Wednesday, August 4

Counting the Cost … Or … Well … Maybe Not


Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness. -- George Santayana

We live in an age of religious radicalism when many sects, some quite powerful, not only do not seek to avoid martyrdom, but seem to court it as a badge of honor.  Yes, I mean (radical / jihadist) Islam.  But I do not mean just radical / jihadist Islam.  There are equally extreme fundamentalist Christian sects, professedly friendly to the state of Israel, that actively agitate, both in this country and there, to promote the exile of the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, and other provocations that might well suffice to bring on another major Middle East conflagration, perhaps this time nuclear.  All this raises a question whose urgency has not been equaled since the time of the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries:  What price faith and faithfulness? The counsel of the New Testament, and of the Gospels in particular, is unsettlingly ambiguous, at best, and arguably conducive to fanaticism, at worst.


One such text is Luke 14:28-33 (New KJV):

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it— lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’? Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.

There are examples in the Gospels of people who followed Jesus’ advice and counted the cost.  For example, the wealthy young man in Matthew 16:19-22 who came to Jesus and told Him that he (the young man) had kept the Law all his life and now aspired to be one of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus told him to sell all his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and to follow Him, whereupon the young man went away crestfallen, “for he had great possessions” (16:22, New KJV).  Another such is the incident in  John chapter 6 where Jesus teaches about the Bread of Life, which so offends some would-be followers that they turn away.  These and similar texts would seem to corroborate T. S. Eliot’s description of Christianity, in "Little Gidding", as “a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything”. Even more disturbing is Jesus' remark in Mark 10:28-30 about leaving families and children:

Peter began to say to Him “Lo we have left all and followed You”. Jesus said “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for My sake and for the Gospel who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.

Whoa!  Wait a minute! CHILDREN?

Now, at this point, our liberalism – in the sense of classical Enlightenment liberalism, not in the more contemporary restricted sense of post-American-New-Deal liberalism – our liberalism interposes a caution:  “Well, sure, but Jesus was just using hyperbole to make a point, and so didn’t really mean for all that to be taken literally”.  Well, maybe not.  But the problem is, nothing in those texts – or in the ones I did not cite – suggests any merely literary or “analogical” or rhetorical intent.  On the contrary, the context is ordinary, mundane conversation, not trope, not metaphor, not parable, not analogy.  Least of all poetry.  (Furthermore, it is irrelevant to point to the very real possibility that none of those incidents occurred as literal history. Even if they are not historical, they are didactic and catechetical, in the sense that they are intended to teach us something about Jesus. The story of the young George Washington chopping down his father’s favorite cherry tree probably never actually happened historically, but the story is intended to teach us about Washington’s character, not his biography. Ditto Jesus.) This is the way the Bible, especially the New Testament, usually gets read, at least ever since the Enlightenment:  Christians read some especially scandalous biblical text, often a saying of Jesus, and immediately – almost always without even thinking -- interpose between themselves and the text a “hermeneutic filter” that strains out the very scandalousness of the passage, denatures it, tames it, domesticates it, places a leash and collar on it, and so renders it consistent with our contemporary sensibilities. Even when the context of the passage evinces no metaphorical intent on the part of the author, metaphor gratuitously swoops in and comes to our rescue as a kind of semiotic deus ex machina.  That is why, e.g., it is possible for many Christians to read with approbation the Hebrews text extolling Abraham’s faith for his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, while we at the same time in the present day are more than willing to prosecute and to lock away anyone who, announcing a like mandate from God, attempts to do the same thing with her / his child.  (If you want to read an excellent and incisive critique of this double-mindedness, nothing better has been written than Carol Delaney's Abraham on Trial.) We compartmentalize.


But if, taking seriously the evident lack of analogical or metaphorical intent in such texts, we refuse to compartmentalize -- the way Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling, refused to compartmentalize the story of Abraham and Isaac -- we are left with the queasy suspicion, almost in spite of ourselves, that, as Jesus Himself implies in the cited texts, counting the cost is not a kind of spiritual cost-benefit analysis in which “Nope … sorry … ‘way too expensive” is an acceptable answer, but rather an exercise intended to culminate in the realization that no cost is too high, and that Christian discipleship is more valuable than – quite literally – any cost, even if that cost proves to be “not less than everything,” to recur to T. S. Eliot.  This begs the question, which applies to all religious ideologies and many secular ideologies in today’s radicalized world, “What is the place of one's critical faculty in assessing the costs of faithfulness to any ideology? What can be the place of one's critical faculty if the answer to the cost question is already foreordained?”  Furthermore, if, as I strongly suspect, counting the cost a la Luke chapter 14 is intended, not to enable one to make a considered judgment, but rather to foreground the very radical irrelevance of cost, then is it not legitimate to suspect that counting the cost, considered in this light, at least begins to edge into the territory of fanaticism?

This is the real relevance of the Enlightenment to the contemporary political culture in the US:  the Enlightenment imposed on the biblical text, and on the reading of the Bible, a kind of muzzle.  Or, to shift the metaphor, the rationalist principles of the Enlightenment, like a group of forest-fire fighters, cut a “firebreak” between the biblical text and the devout reader’s action-in-the-world.  The biblical text may say that it is OK to cite a command from God and then to sacrifice your child – but your rationally critical intellect tells you it is not OK.  (Of course, Abraham did not sacrifice Isaac, but the point is not the act but the intent, the willingness, to do so. In other words, the absence of a firebreak. All forms of fanaticism, even those that do not culminate in action, begin with unqualified and unfettered intent.) The biblical text may say that it is OK to abandon your spouse, children, and elderly parents to follow Jesus -- but your rationally critical intellect tells you it is not OK.  The biblical text may say that it is OK – even mandatory – to execute gay and lesbian people – but your rationally critical intellect tells you it is not OK.  Hence the muzzle.  Hence the firebreak.  Hence the hermeneutic filter.  If the cost of following any ideology, religious or otherwise, is irrelevant, then fanaticism – and all the consequences thereof – is guaranteed.  That so many people, even in a constitutional republic with a 223-year-old tradition of ordered liberty, are willing to not only tolerate but in many cases to embrace such fanaticism should be cause for concern for us all – especially when so many begin to infest the halls of Congress.  Of this tendency we should all be afraid -- very afraid.

James R. Cowles

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