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Friday, September 12, 2008

Sense of Humor

I had a small inkling that Judson Memorial Church was atypical and involved in community works. But I had no idea of the extent of this involvement nor the radical nature of the social programs it has supported. In fact, I am puzzles as to how some of the causes they have supported are even congruent with the tenets of the Protestant Church. Christian churches do have a history of outreach and social programs but Judson really takes it much further in unexpected directions.
Founded in 1890 by Baptist preacher Edward Judson, the church was established form the beginning to serve the growing immigrant community in lower Manhattan (the Church is located on Washington Square South immersed in the NYU "campus").
They ran a free medical/dental clinic and a settlement house, at 179 Sullivan Street. At times they allowed homeless men to sleep on their pews. Beginning in the mid-1960s, Moody and associate minister and composer Al Carmines (1962-81) brought Judson first a city-wide and then a national reputation, opening the church to experimental, avant-garde artists from many genres: dance, painting, theatre. They have organized politically around issues of civil rights, free expression, abortion rights, and the decriminalization of prostitution (in the 1970s they established a Professional Women's Clinic for women engaged in prostitution). Judson Church trains future clergy in public ministry and has taken a leading role in the New Sanctuary Movement for immigrant rights. They are "gay-friendly."
Regarding the quote currently displayed outside the church. Voltaire was a major figure in the French Enlightenment and his works are a huge subject matter - he was a prolific writer, having penned over 20,000 letters and over 2,000 books and pamphlets. He took many controversial positions and was exiled from France a number of times. Voltaire distrusted democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses.
Voltaire is often mistaken as an atheist - some attribute this view to a quote from one of his poems that translates: "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him." Actually Voltaire was a leading Deist - his criticisms were more of organized religions than of religion itself.
I'm not being evasive but space on this blog does not allow for a proper distillation of the various thoughts about Voltaire's quote "God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh." Suffice it to say that many feel it has been misinterpreted and taken too literally. Any theologians or philosophers who want to posit an interpretation of God's sense of humor?


• Eliane • said...

Brian, I cannot begin to tell you how much I enjoyed reading this post. So many reasons.
First of all, what they are doing there is in my opinion, exactly what a church should be doing - serve the least fortunate, all of them, no discrimination.
Second, I have vague memories of Voltaire which we had to read in high school and whose quotes were often the subject of the weekly dissertation in French class. In a few minutes I will be digging for my volume of the Contes philosophiques and it will be all your fault. ;) Maybe I will gift wrap it and send it to Alaska - I know someone who whould greatly benefit from broader horizons.
And third, I like the fact that you took this picture at night. I was actually shocked at your title because all I saw at first was the name of the church and the 3 columns at the very bottom. The Voltaire quote is even more powerful then. Very ironic.

Anonymous said...

I would agree that many take the quote too literally. While it makes sense, and can be quite exhortative, when read in a literal manner, it gives too much weight to Voltaire's own beliefs about God. For where many people feel the need, or have grown accustomed to, thinking about God as having human qualities, this is far from the basic tenets of deist belief.

When I consider this quote, and place it in the context of the parish you describe, I am simply amazed. These folks appear to have moved beyond religion and entered a far more sacred realm of reality. Were I in New York, I'd visit this place in a New York Minute (sorry) and linger long past my welcome.

Voltaire despised the optimistic philosophy of Leibniz, and he went so far as to satirize the German mercilessly in Candide. So I don't think we can read this to mean that our laughter should be based on a false hope.

Perhaps he's simply saying that God, as the church of his day viewed the Supreme, is nothing more than a charlatan of empty chuckles, a diversionary individual with no real purpose or meaning, and that the people who follow him, attend his shows, buy his books, attribute quotes to him, and do without question the things he demands, take him far too seriously to see the point.

That's off the cuff, and not too shabby for a Saturday morning.

Fascinating post, Brian. I will be subscribing . . . and thanks to Michael for pointing me your direction . . .

Anonymous said...

I can understand Voltaire from
"siècle des Lumières"could have written that quote: he was an aatheist.
What I don't understand: why to write it on THAT memorial?

Bluestreak said...

hmmmm...great food for thought. I´m having trouble reconciling that quote with Voltaire´s distrust of democracy. He seems to be critical of organized religion/God having people in shackles too tight to experience life as it´s meant to be experienced (which I understand in this sense as humor)...what about the shackles of autocracy (or whatever Voltaire proposed)? Looks like I need to go the library and read up on how this Enlightenment thinker could be critical of the Church while simultaneously opposing Democracy. I just don´t get it.

Steve Rosenbach said...

Great blog Brian! I do miss NYC even after almost 30 years :-)

What really bothers me about this display is the "In Memoriam" part at the bottom.

Somehow, I don't think Judsen had such a thing all those years Saddam was in power, killing and torturing Iraqis at a rate much greater than has occurred over the past five years.

Nor did they have a daily running count of atrocities in Bosnia or Kosovo in the 90's.

Judson is very selective in what they pay attention to.

Anonymous said...

A condition in which numerous distinct ethnic, religious, or cultural groups are present and tolerated within a society. This is the American Heritage Dictionary definition for the word Pluralism. This church is not a cornerstone, but a composite stone. For example, helping the homeless is a Christ honoring posture. The decriminalization of prostitution is not. I cannot subscribe. Yes, the church should love, but now, she must be pure in her love.