Taking the Fight to “Phony Theology”

By artist Adam Zyglis

Campaigning in Ohio recently, Rick Santorum opened a new front in the religious and culture wars by declaring that President Obama espouses a “phony theology.” He explained later on Face the Nation that the theology he neglected to initially name was radical environmentalism. Specifically he attacked “this idea that man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth.”

Over at The Christian Century blogs, Steve Thorngate took a little comfort in Santorum’s choice of words. “It’s telling that Santorum—pro-coal, climate-change-denying Rick Santorum—didn’t say that people should ‘subdue’ the earth or ‘have dominion’ over it, language (yes, biblical) that tends to conjure up mindless degradation” of the environment, Thorngate pointed out. At Religion Dispatches, Julie Ingersoll reported that Santorum’s casting of environmentalism as its own religion, inimical to Christianity, is “widespread on the religious right and especially in the Christian right wing of the homeschooling movement of which Santorum is a part.”

If ecological consciousness is a sort of religious outlook (and why would it be any more or less so than, say, supply-side economics?), then its main doctrine, according to Santorum, is that human beings are meant to serve nature rather than the other way around. The presidential hopeful also said people are supposed to “care for the Earth,” which to me evokes the idea of service. But the substance of his argument was really that “radical environmentalists” see the human person as subservient to the rest of creation.

That may be a tendentious view of environmental activism, not to mention Obama’s pragmatic bent on these matters. Santorum’s remarks, however, are not completely beyond the orbit of legitimate questions at stake in debates over religion and the environment. Where do human beings stand, in the hierarchy of the universe? Is there a radical, ontological chasm between human creatures and all other living beings? Is there no essential bond between them?

The biblical and theological sources don’t necessarily offer the predisposed answers that would please Santorum, but they’re illuminating in any case.

It’s all “Very Good”

To start with, it’s fair to say that in the Judeo-Christian tradition, human beings have a unique place in the divine scheme of things. “You have made him [the human person] little less than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor,” the Psalmist says in a song of praise to God’s creation. Praise is given to the Lord for “the work of your finger,” the moon and the stars, sheep and oxen, beasts of the field and all manner of things. The Psalmist is awed by creation, but equally amazed that God would give man and woman so lofty a place—only a little below the angels—in the created order (Psalm 8:6).

That said, the mountains and beasts have an inherent value of their own, quite apart from their usefulness to human beings. In Genesis we read that after fashioning the universe, “God looked at everything he made, and he found it very good.” Religious people have often taken this to mean simply that the creation of man and woman was deemed good, but most theologians agree that “everything” refers to a cosmic reality—the whole of the universe. It’s all very good and worthy of respect.

In the same vein, Christians often speak as if Christ’s redemption extends only to humanity. The New Testament, however, states that all of creation was redeemed, that Christ “reconciled to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the Cross” (Colossians 1:20-21).

As depicted in these and other spiritual sources, there’s a creaturely commonality across the universe. St. Augustine explained that nonhumans and humans alike could sing together, “We did not make ourselves.” The great philosopher also speaks of a natural world that (like its human counterpart) is intended to pay witness to divine reality:

Ask the loveliness of the earth, ask the loveliness of the seas, ask the loveliness of the wide airy spaces … ask the living things which move in the waters, which tarry on the land, which fly in the air…. Ask all these things, and they will answer: Yes, we are lovely. Their loveliness is their confession.

Diving into Dualisms

Let’s give this the Santorum spin. Are human beings “here to serve the Earth,” or does nature exist purely to service human needs and wants? If you’re coming from a theocentric perspective, a good answer would be “no” on both counts. In an enlightened Judeo-Christian reading, nature isn’t there simply to accommodate humans, or vice versa. Its value is intrinsic, not just instrumental. From that perspective, both human beings and the natural world exist to serve a transcendent God, to fulfill divine purposes. And they are mutually interdependent.

People are unique, but they’re still part of creation and share that existential bond with other creatures, according to a broad interreligious consensus today. By that light, our uniqueness is not an invitation to try to stand above the created world, a status that belongs strictly to the Creator. It is, rather, a call to cooperate with God in the care of creation.

But it’s hard to find the right balance when you’re diving headfirst into dualisms, insisting on a stark choice between “man” and “the Earth.” …read more

Writing High on War

In his unflinchingly honest book War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, former New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges spoke of war as a drug—which he imbibed. He certainly looked happy in pictures of him taken during the wars in the former Yugoslavia that he covered for the Times, but that’s not the exact feeling he described. “I had a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning,” he explained to my friend and colleague Bob Abernethy in a June 2003 interview. “I had a sense of ennoblement. There is a rush in war. And it’s very hard, if not impossible, to re-create this feeling in anything else.”

War correspondents are well known for seeking that rush—although Anthony Shadid was wired differently. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist died a week ago after suffering an asthma attack while reporting on the conflict in Syria for the Times. (Yesterday two more journalists, an American working for The Sunday Times of London and a French photographer, died in shelling there by Syrian security forces.) Shadid did not like being called a “war” correspondent. “I don’t enjoy covering war,” he told an interviewer last year. But he did want to cover the Middle East, and he explained that when conflict becomes part of that story, “then I feel obligated to cover it.”

In one of the tributes following the tragedy, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post felt a need to point out that Shadid was “no adrenaline junkie.” The contrast with other battlefield scribes was implicit. Recounting times when Shadid (who died at 43) was shot and kidnapped while going after stories, Chandrasekaran added, “He did it because he wanted to know what was really happening. And that couldn’t be gleaned from a distance.”

Hedges’s book, on the other hand, is in part a chronicle of compulsion and exhilaration. His ultimate verdict on war has far less to do with glorification than with indictment, but as he described in the interview with Abernethy (adapted in a book that Bob and I did, The Life of Meaning):

In every conflict I’ve covered, you reach a point—and I think I reached this point certainly in El Salvador—where you feel that it’s better to live for one intoxicating, empowering moment than ever go back to the dull routine of ordinary life, and if your own death is the cost of that, then that’s a cost you’re willing to accept.

Almost inseparable from the addictiveness, in Hedges’s treatment, is the sense of meaning and purpose. He’s not just talking about war correspondents. He refers to the kind of meaning that soldiers find when they’re tested in battle, and that the civilian Serbs of Sarajevo found when they paraded in the streets at the outbreak of war against their ancient enemies, the Croats. On both sides in the Balkans, “people were ecstatic,” he recalled in the interview.

 A kind of euphoria often grips a country in wartime. And war is, of course, the very opposite of that. It is a bit like the beautiful nymph in the fairy tale that seduces you, and when you kiss it, it inhales the vapors of the underworld.

Just War = Good War?

Here’s where meaning drifts toward madness. And that is the fate of deadly force as portrayed also by some of the most compelling theological figures of the past few generations. Pope John Paul II, for example, was not known to wax meaningful about the ecstasies of war. He sounded more like a French existentialist when he spoke of war as “an adventure with no return,” and as always a “defeat for humanity.” John Paul’s was quite nearly a pacifist pontificate.

How far have these sentiments traveled from the classical Christian just-war theory? Not as far as they might seem.

St. Augustine, the architect of that intellectual tradition, believed that war could be morally justified under exceptional circumstances, but that doesn’t mean he believed in such a thing as a “good war,” as World War II has been called. Phillip Cary, a philosophy professor at Eastern University in Pennsylvania and an astute interpreter of Augustine, has thrown light on this fine distinction in his lectures and writings. Cary told me a few years ago that the post-9/11 rallying cry might be, “Fight in good conscience. The terrorists are the bad guys.” But he added that Augustine would say differently, “Fight in bad conscience. The terrorists are human beings and sinners just like you.”

It is a tragic and paradoxical place that war inhabits, in such a theological view—morally inescapable at times, but scarcely virtuous. …read more

Speaking of the Devil

Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada"

Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada"

Most people would agree that a political conversation is probably skidding downhill when one participant accuses another of channeling demons. One person who would beg to differ is the political firebrand Ann Coulter, who lives pretty far down that hill and whose latest book is Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America.

According to her, liberals and Democrats are literally demonic because they foster a “mob mentality,” which they’ve done since the civil rights movement— “the first mob,” Coulter calls it. Left-leaning activists including environmentalists and unionists are the principal horn-wearers in this book. They are cast as both demonically possessed and as the evil spirits themselves—which raises the metaphysical conundrum of demons possessed by demons.

Of course Coulter is hardly the first to see the Prince of Darkness behind causes unpalatable to her. Many opponents of civil rights conducted a brisk trade in such imagery during the 1960s, and still do—if the deluge of Google results for “Martin Lucifer King” is any guide. Christian antinuclear protesters have proclaimed a mission to “expel the demons” from those who countenance the stockpiling of such weapons.

I’d be happy to leave Satan out of any and all political discussions. But now comes a different tack on the subject by one of my favorite scholars of antiquity, Luke Timothy Johnson, whose probing article in the October 7 edition of Commonweal magazine is titled “Powers and Principalities: The Devil is No Joke.”

Johnson points to a general inclination among reasonable people to see the Devil as an amusing topic—rendered as the man in red tights, for instance, or Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. In contrast, he makes an authoritative case that the New Testament writers and early Christian theologians, not to mention the Greco-Roman world and Jewish thinkers, used the language of demons and evil spirits fluently. And they did so in all seriousness.

A professor of New Testament and early Christianity at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, he asks: “Is it possible, then, that the New Testament’s language about the demonic is true in ways that are important for us to relearn? Does the language say what needs saying in a way no other language can?”

Johnson argues soundly that in our time the language of social science has proved inadequate to the task of explaining such unspeakable evil as the Holocaust and the Cambodian killing fields. For such behavior, he writes, “It is important to be able to speak of the Devil.”

A Call for Reticence

Perhaps, but Johnson is quick to acknowledge the downside. He grants that demon language has a checkered history of “misapplication, overextension, and trivialization,” notably among Christians (as evidenced in the polemics against Jews, heretics, and many others). People of faith should exercise “reticence and linguistic discipline” as they seek to rehabilitate Devil talk, he advises.

At the same time he sees ample signs of demonic pull—for example, in the “systems of addiction” that enslave people and destroy families. In addition, Johnson (whose most recent book is Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity) applauds the liberation theologians for speaking of the Evil One when critiquing structures of oppression.

Linguistic purists may shudder at the terms employed in such critical analyses. But racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia are real, and their capacity to damage and destroy, even as they corrupt those who practice them, is powerful indeed…. The act of liberation begins with naming such systems for what they are: the work of powers and principalities—the Devil’s work—intended to hurt God by harming humans.

Johnson’s cautions and caveats are welcomed, but there’s still cause for wariness. He might see a huge difference between demonizing an oppressive social system (which can be problematic enough), and demonizing one’s political opponents (as Coulter does with aplomb). Unfortunately the distinction can be a quick casualty in the ideological crossfire.

What might help is the sensibility of St. Augustine. The theologian and philosopher understood evil, which is why he believed the use of deadly force against an aggressor could be (in theory) morally justified. But he also wrestled with his internal demons and wrote about them more than 1600 years ago in his Confessions, the first and most celebrated spiritual autobiography.

One lesson from Augustine is that no one should ever fight evil as though it were completely outside of himself or herself. Or, to paraphrase a modern-day conservationist slogan: We have seen the Devil, and he is, all too frequently, us. …read more

css.php