The Protestant theologian Paul Tillich once commented that “faith” is the most misunderstood word in the religious vocabulary. I’m increasingly convinced that he was right about this. The ground for my conviction is the absolutely steady reiteration on my Internet forums of gross caricatures of what serious believers mean by faith. Again and again, my agnostic, atheist, and secularist interlocutors tell me that faith is credulity, naïvete, superstition, assent to irrational nonsense, acceptance of claims for which there is no evidence, etc., etc. And they gladly draw a sharp distinction between faith so construed and modern science, which, they argue, his marked by healthy skepticism, empirical verification, a reliable and repeatable method, and the capacity for self-correction. How fortunate, they conclude, that the western mind was able finally to wriggle free from the constraints of faith and move into the open and well-lighted space of scientific reason. And how sad that, like a ghost from another time and place, faith continues, even in the early twentieth century to haunt the modern mind and to hinder its progress.
In 2005, Harvard scholar Stephen Greenblatt published a wonderful book on Shakespeare called Will in the World. Witty, insightful and surprising, it caused thousands of people, including your humble scribe, to look at the Bard with new eyes. Thus it was with great anticipation that I opened my copy of Greenblatt’s latest The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Like its forebear, this new book is indeed lively, intelligent and fun to read, but as I moved through it I grew increasingly irritated and finally exasperated by its steady insistence upon one of the most tired myths of the contemporary academy, namely, that the modern world, in all of its wonder and promise, emerged out of a long and desperate struggle with (wait for it) Roman Catholicism.
The management of the 2002 Oakland Athletics found itself in a bind. The team had performed very well the previous year, making it to the playoffs, but in the offseason, three of its best players were lured away by lucrative contracts offered by east coast powerhouses. In a relatively small market and with a very limited budget, the A’s had to find a way to compete. Their general manager, former big-leaguer Billy Beane, stumbled upon a revolutionary strategy to make the Athletics winners while remaining within their means. It doesn’t sound exactly like the kind of story line that Hollywood would embrace with enthusiasm, but it provides the foundation for a terrific film called “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt as the visionary general manager. “Moneyball” is not only a great baseball film; it is also a compelling exploration of the dynamics of leadership and the psychology of success. And as such, as I hope to show, it is a movie that teaches a great deal about the spiritual life.
It is with a particular fascination that I’ve been following the speeches that Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) has been delivering in his native Germany. We can certainly hear Herr Doktor Professor Ratzinger in the distinctively academic rhetoric of the addresses, but we also hear the voice of a pastor, uttering a cri de coeur to his wandering flock. In his first speech on the tarmac in Berlin, upon being welcomed by the officials of the German government, Benedict XVI specified that his main purpose was not to foster diplomatic relations between the German nation and the Vatican City State—as welcome as that would be—but rather to speak of God.
In my capacity as theologian, teacher, and culture commentator, I’ve been reading articles on ethical matters for years and have grown relatively inured to the expression of even the most outrageous points of view. But a few weeks ago, I came across a piece that was so shocking and so egregious that I was compelled, as I read it, to put the magazine down several times and just shake my head in disbelief. It was an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine called “The Two Minus One Pregnancy,” dealing with the phenomenon of “reducing” (love the Owellian language) a pregnancy from two children to one. Evidently for years obstetricians had been willing to eliminate one or more children if a woman was pregnant with triplets or quadruplets, but now, at the behest of an increasing number of mothers, doctors are commencing to (again, I’m using the dreadfully antiseptic language from the article) “reduce to a singlet,” which is to say, to eliminate one of two unborn and perfectly healthy twins.