30 July 2013

Millennial religion and the sovereign self

Claiming to speak for an entire generation to which she admittedly does not entirely belong, Rachel Held Evans tells us Why millennials are leaving the church. A sample of the reasons she cites:

Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. . . .

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

Let's for the moment leave aside the Episcopal Church. Held Evans appears to see Rome and Constantinople as little more than exotic ports of call for a disaffected generation whose members nevertheless retain their own spiritual autonomy. In all things, including spiritual, they jealously guard their right to choose, and their criteria for doing so tend to be idiosyncratic at best. Some people simply like smells and bells, so go for it!

Yet that is definitely not how these two communions understand themselves. To become Roman Catholic is to accept the authority of the Bishop of Rome, the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the decisions of Vatican II, the Bible, etc. To become Orthodox entails accepting the authority of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Bible, the patriarchs and bishops, etc. Both of these communions set forth teachings on sexuality, ordination, contraception and other issues with which it is difficult to imagine Held Evans agreeing.

During Great Lent and other seasons throughout the year, the Orthodox Churches impose a far stricter fasting regimen than most westerners are willing to tolerate. Rome obliges members to attend mass, say confession, follow its own teachings, fast on designated days, and so forth. Ex-Catholics regularly excoriate their former communion on grounds of legalism, if not worse. Indeed, attending mass and living as a Catholic is a matter of obedience, not merely of soaking up a "high-church" atmosphere with ancient roots while continuing to live as one wishes and following whatever agenda seems most congenial to the sovereign self.

Ultimately, the same can be said, not only of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, but of any church communion taking seriously the normative character of the Christian faith. The way of the cross is always one of obedience. To come to the church with an idiosyncratic checklist of demands is to take the church as church less than fully seriously.

22 July 2013

Bridging the Political Gap: Haidt’s Righteous Mind

It is axiomatic that contemporary Americans are divided into two political camps: liberals and conservatives, or leftists and rightists. In recent decades, these tendencies have become more polarized, with each side claiming near redemptive status for itself and demonizing the other as an obvious danger to the republic and its ideals. Each is increasingly eschewing compromise, threatening to paralyze the political process in the midst of continuing economic and other crises.

Enter New York University’s Jonathan Haidt, whose book, The Righteous Mind, shows promise in helping to bridge this yawning chasm, persuasively explaining “why good people are divided by politics and religion,” as the subtitle puts it. Haidt pulls off this seemingly impossible feat by studying the responses to hypothetical moral dilemmas by ordinary people, which yielded unexpected results. In contrast to rationalists of the Kantian variety, who assume that moral judgment follows careful consideration of motives and consequences, Haidt has discovered that people decide right and wrong intuitively. Such decisions are not “a purely cerebral affair in which we weigh concerns about harm, rights, and justice. It’s a kind of rapid, automatic process more akin to the judgments animals make as they move through the world,” responding almost instinctively to aversions and attractions (61).

Read the full article here.

07 July 2013

Lumen Fidei: the popes on faith

Two popes, Benedict XVI and Francis, have collaborated on this new encyclical, Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), which completes the series of encyclicals on the three so-called theological virtues begun under Benedict. Here is a sample of the wisdom found therein:

Idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands. Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires; in refusing to await the time of promise, his life-story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants. Idolatry, then, is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another. Idolatry does not offer a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth. Those who choose not to put their trust in God must hear the din of countless idols crying out: "Put your trust in me!" Faith, tied as it is to conversion, is the opposite of idolatry; it breaks with idols to turn to the living God in a personal encounter. Believing means entrusting oneself to a merciful love which always accepts and pardons, which sustains and directs our lives, and which shows its power by its ability to make straight the crooked lines of our history. Faith consists in the willingness to let ourselves be constantly transformed and renewed by God’s call. Herein lies the paradox: by constantly turning towards the Lord, we discover a sure path which liberates us from the dissolution imposed upon us by idols.

02 July 2013

Religious freedom: for individuals and communities

Is religious freedom only for individuals or does it also have a communal dimension? Timothy George writes:

The Southern Baptist Convention was right to pass a resolution at its annual meeting in Houston this month defining religious liberty as “the freedom of the individual to live in accordance with his or her religiously informed values and beliefs,” and citing in support Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”

To be sure, this is considerably better than the rather narrowly construed freedom of worship championed by the current administration. If religion consists only of what we do within the four walls of the church, synagogue or mosque, then safeguarding religious freedom need not accord the adherent much latitude to practise his or her faith, which now becomes a mere private matter with no public import. The Southern Baptist Convention correctly recognizes religion as a genuine way of life.

However, the SBC would do even better to acknowledge the communal dimension of religious observance. A religion is not a designer-label consumer item that individuals can tailor to their own tastes and predilections. Even if we manage to acknowledge the authority of a norm for faith outside of ourselves, many of us continue to assume that it is up to each of us to decide what that norm is, an approach that does nothing to challenge the hegemony of the dominant North American liberal worldview.

By contrast, Christians and other adherents of the major religious traditions live out their respective faiths in community. These communities inevitably set standards for membership, including expectations for faith and standards for life and conduct within the community. A robust public recognition of religious freedom must account for this communal dimension of faith.

To this end the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance is engaging in an important work. Under the leadership of Stanley Carlson-Thies, IRFA aims to safeguard “the religious identity and faith-shaped standards and services of faith-based organizations, enabling them to make their distinctive and best contributions to the common good.” In a society so heavily influenced by individualism, IRFA’s efforts deserve our support as it strives to deepen recognition of the communal character of religious freedom.

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