The lead article in Salon’s newsletter caught my eye this morning when I perused the ol’ Google-mail Inbox. Under the auspices of Salon’s “Atoms and Eden: Conversations About Science and Faith,” Steve Paulson interviews James Carse (retired director of NYU’s Religious Studies Program) in Religion is Poetry. The byline: “The beauties of religion need to be saved from both the true believers and the trendy atheists, argues compelling religious scholar James Carse.” The interview comes on the heels of the publication of Carse’s new book, The Religious Case Against Belief.
Cerberus guards the gates of Salon in the form of advertisements, but this provocative interview is worth the read. So are the letters submitted in response to the interview.
A few highlights from the interview [Paulson's questions and comments are noted by bold text]:
Carse argues that belief and religion are distinct.
I think the vast majority of people would say belief is at the very core of religion. How can you say religion does not involve belief?
It’s an odd thing. Scholars of religion are perfectly aware that belief and religion don’t perfectly overlap. It’s not that they’re completely indifferent to each other, but you can be religious without being a believer. And you can be a believer who’s not religious. Let’s say you want to know what it means to be Jewish. So you draw up a list of beliefs that you think Jews hold. You go down that list and say, “I think I believe all of these.” But does that make you a Jew? Obviously not. Being Jewish is far more and far richer than agreeing to a certain list of beliefs. Now, it is the case that Christians in particular are interested in proper belief and what they call orthodoxy. However, there’s a very uneven track of orthodoxy when you look at the history of Christianity. It’s not at all clear what exactly one should believe.
So what is it that holds together a belief system?
A belief system is meant to be a comprehensive network of ideas about what one thinks is absolutely real and true. Within that system, everything is adequately explained and perfectly reasonable. You know exactly how far to go with your beliefs and when to stop your thinking. A belief system is defined by an absolute authority. The authority can be a text or an institution or a person. So it’s very important to understand a belief system as independent of religion. After all, Marxism and Nazism were two of the most powerful belief systems ever.
What, then, do you mean by religion?
Religion is notoriously difficult to define. Modern scholars have almost unanimously decided that there is no generalization that applies to all the great living religions. Jews don’t have a priesthood. Catholics do. The prayer in one tradition is different from another. The literature and the texts are radically different from each other. So it leaves us with the question: Is there any generalization one could make about religion?
But aren’t there certain core questions that religion grapples with: God or some kind of transcendent reality? Evil and the afterlife?
Well, let’s talk about the five great religions: Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Hinduism is 4,000 years old. Judaism is hard to date but about 3,000 years old; Buddhism 2,600; Christianity 2,000. And Islam has been with us for 14 centuries. The striking thing is that each of them has been able, over all these centuries, to maintain their identity against all kinds of challenges. Let’s say you’re a Muslim and you want to know what Islam is about. So you begin your inquiries and you find that as you get deeper and deeper in your studies, the questions get larger and larger. If people come to religion authentically, they find their questions not answered but expanded.
As a religious historian, Carse is well aware that religions wax and wane. He believes that Christianity and Islam as well as other traditions will “dissipate in one way of another.” He also comments on what a mess Christian belief is — “an abundance of Jesuses” — and that Christians cannot stop arguing with one another. Carse opines that the various interpretations of Jesus say nothing. But the poets of religion, now they’re the ones that Carse respects.
You also say poets are the real visionaries of the world. And you make the case that religion, at its root, is inspired by its poets.
You know, my entire career was at New York University, but I only taught the history of Christianity once. That’s when one of my colleagues was not available. So I went back to my graduate study of St. Thomas Aquinas. And I loved it so much. When we got to Thomas in the class, I began to notice that the students — most of them were Catholics — had stopped taking notes. They stopped moving. It looked like they stopped breathing. They’d never realized that there was so much beauty behind the Catholic teaching. They thought it was about doing something right or wrong, rather than this great cathedral of language within which they could understand their very individual experiences. It struck me that what was great about Thomas is not that he was right or wrong, but that he’s a poet. It’s just beautiful work. It’s an artistic creation of the greatest achievement. And when you take that insight and look across the traditions, you find people of very great poetic insight. The great religious figures are not philosophers, they’re not historians, they’re not institutional leaders in any sense. They are people who inspire the imagination and therefore deserve the word “poet.”
I think I understand what Carse is getting at here, and I agree that St. Thomas Aquinas’ writings are indeed poetic. But does my appreciation for them constitute embrace of religion? No. There is beauty in the poetic components of Aquinas, but in the history of Catholic belief, there’s some pretty ugly stuff.
Apropos of nothing (well, sort of), I recently re-read Milton’s Paradise Lost (the 2005 publication with commentary by Philip Pullman; highly recommended). I greatly enjoyed Milton’s poetic version of The Fall. But then, I am of the devil’s own party. And yes, I think the Bible can be read as fascinating mythology and sublime poetry, e.g. Song of Solomon. That doesn’t mean I hold the document as the sum total of Higher Truth. I like to eat shrimp, avoid being stoned, and look askance at Paul whom I regard as the Jerry Falwell of the New Testament.
His critique of atheists takes aim at Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris with the usual canard that they have an inadequate understanding of religion, e.g.,
To be an atheist, you have to be very clear about what god you’re not believing in. Therefore, if you don’t have a deep and well-developed understanding of God and divine reality, you can misfire on atheism very easily.
I’m not sure what part of “absence of belief” that Carse doesn’t understand.
And yet, you’ve just told me that you yourself don’t believe in a divine reality. In some ways, your critique of belief systems seems to go along with what the new atheists are saying.
The difference, though, is that I wouldn’t call myself an atheist. To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe. That’s a mode of being that has nothing to do with belief. [Italics - Doc Bushwell] So I have very little in common with them. As a matter of fact, one reason I wrote the book is that a much more compelling critique of belief systems comes not from the scientific side but from the religious side. When you look at belief systems from a religious perspective, what’s exposed is how limited they are, how deeply authoritarian they are, how rationalistic and comprehensive they claim to be, but at the same time how little staying power they have with the human imagination. It’s a deeper and much more incisive critique.
Carse’s statement that atheists are not “stunned” by the mystery of things or do not possess a sense of wonder of our world — of our universe — is simply, well, stunning. That speaks to his fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be an atheist. He succumbs to the mistaken notion that we atheists are not mystified by the unknowable, or rather the yet-undiscovered. Or that we do not relish the poetic and find ourselves flying upon a “hawk-flight of the imagination” (Olaf Stapledon, Star-Maker). Or that we do not have some appreciation of the culture of religion. But unknowable does not equal “God.”
Anyway, the interview intrigued me enough that I one-clicked an order so that I can read Carse’s posits in full.
Addendum: The Skeptical Poet: The Interface of Art and Reason offers a poet’s view of the Carse interview in Religious Aesthetic. The Skeptical Poet put it well with regard to Carse and Chris Hedges: “having your religious cake and eating your secular pie too.”