I don't like admitting it in public, but I've come across something with which I can agree, at least in part, and it's something written by an able enemy of religion, R. Joseph Hoffman, professor of humanities at California State University, Sacramento. He is the chairman of the Biblical Criticism Research Committee, the purpose of which, so far as I can gather, is to criticize the Bible left and right (mostly left).
He is also a contributing editor to the secular humanist magazine Free Inquiry. For the winter 1989-1990 issue of that journal he wrote an article on whether religion should be taught in public schools. (His answer: No.) Some of his comments are worth noting:
"The trendy tolerance of the post-Vatican II era is based on not knowing that Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and others believe different things. To put it another way: The catechism of our time, sociologically speaking, is that differences don't matter (in undergraduate language: everybody's entitled to 'their' opinion). . . . There is no proof whatever that knowing something about what 'other' people believe promotes understanding. And the movement called 'ecumenism,' or Interfaith Dialogue, is based on a systematic weakening of the doctrinal foundations and practices of all religions--a glossing over of differences, not an examination of why they occur or whence they came. If fact, ecumenism has less to do with the growth of tolerance than with the massive spread of cultural illiteracy."
Since Hoffman and I are on opposites sides of a great abyss, I would like to disagree with everything he says, but I can't. Some of what he says is true.
At the grassroots level a good chunk of what passes for ecumenism has been solidly grounded in anti-intellectualism, a refusal to know: "Don't bother me with the facts, especially facts about differences of belief." To the extent this has been true authentic ecumenism has been stymied. You can't build real understanding on ignorance.
Authentic ecumenism has three main aspects: first, a diminution of rancor and a willing suspension of inherited gripes; second, a deeper understanding of others' beliefs (what they really are versus what we mistakenly believe them to be); third, corporate reunion.
Much progress has been made on the first, a little on the second, virtually none on the third. Many ecumenical activities have gone nowhere, and it is no accident that ecumenism is no longer the magic word it once was. It has lost its glamour.
Even if ecumenism has reached an impasse, Hoffman is wrong to say learning what others believe doesn't promote understanding. I've seen much anecdotal evidence arguing against that. I've seen too many instances in which learning the truth about the Catholic faith has removed prejudices and brought people who weren't on speaking terms back together.
Still, I see Hoffman's point: A glossing over of real differences (which reduces to the proposition that they believe nothing and you believe nothing) doesn't help at all. The knowing must be deep and wide to result in real understanding. An understanding based on intentional ignorance is no understanding at all, and any "unity" coming from such an understanding can't last.
One reason for the impasse is the status of religious education in schools. By the time a student reaches college, religion has become a non-discipline, only slightly more respectable than home economics and wood shop. The weak courses are matched perfectly to weak students. Hoffman has an engagingly low opinion of the latter:
"They come into a classroom knowing their religious affiliation--or lack of it--like they know their grade-point average and gender. Beyond that, they know next to nothing about the tradition they embrace. Those who enroll in religion classes in college usually do so for the wrong reason. Religion courses are regarded as 'crips,' 'guts,' or 'payoffs': soft--like the dogma they have learned--and taught by kindly Christian teacers who regard all students worthy of salvation by good grades alone."
This happens to be not just a fair (because accurate) jab at students who enroll in courses in "comparative religion," but at the courses themselves. In them students discover Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed taught more or less the same thing: I'm okay, you're okay, and do what you want but don't hurt anybody. (This may not have applied always to Mohammed, who liked to live by the sword.)
Hoffman has his biases. He thinks English, history, science (perhaps even sociology) are "real" disciplines, unlike religion, which is an "ideology." For him the proper approach to religion is an elevated skepticism.
"Both skeptical academicians and Pentecostal Christians think that the Catholic doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary is human invention rather than historical description. What distinguishes the two is that academicians [note: no longer "skeptical academicians," but academicians in general] think what they think because they can explain the causes and historical development of their ideas; Fundamentalists think what they think because they do not like the pope."
Hoffman's half right. He's right about Fundamentalists, who are disinclined to examine peculiarly Catholic doctrines precisely because they're Catholic. He's wrong about academicians, whether skeptical or not. They may conclude, in good conscience and based on their research, that the Assumption is a human invention, but their conclusion would be factually wrong, since the Assumption is "historical description"--it really occurred, just as the Resurrection really occurred, just as the Peloponnesian War really occurred.
This all goes back to the anti-miraculist prejudice pervading our society. It pervades college campuses, and it pervades even the theology departments in ostensibly Catholic schools. It's hard to find courses in which the miraculous is not denigrated (usually through snickers).
Sometimes there are oases of good sense. A priest friend regaled me with this story: At one nominally Catholic university a new course in "Underground Catholicism" was offered. Students signed up in droves. They were promised insights never before dished up to them. They were promised behind-the-scenes looks at Catholicism's inner workings. They were given all this and more, and they delighted in the course. The priest who taught it didn't have the heart to explain he was teaching straight from the Baltimore Catechism.
These college students were so ignorant of their own faith that the basics seemed avant garde, progressive, wonderfully scandalous. Thirty years ago you proved your adulthood by taking courses in Kafka. What could be more countercultural? Now you can do the same, and be equally countercultural, by absorbing the Baltimore Catechism.
Are we to laugh or cry?