Tuesday, August 6, 2013

On Browsing Bookstores and Libraries

Here I am thinking particularly of used bookstores and, at the library, the new arrivals shelf. Just this afternoon I was at the library to pick up a book on hold and, as is my custom, I browsed through the new arrivals shelf and came away with three books: Bad Religion by Ross Douthat, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism by A.C. Grayling, and World War Two: A Short History by Norman Stone.

I remember as a child browsing through the library with the excitement of a treasure hunt. I still get that excitement on entering a used bookstore or a library (not at the same intensity, naturally) and it is an experience that you can't get online. It is possible to browse through amazon.com but it is not quite the same thing; the physical element is essential, the feel and look of the book, its heft, and the experience of wandering through the shelves wondering when and if that one special work will catch your eye.

I've started on the Douthat book and I can tell already I'm going to like it, maybe because Douthat is so obviously influenced by G.K. Chesterton. Page 11 includes these Chestertonian paragraphs:

What defines this consensus, above all - what distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy, the central river from the delta - is a commitment to mystery and paradox. Mysteries abide at the heart of every religious faith, but the Christian tradition is uniquely comfortable preaching dogmas that can seem like riddles, offering answers that swiftly lead to further questions and confronting believers with the possibility that the truth about God passes all our understanding.

Thus orthodox Christians insist that Jesus Christ was divine and human all at once, that the Absolute is somehow Three as well as One, that God is omnipotent and omniscient and yet nonetheless leaves us free to choose between good and evil. They propose that the world is corrupted by original sin and yet somehow also essentially good, with the stamp of its Creator visible on every star and sinew. They assert that the God of the Old Testament, jealous and punitive, is somehow identical tot he New Testament's God of love and mercy. They claim that this same God sets impossible moral standards and yet forgives every sin. They insist that faith alone will save us, yet faith without works is dead. And they propose a vision of holiness that finds room in God's kingdom for all the extremes of human life - fecund families and single-minded celibates, politicians and monastics, queens as well as beggars, soldiers and pacifists alike.

And, of course, as soon as I turn the page I see that Douthat has explicitly quoted GKC on page 12.

Incidentally, I think I would disagree with Douthat that what defines consensus in (American) Christian orthodoxy is a commitment to mystery and paradox. Missing here is the subject of mystery and paradox. Zen Buddhism certainly has a commitment to mystery and paradox but it has a different subject than orthodox Christianity. What constitutes orthodox Christianity is mystery and paradox with respect to a particular subject, who is Jesus of Nazareth. And for that union of subject and paradox you need authority, for the difference between a genuine paradox (which is also a merely apparent self-contradiction) and a genuine self-contradiction is a deeper truth that is not immediately intelligible to us. Our access to genuine Christian paradox, then, must be mediated by an authority that can distinguish for us between the genuinely paradoxical and the merely self-contradictory. For Protestants, this authority is the Bible and for Catholics it is the Magisterium; but for either, the commitment to authority is what makes the commitment to mystery and paradox possible. And it is the eclipse of authority, I believe, that is the ultimate cause of the "bad religion" in America.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am from Australia.
Before you get to excited by Ross Douthat's book please check out these references which point out and describe why you wont find any mystery, and certainly not any paradox, in the kind of reductionist entirely exoteric religiosity that he advocates. Indeed such a possibility disappeared centuries ago. When for instance did an Illuminated Saint last appear in the Western world?

1. www.dabase.org/up-1-1.htm
2. http://global.adidam.org/truth-book/true-spiritual-practice-4.html
3. www.adidam.org/teaching/aletheon/truth-religion