Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Secular Age - The Bulwarks of Belief (7-9)

By the fifteenth century, Europe had emerged from the Age of Calamity (as referenced by one of my history books), or an age of anxiety as described by Charles Taylor (p.88).

In this new era comes two major societal transformations: the Renaissance and the Reformation. On page 75, Taylor turns his attention to the impact of one particular Protestant theology, Calvanism. It emerges* during the Reformation as a continuation of St. Augustine's thoughts on God's sovereignty and our predestination, as furthered by John (Jean) Calvin.

* Could they be the Emergents of their day? But I digress ...

According to Taylor, the Reformation - and particularly Calvanism - is central to the "abolition of the cosmos" (that is, the loss of the enchanted world) and the "eventual creation of a humanist alternative to faith". The Calvanist approach to faith leaves little room for mystery. In an attempt to create a rigid system of theology (and by rigid, I mean the need to have everything figured out), there is a "lock on the mysteries" (p.78). Anyone with experience in Calvanism recognizes this trait; there is little room for mystery or wonder. Taylor states that this "offers a model for the later humanist hostility to mystery" (p78).

Taylor discusses three levels that are emphasized with the Calvanist Reform: 1) a disciplined personal life, 2) a well ordered society, and 3) a right inner attitude. The third level creates a cycle that oscillates between salvation and depravity. We are saved, but before we become too comfortable we are reminded that we are depraved, but before we become too distraught we are reminded that we are saved ... The second level results in attempts to engineer society through social reforms, and causes the pendulum to swing between spasms of Arminianism and Calvinism.

Finally, this age also sees the "succession of elites from popular culture" (p.87). The elites begin to view moments of anti-structure (that is, the times the populace lets off steam, such as Carnival) as simply depraved acts, whereas previously they would have actively participated; there had been little difference in the activities of elites (clergy, nobility) and the common folk. It is here that Taylor argues this is the forerunner of political correctness. There is also the establishment of a "less enchanted" version of the Catholic church by the elites.

And now, for my own observations:

Recognizing that Taylor doesn't normally opine, his use of phrases like "horrifying conclusions" (p.78) and "repelling people from the faith" (p.79) make it easy to infer his views on Calvanism. Without forgetting about the log in my own eye, the phrases could be applied to his own Catholic faith too. There have been many other so-called Christian institutions fraught with corruption, playgrounds for bloodshed, politics, and power (in the manner of repelling people from the faith). I agree with him more so on the Problem of Evil - which cannot be addressed by Calvanism - and the movement towards total disenchantment (abolition of mystery). Whereas one cannot base an entire system of theology on Romans 9, one cannot dismiss it either.

I am hesitant to accept that one specific Protestant theology can be given as large a responsibility for ushering in certain aspects of the modern secular age as Taylor initially suggests, but there are over 700 pages left and I hope to find more answers there.

I gave thought to our own elites in North Atlantic societies; whereas the sixteenth century saw a succession between elites and the common folk, our own society sees an entire class of elites created by popular culture. We create icons out of movie stars, athletes, musicians, and politicians (for example, the recent Obama Mania). We adore them, gossip about them, keep track of them, and then discard them when they no longer interest us (or fail us). This is almost akin to the anti-structure described by Taylor, such as fools made king for a day, or a child in Bishop's clothes. Is our society coming full circle on some of these things?

Finally, his quick statement about the birth of political correctness could have used more fleshing out (as in, some data or studies to support his argument). What can I say? zetetic skepsis ...

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A Secular Age

Here I go again.

A friend of mine invited me to join in an on-line review and discussion of Charles Taylor's A Secular Age.

This book became a little more difficult to source than I first thought. had only 4 copies left before Christmas, and I was too late to beat the Christmas backlog of orders and the overloaded mail system. And, given the desire to support independent book stores, I inquired at Pages in my neighbourhood to see if they carried the book. They had it on order, and for a whopping $10 more than Amazon. On New Year's Eve day, I went with my family to see if they had it in; getting a new book can be exciting, after all. At 5 minutes before closing, the doors were already locked and the staff members behind the desk insisted it was past closing time, refusing to let us in. We were also mocked - two small children and two exasperated adults locked out in -20C weather can be funny, I suppose.

Sadly, independent book stores cannot compete on price so they rely on the good will of their clients to keep them afloat. Customer service is their only differentiator. It's a little like running a charity, hence how strange it was to have our attempt to give them our business rebuffed.

Never one to give up, I phoned around this morning, loaded up the kids in the double stroller, waded through the slush and snow banks, took the C-Train across town to the south end Chapters, and went home with a new copy at $10 less than it would have cost me at Pages.

It wouldn't be fun if I wasn't already behind. The introduction has been reviewed here.

I'm aiming to get a better understanding of the rise of secularism in the West. Here are some of questions that I hope will be answered (or at the very least pondered):

  • Is secularism just another competing parallel "ism", or is it the umbrella under which all other "isms" must learn to exist?

  • Is the notion of a secular society a myth?

  • How does a Christian let their voice be heard amongst the competing interests of a secular society? Or as better worded by Frank, how do we deal with diversity in a liberal democracy?

Monday, March 5, 2007

Danish Riots

Here are my 30 second thoughts on the subject of the recent riots in Denmark.

Sparked by the eviction of squatters from an abandoned building in Copenhagen, the rioting has largely been carried out by "leftist youth" (muh?), as the building was used as a makeshift youth center and was a gathering place for anarchists, punk rockers, and left-wing groups. It was purchased by a Christian congregation 6 years ago, and was demolished today.

One wonders how the world would react if the rioting was carried out by Denmark's Islamic community? Imagine if the riots attracted Muslims from other nations, as it has attracted youths from neighbouring European countries and North America.

While I am not intending to serve as an apologist for Muslim extremism, I think this event has reinforced the idea that our civility is fragile - civilization is a thin veneer - and that our societies can become quickly unraveled from within as well as without. Has the post-9/11 environment allowed the West to demonize Islamism in an effort to distract itself from problems at home?

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Jesus Filter

I made an interesting discovery today while posting comments at the Globe and Mail. The article discussed the upcoming documentary on the purported discovery of Jesus' tomb in Jerusalem.

The conversation was semi-moderated, meaning that an automatic filter is used to restrict postings. One of my posts was continually rejected, until another member of the conversation pointed out in a post that the filter would not allow any posts containing the word "Jesus". Once I replaced "Jesus' resurrection" with "the resurrection", my post was accepted.

Did the Globe and Mail hire the same censor as the airline industry?

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Screwtape Letters

I am neither a theologian nor a philosopher. With that in mind, here are my thoughts on Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris.

After purchasing the book this week at Pages, I decided to read the book from start to finish in one evening, and then post a short review. I will address some of Sam Harris' points directly in future posts.

Sam Harris does not like the Christian faith, or any belief in a deity. He is also very clear that he defines his position as an atheist based on what he does not believe (versus what he does believe), and is not dogmatic or ideological (hence distancing himself from Communism, for example). Notwithstanding his disbelief, he does not like God. Sam Harris argues that the time for faith and its influence on politics, economics, and society is over, as the Christian faith has largely blocked the development of a rational society. The belief in God is absurd, the belief in the Bible as a divinely inspired book is absurd, and I am irrational for my belief. Thank you, and that will be $22.95 plus applicable taxes.

At times I found Harris to be guilty of podsnappery, With one fell swoop of the arm, the entire thoughts of all humanity throughout the ages on the subject of morality are summed up in one sentence: morality is pursuing happiness while also alleviating human suffering . With another fell swoop of the arm, bioethics and medicine all find themselves neatly aligned with his opinions. Sam Harris appears to be an expert in medicine, ethics, morality, theology, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and history. He makes very bold pronunciations on each of these subjects, without any mention of the debates that rage on these issues amongst his own (non-believing) peers. Many issues are portrayed as having just two opposing views: his and those of Christians.

At other times, I was very impressed with Harris' understanding of faith, and its implications in how we as Christians perceive ourselves and others. He leaves little room for compromise in our positions on morality and theology, and I found myself in agreement with many of his points. Sam Harris and I only disagree on some of the conclusions he draws regarding those implications.

As a side note, I had a good chuckle as Sam Harris discussed the conundrum of limbo.

The major weakness of the book is Sam Harris' discussion on real morality. He leaves many important questions unanswered: How does one measure happiness, a subjective emotion? At what lengths should we go to alleviate suffering (eugenics, euthanasia)? By what measure does a society dispense justice and mercy (for example, can someone languish in prison after being convicted of a crime, leaving the victim and the perpetrator both suffering and without happiness)? How is a secular society based on consumerism motivated to self-sacrifice and self-denial?

Oversimplification of topics of great importance is a trend that continues throughout the book. In general, his claims are unsubstantiated and poorly footnoted, although references to some statements are provided at the end. While recognizing that a short book on this topic could not use a lot of ink defending and qualifying each argument, it is the boldness with which Sam Harris makes his claims that leaves one wanting more evidence.

Sam Harris attempts to portray everything about faith and religion as absurd. Ironically enough, this is often the same tactic employed by opponents of the theory of evolution, and I find it interesting that Sam Harris would do the same. To rely on mockery belies a weakness in one's arguments, as if the facts are not convincing enough to stand on their own.

Sam Harris seems to confuse a dislike for the revelation of God, as found in the Bible, with proof that there is no God. Harris is clearly upset at the scale of human suffering and God's apparent unwillingness or inability to put a stop to it. For Harris, this is proof enough that God does not exist. These questions and accusations are viewed by atheists as something new and unique to bring to the debate over faith, but they pre-date the time of Christ. The Bible contains some of the same questions and accusations against God (read Job and Ecclesiastes, while additional verses can be found in Psalms, Jeremiah, and Lamentations). God and Sam Harris both share one thing in common: neither of them are particularly fond of the way the universe is currently operating.

Unfortunately, Sam Harris never broaches topics involving the role of sin in the world, the responsibility of humanity for its actions, the struggle between good and evil in the spiritual realm, and the chasm that exists between humanity in its fallen condition and God's holiness. Since Harris does not believe in the Christian spiritual realm, it comes as no surprise that he would not address these, yet he often provides Christian counter-arguments to his statements, followed by additional counter-arguments to those. In the end, he is strangely silent on the central theme of Christianity: that humanity, having turned its back on God, was in need of a Saviour.

Monday, January 22, 2007

First and Second Things

Unfortunately, the one local book store that would most likely carry Letter to a Christian Nation was closed this evening, so I spent a little bit of time looking through some of the second-hand book shops. Given the recent release of the book, it's no surprise that I couldn't find it on the shelves. As an aside, I live in a lovely neighbourhood in Calgary called Kensington.

As a preface to my review, I thought it would be helpful to include a short description of what I believe as a Christian. There are many creeds that exist, but the one that most succinctly describes my faith is the Apostles' Creed. In addition to this creed, I also believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. It was written by human authors under the supernatural guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is the supreme source of truth for Christian beliefs and living.

Secondly, I am avoiding any comments that have been written on this book elsewhere, except for comments from the author and from his supporters. I read an interesting interview with Sam Harris about his book. Though tempted to dissect his responses during the interview, I will save my efforts for the book.

Some food for thought from the interview:

People who claim to be certain about things they cannot be certain about should meet resistance in our discourse.
Can atheists be certain of their beliefs? Can the existence of nothing be proven?

Many of my friends and readers seem to have grown increasingly amazed by the mad work that religion is doing in our world.
Is it enough to dismiss a system (political, economic, theological) based on the actions of its adherents? If I can prove that democratic societies have been guilty of atrocities, or that atheists have been responsible for the death of millions, then may I also dismiss those systems of thought? Or does there come a point where the merits of an ideology need to be examined without resorting to arguments of who is guilty of the worst behaviour?

As I say in the book, one of us really must be wrong.
And so, let's begin ...

Letter to a Christian Nation

I was directed to a colleague's posting at his online journal.

We've had some very entertaining lunch-hour conversations in the past, and I couldn't help but be rude and take up his offer (which was not directed to me) to read Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris in exchange for a book of my choosing of roughly the same length. I will post a review on my blog while my colleague does the same.

I opted to select the books of Luke and Acts from the Bible. Neither of these books focus on apologetics, but were selected because one might as well know what one does (not?) believe. Both Luke and Acts do a wonderful job of recounting the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as well as continuing on with the history of the (very) early Church. Any of the four Gospels would have been suitable, but selecting Luke provides some continuity between the two books as they were authored by the same individual (tradition ascribes them to Luke).

I look forward to reading Sam Harris' book. Without having read a review or knowing the content of the book, I assume most of his criticisms are directed at the disconnect between what Christians believe and how they act, especially in first world nations where wealth, consumerism, politics, hypocrisy, and ignorance have done much to undermine the credibility of the Christian faith. Hence my recommendation of Acts instead of one of the Epistles, which tend to focus on theology. Acts demonstrates how the early Church operated, and is a good indicator of how the Church should have operated over the intervening centuries.

I'll purchase the book this week. I'll be interested in seeing if my premonitions of the book's contents are substantiated.