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.