Rick Perry is Right? The Myth of Religious Freedom in America.

Lumbergh: You can just go ahead and move a little bit to the left. Yeah, that's it.

Lumbergh: You can just go ahead and move a little bit to the left. Yeah, that’s it.

I don’t want to belabor the obvious when it comes to Perry’s right-ness.  What I want to concentrate upon is why he’s right about how freedom of religion has played itself out in the American public square.  Stephen L. Carter has written extensively about this issue, specifically how the metaphor of the wall of separation originated with Roger Williams (not Jefferson) and was always intended to protect religion from the interference of politics, not the other way around.    Some go as far as claiming we’re in a Stephen Carter moment right now:

“This should be the Stephen Carter Moment. For the past decade, the Yale law professor has been our most eloquent critic of strict separation of church and state. With vigor, he has championed the injection of religiosity into the public square. In his seminal 1993 book, The Culture of Disbelief, he decried the secularization of American life, the ‘trend in our political and legal cultures, toward treating religious beliefs as arbitrary and unimportant, a trend supported by a rhetoric that implies that there is something wrong with religious devotion.'”

Wall?  Which wall?

Whose religion? Which wall?

Lo and behold, Rick Perry said pretty much the same thing the other day in a press conference.  He has the Raw Story (predictably) panicking, “I’m proud we are standing up for religious freedom in our state.  Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.”

The Raw Story people should calm down because they’re swimming against the tide of American history.  David Sehat has argued in a book (a helpful summary by the author can be found here), to the discomfort of both left and right, that American religious freedom, or freedom from a particular religion, is a myth.  Certain American religious groups (Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Mormons) have always been legally excluded by certain Protestant groups.

You can be wrong most of the time, but you can’t be wrong all of the time.

Lennon rickrolled by Grumpy.

Lennon rickrolled by Grumpy.

Supersessionism: Two for the Price of One?

Cranach the Elder, Law and Grace, 1529.

Divide in two? Why not three?

Debates about supersessionism frequently flare up in America between evangelicals (generally pro) and mainliners (generally contra).  They look and sound like an outgrowth of the early modern law and grace controversies.  I would like to argue the real debate is elsewhere.

The following etymology is a helpful frame for what we want to talk about: “The word supersessionism comes from the English verb to supersede, from the Latin verb sedeo, sedere, sedi, sessum, ‘to sit,’ plus super, ‘upon.’ It thus signifies one thing being replaced or supplanted by another.”

Recent scholarship suggest that the definitive break between Christianity and Judaism is later than first supposed, much later, perhaps as late as the sixth century.  Things get even more complicated when you consider the following passage from Richard John Neuhaus:

“In fact, the early Christians, both Jewish and gentile, made no secret of the Jewish grounding of their faith. The second century Marcion who pitted Christianity against the history of Israel was condemned as a heretic. Many pagans did deride Christianity as a ‘Jewish sect,’ which did not prevent its continuing growth. Moreover, those Jews who did not accept Jesus were themselves involved in reinventing Judaism after the destruction of the second temple in 70 ad. It is not too much to say that there were two competing versions of the history of Israel that were presented to the world: what became known as rabbinical Judaism on the one hand and the Church on the other.”

This means that both rabbinical Judaism and Christianity in some sense superseded Temple Judaism as rival versions of Judaism.  Therefore, you get two supersessionisms for the price of one, or, alternatively, two legitimate theological developments.

Justin Tse says all of this appears to be in line with Dabru Emet, the historic statement on Jewish-Christian relations from a Jewish perspective.

Constantine, Socrates, and Other Saints

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Going up!

So far this blog has spent some time on unpopular causes by exploring recent historical research.  For example, this post took on the widespread idea of the early Church as a hippie commune, whereas this one suggests pluralism is an old hat issue for Christians.

In the latter post I quote Robert L. Wilken as saying, “Christians, however, have long had to face the challenge of other religions.”  My esteemed colleague Peter Escalante responded to Wilken with the following, “Christians have long had to face the challenge of other Christians.”  This is also true (even if Calvinism is a very recent phenomenon).

Messy pluralism always flourishes within Catholic orthodoxy, whereas heresies have attempted to clean up the holy mess.  Who’s responsible for this?  Dariusz Karłowicz, a Polish scholar of the Fathers, singles out the following benefactor:

“Christianity might owe its variety of legitimate paths, or as Clement of Alexandria puts it, streams that feed the current of a river, to this very detachment from any particular philosophy. This variety would have been unthinkable had Constantine chosen to impose the Stoic, Epicurean or Platonic ways of life, and their attendant restrictions, upon his empire after the Battle of Milvian Bridge. And so it is not just a matter of what would have been the official philosophy of the empire, but also what elements of the pagan heritage would have been decisively excluded. It is possible that dialectic (cynics) would have been excluded, or poetry (Plato), while everyone, without exception, including the butcher and tailor, would haven been required to learn astronomy, geometry or music. The varieties of Christianity, incomprehensible to the Greek spirit, point toward a certain non-rigorous optimism,which gives expression to the belief that the world is essentially good and so the greatest works of humanity could not have come into being without God’s will and God’s inspiration.”

This passage is from the book Sokrates i inni święci [Socrates and Other Saints] recently translated by yours truly.  The book contains plenty of other surprising insights as it goes through the writings of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and their strategy of presenting Christianity as a philosophical way of life.

The author and I are currently courting publishers in the States.  Please let us know if you’re interested.  I’ll post a few more passages from the book in the coming weeks and months.

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Constantine was more money than you thought.

American Literary Slugfest: Papist Upstarts vs. Established Prots

Outsiders?

Outsiders?

In his essay “Religion and Literature” T.S. Eliot makes a most reasonable critical observation, especially given the longstanding close tie between literature and theology (“religion” is a problematic concept as I’ve noted here):

“Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint.”

Paul Giles takes up this mantle, when it comes to American Catholicism, in his path-breaking study American Catholic Arts and Fictions: Culture, Ideology, Aesthetics.  There isn’t enough time to go into the details of how he understands the Catholic imagination versus the Protestant imagination.  We’ll leave that discussion for later along with mentions of David Tracy and Andrew Greeley.

For now: wouldn’t this make for one hell of a slugfest (put away the salt Seattle residents)?

“It would seem reasonable to suggest that certain excellent writers have been undervalued because the (explicit or implicit) ideologies of their texts do not accord with what are conceived, often unconsciously, to be American literary values . . . It is this assumption also that may have contributed to the continued underestimation of Dreiser, Kerouac, Mary McCarthy, John O’Hara, J. F. Powers, Edwin O’Connor.  The Emerson-Frost-Stevens triad is a familiar combination in American literary history; Santayana-Tate-Frank O’Hara less so.”

Modern Religious Pluralism is Neither Radical nor Modern

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Robert Wilken: not impressed with pluralism.

Commentators on religion are always harping about how our contemporary “radically pluralist” situation is unprecedented, and more likely than not, catastrophic for the Christian tradition.

Self-styled radical theologians such as John Hick in God Has Many Names, Charles E. Winquist in Desiring Theology, plus John Shelby Spong and Raimondo Panikkar in academically less respectable volumes (whose names I shall not mention), argue that Christian theology must change or die in the face of this revolutionary situation.

Robert Louis Wilken, one of our most important scholars of early Christianity, believes nothing could be further from the truth.  In the volume Remembering the Christian Past (Eerdmans, 1995) he proves that we’re only replaying the debates of early (and medieval) Christians:

“Christians, however, have long had to face the challenge of other religions.  For the first four hundred years of Christian history a traditional religious culture (which was not, as once thought, moribund) set the agenda for many Christian intellectuals, and its spokesmen energetically contested what seemed to be the [exclusivist] pretensions of the new religion.”

As much as I hate grading undergraduate essays that begin with “ever since the dawn of the universe / man / culture / religion / Christianity” or with “those who cannot remember the past . . .” the case of religious pluralism is an instance where one of those phrases apply.

Take a look at the arguments of Porphyry, Celsus, Cicero, and they all pretty much sound like Symmachus when he argues against the Christians:

“We gaze at the same stars, the sky belongs to all, the same universe surrounds us.  What difference does it make by whose wisdom someone seeks the truth?  We cannot attain to so great a mystery by one road.”

They also sound like today’s “radical theologians.”  Closer acquaintance with history should turn our notions who the conservatives and liberals are in the religious pluralism debates upside-down.  It makes all the difference.

As luck would have it, the book is available at a massive 60% discount from amazon.com.