Monday, December 7, 2015

The Religious Situation

Back in the 20th century there was a particularly silly conversation going on among some literary critics and associated buffoons, asking when and if anyone was ever going to write The Great American Novel. Philip Roth made appropriate fun of this pretentious silliness by calling the novel he published in 1973 The Great American Novel.

One of the reasons it was silly was because many great American novels had already been written. But if you insisted on calling one of them THE Great American Novel, well that was also no problem: Herman Melville published it in 1851, and America's literary critics, those monumental wastes, trashed it. It's called Moby Dick. It stands comparison with War and Peace and Don Quixote and Tom Jones and Ulysses and any other Greatest Novel Of All Time you got. Moby Dick is the stuff.

It begins with a page concerning the word "whale" in English and the words for whales in several other languages; then a dozen pages of quotes concerning whales taken from the a variety of sources arranged chronologically from Genesis up to Melville's time; then comes Chapter 1, whose first paragraph contains these three sentences:

"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship."

When I first read Moby Dick I had already been very pleasantly surprised by the literary whaling voyage undertaken before Chapter 1, but when I read the above passage, Melville had me. I knew that he was one of my guys and that I was one of his. It came as no surprise to me when, some time after my first reading of Moby Dick, and then of his novel The Confidence Man and his story "Bartleby the Scrivener," I learned that Melville had been an atheist. Of course he had. The thing about needing the strong moral principle in order not to spectacularly lose his composure and manners had already told me that he was like me.

I came here today to talk to you about the people who make you want to step into the street and lose all control of the angry part of yourself: Christian theologians. I got a book today: The Religious Situation by Paul Tillich, translated from Die religioese Lage der Gegenwart by H Richard Niebuhr.

I have this book because I am weak, in insufficient control of my bookworm tendencies, and because it was free, one of the books being given away at the local library. I knew better than to even pick up a book by Paul Tillich. And when I read on the back cover of this Living Age Books edition, Published by Meridian Books, Fifth printing July 1960, that Nietzsche was one of the book's subjects, I knew even better.

But I'm weak. And so, on the first page of Niebuhr's introduction to his translation of Tillich's book, I read this:

"It is not a book about the religion of the churches but an effort to interpret the whole contemporary situation from the point of view of one who constantly inquires what fundamental faith is expressed in the forms which civilization takes. Tillich is more interested in the religious values of secularism, of modern movements in art, science, education, and politics than in tracing tendencies within the churches or even in theology."

"The religious values of secularism." Cato the Younger falls on his sword, Ishmael (the narrator of Moby Dick) gets on a ship, some poor guy who doesn't know what to do walks out onto a crowded Manhattan street and actually does start knocking people's hats from their heads, or something even less socially acceptable, because he simply can't take it any more, until they drag him screaming to Bellevue -- Melville and I write about it. Maybe I'll take a hint from Roth and write a book and call it The Religious Situation. Or The Moral Landscape.

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