Friday, October 28, 2011

Between Relativism and Fundamentalism: Religious Resources for a Middle Position

Edited by Peter L. Berger,, 209 pages.

Between Relativism and Fundamentalism, a collection of essays by various authors, offers an academic, sociological approach, showing how changes and trends in Christianity were part of larger society-wide changes and trends. The authors retrace some of the errors made by Christianity as it has proclaimed the gospel in a modern world often skeptical of religious belief.

Berger for one accuses Christians of focusing too heavily on morality, and not enough on God. Christians have, he observes, equated morality with spirituality. In the rush to fit into the modern world, they have forgotten to proclaim the simple good news of the risen Christ.

The book's strength is its ability to see weaknesses in the current state of church affairs, rather than the situation from 2 or 3 decades ago. For instance, the authors discuss how the modern push towards individualism in all areas of life has deeply influenced the churches and their messages. Fundamentalists have offered people who feel overly isolated and vulnerable a sense of security and safety, and strong community. This comes at the cost of becoming closed to others, to society at large. A negative result is a we-they mentality.

Fundamentalism, despite claiming to be traditional, is thus a very modern phenomenon. Truly traditional people, from traditional places with corresponding lifestyles, tend towards a middle ground. Outsiders or the unconventional are noted, but not bullied or rejected. Traditional communities tend, in fact, to give such people a place somewhere in the community. Fundamentalists make no such attempt at openness.

Relativism, a more obvious product of the modern world, presents the social sciences, such as sociology, economics, and psychology, as the replacement for traditional wisdom and religious practice, and promotes a sense of subjectivity. These are the people always talking about the latest psychological study. Objective truth is rejected, including the deposit of faith proclaimed by the Catholic church.

Relativism, produced from the mixture of cultures in modern culture that we often call pluralism, tries to create civic peace by lessening the voice of tradition, especially religious tradition, and by celebrating every sort of alternative lifestyle. It claims falsely to be value-free. In reality, it has very strong values, such as accepting anything non white male Christian, and regarding everyone who is not a straight white male as a victim of society (its various -isms).

Berger makes an interesting point, perhaps seen by Catholics on Sunday, of the tendency in an age of relativism to reduce church membership and religious identity to a kind of spiritual consumerism. People shop around for their favorite priest, the one with the jokes, charisma, or shortest mass. This consumer assertiveness reduces the sense of duty and responsibility.

One author notes, "modernization can be described as a gigantic shift in the human condition from one of fate to one of choice." Parish-shopping, among other practices, reflects the "de-institutionalization" of modern society, wherein people no longer feel automatic obligations to their institutions of birth, such as the church in which they were raised or the parish in their neighborhood.

The book also offers hope to the community- and tradition-minded, showing a more authentic way forward. It shows the current of modern beliefs and attitudes against which Catholics are swimming.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Monastic Observances: Initiation into the Monastic Tradition 5

By Thomas Merton, 335 pages,

The intellectual and spiritual life Merton sought for himself and others, reflected in Monastic Observances 5, portrays the best not only of Merton but of the Catholic tradition he so loved. The book's material was taken from the notes Merton used for teaching as Novice Master at the Cistercian Monastery in Kentucky, Gethsemane.

His keen psychological insights into the contemplative life does not mirror modern pop psychology or the social sciences. Rather, they reflect Merton's own monastic lifestyle, and the training it demanded, as well as his reading of the Bible, Church Fathers, and medieval scholastics. He has broadened Catholic theology and spiritual practice with his integration of the Eastern Fathers.

Above all, Merton calls his brothers to a practical life. This differs sharply, surprisingly, from the utilitarian approach to life offered to us all by present-day capitalists. He cites the exterior "pitfalls" of laziness, sloppiness, messiness, and also noisiness. Doors should be closed quietly; brothers should walk without noise; and eating should be modest and mannerly.

Much of this contrasts with our own day, even within the Church at present. He warns, for instance, against "subjectivism," the practice of giving our own viewpoints a high regard. When discussing the Eucharist, he warns against judging one's own feelings too much when receiving communion. Psychological games, working oneself into a certain feeling, is a meaningless distraction.

His discussion on the Eucharist is detailed, full of practical advice for how to best approach the Lord's Supper, yet also highlighting the basic theology behind the sacrament: "the Mass is the Passion of Christ. When I am assisting at Mass, I am present at the Passion... The Mass becomes, in fact, a meditation on the Passion."

Merton rejects a psychological or sentimental view of the Mass or the Eucharist. Something happens at Mass, specifically with the Eucharist. He explains this in detail, discussing the prayers used, as well as the meaning behind the rubrics of the Mass.

Again, he rejects sentimentalism, noting that the fruits of the Mass include increased charity in the heart and actions of the believer, "quite apart from any feelings or conscious desires of charity."

Merton's simplicity also affects his view of lectio divina, or sacred reading, when Christians read not simply to fill our brains but as a spiritual practice. In lectio divina, the prayerful style of reading practiced by monks, the point is not to finish a book or arrive at some higher intellectual understanding, but to grow in the spiritual life, to have a deeper relationship with God.

Reading in this way flows into the daily meditation and prayer of a monk, which is centered in the Mass. Thus Merton envisions a unity. The monk's day should not be fragmented into work, pray, work, pray, eat, and so on. The bells, which are a call to holiness according to Merton, call the man from one meditative, prayerful action, such as his daily work routine, to another meditative, prayerful action, such as evening prayer.

Centered on the Eucharist and the internal unity of the man, which feeds the external unity of the monastic community, Monastic Observances 5 shows Merton's deep respect for the Catholic tradition and suspicion of innovation. He was a most unrevolutionary monk.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Knight: The Medieval Warrior's (Unofficial) Manual

By Michael Prestwich, 208 pages,

The medieval knight was more than just a soldier; he was a soldier of Christ. Despite the barbarity of those times, prelates often succeeded in tempering the almost constant violence. In many ways, the medieval Latin Church fostered peace, including by instilling a code of conduct for warriors.

Knight is a fun read for older children and for adults, as it enters into the chivalric world as a kind of guidebook, addressing the aspiring Christian knight in the fourteenth-century.

The rite of initiation into knighthood included a fair amount of religious preparation, even if being knighted was not a sacrament. The culture of chivalry was the culture of Christianity, mixed with Islamic, ancient Greco-Roman, and Germanic warrior cultures.

The author, a contemporary British historian, shows how steeped in Christianity chivalry was. Both knighthood and Christianity were seen as the good fight, where the soldier often could not live up to expectations. Both paths demanded much of the participant, and failure was easy to come by, because of both external and internal causes:

"There is a difficult balance to be struck between the ideals and the practicalities of warfare. The knight is challenged and often defeated on the battlefield by common soldiers armed with bow and pike; he fights on foot more than on horseback, and the guiding principles of chivalry often seem in reality to become those of guile, deceit, profit and cruelty."

Evils such as deceit and cruelty were evils only because Christianity said they were. Knights were, in other words, forced to live up to Christian ideals, even when fighting and killing.

In fact, service to the Church and Christian ideals formed the core of medieval knighthood. The day before the knighting ceremony the man wore a red tunic, symbolizing his willingness "to shed blood in defending the faith." Black socks symbolized the knight's mortality, a white belt his purity and chastity, and a red cloak his humility. After putting all of this on, he went to a church, sometimes all night, for a vigil.

When knights fought for the Church, it may have been as part of evangelizing, as with the Teutonic Knights who were fighting the pagan Lithuanians in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with full crusading privileges granted them by the papacy.

Knights also fought under crusading privileges at this time in Iberia, where Granada and a few other areas were not yet under Christian control. Yet the Muslims there were battle-hardened, having fought the Reconquista for many centuries.

A third area of Christian knightly fighting was against the Turks in the Balkans. Because of the military skills of the Turks, the Hungarian and Serbian rulers, sometimes aided by French, Burgundian, or English knights, often did badly.

Just as a Mass preceded the knighting ceremony, so knights throughout their lives practiced Christian piety, attending Mass and paying for Masses to be said after they died. These men played an integral role in Christendom, and just as they fractured as a Christian fighting class by the fourteenth-century, so Christendom itself would fracture by the early sixteenth-century with the Protestant Reformation, by which time the ideals of knighthood had started to unravel.

Prestwich captures the spirit of the age in an accessible way for all readers.