Take your run at religion, but let’s be fair about it

By  Michael W. Higgins
  • April 25, 2007

It must seem to most Christians as if attacks on the integrity of their faith — as opposed to bona fide studies, queries and investigations — have become de rigeur. After all, just a cursory glance at the weekly bestseller lists will confirm the suspicions of the besieged that it is an open field when it comes to excoriating religion, in general, and Christianity, in particular.

Number One and Number Two of the top 10 non-fiction books list compiled weekly by the Globe and Mail are, respectively, Somali/Dutch/U.S. politician cum political analyst Ayaan Hirisi Ali’s Infidel and The God Delusion by Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins. French scholar Michel Onfray’s In Defense of Atheism is an international bestseller, and the diatribes of American writer Sam Harris have become required reading. Undoubtedly, Tom Harpur’s new ragout of pop anthropology and facile allegorization, Water into Wine: An Empowering Vision of the Gospels, and Elaine Pagels’ co-authored Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (yet another riff on the Judas obsession), will soon make it to the top of the charts.

Now, not all of these books are assaults on traditional Christianity or religious faith itself. Some of them are thesis-driven, others highly specialized spins on fashionable scholarly themes, but individually and cumulatively they constitute a full-out broadside against any kind of religious orthodoxy or institutional and canonical integrity. Why now?

It isn’t a matter simply of scholars and popularizers of various theological hues advancing their private views — no matter how learned — at the expense of the received wisdom, for after all that is a legitimate part of the scholarly enterprise. What interests me more is the climate — social and political — that allows such a barrage and speaks to the public’s insatiable hunger for such writing.

It is also a fact that in our increasingly post-Christian society it is fair sport to comment derisively on matters of faith without taking the time to know something of the subject. Sometimes, a tone or an allusion says it all. For instance, the Globe and Mail features writer Ian Brown, whose supercilious manner and arch prose are too much for my taste, frequently scores his points against the Roman Catholic Church, as he did in his coverage of the funeral Mass of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and as he recently did in his reportage on the Conrad Black trial in Chicago when he wrote of Lord Black’s disarming confidence: “Some believe his secret is Catholicism. Lord Black of Crossharbour goes to Mass several times a week. ‘That would be a sustaining factor,’ says someone who has known him for years, ‘that whatever happens, it all happens for a reason. And he will find his way through it.’ Thankfully for Lord Black, there are more rational reasons for his confidence.”

Rational reasons? Regardless of one’s private view of Black’s faith — not religiosity as pollsters and trends commentators incorrectly use — to portray, even by innuendo, Black’s attendance at the Eucharist as somehow a crutch betrays the author’s immovable bias. It is egregiously unfair. And that’s my point.

To subject religion, the truth claims of faith, the institutional structures and theological systems that jostle for prominence or influence on the world stage to rigorous account, is right and appropriate. Religion and faith — and they are not in all cases identical — can’t claim immunity from public scrutiny. The failure to examine the underside of religious life is a failure to serve the truth. The public’s interest in religion, and even more so what has collectively come to be known as spirituality, merits proportionate exposure. But not at the cost of fairness.

What is, to me at least, more distressing than the seeming deluge of books and commentary eviscerating religion (and there is some satisfaction to be found surely in the knowledge that at least religion is getting as much coverage as Beckham, Hilton and Timberlake) is the sad fact that few in the academic world seem inclined to enter the public arena and refute, or at least debate, the often outlandish points of view that are more dogmatic in their intensity and self-confidence than anything emanating from Rome. Why the timidity?

I am not talking about the apologists and publicists of the right or the left. Their predictable and mantra-like response to controversy is often counterproductive. No, I am talking about mainstream scholars, experts in their respective fields of research, accomplished academics, whose measured opinions deserve to be heard. The recent airing on Vision TV of the new Simcha Jacobovici/James Cameron film on the Jesus ossuary — The Lost Tomb of Jesus — failed to lure from their dens the most eminent and senior of our biblical scholars, and specialists in early Christian origins and patristics to vigorously critique the shaky documentary’s propositions.

It is time to take the skirmishes in the media seriously, time to take our responsibility to debate in public seriously. It is not enough to shrug our shoulders or walk away from the issues raised by these new/old challenges.

(Michael W. Higgins is President and Vice-Chancellor of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B.)

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