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Let’s begin by asking what religion is. Some say it is a form of belief in God. But that would not fit Zen Buddhism, which does not really believe in God at all. Some say it is belief in the supernatural. But that does not fit Hinduism, which does not believe in a supernatural realm beyond the material world, but only a spiritual reality within the empirical. What is religion then? It is a set of beliefs that explain what life is all about, who we are, and the most important things that human beings should spend their time doing. For example, some think that this material world is all there is, that we are here by accident and when we die we just rot, and therefore the important thing is to choose to do what makes you happy and not let others impose their beliefs on you. Notice that though this is not an explicit, “organized” religion, it contains a master narrative, an account about the meaning of life along with a recommendation for how to live based on that account of things.

Some call this a “worldview” while others call it a “narrative identity.” In either case it is a set of faith-assumptions about the nature of things. It is an implicit religion. Broadly understood, faith in some view of the world and human nature informs everyone’s life. Everyone lives and operates out of some narrative identity, whether it is thought out and reflected upon or not. All who say “You ought to do this” or “You shouldn’t do that” reason out of such an implicit moral and religious position. Pragmatists say that we should leave our deeper worldviews behind and find consensus about “what works”—but our view of what works is determined by (to use a Wendell Berry title) what we think people are for. Any picture of happy human life that “works” is necessarily informed by deep-seated beliefs about the purpose of human life. Even the most secular pragmatists come to the table with deep commitments and narrative accounts of what it means to be human.

Rorty insists that religion-based beliefs are conversation stoppers. But all of our most fundamental convictions about things are beliefs that are nearly impossible to justify to those who don’t share them. Secular concepts such as “self-realization” and “autonomy” are impossible to prove and are “conversation stoppers” just as much as appeals to the Bible.

— Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism

My own true poverty

The more I reflect on the elder son in me, the more I realize how deeply rooted this form of lostness really is and how hard it is to return home from there. Returning home from a lustful escapade seems so much easier than returning home from a cold anger that has rooted itself in the deepest corners of my being. My resentment is not something that can be easily distinguished and dealt with rationally.

It is far more pernicious: something that has attached itself to the underside of my virtue. Isn’t it good to be obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, hardworking, and self-sacrificing? And still it seems that my resentments and complaints are mysteriously tied to such praiseworthy attitudes. This connection often makes me despair. At the very moment I want to speak or act out of my most generous self, I get caught in anger or resentment. And it seems that just as I want to be most selfless, I find myself obsessed about being loved. Just when I do my utmost to accomplish a task well, I find myself questioning why others do not give themselves as I do. Just when I think I am capable of overcoming my temptations, I feel envy toward those who gave in to theirs. It seems that wherever my virtuous self is, there also is the resentful complainer.

Here, I am faced with my own true poverty. I am totally unable to root out my resentments. They are so deeply anchored in the soil of my inner self that pulling them out seems like self-destruction. How to weed out these resentments without uprooting the virtues as well?

Can the elder son in me come home? Can I be found as the younger son was found? How can I return when I am lost in resentment, when I am caught in jealousy, when I am imprisoned in obedience and duty lived out as slavery? It is clear that alone, by myself, I cannot find myself. More daunting than healing myself as the younger son is healing myself as the elder son. Confronted here with the impossibility of self-redemption, I now understand Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: “Do not be surprised when I say: ‘You must be born from above.’ ” Indeed, something has to happen that I myself cannot cause to happen. I cannot be reborn from below; that is, with my own strength, with my own mind, with my own psychological insights. There is no doubt in my mind about this because I have tried so hard in the past to heal myself from my complaints and failed … and failed … and failed, until I came to the edge of complete emotional collapse and even physical exhaustion. I can only be healed from above, from where God reaches down. What is impossible for me is possible for God.

— Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming 

Consider the following four hypothetical scenarios. Imagine first an official state road map that four people all wanting to drive to the same destination consult for directions; each person decides on a different route as the best one to take to that destination. Picture next a pair of army-certified binoculars that five commanding officers who are meeting in war council use to assess their distant enemy’s position, strength, and movements; each officer reports quite different accounts of what they see of their enemy’s situation, and each one therefore recommends different battle strategies. Then imagine a manufacturer-authorized owner’s manual for a fancy new camera that all the shutterbug members of a family study carefully; each individual comes away insisting on very different methods for proper use of the camera. Finally, consider a well-known cookbook containing a recipe that all the contestants in a particular cooking-skills competition must prepare; the contestants, though they vow that they cooked up the same recipe from the same cookbook, each produce a dish that is in some way distinct from all the others.

These four hypothetical scenarios depict something like the quandary in which biblicist believers find themselves. The very same Bible—which biblicists insist is perspicuous and harmonious—gives rise to divergent understandings among intelligent, sincere, committed readers about what it says about most topics of interest. Knowledge of “biblical” teachings, in short, is characterized by pervasive interpretive pluralism.

What that means in consequence is this: in a crucial sense it simply does not matter whether the Bible is everything that biblicists claim theoretically concerning its authority, infallibility, inner consistency, perspicuity, and so on, since in actual functioning the Bible produces a pluralism of interpretations. Analogously, the road map may indeed be officially published by the state department of transportation, the binoculars may actually be officially certified by the military, the camera’s owner’s manual may be manufacturer-authorized, and the cookbook may be well known and the recipe clearly specified—all of that may be so. But it simply does not matter. That is because those apparent facts did not actually accomplish the important things that make them relevant, which being official, certified, authorized, and specified are meant to achieve—namely, clear, consistent, and focused instruction, direction, information, and guidance for users.

Furthermore and very importantly, none of the differences among users that arose in these scenarios will ever get resolved simply by their focusing and insisting on the believed official, certified, or authorized qualities of the road map, binoculars, owner’s manual, and cookbook per se. Merely asserting those believed facts itself contributes nothing to solving the functional problems of multiple, diverse, and incompatible “readings” of or through them. Likewise, neither do increasingly insistent declarations of biblicist beliefs about the inerrancy, reliability, harmony, and perspicuity of the Bible actually address the fact and problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism concerning scripture, which is a major problem.

— Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible

There is this curiously durable myth that European trains are wonderfully swift and smooth and a dream to travel on. The trains in Europe are in fact often tediously slow, and for the most part the railways persist in the antiquated system of dividing the carriages into compartments. I used to think this was rather jolly and friendly, but you soon discover that it is like spending seven hours in a waiting room waiting for a doctor who never arrives. You are forced into an awkward intimacy with strangers, which I always find unsettling. If you do anything at all—take something from your pocket, stifle a yawn, rummage in your rucksack—everyone looks over to see what you’re up to. There is no scope for privacy and of course there is nothing like being trapped in a train compartment on a long journey to bring all those unassuagable little frailties of the human body crowding to the front of your mind—the withheld fart, the three and a half square yards of boxer shorts that have somehow become concertinaed between your buttocks, the Kellogg’s corn flake that is unaccountably lodged deep in your left nostril. It was the corn flake that I ached to get at. The itch was all-consuming. I longed to thrust a finger so far up my nose that it would look as if I were scratching the top of my head from the inside, but of course I was as powerless to deal with it as a man with no arms.

You even have to watch your thoughts. For no reason I can explain, except perhaps that I was inordinately preoccupied with bodily matters, I began to think of a copy editor I used to work with on the business section of The Times. I shall call him Edward, since that was his name. Edward was crazy, which in those palmy pre–Rupert Murdoch days was no impediment to employment, or even promotion to high office, on the paper, and he had a number of striking peculiarities, but the one I particularly remember was that late at night, after the New York markets had shut and there was nothing much to do, he would straighten out half a dozen paper clips and probe his ears with them. And I don’t mean delicate little scratchings. He would jam those paper clips home and then twirl them between two fingers, as if tuning in a radio station. It looked excruciating, but Edward seemed to derive immense satisfaction from it. Sometimes his eyes would roll up into his head and he would make ecstatic gurgling noises. I suppose he thought no one was watching, but we all sat there fascinated. Once, during a particularly intensive session, when the paper clip went deeper and deeper and looked as if it might be stuck, John Price, the slot man, called out: “Would it help, Edward, if one of us pulled from the other side?”

I thought of Edward as we went tracketa-tracketa across the endless Austrian countryside, and I laughed out loud—a sudden, lunatic guffaw that startled me as much as my three companions. I covered my mouth with my hand, but more laughter—embarrassed, helpless—came leaking out. The other passengers looked at me as if I had just been sick down my shirt. It was only by staring out the window and concentrating very hard for twenty minutes that I was able to compose myself and return once again to the more serious torments of the corn flake in my nostril.

— Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe

Such a call is itself religious

When you come out into the public square it is impossible to leave your convictions about ultimate values behind. Let’s take marriage and divorce laws as a case study. Is it possible to craft laws that we all agree “work” apart from particular worldview commitments? I don’t believe so. Your views of what is right will be based on what you think the purpose of marriage is. If you think marriage is mainly for the rearing of children to benefit the whole society, then you will make divorce very difficult. If you think the purpose of marriage is more primarily for the happiness and emotional fulfillment of the adults who enter it, you will make divorce much easier. The former view is grounded in a view of human flourishing and well-being in which the family is more important than the individual, as is seen in the moral traditions of Confucianism, Judaism, and Christianity. The latter approach is a more individualistic view of human nature based on the Enlightenment’s understanding of things. The divorce laws you think “work” will depend on prior beliefs about what it means to be happy and fully human. There is no objective, universal consensus about what that is. Although many continue to call for the exclusion of religious views from the public square, increasing numbers of thinkers, both religious and secular, are admitting that such a call is itself religious.

— Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism 

The covetousness of the American consumer becomes a path to self-actualization: Think of the way Oprah’s network suggests that peace of mind goes better with a new Hyundai; think of the vast market for high-end products and luxury goods that promise “simplicity” and “authenticity.” (Everything from their vacations to their kitchens, David Brooks wrote of the current American upper class in 2000’s Bobos in Paradise, seems designed to be “the physical expression of some metaphysical sentiment.”) The gluttony of the Whole Foods–shopping gourmand is redefined as a higher form of asceticism: if you put enough thought (and money) into your locally grown artisanal grass-fed free-range organic farm-to-table diet, then a lavish meal can be portrayed as one part philosophical statement, one part eucharistic feast. The physical vanity of the diet-and-exercise obsessive is recast as the pursuit of a kind of ritual purity, hedged about with taboos and guilt trips and mysticized by yoga. (Not for nothing does Amazon.com include diet and exercise books on its “Religion and Spirituality” bestseller list….)

— Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics 

Freedom is sometimes said to be the only unconditional good our society agrees on, and, it is argued, the only one we really need. Why try to impose a set of moral rights and wrongs on everyone? We don’t want to be like the moralistic societies of the past. Instead, we should agree on just one thing, that everyone should be free to live as they desire as long as they do not harm anyone else. This “harm principle” appears to make freedom of choice into a self-correcting absolute that gives us guidance for life together without the need for value judgments of any kind. Today, it is said, the only moral absolute should be freedom and the only sin should be intolerance or bigotry.

However, while the paragraph above describes the culturally dominant view, the harm principle is useless and even disingenuous as a guide. It works only if we are all agreed on what “harm” is— and we aren’t. How can you know what hurts people unless you can define what a good and thriving human life is? One group may think no-fault divorce laws are very harmful while another believes they are not.

Of course we must avoid harming others, but any decision about what harms others will be rooted in (generally unacknowledged) views of human nature and purpose. These are beliefs— they are not self-evident, nor can they be proven empirically. That means that ultimately freedom of choice is not the “magic bullet” for society. Even in our supposedly relativistic culture, value judgments are made constantly, people and groups are daily lifted up in order to shame them, public moral umbrage is taken as much as ever. It is hypocritical to claim that today we grant people so much more freedom when we are actually all fighting to press our moral beliefs about harm on everyone.

So freedom of choice cannot stand alone as a guide to behavior. We need some kind of moral norms and constraints on our actions if we are to live together.

— Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical