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Correspondence

(December 1998)



Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 88 (December 1998): 2-8.


Religion and (or?) Freedom of Conscience


In his fine essay “The Most New Thing in the Novus Ordo Seclorum
(Public Square, August/September) ,
Richard John Neuhaus points out John Noonan’s seeming tendency to “conflate religion with freedom of conscience.”


If Noonan does indeed blur the distinction between the two items, he is only the latest in a long procession going back to the great articulator of the “most new thing,” James Madison. Consider just one example.


In a set of resolutions submitted by Madison to the First Congress we find the term “rights of conscience” as a third item after the prohibition of the abridgment of civil rights on account of religious belief and the prohibition of the establishment of a “national religion.” The wording is strong: “ . . . nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner or on any pretexts infringed.”


Are we to conclude that Madison viewed the free exercise of religion as one of a number of “rights of conscience,” the others being best left unspecified? Or is the expression “rights of conscience” simply intended, in a kind of legal/literary parallelism, to mean the same thing as the “free exercise of religion”?


Richard J. Niebank

Delhi, NY


RJN replies:


This is a big question. There are parallels, overlaps, similarities, and the like between religious freedom and freedom of conscience. But, both historically and at present, they should not be conflated. Especially is that the case today when, in contrast to Madison’s time, “conscience” is often equated with individualistic choice disconnected from moral reasoning or truth.



This Is Theology?


Having just read Lee Smolin’s book The Life of the Cosmos , I was stunned
to find Peter J. Leithart saying, in his comments entitled “Theories
of Everything” (August/September)
, that while he had decided to read this
book out of a “newly found appreciation for science fiction,” he found it to
be “neither fiction nor science,” but that he “had picked up a book of theology”
instead.


The central point that Mr. Leit hart apparently considers the book to illustrate is that “every ‘theory of the whole universe’ is necessarily theological, and even approaches some kind of doctrine of ‘revelation.’” But in fact one of the main reasons the book was written, according to its author, was to show that this is not the case; and Mr. Leithart’s comments on the book are so directly opposed, not only to the author’s explicit intentions but to the contents of the work as well, that I cannot help but feel that Mr. Leithart has either not read the entire book or else has not read it very carefully.


The heuristic of modern natural science is to explain nature, and natural phenomena, entirely in terms of the natural, without reference to the supernatural, or to the intentions or acts of any Supreme Being or deity. The Life of the Cosmos is primarily an attempt to vindicate this heuristic by suggesting a conceptual scheme unifying the two chief theories of contemporary physics (quantum mechanics and general relativity) by means of which “the world must be understood to be the result of processes of self“organization, and not just a reflection of fixed and eternal natural law.”


To explain nature by means of the supernatural might qualify as natural theology, but not as natural science. The Life of the Cosmos is not any kind of “theology,” for reasons that are summarized in the section entitled “Epilogue/Evolutions,” following the last chapter:


So there never was a God, no pilot who made the world by imposing order on chaos and who remains outside, watching and proscribing . . . . The world will always be here . . . . There is nothing behind it, no absolute or platonic world to transcend to. All there is of Nature is what is around us. All there is of Being is relations among real, sensible things.


I don’t think I could write a more sweeping rejection of the beliefs of the world’s principal theistic religions (by which I mean Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). But if this book can meaningfully be called a work of “theology,” then I am quite at a loss to imagine what a work of “atheism” would look like.


Edmund Weinmann

Huntington, NY


Peter J. Leithart replies:


Edmund Weinmann misconstrues my critical comments on Lee Smolin’s book as a summary of its thesis. I did not say that Smolin argues that all science is theological, which is manifestly not his view. I argued that, in spite of himself, Smolin makes theologically loaded claims. That is to say, the naturalism of modern science is collapsing under the weight of scientific evidence, hardly an original insight.



Look Homeward


As one who has been trying for twenty“seven years as a parish priest to answer
the question her teenage students put to Amy Welborn (“Why
Go to Mass?” August/September)
, I wish to add to the discussion she began.


I thank God I can say that I have always been assigned to parishes where both clergy and those in religious education have had a sense of liturgy and Church that accords with the goals of Ms. Welborn. Of course, things do not always go as planned, but parishioners have always known that these parishes tried to worship and teach according to the mind of the Church. As a matter of fact, I still have the joy each week of teaching our high school religious education class. Perhaps our results over the years are better than those experienced by Ms. Welborn, but I would not bank on it. In other words, I regularly have the experience of telling young people why they are obliged under pain of sin to assist at Mass, of having them agree that they are bound by Church law, and then, the following Sunday, of knowing that many of them do not come. Why not?


My best guess has to do with what I call a disconnect between head and heart. Because so much of their experience tells them that what they feel is the criterion for decision, the boredom they feel at Mass trumps what their heads may tell them about worship, Real Presence, or Church law.


However, there are wonderful exceptions to this widespread phenomenon. I have in mind the considerable number of young people who never abandon the practice of the faith, whatever disappointments they encounter in liturgy and preaching. Most of these young people seem to come from homes where faith is lived, loved, and, very importantly, frequently discussed. That means, it seems to me, that the home”as so many papal documents have said”must be the primary teacher. When parents do that teaching, with patience, joy, love, and wisdom, the attractiveness of faith is hard not to accept. In terms of the mechanics of passing on the faith (I am not speaking here of the essential grace of the sacraments), the parish reinforces and backs up the life in the home.


Monsignor Thomas M. Wells

Our Lady of Lourdes Parish

Bethesda, MD



Upping the Ante


In his helpful and thought-provoking review of Patrick Glynn’s God:
The Evidence
(August/September)
, Edward T. Oakes seems to provide some
ironic self“reference on the meaning of religious belief in our age. While naming
Patrick Glynn’s use of Pascal’s Wager “Pascalianism in a minor key,” Professor
Oakes plays the Wager in a tune to which Pascal might also have neither hummed
nor drummed.


Pascal’s Wager is not to choose belief but to wager that “He is.” Pascal does not think that humans choose belief in God: “Faith is a gift of God” ( Pensées , item 279). To wager “He is” is to become a seeker, following the way of others “who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions,” “by the abatement of your passions,” “taking holy water, having masses said, etc.” ( Pensées , item 233).


The version of the “famous gambler’s calculation” transmitted by Prof. Oakes evokes the rap our age repeats: the simplified, the individualized, the existentialist’s karaoke, playing Me as center.


Bruce N. Lundberg

Pueblo, CO


Edward T. Oakes replies:


I quite agree with Bruce N. Lundberg that Pascal holds faith to be a gift from God. Therefore, Pascal does not mean to suggest that his famous Wager could lead someone to faith in God independently of the grace of God (a common misunderstanding of Pascal’s Wager frequently perpetrated in undergraduate courses in the philosophy of religion). Thorough Augustinian that he was, Pascal knew quite well that to become a believer is to become, not a notional assentor, but a committed seeker”which is obviously more a matter of praxis than of yes“or“no belief. Hence his recommendation to any reader intrigued by the logic of his Wager to act as if God exists by “taking holy water, having masses said, etc.,” actions which will bring subjective faith in their wake for those who have the courage to try the bracing regimen. But of course this recombination of Pascal’s to make the wager with behavior and not just cogitating undermines the basis of Mr. Lundberg’s accusation: that I favor a subjective choice of belief over the (presumably more objective?) wager that “He is.” I don’t want to rehearse the hoary debate between Pascal and the Jesuits here, but one does not undermine the assertion that faith is a gift of God by saying that faith also means choosing to believe that God exists. Faith, after all, denotes the human response to God, and whether one calls the response a “wager” or a “choice to believe” seems, at least at the level of an ordinary book review, to be making a distinction without a difference.



Does God Speak in Code?


In William A. Dembski’s review of Jeffrey Satinover’s book Cracking
the Bible Code
(August/September)
, we are told that “advocates of the
Bible Code have jeopardized their careers, converted to orthodox Judaism, refocused
their research, and in some cases changed disciplines.” However, if Christians
are correct that the Old Testament sets the stage for the New and points people
to the culminating prophet Jesus, then shouldn’t we expect some code data that
evoke Christian conversions? The names of specific rabbis are not what Christians
would expect to see in a Bible Code, for such people did not regard Jesus as
Israel’s Messiah, God’s incarnate Son, and the Savior of the world.


Whatever the specific revelations allegedly discovered by code“breakers, I see three problems with the whole idea of coded messages hidden in the Old Testament. Dembski recognizes one”sensitivity to copying errors. He apparently solves the problem by assuming that “generations of obsessive“compulsive scribes” made no errors. Now there’s a leap of faith!


Secondly, Dembski fails to mention what one can extract from secular literature by playing the identical game. Why not apply the same technique to Gone With the Wind and see whether a certain letter“selection scheme doesn’t come up with Clark Gable? Would that mean that Margaret Mitchell is God?


Finally”and of greatest importance”is the whole idea that God’s way of revealing Himself is through subtle miracle (sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?). In his first letter to Corinthian Christians, the apostle Paul wrote, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom; but we preach Christ Jesus, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”


Paul’s way was to proclaim clearly the truth in Jesus Christ with no mincing or equivocation. I think he would be horrified to see people playing computer games with the text of the Bible. He would likely modify Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man, concluding with the statement: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone’s computer sees Maimonides or Billy Graham hidden in the biblical text.”


Edwin A. Olson

Spokane, WA


William A. Dembski replies:


I will address Edwin A. Olson’s concerns in order. First, advocates of the Bible Code have indeed jeopardized their careers. That’s a fact, and it can be verified. What’s more, such losses to careers are entirely consistent with the current state of the academy, which tends to reward conformity and penalize genuine innovation.


Second, if Christian themes have failed to be discovered in the Bible Code, this may be (1) because the Bible Code is an experimental artifact (I allowed that possibility in my review), (2) because the Bible Code, though genuine, happens not to confirm New Testament themes, or (3) because the Bible Code, though genuine and confirming New Testament themes, has not been thoroughly examined for such themes.


It’s worth remembering that literacy in the languages of the Bible tends to be far better among Jews than Christians. Jewish children frequently learn Hebrew from their rabbi. I can’t think of one Christian pastor or priest who teaches Greek in Sunday school (which is not to say they don’t exist). Olson’s question””Shouldn’t we expect some code data that evoke Christian conversions?””presupposes that Christians have actually tried to look for such data. I don’t know whether they have, and Satinover didn’t address this question.


Third, I did not assume that Jewish scribes made no errors in transcribing the Torah. I wrote that “the textual transmission of the Hebrew Bible, and especially of the Torah, is far more accurate than anything else in antiquity.” The textual transmission of the Torah is excellent, but it is not perfect (some errors have crept in). On the other hand, the degree of accuracy of that transmission is the best we have prior to printing. This last claim is not a “leap of faith.” It is a fact that every textual critic of the Bible knows. It is confirmed by noting how texts vary over time. In the case of the Torah, the variation is minuscule.


Fourth, in my review I did allow that other texts might have codes. Skeptics of the Bible Code claim to have found codes in non“sacred literature, and the results of their research can be found on the web. It is very much an open question whether the Bible Code is specific to the Old Testament.


Fifth, as for using codes to determine that Margaret Mitchell is God, I stressed in my review that the safest approach to the Bible Code is as an authentication scheme. An authentication scheme validates something without adding to its content. Thus my signature validates a contract without changing the content of the contract. As an authentication scheme, the code would be incapable of delivering a claim like “Margaret Mitchell is God.”


Sixth, Mr. Olson takes offense at what he calls “subtle miracles.” Subtle miracles are indeed an oxymoron, since the word miracle derives from the Latin verb mirari , meaning to inspire wonder or amazement, and subtlety obviously is not the way to achieve wonder. But the Bible Code, if genuine, would not properly be a miracle. Indeed, nowhere in my review did I suggest that it might constitute a miracle. I wrote that if the Bible Code is genuine, it constitutes a “preprogrammed time capsule.” Preprogrammed time capsules are not properly miracles but signs.


Signs point to realities beyond themselves. They can be miraculous or non“miraculous. They can be clear or they can be obscure. Sometimes their obscurity disappears in the light of new information. According to Christians, for instance, many prophecies of the Old Testament point to (i.e., signify) Jesus as Messiah. Such prophecies are signs. Yet some of them are subtle signs that do not become clear until they are explicitly connected with the life of Jesus. Hence to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus had to explain how the Old Testament prophecies actually were signs of his coming (see Luke 24).


In conclusion, I find Mr. Olson’s concerns about the Bible Code unfounded. True, Bible Code researchers have yet to produce conclusive evidence for the genuineness of the Bible Code and for the uniqueness of the code to the Old Testament. Even so, I resist dismissing the Bible Code simply on a priori grounds. If the evidence should decisively support a code, then so be it. I myself remain agnostic about the code. Nonetheless, I resist all armchair speculations about why the code can’t work.



Why Pat Buchanan Is Right


Andrew J. Bacevich’s review of Pat Buchanan’s book The
Great Betrayal
(August/September)
criticizes Buchanan for building his
arguments based on historical precedent. Though Buchanan is no economist, his
argument is correct, but he is not able to deal with the technicalities. “Free
trade” is built on the assumption that (1) capital and labor are immobile, and
(2) there is full employment of all economic resources in the economies of the
trading nations. The first assumption was true in Adam Smith’s time. It no longer
is. The second assumption was never true. Since free trade is built on faulty
assumptions, the results must be false.


The results are just as Buchanan finds them. The Wall Street Journal (August 28) reports that U.S. border towns are suffering from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Free trade is the equivalent to operating the highway system with no traffic laws. It places the United States into direct drive with the rest of the world. If there is no transmission and no brakes, the U.S. economy runs too fast when it goes downhill (good times) and is in danger of stalling out when it goes uphill (hard times). An economy needs both brakes and a transmission. A tariff acts as both brakes and transmission with respect to the outside world.


This does not mean that the United States should not trade. Rather it means that the tariff can act as a buffer between the United States and the rest of the world. Free trade has led to dependency on exports in the grain and other sectors of the economy. The collapse of the Asian and Russian economies has led to severe pain in those export sectors. Buchanan’s book has documented the pain in import competing sectors.


Had a sufficient tariff on imports existed, exports in the selected sectors would have been smaller. With lower dependence on exports, their pain in the current markets would have been substantially less. Now both export and import sectors are suffering. Buchanan is right. He bases his case on historical precedent, but there is substantial economic theory to support him. Unfortunately, the old“time ivory tower economists have brainwashed our politicians on the subject. A growing number of economists dealing with the real world no longer favor free trade.


Lawrence Briskin

Centerville, OH



Andrew J. Bacevich has misrepresented the underlying premise of Pat Buchanan’s criticism of “America’s slavish devotion to global free trade.” If he had been intellectually honest, he would have acknowledged that Buchanan accepts the notion that free trade among all nations is a desirable goal. Indeed, he uses the example of free trade between the states of the union to illustrate the value of unrestricted trade among peoples with common goals and ideals. What Buchanan argues is that we don’t live in an ideal world, and to implement a trade policy that assumes we do is suicidal. Our current policy of dismantling all trade barriers at any cost and regardless of what our trading partners are doing in return is absurd. It is destroying our way of life and is not encouraging other governments to trade fairly or to behave morally.


The U.S. has laws protecting the safety, health, and environment of American workers. What is sensible about shutting down the factories that comply with these laws in order to ship them abroad to support the corrupt and oppressive governments which exploit their workers, have no regard for their health and safety, and destroy the environment? For this and the promise of cheap consumer goods we are asking American workers to sacrifice their jobs? If for no other reason, as advocates of justice and morality we should see the hypocrisy and perniciousness of such a policy.


But, in my view, this is not even the most serious flaw in our present trading policies that Buchanan exposes in his book. One of the reasons we won the Second World War was because of our ability to manufacture military hardware faster than it was consumed or destroyed by the war. We recently witnessed an attack by the U.S. on a small terrorist operation that utilized more than seventy cruise missiles. In a full“fledged war, you can imagine how many of these and other missiles, smart bombs, and military hardware are needed every day. I doubt very many Americans realize that a significant number of the critical, high“tech components needed to assemble those missiles are imported from foreign factories.


After using up our small stockpile of parts, we are totally dependent on the ability of those foreign factories to crank out hardware in order for us to continue engaging the enemy and defending our country. Factories within the U.S. can be controlled and defended in times of national emergency. Who’s going to defend those foreign factories? Or, God forbid, what if our enemy owns those factories? The irony of the discussion about deploying a missile defense system for the United States is that our enemies don’t even have to hit targets within the United States in order to cripple our ability to engage in a protracted conventional war.


Our choice is not between free trade and protectionism, as those who profit from unrestricted free trade would like us to believe. It is a matter of trading in a sensible manner and selectively using protective tariffs to defend and preserve America and her way of life”even if we sometimes have to put the interests of our nation and our people ahead of corporate profits.


The Great Betrayal is not a “sterile exercise in nostalgia,” as Mr. Bacevich asserts. Rather, it is a perceptive review of the history that got us here and a sober analysis of where we are headed if we persist on our present course of “sacrificing American sovereignty and social justice to the gods of the global economy.”


Jay R. Seaver

Longmont, CO



Jews and the Slave Trade


Lawrence Grossman’s review of Saul S. Friedman’s book on Jews
and the American Slave Trade
(Briefly Noted, August/September)
prompts
me to note three aspects of that effort not previously covered in the literature
on this newest wrinkle in the libeling of the Jewish people: (1) The number
of slaveholders of Jewish descent was very low for the simple demographic fact
that Jewish settlements in the South were few and located in mostly urban enclaves.
(2) Jewish landowners of large estates or mansions were even more sparse, although
it is true that Jews entered the cotton refining industry, mostly after the
Civil War. (3) The laws and prescriptions of the Jewish faith against slavery
as set forth in the Holy Scriptures represented an enormous theological and
ideological impediment to slaveholding. This is not to say that Professor Friedman
ignores evidence of Jewish trafficking in slavery. It is to say that this is
the first book to fully expose the legends expounded by Louis Farrakhan and
his wing of the Nation of Islam. It need only be added that Minister Farrakhan
has thus far ducked every question and rationalized every ounce of evidence
with respect to the Muslim slave trade in nations like the Sudan.


Irving Louis Horowitz

Department of Sociology

Rutgers University

New Brunswick, NJ



The vitriolic nature of Lawrence Grossman’s review of my Jews and the American Slave Trade demands a response. Before writing this book, I was warned by others who had ventured into the field that the subject would bring contumely upon me from a wide range of critics. Indeed, one preliminary review argued that the book should not be published because it would supply additional data to anti“Semites. Grossman is wrong, however, if he believes the book was written under “the naive assumption that bigots can be reformed by factual evidence.” Nowhere in the 326 pages of this text do I make such a contention. My purpose, elucidated in the preface and summary chapters, is to refute charges made by the Nation of Islam and to offer information for Jews and Gentiles alike, many of whom have told me personally they are confused about the role of Jews in the slave trade. As I indicate in the conclusion: “Scholars, clergy, and laymen of every background must refute this old/new libel publicly and often. Blacks and Jews especially must educate their own constituents and disavow mutual contempt. In the end, we all must be reminded how for decades, for whatever reasons (altruism, moral conscience, guilt, self“help, expedience), two peoples have stood, marched, and wept together.” Perhaps this prose was too “clumsy” or “numbing” for Grossman. Perhaps it is “morally simplistic.” If I have made errors in the text (a knowledgeable correspondent for the Simon Wiesenthal Center pointed out several which he did not consider “alarming”), they still do not compare with Grossman’s assumption that I hoped to convert Farrakhan’s minions, Grossman’s disregard for my warning to the reader that a lie must repeatedly be refuted, Grossman’s invention that “according to him [Friedman], Jews as a group were never rich or powerful enough to control anything,” or the arrogance that informs Grossman’s review.


Saul S. Friedman

Department of History

Youngstown State University

Youngstown, OH


Lawrence Grossman replies:


Irving Louis Horowitz writes that Jews and the American Slave Trade breaks new ground by pointing out that there were few Jewish slaveholders because, first, most Jews lived in the North, and, second, those in the South tended to live in cities. These are truisms that hardly justify the publication of a 326“page volume. His third claim for the book”that it shows how “the laws and prescriptions of the Jewish faith against slavery as set forth in the Holy Scriptures” made it religiously problematic to own slaves”is an apt example of the historical inaccuracy and naivete that mar the book. The overwhelming majority of American rabbis, North and South”presumably authorities on “Holy Scriptures””had no religious qualms whatsoever about slavery. Furthermore, while pious Jews throughout history have consulted rabbis on points of Jewish law, one cannot imagine antebellum Southern Jews, whose observance of basic scriptural laws like the Sabbath and the dietary requirements was minimal, taking seriously any rabbinic judgment against such a basic social institution as slavery, even had one been offered.


Saul S. Friedman’s letter demonstrates why readers will have a difficult time getting through his book.