BELIEVE IT, OR NOT: Nick Kristoff is taking a lot of heat for this column in today’s New York Times about religious belief. I generally count myself among those who are fans of Kristoff. His book on China (written with his wife) is first rate and I generally enjoy his commentary on foreign affairs. But there are times when a man should stick to what he knows, and this seems to be one of them.
For starters, I think I would read a little more widely than Hans Kung before I would feel comfortable pronouncing on the historicity of the Virgin Birth. Reading Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah would be a good start. Suffice to say that there is significant evidence of the belief in the Virgin Birth being a very early tradition that was not significantly influenced by other ancient myths of virgin births (and, in fact, such myths were far less widespread than is generally believed).
More fundamentally, though, Kristoff’s argument suggests that the only religion he is comfortable with is one that surrenders any supernatural truth claims at all. After all, if belief in a virgin birth seems incredible, how much more incredible is the idea that a man could rise from the dead or the idea that there is a God at all. Is there “scientific or historical evidence” for anything beyond the fact that 2,000 years ago an itinerant preacher named Jesus was put to death by a Roman official named Pontius Pilate?”
The bogeyman of Kristoff’s nightmares is clearly, “fundamentalism,” rather than “mysticism.” Unlike most forms of mysticism, fundamentalism is uncomfortable with ambiguity and tends to read the figurative and metaphoric language of religious faith in an ahistorical and excessively literal way. It imagines that it is being faithful to the past, but it views that past in ways that are thoroughly modern. Kristoff seems ignorant of the fact that belief in the Virgin Birth is not a product of modern Christian fundamentalism, but rather has been an explicit article of the Christian Creed for almost 2,000 years.
Kristoff’s argument is, in some ways, actually dangerous. It suggests to people of faith that there can be no peaceful co-existence between reason and faith and that the forces of reason and secularism will accept nothing less from religion than unconditional surrender. In its own way, Kristoff’s argument is the mirror image of the rhetoric of the Osama Bin Ladens and Pat Robertsons of the world. It ignores the fact that the rich intellectual heritage of the West, including the Enlightenment rationality that Kristoff so evidently prizes, itself has deep religious roots.
NO COMMENT: The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that the Pentagon wants to cut the pay of its 148,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Unless Congress and President Bush take quick action when Congress returns after Labor Day, the uniformed Americans in Iraq and the 9,000 in Afghanistan will lose a pay increase approved last April of $75 a month in "imminent danger pay" and $150 a month in "family separation allowances." The Defense Department supports the cuts, saying its budget can't sustain the higher payments amid a host of other priorities.
HAPPY 100 JOHN! Today NCR publishes the 100th Word from Rome column by John Allen. As usual, it is full of more information than I can possibly summarize. Allen has a good take on the recent hubub over Crimen Sollicitationis, the 1962 document that CBS news reported was a "smoking gun" that pointed to a Vatican conspiracy to cover up sexual abuse cases. As Allen details, the reality is a little more prosaic. Allen suggests that this story marks a new turning point in relations between the press and the Church, with reporters increasingly predisposed to believe any allegations against the Chuch:
Of course, this is terribly unfair. In the case of Crimen Sollicitationis, CBS should have checked with canon lawyers before rushing on the air with a report that created an inaccurate impression. But the church has to some extent brought this on itself: its record of concealment, stonewalling and denial has created a climate in which hasty and one-sided reports are going to find traction.
What is needed now is a communications strategy for the Catholic Church in the United States that goes beyond waiting for the next story to blow up, and then blaming the press for its incomprehension. The American church desperately needs to go on the offensive, opening itself up, telling its story, and reestablishing trust with the press and the public. If not, a whole generation of reporters may come of age thinking of the Catholic Church as its Nixon White House, the great white whale of investigative journalism.
PEOPLE LIKE US: David Brooks writes that for all the lip service we pay to diversity, Americans lead increasingly undiverse lives. Consciously or not, we are choosing to live, work, and play with people who are very much like ourselves. Consider the following:
Think of your twelve closest friends...If you had chosen them randomly from the American population, the odds that half of your twelve closest friends would be college graduates would be six in a thousand. The odds that half of the twelve would have advanced degrees would be less than one in a million.
The truth is that almost all my closest friends are college graduates, which I suspect makes me even more of an outlier. There was a time in my life when I knew a good number of people who didn't go to college, but as I've gotten older and settled down, my social world has contracted dramatically. Most of the folks I interact regularly outside my office are middle class, churchgoing, college-educated suburbanites.
Bringing it back to the religious dimension for the moment, it's trends like these that make me reflect on the practical value of the diocese in church life. We tend to get very "congregational" in our parishes and that can reinforce the various divisions of class, ethnicity and language that as Christians we are trying to overcome. Knowing that your parish is part of a larger body that stretches from the toughest parts of Oakland to the toniest parts of Danville makes you realize that "that they might be one" isn't just about how Catholics relate to other Christians. One of the reasons I really enjoy attending the Pastoral Ministry School is that it brings me into regular contact with people whom I might not otherwise meet in my own parish. The students in our class literally come from all over the world and all walks of life and one really does get a sense of what it means to be a "universal church" when we talk together.
SAID: Christopher Hitchens has a good essay in the Atlantic Monthly about Palestinian expatriate, intellectual and author Edward Said. Fluent in several languages, a religious minority twice removed (a Christian among Muslims and an Anglican among a largely Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic population), and at home in Beirut or New York City, Said seemed uniquely placed to help the Arab World and the West explain themselves to one another. Instead, Said has become something of a tragic figure, embracing an increasingly narrow Arab nationalism and anti-Americanism that essentially gives aid and comfort to both the sclerotic regimes that dominate Arab states and the Islamic radicals arrayed against them.
Next to go should be those "We are Jesus" hymns in which the congregation (for the first time in two millennia of Christian hymnology) pretends that it's Christ. "Love one another as I have loved you/Care for each other, I have cared for you/Bear each other's burdens, bind each other's wounds/and so you will know my return." Who's praying to whom here? And is the Lord's "return" to be confined to our doing of his will? St. John didn't think so. "Be Not Afraid" and "You Are Mine" fit this category, as does the ubiquitous "I Am the Bread of Life," to which I was recently subjected on, of all days, Corpus Christi -- the one day in the Church year completely devoted to the fact that we are not a self-feeding community giving each other "the bread of life" but a Eucharistic people nourished by the Lord's free gift of himself. "I am the bread of life" inverts that entire imagery, indeed falsifies it.
Look, I'm not a great fan of many of these hymns either. But I would say that speaking in the voice of God is not exactly unknown in the Jewish and Christian musical tradition prior to 1960. At the end of Psalm 46, for example, the Psalmist cries out in the voice of the Lord "Be still and know that I am God, supreme among the nations, supreme among the earth!" Or consider this from Psalm 81:
"I relieved their shoulders of the burden; their hands put down the basket.
In distress you called and I rescued you; unseen, I spoke to you in thunder; At the waters of Meribah I tested you and said:
'Listen, my people, I give you warning! If only you will obey me, Israel!
There must be no foreign god among you; you must not worship an alien god.
I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt. Open wide your mouth that I may fill it.'
But my people did not listen to my words; Israel did not obey me.
So I gave them over to hardness of heart; they followed their own designs.
But even now if my people would listen, if Israel would walk in my paths,
In a moment I would subdue their foes, against their enemies unleash my hand.
Those who hate the LORD would tremble, their doom sealed forever.
But Israel I would feed with the finest wheat, satisfy them with honey from the rock."
Personally, I'll take this over "Be Not Afraid" any day, and not just because I can never hit the high notes in the third line. Well, maybe that has just a little bit to do with it...
I've decided that you bloggers are like the 17th century French court: an obsessive social circle constantly calculating alliances (with other bloggers); gossipy and sometimes outrageously catty about people in power; carefully measuring the political climate, whispering rumors of beheadings; members of the highest reaches of the establishment but outsiders in an insider's world.
And I love every minute of it.
I suspect this is a fairly good description of those of us over here at Saint Blogs as well. For those of you interested in the twists and turns of the California recall election, keep tuned to Weintrab's well-regarded blog.
NOT ENOUGH: Tom Friedman reports from Iraq. He is excited about the efforts of the Iraqi people to build a new society for themselves, but concerned that the United States has not put enough resources on the ground to ensure success:
We have planted many good ideas and programs here, but the ideas will not be heard and the programs will not flower without more money to create jobs, more troops to protect the electricity and more time to train Iraqis so U.S. troops can get off the streets, and without a U.S. advisory team here dedicated to stay. There is no continuity. U.S. advisers come for a few months, then leave, and their replacements have to start all over.
FINDING GOD IN SMALL GROUPS: An article in Christianity Today looks at the Methodist roots of the "small group" movement in the United States. I'm not questioning Wesley's influence, but I wonder how much influence Methodism really had on the Catholic strain of the small group movement. Small groups are also a key part of some of the major Catholic lay movements of the 20th century, many of whom originated in places like Spain, Italy and Latin America. I wonder how much opportunity they had to be influenced by Wesleyan Methodism.
A BLUNT INSTRUMENT: In this week's Tablet, Boston College theology professor Stephen Pope takes issue with some elements of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's recent document on same-sex unions. Pope argues that the document is extremely abstract; it makes a number of essentially empirical assertions about the nature of gay and lesbian relationships, but offers only doctrinal arguments to support those assertions:
Methodologically, the CDF and its opponents speak past one another: the former argues a priori from a conception of the human good to the specific moral issue of homosexual unions, while the latter proceed from their experience of concrete human goods to the question of ethical principles. The former does not provide any non-doctrinal evidence to support its generalisations; the latter ask: is it really the case that same- sex unions, as the document asserts, make no “significant or positive contribution to the development of the human person in society”? On the basis of what evidence is such a sweeping generalisation made? More specifically, what kind of “attack” on marriage has been experienced, for example, in Vermont or British Columbia, where same-sex unions are now recognised by the State? Have heterosexual identity and the institution of marriage been threatened or subverted in these places? Future reflection and dialogue on the issue of same-sex unions will benefit from increased knowledge of the long-term impact of same-sex unions on marriage as an institution and on the moral formation of young people.
Pope identifies one area of the document where I think this is particularly true: the assertion that children raised by parents in a same-sex relationship are the victims of a form of "violence." This is a very grave charge and the document provides little in the way of evidence to support it. One could certainly hypothesize that being raised in such an environment could adversely affect children and adolescents in a number of ways, but I think the jury is still out here. I wouldn't be surprised, for example, if the psychological "impact" of being raised by parents in a same-sex relationship was significantly less than the impact of living through a parental divorce or being raised in poverty. If we're going to start suggesting that any child raised in a less than a 100 percent perfect environment is a victim of "violence" then we might as well start sending checks to Planned Parenthood's "Every Child a Wanted Child" campaign tomorrow.