For those of us who face Christmas in America with dread, or on a good day, when the shopping went well, with ironic skepticism, certain Christmas songs murmuring on the radio are appropriately dreadful. One of those is "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Yeah, Judy Garland singing that in her husband's Meet Me in St Louis, from 1944. There was a war on and no one was coming home - unless in a box, or maimed, or mad. The song is one of hopeless hope, one of those "you'll never get what you want" things. It's about "muddling through somehow." What else are you going to do? It's a downer.
The other Christmas song that isn't exactly a downer, but similar, is I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, from another war. Henry Wordsworth Longfellow wrote the words and they were published in 1864. It was put to music shortly after. Each of these items were written, then, at the worst time in a long war. The "World of Christmas" link here tells us this of the Bells piece - "This hymn is full of despair as it was written during the stressful times of American civil war. One can sense it clearly in the next to last stanza. Stanzas 4 and 5 mention the battle times and are hence, often omitted from hymnals."
Of course those stanzas are dropped. Here's the full thing -
Done right, even done by Frank Sinatra, that might bring tears to your eyes. We here on earth may have screwed up big time, but God is not dead, and he's not dozing off. The good guys will win and the Man in the Sky will make sure of that.
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play.
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of Peace on earth, good will to men.
I thought how as the day had come
The belfries of all Christendom
Had roll'd along th' unbroken song
Of Peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair, I bow'd my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song,
Of Peace on earth, good will to men."
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn, the households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With Peace on earth, good will to men."
"The wrong shall fail, the right prevail" - but then what if His idea of just who is wrong and right doesn't match what we deeply believe? You have to have pretty big brass balls to tell everyone that you know for certain what God thinks about just who's right and who's wrong. The received text - the Bible - is ambiguous (all those slightly different versions of the creation, and only two somewhat contradictory accounts of the birth of Jesus). Some view the Bible as extraordinarily useful myth, others as the literal word of God - but the latter requires some fancy tap-dancing. Bishop Usher read the text carefully in the late nineteenth century. The world is no more than six thousand years old, and that's that. Take THAT, Charles Darwin and all you geologists. Nowhere is there any mention of gay marriage, nor is there anything much that would help with what to do about Saddam Hussein or the Social Security System. All that calls for a lot of inference.
But that never stopped the fire and brimstone crowd, or perhaps these days the "red state" crowd. We are God's people and the president has said he's doing God's work, as he believes God Speaks through him - "I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job."
This sort of thing - "I know what God thinks so what I do is right" - irritates some people no end. One of them is Eric Alterman, the NYU journalism professor and author, who offers this -
Just a note - Alterman is not a Deist, he's proudly Jewish. He's just fed up with the "we know what God really thinks" people. They'd probably say it's resentful envy on his part. God just didn't choose to speak to him. He doesn't talk to New Yorkers, you know. God doesn't think much of that place, as we've all been told, repeatedly. (New York, and specifically central Manhattan, isn't mentioned in the Bible, but no matter.)
I was walking across Central Park on my way to Bible-study class around 8:30 Saturday morning - take that, Red States - thinking about God's role in history. Long story short: I think it's zip, nada, null set, etc. Why? Look at Ahmet Ertegun. What kind of God would have killed him BEFORE the Stones show at the Beacon, rather than after? OK, look at the Holocaust, Cambodia, AIDS in Africa, honor killings for Islamic homosexuals, George W. Bush being the leader of the most powerful nation in human history, half the world living on less than $2 a day ... etc. Is there any justice on this earth? The only possible answer can be: Not that any of us can figure out. And if God is just (and merciful) then clearly, he's not around, or not interested, or non-existent. I don't profess to know whether God exists - personally I think so, because I believe in a kind of intelligent design as the source of the order of the universe - but that is, I think, as far as it goes. What's the upshot of all this deep thinking? Just this: If someone, say, George W. Bush, tells me that he is doing something or has done something because God willed it, I'd tell him to fuck off. Nobody knows God's will or can explain why the universe operates the way it does if the spirit they follow is, in fact, a benevolent one. (And if it's not, well, then it should be resisted as forcefully as possible.) In any case, most of the people throughout history who claim to know God's will have tended to get a lot of the rest of us killed, burnt, raped, tortured, pillaged, thrown out of planes and the like. The crucial distinction in political culture in the world today is between God and the Enlightenment; that is imposed theology or reason. Bush, Osama, Pat Robertson, and Fidel Castro are all on one side of this argument. (Marxism/Leninism is an ideological form of "God.") Those of us who think for ourselves are on the other. I'm all in favor of "religion in politics." This is after all, a religious country, and the most popular religion - Christianity - happens to be on my side in most things. Just don't tell me you know what "God" thinks about anything. You don't. For all you know, he thinks you should go to hell.
Alterman's readers elsewhere aren't hearing much from God either, or so notes Dave Richie in Birmingham, Alabama. Richie also heard no divine word -
So from deep in God's state this guys thinks God isn't dead, or sleeping - he's just expects us to grow up, and start thinking. Funny, that used to be the mainstream view - God gave us free will and moderately efficient minds. Perhaps, by default, He must have meant for us to use them. Why else would He set things up that way? Times have, obviously changed.
Thanks so much for sharing your religious views. My, in such mine fields you choose to tread!
But, no, I don't believe He gives a flying whatever about our "history" nor does He play a significant role. He does not come down here (I think, down) and visit miracles upon us in violation of His own natural laws. The maladies we suffer we bring entirely upon ourselves, i.e., the election of Mr. Bush or the selection of John Kerry.
For Him to interject Himself in these processes would undermine the concepts of intellect and free will. We can neither blame Him for our predicaments nor credit Him with the solutions. It is for us to use His gifts to figure it out for ourselves.
The unholy right wing in this country has chosen to inject God into our public debate from time to time and it has cost them votes, including mine. I have had many of my friends come to call themselves "conservative democrats until these idiots get out of my bedroom!"
I believe you have nailed the lunatic right wing in this country. But, be careful. On the same page you claim "moral superiority." Too tempting to go there, was it not?
Appreciate your courage.
From the ever shrinking Red States, DR
Another reader, Bill Dunlap, from Oswego, Oregon, notices something quite curious -
That is a funny thing, and very convenient. God doesn't say such things? You'd think He might, now and then.
Speaking of God, Eric, isn't it telling that no one who claims to know God's will or hear God's voice ever hears the Almighty say, "No, no, no don't do that. For My sake, please don't do that."
But a brief tangent is called for. Alterman mentions Ahmet Ertegun, and the reference may merit some explanation. Ertegun was the European-educated son of a Turkish diplomat and grew up in Washington. Ertegun died after being injured in a fall backstage before a Rolling Stones concert on October 29, just some weeks ago.
That may seem odd, but Jon Pareles explains it all in the International Herald Tribune with his appreciation, How Ertegun Shaped American Pop Scene -
So Ertegun, who was born a Muslim, got down with black gospel and gave us Ray Charles, Clyde McPhatter, the Coasters, and Aretha Franklin, and then the Stones. He discovered and popularized them all. God works in very mysterious ways. And Ahmet Ertegun missed that last Stones concert at the Beacon. Go figure.
The sheer improbability of Ahmet Ertegun's career makes it an all-American success story: the tale of an outsider, from Turkey no less, who loved African American music so much that he became a major force in pop history. Points of friction in American culture - class, ethnicity, race, religion - mostly provided him with sparks.
Ertegun, who died on Dec. 14 at 83, was an old-school music mogul, a self-invented character with the urge to start a record company. He was, by all accounts, a charmer: a man of wealth and taste who had stories to tell, a shrewd business sense and a keen appreciation of all sorts of pleasure. He wasn't a musician, but he had an ear for a hit, one that served him for half a century.
When Ertegun and a partner floated Atlantic Records in 1947 with a $10,000 loan from a dentist, it was one among many small independent labels trying to serve the taste of postwar America. But while the others had their handfuls of hit singles and disappeared, Atlantic kept growing. With Ertegun as chairman, the job he held until his death, it was a major label by the 1960s, the home of multimillion sellers like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones in the 1970s and the core of the Warner Music conglomerate that continues to survive in the currently embattled recording business.
David Geffen, an entertainment mogul, said Friday that he had once asked Ertegun how to make money in the music business. Ertegun said he would demonstrate, got up from his chair, hunched over and shuffled slowly across the room. Geffen didn't understand, so Ertegun did it twice more. Finally he explained: "'If you're lucky, you bump into a genius, and a genius will make you rich in the music business,'" Geffen recalled. "Ahmet bumped into an awful lot of geniuses."
Well, we may never know what God is up to - we're just along for the ride, assuming He expects us to do our best to be decent to each other and as reasonable as we can manage, with the reason He nicely supplied us all, or supplied to most of us. But then, that is a very secular thing to say.
And secularism is bad - Bill O'Reilly says so all the time on Fox News in his rants about the "secular progressives" (he's taken to calling them the SP's) and their war on Christmas that, as far as anyone can tell, O'Reilly made up to keep his ratings high. No one has a big problem with Christmas. They just don't like to be shoved around by the God Squad telling them what to say and how to act. It's free country, damn it. If someone wants to say Happy Holidays to a Jewish friend, why is Bill O'Reilly on that person's case? What the big deal? And his ratings, while slipping, are just fine.
On a more scholarly note, Phillip Blond and Adrian Pabst sort of side with O'Reilly in their column The Problem with Secularism. You know it's scholarly because Phillip Blond is a senior lecturer in religion and philosophy at St. Martin's College, Lancaster (UK), and Adrian Pabst is a research fellow at the Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies. This is not Fox News, people.
And what they're up to is this -
Got it? Secular humanism is bad. It created fundamentalism, somehow or other. And fundamentalism is not really religion. It's a perversion of religion. What we need is to get religion back in the sciences, to mix them up again. Then everything will be just fine - that will cut the legs out from under both the nutty fundamentalists and arrogant scientists.
Geopolitically, the resurgence of religion is dangerous and spreading. From Islamic fundamentalism, American evangelism to Hindu nationalism, each creed demands total conformity and absolute submission to their own particular variant of God's revelation.
Common to virtually all versions of contemporary religious fanaticism is a claim to know divine intention directly, absolutely and unquestionably. As a result, many people demand a fresh liberal resistance to religious totalitarianism.
But it is important to realize that this reduction of a transcendent religion to confirmation of one's own personal beliefs represents an ersatz copy of liberal humanism. Long before religious fundamentalism, secular humanists reduced all objective codes to subjective assertion by making man the measure of all things and erasing God from nature.
This was a profoundly secular move: It simply denied natural knowledge of God and thereby eliminated theology from the sciences. Religion, stripped of rationality, became associated with a blind unmediated faith - precisely the mark of fanaticism. Thus religious fundamentalism constitutes an absence of religion that only true religion can correct.
It's an interesting idea. And they back it up with this -
You can of course think long and hard about that passage. It comes down to "there's stuff we don't know and patterns we can't yet explain, so there must be a God." But here it is put in thick and academic terms, so it sounds quite impressive. This is quite impressive lipstick on the usual pig.
Darwinism is close to being completely rewritten. Hitherto, it had been assumed that forms of life are the product of essentially arbitrary processes, such that (as Stephen Jay Gould put it) if we ran evolution again life would look very different. However, evolution shows biological convergence. As Simon Conway Morris, a professor of biology at Cambridge University, has argued, evolution is not arbitrary: If it ran again, the world would look much as it already does.
Nor is natural selection now thought to be the main driver of biological change. Rather, life displays certain inherency, such that the beings that come about are a product of their own integral insistence. All of which means that there is no necessary conflict between evolution and theology. Indeed, evolution is no more arbitrary than God is deterministic. Similarly, in cosmology and physics the idea that the world was produced by chance has long been dismissed. The extreme precision of the gravitational constant that allows a universe like ours to exist requires an explanation. Rather than envisioning the world as an intended creation, secular physics posits infinite numbers of multiverses existing alongside our own. Thus, the sheer uniqueness of our universe is qualified by the existence of all other possible universes.
The trouble is that this supposition sounds more bizarre than religion. Moreover, to posit this paradigm leads to the Matrix hypothesis that we are actually only a virtual simulation run by other universes more powerful and real. So religion finds itself in the strange position of defending the real world against those who would make us merely virtual phenomena.
Philosophically, if one wants to defend the idea of objective moral truths, it appears ineluctably to require some sort of engagement with theology. For if there are universals out there, we need to explain why they care about us or indeed how we can know them at all. And if human beings do not make these truths, then it seems an account of the relationship between ultimate truths and human life can only be religious.
Their take-away - "In the new, post-secular world, religion cannot be eliminated and, properly figured, is in fact our best hope for a genuine alternative to the prevailing extremes."
In sports betting that is know as covering the spread. In the world of insurance you'd say they're inserting a "properly figured" stop-loss clause. But the "God people" won't like this and the scientists will shrug. No one is going there, this odd middle. But it certainly sounds impressive.
On the other hand, there is the operational. Mark C. Taylor, a religion and humanities professor at Williams College - the Cluett Professor of Humanities there and the author of Mystic Bones - has a few things to say. It's different in the pits - when you're teaching about religion. On the other hand, he was a close personal friend of Jacques Derrida. When Derrida died on October 8, 2004, the New York Times published a snarky obituary of that odd philosopher, and Taylor, outraged by it, and proceeded to write a "correct" obituary to the Times, which they published a few days later. He gets grumpy.
His matching column - both appear in the International Herald Tribune on December 21 - is about what happens when you even talk about all this -
And he tells his tales -
More American college students seem to be practicing traditional forms of religion today than at any time in my 30 years of teaching.
At first glance, the flourishing of religion on campuses seems to reverse trends long criticized by conservatives under the rubric of "political correctness." But, in truth, something else is occurring. Once again, right and left have become mirror images of each other; religious correctness is simply the latest version of political correctness. Indeed, it seems the more religious students become, the less willing they are to engage in critical reflection about faith.
The chilling effect of these attitudes was brought home to me two years ago when an administrator at a university where I was then teaching called me into his office. A student had claimed that I had attacked his faith because I had urged him to consider whether Nietzsche's analysis of religion undermines belief in absolutes. The administrator insisted that I apologize to the student. (I refused.)
My experience was not unique. Today, professors invite harassment or worse by including "unacceptable" books on their syllabuses or by studying religious ideas and practices in ways deemed improper by religiously correct students.
Distinguished scholars at several major U.S. universities have been condemned, even subjected to death threats, for proposing psychological, sociological or anthropological interpretations of religious texts. In the most egregious cases, defenders of the faith insist that only true believers are qualified to teach their religious tradition.
No one does doubt any more. It seems that doubt has become politically incorrect. The distinction between the study and the practice of religion gets all muddled. You now cannot talk about what it "is" or what roles it has and does play in cultures. You get in trouble.
For years, I have begun my classes by telling students that if they are not more confused and uncertain at the end of the course than they were at the beginning, I will have failed. A growing number of religiously correct students consider this challenge a direct assault on their faith. Yet the task of thinking and teaching, especially in an age of emergent fundamentalisms, is to cultivate a faith in doubt that calls into question every certainty.
Here's what he'd like -
Religious conflict will be less a matter of struggles between belief and unbelief than of clashes between believers who make room for doubt and those who do not… Isn't that what Alterman was saying he had concluded walking across Central Park last Saturday?
Since religion is often most influential where it is least obvious, it is imperative to examine both its manifest and latent dimensions. As defenders of a faith become more reflective about their own beliefs, they begin to understand that religion can serve not only to provide answers that render life more secure but also to prepare them for life's unavoidable complexities and uncertainties.
Until recently, many influential analysts argued that religion, a vestige of an earlier stage of human development, would wither away as people became more sophisticated and rational. Obviously, things have not turned out that way. Indeed, the 21st century will be dominated by religion in ways that were inconceivable just a few years ago. Religious conflict will be less a matter of struggles between belief and unbelief than of clashes between believers who make room for doubt and those who do not.
The warning signs are clear: Unless we establish a genuine dialogue within and among all kinds of belief, ranging from religious fundamentalism to secular dogmatism, the conflicts of the future will probably be even more deadly.
What would God say about that? We're waiting for his word on the matter, so we can doubt it, as He would like.