all the proofs that can be brought to bear to support its authority, Scripture
will ultimately suffice for a saving knowledge of God only when its certainty is founded upon the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, these human testimonies which exist to confirm it will not be in vain if, as secondary aids to our feebleness, they follow that chief and highest testimony. But those who wish to prove to unbelievers that Scripture is the Word of God are acting foolishly, for only by faith can they be known. (I.viii.13.)
This is a direct rebuke to the likes of C.S. Lewis, whose apologetic trilemma—Jesus was either a fool or a liar or God—is an attempt to give a firm rational foundation for faith to unbelievers. It is a recognition of the fundamental unknowability of God outside of the Bible. After all, as far as history and archeology are concerned, who is to say that Jesus has any more claim to authority than Zoroaster or Muhammad? To Calvin—and I think he is right to say so—it is only through a “special illumination” that man can know Christ. On this point, Calvin uses the same metaphor as Maimonides: man is like a traveller through a dark field which is lit up by brief flashes of lightning. The two theologians, though, give utterly different meanings to the simile: to Maimonides, the lightning is the result of the traveller’s own intellectual genius lighting up the darkness of ignorance. For Calvin, it is meant to show that man cannot discover anything about Christ unless God permits him to.

In fact, Calvin goes so far as to say that belief in Christ seems ridiculous on its face to anyone approaching through any means but the Holy Spirit. Discussing the Resurrection, for instance, Calvin makes a point of emphasizing its improbability—improbability, that is, within an Aristotelian, scientific worldview. All the better to impress on us the power of Christ. “Nothing,” says Calvin, “could be more unfitting to think of [the Resurrection as] something that can happen in the course of nature, when there is set before us an inescapable miracle, which by its greatness overwhelms our senses (III.xxv.4).” This is not credo quia absurdum, but it is close.

We might be tempted to call Calvin’s belief a radically new epistemological category. How can there be a truth that we cannot reach by looking? But this kind of unanswerable truth is common to everyone—Calvin is simply explicit about the fact that the foundation of his worldview is not strictly empirical. Calvin’s faith in Christ is a method of interpreting the world, and Calvin is clear that, while the method he applies has certain logical consequences, there is nothing logical to guide us to it. Maimonides, as Calvin (and I) would have it, operates under a similarly unaccountable heuristic—he just doesn’t talk about it.

Are we to understand, then, that Calvin demands the abolition of reason? To the contrary! Though he repeatedly stresses the insufficiency of reason to attain true knowledge of God, he does not deny its capacity, as a gift of God, to clarify certain points of theology. (Liberal arts, for instance, can give us a better understanding of God’s nature.) Calvin often uses the test of common sense and natural reason as a means of clarification, though not as a means of attaining faith. Reason is also capable of increasing a believer’s admiration of Scripture after the Holy Spirit has directed it down that path. Martyrs, for instance, testify to the truth of Scripture, but there is no distinguishing them from false fanatics unless a Christian is guided by God to admire them. We should thus distinguish between two uses of reason for Calvin. First, reason is falsely held to bring man to knowledge of God. That cannot be. Second, reason can be used to interpret God’s word once faith is already there—that use, according to Calvin, has profit.

One of the foundations of this attitude to faith is the concept of belief without understanding. This is more than vague belief: take, for instance, Calvin’s statement on the incomprehensibility of the Holy Supper: “I do not at all measure this mystery with the measure of human reason, or subject it to the laws of nature. I ask you whether it is from physics we have learned that Christ feeds our souls from heaven with his flesh.”(IV.xvii.24) In other words, we will never come to an understanding of the Holy Supper by examining the bread that Christians eat under a microscope. Nor will we understand it by crafting, like the Catholics, a delicate metaphysical apparatus to explain the bread’s transformation. A Christian must instead simply experience the union with Christ without understanding its metaphysical basis. (This lack of understanding, it is worth repeating, does not diminish in the slightest the communer’s faith—to the contrary, it increases it.) This attitude stands in sharp contrast to Maimonides’ conceit, put forward in his Guide for the Perplexed, that true believers are “those who have succeeded in finding a proof for everything.”

Thus, Calvin’s faith is is accessible only to those to whom God has given it. Men cannot find God in the world unless God gives them the right means of using their senses. Still less can man come to a knowledge of Christ without God’s Word overcoming his natural sight. And still less can Christians believe in such seemingly impossible doctrines as the Resurrection without faith in God directly subverting the counsel of their senses.

To conclude. Science and history have now advanced to the point where, if we accept their criteria for truth, we cannot readily believe the teachings of the old religions. If a believer is to have orthodox faith, he must interpret the world in a way that resists scientific detachment and non-religious criteria for truth.

A modern orthodox believer, then, would do well to study Calvin’s attitude to religious faith. Calvin, who knew Vergil and Lucretius too well to completely ignore their empirical rejection of the gods, did not live in a world in which philosophy and empirical science led inevitably to knowledge of God. Nevertheless, he provided a solid foundation of faith by insisting on overcoming the senses, on unconditional reverence for doctrine, and on faith as part of a pious life free from temptation. Instead of predicating faith on rational proofs that use the same criteria as a chemistry paper, an orthodox believer ought, like Calvin, to allow his reverence for God to dictate the content of his belief and the patterns of his thought. He must abandon Maimonides and embrace Calvin.

I, of course, am not orthodox. I just want to clarify the grounds that orthodoxy can in fact exist on.

Abridged from an essay I wrote in spring 2013.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Hosanna in Excelsis!

On a sunny afternoon last March, I was strolling through Rome with a vague goal to make it to the Vatican by the evening. As I wandered through the medieval nest between the Piazza Navona and the river, I came on a tiny piazza, like all the others, with a café on one side and a run-down church on the other.

“Let’s go into that church,” one of my companions said.

“We can’t go into every church,” I said, “or else we’ll never make it to St. Peter’s.”

“Let’s go into this one. I hear music!”

We went in. And that’s how we spent the afternoon with the Congolese Catholic community of Rome.

It was thrilling. After being heartily greeted by throngs of children and children of God, we stood—then sat—to watch the mass. A large choir of men and women stood at the front of the room with an electric guitar, drums and a piano. The priest at the front of the room would sing out in Swahili, and the choir—and the whole church—would burst out in a flood of joyful music; swaying, smiling, and holding their neighbors' hands. When it was time for communion, the whole congregation literally danced to the altar. Mothers paraded up with their babies; sons held onto their old fathers. Prenez et mangez: ceci est mon corps! prenez et buvez: voici mon sang!

It was only afterwards, when we came out radiant into the piazza, that I even remembered the lifeless Jewish services that I’m used to going to. Soon an even sadder thought came to me: there was nothing in my ordinary life that even compares to what I’d seen in the church. And right after seeing it, it seemed like the only happiness worth having.

The key was music. None of the songs they were singing was anything I would put on my iPod. But when they sang, these Christians had an understanding of humanity that’s extremely rare in a staid culture like ours. Something happens to humans when we sing together: for a few minutes, the dikes between us burst and the algaed pools of our selves form a deep, surging lake. In front of a painting we can see beauty, listening to Mozart we’re covered in it, but when we sing together we become it.

Exhibit A:

Now I’d like to file a complaint. I hopped on a Chicago bus this morning and rode it from the beginning of the line to the end, spanning the entire width of the South Side. And the riders were silent! My mind was filled with the ways it could have been different: we could have sung the national anthem. We could have clapped and chanted. We could have called out Amazing Grace in four-part harmony. We had so many chances to be human together—and we were silent.

Pete Seeger died last month, but I’m waiting for his resurrection. It’ll come the day that our buses, our synagogues, our banks and our restaurants resound again with our voices. With that in mind, I’m off to amble across the quad singing a tune.