Monday, April 6, 2009

Britain: Land of the Disloyal, Rootless, Loveless, and Mythless?

I agree with Norm Geras's comments on Madeleine Bunting's musings on the status of Christianity, but I believe he's too charitable. Bunting decries what she calls "the modern distortion" of Christianity, which transformed

God into a proposition in which you either did or did not believe. He was turned into an old man in the sky with a long white beard or promoted as a cuddly friend named Jesus. Arguing about the existence of such human creations is akin to the medieval pastime of calculating how many angels could fit on the head of a pin.
She contrasts this with the apophatic vision of Christian belief, being
the idea that God is ineffable and beyond powers of description. S/he can be experienced by religious practice, but as [Karen] Armstrong puts it: "In the past, people knew we could say nothing about God. Certain forms of knowledge only come with practice."
Which is to say, back in the good old days,
[w]hat "belief" used to mean, and still does in some traditions, is the idea of "love", "commitment", "loyalty": saying you believe in Jesus or God or Allah is a statement of commitment. Faith is not supposed to be about signing up to a set of propositions but practising a set of principles. Faith is something you do ...
It is an appealing enough vision of faith, but it begs the question of what is to be done in the faith's name. What counts as "love", "commitment", "loyalty," and where do we look to find out? What does the faith require, and what does it exclude?

The concrete difficulty of that begged question arises in the rueful way Bunting opened the very same column:
This is Holy Week. It started yesterday with Palm Sunday and continues through Holy Thursday, Good Friday and culminates this Sunday with Easter Day. One can no longer assume most people will be aware of this, let alone the events these days mark; in a recent UK poll, only 22% could identify what Easter was celebrating. What other system of belief has collapsed at such spectacular speed as British Christianity?
If Bunting is to be taken at her apophatic word, the speedy collapse of "British Christianity" entails nothing less than the speedy collapse of love, commitment, and loyalty. Britain is now peopled, apparently, with the most loveless, rootless, and disloyal wretches of the earth.

But if Christian belief is about doing things rather than believing propositions, what possible relevance would Holy Week have? What do "the events these days mark" have to do with anyone's capacity for love, commitment, or loyalty? Bunting's answer appears to be that the events of Holy Week are among "the myths they need to sustain meaning, purpose and goodness in their lives." It's hard to say if Bunting set out to achieve dizzying levels of provocative Palinesque ignorance, but this claim did so. From where I sit, the world has an astoundingly rich reserve of myths, to which the Abrahamic faiths contribute only a share. There are more myths than any of us has the time to list, let alone absorb, let alone apply.

The trouble with myths, of course, is that they're myths: the very label calls them out as something other than true. Myths can stimulate, fascinate, resonate, inspire, and perhaps even guide, but a myth writes checks that reality does not ultimately honor. Whatever we think of the way Odysseus handled the Sirens, we recognize the events depicted in Homer's Odyssey did not actually happen as described. And this does put a check on our willingness to base our lives on the tale, whatever we might think of it.

To call Christianity a body of myths from which to draw inspiration is already to demote its propositional claims to false, and thus to agree with the 'new atheists' that Bunting finds so dreadfully lacking. To whatever extent Britain -- or anywhere else -- has become a wasteland of the wretched, it is not for lack of myths from which to glean higher purposes, noble lessons, and finer feelings. Bunting might take time to consider whether it would be important to locate the date of Odysseus's return to Ithaca on a modern calendar, and the answer to that will answer her pained questions about the flagging significance of Holy Week.

Update: Ophelia Benson thinks even less of Bunting's confused stylings.


Anonymous said...

Here's what I have to say who anyone who believes, as a matter of faith, that a deity exists: You Are Going To Die As Every Other Living Creature Has Done Or Will Do.

Anonymous said...

I must apologize for my "capitalize every word" rant yesterday. I do think that the fear of death, and the con artists who have preyed on that fear from time immemorial, are the twin underpinnings of all religion. However, I have no more idea whether anything other than oblivion, permanent sleep if you will, awaits us when our bodies die.

To some degree I say "our bodies" with gritted teeth. I have no basis to believe we are anything other than our bodies, and actually would have more directly ended the last paragraph with " . . . awaits us when we die." I just wanted to acknowledge that others believe there is an existence to us which transcends our bodies, and that if their beliefs have any validity, it is, again in my view, by accident (the validity that is) because there is no evidence of it that I've heard of.

Dale said...

twoblue, no offense taken here. I think "there's no good evidence to believe" other than that we're bodies and only bodies is putting it very well.

If there's more to it, we simply don't have access to it, and it's absolute guesswork.