Friday, April 22, 2011

"Vague" Religion: Brooks, Taylor, and the "Book of Mormon" Musical

The irreverent musical, The Book of Mormon, is getting rave reviews from all quarters--well, all quarters of secular elites (I read the first review, in the New York Times, on the day that I was speaking at Brigham Young University!). The gist of the South-Park-ish critique is not a scorched-earth approach (it's not a script written by Christopher Hitchens); instead, all reviewers seem to agree that the critique amounts to something like this: "What you believe is unbelievably ridiculous and laughable, but we sure can't deny that you are just so incredibly nice (and naive)."

But David Brooks' column today, "Creed or Chaos," pushes beyond these platitudes--in a way that reminds me of an important point in Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. First, Brooks:

The central theme of “The Book of Mormon” is that many religious stories are silly — the idea that God would plant golden plates in upstate New York. Many religious doctrines are rigid and out of touch.

But religion itself can do enormous good as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally; as long as people understand that all religions ultimately preach love and service underneath their superficial particulars; as long as people practice their faiths open-mindedly and are tolerant of different beliefs.

This warm theme infuses the play with humanity and compassion. It also plays very well to an educated American audience. Many Americans have always admired the style of belief that is spiritual but not doctrinal, pluralistic and not exclusive, which offers tools for serving the greater good but is not marred by intolerant theological judgments.

The only problem with “The Book of Mormon” (you realize when thinking about it later) is that its theme is not quite true. Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False.
He continues to then offer an apology for "rigorous theologies"--an apologetic for thick, theological specificity rather than some bland, lowest-common-denominator spirituality. And then ends with a theme that alludes to his new book, The Social Animal, but a point I've also been pushing since Desiring the Kingdom. As Brooks puts it,
Rigorous codes of conduct allow people to build their character. Changes in behavior change the mind, so small acts of ritual reinforce networks in the brain. A Mormon denying herself coffee may seem like a silly thing, but regular acts of discipline can lay the foundation for extraordinary acts of self-control when it counts the most.
In a way, Brooks echoes Charles Taylor's critiques of reductionistic, "secular" accounts of religion. For example, as he notes later in A Secular Age, many secular elites work with some sort of "general theory of religion" which sees "religion" (in general) as a vague 'answer' to the question of "meaning." In other words, if you ask a secularist why people believe in the crazy particularities of various faith, the answer is not particular but vague: They're looking for "meaning."

But Taylor thinks this is just the sort of over-wrought balderdash you'd come up with if you were not "religious." "What humans seek in religion," Taylor emphasizes, is not "meaning," and it's certainly not meaning in general. "Indeed, there is something absurd about the idea that our lives could be focused on meaning as such, rather than on some specific good or value. One might die for God, or the Revolution, or the classless society, but not for meaning" (A Secular Age, p. 679). "Anyone genuinely 'into' some good or value," he continues, "must see this particular good as having worth; this is what he is moved by" (680). Vague spiritualities of "niceness" will never generate such commitment.