NYT ending Peter Steinfel’s weekly relgion column

The NYT is finally ending their religion column, as newspapers desperately grasp to hold on for another few years.  PETER STEINFELS wrote an excellent column and now is at the center for Culture and Religion at Fordham University.

In his article announcing his termination, he sums up his wisdom as six points: (1) religions are complex and continuously changing and growing.(2) religion is how it is lived which is always richer and complex than official doctrine. (3) Intelligence is needed but most stop thinking about theology as teenagers. (4) Much of religion is ignored or unknown to most- there are both important theologians and popular phenomena that never makes the papers. (5) evil is a challenge to faith(6) freedom of conscience cannot be separated from freedom within a community.

Any thoughts about these six points from a Jewish perspective?

First, the great world religions are complex and multilayered; they are rich in inner tensions and ambiguities that allow beliefs and practices to evolve over time as the faith is tested by new circumstances and insights. The great religions cannot be equated with the diminished and frozen fundamentalisms that they periodically spawn.

This conviction was captured by Jaroslav Pelikan, the scholar of Christianity, in his well-known distinction between tradition and traditionalism: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

Second, religions encompass claims about truth and rules of conduct but cannot be reduced to doctrinal propositions or ethics. Religions involve orientations toward reality handed on in stories, rituals and paradigmatic figures as well as in creeds. Religions are embodied in communities and shape distinct ways of life.

Third, intelligence and critical reasoning are essential to adult approaches to faith. In short, theology matters. It is curious that so many otherwise thoughtful people imagine that what they learned about religion by age 13, or perhaps 18, will suffice for the rest of their lives. They would never make the same assumption about science, economics, art, sex or love.

Fourth, at least partly because of that assumption, a contemporary abundance of serious thought and scholarship about religion is marginalized. Thinkers and scholars who should have a presence in the intellectual and cultural landscape — whose books, for example, might well be noted in the annual “holiday” listings — are instead known almost entirely in their own religious circles or academic specialties. That is a loss this column has tried to counter.

There has been a price to pay, of course, namely a corresponding lack of attention to manifold forms of popular inspirational religion. Only one column surveyed angelmania, even in the years when those heavenly messengers and do-gooders were flying high. No columns explored the best-selling spiritual chicken soup in 57 varieties, the marathon conversations with God, wonder-working prayers, dramas dripping with mystical meaning, apocalyptic adventure series and newly discovered recipes for changing one’s life.

Much of this torrent of inspiration and advice may be the religious equivalent of fast food, but it really deserves thoughtful analysis. Who consumes it and why? What are its wholesome and harmful ingredients?

Fifth, if this column has neglected popular religiosity, it has not dodged the great challenge to faith — and to the systematic examination of faith that is theology — posed by the existence of evil. The response of religious thinkers and leaders has been a recurrent topic, whether after events like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, where religion itself was a source of the evil, or the great tsunami of 2004, where nature, that great mother and serial killer, went on a murderous rampage.

Sixth, a major concern threading its way through these columns is protection of conscience. From its Protestant and Enlightenment origins, American society has tended to honor the personal conscience of the dissenting individual — at least in principle, although, as any atheist running for public office can testify, not necessarily in practice.

But what is applauded in individuals can seem intolerable in groups…The presupposition here has been that freedom of conscience for individuals cannot be detached from freedom of conscience for communities of belief.

One response to “NYT ending Peter Steinfel’s weekly relgion column

  1. Sixth, a major concern threading its way through these columns is protection of conscience. From its Protestant and Enlightenment origins, American society has tended to honor the personal conscience of the dissenting individual — at least in principle, although, as any atheist running for public office can testify, not necessarily in practice.

    Freedom of conscience encompasses two concepts (actually three), which are not dependent on one another.

    First, there is the freedom of conscience as in the above quote, which is a kind of societal creed that, however, really is a pragmatic way to organize society. So much violence has been committed by those who demand that all citizens adhere to a certain train of thought, that the Europeans who settled the United States argued for freedom from state imposed conscience. Over time, this has merged together with a third kind of freedom of conscience (which is not relevant here, hence I only spoke of two concepts of freedom of conscience), namely a political freedom to question and disagree with our political leadership.

    Political freedom of conscience is important for a democracy to function, and the stability of political system it engenders argues for democratic society, but that is not our topic. However, in a similar fashion, multicultural society needs religious freedom of conscience, or we will quickly be at each others’ throats. Depending on the way society is structured, this may also argue for freedom of conscience within communities. I.e., when, as is common nowadays, we belong to religious communities through voluntary association, then, it may be beneficial to provide members with a larger amount of freedom of conscience, and thus of disagreement with officially sanctioned creed, because otherwise some or many members will react with their feet. This phenomenon – and the concomitant desirability of a measure of freedom of conscience – may have existed since oldest antiquity, but that is immaterial to my argument.

    All of the above is pragmatic in kind, and unless we subscribe to some new agey kind of belief system where the supreme value is finding oneself and linking up with the pantheistic Force from Star Wars (is it pantheistic? We could argue about that), I would guess that it has very limited (limited does not mean none) application within established religions. In Judaism, there are a number of famous works that concentrate on required beliefs, most notably the then trail blazing ‘Hovot haLevavot (Duties of the Heart, by Rabbenu Ba’hya Ibn Pequda). If beliefs are required, then, conscience is not truly free.

    There is another kind of freedom of conscience, however, which is at the core of Judaism, and indeed embedded within the very first human story in the Torah: the fact that we are free to choose, within ourselves, even to do what is wrong. Whether or not the religious community allows it, people have let their minds wander wherever their minds would take them, and have even at times acted upon those beliefs. Jewish jurisprudence, notably even in moral and cultic matters (in civic matters it is more obvious and more widely held), is entirely based upon the notion that we are responsible for our actions, and that we are free to make other decisions than those we made.

    The latter concept is indispensable in religion, the former concept is a pragmatic matter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s