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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Chicken Soup For the VC Soul

The other day Eugene Volokh had a post discussing news coverage of the President's recent speech at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast.  A typical passage -- this one from the Washington Post -- ran: "Casting his appeal in religious terms, Bush said, 'We must meet our moral obligation to treat newcomers with decency and show compassion to the vulnerable and exploited, because we're called to answer both the demands of justice and the call for mercy.'"  Volokh asked:  "Is it really quite accurate to describe this as 'us[ing] religious terms'? I would think that nonreligious people would rightly bristle at the implication [that] 'moral,' 'decency,' 'compassion,' 'justice,' or 'mercy' are inherently 'religious terms.'"

Today Eugene writes about the Vatican's issuance of a document discussing "Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road," which, among other, more stereotypically "religious" issues, such as the pastoral care of street children, addressess, yes, questions such as road and highway safety.  Eugene suggests that this seems "a little more mundane than I'd expect," although he adds, "[M]aybe I'm taking too narrow a view of the role of the spiritual in daily life."

I don't mean to pick on Eugene.  Of course the President's remarks would seem unremarkable if uttered by a non-religious person, so that the reporters' description seems forced.  And of course no one expects the Vatican to address road safety at length.  (Of course, that may be why it did so!  Remember, surprise is among its chief weapons.)  So I get what he's saying.  But it seems to me that he may indeed be taking too narrow a view of the role of the spiritual in daily life.  It is entirely accurate (although, as I'll suggest in a moment, somewhat misleading) to describe the President as having used religious terms in his speech, and terms such as "moral," "compassion," and "mercy" are inherently religious terms.  For that matter, in a world in which everything is imbued with God's presence, if you see it that way -- and I think both the President and the Vatican do -- matters such as "road safety" are also inherently religious!  In a sense, whether something, or everything, is "mundane" or "inherently religious" depends on your perspective, and I take it that to the Vatican very little is mundane -- not even road safety.

Again, I'm not trying to pick a fight with Eugene.  I get what he's saying, and of course there's something to it.  (Although I think his point about the Prayer Breakfast coverage could be restated more accurately: the words the President used are inherently religious; they're just not exclusively or uniquely religous.)  I just think his two posts are complementary, in ways I wasn't sure he recognized.  They rather put me in mind of these lines from Franny and Zooey, which, as a recipient of many a bowl of holy chicken soup, I have always loved:

"If it's the religious life you want, you ought to know right now that you're missing out on every single goddam religious action that's going on around this house. You don't even have sense enough to drink when somebody brings you a cup of consecrated chicken soup—which is the only kind of chicken soup Bessie ever brings to anybody around this madhouse."

Posted by Paul Horwitz on June 19, 2007 at 10:55 PM in Religion | Permalink


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I think you need to distinguish between a term being religious and a thing being religious. Maybe even roads can be inherently religious, if we think God cares about them, but that doesn't make "road" an inherently religious term, even to someone who thinks God matters to everything.

Posted by: Chris | Jun 20, 2007 3:48:34 PM

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