Last night, Chris Corrigan prodded me (in the comments thread to my remarks about cartoons and riots) about the nature of blasphemy. How do we know, he wonders, “ that any truth is indeed transcendent”?
You mean, apart from “AKMA told me”?
I have to evade some of the far-reaching epistemological questions on that one (since David started this, maybe he can weigh in on some possible-worlds modal-logic answers; I’m inflected by Wittgenstein on religious knowledge). I’ll stick with the pragmatic, and exasperating, point that some of us simply do know. Now, hastily, I add “(by our own accounts)” — that is, the imam in the next town and the rabbi a few blocks down the street and I all know about transcendent truth. To frame the issue as Marx did, we stake our lives and their meaning on the truth of what we profess. If I don’t know about the truth of the Gospel, I’m very profoundly wrong (as Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. . . . If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied”).
Of course, my hypothetical imam and rabbi would give different accounts of the transcendent truth that they know. And — vitally important — we can’t reconcile these divergent accounts without producing yet another, divergent account that departs from what each of these claims, and that entails another superior vision of transcendent truth.
This gets back to my version of gospel pacifism (not that I invented it, but the version that I’ve received and assimilated): If the Gospel didn’t demand that I follow in a Way of non-coercion, I would have reason to cry out for blasphemers to be punished, for impiety to be stifled by force. I hear clearly the arguments of some of the leaders who (evidently, from follow-up news reports, on the basis of bogus evidence) feel the urgency of lashing back at the heedless, impious scoundrels who [allegedly] defame the Truth. Aftera ll, the notion of “the usefulness of a charge of blasphemy against someone who is not a member of the faith in question” only arises when we’re in a situation that starts by deferring the question of whose version of transcendent truth applies. In many localities, that deferral is itself a symptom of godlessness.
Though Chris’s proposals (the first, an inner-community definition of blasphemy by which one adherent indicates to a fellow-adherent, “You’ve transgressed community boundaries” and a personal, internal condition, “the opposite of grace with respect to one’s personal practice”) both sound sensible with reference to the fields they address, they leave out the most powerful dimension of “blasphemy” as a concept and as the basis for the current upheavals: that is, the sense that someone who doesn’t care about “my” knowledge of transcendent truth may not derogate that truth. There’s the rub; in a liberal democracy, the question of transcendent truth must be deferred, but transcendent truth demands that all defer to it (regardless of their preference or dissidence).
As a parenthetical conclusion, I always ponder the fact that Christians have a paradoxical inheritance on the topic of blasphemy. Jesus evidently said something like, “People will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven” (the different gospels frame his saying differently). Then Jesus changes the subject, so that we’re left to puzzle out just what constitutes blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
Several points to note, though: First, Jesus stipulates that every sin and every blasphemy are forgivable, save one. That covers a lot of terrain, a lot that many Christian would hesitate to endorse.
Second, whatever constitutes blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, it must entail some sort of repudiating the possibility of grace; for blasphemy to constitute the only, ultimate, unforgivable transgression, it can’t mean just tripping over a technicality or disagreeing with someone else about a point of doctrine. For the whole theological plan to hang together at this point, the ultimate blasphemy must mean something such as “I want no part of your forgiveness, I despise the [false] truth you espouse, and even if it means I commit my eternity to torment, I opt for that destiny rather than accept the generosity and forgiveness of a God who would forgive my condescending impiety.” As always, though, forgive me if I err in this.
As I pushed “post,” Les McCann and Eddie Harris came on my iTunes list, playing “Compared to What”:
Church on Sunday, sleep and nod
Tryin’ to duck the wrath of God
Preacher’s fillin’ us with fright
Tryin’ to tell us what he thinks is right
He really got to be some kind of nut (I can’t use it!)
Tryin’ to make it real — compared to what?