More fiction and superstition fed to NYT readers

December 11, 2022 • 11:40 am

The quote below is one of the sanest things I’ve seen on Facebook lately, though I can’t remember who posted it. Dag Søras is a Norwegian comedian:

Why I bring this up is because every Sunday, like today, the New York Times pretends that God and Jesus exist, and they do so by giving op-ed space to Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren. Every week Warren produces a page of bromides (usually along the lines of “why can’t we all love each other, even if we’re different?), all of which take for granted that her Christian beliefs are correct.

This week Reverend Warren interviews another Anglican priest who happens to be a poet, Malcolm Guite, described by Wikipedia this way:

. . . an English poet, singer-songwriter, Anglican priest, and academic. Born in Nigeria to British expatriate parents, Guite earned degrees from Cambridge and Durham universities. His research interests include the intersection of religion and the arts, and the examination of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and British poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was a Bye-Fellow and chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge and associate chaplain of St Edward King and Martyr in Cambridge. On several occasions, he has taught as visiting faculty at several colleges and universities in England and North America.

It always puzzles me when somebody with brains and academic training is also deeply religious, and I’ve started seeing that as a character flaw: an inability to accept that you’re staking your life and much of your time on stuff for which there’s no evidence. That is, you’re believing in the modern equivalent of Thor and Allah. In this column—and I’ll try to be brief—we have one Anglican priest (Warren) interviewing another (Guite), and together they manage to fob off a bunch of hooey on the readers of the NYT.

Click to read:

The subject is both poetry and Advent: the month of preparation for celebrating the birth of a baby who may or may not have existed, but is thought, wrongly, to be both God and the Son of God.  Guite explains its significance. In all that follows I’ve put the hooey in bold except for Warren’s questions, which the NYT put in bold.  Excerpts are indented.

I think the first thing to understand is the wisdom that is embedded in the liturgical calendar and that way of sacralizing time. Advent is meant to be to Christmas what Lent is to Easter. It’s always been the wisdom of the church to have a fast before a feast, to have this time of holding back and restraint so that you really appreciate and understand the reasons for the joy and the feasting when it comes.

The word Advent means “arrival” or “coming.” The church saw that preparing for the coming of Christ at Christmas could also be a way of looking to that larger hope, which is the final coming of Jesus, the day when, at last, the earth will be filled with the glory of God. And in my book I said, well, I think there’s a third “coming,” a kind of continuous coming. We all experience a series of Advents. My prayer life and spirituality is very much focused on the Eucharist. So for me, every time I hold out my hands and the wafer is placed there and I receive him, that’s an advent. And in fact, that’s actually also Christmas. It’s an incarnation. He chooses the humble form of the bread as he chose the humble form of the baby to be his body.

Guite bangs on about the commercialization of Christmas and how we really have to avoid pre-Christmas parties and shopping, for it’s a time to reflect on the coming of baby Jesus.

Instead of being quieter and more reflective, then finally experiencing what G.K. Chesterton called the “submerged sunrise of wonder” at the birth of the Christ Child, we were suddenly assailed on all sides by commercial pressures.

There’s a tedious discussion of antiphons, but then Guite gets onto my territory: “ways of knowing”. And religion is one of them.

WARREN: You have said that imagination is “a truth-bearing faculty.” What do you mean by that?

GUITE: There’s a hierarchy between information, knowledge and wisdom. And reason is very good at finding and categorizing information. But reason has almost no access to wisdom at all. Counter to that are much earlier insights probably best expressed by Shakespeare in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He says: “The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven; And as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.”

That suggests that imagination is a way of knowing. And it’s a way of knowing and intuiting and feeling we might have missed entirely if the poet or the artist or the painter or the musician hadn’t bodied it forth.

Imagination came to be considered, strictly speaking, made up. The presupposition was that all the things that we care about that have now been relegated to so-called subjectivity, like love and passion and beauty, somehow don’t exist in the same way that the atoms in a cup exist.

Earlier philosophers and some of those philosophers in Enlightenment who tried to resist this had a different notion. They said imagination is not simply about making things up. It’s about synthesizing everything. It’s about seeing the whole. C.S. Lewis, much later in his life, said that reason is the natural organ of truth, but imagination is the organ of meaning.

I don’t think we have to choose between reason and imagination. I don’t think we have to choose between science and religion. I don’t think we have to choose between serious intellectual inquiry and deeply held faith. I think these things are enfolded aspects, each depending on primal ways of knowing. To do theology well, we must bring the poets to the table along with the theologians and listen to what they say.

The first quote from Shakespeare sounds good, but really proves nothing. All it says is that when a poet imagines something, it somehow becomes “knowledge.”  Well, knowledge only in the sense that Shakespeare—or any poet—made stuff up.  Note how Guite conflates imagination and knowledge to somehow prove that what we can imagine to be true really is true. If that is the case, then when Guite and Warren imagine that Baby Jesus was born as God in human form, and performed many miracles before he was died and resurrected (he’ll be back!), why is that “knowledge”, while those who imagine that Allah, or John Frum, or Zeus, or Thor, or Shiva are real gods are wrong? When different people believe in different divinities, who, if anyone, is right?

There’s no way of knowing, and that’s why we have to choose between science and religion. Science has a way of distinguishing between competing explanations, although sometimes it’s hard to do (e.g. is string theory right?), but religion has no way of knowing whether its “knowledge” is real, genuine, true knowledge. (I’m taking “knowledge” to mean “truth that is nearly universally accepted” by those qualified to judge, but don’t hold me to a definition I made up on the fly.)

I won’t reprise Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible; let’s just say that Guite needs to read that book. Religion is not “enfolded” in science, nor is faith a “primal way of knowing” (note the word “primal”, which serves only to sound good but doesn’t move Guite’s argument forward).

That’s about it. One more exchange in which, I think, Warren is turning into the Anglican Krista Tippett:

WARREN: There is something about truth that is paradoxical. And poets — in a way that I don’t see with theologians or scientists sometimes — are very comfortable in that tension. Can you talk about the paradox of Advent?

GUITE: Advent is paradoxical in itself. It’s a season of waiting and anticipation in which the waiting is strangely rich and fulfilling. And it’s a season that looks back to the first coming, but only in order to look now at the other comings and also forward at the last coming.

What, exactly, is paradoxical about truth? Given that Advent is celebrating something that we don’t think really happened, is she referring to the “tension” of a celebrating something thatis likely a fiction? I don’t think so. The only truths I know that are paradoxical are the provisional truths of quantum mechanics, since they defy our ability to imagine what’s happening to particles on the physical level.

But enough. I am starting to wonder if the NYT continues to publish the numinous lucubrations of Pastor Warren because the paper in fact supports them—or at least supports the view, often pushed by The New Yorker, that science is only one of several “ways of knowing.” (As evidenced by my dialogue with Adam Gopnik, and other articles, the NYer apparently thinks that literature is also a “way of knowing”.) Since the sophisticated readers of the New York Times want to have their science and also their faith, this kind of twaddle with Guite and Warren buttresses the readers in their dissonance.

Well, that’s the only reason I can see to publish Christian dogma, week after week after week. . .


28 thoughts on “More fiction and superstition fed to NYT readers

  1. Thanks for the Dag Søras bit, that was great. And in those three paragraphs, he lays waste to the musings of the two sweating religionists. Whenever I hear someone talking about “baby Jesus” I stop listening. Yes, if Jesus existed as a person 2,000 years ago, he would have been a baby at some point, but that’s the only revelation there is. And what a revelation!

    1. Whenever I hear “baby Jesus” my mind interprets it as Sweet Baby Jesus, a pretty decent chocolate peanut butter porter, if you go for that sort of blasphemy.

  2. The opening quote – we can’t have enough of that – though it is clearly Dawkins-Hitchens-inspired, among others. I don’t recall their quotes, but they all are clear as a bell.

  3. If imagination is a way of knowing, then full-blown hallucinations must be a better way of knowing. For such things come to mind without willing it.

    1. Far be it from me to add anything to such a well stated, succinct comment, but (what the neck –here I go anyhow): I couldn’t help but think of Dr. John C. Lilly’s work with dolphins’ communications where he eventually took “psychonauting” a bit to far for his own good.

    2. “If imagination is a way of knowing, then full-blown hallucinations must be a better way of knowing, for such things come to mind without willing it.”

      The part of the Shakespeare quote above that rarely gets included is the fact that Shakespeare is, in fact, comparing the poet to “the madman,” whose “seething brain”. . .“apprehends more than cool reason ever comprehends” and “sees more devils than vast hell can hold” (i.e., hallucinates). It’s only then that the Bard goes on to compare this to “The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, etc.” So you’re in good company, Mark, when you compare imagination with hallucinations.

  4. I of course agree that science (broadly defined) is the only ‘way of knowing’ about the physical universe.
    But it seems to me that literature can be a ‘way of knowing’, or rather perhaps ‘learning’ about the subjective inner lives of other people.
    To religious folks like Warren this subjective inner life is probably more interesting and even more “real’, in a sense, than stuff like tortoise physiology or evolutionary genetics or gluons or whatever.
    Just some charitable spitballing. I am Team Science.

    1. Perhaps, but I’d suggest you read my exchange with Gopnik. For example, fiction is MADE UP stuff about people, and insofar as it reflects anybody’s REAL inner life, all one can say is that it reflect the author’s own inner life: what he thought hen he wrote. Can you tell me whether we really learn about Anna Karenina’s inner life when we read the eponymous novel?

    2. Perhaps literature is a way of describing existence, rather than “knowing” it. Slaughterhouse Five” comes to mind, a mixture of horror and fantasy.

  5. The usual nonsense. Words put together in melodious phrases that, when evaluated in even the most cursory way, amount to nothing. Sunday salve. I recognized this as nonsense by the time I was eight years old. It’s still nonsense. The Times probably does this simply to have something for everyone. It’s a business, so having Tish Warren’s weekly commentary is a business decision.

    1. I don’t disagree with you, Norman, but if the NYT wants to have something for everyone, where are the columns extolling the virtues of reading the Koran, or reciting the Gayatri mantra, or celebrating Groundation Day, etc.? Until I see those, I must conclude that the Times is pandering to liberal Christians.

    2. Hitchens wrote about Jewish sects that “maintained a watcher at the gates, whose job it was to alert the others if the Messiah arrived unexpectedly. (‘It’s steady work’, as one of these watchmen is supposed, rather defensively, to have said.)”

      Warren is a kind of watchman, not really believing in the mission, but glad to have a prosocial side gig that pays a few bucks and probably does no harm.

      1. “… and probably does no harm.”

        [ Homer Simpson voice ]
        Mmmmm…. probably does no harm… mmmmm… harm…
        [voice ends]

        …. I think the time has come (?) to ask when this common refrain became an important apologium (?) for religion.

        Free Speech for instance – its the NTYT’s free speech, yes. Why are we asking if it is harmful? That is a non sequitur.

        But _religion_ – how to isolate the two?

        Hard to do in one comment.

  6. There is a portion of the Left which relies on the embrace of subjectivity. In that sense religion is an ally. Until the revolution.

  7. “All it [the Shakespeare quote] says is that when a poet imagines something, it somehow becomes ‘knowledge.’”

    That isn’t what the Shakespeare quote is saying, though our host is justified in thinking so given Guites’ own wrongheaded comment—namely, “That suggests that imagination is a way of knowing.”

    What the Shakespeare quote says, not suggests, is that imagination is a way of creating something from nothing—“gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.” Clearly, the quote is emphasizing the godlike nature of imagination, similar to what Coleridge had in mind when he defined imagination as “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” Not trying to sell that notion here—I’m not an idiot; just pointing out that Guites’ gloss on it as a “way of knowing” is misleading and that our host is right to call him on it.

  8. NYT readers are clearly a credulous bunch – they seem to believe in biological transubstantiation, too, provided that a man says the magic words, “I’m a woman, BIGOT!”

  9. If I read some of those dubious passages and massage the meanings of words I can make a sort of sense of what she’s saying (before she makes it go clunk and applies it to religion, that is.)

    And reason is very good at finding and categorizing information. But reason has almost no access to wisdom at all.

    This reminds me of a different dichotomy that was popular a few years ago: EQ vs IQ. Our Intelligence Quotient measures our ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. Our Emotional Quotient assesses our capacity to exhibit restraint, discipline, social abilities, self-understanding, generosity, loyalty, kindness, and “wisdom.” Imagine a brilliant law student who, the night before the bar exam, decides to go out partying, gets into a drunken fight, and wakes up in the local jail. Smart, but not smart. Reason skills A+; Wisdom D-.

    Of course, the elements of wisdom can be reduced to rational principles (if you want X, do Y) but I can at least understand what Guite’s driving at if I frame it this way.

    What, exactly, is paradoxical about truth?

    I think she’s talking about the common truths of experience. It can be true that anticipating something is as good or better than getting it. It might be true that modern rock is worse than classic rock even though our favorite singer started recording in 2019. That sort of thing.

    Of course she then tries to massage this into the fact claims of religion being true (“true”) but then that’s what they do.

  10. I agree with everything I’ve ever seen you announce here. I would still be saying that had I not watched a particular Netflix called “surviving death” or “after death.” S1E6. The stories of reincarnation are so compelling I have to think the public is being duped by a cabal of conspirists or there must be a higher being/force. For instance, imagine being the father of the 2 or 3 year old boy who has night terrors of his plane going down near iwo jima and knows a recipe for napalm. Do yourself a favor and try to watch. It shook up my atheist paradigm…or, at least, made me question it some degree.

    1. There are skeptics who do objective investigations of these claims, and as I recall they’ve found certain similarities.

      There’s never any objective confirmation, but stories handed down through several people that have sometimes changed over time (more & better details). On some occasions there’s good evidence the child was exposed to the stories, or was consciously or unconsciously prompted by adults. Vague original statements are recalled as specific recollections after there’s more information. Children usually “remember past lives” in cultures which believe in reincarnation; they seldom do in cultures that don’t. That points to a culture-bound syndrome.

      In other words, there’s reason to be skeptical.

  11.  “Reason has almost no access to wisdom at all”. What Sastra said. The assertion of “Christian wisdom” is proliferating like a weed. It is all over the CofE’s ‘vision’ for the schools that it controls in the UK. It is nothing more than a pre-emptive defence against criticism, or even scrutiny.

    The saccharine pieces about Advent that we get at this time of year always make me smile. Some of the gloomier speakers on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ enjoy pointing out that Advent is supposed to be a time for contemplating the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. Not much about Baby Jesus in that.

    As for ‘a kind of continuous coming’…well, on this point, it is perhaps best to remain silent.

  12. You must have a strong stomach, PCC(E), to read that drivel.
    The Times has been doing quite a bit of woo pushing. Just today there was an article about octagonal houses (which are pretty cool, actually, if you like that sort of stuff)…. and one house featured “has a ghost”! Two paragraphs about this ghost (which I didn’t read). Weak stomach, me.

  13. Talking of ghosts, I find a few hanging round in my mind, even though the priests have been driven out of that temple. Most of us will agree on the beauty created in religion’s name – be it music like Allegri’s Miserere or Handel’s Messiah, or architecture, where I’m a complete sucker for a decorated gothic cathedral, especially the stained glass or the fan vault ceiling. At least the architecture is solid and real, and speaks to the engineering principles that underpin it. The music, sadly, isn’t real in that sense, but the sensory experience and the emotions are. Sometimes I find myself enjoying the words that dribble forth from clerics, but not the modern trashy ones. I can enjoy the poetry of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer without believing a word of it in any literal way (plenty of good psychological advice in there). I used to enjoy listening to Johnathan Sacks too, although the music of his speech couldn’t stand up to the solid arguments of Richard Dawkins in a debate I watched. Words can tease, stimulate and entertain just as music does, but at the end of the day, we need not take them as gospel, so to speak!
    The other ghost that hangs around is that I tend to treat a vicar, priest or padre differently to other people. Just as when I was a child a doctor was someone special (quickly cured by medical school), I still feel some remnant of that when I see a dog collar. I can’t respect their positions on belief and know they are wrong, yet there is still that tendency to regard them as different from other men. Some subconscious questioning of whether they are right after all? I don’t know, but it’s there. Fortunately, being brought up in the wishy washy C of E, I am completely used to everyone mumbling the words, going through the motions and not, at any time, believing the mumbo jumbo. I am happy to report that my last two such interactions were when I was in an isolation room in a hospital for the bone marrow transplant, and I experienced nothing but irritation that my wife had put me down as Anglican on my hospital profile. It would have been more entertaining to have someone unusual to argue with!

  14. “It always puzzles me when somebody with brains and academic training is also deeply religious”

    Because it sells!

  15. Who cares what frocked pretenders in the NYT say? The real season of Advent has to do with anticipating the return of baby Yoda, in the third season of The Mandalorian, coming in March.

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