Thursday, January 31, 2008

Galileo, The Inquisition and Us

Our good friend, Pope Benedict XVI, is in trouble again. Recently, he canceled a trip to La Sapienza University after protests by faculty and students. The protestors declared that the pontiff was backward and anti-science. The controversy centered on a speech given in 1990 by then Cardinal Ratzinger. In the speech entitled, “The Crisis of Faith in Science”, critics claim that Ratzinger justified the Inquisition’s condemnation of Galileo in 1633. In fact, Ratzinger was quoting the philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend:

“The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Gaileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimized solely for motives of political opportunism.”

Benedict’s habit of quoting people in scholarly lectures seems to cause all sorts of problems. Last year some Muslims took offense when Benedict quoted a 14th Century Byzantine emperor who claimed that Islam was violent. Some then went and showed their offense by being violent themselves. This time around the defenders of free inquiry wanted Benedict to be silenced. Irony is a funny thing.

Anyway, I have looked everywhere for Ratzinger’s 1990 speech. Sadly, I can only find excerpts. Still, I don’t think that Ratzinger is contradicting the current position of the Roman Catholic Church. After a thirteen year investigation, Pope John Paul II in 1992 actually declared that Galileo was wrongly accused (a little late). According to the pontiff, those who condemned Galileo did not make a distinction between the Scriptures and their interpretations. Pope John Paul stated, “This led them unduly to transpose into the realm of the doctrine of the faith, a question which in fact pertained to scientific investigation.”

What was Benedict trying to say back in 1990? Although more of the speech would be helpful, I believe that he was speaking to our post-modern skepticism of reason and science. The Enlightenment worked hard to displace the authority of faith and tradition with the authority of reason. During the Enlightenment, Galileo’s condemnation became the quintessential narrative about the evils of superstition against the goodness of science.

According to Benedict, “Today things have changed.” The world is not as confident in reason as we once were. Nuclear annihilation, genetic manipulation, and environmental degradation indicate that there may be a downside to technological advancement. Our faith in science is not what it was. Benedict basically suggests that when the skeptic and agnostic Feyerabend defends the Inquisition, something strange is going on, and we should take note.

Frankly, we should not reject science, but we should be willing to be critical of it. Science is a tool which could be used for good or ill. Our moral decisions sit outside of science and offer direction. Our faith and our traditions can help us here. They can guide us. Benedict is looking for a restoration of both faith and reason. The two must work in concert. For Benedict, this is the crisis of Western Civilization.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Conan Meets Jesus

In the past year, I have gained a greater appreciation of the pulp writer, Robert E. Howard. It’s clear that this appreciation is based solely on my friendship with a Howard aficionado who has written a biography of the author. In fact, this whole post is based on some correspondence with him. To the uninformed, Robert Howard was an author of fantasy, horror, western and detective literature in the 1920s and 1930s. He is also the creator of Conan the Barbarian.

I must admit that I haven’t read anything by Howard. (That will soon change when Amazon delivers a collection of short stories.) Still, every time that I see his name, I read a bit further. A few months ago, John J. Miller had an interview with Rusty Burk who has edited some Howard anthologies. I certainly have no way of judging whether he portrays Howard or his books accurately. Still, I was intrigued.

Howard also saw that violence was the inevitable result of breakdowns in “civilized” societies. In his view, humans are really just apes who learned how to build things: when our societies begin to break down, we revert to our innate savagery. I’ve just been re-reading Leo Grin’s essay “The Reign of Blood” and I think he’s right that Howard sees man’s primal emotion as hate, and so when confronted with forces we see as hostile we see them as “something not only to be battled but to be hated.” I think anyone who has looked at what happens on the frontiers between societies in conflict would have to agree that Howard’s views were pretty dead-on. Even when the initial contacts are not hostile, man’s tendency to turn hatred on perceived threats frequently serves to escalate into conflict and ultimately violence. At the end of the Turlogh O’Brien story “The Dark Man,” a priest asks “Almighty God, when will the reign of blood cease?” “Turlogh shook his head. ‘Not so long as the race lasts.’” It seems a bleak and pessimistic view, but on the basis of our history to date, it also seems a realistic one.

Now this is where it gets weird. As a pastor, lots of folks tell me that they find concept of “blood atonement” horrific and barbaric--Jesus pouring out his blood on the cross for my sins. Frankly it offends my modern sensibilities as well. However, this insight into human nature, whether Howard’s or not, might provide some guidance.

Human beings at their core are savages. Humanity’s primal emotion is hatred. The kingdom of this world is built on death and the spilling of blood. Ultimately, this kingdom is fleeting. We are just waiting to be overthrown by another set of barbarians. Jesus Christ, representing the
kingdom of God, enters the world challenges it, and threatens it. Rather than hatred, Jesus teaches that love of God and love of neighbor is a better foundation. The kingdom of man, threatened, attempts to destroy Christ, to kill him, and to spill his blood. This is only natural since the world has only one playbook. Ironically, God uses the spilling of blood to defeat hate. The innocence of Christ reveals the ultimate failure of hatred. Christ pours out his own blood in love to destroy a world based on blood spilled in hatred. Jesus plays by the world’s rules and wins. By winning he changes the game forever. The resurrection shows the ultimate triumph of God’s Kingdom over this human world.

Clearly this is not well thought-out. I still wonder if Howard’s world-view (if it is accurately depicted) might help us understand the fallen world absent Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Fully Human

In seminary, a professor and some students were chatting about the miracles of Jesus. Someone was babbling on about a Buddhist monk who could do incredible feats of human endurance. The professor wondered out loud if some of Jesus’ miracles could be attributed to his human nature, rather than his divine one. Although I had grown up watching “In Search Of” hosted by Leonard Nimoy, skepticism had long ago dismissed ESP and bigfoot. At the time, the conversation held no particular interest for me.

Nonetheless, there was something intriguing in the professor’s response. We Christians affirm that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. Often, in our discussions, the humanity of Christ gets short attention. Jesus is treated like a cosmic Clark Kent whose suffering is feigned or faked. I remember someone once being offended by a question posed to Jesus in the lyrics of a Rich Mullins song, “Did You try not to cry when You scraped your knee?” The claim was that Jesus wouldn’t have fallen and hurt himself in the first place.

Even when we speak about the humanity of Christ, the attention is limited to a discussion of weakness, suffering and temptation. This tendency is understandable. However, if Christ is fully human that means not only does he have our weakness but also he has our strength. Jesus was the best that humanity could offer. And humanity in a move that can only be understood as masochistic or suicidal nailed Jesus to a cross. Alexander Schmemann writes, “But while [the world] can be improved, it can never become the place God intended it to be. Christianity does not condemn the world. The world has condemned itself when on Calvary it condemned the One who was its true self.”

The best as well as the worst of humanity is need of redemption.