Berger on American Civil Religion and the Boston Marathon Bombing

Peter Berger has a very smart column describing both the shortcomings and the advantages of American civil religion, as expressed and manifested in the rituals and ceremonies after the Boston Marathon bombing.  A bit:

Soon after the bombings a makeshift memorial was spontaneously put up. A Globe article described it as “an eclectic collection of crosses, candles, teddy bears, medals, running shoes, and hundreds of other personalized items that reflect a common sorrow.” I don’t know when or where this practice originated, but it has occurred on other occasions of shared grief, for example following the death of Princess Diana. There were a few overtly religious messages inserted into the display, but the memorial as a whole had a clearly ritual, quasi-sacral character. People were coming and going, stood quietly in an attitude of prayer, wrote messages. A six-year old girl laboriously wrote a message saying “We love you so much!”. That was the major theme—expressions of affection for the victims. Then there were affirmations of resolve against violence, and expressions of the intent to run again in next year’s Marathon. Sacral ritual or not, no denominationally specific religion was visible here . . . .

The opening address at the Cathedral service was delivered by the Reverend Liz Walker, a Presbyterian minister. I was struck by the following passage: “How can God allow bad things to happen? Where was God when evil slithered in and planted the horror that exploded our innocence?” She said that she had no answer, and added, “But this is what I know: God is here, in the midst of this sacred gathering and beyond.”

I would not be misunderstood: I have no problem whatever for a minister not knowing “the answer” to the age-old question of theodicy. After all, I co-authored a book with the title In Praise of Doubt—by definition, I think, faith implies an absence of certainty—I don’t have to believe what I know. But that is not the point here. The point is this: The faith that Walker represents does have an answer, centered on the redemptive process inaugurated by the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, culminating on that Day of Judgment when all evil will finally be punished. But what is more: She could not (whether in tones of certainty or not) explicate this answer in the context of this service. Once again, I would not be misunderstood: I have no criticism of Walker’s reticence about the Christian faith she is supposed to represent. It would have been inappropriate here for her to come out with overtly Christian (let alone with Protestant or, if such there are, Presbyterian) references.  But it is useful to reflect about the relation between any specific faith and the civil religion affirmed in this service . . . .

Grace Davie, a British sociologist, has written about the way in which established churches, in moments of collective grief, become the official mourners of the nation, even though only a minority of citizens worship in their services. The Church of England played this role at the funeral of Princess Diana, as did the Lutheran Church of Sweden (it has recently been disestablished) when the cruise ship “Estonia” sank in the Baltic Sea and a large number of Swedish tourists perished. The United States of course has no state church, but all the denominations together serve to legitimate the civil religion that can be embraced by all citizens.

This is a very distinctive American version of the separation of church and state, a quite strict legal separation, yet with diverse religious groups noisily present in public life. I think that, by and large, this has been a very successful arrangement. It presupposes that a religious group, when it enters public space, must translate its commentaries into terms that can be understood and debated by all citizens, most of whom will not be members of the particular group. Put differently, if one wants to persuade fellow-citizens in public space, one must employ a secular discourse. That discourse does have a moral foundation, the value system of the “American Creed”. Adherents of this or that specific faith may find these values more vague, even superficial, than the ones derived directly from faith, and they themselves may understand their allegiance to the Creed in terms specific to their faith. Thus the secular discourse of the public space coexists with the plurality of specific (if you will, “sectarian”) religious discourses.

I wonder about the point about translation, which reminds me a little bit of Rawls’s proviso.  It may be more accurate to say that the specific religious discourses not only coexist with the civil religion, but themselves somehow constitute it.  That could be compatible with believing that the whole of civil religion is greater (and, of course, also less) than the sum of its discrete sectarian parts.  But it would also be compatible with rejecting the metaphor of translation.  Because, as Berger himself suggests, there are deep features of the specific traditions that do not translate (as in, for example, his example of theodicy) but may nevertheless in some way constitute part of the civil religion amalgam.

Two Syrian Bishops Kidnapped

A few days ago, I wrote about the persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt and the failure of many  in the West to recognize it for what it is. The Arab Spring has made the Copts’ situation even more unsafe than it used to be. The Muslim Brotherhood is even less concerned with protecting Copts from violence than the Mubarak regime was.

A similar pattern may be unfolding in Syria. On Monday, two bishops from Aleppo–Bishop Paul Yazigi of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and Bishop John Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church–were kidnapped at gunpoint near the Turkish border.  (The two churches, one “Eastern” and the other “Oriental” Orthodox, are not full communion, but their relationship in Syria is very close). Some reports say the kidnappers were Chechen fighters working with the Syrian opposition, though the opposition denies involvement. At this writing, the bishops’ location and condition are unknown; early reports of their release, credited to an Antiochian bishop named “Tony” who turned out to be non-existent, were false. The kidnappers murdered the deacon who was serving as the bishops’ driver.

It’s certainly true that Muslims  in Syria are suffering as well. Only yesterday, the minaret of the famous Umayyad mosque in Aleppo, dating from the 12th Century, was destroyed. But Christians are particularly vulnerable and are often caught in the crossfire. Although they have tried to remain neutral, they are associated with the Assad regime; they are suspected by the opposition, especially by Islamist elements. Plus, Christians have connections outside Syria that make it possible for them to emigrate. In a way, this fact makes Christians’ situation more precarious. Islamists reason that,  if pushed enough, Christians will simply leave the country. So why not push them?

The kidnapping of two senior church figures is obviously meant to send a message to Christians: your position here is not secure. If revolution develops in Syria the way it has in Egypt, the country’s Christians have much to fear.

Adams, Pattison, & Ward, The Oxford Handbook of Theology and Modern European Thought

Oxford HandbookNext month Oxford University Press will publish The Oxford Handbook of Theology and Modern European Thought edited by Nicholas Adams (University of Edinburgh), George Pattison (University of Oxford), and Graham Ward (University of Oxford).  The publisher’s description follows.

 ‘Modern European thought’ describes a wide range of philosophies, cultural programmes, and political arguments developed in Europe in the period following the French Revolution. Throughout this period, many of the wide range of ‘modernisms’ (and anti-modernisms) had a distinctly religious and even theological character-not least when religion was subjected to the harshest criticism. Yet for all the breadth and complexity of modern European thought and, in particular, its relations to theology, a distinct body of themes and approaches recurred in each generation. Moreover, many of the issues that took intellectual shape in Europe are now global, rather than narrowly European, and, for good or ill, they form part of Europe’s bequest to the world-from colonialism and the economic theories behind globalisation through to democracy to terrorism. This volume attempts to identify and comment on some of the most important of these.

 The thirty chapters are grouped into six thematic parts, moving from questions of identity and the self, through discussions of the human condition, the age of revolution, the world (both natural and technological), and knowledge methodologies, concluding with a section looking explicitly at how major theological themes have developed in modern European thought. The chapters engage with major thinkers including Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Schleiermacher, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Barth, Rahner, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Wittgenstein, and Derrida, amongst many others. Taken together, these new essays provide a rich and reflective overview of the interchange between theology, philosophy and critical thought in Europe, over the past two hundred years.

Caryl, Strange Rebels

Strange RebelsThis month Basic Books will publish Strange Rebels by Christian Caryl.  The publisher’s description follows.

 Few moments in history have seen as many seismic transformations as 1979. That single year marked the emergence of revolutionary Islam as a political force on the world stage, the beginning of market revolutions in China and Britain that would fuel globalization and radically alter the international economy, and the first stirrings of the resistance movements in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. More than any other year in the latter half of the twentieth century, 1979 heralded the economic, political, and religious realities that define the twenty-first. In Strange Rebels, veteran journalist Christian Caryl shows how the world we live in today—and the problems that plague it—began to take shape in this pivotal year. 1979, he explains, saw a series of counterrevolutions against the progressive consensus that had dominated the postwar era. The year’s epic upheavals embodied a startling conservative challenge to communist and socialist systems around the globe, fundamentally transforming politics and economics worldwide. In China, 1979 marked the start of sweeping market-oriented reforms that have made the country the economic powerhouse it is today. 1979 was also the year that Pope John Paul II traveled to Poland, confronting communism in Eastern Europe by reigniting its people’s suppressed Catholic faith. In Iran, meanwhile, an Islamic Revolution transformed the nation into a theocracy almost overnight, overthrowing the Shah’s modernizing monarchy. Further west, Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of Britain, returning it to a purer form of free-market capitalism and opening the way for Ronald Reagan to do the same in the US. And in Afghanistan, a Soviet invasion fueled an Islamic holy war with global consequences; the Afghan mujahedin presaged the rise of al-Qaeda and served as a key factor—along with John Paul’s journey to Poland—in the fall of communism. Weaving the story of each of these counterrevolutions into a brisk, gripping narrative, Strange Rebels is a groundbreaking account of how these far-flung events and disparate actors and movements gave birth to our modern age.