Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nicholas Kristof, Don Cupitt, and the Sermon on the Mount

Nicholas Kristof writes in his “New York Times” column today of the differences between the Roman Catholic bishops and Catholic hospitals around the country which are sometimes not as strict in their abortion policies as the bishops would like.
As I read his column, I was struck by this passage:
“To me, this battle illuminates two rival religious approaches, within the Catholic church and any spiritual tradition. One approach focuses upon dogma, sanctity, rules and the punishment of sinners. The other exalts compassion for the needy and mercy for sinners — and, perhaps, above all, inclusiveness.”
This echoes almost uncannily Don Cupitt’s reading of the Sermon on the Mount in his “A New Great Story” (2010), which I quoted in my post on January 25th. He points out that The Sermon on the Mount is a mixture of passages that call for the “…almost existentialist ethic of open whole-hearted expression, and freedom from anxiety or calculation” (Matthew 5:13-16, 38-48, and 6:25-34). and others that “…take for granted the value of a strictly-interpreted religious Law, and a piety of secret good works and hidden inwardness which pursues and expects a heavenly reward after death.” (5:17-33, and 6:1-20 and 24) (p81, 82)
In Kristoff’s interpretation, the actions of some leaders of the Catholic hospitals could be seen as existentialistic and whole-hearted with anxiety and calculation taking the hindmost. While the bishops’ position values a strictly-interpreted religious Law with heaven as a reward for obedience to this Law. Cupitt writes of the Sermon on the Mount: “The difference is astonishing. In the two groups of sayings we find two entirely different, indeed opposite religious personalities.” (p82) He also points out that these different approaches are “…deeply embedded within the best texts we have”. (p81) What Cupitt calls “Church Christianity” had begun, by the year 50, shifting the focus “…from Jesus’ teaching to his person – and in particular his exalted status in the cosmic hierarchy”. (p79) It is this latter position that the bishops are defending today. Kristof writes about one such instance of “Church Christianity”: The bishop of Phoenix demanded that St. Joseph’s Hospital there never again terminate a pregnancy to save the life of a mother. In contrast, Linda Hunt, the president of St. Joseph’s responded, “St. Joseph’s will continue through our words and deeds to carry out the healing ministry of Jesus.” Two starkly different positions each rooted in different parts of the Sermon on the Mount. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

My Response to David T.'s comment

David T. has commented on my post on January 18th. Below is my response to his comment.
Thank you for your comment. Monogamy and the nuclear family are often bound together in our culture, and, as you point out, children’s loss of stable relationships within the fragile nuclear family can be very hard on them. Of course, the more complex webs of adult relationships you write of are a good remedy for the shortcomings of the nuclear family and probably reflect to some extent the relationships within our ancestral foraging bands. In the case of my own family, my children had extended relationships. This was especially true of my younger son who found great strength within the family of his best friend, whom he met in second grade. My son and his friend initiated this relationship, and all that the rest of us needed to do was to encourage it. I think that families would do well to be on the lookout for the possibilities of such ad hoc extended families and then to foster them.
What can be said about fundamentalists? Not much except to emphasize that if you start with a false premise, you get a bad outcome. The rest of us have to keep on offering other positions in contrast to this lust for certainty. One good alternative is Cupitt’s solar living: Give yourself away like the sun, shining for all, doing your best without regard for reward or the assurance of success. This is difficult, but it is a lot of the reason why Jesus is such a compelling figure. As Cupitt points out, his “…almost existentialist ethic of open whole-hearted expression, and freedom from anxiety or calculation” (p82 in “A Great New Story,” 2010) can be found in some of Jesus’ sayings in the Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew 5:13-16, 38-48, and 6:25-34) but not in other passages (5:17-33, and 6:1-20 and 24), which are mixed in with the other sayings. These “…take for granted the value of a strictly-interpreted religious Law, and a piety of secret good works and hidden inwardness which pursues and expects a heavenly reward after death.” (p81, 82, “A Great New Story”) Cupitt draws attention to the fact that “…the conflict between the original outlook of Jesus himself and the remodeled Jesus of the emergent Church is already deeply embedded within the best texts we have, making it very difficult in all periods for people to hear Jesus’ own voice. (p 81, “A Great New Story”) Obviously, these two opposing views are still with us. No wonder we struggle to follow Jesus. It’s either extremely difficult or just a matter of “faith.” May the Spirit be with you in your struggle.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My Response to Bob Y’s comment on “Sex at Dawn”

Thanks for you comment on my post on "Sex at Dawn" (December 18, 2010). Here is my response.
Yes, modern sexuality is complex and bewildering, because, as “Sex at Dawn” maintains, we don’t recognize that we are apes, or, more to the point of your comments, we are still apes. Sexually, we tend to act like apes, specifically our closest ape cousins, chimpanzees and bonobos, and we chafe at the restrictions of monogamy. We and these two other species evolved to live in foraging bands, in which all is shared: food, sex, and the perils in the environment. Before the rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, our ancestors had to depend for survival on the other members of the band with what Ryan and Jethá call fierce egalitarianism. Nothing like that exists today in our agricultural or post-agricultural world. We left interdependent foraging bands behind for the advantages of agriculture, namely a steady food supply and a settled existence that in some ways was less dangerous than foraging, which necessitated fending off predators.
However, agricultural societies have features that can be viewed as disadvantages, especially compared to the dynamics of foraging bands. Perhaps most important is the loss of equality between the sexes. Although equality in the bands is not complete, males and females have sex with many partners within and outside the band. As a result, the paternity of offspring is both not known and not an issue; the offspring are members of the band and are raised communally by the band.
However, with agriculture came the concepts of paternity and of private property. Farm land is possessed and passed down from father to son. The land becomes the most important possession the father has, and he wants to be sure that it is passed down to the one who is without doubt his son. Paternity must no longer be unknown, as in the band, and, in order to insure that the son has one father, known without doubt, the mother must have only the father as a sex partner. In order to enforce this arrangement, the woman becomes the father’s property, controlled as strictly as the land.
Also, with agriculture, came produce. With excess produce came trading, and with trading came trading centers that became cities. Cities developed a ruling class of administrators to regulate trade and priests to mediate between man and a distant, exalted God who was worshipped in the hope of ensuring good crops and peace. Or not. Because land was of ultimate value, agriculture also led to armies that waged war to defend property or to gain more. So, agriculture has much to answer for: patriarchy, monogamy, private property, cities, armies, and war, for starters.
However, as you point out, today most people live in post-agricultural, urban societies, but these are still defined to a large extent by private property and war. Although you’re correct that in many societies, especially outside the U.S., traditional extramarital arrangements have eased the strictures of monogamy, this easing chiefly benefits males without much disturbing the primary monogamous marriage. What clearly threatens monogamy, as you also point out, is the rise of women’s sexual liberation. At least in theory, women need no longer be dependent on men for support, nor do they need husbands to have children. Moreover, as with men in modern urban societies, their work outside the home can become their primary focus, and their relationships with their colleagues may become more important to them than their relationships with members of their families. With these changes, the important question today becomes how do these changes affect children? Most studies point to the advantages to children of parents who are present for their children throughout their lives. How do we insure continuity for our children while the traditional structures of patriarchy and monogamy are disappearing, and while wars continue unrelentingly? Going back to foraging bands clearly is not the answer, but in our post-agricultural, “liberated” societies, what is the way forward?