Tough Nuns Lauded by Kristof
We Are All Nuns
Op-Ed Columnist Published: April 28, 2012CATHOLIC nuns are not the prissy traditionalists of caricature. No, nuns rock!
Damon Winter/The New York Times
Times Topic: Nuns
Rick Malloy, S.J., is a Jesuit priest and cultural anthropologist. He is the author of _A Faith That Frees: Catholic Matters for the 21st Century (2007) and _Being on Fire: The Top Ten Essentials of Catholicism_ (2014), both published by ORBIS Books
Steve Lopez, of The Soloist and Third and Indiana fame, speaks up for the Sisters. So should we all.
Tough to figure. Bishops slam both nuns and Republican budget. The budget hurts the poor; the nuns help the poor. Why are the Bishops letting Rome force them to go after the sisters? The sisters in the USA over the past 100 years have been some of the best apostles and teachers of the faith the church has ever known.
The War Over Getting the Bishops’ Budget Approval
Sarah Posner of Religion Dispatches. April 18, 2012
Letters to and from the Bishops, though, are now dominating the debate over the Paul Ryan budget. After being more than happy to take up the Bishops' crusade against contraception, House Republicans are suddenly no longer interested in the Bishops' stances on morality. John Boehner, the House Speaker, is dismissing concerns raised by the Bishops about the justice of Ryan's budget.
A brief history of the skirmish is as follows: last year, after Catholic academics chastised Boehner for his "record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor" being "among the worst in Congress," Ryan sought cover from USCCB president Cardinal (then-Archbishop) Timothy Dolan. Dolan's reaction, while not exactly rejection of his budget, was more akin to warning that the budget should line up with Catholic teaching on aiding the poor. The letter, notably, fell far, far short of accusing Ryan of an unconscionable attack on the poor, as Dolan has accused the Obama administration of imposing the "unconscionable" contraception insurance mandate.
This week, the USCCB revealed that it had in fact sent letters to two Congressional committees, arguing that Ryan's budget, which cuts programs to poor and vulnerable citizens, fails to meet "moral criteria." A "just spending bill," the Bishops argued, "cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons."
Meanwhile, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who is Catholic and was among the Democratic women highly critical of Rep. Darrell Issa's "religious freedom" show trial over the contraception coverage, sent her own letter to Dolan, on the heels of the Bishops' call for the "fortnight of freedom" over the alleged infringements of religious liberty. According to the Catholic News Service:
DeLauro told CNS the church's moral standing in society would lend a strong voice as the country weighed its priorities and responsibilities.
"What I am asking for is a campaign for the poor, the hungry, the middle class, the people who are going to be eviscerated by the Ryan budget," DeLauro said.
DeLauro's letter cited her Catholic faith, which she said guided her entry into public life and continues to frame her view on the role of government in society.
"My church, the Catholic Church, needs to speak out loud on this issue," she said.
As I've argued before (and argued again today in a taped interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody, which should air soon), politicians should not be seeking the approval of any religious body for their legislative proposals. I fully understand the impulse of progressive Catholics who believe in their church's long history of social justice advocacy who want to push back against it being hijacked by the likes of Paul Ryan, and I certainly understand anyone wanting to make an argument against his budget on any moral grounds.
No one is denying Rosa DeLauro or Paul Ryan the ability to claim that their faith guides them through the budget process. And Catholics surely are going to engage in robust arguments about whether Ryan's cold-hearted, small government justifications do or do not align with Catholic teaching. But if one doesn't want the Bishops' imprimatur on the contraceptive coverage, if one thinks that the Bishops' demand that public policy conform to their religious edicts is a violation of the Establishment Clause, then their approval of the budget should be irrelevant. I know it's all politics and optics, a fight over who, of the Catholic House members, is truer to the social justice tradition? And I know that DeLauro and others are pushing the Bishops to bring the same outrage to bear on the budget that they have to the contraception wars.
But consider: child sexual assault cases against the church continue to be tried; the Bishops order a crackdown on nuns already under investigation for, among other things, disagreeing with the Bishops and promoting "certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith;" an individual Bishop compares the president of the United States to Hitler and Stalin; all while an increasing number of Catholics are saying, "no, thank you" to the Bishops' "religious freedom" jeremiad. Yet, in spite of all this, in the war over the Catholic meaning of the budget, their moral authority has taken center stage.
If you’ve unplugged your computer and TV for the last week, you may not have heard of Jeremy Lin, the sudden basketball phenomenon, Asian-American hero, and, like Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow before him, out-of-nowhere success story who wears his faith on his sleeve.
Lin, like Tebow, is a deeply religious evangelical Christian. And while his own religious utterances have been both humble and thoughtful (Lin went to Harvard, after all), the press swirling around him has led to a spate of bad theology—which is a shame, because sports stories have the ability to capture the public imagination and have the potential to inspire us to reflect on truly important religious values, instead of truly awful ones.
The awful values, of course, have to do with theodicy: that God picks sides, and roots for one sports team over another. In the case of athletics, this belief is both ridiculous and widespread. Student athletes, and those old enough to know better, routinely pray to God to help them score the winning touchdown, vanquish their nasty opponents, or win the big trophy. During Tebow’s stunning ascent, and now during Lin’s, dozens of commentators have joined the fray. Their careers, at least the beginnings of them, have indeed been miraculous, so doesn’t this show the hand of God at work in American sports?
Of course it doesn’t. The trouble with this bad theodicy isn’t that it’s ridiculous; it’s that it’s inhuman. If God loves the Broncos, does He hate the Seahawks? If God helps Jeremy Lin sink three-pointers, why doesn’t He help children recover from cancer? Obviously, believers quickly lean on crutches like “God works in mysterious ways,” but such ways are morally repellent and philosophically incoherent, not ‘mysterious.’ You can’t have it both ways. Either God is responsible both for Tim Tebow and for Auschwitz (yes, I realize I’ve just made the reductio ad Hitlerum argument, but there you go), or for neither of them.
Even the milder version of this argument—that God works through righteous people for public relations purposes—is deeply problematic. Besides being a little ridiculous, it, too, is ethically dubious. Obviously, plenty of bad things happen to good people. Righteous people suffer just like the rest of us, while wicked people thrive. Denying this fact is just denying the truth, and to me, denying the truth is denying God.
Another bad theological move is to cherry-pick the good things that happen and ascribe them to God, while blaming all the bad stuff on Satan, or demons, or something. This quasi-Manichean, quasi-Gnostic move has made a comeback in recent years, culminating in the New Apostolic movement’s belief that entire cultures are possessed by demons, who are responsible for everything from Rick Perry’s debate gaffes to the sexual revolution. Of course, this theological maneuver is deeply heretical, from a Christian (or Jewish) point of view. It’s also entirely self-serving. If you like it, it’s God. If you don’t like it, it’s Satan. So God is whatever you like.
As thrilling as Tebow’s and Lin’s stories are, it’s still deeply irresponsible to engage in bad religion. The naivete, the self-contradiction, and the highly dubious ethics make all religious people look bad, and thus comprise a kind of blasphemy, on top of all the rest. Because these bad ideas make God look bad, too.
At the same time, these unlikely heroes really are inspiring, and that’s important too. In fact, if we stay with what’s true about them, rather than what’s false, the religious inspiration is more empowering, not less so.
First, for people of faith, Tebow and Lin provide powerful object lessons in the power of faith to inspire excellence. Each of them had ample reasons, and many occasions, to quit. Doubtless some people in their lives told them to get serious, let go of the pipe dream, and work at the car dealership, or go to law school, or whatever. Before Sunday’s game, in fact, Mavericks veteran Jason Terry refused to give Lin credit, publicly asserting that his success was “100%” due to the coach. But like Lin, who went on to put in his best performance yet (and outscoring Terry 28-13), they didn’t do that, and surely their faith was an important motivation. They believed in themselves because they believed in God, and that belief enabled them to stick to their dreams despite the odds. That is a powerful lesson for all of us, religious or not.
Faith is at its best when it helps people be better people, whether in terms of kindness, or humility, or following their dreams, or any number of other positive values—just as it’s at its worst when it takes agency away. The particular myths that Tebow or Lin happen to believe in are secondary (and of course, I mean ‘myths’ in the sophisticated sense of stories that give meaning to human life, not false tales). What’s primary is that they believe, despite ample reasons not to do so, in the possibility of human excellence and the importance of achieving it.
Second, Tebow and Lin have conducted themselves, in the face of sudden media circuses, with grace. Imagine what it must be like to go from being an ordinary guy sleeping on your brother’s couch to having your every move tweeted and to be followed by paparazzi. Your privacy is instantly gone, any warts you have are instantly magnified, and you are suddenly catapulted into the limelight. Worse, you are now made into a figurehead, for religious people, and in Lin’s case, for Asian-Americans too. If Lin stumbles—if he gets into a fight in a bar, or behaves inappropriately with women, or commits any number of minor sins which ordinary people get away with every day—he lets down not only himself and his family, but his faith community and the Asian-American (and to some extent Asian) community as a whole, which currently views him as a hero. Can you imagine the pressure?
And yet, so far at least, neither Tebow nor Lin has fallen. No crashed cars at three a.m., no extramarital affairs, no steroids. I can’t help but think that their Christian faith has helped them cope with their sudden fame. They have strong ethical values. Each day, they pause to remember that no matter how important they are, they are not the most important things in the universe. They try to remain humble and grateful. This, too, is religion at its best.
So, it’s okay to be inspired by these seemingly miraculous stories. In a nasty campaign season and a still-sluggish economy, they’re a welcome reprieve. And it’s okay to draw religious lessons from them, if that’s what you’re inclined to do. But those lessons should not be about a vindictive and arbitrary God who favors some athletes over others, but should be about the capacity of religion and spirituality to cause us to be better people, however we understand what that means. What’s miraculous is not how God has favored the righteous, but how religion has inspired them to be great.
Santa Clara doing great things! Jesuit Higher Ed at its innovative and creative best.
Thane Kreiner: Executive Director, Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University
To the extent that I was raised, it was pretty much without religion in the institutional sense. So one might accurately call it a leap of faith when I came to Santa Clara University to lead the Center for Science, Technology, and Society in late 2010. The Center's signature Global Social Benefit Incubator (GSBI), now in its 10th year, helps field-based social entrepreneurs build sustainable, scalable businesses that serve the poor. Santa Clara University is a Jesuit university in the heart of Silicon Valley; I like to say that Santa Clara is the heart of Silicon Valley, literally and metaphorically.
This season affords a timely opportunity to note that the Jesuits represent an early generation of social entrepreneurs, who are indeed field-based. Loaded on my Kindle during the Center's recent Social Benefit Immersion trip to India was Chris Lowney's Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World. Lowney articulates four unique values of the Jesuits that created what he calls "leadership substance": self-awareness, ingenuity, love, and heroism. In my estimation, his elaboration of heroism as "heroic ambition" seems more apt of the Jesuits I've met. And Lowney reminds us that the priority of Jesuits is "fully engaged fieldwork" to "help souls."
Heroic ambition is essentially the unreasonableness Elkington and Hartigan describe as a core characteristic of many wonderful social entrepreneurs they portray in The Power of Unreasonable People, one (of many; apologies to my students for the heavy work load, but trust me: It's great stuff) texts for the Global Social Benefit Fellows introductory course. It's the belief that one not only can -- but must -- change the world for the better, however unreasonable that vision might seem to others.
Ingenuity reflects the innovative nature of social entrepreneurs, and of course of Silicon Valley. Ingenuity, as Lowney relates, enabled the Jesuits to open thirty colleges around the world in the sixteenth century -- the world's first network of institutions of higher learning -- with no prior experience. Education is currently one of the hottest areas in social entrepreneurship: education that pays for itself, women's education, universal childhood education, adult education.
Self-awareness is necessary to learn from the many failures any entrepreneur must endure to learn the way forward. And social entrepreneurs often face more failures than other entrepreneurs. The bulk of the world's poor live in communities where limited infrastructure, markets, and governance increase the complexity and risks of delivering goods and services. Self-awareness embodies the intense self-motivation of social entrepreneurs -- and Jesuits.
So we are left with love. "Love ought to manifest itself more by deeds than by words," said St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, in 1540. In the Spring, 2007 Stanford Social Innovation Review Roger Martin and Sally Osberg define entrepreneurs by their direct action, in addition to attributes such as courage, fortitude, and creativity. Social entrepreneurs are distinguished by the "primacy of social benefit," or the value proposition: large-scale, transformational change. The social entrepreneur "releases trapped potential or alleviates the suffering" of fellow humans.
Our mission at the Center is to help more social entrepreneurs help more people. Last year, we launched a GSBI Network among the network of Jesuit institutions of higher learning around the world -- all with a common mission to create a more just, humane, and sustainable world.
At the Skoll World Forum, Hans Rosling eloquently explained how the global population inevitably will grow to 10 billion with a constant 2 billion children on the planet. With most of the growth taking place in currently poor regions, the world clearly needs quamplurimi et quam aptissimi (as many as possible of the very best) social entrepreneurs.
According to a 2006 survey by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, 62% of college Republicans complained that religion is losing its influence on American life. Whether or not Mr. Santorum is adverting to this survey when he says that “62% of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it” is unclear. If so, the senator’s claim exaggerates the issue. Far more significant, in my mind, is the statistic cited in Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s 2010 book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. According to a General Social Survey, over the last forty years or so, the cohort of those young people who claim no religious affiliation has risen from barely 5% to roughly 25%.
Such statistics are telling. I’m just not sure how much they tell us. But if Mr. Santorum’s intention was to show that he could “feel the pain” of a demographic whose children don’t go to church, who disagree with the traditional values of their elders, and favor “being spiritual” over “being religious,” then he surely connected.
And he connected because there’s a familiar story here, one that goes something like this: parents love kid and kid grows up going to Church with parents. At 18 parents pay for kid to go off to high-priced college. Kid returns with a troubling disregard for what their parents hold sacred. Unpopular opinion alert: I’d be angry too if I had shelled out nearly $200K for my son or daughter to enjoy four years on some neatly manicured campus only to return and smirk when the family said grace before meals.
We should not be surprised that college is the context where such a turn often takes place. On that point I am fairly confident that Mr. Santorum is right. I’m just not sure it is helpful either to blame liberal professors or imply that the godless academy undermines religious values. Much less should we blame the students themselves!
In fact, I would argue that college is not only a place where young people lose faith. It’s also a place where they find it. Maybe the real problem is that this new found, college-influenced faith of the young looks a little different than what their parents were expecting. And that’s a familiar story for at least one reason: it’s mine.
In the spring of 1982 I graduated from St. Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco. A few months later I matriculated into Stanford University. As the product of 12 years of Catholic schooling, I was eager to attend one of the world’s finest universities and had the good fortune to be admitted into a program called Structured Liberal Education (or SLE, which folks on The Farm pronounced “slee“). It was a big, residence-based program build around the “Great Books.” As a freshman SLE was pretty much my only course, and it was presided over by a Marxist scholar of whom I (and all my classmates) were in awe. As I recall, many of the professors who taught in SLE wore their atheism as proudly as the fraternity guys wore their Greek letters. My professors, if not openly hostile to religion, often communicated a felt undercurrent of skepticism toward faith – it’s a tone and attitude that I have seen amongst some of my colleagues at the various universities I have attended and taught at as well.
While I cannot say that it was easy to have my beliefs questioned, debated, dissected before my eyes like a cadaver, I can say that the experience was purifying. It’s also impossible for me to say that attending Stanford induced the first faith crisis of my life. I had had many doubts, even radical ones, during my years of Catholic education. I had questions, deep questions, that neither catechisms nor priests were able to answer. I remember feeling at times that many good, pious people seemed unwilling to countenance my doubts, even downright frightened when I raised them as questions. At Stanford, however, my teachers often seemed only too willing to help me demythologize what I believed.
The irony is that, out of this experience, I heard God’s clear call to become a Jesuit. I remember the moment. I returned to my family’s home in San Francisco one April Saturday to attend the Easter Vigil, and at the very beginning of the service the presider announced that a beloved teacher of mine had died after a year-long battle with hepatitis. She was only in her thirties, and at the announcement of her death it seemed as if all the air was suddenly vacuumed from the room.
What struck me then and what stays with me now is how the presider faced the terrible challenge of proclaiming the core of our faith – Jesus’ resurrection – at the same occasion that we grieved the death of a beloved member of the community. Here we were at the awkward intersection of belief and disbelief, where no easy piety or standard wisdom could console. This was the place of faith: tense, uncertain, and strange. This is where I wanted to be my whole life.
And so I left Stanford later that same spring to enter the Society of Jesus. Moreover, it is within this same Society that I have come to know people, men and women, in whose faith I trust. If the souls of these trusted friends were landscape paintings, we would see in them an odd chiaroscuro where the lines between belief and unbelief are not always clear. They lead lives predicated on hope, not possession.
And at its best, that’s what faith is: a gift rooted in hope. It is not a possession. This is what I think of when I hear Mr. Santorum and others complain too loudly that young people lose their faith while in college. And I am not sure they understand what I mean.
A few years ago I met a distant cousin in Ireland. The state of the Catholic Church in Ireland these days is one of immense pain. Ecclesial authority there, as in other parts of the world, has suffered greatly from scandal, misuse of authority, and on and on. Many Irish priests speak of a loss of status, not to mention credibility.
When my cousin learned that I was both a priest and a professor at a Catholic school, he interjected that he could not imagine a more difficult job. “It must be impossible,” he said in his lilting accent. “How in heaven’s name do you make young people listen to you?”
And that’s where he missed the point, just there. You cannot make young people listen to you. If you want them to listen to you, you must first listen to them. Listen to their doubts, their fears, their pains.
You can impose on them neither an anti-religious, militantly secular point of view (as I felt my Stanford professors had done to me), nor an anti-secular, rigidly religious point of view (as Mr. Santorum and others might prefer). Rather, you respect their freedom, trusting that they have been created in God’s own image. And you trust that, if they have in fact been created in the image of God, that image will freely emerge. And soon, very soon in fact, you find yourself with them in that strange chiaroscuro landscape of faith.
I have been teaching now for almost twenty years, and despite my cousin’s worried questions, it’s not that hard. What people in their twenties want above all is people to trust, who are capacious enough to allow them to ask questions without fearing that answers will be shoved down their throats. Even so, they are looking for guidance. In fact, they are thirsting for guidance from people of intelligence and sensitivity, who have asked the hard, complex questions themselves with real discipline of mind. And often it is there that they find a faith not imposed, but discovered freely.
In fact, I appreciate Mr. Santorum’s lamenting of the fact that young people don’t find that place of faith often enough. But that is not because higher education is somehow antithetical to faith. Instead, it may be because there is no one there to hold their questions faithfully. Or it may rather be that our concept of what faith is is simply too brittle.
"Racism is a moral disease and it is contagious. No one is born a racist. Carriers infect others in countless ways through words and attitudes, deeds and omissions. Yet, one thing is certain - the disease of racism can and must be eradicated. … In short, racism and Christian life are incompatible" (Bevilacqua 1998).
"Racism has been condemned as a sin many times… For the truth to have an impact on us, for it to really set us free, it must become our truth. It must be operative within us. It must penetrate and ignite our minds and hearts" (Bevilacqua 1998).
When it comes to certain political issues, there's no group more vocal today than the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. They are quick to speak out. And they make sure you know where they stand.
No doubt about it. On abortion, Catholic bishops are against it. On homosexuality, Catholic bishops are against it. On same-sex marriage, Catholic bishops are against it. On contraception, Catholic bishops are against it. And they actively lobby Congress to pass laws supporting their position. Recently, the Conference of Bishops even identified their top priority for 2012 as persuading Congress to overturn President Obama's mandatory coverage of birth control in all health plans. Two years ago, they opposed passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Now, we all understand. These political positions reflect the teachings of the official Roman Catholic Church. In many ways, U.S. bishops are only doing what the Vatican demands. But still, as a Catholic, what I want to know is: Why are the bishops so quick and eager to speak out about issues involving sex -- yet remain totally silent on so many other established teachings of the Church?
The Catholic Church, for example, officially opposes the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment. But when is the last time you heard the bishops decry application of the death penalty? According to the Death Penalty Information Center, as of October 2011 there were 3,199 persons on death row in the United States. Shouldn't that also be one of the bishops' top priorities? Yet, to my knowledge, the bishops have never denied communion to any politician who voted in support of the death penalty, though they did deny the sacraments to Geraldine Ferraro, John Kerry, Joe Biden, and other pro-choice Catholics.
Same with the war in Iraq. Pope John Paul II was outspoken in his opposition to the Gulf War in 1991 and the war in Iraq in 2003. "War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations," declared the pope in January 2003, two months before the invasion of Iraq. But, again: American bishops never pressured Congress to vote against the war and never criticized Catholic members of Congress who eagerly voted for it.
And what about working families? No institution has spoken out more strongly on behalf of economic justice than the Catholic Church. In his great encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), Pope Leo XIII recognized the rights of workers to form unions, to engage in collective bargaining, and to earn a fair salary: enough to support the worker, his wife and family, with a little savings left over. But when's the last time you heard a Catholic bishop talk about the "living wage"?
In Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII also affirmed what theologians call the Church's "preferential option for the poor." Noting that the wealthy can generally take care of themselves, the pope decreed: "It is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government." And that policy of protection of and preference for the poor has been reinforced by several popes since, all the way up to Benedict XVI.
How shameful, then, that bishops maintain total silence about the House Republican budget authored by Paul Ryan. This year's Ryan budget, like last year's, is just the opposite of what the Church teaches. It would drastically cut social programs that aid the poor, including medical care provided to the poor through Medicaid. It would also threaten health care for seniors by ending Medicare as we know it -- while preserving tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans.
The Ryan plan, in other words, is not preferential treatment for the poor. It's preferential treatment for the rich. But what have Catholic bishops said about it? Absolutely nothing. Not a word. Zip. Nada. Not last year, and not this year. Last November, in fact, Archbishop Charles Chaput told Patrick Whelan, president of Catholic Democrats, that bishops just didn't have enough time at their annual meeting to discuss poverty. Besides, volunteered Chaput, he didn't think bishops should be commenting on complex economic matters. That's not what Leo XIII thought.
When I was growing up a Catholic, the nuns had a phrase for those who obeyed some tenets of the Church but not others: "Cafeteria Catholics." Today, the biggest "Cafeteria Catholics" are Catholic bishops.
(Bill Press is host of a nationally-syndicated radio show, the host of "Full Court Press" on Current TV and the author of a new book, "The Obama Hate Machine," which is available in bookstores now. You can hear "The Bill Press Show" at his website: billpressshow.com. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Read entire article (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/terry-eagleton/lunging-flailing-mispunching)
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday.
Dawkins on God is rather like those right-wing Cambridge dons who filed eagerly into the Senate House some years ago to non-placet Jacques Derrida for an honorary degree. Very few of them, one suspects, had read more than a few pages of his work, and even that judgment might be excessively charitable. Yet they would doubtless have been horrified to receive an essay on Hume from a student who had not read his Treatise of Human Nature. There are always topics on which otherwise scrupulous minds will cave in with scarcely a struggle to the grossest prejudice. For a lot of academic psychologists, it is Jacques Lacan; for Oxbridge philosophers it is Heidegger; for former citizens of the Soviet bloc it is the writings of Marx; for militant rationalists it is religion.
What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case? Dawkins, it appears, has sometimes been told by theologians that he sets up straw men only to bowl them over, a charge he rebuts in this book; but if The God Delusion is anything to go by, they are absolutely right. As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.
A molehill of instances out of a mountain of them will have to suffice. Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief. (Where, given that he invites us at one point to question everything, is Dawkins’s own critique of science, objectivity, liberalism, atheism and the like?) Reason, to be sure, doesn’t go all the way down for believers, but it doesn’t for most sensitive, civilised non-religious types either. Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain. Only positivists think that ‘rational’ means ‘scientific’. Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and religion are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates religion from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake: to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.
Dawkins holds that the existence or non-existence of God is a scientific hypothesis which is open to rational demonstration. Christianity teaches that to claim that there is a God must be reasonable, but that this is not at all the same thing as faith. Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster. This is not to say that religious people believe in a black hole, because they also consider that God has revealed himself: not, as Dawkins thinks, in the guise of a cosmic manufacturer even smarter than Dawkins himself (the New Testament has next to nothing to say about God as Creator), but for Christians at least, in the form of a reviled and murdered political criminal. The Jews of the so-called Old Testament had faith in God, but this does not mean that after debating the matter at a number of international conferences they decided to endorse the scientific hypothesis that there existed a supreme architect of the universe – even though, as Genesis reveals, they were of this opinion. They had faith in God in the sense that I have faith in you. They may well have been mistaken in their view; but they were not mistaken because their scientific hypothesis was unsound.
Dawkins speaks scoffingly of a personal God, as though it were entirely obvious exactly what this might mean. He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms. For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.