Saturday, December 19, 2009

End of belief

The New York Times' "Beliefs" column is coming to an end! Today's column looks back over 486 columns over 20 years, describes some common "threads" or "themes," then ends with a shocker: The next Beliefs column will be the last.

Here are six themes column anchor Peter Steinfels identifies, six of the "convictions" which have "animat[ed]" the series:

First, the great world religions are complex and multilayered; they are rich in inner tensions and ambiguities that allow beliefs and practices to evolve over time as the faith is tested by new circumstances and insights. The great religions cannot be equated with the diminished and frozen fundamentalisms that they periodically spawn....

Second, religions encompass claims about truth and rules of conduct but cannot be reduced to doctrinal propositions or ethics. Religions involve orientations toward reality handed on in stories, rituals and paradigmatic figures as well as in creeds. Religions are embodied in communities and shape distinct ways of life.

Third, intelligence and critical reasoning are essential to adult approaches to faith. In short, theology matters. It is curious that so many otherwise thoughtful people imagine that what they learned about religion by age 13, or perhaps 18, will suffice for the rest of their lives. They would never make the same assumption about science, economics, art, sex or love.

Fourth, at least partly because of that assumption, a contemporary abundance of serious thought and scholarship about religion is marginalized. Thinkers and scholars who should have a presence in the intellectual and cultural landscape — whose books, for example, might well be noted in the annual “holiday” listings — are instead known almost entirely in their own religious circles or academic specialties. That is a loss this column has tried to counter....

Fifth, if this column has neglected popular religiosity, it has not dodged the great challenge to faith — and to the systematic examination of faith that is theology — posed by the existence of evil. The response of religious thinkers and leaders has been a recurrent topic, whether after events like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, where religion itself was a source of the evil, or the great tsunami of 2004, where nature, that great mother and serial killer, went on a murderous rampage.

Sixth, a major concern threading its way through these columns is protection of conscience. From its Protestant and Enlightenment origins, American society has tended to honor the personal conscience of the dissenting individual — at least in principle, although, as any atheist running for public office can testify, not necessarily in practice.
But what is applauded in individuals can seem intolerable in groups. Faced with religious bodies that resist prevailing opinion and hold to beliefs that either the majority Christian population or influential cultural elites consider retrograde, the nation has often balked.
Should these groups be allowed to maintain distinct identities, to set their own standards for their institutions, to propagate their views and to be active in civic life? Should any modifications of their views be left to evolve or not (see above) from internal debate — or be forced by legal or economic pressure? The presupposition here has been that freedom of conscience for individuals cannot be detached from freedom of conscience for communities of belief.

It's an interesting raft of convictions, and helps explain some of the preoccupations of the series over the years. These aren't the only lacunae in media coverage of religion, but they're among the most important. The "Beliefs" column performed a valuable public service - I don't know what will fill its gap. (Certainly not the other religion reporting in the Times, let alone the tabloid religion coverage in the Times Sunday Magazine.) I'm sure I'm not the only one who will miss it.

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