Thursday, October 20, 2005

WWJD? (What Would Jesus Drive?)

You say that your Hummer just isn't enough to drive your kids to soccer? Suburban streets not safe enough and you need the offroad capacity to make it past your mailbox? Check this out:

GMC TopKick C4500

At 7 miles per gallon, how could you refuse to partake of this symbol of decadent waste?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Christianity and American Religious Diversity

NOTE: None of this is new and discerning readers will detect retreaded Milbank, Ricoeur, and even Alan Bloom. I just needed to get something posted before you all left for good.

Diana Eck has argued that America is no longer a “Christian nation,” but rather “the world’s most religiously diverse nation.” [A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001).] This can only be received as true if one buys into the premises that precede the conclusion.

In one sense, of course, America has never been a “Christian nation.” Critical historical inquiry into its constituting documents reveals that the United States of America is a deliberately secular project, firmly rooted in the philosophy of the eighteenth century Enlightenment. The Declaration of Independence (1776) recognizes a Creator who endows “certain unalienable rights,” but this is far from the particularity required to affirm the one, tri-personal God, decisively revealed in the God-man, Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Indeed, this affirmation countenanced a number of differing and mutually exclusive interpretations among the signatories themselves. More importantly, the Constitution of the United States (1787) and first ten amendments constituting a Bill of Rights (1789/91) specifically disestablishes any particular religion or religious expression. Viewed from this perspective, the fact that the majority of American citizens were Protestant Christians is irrelevant to the question and enfranchised representation is merely a matter of which historical stratum one chooses to investigate. The fact that, say Scientology, was not enfranchised in colonial America is more an accident of history (given that the Church of Scientology wasn’t founded until 1955) than an indication of its in principio exclusion.

On the other hand, one must account for religious practice as part of the discourse of American religion. Simply put, for the majority of its existence the United States has been composed of a predominantly Christian majority. Furthermore, whether one wishes to speak of the vitality and orthodoxy of the founding fathers’ personal religion or not, it remains the case that even they were either practicing Christians or men whose intellectual wealth was predominantly composed of borrowed Christian capital. From the perspective of such thoroughgoing Christian inculturation, then, we may speak, as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus often does, of an “incorrigibly and confusedly Christian America.” [See, for example, his “Re–evangelizing a ‘Post–Christian’ World,” First Things 139 (January 2004): 72-3.] It is in this space of schizophrenic tension evoked by the two words – “incorrigible” and “confused” – that Eck is trying to stake out territory and while we may concede the point that the increasing diversity of American religious expression heightens one’s appreciation of the strain, it is also important to realize that this condition is congenital to modernity and to our very modern civil experiment.

Catholicism, Modernity, and American Religious Pluralism

In his essay “The Catholics in the World and in America,” [in World Religions in America: An Introduction (ed. Jacob Neusner; Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2000) 66-77.] Fr. Andrew M. Greeley is likewise trying to manage this tension. A liberal Catholic himself, Greeley is concerned to distance himself from the hostile receptions of American democracy in the recent, ultramontane Catholic past (ie., the dominance of the so-called Pian papacies of 1846-1958) and to downplay Roman Catholicism’s doctrinal particularity in order to emphasize its capacities for hospitality and malleability. He does this by pursuing two rhetorical strategies: one drawn from the phenomenology of religion and the social sciences, the other drawn from the Catholic understanding of the analogia entis.

Greeley’s statement that, “religion is poetry before it becomes prose,” is a useful summation of the idea that first order practices such as story, ritual, community, and experience precede the second order reflection which gives rise to dogma, cult, and code. From the perspective of phenomenology and the social sciences, the rule of prayer precedes the rule(s) of belief (lex orandi ante lex credendi est). This preference for religious practice over religious reflection allows Greeley to subordinate “official” self-descriptions of the Roman Magisterium to the lived experience of Catholicism in its embodied manifestations. Put simply, it matters less to Greeley what Catholics should be, believe, or become and more what they actually are being, believing, and becoming. The result for Catholics in a religiously diverse culture is a convenient and quite exploitable cleavage between Magisterial apologists for Catholic particularity and the indigenous catholic community which must negotiate between faith and culture. Because “poetry” is polyvalent and thus more malleable than “prose,” Greeley’s vision of Catholicism is more adaptable to American culture than the older visions he seeks to transcend.

When Greeley speaks of Catholicism’s ambivalence to, “contaminating God by comparing God to creatures and human experience,” he is invoking the principle of the “sacramentality” of the world rooted in an analogy of being. According to this understanding, particular beings in the world participate in, and thus reflect, the Supreme Being that is God. Because all things in the world live in, move in, and have their being in God (Acts 17:28), these particular beings are a said reveal the Divine in more or less reliable ways. This “analogical” or “sacramental” imagination underwrites a general hospitality toward the world and toward all things human.

Facing the question of emergent religious diversity in the United States, Greeley’s conception of Catholicism’s hospitality towards the human opens some space for the renewed appreciation and integration of religions that are not specifically Christian or Roman Catholic. He cites as precedent several examples from the history of Catholic missiology where pagan religious practices were retained as Catholicism incarnated itself in a particular culture, but were harmonized with and then integrated into the Christian story. This construal of the continuity of human religious experience does have its drawbacks to be sure. Greeley cites Catholicism’s tendency toward, “superstition and a mixture of Christianity with and paganism that is called folk religion.” More important, however, is a danger that Greeley does not name: the tendency toward an uncritical, paternal colonialism that dismisses the integrity of non-Christian religious experience.

Religious Diversity and American Christian Particularity

Helpful though Greeley’s winsome vision of Catholic Christianity may be, it is to the peculiar particularity of Christian affirmation that we must return, for it remains the chief obstacle in our negotiation of the American space between the “incorrigible” and the “confused.” The sacramental imagination of Catholicism must be balanced by the Divine otherness implicit in the principle of Protestantism. As the Fourth Lateran Council put it so well, “In every similarity between the world and God, there is an even greater dissimilarity.” [Maior dissimulitudo in tanta similitudine, Canon 2.]

First order religious experiences invariably result in second order reflection. Doctrine, cult, and code emerge because they are socio-cultural necessities. We are truer to the nature of things when we admit that the rule of prayer not only precedes the rule of belief, but that it is the rule of belief and vice versa (lex orandi, lex credendi). The rule of belief thus names the boundaries of prayer and preserves it from becoming a merely self-referential, self-deconstructive idolatry even as it creates the space in which faith experience may flourish.

Because this reality is attendant to all religious faith, we are bound as students of other religions to attend as much to religious particularity as we are to religious similarity. By neglecting this balance we neither benefit society nor preserve religion and we unwittingly suborn the ideology and utopian vision of what may be the real American religion – the secular. The secular consensus from which American democracy sprang is itself an alternative and exclusive atheology that must be thought and constructed like any other theology. As such, secularity is inimical to full-throated religious commitment and advocacy. In its wake religious experience tends to suffer marginalization and society loses the potential therapeutic value of faith that is lived undiluted.

The implications of this critique of secularity are beyond the scope of this short exploration but it certainly entails the conclusion that there is no such thing as “religion” in the sense of an abstracted “thing,” standing behind and underwriting all particular religions. Christians are not practicing “religion,” but Christianity; Muslims are not practicing “religion,” but Islam. “ Religion” is a construction of secularity and ceases to be useful as a concept in the face of genuine religious particularity. When we subordinate religious particularity to generic “religion,” we are neither very good students of a given faith nor are we becoming adequately self-critical adherents of our own faith.

What then is the committed Christian to do in a religiously pluralistic culture? First, as Greeley’s article suggests, Christian orthodoxy is capable of remaining fully itself and while remaining extremely adaptable and quite patient of human diversity. The complicating presence of human sin creates an already/not yet tension in human redemption that closely mirrors the tension between the “incorrigible” and the “confused.” We can live in a world where everyone is not yet Christian because we recognize in prayer that the Kingdom is yet coming. Secondly, basic honesty requires humble admission that Christianity makes exclusive claims on public truth and public history. Ideology and utopia are necessary for social cohesion. Embracing Christian ideology and utopia with humility and self-criticism is the mark of integrity, not totalitarianism. Thirdly, affirming, public Christianity is a stable ground from which one may engage non-Christian religious similarity and particularity. Once we honestly admit (to ourselves and others) that we are about the business of persuasion we may engage non-Christian faith experience for all it is worth. All religions are telling stories that construe the world in particular and exclusive ways. As we know from our experience with literature, the best writers become so by first being the best readers.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Civil Disservice in New Orleans

This is nauseating.

When formal F.E.M.A. director, Michael Brown, testified before Congress as to how "disfunctional" New Orleans was, I wondered how correct that portrait was. Of course one cannot prematurely conflate this with that, but from the underwater bussing exhibit to the visible incompetence of Mayor C. Ray Nagin to this, it's hard to avoid the impression that "disfunctional" is putting it lightly.

For those without high speed connections, here is the written link.