I was pleased to see that the United States Supreme Court recently dismissed a suit brought by Michael Newdow, a Sacramento man who wanted to remove the phrase “In God We Trust” from the nation’s coins and paper currency, as well as from the fronts of our public buildings. The tired argument that the gentleman brought forward was that this custom somehow violates the first amendment guarantee that the government shall make no law either establishing an official religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion in the United States. As many have pointed out over the years, the invocation of God or the presence of religious symbols in the public space have nothing to do with what the Founders meant by the establishment of an official religion—a practice whose dangerous consequences they knew only too well from relatively recent English history. The affirmation that there should be no governmentally sanctioned religion in the United States by no means carries as an implication the elimination of religious language and values from the public square.
The second volume of Pope Benedict’s masterful study of the Lord Jesus has just been published. The first volume, issued three years ago, dealt with the public life and preaching of Jesus, while this second installment concentrates on the events of Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection. As was the case with volume one, this book is introduced by a short but penetrating introduction, wherein the Pope makes some remarks about the method he has chosen to employ. What I found particularly fascinating was how Joseph Ratzinger develops a motif that he has preoccupied him for the past thirty years, namely, how biblical scholarship has to move beyond an exclusive use of the historical-critical method.
“Of Gods and Men,” one of the most compelling religious films of the past thirty years, tells the story of the Trappists of Tibhirine, seven brave men who were murdered by Islamist extremists in 1996. Though this fact is not well known, the twentieth century produced more Christian martyrs than all of the preceding nineteen centuries combined. The monks who are the subjects of this film were among the last to die for the faith in that terrible hundred year period.
Why, in God’s name, are we entering a third war in the Middle East? America finds itself embroiled already in armed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now we have rained missiles down on Libya. When President Obama was asked about the Libyan incursion during a press conference in El Salvador, his answers were distressingly vague. As to the direction of the endeavor, the President said, “NATO is meeting today…to work out the mechanisms for command and control. I expect that over the next several days you will have clarity and a meeting of the minds of all those who are participating in the process.” One might be forgiven for wondering why greater clarity hadn’t been achieved prior to the dropping of bombs. And after assuring the gathered reporters that the mission in Libya was clearly defined as humanitarian assistance to the Libyan people and that our involvement would be a “matter of days and not weeks,” Obama admitted that as long as Gaddafi remains in power he will always pose a threat to his own people. In other words, the mission isn’t that clearly defined and the time of our involvement is more or less open-ended. Are we there to help the rebels? To protect innocent lives? To get rid of Gaddafi? To establish political stability in Libya? To assure that a democratic polity is established there? I’m not the least bit convinced that the administration knows, and if they don’t know, they won’t know when to declare victory and go home.
An internet controversy is percolating around a soon-to-be-published book by well-known evangelical preacher Rob Bell. In this text, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell apparently advocates the “universalist” position on salvation, according to which everyone in the end is saved and that Hell, accordingly, is empty. Many of his evangelical co-religionists are arguing that this doctrine runs counter to classical biblical Christianity and is designed to appeal to a trendy post-modern audience for whom the only unforgiveable sin is to be “exclusive.” This dust-up over Hell made the main page of the CNN website the other day and has prompted tens of thousands of responses and questions. Obviously Hell is still (forgive the pun) a burning question among both believers and non-believers.