George Clooney’s taut political thriller “The Ides of March” commences with a beautiful depiction of the act of idolatry, and everything else in the film flows, by a strict logic, from that act. At the prompting of his gifted and hyper-focused press aid Stephen Myers (played by Ryan Gosling), Governor Mike Morris (played by Clooney himself), a Democratic candidate for President, responds at a televised debate to a question dealing with his religion. “I was raised a Catholic,” he calmly explains, “but I’m no longer a practicing Catholic. I’m not a Protestant, a Jew, a Muslim, or an atheist. My religion, what I believe in, is the Constitution of the United States.” At this point, his audience enthusiastically applauds. Now one can love the Constitution; one can defend it and admire it. But to believe in it is to commit what the Bible calls idolatry, for it is to make something less than God into God, which is to say, into one’s ultimate concern, one’s central preoccupation. The wager of the Scriptures is that right worship, which is to say, the worship of God alone, conduces toward the right ordering of the worshipper. Once a person’s central focus is clear, then all of the secondary desires and longings of his soul will find their proper orientation and integration. Concomitantly, when a person’s worship is misguided, when it is centered on anything other than the true God, that person falls apart; he disintegrates, his secondary desires devolving into a jumble of warring impulses. More to the point, the Bible shows over and again that a community marked by idolatry crumbles apart and tumbles into violence.
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.