When Heaven Freezes Over

Hotels and bars made out of ice have been common for a while — now a church is the latest project to get the cold treatment. In the Bavarian Forest, one congregation wants to build a place of worship out of 1,400 cubic meters of snow, just as their ancestors did 100 years ago.

Everything is in place in Mitterfirmiansreut for the mountain village’s biggest construction project in a century — everything, that is, but the snow. Because residents in the Bavarian village near the Czech border are planning to erect a full-size church made entirely out of snow, in homage to their ancestors who did the same thing 100 years ago.

Once completed, the church will be able to accommodate up to 190 people. The plans call for a sweeping design, with a main room 26 meters long and 6.5 meters high and a tower soaring 17 meters high. Inside there will be sculptures, an altar and pews — all made out of ice. In total, 1,400 cubic meters of snow will be needed.

Although the snow church doesn’t even exist yet, requests for weddings and baptisms have already been flooding in to Bernd Stiefvater. The 45-year-old restaurateur has worked with friends on plans for the church for two years. Some 200 people have since become involved in a booster club.

An Unusual Protest

Stiefvater wants the snow church to serve as a reminder of an extraordinary event in local history. At the beginning of the 20th century, a trip to Sunday mass for people living in the remote mountain village of Mitterfirmiansreut meant an arduous 90-minute walk to the neighboring town of Mauth. After their pleas for a church of their own fell on deaf ears, the villagers decided to mount an unusual protest during the Christmas season of 1911: They built their own church out of snow.

“For me this is a really touching story of how people of faith can achieve anything,” says Stiefvater. He wants the new version of the snow church to honor this commitment 100 years later. The planning and construction of the church will cost about €100,000 ($135,000), according to the booster club. The money for the church is coming from sponsors, and the organizers are hoping to win financial support from an EU program.

The plans for the snow church have been drawn up by architect Alfons Doeringer. “Nothing in this project is routine. There were no standards and no norms,” he says. Designs for the church’s vaulting shape were created in collaboration with structural engineers. Doeringer is very aware of the potential risks: “That is an extremely heavy mass of snow, and people will be underneath it.”

The architect says 20 centimeters of snow is needed before construction can begin, with the grand opening planned for Dec. 17. There will be concerts and prayers held in the church, as well as an ice sculpture exhibition from Jan. 22 to 28 and a market with traditional handicrafts on Feb. 12.

Interest in the project has been brisk, and Stiefvater says numerous tour groups have registered to visit the church. And if there is not enough snow in Mitterfirmiansreut this year?

“That is very unlikely,” says Stiefvater. “But then we would just build the church next winter.”

__________

Full article and photos: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,797988,00.html

Vatican Rushes to Clarify Pope’s Comments in Book

The Vatican on Sunday rushed to clarify a recent interview by Pope Benedict XVI, in which the pontiff states for the first time that there may be some cases in which the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on condoms isn’t absolute.

The pope made the comments in a book-length interview over the summer with the German writer Peter Seewald that will be officially released this week. Mr. Seewald asked the pope about criticism of the Vatican’s perceived opposition to condom use to fight the spread of HIV-AIDS in Africa.

The pope’s response, while carefully couched, has ricocheted around the globe, reigniting one of the most tensely debated issues facing the Roman Catholic Church. To some, the interview signaled a radical shift in the Church’s approach to combating the spread of AIDS as well as an unprecedented departure from the Church’s long-time practice of condemning any form of condom use.

“This is a significant and positive step forward taken by the Vatican,” said Michel Sidibé, executive director executive director of UNAIDS, the United Nations’ AIDS relief agency based in Geneva. “This move recognizes that responsible sexual behavior and the use of condoms have important roles in HIV prevention.”

The Vatican, however, played down the potential impact the remarks might have on church teaching. “The pope’s thinking certainly can’t be defined as a revolutionary shift,” said Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said in a lengthy statement issued on Sunday.

In the interview, the pope said condom use had become a “fixation” for some people, according to the English-language edition of the book viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The pope then added: “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.”

In the interview, the pope noted that even in extreme scenarios such as male prostitution, condom use “is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.” The pope added that the church remained opposed to any widespread use of condoms that “implies a banalization of sexuality.”

“The pope wasn’t taking a position on condoms in general,” Father Lombardi said. Instead, the pope “wanted to forcefully affirm that the problem of AIDS can’t be resolved merely through the distribution of condoms,” Father Lombardi said.

Father Lombardi acknowledged, however, that the pope had to “consider exceptional situations where the exercise of sexuality represents a real risk to someone’s life.” Having “disordered” sex isn’t morally justified, Father Lombardi added, but the use of condoms in such situations can “reduce the danger of infection.”

For decades, the Vatican’s ban on condom’s appeared iron-clad, because church teaching rejects contraception. The rise of HIV in developing countries, however, has prompted many humanitarian aid agencies to press the Vatican to modify its opposition to condoms. The Catholic Church is one of the biggest providers of humanitarian aid in Africa, and some Catholic aid workers there have begun to simply ignore the Vatican’s rule.

Over the years, a handful of cardinals and one Vatican official in charge of health care have suggested that condom use could be condoned in extreme situations, such as when a woman asks her HIV-infected husband to wear a condom, because she cannot stop his advances.

“Benedict XVI has courageously given us an important contribution, clarifying and deepening a long-debated question. It’s an original contribution,” Father Lombardi said.

The pope himself stirred controversy in 2009 when he told reporters aboard a papal flight to Africa that condom use could “increase the problem” of HIV’s spread—a comment that many interpreted to mean that the pope considered condoms ineffective.

In the interview with Mr. Seewald, the pope says he felt “provoked” by the line of questioning aboard the papal flight, suggesting that his response was misinterpreted. He then reflects at length on the use of condoms to fight HIV, which he says is not the “moral solution, but … in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”

Mr. Seewald’s book, culled from a week of interviews at the papal summer residence in July, is a rare example of pope expressing candid views on some of the most challenging points in his pontificate. He likens the sex-abuse crisis to “the crater of a volcano, out of which suddenly a tremendous cloud of filth came, darkening and soiling everything.”

When asked whether he ever thought of resigning in the wake of the crisis, the pontiff responds that “now is certainly not the time to resign,” saying he must “stand fast and endure the difficult situation.”

A moment later, however, the pontiff makes an unusual assertion: that popes aren’t bound under church law to serve until they die, as many canon lawyers have said. “One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say that someone else should do it,” the pope says.

Excerpts of the interview first appeared in the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, which sent advanced copies of its Sunday edition to reporters on Saturday.

Gianmaria Vian, L’Osservatore’s editor-in-chief, described the book as a “bomb,” adding that the pope had spoken with “great frankness” on a range of issues.

Stacy Meichtry, Wall Street Journal

__________

Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704444304575628611227070080.html

Religious Persuasion

At first glance, the authors of “American Grace” would seem to suffer from very bad timing. Between the completion of their manuscript and its publication, the dispute over the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan erupted, followed by the ­Koran-burning controversy, and somewhere along the way a New York cabdriver was stabbed, apparently for being a Muslim. All this gives a quaint air to their declaration, in the book’s first chapter, that “America peacefully combines a high degree of religious devotion with tremendous religious diversity.” And it seems to render moot one of their main goals: to illuminate the source of this inter­faith ­tolerance.

Actually, though, the story told in this book, by the social scientists Robert D. Putnam of Harvard and David E. Campbell of Notre Dame, is urgently relevant to the recent surge in interfaith tension.

True, America’s tradition of peaceful religious coexistence is largely about harmony among Christian denominations, and so doesn’t speak directly to the question of Islam’s place in America. But it’s also true that there was a time when many American Protestants viewed Roman Catholics no more charitably than a certain Pentecostal preacher in Florida views Muslims. In the 19th century, a Massachusetts convent was destroyed by anti-Catholic rioters, and civil unrest in Philadelphia — set off by rumors that Catholics wanted to rid the public schools of Bibles — led to some two dozen deaths and the destruction of two churches.

The question of how this changed, how Protestants came to stress their commonality with Catholics, is, generically speaking, the question of the day: How do mutual fear, hostility and suspicion give way to amity, or at least tolerance? How do supposedly deep doctrinal chasms recede from view? The answers offered by Putnam and Campbell deserve the attention of everyone concerned about America’s future cohesion.

This is a big, multifaceted work, with scores of graphs, as well as narrative ­vignettes that put flesh on the book’s analytical skeleton. (A tour through the Rev. Rick Warren’s Saddleback megachurch, for example, helps explain the power of state-of-the-art evangelism.) The topics covered range from the dynamics of conversion to the role in religion of gender, ethnicity and class to the question of how civically engaged believers are. (Putnam gained fame for his lament, in “Bowling Alone,” about the seeming decline of civic engagement.) But the dominant theme is, as the subtitle puts it, “How Religion Divides and Unites Us.”

Putnam and Campbell pay particular attention to the past half-century, which has shown how fluid fault lines can be. In 1960, the marriage of a Protestant to a Catholic was often unwelcome on both sides of the aisle, and the presidential candidate John F. Kennedy faced intense Protestant skepticism. Today churchgoing Catholics and Protestants often feel as if they’re on the same team.

They tend toward conservatism on social issues, opposing a liberal coalition that includes lapsed Catholics, mainline Protestants of often modest devoutness and growing legions of the avowedly nonreligious. Putnam and Campbell write, “By the 2000s, how religious a person is had become more important as a political dividing line than which denomination he or she belonged to.”

This leads to a puzzle. If the devoutly religious increasingly constitute one big family, why aren’t Muslims a part of it? Why was the would-be 9/11 Koran burner not an atheist but a minister from an evangelical church (if, in fairness to mainstream evangelicals, an eccentric evangelical church)? Why are Newt Gingrich and other politicians who aim to harness fear of Muslims directing their message toward evangelicals with, apparently, some success?

The answer may lie in the final chapter. Here the authors explain the observation they started the book with: America’s religious diversity hasn’t generally involved much intolerance. Indeed, believers seem willing to bend basic doctrines in the name of interfaith amity. Most Christians, even most evangelical Christians, ­believe that non-Christians can go to heaven, notwithstanding the New Testament’s repeated assertions that Christ is the only path to the Kingdom of God.

The authors’ explanation for this bigheartedness is common-sensical: “Most Americans are intimately acquainted with people of other faiths.” Americans have, on average, at least two friends who don’t share their faith, and at least one ­extended-family member who fits that description. And who wants to tell friends or relatives that they’re going to hell — or even believe that a friend or relative is going to hell? More broadly: getting to know an adherent of an otherwise alien faith tends to humanize the aliens.

Obviously, there’s a chicken-and-egg ­issue here. Are we tolerant because of our diverse social networks, or do we have diverse social networks because we’re tolerant? Putnam and Campbell, aware of the problem, wield an analytical tool that, though not dispositive, is unusually subtle. They conducted surveys with the same large pool of people in consecutive years and tracked changes in both social milieus and attitudes. They conclude, for instance, that gaining an evangelical friend leads to a warmer assessment of evangelicals — by seven degrees on a “feeling thermometer,” to be exact — and gaining a non­religious friend brings four degrees of added warmth toward the nonreligious.

In this view, a recipe for being viewed coolly is to be a religious group that is both small and geographically concentrated; that way, most Americans don’t have a chance to meet anyone from your group. This is the authors’ posited explanation for why Buddhists, Mormons and Muslims get particularly low feeling-­thermometer readings.

Of course, Muslims suffer from an additional problem. If most Americans don’t personally know any Muslims, they’ve seen some on TV — Osama bin Laden, for starters. That may help explain why, though 54 percent of evangelicals say non-Christians can go to heaven, only 35 percent say Muslims can.

Even so, the authors’ 2007 survey found that evangelicals, like mainline Protestants, viewed Muslims no more coolly than they viewed Buddhists. But black Protestants viewed Muslims more positively than they did Buddhists, perhaps, the authors point out, because many black Christians are acquainted with black Muslims.

The claim here isn’t that mere social contact is Miracle Glue. Drawing on longstanding social theory, the authors suggest that certain ingredients — sharing a goal, for example — make acquaintance more likely to bring affinity. Still, given that many Muslims are aligned with evangelicals and churchgoing Catholics on various social issues, that particular ingredient would seem to be in place; maybe the contact itself is what’s mainly lacking.

There are two basic schools of thought on religious strife. Essentialists believe that religions have a firm character, grounded in Scripture and theology and doctrine, and that religious conflicts are thus deep-seated and enduring. The more optimistic view is that clashing beliefs aren’t the big problem; underlying the conflict, and driving it, are less ethereal and in some cases more pliable issues: economic grievances or insecurities, resentment of perceived arrogance, fears of domination (like the perceived threat of Western cultural or political hegemony, or of worldwide Shariah).

Putnam and Campbell are closer to the second camp. Repeatedly, they show how fluid religious doctrine and practice are, how responsive to social and political context. In that sense, their subtitle is subtly misleading; this intellectually powerful book suggests that religion per se is often not the thing that actually divides us. This view, though common in academia, is hardly gospel among the public at large. But it may turn out to be gospel in the literal sense of the term: good news.

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author, most recently, of “The Evolution of God” and the editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/books/review/Wright-t.html

Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Welfare Kings

There is no precedent in Jewish history for a whole community devoting itself to Torah scholarship.

In Israel, where modernity coexists uneasily with tradition, hand-wringing about the country’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority is a national pastime. Cloistered in poor towns and neighborhoods, exempted from conscription into the military and surviving largely off government handouts, the black-hatted ultra-Orthodox, known as Haredim, have long vexed more secular Israelis. Now, in the wake of an Israeli Supreme Court decision, this perennial tension has escalated to new heights.

The immediate issue is a decades-old state policy of providing stipends to students who attend religious schools, called yeshivas. In June, the court declared those stipends illegal, citing discrimination against secular university students who don’t qualify for such assistance. Last month, however, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers introduced a bill to reinstate the stipend. “The state sees a great importance in encouraging Torah study,” says their proposal.

Opposition to the bill is fierce, as many Israelis believe that decades of welfare and draft exemptions have created a cycle of poverty and dependence among Haredim. “If they want to live in a ghetto, fine, but why should the state pay for it?” Yossi Sarid, a former education minister, told the Associated Press. The controversy has triggered street protests across Israel, and threatens to topple the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This year the Jerusalem-based Taub Center for Social Policy Studies released a report showing that unemployment among ultra-Orthodox men age 35-54 is 65% and has tripled over the past three decades. Voluntary unemployment has become the dominant lifestyle choice for Haredi men. And even if there was a desire to work, Haredi schools leave students unprepared to function in a modern economy. Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox population is expected to double by 2022, to over one million.

While explaining the data to me recently, Dan Ben-David of the Taub Center asked, “When did Judaism become about not working?” The answer is a case study in unintended consequences.

Ultra-Orthodox men attend a Purim celebration in Jerusalem.

The story begins shortly after Israel’s founding in 1948, when then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion excused 400 yeshiva students from serving in the army—thereby establishing a framework for relations between the state and the ultra-Orthodox. Although secular himself, Ben-Gurion was sensitive to the desire to revive Torah learning after the Holocaust destroyed the centers of Jewish scholarship in Eastern Europe. He also thought that, over the long term, most Israelis would become secular socialists like him.

That has proven mistaken, and today tens of thousands of yeshiva students qualify for draft exemptions. The law bars them from working, so an increasing number depend on public support. It’s socially and financially unsustainable, says Hebrew University Prof. Shlomo Naeh. “We are trapped in a disaster.”

At the root of the disaster is the revolutionary idea that the study of Torah is a vocation. There is no precedent in pre-1948 Jewish history for an entire community devoting itself to Torah scholarship—and certainly no precedent for getting paid to do so.

“Torah study has always been for spiritual, not material, sustenance,” Zvi Zohar, a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University, tells me. Moreover, the notion that a man’s primary obligation is studying, and not providing for his family, is “diametrically opposed” to Jewish tradition, Mr. Zohar says. The Shulchan Aruch, for instance, an influential 16th-century legal code written by Rabbi Joseph Caro, states: “A respected and impoverished scholar should have a trade, even a lowly trade, rather than being in need of his fellow man.”

State-supported Torah study has also harmed the quality of Jewish thought, argues Mr. Naeh. Ultra-Orthodox self-segregation has cut “learning off from life,” he wrote in a recent essay. As a result, the current generation of Torah scholars “is far from being one of the greatest . . . despite the existence of tens of thousands of learners.”

Solutions to the current impasse are in short supply, not least because the religious parties oppose any meaningful reforms and wield inordinate power in Israel’s parliamentary system. Asked what’s at stake if nothing changes, Mr. Ben-David doesn’t mince words: “We can survive against our neighbors, but this issue is existential. The ultra-Orthodox will soon be a huge minority, possibly a majority, and then what? Where will we find doctors, engineers, physicists and soldiers?” he says, his voice rising. “Who will defend this country?”

Mr. Goldstein is an editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

__________

Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703848204575608473772263624.html

The Rise of the Tao

Abbess Yin Xinhui in the Hall of the Jade Emperor on Mount Mao, built at a cost of $1.5 million.

YIN XINHUI reached the peak of Mount Yi and surveyed the chaos. The 47-year-old Taoist abbess was on a sacred mission: to consecrate a newly rebuilt temple to one of her religion’s most important deities, the Jade Emperor. But there were as yet no stairs, just a muddy path up to the pavilion, which sat on a rock outcropping 3,400 feet above a valley. A team of workers was busy laying stone steps, while others planted sod, trees and flowers. Inside the temple, a breeze blew through windows that were still without glass, while red paint flecked the stone floor.

The revival of ancient religious practices in China is partly about belief — and partly about money.

“Tomorrow,” she said slowly, calculating the logistics. “They don’t have much ready. . . .” Fortunately, a dozen of her nuns had followed her up the path. Dressed in white tunics and black trousers, their hair in topknots, the nuns enthusiastically began unpacking everything they would need for the next day’s ceremony: 15 sacred scriptures, three golden crowns, three bells, two cordless microphones, two lutes, a zither, a drum, a cymbal and a sword. Soon the nuns were plucking and strumming with the confidence of veteran performers. Others set up the altar and hung their temple’s banner outside, announcing that for the next few days, Abbess Yin’s exacting religious standards would hold sway on this mountain.

The temple she was to consecrate was born of more worldly concerns. Mount Yi is in a poor part of China, and Communist Party officials had hit upon tourism as a way to move forward. They fenced in the main mountain, built a road to the summit and declared it a scenic park. But few tourists were willing to pay for a chance to hike up a rocky mountain. Enter religion. China is in the midst of a religious revival, and people will pay to visit holy sites. So the local government set out to rebuild the temple, which was wrecked by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, modestly rebuilt then torn down when the park was first constructed. Officials commissioned a 30-foot statue of the Jade Emperor, had it hauled to the peak and encased in the brilliant red pavilion. They then built a bell and a drum tower, as well as another set of halls devoted to minor deities.

All that was missing was a soul. For that, the temple had to be properly consecrated. The officials got in touch with Abbess Yin, widely regarded as a leading expert in Taoist ritual, and soon she was driving the 350 miles from her nunnery to Mount Yi.

As her rehearsals drew to a close, the abbess went over the next day’s schedule with a local official. All was in good shape, he said, except for one detail. Government officials were due to give speeches at 10:30 a.m. She would have to be finished by then, he said.

“No,” she replied. “Then it won’t be authentic. It takes four hours.” Could she start earlier and wrap up by then? No, the sun won’t be in the right position, she replied. The official peered up from the schedule and took a good look at her — who was this?

Abbess Yin smiled good-naturedly. At a little over five feet tall, she was solidly built, with a full, smooth face tanned from spending much of her life outdoors in the mountains. Her dress was always the same plain blue robe, and she did not wear jewelry or display other signs of wealth. She shunned electronics; her temple did not have a phone or Internet access. But over the past 20 years she had accomplished a remarkable feat, rebuilding her own nunnery on one of Taoism’s most important mountains. Unlike the temple here on Mount Yi — and hundreds of others across China — she had rejected tourism as a way to pay for the reconstruction of her nunnery, relying instead on donors who were drawn to her aura of earnest religiosity. She knew the real value of an authentic consecration ceremony and wasn’t about to back down.

The official tried again, emphasizing the government’s own rituals: “But they have planned to be here at 10:30. The speeches last 45 minutes, and then they have lunch. It is a banquet. It cannot be changed.”

She smiled again and nodded her head: no. An hour later the official returned with a proposal: the four-hour ceremony was long and tiring; what if the abbess took a break at 10:30 and let the officials give their speeches? They would cut ribbons for the photographers and leave for lunch, but the real ceremony wouldn’t end until Abbess Yin said so. She thought for a moment and then nodded: yes.

RELIGION HAS LONG played a central role in Chinese life, but for much of the 20th century, reformers and revolutionaries saw it as a hindrance holding the country back and a key reason for China’s “century of humiliation.” Now, with three decades of prosperity under their belt — the first significant period of relative stability in more than a century — the Chinese are in the midst of a great awakening of religious belief. In cities, yuppies are turning to Christianity. Buddhism attracts the middle class, while Taoism has rebounded in small towns and the countryside. Islam is also on the rise, not only in troubled minority areas but also among tens of millions elsewhere in China.

It is impossible to miss the religious building boom, with churches, temples and mosques dotting areas where none existed a few years ago. How many Chinese reject the state’s official atheism is hard to quantify, but numbers suggest a return to widespread religious belief. In contrast to earlier surveys that showed just 100 million believers, or less than 10 percent of the population, a new survey shows that an estimated 300 million people claim a faith. A broader question in another poll showed that 85 percent of the population believes in religion or the supernatural.

Officially, religious life is closely regulated. The country has five recognized religions: Buddhism, Islam, Taoism and Christianity, which in China is treated as two faiths, Catholicism and Protestantism. Each of the five has a central organization headquartered in Beijing and staffed with officials loyal to the Communist Party. All report to the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which in turn is under the central government’s State Council, or cabinet. This sort of religious control has a long history in China. For hundreds of years, emperors sought to define orthodox belief and appointed many senior religious leaders.

Beneath this veneer of order lies a more freewheeling and sometimes chaotic reality. In recent months, the country has been scandalized by a Taoist priest who performed staged miracles — even though he was a top leader in the government-run China Taoist Association. His loose interpretation of the religion was hardly a secret: on his Web site he used to boast that he could stay underwater for two hours without breathing. Meanwhile, the government has made a conscious effort to open up. When technocratic Communists took control of China in the late 1970s, they allowed temples, churches and mosques to reopen after decades of forced closures, but Communist suspicion about religion persisted. That has slowly been replaced by a more laissez-faire attitude as authorities realize that most religious activity does not threaten Communist Party rule and may in fact be something of a buttress. In 2007, President Hu Jintao endorsed religious charities and their usefulness in solving social problems. The central government has also recently sponsored international conferences on Buddhism and Taoism. And local governments have welcomed temples — like the one on Mount Yi — as ways to raise money from tourism.

This does not mean that crackdowns do not take place. In 1999, the quasi-religious sect Falun Gong was banned after it staged a 10,000-person sit-down strike in front of the compound housing the government’s leadership in Beijing. That set off a year of protests that ended in scores of Falun Gong practitioners dying in police custody and the introduction of an overseas protest movement that continues today. In addition, where religion and ethnicity mix, like Tibet and Xinjiang, control is tight. Unsupervised churches continue to be closed. And for all the building and rebuilding, there are still far fewer places of worship than when the Communists took power in 1949 and the country had less than half the population, according to Yang Fenggang, a Purdue University professor who studies Chinese religion. “The ratio is still radically imbalanced,” Yang says. “But there’s now a large social space that makes it possible to believe in religion. There’s less problem believing.”

Taoism has closely reflected this history of decline and rebirth. The religion is loosely based on the writings of a mythical person named Laotzu and calls for returning to the Dao, or Tao, the mystical way that unites all of creation. Like many religions, it encompasses a broad swath of practice, from Laotzu’s high philosophy to a riotous pantheon of deities: emperors, officials, thunder gods, wealth gods and terrifying demons that punish the wicked in ways that make Dante seem unimaginative. Although scholars once distinguished between “philosophical Taoism” and “religious Taoism,” today most see the two strains as closely related. Taoist worshipers will often go to services on important holy days; they might also go to a temple, or hire a clergy member to come to their home, to find help for a specific problem: illness and death or even school exams and business meetings. Usually the supplicant will pray to a deity, and the priest or nun will stage ceremonies to summon the god’s assistance. Many Taoists also engage in physical cultivation aimed at wellness and contemplation, like qigong breathing exercises or tai chi shadowboxing.

As China’s only indigenous religion, Taoism’s influence is found in everything from calligraphy and politics to medicine and poetry. In the sixth century, for example, Abbess Yin’s temple was home to Tao Hongjing, one of the founders of traditional Chinese medicine. For much of the past two millenniums, Taoism’s opposite has been Confucianism, the ideology of China’s ruling elite and the closest China has to a second homegrown religion. Where Confucianism emphasizes moderation, harmony and social structure, Taoism offers a refuge from society and the trap of material success. Some rulers have tried to govern according to Taoism’s principle of wuwei, or nonaction, but by and large it is not strongly political and today exhibits none of the nationalism found among, say, India’s Hindu fundamentalists.

During China’s decline in the 19th and 20th centuries, Taoism also weakened. Bombarded by foreign ideas, Chinese began to look askance at Taoism’s unstructured beliefs. Unlike other major world religions, it lacks a Ten Commandments, Nicene Creed or Shahada, the Muslim statement of faith. There is no narrative comparable to Buddhism’s story of a prince who discovered that desire is suffering and sets out an eightfold path to enlightenment. And while religions like Christianity acquired cachet for their association with lands that became rich, Taoism was pegged as a relic of China’s backward past.

But like other elements of traditional Chinese culture, Taoism has been making a comeback, especially in the countryside, where its roots are deepest and Western influence is weaker. The number of temples has risen significantly: there are 5,000 today, up from 1,500 in 1997, according to government officials. Beijing, which had just one functioning Taoist temple in 2000, now has 10. The revival is not entirely an expression of piety; as on Mount Yi, the government is much more likely to tolerate temples that also fulfill a commercial role. For Taoists like Abbess Yin, the temptation is to turn their temples into adjuncts of the local tourism bureau. And private donors who have helped make the revival possible may also face a difficult choice: support religion or support the state.

Zhengzhou is one of China’s grittiest cities. An urban sprawl of 4.5 million, it owes its existence to the intersection of two railway lines and is now one of the country’s most important transport hubs. The south side is given over to furniture warehouses and markets for home furnishings and construction materials. One of the biggest markets is the five-story Phoenix City, with more than four million square feet of showrooms featuring real and knockoff Italian marble countertops, German faucets and American lawn furniture. Living in splendor on the roof of this mall like a hermit atop a mountain is one of China’s most dynamic and reclusive Taoist patrons, Zhu Tieyu.

Zhu is a short, wiry man of 50 who says he once threw a man off a bridge for the equivalent of five cents. “He owed me the money,” he recalled during a nighttime walk on the roof of Phoenix City. “And I did anything for money: bought anything, sold anything, dared to do anything.” But as he got older, he began to think more about growing up in the countryside and the rules that people lived by there. His mother, he said, deeply influenced him. She was uneducated but tried to follow Taoist precepts. “Taoist culture is noncompetitive and nonhurting of other people,” he says. “It teaches following the rules of nature.”

Once he started to pattern his life on Taoism, he says, he began to rise quickly in the business world. He says that by following his instincts and not forcing things — by knowing how to be patient and bide his time — he was able to excel. Besides Phoenix City, he now owns large tracts of land where he is developing office towers and apartment blocks. Although he is reticent to discuss his wealth or business operations, local news media say his company is worth more than $100 million and have crowned him “the king of building materials.” Articles almost invariably emphasize another aspect of Zhu: his eccentric behavior.

That comes from how he chooses to spend his wealth. Instead of buying imported German luxury cars or rare French wines, he has spent a large chunk of his fortune on Taoism. The roof of Phoenix City is now a 200,000-square-foot Taoist retreat, a complex of pine wood cabins, potted fruit trees and vine-covered trellises. It boasts a library, guesthouses and offices for a dozen full-time scholars, researchers and staff. His Henan Xinshan Taoist Culture Propagation Company has organized forums to discuss Taoism and backed efforts at rebuilding the religion’s philosophical side. He says he has spent $30 million on Taoist causes, a number that is hard to verify but plausible given the scope of his projects, including an office in Beijing and sponsorship of international conferences. His goal, he says, is to bring the philosophical grounding of his rural childhood into modern-day China.

Last year, Zhu invited several dozen European and North American scholars of Chinese religion on an all-expenses-paid trip to participate in a conference in Beijing. The group stayed in the luxurious China World Hotel and were bused to Henan province to visit Taoist sites. Demonstrating his political and financial muscle, Zhu arranged for the conference’s opening session to be held in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, the Stalinesque conference center on Tiananmen Square. It is usually reserved for state events, but with the right connections and for the right price, it can be rented for private galas. In a taped address to participants, Zhu boasted that “I’ll spend any amount of money” on Taoism.

Zhu’s chief adviser, Li Jinkang, says the goal is to keep Taoism vital in an era when indigenous Chinese ideas are on the defensive. “Churches are everywhere. But traditional things are less so. So Chairman Zhu said: ‘What about our Taoism? Our Taoism is a really deep thing. If we don’t protect it, then what?’ ”

Balancing this desire with the imperatives of China’s political system is tricky. While the Communist Party has allowed religious groups to rebuild temples and proselytize, its own members are supposed to be good Marxists and shun religion. Like many big-business people, Zhu is also a party member. Two years ago, he became one of the first private business owners to set up a party branch in his company, earning him praise in the pages of the Communist Party’s official organ, People’s Daily. He has also established a party “school” — an indoctrination center for employees. His company’s Web site has a section extolling his party-building efforts and has a meeting room with a picture of Mao Zedong looking down from the wall. Although it might seem like an odd way to mix religion and politics, Taoism often deifies famous people; at least three Taoist temples in one part of China are dedicated to Chairman Mao.

Until recently, Zhu mostly ignored the contradiction, but he has become more cautious, emphasizing how he loved Taoist philosophy and playing down the religion. Still, Zhu continues to support conventional Taoism. His staff takes courses in a Taoist form of meditation called neigong, and he has sent staff members to document religious sites, like the supposed birthplace of Laotzu, who is worshiped as a god in Taoism. He also has close relations with folk-religious figures and plans to establish a “Taoist base” in the countryside to propagate Taoism. “The ancients were amazing,” Zhu says. “Taoism can save the world.”

WHEN ABBESS YIN started to rebuild her nunnery in 1991, she faced serious challenges. Her temple was located on Mount Mao, among low mountains and hills outside the eastern metropolis of Nanjing. It had been a center of Taoism from the fourth century until 1938, when Japanese troops burned some of the temple complex. As on Mount Yi, communist zealots completed the destruction in the 1960s. Her temple was so badly damaged that the forest reclaimed the land and only a few stones from the foundation could be found in the underbrush.

Unlike Mount Yi, Mount Mao is an extensive complex: six large temples with, altogether, about 100 priests and nuns. Just a 45-minute drive from Nanjing and two hours from Shanghai, it is a popular destination for day-trippers wanting to get out of the city. Even 20 years ago, when Abbess Yin arrived, tourism-fueled reconstruction was in full swing on Mount Mao. Two temples had escaped complete destruction, and priests began repairing them in the 1980s. The local government started charging admission, taking half the gate receipts. But the Taoists still got their share and plowed money back into reconstruction. More buildings meant higher ticket prices and more construction, a cycle typical of many religious sites. Although pilgrims began to avoid the temples because of the overt commercialism, tourists started to arrive in droves, bused in by tour companies that also got a cut of gate receipts. Last year, ticket sales topped $2.7 million.

Abbess Yin opted for another model. Trained in Taoist music, she set up a Taoist music troupe that toured the Yangtze River delta in a rickety old bus, stopping at communities that hired them to perform religious rituals. When I first met her in 1998, she used the money to rebuild one prayer hall on Mount Mao but refused to charge admission. Word of her seriousness began to spread around the region and abroad. Soon, her band of nuns were performing in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

More nuns began to join. In the Quanzhen school of Taoism, which Abbess Yi follows, Taoist clergy members live celibate lives in monasteries and nunneries, often in the mountains. (In the other school, known as Zhengyi, they may marry and tend to live at home, making house calls to perform ceremonies.) For Abbess Yin’s young nuns, her temple provided security and calm in a world that is increasingly complicated. “Here, I can participate in something profound,” said one nun who asked to be identified only as Taoist Huang. “The outside world has nothing like this.” For Abbess Yin, the young people are a chance to mold Taoists in the image of her master. “The only people who are worth having are older than 80 or younger than 20.”

Even now, Abbess Yin’s temple is low-key. There are no tourist attractions like cable cars, gift shops, teahouses or floodlit caves — and, unlike at most temples, still no admission fee. The atmosphere is also different. While in some temples, priests seem to spend most of their time hawking incense sticks or offering to tell people’s fortunes, her nuns are quiet and demure. Maybe this is why even in the 1990s, when her temple was reachable only by a dirt road, locals said it was ling — that it had spirit and was effective. In 1998, I saw a group of Taiwanese visitors abandon their bus and walk two miles to the temple so they could pray. “This is authentic,” one told me. “The nuns are real nuns, and it’s not just for show.”

With a growing reputation came donations. One reason that city people often underestimate Taoism is that its temples are mostly in the mountains, and its supporters rarely want to discuss their gifts. But one way to gauge its support is to look at the lists of benefactors, which are carved on stone tablets and set up in the back of the temple. In Abbess Yin’s temple, some tablets record 100,000 yuan ($15,000) donations, while others show 10,000 yuan gifts. But even those making just 100 yuan contributions get their names in stone. With the donations came the current plan to build the $1.5 million Jade Emperor Hall halfway up the mountain, making the Mount Mao complex visible for miles around. It is due to open on this weekend, with Taoists from Southeast Asia and across China expected to participate.

Abbess Yin’s success led the China Taoist Association to invite her to Beijing for training. She learned accounting, modern management methods and the government’s religious policy. Earlier this year she was placed on one of the association’s senior leadership councils. She has also begun speaking out on abuses on the religious scene, urging greater strictness inside Taoist temples and less emphasis on commerce. Many Taoists, she wrote in an essay reprinted in an influential volume, have become obsessed with making money and aren’t performing real religious services but just selling incense. Too many traveled around China, using temples as youth hostels instead of as places to study the Tao or to worship.

“Taoism is a great tradition, but our problem is we’ve had very fast growth, and the quality of priests is too low,” she told me. “Some people don’t even know the basics of Taoism but treat it like a business. This isn’t good in the long-term.”

THE DAY AFTER Abbess Yin’s standoff with the official, the big event on Mount Yi was due to start. She arrived early, making sure her nuns were ready at 7. The muddy path was now covered with stones that farmers had just hosed down, making them glisten in the early-morning sun. Workers scraped paint off the floor, inflated balloons and hung banners, while a television crew set up its equipment to film the politicians.

Inside the Jade Emperor Pavilion, the nuns milled around, checking one another’s clothes and hair. All, including the abbess, were wearing their white tunics and black knee breeches. They pulled on fresh blue robes and pink capes, while the abbess donned a brilliant red gown with a blue and white dragon embroidered on the back. She and her top two lieutenants affixed small golden crowns to their topknots. She was now transformed into a fashi, or ritual master. Something was about to happen.

Abbess Yin walked over to a drum about two feet in diameter and picked up two wooden sticks lying on top. She began pounding in alternating rhythms. The nuns knew their roles by heart and lined up in two rows, flanking the statue of the Jade Emperor, golden and beautiful, the god’s eyes beatific slits and his mouth slightly parted as if speaking to the people below. Still, for now the statue was just a block of wood. The ceremony would change that. It is called kai guang or “opening the eyes” — literally, opening brightness. Abbess Yin could open them, but it would take time.

Five minutes passed and sweat glistened on her forehead. Then, six of the nuns quietly took their places and started to play their instruments. A young woman plucked the zither, while another strummed the Chinese lute, or pipa. Another picked up small chimes that she began tinkling, while a nun next to her wielded a cymbal that she would use to punctuate the ceremony with crashes and hisses. Abbess Yin stopped drumming and began to sing in a high-pitched voice that sounded like something out of Peking Opera. Later during the ceremony she read and sang, sometimes alone and at other times with the nuns backing her. Always she was in motion: kneeling, standing, moving backward, turning and twirling, the dragon on her back seeming to come alive. It was physically grueling, requiring stamina and concentration. During the occasional lull, a young nun would hand her a cup of tea that she delicately shielded behind the sleeve of her robe and drank quickly. Gradually, people began to pay attention. The wives of several officials stood next to the altar and gawked, first in astonishment and then with growing respect for the intensity of the performance. When a police officer suggested they move back, they said: “No, no, we won’t be a bother. Please, we have to see it.” Workers, their jobs finished, sat at the back. Within an hour, about 50 onlookers had filled the prayer hall.

On cue, at 10:30, she stopped. A group of local leaders had assembled outside the hall. They announced the importance of the project and how they were promoting traditional culture. A ribbon was cut, applause sounded and television cameras whirred. Then the group piled into minibuses and rolled down to the valley for the hotel lunch.

The speeches were barely over when Abbess Yin picked up again. As the ceremony reached its climax, more and more people began to appear, seemingly out of nowhere, on the barren mountain face. Four policemen tried to keep order, linking arms to barricade the door so the nuns would have space for the ceremony. “Back, back, give the nuns room,” one officer said as the crowd pressed forward. People peered through windows or waited outside, holding cameras up high to snap pictures. “The Jade Emperor,” an old woman said, laying down a basket of apples as an offering. “Our temple is back.” Abbess Yin moved in front of the statue, praying, singing and kowtowing. This is the essence of the ritual — to create a holy space and summon the gods to the here and now, to this place at this moment.

Shortly after noon, when it seemed she had little strength left, Abbess Yin stopped singing. She held a writing brush in one hand and wrote a talismanic symbol in the air. Then she looked up: the sun was at the right point, slanting down into the prayer room. This was the time. She held out a small square mirror and deflected a sunbeam, which danced on the Jade Emperor’s forehead. The abbess adjusted the mirror slightly and the light hit the god’s eyes. Kai guang, opening brightness. The god’s eyes were open to the world below: the abbess, the worshipers and the vast expanse of the North China Plain, with its millions of people racing toward modern China’s elusive goals — prosperity, wealth, happiness.

Ian Johnson is the author of “A Mosque in Munich” and “Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China.” He is based in Beijing.

__________

Full article and photos: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/magazine/07religion-t.html

Knowing it all

God, science and knowledge

A counterblast to Stephen Hawking

The End of Discovery: Are We Approaching the Boundaries of the Knowable? By Russell Stannard. OUP; 228 pages; $24.95 and £14.99.

REPORTS of the death of science have been greatly exaggerated—at least, that has proved to be the case so far. A British physicist, Lord Kelvin, is supposed to have said in 1900, “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, all that remains is more and more precise measurement.” But then along came general relativity and quantum mechanics that proved him wrong. A bestselling book titled “The End of Science” by John Horgan, an American science journalist, was published in 1996, but there are no signs of the stuff abating. In “The End of Discovery”, Russell Stannard once again predicts its demise.

Mr Stannard bases his argument on three ideas. The first is that the human brain—which evolved to survive on the savannah rather than to grapple with the mysteries of string theory—may be inadequate for the task of progressing with science to the point where it explains everything. The second is that it may prove technically impossible to test all the ideas created by human minds. Finally, it may be that the end point so desired by scientists—the explanation of everything—does not actually exist.

Rehearsing the arguments, Mr Stannard examines the problem of consciousness, asks whether it makes sense to demand an explanation of what caused the Big Bang that created the universe, and questions the source of the laws of nature and the status of mathematics. He asks big questions. Why is the universe such that conscious life could evolve in it, and has it done so elsewhere? What is the nature of dark matter and dark energy? Does it make sense to talk about free will in a universe that appears deterministic? What is time?

Although he does not mention religion, Mr Stannard’s tome is carefully timed as a counterblast to the book by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow that rejects the need for the existence of God. Mr Stannard—a retired professor of physics at the Open University, as well as the author of a series of children’s books on quantum theory—is a believer. His book is a call for scientists to exercise humility when faced with the awe of the mystery of existence.

Unfortunately the evidence he marshals is far from compelling. The lists of scientific mysteries stand as much as a testament to the discipline itself as to its inadequacy to deal with them: science has helped to elucidate where the difficulties lie and, so far, it has also been science that has addressed them. Mr Stannard argues that mankind is living at a special time when it can contemplate the failure of its most successful attempt yet to understand the universe, but this is as unsatisfactory as arguing there is something special about the universe that allows mankind to exist.

Moreover, Mr Stannard—an accomplished writer—has let his standards slip. The book is rushed and lumpy, reminiscent of lectures by a man who skims over the central thesis to concentrate on his pet interests. Attacking the hubris of the most vocal atheists is understandable. Sadly, Mr Stannard hasn’t made a good job of it.

__________

Full article: http://www.economist.com/node/17145141

Harvest Moons and the Seeds of Our Faith

How the fall equinox, and the science of ancient astronomy, helped shape religions

Next Wednesday heralds the official end of summer—the autumnal equinox —when the length of day and night are equal (circa 11:09 p.m. ET). In the 21st century, this astronomical event is little more than a passing curiosity. But rewind by about three millennia to the time of the ancient Babylonians, and the autumnal equinox marked the start of the “minor new year.” Not only did celestial events define sacred festivals. Conversely, religion powered the development of astronomy, the first science.

Today, science and religion are often thought to be very different, unconnected disciplines. But looking back at our ancient past, we see that the development of religion and early science have really gone hand-in-hand, shaping some of the characteristics of mainstream religion in ways we may not realize.

For instance, while the Babylonians celebrated their “main new year” in the spring, their tradition of having a minor autumnal new year has carried over into both mainstream religion and secular practice. Nick Campion, a historian of cultural astronomy at the University of Wales, notes two echoes of ancient autumn observances today. “It’s a custom inherited by Jews—hence Rosh Hashanah,” he told me, “while the beginning of the academic year in autumn is a secular legacy.”

The Babylonians made meticulous records of celestial events. To them, as to many ancient civilizations, the sky was thought to be the writing pad of the gods, while the stars and planets were the ink used to communicate divine messages.

Through today’s lens, the practices of star-gazing Babylonian priests may appear to be based mostly in superstition. Each night they searched the sky for omens sent by the great god Marduk or one of his entourage of lesser deities. Unexpected wanderings of the planets might foreshadow a poor harvest in the village, while the early risings of the moon could portend malformed births. By far the worst harbinger was a lunar eclipse, which signaled that the gods were angry with the king and called for his death.

The fall equinox. Astronomy helped shape religions.

Much early astronomy dealt with developing techniques to predict these omens, allowing crucial time for pre-emptive prayers and rituals to ward off misfortune.

Despite being tied to religious ritual (and often to gruesome sacrifice), the work of these priests marks the beginnings of science, says John Steele, a historian of ancient astronomy at Brown University. “They were making mathematical predictions based on empirical observations, which is astronomy by definition,” he says.

An even more detailed understanding of celestial phenomena influenced the decline of polytheism. As more sophisticated science showed that the astronomical events were routine and could be predicted, they lost their ability to inspire fear. By the 5th century B.C., Greek philosophers were developing a view that the universe originated from one divine source.

Nick Campion adds that with the rise of the monotheistic Abrahamic religions, the need to “secularize the planets”—stripping them of divine agency—became even more pressing. Astronomy could not be written out of religion completely, in part because in people’s minds the celestial patterns were so clearly tied to the changing of the seasons. So monotheistic religious leaders emphasized the importance of sacred calendars governed by predictable celestial motions.

They argued also that understanding the behavior of planets and stars was the route to revealing what Mr. Campion calls the “unfolding of God’s plan.” For a time, he notes, astronomy actually became a tool of power for the religious elite to wield, The better religious scholars were at predicting astronomical events, the more society was seen to be successfully harmonizing with God.

In the early Islamic empire, astronomical patterns dictated not only the calendar, but also the architecture of cities. Mr. Campion has studied the original plans for building Baghdad, which was designed to be laid out in seven concentric circles––to mimic the geocentric view of the cosmos held at the time, with earth at its center, and the sun, the moon and the five then-known planets in orbit around it.

Although those plans were partially abandoned, the ultimate framework of the city was indeed circular and its foundations were laid on a day calculated to coincide with the time that Jupiter, then thought to be the supreme power-giving planet, rose above the Eastern horizon. “Baghdad was literally a cosmopolis,” says Mr. Campion.

Baghdad is one example of how an ancient society was built to celestial blueprints. To fully appreciate some of our religious practices today––and sometimes even the layout of the ground under our feet––we must look back to the earliest science and the influence of the night skies.

Ms. Merali is a science writer and documentary producer based in London.

__________

Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703466704575490150383969986.html

The Meaning of the Koran

Test your religious literacy:

Which sacred text says that Jesus is the “word” of God? a) the Gospel of John; b) the Book of Isaiah; c) the Koran.

The correct answer is the Koran. But if you guessed the Gospel of John you get partial credit because its opening passage — “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God” — is an implicit reference to Jesus. In fact, when Muhammad described Jesus as God’s word, he was no doubt aware that he was affirming Christian teaching.

Extra-credit question: Which sacred text has this to say about the Hebrews: God, in his “prescience,” chose “the children of Israel … above all peoples”? I won’t bother to list the choices, since you’ve probably caught onto my game by now; that line, too, is in the Koran.

I highlight these passages in part for the sake of any self-appointed guardians of Judeo-Christian civilization who might still harbor plans to burn the Koran. I want them to be aware of everything that would go up in smoke.

But I should concede that I haven’t told the whole story. Even while calling Jesus the word of God — and “the Messiah” — the Koran denies that he was the son of God or was himself divine. And, though the Koran does call the Jews God’s chosen people, and sings the praises of Moses, and says that Jews and Muslims worship the same God, it also has anti-Jewish, and for that matter anti-Christian, passages. 

This darker side of the Koran, presumably, has already come to the attention of would-be Koran burners and, more broadly, to many of the anti-Muslim Americans whom cynical politicians like Newt Gingrich are trying to harness and multiply. The other side of the Koran — the part that stresses interfaith harmony — is better known in liberal circles.

As for people who are familiar with both sides of the Koran — people who know the whole story — well, there may not be many of them. It’s characteristic of contemporary political discourse that the whole story doesn’t come to the attention of many people.

Thus, there are liberals who say that “jihad” refers to a person’s internal struggle to do what is right. And that’s true. There are conservatives who say “jihad” refers to military struggle. That’s true, too. But few people get the whole picture, which, actually, can be summarized pretty concisely:

Reading the scripture.

Reading the scripture.

The Koran’s exhortations to jihad in the military sense are sometimes brutal in tone but are so hedged by qualifiers that Muhammad clearly doesn’t espouse perpetual war against unbelievers, and is open to peace with them. (Here, for example, is my exegesis of the “sword verse,” the most famous jihadist passage in the Koran.) The formal doctrine of military jihad — which isn’t found in the Koran, and evolved only after Muhammad’s death — does seem to have initially been about endless conquest, but was then subject to so much amendment and re-interpretation as to render it compatible with world peace. Meanwhile, in the hadith — the non-Koranic sayings of the Prophet — the tradition arose that Muhammad had called holy war the “lesser jihad” and said that the “greater jihad” was the struggle against animal impulses within each Muslim’s soul.

Why do people tend to hear only one side of the story? A common explanation is that the digital age makes it easy to wall yourself off from inconvenient data, to spend your time in ideological “cocoons,” to hang out at blogs where you are part of a choir that gets preached to.

Makes sense to me. But, however big a role the Internet plays, it’s just amplifying something human: a tendency to latch onto evidence consistent with your worldview and ignore or downplay contrary evidence.

This side of human nature is generally labeled a bad thing, and it’s true that it sponsors a lot of bigotry, strife and war. But it actually has its upside. It means that the regrettable parts of the Koran — the regrettable parts of any religious scripture — don’t have to matter.

After all, the adherents of a given religion, like everyone else, focus on things that confirm their attitudes and ignore things that don’t. And they carry that tunnel vision into their own scripture; if there is hatred in their hearts, they’ll fasten onto the hateful parts of scripture, but if there’s not, they won’t. That’s why American Muslims of good will can describe Islam simply as a religion of love. They see the good parts of scripture, and either don’t see the bad or have ways of minimizing it.

So too with people who see in the Bible a loving and infinitely good God. They can maintain that view only by ignoring or downplaying parts of their scripture.

For example, there are those passages where God hands out the death sentence to infidels. In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are told to commit genocide — to destroy nearby peoples who worship the wrong Gods, and to make sure to kill all men, women and children. (“You must not let anything that breathes remain alive.”)

As for the New Testament, there’s that moment when Jesus calls a woman and her daughter “dogs” because they aren’t from Israel. In a way that’s the opposite of anti-Semitism — but not in a good way. And speaking of anti-Semitism, the New Testament, like the Koran, has some unflattering things to say about Jews.

Devoted Bible readers who aren’t hateful ignore or downplay all these passages rather than take them as guidance. They put to good use the tunnel vision that is part of human nature.

All the Abrahamic scriptures have all kinds of meanings — good and bad — and the question is which meanings will be activated and which will be inert. It all depends on what attitude believers bring to the text. So whenever we do things that influence the attitudes of believers, we shape the living meaning of their scriptures. In this sense, it’s actually within the power of non-Muslim Americans to help determine the meaning of the Koran. If we want its meaning to be as benign as possible, I recommend that we not talk about burning it. And if we want imams to fill mosques with messages of brotherly love, I recommend that we not tell them where they can and can’t build their mosques.

Of course, the street runs both ways. Muslims can influence the attitudes of Christians and Jews and hence the meanings of their texts. The less threatening that Muslims seem, the more welcoming Christians and Jews will be, and the more benign Christianity and Judaism will be. (A good first step would be to bring more Americans into contact with some of the overwhelming majority of Muslims who are in fact not threatening.)

You can even imagine a kind of virtuous circle: the less menacing each side seems, the less menacing the other side becomes — which in turn makes the first side less menacing still, and so on; the meaning of the Abrahamic scriptures would, in a real sense, get better and better and better.

Lately, it seems, things have been moving in the opposite direction; the circle has been getting vicious. And it’s in the nature of vicious circles that they’re hard to stop, much less reverse. On the other hand, if, through the concerted effort of people of good will, you do reverse a vicious circle, the very momentum that sustained it can build in the other direction — and at that point the force will be with you.

Postscript: The quotations of the Koran come from Sura 4:171 (where Jesus is called God’s word), and Sura 44:32 (where the “children of Israel” are lauded). I’ve used the Rodwell translation, but the only place the choice of translator matters is the part that says God presciently placed the children of Israel above all others. Other translations say “purposefully,” or “knowingly.”  By the way, if you’re curious as to the reason for the Koran’s seeming ambivalence toward Christians and Jews:

By my reading, the Koran is to a large extent the record of Muhammad’s attempt to bring all the area’s Christians, Jews and Arab polytheists into his Abrahamic flock, and it reflects, in turns, both his bitter disappointment at failing to do so and the many theological and ritual overtures he had made along the way. (For a time Muslims celebrated Yom Kippur, and they initially prayed toward Jerusalem, not Mecca.) That the suras aren’t ordered chronologically obscures this underlying logic.

Robert Wright, New York Times

__________

Full article and photo: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/the-meaning-of-the-koran

Beyond the Beatification of Cardinal Newman

Pope Benedict’s trip to England is an outreach for reunion, too.

This month Pope Benedict XVI will travel to England for an unprecedented state visit to the United Kingdom, meeting with the Queen at Balmoral Castle and giving an address to Parliament. The occasion for this historic event, however, is not church or international politics—although political issues will doubtless be touched upon—but the beatification (the penultimate step towards sainthood) of John Henry Cardinal Newman.

Newman, whose long life spanned most of the 19th century, was perhaps the greatest religious figure of the last 200 years of British history. Converting from Anglicanism to Catholicism at the age of 44, he wrote cogently and beautifully under both religious affiliations, and was a lightning rod in the passionately argued religious controversies of his time, such as infallibility of the Pope or the legitimacy of Anglicanism as the state church.

Valuing his religious influences as a thinker and evangelizer of the highest caliber, Pope Benedict has made an exception of his thus-far universal practice of not participating in beatification ceremonies. Hence his trip to Great Britain.

En route to this honor were the standard ecclesial steps: the examination of Newman’s life and writings; a declaration that he had lived a life of extraordinary virtue; and official approval by doctors and theologians of a miraculous cure after prayers that Newman would intercede with God on the sufferer’s behalf.

The miracle in question holds special interest for Americans, being the recovery in 2001 from a debilitating back condition of the Massachusetts lawyer and deacon Jack Sullivan. His cure was a very modern “media miracle” provoked by a series on Newman on EWTN, Mother Angelica’s Catholic broadcasting network. At the end of each episode, a prayer card for Newman was displayed on the screen. Mr. Sullivan prayed for the long-dead cardinal’s intercession before God for a cure. The rest (following rigorous medical and ecclesial examination) is now history.

Although Newman was a devout and humble man of great personal warmth and sensitivity, it is difficult to think of him apart from his public career. The author of seminal books of theology and philosophy, such as “The Development of Doctrine” and “A Grammar of Assent,” he also dashed off the greatest autobiography in English, “Apologia pro Vita Sua” (a media sensation in his time), in a matter of weeks after personal attacks on his honesty.

Newman’s experience in helping found what is today the University College of Dublin inspired his extended argument for a classical liberal education, “The Idea of a University.” He also wrote novels of religious conversion and hymns still sung in both Protestant and Catholic churches, such as “Lead, Kindly Light.”

He also won early (and continuing) renown as a brilliant preacher. The atheist novelist George Eliot memorized the whole of one of them, “The Second Spring,” and would recite it at the drop of a hat at private salons.

As a young and ardent Anglican priest, Newman and like-minded others originated the “Oxford Movement” in an attempt to revive the ancient doctrines and zeal for the “old religion” in an increasingly liberalizing Anglican Church. From the early 1830s up to his conversion to Catholicism in 1845, Newman battled the yielding spirit of Anglican toleration for indifferentism, which manifested itself in the belief that one religion was as good as another.

When his arguments were rejected by his Anglican superiors and he came to believe that his continued membership in the Church of England separated him from what he had now come to regard as the true Church, he converted to Catholicism and was ordained in Rome. Returning to England, he settled in Birmingham, where he founded the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, from which came the famous Brompton Oratory in London.

Newman died in 1890 popularly considered a saint. Over a century later, the Church is vindicating this judgment of the people of the U.K. and the whole English-speaking world. Pope Benedict’s decision to preside over Newman’s beatification reflects his love and respect for a fellow theologian whose work he has studied from his seminary days, and whose influence on the Second Vatican Council made him perhaps the most influential theologian on the council, even though it was meeting more than 70 years after his death.

Yet what is most intriguing about Benedict’s upcoming visit to England is its ecumenical significance. Pope Benedict has established very cordial relationships with Orthodox patriarchs and bishops (a long-held ambition of his predecessor John Paul II as well). At the same time, he has made a remarkable and controversial offer to members of the Anglican Communion throughout the world to be received into the Church, singly or in whole congregations, bringing with them their liturgical traditions and even their pastors and bishops, if those clergymen were properly received into the Catholic Church.

If Pope Benedict’s outreach meets with even limited success, perhaps tens of millions of fervent Evangelical and Pentecostal “Bible” Christians may want to reexamine more closely this ancient Church as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation draws near in 2017. The mutual momentum towards reunion may be irresistible.

Rev. McCloskey is a Church historian from Washington, D.C.

__________

Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704111704575355321702751364.html

Mystery and Evidence

There is a story about Bertrand Russell giving a public lecture somewhere or other, defending his atheism. A furious woman stood up at the end of the lecture and asked: “And Lord Russell, what will you say when you stand in front of the throne of God on judgment day?” Russell replied: “I will say: ‘I’m terribly sorry, but you didn’t give us enough evidence.’ ”

This is a very natural way for atheists to react to religious claims: to ask for evidence, and reject these claims in the absence of it. Many of the several hundred comments that followed two earlier Stone posts “Philosophy and Faith” and “On Dawkins’s Atheism: A Response,” both by Gary Gutting, took this stance. Certainly this is the way that today’s “new atheists”  tend to approach religion. According to their view, religions — by this they mean basically Christianity, Judaism and Islam and I will follow them in this — are largely in the business of making claims about the universe that are a bit like scientific hypotheses. In other words, they are claims — like the claim that God created the world — that are supported by evidence, that are proved by arguments and tested against our experience of the world. And against the evidence, these hypotheses do not seem to fare well.

But is this the right way to think about religion? Here I want to suggest that it is not, and to try and locate what seem to me some significant differences between science and religion.

To begin with, scientific explanation is a very specific and technical kind of knowledge. It requires patience, pedantry, a narrowing of focus and (in the case of the most profound scientific theories) considerable mathematical knowledge and ability. No-one can understand quantum theory — by any account, the most successful physical theory there has ever been — unless they grasp the underlying mathematics. Anyone who says otherwise is fooling themselves.

Religious belief is a very different kind of thing. It is not restricted only to those with a certain education or knowledge, it does not require years of training, it is not specialized and it is not technical. (I’m talking here about the content of what people who regularly attend church, mosque or synagogue take themselves to be thinking; I’m not talking about how theologians interpret this content.)

What is more, while religious belief is widespread, scientific knowledge is not. I would guess that very few people in the world are actually interested in the details of contemporary scientific theories. Why? One obvious reason is that many lack access to this knowledge. Another reason is that even when they have access, these theories require sophisticated knowledge and abilities, which not everyone is capable of getting.

Yet another reason — and the one I am interested in here — is that most people aren’t deeply interested in science, even when they have the opportunity and the basic intellectual capacity to learn about it. Of course, educated people who know about science know roughly what Einstein, Newton and Darwin said. Many educated people accept the modern scientific view of the world and understand its main outlines. But this is not the same as being interested in the details of science, or being immersed in scientific thinking. 

This lack of interest in science contrasts sharply with the worldwide interest in religion. It’s hard to say whether religion is in decline or growing, partly because it’s hard to identify only one thing as religion — not a question I can address here. But it’s pretty obvious that whatever it is, religion commands and absorbs the passions and intellects of hundreds of millions of people, many more people than science does. Why is this? Is it because — as the new atheists might argue — they want to explain the world in a scientific kind of way, but since they have not been properly educated they haven’t quite got there yet? Or is it because so many people are incurably irrational and are incapable of scientific thinking? Or is something else going on?

Some philosophers have said that religion is so unlike science that it has its own “grammar” or “logic” and should not be held accountable to the same standards as scientific or ordinary empirical belief. When Christians express their belief that “Christ has risen,” for example, they should not be taken as making a factual claim, but as expressing their commitment to what Wittgenstein called a certain “form of life,” a way of seeing significance in the world, a moral and practical outlook which is worlds away from scientific explanation.

This view has some merits, as we shall see, but it grossly misrepresents some central phenomena of religion. It is absolutely essential to religions that they make certain factual or historical claims. When Saint Paul says “if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is in vain and our faith is in vain” he is saying that the point of his faith depends on a certain historical occurrence.

Theologians will debate exactly what it means to claim that Christ has risen, what exactly the meaning and significance of this occurrence is, and will give more or less sophisticated accounts of it. But all I am saying is that whatever its specific nature, Christians must hold that there was such an occurrence. Christianity does make factual, historical claims. But this is not the same as being a kind of proto-science. This will become clear if we reflect a bit on what science involves.

The essence of science involves making hypotheses about the causes and natures of things, in order to explain the phenomena we observe around us, and to predict their future behavior. Some sciences — medical science, for example — make hypotheses about the causes of diseases and test them by intervening. Others — cosmology, for example — make hypotheses that are more remote from everyday causes, and involve a high level of mathematical abstraction and idealization. Scientific reasoning involves an obligation to hold a hypothesis only to the extent that the evidence requires it. Scientists should not accept hypotheses which are “ad hoc” — that is, just tailored for one specific situation but cannot be generalized to others. Most scientific theories involve some kind of generalization: they don’t just make claims about one thing, but about things of a general kind. And their hypotheses are designed, on the whole, to make predictions; and if these predictions don’t come out true, then this is something for the scientists to worry about. 

Religions do not construct hypotheses in this sense. I said above that Christianity rests upon certain historical claims, like the claim of the resurrection. But this is not enough to make scientific hypotheses central to Christianity, any more than it makes such hypotheses central to history. It is true, as I have just said, that Christianity does place certain historical events at the heart of their conception of the world, and to that extent, one cannot be a Christian unless one believes that these events happened. Speaking for myself, it is because I reject the factual basis of the central Christian doctrines that I consider myself an atheist. But I do not reject these claims because I think they are bad hypotheses in the scientific sense. Not all factual claims are scientific hypotheses. So I disagree with Richard Dawkins when he says “religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.”

Taken as hypotheses, religious claims do very badly: they are ad hoc, they are arbitrary, they rarely make predictions and when they do they almost never come true. Yet the striking fact is that it does not worry Christians when this happens. In the gospels Jesus predicts the end of the world and the coming of the kingdom of God. It does not worry believers that Jesus was wrong (even if it causes theologians to reinterpret what is meant by ‘the kingdom of God’). If Jesus was framing something like a scientific hypothesis, then it should worry them. Critics of religion might say that this just shows the manifest irrationality of religion. But what it suggests to me is that that something else is going on, other than hypothesis formation.

Religious belief tolerates a high degree of mystery and ignorance in its understanding of the world. When the devout pray, and their prayers are not answered, they do not take this as evidence which has to be weighed alongside all the other evidence that prayer is effective. They feel no obligation whatsoever to weigh the evidence. If God does not answer their prayers, well, there must be some explanation of this, even though we may never know it. Why do people suffer if an omnipotent God loves them? Many complex answers have been offered, but in the end they come down to this: it’s a mystery.

Science too has its share of mysteries (or rather: things that must simply be accepted without further explanation). But one aim of science is to minimize such things, to reduce the number of primitive concepts or primitive explanations. The religious attitude is very different. It does not seek to minimize mystery. Mysteries are accepted as a consequence of what, for the religious, makes the world meaningful.

This point gets to the heart of the difference between science and religion. Religion is an attempt to make sense of the world, but it does not try and do this in the way science does. Science makes sense of the world by showing how things conform to its hypotheses. The characteristic mode of scientific explanation is showing how events fit into a general pattern.

Religion, on the other hand, attempts to make sense of the world by seeing a kind of meaning or significance in things. This kind of significance does not need laws or generalizations, but just the sense that the everyday world we experience is not all there is, and that behind it all is the mystery of God’s presence. The believer is already convinced that God is present in everything, even if they cannot explain this or support it with evidence. But it makes sense of their life by suffusing it with meaning. This is the attitude (seeing God in everything) expressed in George Herbert’s poem, “The Elixir.” Equipped with this attitude, even the most miserable tasks can come to have value: Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws/ Makes that and th’ action fine.

None of these remarks are intended as being for or against religion. Rather, they are part of an attempt (by an atheist, from the outside) to understand what it is. Those who criticize religion should have an accurate understanding of what it is they are criticizing. But to understand a world view, or a philosophy or system of thought, it is not enough just to understand the propositions it contains. You also have to understand what is central and what is peripheral to the view. Religions do make factual and historical claims, and if these claims are false, then the religions fail. But this dependence on fact does not make religious claims anything like hypotheses in the scientific sense. Hypotheses are not central. Rather, what is central is the commitment to the meaningfulness (and therefore the mystery) of the world.

I have suggested that while religious thinking is widespread in the world, scientific thinking is not. I don’t think that this can be accounted for merely in terms of the ignorance or irrationality of human beings. Rather, it is because of the kind of intellectual, emotional and practical appeal that religion has for people, which is a very different appeal from the kind of appeal that science has.

Stephen Jay Gould once argued that religion and science are “non-overlapping magisteria.” If he meant by this that religion makes no factual claims which can be refuted by empirical investigations, then he was wrong. But if he meant that religion and science are very different kinds of attempt to understand the world, then he was certainly right.

Tim Crane is Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of two books, “The Mechanical Mind” (1995) and “Elements of Mind” (2001), and several other publications. He is currently working on two books: one on the representation of the non-existent and another on atheism and humanism.

__________

Full article: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/05/mystery-and-evidence

Why God Did Not Create the Universe

There is a sound scientific explanation for the making of our world—no gods required

According to Viking mythology, eclipses occur when two wolves, Skoll and Hati, catch the sun or moon. At the onset of an eclipse people would make lots of noise, hoping to scare the wolves away. After some time, people must have noticed that the eclipses ended regardless of whether they ran around banging on pots.

Ignorance of nature’s ways led people in ancient times to postulate many myths in an effort to make sense of their world. But eventually, people turned to philosophy, that is, to the use of reason—with a good dose of intuition—to decipher their universe. Today we use reason, mathematics and experimental test—in other words, modern science.

Albert Einstein said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” He meant that, unlike our homes on a bad day, the universe is not just a conglomeration of objects each going its own way. Everything in the universe follows laws, without exception.

Stephen Hawking at his office at Cambridge University on Sept. 2.

Newton believed that our strangely habitable solar system did not “arise out of chaos by the mere laws of nature.” Instead, he maintained that the order in the universe was “created by God at first and conserved by him to this Day in the same state and condition.” The discovery recently of the extreme fine-tuning of so many laws of nature could lead some back to the idea that this grand design is the work of some grand Designer. Yet the latest advances in cosmology explain why the laws of the universe seem tailor-made for humans, without the need for a benevolent creator.

Many improbable occurrences conspired to create Earth’s human-friendly design, and they would indeed be puzzling if ours were the only solar system in the universe. But today we know of hundreds of other solar systems, and few doubt that there exist countless more among the billions of stars in our galaxy. Planets of all sorts exist, and obviously, when the beings on a planet that supports life examine the world around them, they are bound to find that their environment satisfies the conditions they require to exist.

It is possible to turn that last statement into a scientific principle: The fact of our being restricts the characteristics of the kind of environment in which we find ourselves. For example, if we did not know the distance from the Earth to the sun, the fact that beings like us exist would allow us to put bounds on how small or great the Earth-sun separation could be. We need liquid water to exist, and if the Earth were too close, it would all boil off; if it were too far, it would freeze. That principle is called the “weak” anthropic principle.

The weak anthropic principle is not very controversial. But there is a stronger form that is regarded with disdain among some physicists. The strong anthropic principle suggests that the fact that we exist imposes constraints, not just on our environment, but on the possible form and content of the laws of nature themselves.

The idea arose because it is not only the peculiar characteristics of our solar system that seem oddly conducive to the development of human life, but also the characteristics of our entire universe—and its laws. They appear to have a design that is both tailor-made to support us and, if we are to exist, leaves little room for alteration. That is much more difficult to explain.

The tale of how the primordial universe of hydrogen, helium and a bit of lithium evolved to a universe harboring at least one world with intelligent life like us is a tale of many chapters. The forces of nature had to be such that heavier elements—especially carbon—could be produced from the primordial elements, and remain stable for at least billions of years. Those heavy elements were formed in the furnaces we call stars, so the forces first had to allow stars and galaxies to form. Those in turn grew from the seeds of tiny inhomogeneities in the early universe.

Even all that is not enough: The dynamics of the stars had to be such that some would eventually explode, precisely in a way that could disperse the heavier elements through space. In addition, the laws of nature had to dictate that those remnants could recondense into a new generation of stars, these surrounded by planets incorporating the newly formed heavy elements.

By examining the model universes we generate when the theories of physics are altered in certain ways, one can study the effect of changes to physical law in a methodical manner. Such calculations show that a change of as little as 0.5% in the strength of the strong nuclear force, or 4% in the electric force, would destroy either nearly all carbon or all oxygen in every star, and hence the possibility of life as we know it. Also, most of the fundamental constants appearing in our theories appear fine-tuned in the sense that if they were altered by only modest amounts, the universe would be qualitatively different, and in many cases unsuitable for the development of life. For example, if protons were 0.2% heavier, they would decay into neutrons, destabilizing atoms.

If one assumes that a few hundred million years in stable orbit is necessary for planetary life to evolve, the number of space dimensions is also fixed by our existence. That is because, according to the laws of gravity, it is only in three dimensions that stable elliptical orbits are possible. In any but three dimensions even a small disturbance, such as that produced by the pull of the other planets, would send a planet off its circular orbit, and cause it to spiral either into or away from the sun.

The emergence of the complex structures capable of supporting intelligent observers seems to be very fragile. The laws of nature form a system that is extremely fine-tuned. What can we make of these coincidences? Luck in the precise form and nature of fundamental physical law is a different kind of luck from the luck we find in environmental factors. It raises the natural question of why it is that way.

Many people would like us to use these coincidences as evidence of the work of God. The idea that the universe was designed to accommodate mankind appears in theologies and mythologies dating from thousands of years ago. In Western culture the Old Testament contains the idea of providential design, but the traditional Christian viewpoint was also greatly influenced by Aristotle, who believed “in an intelligent natural world that functions according to some deliberate design.”

That is not the answer of modern science. As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

Our universe seems to be one of many, each with different laws. That multiverse idea is not a notion invented to account for the miracle of fine tuning. It is a consequence predicted by many theories in modern cosmology. If it is true it reduces the strong anthropic principle to the weak one, putting the fine tunings of physical law on the same footing as the environmental factors, for it means that our cosmic habitat—now the entire observable universe—is just one of many.

Each universe has many possible histories and many possible states. Only a very few would allow creatures like us to exist. Although we are puny and insignificant on the scale of the cosmos, this makes us in a sense the lords of creation.

Stephen Hawking is a professor at the University of Cambridge. Leonard Mlodinow is a physicist who teaches at Caltech. Adapted from “The Grand Design” by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, to be published by Bantam Books on Sept. 7.

__________

Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704206804575467921609024244.html

The Perils of ‘Wannabe Cool’ Christianity

‘How can we stop the oil gusher?” may have been the question of the summer for most Americans. Yet for many evangelical pastors and leaders, the leaking well is nothing compared to the threat posed by an ongoing gusher of a different sort: Young people pouring out of their churches, never to return.

As a 27-year-old evangelical myself, I understand the concern. My peers, many of whom grew up in the church, are losing interest in the Christian establishment.

Recent statistics have shown an increasing exodus of young people from churches, especially after they leave home and live on their own. In a 2007 study, Lifeway Research determined that 70% of young Protestant adults between 18-22 stop attending church regularly.

Statistics like these have created something of a mania in recent years, as baby-boomer evangelical leaders frantically assess what they have done wrong (why didn’t megachurches work to attract youth in the long term?) and scramble to figure out a plan to keep young members engaged in the life of the church.

Increasingly, the “plan” has taken the form of a total image overhaul, where efforts are made to rebrand Christianity as hip, countercultural, relevant. As a result, in the early 2000s, we got something called “the emerging church”—a sort of postmodern stab at an evangelical reform movement. Perhaps because it was too “let’s rethink everything” radical, it fizzled quickly. But the impulse behind it—to rehabilitate Christianity’s image and make it “cool”—remains.

There are various ways that churches attempt to be cool. For some, it means trying to seem more culturally savvy. The pastor quotes Stephen Colbert or references Lady Gaga during his sermon, or a church sponsors a screening of the R-rated “No Country For Old Men.” For others, the emphasis is on looking cool, perhaps by giving the pastor a metrosexual makeover, with skinny jeans and an $80 haircut, or by insisting on trendy eco-friendly paper and helvetica-only fonts on all printed materials. Then there is the option of holding a worship service in a bar or nightclub (as is the case for L.A.’s Mosaic church, whose downtown location meets at a nightspot called Club Mayan).

“Wannabe cool” Christianity also manifests itself as an obsession with being on the technological cutting edge. Churches like Central Christian in Las Vegas and Liquid Church in New Brunswick, N.J., for example, have online church services where people can have a worship experience at an “iCampus.” Many other churches now encourage texting, Twitter and iPhone interaction with the pastor during their services.

But one of the most popular—and arguably most unseemly—methods of making Christianity hip is to make it shocking. What better way to appeal to younger generations than to push the envelope and go where no fundamentalist has gone before?

Sex is a popular shock tactic. Evangelical-authored books like “Sex God” (by Rob Bell) and “Real Sex” (by Lauren Winner) are par for the course these days. At the same time, many churches are finding creative ways to use sex-themed marketing gimmicks to lure people into church.

Oak Leaf Church in Cartersville, Georgia, created a website called yourgreatsexlife.com to pique the interest of young seekers. Flamingo Road Church in Florida created an online, anonymous confessional (IveScrewedUp.com), and had a web series called MyNakedPastor.com, which featured a 24/7 webcam showing five weeks in the life of the pastor, Troy Gramling. Then there is Mark Driscoll at Seattle’s Mars Hill Church—who posts Q&A videos online, from services where he answers questions from people in church, on topics such as “Biblical Oral Sex” and “Pleasuring Your Spouse.”

But are these gimmicks really going to bring young people back to church? Is this what people really come to church for? Maybe sex sermons and indie- rock worship music do help in getting people in the door, and maybe even in winning new converts. But what sort of Christianity are they being converted to?

In his book, “The Courage to Be Protestant,” David Wells writes:”The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God.

“And the further irony,” he adds, “is that the younger generations who are less impressed by whiz-bang technology, who often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.”

If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that “cool Christianity” is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken. As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don’t want cool as much as we want real.

If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it’s easy or trendy or popular. It’s because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It’s because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched—and we want an alternative. It’s not because we want more of the same.

Mr. McCracken’s book, “Hipster Christianity: Where Church and Cool Collide” (Baker Books) was published this month.

__________

Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704111704575355311122648100.html

A Thousand Miles in the Footsteps of Martin Luther

How to think about the Reformation at 500.

Lutherans world-wide are already buzzing about 2017, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, commonly regarded as the starting point of the Reformation. But no one’s quite sure about the right way to observe the occasion.

Should Lutherans celebrate the profound insights of a brilliant theologian into the gospel? Or should they lament the splintering of the Western church and the physical and spiritual intra-Christian wars that followed? Should Lutherans lord it over Catholics or should they apologize? Will Catholics ignore the anniversary and its significance altogether, or condemn it; or will they find a way to celebrate it too?

On top of all this, many believe, Christians are and remain in the grip of an “ecumenical winter.” Despite the high hopes for church reconciliation and even reunion through most of the 20th century, the past 25 years have seen waning interest in ecumenism on the popular level, and scandal and schism consuming the churches’ attention at the institutional level.

Martin Luther posting his “95 Theses” on the church door in Wittenberg, 1517.

Under the circumstances, it seems to me and my husband Andrew that the only thing to do is go for a thousand-mile walk.

Because, as it turns out, 2010 already is a 500th anniversary year for the Luther-minded. In 1510, Martin Luther the Augustinian friar set out from his priory in Erfurt, Germany, for the thousand-mile trek to Rome.

This Sunday, August 22, Andrew and I are departing from the same Augustinian priory in Erfurt—presently inhabited by Lutheran nuns—and following Luther’s footsteps all the way to Rome, where we’ll arrive 70 days later. Luther’s connection with Rome was severed by the unfolding events of the Reformation. We are trying to fix the broken links, reconnecting Erfurt and Rome with our feet.

Our path will take us through southern Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and half of Italy. In many respects it will be an easier trip for us than it was for Luther. He left during the pre-Christmas Advent fast, which meant more snow and less meat. He didn’t have orthopedically correct shoes or waterproof synthetic fabrics. But he still went farther than our planned daily trek of 15-20 miles: about 26 miles a day for him, considered then a normal day’s march.

Luther did, however, have one distinct advantage. While we’ll resort to frequent camping, especially in the northern half of our journey, where pilgrim hostels are few and far between, Luther enjoyed Augustinian or other monastic hospitality every night. People in 1510 didn’t camp out if they could possibly help it.

But we and Luther do share one significant similarity: We’re both living in the midst of a communication revolution. For Luther it was the printing press. He and his followers were able to use pamphlets and ever-cheaper printed books to promote the Reformation cause. This ability to spread the word also hardened the opposing teams in a divided and dividing church.

For us the main tool is social media. We’ll be Tweeting our progress in Nuremberg, Vaduz and Siena. Facebook fans will have a chance to “like” our photos of Septimer Pass in the Swiss Alps and the boat ride down Lake Como (it’s not cheating: even 16th-century pilgrims skipped walking along its narrow shore and opted for the boat).

Visitors to our blog—hereiwalk.org—a play on Luther’s famous words at Worms, “Here I stand”—can follow our daily progress and read our posts featuring snippets of Luther’s writings, Catholic theology and ecumenical documents.

Our hope is that, through the use of these new media, the controversial figure of Martin Luther and the current relationship between the Catholic and Lutheran churches will appear in a new light.

For the Martin Luther of 1510 just doesn’t fit comfortably into popular polemics. According to many Catholics, he’s still a good son of the church at that time, but about to turn bad, and richly deserving his eventual excommunication in 1520. According to many Protestants, the early Luther is still in the grip of old illusions and religious terror, about to break free from the past and start something brand new. Extreme caricatures are required to sustain the image either side has of him.

In the discourse between Lutheran and Catholic ecumenists over the past half-century, however, a new picture of Luther has emerged. Both sides have acknowledged that the claim of a severe cleavage between pre- and post-Reformation Luther is simply inaccurate. Luther’s revolutionary insights were firmly grounded in the long tradition of the church. Both Catholic rejection and Protestant triumphalism fail to do justice to the real man and his work.

The Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965 and officially committed the Catholic Church to the ecumenical movement, made a number of reforms that would have won Luther’s wholehearted approval: permission to distribute both bread and wine at the mass, worship in the vernacular, and an emphasis on biblical preaching—to name just a few.

The problem is that most Lutherans and Catholics remain unaware of the remarkable ways that their churches have drawn together over the past fifty years. Differences and disputes still compel greater interest than convergence and agreement.

So we two pilgrims invite Catholics, Lutherans and all other Christians concerned for the unity of the church to join us on this pilgrimage. Come in person if you can, or undertake a pilgrimage in spirit: Follow our blog, reconsider Luther, educate yourself about churches other than your own, and—above all—pray. Jesus promised to hear the prayers of only two or three gathered together. How could he ignore the prayers of all the fans on Facebook?

Ms. Hinlicky Wilson is a research professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, and editor of the quarterly journal Lutheran Forum.

__________

Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704868604575433283501270518.html

Philosophy and Faith

One of my jobs as a teacher of bright, mostly Catholic undergraduates is to get them thinking about why they hold their religious beliefs.  It’s easy enough to spark discussion about the problem of evil (“Can you really read the newspaper every day and continue to believe in an all-perfect God?”) or about the diversity of religious beliefs (“If you’d been born in Saudi Arabia, don’t you think you’d be a Muslim?”).  Inevitably, however, the discussion starts to fizzle when someone raises a hand and says (sometimes ardently, sometimes smugly) “But aren’t you forgetting about faith?”

That seems to be enough for most students.  The trump card has been played, and they — or at least the many who find religion more a comfort than a burden — happily remember that believing means never having to explain why.

I myself, the product of a dozen years of intellectually self-confident Jesuit education, have little sympathy with the “it’s just faith” response.  “How can you say that?” I reply.  “You wouldn’t buy a used car just because you had faith in what the salesperson told you.  Why would you take on faith far more important claims about your eternal salvation?”  And, in fact, most of my students do see their faith not as an intellectually blind leap but as grounded in evidence and argument.

“Well, if there’s no God,” they say, “how can you explain why anything at all exists or why the world is governed by such precise laws of nature?”

At this point, the class perks up again as I lay out versions of the famous arguments for the existence of God, and my students begin to think that they’re about to get what their parents have paid for at a great Catholic university: some rigorous intellectual support for their faith.

Soon enough, however, things again fall apart, since our best efforts to construct arguments along the traditional lines face successive difficulties.  The students realize that I’m not going to be able to give them a convincing proof, and I let them in on the dirty secret: philosophers have never been able to find arguments that settle the question of God’s existence or any  of the other “big questions” we’ve been discussing for 2500 years.

This seems to bring us back to where we started: “It’s all faith.”  I, with my Jesuit-inspired confidence in reason and evidence, have always resisted this. But  I have also felt the tug of my students’ conclusion that philosophy, although a good intellectual exercise and the source of tantalizing puzzles and paradoxes, has no real significance for religious faith.

Recently, however, I’ve realized  a mistake in the way that I — and most of my professional colleagues — tend to think about philosophy and faith.  (One of the great benefits of getting to teach philosophy to bright  undergraduates is that it makes it easier to think outside the constraints of current professional assumptions.)  The standard view is that philosophers’ disagreements over arguments about God make their views irrelevant to the faith of ordinary believers and non-believers.  The claim seems obvious: if we professionals can’t agree among ourselves, what can we have to offer to non-professionals?  An appeal to experts requires consensus among those experts, which philosophers don’t have.

This line of thought ignores the fact that when philosophers disagree it is only about specific aspects of the most subtle and sophisticated versions of arguments for and against God’s existence (for example, my colleague Alvin Plantinga’s modal-logic formulation of St. Anselm’s ontological argument or William Rowe’s complex version of a probabilistic argument from evil). There is no disagreement among philosophers about the more popular arguments to which theists and atheists typically appeal: as formulated, they do not prove (that is, logically derive from uncontroversial premises) what they claim to prove. They are clearly inadequate in the judgment of qualified professionals.  Further, there are no more sophisticated formulations that theists or atheists can accept — the way we do scientific claims — on the authority of expert consensus.

In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case.   This is the position supported by the consensus of expert philosophical opinion.

This conclusion should particularly discomfit popular proponents of atheism, such as Richard Dawkins, whose position is entirely based on demonstrably faulty arguments.  Believers, of course, can fall back on the logically less rigorous support that they characterize as faith.  But then they need to reflect on just what sort of support faith can give to religious belief.   How are my students’ warm feelings of certainty as they hug one another at Sunday Mass in their dorm really any different from the trust they might experience while under the spell of a really plausible salesperson? 

An answer may lie in work by philosophers as different as David Hume, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Alvin Plantinga.  In various ways, they have shown that everyday life is based on “basic” beliefs for which we have no good arguments. There are, for example, no more basic truths from which we can prove that the past is often a good guide to the future, that our memories are reliable, or that other people have a conscious inner life.  Such beliefs simply — and quite properly — arise from our experience in the world. Plantinga in particular has argued that core religious beliefs can have a status similar to these basic but unproven beliefs. His argument has clear plausibility for some sorts of religious beliefs. Through experiences of, for example, natural beauty, moral obligation, or loving and being loved, we may develop an abiding sense of the reality of an extraordinarily good and powerful being who cares about us.  Who is to say that such experiences do not give reason for belief in God as much as parallel (though different) experiences give reason for belief in reliable knowledge of the past and future and of other human minds?  There is still room for philosophical disputes about this line of thought, but it remains the most plausible starting point of a philosophical case for religious belief.

But this defense of faith faces a steep hurdle. Although it may support generic religious claims about a good and powerful being who cares for us, it is very hard to see it sustaining the specific and robust claims of Judaism, Christianity and Islam about how God is concretely and continually involved in our existence.  God is said to be not just good and powerful but morally perfect and omnipotent, a sure ultimate safeguard against any evil that might threaten us.  He not only cares about us but has set up precise moral norms and liturgical practices that we must follow to ensure our eternal salvation. Without such specificity, religion lacks the exhilarating and terrifying possibilities that have made it such a powerful force in human history.

But how can religious experience sustain faith in a specific salvation narrative, particularly given the stark differences among the accounts of the great religious traditions?  What sort of religious experience could support the claim that Jesus Christ was God incarnate and not just a great moral teacher?  Or that the Bible rather than the Koran is the revelation of God’s own words?  Believers may have strong feelings of certainty, but each religion rejects the certainty of all the others, which leaves us asking why they privilege their own faith.

I am not saying that religious believers are in principle incapable of finding satisfactory answers to such questions.  I am saying that philosophy and religion can and must speak to each other, and that those who take their beliefs seriously need to reflect on these questions, and that contemporary philosophical discussions (following on Hume and Wittgenstein) about knowledge, belief, certainty and disagreement are highly relevant to such reflection — and potentially, to an individual’s belief.  This is what I will try to convey to my students the next time I teach introductory philosophy of religion.

Gary Gutting teaches philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and co-edits Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, an on-line book review journal. His most recent book is “What Philosophers Know: Case Studies in Recent Analytic Philosophy.”

__________

Full article: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/philosophy-and-faith/

On Dawkins’s Atheism: A Response

My August 1 essay, “Philosophy and Faith,” was primarily addressed to religious believers. It argued that faith should go hand-in-hand with rational reflection, even though such reflection might well require serious questioning of their faith. I very much appreciated the many and diverse comments and the honesty and passion with which so many expressed their views. Interestingly, many of the most passionate responses came from non-believers who objected to my claim that popular atheistic arguments (like popular theistic arguments) do not establish their conclusions. There was particular dismay over my passing comment that the atheistic arguments of Richard Dawkins are “demonstrably faulty.” This follow-up provides support for my negative assessment. I will focus on Dawkins’ arguments in his 2006 book, “The God Delusion.”

Dawkins’s writing gives the impression of clarity, but his readable style can cover over major conceptual confusions. For example, the core of his case against God’s existence, as he summarizes it on pages 188-189, seems to go like this:

1. There is need for an explanation of the apparent design of the universe.

2. The universe is highly complex.

3. An intelligent designer of the universe would be even more highly complex.

4. A complex designer would itself require an explanation.

5. Therefore, an intelligent designer will not provide an explanation of the universe’s complexity.

6. On the other hand, the (individually) simple processes of natural selection can explain the apparent design of the universe.

7. Therefore, an intelligent designer (God) almost certainly does not exist.

(Here I’ve formulated Dawkins’ argument a bit more schematically than he does and omitted his comments on parallels in physics to the explanations natural selection provides for apparent design in biology.)

As formulated, this argument is an obvious non-sequitur. The premises (1-6), if true, show only that God cannot be posited as the explanation for the apparent design of the universe, which can rather be explained by natural selection. They do nothing to show that “God almost certainly does not exist” (189).

But the ideas behind premises 3 and 4 suggest a more cogent line of argument, which Dawkins seems to have in mind in other passages:

1. If God exists, he must be both the intelligent designer of the universe and a being that explains the universe but is not itself in need of explanation.

2. An intelligent designer of the universe would be a highly complex being.

3. A highly complex being would itself require explanation.

4. Therefore, God cannot be both the intelligent designer of the universe and the ultimate explanation of the universe.

5. Therefore, God does not exist.

Here the premises do support the conclusion, but premise 2, at least, is problematic. In what sense does Dawkins think God is complex and why does this complexity require an explanation? He does not discuss this in any detail, but his basic idea seems to be that the enormous knowledge and power God would have to possess would require a very complex being and such complexity of itself requires explanation. He says for example: “A God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe cannot be simple” (p. 178). And, a bit more fully, “a God who is capable of sending intelligible signals to millions of people simultaneously, and of receiving messages from all of them simultaneously, cannot be . . . simple. Such bandwidth! . . . If [God] has the powers attributed to him he must have something far more elaborately and randomly constructed than the largest brain or the largest computer we know” (p. 184).

Here Dawkins ignores the possibility that God is a very different sort of being than brains and computers. His argument for God’s complexity either assumes that God is material or, at least, that God is complex in the same general way that material things are (having many parts related in complicated ways to one another). The traditional religious view, however, is that God is neither material nor composed of immaterial parts (whatever that might mean). Rather, he is said to be simple, a unity of attributes that we may have to think of as separate but that in God are united in a single reality of pure perfection.

Obviously, there are great difficulties in understanding how God could be simple in this way. But philosophers from Thomas Aquinas through contemporary thinkers have offered detailed discussions of the question that provide intelligent suggestions about how to think coherently about a simple substance that has the power and knowledge attributed to God. Apart from a few superficial swipes at Richard Swinburne’s treatment in “Is There a God?”, Dawkins ignores these discussions. (see Swinburne’s response to Dawkins, paragraph 3.) Making Dawkins’ case in any convincing way would require detailed engagement not only with Swinburne but also with other treatments by recent philosophers such as Christopher Hughes’ “A Complex Theory of a Simple God.” (For a survey of recent work on the topic, see William Vallicella’s article, “Divine Simplicity,” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Further, Dawkins’ argument ignores the possibility that God is a necessary being (that is, a being that, by its very nature, must exist, no matter what). On this traditional view, God’s existence would be, so to speak, self-explanatory and so need no explanation, contrary to Dawkins’ premise 3. His ignoring this point also undermines his effort at a quick refutation of the cosmological argument for God as the cause of the existence of all contingent beings (that is, all beings that, given different conditions, would not have existed). Dawkins might, like some philosophers, argue that the idea of a necessary being is incoherent, but to make this case, he would have to engage with the formidable complexities of recent philosophical treatments of the question (see, for example, Timothy O’Connor’s “Theism and Ultimate Explanation” and Bruce Reichenbach’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Religious believers often accuse argumentative atheists such as Dawkins of being excessively rationalistic, demanding standards of logical and evidential rigor that aren’t appropriate in matters of faith. My criticism is just the opposite. Dawkins does not meet the standards of rationality that a topic as important as religion requires.

The basic problem is that meeting such standards requires coming to terms with the best available analyses and arguments. This need not mean being capable of contributing to the cutting-edge discussions of contemporary philosophers, but it does require following these discussions and applying them to one’s own intellectual problems. Dawkins simply does not do this. He rightly criticizes religious critics of evolution for not being adequately informed about the science they are calling into question. But the same criticism applies to his own treatment of philosophical issues. 

Friends of Dawkins might object: “Why pay attention to what philosophers have to say when, notoriously, they continue to disagree regarding the ‘big questions’, particularly, the existence of God?” Because, successful or not, philosophers offer the best rational thinking about such questions. Believers who think religion begins where reason falters may be able to make a case for the irrelevance of high-level philosophical treatments of religion — although, as I argued in “Philosophy and Faith,” this move itself raises unavoidable philosophical questions that challenge religious faith. But those, like Dawkins, committed to believing only what they can rationally justify, have no alternative to engaging with the most rigorous rational discussions available. Dawkins’ distinctly amateur philosophizing simply isn’t enough.

Of course, philosophical discussions have not resolved the question of God’s existence. Even the best theistic and atheistic arguments remain controversial. Given this, atheists may appeal (as many of the comments on my blog did) to what we might call the “no-arguments argument.” To say that the universe was created by a good and powerful being who cares about us is an extraordinary claim, so improbable to begin with that we surely should deny it unless there are decisive arguments for it (arguments showing that it is highly probable). Even if Dawkins’ arguments against theism are faulty, can’t he cite the inconclusiveness of even the most well-worked-out theistic arguments as grounds for denying God’s existence?

He can if he has good reason to think that, apart from specific theistic arguments, God’s existence is highly unlikely. Besides what we can prove from arguments, how probable is it that God exists? Here Dawkins refers to Bertrand Russell’s example of the orbiting teapot. We would require very strong evidence before agreeing that there was a teapot in orbit around the sun, and lacking such evidence would deny and not remain merely agnostic about such a claim. This is because there is nothing in our experience suggesting that the claim might be true; it has no significant intrinsic probability.

But suppose that several astronauts reported seeing something that looked very much like a teapot and, later, a number of reputable space scientists interpreted certain satellite data as showing the presence of a teapot-shaped object, even though other space scientists questioned this interpretation. Then it would be gratuitous to reject the hypothesis out of hand, even without decisive proof that it was true. We should just remain agnostic about it.

The claim that God exists is much closer to this second case. There are sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being, and there are competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God’s existence. Therefore, an agnostic stance seems preferable atheism.

To this, Dawkins might respond that there are other reasons that make the idea of God’s existence so improbable that nothing short of decisive arguments can override a denial of that existence. It’s as if, they might say, we had strong scientific evidence that nothing shaped like a teapot could remain in an orbit around the sun. We could then rightly deny the existence of an orbiting teapot, despite eye-witness reports and scientific arguments supporting its existence.

What could be a reason for thinking that God’s existence is, of itself, highly improbable? There is, of course, Dawkins’ claim that God is highly complex, but, as we’ve seen, this is an assumption he has not justified. Another reason, which seems implicit in many of Dawkins’ comments, is that materialism (the view that everything is material) is highly probable. If so, the existence of an immaterial being such as God would be highly improbable.

But what is the evidence for materialism? Presumably, that scientific investigation reveals the existence of nothing except material things. But religious believers will plausibly reply that science is suited to discover only what is material (indeed, the best definition of “material” may be just “the sort of thing that science can discover”). They will also cite our experiences of our own conscious life (thoughts, feelings, desires, etc.) as excellent evidence for the existence of immaterial realities that cannot be fully understood by science.

At this point, the dispute between theists and atheists morphs into one of the most lively (and difficult) of current philosophical debates—that between those who think consciousness is somehow reducible to material brain-states and those who think it is not. This debate is far from settled and at least shows that materialism is not something atheists can simply assert as an established fact. It follows that they have no good basis for treating the existence of God as so improbable that it should be denied unless there is decisive proof for it. This in turn shows that atheists are at best entitled to be agnostics, seriously doubting but not denying the existence of God.

I find Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” stimulating, informative, and often right on target. But it does not make a strong case for atheism. His case is weak because it does not take adequate account of the philosophical discussions that have raised the level of reflection about God’s existence far above that at which he operates. It may be possible to make a decisive case against theism through a penetrating philosophical treatment of necessity, complexity, explanation, and other relevant concepts. Because his arguments fail to do this, Dawkins falls far short of establishing his claim.

Gary Gutting teaches philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and co-edits Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, an on-line book review journal. His most recent book is “What Philosophers Know: Case Studies in Recent Analytic Philosophy.”

__________

Full article: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/11/on-dawkinss-atheism-a-response

The Rigor of Love

Can the experience of faith be shared by those unable to believe in the existence of a transcendent God? Might there be a faith of the faithless?

For a non-Christian, such as myself, but one out of sympathy with the triumphal evangelical atheism of the age, the core commandment of Christian faith has always been a source of both fascinated intrigue and perplexity. What is the status and force of that deceptively simple five-word command: “you shall love your neighbor”? With Gary Gutting’s wise counsel on the relation between philosophy and faith still ringing in our ears, I’d like to explore the possible meaning of these words through a reflection on a hugely important and influential philosopher not yet even mentioned so far in The Stone: Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55).

In the conclusion to “Works of Love” (1847) — which some consider the central work in Kierkegaard’s extensive and often pseudonymous authorship — he ponders the nature of the commandment of love that he has been wrestling with throughout the book. He stresses the strenuousness and, in the word most repeated in these pages, the rigor of love. As such, Christian love is not, as many non-believers contend, some sort of  “coddling love,” which spares believers any particular effort. Such love can be characterized as “pleasant days or delightful days without self-made cares.” This easy and fanciful idea of love reduces Christianity to “a second childhood” and renders faith infantile.

Kierkegaard then introduces the concept of “the Christian like-for-like,” which is the central and decisive category of “Works of Love.” The latter is introduced by distinguishing it from what Kierkegaard calls “the Jewish like-for-like,” by which he means “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”: namely a conception of obligation based on the equality and reciprocity of self and other. Although, as a cursory reading of Franz Rosenzweig’s “The Star of Redemption” — one of the great works of German-Jewish thought — could easily show, this is a stereotypical and limited picture of Judaism, Kierkegaard’s point is that Christian love cannot be reduced to what he calls the “worldly” conception of love where you do unto others what others do unto you and no more. The Christian like-for-like brackets out the question of what others may owe to me and instead, “makes every relationship to other human beings into a God-relationship.”

This move coincides with a shift from the external to the inward. Although the Christian, for Kierkegaard, “must remain in the world and the relationships of earthly life allotted to him,” he or she views those relationships from the standpoint of inwardness, that is, mediated through the relationship to God. As Kierkegaard puts it emphatically in Part One of “Works of Love”:

Worldly wisdom thinks that love is a relationship between man and man. Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man, that is, that God is the middle term.

The rigor of Christianity is a conception of love based on radical inequality, namely the absolute difference between the human and the divine. This is how Kierkegaard interprets Jesus’s words from the Sermon on the Mount, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye.”(Matthew, 7:3) The log in my own eye does not permit me to judge the speck in the other’s. Rather, I should abstain from any judgment of what others might or might not do. To judge others is to view matters from the standpoint of externality rather than inwardness. It is arrogance and impertinence. What others owe to me is none of my business.

This is why it is very hard to be Christian. And maybe there are not as many true Christians around as one might have thought. Kierkegaard writes, “Christianly understood you have absolutely nothing to do with what others do to you.” “Essentially,” he continues, “you have only to do with yourself before God.” Once again, the move to inwardness does not turn human beings away from the world, it is rather, “a new version of what other men call reality, this is reality.”

The address of Kierkegaard’s writing has a specific direction: the second person singular, you. He tells the story from the Gospels (versions appears in Matthew and Luke) of the Roman centurion in Capernaum who approached Jesus and asked him to cure his servant or boy, the sense is ambiguous, “sick with the palsy, grievously tormented.”(Matthew, 8:6) After Jesus said that he would visit the boy, the centurion confessed that, as a representative of the occupying imperial authority with soldiers under his command, he did not feel worthy that Jesus should enter his house. When Jesus heard this he declared that he had not experienced a person of such great faith in the whole of Israel. He added, and this is the line that interests Kierkegaard, “Be it done for you, as you believed.”

This story reveals the essential insecurity of faith. Kierkegaard writes that it does not belong to Christian doctrine to vouchsafe that you — “precisely you,” as he emphasizes — have faith. If someone were to say, “it is absolutely certain that I have faith because I have been baptized in the church and follow its rituals and ordinances,” then Kierkegaard would reply, “Be it done for you, as you believed.” The point of the story is that the centurion, although he was not baptized as a Christian, nonetheless believed. As Kierkegaard writes, “in his faith, the Gospel is first a gospel.” The New Testament Greek for “gospel” is euaggelion, which can mean good tidings, but can also be thought of as the act of proclamation or pledging.  On this view, faith is a proclamation or pledge that brings the inward subject of faith into being over against an external everydayness. Such a proclamation is as true for the non-Christian as for the Christian. Indeed, it is arguably more true for the non-Christian, because their faith is not supported by the supposed guarantee of baptism, creedal dogma, regular church attendance or some notion that virtue will be rewarded with happiness if not here on earth, then in the afterlife. Thus, paradoxically, non-Christian faith might be said to reveal the true nature of the faith that Christ sought to proclaim. Even — and indeed especially — those who are denominationally faithless can have an experience of faith. If faith needs to be underpinned by some sort of doctrinal security, then inwardness becomes externalized and the strenuous rigor of faith evaporates.

What sort of certainty, then, is the experience of faith? Kierkegaard writes, and again the second person singular direction of address should be noted: “It is eternally certain that it will be done for you as you believe, but the certainty of faith, or the certainty that you, you in particular, believe, you must win at every moment with God’s help, consequently not in some external way.” (Emphasis mine)

Kierkegaard insists — and one feels here the force of his polemic against the irreligious, essentially secular order of so-called Christendom, in his case what he saw as the pseudo-Christianity of the Danish National Church — that no pastor or priest has the right to say that one has faith or not according to doctrines like baptism and the like. To proclaim faith is to abandon such external or worldly guarantees. Faith has the character of a continuous “striving … in which you get occasion to be tried every day.” This is why faith and the commandment of love that it seeks to sustain is not law. It has no coercive, external force. As Rosenzweig writes, “The commandment of love can only proceed from the mouth of the lover.” He goes on to contrast this with law, “which reckons with times, with a future, with duration.” By contrast, the commandment of love “knows only the moment; it awaits the result in the very moment of its promulgation.” The commandment of love is mild and merciful, but, as Kierkegaard insists, “there is rigor in it.” We might say love is that disciplined act of absolute spiritual daring that eviscerates the old self of externality so something new and inward can come into being. 

As Kierkegaard puts in earlier in “Works of Love,” citing Paul, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.”(Romans, 13:8) It sounds simple. But what is implicit in this minimal-sounding command is a conception of love as an experience of infinite debt — a debt that it is impossible to repay, “When a man is gripped by love, he feels that this is like being in infinite debt.” To be is to be in debt — I owe therefore I am.

If sin is the theological name for the essential ontological indebtedness of the self, then love is the experience of a countermovement to sin that is orientated around a demand that exceeds the capacity or ability of the self. Love is shaped in relation to what, in my parlance, can be called an infinite demand. Kierkegaard writes, and the double emphasis on the “moment” that finds an echo in Rosenzweig should be noted, “God’s relationship to a human being is the infinitizing at every moment of that which at every moment is in a man.” Withdrawn into inwardness and solitude (“If you have never been solitary, you have never discovered that God exists,” Kierkegaard writes), each and every word and action of the self resounds through the infinite demand of God.

At this point, in the penultimate paragraph of “Works of Love Kierkegaard shifts to auditory imagery. God is a vast echo chamber where each sound, “the slightest sound,” is duplicated and resounds back loudly into the subject’s ears. God is nothing more than the name for the repetition of each word that the subject utters. But it is a repetition that resounds with “the intensification of infinity.” In what Kierkegaard calls “the urban confusion” of external life, it is nigh impossible to hear this repetitive echo of the infinite demand. This is why the bracketing out of externality is essential: “externality is too dense a body for resonance, and the sensual ear is too hard-of-hearing to catch the eternal’s repetition.” We need to cultivate the inner or inward ear that infinitizes the words and actions of the self. As Kierkegaard makes clear, what he is counseling is not “to sit in the anxiety of death, day in and day out, listening for the repetition of the eternal.” What is rather being called for is a rigorous and activist conception of faith that proclaims itself into being at each instant without guarantee or security and which abides with the infinite demand of love.

Faith is not a like-for-like relationship of equals, but the asymmetry of the like-to-unlike. It is a subjective strength that only finds its power to act through an admission of weakness. Faith is an enactment of the self in relation to an infinite demand that both exceeds my power and yet requires all my power. Such an experience of faith is not only shared by those who are faithless from a creedal or denominational perspective, but can — in my view — be had by them in an exemplary manner. Like the Roman centurion of whom Kierkegaard writes, it is perhaps the faithless who can best sustain the rigor of faith without requiring security, guarantees and rewards: “Be it done for you, as you believed.”

Simon Critchley is chair of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, and part-time professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He is the author of several books, including “Infinitely Demanding.” His new book, “The Faith of the Faithless,” is forthcoming from Harvard University Press in 2011.

__________

Full article: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/the-rigor-of-love

The Muslim Past

In the United States, a country saturated with instant punditry, serious scholars rarely attain celebrity as public intellectuals. Yet Bernard Lewis, a professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at Princeton, has long radiated influence far beyond his specialization in Ottoman studies. A friend of Henry Kissinger and a mentor to subsequent cohorts of conservative policy makers, Lewis arguably has done more than any Mideast expert to mold American attitudes to the region.

His latest book, “Faith and Power,” a collection of essays, lectures and speeches from the past two decades loosely linked to the theme of relations between Islam and the state, reminds us why. Lewis is a fine writer, with a commanding authorial voice that sweeps magisterially across the ages. His linkage of diverting historical anecdotes to pressing current issues and his skill at contracting complex ideas into clever apothegms do much to explain his appeal to politicians in search of a punchy quote.

Here, for instance, is Lewis contrasting political structures at home and abroad: “In America one uses money to buy power, while in the Middle East one uses power to acquire money.” Even a subject as vexed as the search for Arab-Israeli peace boils down to this satisfyingly pithy formula: “If the conflict is about the size of Israel, then long and difficult negotiations can eventually resolve the problem. But if the conflict is about the existence of Israel, then serious negotiation is impossible.”

Such distillations can be salutary, but may also prove dangerously reductionist. Take Lewis’s remark that democracies do not make war, and dictatorships do not make peace. This glib elaboration of a neoconservative mantra is easily challenged. The strongmen who ran Grenada, Panama and Iraq may have been bad guys, but there is no disputing that it was the United States that attacked them, not the other way around. The Egyptian dictator Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel, not the democratically elected Hamas party.

Yet Lewis blithely hoists his rhetoric to even more contentious heights. Like Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, he asserts, Middle Eastern dictators need war to justify their tyranny. This means peace will come only with their collapse or their defeat. In other words, democracies must clobber every dictator. And that’s not all. Giving a more specific nudge to policy makers, Lewis pretends to have discerned “deep roots” of democratic traditions in Iraq and Iran, of all places. Democracy might easily prevail there, he opines, and inspire others in the region, “given the chance.”

It might be argued that it is hardly Lewis’s fault if some in the Bush administration took such expert advice a little too literally. Yet Lewis himself makes his intentions pretty clear in another essay: “Either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us.”

The quaintly missionary idea of “bringing freedom” to benighted peoples may simply betray Lewis’s age: he was born in England in 1916, in the already waning glory of the British Empire. But the shrill alarmism jars with his repute as a historian whose most notable contribution has been to chronicle the relative decline of Islam in the past three centuries. It is a fair judgment to say that the four-fifths of the world’s people who are not Muslim appear in no immediate or even distant danger of extinction at the point of a scimitar.

If it were only the present that Lewis perceived through a gently distorted mirror, this might not detract from his distinction as a historian. But he gets the past subtly wrong, too, often by omitting vital context. He says that when the Arabs rejected the partition of Palestine in 1947, it was simply because they refused to accept having a Jewish state next door. Yet Arabs were not alone in questioning the United Nations plan to allocate 56 percent of Palestine’s territory to a minority consisting mostly of recent immigrants, which made up barely a third of the population and owned just 7 percent of the land. Greece, India and Cuba, among others, also voted no, while China, Ethiopia, Colombia, Chile and Mexico abstained. The overriding motive of all these doubters was presumably not bigotry, as Lewis implies, but concern about Palestinians’ rights.

Modern history may not be Lewis’s forte. Yet even regarding older eras, his views sometimes seem at odds with those of another distinguished historian. Fred M. Donner is a professor of Near Eastern history at the University of Chicago. His new book, “Muhammad and the Believers,” is a learned and brilliantly original, yet concise and accessible study of Islam’s formative first century.

Western historians have tended to ascribe the astonishing success of the new faith to external factors, like economic and political conditions in seventh-century Arabia. Donner persuasively returns the faith itself to centrality. Equally convincing is his well-documented assertion that Islam, at its origins, was rather different from the religion later understood by either its practitioners or by non-Muslims.

This more sophisticated reading of history explains Islam not as a static doctrine, but as one that evolved from an ecumenical, syncretic, pietist and millenarian cult into a more dogmatic and exclusivist faith. In contrast to Lewis, who depicts Islam as aggressive from the start, Donner shows that contemporary followers of other religions initially, and perhaps even for several generations, regarded Islam as an open-minded and not specially threatening movement with universalist aspirations. A Nestorian Christian patriarch writing to a bishop in A.D. 647 testified not only that his new Muslim rulers were peaceable, but also that they honored priests and bestowed monasteries with gifts. An Armenian bishop recorded around A.D. 660 that the first governor of Muslim Jerusalem was Jewish.

The documentary evidence suggests that the term “Muslim” came into common use only in the eighth century. The earlier word, “Believers,” described a community that embraced many faiths.

gain in contrast to Lewis, Donner shows that while the theocratic leanings of Islam make it seem different from other monotheistic faiths today, at the beginning they merely perpetuated the models of the contemporary great powers, Christian Byzantium and Sasanian Persia. Over time, as Donner shows, doctrinal and dynastic divisions among the Muslims created a need to enforce orthodoxy, rendering Islam more distinct from other faiths and hardening its boundaries.

Indeed, it was Muslim historians themselves, writing only after this process was well under way, who began to portray Islam as having been doctrinally rigid from the start. The Muslim triumphalism that Lewis discerns, it seems, was largely introduced in retrospect, to explain the seemingly miraculous spread of the faith as a result of heavenly favor. Donner’s explanation of the process by which Muslims came to define themselves is both fascinating and enlightening. Surely, this kind of subtle understanding of how history works comes closer to the truth than Lewis’s lapidary pronouncements from on high.

Max Rodenbeck is the Middle East correspondent for The Economist.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/27/books/review/Rodenbeck-t.html

The Vatican Loves a Good Story

It takes money, a medical miracle, and a compelling vita to make it as a saint today.

It’s been an unpleasant year for Pope Benedict XVI, so much so, one feels moved to ask: Are there any papal practices he takes refuge in that are more fun than, say, celibacy? We know of at least one: saint-making. In his going-on-five-year-old reign, the pontiff has canonized at least 29 souls, according to the Holy See’s Web site—10 in 2009 alone. The newly sainted didn’t include Mother Teresa, everyone’s top seed, but they did include one friar, Bernardo Tolomei, born in the 13th century, whose crowning achievement, according to the Vatican biography, was to leave his fellow “monks an example of a holy life, the practice of the virtues to a heroic level, an existence dedicated to the service of others, and to contemplation.”

Today, the Vatican is busier than ever minting new saints. John Paul II canonized more than all the popes of the five centuries before him combined—over 130 in his 25 years, says the Vatican site—and his successor, Benedict, is now besting his per annum rate. Shrewd in the calculus of worship, John Paul recognized that the canon could be a boon to the perpetuation of Catholicism in an era of increasing secularism, just as martyrs’ cults had been to its early spread among polytheists and Jews. The former playwright’s dramaturgical instincts told him people just like saints. They may not like their priests and bishops, nor indeed the pope, and they may not care to read Deuteronomy. But they enjoy their saints, even when they know—maybe because they know—that not all saints deserve to be saints.

Unlike, say, Jesus, saints offer relatable examples of righteousness. They’re often awkward, vain, dissolute, paranoid, self-loathing, lazy, annoying, racked with doubt. (No surprise, then, that their life stories, or vitae, were often the pre-Gutenberg equivalent of best-sellers.) Saints also offer a local connection to the heavens: Six continents will be represented in the canon when, this fall, Australia gets its first saint, Mary MacKillop, a nun with a posthumous blog and a travel agency devoted to her cause.

The key to canonization since at least the Counter-Reformation, to paraphrase Kenneth L. Woodward’s Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why, is that through reflection and renunciation the person in question found divinity in interior life and became capable of extraordinary charity—that is, like Bernardo Tolomei, they got way centered. Saints were the Lord Jims if not the Bruce Waynes of their time and still are for those who live in areas like Latin America, where more Catholics reside than in any other part of the world, with readier access to a pew than to a multiplex.

Then there are the miracles. A saint needs to have performed two, either during his life or through posthumous intercession: one for beatification and a second for canonization, though the pope can waive the latter if he’s feeling generous. (The first step in the process, being declared “venerable” by the pope, does not require any.) But while they’re a sine qua non, miracles are not the engine of sainthood. In the halls of the Vatican, more thought is given to a good life story. It’s the moving quality of a saint’s vita that will carry him or her through. The most labored-over task in the process is the writing of the prositio, the formal argument for sainthood, whose “aim is to show an ordinary life that was lived in an extraordinary way,” Jeannine Marino, an American canon lawyer who works on sainthood causes, told me.

Take Pierre Toussaint, a freed black slave who died in the 1850s and is perhaps the current leading American candidate for sainthood. At the Vatican body that oversees canonizations, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, there are hundreds of active files, some centuries old, but Toussaint’s cause stands a better-than-average chance of success.

This has partly to do with internal politics and demographics: The United States has one of the largest and most active Catholic populations in the world, more so as the Hispanic population grows. But the country has produced just nine saints, only two of whom—Catherine Drexel, a nun from the Philadelphia banking family, and Elizabeth Ann Seton—were born in the States.* (Kateria Tekakwitha, a 17th-cenury Mohawk woman, has been beatified, though not canonized, at which point one becomes known as “a blessed.”) The last canonization of an American occurred this past March. Damian De Veuster was a priest of Belgian descent who ministered to lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai in the latter half of the 19th century and, like Drexel and MacKillop, achieved sainthood after his intercession was credited with miraculously curing a contemporary case of cancer.

Medical cures have always been the most common form of miracle attributed to saints. The papacy is generally suspicious of other supernatural events—visitations from the Virgin, experiencing the stigmata, levitation. In the modern era, medical cures are the only type of miracle the papacy accepts. Toussaint’s intercession is believed by his fans to have cured a case of scoliosis.

But more than anything, Toussaint’s high standing at the Vatican owes to his “highly impressive” story, says the Rev. Paolo Molinari, a Jesuit who works in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. In 1787, Toussaint emigrated from Haiti to New York City in the company of his owner, who died not long after. Rather than bolt, Toussaint remained with his owner’s widow, supporting her and her children by taking up hairdressing as a trade. Soon, Manhattan society women began seeking him out, and he made a small fortune, which he put into building an orphanage, taking in the homeless, and funding local parishes. “He made a lot of money, but he did not spend his money for anything else but to help the people in need, be they black or white,” said Molinari, who is Toussaint’s postulator—the potential saint’s chief advocate at the Vatican. “He had love even for the people who treated black people in an awful way.”

Molinari was originally contacted about Toussaint by John Cardinal O’Connor, the late archbishop of New York. He initiated the diocesan phase of the cause, the investigation of the subject’s life that takes place in the diocese in which he died, and directed a priest, William Elder, to write Toussaint’s prositio. When I reached Elder at the archdiocese, a copy of it was still sitting by his desk, filling two bound volumes, the informatio, which is the life story itself, the basis for the official vita, and the summarium, the testimonies of witnesses and other documents attesting to Toussaint’s heroic faith and good works. In 1996 Toussaint was declared venerable by John Paul II, kicking off the second, or apostolic, phase of the process.

Saint-making requires a great deal of funding. Woodward estimates that Drexel’s cause ended up costing about $1 million. Molinari and the other laity and clergy involved are not paid by the Vatican for the time they spend on Toussaint’s case, nor are the expensive consulting doctors who review the thaumaturgic events—the, er, scientific term for a miracle—attributed to him. Thousands of pages of materials must be copied and sent to Rome.

As for the miracles: In 2000, Lisa Peacock, a teacher in Silver Spring, Md., read about Toussaint in the Washington Post and was struck by him. She cut out the photograph of his portrait and gave it to her 5-year-old son, Joey, who suffered from scoliosis. Joey pleaded for Toussaint’s intercession. Two days later, the Peacocks went to John Hopkins Medical Center, where they learned that Joey’s scoliosis had, apparently, disappeared.

Lisa contacted the New York Archdiocese. Joey’s X-rays and records were sent to Rome, where they were inspected by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints’ medical review board. It wanted to wait for full bone development. According to Lisa, Joey, 15, now stands 6’3″ and plays basketball and lacrosse. His latest X-rays, which show he no longer requires monitoring for the condition, have been sent to the congregation. It’s due to render a ruling soon, Molinari says.

At that point the hunt will begin for a second miracle, and Molinari will plead Toussaint’s case anew. This is easier than it once was. The canonization process used to resemble litigation, with the postulator and his allies pleading the would-be saint’s case and a promoter general of the faith, or devil’s advocate, arguing against it, citing evidence of misdeeds. The latter position was done away with in 1983.

Not that the Peacocks’ and Toussaint’s other fans necessarily need the Vatican’s blessing to hallow him: The official register of saints, the Bibliotheca Sanctorum, runs to roughly 10,000 names, but only a few hundred of those have been officially canonized since 993, when the papacy took up the practice. The rest are saints not because a pope said so, but because their neighbors and admirers did.

__________

Full article: http://www.slate.com/id/2255232/

Future Vatican

An eternal-seeming institution is poised for major change, says John L. Allen Jr.

John Allen, the leading American authority on the Vatican, has written a new book on the future of the Catholic church.

The Catholic Church is among the most enduring institutions in human history, holding fast through centuries of war, social upheaval and technological revolution to remain a constant in millions of people’s lives–an impression only enhanced by more than 30 years of theologically conservative popes.

Yet at the same time, the church is undergoing enormous change. Beyond the tremors caused by the abuse crisis, it faces deeper shifts in demographics, ideological focus, and its relationship with other religions.

John L. Allen Jr., one of the best-known lay experts on the church, thinks the next century will be transformative for Catholicism, as the church grapples with a whole new geography of belief, and a world where Islam, rather than Judaism, is its most important interfaith counterpart. Two-thirds of the world’s Catholics already live in the Southern Hemisphere, and by midcentury three-quarters of the church’s membership will live south of the equator. The rise of the ”global south,” Allen argues, will fundamentally alter the culture, worship style, and politics of the church.

Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, doesn’t doubt the importance of the immediate issues that Catholic leaders are now confronting. But his new book, ”The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church,” takes a longer view, tracing the tectonic movements that don’t always generate headlines.

Allen, who was in Boston to discuss his book at Boston College last week, spoke to the Globe by phone after flying in from Rome.

IDEAS: We think of the Catholic Church as a change-resistant institution, a kind of bulwark against modernity. But over time, hasn’t it had to adapt quite a bit to survive?

ALLEN: Oh sure. Just take the United States–the Catholicism of 2010 is enormously different from the Catholicism of, say, the 1950s. … The way Catholicism works is that, on the surface, it tends to stay the same for an awful long time. And meanwhile things are bubbling underneath, the plates are shifting. And then you get one of these moments of eruption in which everything changes all at once. The Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s was like that. So judging what’s going on in Catholicism exclusively on the basis of surface impressions is almost always a prescription for getting it wrong.

IDEAS: What aspects of today’s church would have been unimaginable to believers 500 years ago?

ALLEN: Other than the fact that we’ve still got a pope and we’ve still got the Bible … it’s a completely new world. Start with the fact that Catholicism today officially teaches that other religions are valid pathways to salvation for their members. Five hundred years ago that would have been almost unimaginable. Even though the church will claim that was always their teaching, that certainly is not how people understood it.

IDEAS: Why are you convinced that the church will be so radically reshaped in the next century?

ALLEN: The shift from north to south in terms of the center of gravity in the church is like when St. Paul left Palestine in the first century and took Christianity to Greece, and ultimately to Rome, and made it a new religious movement in the Greco-Roman world, utterly transforming it. We are living in one of those transformative moments right now. … In the 21st century, places like Abuja in Nigeria and Jakarta and Manila will be what places like Paris and Milan were in the 15th and 16th centuries–that is, they will be the primary centers where new theological ideas, new pastoral models, new political priorities emerge.

IDEAS: How are other forms of Christianity transforming Catholicism?

ALLEN: The most visible example would be styles of worship among Catholics in the global south. It tends to be very Pentacostal–there’s a lot of speaking in tongues and private revelations and healings.

IDEAS: Do you see a future pope speaking in tongues?

ALLEN: Well, speaking in tongues I don’t know. But I would anticipate a future in which there’s a pope who comes out of the global south … who is much more comfortable with things like healings, visions and maybe speaking in tongues. And doing this all publicly–that’s the point.

IDEAS: You say Islam–an aggressive Islam–will be the church’s main religious counterpart in the coming century. Are we headed for religious war?

ALLEN: No. Once Catholics and Muslims work out their respective problems with religious freedom … they have far more in common with one another than they do with leftist secularism. And if you want an example of how this works, the ruling coalition in the Philippines these days is actually the Christian Muslim Democrats. … That to me would be the kind of model for the future of Catholic-Muslim relations, standing shoulder to shoulder against radical secularism.

IDEAS: The church knows it’s going to be around for centuries. Does it have people who plan for long-term issues?

ALLEN: It’s got academics and analysts and so forth, but if you are asking is there a futurology office in the Vatican, no, alas, it doesn’t really work like that. …. There are a lot of smart people in leadership positions in the church who are aware of all this, but it’s all kind of ad hoc and uncoordinated.

IDEAS: So you see the Vatican itself as surviving well into the future?

ALLEN: Oh sure. Look, you think the sex abuse crisis is going to bring these guys down? I mean, Napoleon marched his troops into Rome and took the pope prisoner…. Yeah, the Vatican is going to be around. Now whether it will be thriving or in the bunker is another question.

IDEAS: In the Southern Hemisphere, issues like hunger have become central. How do you think survival issues like that will intermingle with issues of morality?

ALLEN: As Catholic leaders from the Southern Hemisphere have the opportunity to set the tone in the church, their priorities … aren’t going to be the kind of internal Catholic baseball that we tend to get consumed by in the West–can women be priests, are we going to change our teaching on birth control. Their priorities are more, how can the … resources of church be used to promote change in the broader society? So, how can we feed the hungry? How can we retool the global economy to serve the poor? How can we shut down the arms race?

IDEAS: You’ve written about how Catholicism will be influenced by all these different dynamics. But how will the world be different in 100 years as a result of Catholicism?

ALLEN: If you had to find one issue that is the most live concern of the Catholic leaders in the global south, it would be corruption–for obvious reasons, the whole political class is corrupt. … So I think ethics in government and ethics in the business would be huge, huge concerns of the Catholic Church in the future.

Lisa Wangsness is a member of the Globe staff.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/05/09/future_vatican

The quest to sort out competing and comparable religions

As thousands prayed across the nation Thursday in celebration of the National Day of Prayer, the Rev. Franklin Graham held his own vigil in the Pentagon parking lot.

Oh well, it doesn’t matter where one prays, right? All prayers lead to heaven. Or do they?

Not if you’re Graham, who lost his place at the Pentagon altar after he mocked other religions, specifically Islam and Hinduism. A plea to President Obama to reinstate him apparently fell on pitiless ears.

Graham’s offense was expressing his belief that only Christians have God’s ear, that Islam is evil, and that Muslims and Hindus don’t pray to the same God he does.

“No elephant with 100 arms can do anything for me,” Graham said in a USA Today interview, referring to one of the five main Hindu deities. “None of their 9,000 gods is going to lead me to salvation. We are fooling ourselves if we think we can have some big kumbaya service and all hold hands and it’s all going to get better in this world. It’s not going to get better.”

It’s not? If the whole world prays for a common good, will no good come of it? If so, then what’s the point of a National Day of Prayer? Oh ye of little faith.

Perhaps Graham was feeling cross after his rejection. As honorary chairman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private evangelical group, Graham was to have led a prayer for the U.S. military. His son is on a fourth tour in Afghanistan.

But Graham’s views didn’t sit well with secular Americans or even non-evangelical Christians, who protested that the government is endorsing a certain flavor of Christianity. A Wisconsin court apparently agreed and ruled the day unconstitutional, appeals pending.

Graham isn’t alone in his views. A survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors, conducted by an evangelical polling firm, found that 47 percent agree that Islam is “a very evil and a very wicked religion.” But such opinions may be confined mostly to an older generation. Evangelicals under 30 believe that there are many ways to God, not just through Jesus.

David Campbell, a professor at Notre Dame and co-author (with Harvard’s Robert Putnam) of “American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives,” conducted surveys showing that nearly two-thirds of evangelicals under 35 believe non-Christians can go to heaven, vs. 39 percent of those over 65.

When it comes to whose prayers carry more weight in the heavenly realm, well, who really knows? But new brain research supports the likelihood that one man’s prayer is as good as any other’s.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, the award-winning National Public Radio religion reporter, participated in a peyote ceremony in Arizona, meditated while wearing a brain scanner at the University of Wisconsin and donned a “God helmet” in a neuroscientist’s lab in Canada in her quest to discover the secrets of prayer and, possibly, proof of God.

In her book, “Fingerprints of God,” Hagerty tries to answer a question that has plagued her for years: Is there more than this? She couldn’t accept mainstream science’s answer that we are “a collection of molecules with no greater purpose than to eke out a few decades.” Instead, she sought out spiritual virtuosos (people who practice prayer, religiously), as well as neurologists, geneticists, physicists and medical researchers who are using the newest tools of science to discern the circumstantial evidence of God.

Her research led to some startling conclusions that have caused no small amount of Sturm und Drang among those who believe theirs is the one true way. She found that whether one is a Sikh, a Catholic nun, a Buddhist monk or a Sufi Muslim, the brain reacts to focused prayer and meditation much in the same way. The same parts light up and the same parts go dark during deep meditation.

Apparently, we have a “God spot” and “God genes.” And though some are more generously endowed than others, spiritual experience is a human phenomenon, not a religious one. Different routes to the same destination.

Understandably, these are not glad tidings to some. Centuries of blood have been shed for the sake of religious certitude. But transcending the notion that only some prayers are the right ones might get us closer to the enlightenment we purportedly seek.

Hagerty is optimistic that science eventually will demonstrate that we are more than mere matter. In the meantime, it would seem eminently rational to presume in our public affairs that God does not play political favorites with His creation.

Kathleen Parker, Washington Post

__________

Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/07/AR2010050704065.html

Pass the Plate and Grow Rich in Spirit

Tithing changes in tough times, but it has lasted for millenia.

Near the end of last year, prominent evangelical pastor Rick Warren sent out a plea to members of his Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif. “This is an urgent letter unlike any I’ve written in 30 years,” Warren wrote. “On the last weekend of 2009, our total offerings were less than half of what we normally receive— leaving us $900,000 in the red for the year, unless you help make up the difference today and tomorrow.”

Saddleback wasn’t alone. Nearly 40% of the congregations in various denominations providing figures cited a decline in giving last year (compared to 29% in 2008), according to a March report from State of the Plate, a research project by Maximum Generosity ministry and Christianity Today International. Close to a third reported lower-than-expected collections for December, a month that traditionally helps many churches meet their budgets.

Of course, the news isn’t entirely surprising for congregations in the midst of a slumping economy. The ancient religious practice of tithing is based on a percentage of income, not a gross amount. As income declines, tithes do too. Yet researchers note that the rate of tithing—the giving of at least 10% of one’s income—has stayed relatively consistent. Some 7% of adults reported donating at least a tenth of their income last year, a rate that has remained constant for a decade, according to The Barna Group’s February report, “The Economy’s Impact: Donors Reduce Giving, Brace for the Long Haul.”

Tithing levels, which in the Barna Group’s report include both church and other charitable giving, were highest among evangelicals (24% of whom tithe), non-mainline Protestants (13%), churchgoers (11%) and those over the age of 45 (9%). Tithing doesn’t seem related to income levels, either: According to the report, 11% of those with a household income under $20,000 reported tithing, while 9% of more prosperous households did so.

Fortunately, perhaps, church attitudes have evolved quite a bit since the Council of Trent instructed Catholics to tithe…or face excommunication. And while there may be no explicit command to tithe in the New Testament, religious giving is one of the oldest spiritual disciplines.

First mentioned in Genesis, the tithe (or temple tax) was mandatory for the tribes of Israel and set a strong precedent for giving in the Christian church. Jesus famously talked about the basic purpose of charity, instructing his followers to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” rather than hoard their wealth on earth. “Where your treasure is,” he said in the Sermon on the Mount, “there your heart will be also.”

The third-century deacon Lawrence of Rome took the message to heart. When the prefect of Rome demanded that he turn the riches of his church over to the emperor, the deacon asked for a few days to gather the wealth. During that time he distributed church property to the poor and, when ordered to pay up, he presented the poor, the crippled, the blind and the suffering and said to the prefect: “These are the treasures of the church.” For his defiance, he was martyred.

The Scriptures tell believers that “God loves a cheerful giver.” Even so, some of history’s greatest preachers struggled to explain the importance of Christian charity to believers. When the followers of the 4th century church father Chrysostom expressed astonishment that others tithed, he shamed his flock by pointing out the dutiful giving of Old Testament Jews. This approach, that forefathers gave more, has been a theme in centuries of sermons.

Modern defenders of the practice include religion journalist Douglas LeBlanc, whose new book “Tithing: Test Me in This,” approaches the topic with a series of biographical vignettes. All of his subjects, ranging from a Seventh-day Adventist to an Orthodox rabbi, have been spiritually enriched by following the ancient spiritual discipline of tithing. Many of them began tithing when they were living in poverty, including one couple who could barely stretch their weekly food budget to afford a container of yogurt.

Many of those in the book describe tithing as a practice that shapes their lives, rather than being obligation that weighs on them. Mr. LeBlanc speaks with Randy Alcorn, a Christian author who describes tithing as “training wheels toward learning how to live fully in the kingdom.” Mr. Alcorn says he wasn’t guilted into tithing but began the discipline after a particularly compelling sermon.

“As a New Testament follower of Christ, in the most affluent society in human history, there’s no way I could ever justify giving less than 10% when God had required that, really, of the poorest Israelite,” Mr. Alcorn explains.

After Pastor Warren’s end-of-year appeal, Saddleback members—an estimated 10% of whom are unemployed—ended up contributing some $2.4 million to keep the church operating. Mr. Warren said the money would go toward the church’s ministries, which include feeding more than 200,000 people. It would seem that no matter how bad the economy gets, many believers still put their money where their heart is.

Ms. Hemingway is a writer in Washington.

__________

Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704671904575193933487214328.html

Satan Goes Secular

Does evil exist in the absence of God?

Over the course of centuries, many smart people have debated whether evil’s existence in the world entails God’s nonexistence. Surely God—at least, an omnipotent and benevolent God—would not allow pain, suffering, brutality and depravity to thrive. That they do exist, therefore, means that God doesn’t. In reply, believers have offered innumerable theodicies—doctrines that purport to reconcile the existence of God and evil. It would seem reasonable, for example, to assume that even a good and all-powerful God would want humans to possess free will, but free will includes the possibility of choosing evil. Or maybe what appears to be evil serves a deeper good known to God but indiscernible to us mortals.

Terry Eagleton, a British Marxist intellectual who surprised everyone with a recent book defending the existence of God, uses “On Evil” to address a related question: not whether God can exist in the presence of evil but whether evil can exist in the absence of God. For if “evil” means anything, it has to transcend ordinary human wrongdoing, however vicious. That is why, historically, to undertake evil meant more than merely inflicting harm on one’s fellow human beings. One had to reject God in the process. “In this sense,” Mr. Eagleton writes, “evil is a deviant image of divine love, as plain immorality is not.” Think of Satan: He had to “know about [God’s] transcendence,” Mr. Eagleton observes, “in order to turn it down.”

The upshot, though, is that without God as a foil, it is hard to say how even the most heinous actions can be called “evil” in the truly transcendent way that the term implies. In a secular world, then, what meaning does evil have? Mr. Eagleton’s opening insight is this: If evil necessarily rises above ordinary human wickedness, then—in the absence of concepts like the satanic or the demonic—it must entail a kind of cruelty or immorality that, for some reason, we are prepared to call “inhuman.” But what reason? How can human beings behave inhumanly? It seems like a contradiction in terms.

Consider the case of Gerd Wiesler, the 1980s-era Stasi operative in the film “The Lives of Others” who (at the beginning of the movie) psychologically tortures enemies of the East German regime and amasses evidence against them that will cause pain and suffering in a system of communist “justice.” The film makes it clear that he knows the effect of his actions. But this very knowledge, oddly, is what confirms his humanity. He is at least sufficiently in touch with the feelings of his victims to understand that he is causing distress—and, eventually, to feel doubt about what he is doing. Not only that, Wiesler sincerely believes that he is promoting the cause of good by strengthening the East German state. He is deluded to think so; but that he acts for what he sees as a noble purpose (even if it is not noble in reality) helps to confirm his humanity.

No human being, Mr. Eagleton argues, can be understood to act for a purpose that he himself finds repulsive or aversive; even “the so-called Moors murderers of 1960s Britain,” he writes, referring to a couple who killed five children and teenagers and buried them in the moors of northern England, “seem to have tortured and killed children . . . for the obscene pleasure of it.” For wrongdoing to be truly inhuman, Mr. Eagleton says, it must be performed by someone who gets nothing out of it, someone engaging in “wickedness for wickedness’s sake.” But as he notes, the philosopher Kant, who gave much consideration to such matters, “did not in fact think” that this was psychologically “possible.”

If even the most sadistic killer understands the pain he is inflicting on his fellow man, while pursuing an end that from his point of view is worth pursuing (even if it is a wicked sort of pleasure), he remains within the psychological boundaries of the human species. Evil, understood as performing not simply bad acts but “inhumanly” bad acts, seems almost impossible. And yet, Mr. Eagleton says, secular evil exists.

Take the case of a Nazi concentration-camp guard, for whom, Mr. Eagleton writes, Jews “represented meaningless matter, sheer subhuman garbage.” The guard might have thought that it was he who remained human while his victims did not. But since they were in fact human, what the guard actually did—by viewing himself and his victims as members of different species—was to place himself outside the human pale. He removed himself to the inhuman plane that the demonic would have occupied in a non-secular world. This is what made his acts not only horrendous but evil. The same sort of evil could be ascribed to the Nazi regime itself, which showed its own inhumanity by treating its “verminous” victims as nonhuman.

A more difficult case, if we may apply Mr. Eagleton’s argument to someone he does not discuss, is that of the 9/11 murderer Mohammed Atta, who not only slaughters his victims but kills himself. He acted in pursuit of a project that he himself found worthy: striking at America. So does this mean that a secular understanding of evil is insufficient, unable to include his crimes? In part, yes. Certainly there is a sense in which a belief in a Judeo-Christian God would more readily allow us to brand Atta’s acts as demonic and not just horrific—a rejection of God, not just man. But given that we live in a secular age, we would be deprived of an important weapon in our moral arsenal if we were unable to comprehend Atta’s acts as evil, in terms that do not rely on God.

Viewing Atta from a secular perspective, all that we know is that he sought for himself the same end that he well understood would be an unspeakable horror for his victims. In that way, he met Kant’s impossible criterion: He pursued wickedness for its own sake. Not even the Moors killers wanted for themselves the abomination they inflicted on their prey. But in wishing for himself what he knew to be horrific for humanity, Atta placed himself outside the ambit of the human. That was what made him not only a heinous criminal but a bone-chillingly evil one.

Mr. Stark’s latest book is “Drawing the Line: Public and Private in America.”

__________

Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704117304575138424079313214.html

Islam’s beginnings

Mohammed’s early movement was a surprisingly big tent, says historian Fred M. Donner

The first followers of Christ didn’t consider themselves ’’Christians’’; they were Jews who believed that a fellow Jew named Jesus Christ was the long-awaited messiah. It took centuries for Christianity to evolve and solidify as a distinct faith with its own doctrine and institutions.

In ’’Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam,’’ University of Chicago historian Fred M. Donner wants to provide a similar back story for Islam — a religion which, in the popular imagination, sprang wholly formed from the seventh-century sands of Arabia. Mohammed preached at the juncture of the Roman and Sassanian empires, winning support from Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and various deist polytheists. According to Donner, Mohammed built a movement of devout spiritualists from many faiths who shared a few core beliefs: God was one, the end of the world was near, and the truly religious had to live exemplary lives rather than merely pay lip service to God’s laws. It was only a century after Mohammed founded his ’’community of believers” and launched the great Islamic conquest that his followers started to define their beliefs as a distinct religious faith.

Devout Muslims — who model their lives directly on the mores of the Prophet and his companions — will be surprised to read that Mohammed welcomed Christians and Jews into his monotheistic movement. In fact, Donner suggests, the entire narrative of Islamic conquest misinterprets the ecumenical nature of the early believers. Mohammed, it appears, didn’t require his followers to renounce their religion; early Islam, in this read, was more a revival of existing faiths than a conversion.

Donner spent decades studying Arabian nomads and the early Islamic texts before tackling Islam’s early intellectual history. Among his many innovations are to connect Mohammed’s movement to Christian, Jewish, and nomadic ideas, and to explain why such an enormous swath of the known world fell so quickly under the sway of Mohammed’s successors — because, Donner argues, they didn’t have to convert to a new religion, only to affirm the piety demanded by an inclusive if zealous community of believers. He portrays Mohammed’s early believers as evangelical activists, swimming against a tide of casual religious practice. Donner intends his portrayal to conclusively counter a popular argument among some Western scholars who describe early Islam as a primarily economic and political movement that deployed the new religion as a banner of convenience.

An even-keeled academic, Donner wants to stay as far away as possible from anything that smacks of a political crusade. But his critical historical assessment of the life of the Prophet Mohammed makes bold arguments that are sure to anger some Muslims, while also denying comfort to those anti-Muslim pamphleteers whose tracts suggest that Islam isn’t a real religion. Ideas spoke with Donner by phone.

IDEAS: How did you get interested in this subject?

DONNER: It was an accident. I started off in college doing sciences. I thought, after college I want to travel and I want to learn languages. If I do Mesopotamian archaeology, I’ll get to travel and use languages. That drew me into the Near Eastern studies realm.

I gravitated toward early Islam because I got interested in a question of social history. The expansion of early Islam and the Islamic conquests were one of the few episodes in modern times in which pastoral nomads played a role and about which we have documentary evidence.

IDEAS: What did you focus on initially?

DONNER: The early Islamic conquests. I was interested in the relationship between pastoral groups and the expansion movement. It was a state expansion, in my view, and not just a spilling out of people. The nomads were tightly controlled by the elite, the settled people, who used them for the purpose of expanding the state. The pastoralists became the cannon fodder that allowed the state to expand. That got me into early Islam.

Once I got into early Islam I had to confront the question of the sources. I spent 25 years studying the sources. I went into this whole question of source criticism. I also got into a broader question of intellectual history, of what was this movement was when it started, really a history of religious ideas. I bumbled from one interesting topic to another all in the same historical context.

IDEAS: There isn’t much public discussion of the historicity of Mohammed and the Koran in the Islamic world. To what extent is this a concern with embracing the ideas, and to what extent is it reluctance to engage in a public discussion?

DONNER: There may be a lot of Muslims willing to entertain these ideas in private, but they don’t want to go on record in public. There are plenty of examples, like the Egyptian who wrote the book about the style of the Koran and was hounded out of the country as an apostate. There are other intellectuals who feel they may espouse ideas that are not in accord with traditional dogmas and are aware that they might better keep those ideas to themselves.

IDEAS: Are your ideas particularly threatening to literalists because you question the Islamic narrative without attacking the faith?

DONNER: It stays within the framework of the Prophet’s narrative. What I really suggest has to be revisited is the notion that at the very beginning this community was hard and fast set as a religious community. It could include Jews and Christians. They were monotheists who saw themselves as people trying to live in accordance with God’s rules and law. In that sense they were all believers, and they could make common cause with them. Only 75 or 100 years later did they shake out as a separate religion.

IDEAS: When did Muslims start distinguishing themselves from other people of the book, Jews and Christians?

DONNER: Where the divorce takes place — that’s an interesting question, because we have always viewed the Muslims as separate people. My sense is that this is beginning 60 to 75 years after the death of the Prophet, in the seventh century. You might have quite a lag between official change and popular change. We don’t really understand this change or transformation.

IDEAS: How important were apocalyptic beliefs for the early believers?

DONNER: It plays a recurrent role in all faiths that have an apocalyptic component, as does Christianity in the United States, where you see people carrying around signs. You see periodic upwellings of this sentiment. The component that is problematic is whether Mohammed was preaching a kind of end time coming soon. My sense is that he did think the end was coming soon. Later Muslims have some problems with this, so there’s a tendency of early believers to paper this over. Christianity went through the same problem.

IDEAS: Will your book be translated into Arabic?

DONNER: One can hope, but I have no idea. In Beirut, you can get almost anything published.

Thanassis Cambanis’s book, ”A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War With Israel,” will be published by Free Press in September. He is a New Ideas Fund fellow, teaches at Columbia University, and has written about the Middle East since 2003.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/05/02/islams_beginnings/

A Crisis for the Faithful

The Parsi bodies are piling up in India. Parsis are modern adherents of the ancient Zoroastrian faith that emerged in the 6th century B.C. in Persia, predating Christianity and Islam. According to many scholars, Zoroastrianism influenced these religions and Judaism with its fundamental concept of a dualistic world of light versus darkness, with a good God pitted against the forces of evil.

In the earthly realm of humans, Parsis also believe in the ritual purity of fire, soil and water, elements that shouldn’t be sullied by pollution from a defiling corpse. So while virtually all other cultures dispose of their dead by burial or cremation, Parsis have followed a more unusual method. Yet after millennia, that method now has been called into question, forcing a crisis of faith whose only answer is adaptation.

In a ritual so old it was described by Herodotus, Zoroastrians have laid out their dead atop Towers of Silence to be exposed to sun, sky and—most importantly—vultures. These massive harbingers of death with eight-foot wingspans once numbered in the millions across South Asia and could strip a corpse to the bone in hours. Yet their service has come to an abrupt end in the past decade as the vulture population plummeted due to a fatal reaction to a common painkiller given to the livestock and humans that the birds eventually feed upon. Ongoing habitat shrinkage has exacerbated the decline. With vultures virtually extinct, the Parsis are left struggling with the question of how to preserve traditions when modern forces conspire against them.

This threatened custom is just one more blow to a religion already perched on the edge of annihilation. Though tens of millions of Parsis once lived across Asia, now there are only an estimated 140,000 world-wide, with the majority in India and the next-largest group in the U.S. Most are based in Mumbai, where they own 155 pristine, park-like acres that shelter the squat stone Towers of Silence amid a dappled sunlit forest.

Vultures haven’t been seen in Mumbai for years. The Parsis have attempted to replace the service that the birds provided so seamlessly, for so long, with a series of failed technologies, including ozone machines and chemicals to accelerate decomposition. They’ve settled on solar reflectors directed at the bodies to speed up the process of decay without violating the fundamental tenet of their religion to avoid fire. The most orthodox of priests disapprove even of this, claiming that it’s tantamount to cremation.

Priests aren’t the only ones holding the line against modernization. “People say the Towers of Silence are antiquated, that we should move on to cremation and forget our tradition,” says Khojeste Mistree, an Oxford-educated Parsi scholar. “I’m totally opposed.” Prof. Mistree and others in the Parsi governing body insist that the solar collectors are working.

Not so, according to Ms. Dhan Baria, a 70-year-old Parsi. After her mother’s death in 2006, and following the leads of rumors about accumulating bodies, she hired a photographer to sneak into the towers. Gruesome photos confirmed the gossip. Now an active reformer, Ms. Baria believes that Parsis should have access to burial or cremation, with full rites permitted on the sacred grounds, in order to avoid the fate of her mother’s body, which remained on the towers long after her death, exposed through the treetops to some high-rise apartments of upscale Malabar Hill. In December, I walked through the grounds surrounding the towers with Ms. Baria. She pointed into the forest, where peacocks strutted about, and lamented repeatedly, “Why can’t this space be used as a cemetery?”

Ms. Baria is typical of a growing group of Parsis who believe their faith must adapt in order to survive. Her photographs of decaying bodies heightened the divide within a dwindling community already fractured over other matters of tradition, including conversion and intermarriage, that vex various religious communities, including American Jews, in the face of modernity.

With the conventional Parsi priests offering what are, in effect, one-stop funeral services at the Towers of Silence, reformers feel unable to effect change within their religious community. Instead, some are turning to the Indian legal system. In a discrimination case now before the Gujarat state high court, a Parsi woman who married a non-Parsi is suing for the right to enter fire temples and to participate in last rites for her parents—practices that have traditionally been forbidden to non-Parsis or to those whose faith is questioned because of intermarriage.

“This powerful, vociferous minority of reformists doesn’t know the religion,” responds the Oxford scholar Mr. Mistree.

But what is “the religion”? To persist for millennia, Parsis have adapted many times over, emigrating from their native Persia in the 10th century and adjusting to India. They then spread out in a global diaspora to places where they have adopted burial and cremation because there simply are no Towers of Silence or circling vultures. Tradition is the bedrock of faith, observances and ritual the fundamental and physical manifestation of belief. Yet there are circumstances where, in order to uphold convention, it is necessary to reshape the foundation, carve here and add there, so that “the religion” might endure for millennia to come.

Ms. Subramanian is a free-lance writer and senior editor of KillingTheBuddha.com, an online literary magazine about religion.

__________

Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304017404575165732562175068.html

Separate truths

It is misleading — and dangerous — to think that religions are different paths to the same wisdom

At least since the first petals of the counterculture bloomed across Europe and the United States in the 1960s, it has been fashionable to affirm that all religions are beautiful and all are true. This claim, which reaches back to “All Religions Are One” (1795) by the English poet, printmaker, and prophet William Blake, is as odd as it is intriguing. No one argues that different economic systems or political regimes are one and the same. Capitalism and socialism are so self-evidently at odds that their differences hardly bear mentioning. The same goes for democracy and monarchy. Yet scholars continue to claim that religious rivals such as Hinduism and Islam, Judaism and Christianity are, by some miracle of the imagination, both essentially the same and basically good.

This view resounds in the echo chamber of popular culture, not least on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” and in Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller, “Eat Pray Love,” where the world’s religions are described as rivers emptying into the ocean of God. Karen Armstrong, author of “A History of God,” has made a career out of emphasizing the commonalities of religion while eliding their differences. Even the Dalai Lama, who should know better, has gotten into the act, claiming that “all major religious traditions carry basically the same message.”

Of course, those who claim that the world’s religions are different paths up the same mountain do not deny the undeniable fact that they differ in some particulars. Obviously, Christians do not go on pilgrimage to Mecca, and Muslims do not practice baptism. Religious paths do diverge in dogma, rites, and institutions. To claim that all religions are basically the same, therefore, is not to deny the differences between a Buddhist who believes in no god, a Jew who believes in one God, and a Hindu who believes in many gods. It is to deny that those differences matter, however. From this perspective, whether God has a body (yes, say Mormons; no, say Muslims) or whether human beings have souls (yes, say Hindus; no, say Buddhists) is of no account because, as Hindu teacher Swami Sivananda writes, “The fundamentals or essentials of all religions are the same. There is difference only in the nonessentials.”

This is a lovely sentiment but it is untrue, disrespectful, and dangerous.

The gods of Hinduism are not the same as the orishas of Yoruba religion or the immortals of Daoism. To pretend that they are is to refuse to take seriously the beliefs and practices of ordinary religious folk who for centuries have had no problem distinguishing the Nicene Creed of Christianity from the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism from the Shahadah of Islam. It is also to lose sight of the unique beauty of each of the world’s religions.

But this lumping of the world’s religions into one megareligion is not just false and condescending, it is also a threat. How can we make sense of the ongoing conflict in Kashmir if we pretend that Hinduism and Islam are one and the same? Or of the impasse in the Middle East, if we pretend that there are no fundamental disagreements between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?

This naive theological groupthink — call it Godthink — is motivated in part by a laudable rejection of the exclusivist missionary view that only you and your kind will make it to heaven or nirvana or paradise. For most of world history, human beings have seen religious rivals as inferior to themselves — practitioners of empty rituals, perpetrators of bogus miracles, and purveyors of fanciful myths. This way of seeing has given us religious violence from the Crusades and the Holocaust to Rwanda and Nigeria. In response to such violence, the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment popularized the ideal of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it.

I understand what these people are doing. They are not describing the world but reimagining it. They are hoping that their hope will call up in us feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood. In the face of religious bigotry and bloodshed, past and present, we cannot help but be drawn to such hope, and such vision. Yet we must not mistake either for clear-eyed analysis.

When it comes to safeguarding the world from the evils of religion, including violence by proxy from the hand of God, the claim that all religions are one is no more effective than the claim that all religions are poison. As the New Atheists (another species of religious lumpers) observe, we live in a world where religion seems as likely to detonate a bomb as to defuse one. So while we need idealism, we need realism even more. We need to understand religious people as they are — not just at their best but also their worst. We need to look at not only their awe-inspiring architecture and gentle mystics but also their bigots and suicide bombers.

What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. And where they begin is with this simple observation: Something is wrong with the world. In the Hopi language, the word “Koyaanisqatsi” tells us that life is out of balance. Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” tells us that there is something rotten not only in the state of Denmark but also in the state of human existence. Hindus say we are living in the “kali yuga,” the most degenerate age in cosmic history. Buddhists say that human existence is pockmarked by suffering. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic stories tell us that this life is not Eden; Zion, heaven, and paradise lie out ahead.

So religious folk agree that something has gone awry. They part company, however, when it comes to stating just what has gone wrong, and they diverge even more sharply when they move from diagnosing the human problem to prescribing how to solve it. Moreover, each offers its own distinctive diagnosis of the human problem and its own prescription for a cure. Each offers its own techniques for reaching its religious goal, and its own exemplars for emulation.

Christians see sin as the human problem, and salvation from sin as the religious goal. Buddhists see suffering (which, in their tradition, is not ennobling) as the problem, and liberation from suffering as the goal. Confucians see social disorder as the problem, and social harmony as the goal. And so it goes from tradition to tradition, with Hindus seeking release from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, Muslims seeking paradise via submission to Allah, and practitioners of the Yoruba religion seeking sacred connections — among humans, between humans and the persons of power they call the orishas, and between humans and the natural environment.

The great religions also differ fundamentally when it comes to the techniques they employ to take you from problem to goal. In Confucianism, the rules and rituals of ancient Chinese civilization foster the religious goal of social harmony. But according to Daoists, these very rules and rituals cause the human problem of lifelessness. Civilization is a vampire, Daoists claim, sucking the life out of us, depleting our qi (vital energy), and taking us to an early grave. The only way to pursue the Daoist goal of fostering life is to live in harmony with the naturalness, simplicity, and spontaneity of what Daoists call the Way.

Finally, each of the world’s religions looks to different exemplars — Christian saints, Hindi holy men — to chart the path from problem to goal. Inside Buddhism alone, these exemplars include the arhat (for Theravadins), the bodhisattva (for Mahayanists), and the lama (for Tibetan Buddhists).

For more than a century, scholars have searched for the essence of religion. They thought they found this Holy Grail in God, but then they discovered Buddhists and Jains who deny God’s existence. Today it is widely accepted that there is no one essence that all religions share. What they share are family resemblances — tendencies toward this belief or that behavior. In the family of religions, kin tend to perform rituals. They tend to tell stories about how life and death began and to write down these stories in scriptures. They tend to cultivate techniques of ecstasy and devotion. They tend to organize themselves into institutions and to gather in sacred places at sacred times. They tend to instruct human beings how to act toward one another. They tend to profess beliefs about the gods and the supernatural. They tend to invest objects and places with sacred import.

These family resemblances are just tendencies, however. Just as there are tall people in short families (none of the other men in Michael Jordan’s family was over 6 feet tall), there are religions that deny the existence of God and religions that get along just fine without creeds. Something is a religion when it shares enough of this DNA to belong to the family of religions. What makes the members of this family different (and themselves) is how they mix and match these dimensions. Experience is central in Daoism and Buddhism. Hinduism and Judaism emphasize the narrative dimension. The ethical dimension is crucial in Confucianism. The Islamic and Yoruba traditions are to a great extent about ritual. And doctrine is particularly important to Christians.

There is a long tradition of Christian thinkers who assume that salvation is the goal of all religions and then argue that only Christians can achieve this goal. Philosopher of religion Huston Smith, who grew up in China as a child of Methodist missionaries, rejected this argument but not its guiding assumption. “To claim salvation as the monopoly of any one religion,” he wrote, “is like claiming that God can be found in this room and not the next.” It might seem to be an admirable act of empathy to assert that Confucians and Buddhists can be saved. But this statement is confused to the core, since salvation is not something that either Confucians or Buddhists seek. Salvation is a Christian goal, and when Christians speak of it, they are speaking of being saved from sin. But Confucians and Buddhists do not believe in sin, so it makes no sense for them to try to be saved from it. And while Muslims and Jews do speak of sin of a sort, neither Islam nor Judaism describes salvation from sin as its aim. When a jailer asks the apostle Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30), he is asking not a generic human question but a specifically Christian one. So while it may seem to be an act of generosity to state that Confucians and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews can also be saved, this statement is actually an act of obfuscation.

A sports analogy may be in order here. Which of the following — baseball, basketball, tennis, or golf — is best at scoring runs? The answer of course is baseball, because runs is a term foreign to basketball, tennis, and golf alike. Different sports have different goals: Basketball players shoot baskets; tennis players win points; golfers sink putts. To criticize a basketball team for failing to score runs is not to besmirch them. It is simply to misunderstand the game of basketball.

So here is another problem with the pretend pluralism of the perennial philosophy sort: Just as hitting home runs is the monopoly of one sport, salvation is the monopoly of one religion. If you see sin as the human predicament and salvation as the solution, then it makes sense to come to Christ. But that will not settle as much as you might think, because the real question is not which religion is best at carrying us into the end zone of salvation but which of the many religious goals on offer we should be seeking. Should we be trudging toward the end zone of salvation, or trying to reach the finish line of social harmony? Should our goal be reincarnation? Or to escape from the vicious cycle of life, death, and rebirth?

While I do not believe we are witnessing a “clash of civilizations” between Christianity and Islam, it is a fantasy to imagine that the world’s two largest religions are in any meaningful sense the same, or that interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims will magically bridge the gap. You would think that champions of multiculturalism would warm to this fact, glorying in the diversity inside and across religious traditions. But even among multiculturalists, the tendency is to pretend that the differences between religions are more apparent than real, and that the differences inside religious traditions just don’t warrant the fuss practitioners continue to make over them.

We pretend that religious differences are trivial because it makes us feel safer, or more moral. But pretending that the world’s religions are the same does not make our world safer. Like all forms of ignorance, it makes our world more dangerous, and more deadly. False rumors of weapons of mass destruction doubtless led the United States to wade into its current quagmire in Iraq. Another factor, however, was our ignorance of the fundamental disagreements between Christians and Muslims, on the one hand, and Sunni and Shia Islam, on the other. What if we had been aware of these conflicts as of 9/11? Would we have committed 160,000 troops to a nation whose language we do not speak and whose religion we do not understand?

What we need is a realistic view of where religious rivals clash and where they can cooperate. The world is what it is. And both tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually know whatever it is we are supposed to be tolerating or respecting.

Stephen Prothero is a religion professor at Boston University. This article is adapted from his new book, ”God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter.”

__________

Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/04/25/separate_truths/

Belief In Action

In Hitler’s Germany, a Lutheran pastor chooses resistance and pays with his life.

In April 1933, during the early months of Nazi rule in Germany, the “Aryan Paragraph,” as it came to be called, went into effect. A new law banned anyone of Jewish descent from government employment. Hitler’s assault on the Jews—already so evidently under way in his toxic rhetoric and in the ideological imperatives of his party—was moving into a crushing legal phase. German churches, which relied on state support, now faced a choice: preserve their subsidies by dismissing their pastors and employees with Jewish blood—or resist. Most Protestant and Catholic leaders fell into line, visibly currying favor with the regime or quietly complying with its edict.

Such ready capitulation makes the views of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young Lutheran theologian in Hitler’s Germany, all the more remarkable. Within days of the new law’s promulgation, the 27-year-old pastor published an essay titled “The Church and the Jewish Question,” in which he challenged the legitimacy of a regime that contravened the tenets of Christianity. The churches of Germany, he wrote, shared “an unconditional obligation” to help the victims of an unjust state “even if they [the victims] do not belong to the Christian community.” He went further: Christians might be called upon not only to “bandage the victims under the wheel” of oppression but “to put a spoke in the wheel itself.” Before the decade was out, Bonhoeffer would join a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and pay for such action with his life.

In “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” Eric Metaxas tells Bonhoeffer’s story with passion and theological sophistication, often challenging revisionist accounts that make Bonhoeffer out to be a “humanist” or ethicist for whom religious doctrine was easily disposable. In “Bonhoeffer” we meet a complex, provocative figure: an orthodox Christian who, at a grave historical moment, rejected what he called “cheap grace”—belief without bold and sacrificial action.

Since the 1960s, some of Bonhoeffer’s admirers have seized upon a phrase from one of his letters—”religionless Christianity”—to argue that he favored social action over theology. In fact, Bonhoeffer used the phrase to suggest the kind of ritualistic and over-intellectualized faith that had failed to prevent the rise of Hitler. It was precisely religionless Christianity that he worried about. After a 1939 visit to New York’s Riverside Church, a citadel of social-gospel liberalism, he wrote that he was stunned by the “self-indulgent” and “idolatrous religion” that he saw there. “I have no doubt at all that one day the storm will blow with full force on this religious hand-out,” he wrote, “if God himself is still anywhere on the scene.”

As the storms of hatred raged in Germany, Bonhoeffer moved beyond “confession”—that is, preaching and writing—and into rebellion. By the summer of 1940, he was recruited by Adm. Wilhelm Canaris and others as a double agent for their conspiracy against Hitler, an effort that operated out of the Abwehr (Nazi military intelligence). Henceforth he would pretend allegiance to the regime and pass along to the conspirators—whose goal was Hitler’s assassination—whatever intelligence he could gather. He depended on deception for his survival.

It was a bizarre role for a religious man, and a hitherto loyal German citizen, to play. As Mr. Metaxas notes: “For a pastor to be involved in a plot whose linchpin was the assassination of the head of state during a time of war, when brothers and sons and fathers were giving their lives for their country, was unthinkable.” And yet it became thinkable for Bonhoeffer precisely because his understanding of faith required more than adhering to tidy legalisms about truth-telling and nonviolence.

Mr. Metaxas notes that Bonhoeffer drew deeply from historic Christianity, especially its emphasis on the love of God expressed in the life and teachings of Jesus. Bonhoeffer also had an extraordinary capacity for empathy, responding with ever more horror to the plight of those around him. In his book “Ethics” (1949), he chastised those who imagined they could confine their faith to the sanctuary and still live responsibly in an unjust world. In “The Cost of Discipleship” (1937), he made unreserved obedience to Jesus—in every realm of life—the mark of authentic belief. “If we worry about the dangers that beset us, if we gaze at the road instead of at him who goes before, we are already straying from the path.”

It is here that many who invoke Bonhoeffer for their own causes stumble grievously. Atheists such as Christopher Hitchens praise his “admirable but nebulous humanism.” Liberals exalt his social conscience while setting aside his belief in sin and judgment. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas has even tried to recruit Bonhoeffer for the pacifist cause. But Bonhoeffer argued pointedly in the opposite direction. “Only at the cost of self-deception,” he wrote, can observant Christians preserve a facade of “private blamelessness clean from the stains of responsible action in the world.”

After a failed assassination attempt on Hitler in 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested on charges of assisting Jews and subverting Nazi policies. Two years later, in early April 1945—after his full involvement in the conspiracy became known—he was executed at the Flossenburg concentration camp in Bavaria. By all accounts he faced with courage and serenity the ultimate consequence of his choices. His was a radical obedience to God, a frame of mind widely viewed today with fear and loathing, even among the faithful. In “Bonhoeffer,” Mr. Metaxas reminds us that there are forms of religion—respectable, domesticated, timid—that may end up doing the devil’s work for him.

Mr. Loconte is a senior lecturer in politics at the King’s College in New York City and the editor of “The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm.”

__________

Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303491304575189132952513158.html

How to Save the Catholic Church

The Vatican badly needs new blood—and a woman’s touch.

The great second wave of church scandals appears this week to be settling down. In the Vatican they’re likely thinking “the worst is over” and “we’ve weathered the storm.” Is that good? Not to this Catholic. The more relaxed the institution, the less likely it will reform.

Let’s look at the first wave. Eight years ago, on April 19, 2002, I wrote in these pages of the American church scandal, calling it calamitous, a threat to the standing and reputation of the entire church. Sexual abuse by priests “was the heart of the scandal, but at the same time only the start of the scandal”: the rest was what might be called the racketeering dimension. Lawsuits had been brought charging that the church as an institution acted to cover up criminal behavior by misleading, lying and withholding facts. The most celebrated cases in 2002 were in Boston, where a judge had forced the release of 11,000 pages of church documents showing the abusive actions of priests and detailing then-Archbishop Bernard F. Law’s attempts to hide the crimes. The Boston scandal generated hundreds of lawsuits, cost hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements and judgments, and included famous and blood-chilling cases—the repeat sexual abuser Father John Geoghan, who molested scores of boys and girls and was repeatedly transferred, was assigned to a parish in Waltham where he became too familiar with children in a public pool; Cardinal Law claimed he was probably “proselytizing.”

In the piece I criticized Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, then archbishop of Washington, who had suggested to the Washington Post that the scandal was media-driven, that journalists are having “a heyday.” Then came the it-wasn’t-so-bad defense: The bishop of Joliet, Ill., Joseph Imesch, said that while priests who sexually abuse children should lose their jobs, priests who sexually abuse adolescents and teenagers have a “quirk” and can be treated and continue as priests.

Really, he called it a quirk.

Does any of this, the finger-pointing and blame-gaming, sound familiar? Isn’t it what we’ve been hearing the past few weeks?

At the end of the piece I called on the pope, John Paul II, to begin to show the seriousness of the church’s efforts to admit, heal and repair by taking the miter from Cardinal Law’s head and the ring from his finger and retiring him: “Send a message to those in the church who need to hear it, that covering up, going along, and paying off victims is over. That careerism is over, and Christianity is back.”

The piece didn’t go over well in the American church, or the Vatican. One interesting response came from Cardinal Law himself, whom I ran into a year later in Rome. “We don’t need friends of the church turning on the church at such a difficult time,” he said. “We need loyalty when the church is going through a tough time.”

I’d suggested in the piece that the rarefied lives cardinals led had contributed to an inability to understand the struggles of others and the pain of those abused, and soon Cardinal Law and I were talking about his mansion outside Boston. He asked me how it would look if he’d refused to live there. I told him it would look good, but more to the point, the church was going to lose the cardinal’s mansion to trial lawyers, and it should sell it first and put the money in schools.

Soon enough the mansion was gone, sold to pay the plaintiffs. Cardinal Law’s successor, Archbishop Sean O’Malley, lives in an apartment in Boston’s South End.

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter once called Cardinal Law “the poster boy” of the American scandal. He has also became the poster boy for the church’s problems in handling the scandal. And that has to do with its old-boy network, with the continued dominance of those who grew up in the old way.

In December 2002, Cardinal Law left Boston just hours before state troopers arrived with subpoenas seeking his grand jury testimony in what the state’s attorney general, Thomas Reilly, called a massive coverup of child abuse. The cardinal made his way to Rome, where he resigned, and where he stayed with Archbishop James Harvey, a close friend and, as head of the pontifical household, the most powerful American in the Vatican. Within a year Archbishop Harvey, too, was implicated in the scandal: The Dallas Morning News reported the Vatican had promoted a priest through its diplomatic corps even though it had received persistent, high-level warnings that he had sexually abused a young girl. The warnings had gone to Archbishop Harvey.

Cardinal Law received one of the best sinecures in Rome, as head of the Basilica of Saint Maria Maggiore and a member of the Vatican office tasked with appointing new bishops and correcting misconduct.

These stories are common in the church. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a former Vatican secretary of state and now dean of the College of Cardinals, was a primary protector of the now disgraced Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, described by a heroic uncoverer of the scandals, Jason Berry, in the National Catholic Reporter, as “a morphine addict who sexually abused at least twenty . . . seminarians.”

I know this from having seen it: Many—not all, but many—of the men who staff the highest levels of the Vatican have been part of the very scandal they are now charged with repairing. They are defensive and they are angry, and they will not turn the church around on their own.

In a way, the Vatican lives outside time and space. The verities it speaks of and stands for are timeless and transcendent. For those who work there, bishops and cardinals, it can become its own reality. And when those inside fight for what they think is the life of the institution, they feel fully justified in fighting any way they please. They can do this because, as they rationalize it, they are not fighting only for themselves—it’s not selfish, their fight—but to protect the greatest institution in the history of the world.

But in the past few decades, they not only fought persons—”If you were loyal you’d be silent”—they fought information.

What they don’t fully understand right now—what they can’t fully wrap their heads around—is that the information won.

The information came in through the cracks, it came in waves, in newspaper front pages, in books, in news beamed to every satellite dish in Europe and America. The information could not be controlled or stopped. The information was that something very sick was going on in the heart of the church.

Once, leaders of the Vatican felt that silence would protect the church. But now anyone who cares about it must come to understand that only speaking, revealing, admitting and changing will save the church.

The old Vatican needs new blood.

They need to let younger generations of priests and nuns rise to positions of authority within a new church. Most especially and most immediately, they need to elevate women. As a nun said to me this week, if a woman had been sitting beside a bishop transferring a priest with a history of abuse, she would have said: “Hey, wait a minute!”

If the media and the victims don’t keep the pressure on, the old ways will continue. As for Cardinal Law, he should not be where he is, nor mitred nor ringed.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal

__________

Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304510004575186451300061536.html

The Better Pope

The world didn’t always agree with Pope John Paul II, but it always seemed to love him. Handsome and charismatic, with an actor’s flair and a statesman’s confidence, he transformed the papacy from an Italian anachronism into a globe-trotting phenomenon. His authority stabilized a reeling church; his personal holiness inspired a generation of young Catholics. “Santo subito!” the Roman crowds chanted as he lay dying. Sainthood now!

They will not chant for Benedict XVI. The former Joseph Ratzinger was always going to be a harder pontiff for the world to love: more introverted than his predecessor, less political and peripatetic, with the crags and wrinkles of a sinister great-uncle. While the last pope held court with presidents and rock stars, Cardinal Ratzinger was minding the store in Rome, jousting with liberal theologians and being caricatured as “God’s Rottweiler.” His reward was supposed to be retirement, and a return to scholarly pursuits. Instead, he was summoned to Peter’s chair — and, it seems, to disaster.

The drip, drip, drip of sex abuse cases from Benedict’s past started a month ago with a serious incident: a pedophile priest who was returned to ministry in Munich by then-Archbishop Ratzinger’s subordinates, and perhaps with his knowledge.

The more recent smoking guns, though, offer more smoke than fire. The pope is now being criticized not for enabling crimes or covering them up, but because in the 1980s and 1990s the Vatican’s bureaucracy moved slowly on requests to formally laicize abusive priests after they had already been removed from ministry.

But the smoke is damaging enough. “The Failed Papacy of Benedict XVI,” ran a recent headline in Der Spiegel, the newsmagazine of the pope’s native Germany. If you judge a pontiff on his ability to do outreach, whether to lukewarm believers or the secular world, this is probably accurate. Amid the latest wave of scandal, Catholicism needed the magnetic John Paul, master of bold gestures and moving acts of penance. Instead, the church is stuck with Benedict, bookish and defensive and unequal to the task.

But there’s another story to be told about John Paul II and his besieged successor. The last pope was a great man, but he was also a weak administrator, a poor delegator, and sometimes a dreadful judge of character.

The church’s dilatory response to the sex abuse scandals was a testament to these weaknesses. So was John Paul’s friendship with the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ. The last pope loved him and defended him. But we know now that Father Maciel was a sexually voracious sociopath. And thanks to a recent exposé by The National Catholic Reporter’s Jason Berry, we know the secret of Maciel’s Vatican success: He was an extraordinary fund-raiser, and those funds often flowed to members of John Paul’s inner circle.

Only one churchman comes out of Berry’s story looking good: Joseph Ratzinger. Berry recounts how Ratzinger lectured to a group of Legionary priests, and was subsequently handed an envelope of money “for his charitable use.” The cardinal “was tough as nails in a very cordial way,” a witness said, and turned the money down.

This isn’t an isolated case. In the 1990s, it was Ratzinger who pushed for a full investigation of Hans Hermann Groer, the Vienna cardinal accused of pedophilia, only to have his efforts blocked in the Vatican. It was Ratzinger who persuaded John Paul, in 2001, to centralize the church’s haphazard system for handling sex abuse allegations in his office. It was Ratzinger who re-opened the long-dormant investigation into Maciel’s conduct in 2004, just days after John Paul II had honored the Legionaries in a Vatican ceremony. It was Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict, who banished Maciel to a monastery and ordered a comprehensive inquiry into his order.

So the high-flying John Paul let scandals spread beneath his feet, and the uncharismatic Ratzinger was left to clean them up. This pattern extends to other fraught issues that the last pope tended to avoid — the debasement of the Catholic liturgy, or the rise of Islam in once-Christian Europe. And it extends to the caliber of the church’s bishops, where Benedict’s appointments are widely viewed as an improvement over the choices John Paul made. It isn’t a coincidence that some of the most forthright ecclesiastical responses to the abuse scandal have come from friends and protégés of the current pope.

Has Benedict done enough to clean house and show contrition? Alas, no. Has his Vatican responded to the latest swirl of scandal with retrenchment, resentment, and an un-Christian dose of self-pity? Absolutely. Can this pontiff regain the kind of trust and admiration, for himself and for his office, that John Paul II enjoyed? Not a chance.

But as unlikely as it seems today, Benedict may yet deserve to be remembered as the better pope.

__________

Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/12/opinion/12douthat.html

Natural Disasters and the Wrath of God

When the Rev. Pat Robertson suggested that the January earthquake in Haiti was God’s punishment for a 200-year-old secret pact with the devil, he faced outrage and scorn, including some from fellow religious leaders. But for all its absurdity (was the 1751 Haiti earthquake a divine warning shot over the bow?), Mr. Robertson’s claim isn’t very remarkable. There’s nothing novel about a preacher correlating a natural disaster with a divine punishment. What is new is that many religious believers now dismiss such a theory out of hand, a relatively recent development.

When, for example, a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated Lisbon in 1755, local clergy whipped the mostly Catholic public into a fervor of apocalyptic terror, penance and even sacrifice (in the form of a gruesome auto-da-fé) seemingly to placate the divine anger. Others, namely Protestants, pointed to that very fervor as perhaps the real cause of divine punishment-cum-earthrattling in Lisbon. Many echoed Methodist founder John Wesley’s reaction: “Is there indeed a God that judges the world? And is he now making an inquisition for blood? If so, is it not surprising, he should begin [in Lisbon], where so much blood has been poured on the ground like water. . . ?”

Contemporary Christians may hesitate to assign a direct connection between particular natural disasters and sins. Yet many still believe that the reason for the existence of natural disasters in general is punitive and a direct consequence of early human disobedience in the Garden.

As harsh as that may sound to some, the alternative seems bleaker from a religious perspective. If natural disasters are not anyone’s fault, human or divine, wouldn’t that mean these catastrophes are also without purpose, just another tragic event reflecting the fragility of our lives? If God isn’t using natural disasters to punish disobedient creatures, why does He allow them at all?

One historically significant answer finds divine purpose in natural horrors—without those horrors signifying punishment. This year marks the 300th anniversary of Gottfried Leibniz’s “Theodicy,” which remains one of the grandest attempts to prove the goodness and justice of a God who created an evil-soaked cosmos like ours. Most affecting was his claim that our world is, in fact, the best world that God could have made (so don’t complain!), which sounds either crudely optimistic or despairingly pessimistic.

Half a century later, however, the Lisbon earthquake seemed to many to constitute clear proof that Leibniz was dead wrong. “Candide,” Voltaire’s lampooning reply to Leibnizianism, seemed especially compelling after the quake: “Candide, stunned, stupefied, despairing, bleeding, trembling, said to himself—If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like?” A century later, Schopenhauer suggested that provoking Voltaire’s derision was Leibniz’s greatest contribution to European culture, adding: “In this way, of course, Leibniz’s oft-repeated and lame excuse for the evil of the world, namely that the bad sometimes produces the good, obtained proof that for him was unexpected.”

As international scholars gather to debate the significance and impact of Leibniz’s theodicy during this anniversary year, I hope none will agree with Schopenhauer’s glum assessment of Leibniz’s relevance. For Leibniz also broke with earlier Christian tradition and claimed that natural evils like earthquakes are not intended to be punishments. Nonetheless, Leibniz insists, God had a justified and discernible reason for creating a universe with life-sustaining, but tectonically unstable planets. Leibniz argues that a world with simple, regular natural laws that yielded a rich diversity of effects—including rational creatures—was better than alternative worlds with different laws and creatures, even if the alternatives were free from natural disasters.

If Leibniz is right, then natural disasters aren’t the result of divine punishment for sin. They are the foreseen but unintended consequences of a well-regulated and overall good system of natural laws. So religious believers can explain the causes of earthquakes in purely natural terms (Leibniz was an avid scientist himself), while still maintaining belief in a divine, nonpunitive purpose for allowing such events. The harmonization of natural and theological explanations, reason and faith, is Leibniz’s true legacy.

One unsettling consequence of Leibniz’s view is that God’s plans and purposes aren’t as human-centered as we might have believed. It is oddly wonderful to think that the whole cosmos, even natural disasters, revolves around us. But that belief may already be hard enough to sustain given what we know about the history and size of the universe, never mind how myopic it would make God. The overall goodness of our world with its well-regulated natural events does not guarantee the earthly happiness of each individual person, as some of the latest victims in Haiti and Chile remind us. Yet if Leibniz concedes that some people suffer for the sake of making the world as a whole better, then perhaps we ought to challenge him further, not so much about God’s blamelessness and retributive justice in the face of natural disasters, but about the focus and extent of His love.

Mr. Newlands is an assistant professor of philosophy at Notre Dame and project co-director of “The Problem of Evil in Modern and Contemporary Thought” (http://evilandtheodicy.com).

__________

Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304017404575165724219623474.html

On sexual abuse scandal, the pope gets a bad rap

By any human standard, Pope Benedict XVI and the American Catholic Church are getting a bad rap in the current outbreak of outrage over clerical sexual abuse.

Far from being indifferent or complicit, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was among the first in Rome to take the scandal seriously. During much of his service as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the future pope had no responsibility for investigating most cases of sexual abuse. Local bishops were in charge — and some failed spectacularly in their moral duties. It was not until 2001 that Pope John Paul II charged Ratzinger with reviewing every credible case of sexual abuse. While poring through these documents, Ratzinger’s eyes were opened. The church became more active in removing abusive priests — whom Ratzinger described rightly as “filth” — both through canonical trials and administrative action.

“Benedict,” says the Rev. Thomas Reese of Georgetown University, “grew in his understanding of the crisis. Like many other bishops at the beginning, he didn’t understand it. . . . But he grew in his understanding because he listened to what the U.S. bishops had to say. He in fact got it quicker than other people in the Vatican.”

And the American Catholic Church — once in destructive denial — has confronted the problem directly. It is difficult to contend that justice was done in the cases of some prominent offenders and the bishops who protected and reassigned them. But it is also difficult to deny that the church has made progress with a zero-tolerance policy. The vast majority of abuse cases took place decades ago. In 2009, six credible allegations of abuse concerning people who are minors were reported to the U.S. bishops — in a church with 65 million members.

Some will allow none of these facts to get in the way of a good clerical scandal. Editorial cartoons engage in gleeful anti-clericalism. The implicit charge is that the Catholic Church is somehow discredited by the existence of human sinfulness — a doctrine it has taught for more than two millennia.

Many of the current accusations, as I said, are not fair by human standards. But the Christian church, in its varied expressions, is accountable to not merely human standards because it is supposed to be more than a human institution. Apart from the mental, emotional and spiritual harm done to children, this has been the most disturbing aspect of the initial Catholic reaction to the abuse scandal over the past few decades: the reduction of the church to one more self-interested organization. In case after case, church leaders have attempted (and failed) to protect the church from scandal — like a White House trying to contain a bad news story or an oil company avoiding responsibility for a spill.

From one perspective, this is understandable. A church exists in a real world of donor relations and legal exposure. But the normal process of crisis management can involve a theological error — often repeated in the history of the religion.

It is the consistent temptation of faith leaders — Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or Hindu — to practice the religion of the tribe. The goal is to seek public recognition of their own theological convictions and the health of their own religious institutions. For many centuries of Western history, the Christian church vied and jostled for influence along with other interests, pursuing a tribal agenda at the expense of Jews, heretics, “infidels” and ambitious princes. The mind-set can still be detected, in milder forms, whenever Christian leaders talk of “taking back America for Christ” or pay hush money to avoid scandal for the church. The tribe must be defended.

But the religion of the tribe is inherently exclusive, sorting “us” from “them.” So it undermines a foundational teaching of Christianity — a radical human equality in need and in grace.

The story of modern Christian history has been the partial, hopeful movement away from the religion of the tribe and toward a religion of humanity — a theology that defends a universal ideal of human rights and dignity, whose triumph benefits everyone. And the Catholic Church has led this transition. Once a reactionary opponent of individualism and modernity, it is now one of the leading global advocates for universal human rights and dignity.

The Catholic Church’s initial reaction to the abuse scandal was often indefensible. Now, through its honesty and transparency, it can demonstrate a commitment to universal dignity — which includes every victim of abuse.

Michael Gerson, Washington Post

__________

Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/06/AR2010040601902.html