Stanley Fish, a seasoned academic, writes complicated essays for the New York Times that invariably end up in the Gray Lady’s top-ten. This weeks offering (currently number 2 on the NYT hit parade) is an erudite discussion of Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith and Revolution.
Eagleton, a professor of english literature and cultural history who teaches in Ireland and England, is unimpressed with the current crop of fighting-atheist books from folks like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. That doesn’t mean the professor disagrees with these writers at every point. Consider this excerpt from the introduction to his book:
Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs. For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology. I therefore have a good deal of sympathy with its rationalist and humanist critics. But it is also the case, as this book argues, that most such critics buy their rejection of religion on the cheap. When it comes to the New Testament, at least, what they usually write off is a worthless caricature of the real thing, rooted in a degree of ignorance and prejudice to match religion’s own. It is as though one were to dismiss feminism on the basis of Clint Eastwood’s opinions of it.
Eagleton doesn’t tell us much about his personal faith, although you get the impression that he values the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. He appears to believe that religion, at its highest and best, isn’t about papal infallibility or messianic water-walking; its about the ideal we can dream but attain: love, mercy, beauty and justice.
True religion aspires to the Kingdom of God.
Stanley Fish likes Eagleton’s distinction between the true business of reason and the true business of religion. Religion is about first principles. Reason comes into play only after we have laid a foundation of a priori core belief. If everything is in flux and one proposition is valued as much as the next, reason doesn’t know where to start. Once the rules of the game have been established (core convictions about “the good”) reason helps us sort things out. Religion establishes the destination and reason helps with the journey.
If all we have is naked reason, there can be no destination.
Rationalists, as individuals, may value mercy, beauty and justice, but, apart from some religious vision, there is no compelling justification for valuing these things. One might just as easily value the culture of the Old Confederacy or the ethos of the Third Reich (and lots of people do).
On the other hand, if you want to know the way the physical world works don’t ask a theologian or a preacher–that’s not her area of expertise. Some theologians may know a lot about science–but religious revelation had nothing to do with acquiring this knowledge.
In brief, reason and religion work well together and lose their way when left to their own devices.
Justice means little apart from a vision of the kingdom of God. Leave religion out of the equation and we can keep blathering on about “justice”; but we have no earthly idea what we mean by the term. Or, to be more precise, we have no heavenly idea of what we mean, no sense of the transcendent.
He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
This is why I am disturbed when religionists celebrate their rejection of justice, mercy and humility. Are these religious people who have lost their way; or are they unwitting rationalists arguing from a non-biblical set of core values: power, retribution and domination.
Sure, you can find remnants of this power religion in the Bible. But the moral heart of the Old Testament is in the prophets and the moral heart of the New Testament resides in the words of Jesus. Here we find a consistent, self-referential moral vision that has kept western civilization from running off the rails. Other civilizations are rooted in different religious visions but the process works the same way.
When the most conspicuous religionists show the least appreciation for transcendent values like justice, mercy and humility they lay themselves open to the critique of religions cultured despisers.
Friends of Justice is a faith-based organization. We aren’t obsessed with the minutiae of doctrine and we aren’t sticklers for strict orthodoxy. But our moral vision comes from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures straight and uncut. You may reject that foundation if you wish, but it’s what keeps us moving forward.