Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Religion Made Private Makes Wrong

Once again, Mr. Ross Douthat over at the NY Times is guilty of subverting the status quo of most today's news/opinion columns. I think this is a really good read, folks. Not that challenging the modern liberal privatisation scheme is anything wildly new: American Christians (I hope) are well aware of how problematic this notion of 'private religion' is, whatever end of the severely limited political spectrum they happen to fall on. Then again, tough-and-stuck issues bear repeating. While the incident Douthat employs as a launching pad does not really trouble me in itself, I'm quite in agreement over his challenge to the late-liberal ideology that strives to starve religion by excluding it from the public domain and exchange of ideas. Figuring out how it 'fits in' is, however, another matter entirely.

It just so happens I finished a book recently called The Theological Origins of Modernity. While I'm not sure Michael Gillespie says anything new - indeed, I'm somewhat surprised he thinks he has! - he does draw attention to a lot of important history. In fact I would encourage CiC readers to check it out. It's well written, accessible, and drives home the following crucial point: modern Western societies, and the USA in particular, owe a debt to their history. They owe a debt in terms of theoretical principles as well as political institutions they hold dear. This debt is (no surprise) substantially due to the theological developments within the Christian tradition, and in its interaction with and appropriation of the classical and Hebraic traditions. How this debt is to be paid or recognised, of course, is a matter of much dispute. The recent work of Charles Taylor and Mark Lilla, Oliver O'Donovan and John Milbank (to name but a few contemporaries!), plus the legacy of George Grant before them, all come to overlapping but somewhat different conclusions. And yet, that the debate is even happening should mean a great deal to us pastors and theologians and laypersons and citizens (i.e. everyone). It is imperative that this generation think about how its Christian faith is a political faith - which it is; and how the language of the Christian faith matters for how we express it - which it most certainly does.

I'm glad for Ross Douthat. I'm glad for his understanding of Christian faith as political in nature. But where do we go from there? I take my cues from the likes of Gillespie et al: we start by relearning our own history.

Theologian trading cards, anyone?


Yoshimi said...

Very interesting op-ed piece--thank you for posting that; i would have missed it otherwise.

And indeed I agree that the author makes a number of valid points and gives everyone some real food for thought. I do wish he had done so without bringing the Brit Hume/Tiger Woods incident into it, because what Hume did was indefensible and wrong, and not really the sort of thing this author otherwise endorses.

Had Tiger Woods been a self-proclaimed atheist or agnostic, and Hume was asked what advice he would give, Hume's response would have been appropriate. Had Woods been private about his religious beliefs, Hume might have said something like "I hope he has a religion he can turn to" or "I suggest he consider accepting the Christian faith..." or something along those lines. But Hume did not suggest the Woods turn to Christianity....he suggested he leave behind his professed religious faith! My goodness, if Woods were a Christian and Hume suggested he abandon it...let's say "because he's going to have all this guilt and anxiety" and then suggested he turn to something that won't judge him as harshly....well, you can imagine the outcry from our side. What Hume did was NOT intended to "kick off a debate." He did--and it's a good debate to be having--but Hume still deserves condemnation from all--Christians included--for his statement. And when the Buddhists then can answer Hume by saying, well, actually, you got our religion quite wrong...that smacks pretty close to bigotry. Which again, we should all oppose.

When Christians proselytize, whether in public or in private, no doubt a part of that entails a suggestion that those of other faiths need to consider giving them up. But in the public sphere--say, a television program like the one Hume was speaking as a part of--that kind of a statement becomes a real problem, and just because we're in the majority and so unlikely to face the likes of Britt Hume telling us to leave Christianity behind...doesn't make it any less of a problem.

Johnnie said...

Yes--I like this piece too, and agree about Hume too.

The thing that is so difficult for everyone, it seems, is to make sure that the "exchange of ideas" is truly an exchange and not a one-directional thing. We are all aware, I think, of Christians who want badly to send their ideas out, but are much less interested in taking other ideas in. We are certainly aware that those who are not Christian, and those who are not "our sort" (whatever sort that may be) of Christian, are often very poor listeners too.

Christians for certain have a "mandate to proselytize", as this essayist says....but that is NOT an "exchange of ideas."

Ian Clausen said...

You two are right. I don't know who Brit Hume is, and to be honest, I didn't really pay much attention to the reference in the article.

About proselytizing in the public sphere, I grant you both it hardly qualifies as a mere 'exchange of ideas'. I'm actually surprised at myself that I decided upon that language! That said, I would say I consider it better that Christians are honest in their public and private dealings about what shapes their convictions than concealing it for the sake of agreement. My professor has a great reminder to us that we must not 'veil the Gospel in embarrassment' in our engagement in the public sphere. But there are certainly ways to unveil it inappropriately, and Brit Hume might qualify as one of them. It's impossible to make any more comment than that - when and where the Gospel should be 'unveiled' is bound up with relevant practical circumstances, and requires at that time and place wise and practical judgment.

Thanks for the wise corrections, friends.