Flipping through the memoirs of the late foreign correspondent Edward Behr reveals the media crush with popes was once a little more intimate. Behr describes a memorable moment when a photographer colleague, George Menager, covered Pope Paul VI’s 1969 visit to the Holy Land. Because of the complexities of crowd control, the pope and Menager, Behr recalled, found themselves “isolated from the crowd and the rest of the press corps, (and) eyed each other warily. Finally, the pope said, in his fluent but heavily accented French, ‘What an interesting life you must lead.” Menager stared back and grunted, ‘You haven’t done so badly yourself.’
For those of us who came of age when liberation theology was in the air-in my case, during reporting trips to Latin America, Asia and Africa in the 1980s, followed by time at Union Theological Seminary in the early 1990s-it’s been startling to see all of the coverage of a theological trend that was supposed to be a spent force and a throwback to an earlier era. I’m referring, of course, to all of the attention paid in the last few weeks to liberation theology, particularly to black liberation theology, in the wake of the Jeremiah Wright controversy. Kelefa Sanneh had a good piece in last week’s New Yorker magazine that put the brouhaha in much-needed context. I particularly liked Sanneh’s handling of what he called the central “paradox at the heart of black Christianity: the new religion of enslaved Africans was also the old religion of the American enslavers.” Sanneh pointed out that even so a revered a figure (today) as Frederick Douglass said there was the “widest possible difference” between what Douglass called “the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ.”
New Yorkers were shell-shocked this week about the sudden political downfall (and planned resignation) of our governor, Eliot Spitzer, from his involvement in a prostitution ring scandal. There’s probably not much to add to a story about a public figure whose fall from power was so startling because it was so sudden and so unexpected. However, it will be interesting to see if those preaching from the pulpits in New York’s churches and synagogues this weekend deal explicitly with the week’s news. My bet: at least one minister or rabbi will evoke the theme of hubris and quote the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Though Niebuhr’s warnings of pride were often more directed at collective sin than individual failings, at least one of the famous quotes attributed to Niebuhr seems appropriate here: “All human sin seems so much worse in its consequences than in its intentions.”
Interviewing the annual winner of the Templeton Prize-the prize for advances in science and religion awarded annually by the John Templeton Foundation-is always something of a yearly assignment highlight for an RNS reporter: the prize winners are invariably interesting and stimulating interview subjects. They’re also often a little shell-shocked at winning what is touted as the largest yearly monetary award given to a single individual-in this case, $1.6 million, an amount that exceeds the prize money for the Nobel Peace Prize. But the 2008 winner, Michael (Michal) Heller, a Polish Roman Catholic priest and cosmologist, seemed to be taking the prospect of winning such a large monetary prize in stride when I interviewed him this week. He told me his only real needs are books, and said his only shopping while in New York (for the Wednesday June 12 announcement at the Church Center for the United Nations) would be for a digital book reader. (Heller said he will donate the Templeton Prize money to help create a planned Copernicus Center that, in concert with Jagiellonian University and the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Cracow, will promote the burgeoning study of science and theology as an academic discipline.) Heller, a warm if shy man, sounded a bit exasperated at intellectuals who continue to separate scientific and religious worldviews.