Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Harris' Shocker! Thank God

It's publishers -- Vintage Books -- call it a "national bestseller". I don't doubt this claim. Sam Harris' "Letter to a Christian National" also captivated me. I started reading the book while waiting for my flight from Tuguegarao; I read in on board the plane, continued reading after I had gotten off, and read well into the night until I was done with it. It is most assuredly an engaging book -- and also a merciless attack on religion. So why do I like the book? I like it so much that I recommended it to my brother-priests in the Archdiocese of Tuguegarao.

I like it because it shakes us with necessary rudeness from the 'dogmatic slumber' that has kept us in the Catholic Church complacent. It is a diatribe against the irrationality that is quite undeniably tucked into what passes for religion. It is good for Harris to rally all his readers against rationality so that henceforth, when any preacher -- Catholic, Evangelical, Muslim -- utters anything at all, there better be good reasons for them. It will no longer do to say that only a special form of enlightenment will allow vision. These kinds of pretensions at special knowledge -- already condemned since the Church dealt with the gnostic heresies -- must also be expunged from the life and praxis of the Church itself.

Harris poses a real challenge. If we want to talk about the "virgin birth", about the "bodily Resurrection of Jesus", then it will be well for us to know our hermeneutics well. This is why I have always insisted that our priests should read Ricoeur and study philosophy assiduously, and that religion should at all times be rational. If I should be labelled a 'rationalist' I will take that to be a compliment, preferable to its opposite: 'irrationalist'.

But if Harris is to avoid the very dogmatism against which he raises a loud, justified howl of protest, he must allow for a concept of God that need not take the tracks with which he is familiar. I refer particularly to a development of the insight of Spinoza -- and its contemporary forms in Whitehead, Hartshorne and even Chardin. To mention the name of God is to see the sheer-ongoingness of the universe as leading, despite its many twists, turns and detours, towards higher order, greater benevolence and ethical sensitivity, intelligence and beauty. One's wonder at the emergence of a reflective being like the human species from the tree of primates, one's appreciation of our growing sensitivity to the demands of human rights (whosever rights they may be), our wonderment at the capacity of the earth to heal itself despite the ravages we visit on it is our appreciation, our acknowledgment of what is Divine, Holy and Worshipful. It is not postulating an "extra being out there' called God. In other words, Harris concept of God -- that he rejects -- is one concept; it is the most common concept to be sure, but it is not the only concept there can be about God.

He also blames religion for the atrocities of the ancient and the modern worlds. I have no intention to deny that. It is true that Christians killed in the name of Jesus, and Muslims, in the name of Allah. But people have slaughtered in the name of the Classless Society, and gone to war, dropping atomic bombs along the way, in the name of Democracy. And the slaughter of 6 million Jews was not really a religious act -- it went under the name "National Socialism". The point I am making is that great ideas, cosmic ideas, comprehensive ideas have the capacity to generate great love and immense hate. That is not peculiar to religion. Said simply: Religion does not cause genocide. It is what people do with religion -- and other great ideas -- that kills!

It is also true that people have done good and have achieved heroism without religion or religious motives. That alone is not proof against religion, for it is as true that as many if not more have demonstrated kindness and benevolence to heroic lengths, accommodation of others -- particularly the weakest, the poorest, the outcast -- because of religion. The fact that some can be good without religion does not argue against the fact that religion does lure many to acts of goodness and to good lives.

Having said all that, I encourage every priest, every preacher, every 'miracle worker', every seminary student to read Harris book and try to make sense, not out of Harris, but of what we set out to do, preach, teach and pass on to others in the light of his scathing take on the irrationality that has often been the result of our carelessness in respect to our intellectual responsibility.

1 comment:

  1. When you sent me an SMS message to read Sam Harris A LETTER TO A CHRISTIAN NATION I took note of it and, at the earliest possible time, got hold of the small book. Yes, the book is engaging but also it reminded me of my days when you asked me to take your place to be a member of the academic staff of a college seminary in Malaysia. I challenged my students to be able to come up with reasonable answers to questions like what Sam Harris posed. It was a most difficult time for me to be there but also most challenging. Difficult because in one class there would be students who were just out of grammar school and other students who went to study in London or finished a bachelors degree. The challenge was in letting both the students just out of grammar school and those who have a better proficiency in English have a desire to learn how to argue reasonably what they believed in.
    I don't know how I fared in my imparting the message. But I heard some of them have have gone for further studies and holding positions of responsibility.
    As always your intellectual acumen comes through in your comments on Harris's position. They're noted and will be shared to whomever is interested to take a closer look at what is said.
    Thanks for sharing such a challenging book and your comments on it.