Monday, April 15, 2013

Professor Luhmann's Essay in the Times: Christian Steadfastness on Social issues--Schismogenesis or Fidelity?

Last week, I was home in Baton Rouge, reading the Sunday New York Times. Not surprisingly, I found a sly essay in the Sunday Review section that subtly argued for a change in fundamental Christian values. T. M. Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropology professor had written an op ed essay entitled "How Skeptics and Believers Can Connect," in which she lamented the fact that the dialogue between Christians and nonbelievers was becoming increasingly intransigent, especially on social issues.

L. M. Luhrmann
Photo credit: Stanford
Professor Luhrmann described this phenomenon as "schismogenesis," a fancy anthropological term for inflexibility. She called for a mediating conversation between the religious and the nonreligious, and she essentially called for compromise--particularly on the issues of same-sex marriage and abortion. "Same-sex marriage and abortion should not be approached by drawing a line in the sand and demonizing everyone on the other side," Luhrmann counseled. "We need to recognize something of what we share, and to carry on a conversation--and if we can keep the conversation going, we will, however slowly, move forward."

Basically, I think, Professor Luhrmann was implicitly calling for Christians to bend on core social issues--to reach some rapprochement with the postmodern world. I interpreted her essay to be a subtle suggestion that ancient Christian values about the dignity of life and the meaning of marriage need to be tweaked a bit to fit the values of our postmodern age.

Professor Luhrmann's arguments called to mind a passage from G. K. Chesterton's classic work, Orthodoxy:
An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another. Some dogma, we are told, was credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. You might as well say of a view of the cosmos that it was suitable to half past three, but not suitable to half past four.
As for me, I stand with Chesterton. Before becoming a Catholic, I lived in the postmodern world and I lived by postmodern values; and I was wrong. In midlife, I found the Catholic faith and I came to realize that the core doctrines of Catholicism are true and will always be true.
G.K. Chesterton
And I was certained to that truth during a recent trip to central California, where I visited the Catholic church at San Luis Obispo, located not so very far from where Professor Luhmann teaches at Stanford.  Franciscan friars founded San Luis Obispo as a mission in 1782 and it continues to operate as a parish church.

As I walked the aisles of that old adobe church where Spanish friars and Chumash Indians once worshipped and where modern Californians still worship today, I caught the familiar smell of all Catholic churches--the smell of incense, burning candles, and humanity.

Just as the fragrance of San Luis Obispo is the fragrance of Catholic churches all over the world, Catholic truths that were valid in the age of the Spanish empire remain valid today for modern Americans and all humankind.

Professor Luhrmann might see Catholic intransigence on social issues as a sign of schismogenesis, but I see it as a sign of fidelity to ancient truths.


T.M. Luhrmann. How Skeptics And Believers Can Connect. New York Times, April 7, 2013, Review Section, p. 12.

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