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.

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