Friday, February 11, 2011

The Pascal Lecture: Another Year, Another Embarrassment

It's time again for that excruciating annual exercise at my university called the "Pascal Lectures".

Inaugurated in 1978, the purpose is to "bring to the University of Waterloo outstanding individuals of international repute who have distinguished themselves in both an area of scholarly endeavor and an area of Christian thought or life. These individuals discourse with the university community on some aspect of its own world, its theories, its research, its leadership role in our society, challenging the university to a search for truth through personal faith and intellectual enquiry which focus on Jesus Christ."

From its very first speaker - Malcolm Muggeridge - this series has been an embarrassment. Muggeridge, you may recall, was the credulous journalist responsible for the Mother Teresa cult - and even claimed that the light used in the filming of a BBC documentary Mother Teresa's orphanage was miraculous: "In the processed film, the part taken inside was bathed in a particularly beautiful soft light, whereas the part taken outside was rather dim and confused.... I myself am absolutely convinced that the technically unaccountable light is, in fact, the Kindly Light [Cardinal] Newman refers to in his well-known exquisite hymn. ...[The love in the home is] luminous, like the haloes artists have seen and made visible around the heads of saints. I find it not at all surprising that the luminosity should register on a photographic film. ...I am personally persuaded that Ken recorded the first authentic photographic miracle."

But the cinematographer had something different to say: "And when we got back several weeks later, a month or two later, we are sitting in the rushes theatre at Ealing Studios and eventually up came the shots of the House of the Dying. And it was surprising. You could see every detail. And I said, 'That's amazing. That's extraordinary.' And I was going to on to say, three cheers for Kodak. I didn't get a chance to say that though, because Malcolm, sitting in the front row, spun round and said: 'It's divine light. It's Mother Teresa. You'll find that it's divine light, old boy.' And three or four days later I was being phoned by journalists who were saying things like: 'We hear you've just come back from India with Malcolm Muggeridge and you were the witness of a miracle.'"

To give you some idea of Muggeridge's intellectual acuity, here's a quote from What I Believe (Crossroad Publishing Co., 1984): "Nor, as far as I am concerned, is there any recompense in the so-called achievements of science. It is true that in my lifetime more progress has been made in unravelling the composition and the mechanism of the material universe than previously in the whole of recorded history. This does not at all excite my mind, or even my curiosity. The atom has been split; the universe has been discovered, and will soon be explored. Neither achievement has any bearing on what alone interests me -- which is why life exists, and what is the significance, if any, of my minute and so transitory part in it."

And in the first Pascal lecture, Muggeridge had this to say, in answer to a question: "I myself am convinced that the theory of evolution, especially the extent to which it's been applied, will be one of the great jokes in the history books in the future. Posterity will marvel that so very flimsy and dubious an hypothesis could be accepted with the incredible credulity that it has. I think I spoke to you before about this age as one of the most credulous in history, and I would include evolution as an example."

Isn't there something perversely fascinating about a man who can dismiss one of the best-supported scientific theories -- evolution -- while railing about credulity AND also jumping to the conclusion that good photographic film is a Christian miracle?

This drivel is what the Pascal committee apparently thinks is a good example of "challenging the university to a search for truth".

Not every Pascal lecture was as bad as Muggeridge. Howard J. Van Till, who spoke in 1999, was a physics professor from Calvin College, and is one of the few evangelicals I know who can approach evolution with something resembling intellectual honesty. And - no surprise - he was investigated by his own university for heresy simply for being honest. And Donald Knuth, a personal hero of mine, spoke in 2000.

In 2007, MIT computer scientist Rosalind Picard spoke. She's infamous as one of the signers of the Discovery Institute's A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism letter -- despite having, as far as I can tell, no advanced biological training. This didn't prevent her from using her professional affiliation at MIT to sign. I once asked her if she thought this was ethical, but she didn't reply.

This year's speaker was Mary Poplin, a professor at the Claremont Graduate School. I knew what to expect, since I had already watched one of her videos. I got exactly what I expected. Speaking in a nearly empty hall that could hold over 700 people but probably held about 50, she provided

* a phony quote in support of Christianity
* slurs directed towards atheists and Christopher Hitchens
* vague complaints that Christianity is "suppressed" or "censored"
* crackpot claims that the Bible holds important medical knowledge
* a conversion story based on emotions and dreams rather than any evidence

The quote story is rather interesting. Jürgen Habermas is an elderly German philosopher who Poplin quoted as follows: "Christianity, and nothing else is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [to Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter."

This quotation is phony, but is very popular among Christians.

Its origins have been carefully traced by Thomas Gregersen, who writes:

But this is a misquotation! The reference is an interview with J├╝rgen Habermas that Eduardo Mendieta made in 1999. It is published in English with the title "A Conversation About God and the World" in Habermas's book "Time of Transitions" (Polity Press, 2006).

What Habermas actually says in this interview is:

"Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an auonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct heir of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk (p. 150f)."

The misquote rewrites Habermas's statement and changes its meaning:
(1) Habermas talks about the historical origin of egalitarian universalism - not the foundation of human rights today.
(2) Habermas mentions both Judaism and Christianity - not only Christianity.
(3) Habermas says that there is no alternative to this legacy ("Erbe" in German) - not that we have no alternative to Christianity.

In the question-and-answer-session after the talk, I informed Poplin of the phony quote and asked her to withdraw it. In response, she claimed that Habermas had been asked about the quote at a lecture and did not deny it! So she knew the quote was dubious, she knew there was no actual original source confirming the phony quote, but she proffered it anyway with no disclaimers. In my opinion, this constitutes serious scholarly misconduct.

Later, I discussed the quote again with Poplin. She admitted she had no source for the quote, but she insisted it was legitimate because it accurately reflected Habermas' ideas, even if it was not his actual words. She again referred to this video, claiming that Habermas was asked about the quote and did not deny it. Watch the video, and see if it supports Poplin's interpretation. I don't think it does.

Here are some other aspects of Poplin's talk, with brief commentary:

- She claimed that "arch-atheist" Hitchens was practically the only author taking issue with Mother Teresa's career. This is simply untrue; authors such as Michael Parenti, Aroup Chatterjee, and others have criticized Agnes Bojaxhiu.

- Like many Christians, she seemed really disturbed that university students sometimes have sex with each other, and she claimed this was due to the loss of "ability to have a moral conversation" about anything. (I don't have any idea what she's talking about: questions of ethics routinely come up even in our computer science curriculum.)

- She dismissed the Christian pastor who wanted to burn a Koran as unrepresentative of North American Christianity

- She claimed "advocates of secularism try to keep orthodox Christianity a secret". Not so - I'd like it to be exposed in all its silliness.

- Secularism has "diminished the Academy"

- the University is hostile to "God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit". Yes, but in exactly the same way it is hostile to any claim presented without evidence, such as Bigfoot, UFO's, and homeopathy.

- She approvingly quoted C. S. Lewis, from Mere Christianity, claiming "If Christianity is true then it ought to follow (a) That any Christian will be nicer than the same person would be if he were not a Christian. (b) That any man who becomes a Christian will be nicer than he was before." (I wonder what a non-Christian David Bahati might be like.)

- And, in a stunning display of hypocrisy, she both praised the Roman Catholic church for helping the poor and sick in the 15th century, and dismissed its role in genocide in the New World and its role in the Crusades as complaints by ignorant critics.

Overall, this was probably the shallowest, most anti-intellectual Pascal lecture I've attended.


John Farrell said...

And recall how often William F. Buckley used to have Muggeridge on his show Firing Line. I remain mystified as to why. It was probably Muggeridge, though, who persuaded Buckley to be against evolution as well....

Luke Barnes said...

You sure do love a good quote-debunking!

* I'd love to hear a report on what Donald Knuth said.
* "She dismissed the Christian pastor who wanted to burn a Koran as unrepresentative of North American Christianity". Is there any data to suggest that she is wrong? I'm not that familiar with Christianity on that side of the Atlantic.
* Regarding the CS Lewis "niceness" claim ... that would seem to be within the purview of sociology. Any data there?
* I've always suspected that Muggeridge wasn't worth reading. What's your source for that story? I'd love to read the original.

Tim Kenyon said...

Thanks, Jeff, for a detailed and provocative summary/critique. I admit to being a bit flummoxed by the "We've been silenced!" theme of some scholars of Christianity. Richard Gwyn gave a talk called "Coming Out of the Closet: Religion in Public Affairs" not long after I came to Waterloo, the title of which similarly left me wondering whether I'd dozed off for fifteen minutes and missed some very short epoch during which religion was absent from public affairs.

That said, I would add that of course there's a perfectly clear sense in which pastor Terry Jones is unrepresentative of North American Christianity; as one person, he will be unrepresentative in myriad ways no matter what, and the fact that such a big deal was made of him suggests by contrast that Christians aren't actually lined up around the block to burn a Koran.

I think there are awkward questions for North American Christians to answer about the extent of religious intolerance that subsists in their various demographics, and about the extent to which their institutions have acted as brokers and conduits for intolerance in recent times. My sense is that Terry Jones is not a very useful way of raising or focusing those questions, though.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Well, I think Jones is representative of a small but virulent strain of Christianity - the same strain that manifests itself in hatred of gays. If you polled US Christians and asked them if burning a Koran was a good idea, you'd get a much larger percentage of support than many people would expect.

North American Christians would do better to face up to this strain and confront it head-on, instead of pretending it doesn't exist.

Tim Kenyon said...

If you polled US Christians and asked them if burning a Koran was a good idea, you'd get a much larger percentage of support than many people would expect.

Well, it's an empirical question. I suspect that you're right; these disappointing revelations happen a bit too often to be very confident that such a poll wouldn't reveal what you suggest. But although that attitude would be dreadful, and shameful, and apt to play an enabling role in overt bigotry, it would at least be passive by default. It seems fairly clear that even those people are not publicly and actively whipping up support for Koran-burning; so, bad as their attitudes may be, they aren't quite like Jones. (That is, they are less virulent -- whatever their true numbers.)

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Here are some internet polls - that should be taken with a big grain of salt, of course:

(Koran should be burned - 11% say yes)

(Koran should be burned as a provocation - 48% say yes)

(Koran should be burned - 37% say yes)

Eamon Knight said...

I was rather taken with "Saint Mugg" way back when I was a naive teenage convert to evangelicalism. A few years later he went full-bore into a reactionary Catholicism I found repugnant, and that was that as far as I was concerned.

Garkbit said...

But without Muggeridge we would never have had this:

Robert said...

I don't comment about other things , but it's funny how you took the ridiculous argument with the so called "misquotation" of Habermas, when in fact, even if slightly different, both quotations say the same thing.
It's like two people are arguing: "I said left!" - "No! What a liar you are, you said left!".

Jeffrey Shallit said...


I think you have a reading comprehension problem.

Anonymous said...

- the University is hostile to "God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit". Yes, but in exactly the same way it is hostile to any claim presented without evidence, such as Bigfoot, UFO's, and homeopathy.

Hmmm you honestly believe there's no evidence for Jesus of Nazareth? That's a terrible analogy. Try again.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

There's probably more evidence for Bigfoot than Jesus. But even if you admit the existence of some person named Jesus in the 1st century, that doesn't mean there's an actual person who performed the miracles described in the Christian bible.