May 24th, 2007

Benedict XVI wind

Theological Notebook: John Allen on "The Pope's Communication Paradox"

I am not entirely convinced by this interesting column by John Allen on Benedict XVI's "communication paradox." It's impossible to control what a TV or newspaper editor will take from something you say and present it out of context, perhaps especially in order to stir controversy. This is true for anyone in the public eye, and it's complicated for the Pope when you also then have to consider "people who don't share his intellectual and cultural premises," particularly given the widespread ignorance among otherwise well-educated people as to what Catholicism or Christianity is really like in its full intellectual form. I wonder if Benedict's choice is perhaps consciously to pull no punches in hope that treating people like adults – despite distortion and hand-wringing along the way – might really put the issues on the table and really raise the level of conversation in the long run. Is the hoopla of the out-of-context reporting (and subsequent uproar) of the Regensburg address ultimately worth it if a corrected vision "Faith and Reason" can get into the mind of the public and destroy the false dichotomy of "science vs. religion" most people believe in?

All Things Catholic by John L. Allen, Jr.
The Pope's Communication Paradox
Friday, May 18, 2007 - Vol. 6, No. 37

Benedict XVI hadn't even stepped off the papal plane at Rome's Ciampino airport on Monday, ending his May 9-13 Brazilian swing, when controversy from the trip caught up with him. Spokespersons for Brazil's indigenous populations were incensed by comments the pope made in Aparecida late Sunday afternoon, asserting that the arrival of Christianity did not amount to "the imposition of a foreign culture" upon the native peoples of the New World. To the natives, that seemed a nasty bit of historical revisionism.

This post-Brazil contretemps offers the latest confirmation that as a public figure, Benedict XVI has two qualities which often work at cross-purposes.

On the one hand, Benedict is an exceptionally lucid communicator. He's a gifted logician, so his conclusions flow naturally from his premises. Moreover, he's able to synthesize complex ideas in easy-to-understand formula, so you don't need a degree in theology to get his point. Yet Benedict can also be remarkably tone-deaf to how his pronouncements may sound to people who don't share his intellectual and cultural premises.

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Modernity: Yearning For The Infinite

Theological Notebook: Steinfels on Public Religious Literacy

Here's a pleasant, educated, and blessedly sensible call by New York Times columnist Peter Steinfels on the need for a most minimal religious literacy for any basic education. I missed this when it came through the Times, and so I didn't see any Letters to the Editor in response, but I wonder if it provoked the classic enraged response that teaching anything about religion was the same thing as "forcing" religion on students (as though even parents can successfully force religion on their children). From an educator's standpoint – much less a theologian's – I've always been amazed and aghast by the viewpoint that equates ignorance with enlightenment and censorship with liberation. Studying constitutional law as part of my doctoral exam question on "religious discourse in the public sphere" was eye-opening: we've had a 60-year period of near-hysteria in the States on the subject. Going to Notre Dame after going to a state university was an eye-opener for me just to see students who could talk about any subject without panic....

At Commencement, a Call for Religious Literacy
The New York Times
May 12, 2007

And so, members of the graduating class of 2007, we’ve come almost to the end of this commencement ceremony and of these brief commencement remarks.

We’ve told some predictable jokes about your imminent unemployment and your student loans. We’ve thanked your parents, praised your professors and stated the obvious about the world you are entering - that it is full of dangers, full of opportunities, full of wonders, misery, love, beauty, surprises and violence.

It is also full of religion.

There is some question whether your education has prepared you for this latter reality, which is, of course, very much related to the former ones.

For a long time, quite a few people assumed that a major point of higher education was to put religion behind you. Eventually, it was also assumed, the world would do the same. Things haven’t worked out that way.

Just what do college graduates know about religion? The data is sparse. But Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University, has assembled a rather bleak picture from available polls as well as his own experience and that of other professors.

It is a huge scandal, Dr. Prothero writes in his recently published book, “Religious Literacy” (HarperSanFrancisco), that “every year colleges provide bachelor’s degrees to students who cannot name the first book of the Bible, who think that Jesus parted the Red Sea and Moses agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane, who know nothing about what Islam teaches about war and peace, and who cannot name one salient difference between Hinduism and Buddhism.”

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