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!
Leon McKenzie Indianapolis, IN
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 in another.
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 . . . isn’t it?
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.
Jeff Smith UCLA 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.
Norman Ravitch Riverside, CA
Richard B. Hays replies :
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
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 orthodox one.
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 Non-Christians.”
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 International Religious Foundation Louisville, KY
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 is false.
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 Norfolk, VA
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 and state.
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 Islam?
Peter J. Riga Houston, TX
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 weak tea.
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.
Charles Gillespie Phoenix, AZ
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 constitutional structures.
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 Canada
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 Catholics.
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 Washington, D.C.
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 child’s potential.
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 end.
Francis Quinlan 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 how noble.
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 sentiment.
Sean Collins 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 lightly.
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 constitutional principle.
Samuel Rabinove 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. Westlake, OH
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 address.
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 condemnations.
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 communitarian home.
Amitai Etzioni George Washington University Washington, D.C.
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 First Things.
May peace be with you.
Mark Copithorne 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 Akron, OH
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 instruction.
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.
Caroline Whitbeck Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cambridge, MA