The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

bunyan_pilgrims.jpgIt is daunting to try to say something new about a book that is oft touted as the world's bestselling title, after the Bible. In the 300-plus years since John Bunyan published The Pilgrim's Progress, it has never been out of print. It has had a tremendous influence as both a work of religion, offering an accessible presentation of Protestant theology, and as a work of literature. Think of William Thackeray's Vanity Fair (or the magazine), named after a location in the book. Or Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, in which the girls recreate the pilgrim's quest in their own home.

For those not familiar with the book, it is a Christian allegory depicting the path of salvation through two pilgrimages. The first part, published in 1678, follows Christian, a man who has left his hometown, the City of Destruction (e.g. Earth), on a journey to the Celestial City (e.g. Heaven). Through reading the Bible, he has become burdened by the knowledge of his sinfulness. He is guided toward the Wicket-Gate (e.g. Christ) by the helpful Evangelist:

Then said Evangelist, pointing with his finger over a very wide field, "Do you see yonder wicket-gate? The man said, "No." Then said the other, "Do you see younder shining light?" He said, "I think I do." Then said Evangelist, "Keep that light in your eye, and go directly thereto; so shalt thou see the gate, at which when thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shalt do."

So I saw in my dream that the man began to run. Now he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return. But the man put his fingers in his ear and ran on crying, "Life, life, eternal life." So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain.

And so on, as Christian meets a variety of friends and foes and traverses a series of obstacles and sanctuaries. I must admit that at first, and at various times throughout the book, the allegory struck me as heavy-handed and naive. There is just something a bit childish about Christian being rescued from the Slough of Despond by a man named Help. But if the allegory is quaint or awkward at times, there are also passages of tremendous beauty and profundity. After Christian makes his way out of the Valley of the Shadow of Death and is joined by the aptly named Faithful, they encounter Talkative. As his name suggests, Talkative is more attached to words of faith than faith itself, and Christian warns Faithful against this doomed path:

[Saying and doing] are two things indeed and are as diverse as are the soul and the body. For as the body without the soul is but a dead carcass, so saying, if it be alone, is but a dead carcass also. The soul of religion is the practice part...This Talkative is not aware of; he thinks that hearing and saying will make a good Christian, and thus he deceiveth his own soul. Hearing is but as the sowing of the seed; talking is not sufficient to prove that fruit is indeed in the heart and life, and let us assure ourselves that at the day of doom, men shall be judged according to their fruits. It will not be said then, 'Did you believe?' but, 'Were you doers or talkers only?' And accordingly shall they be judged. The end of the world is compared to our harvest, and you know men at harvest regard nothing but fruit...

Dark though Christian's journey is, it ends well. But what of the wife and children left crying after him? Bunyan did not neglect them, and in the second part of the book, published in 1684, we follow them on a second pilgrimage. Inspired by her husband's efforts and ashamed of her treatment of him, Christiana sets out with her sons (and her neighbor, Mercy) along the same path her husband took. Though reflecting the antiquated 17th (and 18th and 19th and most of the 20th) century notion that women are the frailer sex and thus need a male escort (Great-Heart), this second part also highlights the spiritual needs and capabilities of women (as well as children, and the mentally and physically handicapped):

[W]hen the Saviour was come, women rejoiced in him before either man or angel., I read not that ever any man did give unto Christ so much as one groat, but the women followed him and ministered to him of their substance. 'Twas a woman that washed his feet with tears, and a woman that anointed his body to the burial. They were women that wept when he was going to the cross, and women that followed him from the cross, and that sat by his sepulchre when he was buried. They were women that was first with him at his resurrection morn, and women that brought tidings first to his disciples that he was risen from the dead. Women therefore are highly favoured and show by these things that they are sharers with us in the grace of life.

The second pilgrimage is warmer and more uplifting, reflecting the effect that widespread knowledge of Christian's journey has had on the countryside. In Vanity, the site of Faithful's dramatic execution as a martyr in the first part, a new era has dawned:

You know how Christian and Faithful were used at our town; but of late, I say, they have been far more moderate. I think the blood of Faithful lieth with load upon them till now; for since they burned him, they have been ashamed to burn any more. In those days, we were afraid to walk the streets, but now we can show our heads. Then the name of a professor was odious; now, specially in some parts of our town (for you know our town is large), religion is counted honourable.

The Pilgrim's Progress is a flawed, imperfect work. The allegory can be clunky and sometimes masks the underlying message. Bunyan's preaching is often strident, with Judaism and Catholicism coming under heavy attack, but it is clearly reflects a sincere espousal of his belief that salvation through faith alone is the one true path. The book should be required reading for its historical importance and literary influence, but as its enduring popularity suggests, it retains much to be appreciated in our own age.

Christian Marriage According to C.S. Lewis

lewis_mere.jpgMuch of what I have read so far in C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity has been very interesting. Some of it has been very persuasive. All of it has been at least sensible, until I got to the chapter on "Christian Marriage." I have no problem with his discussion of the sanctity of marriage, the important of the promises involved, the proper basis of true love, and the evil of divorce. While I do not agree with all of it, Lewis makes clear the what and why of Christian doctrine on those matters.

Lewis loses me completely, however, when he turns to the "unpopular" notion that "in Christian marriage the man is said to be the 'head.'" There may be good, solid justifications for this notion, but I have yet to hear them and Lewis does nothing to rectify that. In defending this position, Lewis' argument begins with this framework:

Two questions obviously arise here. (1) Why should there be a head at all--why not equality? (2) Why should it be the man?

In answer to the first question, Lewis asserts that:

The need for some head follows from the idea that marriage is permanent. Of course, as long as the husband and wife are agreed, no question of a head need arise; and we may hope this will be the normal state of affairs in a Christian marriage. But when there is a real disagreement, what is to happen? Talk it over, of course; but I am assuming they have done that and still failed to reach agreement. What do they do next? Surely only one or other of two things can happen: either they must separate and go their own ways or else one or other of them must have a casting vote. If marriage is permanent, one or other party must, in the last resort, have the power of deciding the family policy.

I do not think that is right. I think it is rather easy to assert a third option: that the married partners continue to work towards a compromise as long as it takes. Whether it be a compromise on the particular issue, or a compromise whereby one partner accedes on one issue in exchange for agreement on some other topic, compromise should be the watchword, not authority.

Furthermore, Lewis' position is not just wrong, it is dangerous. So long as a husband knows he has a "casting vote," what motivation does he have to "talk it over," in Lewis' words? Why not simply cast the deciding vote at the first scent of disagreement? I am sure that would be un-Christian, in the literal sense. But why is the woman's role in marriage to be dependent on a husband restraining himself? Why shouldn't marriage instead be dependent on both partners learning to restrain themselves, to compromise and preserve the union?

It gets even worse when Lewis turns to the second question: "If there must be a head, why the man?" The question is problematic in itself. It presumes that assignation of authority must be made solely on the basis of gender, an assertion not stated, much less proved. And as discussed below, there is good reason to doubt that either gender can stake a universal claim to any (alleged) necessary authority.

Even granting that marital authority must exist, and that it must be assigned based on gender, Lewis' explanation of why men must be the chosen gender drops immediately into anecdote, and never resurfaces in the realm of logical argument:

Well, firstly is there any very serious wish that it should be the woman?

What does that matter? The question posed was not "Why is it the man, instead of the woman as I wish it would be?" The question was simply "Why is it the man?" If it has to be one or the other, what are the affirmative reasons for it to be the man? And after posing this non sequitur, Lewis does not even provide a sensible answer:

As I have said, I am not married myself, but as far as I can see, even a woman who wants to be the head of her own house does not usually admire the same state of things when she finds it going on next door. She is much more likely to say 'Poor Mr X! Why he allows that appalling woman to boss him about the way she does is more than I can imagine.' There must be something unnatural about the rule of wives over husbands, because the wives themselves are half ashamed of it and despise the husbands whom they rule.

There are so many things wrong with this, it is hard to know where to start. First of all, this anecdotal evidence is drawn from a society in which male domination of marriage is already culturally accepted. While purely anecdotal evidence is always suspect, it is just worthless circularity to point to discomfort with female dominated marriages in a society that for centuries accepted Christian doctrines of male superiority.

Second, the anecdote of "Poor Mr. X" presumes that Mrs. X is not just the head of the household, but is a domineering dictator. But if the same presumption were applied to how husbands behave in the role of head of household, we would surely be feeling sorry for "Poor Mrs. X" whose husband treats her like a slave. Lewis (and his version of Christianity) gives husbands the presumption of gentle rule, while his anecdote automatically presumes a wife in charge will abuse her power. There is no basis for this assertion (unless it is already presumed that men should be in charge, which would be further circularity).

Third, is it really possible to look at every marriage, every husband, and every wife, and make these sorts of gender-based presumptions? I am willing to concede, for the moment, innate gender differences (as opposed to those culturally developed). But I am not ready to concede that whatever these differences might be, they guarantee that the man is better suited to exercise authority. If anecdotes are to carry the day, I am sure we can all think of men who are not suited to exercise authority over anything, let alone their wives.

Lewis does not rest solely on the "shame" anecdote to support the superiority of men in marriage, though he might as well:

The relations of the family to the outer world--what might be called its foreign policy--must depend, in the last resort, upon the man, because he always ought to be, and usually is, much more just to the outsiders. A woman is primarily fighting for her own children and husband against the rest of the world. Naturally, almost, in a sense, rightly, their claims override, for her, all other claims. She is the special trustee of their interests. The function of the husband is to see that this natural preference of hers is not given its head. He has the last word in order to protect other people from the intense family patriotism of the wife.

Again, so much wrong in such a few sentences! Lewis offers no evidence (aside from another anecdote, considered below) that wives and mothers are "naturally" more territorial and protective; he merely states these premises as if they were facts. Further, Lewis seems to be sugar-coating his claim for male superiority by praising women for "family patriotism." While offering this supposed compliment, he is really using it to justify giving husbands a veto over all marital decisions.

While this might be the more underhanded part of his argument, it is not the most problematic. The most problematic is indicated in his own analogy to "foreign policy." Even if we concede that a wife or mother's "family patriotism" hampers her in "relatons of the family to the outer world," why is this a justification for giving the husband authority over all family decisions? If men are better suited to handle foreign policy, why not simply give them authority in that realm? To continue Lewis' own analogy (which I actually think a bit silly), why not make the husband the unitary executive authority in foreign relations, while giving the wife legislative authority over domestic matters, thus requiring agreement on domestic issues while preserving the husband's prerogative in the outer world?

If this seems a bit silly, is it not equally (if not more) silly to argue that simply because the husband is best suited to handle foreign policy, he must be given unitary authority over all issues that arise, even those that bear no relations on foreign policy? Speaking of silly, Lewis does throw out (and 'throw out' is the right phrase for this garbage) this analogy in support of his position:

If your dog has bitten the child next door, or if your child has hurt the dog next door, which would you sooner have to deal with, the master of that house or the mistress? Or, if you are a married woman, let me ask you this question. Much as you admire your husband, would you not say that his chief failing is his tendency not to stick up for his rights and yours against the neighbours as vigorously as you would like? A bit of an Appeaser?

Well I am not a married woman, so I'll have to see if my wife thinks that is my chief failing. And I am not sure if Lewis' use of the word "Appeaser" in capital letters is a reference to Neville Chamberlain and Munich, which would certainly seem to undermine the argument that male dominance of foreign policy is a positive attribute.

But just sticking to the dog analogy, what in the world is Lewis talking about? Maybe I do, in fact, want to speak with the father. But maybe I do not want to get punched or shot, so maybe I want to talk to the wife. Or maybe I want to consider what I know about my neighbors as individuals rather than just as stereotyped gender roles. That would probably tell me more about which of them I want to visit, and maybe even about which of them would be better suited to have authority in their marriage, if such authority were even appropriate in the first place.

Bottom line, this is just two pages out of more than two hundred, only half of which I have read. I like the book, it is teaching me a great deal about Christianity (or Lewis' version of it), and I continue to recommend it to others. Maybe Lewis was having an off-day, maybe this particular part of Christian doctrine simply can not be distilled to two pages. But if anything in a Christian apology needs to be given special attention, it is doctrine which is already unpopular or misunderstood . Many Christian friends of mine hold up this book as an excellent primer on Christianity, and thus Lewis must be held accountable for this weak defense of a weak doctrinal position.

Day of Mindfulness

I would like to renew a blog tradition that I have let fall by the wayside. For a while, I made it a point to treat Saturday as a Day of Mindfulness, and limited my blogging to a single post updating my section on Zen and Buddhism. I think I will take a more ecumenical approach from now on, as I continue to find new wisdom among many other faiths and practices as well.

In light of this week's events, several Buddhist websites have seen fit to reprint the Metta Sutta, often referred to as Buddha's Teaching of Loving-Kindness. I think it is wonderfully fitting in these difficult times.

This is what should be done by one who is skilled in goodness
And who knows the path of peace:

Let them be able and upright, straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited, contented and easily satisfied.
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skilful,
not proud and demanding in nature.

Let them not do the slightest thing that the wise would later reprove.
They should wish:

In gladness and in safety
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be,
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!

Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state,
Let none through anger or ill-will wish harm upon another.

Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings,
Radiating kindness over the entire world,
Spreading upwards to the skies, and downwards to the depths,
Outwards and unbounded, freed from hatred and ill-will.

Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down,
Free from drowsiness, one should sustain this recollection.

Spirituality in America

Newsweek has what looks to be a very interesting issue out this week, featuring a series of articles on "Spirituality in America," a topic that has been of increasing interest to me in recent months. It seems almost serendipitous to see these articles in the same week that I've been adding Merton and Aquinas to my book project.

Though raised in a secular Jewish household, I did not have much interest in the Jewish faith until my teen years. What interest I did have was essentially crushed when I arrived at Harvard and found Hillel to be a singularly unwelcoming place for a curious novice who was raised in Utah instead of Long Island.

It was not until I finally took a look at Buddhism, after years of avoiding Eastern religions as the stomping ground of drug-addled hippies and angst-ridden teenagers, that I started to connect with a spiritual practice. And in the last months of law school, I connected with a classmate who had come to Christianity around the same age I came to Buddhism, and he helped me begin understanding that faith. Though my practice (or what is left of it after years of neglect in law school) still centers on Buddhism, it is wonderful to be exploring so many influences.

One of the Newsweek articles in particular caught my eye because the subject took such an unusual route to Buddhism, which I think goes to show the versatility and diversity of faith in this country:

Willis had always cherished the ideal of peace and in 1963 marched in Birmingham with Martin Luther King Jr. In college, inspired by the images of monks in Vietnam setting themselves on fire to protest the war, she became interested in Buddhism. But by the time she graduated from Cornell in 1969, Willis was faced with a stark postcollege choice: go to Nepal and study Buddhism or join the Black Panthers and fight for black rights-"peace or a piece," as she puts it. She opted for peace. And everything in her life changed. Buddhism taught her compassion and self-acceptance. It led her to her current job, teaching Buddhism at Wesleyan University. And it even taught her how to make peace with the Baptist church.

Her journey wasn't easy. Arriving at a monastery outside Katmandu in 1969, she was the lone woman among 60 monks; everything around her was strange. She learned to adjust to the sounds of gongs and conch shells, of chanted prayers. She hiked miles up a mountainside to study with Lama Thubten Yeshe, who taught her that she already had the nature of the Buddha within, if only she could be still enough to find it. It was a powerful message. The bias she faced in childhood "had convinced me that I was unworthy," she says. "I felt humiliated and undeserving." But through Buddhism, she learned to empty her mind of negative thoughts and self-doubt. Whites in Alabama might reject her, but Lama Yeshe came to call her "daughter."

Talking about spirituality is almost by definition an intensely personal thing, and it is made more difficult by the hesitation to appear as if one is claiming to speak on behalf of one's religion, rather than about it. I think this is especially troublesome for those who explore less understood faiths. Numerous friends, with the best of intentions, have asked me "What do Buddhists think about this?" as if that were a question that I (or anyone!) was qualified to answer.

Nonetheless, as I seek to further explore the spiritual side of myself and of humanity, it seems fitting that some of that exploration take place in this space.

Day of Mindfulness

Each Saturday I make an effort to devote the day to mindfulness. As part of that effort, I will largely refrain from blogging on Saturdays. I will, however, provide a weekly update to the section of this website on Zen.

This week's offering is Thich Nhat Hanh's commentary on the 5th Precept: Diet For a Mindful Society.