Monday, July 26

The Question That Dare Not Speak Its Name … Must I Ask It Again?

Yeah … I guess I must … anyway … as I have said before, when I was taking both secular philosophy (ethics at a secular university) and moral theology (at a Jesuit school, Seattle University), I was taught, in different ways and in different dialects, that Knowledge plus Power equals Responsibility.  I.e., if I know that a given situation is morally wrong and if I have the power to effect change, then I am morally responsible for acting so as to alter the situation and right the wrong. And, moreover, the degree of responsibility varies directly with the scope of my knowledge and my power to effect that change. E.g., there is not much I can do to alleviate the plight of Syrian refugees. Maybe all I can do is to give money. But I am obligated to do at least that much. Given how widespread the teaching is that Power plus Knowledge equals Responsibility, therefore, it is passing strange to me, and has been for many years, how reluctant religious people are – I am speaking now of adherents of monotheistic religions, i.e., ethical monotheisms -- to apply this principle consistently to their own theologies. If indeed Power plus Knowledge equals Responsibility, what are we to make of God’s responsibility, assuming we accept the orthodox doctrines about the Character of God as possessing infinite Power and infinite Knowledge? There is such a thing as “intellectual courage,” and that is one quality that seems conspicuously absent with many (most?) monotheistic believers today.

Soren Kierkegaard

Two examples will illustrate what I mean.  The first such is the issue of the sexual abuse by Catholic – but not only Catholic – clergy in the Christian church. (I say “not only Catholic” to make room for allegations of sexual abuse by arch-Protestants like Bill Gothard and proven instances of sex trafficking by, e.g., Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart.) I have written extensively about this scandal, and related scandals vis a vis the relationship of Knowledge and Power to Responsibility, e.g., the Sandy Hook shootings, in previous “Skeptic’s Collection” columns, e.g., here. There is scant point in rehearsing all that now. If you are interested and want to refresh your memory, I would invite you to Bing / Google up previous "Skeptic's" columns on those subjects.

The reason I am resurrecting – so to speak – these issues now is because it has recently come to public notice that (a) Catholic clergy have been abusing, not only minor children, but adult women, primarily nuns, for some indefinite period of time; and (b) the episcopal leadership of the Church has, not surprisingly, intensely persecuted  gay clergy. These reports hone to an even-sharper edge the whole question of the relationship between Knowledge and Power, on the one hand, and Responsibility, on the other. And I am speaking now of this issue from a purely, exclusively theological perspective.

Consequently, I want to make two points clear at the outset: 

  • I have no personal axe to grind with the Catholic Church.

I was converted and received into the Catholic Church on Trinity Sunday of 1982. The Church came into my life when I was languishing in the fetid backwaters of, first, Christian fundamentalism and, later, non-fundamentalist but still fundamentalist-adjacent far-right evangelicalism, and had finally given up going to church -- any church -- at all for a few years. Thanks to visiting St. Anne's Catholic Church in Wichita, KS, Catholic teaching came to me with refreshing, bracing, and in my case, arguably life-saving, clarity. Catholic Christianity granted me freedom to think. The abuse crisis notwithstanding, I still admire it and am grateful to it for that reason alone. Furthermore, the priests I have known, which is several dozen over the years, have without exception been men of conspicuous intelligence, compassion, pastoral sensitivity, good humor, and insight. Never, at any time, have I ever in any way  or in any sense been abused by any priest. All the priests I have known have without exception been deeply human, flawed as we all are, but no more so than I. I do not doubt that experiences of abuse are real. But I have never been a victim.

  • I do not profess to have the answer to the Knowledge / Power vs. Responsibility conundrum.

My intent here is not to traffic in answers, but rather to simply emphasize the question. (I confess that, in past "Skeptic's" columns, I have likely been premature in proposing, or at least implying, answers instead of just concentrating on the question. Mea culpa.) In particular, I would like to know – you “Skeptic’s” readers may consider this an opinion-poll question – why no one is asking the question about the relationship between Knowledge / Power and Responsibility with respect to the Character of God?

The relationship between Knowledge / Power, on the one hand, and Responsibility, on the other, has so far attracted only significant attention within the community of Jewish theologians, in particular, theologians of the Shoah. (I probably overstated the case earlier when I said categorically that no monotheistic believers were asking such questions.) As examples, I give you Jewish "protest" theologians like Richard Rubinstein, Eliezer Berkovits, David Blumenthal, et al. Among Christian theologians, one of the few who address the question of what Prof. Blumenthal calls the “abusing God” is Phyllis Trible, whose Texts of Terror faces squarely the issue of Divine abuse. But, as far as I know, she is an exception, not the rule. It would seem that, whatever scant attention is being paid to the issue of Knowledge / Power vs. Responsibility has, at least so far, been confined to academia, at least among Christians – and vanishingly few of even them. And – granted, I could be wrong, in which case, I apologize -- but I know of no attention at all being paid to the issue among Muslim scholars. At least among Christian intellectuals, the issue of Knowledge / Power and Responsibility seems to be like one of those little short-lived streams in, e.g., Death Valley that trickle for a few meters, then, sinking into the sand, is forever lost from sight.

Former Alabama Judge Roy Moore

When the issue of the relationship between Knowledge / Power vs. Responsibility is raised among Christians, the discussion inevitably concentrates on the "mechanics" of running the Church, the character of the Church as an institution, the methodology the Church uses in screening seminary and ministerial candidates -- and what seems to be the perennial red herring of the episcopal leadership: the relationship between homosexuality and the abuse of minor children in the Church -- though the leadership is cricket-chirping silent on the relationship between gay priests and the abuse of women religious.

But the issue is much broader than the "mechanics" of Church governance. Important as that issue is, I would submit that even that is not the most salient issue. Rather, the most salient issue is: why and how can it be that Christians in the Church continue to swear fealty to and faith in a God Who, despite being possessed of infinite Power and infinite Knowledge is nevertheless held not to be responsible for failing in the care of even the most vulnerable within the Church? What sustains faith when, time and again, the media carry horrific stories of the ministers of God, not once but again and again over decades, preying upon the most innocent and defenseless? Unlike Jewish "protest" theologians of the Shoah like, e.g., Prof. David Blumenthal, who do not hesitate to call God to account, even to the point of describing God as "abusive," Christian theologians, almost without exception, stop at the "horizontal" dimension of the abuse scandal without so much as even asking the "vertical" question -- which is all I am doing here -- of God's complicity.  

Scandalous and defamatory -- even blasphemous -- as it sounds, perhaps Christians need to consider the possibility that the real questions surfaced by the sexual scandals in the Church pertain, not to the character of the Church, important as those indisputably are, but to the Character of God.

As I said earlier, I do not know the answer to that question, and so no longer traffic in answers. Rather, I would conclude with one more question, arguably even more un-ask-able than the first: could it be that the continued solace and comfort many people derive from a belief in God is more important to them than even the safety of children?

What price comfort?

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Kieriegaard ... Arne List ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.
September Morn ... Paule Emile Chabas ... Public domain
Judge Roy Moore ... BibleWizard - ... CC by 3.0
Child crucified on back of priest ... Vittorio Vida ... Public domain
Catholic bishops ... USAF -- Eilelson AFB, Alaska ... Public domain
Michelangelo's "Pieta" ... Stanislav Traykov ... CC BY 2.5

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