Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Dannenbaum on Barzun on Religion

David Dannenbaum is the author of “My Stroll with William James and Jacques Barzun” and “Making History: Jacques Barzun’s Jamesian Work” in Streams of William James. Mr. Dannenbaum’s excerpts from God’s Country and Mine are quite long. I would not ordinarily publish at such length from a copyrighted work, but since Mr. Barzun’s book is out of print, I see no harm and possible good in doing so. One sentence to take with you: “It is not the bare proposition that determines action but the way we take it and how it meshes with a myriad subtle forces within us.”


I have long believed that God is infinite and eternal and that Man is mortal and finite. Man receives God’s revelations in bits and spurts, not because God is miserly with revelation, but because Man can’t absorb the infinite and eternal in one dose. What Man knew of God 3,000 years ago is less than what Man knows now, and what Man knows now is much less than Man will learn by the year 5007.

However, many of my fellow citizens believe that God has imposed on Man absolute laws and that those laws must be obeyed absolutely. They have asserted these absolute laws during recent discourse on public school curricula, sexual orientation, and the rights of terminally ill patients. To obey Absolute Law, public school students must not learn about evolution, gay couples must not marry, and terminally ill patients must not exercise any control over the intimate details of their own death. However, Absolute Law in Democracy does not induce obedience; it only provokes shrill discord. Neighbors become enemies as their prayers become curses. Currently in America, the clergy have become sloganeering politicians, and politicians have become preachers of self-righteousness.

Some time ago, as I was seeking words of wisdom to deal with the noise and anger in our republic, I came across Jacques Barzun’s book, God’s Country and Mine: a Declaration of Love Spiced With a Few Harsh Words, (Atlantic Little, Brown) written in 1954. In the chapter titled “The Policeman Within,” Barzun gives the reader his views on religion and the state. What follows are excerpts that I believe are pertinent to what we are experiencing in America now. They are, I believe, revelation.

— David Dannenbaum


I consider myself a religious man and in the course of my travels I have stepped into many different churches to recollect myself — which you may translate as pray or worship. But I must confess , without attaching to it any but a personal sense of deprivation, that what the professed experts offer us by way of aid, anywhere in the world today, is scant. Cathedral, synagogue, Greek basilica, mosque, chapel, conventicle, meetinghouse and basement gathering of “new thoughters” — everywhere that I have been led by curiosity or friendship, I have found myself thrown back on my own slender resources.

I say this neither polemically nor with the slightest wish to wound or attack, least of all to convert, in token of which I shall use the egotistical pronoun for as long as this subject lasts; it should then be clear that I am reflecting, not dogmatizing, speaking for the small and feeble thinking reed designated by the letter I, and not for any group or party of my contemporaries. It is in fact impossible to represent others’ awareness of faith, and perhaps the defining of one’s own by differences and negatives is still the best description of theirs. At any rate, I find that the current language of devotion in this country, when it departs from scriptural phrases, is virtually incomprehensible to me. It seems to allow no gap for faith itself to bridge, but rather fills it with quibbles or business arguments. I confess to being equally baffled by GOD’S OMNIPOTENCE A PURE ACT OF LOVE and by JOINING CHURCH LIKENED TO TAKING GOLF STANCEREQUIRES FOLLOW-THROUGH. The latter especially is dispiriting in its refusal to see modern man as a creature whose moral and esthetic senses have been, for good or ill, refined beyond those of his ancestors. “Do as we say,” drone on the men of God, “and it will profit you. Rewards and punishments worked out by the Great Bookkeeper on your individual balance sheet.” Another warns: TIPPING OF GOD DECRIED . . . “in the last analysis our sense of values is reflected in our use of money.” This is traditional. One of the most successful religious books in the Western world betrays it plainly in its title: Hell’s flames avoided, Heaven’s felicities enjoyed, by John Hayward, D.D., 1733, Thirty-fifth edition. Such was the vaunted religion of our ancestors.

True, in the modern homily the same argument is sometimes recast and, as it were, psychologized: “You will feel better here below for having all our answers.” Indeed I find in an actual sermon: “The world is built on such a pattern that if we do not love our enemies we will get stomach ulcers, and if we do, we will thrive in our own personalities and know the deep, satisfying experience of the presence of God.” Small wonder that the true religious passion, especially when matched with intellect, prefers either the vast and complex systems of the medieval schoolmen or the plunge into incomprehensibility. The effort in either case does seem capable of pleasing and glorifying a worthy God. But placating, investing in future gains, and avoiding perplexity by any means alike fail to meet the need for a religion at once social and personal, at once comformable to Western thought and developing with Western life.

The conclusion follows that there does not exist a single creed which a religious temperament educated in science, art, and democracy can accept. By democracy here I mean, once again, the vision of all mankind considered as candidates for equality; a vision to which I feel committed by my Americanism and which, strengthened by the testimony of art and science, I find no reason not to find again in my religion.

Reflection on this lack has sometimes suggested to me that the idea so glibly praised as a great spiritual advance — the idea of one God — might possibly be the stumbling block. Certainly, whoever says one God says my God. HE is revealed to him. The believer becomes possessive, exclusive, elect. God is on our side, we saw Him first. In theory, the theologian admits his human fallibility, but with sword or scimitar in hand his modesty falls away, and he lays about him to centralize once for all the divine government. Now to a federalist by instinct and training, it should seem that the true spiritual advance was not from many gods to one God, but from local gods to universal, ubiquitous elements of Divinity.

Taken as a whole and historically, the world is a polytheism. One may say that every church worships the same God — “you in your way and I in His” — yet there remain the “divergences” that church councils encounter and that make a fact of multi-divinity. Moreover, several of the great religions enfold within an abstract monotheism a concrete polytheism. They have apostles, saints, and incarnations of the one God, all of which inspire varieties of religious devotion This many-sidedness obviously corresponds to something in us and in our experience of the world. Doctrine is not at issue here and I speak from baffled ignorance. Moreover, I freely confess that as I look upon the wonders of the world, I am tempted to worship not one but many manifestations of divine power — as billions of men have done before me. The figure I shrink from, when I call myself a humble polytheist in the great tradition, is that of the desperado for whom only his mother is sacred. All other women are vile and all lives forfeit to his frightened will. As against this, a will at peace and a mind unafraid has reverence for many beings and for many principles in divers things.

If I am asked what I make of the evident order prevailing throughout the whole, I have to reply that I fail to see it. I see beside the wonders the horrors of the world, and am driven to resist them, believing that the divine is at work in us to first reveal and then abolish evil. This brings down on my head the curse of a well-known heresy: “You're a Manichaean!” Possibly, but I cannot resist pointing out to my orthodox, monotheist reprover that his reason for promoting his particular explanation of the universe is to make it an order. He does not find it ready-made. So there is at least a doubt whether all hangs together as perfectly as imperfect creatures tell us.

One of the grandest passages in the history of faith confirms my doubt on this point. “To consider the world in its length and breadth,” says Cardinal Newman, “its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusions of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken, of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s word, ‘having no hope and without God in the world,’ all this is a vision to dizzy and appall; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond solution. What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact?”

Two things can be said, the one — which is Newman’s answer and that of every orthodox believer in a personal God — is that an omnipotent, divine intelligence does superintend the seeming chaos, which exists as chaos because of man’s disobedience to His law. This answer represents the leap of faith from “reason-bewildering fact” toward an unseen source of hope, and in those who can reason and recognize fact, this leap is an act of courage. For it is manlier to hope and obey an invisible lawgiver than to mope in self-pitying idleness. But in those who conceive the divine otherwise than as an absolute, single-minded Power of Benevolence, the leap of faith is no less real and at least as courageous. For they give up any shadow of ultimate guarantee that all will come out right, and at the same time they involve themselves in the responsibility for any and every outcome. “All deities,” says Blake, “reside in the human breast.”

Whoever agrees in this with Blake, our modern publicists of religion will charge with the abomination of worshiping man, self-worship, “the fatal Humanism that has landed us in our present plight.” No need to ask what caused the previous plight, when Christendom or Islam or any sterner theocracy suffered evil, though untouched by secularity. There is not time enough to argue with those who do not see at a glance that there has always been a present plight, man-made and clearly man-remediable since its character changes. Let this answer suffice: worshiping the divine in man and in nature is not self-worship; it makes one humble, not arrogant; it spurs the energies to second the forces of order emanating from divinity. The great difference, as I conceive it, comes down to this: whether one takes the moral and material universe as finished or unfinished. If taken as unfinished, then the divine is not one and absolute but scattered and emergent. This is an evolutionary way with no guarantees — which redoubles in me the spirit of effort and gives value to the slightest spark of what I hope we would agree to call divine.

I am orthodox enough to attach great religious value to effort, to works, but I know from my own experience and that of others that it is impossible to predict what beliefs will yield the most or the best effort. When one reads of a sermon, for instance, the point of which is summarized as ULTIMATE REMEDY SET FOR INJUSTICE: ACCEPTING CROSS WILL RECTIFY ALL ON JUDGEMENT DAY, SAYS PREACHER, one may be tempted to suppose some listeners weakened in will or discouraged, their effort postponed. But that is demonstrably not so. It is not the bare proposition that determines action but the way we take it and how it meshes with a myriad subtle forces within us. I think that if doomed to extinction within a stated time, I should work like a beaver. But I might equally well be paralyzed by the too sharp focusing, as it were, of my last opportunity. Those we know well continually surprise us by their actions under stress or when inspired by a new idea. Artemus Ward was surely right, in his inimitable American way, when he said the issue in the Reformation was whether to be damned by faith or damned by good works. Which being interpreted means that one cannot but seek the belief that best fits one’s best knowledge of both outer and inner worlds.

But this self-made, self-propelled, all-too-American view of religious choice (I can hear saying this the confident of all the orthodoxies, from the Greek to the Yogi) allows no place to revelation. Your so-called religion is entirely spun out of your own weak, blind, solitary, and temporary little mind.

As to my limited capacities, I don't know what we can do. Any religion, however revealed, has to enter the small receptacles that are our minds and be cut down to size for this purpose. History shows us few examples of total awareness, and those examples — the experiences of the mystics — were not only temporary but also incommunicable.

Nor is it true that the view I have tried to sketch here, crudely and with the serious omission of its emotional tone, originates in me and ignores revelation.

On the contrary, it is built on continuous revelation, and from every source. As a believer in widespread divineness, I cannot afford to neglect any message. It is also true I cannot heed them all. The world has kept the memory of many seers, and in their poems much is confused and contradictory. I do as the rest have done — interpret, understand, sort out the credible from the foolish or merely spectacular. And being humble in the face of tradition, being aware of development, I tend to think that the later revelations are the richer and truer. They have caught up and distilled what went before, refined it to present uses, broadened it to take in more and more of what God’s multitudinous witnesses have said. To particularize from among the authors of modern scripture, I find four most persuasive — because most revelatory — Blake, Nietzsche, William James, and Bernard Shaw.

This implies no rejection of the writers of certified scriptures. But reading their words, one surely learns that in all times prophets and saints have been self-appointed. The founders of religions are seldom bishops to begin with. And in church scriptures also, the latter tends to be the truer — the God of Jesus is ampler and more loving than that of Abraham. Here too is confusion and contradiction that requires sifting — Ecclesiastes, for instance, preaches a doctrine of hopelessness that the story of Job refutes and that I cannot share. I think “vanity of vanities” applies to Ecclesiastes himself­ and in a sense he did not mean. Isaiah would have made short work of him. Farther on comes the divine Jesus, who speaks like no one else — often as difficult to understand as impossible to imitate. Yet who would not own Him as a Master?

No less evident than truth throughout this treasury of revelation is the carelessness of those who have transmitted it. Wrong meanings from bad translation, garbling and mixing of texts, arbitrary decisions taken in sectarian ages about what is scripture and what is not — all this should permanently cure the most eager believer in a fixed canon of doctrine. These flaws are not the inventions of infidels, they are the scholarly findings of the clergy itself after years of devout study. We are told, for instance, that one of the most beautiful stories of Jesus’s life, that of the woman taken in adultery, is a late interpolation. This does not make it less beautiful and wise, but it does render it more permissible to find beauty and wisdom in revelations of all epochs.

Others of the gospel stories are so profound that they seem to transcend moral teaching. Take what seems to me the most haunting of them all: the account of the respective fates of Judas and Peter. Judas committed a horrible act of betrayal, ostensibly for gain. But he was himself so horrified by it that he took his own life. Who does not feel stirred to the depths by compassion for such a man, so like Everyman? And are there not moments when his self-execution makes him seem a more conscious being than Peter, who thrice repudiates his Master, and then goes on to found a church and receive the Keys of Heaven? Peter’s fault too is like Everyman’s. But recanting allegiance and then finding prosperity makes the offense twice abhorrent. Perhaps we are meant to understand that the way to expiate a sin is not to seek a scapegoat, even in ourselves, but to become a different self through better deeds. The story does not preach or assert; it is for pondering and recollection.

But one thing all sources of revelation do hint or tell of is that faith, impulse action, to be good, must form a single natural power. “Grace” is the fit word for the unforced working of the divine motion within us. When we do not possess it, that is because it does not possess us. Hence, as I think, the grave error of describing another’s misdeeds or one’s own as springing from original sin. They seem to me to spring rather from subsequent sin, that is, from complication of mind and dulling of imagination, excess of striving and superfluity of righteousness.

Which is why, when I open the morning mail, I refuse to be drawn, even in imagination, into the many gaseous crusades against “these times of crisis.” Good work has to feel familiar and spontaneous, and this implies that we must begin by accepting ourselves. We shall conquer and be saved if the divine energies suffice. The highest social morality I can find in my world today, and my religion such as it is, alike forbid me to engineer salvation by plotting to control man through devices that will work de haut en bas, whether force or superstition or the science of his supposed “nature.”