“God and Biography”

Light pillars, an atmospheric optical phenomenon

Light pillars, an atmospheric optical phenomenon

“God and Biography”

When my journal entry doesn’t give me answers to the questions of my day, I sometimes ask myself: What would it have been like for me to live the same events recorded here,

if there were no God?

Or, how would I have lived these events

if I THOUGHT there was no God?

The differences — between the way I actually live and the contrasting, counter-factual assumptions — are vast and significant. Yet biographers almost never ask that question about their subjects. They might record a religious affiliation or belief, or absence thereof, if it sticks out in the motivational system, but otherwise the question is put out of play.

Although ordinary people don’t generally find the above questions (God? Yes or no?) off the chart of the questions one is permitted to ask, most academicians find the very questions nearly unmentionable. In bad taste. Showing the deepest gaucherie. The faux pas on stilts.

Just now, I happen to be reading an unusual memoir: of a friendship between a well-known atheist, the late Christopher Hitchens, and an evangelical Christian, Larry Alex Taunton. Hitchens defended atheism in public debates. He was a kind of literary celebrity, enjoying a qualified respect for his talent and his entertaining wildness (the too-muchness of drink, sex and scandalous opinions).

Of Taunton, Hitchens himself once said publicly: “If everyone in the United States had the same qualities of loyalty and care and concern for others that Larry Taunton had, we’d be living in a much better society than we do.” This rather startling endorsement is now a blurb on the back jacket of Taunton’s new book, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens.

The book is mainly a reflection on the author’s relation to his friend. They took trips together, discussed the question of God’s existence and read the Bible together in the King James version. In the life of a public atheist, this is interesting enough to warrant the memoir. What’s more startling is that Taunton writes from the point of view of someone whose friend, recently dead of cancer, lived and died a sinner!

A sinner? OMG! No writer, who hopes to be invited to parties in New York, is allowed to let

the S word

cross the threshold of his active vocabulary.

“Call me anything: a sexist, a homophobe, a r-r-r-racist, an Islamophobe, a collabo of the corporate interests, a crony capitalist. Only pu-leese don’t, don’t, don’t EVER call me a sinner!”

What’s a sinner?

I’m no theologian, but let me take a crack at it. A sinner is a person who defies the purposes God has for that person. If one is entirely unaware of what those purposes might be – has no inkling – I guess one wouldn’t qualify as a sinner. But the very word implies some innate knowledge, or suspicion, as to what God wanted one to do or to be.

What’s a sinner? To be a real question for me, it probably has to be lifted free of what my religious authorities want me to do or be. Except in very closed societies, a “sinner” is not someone who defies current clerical opinion. A sinner is someone who defies God.

So here’s this friend of Hitch’s, Larry Taunton, deeming his friend — the late celebrity atheist who died professing his unbelief to the last – a sinner.

Possibly because it’s so rare today, I find this genre of memoir thoroughly fascinating. Partly because he pays his friend the compliment of calling him what he sincerely believes he IS, and what he doubtless called him to his face many times.   Also in its favor: it puts me in mind of a classical historian like Tacitus, whom I find outstandingly readable, who prefaces his account of each imperial reign like this: The emperor whose regime I am about to describe plumbed the depths of every depravity known to humanity. The last emperor was bad, but reader, wait till you learn about his successor.

That’s what I call informative history. Like having tea with a woman friend whose every whispered word is “off the record” but is still as truthful as she can get it to be. Of course, I’m not advocating irresponsible gossip. One has to be ready to stand corrected, and to correct the record for others, if one learns that one was misinformed. That said, fashionable evasions are boring and confusing. If the evidence for the report is well-founded, the information necessary for the understanding and conveyed without malice,

truth is still good medicine for the soul.

Nowadays, the default position for biographers and memoirists is secular humanism. However, “secular humanism” is sometimes included in anthologies of religion as itself, in the broad sense, a religious view. Like the other “religions,” it’s a view about ultimate reality with moral, historical, spiritual and ontological implications. Why should that religious view be the only received one? I thought our constitution prohibits the establishment of any particular religion to the detriment or exclusion of the others.

Secular psychology is not decisive for what Taunton wants to explain. He describes how Hitchens learned in British prep school to stop, with a cutting word, bullies bigger and stronger than he was and how he went on, at the Oxford Union, to hone the skill in debate he showed as a public intellectual. Where the secular biographer might have thought Hitchens’ prowess in debate sufficiently covered, Taunton goes beyond explanation in terms of the past – “horizontal” explanation. Instead, he draws “the vertical line,” between the soul of his subject and God.

“Words as weapons. Reeling bullies. Turning the tide of public opinion. This must all be remembered when we watch Christopher Hitchens in debate. The danger here—and Christopher fell wholeheartedly into its snares—was developing a love of words insofar as they were weapons for attack and defense of his position, rather than loving words insofar as they lead to truth.”

In a nutshell, Taunton here explains the difference between a corrupted intellect and an uncorrupted one.

Can I think of anything similar in my own life story, where a perspective that includes God explains the event better than it could be grasped from the ground of the wholly secular biographer?

As I mentioned in an earlier column, our rabbi is leaving the temple. It is not because he is being fired, nor because he is quitting. However, the details have not been shared with the congregation. The consequence is that congregants – puzzled and unsure about how to understand this unexpected happening – have also been slow to express their personal appreciation or concern.

It is part of my sense of the covenantal task, to try to make a chaotic situation intelligible where it can be made so, and to try to bring out the moral contours of a situation where those contours would otherwise be blurred needlessly.

In this case, all I could manage was to pen a “tribute” to our rabbi, opening a space for the temple and congregants to acknowledge the grace of spirit our rabbi has shown in exceptionally trying circumstances. Several congregants, including the editors of the temple newsletter who circulated the tribute, have expressed to me their relief at getting this vehicle to express the esteem they feel.

Would I have done as much without a personal sense that there is still a covenant between God and Israel? I doubt it. It would have felt to me like an ostentatious act, which a person not wishing to draw attention to herself, or get into murky matters, would prefer to avoid.

I am sure I did the right thing to pen the deserved tribute, but leaving aside that question:

the biographer of Abigail

could not get the right view

of this particular incident

if he left God out of it.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to “God and Biography”

  1. Ken Kaplan says:

    I hope the biographer of Abigail has knowledge of the Lamed – Vavniks, for he may have encountered one. Thanks for all you do.

    Like

    • Abigail says:

      Ken, Many thanks. This is graciousness pure and unadorned. If I may be permitted a riff on a midrash: I think that the position of 36nik (being one of the small number of righteous for whose sake creation is allowed to continue) is a rotating one. Many of us get a crack at it.

      Like

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