Andrew has a fairly careful and modest essay at the Times on the progress of religious faith in the face of scientific progress. The issue of whether faith should gird us to not fear scientific truth is an intriguing one; the Holocaust was scientifically true, after all, meaning the facts could not speak, as Weber would insist they must not, to the question of their values. The scientific truth is that facts persist quite ‘happily’ after nihilism. But I concede that Andrew, among many others, recognizes the point to be that paleontologists are not on a moral or cultural par with genocidists. And that point I also concede.

As is typical, I’m more interested in what arguments remain after the ‘technological problem’ is bracketed — not because technology isn’t a problem, but because solving that problem doesn’t solve our problem, we humans. Andrew’s argument is very Constantian. Benjamin Constant’s lifelong project was a sprawling, never-finished opus on religion. He claimed that freedom of religion would produce a sort of Lockean-Nozickian utopia , in which open competition for adherents would eventually produce . . . well, take it away, Andrew:

From primitive animists to the legends of the first gods, battling like irrational cloud-inhabiting humans over the cosmos, Wright tells the story of how war and trade, technology and human interaction slowly exposed humans to the gods of others. How this awareness led to the Jewish innovation of a hidden and universal God, how the cosmopolitan early Christians, in order to market their doctrines more successfully, universalised and sanitised this Jewish God in turn, and how Islam equally included a civilising universalism despite its doctrinal rigidity and founding violence.

Fundamentalism, in this reading, is a kind of repetitive neurotic interlude in the evolution of religion towards more benign and global forms. It’s not a linear process — misunderstanding, violence, stupidity, pride and anger will always propel human beings backwards just when they seem on the verge of progress. Greater proximity has often meant greater hatred — as one god has marshalled earthly forces against another. But in the very, very long run, as human beings have realised that religion is nothing if not true and that truth can be grasped or sought in many different ways, doctrines have evolved. Through science and travel, conversation and scholarship, interpretation and mysticism — our faiths have adapted throughout history, like finches on Darwin’s islands.

So Darwin, spiritualized, affords faithful liberals a comforting telos. Yale political theorist Bryan Garsten is currently at work on this question of a ‘darwinian telos’ as the ultimate in liberal faith:
Constant’s historical research on ancient polytheism serves to bolster his argument that the truest or purest form of religion can be found in a certain private sense of the sublime, a feeling for the infinite. I suggest that understanding religion as private sentiment is a way of making it compatible with representative government, and therefore that Constant’s romantic sentimentalism is more closely tied to his defense of liberalism than has previously been recognized.

Anyone reading closely these days can recognize at once the flashing lights I have mounted atop the entire second half of the first sentence. A sense of the sublime! A feeling for the infinite ! The bad news that Rorty never realized his debt to Constant makes for good news that another passable conference paper is yet to be written. Darwin, as Nietzsche warned, does not teach a telos of the flesh. Nature red in tooth and claw does not a master race create. Darwin was wrong , Nietzsche taught, that the fittest survive — unless ‘to be fit’ means, tautologically, merely ‘to survive’. Against this Nietzsche put Napoleon as an exemplar of the real truth — that genius by nature squanders, everything, including most of all itself. Well, one type of genius, anyway: the one that longs to experience eternity — in Nietzsche’s idiom, the “eternal recurrence of the same,” the “eternal ‘That’s me!’.” But the other type of genius longs to experience infinity — deathlessness instead of life after death, Egypt and China instead of Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem. Nietzsche was wrong that Homer vs. Plato was the final, the complete antagonism: they were both ‘eternalists’. The hopeful spiritualization of Darwin into a doctrine that the true will out because it must be good points us to the democratic faith in infinity preached by Whitman, Rorty, and perhaps Constant — a faith that no matter how expert and powerful our scientists of deathless infinity become, we will never fall prey, in our creative diversity, to the twin sourges of boredom and lies.

The democratic faith in the infinite seeks to overcome the real opposition looming behind that of ‘reason and revelation’, of Plato and Homer; in the line of Constant, Whitman, and Rorty, we deny that we must choose between — well, Europe and Asia , philosophically speaking. It is no surprise at this level of abstraction that the Asia defined by Egypt’s infinite priesthood and China’s infinite bureaucracy was also the Asia defined by Dionysus — and no surprise that Nietzsche, seeking to overcome even Homer, led himself so badly astray out of the eternal and into the dazzling orgiastic Infinite . But in infinity, as the half-Asiatic Greek gods revealed, boredom is inescapable. The Egyptians were monumentally bored. And the ‘Chinese’ lie, studied religiously by Borges as the proposition that in a library of infinite statements no statement is a lie , does little, as the sinophobic Constant should have known, to free us from the Egyptian yoke. Only Moses, prophet of the less hidden than eternal God, could do that. Deliverance is not to be found in the endless diversions of the garden of forking paths but in the singular Exodus through the desert.

Articles by James Poulos


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