University of Chicago

For High Holy Days coverage, consider a look at major Jewish thinker -- Leon Kass

For High Holy Days coverage, consider a look at major Jewish thinker -- Leon Kass

If you’re scouting for a feature pegged to Judaism’s High Holy Days that begin at sundown Sept. 9, consider a high-end piece profiling what they used to call a “public intellectual,” now often thought to be a dying breed.

The Religion Guy is thinking of Jewish philosopher Leon R. Kass and his recent book “Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times” (Encounter), certainly a timely Holy Days theme. These essays are lauded in National Review as “a crowning achievement” that caps this polymath’s decades of reflection. Topics include love and courtship, friendship, the Internet, biotechnology and scientific peril, death and mercy-killing, and of course religion.

The 72-year-old retiree long taught at the University of Chicago’s elite Committee on Social Thought, where he pursued the book’s title mostly through analyzing literary classics. Though he’s not a credentialed Bible scholar, he added  years of informal student seminars and then a not-for-credit course on the biblical Book of Genesis. His approach is unorthodox, indeed un-Orthodox.

The result was “The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis” (Free Press, 2003), praised by Kirkus Reviews as “wonderfully intelligent.” Rather than focusing on matters of faith that are central for Bible believers, Kass’s philosophical approach asks us to ponder what ancient Jewish tradition provides for modern-day justice, sanity and contentment. That feeds into his other writings that seek human happiness through recovery of the West’s old-fashioned values and verities.

Kass says he was raised in a Yiddish-speaking but “strictly secular home without contact with scripture.” There’s considerable unexplained turf an interviewer could pursue regarding Kass’s own personal belief and practice, and whether and how the specifically religious aspect of the Jewish heritage might remain relevant in the 21st Century. 

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) posts a good essay about Kass that can guide journalists. A bit of the basic bio: Kass earned bachelor’s and medical degrees at the University of Chicago, where he met his late wife and intellectual collaborator Amy, and then migrated to Harvard for a second doctorate in biochemistry.

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Who decided which books to include in the New Testament, when, and why?

Who decided which books to include in the New Testament, when, and why?

The Religion Guy observes that with “fake news” all over the news it’s wise to be aware of fake history.

Consider Dan Brown’s influential pop novel “The DaVinci Code.” Though the plot is fiction, readers may assume the book provides reliable historical background. Experts say that’s misleading, and one example is Brown’s version of how the New Testament came to be.

That’s a timely question due to an important new technical work on the subject, “The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity” by Edmon Gallagher and John Meade. “Canon” refers to recognized scriptures. Oxford University Press published this collection of ancient texts and analysis in Britain this month, with U.S. release due in January.

(The following relies on “The Formation of the New Testament” (1965) by Robert M. Grant of the University of Chicago, and “The Canon of the New Testament” (1987) by Bruce M. Metzger of Princeton Theological Seminary, and covers only the New Testament, not the canon of the Hebrew Bible a.k.a. Old Testament.)

Brown is correct that many texts about Jesus were circulating during Christianity’s first few centuries, so decisions had to be made about which were authentic and recognized as scripture. Many Christian folk don’t realize how complex the process was.

By Brown’s account, the Roman Emperor Constantine was the power-broker who picked only Matthew, Mark, Luke and John out of some 80 Gospels in contention. Actually what Constantine did in A.D. 331 was commission Bishop Eusebius to have copyists produce 50 new copies of the Greek canon to replace Scriptures that had been destroyed during Rome’s previous anti-Christian purge. The 80 count is exaggerated, and most rejected writings did not resemble the genre of the favored four, which were not chosen by the emperor but church authorities.

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Are most religious kids really 'jerks'? Depends on how you read a survey

Are most religious kids really 'jerks'? Depends on how you read a survey

Headline writers had a field day last week with a story about an international survey involving the attitudes of religious versus non-religious kids. They ranged from “Religious Kids are Jerks” from the Daily Beast to the Oregonian’s “Religious kids are harsher and less generous than atheist ones, study says.”

The survey came out of the University of Chicago, but involved scholars (and kids) from six countries: Turkey (Istanbul), South Africa (Cape Town), Canada (Toronto), Jordan (Amman), China (Guangzhou) and Chicago itself. It involved 1,170 5-to-12-year-olds.

Now for those of us whose experience of grade school was akin to "Lord of the Flies," the thought of interviewing first through sixth graders for proof of moral grounding is pretty laughable. Why not slightly older children who've had a few more years of formation in their family's religion?

Here is how the Oregonian report began:

When it comes to teaching kids the Golden Rule, Sunday school might not be the best bet.
A new study in the journal Current Biology found children in religious households are significantly less generous than their non-religious peers.
At the same time, religious parents were more likely than non-religious ones to consider their children empathetic and sensitive to the plight of others.

Now I took a graduate-level research methods class two years ago, which taught me a bit more about looking to see how studies are conducted. What I found wasn’t quite what certain media described the situation as being.

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The theology in all those Father Greeley sex scenes

Much like his friend (historian, not theologian) Martin Marty, the prominent sociologist (not theologian) Father Andrew Greeley of Chicago lived a long and astonishingly productive career in which he had few unpublished thoughts.

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