To What God Does Rick Warren Pray?

images-1Just when you think the Rick Warren conversation couldn’t get more outrageous…Bishop Eugene Robinson made the following statement concerning Obama’s selection of the megachurch pastor as his inaugural invocator:

“I’m all for Rick Warren being at the table,” he told The Times, but “we’re talking about putting someone up front and center at what will be the most-watched inauguration in history, and asking his blessing on the nation. And the God that he’s praying to is not the God that I know.”

To say that Rick Warren is in error, fine. To say his views are regressive, out of date, fundamentalist would all be understandable given Bishop Robinson’s convictions. But to say the he and Warren do not pray to the same deity seems like a bit of an overstatement. Many progressives become incensed when their conservative brethren suggest that Christians and Muslims don’t pray to the same God. I wonder how many will express disdain for Robinson’s consignment of Warren to a different religion.

The more interesting question is whether or not Robinson is claiming that anyone who disgrees with him on what is clearly the single most controversial issued of the day in Christendom prays to a different God. This will certainly have interesting ecumenical implications, to say the least.

Rick Warren’s Diviseness

warren-rickwarrenObama’s choice of Rick Warren as his inaugaral invocator has been the source of much controversy, largely from the political and cultural left. This ought not to come as a huge surprise. Rick Warren is an evangelical megachurch pastor who holds to traditional (or what some would call conservative) Christian mores where same gender sexual relationships are concerned. That many on the left would find this choice troubling and problematic is understandable. Some of the substance of their criciticism is not. The most disturbing thing is the mantra repeated by liberal pundits over and over again on cable news channels: “Rick Warren is a divisive figure, his views aren’t mainstream.”

Rick Warren’s stance on same sex relationships may be called many things. Conservative, traditional, reactionary, bigoted, any of these could be understandbly uttered in certain sectors of our culture. But to lambast the choice of Warren because he’s “divisive” is just vaccuous. It’s the worst sort of political rhetoric. Warren was an advocate of Proposition 8, true. And saying his support of this initiative was wrong, foolish, discrimitory, regressive or the like is all fair game in the public square. But to say, as many have, that his views “on social issues like gay rights… are…out of the mainstream” is just dishonest. In California, our largest and most diverse state, Rick Warren’s opinions on gay marriage were in the majority, to the tune of 47.54%. Now Rev. Warren and the majority may hold misguided views. History could very well bear this out. Progressive theologicans, church leaders, ethicists and cultural critics may very well be proven correct when the owl of minerva spreads her wings and history renders its verdict. But today is not that day. Rick Warren represents the views of many Americans on a host of social issues. One may not like that fact. One may declare that the host of Americans that hold such views do so because of ignorance, malice, bigorty or the like. But whatever undergirds such views, they are currenlty mainstream. They are views held by a large part of the American electorate, as was revealed last November. This doesn’t speak to the veracity of such viewpoints. Popular wisdom is often in hindsight proven to be anything but wise. But the fact that such wisdom seems at least to many to be conventional ought to establish its place as mainstream.

Many views that are mainstream will often be considered divisive in certain contexts. Most Americans share Bill Clinton’s sentiments that abortion should be safe, legal and rare. Such sentiments, however mainstream, would be considered divisive if shared by a leader in many of America’s churches, as well as in some progressive feminist circles. Lydon Johnson’s reception of Martin Luther King in the White House was probably construed as a divisive act by many Americans at the time. That did not negate the fact that King’s views were becoming increasingly mainstream at the time.

Decrying Obama’s choice of Rev. Warren is fair and legitimate and may serve an important function in public discourse. This is all the more reason to avoid carelessness when doing so. It would do pundits well to remember that when characterizing Warren as a bigoted and marginal figure they may be describing many of their neighbors and co-workers as well. When people do so in my neighborhood it’s often seen as divisive.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat…

The following words come from a homily preached in April of 2005 by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, on the occasion of the gathering of the College of Cardinals:

…We must not remain children in faith, in the condition of minors. And what does it mean to be children in faith? St Paul answers: it means being “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4: 14). This description is very timely!

How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves – flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. Every day new sects spring up, and what St Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error (cf. Eph 4: 14) comes true.

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

The pope to be seems to have clear intentions. He proffers a choice between a mature faith and an immature one. The latter is characterized by an embrace of relativism, the former by the rejection of it. But does the rejection of absolute truth necessarily entail the creation of radically ego-centric subjects who rush down the aisle to marry the current spirit of the age (or dare we say moment)? Jeffry Perl contends that relativism, at least of the scrupulous variety, entails nothing of the kind.

In an essay entitled “T.S. Eliot’s Small Boat Of Thought”, Perl describes the inhabitants of Benedict’s small boats as follows:

The relativists in those small boats of his are Christians, even if ill equipped to navigate profound waters. Hence the homily is saying that relativism is not a stopping place, not a position. It is a metaposition, rather — a position about holding positions. A relativist Christian would presumably be one who holds that the truths of Christianity, in which he or she does believe, are relative to other truths. A Christian of this sort is not necessarily among those who say that religion must “keep up” with the times, must make room for the findings of psychology, biology, or feminist theory. What a relativist holds is that the idea of absolute truth is an incoherent idea and that, therefore, no truths, including those of Christianity, should be regarded as absolute.

Perl’s favorite example of a so called Christian relativist is T.S. Eliot:

He became a Christian yet remained a skeptic. “The demon of doubt,” he wrote years after his conversion, is “inseparable from the spirit of belief,” and the proper relationship to one’s own beliefs is “a systole and diastole, [a] movement to and fro, of approach and withdrawal.”7 This combination of “position” and “metaposition” — of specific beliefs, on the one hand, and a strong view, on the other, that beliefs should be contingently held — had its bearing on the texture of his Christianity…

…all things considered, we must ask if Eliot’s religious thought, in the decades following his conversion, qualifies, in the terms of Joseph Ratzinger’s homily, as a “small boat.” Christian intellectuals, notably Pope John Paul II, have generally admired Eliot’s craft as grand indeed. On the other hand, the assumption among such Christians, as also among the anti-Christians who loathe Eliot, has been that his conversion from agnostic to theist was at the same time one from relativist (or even nihilist) to absolutist. What both those who admire and those who resent Eliot for his conversion miss is that his Christian faith tended to make him less dogmatic, sanctimonious, misanthropic, or judgmental, and more accepting of cultural and individual difference.13 It is not Eliot’s reputation with which I am concerned here, but with the extent to which Christian virtues serve to mitigate, rather than encourage, the sour piety of which intellectual Christians (and especially converts) are sometimes accused. Evelyn Waugh, another convert of Eliot’s era, remarked that, had he not become a Roman Catholic, he might well have become a murderer. In Eliot’s case, until the process of his conversion began in earnest (around the time that he wrote The Waste Land), his work betrayed an increasing tendency to repress ambivalence — to pretend away his emotional and intellectual conflictedness. He thereby, in my opinion, endangered his capacity as an artist and, more importantly, his potential as a human being. Adam Phillips, the psychoanalyst, has noted that “the attempt to eliminate [internal] conflict [is] the very thing that makes most people cruel,” and of such cruelty Eliot was in
danger in the nineteen-teens.

Eliot’s conversion to Christianity made him a more gracious interlocutor. It served to attune him more deeply to the complexities and ambiguities that are inevitably the stuff of life. The Christianity Eliot came to embrace was that of the traditionalist, not the revisionist. He is not your Holy Father’s relativist to say the least.