Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Light Summer Reading

There's nothing like kicking back with some light summer reading. "Light" is relative, and for me, "light" doesn't mean Stephen King or the latest Twilight-knockoff about Sexii Vampyres.

I try to read those things, but whenever I do, my entire brain just shuts down completely. I think it's some kind of allergic reaction. The EMT folks told me that they won't even try to restart my heart next time around.

"Light reading" this summer means Voltaire. Yes, I'm getting into enlightenment philosophy for entertainment. Please, please do not go hatin'. Sure, I'm reading the Dictionnaire Philosophique, and that may sound seriously snooty or possibly French to most of My Fellow Americans, but Voltaire ain't Hegel or Derrida. The Enlightenment permitted philosophers to play with words and wit in a way that seems to elude most postmodern academics. He's tres amusante. Really.

What's particularly interesting about my reading are those sections that speak directly to matters of faith, and to Christianity. What I'm finding about Voltaire is that he utterly despised the church for all the right reasons. Voltaire saw the corruption that wealth and power brought into the institutional church, and reviled it with a passion. He saw churchmen of his day who lived like kings, surrounded by servants and the biggest houses and the best things, and he realized that such a life was completely antithetical to the form of virtue that they claimed to profess.

He'd have just loved Joel Osteen.

Though Voltaire hated the church with a deep and abiding passion, he apparently did not feel the same way about Jesus.

In the section of the Dictionnaire Philosophique that is simply entitled "Religion," Voltaire describes a fictionalized religious experience. First, he describes how deeply he glories in the wonders of creation, in its complexity and inherent gracefulness. Then, he has an exchange with an angel, who shows him the horrors wrought by sectarian violence. From there, he moves on to speak with some great wise men. Finally, he encounters a nameless man who is obviously Jesus, lamenting over those who have suffered and died in conflicts over him, and over the wealth that has been gathered in his name.

The man will not give his name, so Voltaire "...implores him to tell me in what true religion consisted." The man replies: "Have I not already told you? Love God and your fellow creature as yourself." At this, Voltaire declares that he takes him as his only master.

Voltaire clearly felt that this ethic was at the heart of all faith, at least, all legitimate faith. That ethic, he argues repeatedly, is a true universal, something that reaches across cultures and languages and peoples. It is this line of thinking that lies at the foundation of that famous Voltaire quotation: "There is only one morality, just as there is only one geometry."

What I find myself thinkin' on is this: how does this relate to the emergent, postmodern church? In this era, we're fond of declaring that morality and ethics are culturally mediated. There is no "higher" truth, because truth is relative. Even progressive Christians tend to make this statement.

But I tend to come down with my Voltaire on this one. There is something about the core teachings of Jesus that goes well beyond cultural norms and societal expectations and down deep into the basic structure and purpose of human existence.

Believing that seems necessary if you're going to bother calling yourself Christian.