Opinion Column


Gregory Baum: A happy warrior in religion

By Rosemary Ganley

Gregory Baum 


I've always been intrigued by theology. While acknowledging the sharp critique of it as "the study of nothing," I nonetheless pursued the study of theology as an academic discipline at the post-secondary level and beyond.

There were a few reasons for this. One, to be sure, was personal. Faced with those darn questions, "Who am I," "Where is here?" and "Who are all those other people?" throughout our lives, I wanted to have a look at what other minds have thought and said. Closely associated with those three questions is the one: How shall I live?

The second reason was that I enjoyed it. The stretching of the mind. Sometimes inspired, sometimes shocked and appalled, sometimes even amused, but always engaged. Ultimately, I thought it a useful and provocative study,

In the Middle Ages, theology was considered "the queen of the sciences." It was respectable, even necessary, to study theology, and of course in the West, that was Christian theology. Then, it was largely abandoned in universities as obscurantist, its claims too hard to prove.

Today, theology is making a modest comeback, especially comparative religious studies. I think the faster universities set up departments of religious studies, and hire broad-minded scholars, who may or may not adhere to one or other tradition, the better.

The third reason was theology's influence, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, on the fate of the world and the politics of culture. As a dawning feminist, I soon saw the negative effects of most religions on the status of real women. It hasn't been entire or wholesale of course: Catholicism has had the heroic Virgin Mary, Hinduism, the smart Saraswati, Islam, the leadership of Khadijah and the Jews, the wisdom of Sarah and Miriam.

Still, patriarchs have uniformly used divine figures to control and suppress women.

With excitement, then, I've read scores of works by feminist thinkers working within the faiths, not outside them. Pakistan-born Riffat Hassan of the University of Kentucky proclaimed, "There are 600 million Muslim women in the world: most are poor and illiterate. I cannot reach them through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: I can reach them through the Koran."

The moral leaders of our world: M.L. King, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, all claim a religious tradition. We need to be always on the alert for false claimants too, as American politics so well illustrates.

Which brings me long way around to my sadness at the death of the great humanist-theologian Gregory Baum, Canadian, age 94, in Montreal this week.

A cheery theologian, who in one lifetime had been all of these: a Jewish refugee from Belin at age 17, a Roman Catholic monk from 1947 to 1974, a hugely important theologian, a key ally of Pope John XXIII,who almost singlehandedly improved relations between his Church and the other religions, especially the Jewish community; a married man who wrote 20 books and taught theology and ethics at both the University of Toronto and McGill University, and finally a self- disclosed gay man (The Oil Has Not Run Dry, 2017).

A Montrealer said this week, "He was a brilliant, buffeted and loving theologian". Baum founded the influential magazine The Ecumenist, and edited it from 1962 to 2004. He championed the rights of Catholics to birth control, and the ordination of women, bearing the condemnation of some in his church with courage. He constantly reminded the Church that it changes.

"I do think there is a kind of pluralism in life," he said, and greeted the election of Pope Francis with delight.

A Quaker friend of mine wrote this week: "I heard Gregory Baum at Waterloo in the 1970s. He deeply affected my thinking. He said the Trinity could be understood as three C's: community, critique and call."

Gregory Baum, my kind of theologian, RIP.

Rosemary Ganley is a writer, teacher and activist. Reach her at rganley2016@gmail.com