11 January 2010

Theocracy, laicism or moderation? - a question on the public role of faith

Why is it that even when Ross Douthat is right, he gets it completely wrong?

His concluding point in this week’s New York Times column is quite sound. We should be talking about theology as a society, because theology does matter, and we weren’t always as squeamish about God-talk as we are now. The grand, venerable tradition of social-gospel Protestantism, with its roots in the Continental philosophers (Hegel and Schleiermacher) and high-church English theologians such as Frederick Denison Maurice, used to be a powerful voice for progressive social change. To this tradition belonged such great thinkers and public men of God as Henry Ward Beecher, Henry Emerson Fosdick, Borden Parker Bowne, James Cone and Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s a tradition of prophetic Christianity that has sadly fallen out of favour and replaced on the one hand with an effete pseudo-liberalism lacking in discipline and on the other with a crude, spiteful and radical fundamentalism, but it’s a tradition that shrewd, good-hearted religious leaders like Dr Robert Allan Hill (Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University) are attempting to resurrect.

Theology – and the humanities in general – should have a place in politics and in the national discussion, and Mr Douthat is exactly right about why. How we approach this business of living in the universe, how we impose our own meanings on a seemingly-meaningless world is the basis for all of our political proclivities, for all of our human interactions. We shoot ourselves and our political discourse in the foot if we block off one entire mode of thinking from discussion in the public sphere in a misguided spirit of laicism. We don’t want to be Iran or pre-Westphalian Europe, but we also don’t want to be modern France, where one is forbidden from any expression of faith in the public square, whether a headscarf or a cross, a rosary or a yarmulke.

But Mr Douthat, positioned as he often is as defender of the indefensible, has made this point by doing exactly the wrong thing with it. It’s well and good to have a national discussion about religion – Lord knows we don’t take it seriously enough anymore. But as the author of Ecclesiastes puts it, ‘[f]or everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under Heaven’. Brit Hume’s crude assault on Buddhism vis-à-vis Tiger Woods on (what is in actuality a shoddy excuse for) a news programme was inappropriate to say the least. The ‘knee-jerk outrage’ Mr Douthat dismisses was in some partial measure justified, since this was not the ‘freewheeling religious debate’ that Mr Douthat claims it was. There was no serious or respectful discussion about how Buddhists and Christians should relate to each other, no exploration into what it actually means to be Buddhist and no good representation of the Christian faith at all other than Hume’s facile characterisation of Christianity as therapeutic, redemptive and forgiving. (Ironically, the judgmental attitude of Brit Hume and the rest of the news media toward Mr Woods – and toward celebrities in general when their worse behaviour inevitably hits the light of day – has been neither therapeutic, nor redemptive, nor forgiving. St Paul had some harsh words, if I recall correctly, in his letter to the Romans about this kind of idle gossip.)

If we’re going to have the kind of productive debate about religion that I assume Mr Douthat wants, we have to get away from this kind of unilateral sanctimony. I am a Christian – an imperfect one, God knows, but one who is not likely to give up trying to follow Jesus anytime soon – but I’d like to see a little more respect and civility from my fellows. Buddhism is a great and enduring tradition of faith that has brought meaning to many millions of people over the past twenty-five centuries; rather than dismissing it wholesale in a couple of sentences we might, with some measure of humility, inquire as to why and how it has succeeded for so many and for so long. Though I struggle to understand its teachings on karma and the non-reality of the self, it nevertheless has many valuable things to say on righteousness in thought, word and deed (the Eightfold Path) and seeks to promote moderation in all things.

I think sometimes we Christians could stand to benefit from a little of that.

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