AV has made a kind and much appreciated allusion to this blog’s recent travails. However, when he attributes the event to right-wing authoritarianism he is not entirely correct; certainly an authoritarian cast of mind and an antidemocratic spirit are involved. However, the source of the attack was not necessarily motivated by conventional right-wing politics, and certainly not by religion. On the other hand, excessive certainty and intolerance of criticism or difference were part of the picture. In those respects, the spirit of the attack was indeed, as AV notes, antidemocratic.
I can say that it is fairly certain where the attack came from, and what motivated it — the attacker’s problem, that, not mine. The attacker as good as left DNA all over the scene of the crime. In attacking me he also attacked WordPress.com, and I am sure they are not taking it kindly. They are also far more expert in these matters than either the attacker or I. It did amuse me to witness a log file from the time of these events which included a suggestion, obviously emanating from WordPress, that the hacker apply for a job with AutoMattic — the company behind WordPress. I take it that was ironic…
That brings me to two articles and a book which, it seems to me, are the antithesis of bigotry, whether that is religious or antireligious bigotry. I am not saying I agree with them, but I do say they are worth reading. The book is one of my Best Reads of 2008.
My theism is of the most modest kind and would deeply offend fundamentalists. I am thus a great admirer of the former Anglican bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, “a man who, for many conservative Christians, has stretched the definition of liberal theology past breaking point, while remaining for many non-believers the most humane and persuasive apologist for faith.” That comes from a review just published in New Statesman: Doubting Dawkins. Rather than quoting it further, I will simply commend it to your consideration. Holloway’s emphasis on the primacy of compassion does appeal to me.
The second article is from the USA and does raise some interesting questions: Jonathan Haidt, What Makes People Vote Republican? from Edge.org. Again, while not necessarily endorsing all that Haidt says, I do commend it as worth consideration.
…This research led me to two conclusions. First, when gut feelings are present, dispassionate reasoning is rare. In fact, many people struggled to fabricate harmful consequences that could justify their gut-based condemnation. I often had to correct people when they said things like “it’s wrong because… um…eating dog meat would make you sick” or “it’s wrong to use the flag because… um… the rags might clog the toilet.” These obviously post-hoc rationalizations illustrate the philosopher David Hume’s dictum that reason is “the slave of the passions, and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them.” This is the first rule of moral psychology: feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete. If people want to reach a conclusion, they can usually find a way to do so. The Democrats have historically failed to grasp this rule, choosing uninspiring and aloof candidates who thought that policy arguments were forms of persuasion.
The second conclusion was that the moral domain varies across cultures. Turiel’s description of morality as being about justice, rights, and human welfare worked perfectly for the college students I interviewed at Penn, but it simply did not capture the moral concerns of the less elite groups—the working-class people in both countries who were more likely to justify their judgments with talk about respect, duty, and family roles. (“Your dog is family, and you just don’t eat family.”) From this study I concluded that the anthropologist Richard Shweder was probably right in a 1987 critique of Turiel in which he claimed that the moral domain (not just specific rules) varies by culture. Drawing on Shweder’s ideas, I would say that the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.
When Republicans say that Democrats “just don’t get it,” this is the “it” to which they refer. Conservative positions on gays, guns, god, and immigration must be understood as means to achieve one kind of morally ordered society. When Democrats try to explain away these positions using pop psychology they err, they alienate, and they earn the label “elitist.” But how can Democrats learn to see—let alone respect—a moral order they regard as narrow-minded, racist, and dumb?…
For a very long time I have been pondering the texts and wandering the ruins of the Roman Empire. Initially, I did so as a biblical scholar doing research for books I was writing on the historical reconstruction of earliest Christianity from The Historical Jesus in 1991, through The Birth of Christianity in 1998, to In Search of Paul, co-authored with the archaeologist Jonathan Reed of the University of LaVerne, in 2004. I presume those three books as prelude and preparation for this book on God and Empire.
I have always thought of the historical Jesus as a homeland Jew within Judaism within the Roman Empire. I have always thought of the historical Paul as a diaspora Jew within Judaism within the Roman Empire. For me, then, within Judaism within the Roman Empire has always been the absolutely necessary matrix rather than the annoyingly unnecessary background for any discussion of earliest Christianity. You can see that three-layer matrix, for example, in the sub-titles to the first and last books above. For the historical Jesus, The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant, emphasizes Rome, Judaism, and Jew. For the historical Paul, How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, emphasizes Jew, Rome, and Judaism. Whether you start or end with the Roman Empire, the Roman Empire is always there.
But there is now a further reason for studying the textual and archaeological history of the Roman Empire. Here is that newer but now accompanying reason. I have been hearing recently two rather insistent claims from across the spectrum of our religio-political life. The first one claims that America is now and/or was always an empire. That, in fact, the virus of imperialism came—like so many other ones—on those first ships from Europe. The second and subsidiary one claims that we are in fact Nova Roma, the New Roman Empire, Rome on the Potomac…
— from the Preface
Certainly the opening chapter is a brilliant exposition of the nature of Rome under the Julio-Claudians, a subject I have studied both at University, and as a sometime Ancient History teacher. Many of the remarks about contemporary America are also apposite. It is also good to find a very learned man who writes like a human!
That said, I am not entirely convinced by all that Crossan says. Yes, he does get up the noses of fundamentalists — and as far as I am concerned that is a big plus. (A Muslim Crossan — and I am sure this is possible and may even exist — would be highly desirable.) I also have to say that the agnostic side of my humble theism is offended by the unspoken assumption that the Mediterranean really is the centre of the world, as the Roman conceit of Medi + Terranean implies. A similar conceit made China, about which Europe and Palestine in the first century knew little and cared less, call itself Zhong Guo or Middle Kingdom. In all our historical and religious considerations, we need above all in the 21st century to take that fact on board. It is an uncomfortable consideration. It does not impact one way or another on our ideas about the existence of God, whatever that word actually means; but it does impact on our views about what God is alleged to have said or done. Inevitably, I would have thought.
My traditional “Saturday Stats” will appear on Blogspot.