Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, January 30, 2006

A "Must Read" Sermon Posted in Resources

Bishop Charles Jenkins of New Orleans preaching at St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue: You will never forget this sermon.

Click here for full article

Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical, "God is Love," may be more provocative than first appears

This column by the always-thoughtful Peter Steinfels asks whether Joseph Ratzinger's long-awaited first encyclical, at first glance so soothing and noncontroversial, might not actually be quite challenging after all.

Excerpts from "Beliefs" column by Peter Steinfels
New York Times, January 28, 2006

....Historically, one function of papal encyclicals has been to give certain groups within the Roman Catholic Church a green light while slowing down or braking others. "God Is Love" offers little encouragement to any bishops and movements itching to inject the church more directly into politics.

In the end, however, the fact that the pope wrote about marriage without mentioning contraception reveals nothing new about his stance on birth control. The fact that he described erotic love in terms of male and female is not a statement about homosexuality. Moby Dick is not a story about a whale or even life aboard a whaling ship; "God Is Love" is not a treatise on sexual ethics or a discourse about church and state...

....this initial encyclical is clearly not an uncontroversial early Valentine or a papal version of the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love." It is a theological affirmation of the closing image of Dante's Divine Comedy: l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle— "the love that moves the sun and the other stars."

Dante meant that literally. So does Benedict. Two days before releasing the encyclical, he spoke of the debt he owed to Dante. For both of them, he said, love is "the primordial creative power that moves the universe."

"Primordial" was a key word in those remarks. He called love "a primordial word, an expression of the primordial reality." In the encyclical, too, besides referring to humankind's "primordial aspiration" for union with God, Benedict sketched a movement from Aristotle's understanding of the divine power energizing the world as "eros" to the biblical vision of personal, self-giving love:

"God is the absolute and ultimate source of all being," the pope wrote, "but this universal principle of creation—the Logos, primordial reason—is at the same time a lover with all the passion of a true love."

Or as he said in his earlier remarks on Dante: "God's 'eros' is not only a primordial cosmic force, it is love that has created man and that bends before him, as the Good Samaritan bent before the wounded man, victim of thieves, who was lying on the side of the road."

When Benedict speaks of love as the "primordial cosmic force," he knows of course that science traces the movement of the sun and stars to the Big Bang, gravity and other forces of nature. He is, nonetheless, claiming that the truest, most fundamental insight into the nature of the cosmos and humanity is found in our experience of love, beginning with the paradigm of erotic love and crowning it in religious faith.

Is this claim really uncontroversial? Humans, after all, have offered any number of ultimate characterizations of reality, from a swirl of atoms to a struggle for survival, from a war between matter and spirit to the search for pleasure and release, from the slow march of rationality to a cloud of illusion.

There is plenty of evidence for each of these views. One can easily argue that the case for love, personal, self-giving love, as the bottom-line character of reality is the wildest, most astonishing of claims in the face of that evidence.

At the deepest of levels, is the parent caring for the ill or troubled child or the couple pledging mutual affection and support till death do them part going with the grain of the universe or acting in defiance of it? Is such love a flame that somehow begins and ends in a larger fire? Or is it a brief, bold flare that will ultimately be snuffed out in the darkness?

For a century and more, much of Western art and thought has insisted on the latter—to the point, it should be added, that those fierce claims about the ultimate absurdity of existence, no less than the counterclaim of believers like Benedict, are now also passed over as uncontroversial.

Those who have been holding their breath in anticipation of an encyclical that would be a programmatic map of Benedict XVI's papacy are, alas, still unable to exhale. But anyone looking for a substantial and challenging message about the nature of existence and humanity can find it in Part I of "God Is Love." It is controversial not as one more sortie in the culture wars but as what it is, a statement of metaphysics and religious faith.

Good news from the Vatican

The new pope's first encyclical is very encouraging indeed. The special Roman Catholic gift for issuing sophisiticated statements about fundamental Christian doctrines in clear, strong language addressed to the contemporary situation has always impressed me.

It is surely significant that Benedict XVI has chosen to writa about the centrality of the man-woman covenant in the plan and purpose of God. In this time of turmoil, not only in the RC church as a result of the pedophile scandals, but also in society at a time when traditional marriage is in trouble everywhere, it is striking that he has emphasized the way in which long-term marriages train us for turning away from the self to the spouse, and then to the next generations, in love which begins in eros but becomes more than eros.

Here's a good article about the encyclical. Note especially the paragraph in bold type.

Benedict: A Man of His Words
By Ian Risher
New York Times, January 29, 2006

The old pope was dead. And a potential new one, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a man who somehow combined scholarly humility and a muscular certainty, gave a speech now famous among many Catholics.

"We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires," Cardinal Ratzinger said at St. Peter's Basilica, the morning last April before he and his fellow cardinals retreated into the majesty of the Sistine Chapel to decide who among them would become the leader of the world's billion Catholics.
It was, for one priest who knows Cardinal Ratzinger, a "hold your hats" moment — not a campaign speech, but a warning, expressed typically vividly, that, should they choose him, the church would be in for an action-packed ride.

He did become pope, Benedict XVI. But to general surprise, the nine months that have followed have been marked less by action than by words — a flow of clear, rational, often lovely words — no less vivid than his "dictatorship of relativism" speech but usually more gentle.

At the moment, Benedict seems more, in the words of one Vatican watcher, "the teaching pope." Call him, maybe, the "lucid pope."

This perhaps unexpected turn was summed up last week in his first encyclical, the highest form of papal pronouncement. He set out no specific program for his papacy to re-evangelize an increasingly godless Europe, for example, or to denounce homosexuality, abortion or secularism.

He spoke, instead, of love.

And not just love in the abstract, but in the first place of carnal love, between man and woman — if they are married, monogamous and committed to each other for life.

"While the biblical narrative does not speak of punishment, the idea is certainly present that man is somehow incomplete, driven by nature to seek in another the part that can make him whole, the idea that only in communion with the opposite sex can he become 'complete,' " Benedict wrote. (This led the conservative Italian newspaper, Il Foglio, to run a front page scribble of what looked like the pope dancing with a nun over the caption: "The encyclical: Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll!")
For the many keen watchers of Benedict, a number of questions are surfacing: Are words enough in a papacy? Do the words themselves constitute a plan? Is it simply still too early to judge the reign of Benedict?

After his election, supporters spoke of Benedict's "clarity," expressed in decades of writings as a popular theology professor in Germany, then for two decades as Pope John Paul II's defender of the faith. His writing style, as many people have noted, is remarkably clear and down to earth, especially for a German academic handling the most complicated, really unknowable, subjects on earth.

Some of his most often cited words tend toward the harsh: for example, his worries about "filth" in the church expressed last year. But more than one middle-aged priest in Rome can remember as a student reading Joseph Ratzinger's best-regarded book, "Introduction to Christianity," and marveling at his comparison between the problems faced by believer and the atheist.

"Just as the believer knows himself to be constantly threatened by unbelief, which he must experience as a constant temptation, so for the unbeliever, faith remains a temptation and a threat to his apparently permanently closed world," he wrote. "In short, there is no escape from the dilemma of being a [hu]man."

In comparison with John Paul, often referred to here in Rome as sort of mystic, Benedict is unfailingly rational, realistic and clear-eyed about the problems in the church. Last summer, he said that for many people in the world "the church seems to be outdated, our proposals unnecessary."

There are a number of theories about the strategy behind Benedict's so far low-key focus on the word.

The Rev. Thomas J. Euteneuer, president of Human Life International, a leading voice against abortion, noted that some conservatives in the church would prefer more action, especially in the internal governance. But, he said, Benedict seems to have decided first to state clearly the overall value of the church and its teachings in terms that most Catholics can agree on.

"He has to put in front of people's eyes something positive," he said. "Following from that he can systematically dismantle the cultures of death, cultural decadence and moral relativism."

For John L. Allen Jr., a reporter for National Catholic Reporter, the words fit into Benedict's familiar concerns that the church may shrink, since it is less these days a faith of culture and tradition than a choice of a smaller number of more fervent believers.

It is those people, Mr. Allen said, who will seek out those words, as opposed to simply being inspired by something like John Paul's broader charismatic appeal.
There is another theory: that Benedict has decided on a papacy that falls, in fact, less into the world-event-shaping office of John Paul than on a more traditional one where the pope's is one of many voices in the church.

"Quite deliberately, Benedict has said, 'I am not going to say as much,' " said Nicholas Lash, an eminent British Catholic theologian. "There has been a delicious silence for the most part."

Monday, January 23, 2006

Major article by Charles Marsh

If you go to the "most emailed articles" from The New York Times for the past 7 days, Charles Marsh's piece, "Wayward Christian Soldiers," comes up number one.

If you don't know Charles Marsh, he is one of the most important Christians writing in America today. How many evangelicals do you know with tenure at a major secular university? This op-ed piece (the Times ran it at the top of the page) is a deeply felt plea to Christian America.

Check Resources for links to Charles' Theological Horizons project.

Here is the op-ed article.

Wayward Christian Soldiers

by Charles Marsh, Professor of Religion, University of Virginia

The New York Times January 20, 2006

In the past several years, American evangelicals, and I am one of them, have amassed greater political power than at any time in our history. But at what cost to our witness and the integrity of our message?

Recently, I took a few days to reread the war sermons delivered by influential evangelical ministers during the lead up to the Iraq war. That period, from the fall of 2002 through the spring of 2003, is not one I will remember fondly. Many of the most respected voices in American evangelical circles blessed the president's war plans, even when doing so required them to recast Christian doctrine.

Charles Stanley, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, whose weekly sermons are seen by millions of television viewers, led the charge with particular fervor. "We should offer to serve the war effort in any way possible," said Mr. Stanley, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. "God battles with people who oppose him, who fight against him and his followers." In an article carried by the convention's Baptist Press news service, a missionary wrote that "American foreign policy and military might have opened an opportunity for the Gospel in the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."

As if working from a slate of evangelical talking points, both Franklin Graham, the evangelist and son of Billy Graham, and Marvin Olasky, the editor of the conservative World magazine and a former advisor to President Bush on faith-based policy, echoed these sentiments, claiming that the American invasion of Iraq would create exciting new prospects for proselytizing Muslims. Tim LaHaye, the co-author of the hugely popular "Left Behind" series, spoke of Iraq as "a focal point of end-time events," whose special role in the earth's final days will become clear after invasion, conquest and reconstruction. For his part, Jerry Falwell boasted that "God is pro-war" in the title of an essay he wrote in 2004.

The war sermons rallied the evangelical congregations behind the invasion of Iraq. An astonishing 87 percent of all white evangelical Christians in the United States supported the president's decision in April 2003. Recent polls indicate that 68 percent of white evangelicals continue to support the war. But what surprised me, looking at these sermons nearly three years later, was how little attention they paid to actual Christian moral doctrine. Some tried to square the American invasion with Christian "just war" theory, but such efforts could never quite reckon with the criterion that force must only be used as a last resort. As a result, many ministers dismissed the theory as no longer relevant.

Some preachers tried to link Saddam Hussein with wicked King Nebuchadnezzar of Biblical fame, but these arguments depended on esoteric interpretations of the Old Testament book of II Kings and could not easily be reduced to the kinds of catchy phrases that are projected onto video screens in vast evangelical churches. The single common theme among the war sermons appeared to be this: our president is a real brother in Christ, and because he has discerned that God's will is for our nation to be at war against Iraq, we shall gloriously comply.

Such sentiments are a far cry from those expressed in the Lausanne Covenant of 1974. More than 2,300 evangelical leaders from 150 countries signed that statement, the most significant milestone in the movement's history. Convened by Billy Graham and led by John Stott, the revered Anglican evangelical priest and writer, the signatories affirmed the global character of the church of Jesus Christ and the belief that "the church is the community of God's people rather than an institution, and must not be identified with any particular culture, social or political system, or human ideology."

On this page, David Brooks correctly noted that if evangelicals elected a pope, it would most likely be Mr. Stott, who is the author of more than 40 books on evangelical theology and Christian devotion. Unlike the Pope John Paul II, who said that invading Iraq would violate Catholic moral teaching and threaten "the fate of humanity," or even Pope Benedict XVI, who has said there were "not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq," Mr. Stott did not speak publicly on the war. But in a recent interview, he shared with me his abiding concerns. "Privately, in the days preceding the invasion, I had hoped that no action would be taken without United Nations authorization," he told me. "I believed then and now that the American and British governments erred in proceeding without United Nations approval." Reverend Stott referred me to "War and Rumors of War, " a chapter from his 1999 book, "New Issues Facing Christians Today," as the best account of his position. In that essay he wrote that the Christian community's primary mission must be "to hunger for righteousness, to pursue peace, to forbear revenge, to love enemies, in other words, to be marked by the cross."

What will it take for evangelicals in the United States to recognize our mistaken loyalty? We have increasingly isolated ourselves from the shared faith of the global Church, and there is no denying that our Faustian bargain for access and power has undermined the credibility of our moral and evangelistic witness in the world. The Hebrew prophets might call us to repentance, but repentance is a tough demand for a people utterly convinced of their righteousness.


Charles Marsh, a professor of religion at the University of Virginia, is the author of, most recently, The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today. One of his previous books, God's Long Summer, an intensely absorbing theological examination of five major figures in the civil rights era, has won numerous awards.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

A true hero

The word "hero" has been so overused recently as to be almost meaningless. Here is an attempt to recover it.
I thought I remembered about My Lai but I did not remember any of this. Don't miss the last sentence.

Hugh Thompson, 62, Who Saved Civilians at My Lai, Dies

Obituary by Richard Goldstein
The New York Times January 7, 2006

Hugh Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot who rescued Vietnamese civilians during the My Lai massacre, reported the killings to his superior officers in a rage over what he had seen, testified at the inquiries and received a commendation from the Army three decades later, died yesterday in Alexandria, La. He was 62.

The cause was cancer, Jay DeWorth, a spokesman for the Veterans Affairs Medical Center where Mr. Thompson died, told The Associated Press.

On March 16, 1968, Chief Warrant Officer Thompson and his two crewmen were flying on a reconnaissance mission over the South Vietnamese village of My Lai when they spotted the bodies of men, women and children strewn over the landscape.

Mr. Thompson landed twice in an effort to determine what was happening, finally coming to the realization that a massacre was taking place. The second time, he touched down near a bunker in which a group of about 10 civilians were being menaced by American troops. Using hand signals, Mr. Thompson persuaded the Vietnamese to come out while ordering his gunner and his crew chief to shoot any American soldiers who opened fire on the civilians. None did.

Mr. Thompson radioed for a helicopter gunship to evacuate the group, and then his crew chief, Glenn Andreotta, pulled a boy from a nearby irrigation ditch, and their helicopter flew him to safety.

Mr. Thompson told of what he had seen when he returned to his base.

"They said I was screaming quite loud," he told U.S. News & World Report in 2004. "I threatened never to fly again. I didn't want to be a part of that. It wasn't war."

Mr. Thompson remained in combat, then returned to the United States to train helicopter pilots. When the revelations about My Lai surfaced, he testified before Congress, a military inquiry and the court-martial of Lt. William L. Calley Jr., the platoon leader at My Lai, who was the only soldier to be convicted in the massacre.

When Mr. Thompson returned home, it seemed to him that he was viewed as the guilty party.

"I'd received death threats over the phone," he told the CBS News program "60 Minutes" in 2004. "Dead animals on your porch, mutilated animals on your porch some mornings when you get up. So I was not a good guy."

On March 6, 1998, the Army presented the Soldier's Medal, for heroism not involving conflict with an enemy, to Mr. Thompson; to his gunner, Lawrence Colburn; and, posthumously, to Mr. Andreotta, who was killed in a helicopter crash three weeks after the My Lai massacre.

The citation, bestowed in a ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, said the three crewmen landed "in the line of fire between American ground troops and fleeing Vietnamese civilians to prevent their murder."

On March 16, 1998, Mr. Thompson and Mr. Colburn attended a service at My Lai marking the 30th anniversary of the massacre.

"Something terrible happened here 30 years ago today," Mr. Thompson was quoted as saying by CNN. "I cannot explain why it happened. I just wish our crew that day could have helped more people than we did."

Mr. Thompson worked as a veterans' counselor in Louisiana after leaving military service. A list of his survivors was not immediately available.

Through the years, he continued to speak out, having been invited to West Point and other military installations to tell of the moral and legal obligations of soldiers in wartime.

He was presumably mindful of the ostracism he had faced and the long wait for that medal ceremony in Washington. As he told The Associated Press in 2004: "Don't do the right thing looking for a reward, because it might not come."