“When you say ‘hill,’” the Queen interrupted, “I could show you hills, in comparison with which you’d call that a valley.”
“No, I shouldn’t,” said Alice, surprised into contradicting her at last: “a hill can’t be a valley, you know. That would be nonsense—”
The Red Queen shook her head. “You may call it nonsense if you like,” she said, “but I’ve heard nonsense, compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary!”
- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
Last year a national committee of Presbyterians composed a statement on sexuality called “Keeping Body and Soul Together.” The document evidenced characteristics increasingly distinctive of the productions of American church bureaucracies: a cute journalistic title, a manifesto-like rhetorical swagger, the facile syntax of Psychology Today, and a predictable exhortation to Do What Thou Wouldst, caringly. It was rejected in the General Assembly by a vote of 534 to 31.
The resounding No given to “Keeping Body and Soul Together” is emblematic of a crisis affecting American religion as a whole: the profound and widening gap between ordinary churchgoers and the administrative nomenklatura which, largely through the oblique pressure of committee and caucus, has either gained control of the church executive or enfeebled those it doesn’t control. This division is not (as yet) a rift between people and pastors; considering the number of highly publicized instances of grave scandal on the part of prominent clergy, the trust still extended by the laity to their ministers is astonishing. The suspicion and despair felt by those in the pew is directed, in the main, not toward those with a “cure of souls” but rather toward a new class of curial politician—or rather, toward the ecclesiastical triumphs of this class, since the individuals responsible for them are often hidden from the faithful by many layers of bureaucratic anonymity.
It has long been a commonplace of theological polemic to impugn the good will of a rival faction by attributing to it political motivations and cunning rather than genuinely religious zeal. All the more interesting, consequently, when a self-defined religious bloc claims political motives for itself. Some years ago theologian Hans Kung boasted of how many clandestine partisans he knew “at the switching points of the ecclesiastical apparatus,” and more recently there has been talk in American Catholic circles of a “party of change” that “dominates the fields of liturgy, religious education, justice and peace offices, campus ministry, Catholic higher education, much popular theology, and the discipline of theology as a whole.”
Now the fact remains indisputable that, in proportion as it has made a conquest of officialdom, the new clerisy, the “party of change” operating across the denominational map, has further repelled and alienated the overwhelming majority of churchgoers, viz., simple people who pray, who worship God. Nor is the cause hard to find, for this new clerisy is by and large contemptuous both of the beliefs of the faithful and of the tradition in which these beliefs are nurtured. Indeed, the prime effort of this detachment of the knowledge class is precisely to insulate the common man from authentic religious tradition, so as to render him more easily manipulable by conventional political pressures.
The new clerisy (in which I include both lay and ordained functionaries) defies analysis in terms of standard ecclesial boundaries; a Catholic, Lutheran, and Methodist who belong to this set are likely to have more in common with one another than each has with his own bishops or with those of his coreligionists who are not of the “party of change.” What is shared is not a set of doctrinal propositions but a culture: in this case, a culture institutionally cradled by the liberal seminaries, religion departments, and divinity schools of North America. As a consequence, what is common to all is seldom made explicit, for it is in its unreflective or unconscious operations that a culture is most profoundly unitive. Every culture protects its integrity by oblique means of discipline; every culture breeds its own skepticisms and its own credulities; every culture has peculiar bigotries and suffers certain fools gladly. To understand a society—including a society of churchmen—entails bringing to light what is hidden, making the implicit explicit, flagging those arguments which (for the insider) don’t need to be made.
It is toward this end—elucidating the culture of the new clerisy and the crisis it has provoked—that the American Academy of Religion is useful, especially the AAR on display at its Annual Meeting. For it is when the filters are off, as it were, and it can speak to its own membership in its own voice, that an institution is most revelatory of its purposes and convictions.
“For instance, now,” she went on, “there’s the King’s Messenger. He’s in prison now, being punished: and the trial doesn’t even begin until next Wednesday: and of course the crime comes last of all.”
To the uninitiated, one of the most striking features of this learned society is the discrepancy between its professed policy and its actual conduct. We are told in its statement of purpose that the AAR exists to foster a “critical awareness about the study of religion”; further, that “there are no religious conditions of membership, and the organization itself is not advocative, save for the highest standards in the teaching and study of religion.”
Now, the notion of critical scholarship is not univocal, but it seems to me that it requires, at a minimum, five procedural commitments. First, the belief that pedigree and accidents of upbringing are irrelevant to one’s eligibility to enter a scholarly conversation and one’s capacity to grasp the truths therein elicited. Second, a denial of a priori favoritism to truth claims of individual participants. Third, an understanding that the disputant is expected to test his own hypothesis more severely than those of his opponents; that is, in questionable matters, one always awards the benefit of the doubt to the adversary position. Fourth, the conviction that it is by superior argument and evidence that one defends a thesis, not in terms of intrinsic desirability. Finally, the concession that an opponent to one’s thesis is not, simply in virtue of his opposition, a scoundrel.
The addresses I heard at the AAR, including those on which I reported earlier, were by and large so partisan, so blatantly advocative, that the pretense of a critical method of discourse was seldom even plausible. Most of the participants seemed to treat the Annual Meeting as a kind of party congress, with various scholarly colloquia as sideshows to the main events. Yet even here a curious asymmetry was perceptible. On the one hand, when more traditional believing Jews and Christians spoke about their own religions, they were clearly expected to maintain the scholarly proprieties of the critical method, and for the most part they were compliant. (One speaker admitted, “I use the expressions B.C. and A.D. [in preference to B.C.E. and C.E.] and I’m proud of it!” and for his candor was hissed by the audience.) On the other hand, partisans of the new religions and opponents of the old were constrained by none of the critical commitments suggested above.
This asymmetry was clearly manifest in the discussion of “patriarchy”—one of the prime bogeys of the new clerks. The consensus—virtually unchallenged in liberal seminaries and divinity schools—has it that the special cultic authority reserved to males in Judaism and Christianity is not only a pernicious institution but one that was assumed by men, in bad faith, as a self-serving ploy to buttress political, economic, and sexual tyranny. Of course, it may be the case that there are good arguments for the truth of this claim; what is remarkable is that no speaker showed the faintest awareness that such arguments remain to be made. The “scandal of patriarchy” served not as a demonstrandum but as an axiom of discourse, with the result that the Christian hierarchy and Jewish rabbinate became simple embodiments of villainy, and contempt expressed for these institutions required no justification. I took some wry amusement from the fact that one of the controversies at the AAR concerned the propriety of using analytical reasoning in the abolition of patriarchy. The terms of debate were: “Is it right to use the Master’s tools to demolish the Master’s house?” At issue were the means to the end; the end itself was taken for granted. For these latter-day Catos, the major premise of every pertinent syllogism was delenda est patriarchia.
There is a telling historical irony in this particular indulgence of righteous indignation. The individuals currently reckoned by the new clerisy to be “patriarchs” include most of those whom traditionalist Jews, Roman Catholics, and the Christian Orthodox regard as their rightful religious authorities, and it is impossible that the antipathy directed at such authorities should not spill over into antipathy for those believers who esteem their own leadership. Moreover, the successful overthrow of patriarchy would mean nothing less, in concrete terms, than the extinction of rabbinic Judaism and the apostolic Christian churches. Thus an institution that calls itself “an inclusive learned society” and takes pride in having “no religious conditions of membership” has proven supremely tolerant of the rhetoric of belligerence employed by those sectaries who, in earlier times, were most anxious to rid the world of popery and the Elders of Zion. Because the prophets of chastisement are no longer Roundheads or Klansmen but often well-spoken scholars at Ivy League divinity schools, and because the scandal of patriarchy enjoys the status of a self-evident truth, this bigotry goes largely unremarked by its defenders. As Chesterton observed, some men believe their dogmas so strongly that they can’t recognize them as dogmas.
“Somebody killed something; that’s clear, at any rate—”
Perhaps even more striking to the newcomer than its counter-masculinism is the AAR’s preoccupation with sexuality. If this aspect of human life was too often neglected by earlier students of religion, compensation for the lack has certainly been made—and with a vengeance. Indeed, some of the addresses at the Annual Meeting were devoted so narrowly to sexual detail that they might have been read with (at least) equal appropriateness at a conference on psychotherapy or anthropology. Many speakers made no attempt to relate the subject of their papers to anything recognizable as prayer or morality or worship of God. Now it is obvious that the notion of “Religion” with which the American Academy concerns itself is a rather commodious term—virtually any area of human enthusiasm seems to qualify—and it was likewise clear that for many scholars present sexuality constituted this most fundamental enthusiasm, this ultimate ground of meaning: there is no need to make explicit one’s connection of sex with religion if, at bottom, they are one and the same thing. Once again it is crucial to notice the “dogma that doesn’t bark” in this environment: what is significant here is not that someone should connect sex with religion, or even displace one by means of the other, but that such connection or displacement should be simply assumed, should be deemed unworthy of defense or explanation. In trying to understand the cultural gap between, say, the authors of “Keeping Body and Soul Together” and the churchgoing Presbyterian, it is the unspoken equations that are most illuminating.
Why should sexuality fascinate students of religion so disproportionately to the rest of the population, both the academic community and society at large? A partial explanation can be sought in the sociology of education. Divinity schools tend to be one of the “soft underbellies” of American universities, having lower academic standards than other professional schools, and they are obliged to accept some students who (along with many highly qualified candidates) are ill prepared, intellectually and emotionally, for the tasks of graduate-level scholarship; thus, a borderline student obsessed with a particular exotic topic might find Religious Studies the only department willing to take him on. Further, since the perplexities of bedroom and bathroom have never taken a firm or enduring purchase on the first-rate minds of the Western university, there is much unexploited material here for the less fastidious investigator. Finally, the “primary evidence” for sexually oriented research often proves of abiding interest to those students discouraged in the attempt to master more formidable scholarly sources. To some extent, the AAR’s emphasis on sex stems from the fact that Toni Morrison is easier to read in the original than Tertullian. (One speaker, in the course of a paper devoted to the former author, enthusiastically assured us that “sensuality pervades throughout her work.”)
Yet I cannot rid myself of the conviction—admittedly subjective—that there is another, less innocent, motive at work in this preoccupation with sex. For want of a better term, I would call it an impulse to vandalism. The interest here displayed was overwhelmingly an interest in aberrant sexuality—evidenced not only in repeated protests against so-called “compulsory heterosexuality,” but in a macabre litany of erotic pathology: mutilation, child abuse, incest, sadomasochism, ritual castration, and so on ad nauseam. The most benevolent spectator could hardly attribute more than a fraction of these “data” to a disinterested study of religion. Surely the contempt for authoritative morality in general, and for sexual morality in particular, combined with the too-obvious relish in the details of deviant venery, cannot be a coincidence.
The vandal’s hatred is for the intact, the unstained, the integral; his delight is to chip the nose off the perfect statue, to soil the white wall with graffiti, to shatter the last unbroken window. His destruction is a record not only of malice but of conquest; as a dog is said to foul trees and lampposts as a way of marking territorial boundaries, so the vandal uglifies the yet-undefiled in order to chart the extent of his incursion into the world of order and decorum. By the same token, the ideals of sexual purity—consecrated virginity, the chaste yet fruitful marriage bed—have served as an emblem of the sacral function of Judaism and Christianity, as a redoubt of specifically human holiness: precisely the notion that the new clerisy wishes to expunge from religion. When scholars propose that the relation of nun to Church “might be re-imaged in terms of a lesbian butch-femme relationship,” or that the story of “God’s sacrificing ‘his’ son legitimizes child abuse,” we are not to imagine that their targets are chosen at random. There is an ill-concealed glee in this parading, as it were, the vivid sexual bells of Hieronymus Bosch through the ruined courtyards of Protestant academic propriety. The AAR, like the old-line divinity schools and seminaries which gave it birth, has become a playground of the Goth.
“Speak in French when you can’t remember the English for a thing—and remember who you are!”
Markedly absent from that part of its world which the new clerisy put on display at the Annual Meeting was a sympathy for, or even awareness of, the struggles and achievements of Anglo-American analytic philosophy. Whereas the French connection (Lacan, Derrida, Foucault) was continually invoked, names like Fodor, Anscombe, Quine, Dummett, or Plantinga were never in play. Alasdair MacIntyre, it is true, was the subject of three addresses, all of which were critical; the English tradition was generally viewed as a hostile force. In part this is due to the fact that the linguistic precision and logical refinement common to analytic philosophy is unsuited to more subjective or intuitionist approaches to religious phenomena; it is unlikely, for example, that the author of “An Exploration of Quilt Design as a Reasoning Process” would find a congenial mentor in Elizabeth Anscombe. Yet it is also true that clarity, univocity, and universal intelligibility are neither valued in themselves not productive of the ends to which language is put by many of the deconstructionist camp, regardless of subject matter. Ambiguity is the desideratum, and the effect, as in these excerpts from AAR abstracts, is striking:
Taylor’s metaphorical “body,” then, is an (ex)tension of the phallocentric and phallocratic technology of modern theology, now confined to a two-dimensional wordplay indifferent to the cries and joys of a richly signed wor(l)d.
In Tibetan Buddhist systems there are hints of a compatible relationship between reason and orgasmic bliss, in that developed practitioners seek to utilize the blissful and powerful mind of orgasm to realize the truth and the all-good ground of consciousness. The suggestion is that the sense of bifurcation between reason and orgasmic bliss is the result of not appreciating the basic nature of mind.
A feminist-informed, queerly placed interrogation is offered here of the representational matrices within which the stabilizing terms of gender may be opened up and overturned.
Thomas Kohler has brought to my attention the pertinent observations of Eric Voegelin on the peculiar semantic “estrangement” he met in Heidegger and that is so often found in current postmodernist writing. “We will all have the feeling [he says] as we read such texts that as far as linguistic expression is concerned, something is not in order, even if we can’t immediately put our finger on what is wrong . . . . The text transposes factual relationships of our everyday world into a linguistic medium that begins to take on an alliterative life of its own, and thus loses contact with the thing itself. Language and fact have somehow separated from one another, and thought has correspondingly become estranged from reality.” Voegelin adds that after prolonged exposure to such texts we can “whip ourselves up into a reality-withdrawing state of linguistic delirium.” It is important to stress that this linguistic delirium marks the success and not the failure of the rhetoricians who bring it to birth. As in Lewis Carroll’s Looking Glass Land, sense and nonsense here become the sole property of the powerful, bestowed according to the royal will; certainly the AAR suffers no shortage of Red Queens.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
By traditional standards of liberal scholarship the culture of the new clerisy is in nearly complete intellectual disarray. But of course it is precisely these standards that the new clerisy has disavowed. The bigotry manifest in the campaign against patriarchy flies in the face of pluralism, but what should we expect? Scholarly honor is merely one more remnant of an alien ethics that can be debunked as easily as any other. The obsession with sexual deviance is distressing to the normal religious believer, but the normal/deviant distinction is rejected a priori, and sex and religion are simply different “moments” in a rhetoric of power. Language has become detached from shared meanings, but propositional truth itself has been dismissed as a myth of the male tyrant. In short, what those outside this culture lament as degeneration, those inside commend as deconstruction.
The ascendancy of deconstructionist thought at the divinity schools and liberal seminaries, though curious enough, is not entirely unprecedented. The fascination of American ministers with a number of European thinkers (Jung and Marx are prime examples) has far exceeded the concern for religion that the authors themselves took thought to express; and the zeal with which these men were institutionalized into certain aspects of church life often surpassed efforts for accurate theoretical assessment of their writings. The religious enthusiast (whether Lollard or Marxist) frequently has an innate contempt for halfway measures and a constitutional impatience at the hesitations of the theologian. So, too, it seemed to me that Derrida and Foucault were embraced at the AAR with an alacrity not paralleled by any proportionately serious attempt to come to grips with their thought. One speaker, it is true, qualified her otherwise ringing endorsement of Foucault with the admission that “he was, after all, a white male”; yet I didn’t hear at the Annual Meeting a single citation from any text of Derrida or Foucault or Lacan—remarkable, considering how fervently the names were invoked. One can’t help recalling Bernard Levin’s quip that some people pass their entire lives under the mistaken impression that they have read Das Kapital.
For all that, the believers were true believers. To the extent that I could make it out the party line runs like this: Everything that purports to be “revelation”—that is, God’s revelation of himself to men—is at bottom fiction. The authors of the fictions have constructed them so as to serve their own political purposes, and have employed the myth of divine communication in order to impose the fictions, by terror and enticement, as normative for all: fears of sanction and hopes of reward are dangled as carrot-and-stick before the oppressed subject, who is forced into the state of false consciousness called “faith.” Emancipation takes the form of exposing the frauds of the tyrants by pointing out the political motives latent in the structures of religion earlier supposed to be “divinely ordained.” Further, members of oppressed populations are urged to invent (or rediscover) fictions of their own in which the notions of authority and obedience have been replaced by that of the lone individual as creator and bestower of value.
From a theological point of view, this enlightened religion has the awkward disadvantage of being atheist, but clearly the cavil carries little weight with adherents among the new clerks. The number of self-professed Catholics, Episcopalians, and other Christians who hold these or similar views without evident embarrassment illustrates the obvious corollary that, since all doctrines are instances of political artifice, the doctrine of God is as dispensable as any other. So too, whenever the word “heresy” was mentioned at the AAR, it was invariably preceded by the phrase “so-called”—and quite properly, given the belief that the categories of orthodoxy and heresy are equally and indifferently the malign inventions of an oppressor.
By the same token, most atheist Catholics and others of the new clerisy feel no pressure to leave the Church. In general, what they look for from a church community has so little to do with assent to propositional articles of faith that the deficiency doesn’t register (any more than it would occur to a modern Roman to abandon his city once he became convinced that Romulus never existed). Moreover, when a man believes he has “seen through the bluff” on which some institution is run, he tends not to accept the judgments of those he regards as still deluded, especially the judgment that he doesn’t belong in the institution.
Exposure of the fraud of revelation and the demotion of God from a fact to a fiction does not, in this culture, result in the antireligious rancor typical of the propositional atheists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or in the tidy, well-lit materialism of Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer. Instead, “God” has become an infinitely plastic term, and the divine attributes can be tailored according to individual appetite and whim, with the sole proviso that God cannot be a jealous God, that is, he cannot require anyone’s fealty, nor pretend to the dignity of objective independent existence: such independence brings with it the inevitable structures of authority emancipation from which is the very wellspring of the new religion.
Of course, in using the pronoun “he” of God, I have obscured the fact that divine fatherhood is one of the attributes most cheerfully dispensed with. Thus, Barbara Whitmer of the University of Toronto asked her audience at the AAR, “Is it too late to go back to the Goddess?” inviting us not so much to apostasy as to a heightened political awareness of our culture of violence. So also Anne Hunter of Drew University reminded us that “feminist theologies have thoroughly examined the all-powerful, judgmental, male God, but little has been said about the male God who is all-seeing and all-knowing.” Hunter proposed to draw out “the implications of this all-seeing male God as a deterrent to the ability of religious women to free themselves from abusive relationships with men.” Unspoken but clearly operative in these examples is the assumption that, like a body of law, one needs to drop, add, and amend one’s deities according to the changing hardships one faces. And, just as he who writes the laws governs the nation, whoever controls its rhetoric controls religion. The question that absorbs the modern student of divinity is not what is true about God in Himself, but whose hands are on the levers of power, who controls the discourse.
Perhaps it is not so paradoxical after all that those who, in church-state debate, protest the incursion of religion into politics are often the same people who work most energetically to politicize the churches. Their objection, of course, is to religious authority, to the recognition of objective and durable realities and standards of conduct, to a magisterium (however realized) beyond the grasp of democratic manipulation. The game is to free both church and state from the illusion of unchanging obligations to divine commandments or to laws of reason. “There is no ‘outside’ of politics,” announced one AAR speaker, thus formulating what I take to be the prime, crystalline kerygma of the new religion: “All relations are essentially relations of power.” The struggle is to insure that those who control the rhetoric by which power is exercised are fully enlightened individuals, those who can be relied upon to insure that correct politics will triumph. Implicit is the belief that power exists as a discrete, constant quantity, and should be redistributed among those populations, such as homosexuals and women, who have traditionally received lesser shares. Here the penetrating remarks of Elizabeth Kristol on the rhetoric of power are worth repeating. Commenting on “the disturbing necrophiliac tendencies in much of feminist history, as authors rush to embrace the very concepts they have just killed off,” Kristol observes:
The same phenomenon occurs when feminists take on language and religion, and for the same reason women recognize that these . . . realms wield the greatest political and social power, and they thereafter assume these realms confer the greatest power.
But power isn’t like a currency that can be passed from hand to hand—let alone be stolen. It is intimately linked with the creative forces that brought it into being. There is no question women’s histories are capable of being imaginative; often too much for their own good. But crocheting pasts is a far cry from creativity. What would be truly creative, at this point, is if feminist historians permitted their gazes to drift away from the “power structures” they so covet and allow them to fall on historical topics that are genuinely in need of attention and illumination. As it happens, that is a real route to power.
Like such feminists, the new clerks are political reductivists a outrance, and like such feminists, they are more intrigued by the politics of power than those of persuasion. In spite of their professing often radically democratic positions, they are rarely drawn to, or successful at, the consensus-building functions of political life, and this is true even within their respective churches. Just as in the civil domain the party of change has directed its energies more to victory in the courts than to constructing legislative majorities, so in the religious sphere it is in the growing bureaucracies that the party of change has found itself most welcome and most adept. As the North American churches have de-emphasized their pastoral and custodial responsibilities in favor of policy formation and management, the size and importance of the administrative apparatus has grown proportionally. The new clerisy has been quick to recognize and exploit the unique potentials of this intermediate level of influence—usually placed out of the reach of direct lay control, but at the same time resistant to pressures from the hierarchy. The earlier-noted list of functions “dominated” by the party of change bears repeating: “the fields of liturgy, religious education, justice and peace offices, campus ministry, higher education, much popular theology, and the discipline of theology as a whole.” Few of us would disagree.
“I know what you’re thinking about,” said Tweedledum; “but it isn’t so, nohow.”
“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”
After a sojourn among the new clerks in their native habitat (of which the AAR Annual Meeting is a prime example) the narrator finds himself in the unenviable position of Alice once she returned through the looking-glass to her family parlor. Not only are her traveling encounters exceptional, to put it mildly, but she has to admit that, for example, her implausibly Talking Egg exists on the more familiar level as a plausibly dumb cat. Objections were made to the mention in my earlier article of an address in which a speaker characterized race, class, and sexual orientation as “overarching structures of domination,” reinforced by religion, from which asylum was found in African-American quilting. Was this, after all, a contribution to be taken seriously? Perhaps not. But the same scholar, it should be noted, served as an official consultant to the U.S. Catholic bishops for their project of writing a pastoral letter on women—that fact, I suggest, might prompt some reflection, and not just among Catholics.
The Kulturkampf, the battle of “cultures in collision” for the symbols of our common life, has migrated out of the universities into most institutions, including the churches and synagogues, concerns not how one should worship but whom, where it is entrenched with particular firmness. As long as we pretend that the new clerks don’t really mean what they say, we will continue to fight the religious wars declared in the 1980s not between denominations but within them: to surrender the only essential clarity, forfeiting the father against son, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. One named I AM to “he/she might be”—and functionaries against the faithful. For the dispute ain’t logic. Nohow.
Paul V. Mankowski is a frequent contributor to First Things. In our March issue, he reported on “What I Saw at the American Academy of Religion.” This article presents his larger reflections on the meaning of what he saw.
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