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.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Complaining about Homilies

Anthony Trollope, in his celebrated book Barchester Towers, clearly expresses what I so often feel when I go to mass:
There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilised and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling audiences to sit silent, and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms, and untruisms, and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege, the same respectful demeanour as though words of impassioned eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips. Let a professor of law or physic find his place in a lecture-room, and there pour forth jejune words and useless empty phrases, and he will pour them forth to empty benches. Let a barrister attempt to talk without talking well, and he will talk but seldom. A judge's charge need be listened to per force by none but the jury, prisoner, and gaoler. A member of parliament can be coughed down or counted out. Town-councillors can be tabooed. But no one can rid himself of the preaching clergyman. He is the bore of the age, the old man whom we Sindbads cannot shake off, the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday's rest, the incubus that overloads our religion and makes God's service distasteful. We are not forced into church! No: but we desire more than that. We desire not to be forced to stay away. We desire, nay, we are resolute, to enjoy the comfort of public worship; but we desire also that we may do so without an amount of tedium which ordinary human nature cannot endure with patience; that we may be able to leave the house of God without that anxious longing for escape, which is the common consequence of common sermons.
So often, far too often, I attend mass and find myself having to endure the homily, instead of appreciating it.  The homily is intended to be the extension of the proclamation of the Word of God, but it so often feels like 10-15 minutes of utter misery as I squirm in my seat trying to pray the "Jesus Prayer," or trying to do anything but concentrate on how bad the homily is in order to preserve the last remnants of charity that still exist within my heart.

I have heard some amazing homilies.  Most of them, however, have not been within Catholic churches.  Because my beloved is not Catholic, I regularly attend an Episcopalian community with her where the homilies are usually theologically rich, pastorally sensitive, and thoroughly interesting.  But the vast majority of Catholic homilies I have heard have not been anywhere near this standard, and I'm left wondering why.  I know there are good homilists out there amongst us Romans, but why are they so few and far between?

I don't know the answer to this question.  I do know, however, that not all those 'licensed' to preach have the gift of being able to do so, and that is aggravating when there are so many men and women in our parishes who, I know, would be able to do a far better job of expounding on the Word if only they were sanctioned to do so.  There are, of course, good reasons for not opening up the pulpit to any and every Tom, Dick, or Sally.  But surely there can be a way to allow the prophetic voice to be able to make itself heard from a pulpit now and then, particularly when so often what we hear as parishioners is inane.

I don't know the solution to this problem.  I don't know whether our seminaries need to do a better job of teaching and assessing theological and homiletical training.

But I do know that I'm tired of hearing poor homilies.