Catholic Fundamentalism versus the Land of Hope and Dreams

1.  Many years ago, I read a book by Karen Armstrong entitled The Battle for God.  In the book, Armstrong tries to define and explore the concept of "fundamentalism."  Technically, fundamentalism refers to a specific movement in Protestant Christianity, stemming from the Niagara Bible Conference in the 1880s and 1890s that defined what it believed to be the "five fundamentals" of Christian faith.  However, the term "fundamentalism" has expanded to other religious contexts, so we talk about Islamic Fundamentalism, Jewish Fundamentalism, etc.  In fact, in her book, Armstrong discusses the history of Jewish, Islamic and (Protestant) Christian fundamentalisms in parallel.

But what is fundamentalism?  Armstrong argues that it has three basic components--a substantive component, a political or social component, and a rhetorical component.  The substantive component is a whole-cloth rejection of the values of the broader society in which it finds itself--in most cases, secular Western modern (or post-modern) societies.  The political or social component is the push/pull of two competing instincts--retreating from this broader culture to preserve purity in tension with trying to overturn or overcome the hated overculture.  Finally, the rhetorical component is the claim that both the substantive and political/social components are being done in the name of, and in reference to, a return to a prior, more pristine society that lacks the offensive elements of the broader culture.

Armstrong's key insight, or at least what I took away from the book, is that the rhetorical elements of fundamentalism are just that, rhetorical.  Fundamentalism is not really about the past at all, but about the present and a rejection of the present.  The specific issues that exercise a fundamentalist now would be unintelligible to their co-religionists of 200 or 500 years ago, because the issues they care about are entirely products of the modern situation.  The vision of the past that fundamentalists use as their rallying cry is a construction that is designed to buttress their deeply modern program.  Bottom line:  while fundamentalists will always try to frame the debate as between the past and the present, the real debate is always between two competing visions of the present.

No one can adequately grasp the terms pertaining to God.  For example, "mother" is mentioned [in the Scriptures] in place of "father."  Both terms mean the same because the divine is neither male nor female (for how could such a thing be contemplated in divinity, when it [does not] remain intact permanently in us human beings either?  But when all shall be one in Christ, we shall be divested of the signs of this distinction together with the whole of the old man).  Therefore, every name found [in Scripture] is equally able to indicate the ineffable nature, since the meaning of the undefiled is contaminated by neither male nor female.

This quote comes from Commentary on the Song of Songswritten by St. Gregory of Nyssa (330-ish to 395-ish).  Gregory of Nyssa is one of the Cappadocian Fathers (along with St. Basil of Caesarea and St. Gregory Nazianzus), the three of whom are some of the most important theologians of the immediate post-Constantinian  period.  Our doctrine of the Trinity, if not derived directly from St. Gregory, would not exist without his contributions.  He's a big deal.

This passage makes two basic claims.  First, there is nothing wrong with referring to God as "Mother" instead of "Father," because ultimately God has no gender.  Second, in an ultimate sense we don't have a gender either, as gender is a contingent reality that will not be a part of us when we reach our ultimate reward.

Now, Gregory's position is not one that is universally shared by all of his contemporaries.  St. Augustine, for example, thinks gender is absolutely a permanent part of our human experience, and while I don't know if he addressed the question directly, I am pretty sure he would not be OK with calling God Mother as opposed to Father.  But Gregory's position makes a couple of things clear.  First, Christian theologians have been wrestling with the question of gender and language from the beginning.  Second, they have come to varying views as a result of that wrestling.  And, finally, this diversity of views is OK.  Gregory wrote and taught that it is fine to call God Mother, presumably some people did, and everyone continued to be a Christian and live happily ever after.

We do the Christian tradition an enormous disservice by failing to recognize its diversity, as well as the (to modern ears) progressive nature of some of its voices.  St. Augustine counselled people not to try to take your science from Genesis, lest people who actually know things about science conclude you're an idiot and dismiss the Christian message in toto.  Origen, writing in the early third century, said "[n]o one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise, and that Adam lay hid under a tree is related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it" (De Principiis 4.1.16)--strongly suggesting that he didn't believe Adam was an actual person.  I mentioned before that St. Gregory concluded that the Passover never actually happened, because killing a bunch of innocent Egyptian kids would make God into a monster and we know that's not true.  Gregory, by the way, was also at least a quasi-universalist (i.e. that everyone would eventually be saved by God and no one would be sent to Hell for eternity); in that, he prefigures Evangelical heresiarch and Oprah pal Rob Bell by about 1650 years.

Christians have been wrestling with these questions for a long time.  Different people have come to different conclusions throughout the centuries.  It's fine.  It was fine then, and it is fine now.

3.  If you have been following me on Twitter, you know I have been tweeting a series of articles by the (it seems) increasingly unbalanced Fr. Dwight Longenecker.  His most recent bete noir is gender, in two different dimensions.  First, he seems to be very upset about the fact that Church of England is talking about (not implementing, not mandating, talking about) the use of feminine pronouns and words to speak of God.  This is a catastrophe, pace Longenecker, because it is a total repudiation of everything the Bible says about gender, and he also claims the saints never refer to God as Mother (which, as we have seen with Gregory of Nyssa, is simply false).  It also makes one totally unable to speak about God:

You can’t love someone without sex being involved. I don’t mean by “sex” genital activity. What I mean is that we relate to others through gender. . . .  We cannot be in a loving relationship with an abstract being who is sometimes Mother and sometimes Father.

Where does this all lead?  Why, pagan priestesses, of course.

Why are people so dense about this? One only has to read the new age feminist theologians themselves to discover that the religion they are sympathetic to is none other than the worship of the Nature Goddess–the God of this world–aka Satan. 

Do you think the Church of England and Episcopal church and mainline Protestant churches have stopped going down the path of destruction?
Not a chance.
They will continue with the radical feminist agenda until they are actually holding hands with witchcraft and worshipping devils.

So, there you have it.  Calling God Mother leads to renouncing every shred of Christian orthodoxy, becoming a wiccan, and ultimately bending a knee to the Devil.  Simple as that.

His concern with the zealous policing of gender lines leads him to say. . . wait for it . . . lots of unkind things about Caitlyn Jenner.  In his first salvo on the topic, he states his position with great clarity: "When I see that Vanity Fair cover I don’t see an attractive woman.  I see a man dressed up as a whore…."  Charming.

Lest one thinks that it's just angry ex-Anglicans lashing out on these issues, Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco (who might as well have "controversial" as a permanent first name) brought up the pagan priestess thing as well.

Cordileone said the inevitable result [of abandoning traditional gender norms] "is a reversion to the paganism of old, but with unique, postmodern variations on its themes, such as the practice of child sacrifice, the worship of feminine deities or the cult of priestesses.

Pagan priestesses and child sacrifice?  That sounds really bad.  But Cordileone goes even further on the importance of maintaining the idea that God is a dude.

"This is because God has used marriage as the primary sacred sign of our relationship with him," he said, citing an author who described God as "hetero" and male, and Israel as "hetero" and female -- hence their attraction to each other.
"It's all the story of a marriage. God's marriage covenant with Israel is fulfilled in the blood of Christ on the cross, establishing the new and eternal covenant between him, the bridegroom, and his bride, the church.

So, per "an author" cited voluntarily by the Archbishop, . . . God wants to have sex with Israel?  Plus, and forgive me for being graphic, if God/Jesus is the "man" in this marital covenant and Israel is the woman, wouldn't Israel traditionally be the one to bleed on the wedding night?  How far should we take this analogy?  Yeesh. [Edit:  See here for a very cogent discussion of why this analogy becomes hopelessly tangled when trotted out in the marriage discussion.]

4.  What Fr. Longenecker and Archbishop Cordileone are preaching is Catholic fundamentalism, full stop.  They use the rhetoric of the past, but nothing that they are saying is about the Catholic tradition, not really.  It is about the fact that Fr. Longenecker and Archbishop Cordileone think that women are icky (except maybe those that fit into a narrow, predetermined model of what a woman is and should do) and transgendered people are icky.  But, more importantly, this is about the fact that some people don't find those things icky.  Because all of this is not about God, or Jesus, or the saints, or even pagan priestesses--it's about me, and you, and Caitlyn Jenner, and how terrible it is we don't see the world the way Longenecker and Cordileone see the world.

Longenecker and Cordileone don't actually care about the past, about Catholic tradition.  Because if they did, they would be forced to reckon with the fact that Gregory of Nyssa, one of the key theological figures of the early Church, would have no problem with those women in the Church of England who are thinking about God as Mother.  That he would be horrified with whoever it was who came up with the analogy that the male God is sexually attracted to the female Israel, and would likely shake his head at the thought that an archbishop said something so weird.  That he might not care at all about Caitlyn Jenner, except perhaps to be suspicious of anyone who voluntarily chose to associate herself with the Kardashian clan.  And that he certainly wouldn't agree that all of this is going to result in pagan priestesses running amok, because it didn't when he first suggested it and there is no reason to think it will now.

No, like all fundamentalists, tradition and the past are rhetorical tools to advance a political and social agenda.  And, predictably, the strategy of that agenda wavers between strident confrontation with the culture around them and self-righteous calls to take their ball and go home in the form of the "Benedict Option."  But the heart of the agenda is always the same--to ensure that gender (especially female gender) and sexuality are expressed only in pre-defined and pre-approved ways, to be managed by a set of male (always male) leaders.

Those are Fr. Longenecker's obsessions and Archbishop Cordileone's obsessions, and even sometimes Pope Francis's obsessions (unfortunately) every time he gets on his jag about "gender ideology."  But they are not the Church's obsessions and they are not the obsessions of many of the great thinkers and leaders that came before us.  And they don't have to be our obsessions.

5.  Frank from Letters to the Catholic Right wrote a post last night about Walter Percy, which referred to the late Fr. Andrew Greeley's concept of the "Catholic imagination."  The Catholic imagination is not about rules or doctrines, or even necessarily being a member of the Roman Catholic church.  The Catholic imagination sees life--all life, even the parts we would just assume ignore and shunt to the side--as infused with the presence of God.

There are lots of artists of all types--poets, writers, visual artists, musicians--that are infused with the Catholic imagination.  But the one that I keep coming back to as an example of this idea is Bruce Springsteen.  In particular, check out "Land of Hope and Dreams."

Bring your ticket and your suitcase, thunder's rolling down this track
You don't know where you're goin' now, but you know you won't be back
Now, little darlin' if you're weary, lay your head upon my chest
We'll take what we can carry, and we'll leave the rest

Well, big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams,
Meet me in a Land of Hope and Dreams.

I will provide for you and I'll stand by your side
You'll need a good companion now for this part of the ride
Yeah, leave behind your sorrows, let this day be the last
Well, tomorrow there'll be sunshine and all this darkness past

Well, big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams
Oh, meet me in a Land of Hope and Dreams

Well, this train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls

I said, this train, dreams will not be thwarted
This train, faith will be rewarded
This train, hear the steel wheels singing
This train, bells of freedom ringing

That, my friends, is visceral catholicity.  That is a vision of the Catholic Church worthy of its name.  You are on the train and I am on the train and female Church of England bishops are on the train and, yes, Fr. Longenecker and Archbishop Cordileone are on the train, and all of us can just be on the train together.  Here comes everybody--taking what we can carry, and leaving the rest.  Our dreams will not be thwarted, and faith will be rewarded.  All of us on our way to the Land of Hope and Dreams.

Tell me, do you see any of this vision in what Fr. Longenecker and Archbishop Cordlieone are saying?  Because I don't.

6. There is a profound narcissism that undergirds this Catholic fundamentalism.  It is premised on the idea that everything is somehow dependent on the efforts of all of us, or rather a chosen few, to keep this thing called the Church afloat.  Fundamentalism is about crisis, and Catholic fundamentalism sees crisis and potential doom lurking around every corner both inside and outside the Church, held at bay only by the brave efforts of these self-appointed guardians.  As a result, the fate of the Church, and indeed the world, ultimately depends on them and their effort. They are the heroes of the story of history.

That's simply not true, because we already know how this story is going to end and we know who the hero is.  We've known how this story ends since St. John sat in a cave on the island of Patmos and wrote about his vision of a new Heaven and a new Earth.  The last words Jesus said to His disciples, and to us, in the Gospel of Matthew are "[a]nd remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."  Not "as long as you keep women from the altar," or "so long as you enforce 'proper' sexual morality."  Jesus's promise contains no qualifications or conditions, because He is the hero of this story.  If He says He will be with us, then He will be with us.

I believe that.  But are there times where I doubt that belief?  Of course.  That's an unfortunate design defect in being human.  But as Andrew Sullivan said so beautifully, in those small moments of uncertainty we have to trust God.  Once we do that, once we can let go of the narcissistic position that the fate of everything is in our hands, that's when we can be truly catholic.

If we have a little faith, we don't need to freak out about the words we use to talk about God.  We don't need to work everyone into a panic about pagan priestesses bringing back child sacrifice.  We don't have to be see gay people or transgendered people as an existential threat.

We don't need to do those things because we trust that we are on the train to the Land of Hope and Dreams.  Because that's what Jesus told us.

Catholic fundamentalism represents a lack of trust in the promise of Jesus.  It is, ultimately, a lack of faith.  And that's sad.  Part of me feels bad for these guys.  But then I see the anger they have for others and the pain they cause other people, and my sympathy rapidly drains away.  People are trying to get on the train, bringing their ticket and their suitcase, and these guys are trying to push them out the door and under the rolling wheels.  And that's not right.

Fundamentalism is bad.  But Catholic fundamentalism is particularly bad, because in a very important way it undermines the entire notion of a "catholic" church.  It's bad enough that it is worth writing blog posts and speaking out and doing what one can to see that another, better vision of the Church prevails.  Not because we are think that our efforts are responsible for keeping the train running, but so that as many people as possible can find their way on board.  The Land of Hope and Dreams is worth it.


Michael Wise said…
I'm not opposed to using gender neutral terms or female pronouns where called for, but most of the historical prayers and texts that are used liturgically simply refer to God the Father as, well, Father, because that's what the biblical sources quite clearly used. No amount of political campaigning is going to change the unambiguous biblical usage of Our Father to the wholly invented Our Mother.

Popular posts from this blog

Just Say No to Forced Emotional Labor for Clergy

The Cavalry is Not Coming and Other Moments of Clarity

Apocalypse Now, Part 2--A General Theory of the End Times