Books on Islam, we are told, are enjoying brisk sales. For reasons related to the imperialist past of those countries, intellectuals in England and France have generally paid more attention to Islam than have Americans. Apart from academic specialists, American interest in Islam has been limited largely to people concerned about the Christian missionary enterprise in the Middle East, or to friends of Israel who want to understand their enemy. A missions magazine, The Cross and the Minaret, was received at the Lutheran parsonage where this writer was a child some forty years ago. Muslims (then called Moslems or Mohammedans) seemed an exotic breed, but a breed eminently worth saving, to judge by the bowdlerized version of Arabian Nights that children were then allowed to read.
The revived interest in Islam today is not entirely unrelated to that continuing missionary project. Earlier this year, in the encyclical Redemptoris Missio, Pope John Paul II called upon the nations of the world to “Open the door to Christ.” He did not mention Islam by name, but there is no doubt that he had Islam in mind, urging countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to grant a measure of religious freedom. Authorities in the Vatican speak candidly about the coming century as a period of religious warfare, with Islam as the chief antagonist. That warfare has been underway for years in places such as Indonesia and sectors of sub-Saharan Africa. The “challenge of Islam” comes in for increasing mention also in evangelical Protestant publications, where it is suggested that the reconfiguration of forces following the six-week war in the Gulf has opened up new missionary possibilities.
Missionary considerations and the safety of Israel aside, Americans have for two decades had other occasions to ponder the worlds of Islam. The oil crisis of the early 1970s provoked much discussion of “the Arabs,” but the specifically Islamic factor came more forcefully to the fore with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution in Iran and the taking of the American hostages. In the media’s construction of the world stage, “Islamic fundamentalism” has loomed large in recent years. Because the same media managers were at war with the fundamentalism of the religious right in this country, the reporting and commentary tended to become a running polemic against undifferentiated “religious fanaticism” that threatened the secular assumptions of Western elites who had been miseducated to believe that religion is a vestigial phenomenon from the unenlightened past.
A Teaching Moment
Following the war in the Gulf, however, there may be a rare teaching moment in which more Americans are in a mood to get serious about Islam. Whatever the “new world order” turns out to mean, there is no doubt that those peoples and nations informed by Islam will be an important part of it. For the general reader, an excellent entry point to the subject of Islam and the contemporary world is Roy Mottahedeh’s The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran (Pantheon). Iran, of course, is dominated by the minority Shiite group, as distinct from the Sunnis who are the great majority in the Muslim world. But it is precisely a merit of The Mantle that it must explain the differences between these and other divisions within Islam. The conflicts between Shiite and Sunni, not so incidentally, have everything to do with the internal and external tensions shaping the future of Iraq.
While attending to the intellectual, spiritual, and political aspects, Mottahedeh’s is a very human telling of the Islamic story, from Mohammed in the seventh century up to the present. That is, he unveils the history through the story of individuals, both famous and obscure. Their stories are stories of wrestling with the call to be faithful in a world that seems not to be amenable to the revealed order. The word Islam means submission or surrender, and a Muslim is one who has surrendered to the revelation of God through the Prophet. In the Christian view of things, Islam is impossibly “legalistic.” Shiite Islam is considerably more philosophical than Sunni, but Shiites, too, sometimes find literal obedience to the laws quite impossible.
Every Iranian, Mottahedeh writes, knows the story of the mullah who, on his way to the mosque for morning prayers, was splashed by a dog shaking itself in a drainage ditch. The mullah, not having time to change his clothes before prayers, refused to look directly at the animal that had sprayed water on him and rushed on, muttering, “God willing, it’s a goat.” Water from dogs is ritually polluting, while water from goats is not. A good deal of Muslim everyday life, suggests Mottahedeh, is made somewhat more religiously possible by occasional recourse to the only slightly self-deceptive hope, “God willing, it’s a goat.” It seems likely that the followers of all moral codes have equivalent devices for getting through the day without feeling gravely compromised. But Muslims who cannot help but come into contact with the West, and who eagerly desire the benefits of such contact, have particular occasion to hope that, God willing, it’s a goat.
There are few things more important to understanding contemporary Islam, says Mottahedeh, than what one Iranian writer named as gharbzadegi. It might be translated, all too literally, as “West-stricken-ness.” Islam is stricken by the West both in the sense of being awe-struck and in the sense that one is stricken by a disease. The condition is compounded by the fact that most Muslim intellectuals know that their critique of the West is itself largely drawn from the West. The Shah of Iran was hated because he was so eager for the approval of the West that he seemed to grovel, especially to the Americans. But the most chauvinistic of Muslim thinkers know that Islam is defined by an inescapable “over-againstness” toward the West. They insist that Islam must be respected on its own terms, but the maddening thing is that this always turns out to mean that Islam must be respected by the West, which inevitably bestows respect or contempt on its own terms.
The harsh critic, says Mottahedeh, is tempted to repeat the charge leveled by Turgenev’s spokesman in Smoke: “It wouldn’t be so bad if we really did despise [the West]; but that is all talk and lies. We swear at it and abuse it, but its opinion is really the only one we value; and fundamentally it’s the opinion of Parisian idiots.” Or, as is now the case, American idiots.
If they knew about the book, many Islamic intellectuals would not dispute William McNeil’s title for his survey of world history: The Rise of the West. One of Mottahedeh’s characters, a devout Muslim who had studied many years in the sacred city of Qom, thought to resolve the dilemma of Islam’s minority status by proposing to himself that there were in fact many different “Muslim” systems of thought in the world. It is a little like the notion of “anonymous Christians” that is associated with the late Karl Rahner. The people in the West, whose achievements witnessed to the favor of God, are, Ahmad thought, really Muslims in some mysterious way. “After all,” he says, “despite the beauty of the philosophy taught in Qom, fourteen hundred years after the Prophet the Shiah were a minority among Muslims, and Muslims were very much a minority in the population of the world. If Islam in this broader sense did not exist widely and deeply outside the Islamic world, how could I help hut feel that God had betrayed Islam?”
Other, and frequently more secularized, intellectuals were reading history differently in the 1960s and 1970s. “Iranian intellectuals,” writes Mottahedeh, “were keenly and other Iranians were dimly aware that the West had lost its self-confidence. It was one thing to want to become a Westerner in the age when the West looked East through Kipling’s Kim, quite another when it looked East through Hesse’s Siddhartha. ” Throughout the Islamic world, there was then a sense that the moment of resurgence, including retribution, was at hand. That moment found expression in the Iranian revolution of 1979, when the Great Satan of America was, in Muslim eyes, brought to its knees. The secular intellectuals, of course, were deeply distressed by the religious regime of Khomeini. They had not counted on that. They “could not understand how a revolution so popular in origin should be so conservative in outcome.” They failed to appreciate that the revolution was driven not simply by their anti-Western animus and nationalist passion but, more importantly, by religious devotion.
There is not, and probably should not be, another Kipling, but now the West may be looking East through the new world order. How the West looks East will again powerfully influence how the East looks West. There are many dynamics in play, shaping the relationship between Islam and a West that is, in tortuously ambiguous ways, still the Christian West. Certainly from the perspective of Qom, the West is, however decadently, the Christian West. On the world scene, Islam is outnumbered by Christianity almost two-to-one (approximately 800 million to 1.6 billion), and, despite some reports to the contrary, it seems that Christianity is growing more rapidly. In addition to the religion factor, although not separable from it, recent developments have dealt a severe blow to notions of Islamic solidarity and, in particular, of Arab nationalism. Now and in the years ahead it seems likely that Islam will be looking at a West that will be looking at Islam with a restored sense of self-confidence.
If that self-confidence is not to degenerate into smugness and illusions of imperial omnipotence, it is important that our looking East be informed by a better understanding of Islam. Reports that books on Islam are selling briskly is therefore good news indeed. A good place to begin is with Shiite Islam, just because it is so influential in the two countries recently and violently hostile to the West, Iran and Iraq. And an excellent place to begin with Shiite Islam is Roy Mottahedeh’s The Mantle of the Prophet.
No Valentines for Jesus
We shouldn’t be surprised, but we still are from time to time, by evidences that most Americans are happily ignorant of continuing threats to the free exercise of religion. John Whitehead is founder of the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based civil liberties organization that is tirelessly in the trenches fighting on behalf of ordinary folk who are told that they are constitutionally required to keep their religion to themselves. Whitehead has written an extremely useful book on how these questions are joined in the schools. It is called The Rights of Religious Persons in Public Education and is published by Crossway Books in Wheaton, Illinois.
In Hartford, Wisconsin, a teacher urged third-grade pupils to “be creative” in making valentines to be displayed in the school hallway. One eight-year-old was apparently too creative, scribbling on her valentine, “I love Jesus” and “Jesus is what love is all about.” The teacher said her valentine could not be displayed because of the religious message. The principal and superintendent backed the teacher, until Rutherford threatened a lawsuit. In Norman, Oklahoma, a half-dozen eleven-year-olds used their free time during recess to read the Bible and pray. Horrors! said the principal, who informed their parents that such religious practices are illegal. Rutherford is in court on that one. In Oswego, New York, a high school student was told that he could not perform his Christian “rap” routine in the school talent show. The superintendent relented after Rutherford intervened. Rapped Kenny Green: “My name is Kenny Green, and I’m a Jesus machine. I love Jesus Christ for he is not mean. I became born again at the age of fourteen.” Kenny received a standing ovation. (Score one for religious freedom, and one for the awfulness that is rap.)
In a number of municipalities, pro-life groups are prevented from putting up their materials on public bulletin boards because it is “too controversial.” Rutherford, with ACLU-like relentlessness, is on the scene, breathing threats of lawsuits right and left. Whitehead notes that many school districts continue to resist the Equal Access Act, passed by Congress seven years ago and upheld as constitutional by an 8-to-l vote of the Supreme Court. Some officials have threatened to close down all non-curriculum-related student clubs rather than allow a religious club (an action unfortunately permitted by Supreme Court guidelines). In Philadelphia a teacher can be fired for wearing “any dress, mark, emblem, or insignia” of religious significance. And so it goes.
These are little matters, you say? Tell that to James Madison or Roger Williams. The right to believe what one will and to bear public testimony to that belief cuts to the heart of the American experiment in a free and just public order. It is never a little matter for those whose freedom of religion and conscience is being trampled. We do well to remember that the freedoms we tend to take for granted are, in disputes all around the country, being defended daily by organizations such as the Rutherford Institute, the Christian Legal Society, the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Liberty, Dean Kelley of New York and William Ball of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (each of whose prodigious energy is tantamount to that of an organization). Except for the rare fracas that catches the eye of the press, their work goes essentially unnoticed. So we thought it an appropriate time to take note, and say thank you.
A Faith Besieged by Science
The story of Phillip E. Johnson’s “Evolution as Dogma” in our October 1990 issue continues to unfold as orthodox evolutionists are increasingly assaulted by unfriendly scientific evidence. Much was made over the years, for example, of the fact that the viceroy butterfly resembles foul-tasting monarch butterflies. According to the “batesian” theory (after nineteenth-century naturalist Henry Walter Bates), the viceroy took on the appearance of monarchs to fool birds that might otherwise eat them. Now, for the first time, the theory has been tested, and the report published in the British journal Nature is that birds deem viceroys as unpalatable as monarchs. “I think most biologists believed the batesian idea was set in stone,” said Dr. Deane Bowers, entomologist at the University of Colorado. It’s a “fairly dramatic finding,” said Dr. Jim Miller, curator of moths and butterflies at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “It kind of shows how some of the obvious things we’ve assumed have never been tested.” Kind of does, doesn’t it?
Then there’s the report in the New York Times with the headline “Spectacular Fossils Record Early Riot of Creation.” Fossil discoveries in China, “hailed as among the most spectacular in this century,” turned up seventy species from the Cambrian period with “the appearance of increasingly complex marine animals in a riot of shapes and anatomical designs anticipating much of life as it is today.” Unfortunately, there is no evidence of evolutionism’s vaunted development linkages from one thing to another. Dr. Jan Bergstrom, paleontologist at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, said it seems that the Cambrian period was “a revolution perhaps more than evolution.” Maybe even a “riot of creation”?
The Higher Dismisssiveness
Anthony Gottlieb reviews two more by Richard Rorty, perhaps the most discussed philosopher in the English-speaking world today. “His general attitude,” writes Gottlieb, “is an instance of what might be called the higher dismissiveness. The trick is to lock up your opponents in some social, academic, or historical context and then to dismiss their views as mere rattling against the bars.” Rorty’s notion of “solidarity” requires him to be forever trying to place himself in the history of thought, writes Gottlieb. “Scattered throughout these essays are self-affixed labels such as ‘we anti-representationists,’ ‘we Western liberal intellectuals,’ ‘we partisans of solidarity,’ ‘we pragmatists,’ ‘we new fuzzies,’ ‘us shepherds of Being,’ ‘we enlightened post-Kuhnians,’ ‘we anti-essentialists,’ ‘we moderns,’ ‘we humans,’ ‘we bourgeois liberals,’ ‘we Deweyans,’ ‘we pragmatic Wittgensteinean therapists.’” In response to which, Gottlieb observes, “It is good to know where he stands.”
Gottlieb suggests that Rorty is not quite so frivolous as he wants us to believe.
And how does Rorty propose to prevent the conversation of mankind from degenerating into the blathering of mankind? The Rortyan vision of heaven on earth, in which people merely tell enlightening tales and abjure the search for truth, sounds like a gathering of tipsy old sea dogs swapping dimly remembered stories of past voyages of discovery. If the earlier explorers had all been Rortyan pragmatists, the sea dogs would have had nothing to reminisce about. Fortunately, Mr. Rorty is, despite himself, one of the old-fashioned explorers for much of the time. Just as his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature had plenty of old-style analytical philosophy to keep its readers happy while they read their own obituaries, so these essays are rich in old-fashioned argumentative criticism to brighten the longueurs of Rortyan ‘conversation.’ . . . You cannot effect a revolution merely by proclaiming that you are a revolutionary.
What Happened to the Nuns?
In 1965 there were more than 180,000 Catholic sisters in religious communities in America. Today there are about 100,000—a decrease of 45 percent. Some are still leaving, there are very few new vocations, and the median age in women’s institutes is now sixty-five or older. These are among the sobering realities examined by Sister Elizabeth McDonough, O.P, in a provocative article, “Beyond the Liberal Model: Quo Vadis?”
Writing in the Review for the Religious, Sr. Elizabeth observes: “Most women religious would admit that, in the quarter century since Vatican II, the rather short-lived euphoria of the ‘nun in the world’ has been replaced by a long-suffering, quiet frustration at the lurking possibility of permanent extinction. While increased relevancy and effectiveness were focal points for altering lifestyles and practices during renewal, many wonder now if women religious in America have ever been more irrelevant and less effective.” She continues: “All this does not just happen. We did it to ourselves. Indeed, I would suggest that . . . major factors contributing to the current decline have been a certain lack of knowledge of both theology and history, as well as a certain lack of maturity in responding to newly discovered postconciliar realities.”
All kinds of structural and psychological reasons are given for the decline. Sr. Elizabeth thinks it goes deeper than that. “Though many may reject the suggestion, perhaps love of Jesus Christ is simply not perceived as the underlying or determining factor in the life of many women religious in America.” Some women call for a “creative disintegration” of religious communities, but Sr. Elizabeth sees that as part of the “deconstruction” of important traditions. There is much more participatory decision-making than there used to be, but the result is an awful lot of time in meetings spent on political chit-chat and the approving of meaningless manifestos. “Such chapters commonly enact global, carefully crafted, blandly diluted statements whose content can hardly be opposed in theory and can scarcely be assessed in implementation.” That strikes us as an admirable description of a great deal that issues from the solemn assemblies of American religion across the denominational board.
Also applicable to much more than the plight of Catholic sisters is this devastating critique: “Tradition has been abandoned, and the past is perceived as oppressive. Institutes have become business corporations, and governance has become collaborative administration. Structures have become participative, and superiors are now primarily managers. Formation personnel and spiritual directors now function primarily as therapists. Facilitators are experts for achieving consensus formation, as well as catalysts for creative innovation. All members are becoming empowered for decision-making, although not many members claim responsibility for any particular decision. Obedience is increasingly negotiable, and personal fulfillment dominates most choices; Communities have become lifestyle enclaves composed of occasionally present, like-minded individuals. Everyone is now somehow accountable, but few (if any) religious are called to accountability by anyone for anything.
Communication is the cardinal virtue, and everyone is progressing towards greater self-actualization. The problem is, of course: It all simply does not work. American women religious today still seem not to have discovered what it is that might assuage their longings, and the seriously ill social ecology of their lives is very much in danger of permanent demise.”
And so it goes. Sr. Elizabeth suggests that some communities should perhaps go out of existence. If they do not have a specific “charism” of radical Christian discipleship, what’s the point? She doesn’t think the “conservative” communities that resist the renewal of Vatican II are the answer, although they do sometimes attract more new vocations. She’s sure, however, that the “liberal model” has exhausted itself. The repeated demonstration that liberated nuns can be pretty much like everybody else in the culture has become an awful bore, not least of all to liberated nuns. (We expect that if you sent $2 and return postage, Sr. Elizabeth McDonough would send you the complete article. PO. Box 29260, Washington D.C. 20017. As aforesaid, while she is addressing Catholic sisters in particular, it is a first-rate analysis of what has gone awry in the many worlds of American religion, Protestant and Catholic.)
The Real Establishment Problem
Pastor Richard Niebanck of Maywood, New Jersey, opines that there is an established religion in America. Writing in Forum Letter, a Lutheran publication, he says the religion is variously named New Age, the Culture of Narcissism, Neo-Paganism, or Neo-Gnosticism. The big study by the City University of New York some months ago produced astonishment in some quarters that so very few Americans identified their religion as New Age. But it seems almost certain that that is because New Age and its variations have so successfully infiltrated the churches that many who identify themselves as Christian do not realize they have bought into a quite different religion. Niebanck says this:
Because this “religious establishment” has little if any institutional expression, there seems little hope of its being fought legally. For instance, a hypothetical public high school teacher who advanced New Age ideas and attitudes under a neutral or secular wrapping would be far less vulnerable to legal challenge than would be a teacher who spoke of God by name or who expounded on the biblical foundations of Western thought. To be more pointed, a psychotherapeutic reading of Shakespeare would be hard to challenge in court, but presenting Shakespeare’s view of human nature in terms of biblical realism would almost certainly be considered a violation of the establishment clause. Teaching theological ethics according to Snow White would not be seen as “teaching religion,” but teaching ethics according to the Ten Commandments would.
That this religion of many names has become culturally, if not legally, established is a public fact. The linguistic evidence is everywhere, most especially in the public media. Armed with a psycho-political newspeak, its priestly class presses its project of “redeeming” reality by renaming it. And elites within the churches have dutifully fallen into step, giving religious sanction to the project of secular remythologizing.
Niebanck says this established religion should not be confused with “civil religion.” As a Lutheran he has considerable respect for a civil religion or public philosophy that undergirds virtue in the public square (what Lutherans call “the left-hand kingdom of God”). The established religion that he critiques, however, “occupies public space [but] is essentially a parasitic destroyer of the public realm. It is an aspect of a privatistic consumer culture.” Tough stuff, that. And it has, as they say, the additional merit of being true.
By Any Other Name
Dr. Etienne-Emile Baulieu, the French scientist who developed the RU-486 abortifacient pill, has declared, “My intent is to eliminate the word ‘abortion’ because that word is as traumatic as the fact itself of abortion.” RU-486, which is not for sale in the U.S., blocks cells in the uterus from receiving the natural hormone progesterone, the function of which is to prepare the lining of the uterus to receive and sustain a fertilized egg. Without progesterone, the fertilized egg is lost. In place of “abortion,” says Dr. Baulieu, “I have proposed the term ‘contragestion,’ not to try to hide the real function of RU-486 but rather to avoid the fears and mental inhibitions that a charged terminology has introduced systematically.”
Dr. Gonzalo Herranz is professor of bioethics at the University of Narvarra in Spain and chairman of the Ethics Committee of the Spanish Medical Association. He cites Dr. Baulieu’s proposal as an instance of the banalizing of abortion. The use of RU-486, he writes, will have a dramatic effect on how people think about abortion, an effect that he describes in rather graphic terms:
It will establish as an admitted social fact that the human embryo is a mere product of debris. Not only is the embryo made into a thing, stripping it of all its human value; it is reduced to the negative condition of an excrement. In the same way that a laxative is capable of freeing a sluggish colon of its fecal content, the new pill will enable the gestating uterus to free itself from the embryo growing in it. Disconnected from the mother through a clean mechanism of molecular competition between anti-hormones and hormones, and catapulted toward the network of sewage system through the action of specific stimulators of the uterine myosins, the embryo ends its existence in an unspectacular fashion. The transmission of human life, man’s supreme capacity to co-create men, that sharing in God’s creative power, will be converted into a function of the same physiological, psychological, and moral level as micturition or defecation.
Inculturating What Culture?
Most readers have probably not heard from Harvey (Secular City) Cox in a long while, but we’ll take intelligent comment wherever we stumble across it, including this from Christianity and Crisis. It seems Rica and all the discussion there was about the importance of “inculturating” or “contextualizing” the Gospel. That got Cox to thinking some decidedly incorrect thoughts.
The trouble with most currently popular theological inculturation theories is that they overlook two important things. One is that cultures can be stifling and oppressive to many of the people who have to live in them. The other is that cultures everywhere are changing at an accelerated speed even as we speak. Driving back from our engagingly cacophonous evening at the bistro, I began to worry: Will we end up trying to inculturate the Gospel into cultural patterns that many—maybe even most—people in the Third World countries want to get out of as soon as they can? And will we eventually find ourselves indigenized into quaintly cultivated preserves—the contemporary equivalents of the old mission compound—while the new syncretic but dynamic global culture leaves us far behind? It is a thought worth pondering.
Having gone that far in raining on the inculturation party, Cox goes on to suggest that intellectuals, even theologians, might be a mite more self-critical.
Remember, the Third World intellectuals who often lead the churches and seminaries in those countries are only human. Like many of their First World colleagues they sometimes wrestle down the displaced and rootless feelings they harbor by hankering for a largely imaginary folk culture that will resolve the painful contradictions that afflict them, and us. But I am convinced we must welcome and shape these contradictions, not flee them. Haltingly, and in spurts, a new global symbol system is coming into view. It is largely the creation of people under twenty-five, the majority of the world’s population. It is ingenious, artful, and exciting. It is often subversive of existing dominant cultures. There will be losses, but it is fully capable of carrying into the future what is humanly valuable about the past, and not in the cultural equivalent of wildlife sanctuaries. It would be too bad if just as Christianity is becoming—for the first time—a truly world religion, we encased ourselves in the confines of a passing age instead of embracing the dangerous dawning of a new one.
It may be evidence of something wrong with the way our mind works, but we almost thought we detected a ricochet of John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, in Mr. Cox’s reflection. Or maybe Harvey Cox is just returning to his 1965 optimism about what a nice place he thinks the world is turning out to be.
Sex on the Mind
The churches have sex on the mind and, as Chesterton observed, that is an odd place to have it. The editors of The Economist (June 29, 1991) opine that it is time for the churches to stiffen their spine a bit and act on the belief that they ought to believe in something other than being “inclusive” of every passing view. At the same time, they say, the churches could do a much better job when it comes to sex and marriage.
In an age of disenchantment with churches, but also of great longing for stability, certainty, and meaning in life, 85 percent of people still marry. Marriages, of course, are only human; they go wrong and break down; but it is still within marriage, and the families that spring from marriage, that most people come closest to an understanding of true love and creativity, which is as close as man can get to God. This great mystery extends from Genesis through the marriage feast at Cana to the Pauline image of Christ as the bridegroom of the Church. Yet despite that, and despite the married ministers of the Protestant tradition, matrimony is the most ignored sacrament. It is ignored because sexual love, the love that came after the Fall, still keeps its taint of the second-rate.
After offering their advice on how that “taint” might be removed (optional celibacy for Catholic priests, for instance, and making clear to everybody that homosexual or heterosexual affairs, no matter how loving, are not anything like marriage), the editors conclude this way:
Once churches have examined their consciences, those whose sexual behavior still falls beyond the pale should do so too. Is what they want really the rectification of an injustice, or a pulpit from which to plead a political cause? If it is the latter, they would be better off in politics or in their own kind of church in which they make the rules. If their faith makes it too painful to leave the church they have chosen, then they should stay as thousands have stayed before them: if priest, on the church’s terms; if laymen, on the best compromise they can between God, their church, and their consciences. Such compromises do not need to be put on public display. Nor do they need to divert the churches from the enormous spiritual case-load that remains to be tackled in the world at large.
All quite sensible, it seems.
The commentary is marred only by a passing reference to “a recent report” that claims that “as many as 50 percent of Catholic priests may be sexually active, either with women or with men.” There was a book last year by a fellow who works with psychologically troubled priests. It stirred quite a little discussion. The upshot, as best we can make out, is that a large number of priests who seek help in this connection have, in the course of their lives, had sexual relations. But the book provides no basis whatever for estimating the number of priests who are violating their celibacy vow. Priests, bishops, and counselors with whom we have talked conjecture that it is as low as 2 percent and as high as 10 percent. Nobody knows. In any event, the obvious fact that priests, too, behave in ways that are “beyond the pale” is no clinching argument for optional celibacy In addition to the sensible points made by The Economist, one recalls that at the epicenter of the church’s distinctive contribution is the message of sin and forgiveness.
Apologizing for the Faith
We were in Canada at the time, where the statement received enormous attention from the media. It touches on events also in this country having to do with the 1992 observance of the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. There are 1,200 members of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Canada. On July 24, the order officially issued “An Apology to Native Peoples.” Apparently, the Oblates have much to apologize for. In recent years there have been much-publicized incidents of the sexual abuse of boys and girls in Oblate schools. The schooling system itself, set up in the last century, tore children away from their families in, as the statement puts it, an “attempt to assimilate aboriginal peoples.” The July apology, however, goes far beyond practices that are clearly to be apologized for.
As large-scale celebrations are being prepared to mark , the Oblates of Canada wish, through this apology, to show solidarity with many native people in Canada whose history has been adversely affected by this event. Anthropological and sociological insights of the late-twentieth century have shown how deep, unchallenged, and damaging was the naive cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious superiority complex of Christian Europe when its peoples met and interrelated with the aboriginal peoples of North America . . . We recognize that this mentality has from the beginning and ever since continually threatened the cultural, linguistic, and religious traditions of the native peoples.
The missionary enterprise was one of “systemic imperialism,” the 3,000 word statement declares. Reflecting on their own history, the Oblates acknowledge the “many men and women, native and white alike, who gave their lives and their very blood in a dedication that was most sincere and heroic.” Sincere and heroic, but utterly wrongheaded. The statement says it is “honoring” these people “despite their mistakes” and “the past blindness” of the order. It concludes with solemn pledges of reform: “We want to denounce imperialism in all its forms and concomitantly pledge ourselves to work with native peoples in their efforts to recover their lands, their languages, their sacred traditions, and their rightful pride . . . Despite past mistakes and many present tensions, the Oblates have felt all along as if the native peoples and we belonged to the same family.” The Oblates declare that they “renew the commitment we made 150 years ago to work with and for native peoples,” and they do so “in the spirit of our founder. Blessed Eugene de Mazenod, and the many dedicated missionaries” of the past.
The statement, which we would like to think does not reflect the views of all the members of the order, is noteworthy in many respects. It gives a quite new meaning to “apology for the faith” (as in apologia). One might also note the irony of using ideas that are undeniably constructs of Western culture—solidarity, anti-imperialism, self-esteem, the universal family of humankind, respect for pluralism—to condemn the influence of Western culture. If imperialism means, as the statement suggests, challenging ideas and patterns of behavior with other ideas and patterns of behavior, “An Apology to Native Peoples” is an instance of thoroughgoing imperialism. It is a frontal assault on the constituting ideas of the Christian missionary enterprise (including, of course, the original enterprise of the Oblates) and could hardly be more alien to thought patterns indigenous to the native peoples of this continent. The statement perfectly reflects the mindset that John Murray Cuddihy brilliantly analyzed in No Offense as “the Protestant etiquette” that is determined not to raise awkward questions that might make others uncomfortable. The etiquette itself, of course, offends those who believe that ideas have an uncomfortable way of making a difference.
A Yet Greater Betrayal
Most notably, however, the statement not once mentions God, Christ, the Gospel, the sacraments, saving grace, or eternal life. “Anthropological and sociological insights of the late-twentieth century” have presumably demonstrated that it is not true—as Eugene de Mazenod and his colleagues undoubtedly thought it was true—that Christ is Lord and Christians are to be in the business of calling others to faith in Him. The Oblate statement repeatedly puts “cultural, linguistic, and religious traditions” in the same category and on the same level. The Oblates apologize for the missionaries having “threatened” those traditions. But of course the assertion that Christ is Lord “threatens” the religion of those who do not think Christ is Lord. It is a cognitive challenge, it can be painful, it gives offense. One way to avoid the challenge, the pain, and the offense is simply not to assert that Christ is Lord.
The Oblates declare their rejection of “the premise that European languages, traditions, and religious practices [are] superior to native languages, traditions, and religious practices.” But if the Mediterranean (not European) message that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus is the one true God is not “superior,” in the sense of being true, one must wonder what is the mission of the Missionary Oblates. One might also wonder what the many Native Americans who converted to Christianity think about now being told that they were cruelly duped and should have stayed with their indigenous beliefs. Having abandoned the Christian mission, the Oblates “pledge to native peoples our service.” They acknowledge that they are not sure what that means. “We ask help in more judiciously discerning what forms that service might take today.”
Admittedly, 1492 and its consequences is a subject riddled with moral ambiguities. The question of missionary encounter with non-Christian cultures and truth claims is also, as it is inevitably said, very complex. As discussed in these pages last month, those complexities are imaginatively addressed by Pope John Paul II in his recent encyclical on missions (Redemptoris Missio). The Oblate statement takes the cheap way out from such complexities by embracing a thoroughly “European” brand of mindless relativism. Among Catholics today, and especially in various aging religious orders, there is interminable discussion about the “crisis of declining vocations.” The truth must be told: Young men and women are not inspired to commit themselves to communities that do not deserve their commitment”to communities that do not themselves know what they are committed to. It is very hard to imagine people giving “their lives and their very blood in dedication” to a community that, in a posture of abject self-denigration, is sniffing around in search of “what forms its service might take today.” Without reference to Christ and the Gospel, bland chatter about Christian mission is simply pathetic. It would seem that the Oblates, and too many communities like them, have betrayed a greater trust and have more to apologize for than they have even begun to ponder.
The Case of Mircea Eliade
A rambling, eight-page article in The New Republic (August 5) attacks the late Mircea Eliade for having been a fascist and supporter of Romania’s notorious “Iron Guard” in the 1930s. Eliade, who was for many years at the University of Chicago, will be familiar to most readers as the author of the four-volume A History of Religious Ideas and numerous other books dealing with religion and myth in human history. The editors of TNR declare that “the scandal of the Romanian intellectual Mircea Eliade’s past is greater than Paul de Man’s, and helps explain the tragedy of his homeland.”
That seems far from fair. De Man, the godfather of literary deconstructionism, wrote pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic articles during the war years, when the evil of Hitlerism was evident for all to see. In addition, de Man’s fanciful reinterpretation of his own past seriously implicates his deconstructionist theories. The TNR indictment of Eliade, on the other hand, produces as evidence statements from no later than 1938 in which he excoriates Western democracy and identifies with movements aimed at nationalist resurgence. Such views were commonplace in most of Europe at the time, and had intellectual proponents also in this country who believed democracy to be a decadent and discredited form of government.
In light of the horror produced by the extreme nationalism he favored, it is not only easy but necessary to condemn many of the views espoused by Eliade in the 1930s. The TNR indictment is also correct in noting that Eliade was very much less than candid in his autobiographies when he discussed, marginally, the political aspects of his past. But the indictment does not amount to much more than that. It is perfectly legitimate to explore who was on “the wrong side” of the great conflicts of this century (we eagerly look forward to the opening of KGB files that may tell us who the Soviets thought to be their friends and instruments in the West). In the process, however, great care must be taken not to besmirch reputations unjustly.
Mircea Eliade was not a political actor or philosopher. In the 1930s he befriended exponents of a Romanian nationalism that later served the horrors of Nazism. In his time in America, Eliade was reticent, and sometimes evasive, about that aspect of his past. This may be a character flaw in someone who writes autobiographies purporting to be true accounts, although even on that score more charitable interpretations are possible (politics of any sort didn’t seem to be very important in the life and thinking of Eliade). Very much unlike the case of Paul de Man and deconstructionism, the TNR exposé does not succeed in discrediting the person and important work of Mircea Eliade.
While We’re at It
♦ “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” We have heard that attributed to G.K. Chesterton, but then, as with Churchill, so much is attributed to Chesterton. A learned friend says she is rather sure that Dorothy Sayers said it first. In any event, it has the ring of truth. And it applies to Basil Mitchell, for many years professor of Christianity at Oxford. He is odd in all the nicest ways”whimsical, more than a little out of step with the times, and marvelously content to say what he has to say, in season and out. Much of what he has to say is delightfully put together in a small paperback now out from Eerdmans, How to Play Theological Ping-Pong: Essays on Faith and Reason. There is, for instance, the conclusion to a C. S. Lewis Lecture on Christian apologetics: “This means, of course, that we need to rethink the Christian basis for a liberal society, in which the rights of individuals and communities are founded upon a Christian understanding of man which is widely shared by non-Christians. It is not adequate to regard Christianity as a purely personal matter having no social implications. The case for freedom is based not upon the absence of any reason for preferring one ideal to another but upon the positive conviction that men have the right and the duty to follow their consciences and to promote the common good. It is no more likely in politics than it is in the institutional life of the Church that we shall achieve a Christian consensus. Christians will continue to differ in their political emphasis, and it may be a good thing that this should be so. But in each case there is an overriding demand for the exercise of charity, not only out of consideration for others but also out of concern for the truth which transcends our best endeavors to define it.” Those whom this new collection may hook on Mitchell will want to look also at his Morality Religious and Secular (Oxford), published in 1980 and, in our judgment, unfairly neglected on this side of the sea.
♦ The Vatican has been exceedingly cool toward the World Council of Churches (WCC) for some years. A journalist recently noted that the Vatican comes out of Eastern Europe’s Revolution of 1989 looking considerably better than the WCC, which had worked so closely over the years with sundry Communist regimes. Dr. Emil Castro, general secretary of the WCC, responded that his organization “is not in a beauty contest with the Vatican.” “Let the past be judged by God in His mercy,” said Castro. He added that the WCC had worked only with churches, never with Communist regimes. He did not add that those churches were wholly owned and controlled subsidiaries of their governments, and that the WCC well knew that.
♦ This is the publishers’ catalog season. We see that Philip (The Pursuit of Loneliness) Slater has a new one coming out from Beacon Press. It’s called A Dream Deferred and we’re told that it addresses these questions: “Why do Americans admire secrecy in government? Why do we listen to authority figures even when we know they are wrong? Why do we so often seek the quick-fix military solution?” And then this: “Why has owning a dishwasher become the American Dream?” Why indeed?
♦ Inter-Faith Network, a British venture, has produced a statement on interreligious relations agreed to by Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and just about everybody else. Anglican Bishop Jim Thompson says the group is “concerned to celebrate the differences between religions, not minimize them.” According to The Tablet, “God is not mentioned in the statement, which links both theistic and nontheistic religions. Reference is made, however, to ‘a Reality which infinitely transcends all that we can see, touch, smell, taste, and hear.’” It seems the “Reality” transcends language as well. We gather that a difference not to be “celebrated” is that at least one religion names the Name.
♦ Just when you thought it was safe to go to church again, our ever-alert federal government has espied another threat. Legislation is proposed to ban lead use in consumer goods, and the Environmental Protection Agency is taking a close look at stained glass windows. According to Crux, a newsletter published in Albany, New York, federal action could affect 100,000 jobs in 30,000 glass studios nationwide. At the risk of violating the separation of church and state, one may hope that the gaze of the EPA will extend beyond the lead in the windows in question, and thus a measure of sanity, if not sanctity, might yet deter our misguided protectors.
♦ So, having heaped upon the National Council of Churches’ screed against the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas a small measure of the derision that it deserves (“Repenting of America 1492-1992,” October 1990), we are asked how Christians should think about the occasion. We are not at a loss for an answer, thanks to Bishop James A. Griffin of Columbus, Ohio. His pastoral letter, “Horizons of Faith,” treats what Catholics are calling the Fifth Centenary of the Evangelization of the Americas with admirable clarity and nuance. The shadows and horrors of what happened since 1492 are there, along with the nobility, the heroism, the achievements, and the continuing lessons for our day. If you write to Bishop Griffin and ask for “Horizons of Faith,” we are quite sure that he would be glad to send you a copy. The address is Diocese of Columbus, 198 E. Broad Street, Columbus, OH 43215.
♦ A colleague reports that at the Jersey shore in August there were the usual advertisements that airplanes flying over the beach pull behind them”“Eat at Joe’s,” “Listen to WABC-FM,” that sort of thing. But then there was an airplane trailing this: “Pay Your Child Support!” It is not known whether this was intended as a general admonition or directed to a deadbeat in particular. If the latter, it would seem that whoever hired the plane was not in dire financial straits. In any event, a little guilt at the beach may not be a bad thing.
♦ John Updike once wrote interestingly about Karl Barth. That endeared him to many more seriously Christian readers. There is the other factor, of course; that he almost always writes so interestingly about almost anything. Those who have worked their way through the thousands of pages about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom may suspect that Updike is daring his literary talent to write interestingly about such exceedingly uninteresting people. Now, in Rabbit at Rest, Harry comes to the end of the banalities Mr. Updike, if not Harry, took to be his life of angst. On the hospital bed where he is dying, Harry’s last words are to his son, “Well, Nelson, all I can tell you is, it isn’t so bad.” Updike adds, “Rabbit thinks he should maybe say more, the kid looks wildly expectant, but enough. Maybe. Enough.” The last “enough” may be Harry’s, or it may be the author’s, or it may be the author agreeing with Harry. Mr. Updike does not say. One wants to believe that the author who was so taken with Karl Barth does not think it is enough. One wants to believe that his intention in depicting lives so soulless as Harry’s is to prompt the reader to recognize that it is not enough. But Mr. Updike does not say. Such reticence is the mark of a fine writer, the critic says. Perhaps so. Certainly Mr. Updike does not offend by preaching. But one is left with the uneasy feeling that he does not preach, not because it is bad form, but because he has nothing more to say.
On butterflies, the New York Times, April 16, 1991, and on fossils, April 23, 1991. Gottlieb on Rorty in the New York Times Book Review, June 2, 1991. On the decreasing number of nuns. Review for Religious, March-April 1991. Niebanck on established religion in Forum Letter, August 15, 1991. Dr. Herranz on RU-486 in Catholic International, July 15-30, 1991. “An Apology to Native Peoples” reprinted in Origins, August 15, 1991. On the WCC and Communist-controlled churches, National Christian Reporter, December 21, 1990. On Inter-Faith Network, The Tablet, March 23, 1991.