Reason, Experience and Religion: Steve Rogers and Tony Stark

Romanticism, Enlightenment, Theism

Now that we’ve got that trivial electoral stuff out of the way, we can circle back to what matters. I was challenged by Karen’s and Dan’s responses to my post on the question of how we know human beings have an intrinsic dignity.

To the extent that we know it through “religion,” that might imply that the very foundations of liberal democracy include a force that creates cultural division. We will be constantly fighting over the meaning of human dignity and (consequently) how we honor it in practice, because we will know it differently. I surveyed two web articles seeking a common ground for knowledge of human dignity, one from Hadley Arkes seeking it in reason and one from Peter Berger seeking it in experience.

We must find at least some common ground (we need not find common ground on absolutely everything) and reason and experience seem like the things we share in common. But neither can work if set up on its own. Arkes’ abstract Kantianism and Berger’s appeal to “primal experience” are both implausible to me. The formation of an idea (even an incohate idea that involves no generalization to abstract principle) is a process that involves the interplay of reason and experience. The Kantian philosopher becomes a Kantian philosopher through life experience – thoughtful and reflective experience, to be sure, but the thinking and reflecting are themselves experiences. The pretense of his Kantianism, that he is thinking in categories that transcend experience, is self-deceptive. Meanwhile, it is true that Huck Finn (Berger’s example) has never been exposed to abolitionist propaganda or any other formal system of thought that explicitly taught him to see Jim’s human dignity. But Huck has been exposed to thought – the book is explict that a highly distorted but still recognizeable form of Christianity was an important factor in his world – that presumably prepared him to interpret his experiences in a certain way. More importantly, the act of interpreting his experiences is itself rational thought. Huck forms the thought that if he goes to hell for the sin of freeing Jim, going to hell is the right thing to do. That is not sound theology, but it is clearly theology.

So does “the interplay of reason and experience” get us what we want? I suspect not, because that just takes us back to religion. There are many people for whom religion is much more than just the sum of their reasoning and experience on moral and spiritual things. But there are many for whom it is not. “Religion” to them simply is their reasoning about and experience of transcendence. And even for those whose religion is much more than this, it is still not less than this. Their reasoning and expierence of transcendence are, for them, religious. So if we say we know human dignity through a combination of reason and experience, we are really saying we know it through religion.

Karen’s and Dan’s responses both raise the question, to me at least, of exactly what is “religion.” Karen is treating it narrowly, in terms of the highly developed world religions. But much real religion does not conform to those patterns. This is true not only among those who do not identify with a religion (the “nones”) but even among large numbers of those who do. How many American “Christians” are really practicing a folk religion that has not much to do with classical and historic Christianity beyond its outward forms? Meanwhile, Dan seems to me to reduce religion merely to the will of the believer to believe. That is one classic definition of “faith” (at least the sense of an individual’s “faith”) but not of religion. Religion is also sociological; it is embodied in texts, in mores and laws, in institutions and ways of life.

We may get closer to the problem if we start to classify the religion of the “nones.” I would argue that the overwhelming majority of Americans who are not Christians are Romantic individualists (capital R) and that Romantic individualism is a religion. It’s not an organized or highly developed religion; it’s more of a folk religion, although one with an intellectual history more distinguished than most folk religions.

If we think in those terms, would it make sense to say that half of Americans know human dignity through Christianity while the other half know it through the folk religion of Romantic individualism? If so, what would that imply for our ability to identify common ground in the ways we know that humans have dignity? What role would reason and experience play in the answer?

This summer I published an extended argument that The Avengers is about the culture war. Steve Rogers is the cultural product of historic Christianity; his behavior can be explained in terms of it, and it is even alluded to briefly in the movie. Tony Stark is the cultural product of Romantic individualism. (Bruce Banner represents the Enlightenment.) The great question of the movie is whether Steve Rogers and Tony Stark can pull together:

The conflict between Rogers and Stark, which manifests itself as a conflict over justice, is at bottom a religious conflict. Justice and religion flow in and out of one another in perplexing ways. People of different religions can reach moral agreement – if it weren’t so, we’d all have torn each other to pieces long ago. Yet even when our senses of justice align, the religious difference never quite goes away, never quite stops threatening to break out into a war…

Here’s why this is the movie for our time: the history of modernity is the history of great religions – Christianity, Islam, Marxism, Fascism, Romantic individualism, etc. – struggling for control of the great engines of power unleashed by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. America was the product of a great alliance between two of these religions, Christianity and Romantic individualism, against the others. It was not merely a temporary pact to share power but a real forging of deep alliances, resting on a robust sense of shared morality between the two. In spite of the differences, there really are deep undercurrents of similarity. Christianity really does celebrate the preciousness and dignity of the individual; we call it the imago Dei, the image of God in every human being. Romantic individualism really does seek to encompass both moral seriousness and an authentic sense of spiritual renewal (to see justice and mercy meet and kiss, as the psalm puts it). Yet in our time the alliance is strained. The differences between religions must always run just a little bit deeper than the similarities; otherwise they wouldn’t be different religions, they’d be different branches of the same religion. And now those differences are rising back up to the surface. The conditions that forged the original alliance have passed. Can it be reforged?

An existential threat submerges the differences and renews the alliance for a while. In the movie, it was an alien invasion. In our time, it has been 9/11. That doesn’t last, however. In the end of the movie, the heroes disperse to go their separate ways.

The closing note of the movie is Nick Fury expressing certainty that if an existential threat ever arises again, the heroes will reunite. Why does he think so? “Because we’ll need them to.” That is the optimistic scenario. I believe (for theological reasons) that there are rational grounds that logically justify a limited amount of optimism about how things go in the world. I am optimistic about renewing the old alliance that defines America. Yet there are limits, and in our time we are testing them.

So let me use that image to put a sharp point on this question. Do Steve Rogers and Tony Stark have enough common ground in reason and experience – or in any other way – to keep the team together?

1 Thought.

  1. What follows is not even pretending to be a complete reply. But I have to push the question of ‘what is religion?’ a bit further. In this post, it seems to me that you are using ‘religion’ and ‘ideology’ synonymously. I cannot see that Christianity and Romanticism could both be considered to be religions, at least in the same way. (It’s my own position that Romanticism is an ideology and NOT a religion, but because I can’t claim a monopoly on the meaning of ‘religion,’ I will stop at saying that they are not both religions in the same way.)

    I think, but I’m not sure, that you adopted a minimalist definition in your discussion of Huck Finn: “‘Religion’ to them simply is their reasoning about and experience of transcendence.” Are you saying, then, that because this is the least common denominator understanding of religion that we should use it as our operative definition? If that’s the case, then I suppose Christianity and Romanticism would both be religions. But in that case, ‘religion’ seems no different from ‘ideology’.

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