The Pope on the role of Religion in secular society.

It’s fascinating to observe the pope’s visit to the United Kingdom from afar. Fascinating on several levels. 1) There’s the beatification of John Henry Newman with all of its implications for Anglican-Catholic relations. 2) There’s the ongoing fallout from the sexual abuse crisis. 3) The crises within Anglicanism over sexuality and gender. In the latter case, the ordination of women bishops complicates relations further. 4) There’s the pope himself.

On the latter point, the pope made remarks about the role of religion in English society. England, like other European countries, has struggled with the role of religion in a multicultural society.

Benedict XVI made his position quite clear early on in the visit:

“Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny”.

Many interpreted what he was saying to link Nazism and Atheism. In fact, he seemed to be arguing that excluding religion from public life results in an impoverished understanding of human nature and society. One might argue the merits of this, but it seems silly to discount those thinkers who have developed a deeply human and humane understanding of the human person and society without recourse to religious language.

In his remarks at Westminster Hall on Friday, Pope Benedict expanded on his remarks. To

The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.

Here he argues that the slave trade and twentieth century totalitarianism were products of the misuse of reason, which could have been avoided had reason taken into account religious understandings. Of course, to use his examples, religious thinkers applying reason, found what they thought were “objective moral principles” that supported both slavery and totalitarianism.

In the final paragraph at Westminster, he goes even further:

Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square. I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.

I read a little essay by Juergen Habermas on the place of religion in secular society just as the Pope’s visit to Great Britain began. Habermas, the great German philosopher, has engaged questions of the role of religion in secular society in the last few decades.

In a few paragraphs, Habermas outlines the problems. The liberal state, he argues, relies not on conformity to its principles, but on “a mode of legitimation founded on convictions.” It “requires the support of reasons which can be accepted in a pluralist society by religious citizens, by citizens of different religions, and by secular citizens alike.” For religion to thrive in such societies, “the content of religion must open itself up to the normatively grounded expectation that it should recognize for reasons of its own the neutrality of the state towards worldviews, the equal freedom of all religious communities, and the independence of the institutionalized sciences.”

One wonders what Habermas makes of the current controversies in the US over mosques and Quran burnings. It seems the Pope feels the Catholic Church (or Christianity) may soon be persecuted in Great Britain in similar fashion. I’m also always suspicious when someone starts talking about the “unique role” of religion or Christianity in European or American society.

“We’re all Congregationalists now.”

The Episcopal Cafe points to a Christianity Today interview with Stanley Hauerwas.

Hauerwas is among the most important Christian thinkers of our day. A professor of Ethics at Duke Divinity School, he has authored many books and has become famous for his earthy conversation style (he blames that on his father, who was a bricklayer in Texas).

Here is the quote in question:

I say, “We’re all congregationalists now.” I don’t particularly like it, but we are. How to ensure given that reality that Eucharistic assemblies are not separate from each other is one of the great challenges before us. The role of the bishop is very important to make sure that Eucharistic assemblies are not isolated from one another. There are also other ways to do it. Certainly sending people from one congregation to another helps. But how we recover Christian unity in the world in which we find ourselves is a deep challenge. By “unity,” I don’t mean just agreement about ecclesial organization; I mean the refusal of Christians to kill one other. I think that the division of the church that has let nationalism define Christian identity is one of the great judgments against the Reformation in particular.

When Corrie and I were teaching Religious Studies in the South, we did a lot of research on Religion in the South and most of our students came from that region of the country. We used to joke that in the South,  “everyone’s Baptist; even Catholics are Baptist.” By that we meant Baptist understandings of religious experience and conversion permeates religion in the South (it’s even beginning to influence non-Western Religions).

But there’s another side of that. I think Hauerwas is correct only if he has a very narrow notion of “we.” The Baptists contributed a great deal to the large push toward individualism in American religion. In fact, we aren’t all Congregationalists, now. Those few of us who belong to churches might be, but most of us (even in the South where weekly church attendance is below 50%) find connection with the divine outside of organized religion and do it by ourselves or with ad hoc groups.

The interview mentions Hauerwas’s tenure at Notre Dame and Duke and explores his denominational affiliations (he now is a communicant at the Episcopal parish where his wife serves as Assisting Minister). It doesn’t mention his deep engagement with John Howard Yoder, one of my teachers, nor with the Anabaptist tradition from which I come. If you want to know about this, check out the most recent issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review.

Hauerwas recently published a memoir Hannah’s Child, which is on my reading list.

Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate

I finally got around to reading Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. It was published in 2009 and consists of his Terry Lectures on Religion and Science, given at Yale University. In fact, it’s a direct attack on the arguments of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, whom he has renamed “Ditchkins.” Eagleton is quite humorous and uses his wit effectively.

What’s perhaps most effective about the work is that he agrees with many of Ditchkins’ arguments against religion, but nevertheless takes them to task for their “faith” in rationality. Aside from the humor, which occasionally had me bursting out in laughter, there is a serious argument here. Eagleton links Christian theology to Marxism and uses both to level criticism at capitalism, postmodernism, and neoconservatism. He concludes:

The distinction between Ditchkins and those like myself comes down in the end to one between liberal humanism and tragic humanism. There are those like Ditchkins who hold that if we can only shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition, we can be free. This in my own view is itself a myth, though a generous-spirited one. Tragic humanism shares liberal humanism’s vision of the free flourishig of humanity; but it holds that this is possible only by confronting the very worst. (pp. 168-169)

Eagleton, whose own religious convictions remain unclear throughout the work, has some powerful things to say about the New Testament idea of following Jesus:

The New Testament is a brutal destroyer of human illusions. If you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead, it apears you have some explaining to do. The stark signifier of the human condition is one who spoke up for love and justice and was done to death for his pains. The traumatic truth of human history is a mutilated body. Those who do not see this dreadful image of a tortured innocent as the truth of history are likely to adopt some bright-eyed superstition such as the dream of untrammeled human progress…  (pp. 27-28)

The chapter on “Faith and Reason” especially deserves close attention. He works with Charles Taylor, Badiou, other philosophers, as well as Thomas Aquinas, to show that rationality itself requires certain prior commitments.


Rebels and Traitors

I just finished reading Lindsey Davis’s Rebels and Traitors. It’s a historical novel set during the English Civil War of the 1640s and 1650s.

I’m a huge fan of her Marcus Didio Falco mystery series, set in the Roman Empire during Vespasian’s reign. They are wonderful reads, funny, engaging and full of historical detail.

Unfortunately, Rebels and Traitors misses on the first two of those. It is full of historical detail, overly full, reading much of the time as academic history, though without the footnotes. Sometimes it seems as though she felt compelled to provide much more detail than was necessary to propel the plot forward. Or perhaps it was that the civil war and the protectorate was the story she wanted to tell, and could think of doing it in no other way than through historical fiction.

Only rarely does the comedic genius she shows in the Falco novels come to light and the characters are almost all wooden, their dialogue stilted.

Still, there are some interesting bits. She attempts to provide as broad a view of the historical canvas as possible, telling the story through the eyes of participants who fought on both sides, and including characters who were Levellers and Ranters as well as the more likely Cavaliers.

Here’s an example, though, where history may be more interesting than fiction.

Mennonite in a long black robe (i.e. a cassock)

I read Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress recently. It’s not exactly deep but it does have some amusing moments. Several clarifications are in order, however. First, she glosses over the significant distinctions among Mennonites. Her family is descended from Dutch and North German Mennonites who were invited into Russia in the eighteenth century and created thriving communities there that survived until Stalin. Many had already emigrated to North America in the late nineteenth century, especially to Kansas and the Prairie Provinces of Canada. But many more, including Janzen’s grandparents, fled in the 1920s or even later. Up until the late nineteenth century, they had considerable freedom to organize their lives and communities independent of Russian interference and they developed social, political, and economic institutions and become quite wealthy compared to their Russian neighbors.

Most of what she describes of her Mennonite upbringing and relatives relates to that history: the food (zwieback and borscht), the language (low German), and the cultural experience of living in Russia for over a century.

I grew up in a rather different Mennonite tradition–the Swiss and South German Mennonites who emigrated from those places (and in my case from Alsace as well) to the eastern US in the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century. My ancestors had very limited freedoms in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and had developed a strategy of separation and quietism. Most were farmers in Europe and remained farmers in North America.

Over the years, as I got to know Mennonites from the Russian tradition, I realized how very different our experiences and our cultures were, even though we shared so much. We looked at the world differently; they were much more open to intellectual and artistic pursuits, less suspicious of the wider culture. There was also a tendency to accept influence from the wider Christian tradition. The Mennonite Brethren, to which Janzen’s parents belonged have been strongly influenced by the North American Evangelical Protestant tradition. The other main branch, what once was called “General Conference” Mennonites and merged with the Mennonite Church in the 1990s, was more open to liberal Protestantism. I suspect that it is difficult now, in the twenty-first century, to detect such theological differences. From what little I know, most contemporary Mennonites look little different from most Evangelicals, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.

Perhaps what I liked least in Janzen’s book was the flip, post-modern, ironic tone of so much of the work. I finally extricated myself from the Mennonite Church in my early 30s, but it took great effort, considerable anguish, and some guilt. There are times still when I mourn what I was and could not continue to be; at the same time I have flourished in the years since as I never could have, and most importantly, I have experienced and continue to experience God’s grace and love in my life and in the Episcopal Church today in ways I never could as a Mennonite. And that’s what matters most.

What I really want to read is her memoir of teaching at Hope College, but I suppose that won’t come until she’s safely tenured.

Take this Bread

Last week, I read Sara MilesTake this Bread. It is a memoir of her life leading up to her encounter with Christ in the Eucharist at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, her conversion and efforts to create a food pantry at that church. It’s a remarkable story, well-written and full of passion. I’m especially interested in how she created the food pantry and made it a place that did more than distribute food. In fact, the distribution of food takes place around the church’s altar and over time, she created eucharistic community among the volunteers (many of whom began as pantry guests) and among the larger group of guests as well.

Her work and life is not without controversy, however. She came to the church via open communion–the practice of extending the hospitality of the Eucharist to anyone, not just the baptized, and St. Gregory of Nyssa does not clearly distinguish lay and clerical roles in the Eucharist. Many Christians are uncomfortable with the former, and many ordained clergy are outraged by the latter practice.

I’m intrigued by much of what she writes about the hospitality we offer as churches and as Christians, and about the role food places in nurturing community and the sense of the sacred.

Wolf Hall update

Finished it and have been reflecting on it ever since. I’m still not sure about the title, but of course the Seymours would loom large over the next stage of Cromwell’s life. I also liked the constant presence of Mark Smeaton, foreshadowing events to come as well. The final scenes of the novel were quite powerful. In the end, I found the depictions of both More and Cromwell utterly believable.

As I thought about the novel, I also thought more about my perspective on the 1530s, that first phase of the English Reformation. I suppose it’s safe to say my scholarly judgement was largely shaped by my own Protestant upbringing. In addition, my undergraduate senior thesis focused on the early English reformers’ attacks on the wealth of the church. In researching that project I read almost everything written in the 1520s and 1530s against the Catholic establishment and I gained a deep appreciation for the theological and ethical commitments of the early reformers like Tyndale, Frith, and Latimer. They had a vision of a church and state that were very different from the institutions that existed, and the ones that emerged in the course of the English Reformation.

Cromwell used those reformers to support his efforts to dissolve the monasteries. Of that there is no doubt. That the reformers’ ideals were not realized is also true. But somehow over the last 150 years or so, the Protestant side has tended to get the blame for what happened.

But between More and Cromwell, I suppose I would still choose Cromwell. For all of Cromwell’s faults, I find More’s choices, and his theological positions, deeply troubling.

It’s interesting finishing that book over the holidays when the attempted bombing of a Northwest flight is in the news and there is again talk about the use of torture in the media. Andrew Sullivan’s blog, as always, keeps a close watch on all of the outrageous statements by politicans and pundits. More’s problem, from my perspective, was his absolute sense of certainty. That’s always a danger, because if you know you are right, than any means you use will be justified.

Wolf Hall

I’ve been reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall over the holidays. It’s a marvelous book. There was a time when I could have rattled details of the English Reformation off the top of my head; I still could do it, I suppose. Cromwell is rarely depicted by historians as a sympathetic figure. Certainly not in recent years as revisionism has set in. Mantel makes him a human being–ruthless, power-hungry, acquisitive, to be sure, but with deep affection for his family, for Wolsey, and for those young men who have been given over to his care.

She also fleshes out Thomas More. At least since A Man for All Seasons if not for centuries earlier, More has been depicted as a gentle man of letters and deep religious faith. He was both of those things but he was also a ruthless hunter of religious dissidents and a tireless, and humorless polemicist against William Tyndale. For those who know him only as the author of Utopia and someone who died for his faith, a few hours spent reading his attacks on Tyndale will shed very different light on him.

I’m not quite done with the book which ends with More’s execution. It’s not clear why one would choose this particular period of Cromwell’s life on which to focus–from the fall of Wolsey to the execution of More. In some respects, the years immediately following More’s execution are even more interesting, with the execution of Anne Boleyn, the dissolution of the monasteries, and ultimately Cromwell’s fall.

For another interesting take on Cromwell, I would recommend the mystery novels of C. J. Sansom which are vivid portrayals of the religious and political turmoil in the 1530s and 1540s.

By the way, either is a much better portrayal of the period than the recent TV series The Tudors.