Scandinavian Spirituality, the Bible Belt, and the Culture of Pain

Conservatives are fond of branding modern liberalism a “culture of death,” because of its lack of objections to contraception, abortion and assisted suicide. For some reason, endorsement of war, the death penalty, and ready availability of firearms do not, in their eyes, have anything to do with “death.” This is an old argument, and I really don’t want to rehash it at the moment. What I do want to look at is the difference between the US Bible Belt and Scandinavia. Apparently they are polar opposites, not only in their level of religious observance and belief, but also in what one might call their lifestyle statistics: levels of violent crime (lots of it in the Bible Belt, almost none in Scandinavia), divorce, illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, domestic abuse, you get the picture. Scandinavians, apparently, are Nice People, and Bible Belters—well, not so much.

If you assume, as I think most Americans of whatever faith do, that the main purpose and value of religion is to make people be Nice, these figures are counterintuitive. But this view of religion is also not quite consistent with classical Christian theology. You should maybe check out Newman’s description of the gentleman in Idea of a University. The gentleman is, above all, Nice. “It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain.” But he falls far short of Christian sanctity.

Some religious leftists, like me, take uncharitable delight in the inconsistencies of Bible Belt morality. It is fun to point out that Texas has a much higher divorce rate than Massachusetts. It is even fun to point out that the way we can tell that Joe Lieberman isn’t a real Democrat is that he has been divorced. If the Pope were a Republican, divorce would be the 8th sacrament. (No no, bad liberal, go to your room. Really uncharitable.)

But there are several ways to look at this discrepancy. One is a teaching I think I picked up from the Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides: the soul recognizes its own defects and chooses the appropriate remedies for them. Thus, most pacifists I know have really nasty tempers. Anarchists and libertarians tend in general to be bossy. And Quakers, whose primary liturgical expression is silence, are some of the talkiest people on the planet. One can view these inconsistencies as expressions of hypocrisy, or as conscious or unconscious efforts to remedy one’s besetting sins. Maybe Bible Belters are stricter in their ideals of sexual propriety precisely because they tend to be more passionate in their personal lives. They still have “dry” counties because they tend to be heavy drinkers. You get the idea.

Another way to look at this discrepancy is developmentally. The Scandinavians were not always Nice. Indeed, they started out as the Vikings, as nasty a bunch of thugs as you would ever not want to meet in a dark alley. (Four hundred or so years later, the Swiss were maintaining their Gross National Product as mercenary soldiers, with a very similar reputation. Now, of course, the Swiss are Nice, too. And then there were the New England gentry, most of whom were dope dealers to the Orient in their heyday.) Maybe every nation or eth has to go through a thug phase before becoming Nice. In the long run, there’s hope for all of us.

Or maybe, as Newman suggests, Nice is not what religion—Christian religion, anyway– is really all about. If we are fallen creatures, it doesn’t even matter how Nice we are, we are still sinners and the remedy for sin isn’t Niceness, it’s forgiveness. For further illumination of this view, read the Left Behind series. The Antichrist starts out as a Nice Person, almost a true gentleman in Newman’s sense of the word. He’s in favor of world peace and prosperity and other good things. That’s how (in the view of the authors) we know he’s the Antichrist. (But of course, the only way the authors can persuade their readers that he is the Antichrist is to portray him doing a lot of really un-Nice things as the novels proceed, like beheading Chloe. The author of Revelation has the same problem, and solves it the same way. Theologians may think Niceness is the work of the devil, but the rest of us still prefer it.)

That is not a mainstream Jewish position, and it sure as hell isn’t a mainstream liberal position. We Jews are primarily concerned with Niceness. For that reason, we lack the Christian obsession with doing the right thing only for the right reason. We are perfectly okay with doing the right thing for the wrong reason, because it is still better to live in a world where the right thing is being done, for whatever reason, than not. But then, we don’t view human beings as fallen, either. Prone to screw up, yes. Fallen, inherently sinful, no.

And, more to the point, unlike the followers of classical Christianity, we Jews do not worship pain. We have devised ways to handle it, and live with it, and even use unavoidable pain for good purposes where necessary. But we still prefer, and work to achieve, Niceness. We believe that suffering does not necessarily ennoble the spirit. So, for instance, most of us recognize that overpopulation leads to suffering, and that, of the possible ways to reduce overpopulation, abortion, enforced celibacy, and famine produce more suffering than contraception. So we endorse contraception. But most of us also believe that, at least in the early embryonic stages, the unborn child is not subject to suffering, and therefore that early-stage abortion is preferable to the other remaining alternatives.

And, apparently, the stats back us up. Societies that have reduced suffering have also produced Nicer people. Or, as Al Capp’s Mammy Yokum said long ago, “Good is better than evil because it’s nicer.”

Jane Grey

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