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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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…
We are nearly at the end of the liturgical year, with daily readings from the Book of Revelation reminding us of the end of everything else too. Indeed, the month of November as a whole, beginning with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, is dedicated in a special way to remembering the dead and contemplating our own eternal future.
Some people have a problem with that.
Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Christianity’s most brilliant enemies, criticizes our faith for placing too much emphasis on the life to come, thereby emptying this life of meaning and giving unhappy and unsuccessful human beings—“mutterers and nook counterfeiters”—an excuse to wallow in their own misery until they arrive in “heaven,” which in Nietzsche’s estimation seems like little more than a very long nap.
This, I’m afraid, is not one of Nietzsche’s better arguments (though to give the poor old guy a break, I don’t think it’s original to him). Unfortunately, it has too often been taken up in one form or another by well-meaning Christians themselves. If we spend too much time contemplating heaven, they say, we will be neglectful of our duties here on earth. Or, as that summit of liturgical kitsch, “Gather Us In,” puts it, “Gather us in… [but] not in some heaven, light years away.”
Over the past year in a couple of the classes I’ve taken, I’ve had the pleasure of dabbling is some of the middle and late works of Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard is a literary genius—passionate, ironic, employing different genres and pseudonyms to keep his readers always just a bit off balance.
Some of the characters he creates are Christians, others not, and it’s always tricky to figure out where exactly the writer himself stands in the midst of his literary labyrinths. But by the end of his life, Kierkegaard was both writing openly as a Christian and saying some pretty challenging things about Christianity.
Kierkegaard is often associated with fideism and at times he seems to be arguing that Christians necessarily must embrace logical contradictions, which seems neither very Biblical nor very sensible to me. But there are ways of talking Kierkegaard down off his fideistic ledge and separating what is profound and challenging in his work from what is rhetorical excess. Not everything a character says, after all, should be attributed to the author.
In the spring of 2000 I spent a semester in Jerusalem, taking classes at Bethlehem University (a Palestinian institution) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Shortly before becoming a Jesuit I made another pilgrimage to the Holy Land, in the spring of 2006.
While in the Holy Land the second time I heard two Western tour guides, on separate occasions, tell an encouraging story about inter-religious cooperation. When Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square in the spring of 2000, the guides said, the mosque on the edge of the square silenced the call to prayer it normally broadcast at noon so as not to disturb the papal liturgy. According to the guides, doing so was an unprecedented gesture of goodwill.
There’s only one problem with this cheerful tale: it isn’t true.
I was in Manger Square that morning when the pre-recorded call to prayer came blasting over the Mosque of Omar’s loudspeakers midway through the Prayers of the Faithful. The lector paused, everyone stared at their feet in embarrassment for a few moments, and, when the recording finished, we went on with the Mass. When I visited six years after the fact, I had a conversation with a local Christian who told me that the interruption of that liturgy is still seen as a painful reminder of that community’s minority status.
I’ve blogged about the French-born anthropologist Rene Girard before (here’s my summary of key Girardian ideas); what I find particularly insightful in his work is the emphasis he places on how our desires develop through mimesis. In other words, we learn what to desire often just by imitating others. A few Girardian moments this summer reminded me of the validity of this point.
The first came at the first birthday party of my niece, the adorable Chloe, who I’ve mentioned before. Chloe has idiosyncratic tastes; she’s as often interested in gnawing on someone’s shoe or a newspaper as she is in playing with her toys. The one thing you can do to make her more interested in the toys, however, is to start playing with them yourself. Once Chloe notices someone else playing with a toy, she crawls resolutely across the floor and takes it from them! Mimetic desire starts early.
I thought of Girard again in northeast India when the fifth graders in the remote mountain village where I taught started flashing gang signs whenever I took their picture. Of course, when I asked them what they were doing and why, they had no real idea—they were just imitating something they had seen on TV.
I should back up a bit here and say that even though the village where I worked has no telephone connections, paved roads, refrigeration, radio reception, or indoor plumbing, nearly every house has satellite TV. An enduring image of the journey will be that of The Dish sticking out from under the thatched roofs of bamboo huts.
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.
Last month the Holy See gave final approval to a revised English translation of the Roman Missal, a long process not without its share of comedy, tragedy, and controversy. I, for one, am enthusiastic about the change, even while recognizing that change often takes a bit of effort to get used to.
The new translations have come in for a bit of criticism on the web and elsewhere, including a rather odd online petition drive. The criticism mostly stems from the fact that the new translations, which hew more closely to the Latin original than the translations now in use, employ a vocabulary and syntax that is likely to sound a bit foreign to most contemporary English-speakers.
The desire for the words used at Mass to be comprehensible to most people is straightforward and laudable, but simple comprehension is not the only quality we should expect in our worship language. In fact, sometimes it’s desirable for language to sound unusual and, yes, even foreign. To help me make this point, let me call on two old friends from my days as an undergraduate English major: Herman Melville and Ernest Hemingway. Read the rest of this entry »
Since the weekend’s big feast, Pentecost, is sometimes colloquially referred to as the birthday of the Church, I thought I’d offer a little birthday greeting. I couldn’t fit two thousand candles on a cake, so I came up with a top ten list instead. Maybe it’s not really my top ten, but here are ten things I love about the Church. (The New York Times doesn’t want you to know this, but, yes, it’s still okay to love being Catholic.)
10. Songs about Mary. Whether it’s Pavarotti belting out “Ave Maria” or tone-deaf Jesuits (like yours truly) humming their way through the “Salve,” the Blessed Mother brings out something sweet and beautiful even in the gruffest of us.
9. Relics. They may seem a little weird to contemporary American tastes, but think about all that relics say about the importance of the body, the embodied nature of our faith, and our hope, ultimately, in the resurrection of the body.
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 »
When I first began writing for Whosoever Desires, one of our readers suggested I should say something about my two years in Kazakhstan and, in particular, about the state of the Kazakhstani Church.
I worked in Kazakhstan from 2002-2004, straight out of college, well before the thought of becoming a Jesuit had crossed my mind; my concerns and inclinations at the time were, I confess, decidedly more worldly than they are today. I found that there are two basic drives motivating Peace Corps volunteers: an idealism trying to make the world a better place and a thirst for adventure. Like most, I possessed a bit of both.
I’ve been taking a Nietzsche course this semester and enjoying it immensely. Don’t get me wrong: Nietzsche and I are on opposite sides of the question of God’s vitality, and a few other things besides. But it’s refreshing to have an opponent of Nietzsche’s caliber; next to him, today’s neo-atheists look like so many prattling dwarves. An account of Christianity that can stand up to Nietzsche is a robust account indeed.
In my pre-Easter Nietzsche class we discussed the second essay of the Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche spends a lot of time in the essay on the notions of credit and debt and the role these concepts play in the origin of conscience, guilt, and religion. To simplify a bit, Nietzsche sees the origin of gods in ancestor worship and the origin of ancestor worship in the sense of indebtedness we feel toward the founders of our respective tribes.
The rest of the story by now is probably familiar to you: indebtedness becomes wrapped up in guilt and fear, and poor little man ends up cowering before the Judeo-Christian God, conscious of an infinite indebtedness he can never repay. And then along comes Jesus to pay the debt for us, but, oh no! What’s this? Jesus’ attempt to repay the debt only leaves man further in the hole because, well, he just killed God. So guilt and debt and fear abide…
With Holy Week here, it’s natural for our thoughts to turn to the Cross and Christ’s self-sacrifice. Of late I’ve had the pleasure of being drawn into conversations with a number of Girardians, here at Loyola and elsewhere, so as I’ve contemplated the Passion this year, I’ve done so in light of the work of René Girard.
My knowledge of Girard comes mainly from I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (1999), in which the French-born anthropologist summarizes many of his ideas in a form accessible to theologians. Girard’s work is refreshingly insightful because he takes seriously two notions most of his secular colleagues are afraid to touch: Christianity’s claim to uniqueness among world religions and the religious foundations of civilization itself. Girard, in fact, refers to I See Satan Fall Like Lightning as an apology for Christianity made on anthropological grounds. Though he is clear in stating that he is not a theologian, it is well worth puzzling out the theological implications of his unique “apology.”
But since some of our readers are likely unfamiliar with Girard, it’s perhaps best to begin with a summary of the key ideas he develops in I See Satan this week and then turn to their applications in a second post two weeks from now. This will also give others a chance to correct my non-expert misinterpretations. Read the rest of this entry »
Last week I posted some reflections on Bill Maher’s anti-religious satire Religulous. While I thought the movie itself tiring and tired, I found Maher’s elevation of Doubt to the level of high religious virtue too ironic to pass up. I half-thought Maher was going to recommend building a statue of Doubt and lighting candles at her feet.
I decided to take Maher’s statements about Doubt seriously because I think he makes a mistake that a lot of people make when thinking about religion—namely confusing doubt with humility.
As a more thoughtful example of such confusion I referred to a section of President Obama’s speech at Notre Dame—not the part about abortion that everybody talked about at the time, but a lesser-noticed part when the President spoke of doubt as “the ultimate irony of faith.”
Both President Obama and Maher praised doubt because, in the President’s words, “it should humble us.” If you think about it, that’s a fairly strange claim. Read the rest of this entry »
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to serve as a soldier of God beneath the banner of the cross in our Society, which we desire to be designated by the name of Jesus, and to serve the Lord alone and the Church his Spouse, under the Roman pontiff, the vicar of Christ on earth, should, after a vow of perpetual chastity, poverty, and obedience, keep the following in mind." From the Formula of the Institute, 1540