Faith in the All-Encompassing Magical Love Bubble

What a friend is Michael to offer me the softest of landings from this week’s little blogging break: an invitation to carry on about Catholicism and Pantheism. What, indeed, could be more ‘katholikos’ than pantheism, and what better name for Neural Buddhism than European Buddhism (which is what Nietzsche called it when he beat David Brooks to the punch by writing the Genealogy of Morals)?

The first thing I should do is make plain that I highly credit and enjoy Michael’s own neural endowments, even though his fantasies about replacing thriving, quintessentially American holy rollers with feeble, quintessentially European monastic gurus really put the lotion in my basket. Personally I am appalled because I have to try to advance an argument against Neuro-European Buddhism that may be too boutique to rally around. But culturally speaking, advancing that argument seems important enough to try anyway.

Because I’m not interested in simply pitting Nietzsche against the All-Encompassing Magical Love Bubble and declaring Nietzsche the winner. When the only standpoints or traditions brought to bear on the subject are Catholicism, Pantheism, atheist panerotism, and anti-panerotist atheism, the absence of a certain something — Protestantism — tends to reduce the conversation to an argument about whether cruelty is the greatest or the worst. That argument is a good entry point to the larger set of questions I want to raise. Consider Nietzsche:

It was precisely here that I saw the great danger to humanity, its most sublime temptation and seduction. — But in what direction? To nothingness? — It was precisely here I saw the beginning of the end, the standing still, the backward-glancing exhaustion, the will turning itself against life, the final illness tenderly and sadly announcing itself. I understood the morality of pity, which was always seizing more and more around it and which gripped even the philosophers and made them sick, as the most sinister symptom of our European culture, which itself had become sinister, as its detour to a new Buddhism? to a European Buddhism? to — nihilism? . . . This modern philosophical preference for and overvaluing of pity is really something new.

Nietzsche vastly underrated how America could pump fresh blood into the religion of pity by engulfing it in the vague but energetic power of a certain Protestant understanding of love. Typical European that he was, Nietzsche was obsessed with the problem of the Catholic church, and although he enjoyed Emerson when it came to grasping fully the implications of deregulated Christianity in the U.S. he was lost. That deregulation produced two main streams of Protestant love theology. The first is relatively poorer, more mobile, more Western (and thus Southern), and far more fundamentalist. There, the Holy Spirit was the key to experiencing God (and thus divine love), although it was deeply understood that this experience itself was not God, even if the experience was also understood as a direct, unmediated interaction with the Lord. The second stream of Protestant love theology (as I’m categorizing them) is relatively richer, more stationary, more Northeastern, and — you see where this is going — far less fundamentalist. We are long past scarlet letter territory in Yankee New England when my analysis puts it into frame. We are in territory in which not the Holy Spirit but Jesus is the key figure of the trinity. Jesus is the human figure of contemplation that connects the faithful to divine experience — Jesus the loving man who lived out his love in recognition of Something Higher. Lapsed son of a Protestant minister that he was, Nietzsche pitted himself against this Jesus, a man who, he railed, loved so deeply and profoundly that he called his love God, the better to damn anyone who couldn’t or wouldn’t return his love. Nietzsche missed the way in which a Protestant religion of love could migrate away from the personal Jesus and into the realm of Transcendentalism, Unitarianism, and Pantheism — where the Holy Spirit comes back into view but also swallows and becomes God Himself, the All-Encompassing Magical Love Bubble.

This migration gained a tremendous appeal for Northeastern Protestants who could not in good conscience go on talking to Jesus the way their Southern and Western co-religionists did — even the Social Gospel ones, who were motivated by similar understandings of erotic solidarity. As Yankee Christianity grew deeper and deeper roots in the New England soil; as it grew better educated, more technologically advanced, and ever-wealthier along the Eastern seaboard; as it developed its first gurus in its contemplative upstate/Vermont hinterland; and as its Puritan heritage became economically and socially secularized (under pressure from massive Catholic immigration, strangely) into a Blueblood/Brahmin heritage, Yankee Christianity lost faith in its own ‘second stream’ and sought to reconcile its worldly priorities with its transcendent understanding of cosmic humanness.

This is a profoundly different account of the secularization of Protestantism than the one Max Weber, that quintessential European, gives us. For Weber, Protestant faith had to reconcile itself to the world. Maybe in the Old World, but what I’m arguing here is that, in America, Protestantism disestablished itself in a process that sought to reconcile the world itself to changing tenets of faith. The Yankee Protestants I’m interested in got ‘less religious’ because they were becoming ‘more spiritual’. The sterility of the Puritan work ethic could become an inspiring task of Perfection and Progress, driven by a mystical, cosmic understanding of the human race as a brotherhood of persons united in love. Scientific experiment and spiritual experience could become two variations or even versions of inhabiting the moment of human action, movements toward the same end, complements in which concentrated knowledge and concentrated feeling could nourish the whole self and perhaps even experientially converge.

Which brings us back to Brooks and Michael. Michael is right I think to level this criticism of Brooks:

Just because neuroscientists can describe what an ecstatic experience looks like and verify that believers are not lying when they say they are having such an experience doesn’t mean there isn’t a simple material explanation for it.

But the problem here is the relationship between ecstasy and experience. The whole point of telling this story about American Protestantism’s two streams is to rhetorically highlight the difference between the first, more ecstatic stream and the second, more sterile variety. Neither Brooks, Michael, nor I are really talking about the convergence of (shall we say) Dixie Protestantism with the science of ecstatic experience — although this is an interesting separate question. The topic at hand is the continuing scientific reinforcement of the vague, secularized, cosmic spirituality with which Yankee Protestantism replaced itself. This is the combination that gets you Neurobuddhism.

But take away the ‘N’ from this very American faith and you get the very transatlantic Eurobuddhism, which, as Nietzsche recognized, is at its purest when practiced under the total submission and uniform unity that only a Catholic Church makes possible. Nietzsche simply ditched his father’s Protestantism. He spent a lifetime trying to get across the depth of his special abhorrence of Catholicism, tearing his hair out over the Bavarian character and publishing lines like “Borgia as Pope — am I understood?!” He hated Luther not on any doctrinal point but because he forced the Catholic Church to be true to itself and in doing so saved it for another thousand years.

So the monstrous question at the end of this story is: why does this scientific mysticism of human love and universal goodness grow out of post-Catholic soil in Europe and post-Protestant soil in America? And the sub-question I want to pose in response to Michael is: why might American Catholics be less worried about the spread of the scientifically-endorsed All-Encompassing Magical Love Bubble than American Protestants? As Michael says,

If neural Buddhism comes, it will be an invitation for American religion to move away from its emotionalism (and obscurantism) and back to serious theological reflection. I can’t wait.

This is obviously a knock at those crazy outback Dixie Christians, who think praying on a mountaintop is as good as praying in a Church, and preach other emotional doctrines. Fine. But the problem for Michael, and American Catholics more generally, is that the ‘invitation’ of which Michael speaks makes the grand gesture of retaining theology in exchange for the elimination of a creator God. God ceases to be something superior to experiences and becomes experiences themselves: this is the central tenet of Pantheism. What Christianity brings to the table is a privileging of the love experience. What Catholicism brings to the table is a top-down, unitary, deeply institutionalized management structure for shared privileged experiences. Theology will be okay insofar as it is a science — the science of solidarity. Michael claims that Neurobuddhism

will undermine the faith of people whose spirituality relies exclusively on their ecstatic feelings – and that is a good thing for religion.

But as I said above, Neurobuddhism and Eurobuddhism undermine ecstatic spirituality while raising the cult of felt experience to new heights. Instead of the thunderous physicality of BEING HEALED! in Protestant surroundings, N/Eurobuddhism offers being healed as the banal smile, the blithe meditation circle, the easy bliss, the deep thoughts, the all-purpose love, Eros castrated. Post-ecstatic experience, the purest ecstasy will be the feeling of feelinglessness. These are the terms on which Jesus is permitted back into the tent: the ethnic gentleman with the big heart that renders any sexual lifestyle choice, including asexuality, as simply many different and equal ways of expressing cosmic communion in panhuman love. Indeed, any behavior is a path to the experience of love, except violent or cruel or nonconsensual behaviors. And given the high-stress impact of everyday life, the avalanche of detail and the bombardments of ads and gizmos, deep immersion in the placid bath of pantheistic togetherness is the ultimate therapy. Picture yourself sailing the sea of Yes. Repeat the mantra. Visualize flying whales in space. Let your body tingle. Achieve conveniently momentary sessions of totally self-aware being. Practice the doing that is no doing. The pause that refreshes.

For certain kinds of American Protestants, this sounds a lot like falling asleep in Catholic Church. Certainly the Vatican has been working to restore the less lovey-dovey aspects of Christian faith to the fore, but they have yet to reconquer the John Kerrys of the world. The point is that catholicism of any kind, and thus the Catholic religion, embodies the same structure of knowledge as science — a total body of truth which one can never fully command but which is to be fully embraced. Absolutely zero surprise that I can come across lines like these this morning:

[Reverend José Gabriel Funes, head of the Vatican Observatory and a scientific adviser to Pope Benedict XVI] said dialogue between faith and science could be improved if scientists learned more about the Bible and the church kept more up to date with scientific progress.

He said he believed as an astronomer that the most likely explanation for the start of the universe was “the big bang,” the theory that it sprang into existence from dense matter billions of years ago. But he said this was not in conflict with faith in God as creator. “God is the creator,” he said. “There is a sense to creation. We are not children of an accident.”

He added: “As an astronomer, I continue to believe that God is the creator of the universe and that we are not the product of something casual but children of a good father who has a project of love in mind for us.”

Taken with a robust religious faith that hasn’t been reduced in the name of unity to feeling a sense of purpose, comments about heavenly brotherhood with aliens are silly and interesting, not threatening. But without it, they point toward an affinity between the form of Catholicism and the mildly beating heart of loving, smiling, pitying, coddling, pondering Pantheism.