Thursday, April 07, 2011

"God isn't doing well?"

A long time friend from California I’ve known since my days in seminary sent me a column from the National Review Online this morning. I don’t generally read the National Review but this column by David Prager was provocative. It was entitled “Why God Isn’t Doing Well.”

Prager offers four reasons for G-d’s apparent malaise. The first is that Western universities have become secularist seminaries. Prager argues that young, impressionable and apparently highly gullible students simply buy into the “secular and left-wing” views of their professors. The second is that Christian and Jewish clergy have abdicated their responsibilities to teach a moralistic, black and white theology to their adherents in favor of theologies of comfort. The third reason is that poorly educated and highly indoctrinated products of universities are incapable of dealing with age old problems of theodicy (i.e., coming to the same conclusions as Prager). Finally, radical Islam and the pathetically tepid response to it from Christian and Jewish traditions have somehow dealt a blow to G-d.

I’d never heard of Prager prior to this so I looked at his website. Prager was a talk show host for a couple of decades and now spins his ideology via the web. He’s an interesting example of the black and white dualism that William Perry’s study of cognitive function ranks near the beginning of cognitive development in most human beings.

Here’s my response to my friend who sent me the website:

Very interesting column. Thanks for sending it. Couple of comments.

First, I find it ironic that while the writer bewails uncritical, ideological thinking, he engages in it himself in this column. And in looking at his website, this is apparently in keeping with his usual practice. Jung was prone to observe that we often see our own shadow in others since we can regularly confront it in ourselves. It’s a phenomenon called projection.

Second, I find it a bit puzzling that this fellow presumes to speak both for G-d as well as for other human beings regarding their understandings of G-d. This is fundamentally presumptuous if not blasphemous. While Dennis Prager is perfectly capable for speaking for his own understandings, he is not in a position to speak for anyone else. Intellectual honesty demands that he preface his remarks with something along the lines of “As I understand it,…” or “I believe….” He doesn’t do that here. And as a result, his remarks cannot be taken terribly seriously since he is presuming to speak for others perfectly capable of speaking for their own understandings and of which Prager has only limited insight at best.

Third, Dennis makes a common mistake here. He confuses a given construction of G-d for that which it would describe. The mantra of many conservative religionists – “One Way!” – is honest only up to a point. The conclusion of that assertion required to make it honest is the word “Mine.”

It’s quite possible that many who believe in G-d will not hold Dennis Prager’s understanding of what that means. Indeed, when I ask my students to give me the one word with which they associate the word G-d, I usually get a board full of descriptors, rarely any of them the same. We all use the same word but have different meanings of what it signifies. When we insist that our own understanding of G-d is the only possible understanding, we run the risk of engaging in idolatry. And while Dennis may presume to speak for the Christian and Jewish traditions if not for G-d , he ultimately can only speak for Dennis’ understanding. That others don’t share that understanding does not mean that “God isn’t doing well,” it simply means that Dennis’ understandings are not necessarily shared by others. Of course, with spokespersons like Dennis Prager, it might not be surprising that G-d wouldn't be doing so well.

Fourth, I would agree with him that most of our students do not arrive in college capable of critical reasoning and many leave in a similar fashion. In the consumerization of American higher education complete with the demand for “accountability” which results in empirical data which supposedly “proves” students are learning, the heavy reliance on multiple choice testing which can provide such empirical data gravitates against any understandings of context, nuance, subtext, application or synthesis. In short, lower level reasoning skills (Perry) are demanded while higher level reasoning skills are not tested (Bloom). The result is a Pavlovian process in which students can regurgitate data upon command but have little idea of what it means.

Ironically, such low level reasoning skills lend themselves well to simply buying into black and white, moralistic visions of religion such as those Prager advocates here. But the goal of higher education is to help students learn to engage in more complex reasoning and critical and creative thinking. While accountability advocates want measurable data to prove to themselves that students are learning stuff, the reality is that it is the ability to think critically and creatively that is going to serve the worker in a global economy with its rapid and unpredictable changes.

Of course, when brittle, black and white constructions of religion are examined in the harsh light of critical thinking, their brittleness often proves too fragile to sustain such examination. It’s easy for those whose constructions of G-d have been thoughtfully examined and found wanting to blame instructors for having brainwashed their young students and led them astray. At a very basic level, such an assessment avoids the more obvious possibility – that their perspective has been fairly and soundly considered but ultimately has not been found compelling.

His remaining points on a theology of comfort, theodicy and Islamaphobia deserve much more serious consideration than he provides them here. Mr. Prager may be a lot of things but he’s clearly not much of a theologian.

Again, I appreciate your making me aware of this column and this writer.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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