Sam Harris and the Scandal of Particularity

In Christianity & Atheism on June 14, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: ,

At the core of Christian orthodoxy is what has been described as the “scandal of particularity.” It’s the idea that God acted in a particular way, in a particular time and place, with a particular people, yet in a way that has universal consequences. The Christian faith is not a religion of vague spiritual truths, or even moral or inner principles by which one ought to live (as are, for example, gnosticism, Hindu mysticism or even Huxley’s “perennial philosophy”). Christianity is the radical claim that God has reached into human history to restore the relationship between Himself and humankind. As the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth put it:

“The Christian kerygma as it is addressed to the world has this statement about an Israelite at its very heart. This means nothing more or less than the bringing of the world into the sphere of the divine dealings with the people Israel. It does not speak generally of the existence of a Son of Man who became man for many (with many in view), but of the fact that the Jesus who has come as the Messiah of Israel has come into the world as the Savior of the world…His universality is revealed in this particularity.” Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1, p. 167.

As Jesus Himself framed it, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me.” (John 14:6, The Message). Accordingly, this Jesus (and, as a consequence, Christianity) makes specific truth claims. That certain claims are (or are believed) true necessitates that others are (or are believed) false.

So far so good, but a major problem can arise when one (individually or institutionally) decides what to do in response to what one believes. Those in possession of the capital-T Truth typically act aggressively toward those they see either as corrupting influences from within and/or as opposition forces from without. People — sinners that we are — are often insufficiently gracious toward those with opposing views (we need a major dose of the ancient virtue of reverence). We refuse to hold onto the Truth lightly or to recognize what should be obvious — we may well be wrong. This type of problem becomes especially acute when the Church is in possession of political power (e.g., the Constantinian synthesis). It is no coincidence that, in general, the Church has been at its best when it has held the least amount of temporal power and influence and at its worst when it has held the most power.

Which brings me, in this roundabout way, to Sam Harris. Harris is the author of The End of Faith (“EoF“) and Letter to a Christian Nation (“Letter“) as well as being the founder of the (so-called) Reason Project. EoF is (obviously) a well known polemic against religion generally. As Harris tells it, he wrote his Letter on account of all the responses he received to EoF telling him how wrong he was about Christianity:

“Thousands of people have written to tell me that I am wrong not to believe in God. The most hostile of these communications have come from Christians. This is ironic, as Christians generally imagine that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own. The truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ’s love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism.”

Sadly, I have no doubt that Harris speaks the truth on this point. But, again, it’s also unsurprising coming from people who believe that they possess the Truth. They want both to protect it and to proclaim it.

In his Letter, Harris acknowledges the scandal of particularity and acknowledges the universality of his own truth claims: “We agree, for instance, that if one of us is right, the other is wrong. The Bible is either the word of God, or it isn’t. Either Jesus offers humanity the one, true path to salvation (John 14:6), or he does not. …If the basic doctrine of Christianity is correct, I have misused my life in the worst conceivable way.”

Both EoF and Letter are engaging enough for what they are, but Harris doesn’t offer anything new in terms of attacks on religion in general or Christianity in particular. Moreover, because of their contemptuous and self-righteous approach, he seems not really interested in convincing anyone but rather in preaching to the sycophantic choir and reaffirming preconceived notions (not dissimilarly to much so-called apologetics). Interestingly, Harris (like Dawkins and Hitchens) appears to take as literal a view of religion as any religious fundamentalist and sees religious moderates as being evil enablers, as least as culpable for the sins of religion as its most fundamentalist proponent. Harris (also like Dawkins and Hitchens) seems to think that everything he needs to learn about any religious topic is a quick Google search away, all the while demonstrating that he doesn’t know much about religion. Indeed, he doesn’t care to know, religion being so obviously bereft of even an iota of reasonableness.

Significantly, Harris is as intolerant and utopian as any fundamentalist. He has no difficulty imaging a nuclear first strike against those who believe differently (most notably, Moslems) in the event that they acquire nuclear weapons — “it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe.” Indeed, “[s]ome propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” Moreover, Harris also sees little difficulty in torturing those who believe differently as a means of interrogation.

As John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson:

“Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s [or reason’s] service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party.”

Christians and atheists alike, indeed everyone, ought to hold what they perceive to be the Truth much more lightly. If we did, the world would be a much safer place.

And most surely a better place.


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