WHEN THE likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Christopher Hitchens, citing insights of science or the rise of sectarian violence, denounce the very idea of God, fundamentalists strike back by attacking pillars on which such modern criticism stands. In this mode, Pope Benedict XVI last week issued two unexpected decrees, restoring the atavistic Mass of the Council of Trent and resuscitating an outmoded Catholic exclusivism -- the notion of a pope-centered Catholicism as the only authentic way to God.
In these reactionary initiatives, Pope Benedict inadvertently shows that he shares a basic conviction with Dawkins et al. -- that religion is a primitive impulse, unable to withstand the challenge of contemporary thought.
Yet, instead of feeling intimidated by secular or "scientific" criticisms of religion, a believer can insist that faith in God is a fulfillment of all that fully modern people affirm when they assent to science -- or object to violence. At the same time, a believer can advance the Dawkins-Harris-Hitchens critique to say that most articulations of traditional religion of all stripes fall far short of doing "God" justice. ...
Such people regard the fact that God is unknowable as the most important thing to know about God. Traditional propositions of the creed, therefore, must be affirmed neither rigidly nor as if they are meaningless, but with thoughtful modesty about all religious language, allowing for doubt, as well as respect for different creeds -- and for no creed....
Once we realize that doctrines of orthodoxy evolved over time, we stop treating them as timeless. Indeed, once we understand ourselves as belonging to one religious tradition among many, we lose the innocent ability to regard it as absolute. Once our internal geography recognizes that, however much we are a center, we are not the only one, we have no choice but to affirm the positions of others not as "marginal to our centers," in a phrase of theologian David Tracy, "but as centers of their own."
Faced with such difficult recognitions, religious people can retreat into fundamentalism or throw out religious faith altogether. Or we can quite deliberately embrace what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur called a "second naiveté." This implies a movement through criticism to a renewed appetite for the sacred tradition out of which we come, even while implying that we are alive to its meaning in a radically different way. Pope Benedict is attempting to restore, by fiat, the first naiveté of "one true church." In an age of global pluralism, this is simply not tenable.
The tension that Carroll addresses in the Roman Catholic context is present in many traditional religions, including my own (although Judaism is, in my opinion, blessed to be without a papal figure, and to venerate instead a tradition of study, debate and dissent). I line up in parallel with Carroll: no "one true synagogue," respect for many "centers of their own", and recognition that each generation regards the tradition through new eyes, and in a changed context, engaged with the challenges of contemporary thought.