Month: May 2010

New blog: "Common Sense Catholicism"

“Common Sense Catholicism” is a new project by long-time Catholic blogger Kevin Tierney. From his introduction:

Why are you Catholic? Whenever I run into someone new who finds out about my faith, this inevitably comes up. I always state that the reason is “common sense.” This might seem a cop-out. I intend to prove otherwise with this blog.

Why is Catholicism ultimately a common-sense faith? Because only Catholicism truly has the appreciation of human nature and of man’s purpose. The other religions, faiths, and worldviews, from one side or the other, portray a false view of who man is, and what he is supposed to be. As a result, they devise these highly complex philosophies about man and his responsibility. These abstract thoughts seldom make any real sense when one sits down to discover them.

Whether it be the teachings on faith, culture, doctrine, Catholicism approaches things with an easy understanding. Common-sense need not mean “simple.” Indeed, the message of Catholicism, when properly understood, is one of the most challenging ever issued to mankind. Yet since she has an intimate understanding of human nature, her sentiments truly are “common-sense.”

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David Mills on "being spiritual but not religious"

It’s one of those easily remembered phrases that work like a “get out of jail free” card for anyone who feels he has to explain his lack of religious practice, and as a claim to superiority for those who care about being superior to those who practice an established religion. It’s the religious equivalent of “I gave at the office” or “There’s a call on the other line” or “I don’t eat meat.”

So we find Lady Gaga, the pornographic songstress, telling a reporter for The Times that she has a new spirituality just before taking her out for a night at a Berlin sex club. Asked by the reporter, “You were raised a Catholic — so when you say ‘God,’ do you mean the Catholic God, or a different, perhaps more spiritual sense of God?”, she responded, “More spiritual. . . . There’s really no religion that doesn’t hate or condemn a certain kind of people, and I totally believe in all love and forgiveness, and excluding no one.”

You see what I mean. To be truly spiritual—on a scale on which “the Catholic God” seems stuck in the middle—apparently means indifferently inclusive or (what is another way of saying the same thing) undogmatic.

I don’t think Ms. Gaga or anyone else who talks like this has really thought it through. That God who forgives everyone and excludes no one doesn’t object to debauches in Berlin sex clubs. A point in his favor, from one point of view. But then he doesn’t object to murderers and torturers and corrupt bankers either. A point in his favor from no one’s point of view.

From Spirituality Without Spirits First Things “On the Square” May 28, 2010.

Nazi Sheikhs.

Nazi Sheikhs: Joel Whitney interviews Paul Berman. Guernica Magazine. May 2010. “The polemicist discusses Tariq Ramadan’s love of extremist sheikhs, Islamism’s ties to Hitler, and the intellectual confusion of liberal journalists.”

Fascinating and very informative interview, the focus of which is Paul Berman’s latest book, The Flight of the Intellectuals — but I recall appreciating 2004’s Terror and Liberalism.

The Flight of the IntellectualsIn THE FLIGHT OF THE INTELLECTUALS, Berman—“one of America’s leading public intellectuals” (Foreign Affairs)—conducts a searing examination into the intellectual atmosphere of the moment and shows how some of the West’s best thinkers and journalists have fumbled badly in their efforts to grapple with Islamist ideas and violence.

Berman’s investigation of the history and nature of the Islamist movement includes some surprising revelations. In examining Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, he shows the rise of an immense and often violent worldview, elements of which survives today in the brigades of al-Qaeda and Hamas. Berman also unearths the shocking story of al-Banna’s associate, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who collaborated personally with Adolf Hitler to incite Arab support of the Nazis’ North African campaign. Echoes of the Grand Mufti’s Nazified Islam can be heard among the followers of al-Banna even today.

In a gripping and stylish narrative Berman also shows the legacy of these political traditions, most importantly by focusing on a single philosopher, who happens to be Hassan al-Banna’s grandson, Oxford professor Tariq Ramadan—a figure widely celebrated in the West as a “moderate” despite his troubling ties to the Islamist movement. Looking closely into what Ramadan has actually written and said, Berman contrasts the reality of Ramadan with his image in the press.

Rehabilitating Copernicus.

This week brings news that Nicolaus Copernicus, the 16th-century astronomer who was buried in an unmarked grave nearly 500 years ago, was rehabilitated by the Roman Catholic Church this weekend as his remains were reburied with honors:

The ceremonial reburial of Copernicus in a tomb in the medieval cathedral at Frombork on Poland’s Baltic coast is seen as a final sign of the Church’s repentance for its treatment of the scientist over his theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun, declared heretical by the Vatican in 1616.

Copernicus, who lived from 1473 to 1543, died little-known at the age of 70 and was buried in an unmarked grave beneath the floor of the cathedral at Frombork. DNA tests five years ago identified his bones and skull by comparing them with hair found in his books kept at the University of Uppsala in Sweden.

On Saturday the remains were blessed with holy water and ceremonially reburied in the main body of the cathedral under a black granite tombstone describing him as the creator of heliocentrism and decorated with a golden sun encircled by six planets.

Tom Roberts (National Catholic Reporter) can’t resist taking a jab at the Catholic Church for their tardiness:

It’s taken me a few days to catch up with the news that the Catholic Church has seen fit to give proper burial to Copernicus. But what the heck, it took the church 500 years to get it right, so what’s a few days?

Reading the article to which Roberts, linked, however, I couldn’t help but notice the wee note:

Copernicus was not persecuted in his lifetime for his heliocentric views, which only came later to be seen as a danger to the faith.

Further clarification on Copernicus’ relationship with the Church from Catholic Answers This Rock (January 1991):

In a minor astronomical work, Commentariolus, not printed during his lifetime, he first proposed a heliocentric theory of cosmology, placing the sun at the center of the solar system. This led many of his friends to request that he publish his findings. Among these were Cardinal Schonberg of the Roman Curia, Bishop Giese of Culm, and the future Pope Paul III. Schonberg insisted that Copernicus publish his material in the interest of science.

A young Lutheran scholar, Rheticus, left his chair of mathematics at Wittenberg (where, in 1517, Martin Luther had posted his 95 theses on a church door) to work with Copernicus in Poland and to prepare the scientist’s manuscripts for publication–an early example of ecumenical cooperation. A summary of Copernicus’s findings was released, and it met with tremendous hostility from Protestant theologians; there was no such general hostility from Catholics. Rheticus was barred from returning to his post at Wittenberg.

At the insistence of Clement VII the material was expanded into the great work of Copernicus’ career, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), which officially proposed a sun-centered theory to the world. The printed book, dedicated to Clement’s successor, Paul III, reached Copernicus just hours before his death on May 24, 1543.

In 1616, when the Galileo affair was underway, a handful of clerics managed to put De Revolutionibus on the Index of Prohibited Books; no one could read it until certain passages were corrected. Fewer than ten sentences, characterizing the heliocentric theory as fact rather than hypothesis, had to be changed. In 1758 the book was removed, belatedly, from the Index.

See also The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Among Catholics, Christoph Clavius (1537-1612) was the leading astronomer in the sixteenth century. A Jesuit himself, he incorporated astronomy into the Jesuit curriculum and was the principal scholar behind the creation of the Gregorian calendar. Like the Wittenberg astronomers, Clavius adopted Copernican mathematical models when he felt them superior, but he believed that Ptolemy’s cosmology — both his ordering of the planets and his use of the equant — was correct.

Pope Clement VII (r. 1523-1534) had reacted favorably to a talk about Copernicus’s theories, rewarding the speaker with a rare manuscript. There is no indication of how Pope Paul III, to whom On the Revolutions was dedicated reacted; however, a trusted advisor, Bartolomeo Spina of Pisa (1474-1546) intended to condemn it but fell ill and died before his plan was carried out. Thus, in 1600 there was no official Catholic position on the Copernican system, and it was certainly not a heresy. When Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was burned at the stake as a heretic, it had nothing to do with his writings in support of Copernican cosmology.

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Not that I ever was, but …

I would have to say that it has been my own experience that having kids kills hipness dead. When you have one or two little anarchists tearing around and their entire world, food, drink, clothes, safety, is up to you, it really cuts down on your ability to be even remotely cool. There is no sociological sub-grouping that prizes spit-up stains and bits of finger food on one’s shirt as “hip.”

I’m too tired to be cool, now.

~ Commentator on Rob Dreher’s blog (discussing the book Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide)

Lars Vilks, "Gay Muhammad" and "Freedom of Expression"

This past week brings news of yet another fracas involving Swedish cartoon artist Lars Vilks (CNN.com):

When Vilks entered a classroom where he was to deliver a lecture to about 250 people — all of whom had passed through a security checkpoint to gain admission — about five people started protesting loudly, Eronen said.

After Uppsala uniformed and non-uniformed police calmed the protesters, the lecture got under way at about 5:15 p.m. (11:15 a.m. ET), Eronen said.

But as Vilks was showing audiovisual material, 15 to 20 audience members became loud and tried to attack Vilks, he said.

As police stepped in, a commotion started and Vilks was taken to a nearby room; police used pepper spray and batons to fend off the protesters, Eronen said. Vilks did not return to the lecture. [Video footage of the event].

Last March, an American woman who called herself “Jihad Jane,” Colleen LaRose, was indicted in the United States for allegedly conspiring to support terrorists and kill Vilks.

In a 2007 interview with CNN he had drawn the cartoon of Mohammed with a dog’s body in order to take a stand.

“I don’t think it should not be a problem to insult a religion, because it should be possible to insult all religions in a democratic way, “ says Vilks from his home in rural Sweden.

“If you insult one, then you should insult the other ones.”

His crude, sketched caricature shows the head of Prophet Mohammed on the body of a dog. Dogs are considered unclean by conservative Muslims, and any depiction of the prophet is strictly forbidden.

Vilks, who has been a controversial artist for more than three decades in Sweden, says his drawing was a calculated move, and he wanted it to elicit a reaction.

“That’s a way of expressing things. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it. And if you look at it, don’t take it too seriously. No harm done, really,” he says.

When it’s suggested that might prove an arrogant — if not insulting — way to engage Muslims, he is unrelenting, even defiant.

“No one actually loves the truth, but someone has to say it,” he says.

Vilks, a self-described atheist, points out he’s an equal opportunity offender who in the past sketched a depiction of Jesus as a pedophile.

A few days later, Vilk’s website was hacked and the southern Sweden home of Vilks was hit by a suspected arson attack (The Washington Post).

In an act of deliberate provocation, Vilks’ film during his lecture included footage from the Iranian-born activist Sooreh Hera:

[Hera] photographed gay men in masks of Mohammad and his son-in-law Ali. Her video [Allah o Gay-Bar — warning: graphic sexuality] mixes photos of gay men and Muslim clerics, Islamic chants and the hard rock of “Gay Bar” by Electric Six.

The municipal museum in the Hague backed out of its plan to exhibit the photos from Hera’s “Adam and Ewald” series and a related video, according to recent news reports. Wim van Krimpen, director of the Gemeentemuseum, announced that the images were removed because “certain people in our society might perceive it as offensive.”

Hera, 34, accused the museum of caving in to pressure from Islamists, who also sent her death threats. Hera withdrew the rest of her photos from the show in protest, and another Dutch museum in Gouda has agreed to exhibit them in the future.

[…]

“Religion always wants to control human sexuality, most prominently with a compelling taboo on homosexuality,” she says in a statement on her site. “I have tried to show a recognisable beauty of homosexuals, but also an alienating beauty that to many may be unimagined, or dishonorable.”

Reactions have been all too predictable — this, for instance, from Nathan Harden (National Review):

These are the desperate acts of an extremist movement that is utterly bereft of moral courage, and awash in its own intellectual insecurity. Look at these Western-educated students in their designer clothes, calling down curses on a man who represents the freedom they hate so much, and yet have benefited so much from.

They are unaware of the irony they embody as they go about enjoying the fruits of Western civilization, while clinging to a repressive ideology that could never permit such a civilization to flourish. In defense of their failed belief system, they have nothing to offer but physical violence.

Ok, so there is some truth in Harden’s remarks. But I’m also tempted to ask: what is the ideology and belief system of artists like Vilk? What type of civilization is permitted to ‘flourish’ by providing a public forum (or financial patronage in many cases) to artists who strive to shock and offend religious sensibilities?

Consider the Vatican’s reaction to the Muslim outcry over caricatures of Mohammed in 2006 (aka. the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy)?

In an unsigned statement released by the Vatican press office Saturday, the Holy See stated: “The freedom of thought and expression, confirmed in the Declaration of Human Rights, can not include the right to offend religious feelings of the faithful. That principle obviously applies to any religion.”

“This principle applies obviously to any religion,” the Vatican said in response to several requests for the Church’s position.

Coexistence, the statement continued, calls for “a climate of mutual respect to favor peace among men and nations.”

The statement continued: “Moreover, these forms of exasperated criticism or derision of others manifest a lack of human sensitivity and may constitute in some cases an inadmissible provocation.

“A reading of history shows that wounds that exist in the life of peoples are not cured this way.”

Vilk’s depiction of a ‘Gay Mohammad’ calls to mind the recent, but non-violent, protest over a Texas film student’s plans to stage Terence McNally’s Corpus Christi — with a gay Jesus performing gay marriage; successfully canceled with pressure from Lt. Governor David Dewhurst.

There is no question that the Muslim reaction to Lars Vilks has been grossly disproportionate and ultimately contributes to the general caricature of Islam as a violent religion — after all, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary have been frequent subjects of ridicule by the Western media with nary a death threat, violent protest or firebombing.

Nonetheless, I find it disappointing that the controversy, at least in discussion among blogging conservatives, has been framed in large part as a conflict between “artistic freedom” vs. “religious censorship”; “Western freedom” vs. “Islamic fundamentalism” — with precious little attention is paid to questions such as:

  • Might Muslims be justifiably offended by Vilks’ and Sera’s “gay Muhammad”?
  • Should Western academia be providing a public forum or financial patronage to artists who continually assault religion?
  • When faced with our own depictions of religious blasphemy prevalent in the Western media, should we as Christians seek censorship?
  • Are there any limitations to such ‘freedom of expression’, or is it to be defended at all costs?
  • Is a preservation of complete and unrestricted license with relation to artistic expression condusive to the health of our society?
  • What is the purpose and calling of the artist?
  • What is the nature of freedom that Lars Vilks strives after?

In closing, some recommended food for thought on this topic (incentives for further discussion):

This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and is that precious fruit which resists the wear and tear of time, which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration. And all of this is through your hands. May these hands be pure and disinterested. Remember that you are the guardians of beauty in the world. May that suffice to free you from tastes which are passing and have no genuine value, to free you from the search after strange or unbecoming expressions. Be always and everywhere worthy of your ideals and you will be worthy of the Church which, by our voice, addresses to you today her message of friendship, salvation, grace and benediction.

~ Pope Paul VI, December 8, 1965