Sunday, April 22, 2012

Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays

By Charles Taylor, 405 pages,

McGill philosophy professor Taylor shows how western Christianity became too moralistic and legalistic at the expense of the transcendent dimension. 

He points to the French village priest's strong opposition to Brazilian-like carnival Catholicism, whereby dancing, drinking, and certain other excesses took place on saints days and other Catholic celebrations. In their zeal to take the dancing out of the Catholic holy day, they ended up taking Catholicism out of the village. 

Nineteenth-century Protestants did the same: They shamed young men for their rowdy lifestyles of drinking, gambling, and womanizing, rather than inspiring them with the transcendent view of Christ's resurrection. Men, put off, turned away en masse from the churches. Catholic priests did the same shaming act on young men, and turned the confessional into the most feared or avoided place, with men increasingly shunning it.
The more Christianity moralized in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, the more it feminized and left little place for men. Rather than preaching and inspiring the fear of God, a most masculine spiritual practice, Christian leaders, Taylor argues convincingly, established "polite" Christianity. To be a Christian was to be a part of polite society, especially in the English version of religion. This was when Christ began to be taken out of Christianity, replaced by "proper behavior."

Readers get a clear sense of how secularism developed out of this. Incensed by the meddling of the parish priest in France, the French eventually went from a strong religious revival in the mid-nineteenth-century to severely restricting the Church in education and the rest of the public arena, something they call laicite, a bedrock of modern French political life to this day.

A second kind of secularism developed, mostly in America and other western countries when people turned the excessive moralism of the churches against the churches themselves. They condemned the crusades and every other real or imagined sin of the church. They portrayed religious people as zealous, violent idiots. Ironically, these secularists followed the churches' habit of restricting the vertical, or transcendent, dimensions, but did so even more eagerly than the churches themselves.

Despite the failings of the churches, Taylor refuses to let atheist moralists off the hook. Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and countless other utopian tyrants put their ideals into humanity, rather than finding them from a higher revelation. When humans could not measure up to their ideals, these politicians slaughtered millions.
Taylor cautions against the current liberal and conservative tendency in politics to "cultivate" anger. Anger has become a kind of spirituality, whereby the angered, righteous person feels resentment and entitlement. 

Feminism and a host of other ideologies use this to motivate their members. Yet, given the tendency of anger to cause violence, Taylor warns that a return to a higher, transcendent source is more important than ever.
Taylor is optimistic. Secularism has freed the churches to return to their roots, something that he regards as essential. Now that churches have had their hold on the public arena greatly weakened, they can return to cultivating the transcendent within each of its members.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Afraid to Believe in Free Will: The Human Tendency to Avoid Responsibility for Free Choices

By Carl E. Begley.

Psychologist Carl E. Begley's goal is to confront people when they or their counselor want to let themselves off of the moral hook. For the last hundred years psychology has been dominated by determinists who deny free will. They therefore deny human responsibility.

This has led to the common sociological explanations for immoral, destructive, and even criminal behavior. People get a note from their psychologist or doctor explaining a condition such as bipolar disorder, and they are subsequently not responsible for their actions. It is the bipolar that is responsible.

Likewise, Begley criticizes the entitlement mentality whereby someone on disability leave uses that supposed condition as an excuse for continuing to receive government benefits. The money given as a kind of reward for the condition actually reinforces the condition - it pays to have a bad back or suffer from an anxiety disorder, so why would someone get better. Getting better would mean having to get a job and take responsibility for their behavior.

Begley notes that people actually become proud of their labels. Whenever someone suggests that they get a job or that the condition is not permanent, that it's not a definition of their very being, they defend the prognosis and justify their dependency.

Mainstream psychology, Begley explains clearly and convincingly, has played a large role in our culture's moral slackening.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Shot of Faith to the Head (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists

By Mitch Stokes,, 272 pages.

The amateurish title does not do justice to the seriousness of the task and tone successfully undertaken by Stokes, a theologian with an engineering background.

He puts the Enlightenment's aggressive atheism under the microscope, showing how belief in God is not irrational, but highly logical. He pivots this argument on an old Christian idea, the sensus divinitatis, the idea that the sense of God is implanted in every human, which is why nature, for instance, can evoke a feeling of awe and wonder in us.

The Enlightenment's "evidentialism", which demands verifiable evidence for every belief and rejects a place for any basic beliefs that are simply accepted, is rejected as impossible. Stokes clearly demonstrates how we cannot escape basic beliefs. We are merely deluding ourselves when we think we are pure evidentialists, with proof for everything. The author notes that even scientists have to take certain things on faith, such as their belief that their observations are correct - that their eyes and minds are not deceiving them.

Stokes also refers to the grand design of the world, and how atheists wrestle with the fact that the world seems to have been built with us in mind.

A Shot of Faith is a demanding yet extremely rewarding read. Evangelical Christians need more thinkers like Mitch Stokes.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Real Marriage

By Mark and Grace Driscoll. Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Typical of contemporary therapeutic Christianity, the Driscolls try to repair the damage of our pornified culture to marriage. They use the Bible as a sort of spiritual DSM-IV, showing how Scripture teaches that sex is good, wholesome, and a gift from God - as long as it is kept within a Christian marriage.

Sex is vital to the health of a marriage. Frequent sex is a holy part of a strong marriage at every age, yet should never be used as a bargaining chip, which the authors warn is a form of prostitution.

The therapeutic part of this book means that Christianity and God are seen as tools towards personal development. Being a Christian is healthy for your psychology and therefore for your marriage. The scope of this book is not God or salvation per se, but Christian marriage and its practicalities, including anal sex, hand jobs from the wife, and the like.

The goal of therapeutic Christianity is not spiritual striving or overcoming one's selfish, sinful desires in the ascent to God, as it had been at some point in western Christian history. In short, the goal of therapeutic Christianity is not God. Instead, the goal is happiness, including happy marriages. The Christian will have a happy marriage, or he is not living a godly, sanctified life.

In the Driscoll's therapeutic Christianity, the gospel serves us. God is a master psychologist and counselor who solves all our problems.

Real Marriage illustrates ego-centered Christianity. Its mediocrity is boring more than anything else. One hopes that Christianity offers more than guilt-free mutual masterbation.