Toward the Cave or Toward the Temple
Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby marks the coming of aggressive-atheist season. (For some, of course, every season is aggressive atheist season.)
This year, the [American Humanist Association] is taking a more combative tone. It is spending $200,000 to “directly challenge biblical morality’” in advertisements appearing on network and cable TV, as well as in newspapers, magazines, and on public transit. The ads juxtapose violent or otherwise unpleasant passages from the Bible (or the Koran) with “humanist” quotations from prominent atheists.
As Jacoby suggests, this is more marketing pitch than statement of objective truth; it’s easy to sort through thousands of years of text and cherry pick quotations. It certainly would not be difficult to juxtapose horrifying statements of twentieth century atheists with charitable and life-affirming quotations of their religious contemporaries. More interesting is Jacoby’s response:
In our culture, even the most passionate atheist cannot help having been influenced by the Judeo-Christian worldview that shaped Western civilization. “We know that you can be good without God,” Speckhardt tells CNN.
He can be confident of that only because he lives in a society so steeped in Judeo-Christian values that he takes those values for granted. But a society bereft of that religious heritage is one not even Speckhardt would want to live in.
Related thoughts came to mind, this morning, in response to the Gospel reading in today’s Catholic Mass. Here’s Luke 21:7-19:
Then they asked him, “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?” He answered, “See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’ Do not follow them! When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.
“Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimony. Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
The homilist at my church focused on the danger of building a theology predominantly on the eschatological passages of scripture — which can lend an undue urgency to explicit shows of piety, conspicuously coinciding with the very specific beliefs of the person urging them. Another difficulty with Luke 21 that the priest did not take up, but that would have fit well with his teaching, is the fact that early followers of Jesus thought the events that He described were imminent.
With two millennia of retrospect, we can see that they clearly were not. But we can also see the difficulty that Jesus faced in answering the question that was posed to Him. He had just pointed out the superior contribution of an old widow who had given, from her poverty, to the temple treasury as compared with the larger funds donated by the rich. He then noted that the opulence of the temple was transitory: “the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone.” That is when His followers asked how they would know that the time had come.
What Jesus sets about explaining, it seems to me, is not the itinerary of the end of the world, but the fact that the world’s end is written into the world’s progress, with layers of abstraction and metaphysical notions for which our ancestors had had no preparation. “Many will come in my name,” He says, urging His disciples not to follow them, even though “wars and insurrections,” “earthquakes, famines, and plagues,” and “awesome sights and mighty signs” will give weight and urgency to their exhortations. Looking at history, from our current perspective, such events seem too typically the way of the world to be a unique list of markers of armageddon. In that light, disciples of Christ should focus on the example — the testimony — that they set despite it all.
“Heaven and earth will pass away,” but the immortal God — and our immortal souls — will not. And salvation will come not by throwing large sums into the coffers of a stone temple, but through faith and the behavior that faith begets.
Thus has the West become a society in which atheists can take for granted that morality requires no higher principle than that which cold reason can provide. And thus do we continue to have the opportunity to testify that the physical world is not self-contained and that morality that derives wholly therefrom will only lead us back toward the dank cave rather than the spiritual temple toward which we should be striving.