Tuesday, July 08, 2008

A Survey of My Religious Opinions

Prompted by Lifehacker's list of books people proposed as life-changing (which, yes, was disappointing), I began to compose a similar list. That four of them were religious works surprised me, yet even in my present free fall to agnosticism, they provide markers of thinking as devoid of superstition as of cultural conformity.

My top-ten influential books included 1. A Religion for Our Time by Louis Evely; 4. Apologia Pro Vita Sua by John Henry Newman; 5. The Lord by Romano Guardini; 8. A Marginal Jew by John Meier.

Louis Evely was a Belgian Catholic priest and spiritual writer whose 1969 book I began to tackle one night in a small town of the province of La Pampa, from which my travel companions and I would journey the next day through ruts to a particular spot in the open land.

Evely's writings were in the vein of the much better-known Henri Nouwen (to whom I was never particularly drawn). Writings that are meant to inspire in a lively way, taking the teachings and scripture of Christian faith at face value, rather than analytically, to help believing people make sense of their lives in light of faith.

In an adaptation of talks delivered in 1962 at a religious retreat for people who were about to set on volunteer aid missions in the Third World, he laughs at a religion of white souls in which salvation is an individual matter, let everyone save himself. Instead he speaks of a world that does not believe, does not hope and does not love, yet one which suffers for it.

The world, he concludes, will belong to whomever gives it the greatest hope. In his view, the greatest hope was to be placed in the God who became a poor Galilean woodworker, like the majority of the people of the world, to the point of being able to affirm, without crossed-fingers, without disclaimers, "Blessed are the poor."

To Evely the task of the Christian is not so much a matter of going to church as it is of becoming poor. That became the cornerstone of my modern religion. It explains why I chose a life that was frugal and had, long before such things were talked about, a low carbon footprint.

John Henry Newman was a significant name in my life before I ever read his writings. My secondary school was named after the founder of the 19th-century Oxford Movement in Anglicanism, who eventually converted to Catholicism.

His Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Latin, literally meaning "in defense of his own life") was a collection of essays he published as pamphlets in the 1860s in response to the accusation of a detractor. Charles Kingsley had written that "Father Newman informs us that truth for its own sake need not be, and on the whole ought not to be, a virtue of the Roman clergy."

Newman provides "a history of my religious opinions" (a subtitle which I have twisted for my purpose in this post), directed at the academic circles in which he lived all his life, and skewers Kingsley squarely, demonstrating not merely his sincerity, but the reasonableness of his views.

This book became the sourcebook of my discussions with an older Anglican lady who was on the brink, yet in great trouble wavering on the notion of becoming accepted into the Catholic Church. My second "convert."

Romano Guardini, despite his name, was German theologian and philosopher who taught in the University of Berlin until he was forced to resign by the Nazis. His writing is primarily philosophical and extremely dense. One reads a Guardini paragraph and must stop to consider it for a day.

Nonetheless, his popular work The Lord has been a long-time bestseller since the 1940s. Modern scholars regard his methodology outdated, but he still manages to tackle for the nonspecialist the crucial meanings of the story of the gospels in a critical, thoughtful manner.

I recall being stunned by the way that, merely in his careful examination of the genealogies of Jesus, he manages to provide wonderful insights. He transforms the usually tiresome begats into a gem of a little historical treatise.

John P. Meier, the only living author in the quaternity, is a renown biblical scholar who collaborated with the late Raymond Brown, co-author of the groundbreaking Jerome Biblical Commentary, whose ongoing work A Marginal Jew runs three volumes so far, with a "final" fourth in the works since at least 2001.

Meier approaches Jesus as a historian, rather than a theologian or a believer, and attempts to distill a synthesis of what Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and agnostic scholars locked up in a room in, say, Princeton, might come to agree could factually be asserted about the much-talked about Galilean woodworker.

I'm partial to his very funny footnotes, of which there are many. But I'm struck by the way in which he rationally limits the power of belief and nonbelief in attempting to leapfrog past the information available and the methods of historiography. For example, while he admits that the believer's grounds to affirm that Jesus performed "miracles" are circumscribed, he similarly points out that there is no scientific method to conclude they were not: there is no scientific divine-intervention meter.

These four books, by men of whom I became fond (I composed most of the Wikipedia entry on Evely to which the link above points), are markers in my journey toward, first, a post-Vatican II faith that insisted on the here and now; second, the development of a conviction of the reasonableness of faith; third, repeated retooling and reconsideration at different levels of understanding, concerning the meaning of substantially the same story; fourth, a dialogue concerning the believability of the story.

It would be erroneous to conclude from the preceding that I lost my faith thanks to Meier. Rather, his work delayed the falling of the scales for quite some time. In the end, my faith tottered not on Meier's writings, but on my own poor witness.

All four works are emblematic of many others read before and after or in tandem. I usually read several books at a time.

They were influential in different ways. Evely inspired an adolescent to dream of becoming an apostle, but the terms of faith or even doubt, remain those set in that first evening with a borrowed copy of the book.

Newman bolstered a young man in the defense of the ideal in the world once I was sent out at the end of my formation. Guardini provided critical grist for an adult professional busy with the concerns of a supporting a family.

In middle age, Meier has encouraged me to begin the work of integration, at least intellectually, of all those aspects of self that Carl Gustaf Jung says all of us embark upon before we die. Even though I have changed chairs in his imaginary team of critics, I look forward to his next volume.

In sum, a religion for our time might be to me a faith grounded in a profound relationship involving release from want and a conviction buttressed by fearless critical inquiry and the integration of experience, received wisdom and insight.

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