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Robert Tracy McKenzie on Matthew Stewart’s "Nature’s God"

In America’s Founding May Not Have Been Christian, but It Sure Wasn’t Anti-Christian, Robert Tracy McKenzie, chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College, reviews Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. (Christianity Today 07/03/14):

… I’ll leave it to the philosophers to evaluate whether Stewart has exaggerated the underlying atheism of this cast of characters. (His portrayal of Locke, at least, is sure to arouse controversy.) As a historian, I am more concerned by his utter failure to establish the influence of atheistic belief on America’s founding. Historians believe that our most important task is to explain what we see, basing our statements of cause and effect on evidence. Stewart takes a different approach. He concludes that radical philosophy was widespread among common Americans after discovering it in the writings of two individuals, Vermont’s backwoods leader Ethan Allen and a Boston physician named Thomas Young. In like manner, he finds that atheistic presuppositions determined the political philosophy of the most prominent Founders by ruthlessly disregarding all competing influences. This is pronouncement, not demonstration.

McKenzie comments further, on his own blog, Faith and American History:

Although Stewart cloaks his argument in a 400-page narrative, the heart of his reasoning boils down to a simple syllogism: The ideas that matter in history are the ones that are true. Religious beliefs are, by definition, false. Ergo (philosophers say ergo a lot), religious beliefs couldn’t have mattered in the American founding. If lots of colonists back in ’76 thought otherwise, that’s because they weren’t as enlightened as the author. Too bad for them.

The thrust of my review was to call attention to Stewart’s a priori assumptions and to remind readers of historians’ quaint belief that historical assertions should be grounded in historical evidence. Stewart is correct to point out that the religious beliefs of many of the leading Founders were unorthodox, David Barton’s wish-dreams to the contrary notwithstanding. But Stewart errs badly in equating the views of the leading Founders with atheism, and he provides almost no evidence at all for his insistence that radical philosophy was widespread among the rank and file of colonial patriots. In short, the emperor has no clothes.

Matthew Stewart, a self-identified atheist, professed in an interview with the Boston Globe that he’d “like the United States to become what it was always meant to be, which is a secular nation — more publicly committed to reason, to improving understanding, and promoting education”, sans traditional orthodox religiosity of any kind. Curiously, notes McKenzie,

for a study that is so determined to discredit orthodox Christianity, the author is curiously averse to engaging Christian scholars, whether historians or theologians. When it comes to the religious beliefs of the revolutionary generation, quite a number of Christian historians have anticipated much of Stewart’s findings, albeit with vastly greater nuance and balance, but you’d never know it from his account.

Elsewhere, Baron Swaim (Wall Street Journal) deems that “Mr. Stewart’s learning in philosophical radicalism is impressive; what undermines his work is his contempt for everyone but the few radicals he esteems.” And Charles W. Cooke (National Review) corrects Stewart’s mistaken charge that “the first Tea-Partier was an atheist.”

Most of these authors of course do not believe their own postmodern tenets. They criticize capitalism because it pays financial dividends [but] none wish to share their salary with the dispossessed or live among the muscular classes. They advocate multiculturalism [because] it promotes them out of the classroom and away from the lower undergraduates — the very people their curriculum is supposed to liberate.

They say there are no facts, but are outraged when their research is criticized. They pile up the frequent-flier mileage on gravity-defying jets that whisk them to the latest conference on the social construction and relativism of the scientific method. They hate the West, but demand the freedom of speech, material prosperity, lack of religious interference, respect for diversity and competitive merit-based rewards that the West alone ensures. … They insist that nothing can be known, that knowledge is a mere construct of unreliable language, that linear thinking is phallocentric, imperialistic and oppressive, and then, without a hint of irony, write heavily-footnoted book after book to tell us so. They say that truth is relative, yet condemn opposing theories as being less valid than their own.

They reject “narrow” disciplines in favor of “inclusive” cultural studies — and then rigorously exclude anything that does not support their tendentious political agenda. They denounce an imagined world governed exclusively by issues of power even as they spend their time handing out curriculum vitiate, applying for the next job, and running for office in professional organizations. They proclaim the death of the author, and then sign their names to their books and wear nametags at conventions. They advocate the overthrow of hierarchical privilege while clutching desperately an outdated system of tenure that guarantees their own power and privilege. […] They profess radical skepticism in their scholarship but use inductive logic to plan every second of their personal and professional lives: what car to buy, what neighborhood to live in, what schools to send their children to, what articles to write and classes to teach (or not to teach).

The contradictions of the medieval Church or eighteenth-century French letters to do not match the hypocrisy of contemporary American academic culture.

— Introduction, Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age by Victor Davis Hanson, John Heath and Bruce S. Thornton.

Pre-emptive Critics of Francis’ Encyclical – Look to his Predecessor

Apparently there are some who are venturing into vehement criticism of Pope Francis’ upcoming encyclical on ecology … an encyclical we might add that has yet to even be released.

Perhaps it may be of benefit to point out that Pope Francis, in writing this encyclical, might even be taking SOME queues in this regard from his predecessor, who didn’t earn the nickname “The Green Pope” for nothing. As National Geographic reminds us, among the actions of his pontificate:

… He approved a plan to cover the Vatican’s Paul VI hall with solar panels, enough to power the lighting, heating, and cooling of a portion of the entire country (which covers, of course, a mere one-fifth of a square mile). He authorized the Vatican’s bank to purchase carbon credits by funding a Hungarian forest that would make the Catholic city-state the only country fully carbon neutral. And several years later, he unveiled a new hybrid Popemobile that would be partially electric. (How Green Was the ‘Green Pope’? National Geographic (02/28/13).

And on the topic of climate change, we might recall that Benedict himself specifically weighed in on the subject, :

Pope Benedict XVI appealed for the success of a UN climate change conference […] in Durban, South Africa. Speaking to the faithful gathered in St Peter’s Square for the Sunday Angelus prayer, Pope Benedict expressed the hope that “all members of the international community might reach agreement on a responsible, credible response,” to the phenomenon of climate change, which he described as “complex” and “disturbing”. [Vatican Radio 11/27/11].

In fact, if he had not resigned in 2013, we could reasonably suggest that Pope Benedict might have at some point devoted greater length to this particular topic in some formal manner.

Perhaps the best position present critics of Pope Francis can adopt (and this author is by no means wholly enthusiastic about the present pontiff) is to cultivate the virtue of patience and mindful silence — and refrain from what is largely speculative criticism until the content of the encyclical is actually released, and we’ve all had opportunity to read it.

* * *

Further reading on the Pope Emeritus‘ thinking on the environment.

Environmental Justice and Climate Change: Assessing Pope Benedict XVI’s Ecological Vision for the Catholic Church in the United States
Lexington Books (November 21, 2013). 322 pgs.

Environmental Justice and Climate Change: Assessing Pope Benedict XVI’s Ecological Vision for the Catholic Church in the United States explores four key areas in connection with Benedict XVI’s teachings: human and natural ecology/human life and dignity; solidarity, justice, poverty and the common good; sacramentality of creation; and our Catholic faith in action. The product of mutual collaboration by bishops, scholars and staff, this anthology provides the most thorough treatment of Benedict XVI’s contributions to ecological teaching and offers fruitful directions for advancing concern among Catholics in the United States about ongoing threats to the integrity of Earth.
Ten Commandments for the Environment: Pope Benedict XVI Speaks Out for Creation and Justice

Ave Maria Press (June 1, 2009) 162 pgs.

Woodeene Koenig-Bricker skillfully weaves together Pope Benedicts key statements on environmental justice into one volume. Additionally, she offers commentary that helps to unpack the “Ten Commandments for the Environment,” which were recently released by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Koenig-Bricker helps us understand an environmentally responsible lifestyle as a moral responsibility to protect the poor, who suffer most when climate change creates a shortage of resources. With practical, everyday ideas for reducing ones ecological footprint, this book is a must-read for those seeking the inspiration that the Holy Father radiates to a new generation of Catholics.
The Garden of God: Toward a Human Ecology
The Catholic University of America Press (March 18, 2014) 232pgs.

This book gathers together the audiences, addresses, letters, and homilies of Benedict on a wide-ranging set of topics that deal with the world about us. The major themes and connections he explores are creation and the natural world; the environment, science, and technology; and hunger, poverty, and the earth’s resources.

See also:

How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything (and Still Does)

Another year, another holiday season. Here is a book that has crossed my path and which I am reading — and which may be of help to those (self included) who have found it challenging at times to ready my heart and orient my mind in anticipation of the birth of our Savior. From Scott Hahn: Joy to the World: How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything (and Still Does)

Q.In the 20+ years that you’ve been writing books, this is the first one that focuses entirely on the Christmas story. What inspired you to write about this topic? Why now?

A. Christmas arrives with a powerful effect on small children and on older folks. In between childhood and grandparenthood, we can temporarily lose our capacity for wonder. But maybe the second wave is hitting me now, as I’m experiencing Christmas with my grandchildren as they grow. Going back to the story in recent years, I’ve discovered complexities, convergences, and moments of stunning beauty that I had not appreciated before. I’m not the first one to notice these things. In fact, I’m learning from the early Fathers and the most recent scholars. But I can’t help but want to share them with everyone—everyone who’s celebrating Christmas.

Q. In Joy to the World, you write, “The events of Christmas challenge us, just as they challenged the original characters—the family—whose history they tell.” What do you see as the biggest challenge of Christmas?

A. To welcome Jesus. That’s always the challenge. We think our lives are full, and we don’t really trust him to come in and mess with our plans. Even after all these thousands of years, we hang a “no vacancy” sign at the inn. We’ve built a culture on the illusion of control, and Christ is a threat to that illusion. Maybe that’s why he came as a little baby. In my own experience, however, it’s been my babies—my children—who taught me what little control I really have. If we’re open to life, if we’re open to Christ, we come to trust God’s providential plan. That’s a lesson of the Christmas story. Just ask Zechariah. Just ask Joseph.

Stepping out in trust is scary, and the Christmas story confirms that at every turn. But what’s the alternative? To cling to the illusion of control just because it’s our familiar illusion? Herod is the Christmas character most like our modern-day control freaks; and his life is completely out of control. Joseph, on the other hand, entrusts himself to the angels and goes from one trial to another. Yet today we can see Joseph’s life as heroic and true, and Herod’s as just plain crazy.

Q. How did you come up with the title Joy to the World?

A. I’ve been thinking a lot about joy—ever since Pope Benedict declared the Year of Saint Paul. I remember I was in Jerusalem that summer and reading the Letter to the Philippians, and I was overwhelmed by his exhortation to joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). Go read that letter and count the number of times you see the words “joy” and “rejoice.” Well, Paul’s words took hold of me and wouldn’t let go. Now we have a pope, our beloved Pope Francis, who speaks to us of the “Joy of the Gospel.” Joy is a quality that belongs to Christmas. We sing it in our Christmas carols because in Christmas we celebrate the reason for Paul’s rejoicing: the advent of the Messiah, the salvation of the whole world. We have good reasons to celebrate. We have good reasons for our joy.

Q. What is your favorite part of the Christmas story?

A. It depends on the day you ask me. Today I’m caught up in thinking about the angels, and how different they appear after the advent of our savior. In the Old Testament, they are frightening and intimidating to human beings. Think of the Prophet Daniel, who falls on his face in dumbstruck fear. In the Christmas story, however, they appear as guides and companions. Jesus changes everything in the order of the universe. He changes the way heaven relates to earth and the way people relate to angels. I marvel as I consider what else has been changed so profoundly—what else have I missed?

And from Joseph Bottum, two traditional Christmas carols: Songs of Grace and Gladness. According to Jody, “I’ve been exploring lyrics as a species of poetry for a couple years now (including in my last poetry book), and a studio down in Nashville has just released this weekend two of the songs about Christmas, with a beautiful young woman named Mallory Reaves doing the vocals.”

Bad Religion’s “Christmas Songs”

Christmas Songs is truly fascinating. Reading through a number of band interviews promoting this album, Bad Religion strive very hard to save face and maintain their punk credibility by describing it as “tongue in cheek,” and noting the irony. Vice magazine took note of the confusion:

The band isn’t really putting out a Christmas album. Well technically, they are. But they’re a bunch of anti-capitalistic atheists, so it’s just a joke! Ha! Ha! Laugh along, stupid!

But wait, is Bad Religion’s Christmas album really an ironic joke though? Because releasing an album is a lot of work. Almost too much work for a joke

In the end, the joke seems to be on them. The lyrical meaning inherent in the traditional songs trumps the attempt at satire — and transforms it. For a moment, at least to this ear, it almost sounds like Bad Religion has “gotten religion.”

"A riot is the language of the unheard." – Understanding Martin Luther King in context

“Riot is the language of the unheard.” The quote by Martin Luther King is currently being bandied about — as it has been trotted out before — to justify the burning, looting and pillaging of Ferguson, Missouri. To the historically ignorant and to those who would enlist Martin Luther King in justification of their actions, it may be helpful to revisit the full context of the quote.

The phrase itself, from what I can tell, seems to be derived from two sources — the first being an interview with Mike Wallace in 1966:

MIKE WALLACE: There’s an increasingly vocal minority who disagree totally with your tactics, Dr. King.

KING: There’s no doubt about that. I will agree that there is a group in the Negro community advocating violence now. I happen to feel that this group represents a numerical minority. Surveys have revealed this. The vast majority of Negroes still feel that the best way to deal with the dilemma that we face in this country is through non-violent resistance, and I don’t think this vocal group will be able to make a real dent in the Negro community in terms of swaying 22 million Negroes to this particular point of view. And I contend that the cry of “black power” is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.

King employed the same phrase on a later occasion, in a speech on “The Other America”, given at Grosse Pointe High School – March 14, 1968:

Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non­-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

Martin Luther King Jr. recognized rioting as a symptom of racial frustration — but I do not believe he would have ever endorsed such either as a strategy or as a solution.

In the Wallace interview, he also condemned such actions “because riots are self-defeating and socially destructive” — professing his personal Christian commitment to “militant, powerful, massive, non­-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view.” We would do well to heed his example.