Romney v. Kennedy

November 21, 2011

But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; and they said, “No! but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations…”

1 Samuel 8:19

As I noted a few weeks ago, the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney has prompted questions about Mormonism and the fitness of Mormons to serve in public office.  It has also prompted references to the 1960 presidential election, in which John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism was seen by some as a bar to the presidency.

The standard narrative—the way this episode is presented in high school history classes—is that Kennedy’s election was a great leap forward for American Catholics, and certainly it was experienced as such at the time.  No longer were Catholics seen as second-class citizens; Kennedy’s election proved, to use his words, that “40 million Americans [had not] lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized.”

Early on in their candidacies both candidates gave speeches, both in Texas, attempting to head off the “religious issue.”  While both speeches are rhetorically powerful, that of the Mormon, I’m sorry to say, is more nuanced and more thoughtful.  Both Kennedy and Romney make the case that their religion should not disqualify them from office; that as president they intend to serve all Americans and not only their coreligionists; and that they are not spokesmen for their respective churches.

Seen in retrospect, however, Kennedy seems far more willing to bury his Catholicism beneath a bushel basket—and then douse that bushel basket with concrete—than Romney is with his Mormonism.  To be fair to Kennedy, his speech in many ways reflects the era in which it was given, when American society was far more homogeneous and a much broader moral consensus existed than does today.  American society was more religious generally, with secularism per se a negligible phenomenon, and mainline Protestantism still a dominant cultural force.  Catholic identity was thicker—in ways hard to imagine for those of my generation—with new seminaries under construction, Mass attendance at around eighty percent, and the system of Catholic social services (schools, hospitals, colleges) still very close to their immigrant roots.  Perhaps the nuance that Kennedy’s speech lacks did not seem, at the time, necessary.

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Polish piety

August 10, 2011

In the chapel of the oldest continuously operating Jesuit novitiate in the world, in a sleepy village in southern Poland, the likenesses of great Jesuits of the past gaze from the walls above, their faces turned attentively toward the altar—with one exception.  Francis Xavier is looking out the window.

It’s not irreverence, of course, that has the saint turned the other way.  Xavier, who agreed to leave Europe for the Orient on a day’s notice, was, in addition to being the greatest missionary since Paul, one of history’s great travelers, a man whose desire to plant the seeds of the Gospel where they had never been sown before was extinguished only by death.

There’s something essentially Jesuit in that desire, and hopefully at least a spark of it burns in each one of us.  Our formation, you may recall, aims to prepare us to go anywhere in the world, though usually we’re given a bit more notice than Francis Xavier.  For me, this summer was no exception and saw me spending July in Krakow teaching English to Jesuit scholastics from Poland, Croatia, and Russia.

It was heartening to meet and live with such good brothers, and equally heartening to be immersed in Polish culture.  The Poles are a wonderful people—noble, warm, and very, very Catholic.  I realize that this is a bit of a generalization and that one should be careful conflating religious and ethnic identity.  (And in fact, at an academic conference I attended earlier in the summer I met a number of young and quite impressive Catholic scholars from such bastions of secularism as Belgium and France.)  What makes Poland special, however, is the degree to which Catholicism has penetrated the culture, the ways in which the faith is palpable in all aspects of Polish life.  The Poles are unabashedly pious.

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Contra Dennett III: Mystery

July 4, 2011

In my first post on the subject I argued that that Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell sets up a straw man by attacking only a childish and incoherent understanding of religion.  In my second I looked at his attempt to weigh the pros and cons of religion, which is riddled with logical flaws.  Dennett paints believers as unquestioning simpletons clinging to the stories they were told in childhood—he compares religion to Santa Claus—and simply ignores or breezily brushes aside any evidence that might contradict his stereotype.

One further aspect of Dennett’s charge against theism, however, deserves attention, for it can sometimes be a stumbling block even to believers—the notion of mystery.

For Dennett, “mystery” is simply a trump card played by believers whenever they can’t think of anything better to say, a talisman to be invoked when one has run out of arguments.  Unfortunately, sometimes this can be the case, especially when dealing with the sort of unsophisticated believers Dennett seems to favor.

In Dennett’s view, religious beliefs once provided simplistic explanations about why the world is the way it is, but believers have had to retreat from many of these explanations as human thought evolved.  Since religious beliefs are false to begin with—only material phenomena are real—they necessarily lead believers into absurdities and contradictions from which they attempt to extract themselves by changing their beliefs or, if they’re too stubborn for that, invoking mystery.

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Contra Dennett II: The Crusades, the Inquisition, and all that

June 21, 2011

Last week, I argued that Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell amounts to an attack on a straw man, “Religion,” an amalgam of what he calls “an unorganized set of dozens or hundreds—or billions—of quite different possible theories.”

Billions, huh?

Dennett is right in noting that many of these theories are vague and incompatible, and it would be a mistake to treat them all as equally valid. (Another reason believers should be on guard against relativism and syncretism, which result in religious absurdities at which skeptics rightly scoff.)

His straw man stuffed, however, Dennett is determined to beat the hay out of him. His argument is that in weighing up the pluses and minuses of Religion, it turns out that the phenomenon has been a net negative to human progress. There’s nothing even remotely scientific in Dennett’s method here, and he relies on stringing together a series of loaded associations without seriously exploring what his examples actually prove.

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Contra Dennett I: Stuffing a straw man

June 14, 2011

I’ve made little secret on these pages of my disdain for the crop of neo-atheists who have gotten so much acclaim over the past several years. Most of their arguments wouldn’t merit a passing grade for a high school sophomore.  (No offense intended to our exceptionally bright high school readers, especially those from MUHS.)

Nonetheless, Pope Paul VI in 1966 entrusted the Society of Jesus with the mission to make a “stout, united stand against atheism,” so I’ve devoted some time in my philosophy studies to the work of these neo-atheists.  Of the bunch, Daniel C. Dennett has a reputation for seriousness in part because he is a philosophy professor at Tufts, so I decided to review his book Breaking the Spell for a philosophy of religion class—and to share parts of my critique with you, dear readers of Whosoever Desires.

Dennett frames his book as a plea for the rational study of religion, a rather innocuous suggestion to which believers themselves should pose no objections.  I wish, in fact, that Catholic leaders would study seriously the research done by sociologists such as Christian Smith or Rodney Stark.  (Stark’s analysis disproves the common assumption that the growth of religious communities comes by loosening religious demands, when quite the opposite is true.)  Dennett claims that the only “prescription” he intends to make “categorically and without reservation” is to “do more research.”

Unfortunately, Dennett’s true agenda is revealed at the end of the book when he advocates a program of worldwide reeducation into a “historically and biologically informed” view of religion in order to combat “those who would betray our democracy in pursuit of their religious agendas.”  Such reeducation would be conducted “gently, firmly,” Dennett reassures us, but would necessarily involve depriving parents of the right to bring up their children in their own religious tradition.  Rather more than research is involved in the spell Dennett attempts to cast.

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A new index of forbidden ideas?

February 22, 2011

The satirical documentary is not a genre known to be friendly to religious faith.  See, for example, my posts on Bill Maher’s Religulous (here and here).  Michael Moore pioneered this type of documentary—NOVA meets Saturday Night Live—with Roger & Me in 1989.  The genre relies heavily on ironic juxtapositions and gotcha moments.

While I have nothing against a little satire, the style and technique of such documentaries limit how deeply they can engage an issue.  These limitations apply to Ben Stein’s Expelled:  No Intelligence Allowed (2008), though Stein’s perspective is antithetical to Maher’s:  it’s secular orthodoxy he’s skewering.

The point of departure for the documentary is the dismissal of several faculty members from various universities across the country (George Mason, SUNY Stony Brook, Baylor, and Iowa State, as well as the Smithsonian Institute).  These professors were allegedly too sympathetic to “intelligent design”.  The film doesn’t do much to help us judge the merits of intelligent design theories, but Stein’s point is not so much about the validity of the theory itself as it is about academic freedom.

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Johnny Cash, Benedict XVI & the Authority Problem – Part 1 of 2

December 17, 2010

12.17.10

This Advent has found me listening to a lot of music by the late great Johnny Cash. Johnny’s one of my favorites, and there are so many things to love about him – his honesty, his fire, the prophetic depth of his voice. I love it all. I love that Bob Dylan once said of Johnny, “he sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest… Johnny’s voice was so big, it made the world grow small.” I love how Johnny’s is a perfect sound for a cold winter, and for bringing Jesus’ impending arrival to mind.

But the thing I love the most about him is the rough honesty of his faith; how Jesus outlines all the jagged edges of the man’s life. I love how he wasn’t ever ashamed to lay that faith on the table for all to see. Damn the consequences. Rick Rubin (the great Hip Hop producer; the one who deserves my ceaseless praise for giving us Johnny’s last six American Recordings albums) tells an anecdote that captures what I love about the man. Rick said:

“I remember we had a dinner party at my house one night with Johnny and [his wife] June… and before dinner Johnny had everyone hold hands and he said a prayer and he read from the Bible. And I know some of the people at the table had never experienced that before. And I know some of the people at the table were even atheists. But his belief in what he believed was so strong that what you believed didn’t matter so much. Because you were in the presence of someone who really believed. And that felt good.”

As Emeril would say: “Bam!” As I would say: “Preach on, Johnny.”

Anyway, I’ve been listening over and over to a song that, like Johnny himself, pulls no punches. It’s rough and jagged and honest and it’s called “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” Here’s the video. It’s worth 2.8 minutes for sure.

I know it’s presumptive to speak for the man, but I think Johnny would be proud of that video. I think he’d love the effect his song had on all those saints of pop culture. It’s like he’s been able to reach out from beyond the grave and say to them: “I’ve been where you are – I’ve been at the top of the word. And I got one thing to say: memorare mortis, friends, memorare mortis.”

To me, Johnny sounds in song a lot like Benedict sounds in prose. They echo each other in my heart like friends crying across a great canyon…

Johnny: “You can run on for a long time, run on for a long time… Tell the rambler, the gambler, the backbiter – tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut ‘em down.”

Benedict: “In practice [one]… should live quasi Deus esset – as if God really exists. He should live subject to the reality of truth, which is not our own creation, but our mistress.”

Johnny: “I been down on bended knee, talking to the man from Galilee. He spoke to me in a voice so sweet, I thought heard the shuffle of angel’s feet. He called my name and my heart stood still, he said ‘John, go do my will’.”

Benedict: “[We] should live subject to the love that awaits us and that loves even us. Live under the challenge of eternity… And one who – even if perhaps at first only hesitantly – entrusts him/herself to this difficult yet inescapable as if… will know profoundly and indelibly why Christianity is still necessary today as the genuinely Good News by which we are redeemed.”

I listen to these two talking, listen to that song, and I feel my own heart opened up this Advent. I feel myself a little more ready to welcome the little one who is my Savior. Because while I can run on for a long time, sooner or later…

Preach on Johnny. Preach on Papa mea.

– PG, SJ