Yet another holy book

Rodney Kennedy, in an opinion piece on Baptist News Global, says:

“I’m attempting to wrap my mind around the idea of a former Army general telling me I should preach from the U.S. Constitution. I mention this only because Michael Flynn has been occupying American pulpits, recommending the Constitution as a second holy book for preachers. ‘What (preachers) need to be doing is they need to be talking about the Constitution from the pulpit as much as the Bible. They have to do that,’ Flynn has said.”

Kennedy calls Flynn’s remark idolatrous. From his Christian point of view, the Bible stands alone and does not need to be propped up by any other texts.

I don’t know if Flynn actually believes what he said, or if he just said it to draw audiences. (Time reported that Flynn made $150,000 in 2016 for speaking engagements, a strong motivation to say what his audiences want to hear.) But I do know Flynn is giving voice to an opinion genuinely held by many people in the United States. These folks genuinely believe that the U.S. Constitution is divinely inspired, just like the Bible, and thus should be treated as a sacred text. These folks use short passages from the U.S. Constitution as proof texts, just as short passages from the Bible are used as proof texts, to prove the truth of a certain theological opinion or doctrine.

What a fascinating historical moment. We seem to be watching a sort of new Great Awakening, a movement which curiously adds the U.S. Constitution as a sacred text co-equal to the Bible. Like previous Great Awakenings, these folk are vibrant and adventurous and enthusiastic. My Puritan forebears would have said that enthusiasm results from excessive religious emotions that come from a deluded conceit that one is specially favored by God, and I’m still enough of a Puritan to agree. Nevertheless, what a fascinating historical moment.

Electric cars are not the solution to the world’s problems

Science fiction author and Scottish nationalist Charles Stross opines:

“I’m going to suggest that American automobile culture is fundamentally toxic and aggressively hegemonizing and evangelical towards other cultures, and needs to be heavily regulated and rolled back.”

Not to belabor the point, but while electric cars may help us address climate change, they still emit toxic substances (tires spewing microplastics into the environment, for example), and they also enable habitat destruction. Even when it comes to climate change, their carbon footprint is not zero.

(Why mention that Stross is a Scottish nationalist? Because that means he apparently hasn’t bought into the American mythos.)

The basis for inter-religious dialogue

Raimundo Panikkar was a scholar who studied inter-religious dialogue. He held doctorate degrees in philosophy, chemistry, and theology. While serving as professor of religious studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara, Panikkar wrote a short essay about the necessary conditions for inter-religious dialogue:

“The modern kosmology (sic) assuming time is linear, history is paramount, individuality is the essence of Man (sic), democracy is an absolute, technocracy is neutral, social darwinism, and the like, cannot offer a fair platform for the Dialogue [between religions]. The basis for the Dialogue cannot be the modern Western myth.” — “The Ongoing Dialogue,” Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, vol. 2, 1989.

We Unitarian Universalists mostly assume that we have somehow moved beyond myths; yet most of us buy into the modern Western myth. Our “Seven Principles” specifically affirm individuality and democracy as among our highest values. Many of say “We believe in science,” and part of that belief is that science (and there seems to be little difference between our “science” andwhat Panikkar calls “technocracy”) represent a culturally neutral viewpoint. And of course we affirm that time is linear. All these things seem to us to be axiomatically true; how could they be doubted?

Yet I think Panikkar is correct. We think of human individuality, democracy, belief in science, and the linearity of time as axiomatic — but we also know from our own tradition of logic that axioms cannot be proved from within a logically consistent system. These axioms, like all axioms, are in some sense matters of belief. They are part of our foundational myth.

We Unitarian Universalists think we’re supremely rational and we don’t have myths. This attitude can cause problems when we try to engage in inter-religious dialogue. I don’t mind if we think we’re right and other religions are wrong — that’s what human beings do — but I do mind when we we’re not even aware that that’s what we’re doing.

Is it science? or religion?

In a book published this year, the philosopher Evan Thompson says, “When science steps back from experimentation in order to give meaning to its results in terms of grand stories about where we come from and where we’re going — the narratives of cosmology and evolution — it cannot help but become a mythic form of meaning-making and typically takes the structures of its narratives from religion.” — Why I Am Not a Buddhist, (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 2020), p. 18.

What Thompson says is akin to what Hannes Alfvén said back in 1984, in his paper “Cosmology: Myth or Science?” Alfvén argued that “there has been — and will perhaps always be — an oscillation between mythological and scientific approaches.” He further documented what he felt was a mythical orientation in the cosmology of 1984: “In a true dialectic sense it is the triumph of science which has released the forces which now once again seem to make myths more powerful than science and causes a ‘scientific creationism’ inside academia itself.”

And these days, I’ve heard apparently well-educated people saying things like, “I don’t believe in religion, I believe in science” — thus ignoring or passing over the fact that scientific models are not matters for belief, they are intended to be checked against empirical evidence through multiple investigations, and they are subject to a constant revision that is not compatible with what is generally meant by “belief.” I don’t think it’s a good idea to turn science into a religion, and it would be better to find one’s mythic meaning-making elsewhere, maybe in poetry or music or paintings or novels or even religion.

A new myth

Lady M’Leod asked, if no man was naturally good? — Johnson. ‘No, madam, no more than a wolf.’ — Boswell. ‘Nor no woman, sir?’ — Johnson. ‘No, sir.’ — Lady M’Leod started at this, saying, in a low voice, ‘This is worse than Swift.’*

In our society, it is widely fashionable to think that human beings are basically good, and, to go along with that, that we are rational beings. Some people, mostly traditional Christians, hold an unfashionable view which is opposed to this, that human beings are marked by original sin. Most of those who hold this unfashionable view would also assert that rationality is not the first thing that strikes you when you look at human actions and moral decisions. But this unfashionable view is held by a minority of people in our society, and is dismissed by religious liberals like me.

Why do so many of us believe, against a great deal of evidence to the contrary, that human beings are good and rational? I suspect many of us hold on to this irrational belief merely because we don’t want to have anything to do with the unfashionable Christian belief in original sin. We don’t want to be accused of being “too Christian,” or accused of being “religious”; so we reject original sin, and without wondering about other possible alternatives, we irrationally believe in the myth that humans are good and rational. And this irrational belief of ours is strengthened by the myths promoted by economists: that we are each a rational actor making rational economic choices, and the general trend of our economic choices is to improve the human condition. Our inability to address global climate change and overpopulation puts the lie to the economists’ myths; yet we continue to believe them.

Samuel Johnson said humans are not naturally good, “no more than a wolf.” Given what now we know about how well wolves treat each other within the wolf pack, Johnson’s comparison overestimates human goodness; at least, his comparison overestimates human goodness in our society in which individualism is valued more highly than communal endeavor. At least the wolf can and will do good to other members of the pack; individualistic humans reject allegiance to the pack, and won’t do good to other humans except when it serves their own private and personal interests.

But we need not feel we have to choose between the unfashionable traditional Christian myth of original sin on the one hand, and on the other hand the combination of two myths, the Romantic myth of natural human goodness and the Enlightenment myth of human rationality. I think it’s time for a new myth. But I don’t yet know what it is.


* The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by James Boswell, 1786 (ed. R. W. Chapman [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970], p. 300).