Maimonides came to my attention through a review, written by Jay Harris, that appeared in Foreign Affairs.  A 2009 biography of Maimonides, by Moshe Halbertal, has recently been translated into English, and released by Princeton University Press.

Some people see religion as a positive harm. It’s a block to progress, or a source of violence. In this view, humanity would be better off to discard God and religion, and to rely on reason.

Harris astutely points out that contemporary non-religious (i.e., secular) “political and moral discourse” has not “particularly distinguished itself when it comes to dealing with the world….” Instead of bypassing religion, Harris (following Maimonides) suggests that we need better theology. That is, human well-being will not be increased by trying to avoid, deny, or banish religion; human well-being will be increased by doing religion better.

And doing religion better means doing theology better– “theology” in this sense understood broadly as any reasoned speaking or reasoned conversation about God.

Here is Harris on Maimonides:

Maimonides insists that a proper understanding of God (knowing what God is not), together with the commandment to imitate God as he is manifest in the world, will lead people to a life devoted to righteousness and loving-kindness– the essence of God’s impact on the world. A mistaken understanding of God, on the other hand, can lead people to place a divine imprimatur on all manner of evil acts.

 

 

Leading Small

Ideas matter. The way we live is patterned by what we think. Ideas that are commonly accepted as “the way things are” merit our special attention, because seldom are they truly of the essence of things.

While I’ve previously written about the love of money in our culture, and the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest, the following excerpt from a December article by David Cloutier, in “Commonweal,” offers a somewhat new slant: our relentless pursuit of goods is social glue. In a fragmented society in which hierarchies have crumbled and authorities have been discredited, we are held together in consumption. What Cloutier doesn’t mention, is that this way of groping for cohesion leads, ironically, to more isolation.

The idea that unlimited acquisitiveness is a good thing, is an idea that leads to no good end. Among other ill effects, it produces a state of mind in the general population that enough is never enough– a state of mind that grinds people (depending on their temperament and social status) into either a neurotic busyness, or into a hopeless, listless despondency. Equating a good life with unlimited acquisitiveness is a bankrupt and bankrupting idea.

Modesty is one old-fashioned idea that needs lifted up anew.

In the excerpt below, you can substitute the word “Christian” wherever Cloutier writes “Catholic”:

But if many Catholics are more willing to admire someone like Dorothy Day than to follow her example, that is also partly because many of us have adapted to our country’s consumer culture—a culture in which affluence is morally innocent or even commendable. “More” is taken to be a universal aspiration, perhaps one of the few we are all supposed to share in our multicultural society. Everyone wants “a better life” or “the American dream” for their children. In The Unintended Reformation, Brad Gregory suggests that “the goods life” is the social glue uniting an otherwise “hyperpluralistic” society. Whatever else we may disagree about, we agree that if you can have nicer things, you should have nicer things. In such a culture, it is easy for Catholic Americans to forget their church’s teaching that our excess wealth must be directed to the common good rather than to private indulgence. We cling tenaciously to the ideology of happiness as the pursuit of limitless wealth, buying into what Fr. John A. Ryan called the “higher-standard-of-living fallacy.” Ryan insists that social reform requires us to “put away that false conception of life and values which permeates all classes of contemporary society, and which holds that right life consists in the indefinite expansion of material wants.”

via Sending the Wrong Signal | Commonweal Magazine.

Rev. Dr. King

King’s letter from the Birmingham jail was written in response to an open letter, published in the Birmingham News, calling on those engaged in non-violent resistance to give up that method, and pursue their cause in the courts. The letter was signed by seven Alabama Protestant ministers and a rabbi.

King’s response, his now-famous letter from jail, is in the top five pieces of public/political speech in our nation’s history. Like Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, the Letter combines passion, logic, and wisdom in a way that is deeply satisfactory to a just and compassionate sensibility about how our common life should be. For King, the time was ripe to prod the nation’s conscience through peaceful protest. Moderation had become just another way to continue denying a whole race of people their equal rights.

Not often remarked, though very plain in the letter, is King’s critique of the moderate church– and, by extension, his critique of the moderate churchmen to whom he is responding. “Moderate” here is not a compliment. In a similar vein, it reminds me of how Bernard of Clairvaux warned against “lukewarmness” in the spiritual life:

Sometimes halfway is really nowhere.

Here is an excerpt from “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The year is 1963:

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust….

via About Dr. King | The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

The language of art and music is most appropriate to describe why I became a Christian, because my religious belief is more analogous to my appreciation of, say, a Brahms symphony, than it is to having been convinced of the veracity of a set of truth claims. I find religion more like a song to sing, than a string of propositions leading to a conclusion. So:

I became a Christian because it rings true to my ear. He are some of the resonate notes:

Grace. We live only by receiving love that we don’t deserve: it is gift, unearned and therefore free. I am not talking about god. I am talking about babies. All they do/we did is eat, cry, soil diapers, and sleep. We arrived on the planet entirely helpless and dependent, devoid of skill, co-ordination, and language, and through our parents’ acts of sacrificial love, we lived. Now, as adults, the giving and receiving of this grace to one another makes life meaningful: the gifts of generous hearts.

A religion that understands the divine essence to include something as basic as the grace of sacrificial love, seems true.

Vulnerability. Intimate human relationships are impossible without vulnerability, and yet we are (for good reason) terrified of vulnerability. We can get hurt. We open ourselves to rejection. But we know that deep living requires our willingness to put ourselves out there, to take the risk of openness, to touch people that others shun. Vulnerability is the only way to abundant living, because it’s the only way to form meaningful connections with others.

A religion that understands the divine essence to include vulnerability, seems true.

Bodies. Bodies are important. While distinguishing between bodies and spirits helps us conceptualize two aspects of our being that feel distinct from one another, Christian anthropology, in keeping with the Hebraic understanding, sees bodies as spiritual; or, conversely, sees spirit as enfleshed. This is unlike the Greek understanding, where the immortal soul finds temporary housing in the body, only to be freed at the body’s death. Resurrection, while beyond what reason can think, is consistent with a refusal to regard our bodies as mere receptacles of the soul. I like a religion that sees bodies as inseparable from spirit.

via Christian Images.

Philomena Lee

Apparently “Philomena,” starring Judi Dench, is surpassing expectations at the box office. Good. If you haven’t seen it, set aside some time to take in the story of a mother searching for the son she had to give up, 50 years ago.

No spoilers ahead– I’m not going to recount the story here. One lingering reflection, however, has to do with a nun who is portrayed as especially– even cruelly– bitter and moralistic: Sister Hildegarde.

As a professional religious person, I pay attention to how professional religious people are portrayed in movies. Dithering blowhard fools is one characterization: think of the priest in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and his invocation of the “Holy Goat,” um, er, “Holy Spigot;” or in “The Princess Bride,” when Humperdink and Buttercup stand before the priest who, nasally and with a speech impediment, begins to sermonize about “Twooo Wuv……” Then there’s the saccharine Father Mulcahy of the TV series “MASH”: innocent, pious, toothless– likable but largely irrelevant. The best I could come up with, are the nuns in “The Sound of Music,” who, aside from having some singing ability, actually engage in an act of moral courage that helps the von Trapps escape from Austria (and open a 3-star resort in Stowe).

And now we have Sister Hildegarde, a character who seems to worship her religion, rather than her God. Usurping the role of judge, Sister Hildegarde metes out a punishment that can only be called cruel. She doesn’t get the last word, however, and in this movie the last word goes to the character who is closer to the heart of divine mercy than those who appear to be the professional religious. In that way, “Philomena” is not so far removed from the Bible’s newer testament.

via Box office surprise: Judi Dench’s “Philomena” – CBS News.

A Pagan Rejoinder to “Keep Christ in Christmas”

The atheist/agnostic group Freedom from Religion Foundation bought this “Keep Saturn in Saturnalia” billboard in Pitman, New Jersey, in response to a “Keep Christ in Christmas” banner that hangs in town. Someone was offended, and tried to burn down the billboard. As the article below wryly notes, the steel support beams suffered minor charring.

The billboard and ensuing hubbub provoke a couple thoughts. First, in this particular example, the atheists have a better sense of humor than the dour Christians of misdirected earnestness.

Second, with regard to the wider culture: has anyone in Pitman noticed that Christ hasn’t been in Christmas since at least 1980? If he were in Christmas, we would be paying more attention to Isaiah’s prophetic vision: beating swords into plowshares (2:4), assuring the fearful (35:4), and dealing graciously with the poor and socially inferior (11:4).

The excerpt follows, with the link below:

A South Jersey billboard proclaiming “Keep the Saturn in Saturnalia” was torched Tuesday night by two unidentified men who fled in a pickup truck after only charring the sign’s steel support beams.The billboard, erected as a cheeky counterpoint to a “Keep Christ in Christmas” banner in downtown Pitman, refers to the ancient pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice, held in mid-December to honor the Roman god, Saturn.

The incendiary incident is only the latest to be sparked by the billboard, which was paid for by a national group of atheists. According to town officials, many Pitman residents lost their holiday cheer when they woke up Friday morning to see the message plastered at the intersection of two heavily trafficked roads….

via Attempt to burn down atheists’ Saturnalia billboard in South Jersey.

David Simon

Five days ago, Pope Francis was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” just a few days after releasing the first major document of his papacy in which he criticized the economy of “exclusion and inequality.” Once again we say: “Pope, Yes!”

Relatedly, journalist and TV producer David Simon recently gave a speech at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. In his speech, Simon said that capitalism has “achieved its dominance without regard to a social compact, without being connected to any other metric for human progress.”

Both the pope and David Simon are simply pointing to the obvious chasm between the well-off and the poor, and asking: does this need to be?

Christianity has become a marginalized religion in North America. We might as well claim our spot on the margins, and join the pope (and David Simon, and others) in exposing the human cost of economic practices that separate people into winners and losers, and that increasingly make it difficult for those who have “lost” to have hope. As Paul Raushenbush has written, we who are part of the Jesus Movement would do this not because we are Marxists, but because we are followers of Jesus.

I recommend taking some time with Simon’s words. An excerpt and link follow below.

America is a country that is now utterly divided when it comes to its society, its economy, its politics. There are definitely two Americas. I live in one, on one block in Baltimore that is part of the viable America, the America that is connected to its own economy, where there is a plausible future for the people born into it. About 20 blocks away is another America entirely. It’s astonishing how little we have to do with each other, and yet we are living in such proximity….

via David Simon: ‘There are now two Americas. My country is a horror show’ | World news | The Observer.

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