Academia

Prof. Benedict addresses Catholic academia

In his latest address to American bishops visiting Rome, Pope Benedict XVI stressed that Catholic educators should remain true to the faith -- a reminder issued just in time for another tense season of commencement addresses. No, the pope did not mention Georgetown University by name, when discussing the Catholic campus culture wars.

Yes, he did mention the law requiring professors who teach Catholic theology to obtain a Canon 812 "mandatum (mandate)" document from their bishops to certify that they are truly Catholic theologians.

Many American bishops have cited a "growing recognition on the part of Catholic colleges and universities of the need to reaffirm their distinctive identity in fidelity to their founding ideals and the Church's mission. ... Much remains to be done, especially in such basic areas as compliance with the mandate laid down in Canon 812 for those who teach theological disciplines," said Benedict, who taught theology at the university level in Germany.

"The importance of this canonical norm as a tangible expression of ecclesial communion and solidarity in the Church's educational apostolate becomes all the more evident when we consider the confusion created by instances of apparent dissidence between some representatives of Catholic institutions and the Church's pastoral leadership: such discord harms the Church's witness and, as experience has shown, can easily be exploited to compromise her authority and her freedom."

Benedict's remarks to the bishops of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming came during the fourth of five Vatican visits by Americans reporting on life in their dioceses. His January address, to the bishops of Washington, D.C., Baltimore and the U.S. Armed Services, made news with its focus on threats to religious liberty. It came shortly before Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the Obama administration would not withdraw its rules requiring the majority of religious institutions to cover all FDA-approved forms of contraception in health-insurance plans offered to employees, as well as to students.

Now, the pope has emphasized the need for Catholic educators to remain faithful in the same timeframe as Georgetown University's announcement that one featured speaker during its commencement rites will be none other than Sebelius -- a liberal Catholic who last year warned abortion-rights activists that "we are in a war" to protect women from conservatives.

Conservative Catholics protested -- see GeorgetownScandal.com -- claiming that the Jesuit school's invitation represented yet another violation of the 2004 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops policy stating: "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions." The University of Notre Dame ignited a 2009 firestorm by granting President Barack Obama an honorary doctor of laws degree.

While it's easy to focus on this new commencement controversy, Benedict's address represents another skirmish in more than two decades of conflict between Rome and liberal Catholics entrenched on many college and university campuses. At the heart of the conflict is a 1990 "apostolic constitution" on education issued by Pope John Paul II entitled "Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)."

That document contains numerous statements that trouble American academics, including this one: "Catholic teaching and discipline are to influence all university activities, while the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected. Any official action or commitment of the University is to be in accord with its Catholic identity."

"That captures pretty much everything," noted Patrick J. Reilly, president of the conservative Cardinal Newman Society.

Thus, in his address to the visiting American bishops, the pope stressed that Catholic universities are supposed to be helping the church defend its teachings, in an age in which they are constantly be under attack.

The goal, said Benedict, is for Catholic schools to provide a "bulwark against the alienation and fragmentation which occurs when the use of reason is detached from the pursuit of truth and virtue. ...

"Catholic institutions have a specific role to play in helping to overcome the crisis of universities today. Firmly grounded in this vision of the intrinsic interplay of faith, reason and the pursuit of human excellence, every Christian intellectual and all the Church's educational institutions must be convinced, and desirous of convincing others, that no aspect of reality remains alien to, or untouched by, the mystery of the redemption and the Risen Lord's dominion over all creation."

Education wars among Georgia Baptists

When it comes to higher education, Georgia Baptists are of two minds these days. On Oct. 21, the trustees of Shorter University in Rome, Ga., approved a covenant requiring faculty and staff to support the "mission of Shorter University as a Christ-centered institution affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention." Then they asked employees to "reject as acceptable all sexual activity not in agreement with the Bible, including, but not limited to, premarital sex, adultery and homosexuality."

A fortnight latter, Baptists learned about a "fall update" email from leaders at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., announcing a policy extending health care and other benefits to the "domestic partners" of faculty and staff, regardless of sexual orientation.

The Georgia Baptist Convention cut its historic ties to Mercer in 2005. Now, the school's strategic shift brings it "into line with other leading private universities ... including Emory, Duke, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Tulane, Furman, Rollins, Elon and Stetson," noted Mercer President Bill Underwood, in a statement quoted at EthicsDaily.com, a progressive Baptist website. "It is also consistent with our established policy of not discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation."

While this divide may shock outsiders, these decisions are "totally logical" in light of trends in Baptist life and higher education, stressed Lutheran scholar Robert Benne of Roanoke (Va.) College, author of "Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions."

"These schools are headed in opposite directions because their leaders want them to become radically different kinds of institutions," he said. Shorter wants to "become a 'Christian' university in terms of its approach to education and campus life. ... Mercer is trying to become what its leaders see as an elite institution, the kind of place where if you tried to talk about 'Christian education' the faculty would raise all holy hell."

In some ways, these Baptist conflicts resemble those among educators in other religious groups, he said. For example, many American Catholic colleges and universities have become highly secularized, while their leaders insist that they remain rooted in "Catholic" values or some specific educational tradition, such as the legacy of the Jesuits. Meanwhile, a few other Catholic schools publicly stress their loyalty to the Vatican.

With that in mind, it's significant that Mercer's Internet homepage states: "Founded by early 19th century Baptists, Mercer -- while no longer formally affiliated with the Baptist denomination -- remains committed to an educational environment that embraces intellectual and religious freedom while affirming values that arise from a Judeo-Christian understanding of the world."

Benne noted that few well-known schools can accurately be labeled "fundamentalist," as would be the case with the independent Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Meanwhile, most conflicts in Southern Baptist academia involve debates about accepting some explicitly "Christian" approach to education, often referred to as the "integration of faith and learning."

Thus, it's symbolic that Mercer leaders openly say they want to go the other direction, following in the footsteps of universities such as Vanderbilt and Duke, and historically Baptist institutions such as Furman and Wake Forest. The Mercer student handbook, for example, contains no moral code covering student conduct on premarital sex, adultery and homosexuality.

At this point, Shorter accepts non-Christian students. However, Benne said Shorter's new doctrinal and lifestyle code for faculty and staff suggests that it will soon ask its students to sign a similar covenant of faith and moral conduct. If so, covenants of this kind are common on Christian campuses, including famous liberal arts schools such as Wheaton College, Calvin College, Biola University and numerous other members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (the global network in which I teach).

Many of these schools retain ties to the denominations that founded them, but they are reach out to recruit other evangelicals or traditional Christians as students, faculty and staff. Some of these schools now openly appeal to Catholics, as well.

The problem for many Baptist academics, stressed Benne, is that they place such a strong emphasis on "soul freedom" and the "priesthood of every believer" that they struggle to find ways to separate themselves from the "lukewarm people who are not really committed to the their school's vision."

The result is a perfect Baptist Catch 22.

"How do you defend specific doctrines and convictions," he said, "without daring to list these specifics, which means you have committed the sin of having a creed?"

Steve Jobs, saint of the '60s

It was in 1994 that author Umberto Eco, drawing on his studies in symbols and philosophy, looked at the evolution of personal computers and saw theology, doctrine, spirituality and, yes, icons. The modern world, he argued in the Italian magazine Espresso, was divided between Macintosh believers and those using the Microsoft disk operating system. The DOS world was "Protestant, or even Calvinistic" since it demanded "difficult personal decisions" and forced users to master complicated codes and rules.

"The Macintosh is Catholic," wrote Eco. "It tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach -- if not the kingdom of Heaven -- the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons."

Nearly two decades later, the hagiographers producing eulogies for Steve Jobs produced evidence that Eco was close -- but that he needed to soar past Rome and around the globe to India and Japan. In essay after essay, journalists have argued that the so-called "cult of Mac" was driven by the Apple leader's "Zen-like" state of mind.

It seems those iMacs, iPods, iPhones, iPads and MacBooks really were religious objects after all, with their gleaming surfaces of glass, aluminum and white or black plastic. There must have been a grand scheme behind that yin-yang minimalism.

"The Zen of Steve Jobs," proclaimed CNN.

ABCNews.com added: "Steve Job's Mantra Rooted in Buddhism: Focus and Simplicity."

HBO's "Real Time" provocateur complained that too many normal people -- even conservatives -- were rushing to claim Jobs. "Please don't do it, right-wingers," said Bill Maher. "He was not one of you. ... He was an Obama voting, pot-smoking Buddhist."

One image of Jobs dominated the media barrage. In 2005, the prophet from Cupertino visited one of California's most exclusive pulpits, giving the commencement address at Stanford University. It was one year after doctors discovered the rare form of pancreatic cancer that took his life at the age of 56.

"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life," he said. "Almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure -- these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

A quick summary of Jobs' spiritual life is that he followed his heart right out of a traditional Christian background and into the spiritual maelstrom of the 1960s. Raised as a Missouri-Synod Lutheran, the young Jobs was already breaking bread with the Hare Krishnas near Reed College in Portland, Oregon, when he dropped out and headed to India seeking enlightenment.

It's hard to know how much the secretive Jobs practiced Buddhism during his often-stormy life, which included an out-of-wedlock daughter (he denied paternity for years) and his legendary rise and fall and triumphant rebirth as Apple's visionary. Buddhist monk Kobun Chino Otogawa did perform the 1991 wedding of Jobs and Laurene Powell and the Zen master served as a spiritual advisor for NeXT, the computer company Jobs founded in between his two Apple eras.

Critics noted that Jobs was a relentless and abrasive perfectionist who left scores of battered psyches in his wake. Whatever the doctrinal content of his faith, it seemed to have been a Buddhism that helped him find peace while walking barefoot through offices packed with wealthy, workaholic capitalists.

In his Stanford sermon, Jobs urged his young listeners to "trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."

For Jobs, the bottom line was his own bottom line -- even when death loomed on the horizon. His ultimate hope was that he, alone, knew what was right.

"Don't be trapped by dogma -- which is living with the results of other people's thinking," he concluded. "Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition -- they somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

Goodbye to old-time mountain faith

Travelers who frequent the winding mountain roads of Southern Appalachia know that, every few miles, they're going to pass yet another small Baptist church sitting close to some rushing water. It's all about location, location, location.

Why would a preacher want to baptize a new believer in a heated, indoor tank when he can dunk them in the powerful, living, frigid waters of the river that created the valley in which his flock has lived for generations? There's no question which option the self-proclaimed Primitive Baptists will choose, even if it adds an element of risk.

"Among Primitive Baptists, you almost always see two ministers when they baptize someone -- one to do the baptism and one to hold on. It's even become part of their unique liturgical tradition to have two ministers there," said Baptist historian Bill Leonard of the Wake Forest School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"As the saying goes, you could get baptized and go to heaven on the same day if there wasn't somebody there to hang on so you didn't wash away and drown."

This is the kind of old-fashioned faith that Americans are used to seeing in paintings of frontier life or grainy black-and-white photographs from the days before interstate highways, shopping malls, satellite dishes and the Internet. Appalachian religion has played a dramatic role in American culture, helping shape our folk art, Scotch-Irish history, roots music and a host of other subjects.

The question, for Leonard and many other scholars, is whether the rich heritage of "mountain Christianity" will play much of a role in the nation's future.

"Increasingly," he said, "our modern forms of American religion and our mass media and culture are sucking the life out of one of our most distinctive regions."

While the region contains religious groups with European ties, the most important fact about the common Appalachian churches is that they are uniquely American.

For outsiders, this can be very complex territory.

The Calvinist, Primitive Baptists are not the only Baptists whose sanctuaries dot the landscape of the 1,600-mile-long strip of mountains that run from Eastern Canada down to the high hills of Alabama and Georgia, cresting at Mount Mitchell in the heart of North Carolina's Black Mountains. There are Independent Baptists (of various kinds), Free Will Baptists, Old Regular Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Southern Baptists and dozens of other brands.

Even the Primitive Baptists are a complex bunch, noted Leonard. There are some who avoid wine and some who make their own. Some refuse to hire professional pastors or to send their preachers off to seminary, fearing they will be corrupted. There's even a small body of Primitives -- critics call them "no-hellers" -- who insist God's love is so strong that everybody ends up in heaven, no matter what.

Then there are the various kinds of Pentecostal-Holiness churches, including the rare -- but world famous -- congregations in which believers handle snakes, sip poison and wrestle with demons.

Some "Oneness" Pentecostal believers baptize in the name of Jesus, alone, while others embrace the traditional Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In an academic paper entitled "Looking for Religious Appalachia," Leonard noted that he once heard a Trinitarian Pentecostal preacher explain that doctrinal feud in terms anyone could grasp: "Jesus had a Daddy. He wasn't no bastard."

"Case closed," wrote the historian.

Ironically, some of the most powerful forces that threaten these churches are the efforts of outsiders to help the region -- such as missionaries sent to evangelize the locals or social-justice activists who want to help the locals escape their own way of life. Then there are the softer forms of Evangelical Protestantism that arrive through television, mass-marketed gospel music and those new, transplanted megachurches that keep sprouting up like suburban superstores.

Thus, the stark "Sacred Harp" hymns of the shape-note era gradually gave way to the cheery gospel quartets of the radio era, which were then blitzed by the pop-rock "praise bands" of the Contemporary Christian Music era.

What happens when the mountain churches and their traditions are gone?

"Appalachia still exists and it remains something to celebrate," said Leonard. "Still, what's happening there is a danger signal to us all. ... What was once pristine wilderness is becoming an exploited region. Tragically, a crucial element of America's religious history and heritage if being lost, as well."

NYC's dangerous churches (in schools)

Once a month, Village Church volunteers offer their neighborhood a gift -- free babysitting. This Friday "Parents Night Out" program uses non-religious crafts and games, which is important because the Presbyterian flock's leaders insist that it's open to parents of any "creed, color, party or orientation." It helps to know that this evangelical church is located in New York City's Greenwich Village and meets in rented space in Public School 3.

"We're New Yorkers and we know all about the incredible diversity of life in the Village," said the Rev. Sam Andreades, a former computer professional with a New York University graduate degree. "We're trying to be part of that diversity. We live here."

The question, however, is whether the Village Church will get to stay where it is, pending the resolution of an old church-state clash that is probably headed back to the U.S. Supreme Court. It is one of 60 churches that rent space -- outside of school hours -- in New York City's nearly 1,700 schools. About 10,000 non-religious groups take advantage of the same opportunity.

The question that vexes some educators is whether it's acceptable for churches to worship in their buildings. This is currently allowed under equal-access laws that have become common nationwide in recent decades.

At the heart of the debate is a 2001 Supreme Court decision -- Good News Club vs. Milford Central School -- that instructed educators to offer religious groups the same opportunity to use public-school facilities as secular groups. School leaders can elect to close their buildings to secular and religious groups alike, thus avoiding discrimination.

Now, the Second Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals has challenged this status quo. In a 2-1 decision, it backed New York City school board attempts to ban regular worship services in its facilities, while allowing for some other forms of religious expression by religious groups.

"When worship services are performed in a place, the nature of the site changes," wrote Judge Pierre N. Leval. "The site is no longer simply in a room in school being used temporarily for some activity. ... The place has, at least for a time, become the church."

The implication is that a "mysterious transformation" literally takes place during these worship services, noted Jordan Lorence of the Alliance Defense Fund, a lawyer who has been involved in equal-access cases in New York City and elsewhere for a quarter of a century.

"There isn't some kind of architectural alchemy at work here that suddenly turns a school facility into a dangerous place," he said. "Allowing unions to rent space in schools doesn't turn them into union halls. Allowing Alcoholics Anonymous to use a school doesn't turn it into the Betty Ford Clinic."

However, this ongoing conflict is evidence that many New Yorkers are spooked by the thought of people -- especially evangelicals -- worshipping in spaces created for secular education. The bottom line: What if believers dared to pray for the students and teachers who occupy those spaces on school days?

In a New York Times essay, activist Katherine Stewart explained why she fiercely opposes having a church meet behind the red door of her local school on the Upper East Side. She also attacked the Village Church by name.

"I could go on about why my daughter's photo should not be made available for acts of worship, or why my P.T.A. donations should not be used to supply furniture for a religious group that thinks I am bound for hell," concluded the author of the upcoming book, "The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children."

"Maybe it's just that I imagine that that big red door is about education for all, not salvation for a few. Sometimes a building is more than a building."

The most disturbing theme in these arguments, said Andreades, is the frequent claim that his church and others like it are somehow aliens in their city. Renting space in PS3, he noted, allows his small flock to invest 10 percent of its budget into Village charities -- from an AIDS research center to programs for shut-ins, from arts projects to soup kitchens.

"This church has been in the Village for 16 years," he said. "We've had members attend that public school and teach at it. ... We know who we are and where we are and we think we belong here."

Define fundamentalist, please

Few hot-button, "fighting words" are tossed around with wilder abandon in journalism today than the historical term "fundamentalist." The powers that be at the Associated Press know this label is loaded and, thus, for several decades the wire service's style manual has offered this guidance for reporters, editors and broadcast producers around the world.

"fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. ... However, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

"In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself."

The problem is that religious authorities -- the voices journalists quote -- keep pinning this label on others. Thus, one expert's "evangelical" is another's "fundamentalist." For "progressive" Catholics, in other words, Pope Benedict XVI is a "fundamentalist" on sexuality.

Anyone who expects scholars to stand strong and defend a basic, historic definition will be disappointed. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame once quipped, among academics "fundamentalist" has become a "term of abuse or disapprobation" that most often resembles the casual semi-curse, "sumbitch."

"Still, there is a bit more to the meaning. ... In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views," noted Plantinga, in an Oxford Press publication. "That makes it more like 'stupid sumbitch.' ... Its cognitive content is given by the phrase 'considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.' "

This linguistic fight has spread to other faiths and, thus, affects religion news worldwide.

The Orthodox side of Judaism now consists of "ultra-conservatives," "traditionalists," "ultra-Orthodox" or "fundamentalists," depending on who defines the terms. There are "fundamentalist" Hindus, as well. In Islam, journalists keep trying to draw lines between "Islamists," "Muslim radicals," "fringe groups" and a spectrum of other undefined doctrinal camps including, of course, "fundamentalists."

This confusion makes it hard for researchers with good intentions to shed light on news events in complex cultures. Take Egypt, for example, a nation in which conflicts exist between multiple forms of Islam and various religious minorities, including the Coptic Orthodox Christians who are nearly10 percent of the population.

Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project tried to find defining lines between political and religious groups in Egypt, after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

"Egyptians hold diverse views about religion," stated the report. "About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31% of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30%) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26% have mixed views on this question."

Meanwhile, on two other crucial questions: "Relatively few (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. ... Overall, just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions."

So while only 31 percent sympathize with "fundamentalist" Muslims, 60-plus percent decline to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believe Egypt's laws should STRICTLY follow the Quran. Also, only 36 percent strongly favor religious liberty for religious minorities. Each of these stances mesh easily with alternative "fundamentalism" definitions offered by experts.

To add more complexity, 75 percent of those surveyed had a somewhat or very favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood's surging role in Egyptian life -- a group long classified as "fundamentalist" in global reports, such as historian Martin Marty's "Fundamentalism as a Social Phenomenon" in 1988.

While there is no Arabic word for "fundamentalist," Pew researchers believe many Egyptians have begun applying a similar term to some groups of "very conservative Muslims," according to James Bell, director of international survey research for the Pew Research Center.

However, he added, the complexities and even conflicts inside these new survey results make it hard to say specifically who is or who isn't a "fundamentalist" in the context of Egypt today.

"For our Egypt survey, the term 'fundamentalist' was translated into Arabic as 'usuuli,' which means close to the root, rule or fundamental," he explained. "It is our understanding that this Arabic term is commonly used to describe conservative Muslims. ... So that's the word that we used."

That other Notre Dame speech

It was hard to ignore the papal bull condemning the slave trade, which was read to American Catholic leaders gathered in Baltimore in 1839. Pope Gregory XVI proclaimed that "no one in the future dare to vex anyone, despoil him of his possessions, reduce to servitude, or lend aid and favor to those who give themselves up to these practices, or exercise that inhuman traffic by which the Blacks, as if they were not men but rather animals, having been brought into servitude, in no matter what way, are, without any distinction, in contempt of the rights of justice and humanity, bought, sold and devoted sometimes to the hardest labor."

Nevertheless, the first bishop of Charleston, S.C., attempted to soften the blow. Quoting scripture and Catholic doctrine, Bishop John England wrote a series of letters arguing that the pope didn't mean to attack those -- including Catholics -- who already owned slaves.

"Bishop England was not a bad man. He was not personally in favor of slavery, nor was he a racist," noted Father John Raphael of New Orleans, at a rally organized as an alternative to the University of Notre Dame's graduation rites.

"In fact, Bishop England exercised a cherished and personal ministry to black Catholics," he added. "But in the face of strong, anti-Catholic sentiment and prejudice, he simply wanted to show his fellow antebellum Southerners that Catholics could be just as American as everybody else and that tolerance of their cherished institution -- slavery -- was not in any way opposed by the Catholic church."

It was wrong for Catholics of that era to seek any compromise on slavery, stressed Raphael, who serves as principal of St. Augustine High School, one of Louisiana's most prominent African-American institutions. It is just as wrong, today, for Catholic leaders to compromise on abortion. At least the slaves were allowed to live, to be baptized and to receive the sacraments, he said.

The symbolism was obvious, since the priest is a prominent African-American graduate of Notre Dame.

The symbolism was more than obvious, since he was speaking at a rally protesting Notre Dame's decision to grant President Barack Obama an honorary doctor of laws degree, clashing with a U.S. Catholic bishops policy that states: "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."

The Mass and rally on Notre Dame's south quad followed hours of prayers in the university's Alumni Hall and famous Marian grotto. These solemn, peaceful events received little media attention, even though they drew several hundred or several thousand participants, depending on who did the counting, as well as 25 Notre Dame faculty members, 26 graduating seniors and Bishop John D’Arcy of the Catholic Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend. A louder standoff between police and 100 off-campus activists -- led by anti-abortion leader Randall Terry -- received most of the news coverage.

During the actual commencement address, a few protesters yelled, "Stop killing our children." Most of the graduates booed the protesters, then chanted, "Yes we can," Obama's campaign slogan, and "We are ND" as they were removed.

Notre Dame President John Jenkins stressed that Obama accepted Notre Dame's invitation knowing that "we are fully supportive of church teaching on the sanctity of human life and we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research."

"President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him," stressed Father Jenkins. Then he added, "Mr. President, this is a principle we share."

Meanwhile, many of the speakers at the "Notre Dame Rally for Life" openly criticized Obama's policies, but consistently focused their harshest words on the actions of the current Notre Dame administration.

"Faith without works is dead, words without actions are meaningless," said Father Raphael. "If, as we have been told, a dialogue is actually taking place … between the presidents of Notre Dame and the United States, between the university and the nation, then, for the university at least, that dialogue must be shaped by truth and charity, and protecting the sanctity of all human life, as the church understands life, must be its goal. …

Actively building a culture of life at Notre Dame must become central to the university's witness and mission to the nation and to the world."

Baptist take on spirituality

Don Whitney knows what happens when people hear that a Southern Baptist seminary is offering a doctor of philosophy degree in spirituality. "For many people, connecting 'Baptist' and 'spirituality' is like 'military' and 'intelligence.' They just can't picture those two words together," said Whitney, director of the new Center for Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

But for Baptists, he stressed, it's crucial to underline the word "biblical" in front "spirituality," in order to stress the center's ties to Protestant reformers who rejected what they believed were the errors of Rome.

When Whitney and his colleagues talk about spirituality, they emphasize images of the great Charles Spurgeon spending hours in Bible study before preaching, laypeople meditating on the symbolism in John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress" and missionaries weeping while praying for the lost. They do not focus on monks chanting ancient prayers day after day, night after night, generation after generation.

"Why should we go to people who have locked themselves behind a door for 50 years if we want to learn about true spirituality, when the Bible tells us to go out and be salt and light in the world? ... This is not to say that we shouldn't go outside our tradition in order to learn, but we are saying that it's important to go to our own guys, first," said Whitney.

"We believe that biblical, Evangelical spirituality has not been tried and found wanting. It simply has not been tried."

The potential impact of this project is great, if only because 20 percent of all students attending U.S. seminaries study on Southern Baptist campuses. The center opened in January and seminary leaders believe they can handle five students in the Ph.D. program and 10 in their doctor of ministry program. While graduate programs teaching spirituality exist in a few U.S. seminaries, this Ph.D. program is the first targeting scholars and clergy among evangelicals.

One of the first challenges the center will face is defining "spirituality," a word that means one thing on the Oprah Winfrey Show and something else altogether then it appears in textbooks describing traditions in various world religions. For modern Americans, the word is so vague that it's almost meaningless, said church historian Michael Haykin, who teaches in the Southern Seminary programs.

Nevertheless, the word has great power and its appeal must be understood by anyone who wants to understand contemporary American religion.

When most Americans hear "spirituality," said Haykin, they think of "all of those areas in their internal experiences in which they come into contact with things that transcend daily life. ... It's all incredibly nebulous. The key is that the whole ritual of institutionalized, formal religion has nothing to do with this, for most people today."

Thus, researchers keep running into increasing numbers of un-churched adults who identify themselves as "spiritual," but not "religious." These seekers are interested in "spirituality" that is connected to emotions and personal experiences, but not in formal "religion" that comes packaged with history, doctrines and rules.

Meanwhile, many Protestant believers are anxious to escape what they believe is the dry, formal, merely rational approach to worship and prayer that dominates mainstream churches. Some turn to charismatic or Pentecostal churches and some turn to the so-called "emerging churches" that try to weave some ancient Christian prayers and disciplines into their progressive, "postmodern" take on faith.

"What unites all these people is an emphasis on personal experience," said Haykin. "For all of them, 'religion' is a bad word, something they are trying to get away from."

The Southern Seminary programs, he added, will emphasize that Protestant pioneers such as John Calvin and Martin Luther were interested in early Christian spirituality, but rejected what they believed were newer Catholic traditions. Then again, students will also study the works of latter reformers, such as the Puritans, who stressed personal piety while criticizing what they saw as the formalized, ritualized traditions of the Presbyterians, Lutherans and others.

This cycle keeps repeating itself, generation after generation.

"We already have people accusing us of trying to smuggle a kind of Roman Catholic approach to faith into an evangelical seminary," said Haykin. "What we are saying is that the Protestant reformers were trying to get past the whole medieval Catholic world and reconnect with the ancient church and its approach to the spiritual life. That's what we are trying to do, too."

Passover 2009, minus God

Passover is almost here, which means Jewish families are preparing once again to taste familiar tastes, ask familiar questions and hear the familiar answers that have united them through the ages. Why is matzoh the only bread at Passover? Because the Hebrews had no time to bake leavened bread as they fled Egypt. Why dip bitter herbs into chopped apples, dates, nuts and wine? Because this paste resembles the clay they used in slavery to make bricks. Why dip parsley into salt water? The parsley represents new life, mixed with tears.

This year, some liberal Jews will hear a new question during the ritual meals that define this weeklong season, which begins at sundown on Wednesday, April 8.

The question: "Why is there an orange on the Seder plate?"

The answer, in a new rite written by Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer of New York, will please many unorthodox Jews.

"To remind us that all people have a legitimate place in Jewish life, no less than an orange on the Seder plate, regardless of gender or sexual identity," states "The Liberated Haggadah," a rite for "cultural, secular and humanistic" Jews. "And to teach us, too, how absurd it is to exclude anyone who wants to sit at our table, partake of our meal, and celebrate with us the gift of life and the gift of freedom."

The goal is to provide an enjoyable and educational Passover for Jews who are united by culture, art, music, literature, foods and folkways -- but not faith. Nearly half of American Jews, said Schweitzer, consider themselves "secular" or "cultural" Jews, as opposed to "religious" Jews.

"This is not some small offshoot, it is half of our Jewish world," stressed the rabbi, who leads the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, part of a network of 30 "secular Jewish communities" in North America.

"We have common values and experiences, even if we are not united in the practice of the Jewish religion. ... We still want to find a way to celebrate these rituals that define the major transition points in our lives and in the lives of Jewish people throughout our history."

However, Schweitzer faced a major challenge in writing this particular "Haggadah," which fits into a tradition of new Passover texts that honor specific moments in Jewish history and culture. Many families freely adapt pieces of different Seder texts to create their own unique rituals.

At the heart of Passover, is the biblical story of Moses and the spectacular series of miracles that helped the Jewish people escape from captivity in Egypt. However, the "Liberated Haggadah" argues that scholars have deconstructed most of the Exodus narrative, leaving modern Jews with a mere "myth" that is rich with symbolism and meaning, but not the gravity or authority of historical fact.

Even casual of participants in this new Seder are sure to notice that a big, big player is missing in this postmodern dinner drama.

Moses is still here and so is his sister, Miriam, along with a quiet character named Nahshon who may or may not have jumped into the Red Sea, which may or may not have parted to allow the Hebrews to escape. But the God of the Bible is gone.

"In early versions of the Haggadah," notes this text, "Moses makes only a passing appearance, and all of the credit for the escape goes to Moses' god Yahweh. Here, in this version we prefer to tell, Yahweh is the one who only gets a passing reference."

This is important, because many "secular" or "cultural" Jews are atheists and many are agnostics. Others, noted Schweitzer, believe in some form of divine power, but not in the kind of God who hears prayers and intervenes in human life.

Thus, traditional prayers are free to evolve into poems or meditations on "human empowerment." What was once an ancient story of divine liberation can become a story of human liberation to inspire all who suffer oppression and yearn for freedom.

"We want," the rabbi explained, "to say what we believe and to believe what we say. We think that people who do not believe should not have to use language in these rites that make it sound like they do, in fact, believe. ... Our goal is to live good, just, moral lives and we believe that we have the power to do that on our own."