22 June 2011

Open Letter to Gayle Trotter

by Frank Turk

Dear Gayle --

Well, long time no see. It has been not quite a year since I left Evangel at FirstThings.com, and we haven't interacted much since I did so. I hope this note finds you in good spirits, and well.

You've been quite busy since I left -- you've become sort of an interview maven, which is a skill and a style I admire. I've always been a fan of Charlie Rose, and even as a kid I was fascinated by Phil Donahue, who always seemed at least to find interesting people to talk to -- which I think is three-quarters of conducting a decent interview.

Now, that said, you have interviewed a lot of people this last year from all manner of backgrounds -- but most of them basically, sociologically Christian. I think you'd agree with that description, but you might add more to it -- I'll leave that to you. My point in bringing it up is that obviously your blogging has taken a turn to cover cultural Christianity in a very broad sense, which is an interesting approach for someone writing on a blog named "Evangel".

This of course, goes back to the reason I left the Evangel team back in August 2010, and we don't need to rehash that here. But the last interview you posted was something further down the road than I think you intend to go, and I wanted to bring it to your attention.

You interviewed Fr. Dr. Leo D. Lefebure, a Georgetown University professor of theology. As you know, he's a Catholic priest teaching at a Catholic university, and it should come as no surprise that he works or reasons inside a Catholic approach to his subject. It's sort of boldly-evident that Fr. Leo is a thinker inside the boundaries of Lumen Gentium and Vatican II in his approach to Buddhism -- and why not? FirstThings.com is, of course, a Catholic venue at its core in spite of its odd mix of conservatism and ecumenism (both terms which here could probably use some unpacking, but this is not that kind of blog post).

Now, I bring it up only for one reason: while there is something cosmopolitan and sort of civicly-gracious about examining Buddhism for things is it can "teach" to Christianity, there are a couple of things about that approach which, I think, you might have found unsettling and also might has asked Fr. Leo about.

The first is that Fr. Leo does some interesting things in examining the Old Testament. For example, he says that we can know that the faith of the Israelites was informed by other faiths because they have incorporated the writings of non-Jews in the canon of Scripture. That’s true enough in a superficial way -- it may be true from a Catholic perspective on Scripture and inscripturation. But let’s face it: this is not an evangelical view of what and from where Scripture comes. And you didn’t call him on it at all -- you didn’t ask him what he means by it. You simply accepted -- and from my desk, seemed to agree with - his theory that it was the pluralistic approach of the Jews which yielded the kind of Scripture they produced. It sort of runs up against the wall of all those places where that Jewish Scripture says the Lord YHVH said such-and-such -- and frankly,its an anti-supernatural approach to the origin of Scripture. To say the least, it stands against the dichotomy Paul presents in the book of Romans where he says that all men have no excuse before God due to general revelation in creation, but the Jews specifically were entrusted with the Scriptures as a special revelation.

Next, he looks for practical examples, but overlooks the kind of society Buddhism creates. This is the part that interests me about his approach because it is so uncritical for an approach which, frankly, takes itself at face value to be the crtical thinker’s way of sorting out what is and isn’t useful in religion. Fr. Leo’s approach is an old-fashioned comparative religion approach to Christianity: you can study Christianity if you want, but you can’t really “get it” until you have studied other religions and found all the ways in which it is really just like them. But this approach overlooks that Christianity created a civilization which, after all, became the dominant way of life for most of the planet, and produced a company of societies which were the most prosperous and most generally beneficial to the welfare of the common man.

This distinction is particularly obvious in comparison to Buddhism, if I may say so. Buddhism has a 5-century head-start on Christianity, and none of the suppressive influences against it from outside forces. Yet by the year 1000, Buddhism had not created a society where the kind of wisdom Fr. leo is talking about was being practiced on a practical level. Indeed, Buddhist views of wisdom are probably responsible for the deeply anti-material view of truth in Hinduism -- which, let’s face it, is diametrically opposed the the Christian view of wisdom and wisdom literature.

Finally, I think we have to wonder about his approach to Christ specifically -- given his answers to your questions. Is it really helpful to say that it is by learning from those who, as Fr. Leo is generous enough to point out, reject the idea of God as creator who has an active role in the day-to-day operation of His world how to live in it? Or even how to discern the differences between right and wrong? It seems to me that the world-changing themes of the Gospel, and the implications of the person of Christ, are what buried b y Fr. Leo (at least in this interview) for the sake of spelling out the superficial similarities between some conclusions both religions assert. But let’s face it: the point of Buddhism is not love, and the point of Christ is. The former is explicitly about giving up the illusion that any kind of satisfaction can be found in this world, ad the latter says explicitly that there are beautiful, good, and true things in this world which we can and must see as gifts from God -- and he redeems but us and them at least in part so that we can enjoy them.

Now: so what?

Here are a couple of things I think it is important to take away here, and I hope they are worth your further consideration.

I'm not against studying or considering the religious systems of others at all -- I think you can't really preach to people that you know nothing about. But I’m concerned that studying them with the a priori assumption that these systems are mostly just like our system is nor really generous toward those systems, and not fair to ours. I think this comes out in any discussion with a real Buddhist -- who would probably be the first to say that his system is nothing like ours, and his view of wisdom is nothing like ours. Even the ones who would say that we can agree on what wisdom is will, in 10 minutes of conversation, find themselves denying whole swaths of information which are necessary parts of the Christian faith and the Christian ideal of wisdom.

I'm also not against considering the merits of other ways of living. I think we have to be serious about whether we are true to our convictions or not, and the only way to do that at some point is to try to see ourselves as others see us. To do this, we have to know something about them and how they live.

But my concern is this: that the Christian is improved by considering something other than Christ. This is certainly Fr. Leo’s thrust in your interview with him, and it came across to me that you agree with him pretty broadly. Let’s assume for a minute that, for example, the Christian can be deeply and greatly moved by the act of the Janist monk sweeping the path in front of himself for the sake of mercy on the insects that may or may not be before him. That is: the attention to detail there, and the view that perhaps one does not know even what one may be doing by simply walking without a care toward the least or creatures beneath one’s feet, can be a moment in which many Christians find themselves questioning whether or not they are merciful people.

But think about this: is the Janist view of mercy really the Christian view? Does that act actually reflect the view of all things which requires Christ to be the centerpiece of aking sense of it? oes it even have an application outside of the practicioner’s commitment to that philosophy? No indeed: what happens instead is that the Christian, interpreting the act though his own lens (at whatever level of maturity he might be), must turn back to Christ to make sense of this activity, both for good and for the limits of such a thing.

And this, I think, was the key failing of the message of your interview with Fr. Leo: in spite of being at Evangel, it never really got back to the Evangel. Some others would go on about how this is what you get when you mix it up with Catholics and so on: I’m not interested in that polemical hoopla today. What I am interested in is your approach to interacting with a diverse world through the process of interviews and blogging because I think you’re a woman of good faith.

I think you believe in Christ, Gayle. I think you trust him. I think that, even after you put down a book like Fr. Leo’s book, you don’t want to be a person who puts off the whole world because it is still the place where God meets man, and where Christ saves people. What I am asking you to do as you continue your hobby of blogging is to see it as a vocation for the sake of Christ and not for the sake of some other multicultural endeavor. I am certain you believe that, in the final account, there will be people from every tribe, tongue, and nation in the presence of God, worshipping Him. But they will not be missing the center of attention, the one who is worthy of all that honor and priase, who is also the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

My hope is that your will take the seriousness your love of other people and pass it through that vision of Christ as you continue blogging. That is the true impact of the evangel on all things, and I know you want to see it come to pass.

So with that, I leave you in His name, and I hope in his good grace and great goodness.


Robert said...

Great letter, Frank. We can definitely learn to see some of our blind spots from people of other beliefs, but we must take those to Christ and let the Spirit work to convict us and walk us through sanctification to deal with them. We must also realize that the Buddhist, Hindu, etc. is in need of the Gospel, and if we aren't willing to deal with that, then we aren't showing love towards them. Again, I hope that your letter is taken to heart and that it has an effect.

DJP said...

"Evangel." < shakes head >

Why not rename ourselves "Magisterium," and just keep focusing on the Gospel, edges and all?

Robert said...


Don't you realize that all terms are subject to "evolution"? I mean a day in Genesis 1 isn't a day...a flood isn't really a flood...prophecy in the Bible isn't really the same as prophecy today. And if you look at many churches today, pastors aren't really the same as in the Bible, either.

I'd say that Frank has been a faithful evangelist in his letters and that in leaving "Evangel", he actually was being faithful to that word in the work he has been doing through his other blogging.

DJP said...

So maybe here's a better idea. Since evidently you can call a place "Evangel" and work against an edged evangel, maybe call this blog "Apostates" and try to work for the truth?

But nobody wants to take that name. Instead, the thing is to take good names and smudge them.

Steve Drake said...

Having spent some time in the past year and a half on the blog, firstthings.com/evangel, dialoging with others there, and reading Ms. Trotter's interviews, I can understand why Frank left. For the most part, my opinion only, it is Evangel in name only.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Occasionally, the blog Evangel puts up good posts like this one:

On God's Terms: The Gospel and Radical Exclusion

Robert said...

Your buddy Cameron Nations is actually taking on the question of what does the word evangelical mean...looks like words are evolving in meaning as we speak...

stratagem said...

It sounds like Fr. Leo is no lion.

It actually sounds like he is one of those whose underlying assumptions about the Scripture and Christianity are of the "holding to a form of Godliness but denying its power" sort. Hence, he goes about seeking ways to "legitimize" Christianity by relating it to world religions that are way, way cooler.

Did I get that about right?

Frank Turk said...

Cameron nations is redefining the term "evangelical"?


Frank Turk said...


he's just a Catholic priest. No need to get all whipped up about it -- this is such standard moderate Catholic stuff that I can't hardly get excited about it unless someone takes it for granted that it is not conflicting with evangelical premises.

stratagem said...

Frank - prolly so. But if that is "moderate" Catholic thinking, imagine what radical RCC thinking must be! And Catholics point to emerg***s as evidence that they aren't susceptible to pomo-ism!

Carrie said...

Just so your letter doesn't lose any force, you have a few typos in this paragraph:

But think about this: is the Janist view of mercy really the Christian view? Does that act actually reflect the view of all things which requires Christ to be the centerpiece of aking sense of it? oes it even have an application outside of the practicioner’s commitment to that philosophy?

Nothing to be ashamed of unless you were an English major.

Frank Turk said...

I blame my keyboard, which does that to me ll he ime.

Bill Honsberger said...

Its funny how people see what they want to see - especially when a prejudice forces them to NEED to see it.
E.g. The Janist is now sweeping the bugs in an act of kindness and mercy - which as the fellow implies ought to of course teach us of our need for mercy, blah blah blah.
Oops. The Janist are sweeping the bugs so that they do not invoke literally "weightier" karma, which will keep their jiva (sort of soul - closer to atman though) from achieving liberation from this illusory prison world by soaring literally above the universe not hindered by such terrible sins as eating and drinking. (note to admirers - the Jains only really get serious about this when they are old - or there would be no Jains!)
But I guess thats close to teaching us about our need for mercy...
This reminds me of Pinnock and others who desperately want to see fringe elements of the Gospel in other religions - and thereby pull anything they can out of its native context to make their larger point - regardless of how shamefully they have misconstrued the actual religious belief.

Cameron. said...

Just wanted to say I'm not redefining the term "evangelical." (I didn't know I had that kind of power!)

I don't want to be misrepresented here in the comment thread regarding a post that is addressed to someone else.

If you're interested in what I did say, you can go over to faithlineprotestants.org, read my entries, and then comment there.

Cameron. said...

Just re-read my last comment, and I want to apologize for it sounding so terse. It's going on 2AM here in the UK-- clearly past my bedtime.

Frank Turk said...


Your note here is, um, a little crazy.

[1] I did say this: "is the Janist view of mercy really the Christian view? Does that act actually reflect the view of all things which requires Christ to be the centerpiece of making sense of it?" So if you're trying to make the poit that one might be equivocating when one views the Janist, it's already said.

[2] Diving behind the Karma bus for cover doesn't really get you off the hook here in terms of being a little unfortunately-dim. If the janist is impelled to do as he does for the sake of "Karma", at the very least he's concerned with the matter of good works vs. bad works -- presenting causes which ought to create effects of a certain type. You can't hardly say that the Janist is doing something which, in his mind, is the same as running around squashing bugs i order to send them to their next incarnation: he's trying to do good to the creatures for the sake of causing good outcomes -- not the least of which would be for himself. That's not the Christian view of mercy, but it is one view of mercy -- and to say otherwise is just being contentious. They are the ultimate spiritualist anti-theists as they think they cause all their own good and ill in the cosmic sense, but they do believe that good begets good -- so the act of brushing bugs is an act of mercy to the bug for the purpose of causing good even at that small level.

[3] And I did typo "Jainist" in the whole post and here, so shame on me. I'll have to replace my keyboard because it is a source of bad karma.

Frank Turk said...

Cameron --

Thanks for stopping by. You do in fact redefine the term "evangelical" -- you did so in your open letter to me, and your on-going efforts to do so aren;t really all that surprising. What's surprising is the coyness you demonstrate when it comes up -- as if you're not trying to take the title away from the ones you think, let's face it, who are spoiling it.

You're a young guy, and you want to make a big splash in the world. I say go for it. But at least be clever enough to embrace the splash you are making. If you don't recognize what you're doing, I'll spell it out in my eventual open letter back to you, but think about this: Is Glenn Beck an evangelical? Why or why not?

You consider the answer to that, and we'll take it up another day.

BC said...

It's so odd that both the article and his Web page with C.V. don't mention that he is a priest. Since, he teaches theology this is peculiar. At first I didn't believe you, until I found his name on the Our Lady of Victory Parish Web site.

I don't think the idea that Buddhist can teach something about God comes from a right interpretation of Lumen Gentium. People of other faiths may have some of the truth, but Christ is the fullness of truth. So necessarily anything a Buddhist knows about God that is true, must already be known to those who know Christ.

Bill Honsberger said...

Well I have been called many things in my life, but dim has never been one of them. I will agree with the accusation of being contentious - that is a fairly regular charge thrown at me. I can live with it.
I wasn't saying you hadn't made the first point you refer to - I was supplementing it.
It terms of Karma- I don't believe you have the larger picture. Be it hindu or buddhist the teachers all say that karma is NOT about good or evil in any way. Certainly lay buddhists and hindu almost always talk that way - but the teachers understand that since in both religions what we perceive as reality is only an illusion or maya - then all activity in the illusion are not good or evil in any meaningful sense but rather equally empty acts. Most of the schools of thought enjoin their followers to eschew both good and evil - as commonly understood. Karma simply means action and in maya nothing has intrinsic or extrinsic moral value. The notion of good karma and bad karma is commonly taught here in the west, lest formerly Judeo-Christian folks get a clue as to the deeply anti-moral teachings of Hindu and Buddhist thought.
Buddhists have nothing to teach us about God. Thereveda's are formal atheists - Mahayana schools are also atheistic -sort of - but there are divine beings everywhere you look.
If this makes me contentious then ok. Mercy which denies the reality of the recipient of the act is not mercy at all - a lesson the Bhagavad Gita drives home repeatedly. The Sutras chime in the same way. Do not get hung up on perceived good or evil - none of it is really happening - and that includes alleged good such as mercy.

Frank Turk said...

Bill --

The Jainist view of Karma is distinct from the Buddhist and Hindu view of it, and their view is explicitly about cause and effect. More to it, they live by the 3 truths: Right faith, RIght knowledge, Right action.

And while the readers here are very interested in this sidetrack, it's not about the actual post.

Carry on.