Sunday, December 24, 2006
In this Times (London) op-ed, the editors contend that "the real strength of religion today rests in its values":
The truths of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and the other world faiths that command the respect of millions do not lie in items of clothing or the display of insignia. They lie in the eternal verities of human relations, the selfless practice of morality and in Man’s relationship with God. But in our materialistic age, two trends have become apparent: a growing intolerance towards the faithful by an increasingly secular society; and a retreat into symbolism by those who are firm in their faith and increasingly contemptuous of that secular society.
It is the nature and claims of secular society that have largely provoked both these tends. As society has become increasingly atomised, with the frequent break-up of families, greater mobility and a more frenetic pace of life, so we lay ever more responsibility on our nanny state to legislate for happiness, opportun-ity and personal “rights”.
So far, so good. Next:
True faith should not be a source of conflict. Faith should instead be a force for cohesion — social, spiritual and ethical. Religion that is perverted to become akin to a totalitarian philosophy is no true religion, but a politicisation and distortion of faith. That is what is wrong with extremism and intolerance, whether it be al-Qaeda killers who murder in the name of Islam or the Ku Klux Klan that trumpets its “Christian” values.
The essence of belief is in valuing all life and acknowledging individual differences. That necessarily makes tolerance a fundamental principle in Western societies that are multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. And if and where this principle conflicts with religious claims to a monopoly of righteousness and spiritual guidance, those claims must be questioned by adherents as well as by opponents.
The force of this assertion depends, I suppose, a lot on what the writer means by "religious claims to a monopoly of righteousness and spiritual guidance." If the argument is "non-judgmentalism is a fundamental principle of free society and so religious truth claims are inherently suspect and, indeed, inadmissible in such a society," then, well, I'm unmoved. If it is just that "religious believers who imagine that only those who share their beliefs are decent people, worthy of respect and just treatment," then the claim is unassailable, though somewhat trivial.
Religion is about much more than values; the Faith is about more than "ethics"; and insisting on "cohesion" is, to me, far more troubling than recognizing the disagreements and divisions that always come (unless they are suppressed) with pluralism.
The Christ-child lay on Mary's lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)
The Christ-child lay on Mary's breast
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)
The Christ-child lay on Mary's heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world's desire.)
The Christ-child stood on Mary's knee,
His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down
Maybe it's just because today is Christmas Eve, but the Times is having a good day. This long essay, "Nuevo Catholics," from the magazine is a thorough and engaging look at the transformation of the Catholic Church in America associated with Latino immigration, especially immigration from Mexico. The discussion of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Cristeros, and the deep devotion of Spanish-speaking Catholics is rich, and welcome.
True, there are a few tinny moments, like this:
Within certain orders active in Los Angeles, above all the Jesuits, campaigns for social justice continue to loom large, and it sometimes can seem as if the social commitments of the church of an earlier era are alive and flourishing in L.A., no matter what the current Vatican line may be.
"Current Vatican line"? Whatever. Is the suggestion that the "current Vatican line" is somehow not consonant with concerns about social justice? I also think the piece also moves a bit too quickly, in the effort to highlight Cardinal Mahoney's commendable commitment to the Latinos in his diocese, past the quite reasonable concerns about his leadership generally, and about his role in the sexual-abuse scandal. Still, it's an inspiring Christmas read, I think, and one that leaves the reader -- this reader, anyway -- with a lot of hope.
An interesting read, in the New York Times Magazine, about the right's "jailhouse conversion" on a number of criminal-justice and prison-reform issues, including the "Second Chance Act." I was struck by this passage:
Over the past decade, as the political scientists William Galston and Elaine Kamarck have suggested, the culture war of the 1970s and 1980s that revolved around race has been replaced by one that revolves around religion. A side effect has been a radically different crime debate. If the Second Chance Act fails to pass, it will not be because the two parties cannot agree on the importance of rehabilitation programs in prisons. But it may be because they disagree on the role religious organizations should play in rehabilitation. . . .
By passing the Second Chance Act, Democrats can acknowledge that the Christian desire to improve the lives of prisoners is more than a mere proxy for evangelism. And in doing so, they can re-embrace a cause of their own: the creation of a criminal-justice system that is more humane and more just. The current moment is, in Michael Jacobson’s view, “the best opportunity of the last 25 years for altering the way in which the United States has used incarceration.” But if that moment is to be seized, if there’s any possibility to reform a prison system that almost everyone thinks has failed, both parties are going to have to rely, at least a little bit, on faith.
Also this, regarding Sen. Sam Brownback:
There are few, if any, senators more closely identified with the Christian conservative movement than Sam Brownback. Like a growing number of conservatives, Brownback is a political proponent of the so-called new-evangelical causes, which range from AIDS in Africa and slavery in Sudan to poverty and the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a bill that helped build the coalition of Democrats and Republicans in the re-entry movement. Even when he disagrees with his fellow religious conservatives, he gives faith-based reasons for doing so. A convert to Catholicism, he has said his religion informs his support for a less punitive approach to immigration reform. In February, he held a hearing intended to foster debate on whether the death penalty can be reconciled with Pope John Paul II’s call to create “a culture of life.”
Brownback also routinely mentions prison reform — especially the faith-based variety — in public speeches.
Saturday, December 23, 2006
When our children found out about Santa, we initiated them into our family secret - Santa or St. Nick is real because he lives on in each of us as we take up the task of giving to others. Therefore, it was now their responsibility to be Santa for others. My son, Chris, reports that this made sense to him. At a young age, he understood in some sense that while the Santa of the red suit, sleigh, and reindeer was not a factual reality, the myth of Santa was real in that it told a truth at a level deeper than surface facts. As a teenager and young adult, he continued to connect the dots, seeing the importance of myth in the stories of Tolkein, Lewis, and even George Lucas.
Happy short fourth week of Advent -
New York Times
December 23, 2006
Italy: Church Funeral Denied in Right-To-Die Case
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The Roman Catholic Church denied a religious funeral for Piergiorgio Welby, the muscular dystrophy patient at the center of a debate on euthanasia who died this week after a doctor disconnected his respirator, saying it would treat his public wish to “end his life” as a willful suicide. In his high-profile case, Mr. Welby had said he was not seeking to commit suicide but to remove himself from medical treatment he did not want. His widow, Mina, who defended the doctor’s decision, said the family would hold a lay funeral for him tomorrow. The family said they learned of the Rome Diocese’s decision to withhold a religious funeral when they tried to make arrangements with their local parish. “I won’t deny that I was furious,” said his sister, Carla. She said the decision would be hard for her mother. “I don’t know with what words we will tell her that she can’t hold a funeral for her son in church,” she said. The church opposes euthanasia. In many apparent suicides, it allows funerals on the assumption that the deceased was not of sound mind. The office of the Vicar of Rome said it had refused a funeral for Mr. Welby because of his “repeated and publicly affirmed” desire to “end his life.”
Friday, December 22, 2006
Even on a sleepy pre-Christmas Friday afternoon, the Santa question can stir thoughtful responses. Thanks to J. Peter Nixon for forwarding me his own post on the subject from three years ago. Here's an excerpt:
Nor am I convinced that children finding out the “truth” about Santa is a serious threat to their faith. At some point my children are going to learn about the questionable historicity of certain elements of the infancy narratives of Luke and Matthew. Will learning that the two accounts disagree about whether the angel appeared to Mary or Joseph shake their faith? Will learning that the scriptures never depict the shepherds and the magi under the same roof shatter them? Should I keep the crèche under wraps next year?
I actually think that believing in Santa is good practice for living a life of faith. One begins with naïve, uncritical belief: Santa is a flesh and blood person who lives at the North Pole and who flies around the world on Christmas Eve giving presents to five billion people. Eventually, though, such a belief becomes untenable. We then face a choice. We can walk away in anger at having been deceived about what “really happens” at Christmas. Or, we can recognize that the Santa myth embodies deeper truths about ourselves, about God, and about the meaning of Christmas that are best expressed through the stories and rituals associated with that myth.
Believing in Santa Claus, like believing in God, is an act of the imagination. It cultivates our faculties of wonder, awe, and trust. Anyone who believes that these faculties are somehow ancillary to the transmission of faith is dangerously naïve. My children believe in any number of things that do not exist--dragons, superheroes, talking animals, invisible friends. Their world is gloriously full of the supernatural, and I relish watching them live in it. For I know from personal experience that the mind that has stretched itself in imagination will never be able to accept that the visible, measurable, quantifiable world is all that “really exists.”
I guess I don't have much of a problem with my kids believing in something and then naturally coming to realize that it's not true. But I start having a problem if I actively promote their misdirected belief. I do not point out the historical inaccuracy of the manger scene depicting the magi with the shepherds, but last week when my daughter asked me when the magi arrived at the manger, I pointed out that they arrived much later. I will provide presents "from Santa" and facilitate the possibility of Santa's reality, but if my daughter asks point blank, "Is Santa real?," I will not say yes. (So far I've gotten away with "what do you think?") My discomfort is not with the belief in make-believe, but with my abuse of their trust that I will not steer them into falsehood once they've grown skeptical.
And Karen Heinig points out that:
[A]n active Christian faith isn't just a whimsical decision to believe, it's experiencing God's love and forgiveness in one's life. Something that can't just be written off as being made up by "some guy". It is this real encounter with God that we ought to model and encourage for our children, not merely apologetics.
Amen. But this might be where my own baggage comes in. I'm a believer who has always been strong on apologetics, but fairly flimsy on experience. Not that I don't experience God, but I don't experience God in the unshakeable, faith-affirming way that some of my friends do. For them, the cognitive dissonance of truth uncovered as falsehood may not be that jolting because the foundation is personal experience. For me, both now and when I was a child, experience did not take me all that far on the path toward belief. My struggle with truth was the core of my faith journey, and that struggle required me to distinguish the Christian story from fairy tales. I appreciate the imagination-bolstering power of myth, but I am reluctant to put my own credibility on the line once the project aims to confuse my children's power of discernment. For the time being, though, Santa is coming, and the magic of belief will hold sway at least for another year.
On December 6, the House of Representatives voted on the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, which would have required abortion facilities to inform women considering abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy that the abortion will likely cause her unborn child intense pain. It would also required abortionists to offer mothers a chance to give their babies anesthesia before the abortion. It would not have outlawed a single abortion. It would seem, then, the kind of non-prohibitory, educational, conscience-raising measure that, it is often suggested by pro-lifers on the political left, pro-life people can and should support.
While 210 of 219 Republicans (96 percent) voted for the Act, just 40 of 192 Democrats (21 percent) did likewise.
Daniel Allott notes:
Even worse, of the 6 Democratic congressmen recently recognized by the Humane Society as "The Best of the Best" (meaning they received a perfect voting score and sponsored animal protection legislation), not one voted for the UCPAA. Conversely, four out of the five Republican Representatives at the top of the Humane Society's list also voted for the UCPAA, including the legislation's primary sponsor, New Jersey Representative Chris Smith.
Here's hoping for better things from the next Congress.