by Ramazan Kılınç, guest contributor
Halki Monastery and Seminary (photo by ©Nectarios Eben Trevino/Flickr)
In a recent New York Times article Susanne Güsten described the difficulties that Syriac Christians faced throughout the history of Republican Turkey. This story reflects the traumatic consequences of the nation-building process that modern Turkey has experienced since the 1920s and 1930s. The Turkish official national identity was based on the ideology of Kemalism, which idealized a homogenous society defined by secularism and nationalism. This ideal, which has been alien to diversity, made life very difficult for ethnic and religious minorities.
Turkish secularism, in contrast to the American experience of secularism that separated religion and the state, excluded religion from the public sphere and aimed to keep it under state control. In an aim to distance itself from the Ottoman Muslim past, the state took a hostile position against religion. It banned organizing around religion. Even today, all religious associations, including Muslim ones, do not exist legally. Related to this, the state does not allow religious education outside of the state domain. The state itself took the responsibility to teach a Hanefi/Sunni interpretation of Islam. The motive of the “secular” state was to institute an “official Islam.” Only a limited number of non-Muslims, excluding Syriacs, were given the right to open religious schools.
Turkish nationalism perceived ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, as a threat to the ideal of a homogeneous Turkish nation. In the early years of the Republic, Turkey and Greece had large-scale population exchanges in an effort to homogenize their respective societies. Turkish Muslims in Western Thrace moved to Turkey while Greek Christians in Istanbul moved to Greece. In later years when nationalism peaked, the status of minorities including Christians worsened. For example, in the late 1960s, when Turkey had international problems with Greece over the Cyprus conflict, the state expropriated land and properties owned by Christian community foundations by using simple legal technicalities. Again when Turkey had problems with Greece, Turkey closed down the historical Theological School of Halki, which was opened to train Greek Orthodox clergy under Ottoman rule in 1844. Additionally, due mostly to the nationalist security perceptions of the state, religious minorities faced restrictions in opening up spaces for religious practice.
Only after Turkish secularism and nationalism started to weaken in recent years, the Turkish government implemented new reforms enhancing the religious freedoms of Christian minorities in Turkey. Although many significant problems still exist, the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party has passed several laws to enhance religious liberties for minorities over the last decade. The state passed new laws to return all expropriated properties to non-Muslim community foundations or to compensate the community foundations for properties transferred to third parties. The new laws made it easy to open houses of worship even though some local authorities still keep creating bureaucratic hurdles for non-Muslim minorities.
However, the recent reforms are far from satisfactory. They have not yet offered a solution to many problems that Christian minorities face. Religious communities still do not exist legally and they cannot establish religion-based associations and organizations. Similarly, religious groups cannot open educational institutions to teach religion. The Theological School of Halki, for example, is still closed.
The only comprehensive solution to these problems is to redefine Turkish secularism to make it more inclusive. Secularism in its current form is used as an ideological tool to guarantee state control of religion. For religious freedoms to thrive, Turkish secularism should be transformed into a constitutional principle that guarantees religious freedoms while keeping religion out of the control of the state. This change will prevent the state from intervening in the internal affairs of religious communities including Christian minorities. A change that allows an autonomous sphere to religious minorities would also bring them legal guarantees. While it is true that the current government in Turkey is more tolerant of Christian minorities than its predecessors, Turkey still needs a legal framework that protects the freedoms of Christian minorities. Only a transformation of Turkish secularism could make such a legal framework possible.
Ramazan Kılınç is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.Comments
by Jared Vázquez, guest contributor
At Wallingford United Methodist Church in Seattle, Washington, the pastor invites everyone to the communion table on Easter Sunday. (photo: © Michael Spencer/Flickr)
I admit that I was taken by surprise when I saw this tweet summarizing theologian and biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann as saying that theological conversations about homosexuality are futile. As I have read some of Mr. Brueggemann’s writing and have a great deal of respect for him and his prophetic calls to justice, I promptly went about listening to the interview in question:
"I’ve asked myself, ‘Why in the church does the question of gays and lesbians have such adrenaline.’ And I’ve decided, for myself, that that means most of what we’re arguing about with gays and lesbians has nothing to do with gays and lesbians. It is, rather, that the world is not the way we thought it was going to be. There have always been gays and lesbians; we’d have to acknowledge them.
It’s not fashionable any more to protest pushy blacks. It’s not fashionable to protest pushy women. Those battles are lost, or won. But you can still have great moral indignation around gays and lesbians.
And so I think what has happened is that we’ve taken all of our anxiety about the old world disappearing and we’ve dumped it all on that issue. So, I have concluded that it’s almost futile to have the theological argument about gays and lesbians any more because that’s not what the argument is about.”
You see, I’m a seminary student, and I’m gay. This, for me, has meant that all of my academic work has surrounded the need for dialogue regarding this very issue. In most denominations there remain deep divisions on issues about whether or not gays should be ordained, whether they should be allowed to marry, or whether they are even welcome in churches.
I took Mr. Brueggemann to mean that such conversations are futile in that issues like homosexuality should be a non-issue — that churches should be able to move past this issue. However, this position ignores the cry of gay people for justice that remains unrealized in many places. As long as theology and biblical scripture are used to marginalize gay people (or anyone for that matter), the conversation is anything but futile! Churches can’t move past this issue because it is still an issue.
Walter Brueggemann has an advantage that I as a gay man do not have; he does not live with the very real threat of homophobia. Enjoying one of the highest places of privilege in our society (straight, white, and male), he has the luxury of being unaffected. He will likely never be hollered at from across the way with insults about whom he shares his bed with. To not have a conversation about the theological basis for the hate that many Christians direct at gay persons ignores our oppression at the hands of those Christians.
But why take the time to dialogue with those who believe my lifestyle is wrong? Because I believe that conversation matters. It is true that there may always be those who are uninterested in conversation. They desire shouting matches that rarely prove anything aside from who can shout the loudest. Still, I believe that most everyone can be drawn into dialogue that does not aim to convert, but rather to foster understanding of one another.
In Truth and Method, German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote that the most important thing in human relationships is to experience the other in a way that allows them to really speak to us. In this kind of communication, says Gadamer, we do not merely listen and then leave unaffected. Rather, we are changed by way of this experience with another individual.
For this kind of change to occur, for us to be affected by another, we must be open to accepting something from them. I believe that the simple act of pausing in order to have such a dialogue demonstrates an openness to this relational experience that is already present; though it may be deeply hidden.
For those who stand with the oppressed, who seek to bring about justice, taking advantage of that pause, and engaging in dialogue, is essential if justice is to be realized. The challenge is that we must also be willing to be affected by that other individual. For those of us who have experienced blatant hate, this is a scary thought because it asks us to remain vulnerable in front of those we may perceive as enemies. Yet, that openness is what I find so valuable in dialogue. It teaches us to coexist, hopefully in peace.
Let me use metaphor familiar to Christians. The communion table is a place where the church gathers and there represents the community of Christ. Though Christians hold differing ideas about what happens at communion, a common understanding is that in that sacrament there is a deep — even mystical — connection to each other and the divine. It represents the highest form of community for Christians.
Can that image not translate to dialogue, even a theological one, whose aim is to bring about understanding of the marginalized and thus promote justice? Can churches create spaces of communion in which theological conversations about homosexuality are not futile, but are instead catalysts for social justice? Can these conversations lead us to a deep connection to one another and even to the sacred?
I think so. More than that, I think that is precisely what we are called to do.
Jared Vázquez is a third-year Masters of Divinity student at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Jared’s research interests lie in embodiment, identity, and intersectionality. He plans to pursue a Ph.D. in social ethics with focus on latina/o queer experience. Most recently Jared has been accepted to the 2011 class of the HRC’s Summer Institute for Religion and Theology.
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by Debra Dean Murphy, guest contributor
I didn’t get up at 4 a.m. today, but I do hope to catch a good bit of the wedding of William Windsor and Kate Middleton. I doubt I’ll have much trouble finding it replayed (and replayed and replayed) across the spectrum of cable and broadcast networks in the days and weeks to come.
Amid all the hype about the ceremony is a deep undercurrent of cynicism about these kinds of affairs, some of it rooted in the love/hate relationship Americans have always had with the British monarchy. We’re both drawn to and baffled by it — envious, perhaps, of its rich, centuries-long tradition, yet bewildered by the rigid and often humorless deference to protocol borne of that same tradition. (And then there are those who are downright hostile to the institution, extolling the American colonists who “fought a bloody war for the privilege to ignore the king of England”).
Many Americans will view the ceremony in Westminster Abbey with sensibilities shaped by a decade of reality TV’s take on matrimony: the bride as cutthroat competitor in a harem of beauties (The Bachelor), obscenely conspicuous consumption (Say Yes to the Dress), and “Wow, honey,” — as the veil is lifted — ”nice nose job!” (Bridalplasty).
Undergirding each of these “realities” is the notion of marriage as the culmination of a fairytale relationship — not the beginning, mind you, of a journey of discovery and friendship with its inevitable bumps in the road (more like sinkholes and craters) — but a consummate, bank-breaking spectacle staged primarily for the benefit of envious onlookers. No wonder we’re cynical.
But one thing that makes me more hopeful than cynical about this royal wedding is that the third person on the altar along with William and Kate, the one who married the nervous couple in view of the whole world, is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
I have admired Williams since I first encountered his writings in seminary in the late 1980s when he was the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford University. The depth and breadth of his scholarship has always been staggeringly impressive. Whether writing on the Resurrection or Arianism or 9/11 or Dostoevsky, Williams — whose work is rooted in his vocation as priest — is an erudite, eloquent, humble, hopeful, generous communicator of the Christian gospel.
That he became the head of the worldwide Anglican communion in this age of soundbytes and short attention spans is lamentable — for him, perhaps, but especially for the rest of us. His careful, thoughtful way with words, the patience with which he engages his many and varied interlocutors, the long view he takes of the Church’s work in the world — none of this has endeared him to a skeptical, secular Britain nor to an Anglican Church ever on the edge of schism.
But Williams presses on with characteristic humility to illumine the issues that confront global Christianity. And with quiet authority he takes on matters of the human heart, human sexuality, and human community: fidelity in relationships, the risks of manipulation that attend all our relationships, and the grace necessary to sustain relationships like marriage for the long haul.
His writing is often at once mystical and deeply pragmatic, simultaneously acknowledging the mystery at the center of human sexuality and the mundane attentiveness required to persevere — and flourish — with another. In a sermon entitled “Is There a Christian Sexual Ethic?” Williams writes:
"The grace that is to be discovered in nakedness, in yielding, is released to be itself when we give up the self-protecting strategies of non-commitment, experiment, and gratification, and decide instead for the danger of promising to be there for another without a saving clause that would license us to abandon the enterprise as soon as the other declines to be possessed unilaterally by us, as soon as the other’s otherness gives us difficulty. In such a perspective, we have time for each other. A commitment without limits being set in advance says that we have (potentially) a lifetime to “create” each other together. By giving ourselves over to each other, we make something of each other."
In a video prepared by Lambeth Palace in anticipation of the royal wedding, Williams talks about the “mystery” and “delight” at the heart of marriage, and that ”to be a witness [to a wedding] is to be more than a spectator.”
For cynics, this might seem like a slick media strategy designed to bring more attention to an event already wildly overhyped. But Williams locates this event (and every wedding) theologically as a “moment of hope and affirmation about people’s present and future” and he counts it a privilege to “wish [William and Kate] the courage and clarity to live out this big commitment.”
So, yes, there will be plenty of commercial excesses in today’s televised nuptials — lots of gossip about guests and gowns, lots of sarcasm and cynicism about the futures of the future king and queen. But maybe there will also be room for a moment of quiet gratitude for the gift of witnessing, with a few other billion people, the “commitments that are possible,” as Williams says, when two people take each other for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until they are parted by death.
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
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by Paul C. DeCamp, guest contributor
If you ban it, they will read it. That seems to be true thus far in the case of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s 2007 book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops suggested should be banned from Catholic schools in a statement on March 24.
By April 1, after national media coverage of the USCCB statement, the book was in the top 100 of the Amazon.com Religion & Spirituality Bestsellers list at #39, not far from the works of popular spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle, an impressive feat for an academic theologian.
Johnson has been respected for her work in Catholic theology especially because of her engagement with feminism, which was the subject of her now classic She Who Is, a 1993 book that sought to rediscover the “feminine God” in the Christian tradition. When asked for comment, prominent Catholic theologian David Tracy said that, while he had not yet read this book of Johnson’s, “…this much is clear to me: based on her previous work, I consider Elizabeth Johnson one of the most original and impressive theologians of our period. The range and depth of her published work is a model for contemporary Catholic theology.”
This particular work of Johnson’s explores the diversity of current thought in the theology of God, and as the subtitle indicates, maps “frontiers” in areas such as liberation, womanist, black, and political theologies, areas that have been the subject of great controversies within the Catholic Church.
The Conference said that while it did not have the authority to order the removal of the book from Catholic institutions (only the Vatican could do that), it wanted to draw attention to certain “misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors” of Catholic doctrine in the book. Among these were assertions by Johnson that all names for God are metaphors, that God is continually suffering, and that all religions bear some presence of God. Because the book was “by a prominent Catholic theologian” and “written not for specialists in theology but for a ‘broad audience’,” the Conference believed it was necessary to make the public aware of its problems.
Boston College theologian Stephen J. Pope, speaking to The New York Times, said, “The reason is political. Certain bishops decide that they want to punish some theologians, and this is one way they do that. There’s nothing particularly unusual in her book as far as theology goes. It’s making an example of someone who’s prominent.”
The American bishops are continually drawing lines in the sand. Restrictions had been placed on politicians, such as the refusal of several bishops to allow John Kerry to take communion during the 2004 presidential election. The bishop of the Archdiocese of Wilmington stated that he would not permit Vice President Joe Biden to speak in Catholic schools. And now the Conference suggests that certain books should be kept from Catholic classrooms. The Conference has proven itself to be an organization that does not tolerate change or ambiguity, and Johnson’s work confronts both.
While the Conference claims to be interested in dialogue with Johnson, she indicated in a statement that no such invitations had been extended. She said in this statement, “I have always taken criticism as a valuable opportunity to delve more deeply into a subject. The task of theology, classically defined as ‘faith seeking understanding,’ calls for theologians to wrestle with mystery. The issues are always complex, especially on frontiers where the church’s living tradition is growing.”
While the USCCB’s statement may be interpreted as a move against conversation and debate among the divided American Catholics, the stir over Johnson’s book can serve to promote more open dialogue in Catholic circles. American Catholics, after all, are a group that continues to support politicians whom they are told not to vote for and to consume books that have been deemed dangerous for them to read.
Paul C. DeCamp is an M.A. student at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from Lafayette College.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
by Jan Phillips, guest contributor
Young girls dressed in white symbolizing purity shower flowers and rose petals before the passing of the Holy Host carried in solemnity by the parish priest. (photo: Peter Grima/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)
At an early age, I learned that God was a being who dwelled in a place far from where I ever stood. I learned to commune with the transcendent God of the above, not the immanent divine within. But over the years, as I let go of childish thinking and took responsibility for my spiritual life, my perception of God changed dramatically. I am guided now not so much by teachings that were handed down to me, but by ideas that have risen up from within — a shift that began 30 years ago when I was a young postulant nun in a religious order taking my first theology class.
The Jesuit priest stood in front of the room and asked us what we believed about God. One postulant raised her hand, stood up, and said, “God made me to show His goodness and to share His everlasting life with me in heaven.” I nodded my head in agreement, having memorized this years ago just like everyone else in the room.
The priest looked dismayed. “That’s it?” he asked.
“Sit down,” he barked, looking around for the next hand.
Up it went, and the next brave soul stood up saying, “In God there are three divine persons, really distinct, and equal in all things — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
I nodded again, and the priest frowned. “Is that the best you can do?”
“Next,” he yelled, as she took her seat, looking around in wonder.
By now, we’re all confused, but one more raised her hand.
“God can do all things, and nothing is hard or impossible to Him.”
“Sit down,” he said.
He rolled his eyes, crossed his arms, and surveyed the whole group of us with a kind of silent disdain. By now, I’m feeling anxious and blood is rushing up my neck. I feel hot and sweaty. My first anxiety attack.
“How could he do this?” It seemed so mean. He asked for our ideas about God and yet, when we said them, it felt like he took a sledge hammer and smashed our beliefs into a thousand pieces. A tear rolled down my cheek.
It was a moment of devastating loss, incomprehensible sadness. I felt as if everything I believed in, everything on which I had based my life, was now being challenged. We sat there, 30 of us, for what seemed an eternity, reckoning with the obliteration of God as we had known Him. What if everything we believed wasn’t true? Did Father Grabys know something we didn’t know?
Finally the priest spoke. “You should be ashamed for having nothing more than catechism answers to this question. Are you just a bunch of parrots, repeating everything you’ve been taught? Hasn’t anyone here gone beyond the Baltimore Catechism in your thinking?”
The air was thick with silence. Hands were folded, eyes cast down. Tears cascaded down my face. I prayed he wouldn’t call on me.
“You must come to know what is true about God from your own experience,” said the priest. “If you are to be a nun worth your salt, you have to arrive at a faith that is deeper than your learning, one that is rooted in your ultimate concerns and rises up from the nature of who you are.”
I looked up at him, wondering how in the world to build a faith from my human nature. Wasn’t faith something I was born into — something I inherited from the outside?
I was a Catholic by default. They told me everything I was supposed to believe. That was the point, wasn’t it? I was just lucky to be born into the one true faith. I certainly didn’t have anything to say about it. That’s what infallible popes were for.
I raised my hand and asked him how someone could create a faith from the inside out, and why we even needed to since we knew what we needed to know from the catechism.
“What you believe, that is religion,” he said. “Who you are, what you live for — that is faith. And that is what we are here to explore, to create, and to declare — our faith and spirituality. You can let go of your beliefs for awhile as you learn how to create a faith that will see you through everything.”
I didn’t want to let go of any beliefs. They were all I had. And they were enough. I didn’t need anything more, or so I thought. As we continued on in the class, the biblical paradox that says we must lose our lives in order to find them suddenly began to make sense. Taking responsibility for our own spirituality was a painstaking process that lasted the entire semester as we worked to find and define our own commitments and ultimate concerns — a task that was supremely challenging for young women who had been taught all their lives what to think, but not how to think.
We never looked at another catechism, never recited another memorized belief, but step by step we built a new spirituality for ourselves that was deeply personal and rooted in our ultimate concerns. And every day during meditation there was something new and profoundly elegant to contemplate: myself as the creator of my own spiritual path.
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