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January 20, 2006Joan Chittister: From Where I Stand
Vol. 3, No. 29

 One if by land, two if by sea
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward), a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

I got a photograph this week that does as much to explain what we're reading in the newspapers these days as any article I've ever read.

I have a friend who roams the world with a camera in her hand, but not to take pictures of ruins and tourist traps. Instead, she tries to capture the sounds and sights and smells and spiritual fabric of a place.

This year she went to Syria. One of the pictures she brought back, I'll remember all my life.

It's not a picture of the ruins of Palmyra. It is a picture of a perfectly ordered, highly colorful shop display window. The top half of the photo is four rows of bras, nine deep. Every color, every pattern, every shape.

The bottom half of the picture is five rows of mannequin heads displaying Muslim head scarves. Every color, every pattern, every shape.

The photo is a study in contemporary cultural tensions. By Muslim standards, it shows us total indecency and total decency at the same time. Total exposure and total concealment at the same time. Religion and secularism at the same time. Culture and social cleavage at the same time.

Don't be surprised. These are not the only people with the problem. In fact, we're struggling with a touch of it ourselves these days.

This morning's headlines, in fact, brought a little good news, a little bad news; a little touch of the past, a little touch of the future; a little touch of risk, a little touch of the reactionary.

First, The New York Times confirms the fact that Rome -- the Vatican -- is perhaps signaling that it has made peace with Darwinian evolution. I could almost hear the world breathe a sigh of relief. Finally, a refreshing story about the church at peace with the modern world. If Darwin counts as the modern world, that is.

Nevertheless, L'Osservatore Romano , the official newspaper of Vatican City -- and not one inclined to print anything not formally approved by the Vatican -- carries an article in its Jan. 16-17 edition in which Fiorenzo Facchini, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Bologna, declares "correct" the decision of a judge in Pennsylvania, to bar the teaching of "intelligent design" in high school science classes as an alternative to evolution.

The implications of the position, for both the church and science, is significant. After all, God is not "scientific" either. God cannot be seen, weighed, measured, tested or proven. That does not mean either that God does not exist or that science is wrong about the universe. It means only that some things can be subjected to precise scientific observation -- and some things, like faith or love or disappointment or God, for instance -- cannot.

Put it this way: Would there be this much debate and consternation about the admixture of the two if there were a move to insist that Christian Science be taught as an alternative to medicine in modern medical schools? See what I mean?

Faith is one thing; science is another. This article out of L'Osservatore Romano respects both their existence and their line of demarcation.

On the other hand, another headline, this time an Associated Press story carried by CNN, calls our attention to another situation, at least as disturbing and possibly more so than the question of whether or not "intelligent design" is really scientific theory or religious dogma.

This story tells us of an alumni group that is offering students up to $100 per class to supply tapes and notes exposing professors who allegedly express extreme left-wing political views at the University of California, Los Angeles. The article goes on to tell us, "The year-old Bruin Alumni Association says it is concerned about professors who use lecture time to press positions against President Bush, the military and multinational corporations, among other things."

"Extreme left wing," it seems, is anything or anyone who criticizes the present administration or political policies of the United States. "Extreme left wing," in other words, is democracy.

I have dim memories of this kind of tactic. Children in Nazi Germany, children in Communist China, were trained to report parents who talked at their supper tables about the deficiencies of the then-regime. Teachers were removed from classrooms, preachers were removed from pulpits, political figures were removed from office for such things. Some of them went all the way to a firing squad, we're told.

In this country, as well, in the 1950s, as a result of Senator Joe McCarthy's rabid right-mindedness and political paranoia, people who thought differently than he did, most of them Hollywood stars who had become outspoken about U.S. foreign policy at the time, lost jobs, were blacklisted, found themselves ostracized everywhere.

I thought we fought a war to stop such things.

From where I stand, it looks as if we might be flirting with mind control, political suppression and witch hunts, both religious and secular, all over again. And this time, note well, the president of this alumni organization is a graduate of UCLA class of 2003. This could well signal, in other words, a flaming new generation of intellectual autocrats. One if by land, two if by sea. ... Think about it.

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