Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #042. First published in the St. Cloud Times Jan. 25, 2011

Times columns and letters frequently include claims that more religion, or adherence to a particular religion's "truth," is the cure for what ails us.

You might expect me, as a Christian, to second these motions, but generally I don't. They tend to be undergirded by a view of religion and truth that I consider too narrow.

My thoughts came to a focus when, earlier this month, Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten published a broadside against what she claims is a supplanting of religion by psychology. Versions of her various arguments have appeared on recent Times Opinion pages, and I find at least four flaws in what is claimed for religion and what psychology is blamed for.

1. Personal morality and church pronouncements. Marriage and family are, to be sure, matters on which religion tends to say a lot. But it is simply one-sided to claim that there is only one authentic Christian opinion on these issues.

Yes, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis mailed 400,000 DVDs urging the faithful to support candidates who would vote for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. But the United Church of Christ argues in favor of gay marriage on theological grounds that are not self-evidently inferior to those of the Catholic Church.

Disagreement with Archbishop Nienstedt is not necessarily evidence that religion is losing its influence or its nerve.

2. Historical change. To claim that Judeo-Christianity is the gatekeeper for "universal moral truths" is problematic.

First, many Jews do not appreciate having their tradition reduced to an adjectival modifier, and even popes now say Judaism is a distinct and lastingly valid way to God in its own right.

Second, no one acquainted with history could plausibly claim that either Judaism or Christianity speaks with one voice about what those "universal moral truths" are. For example, Eastern Orthodoxy is puzzled by the Western obsession with original sin.

To believe in universal moral truth and to search for it is a far cry from claiming that any one religion (or even religion alone) has exclusive access to it.

3. Human motivation. It is quite common to set religion as strong and challenging against psychology as weak and easy; indeed, Kersten says psychology facilitates "our cherished project of throwing off moral constraints."

But psychology is no more monolithic than religion, and many people credit psychotherapy for helping them cultivate virtue and self-discipline, which Kersten says only religion can do.

In a recent radio interview two friends of mine, Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, professors at Swarthmore College where I used to teach, made the case for what they call "practical wisdom" (the title of their new book), which has both religious and psychological implications. Just following absolutist rules, without attention to the particularities of persons and situations, disregards the inescapability of interpretation. Always tell the truth. Always be kind. What about when telling the truth is unkind?

4. The politics of self-government. America's founders undoubtedly understood that virtue and self-government are connected, but one can doubt the contention that only claims of transcendent truth can give us "virtuous citizens — honest, courageous, self-controlled and public-spirited."

I urge everyone to read Jill Lepore's recent book, "The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History," which deftly debunks the view that the founders were the forerunners of today's Christian Right. Some of them were highly suspicious of religion — and rightly so.

Religious institutions that proclaim their version of "transcendent truth" are not the only means to create honest, courageous, self-controlled and public-spirited citizens, and there may be other means that are better.

Many in our area would second the idea that "the shrinking influence and declining prestige of religion in our nation today" dwarfs all other "troubling trends."

It is not self-evident to me that religion's influence is "shrinking," or that its resurgence would reverse the trouble.

There may be transcendent truths. Trouble comes when people claim to know for absolute sure what they are, and set about imposing them on everyone else.