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.