Sunday, November 28, 2010

Elevate me

Jean Kazez says:
The good of religion It goes back to Keith Richards's book. Over and over again, he talks about the "elevation" he feels from making one out of many--one sound in a band with many members. This is a term also used by Jonathan Haidt, who references Barbara Ehrenreich's book about the lost art of dancing in the streets. We can't all be Keith Richards, but anyone can become a member of a church--and then the "band" is huge, crossing boundaries of both space and time.

But wait--why do you need a church for that? Why isn't there sufficient elevation in going to rock concerts or political rallies or baseball games? It's different, because a church (but not a stadium) is a place in which people deal with the passage of time (marked by holidays) and the major events of life--birth, marriage, illness, death. Contingently, though not of necessity, churches are in the time/birth/death business because they are places run by priests who have contact with the powers that supposedly govern such things.

The new atheist attitude is that the whole edifice of religion should come falling down because there aren't any gods. But then you'd lose all the good. As I see it: better for religion to evolve in a rational direction, not vanish entirely. That view is the main thing that makes me a not-new atheist, and it has nothing to do with "accommodationism" about science and religion.
The second paragraph reminds me of the end of Larkin's "Church Going":
I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for which was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
I think Kazez and Larkin are excellent on why there might be a need for church, but actually going to church does not (in my experience) provide the kind of elevation that Richards talks about. This elevation seems to come from a kind of communal art, although 'art' might be too grand a term for it. I think it would include the joy that a Cleveland Browns fan recently described to me of chanting "Asshole" in unison with a whole stadium at a hated former player. It certainly includes this kind of singing, etc. at a football/soccer match. But that has nothing to do with marriage, birth, and death. We still tend to go to church (or turn to religion in some form) for those things.

So how do we bring the things we care about (the Browns, the birth of a baby, etc.) together with church and/or religion? I'm not sure that a more rational form of religion is the answer. The best lack all conviction/The worst are full of passionate intensity, as Yeats said. (This seems to apply to politics as well as religion, and is almost explicitly given as a common reason for not voting for the clearly better presidential candidate in the US.) So we need to make the worst more rational (which people are constantly trying to do, without much success) and the best more passionate (which means finding something they can get passionate about).

Which is a bit like saying we need a new god, or only a god can save us now. Also like Nietzsche's madman's "I seek God, I seek God." It seems to keep being said. Which means, not to end on too much of a downer, that hope remains alive.


  1. I like the idea of communal ecstasy/elevation and agree that there's something lost if that goes by the boards. But there's something wrong if that takes the form of shouting "Asshole"--the same thing that's wrong with every bad form of groupthink or mob violence. That's part of the danger of communal action, right? Tricking yourself into thinking that because everyone else is doing it and because you feel "elevated" by it, it's a good thing.

  2. Good point. I got the sense that elevation is just a feeling, and I think it could come from bad communal action as much as from good communal action. But, of course, that doesn't make bad communal action good. So we need a kind of collective, creative activity that is rational (or at least reasonable) and good (or at least not bad) and that we can get passionate about, that somehow relates to birth, marriage, death, etc. There should be a prize for the best answer.

  3. That seems to fit the bill. How communal does it have to be?