Of Law and Love: Jon D. Levenson on THE LOVE OF GOD

The Love of God jacket

The love of God is perhaps the most essential element in Judaism—but also one of the most confounding. In biblical and rabbinic literature, the obligation to love God appears as a formal commandment. Yet most people today think of love as a feeling. How can an emotion be commanded? Jon D. Levenson, Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University, recently took the time to answer questions about his new book, The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism.

How did you first get the idea of writing a book on the love of God in Judaism?

JL:  To love God is actually taken as a formal commandment in the rabbinic sources, and the passages in Deuteronomy that mandate it appear in texts that Talmudic law requires to be recited every day of the year. So, for anyone who aspires to be a practicing Jew, the subject comes up rather obviously and regularly—even if many people in that category don’t give it much thought. But one of my professors in my doctoral program many moons ago was the distinguished Assyriologist and Biblicist William L. Moran, whose classic article on “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy,” published in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly in 1963, had a huge effect on me when I read it my first year in graduate school.

In brief, Professor Moran shows that the idiom of the love of God (that is, the people Israel’s love for God) originates in ancient treaties, or covenants, and has to do with the lesser party’s exclusive and undivided service of the greater party. In an earlier book, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible, I dealt with this same transposition (as I put it) from the realm of politics and international relations to the realm of theology and national identity. In the first chapter of The Love of God, I try to draw out a number of further implications of Professor Moran’s argument but also to make some refinements on it and to enter respectful dissents from it.

What kind of refinements and dissents do you have in mind?

JL: For one thing, although I totally agree that “love” has a technical, legal meaning in Deuteronomy and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), I also agree with those who insist that the technical usage doesn’t preclude the emotional or affective connotations that the word has for most people. To put it differently, sometimes loving may simply mean loyal service and faithful obedience, but we need to guard against over-generalizing from such passages, just as we need to guard against interpreting “love” in this context as a purely subjective, emotional state without normative behavioral correlates. I try to show that in Deuteronomy God falls in love with Israel—I don’t think the language is exclusively technical but rather it connotes passion—and demands a response that has its own affective character. In other words, we have to reckon with both an outward and an inward dimension, though recognizing that the inward-outward dichotomy is not itself native to ancient Near Eastern culture and can lead interpreters of the Bible astray. In fact, the movement is in both directions. Actions awaken and deepen emotions, and emotions generate and make sense of actions.

I also stress more than Moran did the connection of the two meanings of “the love of God”—the love God receives and the love he gives. Both are found in Deuteronomy, though the rhetorical situation of that book leads it to emphasize the love the people Israel must give to God. An important part of the covenantal idea is that the greater party (in this case, God) has endowed the lesser party with gifts—like all true gifts, they are undeserved—and this should motivate the recipient to respond not only with gratitude and humility but also with acts of service. There is something in a gift that provokes reciprocity, and that reciprocity deepens the relationship of the two parties. This is what I mean by the words in the subtitle, “Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness.” Simply to treat the norms of the Torah—the mitzvot as they are called in Hebrew—as impersonal injunctions divorced from that living relationship with that very personal God is to misunderstand them profoundly. In my experience, doing so makes the Torah itself seem incoherent and antique. It is a huge blunder to try to force the biblical commandments altogether into the Procrustean bed of ethics, morals, folkways, or whatever. In this book, I try to lay out the alternatives that the classical biblical and rabbinic sources offer to these very modern, and in my opinion not very successful, strategies.

I noticed that in your second chapter, “Heart, Soul, and Might,” you deal at length with suffering and martyrdom. Why?

JL: That chapter focuses on the ancient rabbinic interpretations of the famous commandment to “love the LORD [which is actually a proper name] your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” The rabbis stress the unconditionality and supremacy of such love and consider ways in which a person might be tempted to prefer something else to that arduous commandment. So long as one puts self-interest above grateful and loving service, he or she has fallen short of the ideal. Part of the problem is that the biblical sources themselves (especially Deuteronomy again) promise all manner of good things to one who loves God, observing his commandments, and the opposite to one who fails to do so, breaking faith and breaching covenant. So, the rabbis are eager to stress that the hope for reward and the fear of punishment must not be the basis of the service. The Jew must persevere in his or her service; he or she must work at loving God even in the hardest and most frightful of situations. Here, the horrific martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva around 135 CE serves as a key object lesson.

One implication that I draw out from this is that the foundational narratives in which the God of Israel acts a generous benefactor establish the continuing norm. In other words, that situation overrides the immediate circumstances in which Jews find themselves—even circumstances of brutal persecution and death. The love that his gifts called forth was to remain firmly in place even when the gifts appear to have been withdrawn, replaced, in fact, by unspeakable hardship. This, in turn, leads me to reflect on the relationship of the unconditional to the conditional both in the love relationship of God and the Jewish people in these sources and in love relationships more generally.

It’s only in your third chapter that you develop the idea of a romance between God and the people Israel. Tell us why you didn’t do so earlier.

JL: The reason is simple: love in the ancient world—and really in the modern as well—isn’t exclusively or even primarily sexual in nature, even though sexual love commands disproportionate attention at the moment, especially in the fashions of academia. The Hebrew Bible has many metaphors for the God-Israel relationship: suzerain and vassal, king and subject, father and son, shepherd and flock, etc. In order to understand the marital metaphor—God as husband, Israel as wife—it is important to have dealt with some of these others, especially the suzerain-vassal metaphor, beforehand. Otherwise, we’re likely to read all kinds of contemporary assumptions about sexuality and gender into literature that operates on completely different understandings. In particular, if we don’t grasp the dynamics of covenant, we’ll find God’s actions in that marriage to be bizarre and patently indefensible.

For example, in our modern American world, if the wife gives her affections and her body to other men, a common solution lies in divorce: the two parties just go their separate ways, hoping to end up with partners more to their liking. But that is exactly what doesn’t happen in the marital metaphor as the biblical prophets develop it! Here again, the element of unconditionality is crucial. God doesn’t walk away from the relationship, even if Israel has done so. He doesn’t replace her or even take a second wife (remember, ancient Israel had no legal or moral problem with polygamy). He punishes her, even harshly, but this turns out to be a preparation for a restoration of the marriage. The punishment is a consequence of his passionate love for her and faithfulness to her. Ultimately, it evinces a renewal of her love for him, in turn. All this, of course, is foreign to us and doesn’t comport with how we think human husbands ought to act. But that doesn’t authorize us to miss the underlying theology, satisfying ourselves with a simple characterization of it as immoral or whatever.

Later, in the case of the rabbis, the speakers in the great biblical love poem, the Song of Songs, come to be seen as God and Israel, again in their ideal state of mutual fidelity. That’s not the plain sense of the book taken as a stand-alone composition, but within the context of the rest of biblical literature, it is a very natural—and very productive and very moving—way to read it. Nowhere does one see the power of the love of God more dramatically than in the rabbinic interpretations of the Song of Songs. That biblical book enabled the rabbis to interpret the whole history of the God-Israel relationship as a romance—an extremely important move in the history of Jewish thought.

In your last two chapters, you deal with medieval and modern materials. What changes in the Middle Ages and modernity?

JL: The medieval thinkers continue the rabbinic legacy but also add to it. For example, they sometimes interpret the female speaker of the Song of Songs as the individual soul. They also provide practical guidance about how to attain the love of God. For them again, that’s something to work on; it doesn’t just happen to you. It’s also in the Middle Ages that we first see the sustained interaction of the rabbinic legacy with philosophy. In one case, that of Maimonides, the philosopher waxes passionate about humans’ love for God but has problems with the idea that God loves humans, or anything else. That’s because he believes all human language to describe God is akin to idolatry; a God who’s susceptible to love seems imperfect to Maimonides. But I show that other medieval Jewish philosophers develop sophisticated arguments against him on this. To them, to love is a sign of perfection, not imperfection, and God’s love—even his passionate, unpredictable love—is a sign of his greatness.

In modern times, momentous changes appear with emancipation and secularization. Now one can leave the Jewish community without having to convert to Christianity or anything else. This makes observance of the mitzvot (commandments) just one lifestyle option among many; it’s no longer a social necessity or an obvious response to a divine will. Martin Buber, one of the two thinkers I examine in my last chapter, believes deeply in a personal God, but he also argues that whether the commandments in the Torah really reflect his will has to be determined by each individual on a case-by-case basis. So, ultimately and perhaps also unwittingly, Buber opts for the disconnected, autonomous self of modern liberalism. But his friend and collaborator Franz Rosenzweig comes to see God’s love as something that transforms and enlarges the self and impels it towards acceptance of the mitzvot—though without the support of old and now discredited historical claims.

Will the reader find surprises in The Love of God? Do you say things that contradict what people are likely to expect?

JL: Yes, I think so. For one, most people have an image of law as cold, confining, and impersonal, and, in the case of Judaism, two millennia of Christian polemicizing about “Pharisaism” and the like continue to take their toll, even among people who don’t identify as Christian. The notion that God’s gift of the Torah and the Jews’ careful observance of it are both acts of intense love will surprise those who instinctively see law and love as necessarily in opposition or tension.

In my previous Princeton University Press book, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, I tried to shed new light on the vexing question of the chosenness, or election, of the Jews, and I’ve continued that, but with a somewhat different tack, in the new book. When chosenness is put into a framework of justice, the lack of objective merit of the chosen becomes a huge obstacle. But love isn’t based on objective assessments of merit. It has an unpredictable or irrational dimension, what today people call the “chemistry” the two parties experience. And love, because it’s relational, is necessarily particular. There’s room in Judaism for the idea that God loves all humanity, but his love for the people Israel cannot be identified with his love for everybody.

Actually, in speaking about this subject around the country, I’ve found that many people are unaware that the idea of a personal relationship with a loving God is part of Judaism at all. Partly, this is because of the legacy of the Christian caricature of the Old Testament as a book of harsh legalisms enforced by an angry, judgmental God (though there have long been many, many Christians who don’t subscribe to that notion). Partly, it’s because modern Judaism has tended to stress the mitzvot as manifested in ethics and social action over than the traditional theological claim that the mitzvot make a connection with the personal, loving God.

Finally, I think many readers will be surprised by the stress in medieval sources on solitary devotion and contemplation and on abstinence as key elements in Jewish spirituality. Almost all versions of modern Judaism have long been propounding a view of Judaism as communal, active, and world-affirming, but that is a gross over-simplification of the older tradition. As for abstinence or asceticism, one must always ask what the positive gain is that the renunciation or self-control at issue delivers. In the case of Baḥya ibn Paquda, one of the medieval thinkers examined in chapter 4, the asceticism serves the interest of increasing one’s love of God, which for Baḥya is the “consummation of the spiritual life,” as I entitle that chapter.

There may be other surprises, but to find out what they are, people will just have to read the book!

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University. His many books include The Love of God, as well as Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, which won the National Jewish Book Award, and Inheriting Abraham and Creation and the Persistence of Evil (both Princeton).













Harvard Divinity School interviews Lihi Ben Shitrit about RIGHTEOUS TRANSGRESSIONS

Female activism and conservative religious movements would not seem to go hand in hand. But the bounds of gender expectations are regularly crossed in such communities for the political good. Harvard Divinity School recently interviewed Lihi Ben Shitrit about her new book, Righteous Transgressions: Women’s Activism on the Israeli and Palestinian Religious Right. Listen below for a fascinating discussion of how women in Jewish West Bank settlements, the ultra-Orthodox Shas, the Islamic Movement in Israel, and the Palestinian Hamas, expand spaces for political activism in ways that go beyond their movements’ strict ideas about male and female roles.

An interview with Wendy Laura Belcher on “The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros”

The Life and Struggle of Our Mother Walatta Petros jacketWendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner’s translation of The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros is the first English translation of the earliest-known book-length biography of an African woman predating the seventeenth century. The original author, Galawdewos, collected stories of Petros told by word of mouth from the leader and Saint’s disciples in 1672, thirty years after Petro’s death. Petros was a significant religious figure, who led a non-violent protest against European Jesuits forcing Ethiopians to abandon their African Christian faith. In this interview, Belcher, associate professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University, offers us valuable insight into who this woman was, and the historical context that shaped her fascinating life.

Your title calls this a “seventeenth-century African” text. Are there many African texts from this time?

WLB: There are lots of texts, the problem is that they are rarely preserved or translated. So we are glad to be bringing one to the attention of the public, in part to demolish this myth about Africa being a continent without a written literature. It’s a common assumption, even among scholars, that there is no writing in Africa before Europeans, but that is an error. This text was not written by or for Europeans or in a European language, but by Ethiopians for Ethiopians in an Ethiopian language about an Ethiopian woman.

So, why is this particular book important?

WLB: It’s the earliest-known book-length biography about an African woman. As a biography, it is full of human interest, being an extraordinary account of early modern African women’s lives—full of vivid dialogue, heartbreak, and triumph. For many Americans, it will be the first time they can learn about a pre-colonial African woman on her own terms.

Who was this woman?

WLB: She was a revered religious leader who led a nonviolent movement against European proto-colonialism and was the founding abbess of her own monastery, which still exists today. She lead an amazing life: a woman who was born to an adoring father, lost three children in infancy, left her abusive husband, started a movement, defeated a wicked king, faced enraged hippos and lions, avoided lustful jailors, founded seven religious communities, routed male religious leaders, gathered many men and women around her, and guided her flock subject to no man, being the outright head of her community and even appointing abbots, who followed her orders. Her name is Walatta Petros (which means Daughter-of [Saint] Peter, a compound name that cannot be shortened) and she lived from 1592 to 1642.

This is a biography, not an autobiography. So who actually wrote it?

WLB: Thirty years after her death, her Ethiopian disciples (many of whom were women) gathered to tell stories of her life to a scribe named Galawdewos (Claudius in English). So, it is a kind of oral history of the community. They praised her as an adored daughter, the loving friend of women, a devoted reader, a disciplined ascetic, and a fierce leader.

This book was originally written on parchment. Nearby Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries copied it. We used twelve of these manuscript copies of the book to create our translation, including three from the saint’s own monastery. The text was written in the classical African language of Ethiopic, or Gəˁəz. Ethiopians innovated a writing system in the first millennium BCE and have been using it to write bounds books since the fourth century CE.

If this text wasn’t written for Europeans, how are Europe and Christianity involved?

WLB: It is confusing! First, the Christianity in this text is African. Ethiopians have been Christians since the fourth century, long before most of Europe. They have retained a distinctive form of Christianity in their Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Second, this book records an early encounter between Europeans and Africans from an African perspective. When the Jesuits came in the 1500s to try to convert the Ethiopians to Roman Catholicism, many Ethiopians resisted, especially the royal women. Walatta Petros was one of these women, and she led others in a successful fight to retain African Christian beliefs. For these acts, she was elevated to sainthood in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Are there a lot of these Ethiopian biographies?

WLB: There are over 200 Ethiopian orthodox saints and over 100 of them have biographies. At least 17 of them are women and six of them have biographies (or, since they are saints, what are called hagiographies). Ethiopian stories about Ethiopian saints are a vital archive of African literature that has gone almost entirely unexplored outside Ethiopia. They are fascinating narratives about Ethiopian folk heroes as well as rich repositories of indigenous thought. This will be the first accessible translation into English of any of these stories. (There are three of the other hagiographies in English, but they exist only in art books that cost thousands of dollars each.)

Can you tell me more about yourself and your fellow translator?

WLB: Dr. Kleiner is a German scholar with an excellent knowledge of over a dozen languages, including Arabic, French, Amharic, Ethiopic, and English. He is widely acknowledged as one of the two best living translators of Ethiopic (or Gəˁəz) into English. I am an assistant professor of African literature with a joint appointment in the Princeton University Department of Comparative Literature and the Department for African American Studies. I spent part of my childhood in Ethiopia and I now work to bring attention to early African literature.

What other important figures from Walatta Petros’ life are mentioned in this text?

WLB: The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros features a life-long partnership between two women and the depiction of same-sex sexuality among nuns. This is the earliest known depiction of same-sex desire among women in a sub-Saharan Africa text. Walatta Petros was in a life-long celibate relationship with another nun, Eheta Kristos, and they “lived together in mutual love, like soul and body” until death. Interpreting the women’s relationships requires care and this scholarly edition and translation provides the necessary political, religious, and cultural context in all its richness. The same-sex relationships are a fascinating aspect of the text, but just one small part of it.

Read the introduction to The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros here.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd on the politics of ‘good religion’ and ‘bad religion’ in international relations

In recent years, North American and European nations have sought to legally remake religion in other countries through an unprecedented array of international initiatives. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, author of Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion, recently had this post appear on the blog, Hamilton and Griffin on Rights, in which she explains what lead her to such a highly politicized and contentious area of study.

Beyond Religious FreedomWhy I Wrote this Book
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

On the cover of Beyond Religious Freedom is a photo of the desert with a sand berm in the distance and, in the foreground, a line of colorful hand-made flowers sticking haphazardly out of the sand. The Moroccan government built the berm in the 1980s during the war against the Polisario to (literally) draw a line in the sand dividing Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara from the free zone controlled by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. At 1,600 miles long, it is not surprising that the Sahrawis refer to the berm as al-Jidar, the wall. In stark contrast to the desolation and isolation of the wall, in the foreground of the photo is a row of flowers with cheerful decorated notes attached to their stems. This is a project by Sahrawi artist Moulud Yeslem, Por Cada Mina Una Flor, or For Every Mine, a Flower. Yeslem collects and “plants” the flowers in the desert in peaceful protest against the estimated seven million landmines that are scattered throughout the “no-man’s land” bordering the wall. Each flower has a note attached with a message of solidarity for the Sahrawi people.

The sharp visual contrast between the form of politics represented by the wall and Yeslem’s modest popular protest movement sets the stage for the book’s analysis of the contemporary global politics of religion. Echoing the seemingly unbridgeable distance between the berm and the flowers, I wrote Beyond Religious Freedom to draw attention to the gap between the powerful constructs of religious governance —religious freedom, religious outreach, disestablishment, and interfaith dialogue —authorized by states, experts, and others in positions of power, and the lived experiences of the individuals and communities that they aspire to govern, reform and redeem. The book charts the disjuncture, exclusions, and tensions between the large-scale social, legal and religious engineering projects that have come to dominate the global ‘religion agenda,’ and the lived realities and responses of the individuals and communities that are subjected to these utopian—and often dystopian—efforts. Like the wall, which serves to divide and control the Sahrawi population by reducing their mobility, these projects also divide and discriminate, often in the interests of those in power.

To access this complex field of religio-politics, I present an analytical framework distinguishing between religion as construed by those in positions of legal and political power (“official” or “governed religion”); religion as construed by experts who generate policy-relevant knowledge about religion (“expert religion”); and religion as lived and practiced by ordinary people (“lived religion”). Opening up the study of religion and politics challenges the prevailing assumption in elite academic, legal and policy circles that the legalization of freedom of religion, engagement with faith communities, and protections for religious minorities are the keys to emancipating society from persecution and discrimination. Rather, these efforts exacerbate social tensions by transforming religious difference into a matter of law, enacting a divide between the religion of those in power and the religion of those without it. This leads to forms of politics and public order defined by religious difference, favors forms of religion authorized by those in positions of authority, and excludes other ways of being and belonging, both individually and communally. The book considers a series of pressing questions at the intersection of religion, law, and governance from this angle, including the politics of ‘good religion’ and ‘bad religion’ in international relations; the religion jurisprudence of the European Court; the politics of religious freedom and religious ‘minoritization’ in Turkey, with a focus on the Alevi communities; the politics of sectarianism; and the debates over religious freedom and religious outreach programming in US and European foreign policy.

Beyond Religious Freedom challenges the presumption that academic experts, government officials, and foreign policy experts know what religion is, where it is located, who speaks in its name, and how it should be incorporated into foreign relations. Uninformed assumptions about religion have enabled academics, practitioners and pundits to jump without a second thought into the business of quantifying religion’s effects, adapting religion’s insights to international problem-solving efforts, and incorporating religion’s official representatives into international political decision-making and institutions. Governments, international organizations, and much of the academic literature on religion and international relations treat religion as a relatively stable, self-evident category that is understood to motivate a host of actions, good and bad.

Religion is not however an isolable entity and should not be treated as such, whether in an attempt to separate it from law and politics, or to design a political response to it. Efforts to single out and stabilize religion as a platform from which to develop law and public policy inevitably privilege some religions over others, leading to what Lori G. Beaman and Winnifred Sullivan have described as “varieties of religious establishment.”

One way to access this field is to explore the disjuncture between the forms of religion that are produced by expert knowledge and authorized through legal and governmental practice, on one hand, and the forms of religion lived by ordinary people, on the other. While these fields always overlap, intermingle and shape each other, including institutional religion, they cannot be collapsed entirely.

Discriminating analytically between religious freedom and toleration as construed and implemented by those in positions of power and the life ways of ordinary people provides a unique vantage point on the politics of international religious rights and freedoms. It asks us to consider the lived practices of ordinary people who may have complex and ambivalent relationships to the institutions, orthodoxies, and authorities—both political and religious—that claim to speak on their behalf. What is the impact of legalizing religious freedom on those who dissent from “faiths” as defined by “interfaith” leaders, on those who practice multiple traditions, on those whose practices fail to qualify as a ‘religion’ that merits protection? What are the effects of an expert lobby that insists that states and other authorities construct a legal regime around ‘religious freedom’ and a discursive world around that? Do such projects advance or impede efforts to mitigate violence, discrimination and inequality? Advocates of religious freedom presume that the answer is self-evident and affirmative. Together with a number of others, I find it to be much less certain, and the outcome much less utopian.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. She is the author of The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (Princeton) and the coeditor of Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age and Politics of Religious Freedom.

Read a PUP exclusive Q&A with the author, here.

(Stanley) Fish Food for Thought: Reflections on Religion

Welcome to Part 4 of PUP’s Stanley Fish series, Fish Food for Thought. All selections are excerpted from Fish’s new book, Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law, and Education .


Fish Food for Thought

Part 4: Reflections on Religion

6.1 The Three Atheists

June 10, 2007

Fish on why God did not create a perfect species.

If Adam and Eve were faithful because they were programmed to be so, then the act of obedience (had they performed it) would not in any sense have been theirs. For what they do or don’t do to be meaningful, it must be free, (240) adam-and-eve-798376_640

6.4 God Talk

May 3, 2009

Fish on answering theological questions.

The fact that science, liberal rationalism, and economic calculation cannot ask – never mind answer – such questions should not be held against them, for that is not what they do. And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how that material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do, (249-250)

6.8 Serving Two Masters: Sharia Law and the Secular State

October 25, 2010

Fish on people abiding by state laws when it conflicts with religious laws.

On the one hand, there is the liberal desire to accord one’s fellow human beings the dignity of respecting their deepest scalelawbeliefs. On the other hand, there is the fear that if those beliefs are allowed their full scope, individual rights and the rule of law may be eroded beyond repair,(273)

6.10 Religion Without Truth
March 31, 2007

Fish on the truths of religion in secular environments.

Of course, the ‘one true God’ stuff is what the secular project runs away from, or ‘brackets.’ It counsels respect for all religions and calls upon us to celebrate their diversity. But religion’s truth claims don’t want your respect. They want your belief and, finally, your soul. They are jealous claims. Though shalt have no other God before me, (282)

6.13 When Is a Cross a Cross?
May 3, 2010

Fish on the the argument for religious symbols in public places.

It is one of the ironies of the sequence of cases dealing with religious symbols on public land that those who argue for their lawful presence must first deny them the significance that provokes the desire to put them there in the first place… So you save the symbols by leeching the life out of them. The operation is successful, but the patient is dead, (292)


What does the Bible really say about infertility?

Moss jacket“If fertility is a blessing, then infertility ought to be a curse—so goes the logic of Genesis 1 and the creation story” write Candida Moss and Joel Baden, authors of Reconceiving Infertility, in their recent Daily Beast piece. In the secular view, infertility is a medical condition for which there is logical recourse: fertility treatment, adoption, or the decision to remain childless and pursue other means of fulfillment. But from ancient times to today, fertility through a biblical lens has often appeared as a sign of blessedness and moral uprightness, while infertility has been associated with sin and moral failing.

This week, the pope’s message carries the promise of many things: compassion for immigrants, vigilance about global warming, and redemption for those who have become alienated from the Catholic church because of its stance on divorce and other lifestyle choices. And yet, as Baden and Moss note in The Daily Beast:

Beyond the obvious—faceless corporations, greed, capitalistic exploitation, and so on—there is another group that Francis thinks is selfish: childless couples. In fact, during his tenure Francis has directly described those who choose not to have children as “selfish” and as obsessed with material things. He regularly uses sterility as a pejorative metaphor and fruitfulness as the primary image for that which flourishes. In so doing, he appears unaware of how this language alienates those without children and empowers others to negatively judge them.

Judgement of the childless, rooted as it may be in ancient biblical language, has long been a feature of modern life as well. Infertility carries a lingering stigma, and the decision not to procreate, often seen as a calculated choice, has led many to defend their “childless by choice” lifestyles. Yet according to Baden and Moss, biblical views on procreation and infertility were more diverse than we tend to think, particularly when we take into consideration the ancient contexts from which they emerged:

The good news is that the Bible, one of the primary ideological sources for discrimination against women, is in fact more complicated on the issue of infertility than it at first seems. While biological procreation is a perpetual blessing on God’s people, fertility is not always assumed to be the default human state. Certainly by the New Testament, the biblical “family” was less about biology than about a community drawn together by duty and responsibility. Informal adoption, mentorship as family, and concerns for others as a replacement for biological generation are the norm.

Read the rest of The Daily Beast piece here.

Candida Moss is professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, and is serving as a papal correspondent for CBS this week. Joel S. Baden is professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School.

Kierkegaard in Space

Earth from Space-NASA image

NASA image: Earth as viewed from outer Space

Andreas Mogensen is the first Danish astronaut. Mogensen was sent to the International Space Station for a ten-day mission on September 2, 2015. As the first Dane in space, Mogensen brought a number of items typical of Danish culture to share with his fellow astronauts. These items included: some Legos, some Danish ryebread-based porridge, and readings from Hans Christian Andersen and the 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. The Kierkegaard reading was from his popular and very accessible work, The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, published in 1849.

As explained in the British newspaper, The Guardian:

“Prof Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, from Copenhagen University, recommended Kierkegaard’s classic The Lily of the Field and the Bird of Air, telling the Guardian: “It’s all about silence, obedience and joy – something I thought would be an inspiration in space – and an important theme in these texts is passion, which you need to be an astronaut.”

Mogensen, who was to read a ten-minute selection from the work to his fellow astronauts on board the spacecraft, brought along a first edition of Kierkegaard’s work, but because the work was written in Danish, Mogensen also brought along University Connecticut Kierkegaard scholar and translator Bruce H. Kirmmse’s recent English translation of the work to read aloud to his audience. Kirmmse’s translation of The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air is slated to be published by Princeton University Press in February 2016.

Floating in the black void of space hundreds of miles from Earth, one might have thought Mogensen would have chosen Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling or The Concept of Anxiety. But his fellow astronauts may just be glad he didn’t bring The Seducer’s Diary.
Rob Tempio is Executive Editor for Philosophy and Humanities Group Publisher. He oversees the Press’s many Kierkegaard publications.

Robert Wuthnow, author of IN THE BLOOD, on Farmers’ Faith

In the Blood jacketRobert Wuthnow, Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, remarked in a recent interview with PUP that he’d spent most of his career writing about religion, and thus his new book, In the Blood: Understanding America’s Farm Families can seem a departure. But farming has more to tell us about religion than meets the eye. Read on as he contemplates the unique relationship between farming and faith. 

Farmers’ Faith, by Robert Wuthnow

In Worst Hard Time writer Timothy Egan describes Depression-era farmers believing God was punishing them for shooting rabbits on Sunday.  Others knelt knee-deep in dust praying fervently for rain.  Theirs was a simple faith:  pray hard, live right, and expect God’s blessings in return.

Farmers’ relationship to God has fascinated writers for centuries.  Biblical narratives tell of shepherds and sheep and gleaners and wheat.  The agrarian ideal that interested Enlightenment writers valued farmers’ particular understanding of nature’s God.  Writers today — Wendell Berry, for example — call attention to the spiritual serenity of farms and fields.

Can we learn something important from farmers?  Do their lives, spent so close to the soil and so dependent on nature, generate insights that may have escaped the rest of us?

I grew up on a farm in a community where everyone believed in God.  I’m sure some of them prayed for rain. I imagine many of them talked to God in the quiet of their fields. But times have changed.  The solitary farmer out hoeing the field is a relic.  Farmers now operate expensive GPS-guided tractors while on-board computers monitor the soil.  How has all that changed farmers’ thinking about God?

Writing In the Blood:  Understanding America’s Farm Families gave me an opportunity to explore farmers’ thoughts on a wide range of topics, including religion.  The book draws on lengthy interviews with two hundred farmers.  They varied in age, gender, region, kind of farming, and religious background.  Some farmed only a few acres; others farmed tens of thousands of acres.

Farmers’ faith is still arguably simple.  It varies from person to person, just as it does for other people.  But it converges on a basic point.  Whatever the language used to describe God, God represents an assurance that things will work out.  And working out does not imply that what happens will be what a person wants.  Praying for rain does not increase the chances that it will rain.  It is just a reminder that God, not you, is in charge.  As one farmer explained, “When you get to thinking you’re running the show, that’s when you’ve got a problem.  God’s got a way of saying, I’ll show you who’s running the show.”

Farmers with this view of God said it was born of hard times – and sustained them in those times.  A farm couple struggling to avoid losing everything a second time said they liked being independent but kept being reminded that they had to trust in God.  Another farmer said he had been so depressed from a farm accident that he prayed to die.  It was hard for him to believe that God was on his side, but it helped knowing that God was there no matter what happened.

The logic in these remarks is similar to the view of God that has been identified in other studies.  Even though a person prays to God or works hard in hopes of pleasing God, the idea is not that what a person does actually causes God to respond in a certain way. A farmer may hope that prayer will bring rain, but the exact nature of that hope has less to do with rain than with being aware of God’s existence and thankful for God’s presence.

Perhaps farmers had an advantage in being aware of God’s existence.  Many of them described something ineffable they could only refer to as “the big picture.”  The big picture was an understanding of life from seeing the crops grow and working with animals.  Farmers knew they played a part in nurturing life.  But they realized their role was only a small part of the big picture.

One more thing:  Sometimes you learn as much from what people don’t say as from what they do say.  Many of these farmers lived in conservative communities.  A few were Tea Party Republicans.  They hated the federal government telling them how to farm.  But they didn’t defend their politics with religious arguments.  And they were fed up with politicians who did.

Robert Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He is the author of many books, including Rough Country, Small-Town America, Red State Religion, and Remaking the Heartland (all Princeton).

An interview with Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, author of BEYOND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

Beyond Religious FreedomWhat’s at stake when governments set the standards for religious practice? Policymakers in North America and Europe regularly advocate abroad for religious freedom, interfaith dialogue, religious tolerance, and protections for religious minorities. But what is the real outcome of such intervention? In her new book, Beyond Religious Freedom, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd makes the case that such policies actually create more social tensions and divisions than they resolve. Recently she took some time to talk with us about her book, and why international relations got religion wrong.

What prompted you to write this book? Is it part of a wider conversation or series of conversations?

EH: Beyond Religious Freedom is an attempt to think differently about religion in relation to law and governance on a global scale. In the field of religion and international affairs there’s been a gold-rush mentality lately as scholars scurry to ‘get religion right’ – but I find many of these efforts to be confused and even troubling. The problem, as I noted in a recent piece for The Monkey Cage, is that international relations got religion but got it wrong. Beyond Religious Freedom develops an alternative that neither celebrates religion for its allegedly peaceful potential nor condemns it for its allegedly violent tendencies. It proposes a new framework for the study of religion, law, and governance.

The book brings together conversations from a range of sources, including on the politics of international human rights and the European Court’s jurisprudence; the study of contemporary religion; law and the legalization of religious difference; Turkish and Alevi studies; and debates over religion and religious freedom, and the politics of religious outreach and toleration programming in US and European foreign policy. These are topics that haven’t been brought together before in this way, and I think together they contribute in important ways to an effort to better understand the intersection of religion and global politics today.

How would you describe the challenges facing scholars of religion and global politics?

EH: Today there’s a disjuncture between how religion is lived in the world around us and the way many scholars are writing about it. A wave of scholars has been working overtime trying to identify precisely the contribution of religion to world affairs and to control religion for certain political ends. That is a world apart from the way religion is lived by people, the myriad and complex ways in which religion is interwoven and entangled with how they live their lives and get through the day, individually and collectively. There’s a deep disconnect between these two, and the scholars are missing the reality of lived religion as they construct their theories and models.

To sort this out, I distinguish in the book between expert religion, lived religion, and governed religion. This framework provides the backbone of my argument. Expert religion is religion as construed by those who generate what is understood to be policy-relevant knowledge about religion, including scholars and other experts. Lived religion is religion as practiced by ordinary individuals and groups as they interact with a variety of religious authorities, rituals, texts, and institutions and seek to navigate and make sense of their lives, connections with others, and place in the world. Official or governed religion is religion as construed by those in positions of political and religious power. This includes states, often through the law, but also supranational courts, governing entities such as the European Union, a range of international and nongovernmental organizations, and also churches and other religious organizations.

Can religion be treated as it if were a coherent and stable variable?

EH: It can’t. We cannot ignore religion by collapsing it into other domains of social life or reducing it to allegedly more fundamental social, economic, or political variables. Nor can we rely on a singular, trans-historical, and transcultural notion of religion as a freestanding descriptive and analytical category. That is, religion cannot be treated as if it were a differentiable quantity that can influence society and politics without being merged into it and shaped by it. We need other ways between and beyond these two extremes. The challenge, then, is to devise new ways to ‘normalize’ religion, neither absorbing it fully into the political nor allowing it to stand apart from history.

International relations theory and practice has a way to go on this front. I’ve been struck by the strangely persistent, almost ritualistic alternation in this field between the naïve celebration of religion as the source of morality, community, and freedom, and the simultaneous denigration of religion as the root of all global instability. Robert Orsi has described this as the ‘agenda of reassurance’ and the ‘agenda of surveillance.’ These agendas have real world consequences: in the first case, governmental support for and deference to religious “authorities,” self-identified and/or created by religious experts; in the second, the dangerous politics of national and international religious surveillance, discipline, and reform. My book criticizes these practices and trends.

What would you like readers to take away from your book?

EH: You never know what readers will find in a book. I’d like to see a shift in how scholars and pundits talk and write about global situations and problems that are described as essentially ‘religious’ in nature. This doesn’t make sense given that religion does not stand apart from history. Instead of asking, “why are Burmese Buddhists persecuting religious minorities such as the Rohingya?” we should ask, what factors—economic, political, social, religious, geographical, and so on—are enabling the comprehensive exclusion of the Rohingya from Burmese society? What’s the role of the state and other interests, including powerful monks’ organizations such as 969, in these processes? Who benefits from framing this as a matter of religious difference, and as a problem of religious freedom, and what do we lose sight of in that framing? The book urges readers to adopt a critical sensibility when they see terms like religious conflict, religious minority, religious violence, religious freedom, or even religious diversity and religious pluralism. The idea is to take a step back and think about what it means to describe a conflict or a situation as ‘religious,’ and whether it might be advisable to broaden the lens to see a bigger picture in which religion is entangled in a host of economic, social, ethnic, political, and legal formations. Religion is a deeply intersected category.

Were you influenced by the media and scholarly frenzy surrounding religion?

EH: I tried to distance myself from that, and the sense of urgency to locate a solution and prescribe the right policy. I’ve come to believe that what’s needed right now is something rather different. I hope this comes across to readers. What if we lower the volume of these conversations? Is there a register in which one can speak, teach, and write about religion and politics that neither prescribes nor proscribes? Is it possible to work toward understanding lived political-religious realities while resisting the urge to normative closure? Can we remain open to epistemologies and ontologies that may cast doubt on modern certainties such as the supremacy of secular law, the indispensability of international human rights and freedoms, and the primacy of the so-called free market? I’m drawn to new work that embodies this sensibility and hope in my future work to convey its significance for global politics and public life.

One of the main points of the book, starting with the prologue, is that narratives of Christian persecution need to be reconsidered. What about Christians in the Middle East today who are suffering as a result of their religious identity? Don’t you leave them in the lurch?

EH: Religious freedom and religious rights are often presented as the default solution to the challenges of living together in a diverse and globalizing world – as a device for stopping conflict and ending oppression. But the reality is far more complex.

In Birds Without Wings, a novel set in rural Anatolia during WWI, there is a dialogue between two childhood friends, Mehmetçik, who is Muslim, and Karatavuk, who is Christian. That distinction has only recently come to make a difference in their lives. On the eve of Mehmetçik’s departure to join Atatürk’s forces, the two boys discuss their predicament: “Ah, my friend, my friend,” [Karatavuk] said, drawing back and thumping his chest, “I have a heavy feeling in here. I feel as if I have a stone in my heart. I wonder what’ll become of us all.” “I think we’ll be divided,” said Mehmetçik sadly. “Suddenly it matters that I am a Christian, where it mattered only a little before.”

Beyond Religious Freedom is, among other things, an attempt to understand some of the modern legal and political processes that contribute to situations where it matters—often in a life and death sense—that one is a Christian, a Hindu, a Jew, or an atheist. These situations do not just fall out of the sky. They are created in history. They involve intertwined socio-legal, religious, and political processes in which particular identities, often construed by the state and others in positions of power, shape subjectivities and collectivities, forms of sociality, and public and political relations and institutions. It is important to study each of these varied histories in their own right.

The politics of religious freedom are often at play in such histories. Modes of governance that rely on stabilizing ‘religion’ as an object of law and governance draw and naturalize the boundaries between religions, and between religion and non-religion, exacerbating the very social tensions they are intended to mitigate. When governments take up religious freedom, it requires that they discriminate: which “religions” are protected and how, and which individuals and communities have which religious rights enshrined in law. This places states and the religious freedom advocates who seek to mobilize them in the position of determining what counts as a legitimate religious practice, right, or community, granting the latter special status above the others. It thus gives governments more tools for disempowering those whom it dislikes, disagrees with, or refuses to recognize, creating political and legal spaces and institutions in which state-sponsored religious distinctions are not only inevitable but also publicly and politically salient.

What are your thoughts on those who make legal claims relying on the language of international religious freedom?

EH: I don’t pass judgment. As I emphasize throughout the book, there are strong legal incentives today that make claims to religious freedom efficacious. Individuals and groups can and should use all means at their disposal to make the best of difficult circumstances. My point is different. It is that in the long run we need to think about the kind of world we create when we legalize religious difference—in part through the promotion and legalization of religious freedom—and naturalize those distinctions. I argue that these efforts generate social tensions by making religious difference a matter of law, enacting a divide between the religion of those in power and the religion of those without it. This leads to a politics defined by religious difference, favors forms of religion authorized by those in power, and excludes other ways of being and belonging.

Therefore, the issue is not of being pro- or anti-religious freedom. Instead, my book asks, what are the effects of constructing a legal regime around ‘religious freedom’ and a discursive world around that. Does this advance or impede efforts to live together across deep lines of difference? Advocates of religious freedom presume that the answer is self-evident and affirmative. Along with a number of others, I see it as much more complex, and the outcome as much less utopian.

What would you have been if not a political scientist?

EH: Definitely a caterer. When I was in college I worked for a caterer in Boston, and we had a booth at Chowderfest and catered several weddings. I loved it. I would specialize in pies, cakes, and tarts. The minute I finished this book and had a moment to catch my breath this summer, I started making tarts. I’ve thought about making an offer: if you buy both books that just came out, I’ll come over to your house and bake you a cake.

Read chapter 1 here.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. She is the author of The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (Princeton) and the coeditor of Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age and Politics of Religious Freedom.

An interview with Robert Wuthnow on his forthcoming book, IN THE BLOOD

Is your closest contact with the farming community your latest Instagram of a picturesque barn, or an occasional haul from the local CSA? If so, you’re not alone. Our day to day existence relies heavily on farming, but from Americans’ increasingly urban vantage point, the lives of farmers themselves can seem remote. In his forthcoming book, In the Blood, Princeton University sociologist of culture Robert Wuthnow offers a moving portrait of the changing lives of farm families. Recently Robert took the time to talk with us about what prompted him to write the book, the misconceptions he discovered, and how his new research spoke to his extensive body of work in the sociology of religion.

Robert Wuthnow, author of IN THE BLOOD

Robert Wuthnow, Princeton sociologist and author of IN THE BLOOD

You teach at Princeton University and live in a largely urban state. What prompted you to write a book about farming?

RW: I grew up on a farm in Kansas, spent most of my spare time until I graduated from college farming, and figured I would follow in the footsteps of many generations in my family who farmed. Things didn’t turn out that way. But I still have friends and family who farm and I’m intrigued, shall we say, by the path I didn’t take. I wrote about the changing history of agriculture in the Midwest in Remaking the Heartland and about rural communities in Small-Town America. After working on those projects I began reading the literature on farming. I discovered that most of it is written by agricultural economists and historians. As I sociologist, I wanted to hear from farmers themselves. I wanted to know what farming day-to-day is like, what it means to them, how it influences their values, and why they stay with it from generation to generation.

Why do you think people who don’t know much about farming might find this book interesting?

RW: Everybody – whether we live in a city, suburb, or small town – depends on farms for the food we eat. We know about problems with fast food, slaughterhouses, pollution, and the like. We also hear discussions every few years about farm policies. But for the most part, farming is out of sight and out of mind. In part, I wanted to give farmers a voice. I wanted people who know very little about farming to at least have something to read if they did happen to be interested.

In the Blood jacketApart from questions about food and farm policies, the reason to be interested in farmers is that our nation’s culture is still the product of our agrarian past. Correctly or incorrectly, we imagine that today’s farmers represent that heritage. In one view, they represent conservative family traditions, hard work, living simply, and preserving the land. In that view, it is easy to romanticize farming. A different view holds that farmers are country bumpkins who couldn’t do anything better than continue to farm. In both these views, farmers are actually serving as a mirror for us. I wanted to hold that mirror up to see what it showed – about the rest of us as much as about farmers.

You say farmers think the public doesn’t understand them. What misperceptions need to be corrected?

RW: One of the most serious misperceptions is that farmers are out there mindlessly ruining the land. That certainly was not how they saw it. Of the two hundred farmers that form the basis of the book, nearly all of them described the reasons why they do everything they can to preserve the land. I was especially impressed with the extent to which science is helping them do this. Farmers today have a much better understanding of soil chemistry, microbes, and ways to minimize water use and pollution than farmers did a generation ago.

Another misperception is that farmers are the problem when it comes to questions about tax dollars spent on farm subsidies. My research included farmers with large holdings as well as small farmers and it dealt with wheat belt, corn belt, and cotton belt farming as well as truck and dairy farming. Farmers spoke candidly and many of them were candidly critical of farm subsidies. They did benefit from crop insurance and appreciated the fact that it was subsidized. But they were doubtful that government bureaucrats understood farming and they were pretty sure farm policies were being driven by corporate agribusiness rather than farm families.

Much of your work has been about religion. What did you learn about religion from farmers?

RW: I wondered if farmers whose livelihoods are so dependent on forces of nature over which they have no control would somehow attribute those influences to God or be superstitious about them. Would they consider it helpful to pray for rain, for example? What I found is that hardly any of them thought that way. Some were devout; others were not religious at all. The most common understanding was that God somehow existed, was ultimately in control, but was also beyond human comprehension. Those who were the most devout prayed, figuring that whether it rained or not, God was real.

Churches are still the mainstay of farming communities, but vast changes are taking place in these churches, just as in cities and suburbs. Small churches in declining communities are dying. The ones that remain struggle to attract members and employ pastors. Increasingly, farm families drive twenty or thirty miles to attend churches in large towns and cities. That is also where they go to shop and where their children go to school.

You argue that farmers are deeply loyal to their families but are also ruggedly independent. How so?

RW: What I found about family loyalty and rugged independence is that both are changing. The basic values are unchanged but their meanings are being redefined. For instance, farmers say that farms are good places to raise children. But they rarely mean that children drive tractors and milk cows. They mean that children gain an appreciation of living in the country. Farm families continue to be examples of family-operated businesses. But gender roles are changing and informal relationships are being replaced by formal contracts. Being independent means making your own decisions, not having someone looking over your shoulder, and not having your daily schedule dictated to you. But all of that is constrained by government regulations and by having to depend on markets over which one has no control.

What did you identify as the main challenges facing farmers today?

RW: Farmers face a challenge that has always been part of their lives and is becoming less predictable. That challenge is the weather. Climate change is bringing extremes in temperature, storms, and rainfall unlike anything farmers have known. In addition, farmers with small to medium acreage are being forced to expand or quit. Whether large-scale farming adds efficiency is still debated, but farmers worry that if they do not expand they will be left behind. And competition to expand necessarily influences relations among farmers. As many of the farmers we spoke to explained, they enjoy seeing their neighbors but they also view their neighbors as sharks in the water.

Of all the topics you explored in your interviews with farmers, what surprised you the most?

RW: Technology. Spending my days, as I do, tethered to a computer and the Internet, I suppose I should not have been surprised to learn the extent to which farming has also changed as part of the digital revolution. But I was. My research assistants and I conducted interviews by cell phone with farmers on their tractors while a GPS guidance system drove the tractor through the field within a margin of three inches, an on-board computer monitored the soil and adjusted seed-to-fertilizer ratios accordingly, and the farmer in turn kept track of fluctuations in commodities markets. Technology of that sort is hugely expensive. Farmers acknowledge that it is not only labor saving but also enjoyable. But the digital revolution is influencing everything about farming – from who operates the machinery to how often farmers see their children and from what they depend on for information to what they have to do to qualify for financing.

The farmers we spoke to were deeply committed to family farming as a lifestyle. They hoped it would continue and that some of their children would be farmers. But many of them expressed doubts. They worried about the corporate takeover of farming. And they were preparing their children to pursue careers other than farming.

Read the introduction here.

Robert Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He is the author of many books, including Rough Country, Small-Town America, Red State Religion, and Remaking the Heartland (all Princeton).

Medieval Relativisms by John Marenbon

In a commencement speech at Dickinson College yesterday that focused on the virtues of free speech and free inquiry, Ian McEwan referenced the golden age of the pagan philosophers. But from the turn of the fifth century to the beginning of the eighteenth, Christian intellectuals were as fascinated as they were perplexed by the “Problem of Paganism,” or how to reconcile the fact that the great thinkers of antiquity, whose ideas formed the cornerstones of Greek and Roman civilization, were also pagans and, according to Christian teachings, damned. John Marenbon, author of the new book Pagans and Philosophers, has written a post explaining that relativism (the idea that there can be no objective right or wrong), is hardly a post-modern idea, but one that emerged in medieval times as a response to this tension.

Medieval Relativisms
By John Marenbon

Pagans and Philosophers jacketRelativism is often thought to be a characteristically modern, or even post-modern, idea. Those who have looked more deeply add that there was an important strand of relativism in ancient philosophy and they point (perhaps wrongly) to Montaigne’s remark, made late in the sixteenth century, that ‘we have no criterion of truth or reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the country where we are’ as signalling a revival of relativist thinking. But the Middle Ages are regarded as a time of uniformity, when a monolithic Christianity dominated the lives and thoughts of everyone, from scholars to peasants – a culture without room for relativism. This stereotype is wrong. Medieval culture was not monolithic, because it was riven by a central tension. As medieval Christian thinkers knew, their civilization was based on the pagan culture of Greece and Rome. Pagan philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, were their intellectual guides, and figures from antiquity, such as the sternly upright Cato or Regulus, the general who kept the promise he had given to his enemies even at the cost of his life, were widely cited as moral exemplars. Yet, supposedly, Christian truth had replaced pagan ignorance, and without the guidance and grace provided for Christians alone, it was impossible to live a morally virtuous life. One approach to removing this tension was to argue that the pagans in question were not really pagans at all. Another approach, though, was to develop some variety of limited relativism.

One example of limited relativism is the view proposed by Boethius of Dacia, a Master in the University of Paris in the 1260s. Boethius was an Arts Master: his job was to teach a curriculum based on Aristotle. Boethius was impressed by Aristotelian science and wanted to remain true to it even on those points where it goes against Christian teaching. For example, Christians believe that the universe had a beginning, when God created it, but Aristotle thought that the universe was eternal – every change is preceded by another change, and so on, for ever. In Boethius’s view, the Christian view contradicts the very principles of Aristotelian natural science, and so an Arts Master like himself is required to declare ‘The world has no beginning’. But how can he do so, if he is also a Christian? Boethius solves the problem by relativizing what thinkers say within a particular discipline to the principles of that discipline. When the Arts Master, in the course of teaching natural science, says ‘The world has no beginning’, his sentence means: ‘The world has no beginning according to the principles of natural science’ – a statement which is consistent with declaring that, according to Christian belief the world did have a beginning. Relativizing strategies were also used by theologians such as Henry of Ghent, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham to explain how some pagans can have even heroic virtue and yet be without the sort of virtue which good Christians alone can have.

These and other medieval relativisms were limited, in the sense that one reference frame, that of Christianity, was always acknowledged to be the superior one. But Boethius’s relativism allowed pragmatically a space for people to develop a purely rational scientific world-view in its own terms, and that of the theologians allowed them to praise and respect figures like Cato and Regulus, leaving aside the question of whether or not they are in Hell. Contemporary relativists often advocate an unlimited version of relativism, in which no reference frame is considered superior to another. But there are grave difficulties in making such relativism coherent. The less ambitious medieval approach might be the most sensible one.

John Marenbon is a senior research fellow at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, honorary professor of medieval philosophy at Cambridge, and a fellow of the British Academy. He is the author and editor of many books, including Abelard in Four Dimensions, The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy, The Cambridge Companion to Boethius, and Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction.

Happy Birthday, Søren Kierkegaard

Lowrie jacket5-8 Kierkegaard_TheSeducersDiaryIntroversion has been having a moment of late, and today happens to be the birthday of one of the world’s most famous—and brilliant—introverts. To quote the (excellent) copy for A Short Life of Kierkegaard by Walter Lowrie, Kierkegaard was “a small, insignificant-looking intellectual with absurdly long legs, a veritable Hans Christian Andersen caricature of a man.” In life, he often hid behind pseudonyms, and yet, he remains one of the most important thinkers of modern times. Read about Kierkegaard’s turbulent life in this classic biography (literary duel? Check. Tragic love affair? Check.) or sample The Seducer’s Diary, which John Updike called, “An intricate curiosity—a feverishly intellectual attempt to reconstruct an erotic failure as a pedagogic success, a wound masked as a boast.”

Happy Birthday, Søren Kierkegaard.

Read Chapter 1 of The Seducer’s Diary here.

Read the Introduction to A Short Life of Kierkegaard here.