Tuesday, August 16, 2005 +

A Body Without Breath

Excerpts from A Body Without Breath: How Right and Left Have Both Stifled Moral Reason Within the Christian Faith, by John R. Harris:

Every human being is already a dormant Christian, at the very least (p. 2).

It is a vital tenet of Christianity—one of the reasons, indeed, why gnosticism was declared a heresy—that we are all made in God’s image and that the love of goodness, though readily perverted, burns at the core of every heart when it leaves nature’s hands. The word which Epictetus uses to convey our spiritual union in god, ανωθεν (“from above”), is in fact the very word in the Gospels which English translators have dubiously chosen to render “again” in describing the believer’s spiritual rebirth (John 3.3–7) (p. 57).

What we see in tolerant Middle America . . . is alienation from one’s own life, a disjunction between one’s profession of faith and one’s example which is so chasmic that the doctrine of salvation through faith alone must work three shifts to patch it up (p. 107).

The picture of a lonely dozen worshipping in a great cold cathedral is hardly inappropriate if one considers the spiritual path to be straight and narrow (p. 110).

[Fundamentalists] are very much scions of the Enlightenment. [James] Barr is right: their epistemology is empirical. He says this best, I think, in his brief chapter on “Fundamentalism and Society”: “It is a reasonable comment . . . to say that the fundamentalist conception of truth is dominated by a materialistic view, derived from a scientific age. This stress on the accuracy of the Bible in its material-physical reporting separates modern fundamentalism entirely from that of older theology, such as the theology of Luther and Calvin, which it ill-informedly claims as its own forebear (Barr, Fundamentalism. p. 93) (p 114–115).

It was said during President Clinton’s impeachment that if a man will lie about anything, he will lie about love. The truth is just the opposite: a man who will lie about love will lie about anything (p. 177).

Today our ailing culture offers the young virtually no moral conditioning at all (and the Latin mos, like the Greek ethos, simply means “habit”); hence our offspring obey the call of the wild. Many who would have fared well under loving discipline now wallow in various depths of duplicity, no more worthy of fierce damnation, perhaps, than they would otherwise have been worthy of canonization. We have liars in all stages, and we are breeding them faster than we can paste together our broken promises (p. 178).

We can always explain, and explain quite fully, why Mrs. Smith bought brown shoes instead of red ones. She was reared wearing brown shoes, her taste is genetically disposed to prefer brown, and the shoes were also on sale. At the same time, no amount of explanation can ever cancel the possibility that Mrs. Smith bought brown shoes primarily because she wanted to (p. 210).

Given that religious and political liberalism can make a common cause of almost any issue, and given that the latter is scornful of the metaphysical trappings once (but no more) associated with the former, the liberal church really doesn’t have any significant ground of distinction from liberal politics. If the social-activist church were to slow down its parade to the Promised Land in occasional remembrance of the other world—of “useless” duties and “unrealistic” commandments—its secular fellow-travelers would peel away, alarmed by an odor of unearthly authority. Such defections do not appear imminent (p. 233–234).

I put it to you that a hell in the company of this great Comforter—in the knowledge, I mean, that our afflictions were arbitrary and unconnected to our moral will—would be closer to heaven for us than an eternity in the presence of a power which so inflicts the souls at its mercy. Though our agony should be constantly renewed, we would always have the hope of relief. For we should still have our god of goodness, the god whom we know in our hearts: the more inscrutably and vindictively our tormentor flailed us, the more certain we should be that the ruler of our hearts was elsewhere—perhaps in a deeper vault of the same dungeon. Of course, Milton represents the fallen angels as placing the similar hope in Satan. It was Milton’s right to do so, courtesy of epic convention and dramatic license. Dante was more accurate, however, in stressing that all hope is left behind at the Gates of Hell. Why? Because the soul knows its own guilt, the justice of its own damnation: any hell which seeks to dispense with this one element must remain a poetic fiction. Hell is the soul’s separation from God, which is its separation from a vital, illuminating energy at its very essence. A damned soul has lost its energy, its will—its love. The light of goodness has been utterly extinguished in it while the knowledge of goodness lingers to weigh it down (p. 254).

My own position is and has been throughout this book that visionary experiences cannot claim authority superior to moral imperatives for those who believe in a supremely good God (p. 264).

I remain invincibly uncomfortable with the role of the intellectual in most congregations. We are to nurture depth and introspection in our own faith, it seems, and in that of our breathren—until the vitality of this internal seeking after God notable exceeds the average, at wich point we quickly blunt our offensive keenness and attempt to blend back into the crowd (p. 276).

The whole point of worship is to seek our relevance to Him, not His to us. To that end, an empty room or a windswept mountaintop might be a better sanctuary than a laughing, clapping congregation. Consider, after all, how easy it is to make people laugh and clap. Look at the throngs which line up to howl on cue in the studio of a “talk show” or of some “late night” distillation of gossip and vulgarity. Is this then, our neo-liberal, neo-conservative heaven? Are these our choruses of angels, their anguished boredom the ultimate object of divine pity, thier ribald frivolity the ultimate context of holy brotherhood, their spontaneous applause the ultimate reward of ardent endeavor? (p. 277)

The charismatic denominations whose ranks have swelled over the last three decades represent the Crucifixion itself as an indescribably gory agony whose horrors are obviously intended to distance believers from Christ in a shuddering cringe. The rite of communion, to the extent that it surpasses a friendly handshake (also a staple of contemporary liturgy), draws its powers from this scapegoat symbolism. The riterated message is supremely simple, as it was for millennia before the coming of Christ: set aside the burden of guilt—set it on the innocent victim’s shoulders. Enter the utopia of self-indulgence without self-reproach (p. 281).

There is little room for a god of goodness in a state where law requires that everyone achieve personal happiness (although, of course, there is no room for happiness in a heart which doesn’t serve goodness). In the now-unified reign of the empirical, where all dwells within our understanding and hence our “corrective” ability, we can handle inexplicable longings only as neurological phenomena (p. 282).