By David P. Gushee
I am grateful to the editors of Associated Baptist Press for holding a place for me while I took a break from opinion writing this summer.
Perhaps I will get broken in again by simply offering a series of reflections on impressions gained from a summer away. These three months have found me in South Africa, in Fort Worth for CBF, England and Israel, not to mention one week being browned to a crisp at Myrtle Beach.
South Africa. In late May I embarked on a second two-week stint in Cape Town with the study-abroad program organized for Carson Newman students by Dr. David Crutchley. We served in the poor townships of Cape Town, studied African spirituality and great moral leaders, and toured this amazing First World/Third World city, perched on the southwestern tip of Africa.
It remains deeply inspiring to me that South Africa avoided a racial bloodbath in the transition from white minority rule to a true multi-racial democracy. Much credit for that peaceful transition goes to Nelson Mandela, who remains revered in South Africa as the sun sets on his extraordinary life.
But the terrible poverty in the poorest black and “colored” townships of Cape Town, juxtaposed against the affluence of the white neighborhoods, is disastrous. The ANC-led government seems unable to make serious progress in lifting the poorest out of poverty, and most news headlines about that government focus on various scandals associated with its leaders. It is dispiriting. I am grateful for the many Christian and secular NGO’s seeking to serve the poor in Cape Town, but there is work that only government can do, and it is not getting done.
CBF Fort Worth. In June, I joined the throngs in blistering Fort Worth for the final CBF General Assembly of the Daniel Vestal era. I had a delightful time speaking to the chaplains and pastoral counselors as well as the Baptist Peace Fellowship. It was great to hear Daniel cut loose from the pulpit in his rousing last sermon for CBF, which focused on the glory of God. As I listened, I wondered whether there are preachers like that in our future. Are we nourishing preachers of that quality, of that unabashed biblical conviction and spiritual passion? I hope so.
England. I was invited to participate in a conference at Oxford University called “Understanding Human Dignity,” sponsored by Oxford and by Catholic and Anglican authorities in the UK. The 50 invitees were judges, lawyers, philosophers, ethicists and theologians from Britain, the U.S., Europe, South Africa and Israel. The overall purpose of the event was to discuss the role that “human dignity” language has come to play in current law, philosophy and theology. I presented a summary of themes from my forthcoming book on the sacredness of human life.
My primary impression of this conference at a substantive level was that human dignity has come to play a powerful role, especially in law—in many jurisdictions you can go to jail for violating someone’s human dignity—but that our pluralistic societies really cannot clarify any particular foundation for why human dignity matters so much. My own argument was that “human dignity” is a half-secularized way of saying what would once have been described as “God-given sacred worth.” But religious arguments such as this one did not gain ready acceptance among the secular scholars present at the conference.
This led to a fresh appreciation of the difference in context between the U.S. and Europe, and maybe a different set of responsibilities for Christian scholars in each place: here in the U.S., the issue tends to be which version of (mainly Christian) religiosity one brings into the public arena; there the question is whether any space remains at all for any religiously inflected claims to be brought into public discourse.
Israel. Fellow ABP colleagues Molly Marshall and Rob Nash have already commented in this space on the extraordinarily rich, two-week experience we all enjoyed studying Tanakh and Talmud with the scholars of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. We also attended worship at a Modern-Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem, sharing “home hospitality” Shabbat dinners with families afterward. We went to Tel Aviv and met the leaders of an artful seeker Judaism attracting hundreds every Shabbat. And we had searching, honest discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian situation.
Confining my comments to religion this time, my main impression is that Judaism in Israel is developing in ways very different from the more liberal mainline-type Judaism that Christians mainly encounter here in the United States. I was most attracted to the Modern-Orthodox wing of contemporary Judaism, which is neither the backward-looking ultra-fundamentalism of Judaism’s religious right nor the liberal Judaism that has capitulated to Enlightenment rationalism and secular culture. This Modern-Orthodox Judaism appears to be where the really creative intellectual and spiritual energy is in contemporary Israeli Judaism, with the capacity to attract believers from the “right” who want more contemporary religion and people from the “left” who want (more substantive) religion.
I wonder if any parallels can be drawn to our Christian situation. I kind of think so.