Two Books of a Different Kind

It being Father’s Day, I got breakfast in bed—and my very first Father’s Day card. sniffle I also got a few minutes to explain why I was so disappointed by two books I’d been reading, so here goes.

The first of the pair is Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. A former nun who renounced her vows upon discovering that her own church wouldn’t take her seriously because of her gender, Armstrong’s A History of God and The Battle for God were my introduction to the history of religious thought. Since then, she has written semi-popular introductions to Islam and Buddhism, and spoken frequently and passionately about the need for mutual understanding and respect between different faiths.

In The Great Transformation, though, she lets her passion cloud her scholarship. The book’s central thesis is that the four great “religious” traditions that emerged during the so-called Axial Age in the first millenium BCE—Judaic monotheism, Hinduism (and its Buddhist offshoot), the Daoist and Confucian traditions of China, and Greek philosophy—were all struggling toward the realization that compassion for others is the foundation of moral behavior. I personally believe that, but Armstrong has to bend a lot of literature out of shape to make her case, particularly for the Greeks. She repeatedly cites what fits her thesis, and dismisses or reinterprets what doesn’t. In a way, it reminded me of the Marxists I knew in my twenties, who were sure they understood the shape of history, and could spin a “just so” story to fit anything that happened into their framework.

I was also disappointed that Armstrong let her disillusionment with her former faith get in the way of fair play: after whole chapters on contending schools of Chinese thought, I think Jesus deserves more than a one-page summation as a Jewish faith healer who never intended to found a new religion. And while the failure of Christians to live up to their founder’s ideals is clearly never far from Armstrong’s mind, she seems to be a lot more forgiving about the iniquities of India’s caste system.

Marilynne Robinson’s The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought was an even greater disappointment, in part because she writes so beautifully. Her novel Housekeeping is set in modern times, but looks back stylistically to a time when people weren’t self-conscious about writing well. This collection of essays is also backward-looking in spirit, as evidenced by passages like this one from its introduction:

It seems to me that there is now the assumption of an intrinsic fraudulence in the old arts of civilization. Religion, politics, philosophy, music are all seen by us as means of consolidating the power of a ruling elite, or something of the kind. I suspect this is a way of granting these things significance, since we are still in the habit of attending to them, though they are no longer to be conceded meaning in their own terms. If they have, by their nature, other motives than the ones they claim, if their impulse is not to explore or confide or question but only to manipulate, they cannot speak to us about meaning, or expand or refine our sense of human experience. Economics, the great model among us now, indulges and deprives, builds and abandons, threatens and promises. Its imperium is manifest, irrefragable---as in fact it has been since antiquity. Yet suddenly we act as if the reality of economics were reality itself, the one Truth to which everything must refer. I can only suggest that terror at complexity has driven us back on this very crude monism. We have reached a point where cosmology permits us to say that everything might in fact be made of nothing, so we cling desperately to the idea that something is real and necessary, and we have chosen, oddly enough, competition and market forces, taking refuge from the wild epic of cosmic ontogeny by hiding our head in a ledger.

I grinned at “hiding our head in a ledger.” My grin became a look of studious concentration as she segued into a defense of John Calvin, who, she claims, has been unfairly misrepresented by later scholars. OK, I’m lying about the studious concentration, but I was still with her, since I thought her defense of Calvin was an extended example of why we need to refer to primary sources.

But then her defense of Calvin morphed into one of Jefferson, who, she points out, did attack slavery in the first draft of the Constitution. I’ll grant her claim that Jefferson was an honorable man; what I won’t stomach, though, is her subsequent diatribe against people who point out the hypocrisy of his continuing to own slaves himself. She asks, “How are we to read someone capable of such gross blindness and hypocrisy as Jefferson must have been? With hostility or condescension, or not at all. More precisely, still not reading him, we will now regard him with ill-informed condescension rather than with our traditional ill-informed respect.”

Well, no. I can believe that someone was both great and flawed. I can recognize that the American republic was a monumental achievement, while understanding that it was an incomplete revolution. And I can be disappointed—deeply disappointed—when someone of Robinson’s obvious intelligence launches an ill-informed, one-sided attack on a strawman version of Darwinism, as she does in this book. Blaming Charles D. in particular, or science in general, for the things people have justified as “survival of the fittest” is about as fair as blaming the excesses of the Inquisition on St. Francis.

I think that failure to come to terms with contradictions such as these is a better way of explaining the fault lines in modern thought than traditional notions of left and right. There are those who believe that because modern society is crass and self-destructive, it cannot be an advance on what came before, and others who believe that because our way of life has given so many people real freedom for the first time in history, it isn’t shallow or exploitive, and both are wrong. We are closer today than we ever have been to living up to the ideals of the thinkers Armstrong wrote about; we are also doing more harm to ourselves and our planet than was ever previously possible. Personally, I believe the future belongs to those who are willing to accept this, not to those who choose to hide their heads in last century’s battles.

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