Sin and Evil

It is a very religious term, but it’s not, in fact, a Christian term, which is one of the oddities of so many people who are self-professed Christians using the term.

St. Augustine, the great Christian theologian, fought battles with other religious figures in his time, like the Manicheans, who stressed evil so much that nothing was left to the proposition that God is good. The idea that God is good is a fundamental proposition of Christian theology.

There’s apparently a reluctance on the part of Christians to use the word “sin” in the public square—they’re much more likely to use the word “evil.” Using the word “sin” might remind Christians that this is something that can be overcome with God’s help, and there’s grace even for the biggest sinners if they find Jesus in their hearts. You can’t be irredeemably evil from a Christian theological perspective, because then there would be no salvation, and no role for Jesus. “Evil” is much more of a secular word than a religious word. “Sin” would be the religious word.

–Alan Wolfe, interviwed by Emma Green.

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Abundance within limits

In any consideration of agrarianism, this issue of limitation is critical. Agrarian farmers see, accept, and live within their limits. They understand and agree to the proposition that there is “this much and no more.” Everything that happens on an agrarian farm is determined or conditioned by the understanding that there is only so much land, so much water in the cistern, so much hay in the barn, so much corn in the crib, so much firewood in the shed, so much food in the cellar or freezer, so much strength in the back and arms — and no more. This is the understanding that induces thrift, family coherence, neighborliness, local economies. Within accepted limits, these become necessities. The agrarian sense of abundance comes from the experienced possibility of frugality and renewal within limits.

This is exactly opposite to the industrial idea that abundance comes from the violation of limits by personal mobility, extractive machinery, long-distance transport, and scientific or technological breakthroughs. If we use up the good possibilities in this place, we will import goods from some other place, or we will go to some other place. If nature releases her wealth too slowly, we will take it by force. If we make the world too toxic for honeybees, some compound brain, Monsanto perhaps, will invent tiny robots that will fly about pollinating flowers and making honey.

–Wendell Berry, The Agrarian Standard

Judge Roy Moore and American Christianity

In an interview conducted by Jeff Stein for Vox, one of Alabama’s Republican senatorial candidates, Judge Roy Moore, attempted to clarify his view of the relationship between the American Constitution and Christianity:

But to deny God — to deny Christianity or Christian principles — is to deny what the First Amendment was established for. You see, the First Amendment was established on Christian principles, because it was Jesus that said this: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and render unto God the things that are God’s.” He recognized the jurisdiction the government does not have — and that was the freedom of conscience.

If you were a complete atheist, or a Buddhist, or a Muslim, or whatever, you have freedom in this country to worship God and you can’t be forced otherwise. That’s a Christian concept. It’s not a Muslim concept.

Developing his theme of contrast between Christianity and Islam, Moore claimed this:

There are communities under Sharia law right now in our country. Up in Illinois. Christian communities; I don’t know if they may be Muslim communities.

But Sharia law is a little different from American law. It is founded on religious concepts.

To recap: the U. S. Constitution — the entire basis of the American legal system — is founded on Christian principles, but Sharia law is different because it is founded on religious concepts.

Also, when Stein challenges Moore to elaborate on those communities allegedly living under Sharia law, Moore replies, “I was informed that there were. But if they’re not, it doesn’t matter.” Because why would anybody care about things like verifiable evidence for  bold claims about a key issue?

Moore’s most basic claims about the legal relationship between religion and the U. S. Constitution are self-evidently contradictory and incoherent. By the way, Moore is a former chief justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court. And if you believe the polls, he’s about to be the Republican nominee for Jeff Sessions’s old Senate seat. In practice, this means that the people of Alabama are very likely to make him their next U. S. senator.

This is significant to me only as a barometer of the degree to which not-insignificant portions of the electorate are eager to embrace patent fruitcakery, so long as it is sufficiently white and sufficiently bigoted. As a Christian, I feel that it’s more significant to me because I hate that people like Moore too often symbolize my faith to people on all sides of the front lines in America’s culture wars.

Many on the right hasten to offer apologetics for his pernicious balderdash; many on the left hasten to cast all American Christians from the same mold as Moore, because they think that, deep down, he’s merely the most blatant, odious symptom of our unsupportable mass delusion. Judge Moore does not speak for me. To the extent that he represents any historical variant of the rich, multilayered tapestry of the Christian religion, he is representative of those threads tangled together underneath a moldy coffee stain.

And if you think Judge Moore speaks for you, then you are welcome to all the justifiable criticism and caricaturization that inevitably follows when a buffoon who has smeared himself in feces lights himself on fire and sings the national anthem in the public square. It’s an offensive spectacle to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear, and it is to be greatly regretted that the stench will cling to the clothes of all who happened to be present to witness it, regardless of where they happened to be standing at the time.

Only a kind of obsessive monoculture

Ms. Tippett: … I want to take a slight diversion, which I don’t think is completely a diversion, which is your love of science fiction and the way science fiction is in your fiction. And I also love science fiction, and my story is not your story, but I grew up in a very small town and went to Brown, which was like going to a different planet. And you came from Santo Domingo to central New Jersey; it was like a different planet. And for the very first time, when I was reading you, and the science fiction references keep jumping out at me, including “Fear is the mind-killer,” it occurred to me that science fiction is there for people who change worlds. What did you say a little while ago? You were talking, also, about that numinous world that — the sense that there are many worlds within the world. I just kind of wanted to note that. I mean — and it’s not an escape. It’s actually revealing or kind of opening your imagination to vast cosmic possibilities that aren’t immediately reflected in the world around you.

Mr. Díaz: Yeah, well, it could be an escape, but I do find science fiction to be — for me has been an excellent literary technology for understanding our many worlds, for understanding what’s been disavowed about our societies, for understanding our political unconscious. It’s really — science fiction is really good to think, man. And for some folks, the aliens and all the stuff about otherness is just surface titillation. For others of us, it becomes a source for theorizing about real-world alterity and alternate possibilities. And that’s the way I reacted to science fiction, in some ways. For me, science fiction offered the possibility of different ways of being and of ways of possibly overcoming the cage that surrounded us.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and another reference that I feel is kind of in the ether right now is this Whitman line of “I contain multitudes.” It’s come up a lot, lately, and you invoke that in the context of a question about what is America — that there are these multiple Americas. I wonder how your long view of time, your rootedness in the whole sweep of history, of your ancestors, of your people as the ground on which you stand in the present, how that speaks to you about multiple Americas and how to live with this, generatively.

Mr. Díaz: Well, I mean shoot. It’s a question that has bedeviled the New World and bedeviled societies for a long time. I mean shoot, we’ve got the Babel myth at the heart of the Bible, the idea that God struck down humans by making them more diverse. [laughs] Only a kind of obsessive monoculture would think that’s a terrible thing. But, you know, so it goes. I just — when I think about what is required for all of us to live on this planet, it’s going to be the kinds of solidarities and the kinds of civic imaginaries and the kinds of radical tolerances that we’re not seeing. We’re going to have to practice a democracy that we’ve yet to define or even lay down the first four bricks of. There’s nothing about our impoverished political systems, our imagined communities, that is going to be able to hold us together in the face of the coming storm of climate change. We need a lot more than we have. And the fact that so many of us are scared by our multiplicity shows you how much work we have to do.

Our multiplicity is our damn strength. There is no getting around it. People want to make it the danger. People want to make it the problem. No, it’s only going to be the problem if we don’t make it our strength. And you don’t want to be so fantastically reductive, but really, at an operational level, it’s really what it comes down to — either we’re going to embrace humanity and figure out how we can all live together and work together to overcome the damage that certain sectors of us have inflicted on the planet, or we’re not. And I, for one, think eventually there’s — I don’t trust our politicians. I don’t trust our mainstream religious figures. I don’t trust our business leaders. I don’t trust any of the sort of folks who already have power and have already shown us how little they can do for us, and they’re showing us their cowardice and their avarice — I don’t trust any of those people. But I do trust in the collective genius of all the people who have survived these wicked systems. I trust in that. I think from the bottom will the genius come that makes our ability to live with each other possible. I believe that with all my heart.

Junot Díaz in conversation with Krista Tippett

This is a fascinating, somewhat confusing exchange. Díaz and Tippett link sf to alterity, and they link alterity to the plurality inherent in systems of democracy. So far, so good. But Díaz alludes to the Babel story to illustrate the notion that humanity has struggled with multiculturalism for millennia. “God struck down humans by making them more diverse.” Hm, okay. If language is a metonym for all diversity, sure. And if scattering people to diverse areas around the globe equals “striking down,” I guess. But then he says, “Only a kind of obsessive monoculture would think that’s a terrible thing.” This is the confusing part. To which “obsessive monoculture” is he referring? Who sees what part of that as a terrible thing?

I suppose that Babel often serves as a kind of metaphor for irreconcilable breakdowns in communication. Fair enough. And we do, I further suppose, generally think of communication breakdowns as bad things. But that’s us: the generations raised to believe in the rightness of democratic politics. Weirdly enough, I wouldn’t take exception to Díaz labeling we 21st-century moderns as a kind of obsessive monoculture. But I don’t think that he’s doing that.

God’s reason for scattering the people is that if they succeed in building their city and its tower to heaven, then “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” There’s not much elaboration there. I’m confident that theologians over the centuries have spilled much ink and hot air over why God really confused humanity’s languages or the myriad things the story signifies. On the most basic level, it simply seems that God did not think it good that humans find nothing to be impossible, and it’s worth meditating on why God would place barriers in front of people reaching for radical possibilities of self-definition and agency.

This kind of meditation is something sf is really good at. And one might even generalize that stories modeled on the story of Babel tend to emphasize the hubris, avarice, and cowardice of leaders who want to place themselves on the same plane as God at the expense of common people and the natural world.

That still doesn’t help me understand which “obsessive monoculture” Díaz refers to or precisely why invoking the Babel story helps us understand why it would view multiplicity as such a terrible thing. Perhaps he meant nothing more than to imply some sort of intrinsic correlation between the Bible and fear of the Other. But, you know, so it goes.

 

Is it really any wonder?

We are an evangelical people. How we ever got a reputation for practicality and common sense is a mystery historians will one day have to unravel. Facing up to problems, gauging their significance, gathering evidence, consulting with others, and testing out new approaches is not our thing. We much prefer to ignore problems until they become crises, undergo an inner conversion, write a gospel, preach it at the top of our lungs, cultivate disciples, demand repentance, predict the apocalypse, beat our plowshares into swords, and expect paradise as a reward. And we wonder why our system is dysfunctional…

–Mark Lilla, from an interview by Rod Dreher

Not alone in the universe

When people are searching for meaning, their minds seem to gravitate toward thoughts of things like aliens that do not fall within our current scientific inventory of the world. Why? I suspect part of the answer is that such ideas imply that humans are not alone in the universe, that we might be part of a larger cosmic drama. As with traditional religious beliefs, many of these paranormal beliefs involve powerful beings watching over humans and the hope that they will rescue us from death and extinction.

–Clay Routledge, Don’t Believe in God? Maybe You’ll Try U.F.O.s

Routledge ends with this: “The Western world is, in theory, becoming increasingly secular — but the religious mind remains active. The question now is, how can society satisfactorily meet people’s religious and spiritual needs?”

“At least I didn’t nail anything to a door.”

The Vatican is an imposing enough place to speak, especially for a Southern Baptist, so I guess I can plead that my mind was distracted with nervousness. I waited in line with several friends and colleagues of various communions and denominations to enter the center of the Church of Rome to attend a gathering, called by Pope Francis, of religious leaders from around the world to talk about marriage and family. Going through security, I fished in my coat pocket for my passport. The problem was that I had worn the same suit the week before, lecturing on the Protestant Reformation at an Evangelical seminary. Without thinking, I pulled out what I took to be my passport, only to find that I was handing the Swiss Guard a pocket-size copy of Martin Luther’s 95 theses.

As I made a fumbling attempt to put the little booklet away and find the right documentation, I wondered which of my grandparents would be more ashamed of me: my Roman Catholic grandmother, for my ushering the tumult of the 16th century right there to the pope’s door; my Baptist-preacher grandfather, for entering the Vatican at all; or all of my grandparents together — Evangelicals and Catholics alike — for my violation of southern manners. My awkwardness was all my own, though. The Swiss Guards didn’t recognize the 95 theses, and my American Catholic colleagues roared with laughter. At least I didn’t nail anything to a door.

–Russell Moore, The Reformation at 500

To betray our nature.

Anthropocene describes what we are doing to our environment, while posthuman is largely phenomenological, a condensed articulation of what it’s like to live in a world where we are constantly making and remaking ourselves, especially via biotechnology. And surely there is some truth in these points, but I want to suggest that the apparent disjunction obscures a deeper unity. A world in which we remake our environment and ourselves is a world that does not feel human to us. We do not know how to play the role of gods, and on some level perceive that to act as gods is to betray our nature.

–Alan Jacobs, Anthropocene theology

Increasingly unpleasant and unbearable.

Jennifer Bryson, a pro-life Catholic who works at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom, has found herself increasingly isolated in Christian conservative circles. In 2008, the conservative Witherspoon Institute, where she then worked, included Muslims in a project on the “Social Costs of Pornography.” Today, she fears, “it would be much harder to include Muslims as partners. So many supporters, including donors, would object that it would be viewed as more trouble as it’s worth.”

Bryson regularly participates in the annual March for Life on the National Mall. But “In past few years when people have found out about my work [with Muslims] it has become increasingly unpleasant and increasingly unbearable. When I’m at these events there are several people who will launch into tirades about Islam.” One of the anti-abortion publications she used to read is lifesitenews.com, which was created by a Canadian group called Campaign Life. But the site is now so infused with hostility to Muslims and Islam that she no longer reads it.

There are two ironies here. First, much of the Christian right’s influence rests on its success in building alliances between religious groups—evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons and Orthodox Jews—that were once bitterly hostile. Second, Christian conservatives have grown less sympathetic to Muslim religious freedom at exactly the moment that their rhetoric on behalf of religious freedom has grown more thunderous.

— Peter Beinart, “When Conservatives Oppose ‘Religious Freedom'”