Secular Right | Reality & Reason

May/09

24

Preaching from reason: a contradiction in terms?

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I was sympathetically reading this profile of the preacher of what the New York Times claims is New York’s largest church.  The Rev. A.R. Bernard has built his ministry around the responsibility of men, according to the Times, a message that is desperately needed in East Brooklyn, the city’s poorest and highest crime area, where his Christian Cultural Center is located.  Then I got to this:

He said he has seen some astonishing things. The first was a teenage girl who came to his storefront church and crumbled to the floor, convulsing. Her face turned blue, then green. She growled.
When he splashed holy oil on her forehead, he said, she spoke in a deep man’s voice and, though they had never met, referred to his wife and sons by name and said they were in danger. She bit a deacon on the hand, opening wounds; when Mr. Bernard touched her, she let go and the flesh was whole.

He said he visited one young woman at her house and saw her eat broth, then regurgitate nails. Real nails.
A possessed man punched a wall and broke his hand. Mr. Bernard said he sandwiched it between his and it healed.

He does not do exorcisms any more. They drained him. “Now I have staff,” he said.

(Note that reporter N.R. Kleinfield raises not the barest quiver of skepticism towards these claims, indeed, that he seems to revel in their preposterousness [I hope that my religious colleagues on the right would agree that they are patently preposterous].  Kleinfield’s fawning acquiescence in such delusions refutes yet again the alleged hostility of the mainstream media towards religion.)

Is this the compromise we have to strike—a means for affirming positive moral values in exchange for rankest superstition and ignorance?  The greatest boon of religion, in my view, is the sermon.  It is a formal, regular forum in which to shore up the values required for a stable, law-abiding society.  Those values—patience, forgiveness, and self-discipline, among others–are not religious values, they are human values; religion merely appropriates them and claims them for its own.  But secular society has not evolved a counterpart to the sermon in which to articulate and strengthen its core moral components.  The watered-down sermons of the Unitarians and Universalists that I sometimes subject myself to on the radio on Sunday mornings waiting for the classical music to come back on are nauseatingly PC and puling.  In comparison, the Lutheran kooks who go before the Unitarians, confidently explaining such mysteries as what happened to Jesus’ body in heaven, at least occasionally focus on ethical essentials when they are not demanding total, unequivocal faith in God as the only route to salvation.

We cannot assume that positive values are self-perpetuating and will take care of themselves.  Families are their original source, but they may fail.  I wish we could create a secular institution for regular moral tune-ups that appeals to reason, not fantasy.

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11 comments

  • Kelly · May 24, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Where I live, we have the North Texas Church of Freethought (http://www.churchoffreethought.org/), which podcasts its services. While I applaud the effort and haven’t ruled out the possibility of attending one day, I regret to say the services leave me flat. Their effort to be all things to all [non-religious] people comes off as bland, PC self-congratulation – to my ears, at least.

  • Soul Searcher · May 24, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    Amen, amen, amen!

  • charlie · May 24, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    I recently read Anthony Trollope’s autobiography. In responding to attacks from the clergy for taking on taboo (for that time) subjects. He answered that he is a preacher and these, his novels, are his sermons. And great sermons they are too. And when I read this I realized that that was what I liked about them, they give one moral encouragement.

  • charlie · May 24, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    I meant to add that maybe literature is the secular institution you are looking for.

  • Ploni · May 24, 2009 at 7:03 pm

    Heather Mac Donald writes:

    Kleinfield’s fawning acquiescence in such delusions refutes yet again the alleged hostility of the mainstream media towards religion.

    Nope, it doesn’t refute that claim at all, properly formulated. Rev. Bernard’s church is black. The mainstream media are hostile to white, non-progressive Christianity and Christians. Most of the time those qualifiers are omitted, but they’re implied. And religion here is not a proxy for political orientation. The media’s hostility is about culture, not politics.

    We cannot assume that positive values are self-perpetuating and will take care of themselves…I wish we could create a secular institution for regular moral tune-ups that appeals to reason, not fantasy.

    Well, it’s good to see this kind of thing stated here as a wish, rather than as an achievable goal as it usually is. It’s true that “positive” values are not self-perpetuating, but you can’t perpetuate Heather Mac Donald’s “positive” values by natural reason either. That’s because reason is just as good a basis for lots of different opposing systems of values, “negative” values I guess you’d call them. These “negative” values are constantly challenging the “positive” values, with plenty of help from natural reason. You need something a lot stronger than reason to do what you want.

  • charlie · May 24, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    Ploni,
    Negative values can challenge positive values using reason. Sure, they can use reason to make the argument, but can they win it? You say you need something a lot stronger than reason. Like what?

  • Roger Hallman · May 24, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    What do you get when you cross a Unitarian Universalist with a Mormon? Someone who knocks on your door at 8:30 AM Saturday morning for no apparent reason.

    Why don’t Unitarian Universalists sing hymns well? Because they’re always scanning ahead to see if the song has any lyrics that they, or someone they know, might find offensive.

    I seem to recall that Dr. Martin Luther King called the Unitarians–at this point the Unitarians and the Universalists hadn’t yet merged organizations–a useless social club….or something to that effect. I attended a local UU church for about half a year after I got out of the Marine Corps and moved to Phoenix and I found them to be rather like tepid, luke-warm tea. I’m not given to fits of spirituality, and I generally liked their statements of core values, but I found the services to be extraordinarily shallow. And the girls there weren’t very much to look at. If I am to be surrounded by a bunch of liberal activists then I at least want some eye candy to enjoy.

  • Danny · May 24, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    You seem to be wanting an American Confucianism.

  • Ploni · May 25, 2009 at 3:24 am

    @charlie
    Yeah, “negative” values can often win the reason war. (Here I mean “positive/negative” in the sense of “what Heather Mac Donald likes/dislikes.”) Moral reason, when applied soundly, is often useless for arbitrating between “positive” and “negative” values. Consider infanticide.

    What’s stronger than reason for perpetuating “positive” values? Religion, for one.

  • Author comment by Heather Mac Donald · May 25, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    Charlie, thank you for that Trollope story. As I’ve written here before, I certainly think that art provides a superabundance of “meaning,” if somehow the challenges of daily living leave one still searching for significance in life (though why anyone would feel devoid of meaning, given the richness of our world, even without the glories of Trollope, Tiepelo, and Mozart, is beyond me). The Way We Live Now is simply astounding in its probing of human character and moral choices. But the experience of art is largely private, in my view. What I appreciate about your average sermon is that it is a more collective and explicit affirmation of moral glue, less complicated by the formal values and ambiguity of art. (Which isn’t to say that there aren’t asthetically sophisticated sermons, such as John Donne’s.)

  • Marc · May 25, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    “. . .Kleinfield raises not the barest quiver of skepticism towards these claims, indeed, that he seems to revel in their preposterousness. . .Kleinfield’s fawning acquiescence in such delusions refutes yet again the alleged hostility of the mainstream media towards religion.”

    Perhaps, or perhaps he takes the attitude that he is just reporting, and that the claims are so clearly ridiculous that he doesn’t need to belabor the point, and tell the reader what to think.

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