Faith without heart
The feedback to my column in Monday’s paper (on the Web Sunday) about Christmas was really interesting.
My kids’ orthodontist left a message on my line thanking me. Apparently, something in the piece resonated in a way that helped him take more joy in the holiday. I couldn’t feel any better about that. Awesome. This I attribute to the spirit of hope, which is what Christmas really is about. That bright star in the story says it all.
The column warbled between recognition that Christmas is a hands-down Christian holiday imbued with American family tradition despite the prudish secular rules wrapped around it these days, and understanding the holiday as a beacon of hope against fundamentalists who seek to make everyday life fall in line with their religious beliefs, a dreary prospect indeed.
Something like that. This is hard stuff. You’ll have to read the column, which I pasted below this posting. I enjoyed exploring this with words but figured that the result was pretty much unreadable to that great mass of folks that chooses over everything else Wednesday on our Web site to read about the Houston pastor’s cranky wife getting thrown off a plane bound for Vail. And thoughtful folks wonder why Michael Jackson and Britney Spears get so much press? That’s easy. You ain’t exactly reading the Patriot Act en masse.
Anyway. Had a long talk after noon basketball with a young preacher friend still fresh from seminary. Very bright, very articulate. Some of the column he agreed with, but he thought that I had painted fundamentalism with too broad a brush in the column.
He pointed out that many people, including him, believe in the Bible literally, word for word, who are not fundamentalists. Which is true. The fundamentalism I was taking issue with is the strain outlined in Karen Armstrong’s New York Times bestseller, “The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism.”
She looks at fundamentalism in three major religions as a modern response basically to the Enlightenment and resulting rise of the essentially Western secular tide. It’s really fascinating how the movement runs in parallel in the Christian Protestant, Muslim and Jewish faiths.
But the fundammentalism we’re talking about here is the stuff of Khomeini taking over their countries’ governments, and about the discomfort more and more American citizens are feeling about the born again influences in the Bush administration.
My preacher friend does not see the Christmas story as a mre story, but fact, just as he views the rest of the Bible. But neither does he believe that government should make us all kneel to the same faith. For one, as he understands, government can’t force us to believe in our hearts. Only God can do that. And that’s a big difference from those who would make our laws, our leaders and our everyday existence “godly” according to their interpretations. The Taliban are the extreme. Our Falwells are lite by comparison.
More difficult to understand is Armstrong’s assertion that empiricism ” the scientific method ” changed how the pre-modern faithful understood their religions’ seminal stories. She says that they did not view their faith’s truths scientifically, provably as the truth, but had a more mythological understanding of them that we moderns may not even be able to understand.
My friend points out that many, many early Christians died for their faith ” not to mention the Muslims and Jews who did the same. They didn’t go to that extreme for what they understood as myths. They believed in the reality.
But there was then, as there still is now, a thoroughly mystical aspect to faith. These go quite beyond reason, beyond stories, beyond logic, or “logos” as Armstrong calls it. Beyond words ” which “logos” means in Greek.
I suppose the simplest way to put it is that before the Enlightenment, before the scientfici method changed everything, there was the word, which few could read. Scripture ruled. The fundamentalists would still argue that science fully supports scripture ” whichever their religion ” and that the Word must also be the law for all of us.
These are the folks who have cut out the heart from their faiths. And a faith without heart is a terrifying thing.
Here’s the column. Tell me what you think.
The promise of Christmas
December 18, 2005
Hard to see for the current shopping flurry, but the blessed day is almost here.
It is blessed. It is holy. No getting around that. Why would you want to?
Whatever our faith, this is indeed a Christmas nation. Long live Christmas, beacon of hope in a long winter.
The holiday has that great American stamp on it. The reason is fully Christian, the traditions largely pagan in the best sense, the shopping fueled by capitalism, and the time all about family, especially children.
For spice, we have inane arguments over whether symbols of the story can be allowed in our commons areas – you know, our schools, town halls, municipal parks, fire stations and such. Life is awfully good when that’s an issue.
The Christmas story has a universal quality to it, like Santa’s secular tale. You don’t have to believe in the literal reality of it – most of us don’t – to see higher truths in the telling.
It’s a simple story, imbued with compassion and promise, along with a good bit of outright heresy for the time. How ironic that today it’s wrapped in litigation and undue focus on rules for their own sake.
An innkeeper made an exception. Wealthy men came improbably, bearing gifts for an impoverished baby. The heavens re-aligned, at least for a star, for a time. The baby grew into a man who broke all the rules, man’s and nature’s.
Two-thousand years later, the faith he spawned is going strong.
This faith, splintered into myriad churches, has led some astray through history, sometimes in profoundly evil ways. Overall, though, perhaps none of the great worldwide religions has helped mankind progress more than Christianity.
More significantly, we’re a better people for this faith than not. Even those of us planted firmly in the secular world. We’re foolish to mock it in sum as we disagree with the fundamentalist fringe that has a claw in our government.
I believe that fundamentalism, a response to modern influences on all the great religions, eventually will pass. It has to. In time, scripture will return to the helpful myth as it was written, and empirical study will finally stop fooling people that it can be taken as scripture.
That’s an optimistic view, I know. But despite that long, cold, deadly winter to come, it’s Christmas now.
It’s clear to me that scripture cannot stand up to science where it claims literal reality. And science cannot answer the questions about what lies beyond this plane or the whys of existence.
Neither realm even needs to fight the other. In the end, I believe, we’ll at least figure out that much.
Two books I’m reading now help me as I think about all this.
One is “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini. I know more about life in Afghanistan from this novel than from any of the nonfiction works I’ve read, seen or heard about the country. Everything is made up in this story, yet it reveals truth.
To be sure, the author lived much of what he writes. But the book is fiction for a reason; it’s punched up in parts for literary effect. I don’t have to mistake it for literal truth to get the point.
The other book, “The Battle for God,” by Karen Armstrong, is nonfiction and sweeping. It’s a history of fundamentalism from 1492 to 2001 in three religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
Armstrong, a former Catholic nun and now religious scholar who describes her faith as “free-lance monotheism,” explains that the fundamentalist movements in each of these faiths are relatively new. They actually are modern reflexes to the secular tide.
She argues that the faithful – at least the learned faithful – once better understood the seminal stories of their faiths as myths. Then the empiricism of the modern world baited the faithful relatively recently to try to make their scripture line up as factual reality.
Some clearly bit. And so we have the likes of Falwell, Khomeini and Kook muscling into the political sphere of their respective countries. The Islamic world, particularly the Middle East, was the last to feel the modern whip and currently is the most active in lashing back.
In America, the Republican Party that dominates national governance today seems too much under the sway of fundamentalist Christians to suit many of us.
But it’s important to understand that the fundamentalists make up just part of the rainbow of Christian or other faiths. That rainbow takes in many other hues, bending over to the left, the liberal, the Democratic inclined, as well.
The right does not really own the religion, just the politics of the moment.
I have faith that the holy bureaucrats and cops will not have the last word.
The fundamentalists, in their bid to make the secular more spiritual have instead made the sacred mundane. They’ve lost the spirit of faith, substituting fealty to mere rules.
That isn’t what Christmas is really about. I take the day as a gift, and a promise that we’ll outgrow the long, dreary winter the fundamentalists would impose.
Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14600, or email@example.com