HEAVEN HELP PLURALISM
Joel Warren Lidz, Ph.D.
Years ago, I watched a Phil Donahue show which dealt with the issue of
gay men raising foster children. As one might expect, opinions varied and, as one might expect, one of the members
of the audience appealed to the Bible. She noted that Adam and Eve, the Primal Pair, were of two sexes, and implied
that such should be true of all parents. Much to my dismay, no one present pointed out that Adam and Eve, like
the foster children under discussion, were also motherless. Perhaps it was this fact that accounted for the fact
that the Primal Pair succumbed to temptation.
I had become fascinated by the religious right a few years earlier when one Sunday morning I chanced upon Jimmy Swaggart's telecast. I continued to watch in the following weeks, primarily because of the unintentionally humorous aspects of his theatrics. Who could fail to be charmed by his descriptions of such "degradating" (sic) perversions as "petophilia" (dog molestation?), or his assurances that Jesus' second coming is "eminent"? (These last two spellings were flashed across the screen, presumably for the sake of those who were -- and most likely still are -- unfamiliar with the correct spelling of those words.) Perhaps it is possible for a human being to know the whence and whither of human existence without being particularly well acquainted with his native tongue, though I doubt it.
As I watched Swaggart's hellfire histrionics and the fervor it educed from his huge audiences, I was reminded of films of Nazi rallies. Which was more significant: the differences in content between Swaggart's speeches and those of Hitler, or the two men's similarities in terms of ability to produce a mass mentality and "true believers"? Were these men pursuing truth in a sober, dispassionate manner, or were they delivering emotional harangues in which the disillusioned were told what they already believed and wished to hear reconfirmed once more? How, I wondered, could a high school dropout who invents his own words and flashes misspelled words across the screen, make it on to the national, even international, airwaves? Suppose Swaggart spoke the truth. Did his listeners know him to be speaking the truth, or merely believe it? Could it be that the difference between believing you know and knowing you believe spells the difference between civilization and barbarism?
Perhaps you think it unfair of me to draw comparisons between the ideologies of Nazism and the religious right. Consider, then, Jerry Falwell's remark that: "If a person is not a Christian, then he is inherently a failure." Substitute the word "Aryan" for "Christian" in this statement and it reads like a text by Julius Streicher, the Nazis' foremost ideologist of racism. Consider also Falwell's statement that: "we see how Satan rises up those who have a secularist philosophy to oppose . . . us." History testifies all too clearly as to what happens when one group of people identify another as the Devil's representatives.
One of the most significant and characteristic facets of most (if not all) humans is that they have a need to know the best and consequently tend to believe that they do know what is best -- not only for themselves, but for everyone. If, as it seems, we're all basically the same, then what's good for me must be good for you. Although at times the Bible does emphasize the absoluteness of certain moral principles, it also points to the inherent limitations of the human condition. In the Garden, God sets certain limits for Adam and Eve, but Eve is distracted by a fruit that is "good for attaining wisdom." Eve does not act from willful disobedience; she is simply distracted. Humans are the sorts of creatures who "forget" to keep the right way in mind. It is in those darkest hours of history, the Nazi holocaust, that one sees most clearly the consequences of such a moral failure, as the German people were distracted by a comical looking misfit from Austria, who promised them something better, and so blinded them to their own limitations in the form of ignorance. To murder millions of innocent men, women and children, it was first necessary for the Nazis to blind themselves to the humanity of their victims, a task accomplished in a variety of ways. Was this an undertaking out of hate? Or was it love? Out of the Nazis' own mouths came the answer: it was done for "love of country," just as earlier massacres had been perpetrated for "love of God."
What do we learn from this, if not that love (or good intentions) can blind us to the truth? We speak of "blind love" or of "falling in love," phrases which suggest that love is something that simply happens to us -- and disables us. We aren't responsible for our feelings. Yet our feelings often dictate our course of action. How then can we be responsible for our actions? Love is not enough; it must be tempered by reflection. Blind love renders us as vulnerable as any form of blindness. History and psychology show that blindness can be willful; it need not be accidental. Freud spoke of repression: the refusal to face truth, the denial of that which contradicts one's most cherished beliefs and aspirations. It is no accident that reigns of terror are often preceded by reigns of error. Has not history been a battle between those who thrive on certainty and those who thrive on doubt, between those who believe they know and those who know they believe?
The ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, remains perhaps the most pertinent example of one who was aware of the danger of believing one knows. A book by Plato entitled The Defense Speech of Socrates relates the following story: A friend of Socrates had gone to Delphi to ask the oracle there, "Who is the wisest Athenian?" The oracle replied, "Socrates." Upon hearing this pronouncement, Socrates was overcome by disbelief, yet he knew it was unlawful for a god to lie. Socrates' skeptical side won out: he proceeded to search for someone wiser than himself. He discovered that the other citizens possessed various types of expertise in particular areas, which fact led them to believe that they were wise in all areas. Socrates thereby learned the paradoxical truth which underlay the oracle's pronouncement: Socrates' wisdom consisted in the fact that he knew he was ignorant, while the others were ignorant even of their own ignorance. Socrates, in other words, was the Athenian most acutely aware of his limitations.
An unstated lesson seems to be presented here. One of the marks of Socrates' wisdom consisted in the fact that upon hearing that he was the wisest of Athenians, his reaction was not what one would have expected of most people. Socrates did not rejoice. On the contrary, he assumed that the meaning of the oracle's message was hidden and would therefore have to be sought out. His attempt to refute the oracle ironically substantiated the oracle's pronouncement. But Socrates had attempted to refute the oracle, an action which smacks of impiety, and impiety was one of the charges for which Socrates was later to be convicted and executed. Could it be that Socrates' refusal to simply accept the oracle's pronouncement at face value was a mark of both his wisdom and his piety? Was not Socrates' recognition that as a human, he could not take the meaning of a divine utterance for granted, a manifestation of his piety?
It is here that we see the most radical difference between Socrates' piety and that of today's religious right, for the members of the religious right claim that not only do they know where the truth is to be found, but that they know what it is. Because these people are certain of the absolute and universal truth of their beliefs, they have embarked upon a campaign to make those beliefs the law of the land. The problem with this is that their beliefs derive from a particular religious doctrine, and the first amendment expressly prohibits the establishment of any such doctrine. The so-called "establishment clause" in effect consigns religion to the private sphere, presumably for its own good, inasmuch as the establishment of any one religious denomination will likely inhibit or outlaw the practice of others. In the remainder of this address, I wish to comment on the ways in which fundamentalism and creationism pose threats.
The religious right consists primarily of fundamentalist Christians. Theologically, fundamentalist Christianity is distinguished from its more moderate (albeit less conspicuous) Christian counterparts by its insistence upon the inerrancy of Scripture. Socrates would no doubt have pointed out that even if we were to assume the inerrancy of Scripture, it by no means follows that we mortals, in attempting to comprehend the meaning of Scripture, must be inerrant. In order to overcome this difficulty, fundamentalists tend to read Scripture literally. They apparently assume that room for multiple interpretations is room for error, and error is precisely what the doctrine of inerrancy precludes. Of course, many questions arise at this point. Scripture says nothing about whether it should be read literally; hence to insist that it must be read literally is to not read it literally. Moreover, there are many passages which simply cannot be read literally. For example, the first chapter of Genesis states that God created the sun and moon on the fourth day of creation. It follows that the first three days could not have been days in any literal sense.
Despite such difficulties in their fundamental assumptions, the religious right has developed a wide-ranging political agenda: censorship of books which contradict the Bible as they interpret it; teaching creationism as an alternative to evolutionary theory; organized prayer in schools; antiabortionism; anti-homosexuality; anti-sex education, etc. As a catchall phrase for ideas they oppose, they have "secular humanism." One might say that secular humanism is their own secular version of the Devil. People who know they are right have always opposed themselves to those they know to be wrong: the enemy. The enemy is not simply those who have opposing views, but those whose views are both wrong and responsible for all of society's ills. The medievals had their heretics, the Moslems their infidels, the Salemites their witches, the Nazis their Jews, the Marxists their bourgoisie, and the religious right has its secular humanists. On this score, the religious right has indeed proven itself true to tradition, for what could be more traditional than the scapegoat, the easily identifiable enemy? How much simpler it is to mobilize one's forces against an easily identifiable enemy! More important than who the enemy is, is that there should be an enemy, any enemy. But having an enemy poses a serious problem: what should be done about him? I have heard Jerry Falwell speak of "Christianizing America," and this is apparently how he intends to deal with his enemy, the godless secular humanists. He will remake them in his own image. He will exorcise their demons.
This attempt at exorcising America of its demons has been taking place in a variety of ways: Biblical scorecards have been devised in order to rate the acceptability of public officials; the White House arranged for religious right leaders to interview candidates for the post of Secretary of Education; the Rev. Tim LaHaye has established a "talent bank" of right wing fundamentalists seeking federal jobs - in order, as he says, "to flood the federal bureaucracy with Christians." In LaHaye's estimation, only about 25% of all Americans are true Christians. He has founded an organization, the Coalition for Traditional Values, and did so at a White House reception.
Infringements of the first amendment's establishment clause have taken place in other ways, also. At taxpayer expense, the director of the Denver regional office of the U.S. Department of Education mailed out copies of a speech describing America as a "Christian nation." This is wishful historical revisionism at its worst. Consider Thomas Jefferson. Surely if he was a Christian, he belonged to a sect of which he was the only member. Yes, Jefferson considered Jesus' morality to be the world's finest, but No, he did not regard Jesus as divine, nor would he admit the possibility of an immaterial God. To the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity, Jefferson opposed the more worldly values of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
Had the religious right troubled itself to study American history, they would have discovered that Jefferson's political views were rooted not in Christian theology, but in the British philosophical tradition, from Bacon through Hobbes and Locke. Unlike traditional Christian thought, that of the Jeffersonians held that the government has no business in attempting to establish a morally good society, but should merely preserve each citizen's right to as much personal freedom as is consistent with public order. There can be little doubt that the Jeffersonian approach to government contains many inherent problems, but then, so does every form of government.
From a philosophical and historical standpoint, the controversy concerning creationism is more important than many people recognize. Many people tend to be favorably disposed toward the teaching creationism on the grounds of "equal time," a sort of democratic tolerance of a variety of theories. But the creationists have succeeded only in obfuscat ing a number of issues. First, they are wrong in claiming that creationism is a theory in the same sense that the biological theory of evolution is. To many people unfamiliar with the philosophy of science, "theory" is synonymous with a system of guesses or beliefs. But the theory of evolution is powerful precisely because it is supported by evidence drawn from a broad number of sciences, including geology, comparative anatomy, hematology, fetology, paleontology, etc.
Because of the honorific status of science in the modern world, ideologists of various persuasions have frequently appealed to science or to pseudo-science in order to bolster their case. Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of Jefferson's circle, argued that the black skin of the Negro is due to disease and therefore should not be held against him. In more recent times, the Nazis carried out programs of eugenics, euthanasia and genocide as a result of a confusion between genuine and pseudo-science. Ironically, one fundamentalist, Paul Ellwanger, has argued against evolutionary theory on the grounds that it made Nazism possible. This is like arguing against Christianity on the grounds that it made the Crusades and Inquisition possible.
Rev. Falwell states proudly that all members of his Liberty University faculty are born-again Christians and hence capable of imparting a "Christian education" to their students. My immediate response to such a claim is that such a Christian education can only be a contradiction in terms, a round square. The dogmatic prejudices of the fundamentalists can also be seen in the fact that those who become faculty at the Institute for Creation Research are required to take the following oath:
We believe in the absolute integrity of Holy Scripture and its plenary verbal inspiration by the Holy Spirit as originally written by men prepared by God for this purpose. The Scriptures . . . are to be accepted in their natural and intended sense. . . . The creationist account is accepted as factual, historical and perspicuous and is thus fundamental in the understanding of every fact and phenomenon in the created universe.
This is religious dogma, not scientific theory, and it was the Nazis
who required their adherents to take oaths, not the evolutionists.
To my knowledge, no fundamentalist has ever insisted upon equal time for evolutionary theory in Bible classes, which fact suggests that their concern is less for the principle of equal time than for advancing a particular interpretation of Genesis in an inappropriate setting. Nor do they request equal time for other creation stories from around the world, which number in the hundreds, if not thousands. And when they point to differences among evolutionists as casting compared to the differences between Christian theologians. The fundamentalists could learn something fundamental from Galileo, who was persecuted by the Church because his scientific theories conflicted with theological dogma. Galileo's response was that "The Holy Spirit tells us how to get into heaven, not how the heavens move."
Not surprisingly, the fundamentalist conviction in the truth of their beliefs has led to overzealous speech and actions, such as the bombing of abortion clinics. Some time ago, the media carried the story of a California preacher who prayed for the death of Supreme Court Justice Brennan because of his advocacy of abortion rights. On a Boston radio talk show, the reverend repeatedly likened Justice Brennan to Hitler, thus comparing a man who ordered the extermination of millions with a man who granted women a limited right to decide the fate of a fetus within themselves. The pastor justified his prayer by reference to Psalm 109:8. Fortunately, he did not suggest the sacrifice of our firstborn males (Exodus 22:29) or the stoning of our rebellious children (Deut. 21:18).
Like their Islamic counterparts, the Shi'ite Muslims, Christian fundamentalists tend to view all moral problems in terms of a cosmic struggle between forces of good and evil, which explains their zeal. (Just for the record, they are, like the Shi'ites, on the side of good.) With the apocalyptic fervor of the Old Testament prophets, Jimmy Swaggart repeatedly warns that America stands at a crossroads. How right he is. The crossroad America may have to face will consist in a choice between the worldview of fundamentalism and some other, between those who believe they know and those who know they believe.