Historian in demand


Appleby takes low-key approach to explosive religious issues
p. R. Scott Appleby recalls attending parochial school in the 1960s and being taught that if communist Russia attacked the United States and he were to die testifying to his Catholic faith, he would bypass purgatory and go directly to heaven. “I remember thinking maybe we should pray for this,” Appleby said humorously.p. Appleby tells the story to remind listeners that while martyrdom is no longer valorized in Christianity as it once was when warrior kings and soldier-saints did battle in the name of God, even today some Christian missionaries in dangerous parts of the globe risk death for their activities.p. Militance, said Appleby, is a religious norm. There are religious extremists who believe it their sacred duty to commit violence when necessary; there are dedicated peacemakers, also militants, who repudiate violence except in extreme circumstances. Both are driven by religion, which Appleby said is often oversimplified from what it is: a pre-moral force that can inspire both brutality and heroism. “Unfortunately, the numinous power of the sacred does not come accompanied by a moral compass,” Appleby observed.p. The ambiguous, often divisive role religion plays in the world today has become a major field of study for Appleby. A professor of history at the University of Notre Dame , Appleby is the coeditor, with Professor Martin Marty of the University of Chicago, of The Fundamentalism Project, a massive five-volume study of global fundamentalism, and, more recently, the author of a study of religious violence titled The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation. Published in 1999, the book seems prescient, even prophetic in a post-9/11 world. “Today a tiny minority of violent religious actors might command the attention of an entire nation and its security apparatus,” is one line that jumps out at the reader.p. Religious extremists who resort to violence testify to either “strong religion” or “weak religion,” noted Apple-by. The distinction is central to Appleby’s newest book, Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms Around the World, coauthored with Gabriel Abraham Almond and Emmanuel Sivan, and published in January of this year.p. Appleby sees the 9/11 hijackers — Islamists respond-ing to the marginalization of religion — as examples of “strong religion.” Fundamentalists know their faith, practice it, and assert its claims vigorously and aggressively against a culture they feel is undermining religion, he said. Exemplars of “weak religion” are ethno-religious nationalists. They use religion to add legitimacy to their cause and have sacralized a nationalism or conflict — the IRA in Northern Ireland and their opponents, the Ulster Protestants, provide one example. So do Croatian Catholics in the former Yugoslavia. Many of them carried rosaries in their pockets when they raped Bosnian Muslim women.p. Appleby defines a “weak” religion as one in which people retain only vestiges of a religious worldview while the meaning of those vestiges is shaped primarily by ethnic, nationalist, secular-liberal and other worldviews and ideologies. Appleby contends “weak religion” actually increases the likelihood of bloody ethno-religious conflict in crises. In the absence of spiritual guides and religious educators, cynical politicians can more easily manipulate and exploit the volatile prejudices and passions of a religiously illiterate population that feels itself victimized, erecting a sacred canopy over what is morally illegitimate, Appleby writes in The Ambivalence of the Sacred.p. A wanted man
p. Since 9/11, religious violence has become a hot topic in the United States. That coupled with the sex abuse scandal in the American Catholic church has made Appleby a wanted man. Until last year the director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, located at Notre Dame, and now head of the university’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, Appleby has become a highly sought-after expert on both religious extremism — “a potent and growing force,” he said — and the clerical sex abuse scandal within the Catholic church.p. A year and a half ago, he gave a special address at the highly publicized meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas where the U.S. bishops announced a new policy on sex abuse. Appleby’s straight talk to the bishops on how their own aloofness and arrogance had played into the crisis constituted unusually candid discourse for the generally opaque proceedings of the conference. Since then, he has come as close to becoming an academic celebrity as a mild-mannered Midwesterner can come, crisscrossing the nation to give talks on religious violence and fundamentalism as well as on the crisis in the Catholic church. He is frequently quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other publications. For the past year he has been averaging close to 30 media calls a day, he told NCR in an interview.p. “Ubiquitous” is the term Frank Corrado, communications director of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, applies to Appleby. In May, Appleby addressed the annual meeting of the federation, where he prepared a four-pound manuscript on the historical context of the sex abuse scandal for the nation’s Catholic priests. “He’s extremely well-respected,” said Fr. Robert Silva, president of the federation. “He is an incredible scholar and that makes him a very credible witness. And then he has courage, the courage of his faith that frees him to say what he says grounded in historical and social analysis. You see the skill, the tremendous ability to articulate an analysis of history unfolding.”p. Pleasant, professorial and cherubic-looking, Appleby seems unfazed by the journalistic limelight. A church historian who has written books about both the left and the right in the U.S. Catholic church (Being Right: Conservative Catholics in America and The Modernist Impulse in American Catholicism), Appleby explains his interest in such discrepant topics as fundamentalism and modernism as part of the same question he’s spent his scholarly life pursuing, that is, how does a person remain faithful to a religious tradition in the modern world, after the French Revolution, after the Industrial Revolution, after Freud and the Sexual Revolution have all had their impact?p. “The modern world is about change. Rapid change. Adaptation,” Appleby said. “In the modern age, conditions are fluid, ever evolving, and the importance of roots, time-honored traditions and the wisdom of the past — the values that religion trades in — rest uneasily with our modern sensibility.”p. Modernity’s effect in the church
p. Appleby views the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church as modernity catching up with a church that hasn’t educated its priests either in the reasons for its own traditions or in a modern understanding of sexuality. Seminaries should be doing a much better job of both, Appleby maintains. ?Here are Catholics priests trying to maintain a tradition that goes back at least to the 11th century and trying to valorize it and yet they did not have the training that would have allowed them to work through it. As a result, they didn’t always know the theology behind celibacy — why in fact celibacy was integrally tied to priesthood. If you ask 10 priests, 8 of them will not give you a persuasive accounting of it," Appleby said.p. “The question is not that they are not disciplined or not believing, it’s that the church in training them in the seminary stunningly didn’t sit down with them or have a course in which they said let’s really talk frankly about eroticism or sexuality and the challenge of celibacy. Instead, for a lot of complex reasons, including Victorian attitudes toward sexuality that were mostly cultural — attitudes that had little to do with religion — these bishops and priests were often unprepared for the impact of the sexual revolution.”p. Not surprisingly, it is Islam that dominates the discussions about religious violence, though religious violence is not confined to one particular religion or region.p. Appleby calls it ?a striking phenomenon of the 20th century and into the 21st that religion has been mobilized and technologized in the direction of violence."p. Still, it’s true, said Appleby, that religious violence has been rising in the Islamic world, beginning in the 1930s and 1940s and escalating since the 1960s. Today, Appleby said, the purpose of violence has changed from what it was in the 1970s and 1980s.p. “The notion then was revolution to overthrow particular regimes. The violence now is symbolic and expressive, shooting for demonstrative effects,” he said.p. The Sept. 11 attacks were an attempt by Osama bin Laden to awaken the majority of Muslims from their passivity and to demonstrate dramatically that there is a crisis within the Muslim world and that Muslims must take sides, Appleby said. Ironically, he added, President George W. Bush adopted the same stance when he issued his challenge to the world: “You’re either with us or against us.” The message of both leaders was the same: There is no middle ground.p. If today Islam produces more religious violence than any of the other great world religions, Appleby said that has much to do with the history and the circumstances it finds itself in today.p. “Islam has an orientation toward the world that can readily be channeled to society-building and the building of political culture. It’s taken on a violent cast because Islam has been suppressed and persecuted by the rulers of the countries where Islam is dominant,” Appleby said. “Islamic culture feels itself under siege.”p. Whether discussing fundamentalism, religious violence or the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic church, Appleby maintains a low-key approach to explosive issues, part of which accounts for his influence. Married with four children, he once thought of becoming a priest but said he didn’t have a call to celibacy. Despite what seems a remarkably diverse academic career, he contends he has maintained a consistent focus in his work.p. “I’m not comparing in any direct way modernism, fundamentalism, and the sex abuse crisis, but you can see each one of them as an expression of this larger question I’ve been discussing — that is, how do you stay faithful to the religious tradition in an age which we describe as modern, which means all sorts of things, which means skeptical, not given over to authority, fragmenting of community, agnostic in method,” he said.

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