The Scandal of Being a Christian, or in the words of the immortal Frank Sinatra….

The Scandal of Being a Christian, or in the words of the immortal Frank Sinatra…. April 12, 2011

[Barbara] Forrest spends several pages [in her 2011 Synthese article, pp. 370-373] discussing both my Christian faith as well as my published works critical of other religious traditions such as The Baha’i World Faith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism or LDS)…. [Because] I simply cannot respond to every unsupported, uncharitable, and unreasonable assertion she makes about my theological beliefs…[,]I will briefly address some of her claims about religious exclusivism as well as my writings on other faiths.

As a Christian, I believe that Christianity is true. And as a Catholic, I believe that Catholicism is the most authentic form of Christianity. But as I have written in my 2009 memoir on my personal journey from Evangelicalism to Catholicism… [Return to Rome: Confessions of An Evangelical Catholic], this does not diminish how other Christian traditions have shaped, and continue to shape, my spiritual and intellectual development….

Nevertheless, Forrest argues, that there is something epistemically suspect in believing that one’s worldview is correct and other worldviews mistaken… She chides me, a believing Christian, for believing that Christianity is true, and points out that I have in my published writings offered critical analyses of other religious traditions that I believe are mistaken. I am not sure what to make of this. After all, Forrest is a believing atheist, committed to philosophical naturalism and what it entails about the good, the true, and the beautiful… She maintains that her point of view is correct and other points of view are mistaken, including the point of view that theological claims may in fact consist of beliefs that the believer has adequate warrant to believe…. So, she, like the Christian, believes that she is correct about her beliefs. And she, like the Christian, believes that other points of view are mistaken. But then she is in precisely the same position as me: she thinks she is right and others wrong. Thus, on her own grounds, her critique of my work ought to be rejected as epistemically suspect, and I need not worry about it. But she should not worry either. For, as the immortal Frank Sinatra once put it, “That’s life”.

When Forrest submitted her article to Synthese in March 2009, the memoir of my personal pilgrimage had been in print for almost five months…. In that book I talk candidly about my writings on other faiths, including the two mentioned by Forrest, Baha’ism and Mormonism…. I confess in my memoir that over the years I have gained a more mature understanding of how best to engage in interreligious conversations. Thus, it is a real shame that Forrest did not consult that book. For if she had, she would have read these words:

I wound up publishing a revised version of [my M.A.] thesis as a book with Bethany House Publishers… Looking back I confess I was far too young (24 years old) to publish a book that offered a critical assessment of a world religion. I had not read as deeply or carefully as I should have—nor did I possess the charitable spirit a Christian ought to have when writing a polemical tome about another faith… (p. 51)

This interest in Mormon theology never waned. After earning my PhD at Fordham University in 1989, I published two books and several academic articles on LDS beliefs…What was especially gratifying about my second book on Mormonism [The New Mormon Challenge] was that it was taken seriously by LDS scholars, two of which wrote book jacket endorsements: Brigham Young University Professor Daniel Peterson and LDS philosopher Blake Ostler. I say all this because one of the lessons that I learned from the examples set by both my parents and [my friend] Dan Green is that when you disagree with another person you must not forget that that individual is still entitled to both your respect as well as your Christian charity. This is why I have always tried my best to offer my criticisms of LDS thought in measured tones rather than with inflammatory rhetoric, which, sadly, is not atypical in some quarters of Christianity….(p. 44)

In 1998 I made the mistake of contributing a chapter to a book called The Counterfeit Gospel of Mormonism…. Although I stand by the content of my chapter, which dealt with the nature of God in Mormonism and classical Christian theism, the book’s title and cover (which featured models posing as a very white looking LDS family), as well as the way the publisher marketed the work, were an embarrassment to me. For they were inconsistent with the way I had chosen to conduct myself as a Christian academic. Thankfully, the book is now out of print. And given its publisher’s penchant to distribute hysterically bad anti-Catholic tomes, I doubt that my now-Catholic contribution would be welcomed if a reprint or revised edition were in the offing….

If Forrest had conducted her inquiry while equipped with the principle of charity, she would have encountered a real person, and not the one-dimensional caricature of me that she constructs in her article, and that I do not recognize. She avoids, for example, my 2007 essay [in First Things online] in which I chide traditional Christians who could not support the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney because he is a Mormon…This resulted in an LDS scholar inviting me to participate in a [2007] conference at Princeton University on Mormonism and American Politics…. The paper I presented there will appear in a festschrift published in honor of Mormon philosopher, David Lamont Paulsen…. I was invited by one of David’s students to contribute to this volume. Although David and I had a dust-up in 1991 over a paper of mine that had been rejected from a Society of Christian Philosophers’ meeting at Brigham Young University (which Forrest bizarrely mentions in her paper…), we have long since reconciled, as my contribution to his festschrift clearly shows. My relationship with David, extending over two decades, is the consequence of our faiths, though in sharp theological disagreement on several points, both supporting and nourishing a shared understanding of the other person as an intrinsically valuable child of God and thus an appropriate subject of mutual charity.

Although this is just one story, it is illustrative of the sort of internal struggles that I have gone through during my life as a Christian philosopher. I suspect that many others also strive to balance an uncompromising devotion to Christ while at the same time respectfully extending the hand of friendship to those who do not share their beliefs. I seem to be better at it now than I was 25 years ago, though I am not even close to being fully conformed to the image of the One I serve. And for that reason, I am still a work in progress.

(The above was excerpted from Francis J. Beckwith, “Or We Can Be Philosophers: A Response to Barbara Forrest,” Synthese [2011])

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