Adam Kirsch is books editor of The New York Sun, a paper that has in its first few years (actually it's a revival of a long-ago paper by the same name) made itself nearly indispensable for New Yorkers. Kirsch is a literary critic of some distinction. His recent book, The Wounded Surgeon, a study of six American poets, has received high and well deserved praise.
While the Sun, in marked distinction from the New York Times, considers itself a "religion-friendly" paper, Mr. Kirsch's disposition toward religion is not clear. A while back he reviewed Philip and Carol Zaleski's book, Prayer, and ended up with the trope that prayer is much like bees vainly trying to extract nectar from the flower designs in wallpaper. I took him to mean that nobody's listening but people keep on praying anyway.
Now Mr. Kirsch addresses Daniel Dennett's mugging of religion in Breaking the Spell. Kirsch writes:
The problem with Breaking the Spell is not its frank hostility to religion. On the contrary, there is a long, honorable, and thrilling tradition of atheistic polemics, from Voltaire to Nietzsche and beyond. If anything, one wishes Mr. Dennett were more familiar with this literature and had learned its most important lessons. If he had, perhaps his own attacks on religion and religious people would not sound so much like the complacent broadsides of the village atheist. For the best atheists agree with the best defenders of faith on one crucial point: that the choice to believe or disbelieve is existentially the most important choice of all.
Mr. Kirsch concludes with this:
At the heart of organized religion, whether one accepts or rejects it, is the truth that metaphysical experience is part of human life. Any adequate account of religion must start from this phenomenological fact. Because Mr. Dennett ignores it, treating religion instead as at best a pastime for dimwits, at worst a holding cell for fanatics, he never really encounters the thing he believes he is writing about. The obvious thing to say about Breaking the Spell is that it will irritate believers and delight nonbelievers, but that is not, or should not be, the case. In fact, it should irritate both, for it trivializes matters that have engaged the best human minds for thousands of years.
That is a thoughtful observation, so far as it goes. But is it the case that the decision is between believing or not believing, between being for or against religion (never mind "organized religion")? Everybody believes. It is a question of what they believe, and why. The atheist makes a breathtaking leap of faith in believing there is no God, since he could not possibly have all the evidence pertinent to arriving at that conclusion.
One need not go so far as the early Karl Barth who insisted that Christianity is not a religion, but it is obvious that one is not, or should not be, a Christian because he believes in religion. Rather, he has by reason, authoritative testimony, and the gift of faith, accepted the claim that God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.
Mr. Kirsch wants a more intelligent argument about these matters "that have engaged the best human minds for thousands of years." And he is sharply critical of Daniel Dennett for letting down the atheist side. I don't know which side Mr. Kirsch is on in that debate, but I am sure that that is not the debate that should really interest him. The question is not whether one believes in believing or believes in religion. The question is how one responds to the truth claims proposed by traditions of thought--Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, etc.--that are conventionally called religions.
Among the great reads of a lifetime is Francis Parkman's France and England in North America. This big two-volume work was republished a few years ago by the Library of America and I warmly recommend it. Parkman was a staunch Protestant but was unstinting in his admiration for the radical devotion of the martyr-missionaries of the Society of Jesus who surrendered their lives in evangelizing the American Indians. (To the keepers of the PC codes: I am told that "American Indians" is now preferred over "Native Americans.")
Parkman's great work came to mind when I read that the Jesuits have sold their retreat house in Auriesville, New York, the site of the Shrine of the North American Martyrs, to some sports outfit. I made my pre-ordination retreat at Auriesville in 1991, and was much impressed by the shrine. There is a huge amphitheater and up through the middle of the last century whole trains would be chartered to take pilgrims from New York City to celebrate the heroism of Jesuits past. In recent decades, the shrine has fallen upon hard times. The shrine, however, has not been sold, and perhaps it will be revived one day.
Today the focus of devotion at Auriesville is Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the "Lily of the Mohawks," who was born in 1656, converted to Christianity, and gave her life to the Church's mission. John Paul the Great beatified her in 1980, and she may well become the first American Indian to be declared a saint.
The building that has been sold to the American Sports Committee that will, according to a spokesman, be used to promote sports and health "through a holistic approach," was built to train Jesuit seminarians, was then turned into a retreat house when there were not enough seminarians, and was vacated in 1998 when there were not enough retreatants. From saving souls to holistic health, one religion succeeds another.
Both Catholic and evangelical blogs have been exercised by the number of evangelicals who are encouraging people to see The Da Vinci Code, the movie. (The movie is known in some circles as the Duh Vinci Code.) This is, we are told, a "teachable moment" in which the patent falsehoods of the book and film can provide an occasion for opening people to the truth about Christ and the Church. Put me down as among the skeptical.
Sony is paying an organization called Grace Hill Media to sell the film to evangelicals. Among the films that Grace Hill has promoted to the evangelical Christian audience in the past are "The Producers" and "Elf." Go figure. In the material put out by Sony and Grace Hill, we are informed that all kinds of "experts" on Christian history and theology have been enlisted to explain the significance of "The Da Vinci Code." It has not gone unremarked that some of these experts are associated with evangelical groups that are distinctly critical of Catholicism. The book and, it is assumed, the film provide rich material for the peddlers of sinister theories about the ways of the Whore of Babylon. The experts "correct" the film by referring viewers to their own accounts of the errors of Rome.
Critics of Grace Hill and others who are party to this game are understandably puzzled about why evangelical Christians are plugging a story that alleges that the gospel accounts of Jesus are fraudulent. Of course, the line is that you can't criticize something without having seen it. Which is nonsense with respect to more conventional pornography, and with respect to the spiritual pornography that is The Da Vinci Code. In addition to the suspicion of anti-Catholicism, one might also "think low" and ask just how much Grace Hill Media is getting paid to do Sony's dirty work. Most poignant, of course, are those evangelicals who think they are "engaging the culture" and have hit the big time when Hollywood gives them "a place at the table" to discuss the pros and cons of blasphemy against their Lord and Savior.
In addition to which:
This coming Sunday, Father Neuhaus will be saying Mass and preaching at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church at 230 East 90th St. in New York (between 2nd and 3rd avenues). Copies of his new book, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth will be available at a discount price of $20. Signed copies of the book will be available following the 11:15am Mass and Father Neuhaus will be signing copies following the 12:30 Mass.
We are told it is now official. Father Neuhaus' new book will be in the stores on February 27. The book is Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth. Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal says this:
"This is the story of how one priest discovered the way of grace and glory that is being Catholic. Writing with eloquence, deep intelligence and wit, Father Neuhaus guides us past all the confusion and controversy and lets the splendor of truth shine through. If you're a serious Catholic, if you want to be a serious Catholic, if you want to know what it means to be a serious Catholic, read this book."
Catholic Matters can be ordered from Amazon by clicking here.