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The Dishcast with Andrew Sullivan
Ross Douthat On Chronic Pain And Faith

Ross Douthat On Chronic Pain And Faith

The NYT columnist has written a beautiful new memoir.

Ross is a dear old colleague whose newest book, The Deep Places, is a memoir about his long fight against Lyme disease. In this episode we talk about the world of sickness, which we both know something about, and we debate our differing views of Pope Francis and our different levels of panic over Trump and CRT.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app” — which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. To listen to two excerpts from my conversation with Ross — on how chronic pain affects one’s religious faith, and on whether the Vatican should deny Communion to certain groups, such as the rich or the remarried — head over to our YouTube page.

A religious reader writes:

I listened to the first part of your interview with Johann Hari (whose book Lost Connections is in my library), and I have a small dissent. You said something (at 1:11:00) that I interpreted as a belief that Jesus was not literally resurrected, on the grounds that the resurrection is an accretion: “the Gospels themselves are oral histories written one hundred years later.” This sounds an awful lot like form criticism and is wrong. The Gospel of Mark was written 30-40 years after the crucifixion and the Gospel of John was written about AD 90. I recommend a book called Jesus and The Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham, who explains why this is probably so. It isn’t apologetics; it’s a serious academic study.

However, what is even more important is that we know that one of the earliest pieces of oral history, written within months of the resurrection (I can’t explain how the experts know this, but apparently even Bart Ehrman agrees), appears in Corinthians 15:13, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance [a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scripture” … which apparently scholars date to within a few months of the resurrection. A more detailed explanation is here: 

The Gospels may be full of accretions, but the resurrection isn’t one of them. It is one of the first things. 

I think you misinterpreted me. It’s quite clear that the resurrection was believed by the earliest sources. My point is that what the resurrection actually has multiple versions in the New Testament, and what it means specifically — did he retain his body? could he walk through walls? could he disguise himself as someone else? —remains a little obscure.

Another reader zooms out:

After falling behind on your podcasts, I was able to catch up. While my comments are not timely, I feel the need to share them.

Michael Wolff: He had a better understanding of Trump than anyone at the NYT, WaPo, etc. He really exposed the weakness of the coverage of Trump by mainstream media.

Michael Moynihan: Very sharp and interesting. Gives you hope that there are sane journalists out there not afraid to expose the deficiencies of the CRT/Woke ideology. It made me wonder if young “woke” poorly paid journalists understand that they will soon be replaced by younger poorly paid journalists — who will criticize them.

Michael Schuman: Pivoting to China (away from CRT) shows the breadth of the Dish. China is obviously a present and future problem for our country, and a problem that people (and politicians) know little about. Schuman’s suggestion that we expand our trade partners beyond China (TPP comes to mind) would be a wise course of action. We will never compete with China with American workers.

Michael Lewis: As interesting as his books. Listening to him discuss the death of his daughter; and thinking about the difficult situation he faces grieving for her and supporting his family who is also grieving, I thought of those who speak of white privilege and how they should look at Michael’s tragic story as an example of how the world can, at times, cause everyone pain, no matter how white or wealthy.

Wesley Yang: No one can say Andrew Sullivan talks over his guest anymore.

Peter Beinart: I’m stunned at Beinart’s support for the direction of the media today and enjoyed hearing him challenged on the basis for that support. Did he really say there are examples of great writing from Nikole Hannah Jones? Where? 

Here’s a followup to the Schuman pod from another reader:

I grew up with a foot in each world with a mixed background: father’s side is Irish/Polish from Boston, mother’s side is ethnically Chinese and has been educated in the US since the late 19th century but has called Hong Kong home since the 1970s. All four past generations have essentially split my life between the East and the West.

Here is my dissent to the interview: When I hear Westerners talk about East Asia, there is a false parallel that most fail to understand. One must beware of the temptation to equate Christianity’s influence in the West to Confucianism in the East. In the West, we tend to define much of our history in terms of tension based on religion (think: Rome pagan vs. Christian, Crusades, Reformation, persecution of the Jews). 

Religion in East Asia, in contrast, has never had the same thematic influence. This could partly be traced to the ideology of Daoism, which implies significantly less individual agency and more flexibility. The Chinese are a pragmatic people, who believe in working with the tools they are handed, and are relatively private outside of the family unit. 

What I think many Westerners fail to understand is that the basic concept of morality and virtue is fundamentally different in countries that don’t have a Judeo-Christian concept of equality/sanctity of life. In many ways, Chinese culture is fundamentally more capitalist than American culture — money and morality are intrinsically linked (Lunar New Year traditions w/r/t prosperity, morality of luck/gambling, etc., no guilt associated with amassing capital). Until one understands this difference in values and ethics, it’s very difficult for a Westerner to understand Chinese culture today.  

For example, I think you might be interested in investigating gender relations in China further. While femininity looks constricted to a Western eye, I have also observed women have more professional success in leadership roles in Greater China than in New York City (role of the woman in family, childcare, structure of families, power balances linked to source of familial wealth rather than gender). Also interesting is Shanghai’s tradition as a matriarchal society (the Soong sisters have a fascinating history).

My point here is that understanding China today requires a similar approach to learning a new language: one needs to adopt a completely different mentality to understand the rules of play.

One more reader keeps the debate going on Afghanistan:

I’m disappointed that you’ve succumbed to the mob attacking Joe Biden’s decisions to get us out Afghanistan quickly.

The unpleasant truth is that there was never any chance for a “happily ever after” scenario in Afghanistan. President Bush squandered that chance when he ordered most of our troops out of Afghanistan to search for WMDs in Iraq, and Trump cemented it 20 years later when he signed the peace deal with the Taliban handing over Afghanistan to the Taliban and returning thousands of their solders in exchange for their agreement not to target American soldiers. By the time Biden made his decision, there were no good options for an orderly evacuation, especially with the Taliban steadily advancing on Kabul.

Biden’s menu for extraction consisted of only two realistic choices. Both required a leap of faith. The one he chose required the Afghan army to be able to hold out for at least three months in order for the US civilian and military bureaucracy to work around the extremely hostile refugee requirements imposed by the Trump administration. A much larger leap required the Afghan army to hold out long enough to negotiate a comprehensive settlement. Given that the Afghan army was three times the size of Taliban’s and better armed, it was reasonable for Biden to believe they could hold out for a couple of months. After all, we spent billions of dollars training them and decades touting their skill and courage. 

Unfortunately, the Afghan army was even more corrupt and cynical than imagined. Its sudden collapse and the flight of their president forcefully demonstrated that Afghanistan was a house of cards, resting on a phony army and corrupt government, ready to collapse at the first hint we were leaving.  The notion that we could have left secretly is the same type of magical thinking that pervaded our missions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The only other option was to redeploy several thousand American troops, but this violated the terms of Trump’s agreement and triggered a new set of risks.

At least for now the Taliban are honoring their end of the bargain. They have not attacked US soldiers and planes. The tragic attack that killed 13 American soldiers was engineered by a branch of Al Qaeda, an enemy of the Taliban. The Taliban have also allowed any Americans wishing to leave to do so, and it is likely all US citizens wishing to leave will be able to return home. The Taliban have also allowed almost 100,000 Afghans to leave, many of whom fought against them in various ways. If American soldiers had reentered the fight, this cooperation would have vanished. If even one plane were shot down, imagine the loss of life and the desire for revenge, leading to more death.

Certainly, Afghan women again are not being treated well. The Taliban government is a religious theocracy allowing little dissent, and there continue to be acts of extreme brutality. But are Taliban’s actions any worse than those of our close ally, Saudi Arabia? Worse than some of our own unholy acts in pursuit of the War on Terror?

What is particularly tragic is that Biden is taking the hit for our collective failure and guilt, the one president who had the courage to end a failed and costly war.

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