by Paul Elie
from Georgetown University

Four Cheers for Deism


“Jim Holt is writing a book about the puzzle of existence.”  That little tagline of a bio appeared for years under Holt’s book reviews and articles – and then out came Why Does the World Exist?, a book about the answers that different thinkers across history have given to the question of the title.

The history of ideas usually involves some adroit custom-tailoring of the material.  So Louis Menand’s chronicle of American pragmatism was published as The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, with a tattered Civil War-era flag to yoke in the History Channel Crowd.  (It worked, and that very strong book won the Pulitzer Prize.)  And so Matthew Stewart’s new book, Nature’s God, is subtitled The Heretical Origins of the American Republic.  As Stewart explains a few pages in, what he is undertaking in the uncovering of those heretical origins is – publicists, hold your red pens – a revisionist history of deism:

“Deism” in its own day referred not to a superficial theological doctrine but to a comprehensive intellectual tradition that ranged freely across the terrain we now associate with ethics, political theory, metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, and epistemology. It was an astonishingly coherent and systematic body of thought, closer to a way of being than any particular dogma, and it retained its essential elements over a span of centuries, not decades. In origin and substance, deism was neither British nor Christian, as the conventional view supposes, but largely ancient, pagan, and continental, and it spread in America far beyond the educated elite. Although America’s revolutionary deists lavished many sincere expressions of adoration upon their deity, deism is in fact functionally indistinguishable from what we would now call “pantheism”; and pantheism is just a pretty word for atheism. While deism could often be associated with moderation in politics, it served principally do advance a system of thought that was revolutionary in its essence and effects. This essentially atheistic and revolutionary aspect of deism, I further contend, is central to any credible explanation of the revolutionary dimension of the American Revolution. In a word, America’s founders were philosophical radicals.

Probably Stewart is right that America’s founders were philosophical radicals.  But it’s hard to tell from his presentation, because it’s is so larded up with the familiar selling points for the history of ideas circa 2014.  Deism isn’t “just” theological; it is all-encompassing – except that it doesn’t encompass thought that is Christian or British.  It is systematic, but also wide-ranging; it’s coherent, but not dogmatic; it’s revolutionary, yet populist, not limited to any elite.  It retained its character over centuries, yet was central to the American Revolution, which took place in a particular decade.  It’s utterly distinctive and vitally important – and yet it’s essentially indistinguishable from its philosophical second cousins pantheism and atheism, themselves complex and wide-ranging bodies of thought.  In its time, evidently, it was all things to all men – and yet, across 250 years of free thought since then, somehow we haven’t seen it for what it is.

Surely Stewart is overstating the case for deism.  Why?  Either (a) because that’s the royal road in the trade-publishing history of ideas; or (b) because that’s how authors write introductions – by boldfacing arguments that will be developed more subtly in the book proper.  I am hoping the answer is (b).   

The photograph is of a sculpture outside the Northshire Bookstore in Vermont, meant to represent Jefferson’s conception of the separation of church and state.   

Flannery O’Connor, Artist of the Global South

Flannery O’Connor died fifty years ago this month: “Late in July she was taken to Milledgeville hospital with a severe kidney failure, and she died there in a coma on the morning of August 3,” as Robert Fitzgerald put it in the prefatory essay to Everything That Rises Must Converge.

I was in Africa on August 3: driving with family across the border and up into Swaziland en route to the Mkhaya game reserve past Big Bend (where the photograph above was taken).   And as we traveled in South Africa for several weeks, I pondered a conviction about O’Connor and her work that had trailed me the eight thousand or so miles from Brooklyn and Georgetown to Johannesburg and KwaZuluNatal and Cape Town.

Which is this: that these days the distinctive half-fictive region cherished as “Flannery O’Connor’s South” is more contiguous with the global South than with the southern part of the United States, and the aptness of O’Connor’s work to the global South is a crucial reason why it seems to point forward, not back.

In an address in Georgetown’s Faith & Culture series several years ago now – an effort to measure the gap between O’Connor’s time and ours – I wound up putting a point this way:

The genius of Flannery O’Connor was that she left many of the cultural distinctions cherished by Catholics of her age out of her work, recognizing that they were not related to truth. Instead, she made work that crossed borders—between North and South, black and white, Catholic and Protestant, the realistic and the grotesque—in order to dramatize the central human question: the question of “the salvation or loss of the soul,” as she put it. Her work will make sense when the “Protestant South” is the territory of Central and South America. It will make sense when the admirable nihilist, the practitioner of a do-it-yourself Christianity, is an oilworker on a derrick in Nigeria or a “house Christian” in Beijing. It will make sense because she looked forward, not back—looked forward imaginatively through the “realism of distances,” another term for prophecy.

Well, to travel in southern Africa is to know that this is true already – or rather, that it has become more true in this part of the global South while it has become less true in Atlanta and Louisville and New Orleans.  The coexistence of races, and the separation of the races; the busyness and disorganization and drama of public life at streetside and open market; the do-it-yourself churches with their creeds handpainted on the walls outside; the constancy of poverty; the sense that life is precious, because life is dangerous, and one’s own survival is not assured – all these are recognizable in the big cities, the villages, the townships of South Africa.

Flannery O’Connor was a regionalist, yes; but her region – her country – was the place that Pope Francis (with the Community of Sant’Egidio) calls “the periphery.”  The periphery is vast; and to travel on the periphery in South Africa is to recognize that we in America live on the periphery of a world that’s larger and more complicated than we generally realize.    

Whatever You Say, Say It Radiantly

After Seamus Heaney’s death last year I posted several pieces about his stance toward religion – his religious faith, or loss of it, or lack of it, or diffidence about it.

In Image's 25th-anniversary issue, Rowan Williams, erstwhile Archbishop of Canterbury, weighs in:

Image: Recently, in an interview, Thomas Kinsella said that he had been “maturing into disbelief’; and Seamus Heaney said not long before he died that he no longer had any religious belief. These writers emphasize the possibility of “going beyond belief,” reaching a stage that you might almost describe as mystical. Their lives are sufficiently engaged with love, truth, and integrity. Are we to believe, do you think, that these people are actual believers, whether they admit it or not? Or is that merely a way of trying to satisfy our own anxieties?

RW: When people like that say those things about belief, very often what they seem to mean is this: if you put me on the spot and ask me what I believe to be true, in the abstract, I don’t know where I’d begin. But in them you see a use of language going back to what we were saying earlier about poetry: it’s theologically informed in that it is dense, full of radiance, of claritas. Something theological is going on and they know it.

The last thing I’d call Seamus, for instance, is an agnostic, in the sense of somebody who floats uncertainly around; he has a real commitment to the language and all that it means. Very often we tie down the notion of belief to mean having a quick answer to what you think is true out there, rather than, how do you inhabit the world you’re in, the speech you speak, and the vision you see.

And at that level I feel faith goes on, God-relatedness goes on …

I don’t think that’s Christian imperialism. I’m not trying to take away the sincerity of people’s doubts; it is just to say, if you have any religious commitment, you’re bound to believe that some of this miraculous radiance in words will come through.

Seamus Heaney used words precisely.  Myself, I am inclined to take him at his word.       

Image's anniversary issue is thick with art, faith, mystery — the journal's credo — and discussions of same.   It's an essential text in the discussion of — this site's credo —  literature, art, religious belief, current affairs, and the ways they fit together.   

This Is How the Old World Sun Sets

A hundred years on from the August depicted in Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August – the August when World War I began – I am devoting a series of posts to this classic book, which I haven’t read before.

Robert K. Massie singles out the book’s opening paragraph as especially remarkable.  Here it is:

SO GORGEOUS WAS THE SPECTACLE on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens— four dowager and three regnant— and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and of its kind the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

How does that opening paragraph work, so that it works remarkably?  I see Tuchman using several effects.

She settles on an event slightly to the side of the main story she is telling.  You might expect a book called The Guns of August and focused on the events of August 1914 to open at dawn on the morning of August 1, 1914. That would be too schematic.  Instead, Tuchman evokes a significant moment some years prior to August 1914 – an event that August 1914 will push deep into the past.

She takes advantage of what can be called the processional character of English prose to reproduce the effect it describes. English prose proceeds, or processes, from left to right, one line after another. So the writer, describing a procession, can create a procession of words, as Tuchman does here, moving sovereigns and highnessness and queens and ambassadors through the palace gate in a procession of details which represent the mass.

She begins at the end, opening with an assemblage “of its kind the last.” This handy narrative writer’s device can be used to create foreshadowing, as here, or to produce a narrative that incorporates its own telling, as in A Hundred Years of Solitude.  Tuchman enhances the effect by setting literal and figurative imagery against each other: morning bells against sunset, the “muffled tongue of Big Ben” against the “dying blaze of splendor” that the royal procession represents.

This is old-school historical writing that never gets old, even as our sense of history changes.   

David: What Kind of Man Was He?

Without making any special effort, somehow I have come to possess a short shelf of books about great figures in the Hebrew Bible: David Grossman’s extraordinary Lion’s Honey: The Myth of Samson, Robert Pinsky’s Life of David, and now The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero, by Yale Divinity School professor Joel Baden.

Baden’s book is revisionist-reconstructionist from top to bottom, devoted to trying to “peel back the layers of literary intepretation and recover the human David.”

We have no first-person reports of David’s life, no personal letters that might shed light on his character. We have only his actions. It is only by what he did that we can assess what kind of man he was.

Sure enough.  But I have to say I wasn’t prepared for the full extent of Baden’s peeling-back:

He was not kind or generous. He was not loving. He was not faithful or fair. He was not honorable or trustworthy. He was not decent by almost any definition. What he was, was ambitious and willing to abandon all of these positive qualities to achieve that ambition. David was a successful monarch, but he was a vile human being.

The book is published by HarperOne, and Baden’s assessment is on page 259, a few pages from the end of the book.  After all, who would read about this vile human being if he was presented as such from the beginning?    

The image is a detail from Rembrandt’s David and Uriah.  

The Guns of August, Forever Ago

“It felt like a hundred years ago when I read it – and that was years and years ago,” the bookseller told me. He meant World War I – the Great War – as recounted by Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August; I had pointed out that the August of the title was a hundred Augusts ago.

A hundred years!  A hundred years ago Erik Hobsbawm’s “long nineteenth century” ended and Winston Churchill’s “terrible twentieth” began.

With that in mind, in these weeks I’ll be devoting a number of posts to The Guns of August. Published in 1962, it was Barbara Tuchman’s first best-seller and it remained the strongest seller of her many subsequent books. In an introduction master historian explains why:

Four qualities stand out: a wealth of vivid detail which keeps the reader immersed in events, almost as an eyewitness; a prose style which is transparently clear, intelligent, controlled and witty; a cool detachment of moral judgment— Mrs. Tuchman is never preachy or reproachful; she draws on skepticism, not cynicism, leaving the reader not so much outraged by human villainy as amused and saddened by human folly. These first three qualities are present in all of Barbara Tuchman’s work, but in The Guns of August there is a fourth which makes the book, once taken up, almost impossible to set aside. Remarkably, she persuades the reader to suspend any foreknowledge of what is about to happen.

Namely, that “after the Battle of the Marne, millions of men on both sides will stumble into the trenches to begin their endurance of four years of slaughter.”

To write the book, Massie explains,

She inhabited libraries— the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the British Library and Public Record Office, the Bibliothèque Nationale, the Sterling Library at Yale, and the Widener Library at Harvard. (As a student , she recalled the stacks at the Widener had been “my Archimedes bathtub, my burning bush, my dish of mold where I found my personal penicillin … I was blissful as a cow put to graze in a field of fresh clover and would not have cared if I had been locked in for the night.”)

She wrote the book in a dairy barn behind her family’s summer house in Connecticut, working steadily for eight or more hours a day.

One of the paragraphs Barbara Tuchman wrote that summer took her eight hours to complete and became the most famous passage in all her work. It is the opening paragraph … By turning the page, the fortunate person who has not yet encountered this book can begin to read.

I am one of those fortunate people. Now I’ll turn the page – and I’ll devote my next Guns of August post to that eight-hour paragraph.

In July, an End to the Summer


I took my last nightfall bike ride of the summer the other night – up Willoughby, across Franklin in the still-new bike lane, under the El and up still-bustling Fulton, and back through the brownstone-and-rowhouse acreage of Bedford-Stuyvesant — which has something like 8,800 buildings built before 1900, “perhaps the largest collection of intact and largely untouched Victorian architecture in the country.”

This past week I’ve been doing a lot of things for the last time this summer.  There’s a simple reason.  Tomorrow I am going with family to South Africa for a trip of three and a half weeks.  When we return, the end of summer will be on us: the beginning of school and sports seasons, Labor Day, and so on.

There’s also a more complicated reason.  In South Africa — in the Southern Hemisphere — it is winter.  And although winter is a pleasant time of year in South Africa – dry and temperate in Johannesburg; variable in Cape Town, where morning rain is burned off by sunshine at midday – and although friends in Cape Town say that this winter has been dry and lovely, it is winter there even so, with the sun setting around six p.m.

The knowledge that we’ll be traveling from summer to winter – leaving summer behind — has shaped my anticipation of the trip more than I could have expected and in ways I don’t quite understand.  To the sense of a beginning that is wound into a long trip to a distant place is added the sense of an ending; and this sense of an ending is compounded by the fact – radiant all around – that, weather-wise this has been the loveliest New York summer in memory, with temperatures peaking in the eighties, and by the knowledge that for us, in a few days this particular summer will end abruptly.  I feel we are flying against nature, courting jet lag writ large.

And after nearly a year of posting pieces daily to this site — 400-plus so far — I’ll be posting intermittently, breaking a rhythm I feel I’d only just found.   

Who knows what the New York summer will be like when we return, or what there will be to write about it: but officially, after all, I am telling myself, there will be a month of it left — time for plenty of night biking in Brooklyn.

Our Kind of Spirituals, No. 44: Stevie Wonder, “Master Blaster (Jammin’)”

Stevie Wonder released “Master Blaster” in 1980 – the year of this video – after his band and Bob Marley’s had spent some time touring together, and the Marley influence couldn’t be any more obvious.   It took on the sound of a tribute after Marley’s death in 1981.

In later concerts Wonder followed it with “Higher Ground,” which is a spiritual in its own right; but “Master Blaster” makes a higher ground of the park and streetcorner where the Wailers are pumping their sound out of a boom box.  

“They want us to join their fighting / But our answer today / Is to let all our worries / Like the breeze through our fingers slip away …”

Elvis Costello – fending off charges of racism he’d brought on himself with drunken trash-talk – played a version with the Attractions in dozens of shows in 1980 and 1981. 

Seems to me there’s a straight line from this to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

Hotter than July, truly.   

Lost and Found: 13,000 Waltzes

A friend is trying to identify “things lost to history” – “ancient texts, extinct species, artworks, cities, medieval manuscripts … ” – and his query has churned in my mind for a couple of weeks now.  Not that the topic isn’t on the brain all the time: so much of what we call culture-making is driven by the wish to make sure that things we treasure aren’t lost to history or the attempt to recover things that have been.

Lost to history?  The music of Bach comes to mind.  At least two full-length sacred passions, dozens of cantatas, and something like a quarter of the organ music is lost – was lost when Bach’s manuscripts were scattered among his heirs after his death.  Because Bach is the very image of the complete artist, whose work exists in great variety and abundance – superabundance, as I put it in Reinventing Bach — all that lost work challenges our very sense of abundance, like a great cache of buried treasure submerged offshore.

Set against the idea of “things lost to history” is the great cache of 13,000 concert videos uploaded to YouTube by Wolfgang’s Vault earlier this month.  I’ve subscribed to the service for a while now – and have celebrated Thanksgiving several years running by listening to all four hours of the Band’s “Last Waltz” at the Winterland in San Francisco – and just when I thought I’d worked though most of the concert audio recordings I wanted to hear, all of a sudden here are complete concert videos: the Who, Bruce Springsteen, the Clash, Lou Reed, Wilco, and on and on.  And that’s just the full-length shows.

It’s striking to read an article about a long-lost vintage Telecaster of Jackson Browne’s and then call up a 1976 concert where the guitar is leaned casually alongside the piano.  It’s striking to see that Last Waltz concert, familiar from the odd camera angles Martin Scorsese worked out obsessively for the concert film, now in a steady black-and-white middle-distance shot probably used by the sound-and-lighting technicians.  It’s even more striking to see a full Band show from six months earlier – to see that the Band, supposedly burned out, at each other’s throats, working through an unglamorous gig in Asbury Park, playing with as much guts and ardor as they do in their Winterland farewell gig.

(Footnote for Band fans: it’s striking to see that, Levon’s cutting wisecrack to the contrary, Robbie’s haircut for the San Francisco show Scorsese filmed is no fancier than the one he has in Asbury Park.)

But what’s really striking is how much of it there is – and the feeling this superabundance produces.  Conventional wisdom would suggest that, because there’s no much of it, I wouldn’t hesitate to dive in, knowing that this particular vault is bottomless, inexhaustible.  But I feel the opposite.  I am reluctant to dive in.  It’s not that I’m afraid I’ll get lost in there.  It’s not that I’m afraid of having illusions shattered, legends brought to earth.  

It’s just that I’d like all that live music to be lost to history a little longer.   

Moral Revulsion Alert: Execution Described in Grisly Detail Here

“The curtains opened,” reports Mauricio Martin, who was there.

It was not a play, or a concert, or a magic show.  It was an execution: the execution of convicted murder Joseph Wood in Arizona.

“The medical staff checked the man’s veins. He said his last words – `God forgive you all’ – and the lethal drugs began to flow, at 1.52pm. James Wood appeared to fall asleep, albeit strapped down to a table, and he looked straight ahead at the wall. The first 10 minutes went according to plan.

“Then, a hard gulp. I looked over to my left: the priest praying the rosary. To my right: the family watching on. Then dead ahead: the side of Wood’s stomach appeared to move, even after the Arizona state prison’s medical staff had announced he was sedated.

“I saw a man who was supposed to be dead, coughing – or choking, possibly even gasping for air. I knew this because Wood’s stomach moved at the same time, just like it would if you were lying down and trying to breathe. Then another of those gulps – those gasps for air, movements just from the throat area and sometimes from the stomach, too.

“I started looking at the priest’s watch to keep track of time. Five, 10, 20 minutes … an hour had passed. I started to wonder: Will this get called off? Will this ever stop?

“I continued to scribble on my state-issued notepad, counting the gulps and gasps of the man on the gurney. I counted 660. This went on for over an hour and a half.

“During that time, medical staff checked Wood six times in total, looking at his eyes, feeling for a pulse on his neck, informing us over the loud speaker that he was still sedated. His eyes were still closed.

“My eyes turned to Wood’s attorney, Dale Baich, as he handed a lady a note and she left the witness chamber. I wondered what the lawyer had written, and as the door opened, it let in a bright light, for just a quick moment.

“What seemed like an eternity passed – 20, 30, 45 minutes more, looking straight ahead – and finally the gulps and gasps started to slow, from about every five seconds or so, to about one per minute. Finally, the gulps and gasps stopped. A few minutes more went by. At last, the killing had stopped, too. A medical staff member checked Wood again one last time. Another few minutes still, and the warden pronounced the killer dead, at 3.49 pm, one hour and 57 minutes after the execution had began.”

The full story – as if it could be any fuller than that – is on the Guardian's website.  The AP’s story includes this remark by the brother-in-law of one of the murder victims: “`This man conducted a horrifying murder and you guys are going, “let’s worry about the drugs,”’ said Richard Brown. `Why didn’t they give him a bullet? Why didn’t we give him Drano?’”

Why not?  Because that would be cruel and unusual, and the distinction between cruel and unusual acts as crimes and cruel and unusual acts as a form of putative state justice is a distinction worth making.

Mario Marazziti can explain this better than I can.  With the Community of Sant’Egidio, he has led the challenge to government acquisition of the lethal drugs used in executions.  His book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty will be published soon.   

Meanwhile, there are 2347 comments on the Guardian site.  Things are changing with the death penalty in the U.S.  It will be history soon enough.