In the 1890s American pragmatist William James, brother of novelist Henry, tried peyote in his attempt to discern some varieties of religious faith. In the 1990s politicians developed the expression “faith-based” as a separation-of-church-and-state euphemism for “Christian.” This morning, two New York Times stories reminded me of the vagaries of faith.
One story reported how Chinese leaders were relying on “supernatural shortcuts to wealth and power. … As Marxist ideology has faded in China, ancient mystical beliefs once banned by the Communist Party are gaining ground. Guides to geomancy now fill bookshelves, fortunetellers are busily offering costly sessions in astrology and numerology, and tycoons consult feng shui masters for financial guidance.”
Example: While building the world’s largest high-speed rail network, railway minister Liu Zhijun reportedly consulted a feng shui master who chose auspicious dates for breaking ground on major construction projects. (Officials last month charged Liu with taking $157 million in bribes, maintaining a harem of 18 mistresses, and “belief in feudal superstitions.”)
Example: In 2009, county officials in Ganshu province spent $732,000 transporting a 369-ton boulder six miles to the county seat, a move feng shui masters said would ward off bad luck. (A 2007 report by the Chinese Academy of Governance reported that 52 percent of the nation’s county-level civil servants said they believed in divination, face reading, astrology, or dream interpretation.)
Example: Communist Party chieftain Cui Xinyuan installed a decommissioned fighter jet in the middle of a boulevard opposite the government headquarters so he could soar high. The jet blocked traffic and it didn’t seem to help Cui, who a few months later received a 13-year prison sentence for bribery and selling official titles.
When people don’t believe in God, they’ll believe in anything.
The Times also reported on a battle at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where “ultra-Orthodox Jews” are battling to keep liberal Jewish women from wearing prayer shawls (traditionally reserved to men) in front of the women’s section of the holy site. On Friday morning “hundreds of police officers locked arms in cordons to hold back throngs of black-hatted Orthodox men who whistled, catcalled, and threw water, candy and a few plastic chairs.”
It’s all part of a larger battle about the role of women in Israeli society: “Women have been barred from speaking at conferences, and an 8-year-old girl was spit on for dress that her ultra-Orthodox neighbors considered immodest. Vandals routinely black out women’s faces on advertising billboards.”
“Ultra-Orthodox” schools bused in thousands of girls to get to the Wall early and keep liberal women from getting close to it. Rabbi Israel Eichler, a member of Parliament, rejoiced: “There were thousands of seminary girls there today. Each one of them will have 10 children. That is our victory.”
Those the Times labels “ultra-Orthodox” are the theological heirs to the Pharisees and Talmud-compilers of 2,000-1,500 years ago. While “Pharisee” is a derogatory term in the New Testament, it is an honorable one within Orthodox Judaism, describing those demanding of themselves and others what they see as a high degree of non-compromising holiness.
When people don’t believe in Jesus, they’ll have faith in man-made standards of conduct.