Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, October 23, 2009

News of Ross Douthat, a new Catholic commentator

To my amazement, Ross Douthat, whom I hailed in a recent Rumination for doing a good job on nailing Karen Armstrong, has turned out to be the new conservative columnist for The New York Times. He will join David Brooks on the op-ed page of the Times (conservative media, where are your corresponding liberal writers?). Now that I know this about Douthat, the tone of his Armstrong piece does sound a little sharp on second reading, in the National Review mode (David Brooks is the liberal's favorite conservative because he never, ever has that tone). Oops, maybe I have it sometimes myself.

Why are so many Christians who care about doctrine politically conservative? Is there something to be learned here?

Anyway, Harvey Cox, still professor of divinity at Harvard after all these years, has three criticisms to make of Douthat in a letter to the editor which appeared on Sunday (10/18/09). First and most important, Cox notes that Douthat “believes that the symbolic interpretation of the Bible is somehow a modern contrivance, when the opposite is the case. For centuries it was the preferred approach, while biblical literalism only appeared in the modern period when our symbolically tone-deaf technological era swept the Bible into its wake, creating fundamentalism.” That’s very well put and helps to explain why the premodern interpreters are returning to favor today. (Cox’s excellent capsule description of biblical literalism perfectly describes people like Bishop Spong, who in his own way is a sort of fundamentalist).

Cox also criticizes Douthat for speaking of transubstantiation as though Protestants did not exist, which is on target, and for overlooking modern Pentecostals (“main street mystics”). The first of these points, especially, is a good one. None of the three criticisms, however, alter the fact that Douthat’s assessment of Armstrong is both welcome and necessary.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Karen Armstrong unmasked!

What a delight and what a surprise to find a real zinger in The New York Times Book Review last Sunday. Ross Douthat should be inundated with fan letters. He is reviewing Karen Armstrong's The Case For God. The first page is devoted to giving Ms. Armstrong her due. Her thesis is that it doesn't matter what you think, it's what you do (Mr. Douthat does a better job of summarizing this than I'm doing). Then, on the second page, he launches into a remarkable critique of her dismissal of doctrine and her misappropriation of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, et als. The last paragraph is a real zinger, and speaks for me in a way that few statements have, lately.

Here's the second page:

[The Church Fathers] were fiercely dogmatic by any modern standard. They were not fundamentalists, reading every line of Scripture literally, and they were, as Armstrong says, “inventive, fearless and confident in their interpretation of faith.” But their inventiveness was grounded in shared doctrines and constrained by shared assumptions. Their theology was reticent in its claims about the ultimate nature of God but very specific about how God had revealed himself on earth. It’s true that Augustine, for instance, did not interpret the early books of Genesis literally. But he certainly endorsed a literal reading of Jesus’ resurrection — and he wouldn’t have been much of a Christian theologian if he hadn’t.

Which is to say that it’s considerably more difficult than Armstrong allows to separate thought from action, teaching from conduct, and dogma from practice in religious history. The dogmas tend to sustain the practices, and vice versa. It’s possible to gain some sort of “knack” for a religion without believing that all its dogmas are literally true: a spiritually inclined person can no doubt draw nourishment from the Roman Catholic Mass without believing that the Eucharist literally becomes the body and blood of Christ. But without the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Mass would not exist to provide that nourishment. Not every churchgoer will share Flannery O'Connor's opinion that if the Eucharist is “a symbol, to hell with it.” But the Catholic faith has endured for 2,000 years because of Flannery O’Connors, not Karen Armstrongs.

This explains why liberal religion tends to be parasitic on more dogmatic forms of faith, which create and sustain the practices that the liberal believer picks and chooses from, reads symbolically and reinterprets for a more enlightened age. Such spiritual dilettant­ism has its charms, but it lacks the sturdy appeal of Western monotheism, which has always offered not only myth and ritual and symbolism (the pagans had those bases covered), but also scandalously literal claims — that the Jews really are God’s chosen people; that Christ really did rise from the dead; and that however much the author of the universe may surpass our understanding, we can live in hope that he loves the world enough to save it, and us, from the annihilating power of death.

Such literalism can be taken too far, and “The Case for God” argues, convincingly, that it needs to coexist with more mythic, mystic and philosophical forms of faith. Most people, though, are not mystics and philosophers, and they are hungry for myths that are not only resonant but true. Apophatic religion may be the most rigorous way to go in search of an elusive God. But for most believers, it will remain a poor substitute for the idea that God has come in search of us.