Strange Bedfellows, Theology and Literature

April 13, 2009

Oh, I’m sorry, were you expecting something about beer? Sorry to have disappointed you. If it makes you feel better, you can imagine that I got tighter than a Catholic schoolgirl’s, ah, morals shortly before I wrote this. Which may or may not be pretty damned close to the truth.

As you may have read in a note I wrote to one of my fellow classmates, I just finished for the bazillionth time a book called American Gods by a man named Neil Gaiman. The book talks about a great many things, but chief among them is the notion that America is in the middle of a war between the gods of old — the Norse gods, pagan gods of any shape or color you could imagine, Christian deities, what have you — and the gods of artifice and practicality that Americans have created, like television, the Internet, the telephone, and so on. There is only room for one of these groups, Gaiman suggests, and our belief in them give them power. Mortals will not be involved in the war (aside from the main character, of course) in any aspect other than the power they lend to the combatants.

This is a sort of modification on Marion Zimmer Bradley’s take on religion in The Mists of Avalon. What people believe manifests in Avalon, Bradley’s conception of Mount Olympus. Before the beginning of the novel, people used to believe in all sorts of things. Not many people believed that there was only one God, and so all the gods lived peacefully together. Then Christianity came to England, and people started to believe that there was only one God. On Avalon, all the other gods started to disappear as Christian missionaries spread the Word of God. The gods of old were dying and being replaced by God. Soon God would be the only thing left on Avalon.

I like this idea of abstractions only having power because we lend it to them. That way when people moralize about this or that or espouse their faith-based virtues, I’m not scared to laugh it off. I think many are. I think a lot of people are afraid of offending Christians who speak about their faith and its social applications. After all, Christianity carries with it the weight of all Christians — and there are some pretty important Christians out there. Christianity is an Important Idea, and you’re just one little person. How could you stand up against them?

I’ll put it to you this way. Say a Christian came at you and said, “Nothing is more glorious than the love of God.” Sure, you think, maybe I don’t agree, but I’m not going to stand up to such an Important Idea. It’s too messy. Well, friend, you’ve just given that idea more power, which is the very last thing that Christianity needs. Would you rest silent if someone said to you, “Nothing is more glorious than the power of Bill Clinton”? Of course not (though maybe, if you think Politics is an Important Idea).

I don’t mean to pick on religion here, because this notion applies to other areas as well. Democracy is an Important Idea, as are fidelity, temperance, patriotism, moderation (hic), charity, selflessness, and so on. These ideas only have power because people believe in them, often blindly. Blind faith or not, people tend to amass in rather large armies around these ideas and others, ready to fight en masse against anyone who would stand against them. But at the moment at which you realize that the idea is only important because of the number of people who believe in it, those crowds start looking like collections of mannequins.

The point is this: don’t be afraid to debate ideas, no matter how important they are. Ideas are silly little constructs that may (or may not) run contrary to your interests. If they do, debate them. Debtate taxation to the bitter end, if that’s your thing. Debate the need for change in American politics. Debate the immorality of homosexuality. Debate anything. And if you can show me an idea that’s too big to be debated, I’ll show you a gigantic crowd of scarecrows.

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4 Responses to “Strange Bedfellows, Theology and Literature”

  1. Notelrac said

    I’m curious as to how you distinguish between ideas that are worthy of debate, and those that are not. On the “don’t be afraid to debate” category, you seem to put:
    * taxation
    * need for political change in America
    * immorality of homosexuality

    On the “too big to be debated” category, you seem to put:
    * at what age it is appropriate to marry
    * whether apartheid is justifiable
    * another theme I won’t describe lest someone invoke Godwin’s Law on this discussion, too

    Here are some other ideas which would tend to be horrific to contemporary liberal college sophomoric thinkers, yet have been espoused throughout history. What is the abstract principle that you will use to determine whether these ideas are “silly little constructs” or are worthy of debate? (And if you or someone else makes a straw man or ad hominem attack against me for this list, I’m going to laugh and laugh and laugh…)

    * Is marrying your brother’s widow mandatory or forbidden?
    * Clitoridectomy in African cultures
    * Foot binding in Chinese cultures
    * Ritual cannibalism in Catholic culture
    * not-so-ritual anthropophagy
    * Polyandry and polygyny
    * whether the pater familias should have
    vitae necisque potestas”
    * Euthanasia, whether doctor-assisted or not
    * anti-feminism, specifically the belief that women should not stay home, cook, clean, raise children, and not enter the workforce for pay
    * is unilateral nuclear disarmament moral or immoral, if the alternative is mutually assured destruction leading to nuclear winter
    * mandatory military service for 18 year old children

    • thebeerphilosopher said

      No no no… you’re missing something very important here: “I’m curious as to how you distinguish between ideas that are worthy of debate, and those that are not. On the “don’t be afraid to debate” category, you seem to put:
      * taxation
      * need for political change in America
      * immorality of homosexuality

      On the “too big to be debated” category, you seem to put:
      * at what age it is appropriate to marry
      * whether apartheid is justifiable
      * another theme I won’t describe lest someone invoke Godwin’s Law on this discussion, too”

      The first three you listed there are open for debate, certainly. The last three you listed are ALSO open for debate. Everything is open for debate, because ALL Important Ideas (as I’ve called them) are constructs. My comment on the other post was designed to keep the original author from weakening his stance in the debate by following your instructions.

      You misquoted me on the “too big to be debated” item. My point was that most people consider certain things too big to be debated, when in fact no idea is too big — its bigness, as it were, is mere function of the number and type of people who believe in that idea.

      And before you run off and assume that we “contemporary liberal college sophomoric thinkers” (I happen to be a 26-year old conservative, myself) are going to launch into ad hominem attacks, let me make one thing clear: if we do engage in such behavior, laugh all you want. But most of us are students trying to learn the ropes of honest debate. Lording your intellect over us will not help us to learn.

      Now, the issue at hand: I think I’ve already explained that ALL issues are worthy of debate, because all ideas are, as I said, silly little constructs. So to answer the question implied in each bullet point you listed, yes, all of them are worthy of debate, and none are too big for debate. The question is not whether we should debate these things: if they run contrary to our interests, we should. It is a question, rather, of having the cojones to eschew this fear of an idea being too big to debate (or of you being to little to debate it).

      Now a question for you, Notelrac. I asked it of you before, and I’ll restate it now: why do you believe that outrage must be qualified?

      (Edited: typo)

      • Notelrac said

        I don’t necessarily agree that “outrage must be qualified.” But the outrage-ee should be aware of from what social conditioning their outrage arises. As a 26 year old conservative in America, you are not outraged by Vermont’s vote on same-sex marriage and are outraged by customs in other countries. But had you been born and raised in Saudi Arabia, I imagine you would not feel outraged over of customs such as marrying a child or a prohibition on women driving, and be outraged at legal approval of homosexuality.

        Yet, I do feel that there are some activities that should be condemned. But they are rooted in violations of Phusis, and not of Nomos. For example:

        * genocide, because it terminates the lives of others for no just reason other than belonging to a class
        * genital mutilation (whether clitoridectomy or circumcision) when applied to infants, because it permanently alters their physical being without their informed consent. (If someone wants to do this as an adult, however, I would not be outraged, just nonplussed. But then, I don’t understand body piercings nowadays, either.)

      • thebeerphilosopher said

        “But had you been born and raised in Saudi Arabia, I imagine you would not feel outraged over of customs such as marrying a child or a prohibition on women driving, and be outraged at legal approval of homosexuality.”

        See, this is where I see a fallacy. I reject as false the premise that if I was a Saudi I would find these kinds of things acceptable. You assume that EVERY Saudi believes this way, when in fact there is a certain percentage of Saudi politicians (as these things go) who are progressive. Why would I not be one of them? Even in the case of the little girl, not everyone believes that this situation is just. If it was universally just to Saudis, it wouldn’t have ended up in court, after all. Why wouldn’t I be a member of that opposition?

        “* genital mutilation (whether clitoridectomy or circumcision) when applied to infants, because it permanently alters their physical being without their informed consent. (If someone wants to do this as an adult, however, I would not be outraged, just nonplussed. But then, I don’t understand body piercings nowadays, either.)”

        But wait. If it is culturally acceptable for such things to occur, doesn’t genital mutilation fall under the category of Normos? In this case, I don’t see how genital mutilation is a case of Phusis, but human trafficking (because that’s what selling little girls is) is a case of Normos.

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