Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Part II: Rules, of Rules, Religion, and Free Will--and Cognitive Science

Having started with free will, next let's look at rules, positioning rules as the opposite of free will, as if to say, if there are rules and I can't do anything I want to do, that means somebody is trying to intrude on my free will.

I'm going to spend considerable time on rules, given their importance in everyday life, in religion--in fact, you could say, in the whole scheme of things--as well as to the thesis I'm developing.

In America, rules don't come to mind initially as something we praise.  We see rules as confining, as an impediment to freedom, as something to be overcome. Can that view of rules be unrelated to the prototypical American ethos--individualistic, independent, anti-authoritarian?

Anti-authoritarianism is as American as apple pie.  Yet there is also a familiar Christian subtext to the objection to rules.  It is not for nothing that there is "protest" in "Protestant."

Let's look at that etymology a little further.  It's worth noting that protest comes to us through Middle English and Old French from the Latin pro-testari, to testify before or publicly testify--to declare--retained in statements such as "He protested his innocence," or "He protested his love for her."  In Shakespeare's day, to protest in the sense of to proclaim wasn't limited to abstractions such as protesting one's sentiments; Shakespeare could speak of "Unrough youths who even now/Protest their first manhood" (dictionary example).

So it may be that imagining the verb protest to have meant, for Martin Luther, "to strongly object," is to read back into the past what it has come to mean today.  Scholar John Madden, in a lecture on the Reformation (Odyssey of the West IV--Toward Enlightenment, Modern Scholar), says Luther did not defiantly hammer his 95 theses to the church door as we visualize the scene now; he merely tacked up the subject of his forthcoming lecture.  In other words, the way he got angry was the way university professors still get angry: they put it into a lecture.

It's also noteworthy that, according to Wictionary, the transitive usage by which we say, "I protest the results of the election," or, "I protest the building of a shopping center in this residential neighborhood," is chiefly North American.

Nevertheless, whatever the spirit in which Luther posted his theses in 1517, Protestants today usually picture themselves as having stood up to unjust authority, including declaring their freedom from Catholic "dogma" (rules).

From my vantage point as a Jew, I have often thought I could pick out a central tension within Christianity.  Jesus vs. Church, rebellion vs. authority.  As soon as anything gets established, there are rules; those who disagree with the rules (and there are always some who disagree) condemn the rules in the name of following Jesus, tarring the objectionable religious establishment as rule-bound and authoritarian.

A. N. Wilson, writing in Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, parses that tension in terms of Paul and Jesus, with, in his rendition, Paul representing established political authority--the conservative end of the spectrum--and Jesus representing liberalism, or sometimes even theocracy-based anarchism and revolution:

...The Paul/Jesus dichotomy is never more sharply shown than in its political implications; nor is it a Catholic/Protestant divide.  On the whole, the more Paulist the Christian, the more likely to support the political status quo: Luther shored up the German princes and Cranmer baptised not merely the Tudor realpolitik but the English idea of themselves as an independent entity at the birth of the nation state in Europe.  Ignatius, by contrast, served a theocracy of which he believed Jesus to be king, and saw nothing wrong with undermining and spying against sovereign states.  Paul would have been amazed by the idea of Jesuits; Simon the Zealot would have understood them.  The United States was founded by Protestant Jesus-worshippers....

Back in 1950s and '60s America, and still sometimes detectable, there was a notion that Protestantism vs. Catholicism was the crucial issue; as we just saw, A. N. Wilson says not.

In a Christian context these days, I more often hear of "rules" in terms of Judaism and what "the Jewish leaders" did.

In that Christianity vs. Judaism narrative, rules can function as the opposite of Christianity--rules, accordingly, becoming something "the Jews" followed but Jesus didn't, something the "Jewish leaders" imposed but that he overthrew, rules being what Paul even calls (according to some traditional readings) the veritable cause of sin.  As a result of the language of the Gospels and the Epistles and of later theology, there is a wealth of Christian suspicion of rules and "law."  That is a notion that frequently surfaces.

Please note that the Christian habit of seeing "rules" as "Jewish" in a pejorative sense says more about Christianity than it does about Judaism.

In other words, it's part of Christianity's picture of Judaism and the general usage of Judaism as a foil for Christianity, for the purpose of saying this ("we"--that is, Christianity) is good, while that ("they"--Judaism), is bad, so join up with us and repudiate them.

By extension, since "we" (here, Christians) have now declared "them" (Jews) bad, their rules, by definition, are bad, too--meaningless regulations for the purpose of "holding people down," or whatever "we" (Christians) perceive as the opposite of what "we" are about.

What I have just described is a polemic: a common type of argument that, unlike debate, aims to establish the truth of one position and the falsity of the opposing position, between which there is no middle ground.  In a polemic, the opposing position is caricatured for ease of demolishing it.

Those accused of holding the opposing position then are conveniently available for use as a "common enemy," which works like this:  A common enemy functions to paper over all troubling internal disagreement.  By means of the common enemy a group outsources all disruptive conflict.  The group makes some person or segment the scapegoat and pins everything on them.   By that sleight of hand, those "others" are now the outsiders, the troublemakers, the divisive ones, the cause of all difficulties, and the deserving focus of ire by an ingroup now purified and united against--the common enemy.

Here I'm claiming that, just as the issue of rules is not an issue of Protestantism vs. Catholicism, neither, in fact, is it one of Christianity vs. Judaism, certain familiar habits of thinking notwithstanding.

Theologically speaking, Judaism cannot be reduced to rules, regulations, and the established order.  To take one example: While on one hand, the creation story may capture the pole of bringing order out of chaos, on the other hand, the calling down of messy plagues on Pharaoh reflects the opposite.

Nor is lawlessness an accurate portrayal of Christianity.

Last summer (2012) I was a guest at a Sunday School class during which someone brought up rules in the familiar light--as though they were something Jewish that Jesus was against--but the Sunday school teacher, who happened to be a seminary faculty member, said, no, that was incorrect.  The tension over rules--what, how much, and how many--was a tension within Christianity, not between Christianity and Judaism, she said.

Be that as it may, the Christian habit of thinking about rules as meaning Judaism is so common and deeply entrenched that "rules," if one is a Christian, is something of a codeword.  Just say "rules" in a certain tone, and everybody knows what's meant.  It's like the old saw about the people who know each other so well, they just say "Joke Number 17" and everybody laughs.

Rules as representing the difference between Christianity and Judaism, or as evidence that Christianity is a better religion, may be one that is neither official nor theologically justified, but nevertheless seems to be understood that way in the hearts and minds of many Christians.

One example comes from the 2006 book The Faith Club, about a trio of women, one Jewish, one Muslim, and one Christian, learning from each other.  The Christian woman of the trio said that prior to her transformative experience with her two friends, she used to teach in Sunday school that Jesus' proclamation of to love God with all one's heart, soul, mind, and strength and one's neighbor as oneself as the greatest commandment was a "radical departure" from the "don't do this" rules of the Old Testament.  As the result of her interfaith experience, she came to understand her old view as wrong.  Jesus was not opposed to his Judaism but was building on it.

A sermon I heard several years ago provides another example of the way Christians so often think of rules and Judaism.   Criticizing the behavior of Jews as portrayed in the New Testament, the pastor capped his sermon with, "Sometimes you have to do something beside just follow rules."

I'm not saying that preacher didn't know better, but, if he did, he couldn't or didn't stand up to what his congregation expected to hear.

Although that particular sermon was preached at a very politically liberal church, opinions about rules may not be so very different on the conservative side. A Christmas Day opinion piece several years ago by the local paper's conservative columnist proclaimed that "Christianity is news; other religions are advice."

That view of Judaism by Christians--that it is (just) rules--is close to the one my own Christian husband held before we began studying together.   Although his belief that Judaism was an ethical system revealed itself in more benign language, the implication was that Christianity, in contrast, was a religion.  It was not something he had thought about or questioned; it was just an assumption that came with the territory.

Of course, before we began studying, I myself was largely clueless, neither knowing much about Judaism nor being clearly aware that many Americans look down on it as consisting of only rules, ethics, or advice.

The emphasis on "advice" can reflect, I think, an attempt to get around the issue of rules by implying that Christian rules, such as they are, do involve ethics--that is, right and wrong--while the more distasteful sort of rules "just tell people what to do" or say "do this, don't do that."

One need only think of rules for young children, which concern safety, not ethics, to see the limits of that dichotomy.  (Sometimes it's quite hard to say whether a rule is for safety or for right and wrong; think about it.) Or, consider advising people to come to church regularly.  Don't sleep in on Sundays, or how to dress for church: advice

Nor is it an issue of telling people what to do vs. what not to do, a rationalization preferred by some.

Yet those sorts of rationalizations are in common parlance.  Their purpose is to make logical-sounding the polemic about Judaism being a religion of rigid rules and regulations while Christianity is one of spiritual freedom--part of the narrative built into Christianity at the foundational level.

The very focus on freedom vs. rules that has functioned to outsource conflict and establish boundaries has also served to exacerbate the tension between authority and freedom within Christianity, so that the fact that some people, some of the time and in significant numbers, are thinking that freedom is the opposite of rules, is sufficient to sow dissension and disunity.

All of the above feeds into our heightened American fixation on individualism, free choice, free will, and freedom from rules.

As I have mentioned, that ethos affects not only certain segments of the population (that is, not only Christians, and not only Protestants) but all of us.  The culture in which we live permeates all of us.

Having made the foregoing foray into the territory of religion, we're going to step away from religion in the next section and turn to science.  The next section focuses on the new cognitive psychological science and what it has to do with free will and rules.

(The reader may click here to view Parts I - IV in one continuous post, or here to go to Part III.)

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