February 15, 2010

From Lite to Empty

Justin Katz

Mary Eberstadt offers a good introduction to the observational thought that pick-and-choose religion — specifically within Christianity — is not sustainable:

Even so, it is the still longer run of Christian history whose outlines may now be most interesting and unexpected of all. Looking even further out to the horizon from our present moment—at a vista of centuries, rather than mere decades, ahead of us—we may well begin to wonder something else. That is, whether what we are witnessing now is not only the beginning of the end of the Anglican Communion but indeed the end of something even larger: the phenomenon of Christianity Lite itself.

By this I mean the multifaceted institutional experiment, beginning but not ending with the Anglican Communion, of attempting to preserve Christianity while simultaneously jettisoning certain of its traditional teachings—specifically, those regarding sexual morality. Surveying the record to date of what has happened to the churches dedicated to this long-running modern religious experiment, a large historical question now appears: whether the various exercises in this specific kind of dissent from traditional teaching turn out to contain the seeds of their own destruction. The evidence—preliminary but already abundant—suggests that the answer is yes.

As I illustrated some time ago by tracing the cultural ratchet from contraception to cloning, initial compromises can undermine much broader swaths of belief than initially appears likely, even beyond the immediate genus of sin. Writes Eberstadt:

These examples are among many that could be cited to illustrate an important point: Even in the hands of its ablest defenders, Christianity Lite has proven time and again to be incapable of limiting itself to the rules about sex alone. Once traditional sexual morality is dispensed with in whole or in part, it is hard, apparently, to keep the rest of Church teaching off the chopping block. To switch metaphors, which came first, the egg of dissent over sex—or the chicken of dissent over other doctrinal issues? We do not need to know the answer to grasp the point: History shows that Christianity Lite cannot seem to have one without the other.

Unless religious thinking evolves over long periods of time, with changes of doctrine growing from tradition, it isn't possible to reshape discrete principles without deforming more fundamental considerations, such as authority. This, I'd suggest, is part of what gives the Catholic Church an especial fortitude against cultural tides: Radical change requires the Church to undermine so much of what makes it distinct among religions — the blend of scripture, tradition, and revelation; the authority of the hierarchy; the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist — that it faces natural controls, and eras of overreach may recede.

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I don't wish to appear either irreligious or anti religious. I am also personally effected by the crisis in the Anglican Communion.

But when you chose to look at religion over the broad sweep, you are implicitly choosing for "cafeteria Christianity". One has to choose to overlook the middle thousand years of Christianity. In addition to, or perhaps in spite of, the scholarly work on faith done there was also the Inquisition. Make what you will of the Crusades, there is no way in which the Children's Crusade should have permitted, never mind subsidized. There is no point to a complete laundry list of the commissions and omissions of the church.

We are now a point never considered by earlier scholars of faith. We are able to control life, and or, pregnancy. In that I mean contraception. Many religious principles, and traditions, no doubt arose as a form of contraception. Take what opinion of these matters that you may desire, the churches must now cope with them just as they had to deal with the discovery that our solar system was heliocentric. "Just say no", won't do it.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at February 15, 2010 7:43 PM

I disagree. By way of illustration:

One cannot say that I, as a Roman Catholic convert, am choosing "to overlook the middle thousand years of Christianity." Indeed, even now, I'm regularly challenged to defend centuries-old atrocities committed by long-dead coreligionists. To be sure, I'd argue that those who performed the indefensible were wrong in their understanding of our faith, but by virtue of the Catholic emphasis on the structure of the Church, my system of belief necessarily accepts that the Church can thus err. (That acceptance is bolstered, certainly, by multiple examples in the Gospels.) It also requires me to have some general understanding of what ancestral perpetrators misunderstood, why, and how we've come to a better understanding.

In like fashion, as we evaluate revolutions in biological technology, we cannot merely declare, "Well, we know this now." Note this statement of yours:

Many religious principles, and traditions, no doubt arose as a form of contraception.

Even in the earliest beginnings of your consideration, you've laid the groundwork for rejecting all of the spiritual claims surrounding sex as trappings for the practical consideration of contraception. You've merely proven the point of my initial post.

Similarly, even if we accept your assertion of the impossibility of "just say 'no'" (which I don't, by the way), that does not mean that we have the foundation to determine how to allow "yes" without undermining much else on which we rely.

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 15, 2010 8:04 PM

Religiion being the deeply personal matter it is, I hope I am treading lightly.

"spiritual considerations" are, I think, sometimes matters that arise after the fact, as a means to explain the otherwise inexplicable.

For instance, the celibacy of priests. To the best of my knowledge, which is not extensive, this appears rather late in Catholic doctrine. By which I mean it is not fundamental. I don't know how to be delicate about this, but I always understood that it became a requirement in the nature of punishment. As I understand it, it arose around the time that priests were selling indugences and chicken bones as "relics". Apparently they were also keeping women and harshly taxing the populace to do it. I stand to be corrected, but it is my understanding that priests are permitted to be married in some parts of the world. I am not sure whether this is "permitted" or ignored.

"all of the spiritual claims surrounding sex". I am not at all sure that the "spiritual" matters did not arise after practical considerations. Nor, am I sure when it began to arise as "spiritual". I somehow suspect it was celibate theologians that determined that there was something "spiritual" about it. It doubtless arose when virginity was more highly valued that it is at present, that makes me suspect preservation of the social order (this may be a legitimate undrtaking for a church). There is also a consideration that it arose in poor times, a bastard child was another mouth to feed. I also bear in mind that celibacy arose as a perhaps "spiritual" matter at a time when Catholics were instructed to engage in sex while clothed, apparently it was feared that they would enjoy it in the buff. Celibacy also arose at at time when flaggelants were holy.(this from Dev. of West. Civ., not religous education. Granted it was a Southern college, I don't think I ever met a Catholic there)

For all of that, I am suspect when things that are commonplace, such as sex, are labeled "spiritual". For instance, the Kosher rules. I have always understood that while perhaps not firmly based in good science, they have as their base health and sanitation.

That I do not agree with your beliefs, does not mean that I wish to belittle or demean them. I also respect the Catholic church's willingness to stand up for its beliefs on abortion. That is sanctity of life, not sex. I guess that is why God invented us Protestants.

You might want to read of Martin Luther. While I do not regard him as a great theologian, I think his difficulties with church doctrine are instructive. Certainly more so than King Henry's. The Church's treatment of him also says something. The same might be said of Thomas More, except that he was "one of their own".

Let me just say that I become suspect when the mundane becomes spiritual, I suspect that matters of necessity arose before they became holy.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at February 15, 2010 10:53 PM

Very interesting stuff, I mean that.

I guess I’m with Mr. Faust on this but primarily because when I’m reading Justin on this subject, I hear ‘my religion is better than your religion and here’s why …’ and then pointing out how Catholicism has and will continue to sustain because it has rejected compromises in areas of morality as opposed to other Christian denominations Protestant/Anglican. That may be an oversimplification but that’s how it comes across to me.

“… your assertion of the impossibility of "just say 'no'" that does not mean that we have the foundation to determine how to allow "yes" without undermining much else on which we rely.”
--- I’ll agree with Justin here to the extent that there truly isn’t a theological foundation for endorsement of abortion or even acceptance of non-traditional sexual behavior – and this is where Justin seems to assert that Catholicism is superior (sustainable) because it isn’t a pick-and-choose religion. But the same can be said for other issues. I contend that Catholicism doctrine has participated in ‘pick-and-choose’ and that a vast majority of its members also do. Justin’s point seems to be that there is room for dissent on some areas but not others when it comes to defining ones faith or spirituality.

I see spirituality and faith as personal endeavors. I don’t believe in the strict list of club qualifications applying to Holy Eucharist. I also don’t believe that whether one believes in the transubstantiation of the bread in the Eucharist is an indication of the trueness of the believer nor the denomination. I do not believe the ones denomination is part of judgment day .I believe there are different means to the same end – in the realm of political affiliation and even within Christianity.

Posted by: msteven at February 16, 2010 12:09 PM

"Indeed, even now, I'm regularly challenged to defend centuries-old atrocities committed by long-dead coreligionists."

Justin, just a smart ass comment from me. It is a reasonable view to draw from the above that the chuch has improved itself by longer association with sinners. I think it is supposed to be the other way around.

Seriously. I think it is not the same church that it was 600 years ago. Only the passage of time, and the distance of the view, makes it appear that the changes were seamless.

Imagine the result today if the Pope called for the burning of heretics. (In actual fact the Church never burned anyone. The "heretics" were tried in an ecclesiatical court, and then turned over to the civil authorities for execution. The Church was not permitted to take a life.)

As to the power and influence of the Catholic church, I have noticed that in movies concerning demons and possesion resort is always had to the Catholics. They never go to a televangelist. I do recall an old, made for TV, possession movie. The parents went to the Catholic church and were turned away with "We don't do that any more, you will have to try the Episcopalians."

Well, that is all for now/ I may next be heard of for nailing 96 feces to the State House door.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at February 16, 2010 3:35 PM


You hear that only because you like to set me up as a fundamentalist against whom you can take a moderate pose. I don't think my religion is "better"; I think it is more correct for a variety of reasons. The pertinent one, here, is not that "it has rejected compromises in areas of morality," but that it has a history, tradition, and authoritatively described theology that current adherents must address when adjusting their beliefs with the changing times.

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 16, 2010 7:49 PM

Let me say that I have little to fault with what I know of Catholic theology. With religion, I draw the line at handling snakes. While Catholicism may seek to expand, or regain, it's secular power; I do not see it as a force for evil.

"mine is better than yours":

For "outsiders" some things may be difficult to understand, such as the celibacy of priests and the sacrament of confession. Protestants may find it difficult to understand the need for a hierarchy of priests or the necessity for priestly confession. I think they believe that it is possible to "get right with God" without an intermediary. Outsiders, and many insiders, accept priestly celibacy as "theology" rather than what it truly is, "doctrine? As doctrine, celibacy can be abandoned.

I think the "Schism" between the Catholic Church and Protestantism, is poorly understood. In the popular mind, the focus seems to be on Henry's (and England's) departure from the church in order to obtain a new wife. This was earth shaking because a European monarch defied the Pope and risked ex-communication. Worse, Henry was not struck down dead and England did not fall off the edge of the earth. This is most widely thought of in the English speaking world.

In mittle Europa, a more intellectual view was taken. Martin Luther made note, and effective arguments, that many Church doctrines did not reconcile with scripture. In the popular mind, this was understood as evidence that the Church had moved away from it's roots and was chiefly concerned with self-preservation. The Church came to be seen as an oppressor.

In most college courses on Western Civilization, both of these matters are covered. Still, it seems that Henry's desire to leave the church over a woman is the idea that sticks. I think a deeper analysis would show that Henry's need for an heir, rather than desire for a woman, is what prompted him. It was really a political decision.

A few random thoughts: Bibles are seldom seen in Catholic homes. Protestants seem more given to "grace" before meals. "Visiting churches" to find one that suits you is not uncommon among Protestants, though less so among members of "established" churches. The Catholic church was about 1100 years old when the Crusades developed an appeal. That is the approximate age of Islam. It may be a matter of size, or the lack of hierarchy among most Protestant churches, but one seldom hears of "secret societies" among Protestant churches. "Bible study" is unknown among Catholics, the church "handles it". Except for an "inner core", if you ignore the semantics, it has become difficult to distinguish between Protestants and Catholics. The Protestant faith is not without it's atrocities, Cromwell, the Salem Witch Trials. This has been much reduced by the "separation of church and state".

Posted by: Warrington Faust at February 16, 2010 11:56 PM

Justin, you are incorrect. I am not hearing what I hear because I like or have an agenda to set you up as a fundamentalist. You won’t consider the possibility that you sometimes come across as a fundamentalist – based solely on your words and not how others read it. Second, I do not take ‘moderate’ poses. I attempt to see and acknowledge the logic of the opposing view.

I understand the distinction between ‘better’ and ‘more correct’. I am a convert to Christianity based on the belief that Jesus is the Messiah. In that way, I’d say that Christianity is ‘more correct’ than Judaism. Yet I still have much respect for the Jewish faith. Having said that, I still disagree that Catholicism is ‘more correct’ that Protestant denominations for the reasons you state – that its history, tradition, authoritative theology are firmer.

I’ll even go so far as to wonder the value of debating which denomination is theologically ‘more correct’. My conversion was a personal decision but I did not treat it as ‘changing teams’. Unfortunately these days, the culture encourages ‘us vs. them’ – when it comes to just about everything including political affiliation and even matters of faith.

Finally, I found Warrington Faust’s comments very interesting, insightful and informative.

Posted by: msteven at February 17, 2010 2:12 PM

"I am not hearing what I hear because I like or have an agenda to set you up as a fundamentalist."

Since I am sure that its definition changes with time, I am not sure of what the current meaning of "Fundamentalist" might be.

I do not take it to be a slur, anymore than I find that being a political "conservative" is a slur. I think George Will once said that conservatives require a close adherence to "American Scripture", such as the Constitution.

If a "Fundamentalist" demands a close adherence to religious scripture, that does not trouble me. Of course, implicit in that statement is the assumption that their interpretation agrees with mine.

It must be remembered that Scripture is from another time. Much is made of passages from the Koran which seem to be at variance with it being a "religion of peace". Well, for all you Catholics out there who have never read the bible, give it a try. It is full of wars, murders, incest and homosexual angels (in the Old Testament, angels are male). Naturally, mine is the King James version, but I don't think the Old Testament varies much. The Koran includes the story of Lot and his daughters, but eliminates the incidents of incest contained in the Bible.

Admitting that I have had little exposure to other religions, my preference is for Christianity. As to the various differences among Christian denominations, I see the differences as slight and not meaningful in the long run. For that matter, I have never encountered a major teaching of Judaism that I found to be alarming. (Jewish women have told me that they feel slighted by their faith, well, Christian women didn't fare so well for a long time)

For all of that, there are still voices that speak in the name of Christianity and should not be heard from. I have heard of a church in Lincoln, RI (which may no longer exist) where the minister regularly called down the wrath of God on Blacks and Jews. His theory on Jews was that they had bankrupted every country where they had gained a foothold. I have never heard a specific report on his theories concerning Blacks.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at February 17, 2010 4:17 PM

I did not initially use the word 'fundamentalist' in this thread. In some ways, on some issues, I could be called a 'fundamentalist'.

"As to the various differences among Christian denominations, I see the differences as slight and NOT MEANINGFUL IN THE LONG RUN"
--- It is this idea that I meant to get across. Thanks for articulating it better than I did. My issue is with the dramatic significance to the point of making enemies over these differences.

Again, your comment was an excellent and informative read.

Posted by: msteven at February 17, 2010 6:14 PM

One other comment I would like to make is that Scripture is frequently contradictory, and may require scholarship. Thus the numerous councils within the early Roman Church.

Justin is correct, a great deal of writing and scholarship on these issues exists in the Roman Church. Not believing in a hierarchy of priests, nor an infallible Pope, protestants substitute "Bible Study". Without doubt, this contributes to varying interpretations between the various denominations.

Where we must be ever watchful is for those who quote Scripture out of context, and demand obedience to it. One of which I believe is most common is "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth". Standing by itself, this permits vengeance. But it completely ignores "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place to wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, said the Lord." Are the two contradictory? How does one comport them?

This is what you ponder in Sunday School. Does it sound like CCD?

Posted by: Warrington Faust at February 17, 2010 9:25 PM


I have absolutely no doubt that much of what I write comes across in ways that I do not intend to many people on many topics. However, it is an observably favorites line of commentary for you, in particular, to label me extreme and contrast your own opinions — whether it's in the form, "You're an extremist, and because I'm moderate and tolerant, I disagree," or "Even though you're an extremist, because I'm moderate and tolerant, I agree."

In this case, I put forward a general bit of evidence and a hypothesis for its reason, offering my own suggestion of why I believe my Church has some modest protections against the problem. I certainly didn't exclaim that everybody who does not believe as I do would be going to Hell. Your response? "I hear 'my religion is better than your religion and here's why ...'"

As I said, it isn't about being "better," but about being more correct, and it is important at least to strive for being more correct, in one's beliefs, because beliefs and behavior affect and mutually reinforce each other. Although I don't like the "many paths" model for salvation, I do not believe salvation to be foreclosed to people just because their worldly circumstances led them in a particular direction. The question, in my understanding, is whether they are overly invested in their own faiths, for the institutions' sakes, or are sincerely in search of Truth. That will affect their all-important reaction when standing for judgment.

I imagine, for example, the Orthodox rabbi who is absolutely firm in his Judaism. Should Jesus stand before the good man after his death, will the rabbi say, "Ah, it is you," or will he say, "It cannot be"? Those who are serious about the lifelong process of determining what religious beliefs are most correct will, it seems to me, be more likely to give the former response.

That is to say that I find it telling that your response was not to suggest how your brand of religion does, could, or should deal with the initial problem that I raised. Rather, you attacked the principle of judgment and discernment.



The differences are clearly meaningful if the doctrines of particular denominations contain within them the seeds of their own dilution and washing away. They may not be decisive for the individual believer, but to the extent that doctrines that you (generally meant) prefer soften the rungs by which future generations will climb in their religious journeys, with both theological and behavioral repercussions, you're doing substantial harm to your future coreligionists.

Incidentally, I've been meaning to note that I wasn't complaining about your mention of historical travesties within the Church. I was referring to the extremely regular occurrence of people raising those travesties as if to disprove my beliefs about reality. I do have to answer for the errors of others hundreds of years dead, and that's not entirely a negative thing.

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 17, 2010 9:47 PM


I’ve never written anything remotely close to “Even though you're an extremist, because I'm moderate and tolerant …”. It is the latter part that is purely your wayward interpretation. I’ve also never referred to you as an extremist. The farthest I’ve ever gone is ‘partisan’. You know I’ve been communicating with you a long time – way back into your “Dust in the Light’ days.

“The question, in my understanding, is whether they are overly invested in their own faiths, for the institutions' sakes, “or are sincerely in search of Truth.”
----- I couldn’t agree more. ‘What I hear’ is that that the former is true for you – be it in political affiliation or in religious denomination. That’s what I hear vs. what may be reality.

“That is to say that I find it telling that your response was not to suggest how your brand of religion does, could, or should deal with the initial problem that I raised. Rather, you attacked the principle of judgment and discernment.”
---- I certainly misinterpreted the ‘initial problem you raised’. I interpreted it as your religion deals with the problem of moving with the cultural tides while others don’t. I had no intent of defending how my brand of religion deals with that. You are correct that my response was directly about your brand of judgment and discernment.

My question to you is -- the Roman Catholic priest who is absolutely firm in his Catholicism, should God stand before the good man telling him that the Messiah is yet to come, will the priest say, "It cannot be"? And what does his response mean for his eternal life? Was his earthly life in vain?

Finally, I’d content that all denominations contain and planted those dilution seeds, even Catholicism. And I believe that there has to be some level of human interpretation to theology – because there is a fine line between dilution or sliding away from Truth and the type of interpretation that leads to tragic consequences in the pursuit of strict adherence. I don’t think these are denominational issues, they are mortal human ones. As far as people raising anecdotes to discredit institutions, it happens everywhere & all the time. It’s what we do in the pursuit of power and righteousness. What I find unfortunate is that the sins of the past seem to be effective in discrediting the present. This is not unique to Catholicism or any institution in any arena.

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