I know the truth, and you don’t. I’m right and you’re wrong. This implicit assertion underlies nearly everything going wrong in our politics today, as well as most other fields that have become polarized and, thus, politicized. Liberals think conservatives are evil. Conservatives think liberals are naïve. Each camp believes it knows what’s up, and the other is simply wrong. This is, at its root, a religious stance, which is why it’s so destructive. This didn’t occur to me until I listened to a sermon recently, given by Bill Keller back in the 20th century — remember it? — at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. Keller’s an amazing man. In a little more than half an hour, he can give you an overview of Western intellectual history and then pick it apart and explain how certain currents of thought are taking an abrupt turn for many, many people in this new century. In this sermon, which he gave back in 1999, he clearly explains, for me, what is wrong about religion, and why the only cure for it is the uncertain humility of genuine faith.
Faith is an escape from religion? Well, that’s his thesis. He’s brutal on religion, which is ironic, if not encouragingly funny, coming from a man who asks his assembly to pray at the end of his talk. In “Losing My Religion” he says that Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche articulated a three-part attack on religion from which it shouldn’t ever recover. Nothing the current atheists have to say on the matter surmounts their critique. The three clearly showed how religion is a cover for an exercise of power that includes those who believe and excludes those who don’t. “I know the truth, and you don’t,” is its motto. Freud said religion is a way of placating an angry God without ever changing your behavior. At the end of the Godfather, the mobsters pray in church as their henchmen kill competitors out on the streets. Marx said religion was a painkiller administered to the masses to perpetuate the control of a powerful minority. And Nietzsche offered a similar critique that survives today in postmodern thought. Like Marx, he believed religion is simply one way that the powerful impose their version of truth on others and maintain their power through the arbitrary imposition of belief. He clearly said what all of them implied, that it is an expression of the will to power in human society. This German philosopher also added that no set of truths can ever be absolute. Nothing is good and evil except that thinking makes it so, as Hamlet suggested — and values will be defined as whatever helps the powerful stay in power.
This worked just fine for intellectuals throughout most of the 20th century who maintained that religion is for dummies and that you should check your brain at the door of the church. Religion was widely viewed as a political force that dumbs us down into obedient sheep. But since the 90s, Keller says, people have been waking up to the need for faith. He cites a manuscript he received, without naming its author or the book’s title: “It’s by a journalist who has written for Rolling Stone and Harper’s and the Atlantic and she lives in the Hamptons. She says the only way to describe a new phenomenon she has observed is to coin a new phrase: spiritual agnostics. We have regarded religion as belief in unbelievable things. Our trusted tools of intellect and learning have deconstructed religious belief. But we’re finding that we have inexplicable feelings. We wonder: Is this true? Is this all there is? I have tried to muffle this question in all the accustomed ways all my life: love, achievement, stuff, and therapy. I tried to muffle it by writing two books on science. By middle age, I have wearily recognized that religion is the only road I have not taken in pursuit of the answer. We hate religion but we’re haunted by faith.”
Keller’s astute conclusion is that we need to pay attention to Jesus who, at every step, was opposed to religion but was preaching the mystery of faith. We can’t own the truth. No particular tribe has a patent on it. It hovers somewhere out there in the middle, between all the oppositions that bedevil our societies right now. Doctrine and ideology and demonization of those who are excluded from the flock — be it religious, political, intellectual, behavioral — is unacceptable.
And, sorry Nietzsche, but the truth isn’t simply culturally determined and whatever people decide they want it to be, Keller suggested. He tells the story of a woman who believed in the relative basis of moral codes until she saw sexual slavery in Africa. She went to government officials who said, “Don’t impose your Western values on our culture. What’s wrong in your eyes simply isn’t wrong here.” She knew it was evil in any culture. Yet the government of that country used postmodernism’s assertion of relativism as the ultimate justification for that government’s power.
They were saying, “We can do whatever we want. Truth is whatever our culture decides it is.” In other words they were using the argument against religious absolutism as another form of religion they had created, ad hoc, on their own. It boiled down to: we are right, and you are wrong. And thus began, for this woman, a search for another basis for moral judgment, and that search can lead to the intellectual humility of a faith in something absolute which is beyond our partisanship. It isn’t something you can own or employ to oppose or control others. To me that sense of faith points towards the good. It happens most often with one’s ability to subjugate one’s own self, diminishing one’s ego and focusing on “the other.” It means genuine love for others and a faith in the ultimate source of this compassion.