Saturday, March 04, 2006

Will There be a Statue of "The Noid" in the Town Square?

As most of you have probably heard by now, the founder of the Domino's Pizza chain, Tom Monaghan, is spending $200 million of his own money to establish a Catholic town named Ave Maria near Naples, FL. A recent article notes that "the town will be centered around a 100ft tall oratory and the first Catholic university to be built in America for 40 years. The university's president, Nicholas J. Healy, has said future students should 'help rebuild the city of God' in a country suffering from 'catastrophic cultural collapse'... Sources close to the project said Monaghan was particularly disturbed by what he regards as the failure of western civilization to resist Islamic fundamentalism. In a speech to students last year Healy warned that Islam 'no longer faces a religiously dynamic West'." As abortions, pornography, and contraceptives will be banned within the city limits, "lawsuits appear inevitable once the new town begins functioning in 2007, but Monaghan believes he has more than the law on his side. 'I think it is God's will to do this,' he said."

I'm not quite sure what to make of Monaghan's plans, partly because the words "Domino's Pizza" and "conservative Catholicism" don't seem to belong in the same sentence. For me, Domino's Pizza always conjures up images of "The Noid", a menacing, demon-like creature that served as the company's mascot during the 1980's. Another problem is that I detest their pizza, and I hope that high-quality pizza will not be banned in Ave Maria along with condoms.

But more to the point, I can't help but feel that this whole project is profoundly wrong-headed. It reflects an urge to flee from the problems of the world, instead of engaging them - an attitude that has plagued Christianity throughout its history. How will one town of hard-core Catholics help rebuild America's collapsing culture, or stem the flow of radical Islam? Wouldn't these people better serve God in diverse communities, instead of retreating to a Catholic fantasy land of their own making? Monaghan seems to forget that the Church exists in the world and for the world, although it is never of the world.

Monaghan's plan represents an extreme example of a broader trend towards Christian isolationism. For many Christians today, "the culture" is view as the perpetual enemy, and the only way for them to protect themselves is to create a separate Christian culture, with its own music, books, movies, radio stations, etc. My recent reading of Tillich has convinced me that this strategy is foolish and ultimately destructive. As Tillich stressed time and again, Christians should never fear culture because culture is the form through which humanity's "ultimate concern" becomes manifest, and "every cultural act is therefore implicitly religious, even if not by intention. It is necessarily rooted in the unconditional meaning or ground of all meaning." Thus, Christians must always be attentive to culture because the question of God is never absent from even its most secular elements.

Tillich realized that "there is no place beside the divine, there is no possible atheism, there is no wall between the religious and the nonreligious. The holy embraces both itself and the secular." It seems to me that isolationist Christians forget that God has dominion in the secular realm as well, and that "He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." There is no need for humans to build a separate "city of God" because God's grace is already at work in all of our cities.


Dwight P. said...

Thanks for putting me on to this development. It's fascinating -- in a kind of my-god-what-next sort of way. (It's not quite so often that the reactionaries are so clear about their agenda, eh?)

In thinking about it, however, Thomas, I wonder whether Paul Tillich -- for all his brilliance and erudition (and, ala Kirby Puckett, disgraceful personal life) -- is the best guide to how to deal with it. I think that Tillich could be naive about the "City of man." For he shows inadequate concern that Satan is also vigorously at work there. (Cf. the temptations Jesus faced.) We may not just blithely accept the "facts" of culture as "facts on the ground." Liberal protestantism seems to adopt such a focus, as do the fundamentalists -- hence, both are constantly engaged in trying to transform culture. (I realize that Tillich opposed a kind of gnostic rejection of the world, but he seemed to be a little too eager to operate on the world's terms.)

Tillich, too, I think was not adequately familiar with -- or better: he did not adequately appreciate -- the theology of the earliest Church Fathers. In them, one discovers a healthy skepticism of the world, even as (in the East) they were wrestling to relate to the philosophical trends of their days. I read them to promote a Christian culture -- but not a pull-out-of-the-world culture (something that was not really available to them -- until the rise of monasticism) nor a secular-world-transforming culture.

On this point, I think Hauerwas and some of his colleagues have more to teach that many of us are willing to learn -- about how to live within the world, but on Christ's terms, not the world's terms.

In any event, I'm not sure what a "catholic" town would look like. I don't know how such a thing can exist in any formal-legal sense. What if a Lutheran wants to live there and start a congregation?

Thomas Adams said...

I acknowledge that Tillich may not be the best guide for steering a course between culture and Christianity; however, I was reading him at the time, so I included his perspective in this post. That said, I think that Tillich was properly aware of the dangers of a naïve theology of culture. For him, culture is the manifestation of man’s existential questions, which are then answered through religious revelation. So he wasn’t surrendering to culture and he wasn’t trying to transform it. He was simply advocating a give-and-take approach (i.e, his method of correlation) wherein culture and Christianity are distinguished but never separated.

I haven’t read any Hauerwas yet, but I’ll make sure to put him on the list. Any suggestions of where to start?

Anonymous said...

However one feels about Tom Monaghan's vision for a one-religion town in Florida, it won't be the first. In fact, intramural sports in the Sunshine State are about to become more interesting, when the Catholics of Ave Maria High School take on the Scientologists of Clearwater High School.