Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Values Test

James Dobson, on the OP-ED page of today's NY Times, wrote of "a meeting that occurred last Saturday in Salt Lake City involving more than 50 pro-family leaders." Those last two words jumped out at me; what exactly is a pro-family leader? And, in this polarized society, who are the anti-family leaders that pro-family leaders are called to stand tall and righteously oppose?

Patient readers discover the answer in the penultimate paragraph of his essay:
The secular news media has been reporting in recent months that the conservative Christian movement is hopelessly fractured and internally antagonistic. The Los Angeles Times reported on Monday, for example, that supporters of traditional family values are rapidly “splintering.” That is not true. The near unanimity in Salt Lake City is evidence of much greater harmony than supposed.
Translation: Pro-family leaders are conservative Christians. If you are secular or non-Christian, you are not part of the conversation. Political theology remains a significant language in this country and, as Lilla asserts (see previous two posts), it is an exclusively Christian language that has been used to support a range of outcomes from revolution to repression.

Lilla suggests that even at its best, Christian theology is irrational. The most toxic symptom of this irrationality is its failure to engage in a conversation that acknowledges that Constitutional principles, which refuse to legislate theology, are, in their own peculiar way, sacred; that those who refuse to legislate morality are not indifferent to immorality, but are practitioners of a virtue less evident among the current crop of pro-family leaders: humility.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Why believe?

Lilla (see previous post) rhetorically asks "Why is there political theology?" and immediately notes that this question is usually interpreted in connection with a response to why we believe in God. He insists that the proper question is "Why do certain religious beliefs get translated into doctrines about political life?" This question assumes that we make a conscious decision to translate inherited beliefs into political doctrines.

Did the rabbis of Sanhedrin choose to innovate doctrine by radical interpretation of Torah, or was it simply so urgent for them to reconcile reality with a foundational document, that they had no choice but to invent a new manner of reading? Lilla suggests that "even an arbitrary picture inherited from the tradition or society in which one lives can be given rational structure and rational justification," but it is not clear to me that rational justification is sufficient evidence of choice.

Lilla concludes that "The temptation is great to draw God closer to the world or cut him free from it" (p. 31), but is this not specifically a Christian dilemma? I submit that the Jewish solution is to cite the scripture that proclaims "It is not in heaven"-- i.e., the revelation was both necessary and sufficient and is left for us to study and draw from it our own conclusions. We may appear to be rejecting when we think we are radically interpreting, but those who have earned the authority to suggest new readings are always attempting to draw God closer; and we may be attempting (whether consciously or not) to cut ourselves free, but never to cut God free.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Stillborn God?

Tonight I started reading Mark Lilla's new book, The Stillborn God. I'm reading it with Mike, my Talmud study partner from the days when I studied Talmud. We'll likely read 10-20 pages a day and talk three or four mornings a week about what we're reading.

At this point, I'm not sure that I will accept the premise, introduced on the second page of the text (page 4), that "Western liberal democracies have succeeded in creating an environment where public conflict over competing revelations is virtually unthinkable today." Is it not the competing revelations of science and Christian theology that have divided the American polity in the last two national elections?

Aside from terrorism, the major lines in the sand have been between theological orthodoxy and secular compassion. Only yesterday, John McCain's response to the question of whether a Muslim might be elected President of the United States, more than suggested that Christian theology remains a foundation for at least this Western liberal democracy. (McCain: "I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles, that's a decision that the American people would have to make, but personally, I prefer someone who I know has a solid grounding in my faith.")

Is Western liberal democracy philosophically incompatible with McCain's sort of Christian chauvinism? Lilla suggests that it is: "The ambition of the new philosophy was to develop habits of thinking and talking about politics exclusively in human terms, without appeal to divine revelation or cosmological speculation." Such philosophy, however, has yet to permeate the political arena where McCain contemplates a Baptist conversion, Hilary Clinton speaks openly of her Methodist faith, and Giuliani is measured against his Catholic training.

Lilla's book may turn out to be a fine history of the development of secular political philosophy, but his suggestion that secular political philosophy has triumphed in this country may be extremely premature. Of course, no Western democracy is likely to be transformed into a theocracy in our lifetime, but theocratic-like declarations that categorize those who threaten us as evil, when coupled with suspension of rights for anyone accused of being an enemy combatant, bear too striking a resemblance to the act of throwing the heretics into the dungeons.

According to Lilla, "We are no longer in the habit of connecting our political discourse to theological and cosmological questions" (p. 7). Would that it were so. He concedes that the only barrier to making this (forbidden?) connection is "self-restraint"; even saying, "That we must rely on self-restraint should concern us" (p. 8); but how can he not see that no mainstream national figure exercises such restraint, and any who would do so would not get elected?

The theocracies of the Middle East are surely more restrictive, less happy places for secular humanists to live, but the developed world is not yet free from the shackles of political theology.

I began this blog thirty months ago to record my relationship to the Talmudic foundations of Judaism. Does a reading of The Stillborn God belong in this setting? To the extent that the philosophical disputes from which modern political philosophy emerged over several hundred years represent (in Lilla's words) "a continuous conversation, running over many centuries" (p. 12), they can be seen as well as a continuation of a conversation that goes back at least to Tractate Sanhedrin, if not even further into the past. And so, I continue to study.