MORRISTOWN, NJ –James Carroll, noted author and historian, will speak on “Beyond Nostalgia and Survival, a New Direction for the Church” at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 17.
“We need to leave behind old arguments,” Carroll said in a recent interview. “My talk will be positive and forward-looking, to see how far we’ve come.”
He said there have been basic changes in the Biblical faith and that today pluralism is a given. “For years, people didn’t encounter others who thought differently, but that is no longer true.” Carroll said that such topics as gay marriage are basically “noise that defines change.” For years, he pointed out, gay marriage wasn’t even discussed. Now, it’s a political campaign issue.
When asked about the Tea Party, he responded that “people are scared. We’re on the threshold of something very dangerous and so there’s a retreat to a fundamentalist mind set. I’m not judgmental about this, but such thinking makes matters worse rather than better.”
Carroll said he sees “new hope” in the effort to embrace peace. He noted that in Europe, “Paradoxically, as churches have closed and there has been a collapse of religion, the secular society has embraced peace. There’s no death penalty,” and punishment for crimes is much more lenient than in this country. “It’s something we don’t talk about,” he said, “but religious organizations should take note. We should be modest in our claims of religious morality.”
Carroll explained in his book “Constantine’s Sword” that the cross was not originally a symbol of Christian faith. Rather, that came along many years later, during the rule of Constantine. The radical distinction between Christians and Jews didn’t take place overnight. He described religious wars as “graphic and violent” and has condemned them as much as Christopher Hutchins and other outspoken atheists. “We believe that the solution to violence is more violence,” he said. “An apocalyptic mind sees salvation through destruction.”
Carroll said when he reads the scriptures, he looks at the meaning of words through the centuries and that there is an evolution of meaning in light of present experience. “We tend to define ourselves positively by defining others negatively. I’m saved. You’re damned.” He said the violence portrayed in scripture reflects who people were at the time and their failures. The simple message is tolerance and neighborliness. “Human experience changes theology, not the other way around. The good news is to trust yourself and your experience.”
He said the presence of God is a human experience and “can’t be defined by what we see.” The Christians perceived that they had the truth and others were designated as radically ignorant. “Outside the church there is no salvation and that thinking became absurd to me. No one religion has ownership of the truth. Much of what I’ve heard is wrong and a perversion of what God means. The cross is a precious symbol, with violence as a source of redemption. What kind of God is this?”
Carroll continues to be a practicing Roman Catholic. He became a priest in 1969, but left in 1974 to become a writer. He was initially a playwright at the Berkshire Festival Theatre. Playwriting, he said, is collaborative and “a glorious thing.” But now, “I spend my life with the door closed.” He said fiction is more solitary than non-fiction, which draws on the writings of others
He has published 10 novels and six or seven works of history. He also writes a column for the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune, dealing with political issues and the passing scene. He lives with his wife, Alexandra Marshall, a novelist, and raised two children. He is the distinguished scholar in residence at Suffolk University in Boston.
Carroll said he also wanted to pay tribute to Bishop John Shelby Spong, who is bishop-in-residence at St. Peter’s and former Bishop of the Diocese of Newark. He said Bishop Spong has opened the door to discussion on a number of controversial issues, including women in the priesthood. Bishop Spong spoke of his connection with Carroll and why he is important today. “James Carroll peals morality away. He sees the dishonesty.”
Carroll bridges the worlds of peace and violence, tolerance and inhumanity. “He’s at the epicenter of thinking on these matters,” St. Peter’s Rector Janet Broderick said of his upcoming appearance at the second Spong Lectureship.