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Suing over the 9/11 Cross

From The New York Times, Elissa Gootman, July 28, 2011 (H/T


In the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, some workers and mourners at the World Trade Center site seized upon a cross-shaped steel beam found amid the rubble as a symbol of faith and hope.

For the past five years, the 17-foot-tall cross was displayed outside a nearby Catholic church. On Saturday it was moved again, to the site of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, where it is to be in the permanent collection.

But the move quickly provoked a lawsuit from American Atheists, a nonprofit group based in New Jersey. It argued that because the cross is a religious symbol of Christianity and the museum is partly government financed and is on government property, the cross’s inclusion in the museum violates the United States Constitution and state civil rights law. The lawsuit, in turn, provoked the ire of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative public interest law firm, as well as others. . .

Marc D. Stern, who is the associate general counsel of the American Jewish Committee and has long studied church-state issues, said the lawsuit presented “an extra-difficult case.”

“It’s a significant part of the story of the reaction to the attack, and that is a secular piece of history,” he said. “It’s also very clear from the repeated blessing of the cross, and the way believers speak about the cross, that it has intense present religious meaning to many people. And both of those narratives about this cross are correct.”

Ira C. Lupu, a professor at the George Washington University Law School and an authority on faith and the law, described the lawsuit as “plausible.” The outcome, he said, could depend on how the beam was displayed when the museum opened.

“If the cross is presented in a way that ties it to the history of its discovery and the religious perception of it by some firefighters or neighbors, then the museum would be framing it as a historical artifact, rather than as a symbol deserving religious reverence,” Professor Lupu said. “I think if it were framed in that way, it could be effectively defended on the merits.”

The atheists’ lawsuit, filed on Wednesday in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, lists multiple defendants, including the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

“The challenged cross constitutes an unlawful attempt to promote a specific religion on governmental land,” the lawsuit charged.

David Silverman, the president of American Atheists, said the suit’s goal was either the removal of the cross or what he called “equal representation.”

“They can allow every religious position to put in a symbol of equal size and stature, or they can take it all out, but they don’t get to pick and choose,” Mr. Silverman said. . .

Would installing this cross in the museum promote Christianity, or is it a matter of historic record that this cross became a symbol of hope for many Christians following the attacks on 9/11?   If the lawsuit is successful, a part of history may be forgotten.  Professor Lupu offers, to my mind, a most reasonable response.  There are ways to display the cross which would clearly promote Christianity.  There are also ways to display the cross as set within a historic context which respects the first amendment.  Since this is absolutely possible, why is a lawsuit necessary?  I suspect it is an attempt not merely to separate church and state, but to whitewash from American history any religious symbolism.  It is to re-write history and pretend that we were as secular as secularists would like us to be today.

Secularism, Nihilism, and the God Shaped Hole

Sean Dorrance Kelly and Hubert Dreyfus have diagnosed today’s secular world with a problem: nihilism.  In a new book, All Things Shining they hope to remedy this problem.

The world has been stripped of meaning, according to the philosophers, through Cartesian rationalism and modern science.

From the Australian Paul Monk (7/30/2011).  Excerpt from “Re-enchanting the world in a secular age”:

Most of the book retraces what the authors see as the development of the malaise of disenchantment. Chapter three, Homer’s Polytheism, centres on the idea that “the Greeks . . . held the world in constant wonder”. This was the world before disenchantment and a version of this the authors want to argue we can recapture. Not through metaphysical belief, but through the phenomenology of experience…

The authors do not, however, offer the dubious prescriptions recklessly propagated by Nietzsche in the 1880s and are suitably wary of the gnomic work of Heidegger that too easily enabled the philosopher to embrace Nazism as a way out of this modern condition.

Instead, they suggest an approach they derive from the Homeric world, to which they give the Greek name poiesis: the crafting of meaning into objects and experiences. This is not, they emphasise, a mere throwback to Homer. Rather, it is a reframing of the experiences we have in terms of the phenomenology of perception, instead of the stark, depersonalised objectivity of natural science.

There is a good deal to be said for this approach and Dreyfus and Kelly are far less reckless than Nietzsche, far less gnomic than Heidegger and far less nihilistic than Sartre. “Living well in our secular, nihilistic age”, they conclude, requires a kind of meta-poiesis: an understanding of when to be immersed in flow and meaning and when to rise above it into autonomy. There is a good deal to be said for this.

The problem is that the book ends well short of articulating how exactly, on an everyday basis, the common citizen of the secular world – as distinct from the exemplary craftsman, philosopher or aesthete – can live the meta-poietic life.

I have my doubts that the book will succeed at all.  If the problem arose from viewing the world as a “mechanistic clock”, can we get back to meaning through a phenomenological perspective?  Can this even approximate the kind of wonder those Homeric Greeks once experienced, i.e. their awe before crashing thunder and dread before the vast sea?  Or would we just be obscuring and ignoring the hole that lies at the center of our culture?

In contrast, there is G.K. Chesterton’s philosophy: fairy tales.

…[W]e all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment.  This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales.  Mere life is interesting enough.  A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon.  But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.  Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales–because they find them romantic.  In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.  This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost prenatal leap of interest and amazement.  These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found out that they were green.  They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water (Orthodoxy).1

I think I might be a “fairy-talist” rather than a phenomenologist.  Re-enchanting is remembering how weird it is that there should be anything at all.  Then, that it should be this way and not that way.

Ultimately meaning is not just found in wonder or enchantment, though I think this is a necessary first step.  It  is the recognition that there is a deep desire for meaning and purpose  naturally within each of us, something Kelly and Dreyfus recognize.  This is the desire reflected in Augustine’s prayer to God,

You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you (Conf. 1,I).2

The question, then, is whether we are condemned never to find rest, or whether our desire for rest corresponds to something real.  I don’t think Kelly and Dreyfus can offer us anything real.  They can only offer us a delusion within which one can, from time to time, be immerse.  But hasn’t the rug been pulled out from under us?  Can we make-believe in meaning?  Can we boot-strap meaning into existence within a world without ultimate purpose–a world headed towards a heat-death, or cosmic crunch?  Can we make-believe meaning while believing that all of our projects will turn to dust and memories of our existence will be forgotten within four or five generations?

At the same time, I don’t think the scientist can be completely blamed for our modern secular nihilism.  After all, science can inspire in us wonder about the natural world.  Yet science can also  lead us to forget the deeper questions of existence and to suppose that there is no ultimate meaning–that everything just is.  But if Chesterton is right, we can occasionally remember– and shudder.  And if Augustine is right, then our desire for meaning and enchantment will be satisfied.

Now to be fair, I have not read Kelly and Dreyfus’ book yet.  But when I do, I will let you know whether it is a tenable plan to reinsert meaning into this nihilistic age.

1 Chesterton, G.K. (2001) Orthodoxy. New York: Doubleday. 51.

2 Augustine. (1998) The Confessions. Trans. M. Boulding, O.S.B. New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics. 3.