Friday, January 09, 2009

A faith of power or cheap moralism?

I just learned that Richard John Neuhaus died through this story in Slate.com by Michael Sean Winters. (NPR reported the story as I am typing this.)

I didn't know Neuhaus well, but followed his career at a distance from when he was a Lutheran pastor in Brooklyn and helped found what was then called Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam in 1966 or '67. An African-American friend of mine from college days adored him and she credited him with making sure that she went to college.

He was not a conventional liberal, however. He was a Christian, first and foremost, and he gradually found a more congenial home on the political right, and eventually in the Roman Catholic Church. His New York Times obituary is here and more comprehensive and much more sympathetic information is here.

What struck me was the following paragraph from the Slate.com story. I think it summaries my concerns about why the radical secularization of much of contemporary liberal Quakerism has weakened the power of our social testimonies. (The emphasis is mine.)

When religion is reduced to ethics, the church is permitted to enter the public square under the guise of a moral authority. But once you sever the link between the central animating dogmas of faith and the moral teachings that flow from there, you invite a cheap moralism, a religion of external conformity to prescribed norms rather than an internal assent of faith. You are a Christian if you believe certain things about events on a hillside in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. It is that belief that has inspired believers and generated culture. Just last September, Pope Benedict XVI said that Christianity "is not a new philosophy or a new form of morality. We are only Christians if we encounter Christ."
I've long thought that the message that Quakers have been given to proclaim isn't that war is bad or that you should tell the truth no matter what or that you should not live ostentatiously. I think most everyone knows this already, and it is indeed cheap moralism for us to add to the scolding. What people don't know is how to live this way, how to find the courage to accept the suffering that comes from, for example, being conquered by an enemy rather than resisting with violence.

The unique contribution of the Quakers was to show the same God who shows the way to live and how I fall short of that way also offers me the power to follow that more excellent path; I am not inherently doomed to falling short of the goal as was the central premise of the protestant churches in England.

Whether or not Neuhaus was right or wrong about politics in the latter half of his life, I am certain that he was on the right track in insisting that the religious commitment precedes and informs everything else.

7 comments:

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

It's interesting to me that you have placed the line, "We are only Christians if we encounter Christ", almost directly across the page from the listing for "Nontheist Friends". I find myself considering this pair of statements in the light of your earlier statement, "I think it summari[z]es my concerns about why the radical secularization of much of contemporary liberal Quakerism has weakened the power of our social testimonies."

I find myself wondering how you reconcile the three points of this triangle. I should think you could affirm any two of them simultaneously, but not all three.

Paul L said...

The juxtaposition is coincidental.

I link to Nontheist Friends because my Friend James manages the site, and I think those who post and read there are important participants in contemporary Quaker dialog, though I disagree with nearly everything I read there.

I have found over the years that I learn dialectically, and this is why I spend more time reading and listening to on the radio voices with whom I disagree about so much -- like Neuhaus, for example, and Nontheist Friends -- than I do with those who reinforce my own beliefs (Your stuff, Marshall, is usually the latter, though I always look forward to reading your contributions). I find that engaging opponents challenges me to reexamine and refine my own positions.

Marshall Massey said...

Thank you for the explanation, Paul. I truly was puzzled!

I didn't realize that you "disagreed about so much" with Neuhaus. Perhaps you can tell us about that some time!

Tom Smith said...

I first knew of Neuhaus in the mid to late 60's when I was I used "Clergy and Laity" as a resource in trying to discuss the position of Friends with regard to peace/war in a Christian context to Indiana Yearly Meeting members who were tacitly, some even explicitly, supporting the"Viet Nam war." I found the "acquaintance with Christ" something with which I could clearly identify.

However, the later insistence on (literal/physical) relationship with a 2000 yr old event and almost a dependence on physical rites seemed to indicate an "acquaintance" with Christ which did/does not seem to be the thrust of "There is one that can speak to thy condition" (present tense). I believe the main reason to have hope and faith that Friends do have a reason to exist is the emphasis on a personal present acquaintance with Christ. This seems to be one of the major differences the early Friends had with the Church of England and the "long night of apostasy."

James Riemermann said...

Paul,

I appreciate the link to our site, and I appreciate--in fact I treasure--your friendship. I have to admit, though, I sometimes find myself in a whirl of cognitive dissonance between our friendship and the depth of our disagreement.

I don't mean disagreement over beliefs per se. I often find myself in profound disagreement about religious beliefs with people I love and respect, and find no particular dissonance in that (though I'm a little surprised you put your disagreement level at "almost everything"--I would have thought we might have scored double digits with you, anyway). Rather, I have difficulty reconciling the fact that we can be in genuine religious community together--at least I feel very clear about that--with the fact that in some sense you seem to feel that what our religious community needs is fewer people like me. This is hard for me to understand, even harder to accept.

Beyond that, I find the quote above quite counter-intuitive, and I think it is mistaken. It seems to me quite obvious that the church *does* enter the public square under the guise of a moral authority, and it is precisely its basis in faith that allows that entrance. Over the centuries the church has placed it's seal of moral authority on great atrocities, and it is the public privileging of faith over reason and decency that has allowed this. I don't mean and don't believe that the beliefs themselves are the cause of those great evils, but the shelter of faith exempted from the demands of reason and decency has made those evils far easier to perpetrate.

You say "the radical secularization of much of contemporary liberal Quakerism has weakened the power of our social testimonies." On the contrary, if those social testimonies have power it is because they are right, not because George Fox or Jesus or even God said they are right. Their rightness--in fact the whole of morality--is woven into the reality of human beings living together in the world. They are right whether we live by them or not, whatever God thinks.

Joanna said...

"...the religious commitment precedes and informs everything else." This is also my experience; though I do not always live by it as I mean to. And it seems to me that it harmonizes very well with this: "if those social testimonies have power it is because they are right...Their rightness--in fact the whole of morality--is woven into the reality of human beings living together in the world"

To me this reality--all reality--is inseparable from the deepest reality, the God whom I have met, in whom we live and move and have our being. My experience of love, of courage, of right relationship comes from being rooted in God--from times of felt communion when I instinctively know my unity with all those whom I meet, and from holding to this knowledge as faithfully as can when I am emotionally barren. When I don't steep myself in this I still have fine principles and ideas and I still try to do good work, but I undermine the work by my neediness, my fear, my desire, my bitterness. So Paul L's post speaks to my condition.

I do know that faith has been invoked to justify atrocities. So have reason, science, loyalty, comradeship and various other good things. Right relationship with God, and with others in God, includes reason and decency, although it is not limited to them.

I am a Christian because that is the religious tradition in which I was raised and where I came to know God. I don't see a great inherent difference between the lived faithfulness (and unfaithfulness) of Christians and members of other religions. And I know that goodness, justice, right relation are also practiced by nontheists or people who do not identify as religious at all. I don't think less of them. I just can't imagine very well their experience, their source of strength, what holds them accountable, what they experience as primary reality.

Hystery said...

Joanna, I cannot speak for others who fall outside the Christian label, but I do wish to express a commonality with you and perhaps with others who may question the foundation of my ethics, of my commitment to agape apart from a belief in the Christ. You say:


"And I know that goodness, justice, right relation are also practiced by nontheists or people who do not identify as religious at all. I don't think less of them. I just can't imagine very well their experience, their source of strength, what holds them accountable, what they experience as primary reality."

So here is my answer as one such "nontheistic" person:
What holds me accountable, what I experience as primary reality, I do not typically call "God" or "Christ." My own training from seminary and in religious studies precludes this. Sometimes I play with the metaphors of Goddess and Light, of Soul and Spirit and even of Christ, but there are many times when I reject the metaphors of traditional religion entirely as wholly inadequate to the task. There are times when reason, ethics, justice and right relationship are themselves the discipline that holds me true in the same times of weakness when religious people turn to scripture and tradition. But I recognize the Unity you speak of sensing even when I have no name for it. It is just That which Is. It does not need a name or a label or a history or tradition for me to know it. It strums and I resonate.