Saturday, September 16, 2006

Levy on the Pope's Speech

There is a controversy over Pope Benedict's recent speech -- wherein Benedict apparently committed the grave sin of quoting someone else who believed that Islam is not good. Jacob Levy makes the excellent point that it is only to be expected that religious leaders believe in their own religion:
It seems to me that if religion is meaningful it's serious business; if one is committed to divine truths then one is committed to the falsehood of rival claims. By my human standards "No man comes unto the father but through Me" is a terrible way to run a universe; but if there is a God I have no reason to think that His rules will conform to my contingent, twenty-first-century Western liberal human standards. And so I don't expect religious believers to softpedal the exclusionary implications of their beliefs. I don't think Unitarian Universalism is somehow a better religion than Catholicism or Mormonism or Orthodox Judaism just because its god seems to be so nice and inclusive . . . .

* * *

No matter how politically serious the responses from the Muslim world, there is something morally unserious about many of them--a demand to unsay what was not said, an expectation to be immune from criticism, and (again) an insistence that non-Muslims act with the same reverence toward Mohammed that is religiously demanded of Muslims themselves.

* * *

I don't expect Catholics to take their theology less seriously than Muslims do; I certainly don't expect the Pope to take his theology anything less than wholly seriously. And what is a Catholic, committed to the truth of Catholicism, to think of Mohammed's additions to and transformations of the Christian bible? What is a theologically serious Catholic to think about "what Mohammed brought that was new"? At a minimum he or she will think it false--and, because false, evil in distracting religious believers from an all-important truth.

* * *
Neither do I expect Muslim clerics to take their theology less than seriously, or to pay those who stand in the apostolic succession the same respect that believing Catholics do! And I would find it very odd, a category mistake, for the Pope to insist on apologies from every Muslim cleric who describes Christianity or Catholicism as false, evil, or likely to lead humans into sin.
In response to Levy, Brad DeLong makes two key points that seem to contradict each other. First, DeLong takes issue with Levy's point that religious believers should take their own religion seriously. After quoting Christ's parable of the sheep and the goats, DeLong says this:
It strikes me that Bill and Ted's injunction to "Be excellent to each other!" has much more sense--and is far more Christian (in the good sense of "Christian") than volumes of deadly serious theology committed by Pope and Imam.
Note the comic picture of Brad DeLong thinking that he, and not the Pope, understands that the true meaning of Christianity is a line from a Keanu Reeves movie. His point seems to be that that Christians (and believers in other religions too?) shouldn't worry about whether Christianity is, in fact, truer than other religions. They should just believe in the principle: Be nice.

But then, DeLong takes issue with Levy's point that God could still be good even if He differs from "twenty-first-century Western liberal human standards":
I found Levy's first point to be even more disturbing. It is, if I may paraphrase, that we shouldn't let the fact that the Unitarian-Universalist God is a good God who guides all to heaven by their various roads while the Calvinist God is an evil God who before the beginning of time condemned all but a tiny remnant to eternal damnation and torture in hell make us conclude that Unitarian-Universalism is a better religion than Calvinism.

* * *

Evil deeds do not cease to be evil just because a God does them. John Calvin's God, who treats almost every soul he creates not as an end but as means, and damns and tortures them for eternity to accomplish some other goal that we will never comprehend, is a doer of evil--if the word "evil" has any meaning. The Unitarian-Universalist God who uses her infinite power, infinite wisdom, infinite patience, and infinite mercy to eventually get us all on the Big Raft to Heaven by our various roads, that God is a doer of good--if the word "good" has any meaning.

If you presume that (a) there is a God who (b) is good, then priests who preach a God of Evil are ipso facto preaching a bad religion, are they not?
So the question is: If it is bad (in Delong's eyes) for the Pope to say a critical word about Islam because of the supreme principle that we should just all be nice to each other, then why does he think it appropriate to label Calvinism as "evil"? How come he has the prerogative to identify which religious beliefs are good and which are evil, and the Pope can't do the same?


Blogger brad said...

"The foolishness of men is the wisdom of God!" is it not.

No contradiction: The injunction "Be excellent to each other!" is addressed to God as well. Calvin's God is not being excellent toward most of the predestined. And Calvin's priests are not being excellent either.

9:13 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

Even so, this assumes that it is possible for you to 1) identify which religious principle is true, and 2) condemn those religions that don't conform to your principle. Why can't the Pope do the same?

9:23 AM  
Blogger sean said...

This is funny, because DeLong himself (or, to be fair, his blog persona) is such an a-----e. Does his god go around deleting comments he disagrees with and banning their IP addresses? I prefer Calvin's God, who isn't such a hypocrite.

8:52 PM  
Blogger Roger Sweeny said...

Even so, this assumes that it is possible for you to 1) identify which religious principle is true, and 2) condemn those religions that don't conform to your principle. Why can't the Pope do the same?

Because, to turn around the old jibe, unlike the Pope, Brad has the one true faith.

5:36 PM  
Blogger brad said...

A little background. To first-century Jews, the Samaritans were ethnically alien, culturally other, theologically heretic--and none too clean. If a negative judgment could be made about a people, their culture, and their faith, first century Jews made it about Samaritans.

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear. Tremble and listen now to the words of your God:


"Rabbi," the lawyer said. "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?

And Jesus said: "What is written in the law? how readest thou?"

And he answering said: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself."

But the lawyer, seeking to justify himself asked: "And who is my neighbour?"

And Jesus said: "A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded [him], and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

"But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him. And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.

"Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?"

And the lawyer answered: "He that shewed mercy on him."

Then Jesus said: "Go, and do thou likewise."


Your God says: Having the right theology is not the point--the Samaritan has the wrong theology, while the Priest and the Levite have the right one. Your God says, as plainly a a God could ever say:

1. Stop worrying about who has the right theology.
2. Love God.
2. Love thy neighbor.
3. Try to return Good for Evil.
4. Rejoice! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

Thus endeth the lesson.

10:01 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

You're engaged in proof-texting -- you're taking a single cherry-picked text from the Bible, and then setting it up as the sum total of Christianity. This is a crude and simplistic method of interpretation.

What do you do with Matthew 7:15, where Jesus warns his disciples, "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves." Or Matthew 24:11, where Jesus warns that "many false prophets will appear and deceive many people." And again in Matthew 24:24, where he says that "false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible."

What is this supposed to mean? According to the DeLong Theory of Christianity, there's no such thing as a false prophet, let alone deception. Everyone should just believe whatever they want, and be nice to each other.

And if you read the rest of the New Testament, the early Christians were very concerned about distinguishing between true and false Christianity. For instance, in Acts 8, the apostles strongly rebuke Simon the sorcerer for thinking that he can buy God's power. Nothing in the story about patting Simon on the head and saying, "Just do whatever you want and we'll be nice to you."
Then in 2 Peter 2:1, it says, "there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves." And in 1 John 4:1, it says, "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world."

So, yes, the Good Samaritan story is a powerful command to show love to everyone regardless of the situation. At the same time, it's simply not credible -- and it ignores the entire rest of the New Testament -- to paint the Good Samaritan story as having the moral: "Do not make intellectual theological distinctions between what is true and what is false."

10:20 PM  
Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

Jesus corrects Samaritan theology in John 4. His point against the Pharisees isn't that theology is unimportant but that the Pharisees were not doing what they ought to do. That's an ethical point, not a point about whether it's good to have the right theology. It's that theology isn't good enough if it's all you've got, not that it's bad.

It should also be noted that theology + rules is also not good enough, because Jesus is just as critical of the Pharisees for their reliance on ethical conduct. So this isn't an elevation of ethics above theology. It's that ethics and theology don't replace the fundamental issue, which is how you relate to God, in particular how you view Jesus as the only way God has provided for genuine access to a right relationship with God. It's the universalist who most clearly goes against what Jesus says on the issue he places at the very top.

7:55 AM  

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