Reasons Without Truth by William Wood

September 24, 2018

Towards the end of his bold attempt to write a history of reason itself in just a little over 150 pages, Martin Jay describes a paradigm shift in “our” concept of reason:

“It might be said, or at least plausibly hoped, that both the Enlightenment Age of Reason and the Counter-Enlightenment Age of Reason’s Other have been left behind, and in their place is dawning a new Age of Reasons. Here [“the space of reasons”] is becoming more than just a metaphor, but being given increasing institutional embodiment in the political, cultural, legal, scientific, and other public spheres of modern life.”

I find it impossible to read this passage as anything other than a dispatch from a vanished world. Perhaps in 2012, when Jay first delivered these words, we could plausibly hope that what philosophers call “the space of reasons” might become coextensive with the institutions of the public sphere. That hope now seems quaint at best, delusional at worst.

In Reason After Its Eclipse: On Late Critical Theory, Jay critiques some ancient, modern, and post-modern accounts of reason and defends Jürgen Habermas’s theory of communicative rationality as a better alternative. To say that rationality is “communicative” is to say that the norms of rationality emerge from the norms of human discourse. We cannot communicate with one another at all unless we accept, at least implicitly, certain rational norms. For example, when we assert a claim—any claim whatsoever—we imply that the claim is based on reasons and evidence. We also commit to sharing our reasons and evidence when others call these claims into question. Rationality is formal, pragmatic, and linguistic.

When we communicate with one another we enter the space of “reasons,” in the plural, and not “reason,” in the singular, because the history of philosophy shows that we must give up the quest for any overarching, substantive notion of Reason, whether handed down by God or deduced by Kant. There is no Reason itself, only individual reasons, shared by individual people who reason together while they communicate.

Habermas offers the best non-theistic account of rationality available, and, although I do not endorse it, I find it sufficiently plausible to worry that it is correct, and that there really is nothing more to say about the nature of reason. For what would it mean, in 2018, to endorse the idea that the norms of rationality emerge from human discourse? Our culture no longer seems to value reasoned discourse very much at all. This seems obvious when it comes to our politics, but it is becoming increasingly true in other spheres too, including the contemporary consumerist university.

Suppose that the norms of reasoning do emerge from the broader patterns of communication that prevail in a culture at large. So what happens when the culture at large treats reason-giving as unimportant, and is content even to efface the distinction between truth and falsehood? Unless we have some further story to tell about what gives reason its normative force, then we might find ourselves with no way to critique those who insist that might makes right. If that were to happen, the light of reason would not just be in eclipse, it would be extinguished altogether.

William Wood is a Fellow and Tutor in Theology at Oriel College, Oxford.

A Catholic House of Cards by Jane Little

Jane Little was the founding Religious Affairs Correspondent for the BBC World Service and is currently the Associate Director of Religion and Its Publics 

September 18, 2018

The Pennsylvania Report in mid-August managed to shock even us journalists who had covered the Roman Catholic Church scandal of child sexual abuse and its cover-up since 2002.

The hideous details, the staggering scale, the neat and accurate description of the hierarchy’s “playbook for concealing the truth” were there for all to see. And they served to usher in a spate of further revelations, the latest, as of this writing, being that over half of the bishops in the Netherlands were involved in a cover up or of abuse themselves.

The scandal of child sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church and the heinous cover up by its leaders has shaken the church to its foundations.

I feel as though I’ve said those words before, indeed on multiple occasions since 2002, when the scandal first erupted in the Boston Archdiocese. And now other phrases I used on air, such as “worst crisis for the church since the Reformation,” sound almost quaint.

It’s hard to find the words to capture the catastrophic situation facing the church leadership whose authority has been all but destroyed at its own hands. There may be many safeguards in place to protect the vulnerable these days, but the leadership hasn’t scratched the surface of the cover-up. And for many survivors I interviewed over the years, it was the cover-up – the second crime – that was almost worse than the original one.

The trampling of trust and squandering of moral authority is now almost complete. And how can the church recover when the very men who refused to see and take action are now tasked with cleaning up their own acts? Or failures to act?

Pope Francis may have done a better job than his predecessors of facing and articulating the enormity of the sins and crimes against vulnerable children. But yet again he’s undermined his own efforts (as he did with his initial response to the Chilean Church crisis when he appeared to side with bishops accused of cover up) with a homily that makes the secular world wince.

In it, Pope Francis blamed the devil, though not for being behind the abuse or its cover ups. Instead, he appeared to blame Satan for exposing the cover ups.  Using the term the Great Accuser, he said “the great accuser has been unchained and is attacking bishops.”

There was some ambiguity there. Could he have been referring to Cardinal Carlo Vigano, former papal nuncio to the United States, who had accused the Pope himself of knowing about the allegations against disgraced former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick for five years and ignoring them? Whatever he meant, he explicitly claimed that Satan “tries to uncover the sins so they are visible in order to scandalize the people.”

Even if the pope meant something deep and subtle and spiritual (he called on the bishops to pray), it is surely not the time to suggest that it is a dark power at work targeting the poor bishops who are the victims. Yet again such an implication reveals a tone deafness at the top, particularly when so many inside and outside the Church see the exposures as a good thing – a sign that the light is getting in and exposing the darkness, not the other way around.

All of this takes me back to my first foreign trip as Religious Affairs Reporter for the BBC World Service. In the spring of 1998, I went to Rome and interviewed a group of Catholic nuns. In my naivete I thought they would be humble, self-effacing types, deferring to the authority of the male clerics. I was wrong.

Instead I met revolutionaries. When I asked what the church leadership needed to reform itself and meet the challenges of the time (and this was four years before the sexual abuse crisis hit) one sister from Australia said, “Oh that’s not possible. We need to demolish the current leadership.”

“Yes,” said a sister from South Africa, “we need a committee of women to run the church.”

They all laughed.  But they meant it. And now, in the #MeToo era it seems so prescient. And perhaps not so unrealistic.

Women and, as the Pennsylvania report suggested, lay people may need to take the lead and carry out a root and branch reform. And perhaps an end to an all-male hierarchy – which Pope John Paul II suggested is infallible doctrine and Pope Francis appeared to confirm – may finally be on the horizon?

Review of David Tonghou Ngong’s Expansive New History of African Christian Thought by Tim Hartman

September 14, 2018

In A New History of African Christian Thought: From Cape to Cairo (Routledge, 2017), David Tonghou Ngong has curated and offered insightful contributions to a much-needed new history of African Christian thought. The defining and unifying claim of the volume is that African Christian thought is geographical. As Ngong writes: “This book sees African Christian thought as Christian thought that has been generated through African engagement with the Christian faith from antiquity to the present. The purpose of doing this is to maintain clear geographic unity of the continent.”

To this end, Ngong challenges alternative definitions that suggest that African Christian thought can only be written by black Africans living south of the Sahara Desert and north of the Limpopo River. He expands the geography to include the region of North Africa and the country of South Africa (hence the subtitle of From Cape to Cairo), and he also enlarges the historical period to cover the patristic era, thereby including Augustine, Tertullian, and Origen among the early pioneers of African Christian thought.

Ngong began this project because he could not find an appropriate text for his introductory course in African Christianity. This volume fills that gap and I highly recommend it for anyone seeking an introduction to Christianity in Africa from theological and historical perspectives. With chapters on early Alexandrian theology, St. Augustine, inculturation theology, liberation theology, evangelical theology, and homosexuality, Ngong’s work is useful for readers with a variety of interests.

Overall, Ngong’s book is a careful work of scholarship with readable prose and carefully constructed footnotes that allow for further exploration.  Among chapters of varying quality, Ngong’s own contributions are particularly significant. The introduction, the first chapter on the theological significance of Africa and Africans in the Bible, and the fifth chapter on Africa and the Christian Doctrine of God, all written by Ngong, offer a useful assessment of the historical and theological developments within Christian thought on the African continent. Other important chapters by Laurenti Magesa, Gerald West, and Rothney Tshaka demonstrate the diversity of the contributors: historians, theologians, and biblical scholars, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, from southern Africa, East Africa and the diaspora.

The main shortcoming of the book is an omission that Ngong notes in the introduction: the lack of any essays on African Women’s theology or African Pentecostalism. Fortunately, there are many authors within the Circle of Concerned African Women who have written on the numerous contributions of women to African theology. Esther Mombo’s “Women in African Christianities” in Routledge Companion to Christianity in Africa provides a good recent overview of some of these contributions. For those looking to supplement their understanding of Pentecostalism, the fastest growing segment of Christianity in Africa, Kwebena Asamoah-Gyadu’s books are highly recommended, especially Contemporary Pentecostal Christianity: Interpretations From an African Context, which builds on Ogbu Kalu’s important book African Pentecostalism.

Ngong is to be commended for the foresight of this book and his significant contributions to it. Anyone with a specific interest in the development and growth of Christianity in Africa or anyone with a general interest in Christian thought would deeply benefit from this informative and perceptive book.

Tim Hartman is Assistant Professor of Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary

The Evolution of Dignity by Kyle Nicholas

August 20, 2018

On August 2, 2018 the Vatican announced that Pope Francis approved a new change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The death penalty is now “inadmissible” in all circumstances. As in any development in a tradition, this move is both novel and yet not discontinuous.

Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, argued that only in cases where public safety from the offender could not be guaranteed was the death penalty permissible. Since this is a near impossibility with modern techniques of confinement, it means the death penalty is a near impossibility. Pope Benedict XVI continued this line of thought and committed his own papacy to working with other countries to abolish the death penalty.

Pope Francis joins this push by connecting opposition to the death penalty with human dignity. I am particularly interested in one statement in the new Catechism, which reads, “today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” What is this “increasing awareness”? Like any concept, dignity has a history. Pope Francis’s decision is the continuation of a certain trajectory within the history of the idea of dignity — a history not limited to Catholicism.

We use the word dignity in all sorts of ways. Some actions are undignified — like wearing a Chicago Cubs hat to dinner with the Queen. Or, we think some ways of disrespecting individuals transgresses against their dignity — such as in the case of annual dwarf-tossing contests. The philosopher Friedrich Schiller thought dignity was the ability to stand up straight and remain composed and resolute in the face of hard circumstances. Some, like the Catholic Church and conservative bioethicists, love talking about dignity. Others, like Ruth Macklin and Steven Pinker, dislike the concept.

These different ways of characterizing dignity come from an impressive discussion of the ins and outs of the concept by the philosopher Michael Rosen. His history shines light on Pope Francis’s decision.

One way to characterize dignity is as rank within a certain natural order. Starting with Cicero and continuing through much of the Latin Christian tradition, dignity was understood as rank. Because humans share a sensitive nature with the animals, and yet our rational capacities lift us above them, we can rise in contemplation to the divine or sink into animality and brute instincts. We were created, in the words of Psalm 8, “just a little lower than the angels.” When dignity is equated with rank, humans have less dignity than these angels, but more than animals. Humans also might vary in nobility from one to the other. Yet, since this idea was connected with certain capacities, and we are marred by sin, dignity becomes unstable. Since it is a rank we inhabit, then it is something we can lose. Anybody who lowers themselves too far might be put to death.

The second way to characterize dignity is as inherent worth. This is a relatively modern version of dignity, often traced to Immanuel Kant. Because of the use of dignity in modern political documents such as the German Grundgesetz and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and because of certain developments in Catholic and Protestant thought about the person, this is the idea of dignity we are most familiar with today.

Dignity here is intrinsic to the person and is not reducible to material circumstances or decisions. This is what John Paul II calls the “transcendent dignity” of the human person and the secular philosopher George Kateb calls dignity as an “existential” and not merely moral value. With the idea of an intrinsic worth that transcends circumstances and decisions, we see how something like the death penalty becomes at the very best problematic. To punish even a heinous crime with death would be to extinguish the transcendent aspect of the person for material transgressions — this is the definition of disproportion. This move from rank and order to existential or transcendent worth is why Catholic and secular views can overlap, and why the inclusion of dignity in several founding charters remains so fruitful for politics and law.

How did we make this transition? Is it a legacy of the Enlightenment, as secularists might believe, or of Christianity, as apologists argue? The answer is both: and to some extent neither. Or so argues the German philosopher and sociologist Hans Joas. Joas is interested in why in the modern age we moved to place more emphasis than ever upon the inherent worth, and subsequently individual rights, of the person.

Joas develops his account in contrast to two “myths”: the myth of Christianity and the myth of the Enlightenment. The “myth” is that either is fully responsible for our present concern with individual worth.

Christianity did endow the human with unparalleled worth; it was a moral revolution. In some early stories, Christians plucked discarded children from the trash and raised them, shared all their possessions in common, and broke down distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, and male and female. Yet, for Joas it is one thing to start a moral revolution and another to unweave the full implications without falling into distortions. Christianity often fell woefully short of its teachings on the worth of the person. In addition to Crusades and the persecution of heretics and the Jews, we can take a look at this infamous gem of misanthropy: a late 12th century treatise by Pope Innocent III, entitled On the Misery of the Human Condition.

“For sure man was formed out of earth, conceived in guilt, born to punishment. What he does is depraved and illicit, is shameful and improper, vain and unprofitable. He will become fuel for the eternal fires food for worms, a mass of rottenness… Man was formed of dust, slime, and ashes; what is even more vile, of the filthiest seed. He was conceived from the itch of the flesh, in the heat of passion and the stench of lust, and worse yet, with the stain of sin. He was born to toil, dread, and trouble; and more wretched still, was born only to die.”

The second myth is the Enlightenment myth. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment did add value to the person in a way that was both continuous and novel to the Christian tradition. As much as we point to Pico della Mirondola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1496) or Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments (1764) as freeing us from the “dark” ages, however, these centuries of thought are tangled up in colonialism, chattel slavery, racism, nationalism, and the mechanized slaughter of the 20th century.

The real change, Joas argues, is the rise of the idea of the “sacredness” of the human person from both Christian and Enlightenment traditions. Think about the worst crime in modern society: homicide. This wasn’t always the case. For a long time the worst crime was blasphemy (against the sacredness of God) or attempted regicide (against the sacredness of the King). Browse through a medieval penitential, and you’ll often be surprised that even some sexual activities require greater penance than homicide.

Our present condition then is marked by a centuries-long migration of sacredness from God and king to the core of the individual person. Avoiding atheism, this is what one tradition in modern Christian ethics came to call “personality” and it played a fundamental role in the social ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr. For King, according to social ethicist Gary Dorrien, personality is an analogous repetition of the divine in the soul of each human being, and as such is the most sacred thing in the universe.

While Joas shows that a certain de jure recognition of the sacredness of the human person exists today, he warns us that we must remain vigilant to the ever-present possibility of its de facto destruction by other institutions and ideologies. Sacredness can migrate from its proper place in an individual person to an institution or ideology: to the Party, say, or to the “white race.”

The sacredness of the person over all institutions and ideologies is one part of what we today call dignity. Some Catholics will take issue with Pope Francis’s decision, especially with regard to the consistency with past teachings about the natural law. Yet, for those who accept the story I recalled here, Pope Francis’s decision must be regarded as nothing short of inspired.

Kyle Nicholas is a doctoral student in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at the University of Virginia.

Progressive Evangelicalism and the Development of Liberation Theology by David Nacho

August 15, 2018

In a piece for Political Theology, Luis Aranguiz brings up interesting points and poignant questions about the status of political theology in Latin America. To begin, he correctly identifies the incredibly diverse spectrum of what might be called evangelical in Latin America. He also points out accurately the sort of issues around which evangelicals have rallied in the last few years. Therefore, I think it would be useful to expand the conversation to theological education in general and even briefly touch upon higher education across the continent.

Before addressing his questions, I wanted to touch on what he calls an “inside perspective.” Liberation Theology is definitely a shaping force of theological reflection in Latin America, both for leftist Christians and right-wing conservatives. Some have seen it as a source of inspiration, while others have channeled efforts and resources to challenge not only the contents, but the theological method used by its proponents.

Evangelical theologians involved in the Latin American Theological Fellowship (FTL) have thoughtfully engaged Liberation Theology for decades. And for Aranguiz, “[it] seems that evangelicals increasingly are at the same time in a quest for power and a lack of thought.” However, the problem with this description is that it too sharply separates political leaders and activists from theologians and theorists. This separation leads him to conclude, “We don’t know who is exactly thinking—in a disciplinary sense—evangelical conservative politics.”

Orlando Costas (Puerto Rico, 1942-1987) argued that doing theology in Latin America does not take place in universities, rather Latin American reflection is a theology of the road. At its best, this meant that engagement with other disciplines became an essential aspect of the theological task in the continent. Currently, I lead a graduate program (CETI) that seeks to form students in the praxis of engaging culture and the public sphere with a sophisticated theological framework. But we are more an exception than a rule in theological education in our context.

Unfortunately, most often doing theology on the road has meant that theological education has been reduced, like much of higher education in the continent since the mid 80’s, to training. However, this training is not done without theoretical thinking, as Aranguiz seems to argue. The plethora of US-funded training programs may not have a subject called Political Theology, but they do have a clearly thought out concept of what theology, church, family, and society are for and should be like: hierarchical, male centered, and individualistic.

In other words, rightwing evangelicals, who are increasingly voting as a bloc, don’t need to attend a faculty of theology or read complex literature, for they are bombarded with training programs or initiatives that shape religious language in a way that is easily coopted by salesmen of a truncated gospel with political ambitions.

The derechización of politics among evangelicals has even led them to join forces with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Costa Rica during the last presidential election to support (overtly and not) an evangelical candidate. This would have been unheard of just a few years ago, but it is quite telling as to how far this derechización phenomenon has taken root in the region.

Political theology in Latin America, especially among neo-pentecostals, is done from the pulpits and through training programs that use materials influenced by American thinkers such as Peter Wagner and the New Apostolic Reformation.

Finally, Aranguiz only tangentially asks the question of why progressive evangelical theology has not made deeper inroads in Latin America, but this is a key question for the future of political theology in Latin America. Let us remember that liberation theology is a call to repentance. The questions raised by Liberation theology and our pioneer evangelical contextual theologians regarding corruption, racism, and human rights abuses remain unanswered. So, what happened?

Writing in the New York Times, Rafia Zakaria argues that around the world, NGOs have managed to dilute the term, “women’s empowerment” by treating it as an economic issue that can be addressed isolated from politics. Empowerment was meant to be about transforming gender subordination and breaking down oppressive structures; however, it is synonymous with handing out sowing machines, delivering technical training to raise goats, or similar initiatives.

We could draw a parallel between women’s empowerment and political theology in Latin America. Poorly funded theological institutions, and the prevailing understandings of education as training, created the right conditions for progressive political theology to be coopted by the development and assistance industry with their technical programming seeking to measurably improve health and education.

Conservative NGOs and training ministries with their diverse range of development and assistance projects are meeting evangelicals on the road, shaping religious language in a way that understands the relationship between faith and life in a dominionistic fashion.

As progressive evangelicals, we must continue to move theological reflection out of conferences, colloquia, consultations, books and journals. We must propose educational programs and models that embrace liberating pedagogical approaches in order to continue with the heritage we received from our precursors.

David Nacho is the Academic Dean of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Theological Studies.

Laughing Through Tears: The Tragicomedy of American Muslim Life by Elisabeth Becker

July 23, 2018

Over the past two decades, American Muslims have been profiled, surveilled and even detained without cause. With the “Muslim Ban” recently upheld by the Supreme Court and significantly heightened levels of discrimination against Muslims following the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, life as an American Muslim is no laughing matter.

Except when it is. The profiles of comedians who are Muslims are on the rise, showcasing a group which is growing not just in number but also in popularity. Many of these comedians share a common thread in their acts — an intertwining of tragedy and comedy in their narratives about religion, identity, and belonging.

Tragicomedy is a literary term typically used to reference plays and novels that contain elements of both tragedy and comedy. But it is also an apt concept to describe comedy that undermines powerful stereotypes of Islam which equate Muslims with violence and portray Islam as inherently anti-democratic.

Shows and films such as Big Brown Comedy Hour, The Axis of Evil, and The Muslims Are Coming! evoke captivating, if disturbing, racial and religious stereotypes. And they break open uncomfortable, but badly needed, conversations about the everyday struggles of Muslim coming of age in today’s America.

In 2014, the Daily Show hired Hasan Minaj, the son of Indian Muslim immigrants who gained celebrity following his Netflix-aired show Homecoming King. In Homecoming King, Minaj recounts how the parents of his math-partner-cum-prom-date refused to let him take her to the dance on account of his race.

In a recent study I led at Muslims for American Progress, the MAP-NYC study, we found that Muslim comedians from New York City utilize comedy as an opportunity to publicly represent themselves, while connecting to broad audiences across America.

Following the 2016 presidential election, for instance, comedian Aman Ali traveled the United States for his Ask Me Anything: I Am Muslim tour, in which he encouraged audiences to literally ask him anything.

Ali described the tour, “It was just amazing…it ended up being this very rewarding, beautiful experience, just talking about faith.”  He added that most people with unfavorable views of Muslims had never met one, “I can’t change how people think. All I know is, I can represent myself to the best of my ability. And if they change, great. But now they can’t say, ‘Oh I met a Muslim, and they’re all bad.’ They can’t say that, they just can’t.”

Dean Obeidallah, co-founder of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival has appeared on Comedy Central’s The Axis of Evil and produces Big Brown Comedy Hour. Recently, he co-directed the documentary, The Muslims Are Coming!  “The change is dramatic,” says Obeidallah, “The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour had a big impact …I think stand-up comedy has been proven to be a great way to break through and tell your story in the way you want it told.”

Muslim actress Aizzah Fatima reflected on her role in HBO comedy-drama High Maintenance, and the broader influence that American Muslims are having on popular culture. “[They] had some scenes that just didn’t portray Muslims in a good light,” she says. But then the writers approached her and asked about her life so that they could tell a more nuanced story. “I feel like that was a true collaboration, and it was the first time on HBO that I heard people speaking in another language, and it was not terroristy.”

There were scenes mixing Urdu and English, reflecting real family life.

There is true tragedy in the fact that Muslims in popular culture have to normalize Islam for mainstream America. No minority group should have to prove its value in this way. And yet responding head-on to human exclusions and othering, as ethnic nationalism spreads like wildfire across the United States and Europe, is a powerful strategy–and one used by minority groups throughout history.

Author Mustafa Bayoumi, in his book How Does it Feel to be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America writes, “Muslim Americans are the new ‘problem’ of American society, but of course there are others.” From Black Americans to Mexican immigrants, Catholics to Jews, diverse groups have faced discrimination throughout American history, and comedy is a proven creative means for critiquing tragedy. As Rabbi Leo M. Abrami  reflects, “In Jewish humor, comedy and tragedy are intertwined and it is often what you might call “laughter through tears,” or as we say in Yiddish, “a bitterer gelekhter!”

Elisabeth Becker was the principal investigator of the Muslims for American Progress (MAP)-NYC project and is a postdoctoral fellow with Religion & Its Publics.

Photo Source: Muslims for American Progress/Courtesy of Institute for Social Policy and Understanding