Continued from Part 1, where most of my position is outlined, and Part 2, which clarifies some of the points of Part 1. Here, in Part 3, I give some autobiographical and anecdotal exchanges that lay a decade in the background of the coming three posts.
In November 2006, Wired magazine came out with an issue whose featured article focused on “The New Atheism.” I remember seeing it on a table somewhere at the college I was attending to complete my undergraduate degree. I had just read the “New Atheist” Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation with great pleasure, even if I had mixed feelings and judgments about it. I remember agreeing with nearly all of Harris’ frustrations; at the same time, it was somewhat amusing to me that I did not identify with what Harris called Christianity and religion, even though I considered (and consider) myself both Christian and religious. Naturally, I picked up the issue of Wired from the table, and read through the featured material.
I brought the article to the attention of one of my four primary professors. This man was a St. John’s graduate, Ph.D. from Boston University, who went on to run a major international educational organization (you’ve heard of it, trust me) before beginning his own business. His awards and interests were varied and impressive: from fencing to hammered-dulcimer playing, film and photography, publishing his poetry to rock climbing and designing predictive statistical models with slick graphical interfaces, he was a real Renaissance man. I often think he may be the most charismatic, intelligent, clear-thinking and well-read person I’ve ever met. (I bought hundreds of books on his recommendations, or even his casual references.) He was also an Orthodox Christian (convert, though not active in any parish at the time). Thus, I showed him the magazine and asked him, “What do you think of these guys?” I knew this professor was nothing like the target of New Atheist criticisms, and was almost certainly more widely read, traveled, and practiced than they were (he was a Buddhist for nearly a decade, if I have my dates correct), so my interest in his answer was piqued.
“Evangelical atheism never made much sense to me”, he began his reply. “So what if there’s no god? So what? How could that awareness ever produce a missionary zeal to spread ‘the good news’ of unbelief? How is that worthy of one’s energy?”
Then he stopped walking side-by-side with me, turned almost military-style, eyebrows raised, put his index finger on my chest and said with a tone that indicated his bewilderment that others didn’t understand the issues in play, “Christianity is not about the structure of the world. Even the divinity of Jesus was always about something else. If you don’t think that Jesus is a beautiful human being…” he looked halfway to the floor and shook his head in incomprehension, as to how to respond “…you’re just not human.”
Now, he was not saying that non-Christians are non-human. This is certain to me, as I knew this man very well, and he was anything but intolerant. At the time, his words struck me as an appropriate hyperbole, given the context of the speaker, the listener (he was speaking privately to me, not to anyone else, let alone the general public), and the point he was trying to emphasize. That point seemed clearly to be to highlight the way that certain people, things, and events spontaneously draw out judgments from us that reveal something of our own condition, our own character; in this way, they are something like mirrors. Further, these people, things, or events do not allow us –at least, not easily– to remain neutral, do not allow us to remain as we were before. Even choosing “to go back to normal” after the irruption could only be, after such an intervening, to choose something different, something other, from what was before — and to injure the clarity of our own judgment and mental sight, for we would be deluding ourselves about what we were choosing.
The issue of the abolition of the institution of slavery in North America is analogous. There is no higher ground by which one might unify the parties for and against it, which is why all of the compromises eventually broke down in the antebellum period in the U.S.; it is an event that arrives, with disastrous consequences, but demanding a response. There is no dodging it; once the moment comes, one must face it, even if one has successfully avoided facing it up to that point. The aftermath is the fallout of this decision. The kind of equality that we modern liberals value, and upon which we mount our assault against slavery, is not based on anything empirical, but on a fundamental judgment about the dignity and value of each human life, and the need to secure equal opportunities for all as a result of this. The judgment intervenes, and we feel its rightness, remaking our nation and its institutions in light of the universality of the possible world this judgment opens up to us. We do not establish the verity of the judgment through inductive proofs, nor do we desire the possible world we fight for because we performed some calculus of utility. We can give public reasons for it, and we think its verity is itself public, but we do not arrive at it by way of any kind of “scientific” foundation.
Jesus is something like that for my professor. Here, in this professor’s telling of it, there is something fundamental, just as with the evangelical Protestants, but here the fundament is something like an event, or an aesthetic moment, and a verdict, a vindication, or a call of command, that comes from the event or aesthetic moment. It is not our “beliefs” about Jesus that were fundamental in his telling, but our reactions or responses that indicated what sort of a person we are — that is, for this professor, Jesus sorts people, so to speak, by (seemingly) being this particular, universal moment of humanity and justice and restoration (or both), holding sway.
If I’m accurate in my report of my professor’s attitude, the divinity of Christ is not, according to him, the sort of thing that can be sufficiently conveyed as a dogmatic formula to be believed and disseminated by rational demonstrations. It certainly can’t be sold. There is nothing here that is opposed to the findings of historical-critical research or historical Jesus studies — both of which are public ventures, and which cannot be ignored (though they often are, or are dabbled in irresponsibly).
This professor refused to study theology with me, saying it was “too personal”, in the sense that theology begins as a private event, and is shared in the context of a church, not the academy. That is, in his telling, the person of Christ was an event that one responded to, not a subject matter to be divided-up for pen-and-paper tests. To teach theology within an academic setting seemed to be, for him, a profanation, in the root sense of a holy thing that is removed from a temple, but still naturally refers to it, even while in an unnatural exile (i.e., being “pro” or “towards” the “fanum” or “temple”, even in this exile). I can “describe what it is like to have a sense of the goodness of God”, he said, but the experience is primary, and if the other person has not had such an experience, then the speaker and the hearer can have the illusion of communication so long as the speaker does not mix his or her metaphors. Without sharing the primary experience, however, a hearer might think that these descriptions fit “the feeling the hearer has a few minutes after eating a burrito”, revealing that such a discourse is really an illusion, and cheapening the words spoken. The consequences of one’s response to such a figure are known immediately, and are a different sort of thing from academic knowledge — or even political-ecclesiastical authority. “I know, for example” he then said, “that Jesus wants me to sell all that I have and give to the poor…” there was a pause “…and no priest can tell me otherwise.” This is knowledge of some special sort; it is primary, uniquely personal, and flowed out of an encounter with strong aesthetic dimensions. He often said that one of the great classical pieces of music –I recall that it was for Holy Week or the Triduum– was “the most clear evidence of the divinity of Christ” that he had ever encountered.
There is, on this account, no point in studying theology in an academic context. There is also no point in apologetics here. A particular response to the event or encounter cannot be sold or facilitated. The response basically translates into art, whether in words, stone, wood, noble and holy deeds, music, in ritual, or wherever. The ‘art’, so to speak, can then “be picked up and dropped anywhere”, be received into nearly any area of one’s life. There is something non-interrogatable about this: it can only be suffered. Though foundational, this is very different from the kind of thing that evangelical Protestants are doing in attempting to persuade others that the Bible is such-and-such a kind of document (a divine dictation about truths we can’t get on our own steam, usually), and that therefore they can argue, on the basis of the-Bible-as-such-and-such-a-thing, that we ought to believe (or not believe) such-and-such or to practice (or not practice) such-and-such.
My professor’s sort of theological-aesthetic is remarkably public, and does not ask for any special permissions, or demand some pre-sale agreements, or rely on prospective aesthetes agreeing to take up a certain perspective in order to appreciate the artwork: this theo-aesthetic simply does what it does, and seeks to bless you through its effects, not for the sake of adding you to the group, or engineering your opinions, but simply to bless you, regenerate you, liberate you. It slogs through soup kitchens not as a merit badge to decorate itself, or to persuade anyone, but as a manifestation of what it loves. Blessings are not proprietary in-group things, and do not seek to secure customers: they are commonly recognized, and bless people as the people they are. We can talk about blessings publicly, evaluate them publicly, and weigh our respective judgments about things publicly. It is this public language that interests me; it has been neglected, education about it has been poor or ideological, and we need to recover it.
In the end, if we were to follow my professor’s lead, the objections to apologetics would be both religious, based on concerns interior to the religious experience itself, and consequently common, based on the actual nature of loves and friendship. The response to Jesus is so personal, and the outcome so unpredictable in many ways, it is folly to try and make it a mission to persuade others into opinions about Jesus, as though this had very much to do with their natural response to the figure, whose image is carried forward in ritual, ethical, artistic, and literary contexts within the Church, but which spills out from there into things like charitable organizations for aid relief and care for orphans, &c. The extension of this messianic milieu beyond the boundaries of the Church is supposed to be “for the life of the world”, and not for unyielding sales-pitches, nor the subjugation of friendship for the purpose of advancing the sales of opinions and church-affiliations. Friends who love something naturally end up talking about the things they love, though when a love is not shared between friends no true friend forces conversations about what is not held in common — that is not natural to friendship, and publicly seen to be perverse.
As noted above, however, we’ve lost the whole language for the verity of our loves outside of private preference (&c.), and this is a grave public concern. In so many ways, the loss of this language leads to apologetics, and is reinforced by it, for only when valuations have no grounding in reality by themselves does one need to sell others an external support to make them “certain” and “factual” because they are found in a book that allegedly renders moral judgments, ultimately, political, and will-based — exactly part of the problem needed to be overcome. (Also, it is not uncommon for ideologies religious and non-religious, which would fall apart under the clarifications of a public language, to attempt to insulate themselves by external authoritative means such as these.) This public language is the medium in which and by which our loves are known as holding value, even our response to the figure of Christ.