September 16, 1999
Handling Distinct Religious Beliefs
-- Martin E. Marty
In our business of monitoring the press coverage of religious themes, we find that from time to time it is in place not just to make news about news but to reflect upon reflection. This we now do in reference to an important column on a neglected theme.
Taking off from media descriptions of the religious observances of the Kennedy and Bessette deaths, Peter Steinfels pondered in the July 31 NEW YORK TIMES how we handle "distinct religious beliefs," seeing them "transformed when they are filtered into public discourse." Note how little attention was given to the belief in the afterlife, which is not a "rare, esoteric belief" in a nation where 80 percent of the people profess faith in some version of it. Television, says Steinfels, has a "very short theological attention span." Scientific worldviews complicate traditional ways of speaking about faith; for example, the main Christian version, "the resurrection of the body," has to be pictured differently than it was long ago, and "heaven" changes dimension in modern cosmology.
Believers may stumble and be diffident about expressing their faith in the almost inexpressibly hard to "flesh-out" concepts of eternal life in the sphere of God's love. Even the clergy are careful to speak in broad and allusive terms about a central theme of the faith when people gather for, in this case, Christian rites.
This context gives occasion to quote an apt paragraph by James Fowler of Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. (In Don Browning, ed., PRACTICAL THEOLOGY, 1983, P. 165). Fowler's "our" refers to Christians; others can transfer for other faiths: "Our commitment to honoring pluralism may mean biting our tongue when, by heritage and vocation, we have access to something in the richness of Christian faith and the power of God that can REALLY REALLY HELP. There is a vast hunger and deep need for perspectives on life that have the power to 'go all the way.' By this I mean that people sense deep down somewhere that the glitter of secularization, the distractions of the media, and hypnotic engagement in consumption are but canvas skins covering yawning abysses in our lives. Academic theologians and conventional church people [too?!] may fail to see how powerful theistic imagery and religious rhetoric and vision are in our era. People want to know the whither and whence of our lives" (page 165 of PRACTICAL THEOLOGY, edited by Don Browning).
Explicitly Christianly, but again translatably, he concludes: "In our concern for public language..let us not underestimate the archetypal and historical power of cross and resurrection, the universal longing for messiah, and keep the rationality of our response, in kind, to a universal love." Thanks, Peter and Jim, for bringing all this up.