Our Humanity, Naturally

A club for humanists

Is this how they defend Christian theology today?

Nice try, but theological and rhetorical gymnastics fail

How can you not love James Carroll? His book, "House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power," is a masterpiece, a work that every American should take the time to read. An in-depth examination of the Pentagon, the defense establishment, and American militarism, "House of War" is the kind of truth-to-power work that we want from our public intellectuals. As a secular humanist, I don't often find myself exalting Catholic writers, but as a regular reader of Carroll's column in the Boston Globe I have been admiring his work for years. Together with John Cornwell, author of "Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII," Carroll ranks among modern Catholic authors most likely to be admired by the humanist community.

So long as Carroll is writing about politics, government, militarism, or war and peace - pretty much anything other than religion - he is a compelling author with a strong moral voice. When he lectures us on theology, however, the former priest reveals himself as no shepherd, but a lost lamb. His column today in the Boston Globe is a case in point.

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The polite thing to say, as one who agrees with Carroll's politics and genuinely admires the man as an intellectual, would be that he seems to make a sophisticated argument for understanding Jesus and the resurrection myth in a new light. As a humanist I may disagree with Carroll, but kudos to him for offering us all his deep theological insight.

There's a problem with such politeness, however. If one really considers what Carroll is saying, it's hard to distinguish it from rambling psychobabble, and no such gentle niceties would be expected if he were talking about any subject other than religion.

Consider what Carroll is saying, and the utter irrationality of it. In the first two paragraphs, he tells us that if there were scientific proof that the resurrection of Jesus did not occur (cameras showing that his corpse decayed in the days after his death and did not arise, that he did not appear to his followers after his crucifixion, and that he did not ascend into heaven), such proof would mean absolutely nothing. Carroll tells us that it is a "fallacy" to think that empirical evidence should even enter into the analysis, that such thinking just shows that one is being "sidetracked into questions of 'scientific' or 'historical' proof."

Sidetracked? Sidetracked by questions of truth?

Carroll continues by telling us that "the simple truth (is) that the resurrection was not resuscitation." In other words, he seems to be saying, it didn't really happen, and you are quite a knucklehead if you thought otherwise.

Carroll then tells us what Paul of Tarsus really meant when claiming that Jesus appeared to him and others: "Revived cadavers are irrelevant. No, Paul is declaring that believers were enabled all at once to grasp that the abandoned Jesus was ultimately exalted by the one he called Father. That is what believers saw."

In other words, when they "saw" Jesus they really just "grasped" something about him, they understood that in some way (we're still not sure exactly how) Jesus was "exalted." But apparently there was no body, no bodily apparitions, no resuscitation, and no cadavers. In fact, perhaps nothing actually happened.

Somehow, even though it's hard to really make sense of this, even though we really can't understand what Carroll is saying (though I'm sure his defenders will tell me that Carroll's analysis is abundantly clear to anyone of marginal intelligence, and that I am just stubbornly refusing to see the clarity of his explanations), with the death of the Nazarene "the human story is transformed" and "human destiny is not nothingness, but meaning."

Carroll goes on: "Thus, the resurrection of Jesus was not the suspension of the laws of nature, but the fulfillment of them - a personal event without being physiological, a real happening without being 'historical.'" 

Forget everything you learned in Sunday school, because Carroll tells us this about the resurrection and the real message conveyed by Jesus: "To be fully alive is to be aware of being held here and now in what does not die, and in what does not drop what it holds. God. Resurrection is the word Christians have for this awareness." Thus, after 2000 years of Christian history, Carroll informs us that the "resurrection," which of course is the central event in Christianity, is to be understood as "awareness."

Speaking of awareness, I am well aware that Carroll, though Catholic, has friends who are atheists and secular humanists. Howard Zinn, for example, one of Boston's most cherished and beloved public intellectuals, who once told me unambiguously that he is a nonbeliever who expects religion to fade, was a good friend of Carroll's. In reading this Carroll column, I found myself wishing Howard were around so that I could ask him what he thinks of it. Being a heck of a nice guy, Howard would probably smile, chuckle, and try to say something nice in defense of his friend Carroll.

As a humanist who does truly take religion seriously, however, I don't think it's right to let Carroll slide. I have tried to make sense of what he's written, and I cannot. Is this an intellectual shortcoming on my part (or perhaps a religious shortcoming), or is it, as I allege, a shortcoming on the part of his theological gymnastics? One must wonder whether Carroll is perhaps at heart a religious skeptic with an intellectual or psychological need to publicly rationalize his desperate attempts to have faith, because his grasping for theological validation cannot be otherwise explained.

Moreover, and importantly, by attempting to publicly give credibility to the same underlying theology relied upon by the Religious Right (even if a wholly different interpretation of that theology), Carroll should realize that, to some degree at least, he legitimizes the fundamentalist, right-wing Christian agenda as well. He gives the theology a facade of respectability. Of course, if Carroll could actual provide new insight and credibility to any theology, Christian or otherwise, perhaps his efforts would be justified, but a serious examination of his rambling suggests otherwise.

I'm aware that some will say that Carroll is simply talking about faith, that facts yield to faith in matters of religion. This, however, would be a flawed argument, whether made by Carroll or his defenders. Faith is a willingness to believe without proof, and one could argue that in some instances we need to believe things without proof. But Carroll may be suggesting that we go even further, that faith would be admirable even if there is affirmative disproof of a notion (i.e., undeniable proof that there was no resurrection or ascension). Would that truly be faith, however, or would another word be more appropriate?

Of course, if Carroll wants to believe any religion, if he wants to attach himself to any church, then that's fine. He has no need to justify his faith to us. After all, life is difficult and one's religious beliefs are personal, and it is nobody else's business if one finds comfort in a certain religious outlook. But if Carroll is going to publicly "explain" an ancient theology to us, to tell us the "right" way to understand it, to show us that there is some angle that we hadn't previously considered, then we can expect him to make sense.

Carroll does not make sense, but only provides evidence that even the brightest Christians struggle to rationally explain their theology.

Pre-order Dave's new book, Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, here.

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Text copyright 2011 Dave Niose

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dave Niose is an attorney, activist, and writer. He is president of the Washington-based American Humanist Association.

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