Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rick Warren and "God Light"

As you may have heard by now, Barak Obama has tapped Evangelical Pastor Rick Warren to give his inaugural address. Many are up in arms about it (it's pandering to the right; Warren is against many Liberal positions; etc). The New Republic had a short blog entry about it, and one of the comments (by "iambiguous") caught my attention. Pardon the lengthy excerpt here:

Think about Rick Warren's commitment to a "purpose driven life". It is the sort of psuedo-philosophical New Age ear candy that pop culture evangelicals lap up by the millions. It's Oprah Winfry and Dr Phil all rolled up into one silly putty psychological agenda whereby you transcend the crass materialism of mindless consumption and the spiritual arridity of self-absorbed narcissism and instead latch on to something that is just so much bigger than anything you had ever hoped to imagine.

Praise Jesus!!

But there's a catch, of course. And it revolves around the manner in which you approach a "purpose" in life as either a means to an end or as an end in itself. After all, could it not be argued that both Hitler and Stalin led purpose driven lives?

That's where it all begins to break down into psychologisms that are never really more than the sum of how you add up the parts. It is just an emotional and psychological scaffolding. It is analogous to someone [like a parent] encouraging a child to "just be yourself" and then when the child decides to be something the parent does not like, the parent says, "but not that". You are encouraged to "find yourself" but when you do, it has to be congruent with the family and community and religious narrative.

Warren is obviously not as dangerous as was Jerry Falwell or as is Pat Robertson. He's no James Dobson or born again wacko. He encourages "civility" above all else. Choosing God is practically just another "lifestyle" you can commit yourself to.

But he still inculcates that servile mentality all religions embrace in the presence of their Lord. He is just more inclined to nudge you in the right direction rather than use the bully pulpit to threaten you with hell and damnation. God light as it were.

I'm not Warren's biggest fan, and I certainly am not a fan of a lot of the pop-religion/philosophy people out there (please don't get me started on The Secret). But, something about this comment was really bugging me, and I'm trying to put it into words.

Of course, there's always a certain inconsistency, or even hypocricy, with these messages of "serve a higher purpose" -- it assumes that we all agree on the right higher purpose (iambiguous is right in that Hitler was, from a certain, sick point of view, serving a higher purpose). It's probably impossible to form a cogent, serious, objective standard to differentiate between those who follow good higher purposes and those who follow evil higher purposes. In other words (not to get too philosphical), there is no rational, objective way to differentiate between good and evil. But, that doesn't mean that there isn't a distinction at all.

"He is just more inclined to nudge you in the right direction rather than use the bully pulpit to threaten you with hell and damnation" - maybe it's this sentence which bugs me most. And, maybe, it's the word "just" that really gets me. The fundamental difference between Rick Warren and Hitler is that one is trying to push us towards caring and helping and embracing, and one was trying to push us to evil and killing. And, even if I can't explain, in logical exactitude, that one is absolutely, irrefutably better than the other, I know that one is better than the other. You know it, too.

Look - one should never try to address fundamental philosophical issues in a short blog posting (and the nature and the reality of morality is probably the fundamental philosophical issue), but if we live in a world where the only discernable difference between Rick Warren and Hitler is their taste in "purpose," then we have enormous problems! Rick Warren isn't my favorite guy - his theology is flawed, his message is often simplistic and his politics are (sorry) wrong, but he should be praised, not criticized, for pushing people to help others, be kinder and try to love more. Because, if we aren't going to value that, then what exactly do we value?

[p.s. I know I keep asking for comments, but I really mean it. What do you think?]


misogynistic is not the only position said...

Here's the limitations on Rick Warren - his messages have subtext of power and righteousness going to the good hetero men. Comparing him to Hitler is a completely off-base, however I do see him only as a kinder more gentler Promise Keeper in sheep's clothing.
He needs more Brokeback and less Saddleback.

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg said...

I should have been clearer about something (I realize after reading misogynistic's comment) - I don't really know very much about Rick Warren, and I wasn't trying to comment on him, or to defend him.

My point was that to attack anyone for "only" being different in that they promote kinder, gentler ends than Hitler and Stalin is crazy. If someone wants to argue that Warren isn't kinder and gentler - I don't want to get into that. I just want to say that if it is true about him, or about anyone, then I say kol haKavod to them!

Jill used-to-be-rosenberg Gallagher said...

maybe the choices were rick warren or fred phelps. if that's the case then yay rick warren!

you just need to learn more about the situation, rabbi :-)

Miss Ogynistic said...

One of the first steps in turning perfectly nice human beings into folks who turn on other perfectly nice human beings whom all may have originally been pals, friends, to turn one set into Other. Other sets of rules and laws - then Other can begin its less-than other slope to marginalized and criminalized. Criminalizing love between 2 conscenting adults - holding it to another set of laws or lack of access to the rights of contract that another set of conscenting adults has access to, is not love. It's fear. Fear combined with Other ... and it starts to get ugly.
Rick Warren has stepped into politics - he was a big force on repealing Prop 8 in CA (he and the Morman Church - Saddleback and Mormans...
2 large and powerful ($) orgs who are not fond of women or gays or really anyone Other.
All done under the auspices of Love having limits.

2 large and powerful groups who are pretty damn sure the gay are going to hell...along with the Jews...yet it's ok to openly remove civil rights from the gay - to organize and campaign against my marriage because their book of law tells them it's wrong. Will they eventually openly campaign against everyone that their book tells them is going to Hell?