A few months ago I participated in a Building Bridges Seminar, one of the annual encounters between Muslim and Christian theologians sponsored by Lambeth Palace. I was not quite sure what to expect going in. Such dialogues can range from boring to exhilarating.
My last column was on gift-giving, and I cannot refrain from writing another on the same subject. A recent “Reading File” in the New York Times (Jan. 4) contains a provocation I cannot resist. Ross Gittins, a writer at the Sydney Morning Herald, explains why economists regard gift-giving as foolish. Here is an excerpt:
If you are like me, you dread one essential part of Christmas celebrations: gift-giving. My problems start with shopping. To give, you have to shop, but for me shopping is disturbingly disorienting, especially at Christmas. With all the glitzy stuff staring at me from everywhere I can’t figure out what I like (let alone what I like and can also afford).
I have always been fascinated by the phrase “the Lord make his face shine upon you.” God’s blessing, God’s protection, God’s peace, God’s grace—all part of that same benediction—are great goods, and if I had to choose between them and God’s shining face, I might well opt for them. But God’s shining face outdoes them all.
I wasn’t sure what to make of Frida, a movie about the sadness, courage and indomitability that characterized the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Because I wanted to know more, I watched the interview Bill Moyers did with the movie’s director, Julie Taymor.
We often engage in disputes about how events from the past should be remembered. Whether we’ve had an argument with a child, a quarrel with a spouse or a debate about national history, the truth about the past seems to matter a great deal. And yet there are powerful voices in our culture that tell us that we should let go of this interest.
Many intellectuals associate religion—and Christianity in particular—with violence. Hence they argue that the less religion we have the better off we will be. In an article in the Atlantic, for example, Jonathan Rauch argues that the greatest development in modern religion is “apatheism”—a sense of not caring one way or the other whether God exists.
Some have suggested that recent scandals in the world of business, politics and the academy are practical consequences of a worldview that has pushed God out. Morality needs God, the argument goes, and without God the social fabric will be torn by uncontrolled greed, lust for power and striving for glory.
This past May, at an interfaith conference in Skopje, Macedonia, I began a keynote address with a few remarks on what it means to speak in a Christian voice in an interfaith setting. Since religious pluralism increasingly defines the American social landscape and since religions are an important factor in the way we relate to each other, it is important for us to reflect on this issue.
From this theologian’s perspective, the central challenge for pastoral ministry today concerns the most important mark of good ministry: the ability effectively to mediate faith as an integral way of life to persons, communities and cultures. This has been true throughout history, in every culture and for every community of faith.
When I visited a Baltimore neighborhood called Sandtown in 1997, my most vivid impression was that of disturbing, jarring contrast. I remember a whole neighborhood of abandoned houses—each one an oversized skull, with empty darkness peering out of its broken doors and windows and mocking the life that had abandoned it. In the midst of these ruins, however, there was a street teeming with life.
Recently, in a class titled “Theology and Trauma Theory,” we read the text that catapulted Karl Barth to theological fame: Epistle to the Romans, written shortly after World War I. In the light of current events, what resonated with some of us was Barth’s critique of religion. Religion is not the solemn music that accompanies all the noblest human experiences, argued Barth.
Lawrence Langer explains in Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory that written accounts of life in the Nazi concentration camps often seek to integrate the Holocaust experience into a larger structure of meaning.
I was driving to work when a song on the radio caught my attention. In country style I was treated to a theological lesson: “God is our Santa Claus,” a voice crooned, “each and every day.” The words, sung half in a self-satisfied and half in a whiny and wistful tone, acquired for me the force of a revelation.
Nothing is gained and much is lost if we describe the terrorists as evil,” a friend of mine argued recently. I disagree. Our difference can be traced back to a division in moral philosophy. My friend is a moral expressivist. He views moral judgments as expressions of feelings, desires and wants.
Now is the time to warn ourselves of the dangers of impregnability. True, as a country we have been violated in a most brutal way, and we’ll have to make sure that we are safe in the future. And yet the way we are going about securing our safety, especially after September 11, is deeply flawed.
A few months ago I gave a lecture at a small Midwestern college. Broadly put, my topic was the encounter with “the other.” In a discussion afterwards, a student suggested that engaging in evangelism and seeking to convert another person to the Christian faith is a form of violence, a form of harmful disrespect for the other.
Some time ago a family paid us a visit. Robert, as I will call a little boy who came along, was about our son’s age, and neither of them had yet mastered the art of sharing. But Robert was now on Nathanael’s territory. Nathanael’s toys were scattered all around, and it was his responsibility to share.