ALLEGANY, N.Y. – Although it began as self-contemplation about human nature, Kyle Haden, OFM, used his introspection as the impetus to author his second book since becoming a friar. But even as he was writing the fifth chapter of his recently released title, Embodied Idolatry: A Critique of Christian Nationalism, the last thing on his mind was a publisher.
“It started as a self-reflection. I wasn’t writing for anyone else, although I knew it would eventually [land] somewhere. But I wanted to follow my train of thought, and not write what others wanted to hear,” said Kyle, an assistant professor in the Department of Theology and Franciscan Studies at St. Bonaventure University.
While his latest book places him among a group of distinguished theologians and historians that have increasingly turned their attention to nationalism – a concept that has never been more compelling at any other time in history – Kyle tackles the subject from a unique perspective by examining the practices of Jesus amidst what was considered the nationalism of his time.
A chapter on the life of Jesus and how he viewed the exclusivity portrayed by those in his own Jewish culture is meant to help Christians in 2020 reflect more deeply on their reality, according to Kyle.
“People tended to be hospitable only to those in their sect or group. Jewish people didn’t consume unclean meat, they didn’t eat with pagans – all for fear of becoming unclean. But Jesus broke the boundaries of hospitality. He invited everyone to his table. If we are going to be transformed by the Gospels, we have to be hospitable and invite people to our table, metaphorically and in real life,” said Kyle, adding that the life of Jesus – his teachings and actions – is the human impression of the will of God that manifests a deeper reality of God.
“In Christian theology, when finite objects and ideas become the goal and orientation in life, they become like idols and take the place of God. Idols tend to create exclusive group attachments – a type of nationalism that gives rise to conflicts, such as anti-immigration, religious intolerance, and white supremacy,” said Kyle, who has a doctorate in historical theology and history of Christianity from Fordham University. “Conflict comes from our inability to realize that we are attached to idolatrous beliefs and practices and finite objects and goals that we imitate from others.”
Who Says It’s True?
In dissecting American nationalism, the author examines the effect of Christian nationalism on Christian practices in the U.S. He identifies human identity needs that are part of an individual’s human nature.
“We all seek human satisfaction, whether consciously or subconsciously. When someone asks about our purpose in life, that itself acknowledges and gives us meaning. Living with meaning is an anthropological reality that we need in our lives,” Kyle said.
He continued, “We have many human identity needs – we strive for recognition, the need to connect and belong, and the existential desire to be desired. Nationalism acts as a means to fulfill a number of these identity needs – and we do that by watching and imitating people who are important in our lives, or through exclusive group affiliations that influence the way we live and the way we think.”
But these realities pull Christians away from God. Kyle’s book is a call to conversion for all Christians to place loyalty to the kingdom of God over that of the nation. A chapter on the American belief system probes the standards upon which people base truth – for example, do we believe certain things because the group we’re in says they’re true?
There is a connecting thread between Kyle’s recent release and the first book he published in 2015 – titled Anti-Catholicism in American History: A Reinterpretation: Human Identity Needs and the Bible Riots of 1844, which examined the anthropological roots of human conflict, using as a case study the Bible Riots in Philadelphia that escalated as a result of anti-Catholic sentiment to the growing population of Irish-Catholic immigrants.
His new book expands the theory of human identity needs introduced in his first publication. “I enjoyed the learning aspect and going deeper into theories that were new to me. When I first looked at them, I had an intuition that these theories would complement each other – and when it worked out, it was a nice feeling,” he said, noting that his book utilizes the anthropological theories of renowned French historian and social science philosopher René Girard.
A review on Amazon describes the author as using multi-disciplines (Kyle categorizes two of them as social psychology and philosophy) to identify how nationalism-based beliefs and practices inhabit an anti-Christian theological and ethical space. The review goes on to say that the book explains the “formative process and mechanisms by which social and cultural values are acquired through imitation and within ecclesial communities.” It also says that the author effectively “argues that Christian nationalism is a betrayal of Jesus’ teachings.”
In a critical review of the book, theologian and Girard scholar James Alison – an acquaintance and often a sounding board for Kyle – wrote, “[the author] leads us slowly, but with great sure-footedness, through some of the most challenging of modern thinkers in order to open us up to that most timely of gifts: the ability to engage in self-critical thinking about who we are and where our lives together are taking us.”
A Convert to Catholicism
Kyle joined Holy Name Province as an already-ordained diocesan priest from his hometown of Kansas City, Kansas. Growing up in a Protestant family, his interest in Catholicism – and eventual conversion in 1989 – was sparked by the family of a college girlfriend.
Another major influence on his conversion was Fr. Harry Schneider, a parish priest, whose homily at a Mass he attended with his girlfriend’s family left such an impression that he sought his counsel about converting to Catholicism. The two had many lengthy conversations and still remain friends more than 30 years later – and Fr. Schneider was among a handful to whom Kyle sent his book when it first came out in print.
In 1989, after his conversion to Catholicism and after receiving a master’s degree in history at the University of Missouri in Kansas City (where he also received a bachelor’s degree in history), he joined a religious community with the intention of becoming an ordained priest. But one year removed from ordination, he left the community in 1995 because of ideological differences. But he didn’t leave religious vocation altogether.
“I realized that I wanted to join a community that would sustain me even if pastoral life was difficult – which is why it was easy to fall in love with St. Francis, who actually played a role in my conversion to Catholicism, and eventually helped in finding my way to the Franciscans,” Kyle recalled.
There was one more stop on the way to the Franciscans, as Kyle returned to Kansas in 1996, completing his seminary studies with the local diocese and becoming an ordained priest. Three years after ordination, he was appointed pastor of three parishes, geographically located in an area where Kyle says cows outnumbered parishioners 10-1.
“The people I ministered to were wonderful, but it was in the middle of nowhere,” he said.
Driven by Love for Teaching
After more than four years as a diocesan priest, Kyle joined HNP in January 2002. While waiting until the fall to start the postulant program with a new class, he spent eight months in ministry at the St. Francis Inn, the Franciscan soup kitchen in the impoverished Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. In September of that year, he began his postulancy at Holy Cross Friary in the Bronx – and, since he was already ordained, he celebrated Mass and heard confessions as a postulant.
Upon completing the one-year program, he went to the novitiate in Wilmington, Delaware. He made his first profession in 2003 and, before professing his solemn vows five years later, he served a year-long internship at St. Bonaventure University.
Prior to his internship, Kyle hoped to obtain a doctor of ministry degree, not thinking about teaching or academia. “For some reason, they thought it was a teaching degree, but it wasn’t,” he said, so they sent him to teach for a year at St. Bonaventure. It also wasn’t the ministry he had in mind at the time, although he now admits that he grew to love teaching from the moment he arrived at SBU. After the year of internship, Kyle applied to Fordham University’s Ph.D. program in theology, completing it in 2013. After earning the degree, he was assigned back at St. Bonaventure.
“I never realized how much I loved academics. I believe I have a talent for teaching – and four out of five students will agree,” he quipped. “I enjoy the academic reality and working with students. I love the fact that I can play a part in their lives – in getting them to think about God and their reality.”
When asked why someone should have an interest in his new book, Kyle responded, “If you want insight into your deepest motivations, and if you want tools for self-reflection, then you should read this book.”
Published by Lexington Books, a division of Maryland-based Rowman and Littlefield, Embodied Idolatry is available on Amazon and at Rowman and Littlefield.
— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.
Editor’s note: In recent years, books by other HNP members have been published. These friars include John Anglin, OFM, Casey Cole, OFM, Dan Horan, OFM, Kevin Mackin, OFM, Ken Pauli, OFM, and Fran Pompei, OFM.