March 10, 2006
The Medieval Enclave
A Jesuit theologian, Edward T. Oakes, reviewing Gary Wills' latest book on the Catholic Church, chides him with this little gem:
As he should know from his own position as a Catholic professor at a secular university, the two great institutional legacies of the Middle Ages to modern civilization are the Catholic Church and the contemporary university, of which the latter is surely the more rigidly hierarchical: With its politically correct orthodoxies, its hegemonically imposed anti-hegemonic discourse, its salary-mongering, its freedom from taxation (how Constantinian!), its speech codes, its teacher evaluations conducted sub secreto pontificio, its heated debate over the minutest matters, its hair-splitting fights over teaching loads and research assistants (tenure as benefice!), the contemporary university makes the Catholic Church look like a Quaker meeting house.Minus the predictable and exaggerated bits about the political correctness and anti-hegemonic discourse, he is, of course, onto something.
April 26, 2005
Religious Ethics in the Public Sphere
Religion in civic life is like a cell phone in the hand of a driver (in my new category of "strange analogies").
(This probably doesn't even belong here since it's so non-anthropological, but I've been mulling it over for a while, and I'm an anthropologist qua muller or muller qua anthropologist or one of those, so...)
I'm thinking mainly of those strands of ethical norms within the "religions of the book" that derive directly from otherworldly sources. These norms often -- even usually -- deal with how one should behave toward one's fellow beings, but using them in the public sphere is like driving around talking on a cell phone: the big problem, as we now know, is not the manual dexterity thing or even the concentration thing, but the focus thing. We are only halfway in the car, on the street, bearing down on the pedestrian, when we're yacking on the phone. Anyone who thinks that everything they need to know to get along with others comes from divine will or divine law is simply not engaging in ethical interaction.
Some of my best friends are religious studies types :-) and I know that Christianity and Judaism and Islam (the "religions of the book," i.e., the ones that tell you what to do or else!) have both doctrinal and popular modes in which this is not so. But my reaction to, say, a Protestant fundamentalist or a an orthodox Catholic who wants to say that gays shouldn't get marriage or life begins at ejaculation or extremist candidates for judicial posts shouldn't be filibustered because God doesn't like it, should hang up and drive, as Click and Clack say! Their religious sensibilities form who they are and are, of course, welcome in the public sphere as such. But civic life, i.e., true "civility," thinking again of Bill Frist and today's news, demands that they put forth a side of themselves a little less back-channeled when they participate in what's left of our American democracy.
(Uh oh, too dark on the bottom. The oven's too hot and it's time to go to bed.)