This year, for the High Holidays and Gay Pride Week, I went to church.
Last week, two of the most notable American Christians spoke at Princeton: Harvard’s chaplain Peter Gomes and George Weigel, perhaps the preeminent Catholic intellectual in America. Weigel is the biographer of his friend Pope John Paul II, a just war theorist and a Vatican insider. Rev. Gomes, the author of a number of best-selling books of sermons, is African-American, a Republican (of the Massachusetts variety) and Gay.
The contrast says something about a split in the American Christian world, a split of which most Jews, for example, are totally unaware. Differences between Christians are confusing and baffling for Jews; all Christian tend to look the same to us. In the words of my mother, “they all worship Jesus, what’s their problem?” The problems, I’ve discovered, seem to be profound differences in style, sexuality, and epistemology. Epistemology? Hear me out:
Last Sunday, I attended Princeton’s chapel for the first time, yarmulke on shaved head, hoping to see some excellent preaching by Peter Gomes. Gomes sports a sort of faux colonial British accent, very “ghood moohrning!”, appropriate for his patrician poise. For the last quarter century, he’s been the main man at Harvard’s Memorial Church. Gomes was also the first non-WASP head of the Pilgrim Society, and is a beloved figure on campus and in Cambridge. Gomes is ordained American Baptist, but his style struck one as high-Church Anglican.
Gomes is gay, and makes no secret of it. Gomes is conservative, the fact of which is a slightly bigger scandal at Harvard, but the type of old-school Republican that most Democrats find charming and courtly. Gomes is, needless to say, a witty, droll, and outspoken defender of pluralism, tolerance and equality. His type of mainline Christianity is about creating a decent society rather than saving souls or brimstone sermons.
Gomes’ sermon was on the Matthew passage whose punchline is “many are called, but few are chosen.” Gomes mercurially intoned about how cryptic Jesus’ parables were, how this passage referred to Princeton admissions, “an Ivy League toast” about “the few chosen”, how we “scratch our collective heads” over the meaning of Scripture. “Being God,” he noted, “means having never to explain oneself”. Gomes wove into the sermon a delightful moral about the intimacy of strangers eating together, about divine chosenness being a future goal, and about the need to be prepared for that future through the doing of good deeds. So out of mystery came well-worn wisdom.
The overall sense was that Gomes shared our liberal suspicions of the veracity of the New Testament, an imperfect, muddy document that mannered people best clean up and make presentable. Gospel truth is truth, but you wouldn’t want to have these apostles over for dinner too often.
In contrast to Gomes’ Biblical skepticism, George Weigel seems quite certain about all things salvational. Weigel’s talk was titled “Pope Benedict and the future of the Church”, but as one professor said it was more about “Weigel and the future of the Church”, which is fine because he’s a fascinating insider with lots to say. Weigel is perched at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank cum echo chamber where even the resident Yids are pro-life and anti-cloning. So let’s cut to the epistemology. Catholicism, unbeknownst to most Jews, doesn’t take the Bible literally, but as part of the received wisdom forged by Church Fathers, Church tradition, and Medieval logic. Catholic thought weaves cords of steel, supporting the faithful through a rocky world of bad behavior.
Conservatives like Weigel think that we live in culture permeated by “relativism, skepticism, and nihilism.” That is, the Enlightenment (i.e. Modernity) has led us to doubt the existence of absolutes: absolute truth, absolute religion, absolute rulers, and has left us with “vodka and condoms” as a Russian pol once said. Even though the US is the most God-believing country, we’re all really moral relativists playing video games, aborting our children, and listening to Pantera. Who’s to blame? People like Peter Gomes.
For Gomes, the Good Book is good, but it is a “living document” so to speak, one which demands that we spiff it up in the best light of decent society. From out of the “skepticism” that Weigel fears Gomes concluded his sermon with common truisms artfully expressed. Yet Protestants, the story goes, have no unified way of understanding the Bible, and that’s why they are stuck in denominational cul-de-sacs, between storefront snake-handlers and suburban megachurches. Even worse, the old stalwart denominations, “Mainline Protestants,” have lost their “spirit” – their edgy experiential dimension – and replaced Gospel Truth with interfaith dialogue, feel-good spirituality, and other wishy-washy elements that have intense believers flocking to the evangelicals. Jews, leftists and the queer community are suspicious of anyone brandishing a New Testament; but the mainline Protestants are totally welcoming, eminently reasonable and of progressive politics. But, alas, palatable Presbyterians are no match for effervescent evangelicals when it comes to sex and secularism. Gomes represents a mainline Christianity that has made its peace with American secular and sexy culture, whereas Weigel Catholics and far-right Evangelicals are at war with it.
Meanwhile, mainline liberal Protestants like Gomes see Weigel, not without reason, as an authoritarian dogmatist, so self-assured about the truth of first things that he’s willing to be impolite about it. What Weigel is sure about are the dangers of secularism, the supposed decline of the family, and the drift away from a rigid theological understanding of what it means to be human. In my mind, and in the mind of most social justice Jews, sex, birth control, abortion and these odd Catholic issues are marginal to what’s really at stake: genocide, war, environmental destruction, poverty and oppression. But hey, what do we know?
Remember the Priest sexual abuse scandal of 2002? Well, Weigel wrote an entire book explaining that the reason Priests were misbehaving – most of the guilty priests were not pedophiles but engaging in homosexual affairs, etc. – had to do with… liberal Catholics! Since the 1960s and the Second Vatican Council, according to Weigel, liberal reformers in the Church have fomented a “culture of dissent” that questioned basic Catholic teaching on sexuality, the all-male, all-celibate priesthood, and even abortion. This fostered an apparently permissive attitude among the clergy-to-be. Apparently the seminaries are hopping with absolutely Fab-u-lous priests-to-be. For example, the seminary that Weigel went to is nicknamed “The Pink Palace”. Weigel’s suggestion for the future of the priesthood goes something like this: being inclined towards homosexual desire shouldn’t disqualify one from the priesthood, but being “Gay” should. Being Gay, for Weigel, means putting your sexuality at the center of your identity, denying the sinfulness of it and being lax in the chastity bit. This may seem like a distinction with no difference, but for conservative Catholics, there is much at stake. Abstinence is abstinence, regardless of the orientation.
Style, sexuality and epistemology. For Weigel, truth is the Catholic truth, especially on matters of sexuality. Mainline Christians like Gomes are fuzzy thinkers, dwelling in error and living in sexual sin. For Gomes, sidestepping absolute certainty doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge the simple truths of decency and justice. Sexuality, it seems, just isn’t that important as unjust suffering. Weigel’s style is authoritative, Gomes is cordial. Where then, should we stand?
It seems to me that cultivating a healthy culture indeed should entail making strong claims that rattle our staid status quo. But one need not make Absolute Truth claims to help heal society. For all our video-game nihilism, most Americans have a good sense of right and wrong, and without the Natural Law theory, thank you very much! Self-certain Christians like Weigel could use a dose of Christian charity towards their liberal opponents, as well as some intellectual humility, especially given the track record of the Church on these matters. Mainline Protestants like Gomes might keep people in the pews if he made stronger Christian claims that appealed to people’s need for being “in the know”. After all, the Good News should confer some special status on those who chose to buy it.
Of course, if Pope Benedict takes Weigel’s advice, the American Catholic world may be looking at a bunch of empty seminaries. Perhaps those gay men called to the clergy could find a home in the Mainline Protestant denominations. Sadly, their seminaries are full, but their pews are growing empty. Liberal Christians, get ye to Church! Jewish visitors can’t fill the pews for you…