Friday, June 10, 2005

The Splits

At Mirror of Justice, I came across links to these interesting maps of the US (I'm not aware of anything like this for Canada). Here is the map for Evangelicals. Here is the map for Catholics. Notice anything? Like the fact that the maps are almost inverted? Sometimes, in a country as resolutely secular as Canada, it's good to point out the obvious. In this case, the maps ought to explode the myth that Christians are a bland and monolithic bunch: "the religious right." There are doctrinal splits that are elusive to those on the outside, and then there's people like this:
"Take Reagan," said Maddox. "He started talking about abortion and, all of a sudden, he was this great Christian candidate. ... Now we're in another election year and the right is still obsessed with sex. We have to tell the American people that this isn't about abortion and it's not about gay marriage. It's about the budget, health care and the war. At least, that's what we believe." But the moral divisions are real, said Maddox. He estimated that 90 percent of those attending this conference are pro-abortion rights and the same percentage backs gay rights. Almost all of the Christians present would clash with traditional believers on other biblical issues. Take, for example, the familiar verse in the Gospel of John in which Jesus says: "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." "Sooner or later," said Maddox, " the church crowd is going to wake up and realize that there are going to be a lot of people in heaven other than us Christians. I still believe Jesus is the way and the truth -- for me. But it's that last part that troubles me, the part that says 'no man comes to the father, except by me.' "I don't think we can get away with saying that anymore. That might have worked in the '50s, but it's not going to work in the 21st century."
I don't know what brand of Christianity Maddox belongs to, but I won't surprise anyone if I mention that he used to work for Jimmy Carter. I'm quite perplexed at how he can claim to alter the words of the Bible and still call himself Christian. I'm no Bible thumping literalist, but to do so, one has to feel that one is standing on something pretty solid. What, pray tell, could that be? Even more interesting to me is the fact that these are not just any words he's doubting - they're coming from Christ himself. The best explanation of this passage that I've seen goes something like this: No one goes to Heaven but through Christ; we do not know, however, where Christ is not. That formulation is not universal Catholic doctrine, but it seems to me to fit in with Catholic sacramentalism quite well. For example, one can confess sins to a priest in the traditional, sacramental way. One can also come under a 'general absolution', where a priest offers the sacrament to a group of people. One can also confess them without a priest present. How's that? We say that the Holy Spirit chooses to act through material (priests, oils, etc.), but that it is not bound to do so. The first method is the prefered one because with it, the penitent hears the absolution and thereby knows that if he has been full and sincere, the absolution is true. Note also that the first method offers one on one interaction with an Other, including feedback. Praying alone risks being all about the person doing the praying, instead of bringing the believer into the acceptance of God's Providential wisdom. As a Catholic, I am comfortable with the idea that those in other faiths may find their way to God in the end. I think it's more difficult, but not impossible, and it's certainly not up to me to judge. There's nothing wrong, however, with a friendly dialogue on the issues (the internet is a help in things like that). Maddox's criticism goes quite beyond trying to come to the fullest understanding of the words. He is advocating erasing or altering them and that makes me uncomfortable using the term 'Christian' to describe him. I'm hardly the first person to make the observation that the values divide is not always summed up perfectly by the paragadigm of left and right. Theist and materialist comes closer, but I think we can (and need to) do better than that. After all, Maddox claims to be religious, as does Howard Dean. One has to ask, what kind of religion are we talking about? Dean and Maddox, among others, use Christian Paraphernalia. Perhaps they use them cynically, as props for their political careers. It is impossible to know about the motives of another, however, an as much as I am tempted, I don't think I can say that without adding that it's merely speculation on my part. Dennis Prager, who is Jewish, offers an idea that came to him in a debate with Alan Dershowitz:
"Ladies and gentlemen," I announced, "the major difference between Alan Dershowitz and me is this: When professor Dershowitz differs with the Torah, he assumes that he is right and the Torah is wrong. When I differ with the Torah, I assume that I am wrong and the Torah is right." Dershowitz responded that for the first time that evening he agreed with me... ... as a religious (though non-Orthodox) Jew, I have many differences with Christians' theology. We differ on the Trinity; the divinity of Jesus; the identity of the messiah; the role of Torah, not to mention rabbinic law, on who is and who is not saved; and on such matters as faith versus works. Yet these theological differences cause almost no difference in our social and moral values, which are almost identical. Why? Because conservative Jews and Christians share the belief that God revealed a text (a text, moreover, that we share). At the same time, liberal Jews and liberal Christians share the belief that this text is man-made.
I'll go Prager one step further. The difference in understanding the text is quite important but it is one aspect of the solution. The recognition of divinity does not stop with the Bible, unless we are talking about the Protestant, Evangelical camp that is so noticeable in American culture. Jews, Catholics and the Orthodox also see God's handwriting in the very fabric of the world and in its history (Note well: God's handwriting; not God personally). Their sense of divine otherliness does not stop with a text. Overall, I think Prager has it pretty well. My caveat is merely that some people seek to know otherliness, with God as the ultimate Other, and some see God in whatever holds their fancy at the moment. That strikes me as a very deep distinction, one that can't help but have a large impact on the way in which different groups see and interact with the world. The "God as what I want" crowd might object that no one in fact holds such a position. This is because it is seldom voiced that boldly; the message would have all the persuation of the Hindenberg. Think about it this way. Nationalism is in some ways a proxy for self aggrandizing. We can't say the things we say about our country about ourselves, but we are a part of our country and any glory we give it, we also give ourselves. My own views on nationalism are more reserved. I'm with G.K. Chesterton, who wrote:
"My country, right or wrong," is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, "My mother, drunk or sober."
To say such a thing requires the recognition that there exists a higher standard than the nation, or even an International Criminal Court. Such man made institutions are bound to hijacked; men need recourse to Natural Law if they are to have any hope of avoiding such entrapment.

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