A few remarks about church-going

I’ve mentioned here that Mrs Acilius and I can often be found among nearby God-bothering societies, notably the Quaker meeting of which she is a member and an Episcopal parish in which we are also active.  Recently, I shared with the readers of some other blogs this fact and a partial explanation for it.

In response to a post by Rod Dreher about an unsightly and not very obviously Christian work of art placed prominently outside an Episcopal cathedral, I wrote the following:

“You know it’s a rockin’ Episcopalian argument when somebody uses the word “ghastly.” That’s like chair-throwing in any other fight.”

One recent Sunday, I was at coffee hour in the parish hall at an Episcopal church whose doors I darken on a fairly regular basis. I happened to be sitting next to a stack of books that were being reshelved. One of the books was the Book of Occasional Services. A couple of parishioners noticed it. “Does that have an Episcopalian exorcism rite?” Another replied, “Free this soul of bad taste!” Everyone laughed.

The seriousness with which they take aesthetics and lightness with which they take themselves are among the things that keep drawing me to the Episcopalians, and to Anglicans generally. Not only do I find that combination attractive in itself, but I think it is a vital corrective to a culture that relentlessly encourages the opposite traits, militantly rejecting any idea that beauty is a real thing that makes demands on us while it rewards and glorifies the weightiest self-importance and the most morbid self-absorption. The Episcopalians are in a position to make a unique contribution to breaking the spell these vices have cast on us, and so I very much hope they thrive.

That said, when I mention the Episcopal Church to people not affiliated with it the single most common response is the question, “Is that still around?” So perhaps it will take some time for their particular share of the Light to overcome the darkness around us.

I went on at even greater length in responding to a post by Alastair J. Roberts called “Hear Me Out: On Sitting Through Sermons.”  While, as a Calvinist, Mr Roberts sees the chief purpose of preaching as instruction in correct doctrine, he also puts considerable emphasis on the value of the physical act of sitting still and listening while another person speaks at length, even when relatively little of the content of that speech stays in the memory of the hearer.  This led me to expound on the role of sermons in the religious gatherings Mrs Acilius and I most regularly attend:

Very interesting. On most Sunday mornings, my wife and I attend two Christian gatherings. At 8 AM, we go to an Anglican service. Then at 11, we go to the Quakers. Different as they are, the two traditions have similar views of the proper function of sermons.

The Anglicans tend to believe that the role of the sermon, like that of each of the other prescribed parts of the liturgy, is to sweep away the distractions that might be buzzing about in one’s mind when one enters the worship space. So the penitential elements sweep away, first, the sinful preoccupations that may have taken root in our minds, then the idle guilt in which we dwell on the fact that we have been in the grips of those preoccupations. The lessons and the creed sweep away any impulse to enter theological or political disputes, reminding us as they do that we not only agree on a great deal, but that whatever disagreements do divide us have been around so long that it is unlikely we will miss anything by taking a pass on any particular opportunity to try to persuade people of the rightness of our views. Hymns and corporate prayers and greetings dramatize the fact that we’re all in this together, sweeping personal resentments aside for the time being. The preacher must have a sense of what is going on with the congregation to know which of these distractions is likely to represent the biggest distraction at any given iteration of the Eucharist and design the sermon to put some extra force behind the broom aimed at it.

Our 11 AM gathering is more of a “Friends Church” than a “Quaker meeting.” They have hymns, accompanied by an organ; a choir, accompanied by a professional pianist; a sermon, delivered by a professional preacher; and other formal practices, all laid out in a printed program and introduced by cues that must be expressed in precisely the correct words. However, the climax of all this formalization is a period of shared listening, in which we sit for ten minutes or so, many times in complete silence, but not infrequently hearing from two or three Friends who feel that the Holy Spirit has entrusted them with a message for us. Quite often this message is something along the lines of, “I forgot to mention it during the announcements, but I brought some cabbages from my garden, please take them home with you.” Be that as it may, each of those liturgical elements found its way into the practice of our branch of Quakerdom as a preparation for that shared silence. As our Anglican friends want to clear their minds to fully experience the direct encounter with Christ they find in the reception of the Eucharist, so our Friends friends want to clear their minds to fully experience the direct encounter with Christ they find “wherever two or more are gathered in [His] name.”

My wife is more of an old-fashioned Quaker than are most in our meeting. For her, the sheer act of sitting still and waiting for the Holy Spirit in a circle of others doing the same is quite enough to achieve the clarity needed for the sacramental experience. If another should speak, or pray, or break into song, that is all the better, but she does not find it necessary. The physical act, as you put it, is sufficient to prepare her for an encounter with Christ.

These two descriptions may seem to depict liturgy as therapy, or perhaps therapy as liturgy.  Certainly in each case the goal is to help people to get themselves out of their own way.  Of all the parts of the liturgy, when liturgy is conceived as preparation for sacrament, the sermon is perhaps the one where the therapeutic is most likely to make itself obvious.  Perhaps this is why sermons so often inspire resentment, because the preacher may stray too far into territory where a psychologist might have a surer touch.  And so rarely does even the most engaged preacher really know what is on the minds of more than a small fraction of her congregation; a sermon perfectly crafted to clear the minds of that fraction may be pointless or even distracting to many others.

Mr Roberts’ post is really quite excellent.  I’d also recommend one of the later comments, from someone called Tapani:

Repetition is the mother of learning. I got an A in A level maths (a long time ago; wouldn’t pass GCSE now, I suspect!)—not because I could draw on this particular lesson or that for the answers, but because I had acquired the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes over 14 years of mathematical education. I can recall just about one specific lesson (first term of lower sixth), and that because we were being something important (differentiation, from first principles) which I failed to grasp in the lesson and was, therefore, very frustrated. And yet I got that A.

I do wonder how much of this emphasis on memorability is a by-product, or at least sister, of the experiential turn in Christianity. We seek experiences, feelings, in worship in general, so we also seek experiences (feelings, or thoughts to hang on to) in sermons too. And if we don’t get those experiences but merely individual moments of life-long Christian formation, we are dissatisfied.

The phrase “individual moments of life-long Christian formation”  strikes me as a remarkably concise statement of a distinctly Protestant view of the role of preaching.  Anglicans are Protestants too, of course, even though some of them are strangely reluctant to admit it, and Quakerism originated as a radical reimagining of Anglicanism.   I do think that a tendency to equate cases of instruction in points of doctrine with “moments of life-long Christian formation” is native to Protestantism.  Surely that phrase would more naturally suggest, to a non-Protestant Christian, the experience of the sacraments.  In that sense, the emphasis on encounters with the divine and the aversion to systematic theology that characterize Anglicanism and its offshoots marks a point at which those movements part company with the Reformed and Lutheran traditions, and move toward common ground with the Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches.

Anyway, this post has the noun phrase “church-going” in its title, so here is Philip Larkin reading his poem “Church-Going“:

I am not much of a believer myself; my attitude is not really so different from Larkin’s, when one comes down to it.  I do think it would be a shame if a day were to dawn when even disbelief has finally withered away, when the last, the very last person has sought a church for what it was, and all that remains is a vague sense of “a serious house on serious earth.”  If that day never does come, and if at the end of it all there are still those like my wife and our friends among the Friends and the Anglicans who find renewal and transformation and surpassing truth in such places, I suspect the seeds from which that infinite future will have grown are striking their roots deeper in the hushed moments of sacramental encounter than in the ringing words of the dogmatist.

Counterpunch, 1-15 March 2012

In the latest issue of Counterpunch, JoAnn Wypijewski tells the story of Keith Jennings, a resident of Stony Ridge, Ohio.  Mr Jennings couldn’t keep up with his house payments, so the bank owns it now.  He has responded to this by enlisting a group of local youths to seal the house off, covering it in tar and cement.  Ms Wypijewski is at pains to portray Mr Jennings and his cohorts as a thoroughly unheroic bunch.  Their lack of heroism is precisely what makes their odd little story seem urgent to her.  They stand for all the forgotten eccentrics who have, over the centuries, done odd, apparently pointless things that have made life a little bit more complicated for people in power, and have thereby helped to prepare the way for the great figures whose names we do remember.

Harry Browne asks “How Toxic is the Fog of Benevolence in Foundation Journalism”?  Mr Browne points out that, while many people express concerns about possible conflicts of interest when journalistic enterprises are parts of big businesses, very few express such concerns about journalism that is funded by philanthropic institutions.  Considering that philanthropic institutions are usually endowed and overseen by the very people who have the greatest influence over big businesses, this certainly is a strange state of affairs.  It is all the stranger in view of the fact that for-profit journalism must appeal to a broad public, while charity projects need only satisfy their funders.

Self-described “adventurer, chef, yogi, and army wife” Rachel Ortiz contributes “Faith: An Atheist Perspective.”  As a Jewish teenager in Texas, Ms Ortiz fell in with a group of very outgoing Southern Baptists.  Converting to their faith, she spent three years being happy at church and miserable at home before she started asking questions that the Southern Baptists couldn’t answer.  After a period away from church, the 16 year old Ms Ortiz went back as an observer.   She was appalled to see everyone moving at the same times and speaking in the same ways during the service.  This seemed to her a sign of “brainwashing.” She writes:

I began to notice that when children “spoke in tongues,” it sounded remarkably similar to the way their parents sounded when they spoke in tongues.  I noticed that everyone simultaneously knew when to bow their heads, when to stand, when to sit, when to clap, when to say Amen!  It was in that moment that I knew to the very core of my being that I had been, and all of them were, brainwashed.

My reaction to this was a bit complicated.  Mrs Acilius and I pay regular visits to a couple of nearby Anglican and Lutheran churches.  There, everyone simultaneously knows when to bow their heads, when to stand, when to sit, when to kneel, when to say amen.  If that’s the result of brainwashing, it’s the least subtle brainwashing imaginable. They give you a paper when you go in the door on which a full set of instructions are printed.  It isn’t subliminal recruiting, but superliminal recruiting.  So the picture Ms Ortiz painted did not immediately strike me as sinister.

On the other hand, most Sundays we can be found in a Quaker meetinghouse.  Mrs Acilius is a member of the meeting, and I am also active in it.  In traditional Quaker meetings, shared silence is communion and an explicit agenda is a sign of the secular.  The one we attend isn’t like that.  They have a bulletin with a list of Sunday morning Protestant stuff, including hymns, a sermon from the pastor, etc etc etc.  There are some moments which are not stuffed full of planned events, what Quakers call “Open Worship.”  In these moments we usually sit silently together, but occasionally someone feels compelled to speak.  These moments are usually too brief to be a meditative experience that quiets the mind.  Frankly, that’s part of the reason why we keep going back to the neighboring liturgical churches; a well-executed service there is a single experience, and has a clarifying effect similar to that which an hour of meditation in communal silence can provide.  By contrast, the brief interludes of silence in our very churchy Quaker meeting often represent interruptions in a little series of tasks that all concerned are busily keeping up with.  Even so, the meeting fits into what is often called the “Free Church” tradition of Protestantism, in which congregations value spontaneity and individualism.  Because of these values, Mrs Acilius’ fellow members grow uneasy when we remark on the amount of busy-ness that is packed into that hour.  Thinking of their reactions when we talk about how little spontaneity there is in the meeting, it is easy to understand how a Free Church Protestant could be shocked to see a group of worshipers behaving in the highly coordinated manner Ms Ortiz describes.

Marcel Duchamp, Calvinist

Tonight, Mrs Acilius and I were watching TV.  The program was a documentary called Paris: The Luminous Years. In a video clip from the 1960s, Marcel Duchamp said every visual artwork was a collection of shapes and colors.  The essence of art lay in the artist’s choice of these shapes and colors.  One set of shapes and colors was as eligible for this choice as another, and the actual production of the artwork was purely incidental.  Once the artist had made his or her choice of shapes and colors, the “art” is complete.

Mrs Acilius (who posts on WordPress as “Believer1“) said something about this.  “I think art is freedom.  When I paint a plate, I know that I’m painting it with fingers that have cerebral palsy.  So I have to start by accepting the fact that the picture I have in my mind is not going to be the same as the picture on the plate.”  We talked about this.  I asked her if she was saying that art wasn’t just something that happened in the artist’s mind, or just the finished product, but was to be found in the process, in the difference between what she was trying to do and what wound up happening.  She confirmed that she was saying that.

A plate by Mrs Acilius

I told Mrs Acilius that the difference between her and Duchamp reminded me of the difference between Calvinism and sacramentalism in Christian theology.  Duchamp’s idea that art is art simply because the artist has decided so, and that the events that take place in the physical world subsequent to that choice have no bearing on its status sounds rather like the Calvinist idea that the Elect are the Elect simply because God has decided so, and that events that take place in the physical world subsequent to his free election have no bearing on their status.  Her idea, by contrast, sounds like a form of Christianity that regards salvation as inseparable from particular forms of matter and particular events in time.

The Mrs is a Quaker; unlike the classical believer in the Orthodox, Catholic, or Anglican versions of Christianity, Quakers typically reject ritual.  They do, however, embrace sacraments.  Quakers do not practice baptism by water, not because they think it puts too much of God in the physical world, but because it puts too little of Him there.  Believing that the soul can encounter the Holy Spirit under any circumstances, they see the whole world as the scene of baptism.  Likewise, in their meetings for worship they do not have a ritual sharing of wine and bread, not because they lack communion, but because in their shared silences they make their fellowship a communion, and their whole persons an altar on which it is consecrated.  They do not make lists of sacraments, such as the traditional seven sacraments of Western Christianity, not because they deny that God interacts with humanity through matter, but because they believe that He interacts with us in more ways than we can count or foresee.  So when the Mrs puts an emphasis on the unpredictability of the artistic process, she is using categories familiar from the theology of her religious tradition.

Friends Journal, September 2011

The September 2011 issue of Friends Journal includes a couple of brief pieces I wanted to note.

Geoffrey Kaiser writes of “Three Kinds of Singing in Meeting.”  Kaiser tells of an old document he found when he was visiting Quaker meetings in New England in 1980.  This document was an official statement that a monthly meeting* issued in 1675.  It classified singing in meeting for worship** into three categories: “Serious Sighing,” “Sensible Groaning,” and “Reverent Singing.”

Erik Lehtinen, at the time of writing an Episcopalian deacon, explains in “True Confessions of a Closet Quaker” that he has for some time been sneaking out of his church to attend a Friends*** meeting, and that he has decided to leave the Episcopal church and to join the Quakers.  Lehtinen writes that “Many seekers probably start by reading and being inspired by The Journal of George Fox.****”  Seekers who are graduates of an Anglican seminary may start that way, but I very much doubt that Fox’s journals, written as they were in haste, in the seventeenth century, and by a man whose ideas are challenging to moderns in many ways, are in fact very attractive to a significant percentage of any other population.  Still, it is useful to read Lehtinen’s description of Fox as “a fellow Anglican.”  Fox spent his youth in the Church of England, and never quite admitted that he had left that communion.

*”Monthly meeting” is a Quakerese expression that other Christian traditions might translate as “parish” or “local church”

**”Meeting for worship” is also Quakerese; one might say, “worship service”

***”Friends” is Quakerese for “Quakers.”  It’s a term that Quakers themselves find confusing, or claim to find confusing; they sometimes make a show of saying “friends- big ‘F’ and little ‘f,'” to highlight the fact that Friends can have friends who aren’t Friends.

****George Fox was the founder of Quakerism.  There are people who think that lines like “Friends can have friends who aren’t Friends” are hilarious; such people have also been known to look for opportunities to make puns about foxes.  So if you are thinking of joining with the Quakers, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

“We do not believe in appointing Deputies to do what we think it wrong for ourselves to do”

Grover Cleveland, before he entered politics

This summer Mrs Acilius and I read Ryan P. Jordan‘s  Slavery and the Meetinghouse, a study of the great difficulty American Quakers had in the years 1821-1861 trying to decide on an approach to take to the issue of slavery.  Last night I was reminded of this passage, from pages 114 through 115 of Jordan’s book:

The editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, Sydney Howard Gay, wrote that the Anti-Slavery Society disagreed “with the philosophy of the Quaker[s]” who when appointed to political positions would not hang a man themselves but “would appoint a Deputy that would.”  “We do not believe,” continued Gay, “in appointing Deputies to do what we think to be wrong for ourselves to do.” 

Gay wrote these words in October of 1848, when many American Quakers were rallying to support the presidential campaign of slaveholder Zachary Taylor.  In the willingness of the ostensibly antislavery Quakers of the day to support a slaveholding president, Gay saw cowardice.  He equated the cowardice he believed he saw in this matter with the cowardice he saw in the same Quakers in regard to the death penalty.  In the seventeenth century, the founders of Quakerism opposed the death penalty, and in many parts of the world that opposition continues even today in an unbroken line of tradition.  The Quakers Gay saw in the antebellum USA paid lip service to that tradition, but many of them merely hid behind others while they became complicit in executions.

What brought this to my mind last night was this tweet from author Michael Brendan Dougherty:

I don’t like Rick Perry. And I think he failed in his answer on this. But it is wrong to say that “Rick Perry has executed” people.

To which I responded:

@michaelbd “it is wrong to say that “Rick Perry has executed” people.” Better Grover Cleveland, who did the job personally, than to delegate

Only someone with a lively interest in nineteenth century US history would be likely to know what I was talking about there, so permit me to explain.  In 1872, Stephen Grover Cleveland was sheriff of Erie County, New York.  The law of the state of New York in those days declared it to be the responsibility of the sheriff of each county to hang the prisoners condemned to death for crimes committed in that county.  As this 1912 New York Times article (pdf) put it, “In the office of Sheriff of Erie County there had for many years been a Deputy Sheriff named Jacob Emerick.  Mr Cleveland’s predecessors had from time immemorial followed the custom of turning over to Emerick all the details of public executions.  So often had this veteran Deputy Sheriff officiated at hangings that he came to be publicly known as ‘Hangman Emerick.'”  Evidently Emerick didn’t enjoy this sobriquet, and Cleveland noticed that the law explicitly named the High Sheriff as the officer responsible for hangings.  So when Patrick Morrisey was scheduled to be hanged on 6 September 1872, Cleveland resolved to execute Morrisey himself.  To return to the Times article, “Cleveland surprised the community and his friends by announcing that he personally would perform the act of Executioner.  To the remonstrances of his friends he refused to listen, pointing to the letter of the law requiring the Sheriff to ‘hang by the neck,’ &c.  He furthermore insisted that he had no moral right to impose upon a subordinate the obnoxious and degrading tasks that attached to his office.  He considered it an important duty on his part to relieve Emerick as far as possible from the growing onus of his title of ‘Hangman.'”   The following year, Cleveland again acted as hangman, putting one John Gaffney to death.  Cleveland was subsequently elected mayor of Buffalo, then governor of New York.  He was the Democratic Party’s candidate for president of the United States in 1884, 1888, and 1892, winning the popular vote on all three occasions and winning the electoral vote in 1884 and 1892.  He remains the only US president to serve two non-consecutive terms in office and one of only four candidates to win the popular vote three times.  He is also the only former sheriff to go on to become US president.

It is because of Cleveland’s willingness to look Morrisey and Gaffney in their faces and pull the lever that dropped the platform from beneath their feet that I have more respect for him than I do for Rick Perry.  In his years as governor of Texas, Mr Perry has signed death warrants that have consigned the 234 people to death.  So far from performing these executions himself, Mr Perry seems never even to have attended an execution.  And while Cleveland could acknowledge that performing an execution was one of the “obnoxious and degrading tasks attached to his office,” Mr Perry claims to regard signing death warrants as a carefree exercise.  This difference alone shows that Grover Cleveland lived in a different moral universe than does Rick Perry.  People whose imaginations are shaped by television and video games may think of indifference to human life as a form of strength, and of personal encounters with the object of one’s violent behavior as unimportant.  Such views would likely have struck a man of Cleveland’s sort as a sign of profound moral and spiritual immaturity.  Granted, executions were far more routine in America in the nineteenth century than they are today, even in a death-penalty happy state like Texas.  But does the fact that we execute fewer people today mean that we take the matter of life and death more seriously than the Americans of Cleveland’s day took it?  Or does it simply mean that other features of our society have interfered with the smooth functioning of the “machinery of death“?

In the flesh?

Most Sundays, Mrs Acilius and I can be found in a Quaker meeting down the street from our home.  She is a member of that meeting and a convinced adherent of the brand of Christianity associated with Quakerism; I’m not a member of any religious group, nor am I convinced of the truth of any religious doctrine.  The Friends are a likeable bunch, though, and I always feel that my time among them is well spent.

In  many ways, the Quakers are a group apart from other Protestants.  Not in all ways, however.  For example, like many mainline Protestant denominations the US branches of Quakerdom are currently rumbling with disputes about the status of homosexuality.  In some areas of the country, these disputes have gone very far.  The venerable Indiana Yearly Meeting, which has been going since 1821, is apparently considering a proposal to dissolve itself so that the local meetings affiliated with it can sort themselves into pro- and anti-gay groups.  Other yearly meetings may be approaching a similar point.  That means that Quaker denominations that have already made their minds up about the issue are facing the prospect of reorganizing to accommodate refugees from the divided groups.

Because I hear about this controversy quite often, I took a keen interest in Eve Tushnet’s notes on a talk that Christopher Roberts gave at Villanova University a few years back.  This bit especially piqued my interest:  “* CR: Progressive theology of marriage separates creation and redemption–for progressive, pro-gay-marriage theologians, sex difference is about creation/procreation and is private, while redemption (linked to marriage?) is ecclesial but unisex. ”

Roberts’ view of  “Progressive theology,” as Tushnet relays it here, reminds me of a problem at the heart of the sacramental theology of Quakerism.  The Quakers have traditionally held that the sacraments of baptism and communion are entirely “inward”; that is to say, what makes them holy is nothing to do with the physical elements of a ritual, and everything to do with supernatural events involving the soul and the Holy Spirit.  So, most Quakers do not practice an initiation ritual involving water, nor do they take wine and bread together in meetings for worship.

I haven’t read deeply on these topics.  If I were to study the arguments that have been made for and against Quakerism over the 350 years that the Friends movement has been underway, I wouldn’t be surprised to find some old writer who thought he had reduced Quaker sacramental theology to absurdity in this manner: 1. Quakers hold that the sacraments of baptism and communion are entirely supernatural, and that no particular physical act or material form is necessary to complete them.  2. Quakers do not deny that marriage is a sacrament.  3.  Quakers do not provide any reason to regard the sacrament of marriage as radically different from other sacraments.  4. To be consistent, Quakers must therefore hold that no particular physical act or material form is necessary to complete the sacrament of marriage.   5. The difference between male and female is known to us through particular physical acts and material forms, and in no other way.  6.  Therefore, Quakers have no grounds for insisting that a marriage requires a male and female body for its consummation.

Nowadays, many Quakers might accept this line of argument, and might proclaim that they are following in the tradition of the weighty Friends of the past when they endorse same-sex marriage.  Many others continue to resist it.  I’m not at all knowledgeable about Quaker theology, but it might be interesting to learn what sorts of arguments are exchanged in this matter.  If you happen to have knowledge I lack, I invite you to comment.


In what God did Irving Babbitt disbelieve?

Irving Babbitt, late in life

Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) often made remarks to the effect that religion was a good thing, though he never endorsed any particular religion, and certainly never joined any.  Such scholars as Claes G. Ryn have argued that Babbitt, despite his personal irreligion, is a powerful intellectual ally for believers.  After Babbitt’s death, his closest friend, Paul Elmer More, wrote that one day when they were students together at Harvard, Babbitt pointed to a church and cried out “There is the enemy!  There is the thing I hate!”  More acknowledged that this youthful exclamation was not typical of Babbitt even in his early twenties, but was issued in a moment of personal irritation that More himself had provoked by insisting over and again that those who would lead a truly moral life must embrace Christianity.  Far more typical of Babbitt is the opening of his great study Democracy and Leadership (1924):

According to Mr Lloyd George, the future will be even more exclusively taken up than is the present with the economic problem, especially with relations between capital and labor.  In that case, one is tempted to say, the future will be very superficial.  When studied with any degree of thoroughness, the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem in turn run into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.

Several weeks ago, I posted here about  Babbitt’s analysis of Ernest Renan’s theories.  Babbitt saw in Renan’s thought an effort to develop an ideology that Renan could use to release himself from the influence of the Roman Catholic tradition in which he was raised.  As an American of a Protestant cultural background, Babbitt was struck by the similarities between Renan’s ostensibly anti-Roman Catholic ideology on the one hand and the distinctive mental habits of Roman Catholicism on the other.  To quote again the passage of Babbitt’s essay on Renan that I cited in that earlier post:

Renan has evidently carried over to science all the mental habits of Catholicism.  As Sainte-Beuve remarks, “In France we shall remain Catholics long after we have ceased to be Christians.”  Renan, indeed, may be best defined as a scientist and positivist with a Catholic imagination.  For instance, he arrives at a conception of scientific dogma, of an infallible scientific papacy, of a scientific Hell and inquisition, of resurrection and immortality through science, of scientific martyrs…  He promises us that if we imitate him we may hope to be, like himself, sanctified through science: “If all were as cultivated as I, all would be, like me, incapable of wrongdoing.  Then it would be true to say: ye are gods and sons of the Most High.”

It might not be surprising that Renan, beginning his intellectual life as a Roman Catholic surrounded by Roman Catholics, should continue to think in the terms familiar to him after he ceased to identify himself with that tradition, and that the ideology he developed to use in ridding himself of Catholicism would have many formal similarities to Catholicism.   Indeed, it might not be too much to say that Renan’s ideas, while atheistic, are in fact a phase of Roman Catholicism.   They represent something that can happen to Catholicism when belief in God is subtracted and insistence that there is no God is put in its place.  I use the word “phase” because it suggests chronological development; an ideology like Renan’s could appeal only to someone who had already had experience with Catholicism or a tradition very much like it, who had found great power in that tradition, and had begun to look for a way to escape from its influence.  Another advantage of the word “phase” is that it suggests a stage of development that is not permanent.  An ideology like Renan’s might seem very satisfactory to a person who finds the questions Catholicism asks to be most compelling, but who rejects the answers it offers.  If such a person should cease to find the questions compelling, or should find a new strength in the answers, then s/he would not find such appeal in a view like Renan’s.  S/he would look for an ideology to succeed Renan’s, perhaps another form of atheism, perhaps another theistic belief system, perhaps a new understanding of Catholicism.

In that original post, I went on from my noting of Babbitt’s remarks about Renan to wonder  whether every atheism can be analyzed as a phase of a particular religion, as something that happens to the religion that most shaped the atheist’s cultural background when you subtract belief in God or gods from it.  I might of course have gone in the opposite direction, and wondered about the extent to which atheism has shaped the theistic belief systems of the modern world.  Certainly the urgent importance many believers place on particular arguments for the existence of God, especially the Argument from Design, would suggest a constant awareness that atheists exist and that atheism is a live option for modern people.  Believers often seem more than a little bit desperate to have something to say when atheists challenge their beliefs.

After I put that post up, I wondered what religion Irving Babbitt’s own (godless!) theories exemplified.  I think there are some religious traditions which Babbitt seems to have worked at rejecting.

Irving Babbitt’s father, Edwin Dwight Babbitt, seems to have invented a sort of religion that had something to do with magnets and the healing power of color.  Edwin Dwight Babbitt has some followers today, in fact; several books of his can be found online, among them the stupendously titled The Principles of Light and Color: Including Among Other Things the Harmonic Laws of the Universe, The Etherio-Atomic Philosophy of Force, Chromo Chemistry, Chromo Therapeutics, and the General Philosophy of the Fine Forces, Together with Numerous Discoveries and Practical Applications.  Advocates of “color therapy” cite him as a pioneer in their field.

In their study of Babbitt in Twayne’s United States Author Series,  Stephen Yarbrough and Stephen C. Brennan pointed out that as a young man, Irving Babbitt was intensely ashamed of his father, and take many of the angrier passages in Irving Babbitt’s writing as denunciations of Edwin Dwight Babbitt.  This reading does clear up one of the more puzzling aspects of Irving Babbitt’s writing.  When Irving Babbitt attacks Rousseau for exalting unrestrained emotion, his superheated fervor is bewilderingly out of place next to his acknowledgment of the complexity of Rousseau’s thought and works.   When he attacks Francis Bacon on the grounds that his philosophy of science treats empirical research not as a project with scope and limits, but as an all-powerful deity, he again displays a ferocious rage that is startling coming on the heels of his learned discussion of Bacon’s place in the history of philosophy.   Read as indictments of the chicanery of Edwin Dwight Babbitt, with Rousseau and Bacon as stand-ins for the author’s hopelessly inadequate, infinitely embarrassing father, these passages make a great deal more sense.

If we see Irving Babbitt’s thought as a phase in his revolt against his father’s ideology, we might expect it to appeal to readers who grew up among the sort of “New Age” enthusiasts who continue to keep Edwin Dwight Babbitt’s name alive today.  How, then, can we account for the fact that Irving Babbitt attracted a sizable following in his own day, and continues to maintain a  readership today, among people whose backgrounds have nothing in them of “the Philosophy of the Fine Forces”?  Can we find another, more widespread tradition against which Irving Babbitt may have been rebelling?

Perhaps we can.  I suspect that Irving Babbitt’s thought may represent a post-theistic version of radical Protestantism, perhaps of Quakerism in particular.  Like the Quakers, Irving Babbitt emphasized the inward mystical experience of the individual, asserting that individuals have equal and immediate access to supernatural knowledge.  Asserting this equal access, he rejected both religious hierarchies and national particularity.  Again, Quakers do the same, denying that priests have any special connection to the divine or that there is any chosen people who have a unique relationship to the divine.  Here too, he is in step with his father, whose wrote a book called Religion as Revealed by the Material and Spiritual Universe and promoted it as a critique of “Christianity, or rather Churchianity,” including as it does chapters denouncing “The Churchianic Conception of Hell” (which reduces Creation to a “grand blunder”) and “Churchianic Infallibility” (which “leads to Hierarchical Power, crushes out individuality, and causes men to lean upon leaders or authority rather than upon principle and their own manhood.”)

Irving Babbitt breaks from the Quakers, and from his father, not only in his lack of any belief in God, but also in declaring that tradition and authority are vital to a good society.  Irving Babbitt was pugnacious about these declarations, pugnacious enough that it’s clear he was making them as a way of rebelling against someone or other.  Still, he never submits himself to any actual tradition or any recognizable authority.  What tradition did Irving Babbitt value?  All of them, apparently; his “humanism” involves a pastiche of his own very wide reading, in the course of which he read famous books written in each of a great many countries and found elements of his own ideas in each of them.  This procedure fits in with Irving Babbitt’s idea of universal equal access to supernatural knowledge, but it makes absolute hash of his claim to value tradition.  Babbitt’s idea of the Buddhist tradition, for example, consists of his interpretation of the Pali scriptures that he could read in the original, of Chinese works he’d read in translation, and of brief conversations he’d had with some students from China who took his classes.  That’s hardly the kind of thing people are talking about when they say that Buddhist traditions have shaped the lives of many people in Asia.

Indeed, Irving Babbitt’s use of the word “tradition” was the target of withering criticism in his own day (see for example Allen Tate’s essay in The Critique of Humanism,) as it isn’t clear what if anything he means by it.  Again, this fits with the idea that his theories were an atheistic phase of Quakerism.  By presenting himself as a defender of “tradition,” whatever that may mean, Babbitt was defying the Quakers, placing himself outside and against their communion.  As a specimen of Quakerism himself, however, Babbitt had inherited a theology that so thoroughly abhorred tradition that he could develop a usable concept only after confronting that theology directly and renouncing his inheritance of it.  Since Babbitt never gave any thought to that inheritance, he could not renounce it.  His thought remained Quakerly in form even when its content was most stridently anti-Quaker.

Another area where Irving Babbitt seemed to devote a great deal of energy to rebelling against radical Protestantism in general and, perhaps,  Quakerism in particular was in the question of what the imagination is.   Babbitt was a great fan of Aristotle’s theory of the imagination as an adjunct of memory, and talked about creativity in just these terms.  Aristotle’s theory that imagination as a faculty that rearranges the raw material provided by memory is the main theme of two of Babbitt’s books, The New Laokoon (1910)  and On Being Creative (1932.)  Babbitt constantly recurs to this idea in his other books as well.  For example, in his magnum opus, Rousseau and Romanticism (1919,) Babbitt carries out a comprehensive attack on the belief that imagination brings entirely new information into the world.  Quakers and other radical Protestants often say that the holy spirit acts within the soul of the Christian to bring entirely new things into the world, that in moments of mystical communion the Christian soul is the point where God breaks into the world.  So you hear phrases like “Genesis moment,” meaning moments when a person experiences a psychological change that is as profoundly novel as the creation of the world described in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.  If the Romantics and their cult of genius represented a secular version of this theological doctrine, as Babbitt indeed says they did, then Babbitt’s own decades-long campaign against the concept of imagination as a faculty that creates information ex nihilo represents a rebellion against the same doctrine.  That Babbitt could slash away at the concept for so many years, deploying so much erudition, and finding so little influence outside his own circle of followers shows that the religious roots of this concept were still providing it with a powerful source of life.  That he never gave up the fight shows that it was a matter of personal urgency to him.

“The Meeting,” by John Greenleaf Whittier

Paul Elmer More’s essay on Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, mentioned below, quotes Whittier’s poem “The Meeting.”  The poem is long, and not aimed at 21st century literary sensibilities.  It begins with a long passage from a visitor who reproves Whittier for attending the silent meetings of Quakers, deprecating them as “dull rites of drowsy-head” and extolling the outdoors as the proper place to worship the God who created nature.   In response, Whittier explains that wilderness is full of distractions, while the surroundings within the meetinghouse focus the mind on God.  More was an excellent critic, and chose the perfect lines to quote:

But nature is not solitude:
She crowds us with her thronging wood;
Her many hands reach out to us,
Her many tongues are garrulous;
Perpetual riddles of surprise
She offers to our ears and eyes;

And so I find it well to come
For deeper rest to this still room,
For here the habit of the soul
Feels less the outer world’s control;
The strength of mutual purpose pleads
More earnestly our common needs;
And from the silence multiplied
By these still forms on either side,
The world that time and sense have known
Falls off and leaves us God alone.

I recommend the whole poem.  Not least because the theme developed in my earlier post, that Quakerism tends to obscure the importance of habit in human life, is partially belied by Whittier’s lively interest in this topic.

Friends Journal, January 2011

During our Christmas break, the Believer and I read the latest issue of the Quaker publication Friends Journal.  I also read several books, among them the third volume of Paul Elmer More’s Shelburne Essays. The themes of this month’s issue of the magazine seemed to coincide in some interesting ways with the themes More explored in that 1905 collection.

Phil H. Gulley’s article on “The Meaning of Universalism” brings to mind two of More’s essays, the one on Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, also the one on William Cowper.  More argues that Cowper was the first English poet to make home life a major theme of poetry, and that Whittier was at his finest in exploring scenes of home.  In that way, Gulley is a follower of Whittier, for his essay is strongest in its vivid scenes from his childhood home.  Explaining his belief that there is no Hell, but an afterlife in which every human will proceed to salvation, Gulley tells of his parents insisting that he invite every child in the neighborhood to his eighth birthday party.  From that point on, he couldn’t imagine that God would give a party and leave anyone uninvited.

In his essay on William Cowper, More connects the poet’s poor mental health to his fervent belief in Jean Calvin’s doctrine of Predestination.   Calvin argued that the human will is powerless to accomplish anything of importance, certainly powerless to earn salvation, so that it is only by the free and arbitrary grace of God that some few souls, the Elect, are spared damnation.  Of this doctrine, More writes:

Good Dr Holmes has somewhere written that it was only decent for a man who believed in this doctrine to go mad.  Well, Cowper believed in it; there was no insulating pad of worldly indifference between his faith and his nerves, and he went mad.

The most obvious thing about this Universalism is that it is a form of Predestinarianism. It differs from Calvin’s doctrine only in expanding the number of the Elect to include all humans.  I cannot see that one form of Predestinarianism should be radically healthier than another.  Perhaps the belief that our actions on earth are of no importance to a kindly, indulgent God who can deny us nothing we might desire would lead to another set of delusions than those which would haunt believers in a doctrine that preaches that our actions are of no importance to a capricious, inscrutable God who will save or damn us without reason, but neither doctrine seems likely to inspire clear-headed realism.

If Gulley himself has kept his wits intact, I hasten to add, it is less likely because of an “insulating pad of worldly indifference” than it is a testament to the parents he commemorates so fondly.  As it so happens, Gulley’s father Norm was a coworker and a good friend of my father’s, and I was an occasional visitor in the home where he grew up.  My visits came after Phil Gulley had left for school, but I can confirm that they had created one of the most wholesome environments imaginable.

Another piece in the issue describes people who came from very different environments.  In her “Teaching in a Culture of Poverty and Violence,” Stephanie Wilder describes her work as a teacher in a facility for juvenile offenders in Philadelphia who have been convicted of serious crimes.  Some of these crimes are very serious indeed; the Believer and I both lost sleep after reading that “One of my students raped and brutally beat an 87-year-old woman.  He waited for her daughter to arrive home and then did the same to her.”  Wilder begins the next paragraph by acknowledging that “My students are unlikely to change.  The recidivism rate in juvenile justice is over 90 percent.”

Wilder turns to an obvious question:  “So why do I continue to work in juvie?”  After saying that as a Quaker, she is “reminded to seek that of God in everyone,” Wilder goes on to say that “I have learned to let go of my attachment to outcomes.”  She focuses on what she can control- her own behavior- not on her students’ behavior, which she can’t control.   “The boys use the expression, ‘Don’t test my gangsta!’  It means, ‘Don’t push me so far that I lose control.’  I feel that my ‘gangsta’ is my Quaker beliefs and values in the face of anger and violence.  I am sorely disappointed in myself when my gangsta is tested and I lose control and raise my voice or get disappointed.”

I’m sure Wilder’s basic point is sound- there is no point in focusing on other people’s behavior when all we can control is our own.  It is possible to take this too far, however.  Her presence in the classroom has an influence on the boys.  All of the stories she tells make it sound like her students respond to her principled nonviolence and solicitous concern for that of God in them with unbounded contempt.  If that is the case, then she may in fact be making it more likely that they will reoffend.  If the face of the justice system is someone they regard as a joke, then it can hardly deter them from continuing with the lives of crime in which they have already become so deeply invested.  As I reads the piece, I kept hoping that Wilder would describe some way that she found to use therapeutic methods based on the “Criminal Thinking” psychological model, or some other approach that has actually had success steering violent offenders away from their patterns.

The Religious Case Against Belief

James P Carse

I like book catalogs, so it’s always one of the high points of the month for me when Edward Hamilton Bargain Books shows up in the mailbox.  Lately I’ve been intrigued by a 2008 title, The Religious Case Against Belief, by James P. Carse.  When I say I was intrigued by the title, I mean precisely that.  There are several ideas that might go under that label, so I wanted to know what it was Carse was saying.  So I looked the book up online and came upon this interview Carse gave to Salon when the book came out.   Here’s a bit that seems to sum up his big idea:

In your book, you say the only defining characteristic of religion is its longevity. It has to be around for a very long time to qualify as a religion.

Exactly. That’s a very interesting contrast with belief systems. Belief systems have virtually no longevity. Think of Marxism. As a serious political policy, it lasted only about 70 or 80 years. Nazism only went 12 years. And they were intense, complete, comprehensive, passionately held beliefs. But they ran out very quickly. The reason the great religions don’t run out as quickly is that they’re able to maintain within themselves a deeper sense of the mystery, of the unknowable, of the unsayable, that keeps the religion alive and guarantees its vitality.

Carse seems to be saying that the main thing that’s praiseworthy about religion is that it binds one generation of people to other generations.  Belief systems can’t do that, at least not beyond a few generations and certainly not without a great risk that the militant ignorance needed to sustain the system will do less to bring people together than to drive them apart and to bring in elements of intimidation that will poison such relationships as they do maintain.  So Carse’s case seems to rest on an appeal to use rituals, stories, and a sense of awe to lower the barriers that separate one person from another. 

Carse was for 30 years a professor of religious studies at New York University; his case sounds like the sort of plea a kindly old scholar might make to the world at the end of such a career.  He maintains a fine blog, and is an accomplished photographer.  I hope to be a kindly old scholar myself someday, I blog, and I appreciate photography.  So I admire Carse and wish him well. 

Another idea that I thought a book called The Religious Case Against Belief might put forward is one that’s been on my mind as I’ve tagged along with Mrs Acilius to her Quaker meeting every Sunday.  Many Quakers, like other mystics, distrust language and say that they seek a knowledge that cannot be confined to the words of human speech.  So Quakers have historically resisted the formulation of creeds and litanies.  Dogmatic theology has little place in the history of Quakerism.  Quakers might quote Thomas á Kempis with approval, when he wrote in the Imitation of Christ that he was grateful for his education because it had freed him from a multitude of opinions.  It would seem logical for a mystic of the Quaker stamp to take Thomas a step further, and to define religion, not as a set of beliefs, but as a set of practices that free a person from the power that beliefs formulated in language might have over his or her mind.