Is love, sweet love.

That, and a heavy dose of shut up and deal. Reading at Feministe today, Piny takes on the quite a bit more famous and far less cogent athiest Sam Harris. It’s really not a fair fight, but let’s be honest…that’s why it’s fun to watch.

But as i said there, i’m troubled by this stuff. It’s eliminationist. Now, i doubt if you put the question to Harris, he would support physical violence. But he is, quite clearly and consciously, talking about complete cultural destruction. I am reassured by Harris’ total lack of power to accomplish any of this, but it doesn’t make his rhetoric any more palatable. Yes, there are worse examples out there, but the presence of extremes isn’t justification.

What irks me all the more, is that I’ve read this before, when it was called “The Future of an Illusion” and it was by Freud. Say what you will about that work, and I disagree with it as well, but at least it was written with some skill. The problem, however, remains the same. It is the over confidence in the project of the Enlightenment.

He writes that there is no appeal to a court above reason. This assertion is tied to his core thesis that if religion serves human needs, then it must be assumed to be a creation of ours, an adaptation to existential angst. The illusion as he calls religion, has given structure to human existance in the past, but now hampers our future.

But is reason a sufficient substitute? To use the words of Caiaphas, there are times when it is better for one to die for the many. It was certainly a rational call, as the severity of Roman rule cannot be doubted. One death ended a challenge to the authorities and the threat of bloody reprisal. But is it just? Is it right?

The problem here is that Freud sees the value of religion soley in terms of historical truth claims. I don’t fault him alone, for as W.C. Smith notes of the post-Enlightnment age: “Church leaders, like their contemporaries, though historiography had to do with turth, but myth did not.” Indeed, it is dubious to think that Caiaphas uttered those exact words. But their use is not in establishing a timeline of the events two millenia ago. It is in engaging the reader in experiencing a moral drama.

Just a few years after Freud wrote, Hitler rose to power. The Shoah was unleashed, fueled by nationalism and racial politics. What is often overlooked is that these ideas are not just incidental, or political circumstances of Europe at the time. They are intimatly connected with the rationalism of the Enlightenment heritage.

I’ll write on this again some other time, but the crucial point here is that the entire frame work of Western Academia had underpinnings in the racialized discourse of the era. Europe was the pinnacle of humanity, and the spirit of Europe was freedom, reason, and progress. This is especially true of Hegel and Hiedegger. They both divide knowledge in to the objective and the spiritual, and use these distinctions to cast the non-Western as without history and progress. More importantly, spiritual is a national characteristic, the spirit of Enlightenment, not specific religious teaching, which is classed as objective knowledge. It is in the giest of the people, the will of the nation.

What went wrong? Nationalism, like piny points out in the ensuing discussion, has terrible potential for violence. The challenge wasn’t in overcoming “ossified legalism” or “the despotism of the East” as Hegel charged Judaism/Catholicism and the “Orient.” It was in the radical otherizing being performed by these discourses. Frankly, we have to see that reason is not objective in some mythic and supercessionary way. It does not rise about the rest of our constructions of knowledge. Like anything else, reason attempts to obscure the particular and political origins of its foundational assumptions. And so, it is capable of transmitting and legitimating such heinous content as the deep notion of the objectivity of “otherness” that helped perpetuate colonialism, Western nationalism, and the idea of race.

By contrast, does this mean that there is some strict correspondence between religion and morality? Quite clearly, this is not the case. As Victoria Barnett writes in Must Christianity Be Violent?, Christian confession did not predict resistance or compliance in WWII. Christians were found on both sides of the line, and in varying degrees of participation. For those Christians who did resist, they noted the essential act of seeing Christ in others. What I am proposing here is that religion can be a powerful means of engaging in ethical imagination. Ethical imagination is the ability to perceive, read, and engage narratives and experiences from multiple vantage points. It is the beginning of the possibility to see outside not just self, but the groups and structures in which the self is defined. And critical to this process is narrative.

We relate to stories differently, and the structure of these worlds can require our active participation and engagement. Unlike pure reason, the essential element of narrative is the instability of the story. We must be in suspense, we must believe in the conflict’s openness, that it might really go either way. And if the story is told with particular skill, the narrative can break us into eyes that our not our own. It is no accident that queer theology depends so strongly on the personal story. These writers know that one of the things that breaks down homophobia is a sense of personal connection, that hearing the story of another can be an invitation in to ethical imagination.

Reason is not a lost cause. But it can never be entirely sufficient, or solely guide us. Moral imagination, be that through religion or otherwise, must compliment and correct our logics. Because it is entirely possible to calculate the economic, social, and political cost of a single human life.

We must chose. Do we wish to live in a world where it is right that one should die for the many?

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