Sarah Blumenthal's Address to the Conference of American
Studies in Religion, Washington, D.C.*

In the twentieth century about to end, the great civilizer on earth seems to have been doubt. Doubt, the constantly debated and flexible inner condition of theological uncertainty, the wish to believe in balance with rueful or nervous or grieving skepticism, seems to have held people in thrall to ethical behavior, while the true believers, of whatever stamp, religious or religious-statist, have done the murdering. The impulse to excommunicate, to satanize, to eradicate, to ethnically cleanse, is a religious impulse. In the practice and politics of religion, God has always been a license to kill. But to hold in abeyance and irresolution any firm convictions of God, or of an afterlife with Him, warrants walking in His spirit, somehow. And among the doctrinaire religious, I find I trust those who gravitate toward symbolic comfort rather than those who reaffirm historic guarantees. It is just those uneasy promulgators of traditional established religion who are not in lockstep with its customs and practices, or who are chafing under doctrinal pronouncements, or losing their congregations to charismatics and stadium-filling conversion performers, who are the professional religious I trust. The faithful who read Scripture in the way Coleridge defined the act of reading poetry or fiction, i.e., with a "willing suspension of disbelief." Yet they must be true to themselves and understand theirs is a compromised faith. Something more is required of them. Something more .

I ask the question: Is it possible that the behavioral commandments of religion, its precipitate ethics or positive social values, can be maintained without reference to the authority of God? In my undergraduate seminar in metaphysics at Harvard, the professor said there can be no ought, no categorical imperative in Kantian terms, no action from an irresistible conscience, without a supreme authority. But that does not quite address the point. I ask if after the exclusionary, the sacramental, the ritualistic, and simply fantastic elements of religion are abandoned, can a universalist ethics be maintained in its numinousness? To a certain extent, in advanced industrial democracies, such behavior is already codified with reference to no higher authority than civil law. If our Constitution not only separated church and state but adapted as the basis of civil law something of the best essence of the Judeo-Christian ethical system, was there not only a separation but an appropriation, which largely goes unremarked by our more passionate preachers?

Suppose then that in the context of a hallowed secularism, the idea of God could be recognized as Something Evolving, as civilization has evolved - that God can be redefined, and recast, as the human race trains itself to a greater degree of metaphysical and scientific sophistication. With the understanding, in other words, that human history does show a pattern at least of progressively sophisticated metaphors. So that we pursue a teleology thus far that, in the universe as vast as the perceivable cosmos, and as infinitesimal as a subatomic particle, has given us only the one substantive indication of itself - that we, as human beings, live in moral consequence. In this view the supreme authority is not God, who is sacramentalized, prayed to, pleaded with, portrayed, textualized, or given voice, choir, or temple walls, but God who is imperceptible, ineffable, except... for our evolved moral sense of ourselves. Constitutional scholars are accustomed to speak of the American civil religion. But perhaps two hundred or so years ago something happened, in terms not of national history but of human history, that has yet to be realized. To understand what that is may be the task of the moment for our theologians. But it involves the expansion of ethical obligation democratically to be directed all three hundred and sixty degrees around, not just upon one's co-religionists, a daily indiscriminate and matter-of-fact reverence of human rights unselfconscious as a handshake. Dare we hope the theologians might emancipate themselves, so as to articulate or perceive another possibility for us in our quest for the sacred? Not just a new chapter but a new story?

There may not be much time. If the demographers are right, ten billion people will inhabit the earth by the middle of the coming century. Huge megacities of people all over the planet fighting for its resources. And perhaps with only the time-tested politics of God on their side to see them through. Under those circumstances, the prayers of mankind will sound to heaven as shrieks. And such abuses, shocks, to our hope for what life can be, as to make the twentieth century a paradise lost.

Thank you.

*From E.L. Doctorow's City of God, New York: Random House, 2000, p. 255.