Islam’s Problem Has Nothing to do with Islam

I second John’s question and raise him a question. What am I missing about Islam that has so many people acting like Muslims are like United Methodists? I don’t mean to imply that all Muslims are terrorists any more than all Methodists follow John Wesley. But for Never Trumpers to argue about Islamophobia as if fears of Muslims are irrational — precisely forty years into various forms of Islamic terrorism, and while ISIS has been a major source of news coverage — is well nigh extraordinary.

Did anyone remember, for instance, when Graeme Wood wrote a piece not in the American Spectator but in Atlantic Monthly about ISIS’ Islamic convictions?

The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.

Now if you want to distance the Muslim Brotherhood from terrorism, fine. But that doesn’t get you the faculty of Harvard University:

It’s fine to think that the Muslim Brotherhood is bad, terrible, authoritarian, or illiberal (in my book on the Egyptian and Jordanian Brotherhoods from the 1980s till today, I highlight the group’s illiberal nature at length). Eric Trager, who I have disagreed with quite strongly on matters relating to the Brotherhood, has called it more akin to a “hate group.” But even he has written against designation. The Brotherhood’s badness, one way or the other, has no bearing on whether or not it is a terrorist organization. Being a terrorist organization involves, among other things, ordering your members to commit terrorist attacks, something no one argues the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is doing.

Even promotional copy for events featuring two of the most western friendly and thoughtful interpreters of Islam, Mustafa Akyol and Shadi Hamid, notice that Muslim societies are not places where Washington Post editors send their children for university:

Predominantly Muslim societies suffer from low levels of political, economic, and civil liberties. Authoritarian political regimes, rigid social structures, and radical religious movements that suppress human liberty in the name of God loom large in the Muslim world. Is this liberty deficit due to a “dark age” of Islam, which can be overcome with reform and a different religious interpretation? Can Islam make its peace with liberal democracy, as Christianity and other religions did after their own illiberal ages? Or is there something different about Islam, making it inherently incompatible with a secular government and a free society? Mustafa Akyol, a longtime defender of “Islamic liberalism,” is optimistic. Shadi Hamid is more pessimistic, arguing that Islam is “exceptional,” in the sense of being essentially resistant to liberalism.

Maybe you want to claim that it’s all a matter of interpretation — some truth there — but that still leaves you having to distinguish better from worse versions of Islam according western liberal standards, which in and of itself means Islam is not United Methodism.

For that reason, it’s a little rich when Michael Schulson writes as if the problems of perception that surround Islam are really the constructions of President Trump and his advisers:

It is difficult to think of a definition of religion that does not include Islam — an ancient tradition with practitioners who believe in one God, pray and try to live their lives in accordance with a scripture.

So why has this particular canard taken off?

Wajahat Ali, a writer, attorney, and the lead author of “Fear, Inc.,” a report on American Islamophobia, traces the idea’s recent surge to anti-Islam activists David Yerushalmi and Frank Gaffney. In 2010, Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy published a report, “Shariah: The Threat to America,” arguing that Muslim religious law, or sharia, was actually a dangerous political ideology that a cabal of Muslims hoped to impose on the United States.

“Though it certainly has spiritual elements, it would be a mistake to think of shariah as a ‘religious’ code in the Western sense,” the report argued. It also suggested banning “immigration of those who adhere to shariah … as was previously done with adherents to the seditious ideology of communism.”

“They misdefine sharia in a way which is not recognizable to any practicing Muslim,” Ali said. But the idea was influential. By the summer of 2011, more than two dozen states were considering anti-sharia legislation. More recently, Gaffney reportedly advised Trump’s transition team.

For many Americans, confusion about religious law, political ideology and sharia may reflect a distinctly Christian, and especially Protestant, way of thinking about the nature of religion.

“It’s hard to talk about this sometimes because there is no equivalent of sharia in the Christian tradition,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World.” “Even when you’re talking to well-intentioned, well-meaning people who really want to understand, explaining sharia is very challenging because there’s nothing in Christianity that’s quite like it.”

Actually, Christianity does have its equivalent. The mainstream media has called them theocons and Damon Linker, who wrote a book by that title, copped the plea:

Bannon and the intellectuals Neuhaus regularly published in First Things share the conviction that, at a fundamental level, the United States is a Christian nation — not just in the sense that an overwhelming majority of Americans describe themselves as Christians, but also in the sense that the country’s highest ideals and convictions (above all, about individual rights and innate human dignity) derive from a Catholic-Christian inheritance the vitality of which must be actively fostered and promoted by the culture. The two groups also tend to view the threat posed by Islamic terrorism in terms of a civilizational clash between Islam and the Judeo-Christian West (or “Christendom”).

But that’s where the continuities end.

At their best, the original theocons followed a tradition of Christian political reflection that insisted on placing the nation under the guidance and judgment of a transcendent God (and his extra-political Church) that stands apart from all this-worldly communities. That was in fact the theme of Neuhaus’ final book, published shortly after his death from cancer in early 2009.

Bannon, by contrast, tends to treat religious affiliation wholly as a function of ethno-national identity: “We” in the West must affirm our Christian identity or we will be overrun by dangerous outsiders (Islamists) who will impose a different identity upon us. In this respect, Bannon’s position is closer to Eastern Orthodoxy (and Russian Orthodoxy in particular), with its sanctioning of an official ethno-national church that mediates between individual believers and the Godhead.

Yet, to Linker’s credit, he can tell the difference between a good theocon and a fear-inspiring one, unlike many social justice types who think the campus of Princeton University is just like Ferguson, Missouri. I do wonder, though, if he remembers how his editors at Doubleday trumped up his book?

Do you believe the Catholic Church should be actively intervening in American politics on the side of the Republican Party?

Do you believe the federal government should be channeling billions of tax dollars a year to churches and other religious organizations?

Do you believe a microscopic clump of cells in a petri dish possesses the same rights that you possess?

Do you believe a doctor who performs abortions — and a woman who chooses to have an abortion — should be arrested and charged with murder?

Do you believe the public schools should actively teach children to doubt the scientific theory of evolution?

Do you believe legally available contraception is producing a “culture of death” in the United States?

Do you believe that the United States should be a Christian nation?

Do you fear Christians because you don’t fear Muslims?

No reason to fear Islam, no not one. Just think professional boxing and the NBA:

Can we imagine an America without Muhammad Ali, who was born Cassius Clay in Louisville and gained national fame when he won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960 as a light heavyweight boxer? In 1964, Clay defeated Sonny Liston, becoming the world heavyweight boxing champion. A few years earlier, Clay had gone to Nation of Islam meetings. There, he met Malcolm X, who as a friend and advisor was part of Clay’s entourage for the Liston fight. Clay made his conversion public after the fight, and was renamed by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad as Muhammad Ali.

When he was reclassified as eligible for induction into the draft for the Vietnam War, Ali refused on the grounds of his new Muslim religious beliefs. Famously, reflecting on the racism he had experienced in America, Ali said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong—no Viet Cong ever called me ni**er.” His conscientious objector status was rooted in the teachings of the Nation of Islam, as Elijah Muhammad had earlier been jailed for his refusal to enter the draft in the Second World War.

. . . Or think of my other great hero, another American Muslim, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The greatest basketball coach ever, the late John R. Wooden, thought that Kareem was the greatest basketball player ever. In his three years of eligibility under Coach Wooden at UCLA, Kareem was three-time player of the year, three-time finals MVP, and three-time NCAA champion. In other words, he had three perfect seasons while he earned his degree. He lost the same number of games at UCLA—two—that he did in high school.

Kareem converted to Islam in 1971, and excelled in the pros just as much as he did in college or high school. All in all, he won six NBA championships and six NBA MVP awards, was a nineteen-time all-star, and remains the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Combine that pro record with his three NCAA championships, and I don’t know how you can make the case for anyone else as the greatest basketball player of all time.

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Communicants, Siblings, Friends, and Others

When you have a comprehensive view (w-w) of the world, when you think that your faith informs (or should) everything you do, hard are those distinctions that 2k so readily supplies, like — this is the church so Christian rules apply, this is not the church so freedom applies.

This problem is no less challenging for Roman Catholics than for neo-Calvinists since both are in the comprehensiveness business of showing how faith relates to EVERYthing a Christian does. Cathleen Kaveny took the comprehensiveness and catholicity of Rome in an arresting direction when she accused Richard John Neuhaus and the First Things crowd of partisanship and undermining the bonds of Roman Catholic unity:

Some conservative Catholics have blamed Pope Francis for sowing division among the members of the Body of Christ. But the charge is more properly lodged against one of the heroes of conservative Catholicism: the late Richard John Neuhaus.

It was Neuhaus, after all, who advanced the view that conservative Roman Catholics have more in common with orthodox Jews and Evangelical Protestants than they do with progressive members of their own religious communities. In fact, that view was an operational premise of First Things magazine under his leadership. This approach is based on a thoroughly distorted view of religious realities and commitments.

Does honoring Jesus as the Son of God count as a commonality? Like their conservative counterparts, progressive Roman Catholics acknowledge the divinity of Jesus Christ, and find the interpretive key to the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament. Orthodox Jews do not—indeed, must not—treat Jesus as the Messiah foretold in the Book of Isaiah. It would be blasphemous for them to do so.

Does living in the grace imparted by the sacraments count as a commonality? Both progressive and conservative Roman Catholics believe that God’s grace is channeled through the seven sacraments. Many Evangelical Protestants do not have the same view of grace or the sacraments; they often view the Eucharist as a memorial of a past event, not a way of being present with Christ here and now.

In trying to find common ground with evangelicals, then, Neuhaus was not truly Roman Catholic but actually Protestant:

Ultimately, Neuhaus’s focus was on nurturing these commonalities in the American political context—he was building a political movement. For a variety of partially overlapping reasons, conservative Roman Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, and orthodox Jews were inclined to vote Republican in political elections. Along with George Weigel and Robert George, Neuhaus coached Republican politicians in Catholic-speak to win national elections. . . . But here’s the irony of Neuhaus’s project: in treating theological belief and commitment as mere instruments of political will, Neuhaus’s view of religion resonated more with Feuerbach, Marx, and Leo Strauss than with the church fathers. In separating his own church of the politically pure from the hoi polloi of the body of Christ, his ecclesiology better reflects Protestant sectarianism than Roman Catholicism.

For the record, I too took issue with Evangelicals and Catholics Together for putting politics ahead of theology and for locating Christian unity not in ecclesiastical contexts but in parachurch groupings.

But Rusty Reno didn’t particularly care for Kaveny’s shot at Neuhaus. And so he tried to justify finding fellowship among religious people who were political liberals and then got mugged by reality:

many of the founding figures who played such a prominent role in First Things, as well as early readers like me, came to some shared conclusions. We became less and less impressed with the modern conceit that ours is a time of the unprecedented. We became more and more convinced that our traditions contained an inherited wisdom—a divine revelation—that provides greater insight into the human condition than any modern method, mentality, or revolution. Again, in the magazine’s early years, it was an exciting and invigorating to find others who were coming to the same post-liberal conclusions, whether they were Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant.

That is mainly true but does not represent the nature of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Otherwise, ECT should have been called Evangelicals and Liberal Protestants and Roman Catholics and Mormons and Jews and Stanley Hauerwas Together. But at least Reno recognizes different layers of commonality:

When it comes to many things that are important to me, I have more in common with friends than with my brother. But my brother’s still my brother. It in no way compromises the truth of our fraternal bond for me to link arms with those with whom I have more in common politically, intellectually, or even theologically. The same goes for the sacramental bond that units us in Christ.

That is more or less a 2k point. But a 2ker would not call a magazine about religion and public life First Things. It’s not elegant but Penultimate Things or Proximate Things or Common Things would work better.

That left Michael Sean Winters to settle the debate and he did so (in neo-Calvinist-friendly ways) by taking issue with Reno’s separation of life into different spheres:

There may be “other dimensions” as Reno notes, but surely, for the Christian, those other dimensions need to be related to “what matters most.” It was this dualism between the Catholic faith and Catholic morality that stalked Neuhaus’s writings and continues to afflict the journal he founded. This dualism not only colored Neuhaus’ judgment, but it kept much of his otherwise enjoyable controversial writings at a fairly superficial level. It also led him to overlook the failings of his own team, both in politics and in religion: His defense of the Iraq War and of Fr. Maciel were stains on Neuhaus’ intellectual project that deserve attention and explanation by those who champion him.

. . . Reno, too, puts his sacramental beliefs in one silo, and his moralizing in another, and never the two need challenge each other. That is not how Catholics think when we are thinking at our best.

Apparently, 2k thinking is a no-no for Roman Catholics as much as it is for neo-Calvinists. Everything belongs to God. Or the papacy has universal jurisdiction (which is a topic for discussion in its own right). Which makes it hard to justify solidarity with people of a different faith.

But if you limit that solidarity to the church and find all sorts of room for cooperation outside the church, problem solved. Why does that solution seem so impious?

Maybe He Needs MmmeeeeeEEEEEE

Scott Sauls may have spent too much time with Tim Keller, the author of Center Church, because Pastor Sauls seems to think that he is at the center of Presbyterianism. The reason for saying this is that he admits that he needs to hear from those with whom he differs. Here’s his list:

I don’t know where I would be without the influence of others who see certain non-essentials differently than I do. I need the wisdom, reasoning, and apologetics of CS Lewis, though his take on some of the finer points of theology are different than mine. I need the preaching and charisma of Charles Spurgeon, though his view of baptism is different than mine. I need the Kingdom vision of NT Wright and the theology of Jonathan Edwards, though their views on church government are different than mine. I need the passion and prophetic courage of Martin Luther King, Jr., the cultural intelligence of Soong Chan Rah, and the Confessions of Saint Augustine, though their ethnicities are different than mine. I need the reconciliation spirit of Miroslav Volf, though his nationality is different than mine. I need the spiritual thirst and love impulse of Brennan Manning and the prophetic wit of GK Chesterton, though both were Roman Catholics and I am a Protestant. I need the hymns and personal holiness of John and Charles Wesley, though some of our doctrinal distinctives are different. I need the glorious weakness of Joni Eareckson Tada, the spirituality of Marva Dawn, the trusting perseverance of Elisabeth Elliott, the longsuffering of Amy Carmichael, the honesty of Rebekah Lyons, the thankfulness of Anne Voskamp, the theological precision of Kathy Keller, and the integrity of Patti Sauls, though their gender is different than mine.

In the world of hipster Protestantism this is cool but not Snapchattingly trendy. If I were to assemble my own list of those with whom I disagree theologically but who have shaped my thinking in profound ways it would include: Orhan Pamuk, Joel Coen, Tom Stoppard, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H. L. Mencken, Aaron Sorkin, Wendell Berry, Michael Oakeshott, Edward Shils, David Simon, John McWhorter, Andrew Sullivan, Louis Menand, David Hackett Fischer, Henry May, Richard John Neuhaus, Joseph Epstein, and Ethan Coen. See what I did there? I went outside Christian circles with most of that list. Do I get points for being really cool and cosmopolitan?

The thing is, none of those writers really helped me understand the nature of the Christian ministry as Presbyterians understand it. I’ve learned greatly from these figures about being human, which comes in handy for overseeing a congregation or participating in a church assembly. But I don’t look to these people for my life in the church.

But here’s the kicker for Pastor Sauls: what if he learned from those with whom he disagrees about Presbyterianism like Old Schoolers? What might his ministry look like then?

My sense is that because Pastor Sauls via Keller thinks he is in the heart of Presbyterianism or conservative Protestantism or evangelicalism, he already has his Presbyterian bases covered.

And in that case, boy does he need to understand the nature of disagreement.

Americanism: Protestant and Roman Catholic

Scott Clark reposted a piece recently on the ways Protestant conjure with dominant forms of American religiosity. His conclusion ran as follows:

There are conservatives, who embrace the past but must negotiate a modus vivendi with American Religion, and there are liberals who are quite ready to discard the past and go where ever the culture demands so as to try to remain “relevant” and influential. There is a third way to relate to American religion, however, and that is confessionalism, which is neither liberal nor conservative, but it is what the Reformed Churches have always confessed to be the theology, piety, and practice revealed in the Word of God.

The relationship between confessionalism and Americanism also has ramifications for 2k and its reception. Critics of 2k usually equate its proponents with selling out to American notions of the separation of church and state, or worse. These critics would have us return (even though the churches have also come round to church-state separation) to Geneva of 1560, Edinburgh of 1590, or Boston of 1640. But any political theology that embraces the U.S.’s novos ordo seclorum is a capitulation of Christianity to liberal politics.

Curious to observe is a similar dynamic among Roman Catholics. It is sometimes named a debate between Whig and Augustinian Thomists (though the Augustine invoked here ironically sounds more like the Anglican John Milbank than the Bishop of Hippo). The so-called Augustinians are critical of folks like George Weigel, Michael Novak, and the late Richard John Neuhaus for conforming Roman Catholicism to American political and economic conventions. Tracey Rowland outlines the differences in an interview here (almost a decade old):

What I argued in my book “Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II” is that there is a division between those who think that the Thomist tradition should accommodate itself to the culture of modernity, particularly the economic dimensions of this culture — the self-described “Whig Thomists” — and those who believe that modernity and its liberal tradition are really toxic to the flourishing of the faith.

Those who take the latter position do not want to supplement the Thomist tradition with doses of Enlightenment values. They are very broadly described as Augustinian Thomists for the want of a better label because, in a manner consistent with St. Augustine’s idea of the two cities, they reject the claim of the liberal tradition to be neutral toward competing perspectives of the good and competing theological claims.

While the Whigs argue that liberalism is the logical outgrowth of the classical-theistic synthesis, the Augustinian Thomists argue that the liberal tradition represents its mutation and heretical reconstruction, and they tend to agree with Samuel Johnson that the devil — not Thomas Aquinas — was the first Whig.

There are thus two different readings of modernity and with that, two different readings of how the Church should engage the contemporary world. While the Whigs want the Church to accommodate the culture of modernity, the Augustinians favor a much more critical stance.

She goes on to draw the contrast this way:

The Whigs want to baptize the current international economic order, while the Augustinians take a more critical approach, arguing that there are economic practices characteristic of this order that cannot be squared with the social teaching of the Church.

Moreover, the Augustinians are more likely to point out that most people do not sit down and develop a worldview for themselves from hours of philosophical and theological reflection. They tacitly pick up values and ideas from the institutions in which they work.

The Augustinians argue that there are aspects of the culture of modernity that act as barriers to the flourishing of Christian practice and belief, and unless the culture is changed, no amount of intellectual gymnastics on the part of the Church’s scholars will be of help to those 1 billion Catholics who have to make a living within the world.

In other words, if one has to be a saint not to be morally compromised by the culture in which one works, then there is something wrong with that culture.

So, the Augustinians are critical of liberalism in the fashion of American political and economic arrangements, and believe that Whigs don’t understand the incompatibility between Roman Catholicism and the kind of modernity that the United States has embodied. The Augustinian complaint is another lament about what America does to religion. (About this debate among Thomists the Callers are generally ignorant.)

But what the Augustinians want to see replace the liberal order is a dicey proposition. The Augustinians, whether they know it or not, are echoing Leo XIII’s condemnation of Americanism as a heresy. Leo’s verdict was far from clear, nor was it free from ultramontanist fear mongers. But the thrust of Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (1899) was that efforts to accommodate Roman Catholicism to the American way of life were erroneous. This included the efforts of bishops who argued for the legitimacy of the separation of church and state as a viable way for the church to conduct its affairs. Leo still had the Syllabus of Errors (1864) echoing throughout the halls of the Vatican and he was not going to be the pope to give up resisting modern civilization.

An important difference between the Reformed Protestant and Roman Catholic developments is that 2kers do not praise or even baptize the American system the way that Whig Thomists do sometimes. 2k advocates appropriately give 2 cheers for the American political order (and are fairly silent about economics — though Jason Stellman used to sound Occupy-Wall-Streetish). Weigel and company usually give 3 cheers for the U.S. and regard the nation in Lincolnian terms — the “last best hope of earth.” 2kers know that the church through its ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ is humanity’s last best hope. Which leads me to think that the Augustinians have a point about their Whiggish brethren if the latter confuse the blessings of liberty with the redemption purchased by Christ.

Infallibility In Denial

Here I thought we had entered a new era of warm relations between Protestants and Roman Catholics. We are almost twenty years from the first iteration of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. The architects of that project, Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson have passed from the scene but the George brothers (in name only), Timothy and Robbie, have extended the spirit of culture war cooperation with the Manhattan Declaration. Add to mix Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom’s Is the Reformation Over? and you have a setting in which the lines dividing Rome, Geneva, Wittenburg, and Wheaton are increasingly fuzzy. That could be a reason for Protestants to convert to Rome since the differences aren’t great. But it could also be a reason to remain Protestant. If the differences aren’t significant, why bother putting up with bad liturgical music when you can keep the lousy praise band in your own congregation?

And then along comes the ex-Prots who write at Called to Communion to remind all the partyers that a curfew exists and, oh, by the way, they also called the cops if we don’t break up the revelry. CTC’s heavy handed insistence on older Roman Catholic verities is laudable in many respects but comes as a complete surprise to the world of Protestant-Roman Catholic relations. If some wonder why objections to CTC have been so pronounced at Old Life of late, the reason has something to do with how out of synch CTC seems to be with the rest of the Roman Catholic world and the vibe Protestants get from that Roman universe. Instead of telling us how much we share in common with them the way most Roman Catholics do these days, CTC is there to remind us how far Protestants fall short of the fullness of glory that is Rome. Like I say, this bracing splash of alcohol on the wound is welcome at a time when differences between Rome and Protestants look increasingly like personal preference.

At the same time, the other wrinkle in CTC’s project is how little they seem to notice that Rome is not a monolith of fidelity to the teachings of the pope, magisterium, and church councils. The Jesuits, Roman Catholic higher education in the United States, and the nuns are all examples of Roman Catholics out of sync with official church teaching and practice. But when you search around at CTC, you find more about problems among Reformed Protestants than you do about the nuns. Perhaps it is a function of a poor search engine, but if you want to know about the deficiencies of President Obama receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Notre Dame, you’re not going to find it readily at CTC.

CTC’s lack of attention to problems in the Roman Catholic Church has me wondering if CTCers’ insistence on infallibility in ways that would have made Benjamin Warfield’s head swim is responsible for this apparent hiding from Rome’s difficulties. Could it be that if you are so committed to an innerant church hierarchy, you’re predisposed deny errors in your communion?

To illustrate the point, I refer to the recent remarks at Old Life about development of doctrine and certain caricatures of Rome that may have surfaced. In one of my comments, I believe, I questioned the persuasiveness of an exegetical case for Rome’s view of justification since it didn’t seem to me that the Bible figures all that prominently in CTC defenses of Rome (minus Matt. 16:18 which is for CTCers what John 3:16 is for Free Will Baptists). Jason Stellman responded that this was a bit of a cheap shot since Roman Catholics care about the Bible do do exegesis. Only children who are ignorant make the mistake of saying that Roman Catholics don’t read and know their Bibles.

Well, that’s not what David Carlin says over at CatholiCity:

According to the poll, 25 percent of Evangelical Protestants read the Bible daily, as do 20 percent of other Protestants, while daily Bible-reading is done by only 7 percent of Catholics. Now this result didn’t bother me very much, since one can be very familiar with, and very greatly influenced by, a book without reading it on a daily basis. I myself don’t read the Bible daily; nor do I give a daily reading to Plato or Shakespeare; and it’s years since I read Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy. Yet I know that all these writing have had a strong influence on the way I look at life and the world.

Far more disturbing was the poll result that showed that 44 percent of Catholics “rarely or never” read the Bible, while this is true of only 7 percent of Evangelicals and 13 percent of non-Evangelical Protestants. The level of religious vitality must be very low in a Christian church in which 44 percent of the membership almost never bothers to read the Bible.

Carlin explains this phenomenon by appealing to Trent, and part to the sacramental nature of the church:

All this changed, officially at least, at Vatican II, which dropped the Church’s 400-year-old “defensive mode of being.” Lay Catholics were now at long last given the green light to read the Bible; indeed, they were encouraged to read it. Yet today, nearly a half-century later, 44 percent of American Catholics “rarely or never” read the Bible, and only 7 percent read it on a daily basis. How can this be?

Part of the answer, of course, is inertia. Four centuries of a certain policy cannot be changed immediately overnight – any more than an aircraft carrier at sea can make a turn of 180 degrees on a dime. Another part of the answer is the sacramentalism of the Catholic Church: To save your soul, it is more important to participate in the sacraments than to read the Bible. But a third part of the answer is, alas, that the leadership of the Church (I mean its bishops and priests) have not stressed the importance of Bible-reading for shaping the Christian mind and heart.

Carlin’s point about Trent’s defensiveness on Bible reading is confirmed by an article in the old New Catholic Dictionary (1910) on Bible Reading by Laity (the date is important because this is a description of the Roman Catholic Church prior to Vatican II:

The Council strictly prohibited the reading of all heretical Latin versions, unless grave reasons necessitated their use. The Council itself did not forbid the reading of the new Catholic translations, although even these later fell under the ban of the Index Commission which Trent set up for the supervision of future legislation regarding the Bible. In 1559 the Commission forbade the use of certain Latin editions, as well as German, French, Spanish, Italian, and English vernacular vereions. Two centuries later, however, it modified the severity of this legislation by granting permission for the use of all versions translated by learned Catholic men, provided they contained annotations derived from the Fathers, and had the approval of the Holy See. Our present discipline grows out of the decree, “Officiorum ac Munerum,” of Leo XIII. This decree states that all vernacular versions, even those prepared by Catholic authors, are prohibited if they are not, on the one hand, approved by the Apostolic See, or, on the other hand, supplied with proper annotations and accompanied by episcopal approbation. However, it contains a provision whereby, for grave reasons, biblical and theological students may use non-Catholic editions as long as these do not attack Catholic dogma.

This does not prove that Roman Catholics can’t or should not do exegesis. The point instead is about the conservative Roman Catholics who are more intent on showing Protestantism’s errors than the problems in their own ecclesiastical home. And I cannot help but think that an emphasis on infallibility produces a culture in which denial is a habit of mind if not a w-w.

Oldlife.org 201: Wit and Sarcasm

The first installment in this series about this blog was to clarify what a blog is. One aspect that I did not mention was that the more successful blogs are provocative – that is, they agitate readers and that’s why people come back. The most successful blogger in the world arguably is Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of the New Republic, and his blog is hardly tepid.

This leads to the second point in need of clarification. Oldlife.org is the on-line presence of the Nicotine Theological Journal. Long before provocations started at this blog, the editors and authors of the NTJ were provoking readers and library patrons in hopes of thinking through the implications of Reformed faith and practice today, with a little levity and sarcasm thrown in. The editors’ inspiration was partly Andrew Sullivan whose time at the New Republic made it one of the most thoughtful, rancorous, and witty magazines on politics and culture at the time. But Sullivan was not the only inspiration. Other authors who wrote on serious matters with wit and sarcasm that provided models for the NTJ were Richard John Neuhaus, P. J. O’Rourke, Joseph Epstein, H. L. Mencken, and Calvin Trillin.

None of these sources, readers may object, are Reformed. Which raises the question whether Reformed authors may engage in wit and sarcasm when pursuing their convictions. Well, the answer is yes. If you spend much time in the polemical writings of the Old School and Princeton theologians, you will find a fair amount of wit and sarcasm. Here are a couple examples, the first from Charles Hodge after a seven-round dogma fight with Edwards Amasa Park (named for Jonathan Edwards – ahem) over theological method and the nature of Calvinism:

It is a common remark that a man never writes anything well for which he has “to read up.” Professor Park has evidently labored under this disadvantage. Old-school theology is a new field to him; and though he quotes freely authors of whom we, though natives, never heard, yet he is not at home, and unavoidably falls into the mistakes which foreigners cannot fail to commit in a strange land. He does not understand the language. He find out “five meanings of imputation!” It would be wearisome work to set such a stranger right at every step. We would fain part with our author on good terms. We admire his abilities, and are ready to defer to him in his own department. But when he undertakes to teach Old-school men Old-school theology it is very much like a Frenchman teaching an Englishman how to pronounce English. With the best intentions, the amiable Gaul would be sure to make sad work with the dental aspirations.

The second comes from Benjamin Warfield in one of the last pieces he ever wrote, an article objecting to the latest proposal (1920) to unite the largest Protestant denominations in the United States:

Now it is perfectly obvious that the proposed creed contains nothing which is not believed by evangelicals. and it is equally obvious that it contains nothing which is not believed by Sacerdotalists – by the adherents of the church of Rome for example. And it is equally obvious that it contains nothing which is not believed by Rationalists – by respectable Unitarians. That is as much as to say that the creed on the basis of which we are invited to form a union for evangelizing purposes contains nothing distinctively evangelical at all; nothing at all of that body of saving truth for the possession of which the church of Christ has striven and suffered through two thousand years. It contains only “a few starved and hunger-bitten” dogmas of purely general character – of infinite importance in the context of evangelical truth, but of themselves of no saving sufficiency. So far as the conservation and propagation of evangelical religion is concerned, we might as well for a union on our common acceptance of the law of gravitation and the rule of three.

By the way, these were a couple of quotes readily available from Hodge and Warfield. If you go farther into their works, along with those of Old Schoolers like Dabney and Thornwell you will find many more examples, sometimes of laugh out loud proportions.

One last source of inspiration for Oldlife.org and the NTJ is – duh – J. Gresham Machen. He did not show a lot of wit or sarcasm in his writings. But his polemics were nonetheless blunt, so much so that many who believed charity to be the only Christian virtue considered Machen mean and beyond the pale. But it is precisely Machen’s candor and warrior spirit that is worthy of emulation. The following is from a piece he wrote for an inter-faith gathering on the relations between Christians and Jews:

The fact is that in discussing matters about which there are differences of opinion, it is really more courteous to be frank – more courteous with that deeper courtesy which is based upon the Golden Rule. For my part, I am bound to say that the kind of discussion which is irritating to me is the discussion which begins by begging the question and then pretend to be in the interests of peace. I should be guilty of such a method if I should say to a Roman Catholic, for example, that we can come together with him because forms and ceremonies like the mass and membership in a certain definite organization are, of course, matters of secondary importance – if I should say to him that he can go on being a good Catholic and I can go on being a good Protestant and yet we can unite on common Christian basis. If I should talk in that way, I should show myself guilty of the crassest narrowness of mind, for I should be showing that I had never taken the slightest trouble to understand the Roman Catholic point of view. If I had taken that trouble, I should have come to see plainly that what I should be doing is not to seek common ground between the roman Catholic and myself but simply to ask the Roman Catholic to become a Protestant and give up everything that he holds most dear.

. . . So to my mind the most inauspicious beginning for any discussion is found when the speaker utters the familiar words: “I think, brethren, that we are all agreed about this . . .” – and then proceeds to trample ruthlessly upon the things that are dearest to my heart. Far more kindly is it if the speaker says at the start that he sees a miserable narrow-minded conservative in the audience whose views he intends to ridicule and refute. After such a speaker gets through, perhaps I may be allowed to say that I regard him as just as narrow-minded as he regards me, and then having both spoken our full mind we may part, certain not as brothers (it is ridiculous to degrade that word) but at least as friends.

None of this is to suggest that Oldlife.org pulls off the wit, sarcasm, polemics, or bluntness of the writers who have inspired this endeavor. It is only to point out that the tone and style of Oldlife.org is not over the top.