September 16th, 2006

I See You!

Theological Notebook: Here I Go Again

Predictably, the New York Times interpreted the brouhaha about the Pope in term of "tolerance." Tolerance is, I think, an idea that has gotten away from people: it has too often become the idea simply that differences are to be homogenized into some sort of un-diverse unity, rather than remaining part of our encounter with others. Equally predictably, I've dashed off another letter to the Times' editors on what they wrote. Can I make it two-for-two? (To not count the oh-for-six or -ten before the last one.)


The New York Times
The Pope’s Words

There is more than enough religious anger in the world. So it is particularly disturbing that Pope Benedict XVI has insulted Muslims, quoting a 14th-century description of Islam as “evil and inhuman.”

In the most provocative part of a speech this week on “faith and reason,” the pontiff recounted a conversation between an “erudite” Byzantine Christian emperor and a “learned” Muslim Persian circa 1391. The pope quoted the emperor saying, “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

Muslim leaders the world over have demanded apologies and threatened to recall their ambassadors from the Vatican, warning that the pope’s words dangerously reinforce a false and biased view of Islam. For many Muslims, holy war — jihad — is a spiritual struggle, and not a call to violence. And they denounce its perversion by extremists, who use jihad to justify murder and terrorism.

The Vatican issued a statement saying that Benedict meant no offense and in fact desired dialogue. But this is not the first time the pope has fomented discord between Christians and Muslims.

In 2004 when he was still the Vatican’s top theologian, he spoke out against Turkey’s joining the European Union, because Turkey, as a Muslim country was “in permanent contrast to Europe.”

A doctrinal conservative, his greatest fear appears to be the loss of a uniform Catholic identity, not exactly the best jumping-off point for tolerance or interfaith dialogue.

The world listens carefully to the words of any pope. And it is tragic and dangerous when one sows pain, either deliberately or carelessly. He needs to offer a deep and persuasive apology, demonstrating that words can also heal.


It is not unexpected for the Times to read the matter of the Pope’s words in terms of having offended “tolerance.” They also fear that the Pope, as a doctrinal “conservative” who is interested in maintaining Catholic identity, is thereby intolerant and a poor initiator of dialogue.

Just the opposite.

If we bother to read the Pope’s entire text, we find only a call to reasonable dialogue between two different faiths. Christianity and Islam disagree about certain facts. Christianity in the West is more free to express that disagreement, however shocking that may appear in a culture used to a different system.

True tolerance is not attained by pretending that we do not disagree about fundamental facts, still less by erasing such differences. True tolerance is attained by honest acceptance of our disagreements, and the courage to love despite them. That is what Benedict offered, if not what he received.

Michael Anthony Novak
Doctoral Candidate and Teaching Fellow
Department of Theology
Marquette University
Milwaukee, WI 53201

Theological Notebook/Personal: Is Disease a Moral Evil?

A student of mine, Ayla, asked a killer question today. We were talking about theodicy – answering the famed "problem of evil" – as the classic biggest critique of belief in God. That is, answering the question, "How can one believe in an all-power, all-good God in the face of the reality of evil in the world?" This was after reading Exodus, with its confusing phrase about God "hardening Pharaoh's heart," which I suspect has more to do with the rhetorical style of very primitive Jewish psychology than being a considered and reflective commentary about the nature of free will, which really doesn't seem to have been on the writer's mind.

As is often the case, one of my top priorities is to simply introduce distinctions, to qualify and to complicate the question, so that students start approaching a matter in its real complexity. This is to avoid the danger of being too quick and glib in our thinking: an all too real mistake we all make. So I had spoken of the distinction between "moral evil" and "natural evil," "moral evil" being the true idea of evil, a malicious perversion of the will, and "natural evil" being those things in nature that aren't truly evil, but which have tragic consequences for humans. Thus gravity and matter are goods in and of themselves, but when I carelessly walk off the edge of a cliff and am killed by the combination of gravity and hard rock, we think in terms of a natural evil. Or, more typically, a tornado in the sky or a field that does no harm is only a striking weather phenomenon. When it kills or leaves people homeless – think Hurricane Katrina – nature seems to take on an evil aspect to us, but really remains morally neutral, despite the coincidence of all the tragedy it might have caused.

So this student asked me about whether disease, mental or physical illness, was an evil.


My initial inclination was to think of it as a "natural evil," as another example of our universe having hard edges, which we sometimes run up against. As much as I try to live otherwise, my life is incredibly determined by my disease. It affects my life and living every day. I lost my colon to it, and have had my bones affected by disease caused by the doctors trying to treat my colon. Yet, on the other hand, there are lots of stories of Jesus healing people's diseases as one of his "signs" about what the reign of God was all about, and there are other stories or images in the Jewish Scriptures that paint disease and even biological death as somehow an offense to God's order. What wisdom might lie in those thoughts?

All this went through my head as I told Ayla that I was now thinking out loud, and trying to reason out what the classic Christian response to the question might be, if there was one. I'm not an ethicist and so there are lots of these sorts of things that only come into my reading more occasionally, but I was surprised to realize, given my own circumstances, one thing:

I had never asked the question myself.

Talking more about it with a few students, David and Austin, who stuck around talking after class, I became more inclined to think of it still as a "natural evil," that like the occasional good-in-itself rock or shark that leads to human suffering, our sufferings caused by microbes, viruses, or bad genetic coding are likewise the results of living in a real, physical universe with the "hard edges" I mentioned. I wonder whether, if we didn't complicate our illnesses with sin, with real "moral evil" in the forms of neglect or self-centeredness, whether our physical sufferings would be so magnified. In a world where the elderly, sick and infirm are all too often abandoned in nursing homes or other facilities meant for their care, we might not see so clearly a world where our elderly, sick and infirm were treated with reverence by those entrusted with their care, and with the frequent presence of family and friends who help turn suffering and adversity into an opportunity for the demonstration of love.

All right, I'm off to see Julie's improv comedy troupe doing their annual 12-hour, 6pm-to-6am performance outside the Union. I figure I can turn my late-night hours into an opportunity for them to have an audience when even the tossed-out-of-the-bars crowd has finally called it a night.
What Is A Theologian?

Theological Notebook: Peter Steinfels on Rowan Williams and 9/11

All too often, I let myself forget on Saturdays to find Peter Steinfels "Beliefs" column in The New York Times. As I have noted yesterday, it seems all too often that the Times has an ideological inclination to line itself up against religious faith or Catholicism (unless, one sometimes suspects, a faith has been reduced to simply an expression of the narrower and limited aims of the late-20th century American Left) no matter what the issue or situation. In the face of that rush to judgment, Steinfels' column is one of the real treasures of the Times, thoughtfully looking at the American religious scene and occasionally seeing things that have rather escaped our notice, like his recent column noting some discussion on the impact of the automobile on American religion, whilst we too easily tends to think of the matter in terms of the major "movements" of the 20th century.

An archbishop suggests a pause to breathe deeply and to let some of our demons walk away.
Published: September 16, 2006
The New York Times

Held together by a large black clip, the pages were jammed in a corner of a top shelf. E-mailed on Dec. 3, 2001, by an editor at the Eerdmans Publishing Company, they were the printed-out page proofs of a small book, “Writing in the Dust,” reflecting on what the author had experienced a few months earlier on Sept. 11.

The author was Rowan Williams, then Anglican Archbishop of Wales and today the Archbishop of Canterbury. When the planes hit the World Trade Center, he was in Manhattan, about to videotape a discussion at 74 Trinity Place. The building, which houses Trinity Church’s offices, stood between that famous Episcopal church, at Broadway and Wall Street, and the trade center.

Trapped in the building, choking on smoke and fumes, the archbishop and many people with him seriously pondered the possibility that they were about to die. In the moments after the second plane hit, as one person present recalled, “he read the anxieties of the group and prayed them into words, naming our fears and calming our nerves.”

The next day the archbishop led an impromptu service in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Morningside Heights and, speaking from notes, delivered a fully developed but completely different lecture than the prepared text he had come to New York to give.

Impressive, yes, and on the first anniversary of Sept. 11, this column reported Archbishop Williams’s moving thoughts on the limits of language in dealing with God and tragedy. But in December 2001 the page proofs of that little book still did not escape skeptical scrutiny. Rereading them this week, this writer found the margins peppered not only with his many appreciative checks and exclamation points — but also question marks and some serious grumbling.

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Benedict XVI wind

Theological Notebook: The Papal Controversy – Manufactured? Plus, Vatican Text

How interesting. In the latest news story on the Pope's words, you finally see some qualification by the writer of the story – which we didn't easliy see in earlier, arguably inflamatory versions – that the Pope's words came in the context of "a broader talk rejecting any religious motivation for violence." Yet it is not reported that Benedict distanced himself in any way from the quotation from the Byzantine Emperor, although he led into it by mentioning its "startling brusqueness." What is quoted is that "'The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war,' the pope said."

The thing is, that quotation and the use of the word "jihad" does not appear in the published transcript (see earlier entry).

It does, however, appear in The New York Times' earlier version of the story, and it is that which is repeated here in the Associated Press story. Is the published transcript at fault, and did the Pope ad lib his way through his own prepared comments? Could be. I don't know. Or are members of the press guilty of using one another's stories as resources for their own, so that we see a "snowballing" effect where reporting is being based on earlier interpretations of the events that may themselves be faulty?

I am still extremely interested to find out how this story got started. Who was it who isolated that particular quotation from the Pope's address, highlighting those parts of it that had the least importance to his address? How is it that a news story about the Pope's call for reasonable and nonviolent dialogue between religions was instead reported in such a way as to provoke angry and violent protest throughout the Muslim world?

Has someone crossed the line of created news, instead of reporting it?


Below the cut, I have the most recent AP story in the affair, "Pope Stops Short of Apology to Muslims." Myself, I am glad that the Vatican had the wisdom to do this, even if it is inflamatory for the situation as it is playing out in the Muslim world. No one, not even the Pope, ought to be bullied into apologizing for something he did not say, as it has been taken. The Islamic world also has to step up to the plate and learn to behave with a little more "sweet reason" themselves. At least in how it's being reported, we are seeing the most senseless "rush to judgment" there. You really have to wonder if those Muslims bombing churches in Israel know that they are doing so in protest of a statement against religious violence.

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