Category Archives: Religion

On prosperity and the pursuit of happiness

The real question is whether a religion or culture is capable of interpreting life in a dimension sufficiently profound to understand and anticipate the sorrows and pains which may result from a virtuous regard for our responsibilities; and to achieve a serenity within sorrow and pain which is something less but also something more than “happiness.” Our difficulty as a nation is that we must now learn that prosperity is not simply coordinated to virtue, that virtue is not simply coordinated to historic destiny and that happiness is no simple possibility of human existence.

This passage appears in Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History (1952), in a chapter where he meditates on the problem of Americans’ exceptional moral self-regard, which depends on confusing the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of prosperity and consequently measuring the virtue of our nation on its achievements in the latter. His conclusion — which ought not to surprise any Christian — is that material prosperity is not a measure of virtue, whether collective or individual.

In the context of the early Cold War, the danger Niebuhr senses is that, like the communists, Americans believe that their political philosophy is uniquely virtuous, but the proof of our superiority lay in our capacity both to generate more wealth collectively, as a society, and to distribute it more effectively (if less equally) to individuals than our ideological rivals. Niebuhr acknowledges the fact of the U.S.A.’s prosperity, but cautions his American readers against adopting it as a measure of moral self-worth. Doing so would mean creating an ideological illusion of perfect consistency in ideal and practice, one that leads inevitably to bellicosity and self-deception.

The more that Americans consider our individual rights to pursue happiness to be coterminous with our good fortune in creating and maintaining a high standard living, the more we confuse accidents of history with historical destiny. Thus delusions of historical destiny enable us to paper over our own failures, mistakes, and peculiar moral blindnesses. And the root of it is a simple categorical error, which is that happiness is material comfort. All manner of political evil derives from this error, and Niebuhr takes great pains to illustrate that both communists and apologists for capitalism are guilty of it. Striving for material gain is not a moral virtue, but Niebuhr views it as both the means and end of modern politics. That’s why, he argues, we need a religious perspective on this endless–and endlessly unfulfilling–pursuit of worldly happiness.

Over these exertions we discern by faith the ironical laughter of the divine source and end of all things… The scripture assures us that God’s laughter is derisive, having the sting of judgment upon our vanities in it. But if the laughter is truly ironic it must symbolize mercy as well as judgment. For whenever judgment defines the limits of human striving it creates the possibility of an humble acceptance of those limits. Within that humility mercy and peace find a lodging place.

Advertisements

Lacunas fallaces sub Bodleian

There are many ways that Tolkien’s Christian faith could have been represented, even in the relatively limited space available. One item already on display was a 1914 letter to Edith. The display label transcribes, from Tolkien’s small and difficult-to-read handwriting, a paragraph about officer-training maneuvers on Port Meadow.

Immediately following this portion of the original letter is Tolkien’s comment that the next day “I got up at 7.40 and just reached church on time, and went to Communion.” Just one more sentence on an already existing display label would have given a glimpse of Tolkien’s faith in practice. As it is, nearly all visitors will miss this reference entirely; I very nearly did.

Other extracts from letters could have been shown, such as the 1956 letter in which Tolkien relates Frodo’s failure to give up the Ring to the petition in the Lord’s Prayer “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Or perhaps the 1944 letter in which Tolkien discusses modern healing miracles and describes the Resurrection as the “happy ending” of human history.

Several examples of his Elvish calligraphy were displayed; one could have been selected from the prayers that Tolkien translated into Elvish, such as the Lord’s Prayer. Both the 1956 letter and this translation show the way that Tolkien’s faith, and indeed specifically his prayer life, had an influence on his writing—exactly the kind of influence we would hope to see emphasized in an exhibit on an author.

We might also have seen a photograph of one of the churches at which Tolkien worshiped in Oxford, such as St. Gregory’s on Woodstock Road, which is mentioned several times in the Letters. The exhibit display included Tolkien’s pipes and hat; surely it could also have included religious items such as a rosary, a worship missal, or a prayer card.

These references, if they had been included, need not have been emphasized, but for one who knows of Tolkien’s faith, the absence of any such small detail is striking.

–Holly Ordway, “The Maker of the Maker of Middle-earth”


“The real truth is we don’t know.”

Initially, Mr. Burns included skeptics on the show. But, he said, “we found that they had nothing to say, other than, ‘There’s no proof, there’s no proof.’ If we were going to do a show about the birth of Jesus, would we have people who say, ‘This is ridiculous?’ No.”

The invocation of religion is deliberate. In Mr. Burns’s view, “Ancient Aliens” succeeds because it explores spirituality and the mystery of life in an increasingly secular, data-driven culture. Like religion, it offers seekers an origin story.

“It’s not about little green men in outer space. That’s the three-headed snake lady that gets you into the tent,” Mr. Burns said. “It’s really a show about looking for God. Science would have you believe we are the result of nothing more than a chance assemblage of matter. The real truth is we don’t know.”

The questions posed by the ancient astronaut theorists, however far-fetched, serve a rare purpose, according to Mr. Burns: “It allows the audience to wonder. And very few things on television do that.”

–Steven Kurutz, “Suspicious Minds” (NYT)


The invisible, wicked man.

Again, though, as I have said, we rarely notice how persistent a theme the issue of indebtedness is in Christ’s teachings. And again, as I have also said, conventions of translation and habits of thought are chiefly to blame. In the actual text of the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, at least in the original Greek, an ominously archetypal figure, identified simply as “the wicked man” (ὁ πονηρός), makes a brief appearance. He is almost certainly meant to be understood as a depiction of the sort of avaricious, disingenuous, and rapacious man who routinely abuses, deceives, defrauds, and plunders the poor. It is he who ensnares men with false promises wrapped in a haze of preposterously extravagant oaths (Matt 5:37), and he whom Christ forbids his followers to “oppose by force” (Matt 5:39), and he from whom one should request deliverance whenever one comes before God in prayer (Matt 6:13). And yet in most translations—and, more generally, in Christian consciousness—he is all but invisible.

In the first instance, he is usually mistaken for the devil (quite illogically), while in the latter two he is altogether displaced by an abstraction, “evil,” which has no real connection to the original Greek at all. This is a pity. And, really, it is somewhat absurd. Christian tradition has produced few developments more bizarre, for instance, than the transformation of the petitionary phrases of the Lord’s Prayer in Christian thinking—and in Christian translations of scripture—into a series of supplications for absolution of sins, protection against spiritual temptation, and immunity from the threat of “evil.” They are nothing of the kind. They are, quite explicitly, requests for (in order): adequate nourishment, debt relief, avoidance of arraignment before the courts, and rescue from the depredations of powerful but unprincipled men. The prayer as a whole is a prayer for the poor—and for the poor only.

–David Bentley Hart, “A Prayer for the Poor”


A childlike indifference to fact and fiction

Legend says the diver drowned retrieving the pearl. Trapped in a giant Tridacna clam, his body was brought to the surface by his fellow tribesmen in Palawan, a province of the Philippines, in May 1934. When the clam was pried open, and the meat scraped out, the local chief beheld something marvelous: a massive pearl, its sheen like satin. In its surface, the chief discerned the face of the Prophet Muhammad. He named it the Pearl of Allah. At 14 pounds, one ounce, it was the largest pearl ever discovered.

A Filipino American, Wilburn Dowell Cobb, was visiting the island at the time and offered to buy the jewel. In a 1939 article that appeared in Natural Historymagazine, he recounted the chief’s refusal to sell: “A pearl with the image of Mohammed, the Prophet of Allah, is earned by devotion, by sacrifice, not bought with money.” But when the chief’s son fell ill with malaria, Cobb used atabrine, a modern medicine, to heal him. “You have earned your reward,” the chief proclaimed. “Here, my friend, claim this, your pearl.”

In 1939, Cobb brought the pearl to New York City, and exhibited it at Ripley’s Believe It or Not, on Broadway. There, a new legend emerged, eclipsing the first. Upon seeing the pearl, Cobb said, an elderly Chinese gentleman “of highest culture and significant wealth” named Mr. Lee “burst into an hysteria of trembling and weeping.” This wasn’t the Pearl of Allah; this was the long-lost Pearl of Lao Tzu.

[…]

Wilburn Cobb was born in 1903 on Cuyo, an island in the western Philippines. His father was an American mining engineer, and Cobb grew up affluent, with a penchant for adventure. Ruth described him as a brilliant swimmer who would go diving in Palawan’s underwater caves and race with schools of sharks. As he traveled from island to island, he grew enamored of indigenous cultures, and began writing romantic stories about the people he encountered.

“The storytelling part of him was always, always there,” Ruth told me. “He wanted to be a writer.” Cobb studied his pearl, sketched it from different angles, and finally saw the turbaned face, like a figure in a cloud. He called it the Pearl of Allah in heretical, if well-meaning, deference to the chief, who was Muslim—and then put the words in the chief’s mouth, in the pages of Natural History. With a childlike indifference to distinctions of fact and fiction, Cobb seemed to perceive the pleasure of a story as proof of its validity.

–Michael Lapointe, “Chasing the Pearl of Lao Tzu”


The supreme culprit.

The Ad:

The Context:


Entropy, agency, and determinism.

Nothing is more characteristically American about science fiction than its explicit activism and the faith which its writers have expressed that events can and will be moved in desirable directions by a strong-minded people. Yet entropy is a law of nature standing athwart the history that such people might make—and a law not so easily finessed with a vaguely defined ‘warp drive’ as is Einstein’s universal speed limit. […]

Although he defined his own personal faith as Deist, Campbell’s own opinion of human nature added to an Old Testament view of divine justice a very Augustinian sense of human depravity, a Puritanical acceptance of Apocalypse as no more than people deserved. Similarly mixed were his views on the consequences of science and technology. They were at once the highly desirable goal of human struggle, the producers of the mechanized luxury of decadence, and the revealers of entropy with all its terrors for the rationalist.

The ultimate inevitability of entropy made Campbell a determinist about human history, despite his personal distaste for determinism and all his attempts to deny that he was a determinist. The attempts at denial, moreover, were rooted in what was most conventional about his Americanism: problem-solving activism, optimism, hope (if not necessarily faith) in the ability of the right kind of people to master their physical environment.[…]

Left to themselves [in a closed system], Campbell was saying, people cannot reform, rebuild, or revitalize their own lives, their own societies. That has to be done for them—or to them.

–Albert I. Berger, The Magic That Works: John W. Campbell and the American Response to Technology (1993), pp. 27, 31-32