I know I've been on something of a religion streak on the blog of late, and this will be the last such post for awhile.
I first hear of Harvey Cox's boI know I've been on something of a religion streak on the blog of late, and this will be the last such post for awhile.
I first hear of Harvey Cox's book The Future of Faith during an excellent hour-long interview with NPR's Diane Rehm. It was intriguing enough that I bought the Kindle edition of the book and read it.
The title of the book is both very accurate and rather misleading. A lot of the book -- and, to me, the most fascinating parts of it -- focus on the history of faith. Cox's repeated point is that we are only now regaining a notion of faith that the earliest Christians had, and it is a notion that happens to be compatible with modern science and incompatible with fundamentalism and intolerance in all its stripes.
Throughout this post, it should be understood that quotes or passages are from the book. Cox is so quotable that a good chunk of this review will be showing you some of his quotes, with a bit of discussion around them. I very much enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it.
Faith vs. Belief
It is true that for many people "faith" and "belief" are just two words for the same thing. But they are not the same ... and it is important to clarify the difference. Faith is about deep-seated confidence. In everyday speech we usually apply it to people we trust or the values we treasure... a matter of what the Hebrews spoke of as the "heart."
Belief, on the other hand, is more like opinion. We often use the term to express a degree of uncertainty ... We can believe something to be true without it making much difference to us, but we place our faith only in something that is vital for the way we live.
This is an important distinction, and if you stop and think about it, Cox is arguing with a common notion about faith almost from page 1. Faith isn't about intellectual assent to a set of propositions. It's about what we hold dear, what we think works for us in life.
Creeds are clusters of beliefs. But Christianity is not a history of creeds. It is the story of a people of faith who sometimes cobbled together creeds out of beliefs. It is also the history of equally faithful people who questioned, altered, and discarded those same creeds ... But both the doctrinal canons and the architectural constructions are means to an end. Making either the defining element warps the underlying reality of faith.
Cox here reinforces the point that Christianity isn't about believing certain statements, and it isn't even about a literal (or not) reading of the Bible. It's what C. S. Lewis talked about as the inward transformation in onesself. Creeds, such as the Nicene Creed, are rather irrelevant to him.
Cox separates the history of Christianity into three periods: the age of faith, stretching from the time of Jesus only a few centuries until Constantine; the age of belief, stretching from Constantine until the 20th century; and the age of the spirit, now dawning. During the age of faith, "their sharing in the living Spirit of Christ united Christians with each other, and 'faith' meant hope and assurance in the dawning of a new era of freedom, healing, and compassion that Jesus had demonstrated." Cox makes the point that doctrinal questions just weren't all that important back then, and though differences existed, they weren't considered to be fundamental to the religion. "Confidence in Christ was their primary orientation, and hope for his [earthly:] Kingdom their motivating drive." Further, he argues that the age of the spirit is a return to this earlier age, albeit with modern twists.
Christianity is growing faster than it ever has before, but mainly outside the West and in movements that accent spiritual experience, discipleship, and hope; pay scant attention to creeds; and flourish without hierarchies. We are now witnessing the beginning of a 'post-Constantinian era.'"
Cox describes a person that described himself as "a practicing Christian, not always a believing one." He suggests that the belief/non-believer statement is a disservice to Christianity and to other religions. He then quoted a Catholic bishop as saying: "The line between belief and unbelief runs through the middle of each one of us, including myself, a bishop of the church." In other words, "The experience of the divine is displacing theories about it."
Faith and Belief in Bible reading
Creation myths such as ... the first chapters of Genesis were not primarily composed to answer the "how" or "when" questions. They are not scientific accounts, even though their poetical language, when read literally (which is always a mistake), may sound that way. Rather, they grapple ... with the linked mysteries of both why there is a universe and what our place in it is ... They are more like lyrical cantatas, symphonies of symbols through which humans have tried to make sense of their place in the world...
This is where the distinction between faith and belief is vital. These stories are -- literally -- "not to be believed." They are, rather, artifacts human beings have crafted to try to wring some meaning from the mystery. They are not themselves the mystery.
I liken this to Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park. If you were to read it 1000 years in the future, it might not have been conveniently shelved above the word "fiction." Would a reader in the future know that it was not meant to be a literal description of facts? I think sometimes we make this mistake when we read the Bible. Note, though, that although we all understand that Jurassic Park wasn't meant to be a literal description of facts, it seems to have been valued by quite a large part of society. And it didn't even address big mysteries.
Cox argues against ridding ourselves of the creation myths, suggesting that they are an important reminder that we are similar to humans who grappled with the same big questions centuries ago as we do today.
The ill-advised transmuting of symbols into a curious kind of "facts" has created an immense obstacle to faith for many thoughtful people. Instead of helping them confront the great mystery, it has effectively prevented them from doing so ... the objective knowledge science rightly insists on is not the only kind of knowledge human beings need ... Faith, although it is evoked by the mystery that surrounds us, is not the mystery itself.
Constantine and the Age of Belief
One of the most devastating blunders made by the church, especially as the Age of Belief began, was to insist that the Spirit is present only in believers.
Cox spends a lot of time covering the very interesting topic of how and why the church moved to the Age of Belief. His central thesis is that money, power, and prestige were primarily responsible, and that an unrighteous collusion between bishops and Constantine, each using Christianity for their own purposes, finally made it happen. This is very interesting stuff, but this post is too long already, so I will not spend a lot of time on it. I found the Council of Nicea to be particularly interesting, considering that the Nicean Creed came about partially by exile or execution of those Christians that disagreed with it. Cox also points out that "there never was a single 'early Christianity'; there were many, and the idea of 'heresy' was unknown."
The time is ripe to retrieve the term "Way" for Christianity and "followers of the Way" for Christians. It is at once more accurate, more original, and more contemporary than "believers."
To the future
Cox describes attending a meeting of the church in Hong Kong in 2003, and uses it as a metaphor for the future of faith:
Their idea of interfaith dialogue was to work with their fellow Asians of whatever religion to advance the Kingdom that Jesus had inspired them, as Christians, to strive for, regardless of what the others called it. They were neither "fundamentalist" nor "modernist." They seemed more attuned to the element of mystery at the core of Christianity and to its vision of justice. They were also clearly impatient with many of the disputes that preoccupy the different wings of the American churches."
I found this book to be both enlightening and informative. I highly recommend it, even if you disagree with some of Cox's conclusions. It is a fascinating view into how the world's largest religion evolved over the years, and a candid look at the mistakes it has made in that time.
Here, therefore, huge and mighty warrior though you be, here shall you die.
- Homer (The Iliad)
And with that formidable quote, I begin my review of The
Here, therefore, huge and mighty warrior though you be, here shall you die.
- Homer (The Iliad)
And with that formidable quote, I begin my review of The Iliad. I shall not exhaust you with a rehashing of the plot; that you can find on Wikipedia. Nor shall I be spending page upon page of analyzing the beautiful imagery, the implications of our understanding of fate and destiny, or all the other things that compel English majors to write page after page on the topic. Nor even shall I try to decipher whether it is a piece of history or a piece of legend.
Rather, I intend to talk about why I read it: it's a really good story.
Sing to me, O goddess Muse, the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus, which brought countless ills upon the Acheans.
As I'd be reading it, I'd think to myself: "Ah ha! Now here we finally have a section of the story that doesn't speak to modern life." Perhaps it was a section the fear of being enslaved or butchered by conquerors, or about pride leading both sides to fight a war they need not have, or a graphic description of a spear going clear through someone's head or neck.
And then, I'd have to sit and think. Are we really so far removed from that? Here we are, in a supposedly civilized world. We use remotely-operated drones to drop bombs on people, and think it naught but regrettable "collateral damage" when the brains and intestines of dozens of innocent victims are scattered about, killing them, all for the chance of killing one enemy. But we aren't the only ones to blame; we live in a world in which killing the innocent is often the goal. People fly airplanes into skyscrapers, drop atomic weapons to flatten entire cities, and kill noncombatants in terrible numbers. And for what? A little power, some prestige, some riches, some vengeance, some wounded pride?
Slavery is not dead, either. We that can happily afford Internet access most likely abhor the thought. What, though, can we make of the fact that people are starving in this world in record numbers? That our actions may literally wipe some nations off the map? Are those people as free as we are? Do our actions repress them?
I suspect you can't read the Iliad without being at least a bit introspective.
Fear, O Achilles, the wrath of heaven; think on your own father and have compassion upon me, who am the more pitiable
One of the great things about reading the Iliad is that I can learn about the culture of the ancient civilizations. Now, of course, one can read about this in history books and Wikipedia. But reading some dry sentence is different from reading a powerful story written by and for them. I know that the Iliad isn't exactly a work of history, but it sure shows what made people tick: their religion, their morals, their behavior, and what they valued. I feel that I finally have some sort of insight into their society, and I am glad of it.
The day that robs a child of his parents severs him from his own kind; his head is bowed, his cheeks are wet with tears, and he will go about destitute among the friends of his father, plucking one by the cloak and another by the shirt. Some one or other of these may so far pity him as to hold the cup for a moment towards him and let him moisten his lips, but he must not drink enough to wet the roof of his mouth; then one whose parents are alive will drive him from the table with blows and angry words.
There are gory battle scenes in the Iliad, but then there are also heart-wrenching tender moments: when Hector leaves his wife to go fight, for instance, and worries about the future of his child if he should die.
That's not to say I found the entire story riveting. I would have liked it to be 1/3 shorter. The battle just dragged on and on. And yet, I will grant that there was some purpose served by that: it fatigued me as a reader, which perhaps gave me a small sense of the fatigue felt by the participants in the story.
Why, pray, must the Argives needs fight the Trojans? What made the son of Atreus gather the host and bring them?
A question that was never answered, for either side: why are we so foolish that we must go to war? One tragedy among many is that neither side got smart about it until way too late, if ever they did at all.
I read The Illiad in the Butler translation, which overall I liked. Some of these quotes, however, use the Lattimore one. This completes the first item on my 2010 reading list.
I leave you with this powerful hope for the future, written almost three thousand years ago. Despite my criticisms above, we have made a lot of progress, haven't we? What a beautiful ideal it is, and what a long ways we have yet to walk.
I wish that strife would vanish away from among gods and mortals, and gall, which makes a man grow angry for all his great mind, that gall of anger that swarms like smoke inside of a man's heart and becomes a thing sweeter to him by far than the dripping of honey.
Sing to me, O goddess, the anger of Achilles, that one day his story may speak less to our hearts, for then will we have outgrown it.
I doubt I have ever read a book that had as significant an impact on me, and my act of reading it had on others, as this one. Conversations like thisI doubt I have ever read a book that had as significant an impact on me, and my act of reading it had on others, as this one. Conversations like this were frequent:
Someone, upon seeing me reading my Kindle, would ask what I am reading.
“War and Peace.”
“Oh. . . uhm, wow.”
“Yeah, it’s great. I’m reading it for fun.”
“Uhm, OK then, see you later. . .”
It seems to be so revered, and also so loathed, that I had to read it. At 1400 pages, it took me 8 months to finish, though I read several other entire books in that time.
I feel rather unequal to the task of expressing how this book impacted me, let alone a review of it. And nonetheless, I also feel I would be remiss if I let it go past saying nothing.
I was struck by so many things as I read War and Peace. Some of them I won’t mention here and hope to turn into their own blog posts.
Of the others, I felt I gained some sense of how the nobility and serfs in Russia (and, to a certain extent, Europe) thought about life, their position, and how things ran. Being a modern Kansan, this thought process was not familiar to me, and though I head read about it in history texts before, felt far more informed having read it in Tolstoy’s novel.
Although much of the novel centers around Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, the work as a whole spans nearly two decades of time. Tolstoy’s characters aren’t static; they change over time. Some, yes, die; others go through hardships and triumphs that change them to their core. It evoked a feeling of nostalgia in me at times — for the younger, childlike Natasha who was so full of simple delight in life. But then, a thousand pages later, the older Pierre finally was able to find simple delight in life too.
Sometimes I have missed on the simple joy of being, and Jacob or Oliver or Terah remind me of that. Today Oliver and I read a book together, one that we read often, and we discovered an illustration of a tiny worm we had never noticed before. And the worm had a red hat (“hat” is one of Oliver’s favorite words right now.) The happy laughter as he pointed at the tiny hat, saying “hat” over and over, reminds me that sometimes children know how to live better than adults. Jacob later asked me how my day was, and I told him how I read a book on my Kindle, where I sat, and how I even read it lying down on the couch for a bit. At that he too laughed.
As with some other wonderful, engrossing books, I was sad to reach the end of this one. I felt as if I was leaving a conversation early; fictional characters, yes, but their story wasn’t over. And really, that was part of Tolstoy’s point: things don’t happen in isolation, and stories don’t have clearly-defined start and end points.
The novel touched on politics, religion, philosophy, free will, and just about every topic imaginable. It is, really, unfair to call it a just a novel.