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Douthat vs. Armstrong

Ross Douthat's critical review in the New York Times of Karen Armstrong's new book, The Case for God, takes the author to task for (among other things) implying that "the leading lights of premodern Christianity were essentially liberal Episcopalians avant la lettre." Armstrong, he says, minimizes the importance of dogma while stressing the centrality of practice. Douthat goes on to say:"The dogmas tend to sustain the practices, and vice versa. Its possible to gain some sort of 'knack' for a religion without believing that all its dogmas are literally true: a spiritually inclined person can no doubt draw nourishment from the Roman Catholic Mass without believing that the Eucharist literally becomes the body and blood of Christ. But without the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Mass would not exist to provide that nourishment. Not every churchgoer will share Flannery OConnors opinion that if the Eucharist is 'a symbol, to hell with it.' But the Catholic faith has endured for 2,000 years because of Flannery OConnors, not Karen Armstrongs.""This explains why liberal religion tends to be parasitic on more dogmatic forms of faith, which create and sustain the practices that the liberal believer picks and chooses from, reads symbolically and reinterprets for a more enlightened age."I suppose I have more sympathy for this sort of argument than a blogger for dotCommonweal should have, but I still think it misses the point.The problem isn't literalism (conservatism) vs. symbolism (liberalism). Moreover, the question of which is prior -- dogma or practice -- involves a sort of futile chicken and egg regression.At the risk of over-simplification (but hey, what are blogs for?) I would say to both Armstrong and Douthat that the real divide is between abstraction and presence. Christianity has survived for 2000 years because people have continued to encounter a presence in their midst (primarily through an encounter with human beings in whom this presence is felt rather than through dogma or practice per se). They experience this presence as a fact, something concrete--Christ. But at the same time they perceive that this concrete particularity reveals a mystery, which cannot be reduced to abstraction. (O'Connor, by the way, understood this is a more nuanced way than Douthat seems to realize.)Problems arise when the encounter is forgotten and the presence is lost, when all that is left are fragments, abstractions, mere discourse (i.e., conservatism and liberalism).


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I'm afraid I got stuck on his very first sentence:

The Bush era was a difficult time for liberal religion in America. The events of 9/11 were not exactly an advertisement for the compatibility of faith and reason, faith and modernity, or faith and left-of-center politics.

Seems to me 9/11 was bad for fundamentalist religion. That wave of liberals either losing their faith or switching to fundamentalism in the wake of 9/11 must have passed me by. I also think it's contentious (or maybe just nonsensical?) to say that "liberal religion tends to be parasitic on more dogmatic forms of faith." Perhaps my problem is that I don't know what he means by "liberal religion," or how broad an argument he means to make. But since he seems to be keeping it broad, I would suggest taking out "parasitic on" and putting in "defined by its relationship to." And in that case, is that something that needs to be explained? It seems almost tautological to me. How else would you know a religion was "liberal"? ...Or does "liberal religion" there mean "the kind of religion that political liberals profess"? I'm sympathetic to his criticism of Armstrong, so far as I can tell, but his own cultural-historical scheme seems to be dependent on broad categorizations that, to me at least, are very unclear.

As far as that first sentence is concerned, surely he means that 9/11 made it more difficult to be liberal in the sense of a position that extols tolerance, reconciliation, the notion that believing we have enemies in the world is militaristic paranoia, etc. For it to be bad for liberals doesn't imply that liberals would feel the need to convert to anything--it just made their position less tenable in the sight of others.I don't think you have to accept his perhaps too-tidy categories to see why liberalism might be considered parasitic.If conservatism tends toward a kind of jingoism on behalf of an institution (my nation/church right or wrong), liberalism tends toward the critical position--pointing out the flaws and excesses of authority (speak truth to power). So it's not irrational to say that the critical position suffers from its reluctance to affirm the institution--that it continues to exist, in a sense, as a response to those who do give the institution a sort of fundamental loyalty.These are huge generalizations, of course, but I don't think that means they are meaningless. And of course what I'm saying is that it is the very polarization of the two positions that is the deepest problem of all.

Seems to me the world is divided into two types of people. Those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don't. To distill belief and/or the practise of faith to either conservative or liberal, or even literal or abstract seems to simplify the mystery too far. Practise without Dogma - maybe, with all due respect to Mr. O'Connor. Its much more shades of grey - no?

I agree, Rory -- that's what I was trying to say. Douthat's conservative critique of the liberal Armstrong contains a couple good points but falls into the whole trap of dualism and polarization. True, I did propose a different dichotomy -- presence vs. abstraction. But I think this particular division is more illuminating. At least it's not the old Left/Right shtick!

I think I basically agree with you, Gregory -- your division does seem much more illuminating. But when it comes to Douthat, the more I read the less I think I understand what his categories are. I probably should have continued the quote above, because he goes on to say "For many liberals, the only choices seemed to be secularism or fundamentalism, the new atheism or the old-time religion, Richard Dawkins or George W. Bush." I didn't expect that to be what his 9/11 opening was leading up to, but that's where he went. So by the end of that paragraph I'm already wondering: which liberals are those? Are they they same kind of "liberals" Karen Armstrong represents?

I see what you're saying, Mollie, and I think you're right -- his opening is a bit incoherent.

I guess I have a hard time understanding how the presence/abstraction dichotomy is anything other than a really big put down for those of us inclined toward nonorthodox understandings of doctrice and practice. Do you REALLY think we are moved by abstractions? Do you REALLY think we do not seek the presence of God in worship and in our encounters with others?Look, I'm a professor, so I like abstractions, but this presence/abstraction thing reminds me of the supposedly manyly-tough guy Christology that asks one to really BELIEVE something, a Christology supposedly affirmed by those unmoved by historical-critical analysis of Jesus vs. the wimpy, relativistic, don't really believe anything at all, Christology affirmed by those of us more inclined to find something of merit in efforts to re-present Jesus in non-orthodox categories. The dichotomy trades on an implicit suggestion that some more nontraditionalish types just aren't cut out to be religious. Somehow, it seems to be suggested that we who wonder if it is time to rethink tradition would all just prefer a nice glace of pinot with our happy time gatherings that we call worship services and we would be good to go. Both positions seem more like insult in the guise of critical analysis.

Maybe the problem is his trying to place his analysis of the book in a political context? (Probably second nature now that he's a columnist.) It's always confusing when you start talking "liberal" and "conservative" in religion and in politics at the same time. On the other hand, perhaps Armstrong's book invites that kind of framework.

Joe:I neither intended an insult nor can I discern any implicit insult to anyone in my presence/abstraction distinction.I presented no eligibility requirements for those seeking to encounter and embody this presence. Nor did I claim any group as having privileged access to, or possession of, this presence.It is true that an embrace of presence tends to impel us to seek unity and continuity with those who have experienced and embodied that presence through the ages.So you are absolutely right to bring in the idea of tradition. But here I think of Jaroslav Pelikan's aphorism: "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.""Rethinking" constitutes an essential part of what tradition means, as I think Newman demonstrated. But rethinking within continuity.So I find it hard to see "unorthodoxy" as a value in itself. (And vice versa, which is what Pelikan is referring to by "traditionalism.")I'm a professor, too, and I use my share of abstractions, but when I use them with my students my goal is always that they illuminate concrete particulars -- and enable those students to then live within those particulars -- and encounter the presence that dwells there.

Joe, I don't thing presence/abstraction is a put down of those who criticize orthodoxy. So Greg does acknowledge that all can see the presence of God in others whether conservative or liberals. Sometimes we need a new language to get us out of fixed loggerheads. While Douthat feeds familiar polemics, Greg invites us to think outside the box to the place where we can meet. Unfortunately, words have loaded meanings so we fail to get beyone them. Constantine definitely change the hierarchy who were his willing cohorts for selfish reasons. Yet the very mention of Constantine tends to close people to that solid position.Douthat is clearly showing his superficiality as he tries to be cute but reveals a lack of history and solid theology. It is so easy to criticize Karen Armstrong since so many of her critics withing the church have hardly read her. We have to find ways to get beyond that.

Gregory: OK, so maybe I am a little cranky. However, I went back to your post and am still having a hard time figuring out what kind of Christian is to be found on the abstract side of your dichotomy. The dichotomy needs somebody on the abtract side, or it is not much help. Perhaps I too quickly filled in the blanks. For what it's worth, I have never had any reason to think you would ever deliberately aim for insult in a post here at dotComm. I did, however, once reply to a characterization of Roger Haight's work as "thin soup for which one should not bother crossing the road" (or something like that), and I think I heard in your appeal to abstraction vs. presence another reference to thin soup. So may just be my own battle into which I too quickly pulled you.I do think Pelikan and Newman are too often quoted in this regard in a manner that dodges the depth of the difficulty. I think there is room to be continuous with the past, especially if Christianity understands itself in terms of a soteriology rooted in holiness and a life committed to love of God and neigbor, but there is also so much on which we either need to fish or cut bait. Was there a uniquely salvific action in the life/death/resurrection of Jesus? If so, what is it? Does affirming Jesus as fully divine add anything to our understanding of human salvation? If so, what is it? I think that if one answers either or both of those root questions with a "No" then one finds oneself in a state of complete rupture with the past and there is simply no getting around it.

Just to clarify, the quote about Haight was from John Garvey. I reread my post and realized one might think I was claiming that you had made the claim.

"But without the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Mass would not exist to provide that nourishment"I think Douthat is confusing the doctrine of the real presence with the explanation of that doctrine via the theory of transubstantiation. The latter only goes back to the thirteen century.

"Christianity has survived for 2000 years because people have continued to encounter a presence in their midst (primarily through an encounter with human beings in whom this presence is felt rather than through dogma or practice per se)."This seems to me terminally vague, but it does suggest a survey question: Christianity has survived for 2000 years because...?My short answer would be "because of the power of God at work in human beings--sometimes despite their best efforts".

Joseph Gannon: Could the same answer, albeit with a different name for the divine, be given by a Hindu regarding Hinduism?

Thanks, Joe, for the gracious reply. Your point is a fair one: who am I saying falls on the side of abstraction? Here I run the risk not merely of insulting someone but also of committing several other sins, including the one called pride.So I better begin by saying that I fall on the side of abstraction -- pretty much every day. I prefer my ideas about God to God himself.But yes, so as not to be overly coy: I believe that faith has become so politicized that it often turns into ideology -- that what is called faith has really for many people become little more than a position statement, not an encounter with a presence.Those who live a shared presence can talk to one another, even about differences. Especially about differences. You might say that that is the basis of politics itself.But today there isn't even much politics left -- just warring ideologies. As for a "complete rupture with the past": are you suggesting that you've come to believe such a rupture is necessary?

Gregory,Do I think a rupture is necessary? Well, for many Christians, clearly the answer is "No." However, if, like me, you answer "No" to the two questions I asked above, then I think a rupture with the past, at least on those matters, is unavoidable.I think I get your self-indictment, I sense it in myself, as well. However, I do wonder if you are being a little harsh on yourself and on those of us who professionally and privately pursue ideas about God. I suspect it is unavoidable that one is regularly processesing such ideas, even when one is trying very hard just to listen for God. My favorite religious writer is Abraham Joshua Heschel. He seemed to do rather well having lots of ideas to ponder and share while also experiencing deeply the presence of God.I am now thinking that your presence side may be the problematic one. I once read an argument that appeals to religious experience "prove" too much in order to be helpful for religious thinking. They do so because so many people from so many different religious traditions and so many different positions within religious traditions have these kinds of experiences of presence. If we use such experiences as somehow confirmations of our religious practices or our religious traditions, then we do so without rational warrant because very contrary ideas and even practices are being confirmed by the appeal to religious experience.Thus, I am not sure what it means to "live a shared presence."

Joe, as an example of living a shared presence, I am going to insert myself into this conversation. You are present to Gregory, myself, and others, by your notes and questions, so a response from any of us is a response to something we share of your presence. This presence is perceived differently by each reader, depending on personal history and experience, but is still based on something from you that we share.It gets a little more complicated when it is the presence of God whom we experience as 'within' ourselves. The presence then is not mediated by words alone, as is your presence here. Any discussion of that presence will introduce words and concepts, even our interior discussions of it with ourselves. Those words are abstractions, though they may play a role in forming the experience.Douthat confuses abstraction and presence when he says something like "without the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Mass would not exist to provide that nourishment." I suspect he means to say "without transubstantiation, the Mass would not exist to provide that nourishment." Transubstantiation describes presence; the doctrine of transubstantiation is abstraction from the experience. In the first millennium, transubstantiation existed without the doctrine; in the second, it existed with the doctrine, and often without it, sometimes even in spite of it.By confusing abstraction and presence, Douthat can describe his "conservatism" with its "dogmatic forms of faith, which create and sustain the practices" as the basis for liberalism which "picks and chooses from, reads symbolically and reinterprets." The liberals attempt to discuss the "shared presence" is dismissed because it questions the abstracted doctrine which Douthat has raised to the level of a religious reality which is prior to and creates the shared presence.

Abstraction has a poor reputation in some quarters. True, an abstraction leaves out differences among things of the same kind, but that doesn't stop them from being partial revelations of what is, or so we hope. Take the abstraction "love". Would you want to do without that highly abstract concept?True, we have reason to think the mystics' descriptions are all metaphorical (except for the nature mystics). But by negating it is possible to understand a bit of what they try to communicate, "there among the lilies".

Well, I don't want to get mushy but I really appreciate those last couple comments.Joe, I appreciate that even though you think a rupture is necessary, you are continuing to engage the many here on this blog who don't feel the need for that rupture.Jim, let me just say that your comment is brilliant -- wish I'd had the clarity and presence of mind to say the same thing!

Ann: our comments went up simultaneously. No, I don't want to do without abstractions -- I just don't want to confusion abstractions with life. I am glad to have the concept "love" to help me understand the world but I want to experience love. When my love becomes abstract, my wife lets me know. Promptly. God does, too, but it's easier to ignore Him.

While I sometimes wonder at how well one can respond to a review of a reviewer without reading the book under review,I think Mr. Douthat while quite clever in his words, overplays his hand (as Mollie originally noted) aboutr liberal religion beingv "more parasitic" on dogmatic forms thereof.We've already talked at length about how much of the "New Atheism" reacts against fundamentalism a point Armstrong apparently seems to attack well.The adherents of Orthodoxy (like Douthat) feel dogma is demphasized awfully - but is it?In a review in the current America, Prof. Denise Lardner Carmody cites Armstrong on dogma:"to describe a truththat could not readily be put into words,could only be understoodafter long immersion in ritual, and, as the understanding of the community deepened, changed from one generation to another."Armstrong states that's thenotion of the word the fathers had; I'm hardly sure of that but I think her appreciation of the mysteries of faith sit well with me.And I don't think she underplays the idea of dogma, just looks at it quite differently from Mr. Douthat and interplays it far more with orthopraxy.But now my question is: will we see a Commonweal review?

Joe PettitI don't pretend to know what words a Hindu might use but if she/he used my words I doubt that "God" would have the same reference.

Joseph Gannon: I was not clear in the point I was making. I was less interested in terms for the divine than I was the logic of the argument. Christianity, a theistic religion, was said by you to have survived for 2000 years because of the presence of God in the lives of Christians. That could be heard to be an affirmation that the Christianity has survived because God is supporting it. A Hindu, it seems to me, could make exactly the same claim with respect to Hinduism. If so, what does the appeal to God actually tell us?

Joe P, Certainly God comes to the Hindu as s/he does for all who call. Yet we can say there is a special face of God in Jesus which keeps us bonded. While we rejoice and are thankful for Jesus we do not presume that God will not come to others as Jesus himself told us.

Joe --It seems to me that that the presence of God Christians (anonymous and otherwise) IS the Church. The Church isn't some ethereal thing "subsisting" out there in some spiritual dimension as if it had reality apart from the lives of God and Christians here and now. and I don't doubt He is present in many Hindus and others as well.So what is special about the Catholic Church? I don't doubt that there are different degrees of presence and different *kinds* of presence. (Think of the Hindu story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant). And I suspect the uniqeness of the Church has something to do with kinds of presence, and that these kinds of presence are at least partly matters of different kinds of grace (whatever "grace"means :-).Yes, that is all highly abstract, but that doesn't imply it means something unreal.Complexity, complexity

Always get suspicious when someone starts throwing around dogmas and using that to judge the degrees, presence, realness, or whatever of their fellow pilgrim on the journey of faith.Realize that both of these writers are trying to express complex concepts but am reminded of the usual argument about "cafeterian catholics" - in reality, we are all cafeteria catholics; each in his/her own way - whether that is EWTN, Alliance for the Common Good, Archbishop Burke or retired Bishop Gumbleton.Who decides what dogma; the expression of certain dogmas evolve/change; some dogmas (if we are truly honest) don't stand up to the scrutiny and understanding that we have attained currently. What exactly do dogmas have to do with our journey of faith? with the communal sacraments of faith?I will stick with the old Irish writer's statement about catholicism - "Here comes everyone!" And the expression of catholic faith (small "c") by the various writers and fellow members on our communal pilgrimage - e.g. Tim Unsworth, Graham Greene, Frank McCourt, Flannery O'Connor; the list could go on and on.

Bill and Ann: I fear I have been very unclear in my appeal to Hinduism. I do not doubt that Hinduism is a response to the ultimate reality that Christians call God, and so that God is also present to Hindus. What I was responding to was Joseph Gannon's suggestion that God was responsible for the longevity of the Christian Church. I am inclined to chalk that up to cultural and institutional inertia, coupled with a significant insulation from serious questions. This is not at all to say that there is not much of great beauty and goodness in Christians. I think they (we, if they will have me) have much to offer the world, still.

Anyone engaged in a traditional practice that is oriented toward some divinity, quasi-divinity or supposed divinity may well attribute the longevity and continued well being of that practice among its practitioners to the power of that divinity, quasi-divinity or supposed divinity. This claim is not of itself likely to win over outsiders or be found probative by them.I was not suggesting that the longevity of Christianity proves its divine origin, but only that the committed Christian will be likely to believe that her/his faith and the church from its beginnings and even now is both a gracious and an efficacious gift of God and, in my view as a Christian, would do so rightly. This is not to rule out other factors open to investigation by history and the social sciences.