True Ancestor has been brought out of its slumber by the prospect of the end of Peter Steinfels' excellent, searching column on religion in the New York Times.
In the thorny thicket of academe that has become my intellectual (if not my spiritual) home, I am constantly undone by how many great thinkers pace the halls. These are not merely great thinkers but great teachers, too. That they think about religion -- both passionately and dispassionately -- just makes them that much greater, in my mind.
Steinfels' column has always shed new light on old ideas; it's one of those regular pieces of writing that gives voice and erudition to ideas that deserve more attention. I can't help but admire this second-to-last of his columns, in which he notes he did "not tramp repeatedly over the same territory."
Steinfels distills years of writing to a few signal themes, including the idea that divide between the religious and the secular has led to an oversimplification of the idea of religion itself:
First, the great world religions are complex and multilayered; they are rich in inner tensions and ambiguities that allow beliefs and practices to evolve over time as the faith is tested by new circumstances and insights. The great religions cannot be equated with the diminished and frozen fundamentalisms that they periodically spawn.
This conviction was captured by Jaroslav Pelikan, the scholar of Christianity, in his well-known distinction between tradition and traditionalism: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
Steinfels also notes that because religious thinking is complex, and because religions change, people should constantly reapproach issues of faith, belief and worship:
Intelligence and critical reasoning are essential to adult approaches to faith. In short, theology matters. It is curious that so many otherwise thoughtful people imagine that what they learned about religion by age 13, or perhaps 18, will suffice for the rest of their lives. They would never make the same assumption about science, economics, art, sex or love.
People who do constantly reapproach those issues produce some great thinking and writing -- much of which is marginalized, precisely because it is about religion.
A contemporary abundance of serious thought and scholarship about religion is marginalized. Thinkers and scholars who should have a presence in the intellectual and cultural landscape — whose books, for example, might well be noted in the annual “holiday” listings — are instead known almost entirely in their own religious circles or academic specialties. That is a loss this column has tried to counter.
Steinfels always strove to include issues of conscience as a theme of his writing -- he understood that the right to not believe, and to not be coerced into behaving as if one does believe, is a critical issue in a country founded on freedom of conscience.
From its Protestant and Enlightenment origins, American society has tended to honor the personal conscience of the dissenting individual — at least in principle, although, as any atheist running for public office can testify, not necessarily in practice.
But what is applauded in individuals can seem intolerable in groups. Faced with religious bodies that resist prevailing opinion and hold to beliefs that either the majority Christian population or influential cultural elites consider retrograde, the nation has often balked. . .The presupposition here has been that freedom of conscience for individuals cannot be detached from freedom of conscience for communities of belief.
While it's sad, and significant, that such a column is being retired, I'm glad that it even existed long enough to bring these ideas to print, thoughtfully and with an even-handed grace that itself appears close to retirement.