John F. Kavanaugh
A newly fashionable atheism has emerged in public discourse. Religious faith, in this account, is not only quaint; it is dangerous. In a recent conference titled Science, Religion, Reason and Survival, sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, religion took a beating. Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, opined, Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization. Richard Dawkins was utterly fed up with the respect that weall of us, including the secular among usare brainwashed into bestowing on religion.

Dawkins has recently elaborated his absurdity-of-religion theme at book length in The God Delusion. He has been joined by other best-selling anti-theists, Sam Harris (The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Religion) and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon). For these writers (especially Harris), more than just being foolish, religion is a threat to humanity. What is more, they are joined by the celebrity voice of Elton John, who in a recent interview offered this pearl: I would ban religion completely.... It turns people into really hateful lemmings, and it’s not really compassionate.

There is much argument to engage here in its proper time. For the time being, however, I want to look at the association between violence and faith.

The history of religions is marked by war and atrocity, often committed in the name of God. True, but this may be a problem with humanity itself rather than with the religions that have been used to justify war. Let us not forget the devotion of Pol Pot and the French-educated atheists who devastated Cambodia. Or Stalin and Mao, their hands bloodied by the slaughter of millions. And what might be said of the atheistic glories that accompanied the enthronement of Goddess Reason on Notre Dame’s high altar during the Reign of Terror and its beheaded thousands?

I think the alarmed and anxious atheists are onto something, even though they have little concept or experience of what we are about. They do understand ideology, since they cling to their own. But they are innocent of any belief in a person like Jesus Christ. And this is where the atheist angst is misplaced. The threat from certain Christians is not that they are Christian, but that they are not Christian enough. They pay lip service to the Gospels and offer everything else to American capitalist nationalism.

Some Christian believers, having a faith more notional than real, are increasingly identified with nationalism, American exceptionalism and global supremacy. This is the party of what I would call the Americanist Christian illusion. Maybe these are the folks, at least in the United States, that the atheists are really worried about. Some of them, expecting the end-times and the Second Coming, seem to think that the United States is the chosen terrible swift sword. But the more pragmatic of them are just apologists for America. They justify pre-emptive war, torture, the right to carry arms, the supreme right to spend one’s own money, all libertarian taxation policies and capital punishment. Among Catholics you can see their trump card when any voice from Rome calls into question American exceptionalism. All of a sudden, the pope has no legitimacy in matters economic, political or military. For Christians in general, this is the same tactic employed with the hard Gospel sayings that challenge wealth, violence and worldly power: Surely Jesus can’t mean that! Many of his utterances would be considered so un-American that if a preacher did no more than quote him, he would be run out of town.

Thus, there is a strange confluence of theoretical atheists and practical atheists who are Christian Americanists. It is only to the extent that such Christians fail to follow the Gospels that they are dangerous in matters of war and violence. It is the fact that they are not religious enough that makes them a threat to peace on earth.

Peace on earth is an interesting way to put it, especially in these days of war and these days approaching Christmas. The sacred writings of other faiths may have passages condoning violence in the name of God, but in the Gospels, any allusions to violence are invariably in parables and metaphors. An authentic belief in Advent and Christmas is something else.

As opposed to atheists and Americanists, maybe there should be a new categorythe Christmas-ists. These would be people, across all Christian denominations, who take the Gospels seriously. What would be some of their beliefs? What would it be to believe that Christmas really happened?

We humans, we sinners, including Americans, stand in need of redemption. Thus we call out, O come, Emmanuel.

We believe, moreover, that God came to us, became one of us, even in our lowliness as a dependent baby and a broken man.

We believe this fact changes everything, including how we treat each other, even the least of us made in the likeness of God.

We believe that we are saved not by arms, money, class or nation but by the kind mercies of God.

If Christians believed in Christmas, they would indeed be dangerous, but for reasons quite different from those the atheists fear. They would have finally courageously embraced the revolution started not by human effort, but by divine love.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.

Comments

Joseph A. D'Anna | 12/26/2006 - 6:38pm
Fr. Kavanaugh cuts to the quick of our spiritual lives – we aren’t Christian enough. Whereas we may be saved by the kindness of God’s mercy, there will be no peace, unless we do our part to develop more peaceful national policies.

Sylvester L Steffen | 12/12/2006 - 1:44pm
Truth, Worldview and Ultimate Reality

In his inimitable way, “Christmas-ists, the atheists are onto something”, AMERICA Magazine, December 18-25, 2006, pg 8, Fr. John Kavanaugh, SJ, deftly credits evolution atheists over the extravagance of Christmas consumerism. His style is a genius mark of Jesuit erudition in the mold of the Master. Jesus himself (given the imperialism of the time) was a “sign of contradiction”, a “voice set against” the imperial culture of Rome, which culture later became theologized into Roman Catholicism.

The Protestant Reformation was a contradiction to the imperial culture of Roman Church/State. The Council of Trent (still enthralled in the culture of dominion theology) contradicted the Reformation. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, SJ, the Sacred Inquisition Head, gave to Tridentine Church a theology justifying dominion ecclesiology. Vatican I later endorsed Trent and enlarged on the theology/ecclesiology of dominion.

Along comes Pope John XXIII, of blessed memory, who counters by way of the Second Vatican Council with a theology/ecclesiology that contradicts imperial church. The last King-Pope, Pius IX had the Council declare him infallible in order to add weight to the many anathemas he pronounced on Modernism — with which Vatican II sought accommodation, and not the least of which issues was evolution. [Gaudium et spes, Intro #5]

Vatican I apologists yet labor mightily to deny and discredit the real differences of Vatican II with Vatican I. Reconciling the two Councils and their popes is a challenge. How do Jesuits reconcile their oath of allegiance to contradictory papacies and Councils? How do Jesuits reconcile the theology of evolution (Teilhard de Chardin, SJ) with the fixity theology of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, SJ? Can the Society of Jesus, in its public witness, espouse both sides of polarized opposites within the Church and be credible? Can such contradiction be waged in Church without damage to the Church?

Loss of credibility in Church today can largely be attributed to the cross-purposes of imperial theology/ecclesiology with today’s accepted worldview, in my opinion. Infallibilism belongs to the world of imperial fixity. The worldview of imperial fixity, politically and theologically, no longer has worldview claim. Not? Whither the future? This is an issue about ultimate reality (Truth) and fidelity to truth. Conciliarism is surely the way of evolutionary openness, not? Where does Pope Benedict XVI stand on conciliarism? How are Jesuits advising the Pope? Do Jesuits take a position for one or the other?

Weighty questions which will hugely affect society and religious authenticity. The Church should get over it, acknowledge “official” mistakes in the past and adjust so it has credibility and purpose in the public interest.

Sylvester L Steffen Please know that this is an Open Letter that I intend to publish in the interest of the good of the Church. Thank you for your attention

Thomas McGranahan | 12/16/2006 - 11:29am
Soon after I read Fr. Kavanaugh’s article, I received an email from a young American peace corps volunteer working in an Eastern European country thousands of years older than America:

"I had a moment of sheer depression today standing in line waiting to pick up my package. All of the sudden I became un-blind again at the state of my surroundings. The overcast grey sky cast an icy cold feeling and light was barely seeping through the broken out windows, past the dust covered lacey curtains, and onto the smoke filled ruins of the post office. There I was, standing in another illusive line, silently waiting. It is such a feeling of helplessness and frailty. The inefficiency and poverty of the system engulfed me this morning. It makes me wonder what gives people here the hope to go on when sometimes everything about their lives should make them want to lie down and give up? The problems are overwhelming and the length of repairs that needs to be done are terrific. Once the package was in my hand I slipped out of the filling line and made my way toward the school house, passing the daily backdrop of the overfilling trash bin, and into the muddy school yard. The normally loud screams of the children’s voices brought light into my waning mood. There was such an excitement about Christmas in the air that I couldn’t help but smile.

Now it is time to put up the Christmas tree and pull out the decorations from the attic. One thing I know for sure through this all, is that we are truly blessed and have a lot to be thankful for!"

This peace corps volunteer realizes how wonderfully God has favored this country of ours. America is truly "exceptional" and for that we should never stop thanking God or be embarrassed for the blessings he has bestowed on us.

Finally, contrary to what most American academics seem to take for granted, America does not have to apologize for using its military power to reach out, find, and punish those who seek to kill us. The truth of the matter is that we would not be there, if they had not come here!

Sincerely yours,

Tom McGranahan Kenosha, Wisconsin

Barbara deLateur, MD | 12/29/2006 - 2:36pm
I cannot find a single point with which to disagree. I appreciate this and the other articles in Father Kavanaugh's "Ethics notebook." I will double my planned year-end alumni contribution to St. Louis University. Keep up the good work! Barbara J. deLateur, MD

Joseph A. D'Anna | 12/26/2006 - 6:38pm
Fr. Kavanaugh cuts to the quick of our spiritual lives – we aren’t Christian enough. Whereas we may be saved by the kindness of God’s mercy, there will be no peace, unless we do our part to develop more peaceful national policies.

Sylvester L Steffen | 12/12/2006 - 1:44pm
Truth, Worldview and Ultimate Reality

In his inimitable way, “Christmas-ists, the atheists are onto something”, AMERICA Magazine, December 18-25, 2006, pg 8, Fr. John Kavanaugh, SJ, deftly credits evolution atheists over the extravagance of Christmas consumerism. His style is a genius mark of Jesuit erudition in the mold of the Master. Jesus himself (given the imperialism of the time) was a “sign of contradiction”, a “voice set against” the imperial culture of Rome, which culture later became theologized into Roman Catholicism.

The Protestant Reformation was a contradiction to the imperial culture of Roman Church/State. The Council of Trent (still enthralled in the culture of dominion theology) contradicted the Reformation. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, SJ, the Sacred Inquisition Head, gave to Tridentine Church a theology justifying dominion ecclesiology. Vatican I later endorsed Trent and enlarged on the theology/ecclesiology of dominion.

Along comes Pope John XXIII, of blessed memory, who counters by way of the Second Vatican Council with a theology/ecclesiology that contradicts imperial church. The last King-Pope, Pius IX had the Council declare him infallible in order to add weight to the many anathemas he pronounced on Modernism — with which Vatican II sought accommodation, and not the least of which issues was evolution. [Gaudium et spes, Intro #5]

Vatican I apologists yet labor mightily to deny and discredit the real differences of Vatican II with Vatican I. Reconciling the two Councils and their popes is a challenge. How do Jesuits reconcile their oath of allegiance to contradictory papacies and Councils? How do Jesuits reconcile the theology of evolution (Teilhard de Chardin, SJ) with the fixity theology of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, SJ? Can the Society of Jesus, in its public witness, espouse both sides of polarized opposites within the Church and be credible? Can such contradiction be waged in Church without damage to the Church?

Loss of credibility in Church today can largely be attributed to the cross-purposes of imperial theology/ecclesiology with today’s accepted worldview, in my opinion. Infallibilism belongs to the world of imperial fixity. The worldview of imperial fixity, politically and theologically, no longer has worldview claim. Not? Whither the future? This is an issue about ultimate reality (Truth) and fidelity to truth. Conciliarism is surely the way of evolutionary openness, not? Where does Pope Benedict XVI stand on conciliarism? How are Jesuits advising the Pope? Do Jesuits take a position for one or the other?

Weighty questions which will hugely affect society and religious authenticity. The Church should get over it, acknowledge “official” mistakes in the past and adjust so it has credibility and purpose in the public interest.

Sylvester L Steffen Please know that this is an Open Letter that I intend to publish in the interest of the good of the Church. Thank you for your attention

Thomas McGranahan | 12/16/2006 - 11:29am
Soon after I read Fr. Kavanaugh’s article, I received an email from a young American peace corps volunteer working in an Eastern European country thousands of years older than America:

"I had a moment of sheer depression today standing in line waiting to pick up my package. All of the sudden I became un-blind again at the state of my surroundings. The overcast grey sky cast an icy cold feeling and light was barely seeping through the broken out windows, past the dust covered lacey curtains, and onto the smoke filled ruins of the post office. There I was, standing in another illusive line, silently waiting. It is such a feeling of helplessness and frailty. The inefficiency and poverty of the system engulfed me this morning. It makes me wonder what gives people here the hope to go on when sometimes everything about their lives should make them want to lie down and give up? The problems are overwhelming and the length of repairs that needs to be done are terrific. Once the package was in my hand I slipped out of the filling line and made my way toward the school house, passing the daily backdrop of the overfilling trash bin, and into the muddy school yard. The normally loud screams of the children’s voices brought light into my waning mood. There was such an excitement about Christmas in the air that I couldn’t help but smile.

Now it is time to put up the Christmas tree and pull out the decorations from the attic. One thing I know for sure through this all, is that we are truly blessed and have a lot to be thankful for!"

This peace corps volunteer realizes how wonderfully God has favored this country of ours. America is truly "exceptional" and for that we should never stop thanking God or be embarrassed for the blessings he has bestowed on us.

Finally, contrary to what most American academics seem to take for granted, America does not have to apologize for using its military power to reach out, find, and punish those who seek to kill us. The truth of the matter is that we would not be there, if they had not come here!

Sincerely yours,

Tom McGranahan Kenosha, Wisconsin

Barbara deLateur, MD | 12/29/2006 - 2:36pm
I cannot find a single point with which to disagree. I appreciate this and the other articles in Father Kavanaugh's "Ethics notebook." I will double my planned year-end alumni contribution to St. Louis University. Keep up the good work! Barbara J. deLateur, MD