No Self-Respect at Harvard University

Some atheists nowadays are a bit confused as to what contemporary theology is all about, also in Belgium. Hence it is no surprise that Maarten Boudry, a quite public philosopher of science and a devoted opponent of all things religious, could tweet the following statement:

Well, what do you know, according to Maarten Boudry, Harvard is no self-respecting university and neither is Yale, because they both have faculties of theology! How could they?

In a piece for Belgian newspaper De Standaard Boudry tried to explain why he thinks that contemporary theology is not a scientific activity. One of his final sentences reveals a great deal about his ideas on theology and literary criticism:

The equivalent of a theologian in literary criticism is someone who asks himself where exactly 221B Baker Street is located, or someone who searches a map for Middle-Earth.

Okay, let’s see if this statement is true for theologians who received their education at universities like Harvard and Yale by briefly interpreting a story from the Bible. Why not take the well-known story of Cain and Abel in the book of Genesis (Chapter 4)? If you read the work of Harvard theologians, then you will notice that none of them ever claims this story is anything else but a myth. However, being a myth, it nevertheless expresses the universal experience that “human beings can be so jealous that they are capable of killing the human being they are jealous of”.

Anyway, both those theologians and (supposedly also) Maarten Boudry know that great literature can reveal universal truths through stories that never really happened. Even fiction about fiction can be true in that sense. Read for instance how the character of the Chinese butler Lee interprets the story of Cain and Abel in John Steinbeck’s magnificent novel East of Eden (click here).

It should be noted that metaphors and allegories may also refer to real historical events and experiences. The story of Jesus who is tempted by the devil in the desert, for instance, says that Jesus was historically experienced as someone who didn’t give in to the lust for power, among other things.

It’s common for writers to use images. There’s nothing “sophisticated” about this type of interpretation. Of course, we might have to study a bit to understand the idiom and images of an ancient culture. But hey, that’s what science and rationality are for. Who knows, in two thousand years’ time, people might have to explain that the Dutch expression “Hij heeft vele watertjes doorzwommen” (“He swam through many waters”, meaning “He’s been through a lot in his life”) can be true even if the person in question doesn’t know how to swim.

By the way, the claim that Jesus of Nazareth never existed is, from a scientific point of view (in the eyes of both atheist and non-atheist experts), as ridiculous as the claim that creationism is more plausible than the theory of evolution. For more on this, click here.

Now that the error about Harvard theologians and the like is corrected, we can perhaps deal with some other issues as well in order to get a clearer picture of what contemporary theology is all about. Let’s take another tweet from Maarten Boudry as a new starting point to again correct some errors:

We shouldn’t unnecessarily complicate matters. If you take a look at what scholars do research on in pneumatology, their research questions take the same shape as other research questions in the humanities. An example:

What are the views of Augustine of Hippo concerning the Holy Spirit?

This type of question can be dealt with by any researcher, regardless of the fact that the researcher is an atheist, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian or anyone else. The main things needed are access to the work of Augustine, critical and scientifically sustained research on the Bible, ancient philosophy and the Church Fathers, and a thorough knowledge of Latin and other classical languages.

Of course, as is the case with all subjects of the humanities, in order to conduct an objectifiable research, also the interpretive starting points must be taken into account. No interpretation of Augustine’s work is neutral, but once researchers have agreed on their interpretive framework, they will be able to conduct a research that comes to similar conclusions as the research done by other scholars who use the same framework.

Pneumatology is but one part of a Christian theology. More generally speaking, contemporary theology is concerned with the scientific study of concepts of God and their implications. Again, an example:

Where was God at Auschwitz?

The answer to this question of course depends on the concept of God one uses. If God is thought of as an almighty being in the sense that God has the power to control everything, and at the same time as a being that is all good, it becomes clear that such a God, in the face of the Holocaust, cannot exist. If, on the other hand, God is, among other things, thought of as a love that manifests itself regardless and independent of the possible risks (and thus ‘almighty’ in a totally different sense than ‘in total control’), then God is present during the Holocaust in the loving attempts of people to save their suppressed neighbor’s life.

Anyway, to conclude, here are some more examples of questions in contemporary Christian theology which prevent other errors concerning this field of study. Again, these questions can be dealt with in an objectifiable way by believers and non-believers alike:

What does the Catholic Church mean when she says that God is revealed through Christ?

Is Catholic priest and famous physicist Georges Lemaître (founder of the “Big Bang” hypothesis) in agreement with the age-old teachings of his Church on the Bible as one way of ‘divine revelation’ when he claims the following: “Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes. […] The writers of the Bible were illuminated more or less – some more than others – on the question of salvation. On other questions [scientific, historical, moral] they were as wise or ignorant as their generation.”

Why doesn’t the Catholic Church accept the fundamentalist reading of the Bible (click here for more)? What God concept and concept of revelation lie behind the rejection of fundamentalism?

What are the core differences between a fundamentalist reading of the Bible and medieval interpretations of the Bible? What concepts of God lie behind these differences?

What arguments are there to claim that Jesus of Nazareth, as he is depicted in the Gospels, was a masochist who believed in God as a sadist? What arguments are there to claim that Jesus of Nazareth, as he is depicted in the Gospels, was anything but a masochist, and what does this mean for the idea that “God is revealed through Christ”?

Do Catholics have to agree with everything the pope says regarding moral issues? Is it acceptable for the Church that, for instance, 63 % of white American Catholics is in favor of the availability of same-sex marriage (this percentage from the same poll on the legalization of same-sex marriage shows that American Roman Catholics are more supportive of marriage equality than are the average American by a full ten percentage points – click here for more).

What kind of different texts are there in the Bible and how can we read them to do them justice?

What concept of God and of revelation is used by the Evangelical minister Pat Robertson and what are the implications regarding ethics, world-view and the view on what it means to be human?

What concept of God and of revelation is used by the Catholic Jesuit priest Karl Rahner and what are the implications regarding ethics, world-view and the view on what it means to be human?

[By the way, knowledge through revelation is a day-to-day experience which is not necessarily crazy or irrational: somehow you would expect that you know a person who reveals himself to you, every day, honestly and faithfully, better than a person you only know from scientific descriptions but have never met. Or would it be true that the “real” and “complete” identity of a person (his “soul”, to use an age-old word) can be reduced to what science may say about him?]

What are the main differences between Lutheranism and Catholicism?

Anyway, to put it succinctly: Stars exist, Concepts of God exist. 🙂

There is no need to change the definition of theology. The discipline and faculty of theology and its researchers have the right to define themselves within the required criteria of the academic world, even at Harvard University. 😉

A REPLY TO MAARTEN BOUDRY’S REPLY

P.S. Maarten Boudry tweeted two times in reply to this post. In his second reply he called me a “sweaty theologian”. I’m not sure where that came from 🙂 , but anyway, I expected some ad hominem comment sooner or later from him.

Boudry’s first reply reminded me of a story about a certain Theo Longshot. Theo was quite a character, a philosopher with strange, challenging ideas. Many people knew his name, they knew he existed, but very few had actually met or seen him. Photographs of the mysterious man were non-existent.

Martin Swissair was a young, ambitious reporter who decided to write an article on Theo. Since he lacked the time to talk to Theo directly, Martin decided to interview people who claimed to know Theo. In other words, his research was based on hearsay. Martin started off his article with a description of Theo’s appearance. Theo was white, supposedly had half long, light brown straight hair, wore glasses over blue eyes, was about 6-foot-tall and was dressed in costumes. He often wore a hat. The informants told Martin that Theo was 50 years old.

However, a couple of days after Martin had published his article on Theo Longshot, a young looking man appeared on his doorstep. He was black, had long and curly black hair, brown eyes, wore no glasses, was 5 ft 3″ tall and wore jeans and a T-shirt. He was 40 years old. He introduced himself as Theo Longshot, the man Martin had wanted to write an article about. Martin’s reply was very weird, to say the least: “If you’re not white, and if you don’t have blue eyes and don’t wear glasses, if you’re not 50 years old and if you don’t walk around dressed up in costumes, you shouldn’t call yourself Theo Longshot.”

Well, that’s basically Maarten Boudry’s reply as he is confronted with the fact that contemporary theology is not what he thought it was. Instead of admitting that he was fighting a straw man, he argues that the existing faculties of theology should accept his definition and idea of theology and shouldn’t call themselves theology at all. In this case, he behaves as if he is some totalitarian ruler of the academic world. However, just like Theo Longshot from the above mentioned story has the right to be who he is, contemporary theology has the right to be what it is, regardless of whatever straw man fallacy. One would expect that philosophers are able to question and criticize their own assumptions. Apparently, that’s a wrong assumption in this case.

READ MORE ABOUT BOUDRY’S FAULTY ANALOGY BETWEEN THEOLOGY AND ASTROLOGY HERE (IN DUTCH, ARTICLE BY WIM VANRIE FOR MIRARIPROJECT.COM).

Patrick Perquy interviews René Girard

The following interview with René Girard by Patrick Perquy was last broadcast on Belgian national television April 23, 2000 (Braambos). The interview was recorded on the occasion of an honorary doctorate from the University of Antwerp for Girard in 1995. It’s in French with Dutch subtitles. The two men talk about Shakespeare, Greek Tragedy and the Bible among other things. Be prepared for some sharp insights. Enjoy this interesting conversation:

Let’s kill Jesus!

tintin-writingThis is the story of Jesus, the reporter. He did a series of interviews with representatives of different extremist factions in this world. This post contains fragments of his conversations, references to actual events and commentaries by an expert. It also reveals what eventually happened to this alleged devil’s advocate.

From an interview with Richie, representative of the Right to Eliminate Disorder (RED) party.

Jesus: What is your ultimate political goal?

Richie: We want to protect our western system of law and order by eliminating the main source of violence in this world, which is Islam.

Jesus: Don’t you think that Muslims might feel discriminated against if you try to ban their religion from your society? The majority of Muslims is not causing any problems. More of them might when they feel attacked.

Richie: Every Muslim is a potential terrorist because of the true, decadent, barbaric and violent nature of Islamic ideology. Only a tiny minority of so-called Muslims is able to live among us in a lasting peaceful fashion because they’re actually no real Muslims. We’re defending our western culture.

Jesus: One of the main achievements of your culture is the freedom of religion and the separation of Church and State. Aren’t you destroying that culture, instead of defending it, by prohibiting Islam?

Richie:  No. You have to understand that Muslims want to impose their way of life on the rest of the world. They have no respect for the separation of Church and State. Just look at Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia. So, instead of destroying our culture with its separation of Church and State and freedom of religion, we would defend it by politically and legally prohibiting the religion of Islam.

Jesus: Aren’t you imposing your way of life then? In fact, aren’t you imitating countries like Saudi Arabia by imposing your ideological preferences?

Richie: We’re not imposing any ideological preference. We’re protecting a true, neutral perspective.

Jesus: By prohibiting Islam, based on your interpretation of that religion?

Richie: Our interpretation corresponds with the interpretation of organizations like ISIL.

Jesus: And that’s a neutral interpretation?

Richie: Well, yes!

Jesus: They are in favor of a particular ideological Islamic system, while you are against that system, but you are both convinced of the same system representing the true nature of Islam? There’s no discussion about that?

Richie: No discussion. Accept the truth: they want to eradicate us! Ask me something else!

Jesus: Are you willing to sacrifice yourself to protect your cultural identity?

Richie: Yes. I would consider it an honor.

Jesus: Am I getting this right? You are prepared to sacrifice yourself because you don’t want to become the victim of an organization like ISIL; becoming its victim would be a disgrace, becoming a sacrifice by fighting it would be an honor? You are prepared to die so you won’t get killed? It seems you’re accomplishing exactly what you’re trying to avoid. Instead of saving your life, you’re losing it.

Richie: Listen, for once and for all, the Muslims are attacking us. We have the right to defend ourselves. Our violence is justified, theirs is not justified. I’m willing to die in the name of righteousness to establish an order and a peace where the terrorists are eliminated.

Jesus: If I may refer to Star Wars, you are the Jedi and they are the Sith?

Richie: Exactly!

Jesus: But isn’t that a matter of perspective? In the end, you’re both killers, establishing a peace at the expense of sacrifices?

filip-dewinter-assadFACT, NOT FICTION: At the beginning of February, 2017, Filip Dewinter, member of Belgian’s federal parliament and one of the leaders of far-right political party Vlaams Belang paid a visit to Assad and his regime. He turned a blind eye to the massive violence of that regime (a new report reveals more Syrians are killed by Assad’s regime than by Jihadist organizations), claiming the regime of Assad was a bulwark against terrorism. Instead, he could have considered that the violence of Assad might convince more Syrians to take sides with Jihadist factions. What if your brother is arrested, tortured and murdered by the Assad regime on vague charges of ‘insulting the regime’? Wouldn’t you be angry at the regime, also at those you perceive as allies of the regime? So, instead of eliminating the threat of terrorism Filip Dewinter seems to feed it!

Richie: This is the way of the world. There’s a constant battle of good versus evil.

Jesus: But how good is ‘good’ when it establishes a system in the same way as the so-called ‘evil’ side would do it?

quebec-shooting-vigilsFACT, NOT FICTION: January 30, 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette, a 27-year-old university student, killed six people in a mosque in Québec (Canada). Sociologist Stephen Ledrew wrote a very, very interesting book (The Evolution of Atheism – The Politics of a Modern Movement) on the so-called New Atheism as an “atheist Right” that mirrors the Christian Right. Precisely the case of Alexandre Bissonnette is a symptom of this. Ledrew wrote an article about it, Atheism’s Dark Side Aiding the Trump Agenda. Find it by clicking here or here.

Richie: What do you propose then?

Jesus: Maybe the question is not whether you are in favor of or against a particular system. Maybe the question is whether the system can be used or transformed in such a way that it enables you to love your enemy? After all, our enemies remain fellow human beings. If we can love them, then they can love us too. If we can transform our system, then they can do the same thing.

My advice would be: don’t imitate the hatred and the violence of certain people by taking revenge on those you associate with them (but who are actually innocent). In other words, don’t look for scapegoats, because it will only plant seeds for new violence. The threat you feared but wasn’t there, will become real, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Richie: Shut up with your nonsense! The threat is real and has always been real. What did you say your name was again?

Jesus: Jesus.

Richie: I’ll remember you.

From an interview with Idris, representative of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) party.

Jesus: What is your ultimate political goal?

Idris: We want to protect our Islamic system of law and order by eliminating the main source of violence in this world, which is western culture.

Jesus: Don’t you think that westerners might feel discriminated against if you try to ban their culture from your society? The majority of westerners is not causing any problems. More of them might when they feel attacked.

Idris: Every westerner is a potential terrorist because of the true, decadent, barbaric and violent nature of western culture. Only a tiny minority of so-called westerners is able to live among us in a lasting peaceful fashion because they’re actually no real westerners. They converted to Islam. We’re defending our Islamic culture.

Jesus: One of the core convictions of your culture is the conviction that there should be no compulsion in religion. Aren’t you destroying that culture, instead of defending it, by prohibiting western culture?

Idris:  No. You have to understand that westerners want to impose their way of life on the rest of the world. They have no respect for the conviction that there should be no compulsion in religion, one way or the other. Just look at western countries trying to ban Muslims. It’s just one of the measures suppressing Muslims. Muslims who live in western countries are constantly discriminated against. However, no one can prevent me from being a Muslim, and I will avert any culture that tries to suppress Islam.

US President Trump swears in General Mattis as US Defense Secretary . DCFACT, NOT FICTION: President Trump signed an executive order on January 27 that banned entry into the US by anyone from seven majority-Muslim countries for 90 days, and banned nearly all refugees for 120 days.

Jesus: But aren’t you imitating potential Muslim bans by averting western culture all together? Aren’t you imposing your ideological preferences just the same?

Idris: We’re not imposing any ideological preference. We’re protecting a true, divine perspective.

Jesus: By advocating Islam, based on your interpretation of that religion?

Idris: Our interpretation corresponds with the interpretation of the wicked who try to ban us.

Jesus: And that’s a true interpretation?

Idris: Well, yes!

Jesus: They are against a particular ideological Islamic system, while you are in favor of that system, but you are both convinced of the same system representing the true nature of Islam? There’s no discussion about that?

Idris: No discussion. They refuse to accept the divine truth and want to eradicate us. Ask me something else!

Jesus: Are you willing to sacrifice yourself to protect your cultural identity?

Idris: Yes. I would consider it an honor.

Jesus: Am I getting this right? You are prepared to sacrifice yourself because you don’t want to become the victim of an organization like RED; becoming its victim would be a disgrace, becoming a sacrifice by fighting it would be an honor? You are prepared to die so you won’t get killed? It seems you’re accomplishing exactly what you’re trying to avoid. Instead of saving your life, you’re losing it.

Idris: Listen, for once and for all, the westerners are attacking us. We have the right to defend ourselves. Our violence is justified, theirs is not justified. I’m willing to die in the name of righteousness to establish an order and a peace where the terrorists are eliminated.

Jesus: If I may refer to Star Wars, you are the Jedi and they are the Sith?

Idris: Exactly!

Jesus: But isn’t that a matter of perspective? In the end, you’re both killers, establishing a peace at the expense of sacrifices?

Idris: This is the way of the world. There’s a constant battle of good versus evil.

Jesus: But how good is ‘good’ when it establishes a system in the same way as the so-called ‘evil’ side would do it?

Idris: What do you propose then?

Jesus: Maybe the question is not whether you are in favor of or against a particular system. Maybe the question is whether the system can be used or transformed in such a way that it enables you to love your enemy? After all, our enemies remain fellow human beings. If we can love them, then they can love us too. If we can transform our system, then they can do the same thing.

My advice would be: don’t imitate the hatred and the violence of certain people by taking revenge on those you associate with them (but who are actually innocent). In other words, don’t look for scapegoats, because it will only plant seeds for new violence. The threat you feared but wasn’t there, will become real, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Idris: Shut up with your nonsense! The threat is real and has always been real. What did you say your name was again?

Jesus: Jesus.

Idris: I’ll remember you.

Comments by Parry, the Paranoiac.

I’m an expert in politics. It is crystal clear that RED and ISIL made a pact. After all, they need each other to exist.

On the one hand, a violent act by RED can be presented by ISIL as proof of the fact that western culture is the enemy of Islam, and then ISIL can sell itself as a Messiah that will liberate the Muslim world of all evil.

On the other hand, a violent act by ISIL can be presented by RED as proof of the fact that Islam is the enemy of western culture, and then RED can sell itself as a Messiah that will liberate the western world of all evil.

Of course, in both cases, the evil cannot really disappear for these so-called Messiahs can only justify their existence and hold on to their power because of the problem they’re supposedly fighting against. In other words, they are false Messiahs.

Anyway, Satan cannot cast out Satan.

assad-false-messiahFACT, NOT FICTION: Syrian dictator Assad released Jihadist extremists to tinge the rebellion against his regime with extremism. Thus he made it harder for foreign forces to back the rebels, at the same time presenting himself as a ‘savior’.

From an interview with Seth, representative of the Secularists of Society (SOS) party, and some excerpts from comments by Robbie, yet another member of the Right to Eliminate Disorder (RED) party.

Jesus: You claim to have a solution for the problem of the so-called ‘culture war’ between parties like RED and ISIL. Could you present your main ideas?

Seth: I’d be happy to. The core of the problem is the very concept of a cultural identity based on all kinds of ancient national traditions or religious ideas. My organization is convinced that the economy, more specifically a global system of economic liberalism, serves as the best basis for developing whatever identity. Instead of one culture violently competing with another because they want to occupy the same position (and thus cannot accept each other’s differences), the economic system will guarantee that differences are established after an honest competition for similar positions (and thus must be accepted).

Peace would be established if everyone agreed upon the same economic system, and if everyone was granted the same chances within that system. If this were the case, your social identity and position would be based on your own merits, and no one would be allowed to question the identity and position of another. Cultural and religious items would become private items, available at and provided by the market as well, for each individual. The problems from the past, where social identities and positions were often established because of cultural and religious traditions, would evaporate. In any case, identities based on nationalism or religion (or both) need to disappear in favor of identities based on a global meritocratic system.

Jesus: But then again a type of rivalry will arise. Not everyone will accept a definition of his or her identity by the economic system. Also this system exists at the expense of sacrificing other systems. Moreover, what will happen if people don’t just accept their position and get frustrated because they belong to the so-called ‘losers’ of society? Maybe they will create a counter-culture like ISIL where they feel like ‘winners’, and, being guided by resentment, thus condemn the society they previously desired to be a significant part of. And then we’re back from where we started.

auto-radicalizationFACT, NOT FICTION: Europol notices that more and more young people who didn’t grow up in Muslim families become jihadists. The federal prosecutor of Belgium Frédéric Van Leeuw recently said that “the reason why young people depart for Syria lies in society”. The European Institute of Peace recently put together a social mapping of Molenbeek (Brussels), and looked at the causes of violent extremism in neighborhoods with the highest amount of foreign fighters. Not surprisingly perhaps, these neighborhoods were the poorest of Molenbeek. The research reveals that, because of the very superficial knowledge of Islam, religion is not the cause of radicalization; a feeling of being discriminated against is. Religion is an outlet, a consequence of frustrations which are the true cause of violent extremism. Young people with identity issues, who feel left behind and excluded by our performance oriented western culture, auto-radicalize through the internet where they find a virtual community of ‘fellow excluded people’ (for instance Muslims and refugees). CLICK HERE FOR AN ARTICLE WITH MORE INFORMATION BY DE STANDAARD (“Ze spreken amper Arabisch en kennen hooguit een handvol Korancitaten”). CLICK HERE FOR “WOMEN AND THE SPIRITUAL CLASH WITH TERROR”.

Seth: What did you say your name was again?

Jesus: Jesus.

Seth: I’ll remember you.

Comments by Robbie, member of RED.

I totally disagree with the policy of Seth and SOS. I’m a nationalist, and I have the right to protect my national cultural identity. Moreover, I’m also religious (contrary to Richie, our representative). I just can’t stand God’s laws being threatened by a decadent consumer culture. Mark my words, it won’t be long until the wrath of God descends upon us.

From an interview with Lizzy, representative of the Being Left Unjustly Exposed (BLUE) party, and some excerpts from comments by Ibrahim, yet another member of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) party.

Jesus: You criticize the solutions to the current crisis in the world proposed by SOS. Do you have a better one?

Lizzy: Well, yes. The problem is that meritocracy isn’t functioning like it should. People, especially young people, get frustrated because some people get way more than they deserve. If we redistribute wealth, give everyone the same basic income, we can stop organizations like ISIL from recruiting depressed and frustrated young people. The need for religion will automatically disappear, especially if we don’t talk about it anymore in schools and in education.

FACT, NOT FICTION: Communist regimes of the past already tried to eradicate religion, with due consequences for religious people (who experienced discrimination). For instance in the Soviet Union.

Jesus: Is that a good idea, making religion a taboo? It will continue to flourish on the internet, and young people who don’t know anything about it might fall victim to malicious minds who use religion for evil purposes.

Lizzy: We will do everything to eradicate religion, smoothly. After all, we don’t need it, do we?

Jesus: Once again, also this system exists at the expense of sacrifices. Is our identity as a human being only defined by what we need (or learned to need)? That’s a poor way of approaching others. As if others are only worth something because I would need them.

Lizzy: What did you say your name was again?

Jesus: Jesus.

Lizzy: I’ll remember you.

Comments by Ibrahim, member of ISIL.

At first I thought BLUE was protecting Muslim interests. It provided extra educational programs for free, which I thought was a good thing. Coming from a poor family, I didn’t have the means to catch up with my friends in high school. We were all just playing around, but the wealthy parents of my friends could pay for tutors and extra classes when they were not studying well. I was left behind. My friends were characterized as ‘adventurous youth’, while I was characterized as a ‘dipshit’ for committing the same misdemeanors. If BLUE thinks that I would give up on my religion to lead the same decadent life as my former friends, then it is wrong.

Epilogue by Parry, the Paranoiac.

This is how the story of Jesus and his interviews ends.

A small part of religious RED members forged an alliance with a small part of ISIL members, fighting the secularism of both SOS and BLUE. As the rivalry between RED and ISIL for the same position in society thereby somewhat temporarily ended because they found a common enemy, also the rivalry between SOS and BLUE to gain control over society temporarily ended because of their common religious enemy.

FACT, NOT FICTION: Two days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, two evangelicals, shared their “theological” views on the terrorist violence (transcript from the 700 club, a well-known evangelical television program in the States – September 13, 2001). Especially these comments are telling:
survivors of 9-11 attacksJERRY FALWELL: The ACLU’s got to take a lot of blame for this.
PAT ROBERTSON: Well yes.
JERRY FALWELL: And, I know that I’ll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way – all of them who have tried to secularize America – I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this happen.”
PAT ROBERTSON: Well, I totally concur…

As time went by, however, the old animosities became apparent again, until… the Evil Mastermind appeared. He was able to sense that Jesus had irritated all parties. Jesus had been everybody’s obstacle. The Evil Mastermind could turn him into the enemy of all, uniting the whole world against Jesus. “Let’s kill Jesus!” became his war cry. Thus the Evil Mastermind created peace, once again, at the expense of a sacrifice.

kruisiging-servaes

The story of Jesus could have ended here, were it not that within each faction against him, there were people who realized that Jesus had done nothing wrong. They felt guilty because they hadn’t done anything to protect him, although Jesus himself had always pointed out the danger of eliminating innocent people (scapegoats) to establish peace. Some of them claimed that they had experienced the presence of Jesus beyond his death, meaning that they experienced a second chance to protect his life, the life of the scapegoats. They started questioning the unity against the common enemy of their respective factions. They created non-violent enmity in their own household by loving their external enemy, thus opening up the possibility of a peace that is not established at the expense of sacrifice – a peace of a different world.

Lamb of God.jpg

The Trump Reflex

The door bell rings. I open the door. In front of me are two of Jehovah’s witnesses. I invite them in. It’s a force of habit, enhanced by the fact that I’m a teacher and student of religion. I always jump at the opportunity to ask them a few questions.

Actually, I’m really curious about their views on the evolution vs creationism debate. They assure me that Jehovah’s witnesses don’t accept creationism because some statements of creationism reject credible scientific evidence. No kidding. Thus I assume that Jehovah’s witnesses accept the theory of evolution. Which, I learn, they don’t either.

As the conversation continues, I come to the conclusion that Jehovah’s witnesses refuse to be labeled as creationists because it puts them in the same basket with Christian fundamentalist Evangelicals. From an outsider’s perspective, Jehovah’s witnesses and Evangelicals have a lot in common. However, as is often the case, it’s easier to admire those who do not belong to your own terrain than those who are close to you. It’s – as René Girard would have it – a mimetic law, which Plato already refers to in his dialogue Lysis (215d) when Socrates says:

By a universal and infallible law the nearer any two things resemble each other, the fuller do they become of envy, strife and hatred…

best-tennis-playersCompetition and rivalry indeed often increase because of similarities. Two tennis players with similar talents and competences will make for a good game. Another example is the feud between biker gangs Hell’s Angels and Outlaws, or the rivalry that existed at first between ISIL and Al-Qaeda. And most of the time, foreigners and their customs don’t bother us until, of course, they become refugees who seem to invade “our country” and might take “our jobs”.

The desire to differentiate yourself from an adversary increases as differences are actually disappearing. The tragic and ironic thing is, the more you then try differentiate yourself from your opponent, the more you become (like) your opponent. For instance, after the Second World War many Germans and German speaking citizens in Europe were brutally raped, tortured and murdered in a horrific frenzy of vengeful violence. This genocide truly became a mimesis of the holocaust, although the vast majority of perpetrators never had to stand trial for what they did. History is written by the victors, and they create the stories (which is, in light of Girard’s mimetic theory, the function of classical mythology) to cover up violence or to decide whose violence is justified and whose is not.

Back to my visitors, the Jehovah’s witnesses. Like their ideological kinsfolk and rivals, the Evangelicals, they reject the theory of evolution. They claim that the Evangelicals’ representation of God as Creator is not scientific enough, meaning that, in their view, it is just partly in accordance with the teachings of the Bible.

As strange as this may sound, both the religious movement of Jehovah’s witnesses and of Evangelicals are heir to modernity. They are not harking back to the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, Christian humanists and reformers started protesting some of the (medieval, premodern) Catholic Church’s teachings (hence the name Protestantism). The protests eventually led to the second major Schism in the history of Christianity, the first being the Great Schism of 1054 (the separation of Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic churches).

christian-churches-timeline

Protestants are convinced that individuals can make up their own mind on what the Bible teaches. Therefore protestants attach great importance to the availability of the Bible in your mother tongue. According to them, you shouldn’t accept any dogma on the basis of clerical authority or Church tradition, which is a modern idea indeed. They are convinced that the Holy Spirit guides every reader to reach a correct interpretation of the Bible. The idea that every human being principally has access to some kind of transcendent, universal rationality as a criterion to determine what’s true, independent of the truth claims made by so-called authorities and historically, culturally situated traditions is, again, a focus of modernity.

However, Protestantism not only meant a separation of new churches from the Catholic Church, it also almost immediately became internally divided. Apparently, what the Holy Spirit teaches is not so easily agreed upon. Hence, today, there are a myriad Protestant denominations. Moreover, the history of Reformation and Counter-Reformation eventually brought an end to the central position of (the Christian) religion in Western Europe.

For centuries, the Christian religion had been a unifying, stabilizing factor in Europe’s society, important for the establishment of peace between people with different cultural backgrounds. The Christianization of pagan habits brought the nations of Western Europe under one and the same religious umbrella.

crusadesThe internal peace and identity of a Christian Europe was enhanced by military expeditions against an external Islamic enemy during the Crusades. In contrast, the violence and the wars in Europe between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation meant that religion was no longer experienced as a factor for peace. Thus it comes as no surprise that, in the 18th century – the Age of Enlightenment – many philosophers stressed the priority of the so-called transcendent, universally valid (and thus divine) Reason to determine truth, values and moral behavior.

In premodern thinking, reason and science had been servants of the so-called revealed truths in Christian religion. The clerical authorities, their interpretation of the Bible and the traditions of the Church set the agenda for reason and science. Someone like Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) turns the tables. Sapere aude, he writes, which is Latin and translates to Dare to be wise or Dare to think. By that he means an individual should think independently of any religious dogma (whether it comes from scripture, tradition or authority). Religious dogma should stand the test of Reason, and not the other way around.

The Enlightenment thinkers are convinced that every human being is principally capable of reaching the universal (and therefore, for many of them, divine) truth by developing his or her reason. According to Kant, you shouldn’t accept any truth claim on the basis of authority and tradition, nor on the basis of an uncritical “own opinion”, but on the basis of the so-called transcendent Reason. Eventually, the modern secular State became the institution that at first seemed to provide its citizens the means to discover the so-called universal truth. Sadly, however, some of the modern states became totalitarian, claiming to own truth and morality, and violently suppressing any type of “otherness” that was considered a potential threat to the government’s policy. Hitler and Stalin were two leaders of infamous totalitarian states in their respective countries.

In short, after the historical period of the Church defining Reason and exercising the power to distinguish so-called justified (“moral”) from unjustified (“immoral”) Violence, Europe gradually accepted the secular State defining Reason and exercising the power to distinguish so-called justified (“moral”) from unjustified (“immoral”) Violence. One of the main features of modernity indeed is the State’s monopoly on the use of violence. Both the Church and the State were experienced as totalitarian institutions at certain points in their history. The use of their force was not always experienced as something that provided safety, but as a source of terror.

theuniversaldeclarationofhumanrightsIn 1948 the world received The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is in fact a declaration on individual rights. After the traumas of violence motivated by religious ideologies in the 16th and 17th centuries and of violence motivated by secular ideologies in the 20th century, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be read as an attempt to protect the individual from too much influence by the Church (hence “freedom of speech”) or the State (hence “freedom of religion”). The secular violence in the 20th century also meant that we do not automatically believe anymore in reason and science as factors for the progress of humanity. Scientific progress and technological developments also made possible weapons of mass destruction, which caused violence at an unprecedented scale during the two world wars. Moreover, the Industrial Revolution also started an era of increasing social and environmental issues.

Anyway, a totalitarianism of the Church was replaced by a totalitarianism of the State, and is now replaced by a totalitarianism of the Individual. There used to be a time when educated citizens referred to the Church’s teachings as a criterion for their personal opinions and way of life, followed by a time when they referred to the State’s program as a criterion for their personal opinions and way of life. Today, in our postmodern world, individuals refer to themselves as the ultimate measure of all things, very often unaware of the influences shaping their perspective (that’s why reflection, philosophy – the art of asking questions, also about yourself – is so important to gain some freedom!).

gravity-just-a-theoryIs it really surprising that someone like Donald Trump became the president of the most powerful nation in the world? We are indeed living in a world where there seems to be no truth more important than one’s own opinion, and everyone, including Trump, produces his own narcissistic self-validating bubble by ignoring certain facts and advocating others. It seems the most powerful individuals have the means to impose their bubble on others. When research on climate change is not favorable for his policy, president Donald Trump simply bans Environmental Protection Agency staff from talking to the press (as this happened on January 24, 2017).

I think about my visitors of the Jehovah’s witnesses again. They also had a “Trump Reflex”. When I confronted them with all the data, all the scientific research and all the logic supporting the theory of evolution, they simply replied: “It is just a theory.” In other words, confronted with reason and science questioning their own opinions, they reduced that reason and science to something like “mere opinion”. And then you get conversations like this one (from The Big Bang Theory, season 3, episode 1, The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation):

This dynamic, the Trump Reflex, is visible in all quarters, not only in religious circles. Anti-theists, for instance, when confronted with the fact that a modern, fundamentalist reading of the Bible is not the most plausible one from a scientific point of view (including historical and literary critical research), will also often speak of “just a theory” to uphold their views on the “stupidity” and “irrationality” of biblical narratives.

Georges Lemaître and Albert EinsteinBelgian Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître, the famous physicist and founder of the “Big Bang” hypothesis, is a good example of someone who clearly distinguishes the questions of modern natural science from the questions the Bible is concerned with. In doing so, he criticizes both creationists and anti-theistic atheists regarding, for instance, their reading of the creation myths in the biblical book of Genesis. Both groups approach these texts with the same expectations, only to come to different conclusions. Creationists believe that the Bible and science tell the same story on the origin of the universe and of life, while anti-theists are convinced that, although the Bible tries to answer the same questions as science according to them, science actually contradicts the Genesis stories. Lemaître, on the other hand, sees no agreement nor disagreement between the Bible and modern science, simply because they are concerned with different questions.  Some quotes from Lemaître, taken from an article by Joseph R. Laracy (click to read) clarify his position on the relationship between modern science and the Bible:

Should a priest reject relativity because it contains no authoritative exposition on the doctrine of the Trinity? Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes… The doctrine of the Trinity is much more abstruse than anything in relativity or quantum mechanics; but, being necessary for salvation, the doctrine is stated in the Bible. If the theory of relativity had also been necessary for salvation, it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses… As a matter of fact neither Saint Paul nor Moses had the slightest idea of relativity.

The Christian researcher has to master and apply with sagacity the technique appropriate to his problem. His investigative means are the same as those of his non-believer colleague… In a sense, the researcher makes an abstraction of his faith in his researches. He does this not because his faith could involve him in difficulties, but because it has directly nothing in common with his scientific activity. After all, a Christian does not act differently from any non-believer as far as walking, or running, or swimming is concerned.

The writers of the Bible were illuminated more or less – some more than others – on the question of salvation. On other questions they were as wise or ignorant as their generation. Hence it is utterly unimportant that errors in historic and scientific fact should be found in the Bible, especially if the errors related to events that were not directly observed by those who wrote about them… The idea that because they were right in their doctrine of immortality and salvation they must also be right on all other subjects, is simply the fallacy of people who have an incomplete understanding of why the Bible was given to us at all.

As for the so-called mimetic theory on the origin and further development of culture, some people almost immediately, without really knowing what they are talking about, discard it as “just a theory” also. Even when solid scientific research that is in no way informed by this particular theory comes to very similar, if not the same conclusions (click here for more)!

Christopher Hitchens quote on own opinion

Anyway, Donald Trump is each and every one of us when we refuse to question our so-called “own” opinions by scientifically obtained facts and reasonable, scientifically supported theories. Of course, no one owns the complete, total truth, but some theories will be more plausible than others.

The day we started believing that our entitlement to own opinion was more important than a quest for truth and for understanding reality was the day we paved the way for the Donald.

alternative-facts-donald-trump-titanic

Tussen 9/11 (Twin Towers) en 11/9 (Trump Tower)

Op 7 september 2005, beïnvloed door het werk van politicoloog Benjamin Barber en socioloog Manuel Castells, schreef ik onder andere het volgende voor een artikel in Tertio. Blijkbaar is er sindsdien niet zoveel veranderd in de wereld. Enkele evoluties hebben zich gewoon doorgezet (ik geef een aantal voorbeelden tussen haakjes):

In Europa, maar ook daarbuiten, is aan de ene kant een soms merkwaardige alliantie ontstaan tussen linkse krachten en moslims [ook nu nog, bijvoorbeeld: moslim Dyab Abou Jahjah in De Afspraak op één, 22 november 2016, die zijn sympathie uitspreekt voor sp.a, groen en PVDA] die de islamitische zaak bepleiten tegenover de rechtse politiek van een George W. Bush – vertegenwoordiger van een soort ‘christelijk patriottisme’ –, en aan de andere kant een even opportunistisch verbond tussen joodse en christelijke fundamentalisten met extreemrechtse tendensen [ook nu nog, bijvoorbeeld: de – door sommigen genoemde – ‘christelijke kruisvaarder’ van het kabinet van Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, die goed bevriend was met wijlen Andrew Breitbart, een overtuigde jood; beiden zijn bekend van het rechtse Breitbart News Network].Beide partijen gaan elkaar te lijf met – alweer, hoe kan het ook anders – het recht op vrije meningsuiting. Dat conflict dreigt ons af te leiden van het echte probleem, namelijk dat zowel linkse als rechtse Europese politici en mediafiguren zich almaar meer uitspreken tegen een of andere vorm van geloof en godsdienst [ook nu nog, bijvoorbeeld: Filip Dewinter die de koran een ‘licence to kill’ noemt op 22 januari 2015, in het Belgische federale parlement; Joël De Ceulaer die op 13 januari 2015 via de website van Knack oproept om het godsdienstonderwijs af te schaffen na de aanslagen op Charlie Hebdo – zie ook Maarten Boudry in dit straatje, die ‘het politiek niet correcte denken over islam niet gemonopoliseerd wil zien door extreemrechts’; zie in dit verband: The Fascism of Anti-religious Utopians].

We mogen niet vergeten dat fundamentalistische christenen en moslims bondgenoten zijn in zoverre ze beiden strijden tegen een in hun ogen decadente westerse consumptiemaatschappij die geen voordeel haalt uit duurzame principes en levensprojecten, en er daarom ook weinig of geen ruimte aan biedt.

Kortom, de markteconomische ontwrichting van het sociale weefsel leidt, globaal, tot psychosociale problemen van autoagressieve aard (toename van het aantal depressies, zelfmoorden, zelfdestructieve verslavingen en eetstoornissen), alsook tot psychosociale problemen van heteroagressieve aard (extremistische, vaak gewelddadige en terroristische ‘tegenculturen’ – van zowel religieuze als seculiere aard – die hun leden een duidelijke identiteit verschaffen).

Polariserende identiteitsconstructies in onze samenleving, à la Trump, zullen niet gauw verdwijnen zolang de mainstream media weinig ruimte bieden aan diversiteit. Wie, bijvoorbeeld, als gelovige, maar ook als ongelovige, argumenteert tégen (de propaganda van) het mainstream idee over geloof en godsdienst, wordt vaak weggezet als ‘een uitzondering’. Als gelovige krijg je dan meestal te horen dat de eigen, individuele geloofsopvatting niet van tel is omdat ze niet zou overeenstemmen met wat en hoe ‘de meeste gelovigen’ geloven. Dat is alweer een standaardreactie die nauwelijks in vraag wordt gesteld.

Wat een Etienne Vermeersch als bevooroordeelde anti-theïst over godsdienst te vertellen heeft, krijgt in de mainstream meer ruimte dan wat een (eveneens bevooroordeelde) gelovige als Rik Torfs daarover kwijt kan. Het geloof van Torfs zou dan ‘te intellectueel, te gesofisticeerd en te specifiek’ zijn om er veel aandacht aan te besteden in de publieke sfeer. Verlichte geesten houden bij hun beoordeling van een bepaald gegeven echter geen rekening met wat een zogezegde meerderheid daarover te vertellen heeft. Verlichte geesten zullen nagaan of de rationele en wetenschappelijke argumenten die Torfs gebruikt in de voorstelling van – in zijn geval – het christelijk geloof al dan niet meer steek houden dan de argumenten die Vermeersch hanteert in de voorstelling van dat geloof. Of een meerderheid van gelovigen eerder aansluit bij Torfs dan wel Vermeersch is in eerste instantie niet belangrijk voor wie gelooft in de kracht van rationaliteit en wetenschap.

Los daarvan is de (minstens impliciete) opvatting dat de meeste gelovigen naïeve fundamentalisten zijn (van wie het geloof bijvoorbeeld in conflict zou komen met de moderne natuurwetenschappen) en/of enggeestige lieden (van wie de denkbeelden een voedingsbodem vormen voor geweld) misschien vandaag een van de hardnekkigste enggeestige vooroordelen. ‘De massa’ is altijd op zoek naar houvast en zekerheid. Vroeger vond de massa in Vlaanderen die in een vanzelfsprekend, nauwelijks bekritiseerd en gesocialiseerd katholicisme. Vandaag vindt de massa in Vlaanderen haar zekerheid in een vanzelfsprekend, nauwelijks bekritiseerd en gesocialiseerd atheïsme. Daarnaast zullen er altijd verlichte individuen zijn, zowel aan gelovige als aan ongelovige zijde, die ruimte bieden aan de twijfel.

In onzekere tijden, waarin mensen zich gemakkelijk laten verleiden door populistische extremen die zekerheid beloven, mag er misschien meer aandacht gaan naar de kunst om te twijfelen – ook aan onze eigen zekerheden en onze eigen neiging tot conformisme, diabolisering en polarisering (à la Trump?).

Hierna het volledige artikel uit 2005 (klik op de afbeeldingen om ze te vergroten):

 

Tertio 7 september 2005Tertio 7 september 2005_2

 

P.S.: In het weekblad Knack van 30 november 2016 staat op pagina 29 een vertaald interview uit Der Spiegel met Brits historicus en publicist Timothy Garton Ash. Een fragment:

Heeft de liberaal het ook niet moeilijk met meningen die hij verwerpelijk vindt? De atheïst verdraagt de gelovige soms even moeilijk als de gelovige de atheïst.

GARTON ASH: Consequent zijn in de tolerantie is voor liberalen soms inderdaad een uitdaging. Ik noem een concreet voorbeeld: de christen die beweert dat homoseksualiteit een zonde is, mag om die reden niet benadeeld worden. Dat verandert als die christen zich niet tot woorden beperkt. Als hij een homoseksuele persoon schade berokkent, bijvoorbeeld door hem een job te weigeren, is de grens overschreden.

Vergelijk dit met een voorbeeld uit het artikel van 2005:

De Italiaanse katholiek Rocco Buttiglione werd bijvoorbeeld niet aanvaardbaar geacht zitting te nemen in de Europese Commissie. Hij had gezegd dat hij homoseksualiteit zondig vond. […] Linkse politici wilden […] Buttiglione uit de Europese Commissie, ook al onderschreef die het principe van de scheiding tussen kerk en staat zeer duidelijk. De filosofieprofessor verklaarde immers dat het belangrijk is “een onderscheid te maken tussen moraal en recht. Vele dingen kunnen als immoreel worden beschouwd en moeten toch niet worden verboden. Ik kan homoseksualiteit een zonde vinden, maar dat heeft geen gevolgen zolang ik het geen misdaad noem. De staat heeft niet het recht zich op dit gebied te mengen.”

Voor alle duidelijkheid: lang niet alle christenen vinden homoseksualiteit een zonde (ik ben zelf christen en beschouw homoseksualiteit niet als zondig). Dat betekent echter niet dat anderen geen andere mening mogen hebben (hoezeer ik het ook oneens ben met die mening). Het is de discriminatie van mensen met een andere dan de zogezegd “liberale, progressieve” mening die een quasi geïnstitutionaliseerde vorm van hypocrisie openbaart. Het westers liberalisme blijkt helemaal niet zo tolerant te zijn als het van zichzelf beweert. Zoiets wordt vroeg of laat afgestraft. De verkiezing van Donald Trump heeft óók daarmee te maken. De satiricus Jonathan Pie zegt het goed:

In plaats van mensen te diaboliseren, ga je er beter mee in debat, en voer je discussies op grond van rationele argumenten. Dát zou “verlicht” zijn. Mensen met een andere mening dan de “liberaal progressieve” afschilderen als “kwaadaardig” en/of “achterlijk”, is een vorm van paternalistisch levensbeschouwelijk imperialisme, een vorm van cultureel totalitarisme. En daar zijn “we” zogezegd toch tegen?