An Embarrassing Misunderstanding

The other day I attended a neighborhood association meeting at which several candidates running in the Athens mayoral race showed up to explain their platforms and talk to some potential voters. Two of them were fairly standard as mayoral candidates go, but one of them was a junior at Ohio University. Now, on the one hand, I have to say that I admire young people who have a sincere desire to take on new challenges and who, at the same time, believe that they can really make a difference if they just throw themselves into things and grasp the bull by the horns, so to speak. On the other hand, I had to avert my eyes just about every time this young fellow tried to answer a question from his audience, because his youth and inexperience were glaringly obvious in everything he said, and to be perfectly frank I felt just a little bit of embarrassment for him. The other fellows had obviously been involved in local politics for some time, and they knew about things like infrastructure, tax rates, easements, annexation of county land, and all the rest that goes with running the business end of a small town. The OU junior seemed principally interested in helping to get trash collected in student neighborhoods and trying to figure out what to do about the annual crisis that is the "Halloween Party" here in Athens. I don't doubt that someone of his intelligence could learn, in time to do most, if not all, of the other things involved in running Athens, but a large part of wisdom, according to Socrates, is coming to grips with what one doesn't know, that is, learning how to recognize our own shortcomings and make the adjustments necessary. When the young man realizes that he is not qualified to be mayor of Athens, that will be the beginning of his (possibly long) road to actually qualifying for the office he seeks to fill.

As I listened to this young man I was reminded of something that Fr. Al Kimel brought to my attention over the weekend. It is a review of Pope Benedict XVI's book, Jesus of Nazareth, by the New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann. Now here is a man who, it should be fair to say, "knows what he's talking about". He's not some junior from OU who's just shooting from the hip about history, theology, and textual criticism, he has real training and experience in these areas, and is widely regarded as an "expert in the field". And yet, reading his review, I could not avoid feelings of embarrassment not unlike those I felt at the neighborhood association meeting. He characterizes Pope Benedict's book about Jesus as "an embarrassing misrepresentation", because in his view understanding Jesus of Nazareth is a strictly empirical, historical problem. That means that any attempt to assess the meaning (not to mention content) of Jesus's life must itself be strictly empirical in nature--the temptation to interpret, especially in light of theology or claims of revealed truths, must be vigorously resisted. He goes so far as to complain about how "the book constitute[s] a thinly disguised exposition and defense of the Roman Catholic faith". Now, I'll grant you that "facts" of history don't always support every hypothesis that they're summoned to defend, but it is a bit much to be told, by someone who is evidently well educated, that a materialist empiricist will find anti-materialist and anti-empiricist claims difficult to swallow. To be told this with a straight face, on the assumption that it would be absurd to be anything but a materialist and an empiricist, is where one begins to avert one's eyes.

That, I am sorry to say, is really only half the story, as it turns out. For reasons known only to him, Lüdemann includes on his personal web site a link to a story about him in the online edition of The Tennessean with the headline "Praying nonbeliever remains 'open to the mystery'". Here we discover--and in a context where it is very difficult to avert one's eyes--that "Though he prays to no God, he prays nevertheless. He disdains atheism as arrogant." Shoo-ee, wouldn't want to be arrogant after all. Moreover, he is quoted as saying "We must remain open on the question of God in this age of the open society, where scientific investigation never ceases...I'm a praying person — not petitionary prayer, but prayers of gratitude. I pray to the mystery of life, thankful for being on this earth. I feel protected in the universe. I'm thankful, so I pray — a spontaneous act. It prays in me."

"I pray to the mystery of life"?!?

You know, on second thought, why avert one's eyes? After rolling them around a bit, why not stare, with the same morbid fascination with which one stares at a highway accident, fearing to see decapitations yet strangely drawn to the horrors lying on the road ahead (get it? Ahead? A head? Come on, it's funny!). When there is banality as deliciously steeped in unconscious self-parody as this on display, it would be sheer folly to pretend that the man has not blasted us all with the intellectual equivalent of a prodigious, window-rattling fart. So, like Leontius, son of Aglaion who, in Plato's Republic (4.439e) "saw some corpses lying at the executioner's feet...had an appetite to look at them but at the same time he was disgusted and turned away...but finally, overpowered by the appetite, he pushed his eyes wide open and rushed towards the corpses saying 'look for yourselves, you evil wretches, take your fill of the beautiful sight'", let us succumb to the appetite for an examination of the vapid and, pushing our eyes open, rush towards the claims of a man who prays when he knows that prayer is meaningless and who talks about the universe like some sappy, doe-eyed Saganite who's been licking too many toads.

As in the case of Leontius, our spectacle is also a corpse: the faith of a man who "once was a teenage evangelist" (good horror-movie title there: "I was a teenage evangelist") but now counts himself as a kind of Walt Whitman who can contain the whole universe ("It prays in me"). A scholar, he commits himself at a professional level to the empirical analysis (well, what he considers as empirical analysis, anyway) of the "facts" of history from the point of view of the "neutral" observer who is not under the dominion of any particular dogmatic perspective driven by ideology, and yet at the same time he speaks of the growth, in Europe, of "a Western spirituality that explains human beings to themselves...But it will not be an absolutist faith that excludes others. It will unite us, make us see our common fate.... I believe in the progress of knowledge". Sure, plenty of empirical evidence to support that hypothesis, after all. Just look how far religion and spirituality have progressed along the lines he suggests in the past 5000 years. Hey, are you averting your eyes over there? Surely you're not finding this embarrassing? Don't forget that Lüdemann is arguably proud of this interview, since he links to it on his own web page.

Now, I suspect that some of you are snickering up your sleeves at all this, but try to remember that it's just an interview in a newspaper. It doesn't do justice to the man's scholarship. For that, we can have a look at another link that Lüdemann provides on his web page, a link called "What does Easter mean to me?" Here's what it means to him:
For me, resurrection has to do with this present life, which is like a small raft afloat on a vast, dark ocean. An icy wind blows, and the people on the raft are united only by the bond of the death that will come to all of them, nor can they expect any compassion from the impersonal universe. But by coming to terms with the reality of such terrors in humility, wisdom and love, I discover the threshold of a new life. From now on I am no longer cowed by the notion that death is a punishment for my sin, nor do I hope for a resurrection. Instead, I accept my perishability, and that gives rise to a new Easter vision. Now impervious to the undertow of panic, I join with all humanity in the daily task of living in the light of love. Together we can make life stronger than death.
Well, of course it's easy to make fun, especially with this kind of material just sitting there for the reading. I suppose that my detractors might be thinking "Oh come now, if you're going to be shooting fish in a bucket, you'd better be sure those fish aren't red herrings!" In spite of the fact that the man's views on religion appear to be cribbed straight out of Joseph Campbell, it's fair to say that he does have some expertise in New Testament criticism, and we may forgive him his dinosaur-like positivism on the grounds that his views don't seem to matter very much to most folks.

I once wrote an essay (one of my personal favorites from this blog, actually; you can read it for yourself, if you are so inclined, here) in which I compared the worldview of folks like Gerd Lüdemann to being color blind. The capacity to believe about the New Testament what the Church teaches about the New Testament requires a capacity to see that the Lüdemanns (Lüdemen? Lüdemänner?) of the world appear either to have lost or, like dogs and color vision, perhaps, never to have had to the fullest extent to begin with. I noted in that essay the perplexity with which we would greet the claim of a man born blind that a faculty like vision could not possibly exist. Such a claim would seem ludicrous to those with sight, but of course it would be impossible for them to convince the person born blind that sight is not only possible but actual. The blind person could legitimately claim that our notion of "vision" is completely incompatible with the empirical evidence (available to him). And yet he would be mistaken, though he could never grasp, cognitively, the fact that he is mistaken. He may, perhaps, come to believe that he is mistaken. He might, that is, come to believe us when we tell him that he is mistaken. But it is important to see that his believing us is not the same thing as him coming to have a cognitive grasp of his mistake. In particular, and most importantly of all, it is not possible for him to come to have a cognitive grasp of his mistake by means of the cognitive apparatus available to him. In short, if he is to realize and understand his mistake at all, he needs us: he needs to believe the account we are giving him of the visual faculty, and he needs to accept it, well, on faith.

So here comes good ol' Gerd, and he cannot accept the truth of the Gospel as it is proclaimed by those benighted believers. Perhaps it is not entirely due to the fact that he is in the grip of a theory--I think that it is a more fundamental problem than that. I think he is a blind person who does not believe that there is such a thing as sight, and finds the "testimony" of all the sighted folks out there just so much psycho-babel and wishful thinking. Sure, wouldn't it be great to be able to "see" things? Once you believe that "sight" is possible, you start "seeing" things all over the place, but that is just self-fulfilling prophesy, or mere delusion, after all, because we all know that there isn't really any such thing as "sight". Besides, if you want assurance that "sight" is just a myth, all you have to do is to consider the fact that people make wildly differing claims about the things they believe they "see". If there really were such a thing as "sight", everyone would "see" exactly the same things, and there would never be any disputes about the objects of "sight".

At least the guy's good for a laugh, but I fear I may have disappointed Fr. Al, who may have wanted me to say something serious about that book review. If I could take the guy seriously, even for a second, I might have been able to come up with something, but I have to confess that in this day and age of folk-atheism, driven as it is by adolescent dinosaurs like Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, it's really hard to get worked up over things like this. When even some of the more intelligent folks can't come up with anything better than puerile posturing, it's difficult to see why any of us should care enough to mount a serious response. Why not just engage in the usual rubber-necking, and feast our eyes on the corpses of their "arguments"? Look for yourselves, you wretches! Aren't they beautiful?

Comments

Sometimes I'm afraid I'm That Person...

I just hope folks are as willing to be generous and accept that I *mean well* as you were for the young man, and the author.

(On the other hand, my brain keeps wondering if he expected the POPE to be anti-Catholic.)
Scott Carson said…
Even though it may not look like it from some of my posts, I do assume, usually, that folks mean well. I am, deep down, something of a Platonist at heart when it comes to error.
Michael said…
What Easter Means To Me is that there was no Easter. My Resurrection Hope is that everyone dies and no one rises again, and I like it that way just fine. That makes me, like, deep and stuff. Can't you see why my religion is better than yours? Also I don't force it on anybody!

I agree with you, Dr Carson, that this would all be funny if that last part were true. Unfortunately people who say such things do want to force it on us, and under the guise, no less, of finding the true Catholic Faith somehow more hopeless and cruel and mean than their mishmash of hippie nihilism!
*grin* I mightn't have been very clear... You didn't call anyone stupid, or evil, just figured that they didn't have enough information.

That's very cool.

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