Gill, “An Argument for Same-Sex Marriage”

Last Month, Georgetown University Press published An Argument for Same-Sex Marriage: Religious Freedom, Sexual Freedom, and Public Expressions of Civic Equality by Emily R. Gill (Bradley University). The publisher’s description follows.

The relationship between religious belief and sexuality as personal attributes exhibits some provocative comparisons. Despite the nonestablishment of religion in the United States and the constitutional guarantee of free exercise, Christianity functions as the religious and moral standard in America. Ethical views that do not fit within this consensus often go unrecognized as moral values. Similarly, in the realm of sexual orientation, heterosexuality is seen as the yardstick by which sexual practices are measured. The notion that “alternative” sexual practices like homosexuality could possess ethical significance is often overlooked or ignored.

In her new book, An Argument for Same-Sex Marriage, political scientist Emily Gill draws an extended comparison between religious belief and sexuality, both central components of one’s personal identity. Using the religion clause of the First Amendment as a foundation, Gill contends that, just as US law and policy ensure that citizens may express religious beliefs as they see fit, it should also ensure that citizens may marry as they see fit. Civil marriage, according to Gill, is a public institution, and the exclusion of some couples from a state institution is a public expression of civic inequality. Read more

Berlinerblau, “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom”

This month, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom by Jacques Berlinerblau (Georgetown University). The publisher’s description follows.

Seen as godless by the religious and weak by the atheists, secularism mostly has been misunderstood. In How to Be Secular, Berlinerblau argues for a return to America’s hard-won secular tradition; the best way to protect religious diversity and freedom lies in keeping an eye on the encroachment of each into the other.

Berlinerblau passionately defends the virtues of secularism, reminds us what it is and what it can protect, and urges us to mobilize around its cause, which is for all Americans to continue to enjoy freedom for—and from—religion. This is an urgent wake-up call for progressives in and out of all faiths.

Getting Out of Our Grooves — Part I: Where Does Religious Freedom Come From?

Locke’s famous “Letter Concerning Toleration” urged us to “get out of our grooves and study the rest of the globe.”  In particular, he pointed to Turkey where the “Sultan governs in peace twenty million people of different religions . . . .”

Karen Barkey of Columbia University has given us a chance to get out of our church-state grooves with many terrific insights into the crucial role of religious toleration in the Ottoman Empire.  Her wonderful book is Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective (2008).  What’s most interesting, at least from my point of view, is how Ottoman rulers pursued toleration as a policy to the extent that it had political, economic, strategic and other benefits for the rulers.

We often see issues of religious toleration/freedom as essentially intellectual or philosophical matters, something that governments should provide simply because it’s the right thing to do.  Professor Barkey, a sociologist and historian, shows clearly how Ottoman “toleration is neither equality nor a modern form of ‘multiculturalism’ in the imperial setting.  Rather, it is a means of rule, of extending, consolidating, and enforcing state power.”

It’s a fascinating book not just about religion, but also about how empires establish and sustain themselves over time and extended geographical areas.  And, though I don’t want to stretch the analogy too far to an empire built on raiding and booty, for those of us who have spent considerable amounts of time in the “real world,” there are a lot of issues common to running an international company and maintaining a sprawling empire. (Even the most imperial CEO, however, is unlikely to have the full range of enforcement mechanisms available to the sultans.)

Don Drakeman

Classic Revisited: Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity

It’s been a while since I did one of these, and though Michael Allen Gillespie’s The Theological Origins of Modernity (2008) is a little young for “classic” status, it is a learned and original intellectual history of modernity.  Gillespie’s thesis is that the conventional account of modernity as setting itself in opposition to or as rejecting altogether religion and theology is mistaken.  Instead, as he puts it early in the book:

[F]rom the very beginning, modernity sought not to eliminate religion but to support and develop a new view of religion and its place in human life, and did so not out of hostility to religion but in order to sustain certain religious beliefs.  As we shall see, modernity is best understood as an attempt to find a new metaphysical/theological answer to the question of the nature and relation of God, man, and the natural world that arose in the late medieval world as a result of a titanic struggle between contradictory elements within Christianity itself . . . . I will argue further that while this metaphysical/theological core of the modern project was concealed over time by the very sciences that it produced, it was never far from the surface, and it continued to guide our thinking and action, often in ways that we do not perceive or understand.  I will argue that the attempt to read the questions of theology and metaphysics out of modernity has in fact blinded us to the continuing importance of theological issues in modern thought in ways that make it very difficult to come to terms with out current situation.

Gillespie goes about making his case by beginning with the contest between scholasticism and nominalism (the view that what is real is particular and individual, not universal, and so “God [cannot] be understood by human reason but only by biblical revelation or mystical experience”).  The conflict was, as he says above, primarily and originally a late medieval conflict, not one which came into being in the Enlightenment (let alone later).  “The God that Aquinas and Dante described was infinite, but the glory of his works and the certainty of his goodness were manifest everywhere.  The nominalist God, by contrast, was frighteningly omnipotent, utterly beyond human ken, and a continual threat to human well-being.  Moreover, this God could never be captured in words and consequently could be experienced only as a titanic question that evoked awe and dread.  It was this question, I want to suggest, that stands at the beginning of modernity.”  (15)

One feature of the book that was particularly enjoyable for me is Gillespie’s emphasis on the poet Petrarch as the representative both of this struggle and of the turn toward nominalism (in graduate school years ago, Petrarch’s poems about Laura in the Canzoniere were one of my favorite things).  I confess that before reading Gillespie’s book, I had never thought about Petrarch as an important or even a notable figure with respect to these kinds of issues.  Gillespie devotes roughly a chapter and a half to him.  He claims that Petrarch was the first writer to face the nominalist challenge — the view that “there is no divine logos or reason that can serve as the foundation for a political, cosmopolitan, or theological identity.” (45)  Confronted with the political and social chaos of the mid-14th century, Petrarch looked “not to the city, God, or the cosmos for support, but into himself, finding an island of stability and hope not in citizenship but in human individuality.”

I cannot do justice to Gillespie’s superb treatment of Petrarch, but here’s a relatively late summary paragraph in his discussion:

It is difficult today to appreciate the impact Petrarch had on his contemporaries in part because we find it so difficult to appreciate his impact on us.  Petrarch is scarcely remembered in our time.  There are very few humanists or academics who can name even one of his works; and none of his Latin works makes it on to a list of great books.  And yet, without Petrarch, there would be no humanists or academics, no great books, no book culture at all, no humanism, no Renaissance, and no modern world as we have come to understand it.  Why then have we forgotten him?  Several factors contribute to his oblivion: the neglect of Latin literature as literary scholars have increasingly focused on national literatures, changing scholarly tastes and fashions, and the fact that many of his works fall outside of familiar genres.  But the real cause lies deeper.  Petrarch seldom tells us anything that we don’t already know, and as a result he seems superfluous to us.  But this is the measure of his importance, for what he achieved is now so universally taken for granted that we find it difficult to imagine things could have been otherwise.  (69)

One last side note, and please forgive the musical addendum, but Franz Liszt certainly did not forget Petrarch.  Have a listen to his extremely beautiful song cycle, “Les Années de Pèlerinage” (“The Years of Wandering” — which is just what Petrarch did for most of his life), and particularly Year 3 in that cycle (“en Italie”), which contains some wonderful settings of several Petrarchan sonnets.  Number 47 is really spectacular and, maybe, captures a little of what Gillespie is talking about.

Conference on Christian Persecution

Notwithstanding this weekend’s good news from Iran, the persecution of Christians around the world continues to pose a major human rights problem. This November, the Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame will hold a conference, “Seed of the Church: Telling the Story of Today’s Christian Martyrs,” addressing the issues. Here’s an excerpt from the conference announcement:

It is striking how little attention the secular world pays to this injustice, despite the fact that the persecution of Christians is one of the largest classes of human rights violations in the world today.   The Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community estimates that some 100 million Christians are victims of severe persecution.  Yet governments, human rights organizations, the global media, and the western university pay little heed.  For example, of three hundred reports that Human Rights Watch has produced since 2008, only one focuses on a case of Christian persecution. Similarly, despite the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act by the U.S. Congress in 1998, neither U.S. foreign policy nor civil society has ever made the persecution of Christians a high priority.

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter and CNN, who recently wrote an interesting essay on the subject, will be one of the keynote speakers. Conference details are here.