Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 99 (January 2000): 2-10.

Man and Machine

William A. Dembski’s “Are We Spiritual Machines?” (October 1999) challenges the spiritualistic materialism of strong Artificial Intelligence enthusiasts such as Marvin Minsky with arguments that are among the best I have ever seen. There are no doubt other Christians with Mr. Dembski’s first“class scientific credentials, but very few trouble to bring their Christianity into the public square. He is both an inspiration and challenge to other Christian scientific and technical professionals to do the same.

Because I so much want him to succeed in these endeavors, I wish to point out a difficulty in his article that may prevent his reaching a larger audience. In his argument, he posits a definition of “machine” that is something of a straw man (or straw machine, I should say). His machine is just as much an abstraction as he claims the materialists’ matter is: an arbitrary, idealized device with absolutely identical interchangeable parts, with no history and no determinate future, completely subject to adjustment and transformation by its human inventors and users.

Just as there are big differences between the philosophers’ “God” and God, I claim there is a huge gap between Mr. Dembski’s “machine” and real machines. Many scientists and engineers I know would not recognize his hypothetical machine. Machines do have a history, which is the history of their interaction with humans. And machines do have a future, which is what humans will do with them. Perhaps I misunderstand Mr. Dembski’s Aristotelian/Thomistic terminology, but it seems to me that a man with a gun is not just an arbitrary combination of man and gun; it is a “thing” with a “substantial form” that depends essentially upon the gun as well as the man. When Mr. Dembski assumes an artificial separation between human and machine, it allows him to derive certain desirable conclusions. But his argument cannot cope with problems posed by some AI consciousness researchers.

It may be possible in the future, for example, to mimic the function of parts of the brain in a way that is essentially identical to the processes that take place in neurons, and replace these human parts with pieces of silicon (or other artificial computational devices) without changing either the externally observed or internally introspected nature of the human who is subject to this experiment. At what point in this brain“replacement process would it no longer be proper to speak of the “substantial form” of the human to whom it is done? Simply calling this notion a form of “promissory materialism” and saying it hasn’t been done yet does not properly answer the question, but just sweeps it under the rug.

Karl D. Stephan
Austin, Texas


In “Are We Spiritual Machines?” William A. Dembski poses fundamental scientific alternatives: “What else could mind be except an effect of matter? . . . The only alternative conception of mind appears to be a Cartesian dualism that makes mind a substance separate from matter . . . with no coherent means of interaction.” He rightly notes that “given this choice, almost no one these days opts for substance dualism.”

Cartesian dualism arose in the early stages of the first scientific revolution that culminated in the late seventeenth century, while we are still coming to grips with the quantum revolution of the twentieth century. A few have begun to ponder connections with mind and spirit. A very few”whether serious scientists and thinkers or cranks, I don’t know”really are considering a world of “material and nonmaterial things.” One can at least glimpse how physical theory might someday provide an account of “spiritual substances [capable] of coherently interacting with matter,” all within a framework fitting pretty comfortably with the current structure of physical law yet allowing for mental or spiritual agency, including the possibility of free will. Whether one calls this physical or metaphysical may be unimportant.

What of the spirit”mind or soul if you prefer”and how it comes to be? Consider a thought experiment. Take the simplest possible human entity”a cloned human embryo, for example. Let it develop”nine months, nine years. Is it conscious? Does it have a mind? A soul? If you are like me you will think so. Does this “spirit” not arise in conjunction with matter following natural laws? Maybe the spirit was already present at the formation of the cloned cell.

Then try a variant of the experiment. Assemble the embryo not by cloning an existing human being, but by assembling atoms into macromolecules, and macromolecules into something with the physical aspects of a human cell. Again allow the entity its natural development. If like me you think you have made a conscious human being, what was the “mind“stuff” organized around the physico“chemical matter, and how did the natural processes perform this mysteri ous work? My hunch is that eventually this will have a “natural” scientific account, of which even now we are forming a hazy notion.

Perhaps I am comforted by the thought that mind“stuff, matter, and natural laws are creations of God. I am still utterly terrified”if not by the thought experiment, then by the prospect (wait a few years) of performing the experiment for real, not only to construct human beings, but completely artificial spiritual beings, not machines, designed de novo. If this mind“body science or natural philosophy comes to fruition, it will literally allow us to play God, in ways foreseen not even by biotechnology. It is not too soon for us all to begin to think about this.

Michael Kellman
Institute of Theoretical Science
University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon


While I agree with William A. Dembski’s negative answer to the question, “Are We Spiritual Machines?” I think the legs upon which his argument stands are broken.

First, Mr. Dembski understands a machine to be “fully determined by the constitution, dynamics, and interrelationships of its physical parts.” This is true only of a machine whose present state is independent of its prior states. Such memoryless machines are described mathematically as Markov processes. That non“Markov machines exist is shown by a simple example: the magnetization of a piece of iron immersed in an oscillating magnetic field depends on the values of the external field in the past, as well as in the present. This effect is known to freshman physics students as hysteresis. Mr. Dembski’s idea of a machine is restrictive and oversimplified. Second, Mr. Dembski rests a great part of his argument on showing that the “physical” and the “spiritual” cannot overlap. As a physicist, I must point out that we are only just beginning to understand what the “physical” is. Given that the large“scale structure of the universe is dominated by the presence of still mysterious Dark Matter, and that on the smallest scales empty space sustains quantum oscillations whose energy density dwarfs that of all known forms of matter, we should hesitate to imply that the physical and spiritual realms cannot be even partially consubstantial.

Third, in his argument that computation cannot produce intelligent agency, Mr. Dembski fails to note that we have only begun to explore analog computation, which mimics the way simple neural systems process information, and quantum computation, whose method of solving problems mimics a “leap of intuition.”

I refer Mr. Dembski to the works of J. C. Eccles”for example, “Do mental events cause neural events analogously to the probability fields of quantum mechanics?” ( Proceedings of the Royal Society of London , B 227, pp. 411“428, 1986). After perusing them, let him or anyone else try to tease the themes of machinery, physicality, and computation apart from spirituality as cleanly as Mr. Dembski seems to think he has done.

John A. H. Futterman
Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory
Livermore, California

William A. Dembski replies:

Karl Stephan raises the objection that my conception of a machine as a physical system constrained entirely by its constitution, dynamics, and interrelationships of parts is just as much an abstraction as the Enlightenment conception of matter that I challenge. Granted. But this conception of machine is precisely the one that flows out of the Enlightenment conception of matter, and it is Enlightenment materialism as well as its contemporary variants that is at issue. Give me a richer world of substantial forms, and we can dispense with talk of humans being machines, much less spiritual machines”indeed, in such a richer world (and I believe it’s such a world that we inhabit) there are no machines in the sense that I define the term. It’s the materialists who have thrown in our face the prospect that we are machines, and it’s on their own terms that I trace the consequences (and incoherence) of humans being machines.

Karl Stephan and Michael Kellman both raise some thought experiments which, if actualized, could demonstrate that we are in fact machines. The point of contention here is whether humans are able artificially to construct some device or prosthesis that functionally reproduces human intelligent action. I’m afraid I’m with Willard Quine in taking a dim view of thought experiments that for both theoretical and practical reasons seem utterly fantastical. No doubt my critics will charge a failure of imagination on my part. I rather see it as a skepticism that is unwilling to take materialist promissory notes, especially when materialism as a regulating principle for science is becoming increasingly sterile.

Suffice it to say that if some clever chaps construct a machine that trounces our intellectual capacities, I shall be proved wrong and shall retract the claims in my article. But the point of my article is to show why we shouldn’t be intimidated into thinking that this is anywhere in the offing, and that there are indeed good reasons for thinking that no such offing is possible. I’m afraid our society labors under the misapprehension that science is constantly pushing back research frontiers and that with every scientific advance the sacred and numinous gets pushed back further. In fact, scientific progress is much more a matter of pruning and reevaluation, wherein problems thought to be resolved come crashing back at us with resounding irresolution.

John A. H. Futterman, with his rapid“fire rebuttals, provides what appears the strongest criticism of my piece. But in fact his criticisms fail point for point. I did not write that machines have no memory, but that they have no history. There’s a big tree outside the Auschwitz concentration camp that was witness to the horrors that occurred there. Its “memory,” as instantiated in its physical constitution, is indistinguishable from that of other trees. Its history, however, is quite different from that of other trees. Mr. Futterman charges that my definition of machine is oversimplified. But a physical system constrained entirely by its constitution, dynamics, and interrelationships of parts is perfectly capable of storing memories in the physicalist sense that Mr. Futterman requires.

Next Mr. Futterman attributes to me the claim that the physical and the spiritual cannot overlap, whereupon he launches into the mysterious properties of matter that physicists are finding. First off, I am not a substance dualist. I do not make a sharp distinction between the physical and the spiritual. But I do argue against trying to resynthesize the spiritual from the physical. Mr. Futterman invokes mysterious Dark Matter and quantum theory as signaling that the physical world is far richer than we thought, and then points to analog computation and quantum computation as possible redoubts for mind or spirit. I agree with Mr. Futterman that the physical world is much more mysterious than we might have suspected. But his invocation of analog and quantum computation as a possible solution to the mind“body problem is more of the same materialist hype.

Computational research is overwhelmingly digital, and given Moore’s Law (the amount of information storable on a given amount of silicon roughly doubles every year or eighteen months) and the speed with which digital computation is gaining power, Mr. Futterman is offering yet another promissory note when he suggests untold possibilities for analog computation. (Note that analog computers”thermostats, for example”have been around for a while; it’s not as though this is an untried technology.)

As for quantum computation, if the technology can be successfully implemented, it will allow the solution of certain problems that are intractable for current digital computers. But the advantages do not apply across the board, and we are talking an increase in computational speed, not a qualitative difference in the type of computation performed. Mr. Futterman’s reference to quantum computers solving problems by a “leap of intuition” is therefore less a matter of sober scientific assessment than rhapsodic misdirection by a scientist who should know better.

Finally, Mr. Futterman refers me to the problem of untangling machinery, physicality, computation, quantum mechanics, and spirit. I never denied that they were entangled. But I do deny that a neat account of spirit, mind, and agency can be given in terms other than spirit, mind, and agency. Although the physical and the spiritual are entangled, neither of them is dispensable. To claim that we are machines”and I would argue that the definition I gave is general enough to accommodate the richness that Futterman finds in the physical world”is to claim that the spiritual is dispensable and that the physical is primary. In my article I argued against this claim. I have yet to be offered compelling reasons for retracting that argument.

God and Man(hood)

Daniel P. Moloney’s review of my book The Church Impotent gives a somewhat distorted impression of my approach. I tend to assume a fairly high level of literacy in my audience. When I said that the source for Bernard of Clairvaux’s individualistic bridal mysticism was ultimately Origen, I did not think anyone would think I had claimed that Bernard had read Origen in the original Greek (the knowledge of Greek had vanished in the West) or even that he in fact knew that the ultimate source was Origen. The remark meant only that Bernard could have claimed patristic authority in Origen for his reading of the Song of Songs, but that of course Bernard would not be willing to acknowledge so heterodox a source. Perhaps the other historical errors that Mr. Moloney detects are of this nature. I regret any tendency to mislead readers who do not have a background in medieval studies.

The source of the undoubted lack of men in the Church may even be irrelevant. Once a situation is feminized (that is, identified as something mainly of concern to women), the feminization tends to be self“perpetuating, even if the original cause of feminization ceases. Bridal mysticism may have vanished (although respondents to my book have supplied me with many contemporary instances). However, something has caused the lack of men in all Western churches, and the means to correct this problem (I hope Mr. Moloney sees it as a problem) are more important than its remote historical source, unless, of course, that source continues to operate.

Contrary to the impression Mr. Moloney gives, I do not place my main stress on the psychosexual differentiation of the infant boy from his mother (although this is important). More important are the initiatory rites and experiences that are designed to separate males from the safety of boyhood and to prepare them for the challenges of life. Males seek a separation from ordinary, safe life to attain a transformation into something higher: manhood. This is an almost universal pattern, and it is in this pattern of separation that I see the essence of masculinity. The association of separation and masculinity occurs in many religions (see David D. Gilmore’s Manhood in the Making ), including Judaism and Christianity.

I see Christianity not as the denial but the fulfillment of masculinity. Women do not have to sacrifice their femininity and maternal nature to be Christians. I also think that men do not have to cease to be masculine to become Christian, but this is the impression generally given by the churches of the West.

Leon J. Podles
Baltimore, Maryland


Daniel P. Moloney takes Leon Podles to task for mistakenly tracing bridal mysticism to Bernard of Clairvaux and the early Middle Ages. He cites Ambrose as a Latin patristic source, more influential in the Latin West than Origen, whom Podles concedes to be a forerunner. Mr. Moloney understates the case. A summary treatment of the subject, like the chapter on the Song of Songs in Jean Danielou’s The Bible and the Liturgy , with its wealth of citations from the early Church, would establish his point even more convincingly. Bridal imagery was certainly applied not just to the church corporate but also to the soul of the individual Christian.

However, the discussion turns on the meaning of the term “bridal mysticism.” Many scholars, as noted by Podles, understand the term to apply to a certain current of medieval devotion. This made use of the marriage symbolism of the Scriptures and patristic period to provide, as Podles puts it, an “imaginative playing“out of [a] privileged relationship with God.” In the early Church the symbolism was applied to the individual as an image of his or her membership in the Church and union with Christ, common to all Christians. In the Latin Middle Ages, beginning at least in preliminary form with Bernard, it became the source of a special love affair with Christ, imaginatively conceived in meditation. Podles here has the better case and can rely on much scholarly support.

Podles’ case could be strengthened by other considerations. He does not treat the parallel development in Marian devotion in which adult women and men were encouraged to relate to Mary as little children attached to their mother, relying on her to get them out of all trouble or at least comfort them in a motherly way. He does not treat modern hymns and songs that can only be sung by men who are comfortable with entering into a Platonic (one hopes) homosexual relationship with Jesus or a feminine receptivity towards God. He does not consider the emphasis on masculine spirituality to be found in the pre“Vatican II Popes and in Catholic Action, as well as in many of its offshoots like the Cursillo movement. These would confirm his discomfort with the feminization of modern Christianity.

Moreover, Mr. Moloney to the contrary notwithstanding, many examples of both bridal mysticism and its devotional descendants can be found in mainline Protestantism and, even more, in the dominant Evangelical and Charismatic/Pentecostal Protestantism of our day. Such additions would strengthen, but not change, Podles’ case, at the price of course of making the book considerably longer.

I would agree with other criticisms that Mr. Moloney makes. However, Podles has a solid case that the aftereffect of the Western medieval “bridal” devotional current is a significant contributor to the discomfort a large number of men nowadays feel in investing themselves in spiritual movements or even church itself. More importantly, Podles’ book is not written to make an academic case. It is written for theologically literate laypeople and clergy to raise the alarm over a major problem that few others are talking about. He has many elements that would go into a plausible explanation of a complex phenomenon and many potentially helpful suggestions for lines of solution.

Stephen B. Clark
Ann Arbor, Michigan
(The writer is the author of
Man and Woman in Christ , published by Servant.)


Leon Podles assumes (correctly) that men and women both have a need for spirituality, the hunger for God’s grace that so often goes unrecognized as such. He then discusses “bridal mysticism,” as it has evolved since the time of Bernard, as an artificial and unbiblical stumbling block to male reception of saving grace. Daniel P. Moloney trivializes this concern by saying that “bridal mysticism . . . has its roots in Scripture (especially in the Song of Songs and 2 Corinthians 11:2) . . . . If bridal mysticism is responsible for scaring men away from the Church, then it should have done so much earlier than the twelfth century, and in the Eastern churches as well.”

The concept of the Church as the “Bride of Christ,” however, is not what Podles is challenging. In fact, he states that “In the New Testament, the bride is the Church.” What he finds an impediment to men is the later development in which “the individual Christian, body and soul, came to be seen as the bride of Christ.” He suggests, with much supporting evidence, that the idea of the individual woman as the “bride of Christ” has led to eroticized expressions of the individual’s union with Christ. He provides abundant examples of such eros, some of which are startlingly close to soft porn (“a swift shot from his spear of love,” “strong thrusts came against me”).

Podles postulates that this eventually led to the notion that women, because of what some modern writers call their “will to surrender, the readiness to be receptive,” enjoy a preferential option to receive the grace of Christ. Podles quotes a “modern Dominican” to say, “Annul me in my manhood, Lord, and make me woman“sexed and weak.” He quotes another modern writer who says that “it is femininity rather than masculinity which symbolizes the right attitude of the whole person before God.”

Has Podles shown that Western churches have developed a “feminized” spirituality? Well, yes and no. There is no question that the concepts of the “feminine” soul, or the soul as passive or submissive in a “feminine” way, are not uncommon in modern Christian writing, both among traditionalists and dissident feminists. The Church’s official teaching, however, states, “The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the ‘form’ of the body . . . . Spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.” This is certainly true, and it is consistent with Pauline theology of the body.

If the soul and body form “a single nature,” can men have “feminine” souls? When a man stands repentant before the Cross of Christ, does he do so with a man’s soul in unity with his body, or must he somehow become “women“sexed and weak”? Christ displayed amply all of the attributes normally ascribed to men”did he have to become “feminine” to become supremely tender, as he often was? In light of Church teaching, can we even speak of an individual’s soul changing in some way independently of his body?

Podles has raised many issues, and they are not trivial. Feminists are adept at quoting mystic sensualists, including saints of the Church, to support their promotion of priestesses in the Church and other anti“patriarchal causes. Mr. Moloney should not fault Podles for using feminist writers as resources”they are the ones who have brought such information to the fore recently, although for different purposes than Podles had in mind. Neither should he criticize Podles for characterizing Christian life as “spiritual warfare (a masculine image).” Christian life is spiritual warfare, and men and women have been and still are gallant warriors for Christ in this regard.

Podles’ book is tremendously important in that he brings out the confusion that has resulted in the perception of women as somehow more eligible for God’s saving grace than men, simply because they are female. I think the concept that women are receptive, passive, surrendering (or in any way more moral in the religious sense than men are) is charmingly naive, despite the dominant female presence in church. Women lurch away from the Truth as often as men do, albeit in different ways (note, for example, the lines at abortion clinics). I, for one, hope Leon Podles continues to explore ways to bring men back to the Church.

S. M. Schrader
Anchorage, Alaska

Daniel P. Moloney replies:

If I read his letter correctly, Leon J. Podles effectively concedes my criticism of the historical narrative that makes up chapters four through eight of his ten chapter book. Or more precisely, he is willing to regard the bulk of his book as “irrelevant” to his thesis that there is something about Christianity as practiced today that is inherently off“putting to masculine men, and so won’t bother to defend it. I must say I am surprised; I don’t think I’ve ever seen an author concede so much so lightly.

In my decision to focus my review on Dr. Podles’ historical and psychological explanations for the relative dearth of men in church, it never occurred to me that his proposals for reform in chapter ten were quite so independent from his scholarship and analysis in chapters one through nine.

Although I think Dr. Podles concedes too much in his letter, in other respects he does not concede enough. He says I mischaracterize his discussion about the psychosexual basis of masculinity in that I put the emphasis on the young boy’s separation from his mother rather than on the young man’s separation from boyhood in initiation rites. I don’t see how this difference in emphasis is supposed to avoid the logical fallacy I outlined in the review.

To recall, my criticisms were based not so much on the substance of Dr. Podles’ psychological or anthropological research but on the use of that research for the rest of his argument. I claimed his argument involved an impermissible generalization: because masculinity requires an act of separation of one sort, all acts of separation are masculine. Dr. Podles’ clarification preserves that mistake.

Dr. Podles also suggests I am a picky academic who exaggerated an insignificant and correctable mistake about whether Bernard of Clairvaux read Origen in the Greek. My point in the review, though, was that there were patristic commentators on the Song of Songs other than Origen, and that probably much more influential on Bernard were the Latin patristic commentators on the Song of Songs, especially Ambrose (339“397). This was not a case of showing off or name“dropping: it was an attack on the rather crude timeline that Dr. Podles wished to draw”before Bernard, pure manly spirituality; after Bernard, effeminate bridal mysticism. Both Stephen B. Clark and S. M. Schrader recognize that getting that timeline wrong critically damages Dr. Podles’ argument, and in sympathy try to defend him. I am not persuaded, however, by their efforts on his behalf.

Full“fledged bridal mysticism did begin with Origen, but it is not and was not heretical, as my quotation from Ambrose indicates. (Although he took a few positions that were deemed heretical after his death, most of Origen’s writings were orthodox; he was always considered a Father of the Church.) Ambrose was an Origenist in his mysticism. He wrote of the believer’s soul kissing Jesus, his Divine Lover, calling to him and waiting eagerly for his caresses, asking to be awakened from his sleep to be filled with his presence. The wedding night was the culmination of the believer’s individual spiritual union with his Lord. In his treatise On Isaac , Ambrose even developed the gender“bending image of the patriarch Isaac as the passive Rebekah. Ambrose was clearly a source for eleventh“and twelfth“century bridal mysticism, and, in his On Virginity , he even encouraged the aristocratic women who wanted to enter convents to use the Song of Songs to think of themselves as brides of Christ.

There are other Latin patristic bridal mystics as well, and, contra Messrs. Clark and Schrader, they use the image of spiritual marriage to describe the individual believer’s union with God. Individual longing for God was a major theme of patristic Christianity, reaching its literary zenith in Augustine’s Confessions . Augustine’s passionate desire for an individual, loving, face“to“face relationship with God seems to have influenced certain parts of Gregory the Great’s commentary on the Song of Songs in an individualistic direction, prompting one medieval scholar to refer to Gregory as the “Doctor of Desire.” Gregory, Pope and monk, was perhaps the dominant spiritual figure for early medieval monasticism, especially among Benedictines (his hagiographic portrait of Benedict is our only source for the details of Benedict’s life).

Another influential sixth“century monastic, Caesarea of Arles, wrote, “The souls not only of nuns, but of all men and women, if they will guard chastity of the body and virginity of the heart . . . should not doubt that they are spouses of Christ,” and he put forward the spiritual marriage to Jesus in Heaven as reason for remaining celibate while on earth. Like Ambrose, Caesarea developed his bridal mysticism while writing rules for women who wanted to live in convents, but its implications for the spiritual life he applied to both men and women. Dr. Podles wants to make much of the warrior motif in the era of “heroic Christianity,” and he claims that the Benedictine monks were properly manly because they saw the spiritual life as a struggle with Satan while twelfth“century Cistercians and women saw it as an erotic submission to Jesus the bridegroom. This is historically inaccurate, demeaning to this provocative and orthodox way of relating to God, and it plays right into the hands of the homosexual apologists who want to carnalize such daring spiritual language. Bridal mysticism is a development of the motif of spiritual struggle against oneself, not a contrary spiritual impulse.

As Charlotte Allen has pointed out in these pages (“The Holy Feminine,” December 1999), the struggle against one’s inclinations that is necessary for the Christian life led women to take on “manly” mortifications and men to adopt “womanly” virtues such as charity. In the hands of these spiritual geniuses, bridal mysticism was a way for a very masculine man to humble himself and leave behind his earthly maleness. Lesser preachers have used it to pander to women, but its abuse does not convict its proper use.

I agree with Messrs. Clark and Schrader that The Church Impotent raises important issues, issues most academics would not touch. I said as much in my review. I also said, however, that Dr. Podles raised them injudiciously, and I am now even more confident in that assessment.

On Edith Stein

While I found David Novak’s piece “Edith Stein, Apostate Saint” (October 1999) to be admirable in many ways, there is much more to be said on the relationship between the Jewish and Christian communities.

I take Professor Novak’s premise to heart: “After all, it is a question of truth, and truth is what we are both all about.” Precisely. But that truth goes to the depth of who and what is the unutterable, unspeakable mystery we call “God.” The revelation of Jesus as communicator of that truth is simply this: God is love through and through; He is “Abba,” Father, who desires the salvation of all men and women by union with Himself on Earth as in Heaven. That communion of love goes beyond the particular symbols of our commun ities ”sources of salvation as they may be for each of us”to a deeper union in God as we practice who and what God is: love itself.

Thus the revelation of Jesus goes to the core of the unspeakable mystery and that core is love. To the degree that we love God and love each other, we do the work of Him who is present in each one, Jew or Christian or pagan, who loves and tries to love God more and more. It is that union of love even here below that is the beginning of the kingdom of God into which we enter by God’s grace and presence.

Therefore we must go beyond all our particular symbols (which remain authentic and salvific) to the essence of what Jesus (and the prophets) have revealed to us about God. We are joined as sons and daughters of that Abba when we love, irrespective of the distinct symbols that make us Jews or Christians or any other religion.

Peter J. Riga
Houston, Texas


David Novak’s comments on “Edith Stein, Apostate Saint” illustrate well the irreducible conflict between the truth“claims of Judaism and Christianity, a conflict that no amount of good will and mutual respect can overcome.

As one raised a Jew, but for many years now a practicing Christian, I could not help but hear in Professor Novak’s essay overtones of the ill will and bitterness frequently found in the Jewish community toward those like myself. Thus, while Prof. Novak can admit that the faithful Christian necessarily believes that Christianity supersedes Judaism, and can further admit that “any Jew who believes Christianity supersedes Judaism can only in good faith become a Christian,” he nonetheless denigrates the motives and faith of most of those whom he calls “apostate” Jews. “Jews,” Novak tells us, “have been able to dismiss most modern Jewish converts to Christianity as people motivated by social or professional ambition, self“hatred, ignorance, or mental imbalance.” Edith Stein, however, “comes across as sui generis,” the “most uniquely problematic Jew . . . since Saul of Tarsus” because none of those dismissive explanations apply.

This presumption that virtually all other Jewish converts to Christianity are motivated by self“interest, self“hatred, ignorance, or mental imbalance, rather than a good faith belief in the truth of Christianity, is the source of much unnecessary pain and discord. While these attitudes may be attributed to the long centuries when apostasy from Judaism could serve worldly interests, they fail to fit the contemporary West, where religion has little discernible effect on “social or professional ambition.”

It sometimes seems that contemporary Jewish anxieties about shrinking demographics are channeled into an unattractive hostility toward that small minority of Jews who become practicing Christians. The statistical reality, so far as I can tell, is that Judaism in the contemporary world is far more threatened by a simple lack of interest by Jews in Judaism, and hence an inability to pass on (as a religious faith) beliefs that are not broadly held. Atheism, pantheism, and paganism have, it would seem, made far more inroads within the Jewish community than Christianity, but Jews who adhere to these religious inclinations, because they do not join a rival covenant community, largely escape the censure of the Jewish community.

In the end, of course, I have to leave it to the Jewish community where to direct its anxiety and ire; since I am considered an “apostate” Jew (but still a Jew!) I am hardly in a position of influence. Nonetheless, I would like to assure Prof. Novak that there are many Jews who convert to Christianity out of sincere religious belief, and that while we are keenly aware of the hostility of many Jews toward our existence, most of us love, rather than hate, our Jewishness.

David Smolin
Cumberland Law School
Samford University
Birmingham, Alabama


I was pleasantly surprised to see that David Novak has come to what appears to me to be virtually the same conclusion that I enunciated a number of years ago, while writing from a Christian perspective.

While I in fact acknowledge that there is no way that a devout Jew can really understand Edith’s willingness to embrace the Cross of Christ just as Edith’s mother could not understand her child’s Christian faith, all of us people of good will, be we Jewish or Christian, can acknowledge our common tie to the mystery of God’s redemption that began with the covenant with Abraham, continued and was solidified in the exodus, and is with us today, whether we are still awaiting the promised messiah or believe that he has already come and is among us now. (“Politics and Mystery: The Integration of Judaism and Christianity in Edith Stein,” Spiritual Life , Summer 1993, p. 104.)

It is indeed gratifying to see that in considering Edith Stein we can get beyond politics to the greater issues of living together as human beings.

Waltraut Stein
Decatur, Georgia
(The writer, a retired philosophy professor, is a grandniece of Edith Stein.)

David Novak replies:

I do not disagree with Peter J. Riga that the love of God transcends our religious affiliations in this world. That is why we all must do what we believe God wants us to do in response to that love, even if that means leaving one community and joining another. But that is because our response to that love in this world is not an individual matter; we cannot do it without a definite community. Because of our human nature, we are as much in need of other persons as we are in need of God. That is why Judaism and Christianity couple love of God with love of neighbor. At the level of community response to God’s love, Judaism and Christianity make rival claims. Nevertheless, at the endtime, for which Jews and Christians now long separately, the communal context of human life will be so radically transformed that our present communal separation from each other will at last be overcome. To assume, though, that this separation can be overlooked here and now is pseudo“messianism.

To David Smolin: When I stated that Edith Stein is an apostate from Judaism sui generis, I did not mean to imply that other Jews have not converted to Christianity for similarly sincere religious motives. Why does Professor Smolin see implied anger in my treatment of Stein? I also noted the response of sadness. How could I as a Jew faithful to the covenant and the Jewish tradition not be sad when Jews such as Edith Stein, Jean“Marie Lustiger, or David Smolin decide to worship the Lord God of Israel outside the House of Israel? I am just as sad when Jews become atheists or whatever else outside the tradition”but in their case there is more hope they will return home, because they have not yet become part of some other tradition. And I agree that atheism is and should be more of a problem for the Jewish community than the very few Jews who are attracted to Christianity. As for Prof. Smolin’s reference to his “Jewishness,” that is a term beloved of Jewish secularists, who think you can have ethnic identity without faith. The fact is, it is Judaism that kept the Jewish ancestors of David Smolin Jewish enough to bring him into the world as one marked forever by the covenant.

I agree with Dr. Stein that both Jews and Christians are waiting for the final redemption by the Lord God of Israel. Nevertheless, in this pre“redeemed world our respective “waitings” are mutually exclusive, that is, one can wait either as a Jew or as a Christian but not as both. We Jews can certainly understand Edith Stein’s decision to wait for God within the Church and not within Jewish tradition. We can even respect her spiritual integrity. What we cannot do is give her decision our blessing here and now, even though fully aware that the final judgment is God’s, not our own.

The Ethics of Healing

I do not find Russell E. Saltzman’s essay “Two Boats, a Helicopter, and Stem Cells” (October 1999) entirely satisfying, although I have absolutely no quarrel with the argument developed for his own decision to oppose the use of aborted fetuses for stem cell research. His implied judgment on what should be the basis for public policy, however, does bother me a bit.

He concedes that “from a utilitarian view, the argument [he opposes] is unassailable.” I think that public policy in a pluralistic system (which cannot be based on the mere belief of a citizen, since by definition it cannot give precedence to any belief) must be justified only on utilitarian grounds. (I take “utilitarian” in a very generic sense, not merely Benthamism.) Personally, for instance, I would contend that deliberately induced abortion is wrong and that that conclusion can be reached on the basis of “utilitarian” (i.e., natural law) analysis; my arguments, however, would not be so clear that no sincere person could reject them without being suspected of perversity. On the other hand, I find I cannot make any argument that research on stem cells garnered from spontaneously aborted fetuses is intrinsically wrong.

Now I recognize that spontaneously aborted fetuses are not abundant enough to meet the needs of everyone who wants them for research or therapy, so I acknowledge that in authorizing research at all there is a danger of encouraging induced abortions. However, this danger would be seen as a danger only by those who have concluded that induced abortions are wrong. So long as the prevailing view is that they are not necessarily wrong, public policy in a pluralistic system must be indifferent to any beliefs that cannot be independently supported by rational (utilitarian) argument. Again, I personally believe that public policy regarding induced abortions ought to change”but not because of what I believe but rather because the objective merits of purely rational arguments have prevailed upon a majority of public policy makers.

To manipulate public policy to conform with one’s mere beliefs is a mistake. If “utilitarian” arguments cannot prevail, individuals should be content to have faith guide only their own moral decisions.

John Spradley
Pagosa Springs, Colorado

Russell E. Saltzman replies:

John Spradley seems to confuse his apples with both oranges and bananas. Utilitarianism in his versatile usage becomes a synonym for natural law in one place and a description of rational argument in another. I am at something of a loss for a reply.

What I do discern is his impression that I was expressing only a “mere belief” of my own. I hope my piece was more than that. If there is any public policy proposition that a pluralistic system must agree upon”for the protection of all its members”it is that human life must be immune from arbitrary violation by other humans. To the extent that stem cell research relies on embryos and aborted fetuses as an experimental source, it contributes to the rising sentiment that the death of one may be used for the convenience of others.

Aquinas Over Aristotle

Just as calls to Marxify Hegelianism invariably underestimate Marx’s own advance on Hegel, so calls to Thomis ticize Aristotle invariably underestimate Thomas’ advance on Aristotle. From within this perspective, it seems to me that Gilbert Meilaender’s biblical ethics ( “Still Waiting for Benedict,” October 1999 ) is closer to the thought of Thomas Aquinas than is Alasdair MacIntyre’s “Thomistic” Aristotelianism.

It is my contention that St. Thomas’ synthesis of biblical ethics and the metaphysics of being so transformed Aristotle that semi“Thomistic retrievals of Aristotle, such as MacIntyre’s treatise on Dependent Rational Animals , are bound to regress behind Aquinas. Outside the metaphysics of being, there is finally no way to transcend MacIntyre’s emblematic disjunction ” Aristotle or Nietzsche ,” hard as MacIntyre, for one, has tried.

Decoded, that disjunction imposes an impossible choice, what with Nietzsche representing value irrationalism and a countervailing Aristotle representing a mixed“up amalgam of eudaimonia and often compromised virtue. If MacIntyre is captive to the terms of this disjunction, it is because, with Aristotle, he fails to distinguish adequately two branches of knowledge: eudaimonology, the object of which is human happiness and the means to attain it; and ethics, the object of which is human conduct in the light of reason as differentiating good from evil.

Gilbert Meilaender spots the key issue: “Morality is . . . not only a matter of developing the virtues needed to flourish but also a matter of recognizing obligations toward others who also bear the human countenance and are equal to us in dignity.” Equality in dignity, in turn, supposes the notion of common being, without which there can be no common dignity.

John F. Maguire
Natural Law Jurisprudence Center
Berkeley, California

Editors’ Note

Due to a failure of communication, Robert Jenson’s review of T. J. Clarke’s Farewell to an Idea (October 1999) included a final sentence (“But whither this St. Benedict?”) that was not approved by the author.

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