Chesterton, Crusading, and Cairo

My facebook buddy, the blogger Brandon Vogt, recently posted the video above on Facebook. I was surprised to find out there is a video of Chesterton, best known for his The Everlasting Man, Orthodoxy, and biographies of Aquinas and Francis. It seems like like he’s too big a personality, wellnigh mythical, to fit on film.

Apparently Chesterton’s cause for canonization is being advanced in Rome these days. It’s not surprising given how much influence he has exerted on Catholic writers, popes (including the present pope), and even atheist authors such as Slavoj Zizek whose The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity is heavily influenced by the English Catholic writer.

"Wha? Zizek?!," say Chesterton in an aside of his writings on Dickens.

“Wha? Zizek?!,” says Chesterton in an aside in his still wildly popular Orthodoxy.

Chesterton is generally known as an all-around funny guy who wrote on serious topics in a way that could get anyone interested in the adventurous minutiae of orthodoxy. It’s an effective writing strategy that can catch opponents off guard. I’ve seen his writing style compared to Kierkegaard recently. Apparently there isn’t anything new in this comparison, because specialists were making  it a long time ago.

In the video Chesterton is proclaimed “One of the foremost crusaders of modern letters.” When I first heard the video I thought he was being proclaimed a “dictator.” In hindsight his response to receiving the honor doesn’t seem funny or effective. It leaves me more uncomfortable than if he had been proclaimed dictator of letters, “I can only say that I am not much of a Crusader, but at least I am not a Mohammedan.”

You might or might not remember that the First Crusade (1096–1099) began as a pilgrimage and ended as a military expedition by Roman Catholic Europe to regain the Holy Lands taken in the Muslim conquests of the seventh century. Jerusalem was recaptured in 1099. Subsequent Crusades followed and resulted not only in more rifts between the Rome and Islam, but ultimately also between Rome and the Christian East.

The Lost History of Christianity tells the millennium long Christian tale of lands we usually consider Muslim.

The Lost History of Christianity tells the millennium long Christian tale of lands we usually consider Muslim.

One cannot help but think of how the intersections of Christian and Muslim history have always been marked by violent conflict, starting with the minor conquests of Mohammad of what used to be Jewish-Christian and pagan lands. Philip Jenkins, ever the myth-buster, has also written a book about what happened afterwards, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died. We tend to track the progress of Christianity in these lands with much interest, since they are some of the biggest growth areas in the world. However, they have a long history both we and they can tap into.

Now one might say Islam started with about five hundred years of victories, only to be followed by steady and depressing slide into defeat that still continues. The decimation of non-Western Christianities seems to be more of a desperate lashing out by certain factions within Islam than anything else. It’s also a sad fact that the vast majority of Western Christians have only become aware of non-Western Christianities only as they are being destroyed. For example, in the wake of the American occupation of Iraq, and more recently in the much covered events in the areas surrounding Cairo.

How should we respond to these sorts of situations? Will violent intervention by the US help the Copts? Or will it just create more resentment toward Christians in the region? Then again, will Western Christians just sit by and watch the decimation of these communities?

And so given the history of violence between Islam and Christianity in the region is there much hope for a resolution, or is it a zero-sum game? If Christ is the Prince of Peace, then is it too much to ask the people of Egypt and other places to suffer martyrdom? Then again, if we do believe the promises of the New Testament could this be the most rational thing to ask of them? Do they believe that? Do we? Should we?

From what I was able to gather from the reports: this might be a picture from one of the churches that had to cancel its liturgies.

From what I was able to gather from the reports this might be a picture from one of the churches that had to cancel its liturgies.t’s been reported that Egyptian churches interrupted 1,600 years of continuous liturgies this past Sunday due to the violence.

As we ponder these questions it’s been recently reported that Egyptian churches interrupted 1,600 years (!) of continuous liturgies this past Sunday due to the violence. Whatever the solution might be, Chesterton’s irreverent triumphalism (it had its place after centuries of anti-Medieval Enlightenment propaganda) in this video is probably not up to snuff when facing the complexities of the choices ahead, or the consequences of inaction.

This is not an attempt to take Chesterton down a notch, because he remains a highly innovative and relevant theologian. It’s just that the level of comfort he, and the Inklings who followed him, felt when it came to Christian miliatarism is something we cannot afford after World War II and Hiroshima (or, at least I like to think so).

"Radner's A Brutal Unity is at a book of startling insight, extraordinary erudition, and is replete with theological implications. His ability to help us see connections between Christian disunity and liberal political theory and practice should command the attention of Christian and non-Christian alike. A Brutal Unity is a stunning achievement." --Stanley Hauerwas, Duke Divinity School

“Radner’s A Brutal Unity is at a book of startling insight, extraordinary erudition, and is replete with theological implications. His ability to help us see connections between Christian disunity and liberal political theory and practice should command the attention of Christian and non-Christian alike. A Brutal Unity is a stunning achievement.”
–Stanley Hauerwas, Duke Divinity School

One possible avenue of reflection and a source of humility in such times is Ephraim Radner’s recent book, A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church. Matthew Levering has said the following about it:

“Massively learned and beautifully written, this book has to be the best work ever written against the holiness and unity of the Church by a Christian theologian. Not one to mince words, Radner presents Judas as the mirror of the faithless, violent, and fractured Church. For Radner, the failure of liberalism arises from and reflects the failure of the Church to repent. But he does not end here: he argues that in God’s creation of things separate from God, and in Christ’s radical giving of himself, we find God’s holiness and oneness as a gift for God’s people and as an invitation to imitate God’s asymmetrical giving. Those who disagree with Radner will thank him for pressing us to examine anew why Christians rightly confess the Church to be one and holy.”

Do you have any other guides for reflection or action?

======================================

Update et mea culpa: I think the ignorance of Western Christians about these other traditions is best exemplified by the fact that I initially used “we” where I now use “Western Christians” in the following sentence: “It’s also a sad fact that the vast majority of Western Christians have only become aware of non-Western Christianities only as they are being destroyed.”

My thanks go out to Joseph Koczera, SJ for catching this mistake.

Orientalist Dreams of Poland as Catholiclandia (Part II)

Smoking! Lech Walesa leaves Gdansk's Shipyard to meet with Pope John Paul II.

Smoking! Lech Walesa leaves Gdansk’s Shipyard to meet with Pope John Paul II.

Yesterday kicked off a series of posts about the orientalization of Poland among Western scholars. The term “orientalization” denotes an image of a culture as “Eastern,” meaning exotic, backward, uncivilized, and possibly dangerous. The term has been used to describe Western stereotypes of Middle Eastern Muslims, but recent scholarship has expanded its semantic field beyond Edward Said’s original intentions in his seminal work Orientalism. The very notion of Poland belonging to “Eastern Europe” invites such analysis, especially since residents of the region have always insisted upon being called Central Europeans, residents of MItteleuropa, because that would, of course, allow them to orientalize the ever-threatening Russians.

Orientalism: the French think there are polar bears in Poland; the Poles think the Russians are polar bears.

Orientalism: the French think there are polar bears in Poland; the Poles think the Russians are polar bears.

My meditations on Poland are not meant to take Poland down a notch. Instead they’re meant to introduce the reader to a much more differentiated understanding of Polish Catholicism–its weaknesses, but also its strengths.

I should return to yesterday point about  religious diversity, especially the part where I said “Polish tolerance toward the Radical Reformation showcased the country’s traditional tolerance until the Jesuits showed up.” There is so much of diversity, when compared with the relative homogeneity of Western Europe, that I forgot to mention the Eastern Catholic churches that emerged out of the Union of Brest. Of course Eastern Catholic frequently feel forgotten by the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, and, well, I unfortunately didn’t buck the trend.

Let’s fast forward to the 1980’s when Solidarity was breaking ground as a non-violent trade-unionist movement set against a totalitarian government. With this we’ll continue to explore Polish religious particularities that are too difficult for Westerners to understand. Although a few of them have written books about it, as we’ve noted elsewhere.

The left and Church came together.

Solidarity: The left and Church came together.

3. Solidarity was both a Catholic movement and a somewhat secular movement. However, there is almost no doubt that it was politically the single most successful worker movement in history. It helped to topple, irony of ironies, a socialist regime. Granted, that regime had declared martial law, was armed to the teeth, and its tanks and guns were aiming at civilians.

Solidarity was composed of simple pious workers, leftist intellectuals (such as Michnik, author of The Church & the Left) who were fellow-travelers of the Church, and finally clergy. The Church played a decisive role here, because churches, thanks to the sweeping influence of Polish clericalism and papist internationalism, were the only place where free debate was permitted to everyone (including the non-believers).

Solidarity went through several phases until this mixture of diverse groups began to splinter under communist pressure and this only continued once power was transferred to them.

4.  Consumerism: The unusual mix of intellectuals (not that they were all secularists) and the pious masses could not hold in Poland as the 90’s became a kind of Hobbesian free-for-all. The Gdansk shipyards, which anchored the whole movement, were precisely the sort of unwieldy state-run outfit most likely to collapse under the free market. Governments of both left and right cycled in and out, some out of of existence. The only constant was the austerity measures that caused misery for a decade and laid the groundwork for a relatively stable Polish economy, the spread of consumerism, and a creeping secularism.

This turn of events either demonstrates the power of consumerism as a natural opponent of religion, or it exposes the weakness of the earlier synthesis, or both. Either way, the seeds of destruction were probably planted in the movement of liberation that was Solidarity. Which is unfortunate, because the kind of collective communication, cooperation, and reconciliation fostered by Solidarity at its zenith is precisely the sort of thing snuffed out by an increasingly technocratic economy and style of governance in Poland.

Before our next installment of this series, take a look at yours truly trying to make sense of Krakow’s Solidarity past within the parameters permitted by capitalism:

For those of you interested in reading more about Solidarity and its legacy: there is a complete free issue of the Tischner Institute journal Thinking in Values devoted to those topics.

The Solidarity issue.

The Solidarity issue.

The third installment in this series will appear here, The first installment can be found here.

Orientalist Dreams of Poland as Catholiclandia (Part I)

The Papal States . . .

The Papal States . . .

. . . have Pope money!

. . . think the pope is money.

There are plenty of stereotypes floating in the seas of religious punditry. The so-called pundits are usually anchored in quite a circumscribed set of prejudices they project onto Poland. Both liberal and conservative leaning theologians like to think of my home country, for very different reasons, as a kind of Catholic Disneyland. Upon closer inspection these flattened Western pictures of Poland mirror what Edward Said labeled as Orientalism. They paint a picture of an exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous culture. Poland as a mythical Catholiclandia is a haven for conservatives (where they have no NYT), while it’s a reactionary hell for liberals (possibly the only hell they believe in).

At the Dominicans in Krakow.

RJN singing the praises of Poland in Poland. The picture he presented was a bit fuzzy.

I remember seeing Richard John Neuhaus in Krakow (Summer 2007)  and being pleasantly surprised  by his Jack Nicholson voice. He spoke enthusiastically about Poland’s vibrant Catholic culture and its strong alliance with the United States against the secular-exception of Western Europe (in the context of a worldwide sea of religion) and added a few words in defense of capitalism. It was a (too?) bold reversal of the secularization thesis, which usually has Poland and the United States as the exceptions (in the tiny island of what used to be Western culture). I asked the poet Artur Grabowski what he thought of what Neuhaus said and he replied with, “I wish it were like that” (rough!). In retrospect it seems RJN was projecting a positively backward exoticism not only onto the homeland of Wojtyla, but also the USA.

Authors such as Hans Küng adopted different reductionist projects. Their Orientalist version of Poland was usually attached to an animus toward JP2 and an oversimplified picture of Poland’s past. They were convinced that someone who earned his chops in a black and white struggle against the commies couldn’t sees Poland as a place Church during the Communist era was clearly too simple. John Paul II didn’t connect with the complexities of the late modern West (questionable, but hey). My favorite example of this type of Orientalism was Peter Hebblethwaite who spent years hating John Paul II’s Polish stupidity. For years he was always the guy on CNN predicting who the next pope would be. The irony is he died before his book on the “next pope” was published, not to mention about a decade before John Paul II died.

With that quick setup  let’s start with the reasons why Poland, like Brazil, is not a Catholic utopia (and that’s OK):

Fr. Jozef Tischner grasped Solidarity.

Fr. Jozef Tischner grasped Solidarity.

1) Clericalism:  Fr. Jozef Tischner, Solidarity’s chaplain, Poland’s leading phenomenologist, spent the better part of his life fighting against Polish clericalism. The writings Poland’s leading literary figures, world class writers such as Witold Gombrowicz (atheist) and Czeslaw Milosz (Catholic), contain their fair share of anti-clericalism. With the help of phenomenology, personalism, and the mystics John Paul II put stress upon active lay holiness in ways unseen until his papacy.  Poles (including Polish clerics as you can see from the examples above) have always been healthily suspicious of Catholic clerics. You can figure out some of the reason for it by continuing to read below.

It's complicated.

It’s complicated.

2) Diversity: Until very recently Poland has always been a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. This probably has something to do with the fact that for the better part of Poland’s history, pretty much since it came into existence in 986, the papacy usually sided with Poland’s enemies. This started with Rome’s favoritism toward the Holy [sic!] Roman Empire. Polish tolerance toward the Radical Reformation showcased its traditional tolerance until the Jesuits showed up. Poland also took in all the Jews who were expelled by Western Europe right around the same time. Nineteenth century Polish Romanticism, a significant political/literary movement (one of JP2’s greatest intellectual influences), also tended antagonize the hierarchy with its tendencies toward socialism and resistance against authoritarian regimes. Kloczowski’s A History of Polish Christianity is a magisterial overview of the variety of Polish Christianities, its history of religious pluralism and tolerance, plus it also covers intra-Polish-Catholic diversity.

Mickiewicz to Pius IX about the 1848 Revolution in France: "God's spirit is in the hearts of the Parisian people."

Mickiewicz to Pius IX about the 1848 Revolution in France: “God’s spirit is in the hearts of the Parisian people.”

Next I’ll tackle the following two interconnected phenomena: the collapse of Solidarity and the growing influence of Neo-Con inspired consumerism. [Catholiclandia II is now available here.]

Coetzee on the Stillbirth of the Humanities Out of Theology

You dropped something.

You dropped something.

I suspect the endless essays about the rethinking, protecting, death, in other words, the “crisis,” of the humanities in The Chronicle of Higher Education (if only) have cleared more than one forest.

I’ve written about the religious uses of the “secular” academy elsewhere in my post about Warhol and Blau.  As you can tell from the post it’s not like I’m first in line to bust up the idols of the secular academy. On the other hand, the disappointing exchange surrounding yesterday’s post about (classical liberal) ideology in what passes for theology in America brought me back to Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. (See: comment section)

I would like to highlight this novelistic account with the qualification that there is no reason to identify it with Coetzee’s own opinions, or to totally dismiss them as having no connection with them.

The argument presented by his character, Sr. Bridget Costello, in her lecture “The Humanities in Africa,” is that the humanities were a stillborn child of theology, even perhaps more so than futile academic projects such as the Death of God movement of a/theology. Without further ado, here’s a large chunk of her lecture:

‘Textual scholarship, I would want to say if I had more time, was the living breath of humane studies while humane studies were what we can properly call a movement in history, namely the humanist movement. But it did not take long for the living breath in textual scholarship to be snuffed out. The story of textual scholarship since then has been the story of one effort after another to resuscitate that life, in vain.

‘The text for the sake of which textual scholarship was invented was the Bible. Textual scholars saw themselves as servants in the recovery of the true message of the Bible, specifically the true teaching of Jesus. The

figure they employed to describe their work was the figure of rebirth or resurrection. The reader of the New Testament was to encounter face to face for the first time the risen, reborn Christ, Christus renascens, obscured no longer by a veil of scholastic gloss and commentary. It was with this goal in mind that scholars taught themselves first Greek, then Hebrew, then (later) other languages of the Near East. Textual scholarship meant, first, the recovery of the true text, then the true translation of that text; and true translation turned out to be inseparable from true interpretation, just as true interpretation turned out to be inseparable from true understanding of the cultural and historical matrix from which the text had emerged. That is how linguistic studies, literary studies (as studies in interpretation), cultural studies and historical studies–the studies that form the core of the so-called humanities–came to be bound up together.

‘Why, you may justly ask, call this constellation of studies devoted to the recovery of the true word of the Lord studia humanitatis? Asking this question will, it turns out, be much the same as asking, Why did the studia humanitatis come into flower only in the fifteenth century of our dispensation and not hundreds of years earlier?

‘The answer has much to do with historical accident: with the decline and eventual sack of Constantinople and the flight of Byzantine men of learning to Italy. (Observing your Dean’s fifteen-minute rule, I will pass over the living presence of Aristotle, Galen and other Greek philosophers in medieval Western Christendom, and the role of Arab Spain in transmitting their teachings.)

‘Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes. The gifts brought by the men from the East were not only grammars of the Greek language but texts by authors from Greek antiquity. The linguistic command that was intended to be applied to the Greek New Testament could be perfected only by immersing oneself in these seductive pre-Christian texts. In no time, as one might expect, the study of these texts, later to be called the classics, had become an end in itself.

‘More than that: the study of the texts of antiquity came to be justified not only on linguistic grounds but on philosophical grounds too. Jesus was sent to redeem mankind, the argument went. To redeem mankind from what? From an unredeemed state, of course. But what do we know of mankind in an unredeemed state? The only substantial record that covers all aspects of life is the record of antiquity. So to grasp the purpose behind the Incarnation–that is to say, to grasp the meaning of redemption–we must embark, through the classics, on studia humanitatis.

‘Thus, in the brief and crude account I give, did it come about that biblical scholarship and studies in Greek and Roman antiquity came to be coupled in a relationship never without antagonism, and thus did it come about that textual scholarship and its attendant disciplines came to fall under the rubric “the humanities”.

‘So much for history. So much for why you, diverse and ill-assorted as you may privately feel yourselves to be, find yourselves assembled this morning under a single roof as graduates-to-be in the humanities. Now, in the few minutes left to me, I am going to tell you why I do not belong among you and have no message of comfort to bring to you, despite the generosity of the gesture you have extended to me.

‘The message I bring is that you lost your way long ago, perhaps as long as five centuries ago. The handful of men among whom the movement originated of which you represent, I fear, the sad tail–those men were animated, at least at first, by the purpose of finding the True Word, by which they understood then, and I understand now, the redemptive word.
‘That word cannot be found in the classics, whether you understand the classics to mean Homer and Sophocles or whether you understand them to mean Homer and Shakespeare and Dostoevsky In a happier age than our own it was possible for people to bluff themselves into believing that the classics of antiquity offered a teaching and a way of life. In our own times we have settled, rather desperately, for the claim that the study of the classics in itself might offer a way of life, or if not a way of life then at least a way of earning a living which, if it cannot be proved to do any positive good, at least is on no side claimed to do any harm.

‘But the impulse behind the first generation of textual scholars cannot be diverted so easily from its proper goal. I am a daughter of the Catholic Church, not of the Reformed Church, but I applaud Martin Luther when he turns his back on Desiderius Erasmus, judging that his colleague, despite his immense gifts, has been seduced into branches of study that do not, by the standards of the ultimate, matter. The studia humanitatis have taken a long time to die, but now, at the end of the second millennium of our era, they are truly on their deathbed. All the more bitter should be that death, I would say, since it has been brought about by the monster enthroned by those very studies as first and animating principle of the universe: the monster of reason, mechanical reason. But that is another story for another day.’

Pentecost Vigil With Lay Ecclesial Movements In Saint Peter's Square

The Ideological Winters of American Catholicism

"Excuse me. Are you the Judean People's Front?"

“Excuse me. Are you the Judean People’s Front?”

The average American parishioner is more faithful to the Democratic and Republican platforms than the Credo. Alasdair MacIntyre pithily noted this (classical) liberal creep in his classic Whose Justice? Which Rationality?:

“Liberalism is often successful in preempting the debate . . . so that [objections to it] appear to have become debates within liberalism. . . . So-called conservatism and so-called radicalism in these contemporary guises are in general mere stalking-horses for liberalism: The contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question.”

Our political picture isn't red or blue, it's more like grey.

Our political picture isn’t red or blue, it’s more like grey.

If you want proof the unity of opposites (on the classical liberal spectrum) then go no further than the recent ecclesiological suggestions of Ross Douthat and Anthony Paul Smith.

First, pay careful attention to the wording of Smith’s latest bit of writing for a general audience:

“To simplify the big and messy thing called Catholicism, let us just talk about one major split: between the official church leaders charged with safeguarding its teaching and the estimated 1.2 billion everyday believers around the world.”

Now compare this with the takeaway from Douthat’s February takedown of the Neuhaus Catholic Moment:

“Nothing that happens in Rome over the next few months is likely to convert the Acela Corridor’s donors and strategists and think tankers to a more Catholic-friendly worldview. The next pope may be more effective than Benedict, or he may be clumsier; he may improve the church’s image in this country, or he may worsen it.

But if there is another Catholic moment waiting in our nation’s future, it can only be made by Americans themselves.”

There are many heads, but only one Ύδρα.

There are many heads, but only one Ύδρα.

Are we seriously supposed to entertain the possibility that a fight where the laity slays the hierarchy is the only tactically viable maneuver for the Catholic Church?! This sounds like suicide through competition to me. It echoes the fight between the People’s Front of Judea against the Judean People’s Front in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” The film is a comedy for those of you who missed it.

Michael Sean Winters, in a recent repost of a long-lost article, proposes the work of David Schindler as one possible way to do an end-around the whole classical liberal Hydra represented by Smith and Douthat: 

“The usual view of contemporary Catholic theology sees two camps the liberals who succeeded in opening the Church to the world at Vatican II and who have been in decline in the era of John Paul II, and the conservatives who think the Church went too far in the 1960s to accommodate the world, and support what they see as John Paul’s restorationist program. Schindler argues for (if you’ll pardon the expression) a third way. In his analysis, the liberals want more accommodation with the world and conservatives want less accommodation with the world, but they are still arguing about the rules of engagement. And both fail to appreciate the radicalness of the scriptural claim that ‘in [Jesus] everything in heaven and on earth was created.’

For Schindler, the Christian must always consider the claims of faith first, and those claims extend to the entirety of his or her life. Classical liberalism claims that in the realms of the ontological and the sectarian, the polity has no preference: a Christian is free to pursue his faith and any citizen can make whatever truth claims about the universe that he wishes. To use Murray’s distinction, the Bill of Rights are not ‘articles of faith’ but ‘articles of peace.’ But, Schindler asks, are there not truth claims, religious truth claims, already implicit in this putatively ‘neutral’ state?

Specifically, Schindler argues that Thomistic dualism is the sine qua non of liberal political regimes and, therefore, the neutrality of the liberal state is a sham. Murray’s “articles of peace” formulation assumes a logical priority for freedom before truth, and inevitably issues in a ‘privatization’ of religion. Since the Church is prevented from approaching the world ‘as Church’ (welcome, but please leave your dogma at the door!) it is reduced to the role of an ethical authority. This role, in turn, shapes the Church’s self-understanding so that what results is not only the secularization of society that the neo-conservatives decry, but also the secularization of religion itself. Being ‘Christian’ is reduced to being kind.”

The classic text where Schindler makes these arguments.

The classic text where Schindler makes these arguments.

Working out his project seems to be the only viable alternative to this:

Catholic-Bashing: America’s Last Acceptable Prejudice (Vis–à–Vis the Fortnight for Freedom Campaign)

But don't they have it coming?

But don’t they have it coming to them?

[The contents of this post have been slightly modified for this repost.]

Systematic prejudice in America is rightfully in the spotlight again after yesterday’s verdict in Florida. The reaction to it reminded me of an article by Philip Jenkins, a sociologist who is America’s most even-handed commentator on religion. The article below summarizes the argument of one of his most important books The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice.

The irony is that anti-Catholicism is so pervasive in the United States that it’s invisible. The biased coverage of the priest sex-abuse scandals is one recent example that’s also the subject of another book by Jenkins, Priests and Pedophiles. 

I also dug out this article because of a bigoted anti-Catholic comment today on my Kristeva post by someone named “Frank.” I initially wanted to respond to it, but the whole thread landed in this blog’s trashcan. I realized something on the level of Chick Tracts and Maria Monk doesn’t dignify a reply.

Good riddance.

Good riddance. [Photo: St. James Cathedral Vandalized]

The whole episode also reminded me that Seattle’s St. James Cathedral was recently defaced by graffiti and that my own parish, Blessed Sacrament, is presently subject to various threats by a vandal. I don’t usually think of these things too often, because they don’t seem unusual. It’s also yet another reason why the bishops should be more reserved about clothing their arguments in American rhetoric and imagery.

It’s been pointed out by Justin Tse of Religion Ethnicity Wired that the argument Jenkins advances might suffer from some of the same nationalist shortcomings that plagued the Fortnight Campaign. This is because Jenkins seems to propose that Catholics should borrow strategies from other American victim groups and work within the American system instead of distancing themselves from it. You decide!

===========

The following article initially appeared in the May 2003 issue of Catalyst Magazine.

“Catholic-Bashing: America’s Last Acceptable Prejudice”

U.S. groups that are scrupulously PC about offending religious institutions make one major exception: the Roman Catholic Church.

BY: Philip Jenkins

For readers of Catalyst, expressions of anti-Catholic bigotry scarcely come as a surprise. Over the years, we have come to expect that media treatments of the Church, its clergy and its faithful will be negative, if not highly offensive, and Catholic organizations try to confront the worst manifestations of prejudice. When such controversies erupt, the defenders of the various shows or productions commonly invoke a free speech defense. These productions are just legitimate commentary, we hear, so offended Catholics should just lighten up, and learn not to be hyper-sensitive. Sometimes, defenders just deny that the allegedly anti-Catholic works are anything like as hostile as they initially seem to be. All these arguments, though, miss one central point, namely that similarly controversial attacks would be tolerated against literally no other group, whether that group is religious, political or ethnic.

The issue should not be whether film X or art exhibit Y is deliberately intending to affront Catholics. We should rather ask whether comparable expressions would be allowed if they caused outrage or offense to any other group, whether or not that degree of offense seems reasonable or understandable to outsiders. If the answer is yes, that our society will indeed tolerate controversial or offensive presentations of other groups-of Muslims and Jews, African-Americans and Latinos, Asian-Americans and Native Americans, gays and lesbians- then Catholics should not protest that they are being singled out for unfair treatment. If, however, controversy is out of bounds for these other groups-as it assuredly is-then we certainly should not lighten up, and the Catholic League is going to be in business for a very long time to come.

It is easy to illustrate the degree of public sensitivity to images or displays that affect other social or religious groups-but how many of us realize how far the law has gone in accommodating the presumed privilege against offense? Witness the legal attempts over the last two decades to regulate so-called “hate speech.” American courts have never accepted that speech should be wholly unrestricted, but since the 1980s, a variety of activists have pressed for expanded laws or codes that would limit or suppress speech directed against particular groups, against women, racial minorities and homosexuals. The most ambitious of these speech codes were implemented on college campuses. Though many such codes have been struck down by the courts, a substantial section of liberal opinion believes that stringent laws should restrict the right to criticize minorities and other interest groups.

But if these provisions had been upheld in the courts, what would they have meant for recent Catholic controversies? One typical university code defines hate speech “as any verbal speech, harassment, and/or printed statements which can provoke mental and/or emotional anguish for any member of the University community.” Nothing in the code demands evidence that the offended person is a normal, average character not over-sensitive to insult. According to the speech codes, the fact of “causing anguish” is sufficient. Since the various codes placed so much emphasis on the likelihood of causing offense, rather than the intent of the act or speech involved, the codes might well have criminalized art exhibits like, oh, just to take a fantastic example, a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine.

Above all, Piss Christ is shitty art.

Above all, Piss Christ is crappy art.

The element of “causing offense” is central to speech codes. At the University of Michigan a proposed code would have prohibited “any behavior, verbal or physical, that stigmatizes or victimizes an individual on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, creed, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, handicap, or Vietnam-era veteran status.” “Stigmatization and victimization” are defined entirely by the subjective feelings of the groups who felt threatened. In 1992, the US Supreme Court upheld a local statute that prohibited the display of a symbol that one knows or has reason to know “arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender.” The implied reference is to a swastika or a burning cross, but as it is written, the criterion is that the symbol causes “anger, alarm or resentment” to some unspecified person. These were precisely the reactions of many Catholic believers who saw or read about the “Piss Christ” photograph, or the controversial displays at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Other recent laws have taken full account of religious sensibilities, at least where non-Catholics are concerned. Take for instance the treatment of Native American religions, and the presentation of displays that (rightly) outrage Native peoples. In years gone by, museums nonchalantly displayed Indian skeletons in a way that would be unconscionable for any community, but which was all the more offensive for Native peoples, with their keen sensitivity to the treatment of the dead. In 1990, Congress passed NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which revolutionized the operation of American museums and galleries by requiring that all Indian remains and cultural artifacts should be repatriated to their tribal owners. As a matter of federal criminal law, NAGPRA established the principle that artistic and historical interests must be subordinate to the religious and cultural sensibilities of minority communities.

Even so, museums and cultural institutions have gone far beyond the letter of this strict law. They have systematically withdrawn or destroyed displays that might cause the slightest offense to Indian peoples, including such once-familiar displays as photographs of skeletons or grave-goods. In South-Western museums today, one commonly sees such images replaced with apologetic signs, which explain gaps in the exhibits in terms of new cultural sensitivities. Usually, museums state simply that the authorities of a given tribe have objected to an exhibit because it considers it hurtful or embarrassing, without even giving the grounds for this opinion, yet that is enough to warrant removal. When disputes arise, the viewpoint of the minority group must be treated as authoritative. Just imagine an even milder version of this legal principle being applied to starkly offensive images like those at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. If Native religion deserves respect and restraint on the part of commentators-as it assuredly does-why doesn’t Catholicism merit similar safeguards?

Beyond the legal realm, time and again we see that media outlets exercise a powerful self-censorship that suppresses controversial or offensive images, whether or not that “offense” is intended: and again, this restraint applies to every group, except Catholics. Over the years, the film industry has learned to suppress images or themes that affect an ever-growing number of protected categories. The caution about African-Americans is understandable, given the racist horrors in films of bygone years, but the present degree of sensitivity is astounding. Recall last year’s film “Barbershop,” in which Black characters exchange disrespectful remarks about such heroic figures as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, and more questionable characters like O. J. Simpson and Jesse Jackson. Though this was clearly not a racist attack, the outcry was ferocious: some things simply cannot be said in public. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton led an intense campaign to delete these touchy references.

And other social groups have learned these lessons about self-censorship. Asian-Americans and Latinos have both made it clear that the once-familiar stereotypes will no longer be tolerated, and Hollywood takes their complaints to heart. By the early 1990s, too, gay groups had achieved a similar immunity. When, in 1998, the film “The Siege” offered a (prescient) view of New York City under assault by Arab terrorists, the producers thought it politic to work closely with Arab-American and Muslim groups in order to minimize charges of stereotyping and negative portrayals. Activists thought that any film depicting how “Arab terrorists methodically lay waste to Manhattan” was not only clearly fantastic in its own right, but also “reinforces historically damaging stereotypes.” As everyone knew, Hollywood had a public responsibility not to encourage such labeling.

Yet no such qualms affect the making of films or television series that might offend America’s sixty million Catholics. Any suggestion that the makers of such films should consult with Catholic authorities or interest groups would be dismissed as promoting censorship, and a grossly inappropriate religious interference with artistic self-expression. The fuss over whether a film like “Dogma” or “Stigmata” is intentionally anti-Catholic misses the point. The question is not why American studios release films that will annoy and offend Catholics, but why they do not more regularly deal with subject matter that would be equally uncomfortable or objectionable to other traditions or interest groups. If they did so, American films might be much more interesting, in addition to demonstrating a new consistency.

If works of art are to offend, they should do so on an equal opportunity basis. If we have to tolerate such atrocities as “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You”-recently revived as a Showtime special-then why should we not have merry satires poking fun at secular icons like Matthew Shepard or Martin Luther King? If, on the other hand, it is ugly and unacceptable even to contemplate an imaginary production of “Matthew Explains It All,” poking fun at victims of gay-bashing, then why should we put up with Sister Mary? Some consistency, please.

Let me end with a suggestion. By all means, let the Catholic League continue to report offensive depictions of Catholics and their church. But to put these in perspective, always remember to record these many other controversies, in which other groups succeed in enforcing their right to be free from offense. Only then can Catholic-bashing be seen for what it is, America’s last acceptable prejudice.

Top 10 Theology Books of the Last 10 Years (That I’ve Read)

Here is a list of what I consider to be the ten most important theology-related books (I’ve read) of the past ten years. They’re in no particular order (kinda). If given another chance to make this list I’d probably choose (mostly) the same books, or I’d make the list longer. The books are accompanied by publisher blurbs, which should explain why these books are so important. I’d like to see what your top 10/10 list looks like. Feel free to submit one in the comment section of this post. Please order books via the links provided here if you’d like to help put some diapers on little Rosman butts!
There's plenty of theology in there.

There’s plenty of theology in there.

The Modern Philosophical Revolution breaks new ground by demonstrating the continuity of European philosophy from Kant to Derrida. Much of the literature on European philosophy has emphasized the breaks that have occurred in the course of two centuries of thinking. But as David Walsh argues, such a reading overlooks the extent to which Kant, Hegel, and Schelling were already engaged in the turn toward existence as the only viable mode of philosophizing. Where many similar studies summarize individual thinkers, this book provides a framework for understanding the relationships between them. Walsh thus dispels much of the confusion that assails readers when they are only exposed to the bewildering range of positions taken by the philosophers he examines. His book serves as an indispensable guide to a philosophical [and theological] tradition that continues to have resonance in the post-modern world.
Hug an atheist today.

Hug an atheist today.

In this stimulating book, Denying and Disclosing God, distinguished theologian Michael J. Buckley, S.J., reflects upon the career of atheism from the beginnings of modernity to the present day. Extending the discussion he began in his highly acclaimed At the Origins of Modern Atheism, the author argues that atheism as ideology was generated neither by the rise of hostile sciences in the Renaissance nor by the medieval and inferential theology of Thomas Aquinas.

Professor Buckley locates the origins of atheistic consciousness in modernity’s bracketing of interpersonal religious experience as of no cognitive value. Atheism was generated by the very strategies formulated to counter it. This dialectical character of modern atheism suggests the further possibility of the negation of this negation, thereby bringing about the retrieval of the religious in form and content along with a new admission of the cogency of religious experience.

Lovely.

Lovely.

In seven essays that draw from metaphysics, phenomenology, literature, Christological theology, and Biblical exegesis,Marion sketches several prolegomena to a future fuller thinking and saying of love’s paradoxical reasons, exploring evil, freedom, bedazzlement, and the loving gaze; crisis, absence, and knowing.

Swirly things and a cross.

Swirly things and a cross.

Theopolitical Imagination is a critique of modern Western civilization, including contemporary concerns of consumerism, capitalism, globalization, and poverty, from the perspective of a believing Catholic.

Responding to Enlightenment and Postmodernist views of the social and economic realities of our time, Cavanaugh engages with contemporary concerns–consumerism, late capitalism, globalization, poverty–in a way reminiscent of Rowan Williams (Lost Icons), Nicholas Boyle (Who Are We Now?) and Michel de Certeau. “Consumption of the Eucharist,” he argues, “consumes one into the narrative of the pilgrim City of God, whose reach extends beyond the global to embrace all times and places.” He develops the theme of the Eucharist as the basis for Christian resistance to the violent disciplines of state, civil society and globalization.

Trust me, this book is big.

Trust me, this book is big.

In The God of Covenant and Creation Larry Chapp develops a true ‘theology of nature’ that begins and ends with strictly confessional Christian warrants. He begins by showing how modern naturalism arose out of a theological matrix and how it lost its way specifically as naturalism as soon as it rejected that theological matrix. Indeed, modern naturalism is not so much a-theological as it is a rival theology to that of the Church. All claims of ultimacy, including those of natural science, have inherently theological orientations embedded within them – however unconsciously. Therefore, what confronts us in the modern world is not so much a choice between a non-theological naturalism and a theological naturalism. Rather, what confronts us is a choice between two rival theologies – one agnostic and a-theistic in its implications while the other is revelocentric and Christian.

Not for the birds.

Not for the birds.

This landmark work presents prayer in all its richness and variety throughout history, across traditions, and around the globe. In a thorough and fascinating look at this spiritual practice, two of today’s most versatile and admired authorities on religion probe the language and fruits of prayer, its controversies, and its prospects for the future. With a focus on extraordinary stories of lives changed by prayer and on great works of literature and art inspired by it, Prayer: A History promises to be the standard on the subject for readers of all faiths.
Empty throne.

Empty throne.

Why has power in the West assumed the form of an “economy,” that is, of a government of men and things? If power is essentially government, why does it need glory, that is, the ceremonial and liturgical apparatus that has always accompanied it?

In the early centuries of the Church, in order to reconcile monotheism with God’s threefold nature, the doctrine of Trinity was introduced in the guise of an economy of divine life. It was as if the Trinity amounted to nothing more than a problem of managing and governing the heavenly house and the world. Agamben shows that, when combined with the idea of providence, this theological-economic paradigm unexpectedly lies at the origin of many of the most important categories of modern politics, from the democratic theory of the division of powers to the strategic doctrine of collateral damage, from the invisible hand of Smith’s liberalism to ideas of order and security.

But the greatest novelty to emerge from The Kingdom and the Glory is that modern power is not only government but also glory, and that the ceremonial, liturgical, and acclamatory aspects that we have regarded as vestiges of the past actually constitute the basis of Western power.

King Artur?

King Artur?

How does worship work? How exactly does liturgical formation shape people? And how does the Spirit marshal the dynamics of such transformation? In the second of James K. A. Smith’s three-volume theology of culture, the author expands and deepens the analysis of cultural liturgies and Christian worship he developed in his acclaimed Desiring the Kingdom. Drawing on the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu, Imagining the Kingdom helps readers understand and appreciate the bodily basis of habit formation and how liturgical formation–both “secular” and Christian–affects one’s fundamental orientation to the world. Worship “works” by leveraging one’s body to transform his or her imagination, and it does this through stories understood on a register that is closer to body than mind. This has critical implications for thinking about the nature of Christian formation and the role of the arts in Christian mission.

Hurts so good.

Hurts so good.

In this classic treatise on Christian spirituality, Rowan Williams takes us with a new eye along a road marked out by Paul, John, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and finally to Luther and St. John of the Cross. The Wound of Knowledge is a penetrating psychological and intellectual analysis of Christian spirituality.
Monkey see, monkey don't.

Monkey see, monkey don’t.

According to British scholar Conor Cunningham, the debate today between religion and evolution has been hijacked by extremists: on one side stand fundamentalist believers who reject evolution outright; on the opposing side are fundamentalist atheists who claim that Darwin’s theory rules out the possibility of God. Both sides are dead wrong, argues Cunningham, who is at once a Christian and a firm believer in the theory of evolution. In Darwin’s Pious Idea Cunningham puts forth a trenchant, compelling case for both creation and evolution, drawing skillfully on an array of philosophical, theological, historical, and scientific sources to buttress his arguments.
Glowing blurbs all over this one.

Glowing blurbs all over the back of this one.

And 1.  I’ll be reading this soon:

While philosophy believes it is impossible to have an experience of God without the senses, theology claims that such an experience is possible, though potentially idolatrous. In this engagingly creative book, John Panteleimon Manoussakis ends the impasse by proposing an aesthetic allowing for a sensuous experience of God that is not subordinated to imposed categories or concepts. In God After Metaphysics Manoussakis draws upon the theological traditions of the Eastern Church, including patristic and liturgical resources, to build a theological aesthetic founded on the inverted gaze of icons, the augmented language of hymns, and the reciprocity of touch. Manoussakis explores how a relational interpretation of being develops a fuller and more meaningful view of the phenomenology of religious experience beyond metaphysics and onto-theology.

Nota Bene: Cosmos The In Lost also features a top 10 list of books about heaven and hell.

Musical coda: