Harsh Realities or Handy Myths?

In “The Women of Roe v. Wade ” (June/July) Mary Ann Glendon’s description of the historical and legal context in which Roe v. Wade occurred omits an important part of that context. There were many abortions in the United States”both legal and illegal”long before Roe v. Wade and they were known by, and of significance to, men as well as women.

In the January 1964 issue of the ABA Journal , Zad Leavy and Jerome Kummer published “Criminal Abortion: A Failure of the Law.” They argued that the laws of abortion in the United States and throughout the Western world primarily profess to safeguard the prospective mother but by their severity drive large numbers of desperate women into the hands of the unskilled criminal abortionist. They estimated one million or more illegal abortions in the U.S. each year with five thousand to ten thousand deaths as a direct consequence. Their article was something of a pre-statement of the majority and concurring opinions in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton .

Here in the city of St. Louis anecdotal evidence is that there were many illegal abortions but that prosecutions, in the words of a Circuit (prosecuting) Attorney of the early 1960s, “were few and far between.” Prosecution followed only an “abortion gone wrong,” that is, when the woman had to enter the hospital. The police were simply not referring illegal abortions to the Circuit Attorney.

Glendon comments that “when reading Roe and Doe , it is surprising to see how little [the decisions] have to say about protecting women and how much they have to do with protecting doctors.

The century-old statutes criminalizing abortion except to save the life of the mother did not threaten the woman who procured an abortion with criminal action; only the providers of the abortion fell within the prohibition. The same was true of the statutes adding the health exception.

The 1973 decisions described a preexisting seriously chaotic condition of the laws criminalizing abortions affecting large numbers (likely millions) of human beings. If one is inclined to translate moral standards into laws, the question arises whether the laws in the United States criminalizing abortion were being enforced and, more serious, whether these laws were enforceable. I take it we are all agreed that laws that are not enforceable are not just.

Professor Glendon expresses hope for the future. If her hopes include a reversal of Roe v. Wade or a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion, she should be careful what she hopes for. The chaotic legal and human conditions of the 1960s and earlier may return and everyone, even those who then did not recognize these conditions for what they were, would be fully aware of them.

James F. McCarthy
St. Louis, Missouri


Among the many excellent qualities of Mary Ann Glendon is her candor. In speaking of a “mating market,” she identifies an important truth that is too often denied or suppressed”namely, that the search for romantic companionship involves factors of supply and demand that lend themselves to economic reasoning.

Professor Glendon notes what we might describe as the macroeconomic impact of the baby boom, which created a de facto surplus of 1.7 million marriageable young women in the mid-1960s. As any economist would predict, this imbalance caused women to engage in a social version of “discounting,” e.g., acquiescing to pressure for premarital sex, tolerating abusive behavior by men, or “marrying down.” Similarly, eligible men who found a surfeit of desirable women competing for their interest might well become excessively picky, expecting women to live up to unrealistic ideals, whether those ideals were traditional (“Ozzie and Harriet”) or hedonistic (the Playboy centerfold).

One of the hindrances to understanding the forces that influence romantic behavior”either in the macro- or microeconomic sphere”is that many people strongly deny even the existence of the “mating market.” Much of this resistance is feminist in nature: women feel insulted to think of themselves as commodities (supply) in a market where men are generally viewed as consumers (demand). But much of the resistance comes from hyper-individualistic idealism, the insistence that each of us is so unique and self-determining as to be utterly independent of any social influence.

Prof. Glendon is to be congratulated for her recognition that the mystery of romance can be at least partially demystified through the application of market models.

Robert Stacey McClain
Gaithersburg, Maryland



Mary Ann Glendon replies:


James F. McCarthy’s letter shows how difficult it has been to dispel three myths that have clouded rational discussion of the abortion question in this country.

Myth No. 1: The incidence of abortion, legal and illegal, was very high prior to Roe v. Wade . The estimate in the ABA Journal article cited by Mr. McCarthy was based exclusively on the notoriously unreliable figures of Alfred Kinsey, which have been specifically rejected as unsubstantiated by Planned Parenthood itself. For years, however, pro-abortion activists have insisted that illegal abortions were responsible for five to ten thousand deaths a year. As Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a founder of the predecessor organization to the National Abortion Rights Action League, later admitted, “I confess that I knew the figures were totally false . . . but it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics. The overriding concern was to get the laws eliminated, and anything within reason which had to be done was permissible.” There have been a number of subsequent, careful analyses, separating fact from fiction, concluding that abortion rates did rise significantly after Roe and pointing out that women have been insufficiently informed of safety and health issues involved in legal abortions. See, for example, Clarke D. Forsythe’s article “The Effective Enforcement of Abortion Law Before Roe v. Wade ,” in The Silent Subject: Reflections on the Unborn in American Culture .

Myth No. 2: The abortion decisions were mainly about criminal penalties for abortion. As emphasized in my article, what made the U.S. abortion decisions far more extreme than abortion legislation in most other liberal democracies is that Doe v. Bolton and subsequent cases invalidated even modest noncriminal regulations designed to provide women with full information and to establish a review process that would at least protect healthy unborn children capable of surviving outside the mother’s body. To this day, abortion advocates resist the imposition of any restrictions on the abortion license issued by the Supreme Court in 1973.

Myth No. 3: To return the abortion question to states to be resolved by the ordinary processes of bargaining, education, persuasion, and voting would invite legal chaos. Far from producing chaos, the decisions of European countries to leave most aspects of the regulation of abortion up to the elected representatives of the people have produced laws that are more protective of unborn life, more respectful of women’s intelligence and autonomy, and more conducive to democratic decision-making than the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions from Roe and Doe onward. Even pro-choice Europeans are shocked by what is arguably the most extreme of these decisions, Steinberg v. Carhart (2000), which struck down a legislative ban on partial-birth abortion.

Lives of Pi

Randy Boyagoda’s review of Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi (May) demotes the book that last year received England’s most coveted literary award to the level of a religious tract.

Whether the function of literature is to edify, flex the imagination, or both is debatable, but I cannot share Mr. Boyagoda’s confidence that Martel intended his Pi to preach. I am no more a fan of postmodernity’s infatuation with undecidability than Mr. Boyagoda is, but every great novel and poem is textured by multivalent levels of meaning and I see Martel deploying this device with great artistry. I closed his book unsure if Pi ends his narrative thinking that there actually was a tiger in his lifeboat or that what he has described is the long delirium his dire straits plunged him into until he was rescued. Which by my lights is exactly where Martel intends to leave his readers.

As for the religious syncretism that Mr. Boyagoda targets as the book’s message”does it have a message?”it is no more than finger work, but even there Martel understands India better than Mr. Boyagoda does. When the Pope visited India several years back and a Western reporter asked an Indian why Hindus and Muslims were turning out in such numbers to welcome a Catholic pope, the man replied, “We Indians believe everything.”

Huston Smith
Berkeley, California


Randy Boyagoda replies:

Huston Smith provides three points to consider regarding the success, nature, and message of Yann Martel’s novel.

I think he invests too much in Martel’s novel winning “England’s most coveted literary award” last year as a sign of the work’s quality. Some have contended that the choice was less a reflection of Martel’s aesthetic achievement and more a rejoinder to those who accuse the Booker Prize people of keeping, of late, to a rather closed and predictable set of tastes”Atwood, Swift, Ondaatje, MacEwan, etc.

Mr. Smith’s second point is that there is a profound difference between “postmodernity’s infatuation with undecidability” and the “multivalent levels of meaning” that characterize a masterwork of literature. I agree altogether with this distinction, but in comparison with other twentieth-century authors who write on the fine line between playful doubt and productive ambiguity”Raymond Quineau, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and above all others, Flannery O’Connor”I cannot place Martel on the side of the great postmodernists as based upon the belief games that arise in Life of Pi . Martel’s novel lacks the epistemological depths and narrative structures that O’Connor et al. demonstrate are necessary to bring forth multiple meanings from single moments.

Finally, there is the matter of the importance of religion to the novel’s overall meaning. Finding serious flaws in Martel’s approach does not demote the novel into “a religious tract,” as Mr. Smith complains I do, but, rather, seeks to indicate the high stakes that arise when a novel sets out with a profound ambition”to make us believe in God. As for my understanding of religion in India, by no means do I present myself as an expert in this area. A scholar of Mr. Smith’s stature has a much deeper grasp of religion than I or perhaps Martel for that matter; it is unfortunate he chose to base his closing argument upon a throwaway line from a news report. But to clarify my position: I find fault with Martel’s approach to religion in India for two reasons. First, he provides a myopic rendering of interreligious dialogue”see especially the mawkish meeting between Pi’s religious teachers early in the novel. Second, through the actions of his protagonist, Martel too playfully unhinges religious components from various faiths and then mixes them into a personalized celebration of misty spirituality that seems a far cry from authentic syncretism.

Impressions of Hume

It is certainly perspicacious to link David Hume with Jane Austen, as does Rodney Delasanta in his article “Hume, Austen, and First Impressions” (June/July). While their lives overlapped for only one year, they were both masters of clear, witty insight, and they both wrote in a brilliant lapidary English.

Unfortunately, Professor Delasanta’s central thesis about “impressions” is flawed. He notes that according to Hume, impressions are strong and vivid, while ideas derived from them are “feeble.” In contrast Austen portrays central characters who have mistaken first impressions about others. On the surface this would seem to involve contradictory views about the status of impressions.

But there really is no conflict of opinion here, because the two writers used the term “impression” in two completely different senses. Hume used the term to refer to immediate sense experience. Austen used the term, not as a technical epistemological expression, but rather in the commonsense meaning of early uncritical judgment, as for example when I might say, “I thought Jones was mean because of the first impression I had of him when he had a sour expression on his face, but I soon learned that he was friendly and generous.”

Charles Evans
Department of Philosophy
City College of New York
New York, New York

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single interpretation of any great philosopher must be in want of correction. Although the marriage of literary and philosophical criticism in Rodney Delasanta’s “Hume, Austen, and First Impressions” is welcome, his interpretation of Hume makes the mistake that plagues many of Austen’s characters: it is a caricature of a character, based on misleading “first impressions.”

Professor Delasanta suggests that Austen subtly refutes Hume’s “radical skepticism” in her novels, which appeal to the viability and necessity of universal ideas and each tell in their own way against the pitfalls of believing in first impressions. Austen, says Prof. Delasanta, inverts Hume’s ordering of perceptions, which gives impressions pride of place and makes ideas their woefully inferior children. This is a bizarre interpretation of Hume, who spent a lifetime examining and disseminating ideas. Although Hume says in the Enquiry that “the most lively thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation,” context and charity make it clear that he refers here only to the phenomenological vivacity of impressions over ideas, not to any qualitative ordering, as Prof. Delasanta would have us believe.

Indeed, since Hume explains in the Treatise that there is no qualitative distinction between impressions and ideas, he certainly cannot mean that impressions are qualitatively superior to their less lively counterparts. The most fundamental Humean mechanisms which forward the intercourse of human sentiments would utterly fail without the contribution of ideas: we must have an idea of someone else’s suffering or joy before sympathy can enliven it into an impression, and the mechanism that produces the sort of pride that Hume finds so important is a double relation of impressions and ideas.

Prof. Delasanta’s real concern about Hume’s apparent dismissal of ideas involves Hume’s alleged rejection of “metaphysical realism.” Prof. Delasanta gets to this charge by way of Hume’s critique of certain theories of universals, which supposedly leads to “radical skepticism.” Radical skepticism and radical empiricism are of course not the same, although Prof. Delasanta seems to use the terms interchangeably. Nor does suspicion about metaphysical universals necessarily entail either. There are a number of philosophical positions to adopt here, and many philosophers confident in humanity’s ability to seek knowledge have counted themselves as empiricists and even nominalists.

But what is peculiarly problematic about calling Hume a radical skeptic is that the philosopher himself repeatedly considers and rejects Pyrrhonism, calling it “ excessive skepticism” in the Enquiry and classing it as a kind of insanity in the Treatise . It is not insignificant that Hume’s long discussions of skepticism come at the end of the first book of the Treatise and in the first Enquiry , before Hume’s discussion of the passions and morals. As scholars such as Annette Baier have taught us, we cannot learn from Hume if we ignore the structure of his whole texts. He dismisses popular objections to moral evidence as “weak” and openly ridicules the Pyrrhonist, whose principles, “as soon as they leave the shade, and by the presence of the real objects which actuate our passions and sentiments, are put in opposition to the more powerful principles of our nature . . . vanish like smoke, and leave the most determined skeptic in the same condition as other mortals.”

Hume’s proposed mitigated skepticism is unlikely to satisfy Prof. Delasanta’s desire for hard universals and metaphysical realism. Nor is Hume’s greater confidence in morals than in monads likely to charm such a critic. But then we must question how exactly Austen is meant to be the strong anti-Humean that Prof. Delasanta portrays. What evidence is it against Hume’s theory of morals or the passions that Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett are mistaken about one another for so long? What argument is given for conceiving of their enlightenment about each other as a “process of intellection” of a sort that Hume would reject? Surely Prof. Delasanta does not mean to suggest (although he surely does suggest) that Hume does not recognize the necessity and possibility of correcting one’s first impressions of another’s character. Just as we are not born with a fine-tuned appreciation for difficult music, neither are we born with the discernment needed to distinguish honorable from dishonorable characters. We must develop a standard of taste. And even if we have a fairly well-developed moral sense, we may certainly be misled by our tendency to sympathize more strongly with those closer to us in station”the impoverished Wickham rather than the wealthy Darcy, for example.

So Hume introduces the notion of the general point of view as a corrective to such tendencies. When Elizabeth reads Darcy’s letter pleading his case, her shame and humiliation are captured in a lament full of terms Hume would happily admit into philosophical discussion and moral argument”discernment, generosity, candor, vanity, folly, pleasure, ignorance, and yes, even reason. Hume is happy to admit the common use of the word “reason” and its usefulness in precisely such cases. Elizabeth concludes by saying, “Till this moment, I never knew myself,” and there would be no reason for Hume to disagree.

Moreover, the first line of Pride and Prejudice , which is surely sarcasm all the way down, cannot seriously be taken as evidence for any metaphysical view. (Which character, after all, could have uttered such a sentence in all seriousness? Only Mrs. Bennett, to be sure.) Hume’s appeals to universal acknowledgement of various truths about human nature, however, are clearly meant to support his own arguments and cannot be dismissed as an attempt to philosophize by taking an opinion poll.

Prof. Delasanta acknowledges that he is in danger of “reducing the complexity and humanity of Hume’s thought,” but he does not seem to take this danger as seriously as his thesis warrants. The effort and time Hume spent writing on ethical and political matters is ample evidence that Hume took such matters seriously, despite his metaphysical doubts. And yes, Austen surely would have quarreled with Hume’s religious views, and rightly so. But the charge that Hume errs in focusing on morals and manners rather than metaphysical doctrines would seem odd in the voice of such a novelist. The voice of one of her most admirable characters in Northanger Abbey , Eleanor Tilney, sounds far more Austenian when she instructs her young friend on the pleasures of the day’s histories: “If a speech be well drawn up, I read it with pleasure, by whomsoever it may be made”and probably with much greater, if the production of Mr. Hume or Mr. Robertson, than if the genuine words of Caractacus, Agricola, or Alfred the Great.”

Margaret Watkins Tate
Department of Philosophy
Baylor University
Waco, Texas


Rodney Delasanta replies:

I am well aware that when an idea is essayed (in Montaigne’s sense of the word) an assay will soon follow. Professors Evans and Tate have made compelling assay of my essay connecting Jane Austen’s first impressions back to David Hume’s. Their responses make epistemological distinctions, largely dependent on evidence from his Treatise of Human Nature , that I did not entertain.

But if I am right in assuming that Austen was disconcerted by Hume’s radical empiricism, then she would have responded more as a novelist than as a philosopher. Philosophy can clip the angel’s wings, as Keats wrote, and any work of fiction that contends with ideas as complex and threatening to the metaphysical and religious order as were David Hume’s must start out by simplifying the target. Could any novelist have negotiated the entire Treatise , which, as Hume himself lamented, “fell dead-born from the press”? More likely would Austen have been familiar, and taken issue, with his later, better-known Enquiries , which recast the original three-volume treatise and which, one might add, made the heterodox singularity of his ideas more vulnerable to riposte. Prof. Tate talks about my caricaturing of Austen’s characters, but in a sense any fiction that takes on a philosophical adversary must of necessity entertain some degree of caricature. Voltaire did so, unfairly, to Leibniz in Candide and Melville did it more deftly to Emerson in The Confidence Man , but in both cases and in many others the novelist could not have proceeded except by way of reductio . So too the dramatist. Consider what Aristophanes did to Socrates in The Clouds .

But let us keep our eyes squarely on the obvious. What would an observant Christian novelist like Jane Austen, the faithful daughter of an Anglican divine, have found objectionable in Hume? The same, I submit, that made Hume’s ideas exceptionable to a Christian like Samuel Johnson”or even to a quondam pietist Christian like Immanuel Kant, who, though profoundly influenced by Hume, took great pains to ameliorate the devastating implications of his epistemology. Prof. Tate bypasses my contention that Hume’s epistemological theories, which limited truth to what can be known only by the senses (that is, by impressions), effectively decommissioned metaphysics. Did not an admirer like Kant himself recognize that if Hume was right in his epistemology, philosophers could no longer ask the perennial philosophical questions? Hume’s was an epistemology with an agenda: it is not adventitious to his thought that he should have consigned books of metaphysics and theology to the flames.

While one should deplore the heavy-handed censorship that made the Index of Forbidden Books so opprobrious, no one can wonder why the censors found Hume a prime candidate for that infamous canon. If one prefers to describe his skepticism as “mitigated” rather than radical, so be it, but the effects of that mitigated skepticism on both metaphysics and religion remain radical”whatever the endorsed adjective. Hume was scornful of Christianity, and although his scorn found more gentlemanly articulation than did, say, Voltaire’s, he used his brilliance to undermine any support that metaphysics could offer it. Even in extremis his antipathy remained constant. Is there anything sadder (to a Christian at least) than Adam Smith’s account of Hume’s final illness, during which, despite his imperturbable gaiety in the face of death, the only prayer the great philosopher allowed himself was a fanciful petition to Charon the boatman that he be allowed more time to correct a new edition of his works or”tellingly”that he be granted “the satisfaction of seeing the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition ” (emphasis added)? How bravely did he face the imminence of death, but how devoid was that moment of even a shard of Christian consolation.

Is Open Too Open?

In his critical discussion of the open view of God (“What God Knows,” June/July), Timothy George maintains that evangelicals have become so accustomed to reading the Bible “in exegetical isolation from the gathered wisdom of the fathers, the schoolmen, and the reformers” that they have become “vulnerable to all kinds of aberrant ideas with alleged biblical support.” Those familiar with the writings of open theists know that they are not guilty of ignoring the tradition’s “gathered wisdom.” The recently published exchange of letters between Christopher Hall and John Sanders titled Does God Have a Future? would help to dispel this notion. Sanders, who presses the case for the open view, has a thorough grasp of and respect for church tradition.

The larger issue is the role that church tradition should play in our thinking about God. The same tradition that Prof. George cites as supporting God’s knowledge of future contingents also supports divine impassibility, the idea that God is unaffected by what goes on in the created order. Prof. George applauds open theists for emphasizing God’s interactions with His creatures. But this is tantamount to rejecting the “gathered wisdom” of the tradition. To be sure, some theologians recognized the tension between the doctrine of divine impassibility and the biblical portrait of a loving creator. Anselm puzzled over how God could be compassionate but feel no sympathy for His creatures. He concluded that God is compassionate in terms of our experience but not in terms of His being. Is it incumbent on evangelicals to accept this solution, which became standard in the tradition? Or may one attribute to God felt compassion as opposed to mere acts of benevolence ?

The appeal to the “gathered wisdom” of the tradition is no substitute for argument. Thomas Aquinas understood Aristotle’s reason for not attributing knowledge of the world to the unmoved mover. If God knows the world then God must be affected by the world, but Thomas was firmly committed to divine impassibility. In a brilliant but questionable move, he inverted the cognitive relation in God”God knows the world in virtue of being its primary cause. Again, that is part of the tradition. Open theists, following process theists, insist on the difficulties the Thomistic solution poses for human freedom. They advocate instead a view of the future as yet to be fully created, as genuinely open even for God. This does not yield, as Prof. George avers, a “seminiscient deity,” only a deity that knows all that it is possible to know (surely the core meaning of omniscience).

Open theists concede that theirs is an extreme minority view in the tradition and they accept the burden of proof this puts on them. They believe, however, that they have met the burden by retaining what is essential to the tradition (i.e., a loving, all-knowing, and providential creator) in a way that is more coherent than the views of their predecessors and that makes better overall sense of the biblical witness. It is conceivable that future evangelicals will regard open theists as arguing from a shallower tradition to a more profound one. This possibility should be reason enough to treat open theists with charity and to extend to them the same courtesy in controversy that one expects for oneself”here, at least, Prof. George and I are in agreement.

Donald Wayne Viney
Professor of Philosophy
Pittsburg State University
Pittsburg, Kansas

Timothy George focuses on philosophical consistency and biblical hermeneutics in his case against open theism. But open theism also gets the history of philosophy wrong, and it is time for critics of open theism to stop being complicit in their mistake. Professor George calls the Aristotelian God “static,” a word usually used to describe physical things in a passive state of rest, implying the absence of activity. But Aristotle’s insistence that God is unchanging follows from the requirement that God is pure actuality. Aristotle’s further description of the prime mover as “thought thinking itself” is not meant to describe an attitude of disinterest, but a life of perfect activity. (Hence it is also misleading for Prof. George to call Aristotle’s God “loveless.” Aristotle describes God, the ultimate Good, as the ultimate object of love, and as an activity that is identical with that object. In other words, God loves, and God is love.)

It is true that it is hard for us to comprehend a perfect activity which is always wholly fulfilling its purpose”and so “at rest” and “unchanging.” But if we wish to make claims about the notion of God in Greek metaphysics, and about the tradition of Christian theology which has made use of that notion, we are going to have to make the effort to understand Aristotle. A first step would be to stop calling Aristotle’s God “static.”

Joshua P. Hochschild
Department of Philosophy
Wheaton College
Wheaton, Illinois

In his article “What God Knows,” Timothy George argues against the open theist point of view concerning God’s knowledge of the future, or lack thereof. The open theist’s argument rests on a syllogism to the effect that 1) God cannot be wrong, 2) God knows the future, 3) Therefore God’s knowledge of the future cannot be wrong and a human cannot make an alternative choice, because to do so would be to prove God’s knowledge of the future wrong. Therefore the open theist logically argues that God does not know the future and keeps free will intact. Professor George’s argument is that Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote a hymn to the effect that free will and exhaustive foreknowledge are not exclusive. I was wondering if it would be possible to obtain a more convincing argument than one built from authority and nothing more.

Michael Rennier
St. Charles, Missouri


Timothy George replies:

Professor Donald Wayne Viney chides me for giving too much credence to church tradition and for applying it inconsistently with reference to divine foreknowledge and divine impassibility. First, let me say that I do not believe that all traditions are created equal. As a convinced Baptist, I think that large sectors of the Christian tradition have been wrong about the practice of infant baptism for a long time. But the nature and character of the God confessed at baptism is a more pressing issue in the hierarchy of truth. To deny God’s complete knowledge of the future is a serious departure from the depositum fidei , as taught by Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox theologians through the centuries, and should not be undertaken lightly”certainly not without more convincing arguments than process theologians and open theists have thus far advanced on its behalf. I am familiar with the Hall-Sanders exchange and see it as evidence for the point I have just made.

But what about impassibility? Again, confusion arises from a failure to see how this term has functioned in the history of theology. True enough, the language of impassibility is deeply embedded in patristic theology going back to Ignatius of Antioch. But, as G. L. Prestige has shown, apatheia as a divine attribute was understood by the early fathers to undergird God’s indefectible stability (Barth uses the word “constancy”) and perfect moral freedom. “It is clear that impassibility means not that God is inactive or uninterested, not that he surveys existence with Epicurean impassivity from the shelter of a metaphysical insulation, but that His will is determined from within instead of being swayed from without.” Understood in this sense, divine impassibility is no barrier to God’s self-giving love, but rather a guarantee that the God of the Bible is not like the fallible, mutable, passion-driven deities of the ancient world. Thus the Alexandrian school of Christology could say, in the language of paradox, “he suffered impassibly,” and Gregory of Nazian-zus, long before Luther, could speak of “a God hanging on a cross.” As Geoffrey Wainwright has noted, “Modern theologians with deistic or unitarian tendencies will obviously be unhappy” with such language, but it is the language of both Catholic liturgy and evangelical piety (“And can it be that thou my God shouldst die for me?””Charles Wesley).

Now apatheia is not a biblical word and it may well be that, given the meaning this term has assumed in a post-Cartesian world, we should no longer apply it to God. But that is a different move than the radical revisioning of the doctrine of God attempted by process and openist thinkers. The God Augustine describes in his Confessions ”creating, loving, supporting, filling, protecting, nurturing”is “impassible” in the historic sense but not unresponsive or “unaffected” by the world He has made. Rather, He is “unchangeable, yet changing all things, never new, never old, making all things new, yet bringing old age upon the proud, and they know it not; always working, ever at rest; gathering, yet needing nothing.” Only by denying this “yet . . . never . . . ever . . . yet” aspect do we get the caricatured deity of deism against which open theism (rightly) reacts with disdain.

Prof. Joshua P. Hochschild thinks that we should enlist Aristotle to help prove that open theism is not only theologically aberrant but also philosophically askew. Fine with me. But Christian theologians who drink Aristotle straight do so at their own peril. Even St. Thomas Aquinas, the great baptizer of Aristotle, understood that on the basis of reason alone, one could know that God is ( quod sit Deus ), but not what God is ( quid sit Deus ). The latter requires the self-revelation of the Triune God in Scripture and history. Remember there are good reasons why, in 1277, the Bishop of Paris found gnesio-Aristotelianism incompatible with the Christian faith. Aristotle, Luther said, is safe only for those who have first been made fools in Christ.

Aristotle’s understanding of God’s love falls far short of the Trinitarian model based on the incarnation and the atonement of Jesus Christ. The story of Jesus is not just a nice overlay on what we can know about God some other way. “If you have seen me,” said the Master, “you have seen the Father.” Open theists are not wrong to question certain forms of classical theism that reduce God to an impersonal monad devoid of communicability and love. But what they fail to see is that theologians of the Great Tradition from Irenaeus to Barth and von Balthasar also reject this kind of sterile deity. Faithful to Scripture, the consensual teachers of the Church invariably portray a dynamic, generous God who gives and loves, and even grieves and groans, without ever compromising His eternal freedom and holy Lordship over everything in heaven and on earth, the future no less than the past.

The statement, “Divine sovereignty and significant human freedom are not competitive exclusives,” is not a line from a Fosdick hymn, though I dare say that even that crusty old liberal would have agreed with it. Michael Rennier proves nothing by constructing a syllogism in response to which, he says, open theists deny God’s knowledge of future contingents. The real issue, of course, is what is meant by “alternative choice” or “free will.” Finally, I think I’ll stick with “seminiscient” as an apt term to describe the open theist construal of God’s knowledge. In a brilliant move anticipating Einstein’s theory of relativity by 1,500 years, Augustine in Book XI of the Confessions claims that space and time were cocreated by God simultaneously. Thus to say that God knows everything that can be known, except the future, and to call this omniscience is like saying that God can be everywhere one can go, except Texas, and to call this omnipresence.

Accentuate the Positive

Richard John Neuhaus comments in regard to the “solas” of Reformation Protestantism that “it is a terrible thing to learn your catechism against others,” i.e., against Catholic theology (While We’re At It, June/July). I wonder”would Father Neuhaus entertain similar reservations about the Nicene Creed? After all, it would seem “a terrible thing” to express one’s creed against others, in this case the Arians.

Mark Sidwell
Department of History
Bob Jones University
Greenville, South Carolina

RJN responds:

An interesting point, but in the Nicene Creed that I know and believe there is nary a mention of the Arians, whereas I have never seen a treatment of the “solas” that is not in explicit reference to the putative errors of Catholicism. It is true that every affirmative implies a negative, but one should learn one’s catechism in the affirmative.

How Many Categories?

May I suggest that Richard John Neuhaus’ analysis (“Why Aren’t Muslims Like Us?” Public Square, June/July) of Bernard Lewis’ essay in the Atlantic did not go quite far enough? Lewis creates a false dilemma by dividing Christians into triumphalists (who know that all who don’t hear about Christ go to hell, and seem to relish the thought) and relativists (who know that many who don’t hear about Christ won’t go to hell because they are faithful adherents of their own religions).

Father Neuhaus unmasks the fallacy by revealing a third category: those who know that some who don’t hear about Christ won’t go to hell, yet this salvation is still through the redemptive work of Christ. This is a good start, and I take Fr. Neuhaus’ word for it that at least since 1990 the Catholic Church “emphatically teaches that God denies nobody”Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, whatever”the grace necessary to salvation” and that they can be saved “whether or not they have heard of Christ.”

But there is at least one more category, and I agree with Fr. Neuhaus that it is a minority position. What about those of us who emphatically teach that God would not be unjust if he were to deny anybody ”“Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, whatever”the grace necessary to salvation,” since He is obligated to show grace to no one?

Fine distinctions can be tedious, but here it goes: we are those who don’t know that any of those who don’t hear won’t go to hell. Whether God chooses to save them or not is certainly His business, but in the end, the Lord “has mercy on whom He desires.” Is it theologically naïve to suggest that Scripture might have something to say about all this? Something like “how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” Catholics and Protestants alike have sent out boatloads of missionaries for several hundred years precisely because they believed there was “no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved.” That seems to have an apostolic ring to it.

(The Rev.) Steve Bateman
First Bible Church of Decatur
Decatur, Alabama

RJN responds:

Fine distinctions are more rare than tedious. I’m not sure that what Pastor Bateman proposes requires a fourth category. The sovereign God is not obligated to save any, but He desires to save all, and so denies the necessary grace to none, which may be rejected by some, perhaps by many. In any event, we are agreed on the apostolic missionary mandate.

Confusion on Capital Punishment

Richard John Neuhaus’ comments in While We’re At It (June/July) regarding capital punishment have caused me confusion. Father Neuhaus apparently agrees with Dean Mark A. Sargent of Villanova Law School that the Pope’s capital punishment teaching “[was] not made with the authority that requires the faithful obedience of all Catholics and Catholic institutions, unlike the Church’s position on abortion.”

While the status of the Church’s death penalty teaching is surely inferior to its position on abortion, does that fact permit disobedience? True, the capital punishment teaching was not promulgated ex cathedra. But Lumen Gentium states, “Religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra.” The Council further explains that “judgments made by [the pope] are [to be] sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.”

In the case of capital punishment, John Paul has unambiguously declared his mind and will in an encyclical, in several public addresses, and even in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church . I’ll acknowledge that the death penalty teaching is untraditional, and perhaps simply prudential, but it nonetheless appears to easily meet the requirements laid out in Lumen Gentium . So why are Catholics entitled to disobey?

Joseph Miller
Ann Arbor, Michigan

RJN responds:

Quoting the encyclical Evangelium Vitae , the Catechism states that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’” I agree. It is in no way a question of “disobeying” the Magisterium if, for instance, one has a different estimate than the Pope with respect to how rare such cases are, or if one notes that an action may be morally permissible but not absolutely necessary. For a more thorough discussion of the Church’s teaching on capital punishment, see Avery Cardinal Dulles’ “Catholicism & Capital Punishment” (FT, April 2001).