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By Alan Jacobs

Jane Kramer and the Feast of St. Martin Elginbrod

Our grandfather in heaven.

Jane Kramer is a highly distinguished journalist, whose writings about Europe have enlivened the pages of America's most distinguished periodicals for many years now. But her recent essay on Pope Benedict in The New Yorker is not a highlight of her career. Few Christians who pay attention to the coverage of religion in the media will find this surprising: the essay is in several ways, most of them discouraging, representative of much current writing about religion in general and Christianity in particular. But it might be worthwhile to explore just why Kramer's essay is so typical.

The provocation for Kramer's interest in Benedict was a now–notorious address the Pope delivered at the University of Regensburg in Germany in September of last year. (Benedict taught theology at Regensburg for several years, starting in 1969.) Because Benedict quoted a critical judgment of Islam by the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus (who ruled from 1391 to 1425) without disputing that judgment, his address became highly controversial and was seen by many—Jane Kramer included—as marking a setback for Muslim–Christian dialogue.

In the course of her article Kramer quotes, by my count, sixteen people critical of Benedict; she quotes only two in direct support of him. (The only quoted statement of another person whom she identifies as "a supporter of Benedict" merely offers a mild criticism of the previous Pope, John Paul II; and Father Federico Lombardi, whom Kramer graciously identifies as "the Vatican's official spinner," is only allowed to say, "I don't know the intentions of the Pope. I do know that his Regensburg speech was directed to the culture of the West; it wasn't given to engage Muslims.") It's clear from the beginning that the essay is not a report so much as an indictment and a warning.

Though Kramer clearly did a great deal of research and investigation in preparing her essay, it remains littered with errors. For instance, she believes that the Church of England is a distinct "religion," apparently like Islam. She thinks that Karl Barth was a "progressive" theologian. She seems utterly unaware that a statement made by Benedict when he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, claiming that the place of non–Catholics in relation to God is "gravely deficient," is not a pugnacious baring of fangs by "God's Rottweiler" but rather elementary and universal Catholic teaching.

But let's try to understand why errors like this arise, why they are so common. Let's do so by looking a little more closely at one of Kramer's most revealing statements. In situating Benedict within the recent history of the papacy—which Kramer, following a line familiar to anyone who knows anything about liberal Catholicism in America, sees as a betrayal of the generous "spirit of Vatican II"—she writes: "Ratzinger and Wojtyla [John Paul II] shared this: an exceptionally narrow view of what constitutes a morally acceptable Christian life. That view is reflected in the daily decisions of bishops who in the past few years have denied the sacraments to pro–choice politicians (St. Louis); refused to allow Muslims to pray at a church that was once a mosque (Córdoba); and denied Catholic burial to an incurably ailing man who, after years of suffering on a respirator, asked to die (Rome)."

One can see how deeply confusing Kramer finds this material simply by attending to her second example: How, exactly, is a dispute over whether Muslims should be allowed to pray in a Christian church related to what constitutes "a morally acceptable Christian life"? Isn't that rather a matter of interfaith relations? But more noteworthy, I think, is the fact that she does not offer any explanation for or defense of her claim that these positions mark "exceptionally narrow" views. These illustrations appear because, for Kramer and for the audience she imagines she's writing for, their aptness is self–evident.

There would, therefore, be no point in suggesting that there might be reasons why a church with a clearly established set of teachings—a church, moreover, which does not force anyone to belong to it—should withhold its most sacred rites from people who explicitly dissent from some of those teachings. There would be no point in suggesting that a church which has consecrated certain places to the worship of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit might have reasons for asking people who hold a very different view of who God is to pray elsewhere. For Jane Kramer, and for many like her, those reasons could not be worthy of exploration—still less of being described in the pages of The New Yorker— because they cannot possibly have any validity whatsoever.

It's quite obvious that Kramer does not know the theological or moral reasons for any of the decisions she mentions, and that she does not feel the need to know: in her writing (as in that of thousands and thousands of other journalists, scholars, and intellectuals) it is simply understood that, if there is a God at all, that God is a relatively or utterly impersonal monad, a kind of beneficent Cloud of Unknowing. C. S. Lewis famously wrote, in his book The Problem of Pain, that we don't want a father in heaven so much as "a grandfather in heaven — a senile benevolence who, as they say, 'liked to see young people enjoying themselves' and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, 'a good time was had by all.'" But the Monad of this default Unitarianism is neither as conscious in itself nor as conceptually distinct for us as a grandfather. Insofar as this Monad has any thoughts or feelings at all, they can only be ones of befogged gratitude toward any human beings who happens in any way to think of It. There's something appalling, then, about anyone who suggests that one thought regarding the Monad is to be preferred to any other, or that any such thoughts should be discouraged.

It's interesting how, in this mental environment, religious belief becomes a strictly moral matter, but in an odd sense: believing in the featureless Monad who tolerates or welcomes any attention becomes a token of one's own open–heartedness and generosity of spirit, while believing in anything more definite becomes a token of one's own "exceptional narrowness." I often think, in contexts like this, of someone who responded to a comment I had made about the Christian understanding of Hell, "But quite right that the damned are the damned, which might well be one of the three or four places at which I would be permanently unprepared to be a Christian myself no matter how attractive I found other aspects of it. A God who accepts that some must suffer infinite suffering for finite sins seems, well, evil to me. That is a huge can of worms to open, I know, and not a point unique to me by any means, but it's something I really cannot work myself around."

This is an honorable and serious objection, and I do not mean to trivialize what underlies it, but note that this isn't quite the Ivan Karamazov line: "I believe, but I refuse my entrance ticket." Rather, the logic is, "I find the thought of such a God repulsive, and therefore I do not believe." But what does repulsiveness have to do with it? We all agree that it would make no sense to say, "Cancer is a terrible thing, so I refuse to believe in it"; or "The Holocaust is an unimaginable nightmare, so I refuse to acknowledge that it happened." No one would see such refusals as noble or principled. Yet that is precisely how many people today evaluate beliefs in God. Those who believe in (at most) the featureless Monad which may be approached by anyone in any way, thereby indicate their good will; those whose God demands more reveal themselves as, in that belief itself, morally deficient.

Thus Jane Kramer freely acknowledges that a 1986 inter–religious gathering sponsored by the Community of Sant'Egidio in Assisi "had carried a risk of religious relativism and 'syncretism'"—but that's precisely why she approves of it, and why she frowns upon Assisi II (2002), where "John Paul II was installed on a big throne, surrounded by other Catholics, and the religions prayed alone." The notion that "a Crow medicine man named John Pretty–on–Top, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, the president of Morocco's High Council of Ulemas, and the Dalai Lama" may not all be praying to the same God, and therefore may not properly worship together in oneness, is of all religious notions the most greatly to be despised. And by despising it we avoid the hard work of finding out whether it is true.

Before proceeding to my conclusion, I should say that one of the things that makes me deeply suspicious of the Internet is the frequency with which it turns up exactly what I want to find in it. It's like a vast digital Mirror of Erised or something. How else to explain my recent discovery of one Father Cary Dobbie, who in 1996 appears to have written a letter to the Independent of London in which he proclaims, "I cannot and will not believe in a God who is more unpleasant than I am"? Not only does this statement perfectly exemplify the theology I have been exploring, but it contains the added bonus of pure self–congratulation: Is Father Dobbie really so sure that he is less unpleasant than the Christian God? My suggestion is that we provide the good Father with infinite power and then check back in a few billion years. At that point a comparative study might yield some interesting results.

Such speculation aside, I cite Father Dobbie because he quotes, as a kind of clincher to his argument, the figure whom I think of as the one true patron saint for the Monad's faithful, whoever and wherever they are. The Monadites should hold a great feast day each year—I would suggest March 25th as the proper date—in celebration of St. Martin Elginbrod. There are several versions of the epitaph on St. Martin's (legendary) tombstone, one of which comes to us via C. S. Lewis's favorite writer, George MacDonald; but here's the one I like best:

Here lies Martin Elginbrod;
Have mercy on my soul, Lord God,
As I would do, were I Lord God,
And you were Martin Elginbrod.

Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois, and is writing a book about original sin. His Tumblelog is here.

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