In this blog post I want to focus on Theodore Parker’s main claims in “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity” and then critique them from my own philosophical/theological standpoint.
Parker’s main claims:
1. There is a dimension of religion which is “always the same thing and never changes.” Parker calls this “Absolute Religion.” Besides describing Absolute Religion as ahistorical and changeless (and therefore of absolute value), he characterizes it as “existing in the facts of human nature and the ideas of an infinite God” as well as “the deep sentiment of love to man and love to God.” He also says that Absolute Religion is true “like the axioms of geometry.”
3. Jesus is an example of one who achieved direct access to the permanent in religion, and we ought to strive to do the same. “Christianity is not a system of doctrines, but rather a method of attaining oneness with God.” Parker calls this method “intuition” which is an “oracle God places in the breast.”
Before I offer my critique, I want to say that I was very surprised to discover that Parker’s sermon echoes Descartes’ Meditations in key respects. Descartes begins his work by saying, “Reason now leads me to think that I should hold back my assent from opinions which are not completely certain and indubitable just as carefully as I do from those which are patently false”—-and the problem is that practically every item of belief can be doubted. This gives rise to anxiety, to say the least—-the same sort of anxiety that Parker talks about in light of the fact that “In respect of doctrines as well as forms we see all is transitory. ‘Every where is instability and insecurity.’”
Descartes’ approach to a solution resembles Parker’s, too. Descartes: “Archimedes used to demand just one firm and immoveable point in order to shift the entire earth; so I too can hope for great things if I can manage to find just one thing, however slight, that is certain and unshakeable.” Descartes’ “firm and immoveable point” was “I think therefore I am”—-and Parker’s is “Absolute Religion.”
Now, my criticisms:
Parker’s conception of truth as changeless and ahistorical betrays his ultimate philosophical loyalty, which is to the Greeks. It also marks him as living in a pre-Darwinian world. Above all: though he purports to speak for Christianity, he is not loyal to Christianity’s deep commitment to history and change.
Parker rejects the idea—-a truism today—-that the knower has a significant effect on the known: how it appears, how it is articulated, and so on. He believes that Absolute Religion exists like Platonic Forms “somewhere out there,” and our ideas are true insofar as they passively mirror these unchanging, eternal forms. However, this is an extremely flawed view of the nature of human knowledge. My own preference is for the position called “incomplete constructivism” which I take from William James. According to him, “there is something in every experience that escapes our arbitrary control …. There is a push, an urgency, within our very experience, against which we are on the whole powerless.” The given is a sort of limit, containing certain inherent tendencies, patterns, and consistencies, beyond which we cannot go—-but up to this point, language, history, tradition, and other experience-structuring factors have full sway.
I believe that the “permanent” element in religion which Parker talks about is one of the “urgencies within our very experience” which James talks about. It very much exists—-on this Parker and I agree-—but I do not see it as discrete and well defined. It is, as I see it, a vague though insistent yearning for ultimacy—-a yearning that is also precognitive, affective, and quite amoral.
One more thing: Absolute Religion cannot be true as geometrical axioms are true. Geometrical axioms are true self-evidently, but is by no means self-evidently true that God exists (except for those who accept the Ontological Argument). If God’s existence and love were self-evidently true, then atheism would be as unthinkable as a square circle—-and a Feuerbach or a Dietrich would never be possible.
I believe that Parker radically underestimates the importance of what he calls the transient elements in religion. The transient elements are not so much like a robe that some angel puts on and takes off without being changed in any essential way but, rather, more like a musical instrument. A musical instrument gives body and shape to what is otherwise a vague musical talent. Though it makes sense to talk about musical talent separately from musical instruments, our talk must ever remain on the level of vague generalities until a person actually takes up lessons and learns how to play. What musical talent in the end becomes is all-dependent on the instrument. Throw away musical instruments, and musical talent—the religious impulse—never becomes an actual, real force in the world.
Unitarian Universalist identity is not a cape. It is a violin. If we learn how to play it, it makes beautiful music out of our religious longing. And the process of learning how to play–the deep, difficult discipline–shapes who we are in fundamental, essential ways.
Because Parker radically underestimates the necessity of “the transient,” his prediction about our being Christian today (“Christians quite as good as we, or our fathers of the dark ages”) is laughable. (That is, I’d laugh if I wasn’t crying.) But what else could be expected, when Parker puts the person of Jesus, the Bible, theology, and religious identity all in the category of the transient!
What I said in part about Parker’s first claim applies here as well. Parker thinks that a Jesus is possible—one who has direct, unmediated access to “Absolute Religion.” I say impossible. All knowing is mediated through language, history, culture, and so on. Parker’s understanding of intuition prevents us from realizing the very real biases that direct or limit its searchlight.