In conversation with Tzvetan Todorov, A.C. Grayling remarks:
When you think scientifically, you think in an open-minded way, in which questions of practicality, empirical test of hypotheses, and public debate, are central. This contrasts sharply – because of its open-endedness, its preparedness to live with uncertainty, and with the creation of new problems from the solution of old problems – with the old narrative structure of theistic explanations of the world. Those narratives are very neat – human beings like a nice simple story. We can tell the religious story in ten minutes, but to explain science takes years.Wow. Ladies and gentlemen, Professor A.C. Grayling.
Ten minutes! I mean, c’mon, it takes a good three minutes, at least, just to tell the gist of Genesis; with twenty-four books in the Old Testament (I'm counting Jewish-wise not Christian, here), you're clocking over an hour even before intermission. O.K., sure you can skip some of the begats and thou shalt (nots). But to tell the whole religious story, I don't see how you can possibly do it in under an hour and a half. Plus commercials.
Faced with this sort of depressing caricature, one might just sigh and give up. The poor we will always have with us, apparently, including a poverty of worthy opponents. This, what we might call the cliff-notes argument, would have it that because Newton’s laws were three, Newton must have been telling a fairy tale. Come now. Just because one can sketch an outline does not mean you have read the Odyssey. Try explaining—let alone grasping—the Athanasian creed or the Abdhidharma in ten minutes!
To be fair, this is an offhand comment that Grayling makes in the midst of a conversation, and I wouldn’t want to be called to account for every stray remark of mine. It is also, by far, not the most interesting thread in the conversation, about which I will have something else to say in a later post. (The discussion is occasioned by Todorov’s book In Defence of the Enlightenment.) But Grayling’s error is more than an exaggeration; it’s a drastic mischaracterization. Nor is it primarily about the time exposition takes; it’s about simplistic dichotomy according to which religion eschews open-endedness, whereas science cultivates it. Tell this to the dreamers of a final theory. The deep desire to wrap the whole thing up with a nice syllogism or equation or rhymed couplet is as old as human discourse, and is right at home amongst the godless reductionists.
While I couldn’t agree any less with Grayling’s too-stark-by-half contrast, I agree with every word of the aspiration. Though I would stipulate, with Aristotle, that not every realm of inquiry admits the same degree of certainty, or even discussion, I too hold that we ought to think “in an open-minded way, in which questions of practicality, empirical test of hypotheses, and public debate, are central...[with] open-endedness, ...preparedness to live with uncertainty, and...the creation of new problems from the solution of old."
Religionists have indeed done more than their share of avoiding this, and I know very well from experience what it is to stare into the uncomprehending face of God-said-it-I-believe-it-that-settles-it. But really, does anyone think this sort of know-nothing cretinism characterizes Aquinas, or Nagarjuna, or Gandhi? Or even Mother Teresa? Even the most vehement and eloquent defenders of faith—say, Pascal, or Luther, or Kierkegaard—trouble to, you know, defend it. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing is about as opposed as you can get to modern scientism (which Grayling thinks is a straw man—quite wrongly, as witness this chapter in a book worth arguing with). Writing in the 14th century, taking medieval Catholicism for granted, undreaming of double-blind experiments and quite comfortable, as far as anyone can tell, with pre-Copernican geocentrism. But the picture of the spiritual life that emerges from a reading of The Cloud is precisely one of unknowing. To take any religion seriously at all does not deliver one into certainty and comfort, but into radically unfinished territory, the territory of one’s own salvation, which is to be worked out in fear and trembling.
To be sure, there is a human craving for security, and religion has bought into the notion that it ought to provide it. Indeed, there is a degree to which, or a sense in which, this desire is legitimate. But there is all the difference in the world between having a star to steer by, and riding a tram car. There is a seven-word sentence I read in Voegelin’s New Science of Politics which turned my understanding of religion upside-down: Uncertainty is the very essence of Christianity. Between this and Todorov’s concurring reply to Grayling, “We have entered an age of uncertainty via the Enlightenment,” lies the whole question. When the best minds of any given religion buy into this mistake, they wind up infantilizing themselves and reinforcing the perception that faith means refusing to look through Galileo’s telescope, or indeed to entertain any questions at all—that is, to stop thinking. So my assertion that Voegelin is right and that Grayling is wrong—wrong about Christianity, though not necessarily about the Enlightenment—is addressed not primarily to Grayling and those like him; it is addressed to those within Christianity whose assumption, often unexamined, is that Grayling is right.
Grayling also likes to make this move by which he strips contemporary Christianity of its pretensions of having made this or that contribution (a move he makes against Todorov’s somewhat more generous read of Christian universalism, for instance). One could be forgiven for the impression that Grayling thinks that Christianity is really a religion of plagiarists:
When you look in the fourth/fifth century Church, you see how much they import into Christian moral thinking and metaphysics from Plotinus and neo-Platonism and the rich ethical resources of Stoicism. And of course later in Aquinas you get another import from Greek philosophy. When people attribute things to Christianity, I see through the veil of Christianity, I see the Greek classical tradition. For example in Stoicism there is a universalising ethics.This is what you might call missing the point with a machine gun. Even if we stipulate the completely counter-factual claim that there is no universalizing strain in the Biblical tradition, the fact remains that Christianity as Christianity was capable of assimilating and wanting to assimilate this tonic of the classical tradition. So it is pretty clear that the Christian animus Grayling sees against it was not so strong as to be able to reject out of hand all that pagan wisdom which must’ve seemed a pretty big threat (and which, indeed, we know to have been problematic for certain strains in Christianity). Such scholarship, if you want to call it that, is about as sensitive a portrait as an x-ray (and mind you, even that metaphor is pretty poor for the “seeing through the veil” Grayling says he does.)
Sorry to mash up my figures of speech like that, but nothing like getting a bit riled to turn on the writing. I’m not sure it makes for the best thinking, though, so if I’ve made some mistake, please call me on it. I am in agreement with Grayling that religion ought not to be a sacrosanct and undiscussable topic; and I find a number of his positions (on all sort of matters from skepticism to ethics) worthy of engagement. Besides, he writes in a way that gives pleasure. But alas, on this matter, Grayling's thinking, if open at all, is open at the wrong end.