Letting the King be king

November 26, 2012

Sunday’s Solemnity of Christ the King comes between the memorials of two of my favorite Jesuit martyrs, Bl. Miguel Pro (Nov. 23) and St. Edmund Campion (Dec. 1).  These priests were killed in the religious persecution of twentieth century Mexico and sixteenth century England respectively.  The proximity of these feast days reminds me of the issue that has lately been atop the list of the American bishops’ concerns:  religious liberty.

I was asked to give a reflection for a community gathering on the feast of Miguel Pro, and as I thought about his life and martyrdom the question that I couldn’t shake was:  why are American Catholics not more concerned about religious liberty?  Catholic institutions have already been shuttered in Illinois and Massachusetts, and powerful cultural voices are explicitly calling for the exclusion of Christianity from the public square.  Pro’s death occurred less than a century ago and on this continent.  Do we think it cannot happen here?  Why do American Catholics seem so sleepy?

There are obvious answers:  the indifference (and often hostility) of the media; a general climate of secularism and religious indifferentism; political commitments that make raising the question uncomfortable for some, especially in an election year.  But it’s perhaps more instructive to look a bit deeper, at attitudes ingrained in our American outlook that make us drowsy when it comes to religious liberty.  Among other factors, three modern myths stand out. Read the rest of this entry »

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Pontius Pilate, Postmodern American

April 18, 2011

Nathan’s post on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ last year generated a lot of discussion and ended with an intriguing question:  “Why does Pilate always get so much empathy from us?”

It would be easy, at this point, to start tossing around charges of anti-Semitism, charges which would allow us to feel a certain measure of moral superiority over those less enlightened than ourselves.  Then we could pray like the righteous Pharisee, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, anti-Semites like Mel Gibson over there” (Lk 18:10).

Throwing around such charges is a way of doing precisely the same thing that blaming the Jews for the crucifixion once did:  deflecting guilt from ourselves.  I would suggest a far more troubling answer to the question, “Why do we empathize with Pilate?”

Because Pontius Pilate is the character in the Passion who is most like us.

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A Church of sinners or a Church of one

August 5, 2010

Anne Rice has left Christianity.  While the author of vampire novels is not a figure of such towering intellectual stature that I anticipate droves of believers following her, the arguments she gives for leaving the Church are common enough to deserve comment.

Rice claims to have “quit Christianity in the name of Christ.”  The problem, she claims, isn’t Jesus:  it’s his followers, who are “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous.”

In the Facebook announcement of her departure, Rice works herself up into a rhetorical snit over how awful Christians really are:  they’re “anti-gay,” “anti-science,” “anti-secular humanist,” even—wait for it—“anti-life”.  Rice herself, of course, lacks such faults and is sure Jesus does, too, so he can stay even if everyone else must go.

The problem with such a line of argument is that Rice hasn’t really rejected the Church:  she’s simply created a Church of one.

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Lying & Religion

July 25, 2010

As regular readers have no doubt deduced, I like movies.  Some movies rise to the level of great art—The Godfather and The Godfather II come to mind—while others are merely entertainment.  A very average movie that I saw recently was The Invention of Lying.

The Invention of Lying tells a rather familiar story:  chubby but sympathetic boy gets attractive girl.  It stars Ricky Gervais, of the British version of the TV show The Office, and it has a few amusing moments.  The premise of the movie is that it takes place in a world in which people always tell the truth.  They have not invented lying or even fiction.  In fact, they have no words for “truth” or “lying” because the concepts are beyond them.

I tend to like comedy in which people say terribly inappropriate things which also happen to be true, so the film’s premise appealed to me.  The plot thickens—and the film gets its title—when Mark, the Ricky Gervais character, who is kind of a loser, in a moment of inspiration, tells a bank teller that he has more money in his account than he really does.  Since nobody in their world lies, she assumes her computer has made an error and gives him all the money he asks for.  From then on, Mark realizes all the great things that can be accomplished by inventing one’s own truth.

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Tourists & Pilgrims

May 3, 2010

Instead of heading south for spring break this year, as most sensible people do, I went to South Dakota.  I didn’t go for the beaches, but instead to visit the Jesuit community on the Rosebud Reservation.  The cultural milieu of the “Rez” is fascinating, and the Jesuits who live there are fine hardworking men.

One conversation in particular got me thinking.  We were discussing the summer Sun Dances, native religious rituals in which men dance—sometimes for several days without sustenance—and pierce their skin as a way of offering sacrifice to the divine.  Someone remarked that at a Sun Dance he had visited the previous summer there were more German tourists than Lakota worshippers.

I found the incident disturbing in different ways.  Though obviously not a practitioner of non-Christian “traditional” religion myself, I couldn’t help but feel that the practices of those traditions had been somehow cheapened when reduced to a spectacle for tourists.

For me the more disturbing question, however, is what the phenomenon of the Teutonic Sun Dance says about the spiritual grounding of Westerners.  Is part of the reason so many German tourists find the Sun Dance so alluring the lack of spiritual sustenance in their own culture? Read the rest of this entry »


Alasdair MacIntyre and Fractured Modernity

March 23, 2010

If anyone has both the ambition and the ability to complete a critical history of God, philosophy, and universities in 193 pages, who better than Alasdair MacIntyre?  Now a hair over eighty and still teaching a very-hard-to-get-into undergraduate seminar at Notre Dame, the Scottish-born philosopher and trenchant critic of modern morality has done just that in God, Philosophy, Universities:  A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition.

I have been a fan of Alasdair MacIntyre since he made a guest appearance in one of my undergraduate ethics courses and warned the roomful of over-eager philosophy majors not to let our minds be ruined by philosophy.  Though he admits God, Philosophy, Universities is by no means a comprehensive history of any of the three, MacIntyre’s insights into all of the above are worthwhile.  What is particularly valuable is MacIntyre’s conviction that the three should somehow fit together.

As one might expect, many sections of the book are dense, summarizing centuries of philosophical arguments in a few paragraphs.  MacIntyre delivers a succinct summary of Aquinas’ metaphysics in a single memorable chapter, and his treatment of Pascal, the Jansenist Antoine Arnauld, and the soul/body problem is enlightening.  He quotes Newman on conscience—“Conscience implies a relation between the soul and a something exterior, and that moreover superior, to itself”—and even draws on Nietzsche’s criticism of the presuppositions of philosophers.

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Moderne, Postmoderne und wir

February 22, 2010

It has been wonderful to page through First Things 20th Anniversary Issue—and not only because of its priceless, circa-early-90s pictures of the neocon clan.  The issue also features some excellent First Things essays which I have never read, like Joseph Bottom’s “Christians and Postmoderns” from February 1994.  Alas, I wasn’t a ROFTER at age ten.

Reading the essay caused some latent neurons in my head to refire as I began again to consider a question I have often mulled over: Which poses a greater threat to Christianity, modernity or postmodernity?

Were I submitting this essay to a professor for a grade, I would need, at this point, to stop and define what I mean by modernity and postmodernity.  But since I am not handing the essay in for a grade and want to avoid writing a many-thousand word blog post, let me omit positing a definition of modernity—and trust that the term is more or less clear—and proceed straightaway to the difficult task of grabbing the slippery fish of postmodernity and holding it still long enough to slap a definition on it. Read the rest of this entry »