Religion is poetry

The beauties of religion need to be saved from both the true believers and the trendy atheists, argues compelling religious scholar James Carse.

Published July 21, 2008 11:21AM (EDT)

Take a snapshot of the conflicts around the world: Sunnis vs. Shiites, Israelis vs. Palestinians, Serbs vs. Kosovars, Indians vs. Pakistanis. They seem to be driven by religious hatred. It's enough to make you wonder if the animosity would melt away if all religions were suddenly, somehow, to vanish into the ether. But James Carse doesn't see them as religious conflicts at all. To him, they are battles over rival belief systems, which may or may not have religious overtones.

Carse, who's retired from New York University (where he directed the Religious Studies Program for 30 years), is out to rescue religion from both religious fundamentalists and atheists. He worries that today's religious zealots have dragged us into a Second Age of Faith, not unlike the medieval Crusaders. But he's also critical of the new crop of atheists. "What these critics are attacking is not religion, but a hasty caricature of it," he writes in his new book, "The Religious Case Against Belief."

To Carse, religion is all about longevity; it's what unites people over the millennia. He cautions his readers against looking for more conventional explanations, like the search for transcendence or belief in an afterlife. He writes that religion's vitality is based on mystery and unknowability: "Religion in its purest form is a vast work of poetry."

Carse dismisses attempts to find some underlying unity to all religions. He says the major religions differ radically from each other. He also shrugs off 2,000 years of Christian debate over who the real Jesus was, claiming "it says nothing." He even speculates that this religious tradition, with its 2 billion followers, may be unraveling. "Christianity is losing its resonance," he writes. "Its history looks to be more a matter of decades than millennia."

Is Carse the man to save religion from its enemies and false prophets? I found him to be charming and good-humored in conversation, even as he lobbed grenades into our conventional ideas about religion.

I think the vast majority of people would say belief is at the very core of religion. How can you say religion does not involve belief?

It's an odd thing. Scholars of religion are perfectly aware that belief and religion don't perfectly overlap. It's not that they're completely indifferent to each other, but you can be religious without being a believer. And you can be a believer who's not religious. Let's say you want to know what it means to be Jewish. So you draw up a list of beliefs that you think Jews hold. You go down that list and say, "I think I believe all of these." But does that make you a Jew? Obviously not. Being Jewish is far more and far richer than agreeing to a certain list of beliefs. Now, it is the case that Christians in particular are interested in proper belief and what they call orthodoxy. However, there's a very uneven track of orthodoxy when you look at the history of Christianity. It's not at all clear what exactly one should believe.

So there's a lot of argument over which are the proper beliefs.

That's right. After the New Testament period, there was a lot of quarreling over exactly how to formulate what Jesus taught, who he was, and how to lead the Christian life. So early Christians began forming creeds. By the year 325 there was so much division among Christians about how to understand Jesus -- his work and his person -- that it was actually breaking up the Roman Empire and forcing the emperor Constantine, who was a very recent Christian convert, to call a conference in the small city of Nicea. In effect, he ordered all the bishops and leaders of the church to settle these issues once and for all. The result, the Nicene Creed, is basically a negative document. Each phrase in the creed is intended to correct or argue against some other belief. So it's a creed and a counter-creed at the same time.

It sounds like you're saying that belief doesn't need to have any religious associations. You could just as well be talking about Nazism or Maoism or Serbian nationalism.

Exactly. In fact, very passionate believers are often not at all religious. However, it does happen to be the case that people who hold on to beliefs with great passion begin to describe themselves as religious. For example, the Nazis had a kind of pseudo-religious understanding of themselves. Hitler talked about a 10,000-year Reich. That's taken right out of Christian mythology -- the kingdom of God going on forever and ever. The swastika is, after all, in the form of the cross. So Hitler was a passionate believer -- not religious but pseudo-religious -- ascribing to himself some sort of religious aura.

So what is it that holds together a belief system?

A belief system is meant to be a comprehensive network of ideas about what one thinks is absolutely real and true. Within that system, everything is adequately explained and perfectly reasonable. You know exactly how far to go with your beliefs and when to stop your thinking. A belief system is defined by an absolute authority. The authority can be a text or an institution or a person. So it's very important to understand a belief system as independent of religion. After all, Marxism and Nazism were two of the most powerful belief systems ever.

What, then, do you mean by religion?

Religion is notoriously difficult to define. Modern scholars have almost unanimously decided that there is no generalization that applies to all the great living religions. Jews don't have a priesthood. Catholics do. The prayer in one tradition is different from another. The literature and the texts are radically different from each other. So it leaves us with the question: Is there any generalization one could make about religion?

But aren't there certain core questions that religion grapples with: God or some kind of transcendent reality? Evil and the afterlife?

Well, let's talk about the five great religions: Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Hinduism is 4,000 years old. Judaism is hard to date but about 3,000 years old; Buddhism 2,600; Christianity 2,000. And Islam has been with us for 14 centuries. The striking thing is that each of them has been able, over all these centuries, to maintain their identity against all kinds of challenges. Let's say you're a Muslim and you want to know what Islam is about. So you begin your inquiries and you find that as you get deeper and deeper in your studies, the questions get larger and larger. If people come to religion authentically, they find their questions not answered but expanded.

In your book, you say the only defining characteristic of religion is its longevity. It has to be around for a very long time to qualify as a religion.

Exactly. That's a very interesting contrast with belief systems. Belief systems have virtually no longevity. Think of Marxism. As a serious political policy, it lasted only about 70 or 80 years. Nazism only went 12 years. And they were intense, complete, comprehensive, passionately held beliefs. But they ran out very quickly. The reason the great religions don't run out as quickly is that they're able to maintain within themselves a deeper sense of the mystery, of the unknowable, of the unsayable, that keeps the religion alive and guarantees its vitality.

But you've just used words that people associate with religion, like "mystery" and "the unknowable." I would add "transcendent." Don't you have to talk about these things if you're going to explain religion?

Take the term "transcendent." It's very difficult to find anything in Buddhism that resembles what Christians or Western people think of transcendence. The Buddha was not a divinity. He made it clear that he really died. He wouldn't dwell with his students forever, but turned over to them the discipline that he tried to teach them. So in Buddhism, there's really no sense of the divine or the supernatural. And the notion of transcendence in Judaism is not so large. To be a Jew is really to be an active, practicing Jew. It's a way of living a certain kind of life, not believing something. In my judgment, you can be a very good Jew and have very little sense of transcendence.

Can you be a good Jew and not believe in God?

That's a good question. A lot of my Jewish friends would say yes. Several of my Jewish colleagues at New York University were absolutely obsessed with what makes a Jew. It turns out the question is very complicated. It goes back into the Talmud. Is it ethnic or is it religious? Does it apply to one practice but not another? So it's a very difficult question to answer. As a matter of fact, you could even say that Judaism itself exists as an attempt to find out what it means to be a Jew.

You're also suggesting that there's no underlying unity that permeates all religions, that, in fact, they're totally different from each other.

I'm absolutely saying that. There have been a lot of fantasies about putting all the religions together. Mahatma Gandhi was famous for saying that all religions are, at their core, the same. But I have spent my life studying these traditions. I am a historian of religion. And the more I studied them, the more I saw that they were absolutely different.

But if the only test of a religion is its staying power, are you saying Mormonism, which has been around less than 200 years, is not a religion? Or Pentecostalism, which some religious scholars say is the most important religious movement of the last century?

Those are large questions. Will Mormonism hold out over the centuries? It's a difficult judgment. I don't have an answer for that. What I'd really like to focus on is how extremely long the great traditions are. There are other traditions that aren't that long: Sikhism, various kinds of Middle Eastern religions, mystical movements. Mormonism is an open question. You could even talk about Scientology. Does it really have staying power over the centuries? I would doubt it, but we don't know yet.

Are you religious yourself?

I would say yes, but in the sense that I am endlessly fascinated with the unknowability of what it means to be human, to exist at all. Or as Martin Heidegger asked, why is there something rather than nothing? There's no answer to that. And yet it hovers behind all of our other answers as an enduring question. For me, it puts a kind of miraculous glow on the world and my experience of the world. So in that sense, I am religious.

What about God? If God is defined as some sort of transcendent reality, do you think God exists?

[Laughs] Frankly, no. But there are so many different conceptions of God. Take, for example, the medieval Christian, Jewish and Islamic mystics. It's a very rich period from the 12th to the 15th centuries. They began to realize that in each of their traditions, it was impossible to say exactly who God was and what he wants and what he's doing. In fact, human intelligence has a certain limitation that keeps it from being able to embrace the infinite or the whole. Therefore, every one of our statements about God and the universe is tinged with a degree of ignorance. I would say that I am deeply moved by the thought of an unnameable mystery. If you then ask me, exactly which mystery are you then referring to? I can't answer. That's as far as I can go. But it's got its grip on me, for sure.

Do you engage in any kind of regular religious practice?

I have, off and on, over the years. I find certain religious liturgies very compelling, especially the Christian Eucharist, which is the celebration of Jesus' last supper with his disciples. When you begin to look into the aspects of that liturgy, there are some very strange things. For example, breaking and eating the body of God and drinking the blood of Jesus. What in heaven's name is that about? Once you begin to inquire into it, what you find are very deep echoes with ancient religious traditions. Primitive people sacrificed their gods and literally drank their blood. They would elect someone to be a god for a year or a season and would then sacrifice that person. You also have to understand the art, the music and the rich culture that surrounds these traditions. Think of Chartres, the Vatican, the Dome of the Rock, the great temple in Jerusalem, which in its day was the largest building in the world. And the music, the poetry, the great scriptural texts; it's a very rich fabric. I find myself deeply moved and endlessly reflective about it.

Given what's happening in the world right now, do you think there's a lot at stake in how we talk about religion and belief?

Absolutely. In the current, very popular attack on religion, the one thing that's left out is the sense of religion that I've been talking about. Instead, it's an attack on what's essentially a belief system.

Are you talking about atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris?

Yes. There are several problems with their approach. It has an inadequate understanding of the nature of religion. These chaps are very distinguished thinkers and scientists, very smart people, but they are not historians or scholars of religion. Therefore, it's too easy for them to pass off a quick notion of what religion is. That kind of critique also tends to set up a counter-belief system of its own. Daniel Dennett proposes his own, fairly comprehensive belief system based on evolution and psychology. From his point of view, it seems that everything can be explained. Harris and Dawkins are not quite that extreme. But that's a danger with all of them. To be an atheist, you have to be very clear about what god you're not believing in. Therefore, if you don't have a deep and well-developed understanding of God and divine reality, you can misfire on atheism very easily.

And yet, you've just told me that you yourself don't believe in a divine reality. In some ways, your critique of belief systems seems to go along with what the new atheists are saying.

The difference, though, is that I wouldn't call myself an atheist. To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe. That's a mode of being that has nothing to do with belief. So I have very little in common with them. As a matter of fact, one reason I wrote the book is that a much more compelling critique of belief systems comes not from the scientific side but from the religious side. When you look at belief systems from a religious perspective, what's exposed is how limited they are, how deeply authoritarian they are, how rationalistic and comprehensive they claim to be, but at the same time how little staying power they have with the human imagination. It's a deeper and much more incisive critique.

It's interesting that you're going after the atheists. I would have guessed that you wrote this book to criticize true believers who are religious fundamentalists.

Oh yes, I'm very concerned with belief systems. Today, the world is really being ravaged by conflicts between believers. Go to Bosnia, anywhere in the Middle East, to China, Sri Lanka, the Sudan, Kosovo, Chechnya, even in Europe. There are great crises in France and Britain, even Holland and Denmark. So it's very important to understand how different belief systems work and what's inherently wrong with them.

But I have to wonder if your dichotomy between religion and belief is simply your attempt to rescue religion from what you consider to be ill-formed or dangerous believers. Is this just your way of separating good religion from bad religion?

Well, you could see it that way. But my deeper point is that religion doesn't need to be defended. I'm not going to make a whit of difference to a tradition that's 2,000 years old and has 2 billion people talking about it. That's a remarkable phenomenon. I don't have a case to make for religion. In fact, as a historian of religion, I'm very aware of the fact that religions die. They disappear. Hundreds of them have over the centuries. I even believe that Christianity and Islam and the other great traditions will themselves dissipate in one way or another.

You say we're actually beginning to see the death throes of Christianity. That's a startling comment, considering how many people around the world identify themselves as Christians.

I think there's a fragmentation going on that's quite significant, a tendency to identify with something outside their religious tradition. Once they've married their Christian faith to a national or ethnic identity, then it loses its deep historical Christian character. To look at these huge mega-churches, for example, the startling thing to me is when you go to their services, you don't have any sense of the enormous complexity of the history. You have the feeling that Jesus walked in here yesterday, and the minister will pick up a few contemporary cultural phenomena, like popular music. You're seated in something like an auditorium. There's no cathedral atmosphere. There's no great chanting choir. I think it's lost that indefinability.

You refer to the period we're now living in as the Second Age of Faith. What do you mean?

The so-called Age of Faith runs from the end of the 11th century to the beginning of the 13th. It's a period in Europe in which all the religions grew very rapidly. It was also a period of terrible conflict. At the end of the 11th century, Pope Urban II gave one of the most consequential speeches in Christian history. He called on Christians to rise up and take Jerusalem back from the Saracens. And it was with that speech that the Crusades began. The Crusades were an ugly period. It was bloody and cruel. It exhausted people on both sides. No one won or lost. And it went on for centuries.

And you think we're now in another period like that?

I would say we are back in that crusading spirit. In the modern era, the great belief systems begin to think of themselves in more militaristic ways. And they conceive of themselves more and more in oppositional terms. Look, nothing equals the 20th century for its bloodiness. Who knows how many people were killed? Two hundred million? And the 21st century is not getting that great a start. At the same time, there's a very rapid growth of belief. Islam is growing faster than ever. Christian evangelicalism is probably one of the most rapidly growing phenomena in religious history. Mormonism is just racing along. The earth as a whole is getting more and more religious. But it has nonetheless become more and more preoccupied with conflict.

You have a provocative view of Jesus. You claim that "the vast literature on Jesus is not about anything; that, in fact, it says nothing." That's hard to swallow, given that we've had 2,000 years of inquiry and debate about who the real Jesus was.

The most difficult part of understanding Christianity is trying to get at who Jesus was. The New Testament writers were very confused about who Jesus was and what he was doing. And during the New Testament era, there was great strife among Christians. They were quarreling with each other over a number of questions. Was Jesus really God? Or was he only appearing to be God? Was he simply a person of such perfect morality that God adopted him? Was he created by God after the creation? Where does he belong in the Trinity, Augustine asked in the early 5th century?

Later on, St. Thomas, the great theologian of the Catholic tradition, understood the church as the historical extension of the incarnation. This is a very radical idea. So you know Jesus not through Scripture and not through some kind of internal experience, but through the existence of the church itself. And then you get Martin Luther, who rejected that idea and said the only way you really get to know Jesus is through Scripture. It couldn't be more different than Thomas' conception. Then you get Calvin, a contemporary of Luther's, who understood Jesus strictly in Old Testament terms, as prophet, priest and king. And then you have Soren Kierkegaard, under the influence of Hegel, who saw Jesus as "the absolute paradox," the eternal and the human combined in one historical moment, which is in fact unintelligible. I call this long history of how Jesus has been understood and interpreted "an abundance of Jesuses."

And we're not even up to the 20th century. You could say this convoluted history is a mess. After all, what are Christians supposed to believe? Or you could say all this passion over competing interpretations reveals the vitality of this religion.

What's striking to me is not that Christians keep disagreeing about these things. They can't stop arguing with each other. The issue doesn't go away. You'd think, we can't settle exactly who Jesus is, so let's forget it. But the subject burns. It holds people's attention and requires some kind of response. I think Christianity is the attempt to answer that very question. And that's why I made what may seem to be an outrageous remark: When you look at the way Jesus has been interpreted over the centuries, it says nothing. What do we actually know about Jesus? Well, there's only one historical contemporary reference to Jesus. That's in the historian Josephus. All he said was that Jesus lived, he was loved by his disciples, and was executed for a crime that Josephus doesn't indicate.

Even the Gospels are not contemporary accounts. They were written after the life of Jesus.

They were written many years later. The earliest is the Gospel of Mark, probably written 35 years after the death of Jesus. The Gospel of John is written anywhere from 60 to 65 years later. They were written by Greeks, not by Jews. These were people who couldn't speak Hebrew. They probably had never even been in Jerusalem, and they certainly did not know Jesus personally. They probably knew no one who knew Jesus personally. So if we have to get down to solid fact, what we have is an illiterate young man, a homeless man, who wandered about the area of Galilee -- a backwater in the Roman Empire -- who taught some things, healed some people, and was executed by the Romans. That's about it in terms of historical verification. That's not much.

Isn't this a point of great contention? Some biblical scholars say Paul's letters were written just 15 to 25 years after the death of Jesus. In Corinthians, Paul refers to hundreds of eyewitnesses who saw Jesus after he rose from the dead. And the author of the Gospel of Luke claims that he got his account of Jesus' life from eyewitnesses who were still alive. Christian scholars point to these accounts as evidence that the story of Jesus is grounded in history, not just myth created long after he died.

It is true that Luke says he's basing his Gospel on the many stories being told. Even more interesting, John closes his Gospel with the remark that if all the stories being told about Jesus were written down, the world could not contain them all. John also gives us a very different Jesus from the other Gospels. Some of Paul's letters are the oldest in the New Testament, written before the Gospels, and Paul does refer to Jesus appearing to 500 witnesses. But Paul has nothing to say about the life of Jesus, not a trace of his teachings or his healings. If we had to rely on Paul for a portrait of Jesus, we would know nothing more than Paul's personal reaction to a mysterious event.

In your book, you say the core of religion is the pursuit of knowledge. But what you really celebrate is what you call "higher ignorance."

Higher ignorance is one of the great philosophical concepts. Nicholas of Cusa developed this idea. It comes out of the great mystical period of the 15th century. It's the notion that we can never get outside what we know to say something about it that's definitive. We're always locked inside that body of knowledge. For example, we have any number of theories about the origin and nature of the universe, but there is no way we can place ourselves outside the universe and observe it objectively. However learned these theories are, they contain a profound ignorance that cannot be eliminated. Heidegger's metaphor is that of the "house of language"; we can know nothing except by way of language. There is no outside.

You also say poets are the real visionaries of the world. And you make the case that religion, at its root, is inspired by its poets.

You know, my entire career was at New York University, but I only taught the history of Christianity once. That's when one of my colleagues was not available. So I went back to my graduate study of St. Thomas Aquinas. And I loved it so much. When we got to Thomas in the class, I began to notice that the students -- most of them were Catholics -- had stopped taking notes. They stopped moving. It looked like they stopped breathing. They'd never realized that there was so much beauty behind the Catholic teaching. They thought it was about doing something right or wrong, rather than this great cathedral of language within which they could understand their very individual experiences. It struck me that what was great about Thomas is not that he was right or wrong, but that he's a poet. It's just beautiful work. It's an artistic creation of the greatest achievement. And when you take that insight and look across the traditions, you find people of very great poetic insight. The great religious figures are not philosophers, they're not historians, they're not institutional leaders in any sense. They are people who inspire the imagination and therefore deserve the word "poet."

So do we have those poets today -- poets in the religious sense?

That's a very good question. I have a dark view of what's happening. I think our poets have lost their great voices. If you ask me to point to a poet, I couldn't do it. We need them. I don't know where they are. And, of course, there's no way of getting them. They come on their own. They simply appear. There's no way you can train someone to be a poet or a great original mind.

Why are you so pessimistic?

Let's look at Islam, as an example. There's no way of reducing Islam to a single belief system, but what you have in Islam is a very active series of belief systems. And they're in deep conflict with each other. There's no poetry in this. It's all strictly hard belief, in an oppositional voice. But if you go back in Islamic history, what you get is a very deep sense of poetry. As a matter of fact, the Quran itself is considered so poetically beautiful that it's a very high value in Islamic life to memorize it and sing it. Muslims refer to the Quran as a recitation, something to be repeated over and over again.

You go back to the medieval mystical period and you find Islamic thinkers who say terribly beautiful things. There's a story told about Abu Ali of Sind, a famous mystic. He made his annual trip across the desert, which took days, to get his supplies in the markets on the other end of the desert. Then he walked all the way back, opened the packages that he bought and found that there were ants in his cardamom seeds. Immediately, he wrapped the ants back up in the cardamom seeds, walked back across the desert and returned the ants to their home. That's a different Islam. That's a poetic Islam. It comes right out of the heart of that religion.

By Steve Paulson

Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio's nationally syndicated program "To the Best of Our Knowledge." He has also been a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

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