Monday, April 26, 2010

Book Review: "The Left Hand of God"

Michael Lerner, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).

According to the back jacket flap of the book, the author, Rabbi Michael Lerner, is the editor of Tikkun magazine and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue of San Francisco and Berkeley, California. Rabbi Lerner received a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley and in clinical psychology from the Wright Institute. The subtitle of the magazine he edits, Tikkun: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture, and Society summarizes his current interests. He is well known as a political, cultural, and social critic operating from and out of his Jewish faith.
In summary, Rabbi Lerner argues that “...a social change movement that allowed itself to learn from the accumulated spiritual wisdom of the human race would have an immense potential to engage the most creative energies of the American people…” (p. 382). He divides his project into two parts. Part One presents his critique of American politics, culture and society which he finds in a state of spiritual crisis. Part Two is comprised of his proposed response to this crisis which includes a spiritual covenant with America. The subtitle of the book, “taking back our country from the religious right” accurately describes both Lerner’s concern in Part One and his solution in Part Two.
Lerner describes the “right hand of God” as muscular, powerful, saving and liberating. Lerner describes the “left hand of God” as compassionate, nurturing, loving and caring. Lerner’s thesis is that the “left hand of God” has been ignored by both the political right and left in America. The political right has allowed the religious right to celebrate the “right hand of God” but has ignored God’s left hand. The political left has failed to learn from the accumulated spiritual wisdom of the human race and has instead chosen to celebrate a secular (religion free) vision of America. Consequently, God’s left hand has been ignored. Lerner’s prescription for recovery is for people of faith to celebrate the “left hand of God” the way the religious and political right has celebrated the “right hand of God.”
Lerner argues that the religious right is aware of the growing depression that people are feeling, a deep emotional depression amongst Americans--a lack of any hopeful picture of what the world could be. And that failure, the failure to paint a more hopeful picture, is not a failure of the “religious right” in general or the premillenial-dispensationalist-fundamentalists in particular, but rather, its a failure of the mainstream political framework in America to address the major questions facing the world in the 21st century. He calls on the “religious left” to reinvigorate the conversation in America and address this failure by promoting the religious sensibilities embody in the metaphor of the “left hand of God.”
Drawing on the political effort by Newt Gingrich and the Republican party in 1994 in developing and promoting a “Contract with America,” Lerner advocates a new “Spiritual Covenant with America.” He says, “Its the Democrats’ turn” (p. 227).
Lerner’s “Spiritual Covenant” proclaims a commitment to the traditional spiritual values of love, generosity, kindness, responsibility, respect, gratitude, humility, honesty, awe, and wonder. He outlines public policy commitments on families, personal responsibility, social responsibility, education, health care, environmental stewardship, security, and science. He calls on people of faith to promote this spiritual covenant.
By way of evaluation, Lerner’s thesis is well supported. His belief that America is in the midst of a spiritual crisis is substantiated by his many examples of people searching for meaning in a despiritualized world. He draws on his work as a psychotherapist in this “diagnosis” of the “symptoms” and causes of the crisis. In Lerner’s interviews with spiritual seekers, he hears repeated concern for the erosion of social values, the vices of greed and over-consumption, the instability and fragility of families, the search for community, and the monetization of all aspects of life. Further, he makes a well reasoned argument that the political right has recognized and exploited this crisis of spirit. In the search for spiritual meaning, Americans have been drawn to right-wing religious communities for comfort in the midst of the crisis and instruction on how to fix what is broken. The political right has embraced these seekers and provides an answer for the question Thomas Frank asked in his 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas?: why do Americans vote against their own economic interests in supporting the political right. Lerner would answer that those in spiritual crisis favor the spiritual over the economic.
Lerner’s line of reasoning, that the solutions offered by the political right have not so much alleviated the spiritual crisis of America as it has traded on the political value of the crisis, will sound intuitively true for those on the political left, but is not apt to persuasive to any on the political right. But, the political right is not Lerner’s audience. As he makes clear in the second half of his book, he is writing for people of faith and calling people of faith to embrace a politics of meaning that is broader than the program of conservative politics in contemporary America.
The book is ambitious and therefore raises the expectations of the reader. Those expectations will not always be met. At places, The Left Hand of God, wants to move in all directions at once and thus loses its focus. Similarly, it is not only sprawling, but rambling at points. Perhaps the most serious concern, however, is in the central metaphor of the text: God’s hands.
The God of American popular culture in the early twenty-first century is pictured by Lerner as a deity with two hands: one raised in triumph (the right) and the other bandaged and hanging limply in a sling (the left). One might, therefore, expect an argument for a God with two working hands, neither being neglected, both equal in strength. But by the end of the book, clearly Lerner would really prefer a left handed God whose right hand is tied behind God’s back. The metaphor, in this way, breaks quickly. Lerner clearly has a politically liberal reader in mind and he makes no attempt to engage a skeptical politically conservative reader. This critique, however, is based on a misunderstanding of the metaphor.
Lerner never intends his metaphor to bring to the reader’s mind the sort of God implied by this critique. Rather, Lerner intends his provocative metaphor to expand a liberal secular reader’s understanding of the potentiality inherent in religion and to encourage the disenfranchised religious left not to lose heart. The metaphor is meant, to say “Look! God doesn’t have just one hand! Religion is multifaceted and neglected by the political left. End the neglect. Let’s exercise God’s other (left) arm!” In this way, the metaphor works beautifully. But when a person of faith, rather than a person of the secular left, picks up the volume, the metaphor gives rise to an unintended expectation of “balance” in politics and harmony in the culture war. In this way, the subtitle plays an important role and should not be overlooked. Lerner is plotting a strategy to take “back our country from the religious right.” It is for another author to provide a vision of a two handed God; a God who empowers and strengthens and in whose might justice prevails and a God who is always concerned with the plight of the poor and the marginalized, a God of steadfast love. Exploring the implications of an ambidextrous God is not Lerner’s concern.
Lerner also develops the metaphor of the mind of God having both a left and a right hemisphere. He writes of the “perfection” of God, hinting at a God that is not only not one handed but who exercises both the right and left sides of the brain in a balanced, harmonious, and healthy way. Drawing on his background in psychotherapy, Lerner creates an analogy to bipolar disorder and suggests that we have portrayed God as manic in right brain function and depressed in left brain function. Again, this analogy suggests the need for a leveling, a dose of theological lithium to restore healthy behavior. These are, however, just hints and not the purpose of his project. Another author, with greater sensitivity to the religious right, such as Jim Wallis, might develop this project in such a direction and thereby draw some of the religious right to Lerner’s vision. Lerner’s rhetorical style, however, is not well suited for that task and his focus is the secular liberal reader, not the reader of the religious right.
Lerner’s work calls to mind a book by President Jimmy Carter Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis published in 2005 by Simon & Schuster. Carter, like Lerner, analyzes the political and religious right and comes to many of the same conclusions, but from his Christian (Baptist) faith. Likewise, Lerner’s and Carter’s work is similar to Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get it. It is no coincidence that Wallis‘ book is published by the same publishing house as Lerner: HarperSanFransico. These three, and others like them, point to an emerging trend in the early years of the twenty-first century, the desire by some on the political left to remove the right’s seeming monopoly on religion in America.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Religiosity of the Supreme Court

John Paul Stevens is currently the only Protestant jurist on the United States Supreme Court. Justice Stevens has announced his retirement at the end of the current term.  Of the eight remaining justices, six self-identify as Roman Catholic and two as Jewish.  

The U.S. Constitution clearly states that there will be no religious tests for office.  But until fairly recently the Supreme Court has been overwhelmingly Protestant and 35 have been Episcopalian (more than any other religious group).

For the nation’s first two generations all members of the court were Protestant.  In 1836, Justice Roger Taney became the first Catholic member. But for thirty years after Taney, the court was again entirely Protestant. Edward Douglas White ended the “Protestant monopoly.”

In the early twentieth century the nation began to expect a “Catholic seat” and then also a “Jewish seat” on the court. The nomination of the first Jewish Justice, Louis Brandeis, was bitterly contested. Anti-Catholic sentiments were also still common in the early part of the twentieth century.  However, despite the nation’s uneasy relationship with its Catholic and Jewish citizens, the practice of having one Jewish and one Catholic Supreme Court justice continued more or less from 1916 until 1972 (Nixon broke with the tradition).  
In 1967, Justice Thurgood Marshall became the first African-American to join the court and in 1981 Justice Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to do the same.  Recently, I dare say, we have not viewed religion to be as important as race and gender.

In 1985, when asked about the future of maintaining a Catholic seat on the Supreme Court, Catholic jurist William Brennan remarked that in fifty years’ time “no one will care about these things.”

For the Record the “Top Five”: Episcopalian 35; Presbyterian 19; Catholic 11; Unitarian 10; and Jewish 7.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Avatar & Religion

The question:

Week 9 and 10 Response Paper Assignment - Due April 14th

Very simply: write 500-700 words on the aspects of the film relevant for not just religious issues, but religious issues in America. What connections can you make between the film and particular themes we have discussed so far in class? What does this film suggest about the general relationship between Hollywood and religion in American society? Make sure to keep your response within the word limit, even if this keeps you from discussing every example of American religion in the film you’ve selected.

My answer:

I selected Avatar because Professor Cox promoted us viewing it in a lecture. As Prof. Cox indicated, it has broken box-office records around the world (including here in America) and was nominated for the “Best Picture” award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science.

Most obviously, the name of the film has religious connotations for Hindus in America. The term “avatar” is used in sacred Hindu texts to denote incarnations of deities. For instance, Rama, the seventh avatar of the deity Vishnu, of the sacred poem Ramayana, is (in the Sanskrit language) an “avatar.” Krishna is the avatar in the epic poem Mahabharata.

The term “avatar,” however, is currently used by those who play virtual reality games or participate in virtual reality social networks or learning environments. In these contexts, avatars are the participant’s “incarnation” in the virtual reality world of the game, social network, or learning environment.

To all but practicing Hindus, the term “avatar” has this later connotation, most Americans being oblivious to the etymology of the word. Nonetheless, there are a significant number of Hindus in America and there were some initial protest from Hindus to James Cameron’s use of the term as the film’s title. Rajan Zed, president of Universal Society of Hinduism (based in Nevada), in a press release, said that “avatar” was one of the central themes Hinduism and insensitive handling of faith traditions sometimes results in pillaging serious spiritual doctrines and revered symbols and consequently injures devotees.

The interplay between religion and the film, however, does not end with its title. American Roman Catholics were warned by the Vatican that the film flirts with the worship of nature (see Alessandra Rizzo’s article in January 12, 2010 Huffington Post). Vatican Radio said the film “cleverly winks at all those pseudo-doctrines that turn ecology into the religion of the millennium.”

For many theologically liberal Christians the film’s exploration of the themes of imperialism, greed, ecological disregard and corporate irresponsibility were welcomed and warmly embraced. Neopaganism, of which Pope Benedict was concerned, did not seem to worry liberal protestant Christians.

Ross Douthat wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times that called the film “Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism.” I find that assessment unwarranted by the content of the film. “Apologia” is too strong a word. The Vatican’s “flirt” is more accurate. Ross goes on to say that “pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation.” And names, “The Lion King,” “Pocahontas,” “Dances with Wolves,” and “Star Wars” as examples. Again, I find his judgment unwarranted. Disney’s portrayal of African religious practice in “The Lion King” or the portrayal of Native American religion in “Pocahontas” and “Dances with Wolves” is hardly the advocacy of pantheism. You can quibble with whether or not the films gave an accurate portrayal (given the limitations of the genre and medium), but to suggest that the films promote or are an evangelistic tool of pantheism seems silly to me. Avatar struck me as a remake of “Lawrence of Arabia” and I have never heard anyone suggest that “Lawrence of Arabia” was an apologia for Islam. Ross believes pantheism to be religiously misguided. I agree. “Avatar,” however, is not to my mind (as he suggests) an apologia for pantheism.

More interesting was Jonah Goldberg’s opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times. Goldberg summarizes the film thusly: the hero “goes native, embraces the eco-faith of Pandora's Na'Vi inhabitants and their tree goddess, the "all mother," and rallies the Pandoran aborigines (not to mention the Pandoran ecosystem itself) against the evil forces of a thinly veiled 22nd century combine of Blackwater and Halliburton.” Whereas I was not sure if Ross and I watched the same film, Goldberg and I certainly did. Like Goldberg, what I find interesting is how the film is unapologetically religious and yet a “blockbuster” and an Academy Award nominee.

Ross’ litany of films he believes promotes pantheism can be seen as a litany of films that have religious plot elements or themes and I would note that all were successful at the American box office. To my mind, rather than seeing Hollywood as a den of heresy, the take home lesson here is that America is very comfortable with religion, even when the religious convictions being expressed are not their own and further the popularity of these films attest to not only the comfort with religion (which is passive) but the nature of America to be affirmative of religion (a more active/positive response).

Tuesday, April 13, 2010