Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Head vs. Heart

Alan Wolfe has a book review in the current TNR about competing religious impulses. What he says about the conflict within Protestantism is largely true about Judaism. Below I excerpt the article, with a few emendations which I hope will make some of the parallels obvious.

Brains and Beliefs
by Alan Wolfe
Post date: 09.26.07
Issue date: 10.08.07
Head and Heart: American Christianities
By Garry Wills

Read the recent books making the case against religion, and you might think that the biggest conflict in this country is between those who believe and those who do not. Listen to evangelicals proclaiming that they have every right to question Mitt Romney's Mormonism, and you might conclude that the biggest disagreements are between one religion and another. Garry Wills has another point to make. The argument of Head and Heart is that we are hopelessly divided not over religions and not between religions, but within religions. American Christianity in general, and American Protestantism more specifically, has always contained two currents, two wings--one that appeals to logic and reason, and another that appeals to emotion and belonging. Judaism in general and American Orthodox Judaism more specifically contains two currents, two wings -- one that appeals to logic and reason, and another that appeals to emotion and belonging. (and though its tempting to say the first group are the Modern Orthodox and the Yeshivish, while the second are Hasidim and, perhaps, the dimmer Yeshivish lights, this is an oversimplification: People of the head and people of the heart can be found in all three communities.)


And so we come, as the reader all along knows we will, to the culture wars of the twentieth century. Those wars have their origin in the fundamentalist protest against modernity, where it is not difficult to see the forces lining up to support Wills's argument. In one corner stands biblical literalism, pre-Millennialism, male chauvinism, American exceptionalism, anti-Catholicism, and political conservatism. [Not to mention GOP Jews, Hasidim, the staff of Cross Currents, Gil Student, and, kneejerk Zionists] In the other: biblical scholarship, post-Millennialism, internationalism, religious toleration, gender equality, and political liberalism. [Sadly, there aren't nearly enough people like this on the "Orthodox" wing of Judaism, but we do exist] (Pre-Mills and post-Mills differed on when Jesus would return to earth: Moshiach would arrive for the former, his arrival is imminent and, aside from personal redemption, there is little we can do to prepare [aside from doing more ben adam l'makom mitzvos]; for the latter, his arrival is far off and we can improve the social world before he comes [via ben adom lchavero mitzvot] .) From the 1920s until the 1980s, the Enlightenment camp more modern expressions of Judaism thought it was winning the struggle. Only in the past few decades has it begun to realize the extent to which it was routed.

Wills ends his account not with Jerry Falwell on one side and followers of Reinhold Niebuhr on the other, but with Karl Rove. The election of 2000 was a turning point for Wills. Americans sometimes say they are a religious country, but in 2000 they actually became one, and it was all the work of Rove. Did Wills write his entire book to defend the religion of the head against the religion of the heart generally, or more specifically against the especially noxious form it took in the politics of George W. Bush? His concluding two chapters lead one to believe that his inspiration was mainly political. The Republican base [aided and abetted by GOP Jews] hates every- thing that Enlightened religion has brought to this country and wants to stop it dead in its tracks. It routinely violates the First Amendment. It lets fanatical Christian activists write legislation. It forced politicians to rush to the bedside of Terri Schiavo, whom they saw as the world's "oldest and largest fetus." "All the Evangelicals' resentments under previous presidents, including Republicans like Reagan and the first Bush, were now being addressed," Wills writes.


"These are not separate churches or separate religions," Wills says of Enlightenment and Evangelical religion. "They do not excommunicate each other. They are simply two tendencies, two temperaments, and an absolute or sterile division between them is stultifying."


And this, in turn, suggests that what Wills views as an essentially Protestant dualism applies more broadly to every religion. Judaism's intellectuality may be its most prominent feature, but it does have its mystics and obscurantists and fideists and New Agers [and anti-intellectual close minded morons, including, but not limited to, Ed] . And for all I know, individual Mormons may resonate emotionally with the Tabernacle Choir. Religion, as we learned from Weber and Durkheim, appeals to another world while living firmly in this one. Since it is already given to dichotomies--the sacred and the profane, the sinful and the saved, heaven and hell, good versus evil--shouldn't we expect that, by its very dualistic propensities, it will appeal to both reason and revelation? Clearly some religions lean one way and others in a different direction, but they are all wrestling with the same forces.

Moreover, once you start down this path, there is no reason to stop with religion. Anthropologists such as Claude Lévi- Strauss and Mary Douglas remind us that dichotomizing is another term for culture: the raw and the cooked, purity and danger--the list is endless. Perhaps the dualism between the heart and the head is not something that people have learned from religion, but something that religion has learned from people. It is not, after all, as if the conflict between reason and emotion were confined to prayer. Baseball fanatics can be divided into passionate fans and keepers of statistics; psychotherapy relies on powerful memories and on logical deduction; and foreign-policy-making includes both realists and idealists. Some dualities are not useful because they apply to too few things, and some are not useful because they apply to too many.

If Wills's target is really the evangelical revival so prominent in today's Republican Party, his analysis does not add much to what we already know about it. Is Pat Robertson a man of the heart or a man of the head? The only answer one can give is that, like Tom Paine, he is neither--but for the opposite reason. Robertson, so far as I can tell, rarely uses his head; he is the very definition of a right-wing anti-intellectual. But neither does he in any large way use his heart: he is mean-spirited, and he seems to be totally devoid of enthusiasm for anything other than his successful business ventures and self-promoting media appearances. Just because nearly everyone is divided between the head and the heart does not mean that everyone is.


When I see James Dobson on television, the first word that comes into my head is not "otherworldly." Wills, I believe, would agree with this; his focus on Karl Rove, a man he describes as having "no discernible religious beliefs himself," suggests as much. But then why end a book on American religion with a movement that is, in both intent and purpose, essentially political? Wills falls too easily for a political movement's presentation of itself as a religious movement. Head and Heart would have been a more effective book if it had ended not with what is happening in Washington, but with what is taking place in the megachurches. Rick Warren, not Karl Rove, should have dominated the final chapters. And the reason for that is simple: American evangelicalism has been flourishing not because of its affinities with the Republican Party, but because, in speaking to the heart more than to the head, it appeals to people searching for personal advice about how to lead their lives.

Garry Wills's call to combine the two sides of American religious experience is a sensible one. "There is no reason why Enlightened religion has to become desiccated and cerebral, all light and no heat," he writes. "Nor why the Evangelical has to be mindlessly enthusiastic, all heat and no light." This is Wills not at his most iconoclastic, but at his most reasonable. Who could object to the idea that since the head and the heart are both aspects of being human, and since no active human being can function without either, the two ought to find their proper balance? If religion and politics follow the same trends, then the cycles of American political history posited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. will have their counterparts in American religious experience. We leaned in one direction too much and then compensated too greatly in the other. Eventually we will find our balance.

So let me play here the role that Wills usually assigns to himself and argue against the reasonable position. If we are to have religion, shouldn't we have more religion of the head? I am not impartial here, being a head person myself. But after spending lots of time visiting evangelical colleges and seminaries and attending megachurch services, I come away bemoaning not some right-wing Christian plot to take over the country, but the sheer tackiness of so much of what I experienced. It would be nice, just once, to listen to a sermon delivered by an evangelical preacher that left one with a deeper sense of the world's ironies and complexities. Perhaps those who flock to megachurches would be more uplifted by hearing a Bach chorale than another variant of Christian rock. I certainly would not mind seeing Niebuhr sold in Christian bookstores--or, for that matter, Augustine included in required courses at Catholic universities. My friends among the faithful tell me that revelation is not opposed to reason. When I look back in Western history, I see their point. When I look around me at contemporary religious movements, I do not.

Contemporary religion's lack of intellectual depth may be more dangerous to our country's future than religion's involvement in politics. The contrast between the tragic consequences of America's involvement in Iraq and the generally indifferent views that Americans take toward those consequences strikes me as evidence of how desperately we need a religious sensibility more complex than the one we have. The ability of the Bush administration to redistribute income from the poor to the rich without substantial opposition testifies not only to the weakness of the left, but also to the absence of a deep appreciation of the Jewish prophets and the historical Jesus. Americans did not elect George W. Bush to the presidency twice because they are a devout people. Bush is our president not because Americans are religious, but because they are not religious enough--not, at least, if religion means having a social conscience, being judged, living with wisdom, adhering to the law. Had we more religion-- the kind, for example, that motivated the abolitionists and influenced Abraham Lincoln--we would not have been afflicted for so long with the likes of Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay. [Emphasis added]

Contemporary religion's lack of intellectual depth is also one of the reasons that contemporary atheism is having such a good ride. The recent sensations by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are all as predictable and shallow as the religion they spend so much time mocking. Serious atheism of the head should challenge serious religion of the head; but most contemporary atheists prefer to demolish the coarse superstitions all around them, and to call them religion, and to enjoy the applause. And how could it be otherwise? If you do not have serious belief, it is hard to have serious non- belief. Unlike Diderot and Voltaire, today's polemical skeptics are battening from the absence of hard targets, of philosophically sophisticated targets. It is surely not the business of American religion to supply its critics with their weapons; but it would strengthen both American religion and American atheism if the critics had something at which they could fire.

It is true that evangelicals and mainline Protestants disagree politically, but if serious theological differences between them exist, they are hard to spot. Neither camp has produced a serious work of religious thought in decades. Compared to today's emerging religious figures, Billy Graham--Billy Graham!--seems like a giant. It is not that we lack for Tillichs and Niebuhrs: there are no plurals here, such figures are hard to come by in any age. But we do not even have Billy Sunday! In our anti-philosophical and politicized and wildly psychological culture, in which all anybody seems to be seeking is convenience or affirmation or power, our religious life is in trouble indeed.

Garry Wills entered a Jesuit seminary in the early 1950s, leaving just before graduation. In an earlier period of American history, he might have finished his training and become an important religious thinker. Instead he has pursued his vocation outside the church, and while we may all be better off for that--Wills is a prodigious force in our country's intellectual life--his religion is certainly poorer for his absence. But that's the way it is in modern life: there remain places in American religion for people who use their heads, but all too many people who use their heads do not really mean to fill them. And so we have the religion of the heart run amok. It makes people feel better. It also means that while we may, if we are lucky, have more writers like Garry Wills, we are not likely ever again to have figures like Roger Williams, Jonathan Edwards, or even Anthony Benezet.

Alan Wolfe is a contributing editor at The New Republic.

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