What Jesus Said
Richard B. Hays' critical analysis of The Five Gospels: The Search
for the Authentic Words of Jesus ("The Corrected Jesus," May) was
estimable in every way. I would add only a few brief comments.
Hays notes that the criterion of dissimilarity was used by the Jesus
Seminar to sort out the authentic words of Jesus, and that this
criterion serves to authenticate only those words that are discontinuous
with antecedent Jewish tradition and subsequent Christian tradition. The
criterion is implied in the very distinction between the "Jesus of
history" and the "Christ of faith." The gratuitous assumption that the
canonical gospels, despite their obvious confessional character, contain
nothing that illumines the historical Jesus is established prior to the
reconstruction of the so-called "Jesus of history." What is gratuitously
assumed, of course, deserves to be gratuitously rejected by critical
audiences. Any distinction between the "Jesus of history" and the
"Christ of faith" requires an examination of what is given and taken
away a priori in the distinction itself.
Secondly, the scholars of the Jesus Seminar laud their methodology
excessively. The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer has pointed out the
dangers of method-dependent scholarship. Since the time of Descartes and
through the Enlightenment, it has been maintained that method is the
guarantor of truth. In Truth and Method Gadamer has argued,
quite effectively I suggest, that no method is capable of screening the
personal prejudices of any interpreter. It is evident from Hays'
decisive review that the methodology of the Jesus Seminar itself was
apparently designed to promote a particular view of Jesus.
John Dominic Crossan is a cochairman of the Jesus Seminar and author of
The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish
Peasant. Crossan defends the legitimacy of the Seminar's
conjectures and defends his own methodology, one that is close to the
approach of the Jesus Seminar. The method, unfortunately, did not save
Crossan from self-delusion. The Jesus he reconstructed, in my reading,
is a mere conveyance used by Crossan to promote his social vision and
political ideology. How peculiar, I thought after reading The
Historical Jesus, that Crossan's Jesus preached the utopian
egalitarianism, the rejection of hierarchical structures, and the
liberationist ideology so currently popular on university campuses.
Finally, after all these centuries we possess, thanks to Professor
Crossan, the actual ideology of the historical Jesus!
In his review of The Five Gospels, Richard B. Hays is too hard
on the scholars of the Jesus Seminar in one respect and too easy on them
Hays criticizes the Seminar for its early dating of the extracanonical
Gospel of Thomas. His paragraph on this is a study in rhetorical sleight
of hand; it begins by calling this choice of date "extraordinar[y],"
"controversial," and "[un]traditional," and ends by calling it
"implausible"-as if that's the same thing. By not explaining what's
implausible about it, Hays implies that this dating is wrong simply
because it's fairly new. Yet the hope of any continuing inquiry is that
new and better views will, over time, replace old, inadequate ones . . .
In fact, an early date for Thomas has been advanced by New Testament
scholars outside the Seminar, including some at those "major graduate
institutions" Hays mentions. As I understand it, there are textual
reasons for believing Thomas might be independent and very old, not the
later Gnostic gloss it was traditionally thought to be. More than that,
there are obvious reasons why Christian scholars might have sought to
minimize Thomas' importance.
First, if Thomas contains authentic early material, it confronts us with
the possibility that the Church Fathers' original choices of books for
the canon-choices made, let's recall, 150 years and more after Jesus'
life, and controversial in their time-might have been, as it were,
mistaken. Second, Thomas and the hypothesized "Q" source together point
to the disturbing possibility that there were early "Jesus movements"
that didn't consider Jesus divine, didn't credit (or know) stories of
his miracles, didn't regard his passion and death as important, and
didn't believe he'd risen again. Thus would be undermined the
traditional, much simpler story of apostolic succession-a story basic to
the Church's claim to authority-in which Jesus designated a few of his
intimates to carry on his work, and they did. Instead, we would begin to
get a picture of a confused situation in which Jesus was taken up in
different ways by different groups of admirers right from the outset,
and in which the many writings about him, writings on which our view of
him depends, began life not as objective reports but as partisan
polemics designed to advance the claims of one group over another.
Christian scholars who downplay Thomas should be prepared to show that
they have reasons for doing so other than the fact that this new picture
of things upsets traditional ecclesiastical authority.
Of course, the "new" picture isn't really so new. Paul's letters were
polemics directed against competing groups and views; the sharp
divisions had evidently appeared almost at once. The very first
generation after Jesus' death may have been as contentious as Luther's
generation, or our own. But here is where the project of the Jesus
Seminar is deficient. The Seminar is still questing for the historical
Jesus, as though a definitive sorting of "authentic" materials will
settle the confusion once and for all. As Hays demonstrates, this quest
involves assumptions that tend to make the whole effort circular. And it
is fundamentally ahistorical. It's based not on a real interest in the
different early views-in the ferment of ideas and movements out of which
Christianity arose or in the alternative courses that Jesus-adherence
might have taken. Rather, it carries on the nearly 2,000-year-old effort
to suppress all that disagreement in favor of a One True View.
Of much greater interest historically would be a better account of the
early ferment. This would require recovering the source documents those
original disagreements produced-a textual reconstruction project that
obviously cannot rely on canonical materials alone (any more than a
serious history of the arguments of Luther's day can rely only on texts
by Lutherans).There are scholars at work on this project, but like
scholars in so many fields they keep neglecting to share their work with
laypeople. The problem with the Jesus Seminar is that while it is a
praiseworthy effort to speak to non-scholars, it's sharing the wrong
work. Since Jesus left no writings, we may never have anything but
different views of him. What we can do is at least try to
hear those views, and to understand how they interacted at a moment
in history foundational to the world we live in today.
Los Angeles, CA
Richard B. Hays' review of the published findings of the "Jesus Seminar"
is an excellent demolition of the monumental pretensions of a few
ambitious and disingenuous biblical scholars. He quite clearly shows
that behind the pretense of seeking scientific knowledge these scholars
are in fact doing no more than the embarrassing cut-and-paste of Mr.
Jefferson, our Voltairean third President, a man whose virtues liberal
historians have long exaggerated while contemporary Christians
understood his vices only too well. But Mr. Hays might have gone further
to show that even a genuinely scientific knowledge of Jesus would be
futile. A friend of mine (the distinguished medievalist Jeffrey Burton
Russell) told me some thirty years ago that it would eventually be clear
that the only statement Jesus certainly made was in fact one not found
in any of the Gospels, canonical or not; namely, "Let us go to
Capernaum." He must at some point in wandering about Galilee indeed have
made such a remark. Science, after all, only tells us what doesn't
matter. It tells us, for example, that 1+1+1=3. But Christians know that
what really matters is that 1+1+1=1.
Richard B. Hays replies:
Mr. Smith's challenge concerning the dating of the Gospel of Thomas
I am happy to respond to these letters in order to clarify certain
points that I was not able to treat sufficiently in my review of The
touches a crucial issue indeed. My judgment that the early dating of
Thomas is implausible is not merely a "rhetorical sleight of hand." The
review as originally written contained several footnotes on this point
that did not appear in the published version. My basic reasons for
reaffirming the traditional view of Thomas as a second-century document
are as follows: (1) Thomas strips away most of the specifically Jewish
features of the Jesus tradition, turning Jesus into a Gnostic
mystagogue; surely this is a mark of secondary-and therefore later-
reinterpretation of the tradition. (2) In particular, the sayings about
"the kingdom of God" (in Thomas, "the kingdom of the Father") have been
removed from their native context in Jewish apocalyptic thought and
converted into teachings about secret heavenly knowledge necessary for
believers to reenter their heavenly home. (3) Christopher Tuckett has
demonstrated that Thomas frequently shows literary dependence on the
canonical gospels, including dependence upon elements that are
distinctive redactional features introduced by the synoptic evangelists
("Thomas and the Synoptics," Novum Testamentum 30  132-
57). These factors taken together constitute a compelling argument for
the relatively late date of Thomas. The scholars who defend the
independence of Thomas can do so only by the artificial expedient of
hypothesizing an "early version of Thomas" underlying the extant text.
Since there is no evidence for the existence of such a document, the
hypothesis is tenuous in the extreme. For more extensive discussion of
these issues, see N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of
God (Minnneapolis: Fortress, 1992), pp. 435-43.
Mr. Smith's challenge concerning the dating of the Gospel of Thomas
As for the possibility of early Jesus movements that did not regard the
passion and death of Jesus as important and did not believe he had risen
again, this is a conjecture based on the fact that Thomas lacks a
passion-resurrection narrative and that the hypothetical Q is alleged
also to have lacked such a narrative component (though speculating about
what was absent from a nonexistent, critically reconstructed "document"
is iffy business, at best). The existence of a collection of Jesus'
sayings, however, does not necessarily mean that those who collected
such sayings were ignorant of or hostile to a narrative kerygma. Indeed,
the speaker in the Gospel of Thomas is designated as "the living Jesus,"
which surely implies some notion of resurrection, even if not an
Critical skepticism about the early dating of Thomas is not necessarily
based on the desire to uphold "traditional ecclesiastical authority."
(One might note that the canonical gospels of Mark and John are
both notably reticent or even skeptical about ecclesiastical authority
and "apostolic succession.") Thomas was omitted from the canon not
because it posed a threat to ecclesiastical authority but because it was
rightly not regarded as a primary witness to the tradition of Jesus'
teaching. Indeed, there was never any serious debate in the ancient
church about the possible inclusion of the Gospel of Thomas in the
canon-unlike, say, the Shepherd of Hermas or the Epistle of Barnabas.
Mr. Smith is right to say that the gospels "began life not as objective
reports" and that their purpose is partly polemical. I would prefer to
make this point by saying that the gospels are witness documents that
advocate particular interpretations of the figure of Jesus against other
possible interpretations. As Smith rightly notes, this is hardly a new
view; Paul railed against rival Christian missionaries who preached
"another Jesus" (2 Corinthians 11:4). Certainly one may applaud Smith's
call for a more thorough historical account of the diversity and ferment
within early Christianity, though I do not know exactly what newly
recovered "source documents" he has in mind.
I do not entirely share the skepticism of Mr. Ravitch and Mr. McKenzie
concerning the possibility of historical knowledge about Jesus or about
the value of the distinction between the "Christ of faith" and the
"Jesus of history." The diversity of the surviving accounts poses a
question that may legitimately be investigated by historical methods,
even though the results of such an inquiry will remain always subject to
the same qualifications as any other critical reconstruction of the
past. From a theological point of view, however-and here I concur with
Ravitch and McKenzie-the Church's confession rests on the canonical
portraits, not upon the historian's reconstruction. The plurality of
those canonical portraits, however, insures continuing controversy and
flexibility in the Church's construal of the figure of Jesus.
Paul J. Griffiths, in "Why We Need Interreligious Polemics" (June/July),
wants to put a stop to the trivialization of religious commitments, a
trivialization he claims takes place not only in the interreligious
dialogue movement but in university departments of religion and, more
generally, in the American population at large.
His major concern, however, is with what passes as interreligious
dialogue. He offers numerous and sweeping generalizations characterizing
a monolithic interreligious dialogue movement that reaches from Geneva
to Rome to Chicago. This movement is said to be guilty of: (1) promoting
a "kind of well-meaning but finally destructive inanity"; (2) imposing
an imperialistic discursive practice; (3) expropriating and plundering
religious peoples' beliefs and practices; (4) pronouncing utterances "as
useful to a serious Christian or a serious Buddhist as a pacifier is to
anyone over the age of four"; (5) providing asylum for Western
Christians working out their postcolonial guilt; (6) comprising a
community of those with a profound misunderstanding of what religious
commitment entails; (7) disallowing, "both rhetorically and actually,
the thematization of the metaphysical understandings that in fact inform
the practices of all participants in it." It is unfortunate that so
little evidence is put forward to support these assertions. Such an
omission gives polemics, that which he hopes to restore, a bad name.
More importantly, even if one were to accept Griffiths' analysis, the
solution he proposes only seems to contribute further to the problem he
wishes to solve. That is, to reform interreligious dialogue, we are not
called to search more deeply into the depths of our respective religious
traditions, but rather to adopt something like Hegel's dialectical
method, i.e., hold firmly to the belief that thought progresses by means
of the struggle between a thesis and an antithesis. Once you accept this
premise, then intellectual authenticity is to be attributed only to
those who are intellectually militant; indeed, Griffiths wants military
imagery to govern the way in which interreligious dialogue is conceived.
He laments the fact that interreligious dialogue practitioners do not
model themselves after secular intellectual warriors such as Catharine
MacKinnon and Ronald Dworkin. But to give such counsel to those who
engage in interreligious dialogue is to invite them to be a particular
kind of Euro-American intellectual first, and only secondarily
religious. Does this not trivialize and marginalize religion? I fail to
see how such an argument could be made by one who claims to want to
rescue religion from its trivializers.
Another weakness in Griffiths' account derives from his seeing
interreligious dialogue too narrowly as primarily a Christian activity.
This is the only way one can make sense of his claim that the WCC
Subunit on Dialogue represents interreligious dialogue in its "purest
form." While it is true that interreligious dialogue emerged largely in
the Christian world, it is now practiced by other religious traditions
as well. Perhaps Griffiths should have entitled his essay, "Why We
Christians Need to Employ Interreligious Polemics in Our Encounters with
Finally, it is strikingly inconsistent that Griffiths, who certainly
must know the profound sensitivity of numerous interreligious
relationships in specific contexts, e.g., Sikhs and Hindus, Jews and
Muslims, Indigenous Peoples and Christians, Muslims and Hindus, Hindus
and Buddhists, Orthodox and Catholics, Protestants and Catholics, etc.,
ends his militant manifesto with an irenic caveat made specifically
about dialogue between Christians and Jews, which he calls extremely
delicate. Is Griffiths himself suddenly suffering from a kind of
postcolonial guilt? His point is well taken, and can be applied more
broadly to any number of interreligious situations, but to conclude his
muscular argument with a call for Christians to be sensitive and
restrained in their dialogue with Jews is, given the premises he has
previously insisted upon, quite inconsistent.
Thomas G. Walsh
Paul Griffiths is to be commended for his call to return commitment to
its rightful place in interreligious dialogue. But he drops the ball in
his discussion of indefeasibility. Griffiths' assertion that "a properly
constituted interreligious polemic should deploy as methods of argument
and proof only tools that are recognized as authoritative and
demonstrative by both sides" is both contrary to the testimony of
Scripture and philosophically naive.
First, to believe, for example, that it is possible that God does not
exist implies that God's revelation of himself is not as clear as
Scripture indicates. To be sure, to maintain this possibility is the
position of epistemological respectability since Enlightenment-era
philosophers subordinated revelation to reason, but is it in keeping
with Scripture? Either God has revealed himself so clearly that all are
responsible for this knowledge (even those who do not know the theistic
proofs), as Paul seems to be saying in Romans 1, or he has not. The same
can be said of moral knowledge spoken of in Romans 2. To hold, then,
that God might not exist-or, to say it another way, that the unbeliever
might be correct in denying God's existence-is to declare that Scripture
Also with respect to the biblical witness, to expect that the non-
Christian participant in the discussion can reasonably work through the
issues involved with a high degree of objectivity is to ignore
scriptural assertions about the fallen condition of humankind. Are
unbelievers' minds darkened as Paul said? Are they in rebellion against
God, repressing the truth in unrighteousness? If the Bible is true, to
hope for objective neutrality on the part of unbelievers is naive.
Griffiths' position is also philosophically deficient. Everyone has
metaphysical beliefs or commitments that permit or do not permit certain
ideas. To begin without basic Christian presuppositions (those things
that can be known by general revelation) is to begin with other-than-
Christian ones. No one is worldview-free even in his or her evaluation
of any other worldview. To join the unbeliever on some kind of neutral
ground is impossible; for the Christian to do so is to join the
unbeliever on his turf, from which it is difficult to escape.
Richard M. Wade
I was impressed with the piece "Why We Need Interreligious Polemics" by
Paul J. Griffiths. It struck me as commonsensical since we no longer
confront other religions with the fears we once held. This was not the
case some thirty-five years ago with Paul Blanshard and his attack on
the Catholic Church concerning separation of church and state.
In many respects Blanshard was right-even if there were unwarranted
attacks on U.S. Catholicism. Remember, this was before Vatican II, and
Blanshard did make valid points about various theories then prevalent in
Catholic theological circles about separation of church and state as
well as about religious freedom. This confrontation was good for
America, good for the Catholic Church in the U.S., and, ultimately, good
for the whole Catholic Church. The confrontation made the Church clarify
its doctrine on religious freedom, conscience, and separation of church
A much more serious question confronts the question of separation of
church and state and religious freedom vis-a-vis Islam. In Catholicism,
there was always a theoretical separation even if historically there
were failures. In Islam, there has never been even a
theoretical separation, and this is a huge problem (or should
be) for Americans as they confront Islam. But no one is willing to face
this question honestly and forthrightly. . . .
Unfortunately, it does not help to say that we must ferret out the
Islamic fundamentalists from the overwhelming number of law-abiding
Islamic Americans. Of course, this is true. But the problem still
remains even as we do this: Is Islam as traditionally conceived
compatible with liberal democracy, which is a product of Western Judeo-
Christianity? That is the heart of the question which must be asked; not
about controlling immigration and spotting the Islamic fundamentalists.
. . .
Religious cultures can change through complex social, demographic, and
technological pressures. In the meanwhile, all we have is dialogue to
help the process and the evolution. . . . Catholicism evolved. Can
Peter J. Riga
I want to congratulate Professor Paul Griffiths for a fine article
before he gets savaged as a gang member who has somehow managed to crash
the great ecumenical tea party. Instead of vigorous engagement with
religious ideas, the author is likely to meet high, low, and broad
dudgeon, and not just from members of his own communion.
In fact, Mr. Griffiths' essay puts me in mind of four of his countrymen.
That stylish essayist and polemicist Christopher Derrick has referred
for some twenty years to the incompatibility of genuine unity and
ecumenicity, goals that can be pursued in tandem only when truth claims
are abandoned or trivialized. The "unencompassability" of religion, its
inability to be subsumed in other categories, was well known to
Chesterton, who pointed out that paganism was the biggest thing in the
world, Christianity is bigger, and everything else is comparatively
small. No surprise then that Christopher Dawson should have called
religion the key to history. Lastly, one can read the article as an
extended gloss upon Ronald Knox's quip that the comparative study of
religions is a good way to become comparatively religious: that is, to
pretend to float outside or above metaphysical commitment, a
disinterested browser through the belief-boutique with no awkward
questions to be asked about the merchandise.
In short, decaf and deconstruction are welcome at the tea party; truth
and, one suspects, Mr. Griffiths must be shown the door. The
inadequacies of interreligious dialogue in the country where it is most
popular prove what most have long recognized: Americans brew notoriously
P. M. Aliazzi
Hunting Valley, OH
Together with Whom?
The declaration on "Evangelicals & Catholics Together" (May) states that
"we thank God for the discovery of one another as brothers and sisters
in Christ." But to be a brother or sister in Christ requires that each
individual be first "in Christ." Those in union with Christ are brothers
and sisters by virtue of their union with Jesus. But implicit in the
Evangelicals and Catholics declaration of brotherhood is the message
that there are two ways of being incorporated into union with Christ,
i.e., two methods of salvation. As a Bible-believing Christian, I am
certainly not about to recognize as brothers and sisters people who tell
me that to be saved one must be baptized, believe in Jesus, and perform
good works (Catholics and Mormons).
Next I suppose I will hear about "Evangelicals & Catholics & Mormons
Together" and that God has three ways of being saved. I certainly don't
trust anyone who subscribes to this kind of pseudo-brotherhood.
Thank you for the encouraging, thoughtful, and comprehensive declaration
"Evangelicals & Catholics Together." It helps to bring out with more
clarity and greater charity the nature of the orthodox realignment of
North American churches.
While appreciating the American context of this statement, there is a
tendency to over-identify the Christian faith with the American
experiment in democracy. No doubt, it is crucial to bring out the
Christian principles and assumptions in the founding constitutional
documents of America and to secure the place of the Christian religion
in the public discourse of the nation. But classical modernity gave
birth to constitutional government in a variety of forms, all of which
are more-or-less explicitly Christian in their origins. The American
republic is, undoubtedly, one of those forms, but certainly not the only
one. And it may be asked how adequately Trinitarian it is in its
Along the same lines, the statement marks too great an identification
between the principles of Christian freedom and a free market economy.
This overlooks the strong and necessary criticism of contemporary
capitalism in Veritatis Splendor, for example, as well as the
historic fact that Christianity embraces a variety of economic forms and
cannot be constrained to any one in particular. This does not preclude
the relative evaluation of different economic systems, but does one
really want to claim that capitalism is more inherently Christian than,
say, mercantilism before and the socialist economics now of many western
democracies? The danger in the equation is to release economics to the
activity of the will without regard to the structures of creation and
the principles of political and religious life. . . .
(The Rev.) David Curry
Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia
I commend all those who participated in and contributed to the drafting
of the historic statement "Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The
Christian Mission in the Third Millennium." For the first time since I
first came to the United States in 1989, I found a real effort to
prevent the spread of conflict between Evangelical Protestants and Roman
Being a Catholic native from Latin America, it was extremely difficult
while pursuing my bachelors degree at an American Protestant college to
interact with certain students and, at times, unpleasant to visit
churches from other denominations. The verbal attacks on the Catholic
Church during preaching by some of the non-Catholic churches I visited
were insulting. This was an experience that I had never witnessed in my
home country of Peru, even though the conflicts and divisions between
the churches also exist in Latin America as well as in the rest of the
world. . . .
Ricardo E. Romero
The Abortion Debate (Cont.)
What insufferable PC gobbledygook from Professors Wilson and Arkes, and
what posturing pedants they are ("Abortion Facts and Feelings II: An
Exchange," May). It is especially sad that Professor Arkes believes
"that life begins at conception, that there is no ground of principle on
which the embryo or fetus could be regarded as anything less than human
at any stage of its existence," and yet, given such pronouncement, he
would not necessarily have the law try to protect the embryo at every
moment or seek "absolute prohibition" on abortion. May I ask under what
circumstances he would necessarily have the law absolutely prohibit
How true it is that it is given to the simple of heart to accept on
faith the profundities of life. The moral issue of abortion is a very
simple and clear-cut one: life is a gift from the Creator of all, and as
such is sacred. But even allowing for the fact that all people are not
accepting of the existence of God, based purely on human principles and
basic rights we cannot arbitrarily destroy human life because, in so
doing, we destroy ourselves and our society. . . .
Mary J. Feerick
San Francisco, CA
The Arkes/Wilson dialogue published in First Things has elevated the
abortion debate from impassioned rhetoric to impassioned thinking; and,
as Mr. Arkes intimates in his closing paragraph, if thought can be made
to prevail, his and Mr. Wilson's common cause will some day prevail. Mr.
Wilson proposes that we address the issue by appealing to moral
sentiments; Mr. Arkes counters with an argument that emphasizes moral
principles. In the process they have clarified those issues-which is a
step in the right direction. A great many Americans who have doubts
about abortion have hesitated to conclude that it is wrong largely
because the pro-abortion side has succeeded in confusing those issues.
The Arkes/Wilson dialogue should help them resolve those confusions.
In the best of all worlds, moral sentiments would follow from moral
principles. If the Ten Commandments were the moral principles we
absorbed in childhood, our moral imaginations, sentiments, and
sympathies would flow from that. In the case of abortion, my principle
is: I would not have wanted my own life aborted and thus cannot want it
for others. Not surprisingly, then, when contemplating abortion, my
sentiment is directed toward the blind, speechless creature on the human
slag pile. True, as Mr. Wilson has noted, the more developed the infant
is, the more sympathy I will likely feel for it. In its embryonic stage,
I am more likely to rely upon my moral principle to tell me that killing
it is wrong. There is, however, another factor in moral judgment: moral
imagination. A pregnant woman is capable of envisioning an embryo's
potential as an infant in the cradle and later as a growing child.
Showing her a picture of her child's likely appearance at the point she
is contemplating aborting it postulates that she is influenced solely by
the infant's current appearance-that she is unable to imagine the
If a woman has doubts about aborting, an appeal to sentiment may change
her mind. If she actually aborts without medical reason to do so, the
following conditions probably exist: (a) she does not want the child or
has been persuaded by others not to want it; (b) the moral principle
that would prevent her from doing away with her infant has been
attenuated; (c) the state encourages abortion (Roe) or has
declared the moral principle of abortion to be valid (again,
Roe). If conditions (a), (b), and (c) exist, it is highly
unlikely that pictures will save an infant's life.
Though I do not agree with Mr. Wilson's specific proposal, I don't
entirely fault his approach. He is simply recognizing the fact that in
our time moral judgment is much more apt to be based upon sentiment than
principle. My own (admittedly limited) experience bears him out. When I
discuss abortion with pro-abortion friends and relations, their
sympathies are not with the infant, but rather with the woman who wants
to be rid of a burden-especially if she lives in wretched circumstances.
They do not see abortion as a taking of life. It is a conscious act,
yes, and there is a death; but somehow there is no killing. Life, they
argue, has not yet begun. How there can be a death when life has not
begun is a question with which they simply do not deal. A firmly rooted
moral principle would force them to face this question. When they
justify abortion, it is always in legal or political terms: personal
freedom or the achievement of social goals such as population control,
family planning, safe abortions, etc. None of these are moral
principles. Ultimately, abortion is a matter of personal convenience;
and, in the absence of principle which says that an act is wrong, one
does that which suits one's convenience.
At present the abortion movement seems unstoppable. But there are
weaknesses in its armor. For one thing, its moral and philosophic
underpinning is largely negative (hence the need for the "pro-choice"
euphemism). Also, abortion's legal standing is doubtful: it was
implemented by judicial fiat. But if there is one thing modern history
has taught us, it is that a negative moral passion, especially when it
is state policy, will overwhelm all opposition, then fail abysmally.
Franz Kafka notwithstanding, no state (or court) can make us into
nonmoral creatures. We may become wicked, but we are moral beings: we
seek to justify our acts. Where those acts are not supported by a
positive moral principle, negative feelings intrude. We begin to feel
contempt for victims-in this case, the aborted fetuses. The child with a
disability begins to seem like something unnatural. We reject
compromise: the adoption alternative becomes repugnant. Our view of life
becomes negative. . . . How long will it last? How far will it go? Those
questions are hard to answer-but it is likely to last until people in a
materially successful pluralistic society find a way to reach a moral
consensus. The Arkes-Wilson debate will do much to help us achieve that
Staten Island, NY
Along with Hadley Arkes, I too should like to express my respect and
admiration for James Wilson. But Arkes is right to question the adequacy
of the theory of moral sentiments that Wilson espouses. Arkes'
objections to that theory are likewise inadequate, however, for they are
couched in rhetorical discourse, which, although of course not bad in
itself, has the effect of obscuring the point. What is needed is a
concise and straightforward account of the precise way in which
"theories of moral sentiments" can be true, and the precise way in which
they fall short of the truth.
Readers should know first of all that theories of moral sentiments date
back to David Hume and Adam Smith. Hume, in particular, was obliged to
adopt such a theory because, having begun from false hypotheses
concerning the human soul, he found himself entirely incapable of
grasping the nature of knowledge. So entire was his confusion-a
confusion which is now our intellectual heritage-that he could not in
fact distinguish what we know from what we do; and this, in turn, led
him to identify knowledge with mores. Ethics, then, could no longer be
founded on anything objectively understood, for indeed there was no
objective knowledge as far as Hume could discern.
Sounder philosophical traditions have understood that the science of
ethics is founded on the nature of man. And although the nature of man
is comprised, as it were, of many elements, sounder traditions have also
understood that reason is its most perfect and decisive characteristic.
Accordingly, the moral perfection of character called virtue must take
place through reason. This is not merely because we need reason to
reflect upon our own nature, but also because reason is our nature. For
Hume, by contrast, there is strictly speaking no objective foundation
for morality; but if there were one it could be none other than
sentiment, which is to say a sensible inclination or disposition as
opposed to a rational one. There would therefore be no way to
distinguish the ethics of man from the "ethics" of a brute, no matter
What is moral sentiment? Insofar as the words themselves pertain to a
flawed theory of man, one should perhaps say that they represent nothing
real at all. Yet one need not take them merely as the theory (or
theories) would take them. Common experience demonstrates that there is
in human nature something that might go by the name of moral sentiment,
and indeed it is part of Wilson's merit to have demonstrated the
considerable extent of such sentiment. And part of the importance of
recognizing such moral sentiment stems from the fact that, whereas
reason must be tutored and perfected through discourse and self-
reflection, this is not true of moral sentiment. Such sentiment is
natural in a more elementary sense of the word, which is to say that it
is ours before we choose it or reason about it. Through it therefore we
may very well begin to discover the fact of our having a moral nature;
but the mistake would be to think that such sentiment offers the
possibility for an adequate account of that nature.
One final observation. If there is any place where these distinctions
are especially pertinent and manifest, it would seem to be abortion.
Abortionists become indignant when their opponents appeal to natural
emotion (by displaying pictures of aborted fetuses, for example), for
even they recognize instinctively, as it were, that the ultimate issue
must be about the human soul, about whether there is such a thing or
not, and about what it is. They know, moreover, in some confused way,
that emotion cannot be what most precisely characterizes that soul, nor
can it be the proper means by which we grasp the existence of the soul.
Yet indeed it cannot be wrong to wonder, and demand that others wonder,
about the natural sentiments aroused by the sight of a dead mangled
fetus. Rightly addressed, such wonder should lead one far beyond mere
St. John's College
Santa Fe, NM
A Jewish Theocracy?
With regard to "Shul, State, and the Price of Being Different" in The
Public Square by Richard John Neuhaus (June/July) on the Kiryas Joel
case, there is, of course, much more to be said. It is correct that
Catholic and Protestant groups submitted amicus briefs in strong support
of Kiryas Joel. But what was not noted is that there were Christian and
Jewish groups on both sides of this extraordinary case.
Interestingly, one of the Jewish groups that filed a brief in opposition
to creation of the Kiryas Joel school district consisted of over five
hundred Satmar Hasidic residents of Kiryas Joel. "Thereby hangs a tale."
The leader of the dissidents, one Joseph Waldman, had the temerity to
run for the Kiryas Joel Village School Board without the approval of
Grand Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum. Waldman is a fifth-generation Satmar
member. Nonetheless, for his rashness, he was expelled from the
synagogue, his six children were expelled from the main yeshiva, his
tires were slashed, the windows of his house were broken, and hundreds
of Satmars, including the Grand Rabbi, demonstrated in front of his home
shouting: "Death to Waldman." (Waldman now has a permit to carry a
pistol for self-protection.)
The fact is that the Kiryas Joel enclave is a theocracy, ruled with an
iron hand by the Grand Rabbi, somewhat reminiscent of the Puritan
theocracy in Massachusetts Bay Colony in the seventeenth century. His
dictates are law on all matter of importance, and dissent is not taken
If the constitutional principle of separation of church and state is to
have any meaning at all, it should mean at least this: a state should
not confer its governmental powers on a religious entity. Yet, that is
precisely what the State of New York did in creating a special public
school district for the learning-disabled children of Kiryas Joel.
Obviously there is no constitutional problem in a public school district
that happens to be populated overwhelmingly by Jews-or Catholics, or
Baptists, or citizens of any other faith. But that is not Kiryas Joel.
Rather, this religious enclave, by design, is for Satmar Hasidim only.
No one is free to simply move in. Others are not welcome. Permission to
build or rent must be granted by the Grand Rabbi, and anyone who wants
to build within its borders must pay a minimum tithe of $10,000 to
Congregation Yetev Lev. Two residents who were foolhardy enough to rent
without rabbinic permission were beaten and stoned. This is an American
municipality in control of a public school district?
The learning-disabled children of Kiryas Joel are fully entitled by law
to a secular education at public expense. Yet these children culturally
are so different from other handicapped children that they are apt to be
miserable in a regular public school setting. But there is an
alternative. Their education can be effectively provided by the local
public school district at a neutral location-without doing violence to
American Jewish Committee
New York, NY
Neuhaus and Freud
Richard John Neuhaus' jabs at psychiatry in "Psychiatry's Shrinking
Market" (Public Square, May) regrettably show the same cynical bias of
which historically psychiatry has been guilty toward religion. It is no
more attractive from a Neuhaus or a Freud. Yes, the American Psychiatric
Association is flawed (as are churches) but the desert between religious
and mental health issues needs to be crossed for the sake of patients.
As medical director of a psychiatric program at a Catholic hospital, I
can unfortunately attest that spiritually aspiring people become
depressed, psychotic, experience panic attacks, and carry other
emotional burdens just like agnostics and atheists. The mentally ill are
the lepers of today. They are compelled to hide their illness not only
from friends and relatives but also from their church. They are
"unclean." If they seek psychiatric attention they are at times
belittled, told they are weak or have "too little faith." A patient can
talk more openly about AIDS than about depression.
Help from Richard John Neuhaus is welcome and needed. Comments about
"market shares" and derisive allusions about psychiatrists are
uncharitable and do our patients no good.
F. Gregory Noveske, M.D.
Religion and Communitarianism
In First Things (Public Square, February) the Editor-in-Chief quotes
Joshua Abramowitz's review of my book The Spirit of Community:
"Etzioni's plans for a 'moral revival' pay almost no attention to
religion." He adds: "When religion does come up, it is often tied to
intolerant excess-religious faith and authoritarian thuggery go hand in
hand." (Others have raised similar criticisms, including Michael Joyce
in a Wall Street Journal book review and Bryce Christensen in
The Family in America.)
The criticism is basically fair. Neither The Communitarian Network's
platform, which has been endorsed by some of America's most eminent
religious thinkers as well as secular ones, nor my book attend to the
important role that religion and its institutions have and should have
in a moral, social, and political reconstruction of society. A
defensible response is that we are but four years young. While
communitarian ideas have been around since the ancient Greeks, we came
together only in 1991 as an organized group, capable of forming a
platform, position papers, a quarterly, etc., and there are other vital
issues-from the economy to national security-that we have yet to
Truth to be told, however, our reluctance runs deeper. The religious
voices we hear most, or at least the loudest, are angry and bashing.
Alien to us in temperament, these voices have made many recoil.
Communitarians already support strong family values, character education
in schools, and the restoration of moral values and socially responsible
behavior. If we are to bridge the remaining differences among our
positions and those of religious groups, we need more dialogue and fewer
A particular example of communitarian-bashing is the berating of our
quarterly, The Responsive Community, in First Things (Public
Square, May) on the basis of one unfortunate sentence that belittled the
impact of religion on morality today. First Things fails to note that
our journal does allow writers of various viewpoints to express their
ideas and that the offending sentence is followed by a lengthy and well-
documented article that speaks page upon page about the prominent role
of religion in American life.
Communitarians' frequent-but far from exclusive-reliance on social
science findings rather than on scriptural quotations is another source
of discomfort for religiously minded critics. For instance, our concern
about the decline of two-parent families draws heavily on empirical
research that illuminates the ill effects caused by family
dismemberment. I see no reason why this inclination would trouble
religious authorities. While they may prefer that communitarians go
about their mission drawing on the same texts used in religious
teachings, one would expect spokesmen of religious groups to recognize
that they share many basic values with communitarians, even if the
latter support these values with a variety of arguments, including
social scientific and secular ones.
Furthermore, among the active communitarians are people of great faith
(Mary Ann Glendon and Jean Bethke Elshtain, for example). They have
great influence on our thinking even if they do not always carry us all
the way to places they believe we ought to go. We welcome others to join
the conversation not merely from across the fence but from inside the
George Washington University
More Humility, Please
Reading First Things, I am inspired to reflect on the differences
between spirituality and ideology. Both can employ a religious
vocabulary and yet they play entirely different roles in people's lives.
Spirituality involves a commitment to opening one's heart, to growing in
faith, hope, and love. Ideology is about the comfort of having answers,
of creating categories and distinctions, of defining insiders and
All of us who aspire to sincerely follow Christ, Buddha, Moses, or
Muhammad must work with this distinction in mind. Is our dedication to
the teachings making our capacity for compassion increase? Or is it
making our world smaller? For none of us can completely avoid the
temptation to be judgmental.
Richard John Neuhaus is clearly proud of his long list of enemies: the
"homosexual movement," feminism, New Age and liberal religionists, the
diverse advocates of humanism and modernity. But is his scorn the most
effective way of witnessing to the Good News that the Son of God, born
as a man, was crucified and resurrected for the sins of all humanity?
And in the June/July issue Paul Griffiths and John Mullen were eager to
restore Christian apologetics. But apologetics is a pointless attempt to
substitute knowledge for faith. The failure of the apologetical
enterprise is apparent in Griffiths' casual dismissal of the profound
thought of Nagarjuna and Mullen's inability to truly engage the
challenges that Existentialism makes against contemporary Christianity.
Confidence in our salvation through the cross of Christ Jesus must lie
beyond all such defensiveness.
Faith frequently requires of us the poverty and humility of not knowing
the answers, of being uncertain, of allowing experience to teach us
about the limitlessness of God's love. This spirit is seldom found in
May peace be with you.
New York, NY
. . . The general tone of First Things tends to be outrage that anyone
would have the audacity to disagree with a position taken by the
hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, supplemented by snide sarcasm
and ad hominem arguments directed towards those who have such temerity.
There are many problems faced by our society that will depend on the
good will and combined efforts of religious individuals of somewhat
differing opinions on many issues. To denigrate those who differ in some
respects from your own positions without acknowledging their sincerity
or even the possibility (incredible to you, I am sure) that they could
occasionally be correct hurts all of our efforts.
E. Thomas Dowd
Prayer in Schools
This letter regards Richard John Neuhaus' comments on the effort of
religious leaders to alert school superintendents and teachers to our
belief that organized prayer does not belong in the public schools
(Public Square, June/July). The letter to which Neuhaus refers was
signed by over six hundred clergy members across denominational lines in
order to inform the American public of the many religious leaders who
believe the constitutional principle of church-state separation benefits
religion. In fact, many religious leaders agree with Rev. Robert
Meneilly's statement, "Any religion that needs government to support and
subsidize it doesn't deserve to survive. It is not the state's business
to carry out the church's ministries!"
History is replete with examples of the harmful results that occur when
public schools become the repository of religion. One example will
suffice to illustrate the danger in making our public schools the
arbiter of faith. In 1843 Bishop Francis Kenrick of Philadelphia
petitioned the school board to allow Catholic students to use the
Catholic version of the Bible when Bible reading was required. Riots
broke out throughout Philadelphia. Catholic churches were attacked, a
convent was destroyed, and many houses were burned to ashes. Reports of
this incident in New York caused Bishop Hughes to protect Catholic
churches by surrounding them with armed men. Twenty-four people were
killed and it took federal troops to quell the riot. How much more
important is it today, when America is home not only to Protestants,
Catholics, and Jews, but also to Muslims, Hindus, Native Americans, and
Buddhists, to keep the public schools neutral of all religious
Moreover, Neuhaus' claim that the moral decay of our society stems from
the "secularization of the classroom" is both simplistic and false. It
belies the complexity that underlies the social ills of our society. The
reintroduction of prayer into school rooms is a cursory measure that
does not address the complicated problems facing our public schools. We
at the American Jewish Committee advocate the teaching of common core
values which are shared by all religions such as courtesy, honesty,
compassion, respect for others. This approach is illustrated in our
Hands Across the Campus curriculum, which is currently being used in
public schools in Arizona, California, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
Furthermore, it is disingenuous for Neuhaus to claim that the ACLU and
other separationist organizations are the only ones "firing" in this
"battleground over religion." In fact, court cases are pending in
Florida, Idaho, Iowa, New Jersey, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia
regarding the constitutionality of "student-led" prayers. The American
Center for Law and Justice certainly aimed and shot when they
distributed a letter to superintendents across America misapplying the
Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Jones v. Clear Creek
Independent School District to the entire country when it is only
legally binding on public schools in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
The discussion on culture, morality, and religion in our society can
best be furthered by recognizing the diversity of religions within
America, advocating that those seeking spiritual direction turn to
religious institutions for guidance, and maintaining the distinction
between state interests and religious agendas for all concerned. In this
way, the public schools will be able to focus their efforts on educating
our children for the next century rather than becoming the arbiter of
varying religious claims.
Rabbi Lori Forman
American Jewish Committee
New York, NY
Richard John Neuhaus replies:
We never doubted that the AJC advocates "courtesy, honesty, compassion,
and respect for others." In the interest of honesty, I note that it is
false to say that I "claim that the moral decay of our society stems
from the 'secularization of the classroom.' " I wrote that "it is just
silly to pretend that [the] elimination [of school prayer] in the 1960s
was not a major step toward the secularization of the classroom." I
doubt if even the AJC disagrees with that, although of course it prefers
to call secularization "neutrality." As for who is doing the firing on
student-led prayers, is anyone protesting other than hard-line
separationists? And why is "student-led" in quotes? Because, wouldn't
you know it, some teachers encourage students to pray. Horrors.
I was quite surprised to see that Daniel Callahan, in his reply to
commentators in your symposium on the sanctity of life (April),
attributed to me a view opposed to the one for which I argued. I had
described a case in which Callahan's criteria would not help a health
care provider know when to stop treating a patient. In this case, the
patient had specified that if his transplanted kidney were rejected, he
did not want further treatment. Callahan's criterion that the physician
should avoid causing a worse death fails to guide the provider for two
reasons. First, the physician would not think in terms of what kind of
death to provide, but of the hopes for saving the patient's life. (Eric
Cassell's contribution to the symposium underscored the same point.)
Second, no single "quality of death" standard will fit everyone.
Supporting the decision of the patient in the example requires
appreciation of how he and his tradition experiences the sacred.
Callahan misrepresented my position as arguing that the patient's high-
tech, desolate, and profane death was "justified" by the lack
of certainty that the patient would die. I can think of no writer in
medical ethics who would argue that providing a worse death is
justified by ignorance of the ultimate outcome, although some
might argue that it is excused. If the action were justified it
would be the right thing to do. Clearly it was not. I was discussing the
adequacy of Callahan's proffered principles and distinctions, however,
not the physician's actions.
Many of the essays to the symposium made useful contributions and
corrections, including William F. May's point that (contrary to the way
in which both Callahan and I discussed PVS) patients in a PVS need not
be dying. Callahan, however, was intent on finding someone to whom to
attribute the position of technological enthusiasm. He compares my point
that we are morally responsible for our use of medical technology to the
slogan "Guns do not kill people, people kill people." Can he really mean
that respirators and intensive care technology are like "Saturday night
specials" and assault weapons, or that we ought to have a buy-back
program for intensive care equipment?
Elsewhere, I have discussed some differences between types of medical
technologies and the threats and promises they pose to our moral life.
The general point I want to make here is that unless we recognize the
differences in the moral challenges posed by varying types of
technology, we stand little chance of rising to those challenges.
If medical ethics is to offer more than the Luddite stance of smashing
the machines, then we need both a better understanding of medical
technology and a more constructive approach in medical ethics itself. If
we are to prevent betrayal, invasion, or abandonment of the dying, then
one matter that deserves much more attention is the experience of the
sacred in people's lives.