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Hip Homiletics

Beyond Theology

by Alan Watts
Pantheon, 236 pp., $4.95

This book deserves to be considered as a social phenomenon. According to the dust-jacket the author, “who holds both a master’s degree in theology and a doctorate of divinity, is best known as an interpreter of Zen Buddhism in particular, and of Indian and Chinese philosophy in general. Standing apart…from sectarian membership, he has earned the reputation of being one of the most original…philosophers of the century. He is the author of some seventeen books on the philosophy and psychology of religion, and has been a guest lecturer at most of the principal universities in this country. He has just completed a two-year research fellowship at Harvard…”

Dr. Watts’s earlier books were on such subjects as The Way of Zen and the effects of drugs like mescaline and LSD 25. The present work is less easily characterized. He suggests in his Preface that he is going to introduce us into the green room of the cosmic drama, and that his role is that “of the Court Jester…in Heaven…The function of the Fool was to keep his monarch human and, with luck, even humane…” Yet this explanation chimes oddly with the subsequent assurance that “the Lord God” is not in need of these services. Nor does that assurance in turn cohabit easily with latter suggestions that there is not really a Lord God to stand in need or not to stand in need. For insofar as Dr. Watts does have any central theme of thesis it seems to be that none of the “characters” in the theological systems of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam is ultimately real or eternal; but that men of all sorts, God, angels, and devils, are somehow—in the last analysis—all one, or all aspects of the same unity. “He has therefore,” to quote the dust-jacket, “written a new kind of Divine Comedy in which the whole Christian cosmos of God and man, Heaven and Earth, Good and Evil, is seen as a superb drama enacted by the Hidden Player who turns out to be the central and eternal Self in us all.” But this—or any other—assertion about the author’s theme should be taken more as an indication of atmosphere than as a summary of an argued progress to definite conclusions. Sustained argument about the truth or the falsity of theological propositions is precisely what we do not get. Instead we have a curious sort of doctrinally boneless preaching about putting things into new perspectives. It is preaching adorned with violent imagery: for instance, “the stink of piety” (p. 86); or “real bread, not the edible foam rubber of America” (p. 140). There is, too, plenty of the fashionable unconventionality of slang and sex in the sermon: thus “The would-be materialist who renounces mysticism is either a slob or a bore…After a while the bottoms feel like plastic” (p. 161).

It is cruel, but also illuminating, to compare this performance with the nondenominational and generally non-Christian religiosity of inscriptions in the Forest Lawn cemetery in Los Angeles. Certainly Dr. Watts is far more masculine. Indeed he sometimes sounds like a sermon “for men only” by the famous British World War I Army Padre “Woodbine Willie”; the usual conception of Jesus is of “the minister’s son who won’t go behind the fence with the other boys for a peeing contest” (p.32). Again, Dr. Watts has an enthusiasm for sex, unburdened by any wearisome talk about responsibility, which would scarcely suit Forest Lawn—though it must surely win a great response from student audiences. There is one splendid purple passage about the failure of Christian poets to sing “the revelation of divine glory in the image of a naked girl, upon her marriage bed, squirming with bliss in the arms of her man” (p.178). Yet another difference is that Dr. Watts is very aware of Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions: “I am speaking now in purely Christian terms, on a level where we know nothing as yet of tat tvam asi” (p.55). The whole book is self-consciously unparochial.

Yet despite these differences there are still important basic similiarities. For, apart from some occasionally penetrating comment on Christianity, what we find in Beyond Theology is just religious-sounding talk, with scarcely any hard dogmatic content, and making no uncomfortable personal demands. In a final chapter “Is it true?” the author confesses: “In our present intellectual climate, it seems to me simply inept and boorish to claim that a certain philosophical or theological position is “the Truth,” and still more so to attempt to prove it. We know enough, today,…to know that we know very little for certain…My own feeling is that the most which should be claimed for any metaphysic, theology, or cosmology…is plausibility” (p.207). In that case the correct conclusion is, not that anything goes so long as it is presented tentatively, but that we must be extremely careful before making any claims at all, however guardedly. The moral should be, not a general relaxation, but an austere tightening of intellectual standards.

The first thing required is that we should treasure rather than blur or ignore valuable distinctions. Dr. Watts has a bias in the opposite direction. Thus, in the first chapter, he claims “that all our ideas of the universe…are anthropomorphic” (p.28). This is reiterated in the last, with no other and no better supporting reason than that they must be, “because they are representations of the world in terms of the human mind” (p.222). But, of course, the whole point of the notion of anthropomorphism lies in the recognition that while all human ideas must be human ideas they do not by the same token have all to be representative of human beings or human characteristics. Another example of this homiletic obfuscation is the assertion that “One should not be ashamed of wishful thinking, for this is just what all inventive and creative people do” (pp.36-7). This claim is made more true, but no less perverse, by arbitrarily construing wishful thinking to mean merely thinking how to fulfill their wishes.

In his first chapter Dr. Watts seems to be aware of a distinction between questions about what happened and questions about the present importance of what happened; although “Lincoln’s speaking at Gettysburg” would not be everyone’s example of the currently irrelevant and “merely historical” (p.15). But in the later chapter on “Who is Who?” this is ignored. It is all very well to say that “the quest for the historical Jesus is dreary and unproductive” (p.115). It is quite another to dismiss it as irrelevant: “To insist on the historicity of the Christian myth is to remove Christ to the sterile distance of an archaeological curiosity” (p.118). It should surely be obvious, notwithstanding that it seems nowadays often to be overlooked, that these questions are connected. Certainly there are many historical events which have no great present significance. But no question of the significance of any historical event can arise unless it is taken for granted that it did actually happen. So if the quest for the historical Jesus really is unproductive this must tend to discredit not Biblical scholarship but the religion which apparently depends upon unwarranted historical assumptions. It is, furthermore, perfectly ridiculous to maintain that “The notion that Christianity is the uniquely historical religion, stressing the intervention of God in the historical process, hardly occurred to theologians before the nineteenth century” (p.118). Has the Watts Bible no Old Testament, and his Augustine no City of God? What really is new in the last century or so is not this idea but the opposite suggestion that the historical claims of Christianity are really irrelevant or inessential to the religion of the Saints and the Fathers.

A similar but more subtle weakness can be found in Watt’s own doctrine. After some colorful prose about “the delights of love” and the notorious “transiency of fleshly beauty” we are reminded that “love and beauty are always and always returning” in further generations. This cold comfort is supposedly warmed by urging “that the Self, the identity, is in the pattern not in the delusive ‘body’ that bears it, and this is equally true of the very thing that we call the body” (p.201). This is all a muddle. To be someone’s absolutely identical twin would not be to be him. So even if it were true—and there is no reason to believe that it is—that one day there will be a second Watts writing Beyond Theology, and a second Flew reviewing it, still these would be two other individuals. We no more ought to look forward to enjoying their delights than they should feel that they deserve to suffer for our iniquities. To be one and the same person is quite different from being one of two identically similar persons. As for alleging the delusiveness of what we call the body (what other word did Dr. Watts have in mind as more appropriate?), this is no reason to challenge a very paradigm of reality. Such pseudo-profundities can and must be dismissed with a robust assurance that if our flesh and blood is not ultimately real, still it will at least do until reality comes along.

One of the things which distinguish this book from earlier works by the same author is the attempt to put more emphasis on “that whole aspect of Christianity which is uncompromising, ornery, militant, rigorous, imperious, and invincibly self-righteous” and on the “disagreeable insistence on…everlasting damnation and on the absolute distinction between the Creator and the creature” (p.xii). Even here he is not consistently successful. Certainly he has some sharply humane things to say about the most abominable doctrine: “It will be jolly, won’t it, to be sitting around making music with the angels, knowing that your daughter is meanwhile screaming in the everlasting dungeons.” He is also firm in dismissing all “Jesuitical defenses of this moral enormity” (J. S. Mill). “The point is that a universe involving this as a serious possibility is a monstrous misconstruction from the beginning” (p.134). Yet it seems he cannot sustain the effort of treating doctrine seriously. For elsewhere he maintains that “the skeptical and secular-minded…have a view of reality that is grimmer by far than even Jonathan Edwards’ conception of the Angry God” (p.35). And this is a claim which could not be made by anyone who had realized the appalling vision of Sinners in the hands of an Angry God.

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