Thursday, November 1, 2012

Another Christian Case for Non-Voting

Over at "The Other Journal" Eric Paul yesterday published a thought-provoking essay called "Not-Voting as a Form of Christian Political Witness".  I don't know much about him or about his theological background, but the essay is very good.  In it, he articulates some ideas I expressed in my post about not voting, but he does so better and more thoroughly than I did.  He also articulates an understanding of voting as idolatry about which I only hinted.  I encourage you to read the whole essay (it isn't long).  But, if nothing else, at least read this paragraph:

"But as a Christian, as one who constantly tries (and often fails) to live into the pattern of the cross set before us through Jesus of Nazareth, I can’t help but question the ways our emphasis on voting shapes us into the practice of nation-state ethics.  I can’t help but wonder if voting parallels the ancient practice of burning incense to Caesar.  It becomes a tangible way in which we allow the nation to guide our stories rather than the cross of Christ.  We vote one way and we declare that we most align with the ideology of one party over others.  We allow that party’s narrative to drive our relationships with others.  But on a deeper level, we give ourselves over to the base ideology of American bodily existence.  In a way, voting acts as a social mechanism to pacify the masses.  Voting gives the appearance of a democratic process.  It gives us an illusion of freedom, an illusion of choice, all the while entrenching our communities into idolatrous notions of peace and prosperity.  I think it’s possible to conceive of voting as an act that actually does the opposite of what it proposes, in that it actually strips us of being politically engaged in any meaningful way as a body of Christ."

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

An 'Easy Essay' from Peter Maurin

I recently finished reading Dorothy Day's Loaves and Fishes, an account of the history of the Catholic Worker movement.  As many know, Peter Maurin, a French Catholic social activist, played a huge role in the formation of the Catholic Worker and in shaping the political theology and ecclesiology of Dorothy Day.  Day recounts in the book that Peter Maurin used to express his main arguments in the form of "Easy Essays", a number of which she quotes.  One of them particularly struck me as it gets to the heart of what I think the Christian understanding of the 'economy' should be.  And it particularly resonates, I think, during this election season.

Photo from
"The world would be better off
if people tried to become better,
and people would become better
if they stopped trying to become better off.
For when everyone tries to become
better off
nobody is better off.
But when everyone tries to become better
everyone is better off.
Everyone would be rich

if nobody tried to become richer,
and nobody would be poor
if everybody tried to be the poorest.
And everybody would be what he ought to be
if everyone tried to be
what he wants the other fellow to be."

Friday, October 19, 2012

Thomas Merton on Vatican II

50 years ago last week (October 11) the Second Vatican Council began.  Throughout the Catholic world, various events are planned over the next three years to commemorate the event of the Council and to study the Council documents.

I continue to re-read Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, and was struck just now about his own comments about the hardening of division that came about as a result of Vatican II.  He wasn't denigrating Vatican II.  In fact, if one reads his journals and other writings, his devotion to Pope John XXIII comes through clearly as does his perception that the Council was something to be celebrated even despite the division that occurred during and after it.

The division between progressives and conservatives in the Catholic church is an ugly one, particularly in the United States.  Merton foresaw this division, and wrote about he understood his position vis-a-vis the progressives and the conservatives.  As I read these words just now, I felt a sense of solidarity with Merton once again, for they express so clearly the way I so often feel.  More importantly, these words express something that deserves to be heard by those who identify themselves as either progressive or conservative.
[O]ne of the great problems after this Council is certainly going to be the division between progressives and conservatives, and this may prove to be rather ugly in some cases, though it may also be a fruitful source of sacrifice for those who are determined to seek the will of God and not their own.  I do not speak here of bishops, but of ordinary priests, theologians, lay people, and all who voice their opinions one way or another.
For my own part I consider myself neither conservative nor an extreme progressive.  I would like to think I am what Pope John was - a progressive with a deep respect and love for tradition - in other words a progressive who wants to preserve a very clear and marked continuity with the past and not make silly and idealistic compromises with the present - yet to be completely open to the modern world while retaining the clearly defined, traditionally Catholic position (p. 315-6, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander).
Two things are of note here.  First is Merton's reference to a 'fruitful source of sacrifice' in the midst of the debate between conservatives and progressives.  I think he is here referring to an idea he expresses elsewhere that disagreement with the other needs to be entered into a) with the ability to affirm all that we can of the other and b) with a true desire for dialogue that leads to truth rather than for a desire simply to prove the other wrong.  Second is Merton's unwillingness to classify himself on one side or the other.  In so doing, it appears to me that Merton actually gets pretty close to the heart of the spirit of Vatican II as exemplified by the event and the documents.  This was neither a progressive nor a conservative Council, but was one that expressed a radical continuity with the past (and particularly the early Christian communities) while at the same time recognizing (as Christians in the patristic period did) that the 'world' could not be summarily dismissed as 'evil' or 'irrelevant'.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Why I am Not Going to Vote: A Theological Perspective

I am entitled to vote in the upcoming U.S. election.  I have voted in previous elections, including the last presidential election in 2008.  But I will not be voting in this election, nor do I foresee myself doing so in any future elections.

When I mention this people, I usually receive a very perplexed look followed by a statement that we as Christians have a duty to make our voices heard through the democratic process, and not to make our voices heard is to relinquish the influence we have to transform society for the good.  Both 'conservative' and 'liberal' friends (I detest labels, hence the scare-quotes) have said something similar to this to me in recent days.

I understand this argument, and am, in some ways, sympathetic to it.  But I simply cannot bring myself to accept it.

My own position is this: For theological reasons, I do not believe that I can, in good conscience, participate in the political system by voting.  And in this blog post, I hope to explain why I have arrived at this position.

(Before I delve into the theology behind my argument, I want to make a few provisos.  First, my specialty is not political theology.  My reading in political theology is relatively limited, and I do not claim in any way to be an 'expert' in the field.  The positions I express are those to which I have arrived primarily on my own, and as such, it is very likely that they will betray a level of theological and political immaturity.  There are undoubtedly ideas I have not considered and arguments with which I am not acquainted.  I am open to becoming acquainted with such ideas and arguments, should you wish to share them with me, just as I hope you are open to my arguments.  Christian political theology is, to my mind, an incredibly complicated and messy enterprise, and as such, I will not pretend that my arguments are definitive or fool-proof.  Second, I speak only for myself here.  My position does not reflect the position of the school at which I teach, nor is it characteristic of the Catholic church's position (though I do think that the Roman Catholic church, as well as many other Christian traditions, are certainly open to the kind of ideas I express here).)

My reasoning about voting has two facets.  One deals with the problem of voting for the office of President in particular.  The other deals with the problem of voting in general.

When it comes to voting for President of the United States, my reason for not voting is relatively straightforward.  I am a pacifist, and have been for some time.  I won't go into how I became a pacifist, but it suffices to say that the New Testament (and particularly the example of Jesus) appears to give no sanction for Christian participation in violence of any kind and the overwhelming witness of the Christian communities that existed prior to Constantine in the fourth century is that they took this prohibition against violence, including state-sanctioned violence, seriously.

The President has many roles, but a primary role of the President is the role of commander-in-chief of the armed forces.  To vote for President is therefore to vote, in essence, for a military general.  As a pacifist, I simply cannot figure out any way in which I can conscientiously participate in the process of choosing a military leader.  This point has been underlined for me in recent months as I've read about President Obama's 'kill-list' and his use of drone strikes.  While a President brings to the office a list of domestic priorities with which I may or may not agree, a substantial portion of the job revolves around the President's role as commander-in-chief.  No matter how much I like a candidate's platform, in the end I cannot turn a blind eye to the reality the President will necessarily participate in violence by virtue of the office.  And I simply do not see a way that I can justify being a co-participant by giving my approval to this facet of the office through voting.

As for voting in general, my thoughts are not nearly as clear to myself.  I am deeply influenced by the assessment of John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite theologian, regarding Jesus' understanding of the dangers of political power and the continued temptation faced by Christians to endeavour to transform society from the 'top-down', a process that necessarily involves Christians having to morph Jesus' example and teachings.  Yoder labelled the Christian temptation for political power as 'Constantinianism' (for obvious reasons), and argued that even after the separation of church and state, the church continues to fall prey to Constantinian tendencies.  What this can mean practically is that Christians devote an inordinate amount of time to the political arena, understood by them to revolve around the halls of legislature, and don't devote nearly enough effort to enacting and participating in communities of love that themselves provide a witness to the kind of society of love toward which we are called by Jesus.  The focus gets placed, therefore, on transforming through power rather than through love, which was precisely the means rejected by Jesus and by the early Christians.

In my view, to vote is to succumb, however mildly, to the temptation to power, the temptation to Constantinianism.  It is to participate in the halls of power where, if we follow the example of Christ, no Christian has any business being.  I've listened to many Christians on both sides of the political spectrum talking about making their voice heard through voting, as if voting was the only political mechanism open to them to make their voice heard.  To be 'political' isn't to be relegated merely to voting.  To be 'political' in a truly Christ-like manner is to manifest to the society around us that things don't have to be the way they are, and we do this actually by being communities of radical love in imitation of the God who exists in an eternal community of selfless love.  I'm not advocating quietism or sectarianism.  Rather, I'm suggesting that the church needs to rethink the way it does politics.

The way I propose of being political is not pragmatic.  But then, Jesus himself was no pragmatist.

I don't know whether I've explained my viewpoint clearly or well.  As I mentioned earlier, this is stuff I am currently working my way through.  I am totally open to critique, challenge, affirmation, denunciation, and particularly, dialogue.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Rowan Williams & the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops

I'm somewhat surprised that more press hasn't been given to the fact that Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, gave an address to the Synod of Bishops currently being held at the Vatican.  Rowan gave the address at the invitation of Pope Benedict XVI, who has developed a close relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Rowan Williams will, sadly, leave the post at the end of the year.  His leadership has been subject to intense criticism, much of it, to my mind, largely unwarranted.  He is a theologian of almost unparalleled acumen, and the worldwide community of Christians is the better for his work.  The depth of his thought and vision was on full display in his address to the synod.  A copy of his address can be found below (it can also be found here).  My hope is that I'll be able to comment at greater length on this remarkable text in the coming days.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Address to the Thirteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith
Your Holiness, Reverend Fathers,
brothers and sisters in Christ – dear Friends
  1. I am deeply honoured by the Holy Father’s invitation to speak in this gathering:  as the Psalmist says, ‘Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum’.  The gathering of bishops in Synod for the good of all Christ’s people is one of those disciplines that sustain the health of Christ’s Church.  And today especially we cannot forget that great gathering of ‘fratres in unum’ that was the Second Vatican Council, which did so much for the health of the Church and helped the Church to recover so much of the energy needed to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ effectively in our age.  For so many of my own generation, even beyond the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church, that Council was a sign of great promise, a sign that the Church was strong enough to ask itself some demanding questions about whether its culture and structures were adequate to the task of sharing the Gospel with the complex, often rebellious, always restless mind of the modern world.
  2. The Council was, in so many ways, a rediscovery of evangelistic concern and passion, focused not only on the renewal of the Church’s own life but on its credibility in the world.  Texts such as Lumen gentium and Gaudium et speslaid out a fresh and joyful vision of how the unchanging reality of Christ living in his Body on earth through the gift of the Holy Spirit might speak in new words to the society of our age and even to those of other faiths.  It is not surprising that we are still, fifty years later, struggling with many of the same questions and with the implications of the Council; and I take it that this Synod’s concern with the new evangelization is part of that continuing exploration of the Council’s legacy.
  3. But one of the most important aspects of the theology of the second Vaticanum was a renewal of Christian anthropology.  In place of an often strained and artificial neo-scholastic account of how grace and nature were related in the constitution of human beings, the Council built on the greatest insights of a theology that had returned to earlier and richer sources – the theology of spiritual geniuses like Henri de Lubac, who reminded us of what it meant for early and mediaeval Christianity to speak of humanity as made in God’s image and of grace as perfecting and transfiguring that image so long overlaid by our habitual ‘inhumanity’.  In such a light, to proclaim the Gospel is to proclaim that it is at last possible to be properly human:  the Catholic and Christian faith is a ‘true humanism’, to borrow a phrase from another genius of the last century, Jacques Maritain.
  4. Yet de Lubac is clear what this does not mean.  We do not replace the evangelistic task by a campaign of ‘humanization’.  ‘Humanize before Christianizing?’ he asks – ‘If the enterprise succeeds, Christianity will come too late: its place will be taken.  And who thinks that Christianity has no humanizing value?’  So de Lubac writes in his wonderful collection of aphorisms, Paradoxes of Faith.  It is the faith itself that shapes the work of humanizing and the humanizing enterprise will be empty without the definition of humanity given in the Second Adam.  Evangelization, old or new, must be rooted in a profound confidence that we have a distinctive human destiny to show and share with the world.  There are many ways of spelling this out, but in these brief remarks I want to concentrate on one aspect in particular.
  5. To be fully human is to be recreated in the image of Christ’s humanity;  and that humanity is the perfect human ‘translation’ of the relationship of the eternal Son to the eternal Father, a relationship of loving and adoring self-giving, a pouring out of life towards the Other.  Thus the humanity we are growing into in the Spirit, the humanity that we seek to share with the world as the fruit of Christ’s redeeming work, is a contemplative humanity.  St Edith Stein observed that we begin to understand theology when we see God as the ‘First Theologian’, the first to speak out the reality of divine life, because ‘all speaking about God presupposes God’s own speaking’; in an analogous way we could say that we begin to understand contemplation when we see God as the first contemplative, the eternal paradigm of that selfless attention to the Other that brings not death but life to the self.  All contemplating of God presupposes God’s own absorbed and joyful knowing of himself and gazing upon himself in the trinitarian life.
  6. To be contemplative as Christ is contemplative is to be open to all the fullness that the Father wishes to pour into our hearts.  With our minds made still and ready to receive, with our self-generated fantasies about God and ourselves reduced to silence, we are at last at the point where we may begin to grow.  And the face we need to show to our world is the face of a humanity in endless growth towards love, a humanity so delighted and engaged by the glory of what we look towards that we are prepared to embark on a journey without end to find our way more deeply into it, into the heart of the trinitarian life.  St Paul speaks (in II Cor 3.18) of how ‘with our unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord’, we are transfigured with a greater and greater radiance.  That is the face we seek to show to our fellow-human beings.
  7. And we seek this not because we are in search of some private ‘religious experience’ that will make us feel secure or holy.  We seek it because in this self-forgetting gazing towards the light of God in Christ we learn how to look at one another and at the whole of God’s creation.  In the early Church, there was a clear understanding that we needed to advance from the self-understanding or self-contemplation that taught us to discipline our greedy instincts and cravings to the ‘natural contemplation’ that perceived and venerated the wisdom of God in the order of the world and allowed us to see created reality for what it truly was in the sight of God – rather than what it was in terms of how we might use it or dominate it.  And from there grace would lead us forward into true ‘theology’, the silent gazing upon God that is the goal of all our discipleship.
  8. In this perspective, contemplation is very far from being just one kind of thing that Christians do: it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom – freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them.  To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit.  To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly.  It is a deeply revolutionary matter. 
  9. In his autobiography Thomas Merton describes an experience not long after he had entered the monastery where he was to spend the rest of his life (Elected Silence, p.303).  He had contracted flu, and was confined to the infirmary for a few days, and, he says, he felt a ‘secret joy’ at the opportunity this gave him for prayer – and ‘to do everything that I want to do, without having to run all over the place answering bells.’  He is forced to recognise that this attitude reveals that ‘All my bad habits…had sneaked into the monastery with me and had received the religious vesture along with me: spiritual gluttony, spiritual sensuality, spiritual pride.’  In other words, he is trying to live the Christian life with the emotional equipment of someone still deeply wedded to the search for individual satisfaction.  It is a powerful warning: we have to be every careful in our evangelisation not simply to persuade people to apply to God and the life of the spirit all the longings for drama, excitement and self-congratulation that we so often indulge in our daily lives.  It was expressed even more forcefully some decades ago by the American scholar of religion, Jacob Needleman, in a controversial and challenging book called Lost Christianity: the words of the Gospel, he says, are addressed to human beings who ‘do not yet exist’.  That is to say, responding in a life-giving way to what the Gospel requires of us means a transforming of our whole self, our feelings and thoughts and imaginings.  To be converted to the faith does not mean simply acquiring a new set of beliefs, but becoming a new person, a person in communion with God and others through Jesus Christ.
  10. Contemplation is an intrinsic element in this transforming process.  To learn to look to God without regard to my own instant satisfaction, to learn to scrutinise and to relativise the cravings and fantasies that arise in me – this is to allow God to be God, and thus to allow the prayer of Christ, God’s own relation to God, to come alive in me.  Invoking the Holy Spirit is a matter of asking the third person of the Trinity to enter my spirit and bring the clarity I need to see where I am in slavery to cravings and fantasies and to give me patience and stillness as God’s light and love penetrate my inner life.  Only as this begins to happen will I be delivered from treating the gifts of God as yet another set of things I may acquire to make me happy, or to dominate other people.  And as this process unfolds, I become more free—to borrow a phrase of St Augustine (Confessions IV.7)—to ‘love human beings in a human way’, to love them not for what they may promise me, to love them not as if they were there to provide me with lasting safety and comfort, but as fragile fellow-creatures held in the love of God.  I discover (as we noted earlier) how to see other persons and things for what they are in relation to God, not to me.  And it is here that true justice as well as true love has its roots.
  11. The human face that Christians want to show to the world is a face marked by such justice and love, and thus a face formed by contemplation, by the disciplines of silence and the detaching of the self from the objects that enslave it and the unexamined instincts that can deceive it. If evangelisation is a matter of showing the world the ‘unveiled’ human face that reflects the face of the Son turned towards the Father, it must carry with it a serious commitment to promoting and nurturing such prayer and practice.  It should not need saying that this is not at all to argue that ‘internal’ transformation is more important than action for justice; rather, it is to insist that the clarity and energy we need for doing justice requires us to make space for the truth, for God’s reality to come through.  Otherwise our search for justice or for peace becomes another exercise of human will, undermined by human self-deception.  The two callings are inseparable, the calling to ‘prayer and righteous action’, as the Protestant martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, writing from his prison cell in 1944.  True prayer purifies the motive, true justice is the necessary work of sharing and liberating in others the humanity we have discovered in our contemplative encounter.
  12. Those who know little and care less about the institutions and hierarchies of the Church these days are often attracted and challenged by lives that exhibit something of this.  It is the new and renewed religious communities that most effectively reach out to those who have never known belief or who have abandoned it as empty and stale.  When the Christian history of our age is written especially, though not only, as regards Europe and North America—we shall see how central and vital was the witness of places like Taizé or Bose, but also of more traditional communities that have become focal points for the exploration of a humanity broader and deeper than social habit encourages.  And the great spiritual networks, Sant’ Egidio, the Focolare, Communione e Liberazione, these too show the same phenomenon; they make space for a profounder human vision because in their various ways all of them offer a discipline of personal and common life that is about letting the reality of Jesus come alive in us.
  13. And, as these examples show, the attraction and challenge we are talking about can generate commitments and enthusiasms across historic confessional lines.  We have become used to talking about the imperative importance of ‘spiritual ecumenism’ these days; but this must not be a matter of somehow opposing the spiritual and the institutional, nor replacing specific commitments with a general sense of Christian fellow-feeling.  If we have a robust and rich account of what the word ‘spiritual’ itself means, grounded in scriptural insights like those in the passages from II Corinthiansthat we noted earlier, we shall understand spiritual ecumenism as the shared search to nourish and sustain disciplines of contemplation in the hope of unveiling the face of the new humanity.  And the more we keep apart from each other as Christians of different confessions, the less convincing that face will seem.  I mentioned the Focolare movement a moment ago: you will recall that the basic imperative in the spirituality of Chiara Lubich was ‘to make yourself one’ – one with the crucified and abandoned Christ, one through him with the Father, one with all those called to this unity and so one with the deepest needs of the world.  ‘Those who live unity … live by allowing themselves to penetrate always more into God.  They grow always closer to God … and the closer they get to him, the closer they get to the hearts of their brothers and sisters’ (Chiara Lubich: Essential Writings, p.37).  The contemplative habit strips away an unthinking superiority towards other baptised believers and the assumption that I have nothing to learn from them.  Insofar as the habit of contemplation helps us approach all experience as gift, we shall always be asking what it is that the brother or sister has to share with us – even the brother or sister who is in one way or another separated from us or from what we suppose to be the fullness of communion.  ‘Quam bonum et quam jucundum …’.
  14. In practice, this might suggest that wherever initiatives are being taken to reach out in new ways to a lapsed Christian or post-Christian public, there should be serious work done on how such outreach can be grounded in some ecumenically shared contemplative practice.  In addition to the striking way in which Taizé has developed an international liturgical ‘culture’ accessible to a great variety of people, a network like the World Community for Christian Meditation, with its strong Benedictine roots and affiliations, has opened up fresh possibilities here.  What is more, this community has worked hard at making contemplative practice accessible to children and young people, and this needs the strongest possible encouragement.  Having seen at first hand—in Anglican schools in Britain—how warmly young children can respond to the invitation offered by meditation in this tradition, I believe its potential for introducing young people to the depths of our faith to be very great indeed.  And for those who have drifted away from the regular practice of sacramental faith, the rhythms and practices of Taizé or the WCCM are often a way back to this sacramental heart and hearth.
  15. What people of all ages recognise in these practices is the possibility, quite simply, of living more humanly – living with less frantic acquisitiveness, living with space for stillness, living in the expectation of learning, and most of all, living with an awareness that there is a solid and durable joy to be discovered in the disciplines of self-forgetfulness that is quite different from the gratification of this or that impulse of the moment.  Unless our evangelisation can open the door to all this, it will run the risk of trying to sustain faith on the basis of an un-transformed set of human habits – with the all too familiar result that the Church comes to look unhappily like so many purely human institutions, anxious, busy, competitive and controlling.  In a very important sense, a true enterprise of evangelisation will always be a re-evangelisation of ourselves as Christians also, a rediscovery of why our faith is different, transfiguring – a recovery of our own new humanity.
  16. And of course it happens most effectively when we are not planning or struggling for it.  To turn to de Lubac once again, ‘He who will best answer the needs of his time will be someone who will not have first sought to answer them’ (op. cit. pp.111-2); and ‘The man who seeks sincerity, instead of seeking truth in self-forgetfulness, is like the man who seeks to be detached instead of laying himself open in love’ (p.114).  The enemy of all proclamation of the Gospel is self-consciousness, and, by definition, we cannot overcome this by being more self-conscious.  We have to return to St Paul and ask, ‘Where are we looking?’  Do we look anxiously to the problems of our day, the varieties of unfaithfulness or of threat to faith and morals, the weakness of the institution?  Or are we seeking to look to Jesus, to the unveiled face of God’s image in the light of which we see the image further reflected in ourselves and our neighbours?
  17. That simply reminds us that evangelisation is always an overflow of something else – the disciple’s journey to maturity in Christ, a journey not organised by the ambitious ego but the result of the prompting and drawing of the Spirit in us.  In our considerations of how we are once again to make the Gospel of Christ compellingly attractive to men and women of our age, I hope we never lose sight of what makes it compelling to ourselves, to each one of us in our diverse ministries.  So I wish you joy in these discussions – not simply clarity or effectiveness in planning, but joy in the promise of the vision of Christ’s face, and in the fore-shadowings of that fulfilment in the joy of communion with each other here and now.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Fr. Daniel Horan, OFM on Catholicism and U.S. Politics

A Franciscan friar (and friend), Fr. Daniel Horan, keeps a blog that is worth reading, called "Dating God: Franciscan Spirituality for the 21st Century."  Fr. Horan's post from today, "A Tale of Two Catholicisms: A Response to Molly Worthen," is a particularly good read, for in it he endeavours to get to the heart of the tension that necessarily exists (or should exist) between Catholicism and allegiance to a political party, whether Republican or Democrat.  What is unfortunate is that this tension is either not acknowledged or, more worrisome, not felt by many Catholics within this country. 

With Fr. Horan's permission, I am pasting his blog post below.  While I myself tend to lean these days toward Dorothy Day's Catholic anarchism, and so feel more than a little ambiguous about my participation in the political process through voting, such ambiguity is definitely a minority perspective these days.  For Catholic and non-Catholic Christians who are planning to vote, Fr. Horan's post is, I think, insightful.

Photo from
This weekend’s opinion piece in the New York Times titled, “Catholics and the Power of Political Communion,” by Molly Worthen, a professor of history at UNC Chapel Hill, is sure to encourage a lot of discussion among Catholics (and non-Catholics, for that matter) of all stripes. Then again, that seems to be the point of her opinion piece. At the core of her essay stands the pressing question of late: Why do people think Republicans are now ‘the Catholic party’ and why don’t the democrats, the traditional party of American Catholicism, do anything about that? This question, likely on many of the minds of women and men from all backgrounds in this country, is treated with the writing skill of someone who has a background in journalism (Professor Worthen once interned at TIME magazine) and the discipline of a scholar. While some of her characterizations do not exactly hit the mark, the overarching presentation seems reasonably grounded in the conditions of our political age and the present cultural climate.

The Questions of “The Catholic Party” and “Being a Good Catholic”
Citing American-Catholic luminaries the likes of Dorothy Day (who is currently on the official road to canonical sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church) and Thomas Merton (who should be on that same road!), Worthen makes the observation that Catholicism is not a singular party-line tradition. Quite the contrary. She writes:
Allowing Republicans to claim the mantle of Catholicism might cost the Democrats the election. As commentators have noted, Catholics may be the nation’s most numerous swing voters. Over the past few decades, Democratic leaders have alienated voters in one of the party’s historically strong constituencies. Through a series of ideological moves and cultural misjudgments, they have also cut themselves off from a rich tradition of liberal Catholic thought at a time when American culture requires politicians to articulate a mission that inspires religious and secular voters alike.
The Catholicism of Sister Campbell and Mr. Biden is a natural fit for Democrats. It is the faith of social justice activists like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, the church whose pope pleaded for relief of the “misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class” in an 1891 encyclical.
And she is correct.

You can “be a good Catholic” as a member of the Republican party and you can “be a good Catholic” as a member of the Democratic party. The contention arises, however, when the discourse shifts from a party affiliation for general political and cultural ideals toward an insistence that if you are a registered member of a given party, then you must espouse every item on that party’s platform.

The truth is that if you “espouse every item” on either party’s platform, then you cannot ”be a good Catholic” from an objective standpoint. That goes for Democrats and Republicans.
Abortion is frequently seen as the “litmus test” of political Catholicism, but it is not the only “intrinsically evil” and morally problematic position found in either party’s platform. As the public discussion has made clear in recent months, issues like the national budget, tax systems, care for the most vulnerable in society, war, torture, gun control, capital punishment, and the like, are all important issue in Catholic moral teaching. The Republican party platform bears comparatively grievous moral deficiencies to that of the Democratic party. And to suggest, as some do in the public square and (shamefully) from the pulpit, that you can vote for one candidate or another as a Catholic, while not for the opponent, is a lie of the highest degree in this country’s political system.

All major candidates are imperfect Catholic candidates. Which is why JFK, Mario Cuomo, and others have been remembered in the American History books for their reiteration of the Church’s teaching on the role of government and the United States’s constitution concerning the relationship between a politician’s personal religious beliefs and his or her exercise of political office. As one professor of constitutional law reminded me not long ago, the only time that religion appears in the US Constitution (not the amendments/Bill of Rights, but the body of the Constitution proper) appears in Article 6:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States (emphasis added).
This is not to suggest that voters are to disregard their religious beliefs and moral convictions in the voting booth, as if such a compartmentalization is even possible. Instead, as the United States Bishops have continually taught (although many bishops and their brother priests would be well-served to re-read this text), the Church holds that the “well-formed conscience” is the ultimate arbiter of moral decision-making (see USCCB, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship“). As Roman Catholics and “Faithful Citizens,” we are form our consciences in the rich tradition of our faith and use our experience, reason, and moral resources to guide our political actions.

But in order to do so legitimately, we must be “cafeteria politicos.” Aspects of each party’s platform inherently contradict what we, as Catholics, recognize as central to our faith. In many cases the foundational principle is the same: the dignity and value of human life. On the Democratic side, as has been repeatedly been made known, abortion is one such issue. More recently, I would argue along with many excellent moral theologians (here as well), that the Obama Administration’s position on drone strikes overseas poses a serious moral threat.

On the flip side, the Republican national platform bears a number of positions that, likewise, fly in the face of central Catholic moral teaching. Among the several issues to be shirked are those related to the economy and budget (which favors the wealthy and corporations over the marginalized and poor, in contrast to the Church’s teaching), the party’s position on firearms (“Gun ownership is responsible citizenship,” whereas the Church teaches “no firearms for citizens“), among others.

There is, however, such a thing as morality-informed voting, and this is something that Catholics — as well as people of all religious traditions — should take seriously. There may very well be a “right” and “wrong” choice for one’s local or national civil leadership, but this is not something prescribed (or, as was made horribly clear in the 2004 presidential race, proscribed) from above. While some might seek to interpret the differences in Cardinal Dolan’s prayers at the respective political conventions this year (see Rick Hertzberg’s ‘Talk of the Town’ brief in this week’s The New Yorker), and perhaps with good reason, the symbolism of the USCCB’s President present at both conventions can serve to illustrate the possibility of “faithful citizenship” on all sides.

One has to look at the big picture in making an informed and well-grounded electoral decision, because to look at any one issue on either side is to distort the principle of acting in line with one’s well-formed conscience.

The Shift in Catholic Political Association
Returning to Worthen’s essay, how do we understand this popular association between the Republican party and Catholicism? Worthen suggests that this is due, in part, to the “marginalization” that the broader Democratic party has forced upon portions of the Catholic electorate in recent decades. Worthen offers some theses on this question:
The Democratic Party has marginalized progressive Catholic intellectuals for the same reason that Rome has: because they habitually challenge sacred doctrines. In the days of John F. Kennedy, American Catholics voted Democrat by default. But things got rocky as Richard M. Nixon capitalized on the resentments of many “white ethnic” (often Catholic) voters in the wake of the civil rights movement. At the same time, Democrats began to take a harder line on abortion. By the late 1980s, they had transformed Roe v. Wade into a non-negotiable symbol of gender equality and lost interest in dialogue with abortion opponents…
Republicans have learned to borrow insights and rhetorical tools from the Christian tradition, yet Democrats have not turned to liberal Catholicism in the same spirit. To do so would not be cynical or devious, but a recognition that politicians need to communicate in language that resonates with their constituents — and that human nature does not change. For centuries, theologians have wrestled with the same fundamental problems that face us today. Even the most zealous atheists have something to learn from St. Augustine (an Augustinian might see legalized abortion less as a bulwark against the “war on women” than as an imperfect measure that grapples with the reality of suffering in a fallen world)
I do not necessarily agree with Worthen’s description of “liberal Catholics.” This sort of rhetoric, a tool found commonly used among the cable-news punditry, is entirely misleading. “Liberal” and “Conservative” are demarcators that are wholly relative. Take me for instance. In some circles I’m frequently accused of being a “liberal,” because I embrace the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching as constitutive of public discourse and civil-decision-making, I raise questions of a theological and frequently ecclesiological nature, and I, as one striving to be a good Franciscan in the tradition of Francis of Assisi, identify with “the people” more than I do with a “clerically privileged elite,” among other reasons.  Yet, I am also frequently accused of being a “conservative,” because I hold true to certain tenets of sacramental theology and liturgy, I do strongly maintain confessional beliefs from within a tradition, I have given my life as a member of a religious order, and I have likewise devoted my gifts to the study of theology, among other reasons.

And, for the record, neither Dorothy Day nor Thomas Merton would recognize the label “liberal” that Worthen associates with their identity and memory.

Nevertheless, the point that Worthen is making is an important one. The modus operandi of many Catholic Democrats is not one that lends itself to black-and-white thinking, but instead, as Worthen puts it, is more nuanced.
Reconciling religious tradition with modernity is a more nuanced endeavor than defending orthodoxy from any murmur of compromise, and allying with the poor is not a recipe for easy fund-raising. But if liberal Catholic ideas are not great fodder for culture-war sloganeering, they do offer a path to secular Democrats who, at the moment, are failing to address the basic questions of the human predicament.
What is needed, it seems, is a shift in the manner of public and civil discourse. We must all engage in the serious questions of how to work together for “the common good” and guarantee the condition for the possibility of “human flourishing” in all parts of our communities: local, national, and global.

Where to Go From Here: Knowledge, Prayer, Reflection, and Action
There is no clear-cut path and easy answers are exactly what they should appear to be: too good to be true! If you hear television pundits, newspaper columnists, local church ministers, or your neighbor across the street attempt to offer you a seemingly “black and white” answer to a question of faith and politics, be respectfully critical of such a view (do not criticize, but be critical in your assessment, reflection, and thinking).

The Christian tradition is clear on some very important moral norms and universal dispositions one should have if he or she claims to be a follower of Christ. The inherent dignity and value of all life (born, unborn, human, and the rest of creation alike!) is one such tenet. However, how that tenet is actualized in practice and legislation is another story. We have to ask with confidence whether or not something is a manipulative campaign promise to elicit support from a particular demographic, or if the action reflects the words. What actions have actually been done, can be done, and should be done to make our society and world a better place for all of God’s creation? It is this sort of reflection that we must keep in the forefront of our minds as we discern our positions in a given time and place.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Merton on Ecumenism

Ecumenism is on my mind.  Actually, it is never really far from my mind given that my own family is itself an inter-church family, with myself as a Roman Catholic and my wife as an Episcopalian.  But ecumenism is even more in my thoughts as we approach the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council.  I'm currently making my way through the recently published English translation of Yves Congar's My Journal of the Council, and am fascinated by the overwhelming concern Congar had that the Roman Catholic church turn its attention to dialogue with Christians of other traditions.  I'm only at the beginning of this incredible journal, but his ecumenical concern is found on almost every page.

And this afternoon, while re-reading Thomas Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, I came across this beautiful paragraph on the relationship between ecclesial unity and the unity that must exist within ourselves.
If I can unite in myself the thought and the devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russians with the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians.  From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians.  If we want to bring together what is divided, we can not do so by imposing one division upon the other or absorbing one division into the other.  But if we do this, the union is not Christian.  It is political, and doomed to further conflict.  We must contain divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Cardinal Martini's Last Interview

Much has been written in the past few days about Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, former archbishop of Milan, who died last Friday.  Cardinal Martini was a much loved and respected figure, and by all accounts, a figure highly valued by Pope Benedict XVI.  Yet I've unfortunately read some incredibly uncharitable remarks about him since his death.  One 'tweet' I read, written by a self-proclaimed 'conservative' Catholic, thanked God that Cardinal Martini was dead.  And a blog post, written anonymously (of course), expressed similar sentiments: "[T]he Militant Church is better off without those who think and act against the whole purpose of the hierarchy - handing down unaltered that which they received.  Without those who did all they could and still do all they can do to infuse the hierarchy with pure evil and relativistic rot."


Is this where we all start singing, "They will know we are Christians by our love?"

Some of the anger being expressed is in reaction to Cardinal Martini's last interview, conducted earlier in August and published posthumously.  It is unsurprising that the media immediately gravitated to one line of the interview, in which Cardinal Martini said, "The Church is 200 years behind."  Those who consider themselves liberal or conservative Catholics immediately followed the media's lead and focused their attention on those words, without carefully reading the entire interview itself.

I've read through the interview a number of times (one can read a good translation of the entirety here), and it seems to me that the primary focus of his interview is on the church simply living out the gospel it proclaims.  Of particular import is the first paragraph of the interview:
The Church is tired, in prosperous Europe and in America. Our culture is out of date; our Churches are big; our religious houses are empty, and the Church’s bureaucratic apparatus is growing, and our rites and our vestments are pompous. Do such things really express what we are today? ... Prosperity weighs us down. We find ourselves like the rich young man who went away sad when Jesus called him to become his disciple. I know that it’s not easy to leave everything behind. At least could we seek people who are free and closer to their neighbors, as Bishop Romero was and the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador? Where among us are heroes to inspire us? We must never limit them by institutional bonds.
Perhaps it is because I completed Jim Forest's wonderful biography of Dorothy Day, All Is Grace, over the weekend, but it struck me that the message Cardinal Martini conveys here is precisely the message embodied by such Christians as Dorothy Day.  Cardinal Martini is calling the Church back to the gospel, back to the message and example of Jesus Christ.  He is calling the Church to become a Church of the poor, and he suggests that the bureaucracy and wealth of the Church holds it back from being that which Christ calls it to be - the nascent Kingdom of God, in which the 'normal' rules of society don't apply.  In reality he is saying very little that is new.  But it is significant, nonetheless, when it comes from the lips of one such as him.

His message seems to me to be quite valid, and is one that, I would hope, transcends the 'conservative/liberal' divide.  But it worries me that there exists in the Church a form of ecclesiolatry that will accept no criticism of the Church as valid, that will bear no talk that the Church is less than what it is supposed to be, and that will thank God when one, who loved the Church enough to exhort it to become more fully the body of Christ, is dead

Pray for us, Cardinal Martini.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

On the Occasion of St. Augustine of Hippo's Feast Day

I am a patristics scholar in no small part because of my love for Augustine of Hippo (354-430).  When I was young I read Augustine's Confessions, and while certain parts of it were lost on me, the reading of it was transformative.  I wrote my M.A. thesis on Augustine, focusing specifically on the Confessions and his magisterial work on the Trinity (De Trinitate), and while I moved on to study Greek patristic thinkers in my doctoral work, I still return to Augustine's Confessions yearly.

And reading that work never gets old.

I am continually left in awe of his erudition, but also of the depth of his introspection and honesty.  1600 years after it was written, Augustine still speaks to me; his story resonates with me, his all-encompassing desire to find rest his unquiet heart is one that resonates with many of us.

My heart still beats faster as I follow Augustine into that garden in Milan and read of his intense struggle under the fig tree - "I was groaning in spirit and shaken by violent anger because I could form no resolve to enter into a covenant with you, though in my bones I knew that this was what I ought to do, and everything n me lauded such a course to the skies" (Confessions 8.19).  And when Augustine reads Romans 13:13-14 and suddenly experiences the freedom of resting his heart in the God of love, I am almost always brought to tears.

Augustine and I have spent many, many hours together over the years.  I have to admit that there are times when we disagree and argue.  I am, for example, troubled by his willingness to make use of the violence of the state to bring Donatists back into the Catholic fold, as well as by his theology of sexuality.  But I've no doubt that there are many aspects of my thought that trouble him as well.

And in the end, no matter our disagreements, Augustine's writings manifest so clearly to me the divine beauty and love that is God.  His depiction of divine humility in book 7 of the Confessions and book 13 of De Trinitate is as beautiful as it is profound.  And there are few things as beautiful as the vision Augustine shared with his mother, Monica, in the days shortly before her death, a vision that, by the very fact that it occurs for both Augustine and Monica (two people with immensely divergent educational backgrounds) in community together speaks deeply to Augustine's conviction that the Christian life is necessarily communal for it necessarily revolves around love:
We were alone, conferring very intimately.  Forgetting what lay in the past, and stretching out to what was ahead, we inquired between ourselves in the light of present truth, the Truth which is yourself, what the eternal life of the saints would be like...[A]nd we lifted ourselves in longing yet more ardent toward That Which Is, and step by step traversed all bodily creatures and heaven itself, whence sun and moon and stars shed their light upon the earth.  Higher still we mounted by inward thought and wondering discourse on your works, and we arrived at the summit of our own minds; and this too we transcended, to touch that land of never-failing plenty where you pasture Israel for ever with the food of truth.  Life there is the Wisdom through whom all these things are made...And as we talked and panted for it, we just touched the edge of it by the utmost leap of our hearts; then, sighing and unsatisfied, we left the first-fruits of our spirit captive there, and returned to the noise of articulate speech, where a word has beginning and end (Confesssions 9.24).
In 1845 Ary Sheffer, a Dutch/French artist, painted "Saints Augustine and Monica," and in it he sought to depict the moment of vision experienced by the two.  Sitting next to a window overlooking a garden, Augustine and Monica gaze serenely at an unseen light that illuminates both of them.  The love shared between them is beautifully displayed in the way in which Monica's two hands carefully hold Augustine's left hand, as well as in the gesture of loving servitude made by Augustine who is sitting lower than his mother.  The sense one gets from the painting is that the two seekers, who had been engaged in conversation, are both surprised and awed by the vision that has come upon them.  Their faces do not portray struggle, as if they were actively pursuing the attainment of the vision, but are rather characterized by serenity and love.

Such love, and Augustine never writes more beautifully than when he writes on love, the love of two people for one another, is the kind of love Augustine suggests is to be at the heart of Christian community.  For a community of selfless, humble love itself comes to image, through God, the selfless love that is the community of the Trinity.

Happy Feast of St. Augustine to all!

Monday, August 27, 2012

*Update - August 28* A Little More on Cardinal Dolan & the GOP Convention or "What's wrong with the Amish?"

 It was just announced that Cardinal Dolan will also be giving the closing prayer at the Democratic convention.  The press release from the Archdiocese of New York reads as follows:
Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, has accepted an invitation to deliver the closing prayer at next week’s Democratic National Convention. As was previously announced, he will also be offering the closing prayer at the Republican Convention on Thursday of this week.
It was made clear to the Democratic Convention organizers, as it was to the Republicans, that the Cardinal was coming solely as a pastor, only to pray, not to endorse any party, platform, or candidate. The Cardinal consulted Bishop Peter Jugis of the Diocese of Charlotte, who gave the Cardinal his consent to take part in the convention that will be taking place in his diocese.
I want to reiterate that my criticism still stands.  The problem, in my view, was not that he was praying at the GOP convention.  The problem was that he, or any other Catholic leader, was willing to pray at either of the conventions, Democrat or Republican.  While Cardinal Dolan is not endorsing either political party or platform, he is, by his participation in these two conventions, endorsing an understanding of the church's relationship to the state that I find troubling.  As one person commented on this post: "Doesn't it concern anyone that we assume any influence we may wield must be wielded according to the rules of the society we're trying to influence? Isn't that yielding the game before it has begun?"

Yes, the Catholic church has always done this sort of thing (i.e., prayed at political conventions).  But the time is long past for us to question whether the church should be doing such things, and for the church to ponder the political theology that has dominated since the time of Constantine.

So while some of my more left-leaning Catholic friends may feel better now that Cardinal Dolan has agreed to pray at the DNC, I'm even more troubled...

A few people seem to have misunderstood my previous post about Cardinal Dolan's willingness to give the benediction at the GOP convention.  My problem with it has absolutely nothing to do with partisanship.  That is, I would express similar reservations were Cardinal Dolan praying at the Democratic convention.

My concerns are ecclesiological in nature, and go right to the heart of how the Catholic church - and specifically the Catholic church in the United States - understands its relationship to the state.  Last Friday, an editorial was published in the NCR that troubled me, precisely because it spoke directly to the church's relationship to the state in discussing Cardinal Dolan's benediction.  It reads, in part (the full editorial can be read here):
The notion that Catholic bishops in the United States have not been involved in politics historically or should not be involved in politics is, in the first instance, a fiction, and in the second instance, absurd.
With no insult intended to the peaceful sect, Catholics are not Amish, about whom there is much to admire and who, in the long run, might be the better representatives of the peaceable kingdom. But Amish are relatively self-contained. They seek more to escape from than engage in the dominant culture; they don't aspire to great institutions, nor do they lay claim to traditions of art and intellectual endeavor that influenced civilizations over millennia.
The extremes of examples serve only to illustrate that the Catholic church aspires to be a robust presence in the culture, to influence systemic change, to argue and persuade toward what it considers the most loving and just options for human society. In short, it's a player -- always has been and presumably always will be [emphasis mine].
I won't comment on what I think is a drastic misunderstanding of Anabaptist theology and ecclesiology above.  Rather, what bothers me is the last paragraph.  I don't deny that the Catholic church should aspire to be a robust presence in culture, that it should influence systematic change, and that it should persuade toward what it considers the most loving and just options for human society.  What I question, and what others before me (like, for example, Dorothy Day) have questioned, is why the Catholic church understands that to do these things it must be a "player" on the political plane, that is, in the halls of power of Washington, etc..

Why is it that the church thinks it needs to be a "player" in order to influence the society around them?  Why does this go relatively unquestioned?  Why is it assumed that the mechanism of societal change is the state, and not the church herself?  And why is the idea that the church should not be involved in politics considered "absurd"?

It seems to me that theological and ecclesiological waters usually get very muddied when mixed with the politics of the nation-state.  Moreover, to focus on change from the top-down is really the easy way out.  The time has now come to devote our attention simply to being the church, the nascent kingdom of God.  The problem is that this would require far more of us all - laity, religious, and clergy - than most of us are willing to accept.  It requires living in a revolutionary way, living as communities of selfless love that image the selfless community of the Trinity.  And frankly, if we look at the example of our early Christian forebears, this means living as communities that probably look a great deal more like Amish communities, or a Catholic Worker farm, or a community of religious.

But that's probably not going to happen, is it?  So...we will continue to bungle along with what seems to me a political theology that is at odds with what it means to live as church.  But forgive me if I don't watch Cardinal Dolan's prayer, or indeed, any of the two political conventions.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Constantinianism & Cardinal Dolan

I learned yesterday that Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Cardinal Archbishop of New York and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has agreed to give the benediction at the Republican convention in Tampa on the final night of the convention, the night Mitt Romney is officially to accept the nomination.

Cardinal Dolan's spokespeople have assured us that his benediction should not be viewed as an endorsement, and that he would have been quite willing to pray at either or both party conventions.  I respect Cardinal Dolan, and I believe that he truly doesn't see this prayer as an endorsement of the Republican nominee.  The reality, of course, is that his prayer will widely be viewed as an endorsement by those within and without the Catholic fold, but frankly, I don't really care about that.

What bothers me much more about this benediction is that it seems to me to be a further manifestation of the kind of Constantinianism that needs to be rejected by the church.  John Howard Yoder, the late Mennonite theologian, had a great deal to say about the dangers of Constantinianism, and in such a short space I cannot really do any kind of justice to his thoughts.  Chris Huebner, another Mennonite theologian, describes Yoder's understanding of Constantinianism as follows:
Whereas pre-Constantinian Christianity was that of a minority church existing in a world that was largely hostile toward it, Yoder claims that the Constantinian shift resulted in an alignment of the church with the ruling political regime of the day. In other words, Constantinianism represents a fusion of church and state, clergy and and emperor, Bible and sword, God and civil authorities, or the general continuity of Christianity with the wider world. As Yoder himself describes it, the structure of Constantinianism is rooted in the “basic axiom” that the true meaning of history, the true locus of salvation, is in the cosmos and not in the church. What God is really doing is being done primarily through the framework of society as a whole and not in the Christian community...
What is characteristic of [Constantinianism] is that [it] compromise[s] the lordship of Christ by identifying God’s cause in some way with the powers of the political establishment. Accordingly, Yoder calls for the church to resist such a Constantinian temptation by embodying the counter-establishment character and corresponding critical stance called for by the “politics of Jesus.” He maintains that it is only through its concrete presence as an alternative community that the church can truly serve as a witness to the world (Chris Huebner, A Precarious Peace: Yoderian Explorations on Theology, Knowledge, And Identity, 57-58).
Put briefly, Constantinianism generally results in the theological, moral, and ecclesiological compromises, all in the name of gaining - or being aligned to - political power.  The focus of the church thus is placed more on transforming society from the 'top-down' through gaining access to the reigns of power (reigns that Jesus himself rejected), rather than upon becoming the nascent Kingdom of God on earth devoted to living out the kind of selfless love exampled by God in the person of Jesus Christ.

Constantinianism is as much a temptation for the left as it is for the right; indeed, I often hear Constantinian ideas from my politically left-leaning friends who seem much more focused on getting the Democratic incumbent elected than on actually living out their lives after the example of Christ.

I believe Cardinal Dolan to be an intelligent, thoughtful, and devout man, as well as a good bishop and leader.  But it seems to me that there are some theological and ecclesiological complexities (and dangers) associated with giving a benediction at the Republican convention.  He may not be endorsing a particular candidate, but he is implicitly endorsing an understanding of the church's relationship to the world that I find troubling.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Merton and the Non-Violence of Listening

I've been reading a great deal of Merton lately, and came across the following quotation that has, I think, relevance for us given the fractious and disheartening state of political discourse here in the United States.  The quotation comes from an article on non-violence, and Merton perceptively makes the point that a central part of non-violence is willingness to listen to our adversaries, and even to learn something from them.  It is, he suggests, a type of violence simply to reject the other as wrong, unreasonable, inhumane, etc.  He writes about the benefits of listening to the other as follows:
"The dread of being open to the ideas of others generally comes from our hidden insecurity about our own convictions.  We fear that we may be 'converted' - or perverted - by a pernicious doctrine.  On the other hand, if we are mature and objective in our open-mindedness, we may find that viewing things from a basically different perspective - that of our adversary - we discover our own truth in a new light and are able to understand our own ideal more realistically."
 - Thomas Merton, "Blessed are the Meek: The Christian Roots of Nonviolence"

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The New Atheists & their Imaginary God(s)

The following is the talk I gave recently to the community at the Abbey of Gethsemani while on retreat.  There's little that is original here, but I thought it might be of interest.

During a conversation with Br. Paul when I was here at the Abbey of Gethsemani a few months ago, he asked me what I was teaching at Bellarmine University.  I mentioned that I was teaching an honors introductory theology course, and that the focus of the course was to read the works of the New Atheism and critically analyze them from the perspective of Christian theology.   He suggested that this topic would probably be of interest to the brothers, and asked whether I might be willing to give a talk one evening.  One thing led to another, and here I am at the Abbey on a week-long retreat and here with you this evening.

I should preface my brief talk this evening by saying that my specialty is actually patristics, and specifically the Trinitarian theology of Greek Fathers, particularly Cyril of Alexandria.  That said, I regularly dabble in various other aspects of theology, and an ongoing fascination for me has been the rise and popularity of the New Atheist movement.  So while I am by no means an expert on New Atheism, I've had the opportunity to study it and teach it, as well as to study and teach some responses to it by some contemporary theologians.

So...what is the New Atheism?  At the conclusion of his 2008 film, Religulous, comedian and vocal atheist Bill Maher provides a monologue regarding the dangers of religion that, for those unfamiliar with the New Atheist movement, gives its general tenor.  The monologue is delivered on the ruins of Megiddo in Israel, known from Revelation 16:16 as Armageddon.  Here is what he says:     
Religion must die for mankind to live...Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking.  It's nothing to brag about.  Those who preach faith and enable it and elevate it are our intellectual slaveholders keeping mankind in bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction.  Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don't like all the answers to think that they do.
In case the viewer doesn't understand just how dangerous religion is, the director of the film very helpfully intersperses Bill Maher's monologue with the sights and sounds of numerous explosions of varying intensity.  In the span of a monologue that lasts about six minutes, I calculated that the viewer is exposed to about twenty explosions.   Count the number of explosions for yourself as you listen to the whole monologue:

Thus concludes a 'documentary'  focused entirely on discrediting religion and making converts to the atheist cause; a documentary that took in a not insubstantial $13.7 million at the box office.

The popularity of this film, starring a well-known celebrity, is indicative of the popularity of the New Atheist movement.  While atheism as such is not new, the New Atheism has emerged in the last decade as an aggressive and powerful movement.  The leaders of this movement, who dubbed themselves the 'Four Horsemen of the New Atheism,' are Sam Harris, an American neuroscientist; Daniel Dennett, an American philosopher and cognitive scientist; Richard Dawkins, an English evolutionary biologist; and the late Christopher Hitchens, an English-American author and journalist (he died 15 December 2011).  The movement itself ostensibly began with the 2004 publication of Sam Harris' book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Religion, a book that spent 33 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.  While Daniel Dennett's work has garnered some attention, the most popular and prominent spokespersons for New Atheism have been Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, and it will be their work upon which I will focus my attention.  Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion has thus far sold over two million copies worldwide.  And Christepher Hitchen's 2007 book - the subtly titled god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything - rocketed to number one on the New York Times Bestseller list and was a finalist for the National Book Award.  Both Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have established non-profit organization/foundations to promulgate the New Atheism.  In 2007 Harris founded Project Reason devoted to "spreading science and secular values."  And in 2006 Dawkins founded the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, whose mission "is to support scientific education, critical-thinking, and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance, and suffering."  Dawkins' website - which identifies itself as a "clear thinking oasis" - contains videos and documents to spread the New Atheism, and indeed his website contains a link called "Converts Corner" wherein those once trapped in religious superstition can freely express their thanks to Dawkins for leading them to become free-thinking atheists.

It is perhaps this evangelistic aspect of New Atheism that has made it such a force over the past decade.  The New Atheists are quite forthright about their desire to make converts.  "If this book works as I intend," Dawkins writes in the preface to The God Delusion, "religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down."[1]  And indeed, if one takes a look at "Converts Corner" on the Richard Dawkins website, one can find the stories of hundreds of men and women who found themselves 'enlightened' by Dawkins or another of the New Atheists so as to give up their faith and become atheists.  Why this desire to have people reject religion entirely?  It is the conviction of the New Atheists that religion and religious faith have outlived their usefulness, add nothing positive to the world, and therefore must be rejected fully and completely.

It appears to me that this rejection of religion is primarily founded upon two premises.  First, a belief that religion is inherently irrational and nonsensical, a belief based upon adherence to, and inability to think outside of, a rigid scientific materialism.  Second, an assessment of religion's influence throughout history that is radically negative.  I'll address the first premise before looking at the second.

The scientific materialism of the New Atheists - that is, the assumption (dare I say belief) that there exists nothing that cannot be, or potentially be, verified empirically - is not defended by Dawkins, et al.  It is simply a given for them that such a premise is obviously good common sense.  Throughout The God Delusion, Dawkins continually appeals to the lack of any real 'evidence' - by which he means, scientific proof - for the existence of God.  God is reduced by Dawkins to a scientific hypothesis, and the fact that God's existence is not immediately scientifically verifiable leads him to conclude that God does not exist.  Science and reason, both of which the New Atheists see as being opposed to religion, are now the order of the day.  While 'God' and 'religion' may have been helpful  devices to provide comfort in the face of inexplicable mysteries, humankind has progressed beyond such things.  Science, both Dawkins and Hitchens posit, now provides - or can potentially provide - the answers we need to questions about the cosmos and our own existence.  Thus, according to Christopher Hitchens, Charles Darwin can be seen as "the great emancipator."[2]  Religion, he writes, comes from a period when nobody "had the smallest idea what was going on."[3]  Now we do thanks to science, and in this scientific age faith is "plainly impossible."[4]  "Religion has run out of justifications," Hitchens writes.  "Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important."[5]

This kind of faith in 'objective' and 'impartial' science is, it would seem to me, remarkably simplistic insofar as it completely ignores the reality, affirmed by many scientists themselves, that total objectivity is an impossibility within the sciences.  Moreover, the scientific materialism with which the New Atheists approach reality is remarkably limited in scope.  I'm reminded here of a lovely chapter in G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy called "The Maniac."  Here Chesterton uses the analogy of a madman trapped in his own circle of thoughts that prevent him from being able adequately to assess the world around him.  Chesterton compares this madman to some of his contemporaries whose allegiance to materialism results in the limitation of their understanding of reality.  The point of his analogy is to highlight the limitations of a purely materialistic way of thinking.  To illustrate his point he writes: "The madman is not the man who has lost his reason.  The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.  The madman's explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory."[6]  His error lies simply in the fact that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle.  There is in him a combination of logical completeness and a spiritual contraction.  Thus, "[t]he lunatic's theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way."[7]  And "what a great deal it leaves out!" exclaims Chesterton.  In comparing the madman to the materialist, Chesterton writes words that, I think, are an appropriate response to the New Atheists' rigorous adherence to scientific materialism: Here "we have at once the sense of [an idea] covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out...[The materialist] understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding."[8]  "[I]f the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos," Chesterton concludes, "it is not much of a cosmos."[9]

Of course, the New Atheists reject the idea that their scientific materialism is a limiting of their perception of reality.  For to their minds, the problem isn't that they are limiting their perception of reality.  Rather, the problem is that religion harmfully expands peoples' perception of reality.  They simply cannot comprehend why anyone would believe anything that cannot be empirically and scientifically verified.  The very thought that one would want to go beyond the scientifically verifiable boggles their minds.  As such, the New Atheists, from the perspective of their scientific materialism, look with loathing on belief in God, consistently referring to it as "blind faith" given that there is no rational justification for such belief.

According to the New Atheists, therefore, religion must be rejected because its basic premise - i.e., that God or gods exist - is irrational and contrary to common sense.  Such belief in God is, as such, a diminution of humanity's rational potential, holding us back by keeping us enslaved to a childish idea akin to believing in Santa Claus.  The inherent irrationality and unintelligibility of religion in general is made clearer, according to Dawkins and Hitchens, when we delve even further into these religions.  Although Dawkins and Hitchens attack any and all religions, they are particularly keen to attack Christianity, mainly, I think, because they grew up within Christian families in the context of a culture shaped by Christianity.  It is worthwhile to examine their treatment of Christianity as a way of understanding their way of approaching, and dismissing, religion in general.  I want first briefly to outline their characterization of the basics of Christian theology.

According to Dawkins and Hitchens, not only do we Christians irrationally believe in God, but we believe in a God who is, to put it mildly, a divine disaster.  He is, as Dawkins put is, "arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."[10] (Not to put too fine a point on it!).  Dawkins and the other New Atheists believe we Christians worship such a God because the New Atheists see such a God in the Christian "Old Testament."  And given that this is, according to them, the depiction of God in the Old Testament - part of our scriptures - it must be that we believe our God to be the 'malevolent bully' Dawkins reads him to be.  None of this is new as you, I'm sure, know.  In fact, what is astounding is just how superficially the New Atheists read the Hebrew Scriptures, and how simplistically they understand Christian teaching about what we mean when we say that the scriptures are inspired.  According to them, Christian understanding of scripture is as follows: The scripture is inspired = it was literally written by God himself = we have to understand it absolutely literally.  Any attempt to add some nuance to our understanding of scriptural inspiration and interpretation - i.e., any attempt to read the scriptures other than literally - is consistently seen by the New Atheists as overly convenient and an easy way out.  According to Dawkins and the other New Atheists, we are obligated to read the scriptures literally.  Why we must do this is not explained.  But, if we do read the scriptures literally, the New Atheists insist, the picture we receive of God is not pretty.

So, the God of the Christians is, as the New Atheists declare on the basis of their reading of the Old Testament, an ugly God.  The ugliness of this God, and of Christian beliefs in general, is further reinforced by Christian teaching on Jesus.  Now, the New Atheists are willing to agree that the ethical teachings of Jesus (if he actually existed; the New Atheists regularly bring this up to question) are - at least in comparison with the "ethical disaster area that is the Old Testament"[11] - somewhat admirable.  But just look what Christians have done with the doctrine of original sin.  Early Christianity, Dawkins asserts, shows a very unhealthy preoccupation with sin, and developed an understanding of atonement that is "viscious, sado-masochistic and repellant."[12]  For God, displeased with the sin of Adam that is passed on to all of us, decided to incarnate himself to be tortured and executed in order to impress and satisfy himself.  The focus, Dawkins asserts, "is overwhelmingly on sin sin sin sin sin sin sin."[13].  And God is a sado-masochistic crazy who decides that he needs to kill himself as a man in order to forgive the overwhelming sinfulness of humankind.  Nowhere does Dawkins question whether he is actually articulating the fundamentals of Christian theology accurately.  He simply assumes that he is.  And this theory of atonement Dawkins dismisses as "barking mad."[14]

To sum up thus far, the New Atheists assert that we Christians believe in a viscious, jealous, and sado-masochistic God, a humanity that is abysmally sinful, and a theory of atonement that is absolutely ridiculous.  So, why, according to the New Atheists, do we believe such things?  Out of fear.  Fear of what?  Eternal damnation, of course.  The New Atheists are flummoxed regarding what could possibly be the attraction of something like Christianity, but it appears to them that really the only reason why any person would possibly be Christian is for the eternal life that is our reward and our fear that we will experience eternal damnation otherwise.  At the heart of this notion is, once again, an understanding that God is little more than a domineering, jealous God who craves attention and who threatens with eternal punishment those who don't become his toadies by showering him with praise and obeying the numerous seemingly pointless rules he has established for us.  What kind of God is this who expects us to "gather every day, or every seven days, or any high and auspicious day, to proclaim our rectitude or to grovel and wallow in our unworthiness?"[15]  And then what kind of God is it who gives us rules that are, in the esteem of Hitchens at least, quite impossible to obey?  For example, Hitchens says that the commandment to love one's neighbour is all well and good, but it is itself completely unrealistic.  "Humans are not so constituted as to care for others as much as themselves," Hitchens writes.  "[T]he thing simply cannot be done (as any intelligent 'creator' would well understand from studying his own design)."[16]  This is not morality, Hitchens says.  It is tyrany, for "[t]he essential principle of totalitarianism is to make laws that are impossible to obey."[17]  To urge humans to be superhumans, on pain of death and eternal torture, is nothing short of totalitarianism of the worst kind.

Such then is Dawkins' and Hitchens' assessment of basic principles of Christian theology.  I'll address this assessment very shortly, but want first to touch briefly upon the second foundation of the New Atheists' rejection of religion.  The first, as I've been outlining, is the idea that religion is inherently irrational and nonsensical.  The second foundation underlying the New Atheist rejection of religion is this: That religion is the principal cause of the violence, division, and oppression in the history of the world.[18]  Why such a negative assessment of religion?  Even if one thinks, as the New Atheists do, that belief in God is nonsensical as are the theological ideas that follow this belief, why argue that religion itself is such a scourge that it needs to be entirely purged from the earth?  The answer is this.  If one begins from the premise that religion's foundation - belief in God or gods - is irrational, then all that flows from that foundation is necessarily going itself to be irrational.  Irrationality is going to breed irrationality, and Dawkins and Hitchens are very fond of parading out the very worst manifestations of religion and characterizing these manifestations as being typical of religion and the logical endpoint for a system founded upon radical irrationality and stupidity.

I needn't go into the various things to which Dawkins and Hitchens point to demonstrate their claim regarding the violence and divisiveness of religion.  The following quotation from the beginning of Dawkins' The God Delusion, in which he articulates his perception of religion's negative contribution to the world, suffices to understand the thrust of the argument:
Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion.  Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as 'Christ-killers,' no Northern Ireland 'troubles', no 'honour killings,' no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money...Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no public beheadings of blasphemers, no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it.[19]
Token nuclear explosion
That is quite a litany; no wonder Dawkins wants to get rid of religion!  According to Dawkins and Hitchens, religion has been the direct cause of almost all of the worst expressions of human behavior in the history of humankind.  Indeed, it is quite interesting to learn about history from these fellows.  Turns out that all the good that has ever occurred in human history – i.e., advances in philosophical and scientific thought, humanitarianism, peace – was the result of reason triumphing over the irrationality of religion.  And all that was bad – i.e., war, racism, intolerance, etc. – can be laid at religion’s feet.  So jaded are Dawkins and Hitchens that they can scarcely bring themselves to admit that religion of any sort as provided any kind of good whatsoever in the history of the world.  Anything beneficial we might associate with religion – compassion, love, not to mention the development of universities – are all, according to Dawkins and Hitchens, purely accidental and occurred in spite of religion, not because of it.  How can they be so sure?  Because, they assert, religion is necessarily intolerant, hateful, and intellectually backwards.  Their logic is as follows.  Because religious faith is irrationally unverifiable empirically it has to be “blind faith,” meaning that one has to dispense with reason – and therefore, dispense with thinking, to have faith.  Moreover, to choose faith is to choose a false sense of certainty and so dispense the healthy doubt and skepticism that is a part of using one’s mind.

This idea that religion provides certainty is a constant refrain for Dawkins and Hitchens.  “To ‘choose’ dogma and faith over doubt and experiment,” Hitchens writes, “is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid.”[20]  And it is this certainty that most irks the New Atheists, for it is this certainty that has led to religions fighting with one another, imposing their beliefs on their fellow human beings, and committing all kinds of atrocities all in the name of a supposed certainty they have that they are absolutely right.  Religion, Hitchens, laments simply will not and cannot leave him alone; it is utterly incapable of doing so: “As I write these words, and as you read them” he writes, “people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon.  Religion poisons everything.[21]

So much for New Atheist thought on religion.  Cheerful, no?  Of course, what you have probably figured out by now is that the real target of New Atheism is not religion broadly speaking, but really fundamentalist manifestations of religion.  Unfortunately, however, the New Atheists appear quite unable to understand that it is extremism within religion, not religion itself, that is their target, and to understand that many people of religion, including (I'm guessing) most of us, are as bothered by fundamentalist Christianity, indeed fundamentalism of any sort, as they are.  What I'm saying is that the New Atheists, in arguing against religion, do little more than set up a series of 'straw men' that are so easily toppled that one needn't even break an intellectual sweat doing so.  This has, of course, been pointed out to the New Atheists who, predictably, find the criticism thoroughly worthless.  For, you see, they are convinced that fundamentalism is the natural flowering of religion, the natural concomitant of an irrational belief in God.  As Dawkins writes in answer to critics who accuse him of setting up straw men, "subtle, nuanced religion" is "numerically negligible" in the world.[22]  "To the vast majority of believers around the world," he argues, "religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of [Pat] Robertson, [Jerry] Falwell or [Ted] Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini."[23]  That is too easy.  On what 'evidence' (to borrow his favourite argument) does Dawkins posit that most of us are fundamentalists or that we are simply fundamentalists in waiting?  Simply to say that he needs only to intellectually dismantle fundamentalist religion to tear down the very fabric of religion entirely is a very easy way out.  As Terry Eagleton, a British intellectual points out, the New Atheists are buying "their rejection of religion on the cheap."[24]

The result is that listening to the New Atheists on religion is the intellectual equivalent of listening to a Floridian expounding upon the finer points of ice-hockey (I speak now as a Canadian).  Neither have the first clue what they're talking about, and frankly, neither really want to delve that deeply into the subject matter.  Dawkins and Hitchens simply cannot imagine why anyone would believe in the existence of the divine; it is totally unfathomable to them.  Once this very premise of religion is discounted, there is nothing that would compel them to explore the finer points of theology.  That's fine.  Not all of us are theologians.  The problem, however, is that one cannot, on the basis of the most cursory of glances, completely dismiss religion in its entirety as stupid and dangerous.  To quote Eagleton again, "it belongs to justice and honesty to confront your opponent at his or her most convincing."[25]

In terms of Christianity, this means confronting an understanding of the divine that is radically different from Hitchens' and Dawkins' portrayal of the God we Christians worship (many of my comments in this paragraph are derived from observations Terry Eagleton made in Reason, Faith, and Revolution, an excellent book on the New Atheism).  This is a God who is wholly other than us, not a God who is a person like us, only much bigger and angrier.  This is a God who created the universe, not in order to form a bunch of toadies who need to grovel before him, but simply created out of freedom, having no need whatsoever to create.  And because God did not create out of necessity, but out of freedom, it would appear that God created out of selfless generosity and love.  As Eagleton writes, "God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it, not a scientist at work on a magnificently rational design that will impress his research grant no end."[26]  And this creation, created out of divine freedom, shares in the divine freedom.  Christianity affirms that humanity was created in the image and likeness of God, and the very least this means is that humanity shares in God's freedom.  Thus, the relationship of God to humanity is not akin to that of master and slave, as Dawkins and Hitchens would have us think.  God's selfless generosity and radical love is further demonstrated in and through the Incarnation, the wholly incredible idea that God became a human being like us.  Jesus is born to a working-class family and born in ignoble circumstances.  This Jesus works with his hands.  This Jesus devotes an exorbitant amount of his time and energy with the marginalized, and even goes so far as to say that the Kingdom of God is precisely to be made up of those society rejects.  In short, Jesus manifests a God who is, in his very essence, love; who exists as and is love.  And Jesus' death is a demonstration of where selfless love often leads, while his resurrection shows that such love transcends the power of sin and death.  Through reflection on their experience of Jesus and of his Father through the Holy Spirit, Christians came to an understanding of God as Trinity, which is not some entirely abstract notion of divinity designed to confuse.  Rather, we have come to an understanding that God exists as community, that God exists, most significantly, as an eternal embrace of selfless love where each person of the Trinity gives the totality of themselves to one another in a dance of love so profound, so complete, so giving, so unifying, that threeness comes to equal oneness.  This is what it means to believe, as 1 John 4.8 reads, that “God is love.”  Love – self-giving, totally gratuitous, all-consuming love – is at the very heart of God’s essence.  This Trinitarian love, this notion that God exists eternally and completely as love, is at the heart of the beauty that is essential to the Christian faith.    It is the idea that God is love that makes sense of why the created order ever came into existence.  It is the idea that God is love that explains the gift of God’s very self to us in the Incarnation, when God became human.

Not only does Jesus Christ reveal God to be love, but he reveals to us the degree to which all of humanity is loved.  We are created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore have the stamp of the divine marked within our very existences.  By virtue of our humanness, therefore, we all have what the church calls an inherent dignity and surpassing worth, and the Incarnation reveals to us the infinite value of humanity in God’s eyes.  The church, the community we believe was established by Christ to be the nascent kingdom of God on earth, is itself to be a community of selfless love that exists in imitation of the love that is God.  And we are created and sustained as such a community of selfless love in and through baptism and the Eucharist.  For it is in baptism that we receive God’s very own Spirit who lovingly and selflessly descends upon each of us and lifts us up to become part of the dance of love that is the life of God.  Through the gift of God’s very self to us in baptism, we are drawn into communion and intimacy with God.  Through God’s Spirit, God ceases to be merely our creator.  God now becomes, through the Spirit, our Father.  Through the Spirit of Christ, Jesus becomes more than our Lord and Saviour.  He becomes our brother and our friend.

And in the Eucharist, the selfless love of God is made manifest as God continually gives the gift of himself in the bread and the wine.  Pope Benedict XVI outlines the implications of the Eucharist as follows in Sacramentum Caritatis in a way that I find beautiful:
The union with Christ brought about by the Eucharist also brings a newness to our social relations: this sacramental ‘mysticism’ is social in character. Indeed, union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own.  The relationship between the eucharistic mystery and social commitment must be made explicit…In the memorial of his sacrifice, the Lord strengthens our fraternal communion and, in a particular way, urges those in conflict to hasten their reconciliation by opening themselves to dialogue and a commitment to justice.
Overwhelmed by the love of God truly experienced in and through the Eucharist, we must and can love God and others in return.  We become united to God and to one another, and learn to view others with the love God has for all.  And in imitating the selfless love of God in the church, the church comes to manifest God to all. 

Now admittedly we as Christians don't live up to the ideal and we have, frequently in fact, portrayed an understanding of God that bears little resemblance to our theological tradition.  But, unless I'm very much mistaken, my brief summary of Christian theology is far more accurate than the one given by my New Atheist friends.   Moreover, this notion of God as love and as humanity as infinitely loved and of surpassing worth had revolutionary moral and political implications in the Roman Empire that continue to reverberate down to our time.  We are in our culture - whether we identify as Christians or not - inheritors of an anthropology and morality that has been shaped by the Christian ethical revolution of love (David Bentley Hart's book, Atheist Delusions, is particularly good on this theme).

Of course, one can look at Christian theology as I've outlined it and declare it to be hogwash.  One can study it and see it as no more plausible than unicorns or leprechauns.  But while what I've articulated about Christian theology may not be true, it certainly cannot be dismissed as ugly, ridiculous, absurd, and vicious.[27]   Unfortunately the New Atheists don't even bother looking at this understanding of Christianity, and prefer instead write off "a worthless caricature of the real thing, rooted in a degree of ignorance and prejudice to match religion's own."[28]  Even more unfortunate is the fact that many of the Roman Catholic faithful in this country are not exposed to the depth and beauty of their own religion.  And Dawkins' "Converts Corner" is filled with the testimonies of those who have left a faith that, frankly, they were never correctly taught.

Perhaps that is what we can learn most from the New Atheists.  As Hitchens writes in what surely is the most accurate sentence in god is not Great, "most ostensible believers are quite unsure of what they actually believe."[29]  My experience as a professor of theology at a Catholic university confirms Hitchens' observations.  Students who arrive in my classes almost universally associate Christianity - and Catholicism in particular - as being principally about 'rules' about what not to do, and have little or no perception of Christianity as being beautiful or even of having anything worthwhile to say.  Part of that has to do with being a young person, but a larger part, I think, has to do with the way our leaders – bishops, priests, theology teachers, Sunday school teachers – present Christianity to them.  There is, in my opinion, a crisis of catechesis within Roman Catholicism, and it is long past time that our church, particularly in these United States - start focusing its attention on articulating more fully the third of St. Thomas' transcendentals - the divine beauty that is a God of utterly selfless love.

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Mariner, 2008), 28.
[2] Christopher Hitchens, god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007), 66.
[3] Ibid., 64.
[4] Ibid., 63
[5] Ibid., 282.
[6] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Image, 1991), 13-14.
[7] Ibid., 14.
[8] Ibid., 17
[9] Ibid., 18.
[10] Dawkins, 51.
[11] Ibid., 284.
[12] Ibid., 287.
[13] Ibid., 285.
[14] Ibid., 287.
[15] Hitchens, 6.
[16] Ibid., 213.
[17] Ibid., 212.
[18] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 10
[19] Dawkins, 23-24.
[20] Hitchens, 278.
[21] Ibid., 13.
[22] Dawkins, 15.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), xi.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Terry Eagleton, “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching,” London Review of Books, 19 October 2006,
[27] A point reiterated continually in Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution.
[28] Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution, xi.
[29] Hitchens, 285.