To look at the big picture of the relationship between Christ and culture is, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a dizzying experience. Our most immediate cultural world is chiefly Europe and the Americas. We do well to keep in mind, however, that the majority of Christians, and the most expansive growth of the Christian movement, is today in the Global South, led by Catholics and those who are described as evangelicals and Pentecostals, although many indigenous movements do not fit easily into our familiar categories. Only God knows what world Christianity will look like a hundred years from now, and that is perhaps just as well.
Speaking of Christ and Culture will, for many, immediately bring to mind H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic book of that title. Recall his typology of the ways in which the relationship between Christ and culture, meaning Christianity and culture, has been understood over the course of Christian history. Niebuhr suggests that there are essentially five ways: Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ transforming culture. While Niebuhr’s typology is suggestive and therefore useful, it is also seriously misleading on several scores. I confess that, after some years, I stopped using it in classroom teaching when I found that I was spending more time in arguing with Niebuhr than in being guided by him.
Nevertheless, Niebuhr is certainly right that the questions of Christ and culture have been a constant in Christian history from the apostolic era to the present, and will be until Our Lord’s promised return in glory. Barrels of ink have been spilt in trying to define what is meant by culture, and I do not presume to have the final word on the subject. By culture I mean the historical ambiance, the social context, of ideas and habits, within which the Church proclaims and lives the gospel of Christ. This includes the dominant moral assumptions, the widely held aspirations, and the beliefs and behaviors that characterize economic, political, religious, and educational life, along with the institutions that reflect and support those habits, beliefs, and behaviors. One might go so far as to say that culture is to us what water is to fish; it is more assumed than analyzed.
There is an American culture. Although the phrase is hotly contested, we speak of “the American way of life.” In a society so vast and various as ours, there are many subcultures and even countercultures. Indeed, the proponents of unbounded pluralism would persuade us that there is no longer an American culture; that what was American culture has been displaced by a maddening mix of subcultures and each of us lives in one subculture or another. Those who feel marginalized, constrained, or oppressed by the prevalent patterns of life in America tend to think this is a very good thing.
People who have a more comprehensive appreciation of world history, however, along with those who have the experience of living in other and very different societies, know that there is such a thing as American culture. Precisely in its being a capacious and hospitable culture with a marked respect for pluralism, it is American culture. Although it includes many non-Europeans, American culture is in the main an extension and reconfiguration of European culture, which is to say it is part of the culture of the West. And today it is the strongest and most vibrant part of the cultural tradition of the West. The challenge of Islam in its militant form of Jihadism powerfully reinforces our awareness that we are part of the West and, however ambiguously so, the Christian West.
In addition to the above-mentioned five ways of framing the Christianity-and-culture relationship suggested by H. Richard Niebuhr—Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ transforming culture—we might add a sixth way to his typology: Christ without culture. Now, as a matter of historical and sociological fact, Christianity is never to be found apart from a cultural matrix; Christianity in all its forms is, as it is said, “enculturated.” In relation to a culture, the Church is both acting and being acted on, both shaping and being shaped. What then do I mean by suggesting this sixth type, Christ without culture? I mean that the Church—and here Church is broadly defined as the Christian movement through time—can at times adopt a way of being in the world that is deliberately indifferent to the culture of which it is part. In the “Christ without culture” model, that indifference results in the Church unconsciously adopting and thereby reinforcing, in the name of the gospel, patterns of culture that are incompatible with her gospel.
Saint Paul writes, “Be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). Worrying about the cultural conformity of Christianity is nothing new. Such worries are a staple in the history of Christian thought, from the third-century Tertullian’s defiant question “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” to Kierkegaard’s withering critique of culturally domesticated discipleship, to Karl Barth’s emphatic Nein! thrown in the face of the Kulturprotestantismus that was the form taken by the “Christ of culture” model in liberal Protestantism. And, of course, there are today in America forms of principled nonconformity finding expression among both left-wing and right-wing Christians who would revive, at least in theological and moral rhetoric, a “Christ against culture” model, meaning most specifically Christ against American culture.
If the subject of the future of Christianity is reformulated as the future of religion in this society and the world, there is, from a historical and sociological perspective, nothing to worry about. For as far as one can see into the future, religion is a bull market. In America, where more than 90 percent of the people say they believe in God and well over 80 percent claim to be Christians of one sort of another, Christianity is a bull market. We can debate until the wee hours of the morning whether this is “authentic” or “biblical” or “orthodox” Christianity, but the fact is that this is the form—composed of myriad forms—of the Christian movement in our time and place.
Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is a bull market because it is now evident that homo religiosus, man in search of transcendent meaning, is irrepressible. The secularization theories that held sway over our high culture for three hundred years, ever since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, have been falsified by the very history to which they so confidently appealed. Or at least so it would seem. That form of Enlightenment rationalism confidently assumed the unstoppable progress of modernity. As people became more modern—meaning more enlightened and skeptical—religion would gradually wither away, or at least be confined to the sphere of privacy where it is hermetically sealed off and prevented from exercising cultural influence. In important respects, history is not turning out that way. I have already mentioned the explosive growth of Christianity in the Global South. When China really opens up, it may seem that we are witnessing the fulfillment of Pope John Paul II’s vision of the twenty-first century as “the springtime of world evangelization.” And then there are other forms of religious resurgence, such as the newly assertive Islam mentioned earlier.
If one is inclined to put it in vulgar terms, one might say that this is a good time to be in the religion business. And yet the Enlightenment prognosis of secularization may not be falsified in its entirety. While religion is certainly not withering away, one may wonder whether, in its very flourishing, it is fulfilling the second part of the prognosis; namely, that the “Christ without culture” model is impotent, and quite prosperously happy in its impotence, when it comes to exercising cultural influence. In our society, there is a greater awareness of the public influence of religion than was the case more than twenty years ago when I published The Naked Public Square. But that awareness is almost entirely centered on the political influence of religious voters and activists, leading to alarmist cries of a threatening theocracy. At the risk of generalization, I think it fair to say that Christianity in America is not challenging the “habits of the heart” and “habits of the mind” that dominate American culture, meaning both the so-called high culture and the popular culture.
On the contrary, some of the more flourishing forms of Christianity not only do not challenge those habits; they exhibit a wondrous capacity to exploit them, and thus to reinforce them. Preachers of self-esteem and the gospel of happiness and prosperity uncritically accept the debased and pervasive notion that unhappiness and discontent with one’s circumstance in life is a disease; they would lead us to believe that self-criticism, along with its inevitably depressing discoveries, is a dangerous indulgence. The entrepreneurial spirit has built empires of Christian books, Christian music, and entertainment mislabeled as worship, all of which creates the delusion of living in a vibrant Christian subculture that is, in fact, a mirror of the habits of heart and mind that its participants think they are challenging—or at least escaping. As everything goes better with Coke, so everything goes better with Jesus, and, if that doesn’t work, there is always Prozac.
The fact that such religious enterprise presents itself as “evangelization” should not mislead us. Despite all the talk about a religious resurgence or revival, the percentage of the population characterized by a disciplined commitment to Christ, however that might be described, and by active engagement in Christian service to the Church and the world has not grown appreciably. At least I have seen no evidence to that effect. Rather, religious entrepreneurs are increasingly competing for niche markets within a stable population that prefers religion to Prozac, or prefers their Prozac with a panache of religion.
I do not wish to paint too grim a picture. There is, to be sure, the undeniable reality of the culture wars. There are Christians not only voting their moral convictions but, especially with respect to the conflict between the culture of life and the culture of death, making truth claims and advancing arguments in terms of public reason aimed at engaging the centers of cultural influence. For instance, there is the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement issued last fall, “That They May Have Life.” That is a welcome exception, but it is an exception.
The centers of cultural influence in this country do not recognize that they are being challenged by Christians, except for the allegedly theocratic challenge in electoral politics. They do not recognize that they are being intellectually, conceptually, and culturally challenged, in largest part because Christians are not persuasively articulating such a challenge. Their complaint is that Christians are trying to “impose their values” on them. They do not understand that we want to engage them in a civil argument about the possibility of moral truth, about what kind of people we are and should aspire to be, and therefore about how we ought to order our life together. They do not understand that because so few Christians understand and attempt to practice such engagement.
Engagement is very different from imposing one’s understanding of the truth on others. In his encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer), John Paul II said, “The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes.” But what she proposes she believes to be truth. She proposes as a lover to the beloved, reflecting as she does the words of John 3:16 that “God so loved the world.” She proposes persistently, persuasively, and winsomely. Unlike an imposition, a proposal is not a conversation stopper but a conversation starter.
Of course, it is true that many people will reject the proposal, and many will simply refuse to be engaged by it. They simply know that, no matter how winsomely proposed, the conversation with Christianity is but a cunningly disguised threat of imposition on their freedom. Their default position, so to speak, is one of methodological, if not metaphysical, atheism. Any reference to God or transcendent truth, any proposal associated with religion, and especially any proposal associated with Christianity is a threat to the autonomous self and to the achievements of a rigorously secularist modernity. They live in what Max Weber called “a disenchanted world,” and they are determined to keep it that way.
This is a mindset powerfully influential in our culture. Karl Marx spoke of those who control the commanding heights of economies, and so we may speak of those who control the commanding heights of culture. Even though they may be a minority of the population, they succeed in presenting themselves as “the mainstream” through their control of powerful institutions in the media, in entertainment, in the arbitration of literary tastes, in the great research universities and professional associations, and in the worlds of business and advertising that seek the approval of those who control the commanding heights of culture.
It is necessary but not sufficient to alert them to the fact that they are a minority by defeating them in electoral politics. Yet such alerts intensify their alarm that “The theocrats are coming!” They are thus reinforced in their determination to resist what they view as a populist uprising against the hegemony of their enlightened ways. On many questions pertinent to the right ordering of our public life, Christians view those who control the commanding heights of culture as political opponents, and they typically are that. While we view them as political opponents and engage them in fair battle, we must not view them personally as our enemies. Many of them may view us that way, because, for many of them, politics is the name of the game. It is the only game in town. But we know, or we should know, that politics is not enough.
The great contest is over the culture, the guiding ideas and habits of mind and heart that inform the way we understand the world and our place in it. Christians who, knowingly or unknowingly, embrace the model of “Christ without culture” are captive to the culture as defined by those who control its commanding heights. They are not only captive to it but are complicit in it. Their entrepreneurial success in building religious empires by exploiting the niche markets of the Christian subculture leaves the commanding heights untouched, unchallenged, unengaged.
Christianity does indeed have its own culture, its own intellectual tradition, its own liturgy and songs, its own moral teachings and distinctive ways of life, both personal and communal. The Church must carefully cultivate that culture and, in times of severe persecution, cultivate it, if need be, in the catacombs. But that is not our time in America, although there are Christians who, embracing the model of “Christ against culture,” invite us to take refuge in the catacombs of their own imagining.
A rich ecclesial culture, a distinctively Christian way of being in the world, sometimes finds itself positioned against the world as the world is defined by those who are hostile to the influence of the Church. But even when the Church is against the world, she is against the world for the world. “The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes.” In season and out, whether the response is sympathetic or hostile, she proposes what Saint Paul at the end of I Corinthians 12 calls “a more excellent way.” The way proposed is not so much a message as a person, the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. The Second Vatican Council says that Jesus Christ is not only the revelation of God to man but the revelation of man to himself. Those words of Gaudium et Spes were insistently repeated in the pontificate of John Paul the Great and have a prominent place in the teaching of Benedict XVI.
The Christian proposal of a more excellent way is not just one option among others, although it must be freely chosen. Some years ago, in conversation with a prominent Anglican bishop in Britain, I asked how he would define the mission of the Church of England. After a pause for thought, he said, “I suppose I would say that the mission, so to speak, is to maintain the religious option for those who might be interested.” Needless to say, those who control the commanding heights of British culture do not feel threatened by that understanding of the Christian mission.
While religion flourishes here in America, it is largely of the Christ-without-culture variety. What in recent decades have been the distinctively Christian contributions that deserve to command the attention of the cultural gatekeepers of America? In literature and the arts, in music and entertainment, in political philosophy and the humanities, such contributions are few and far between. Distinctively Christian cultural products typically cater to the Christian market. They are not proposals of a more excellent way for American culture. Recently the Fox movie studio announced that it was inaugurating a new series of films under the label of FoxFaith. Does this indicate a growing Christian influence in our public culture? Perhaps so, but it is much more obviously a commonsensical capitalist decision to take advantage of the niche market that is the Christian subculture.
The “Christ without culture” model induces contentment with being a subculture. But, as I have suggested, Christianity that is indifferent to its cultural context is captive to its cultural context. Indeed, it reinforces the cultural definitions to which it is captive. Nowhere is this so evident as in the ready Christian acceptance of the cultural dogma that religion is essentially a private matter of spiritual experience. Against that assumption, we must insist that Christian faith is intensely personal but never private. The Christian gospel is an emphatically public proposal about the nature of the world and our place in it.
Many Christians, possibly most Christians, have uncritically accepted the dichotomy between public and private, between fact and value, between knowledge and meaning. These dichotomies are deeply entrenched in American religion and culture and are closely associated with what is often described, and frequently decried, as American individualism. In what is called our high culture, this understanding of religion as private and intensely subjective was influentially depicted a hundred years ago in William James’ classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Early on in that work, James defines religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” In this understanding, church, community, doctrine, tradition, morality—all of these are secondary and, as often as not, hindrances to genuine religion. Genuine religion is subjective experience, and subjective experience in solitude.
Many years later, in 1992, the influential literary critic Harold Bloom published The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. The post-Christian nation, says Bloom, emerged a long time ago and is exemplified in Ralph Waldo Emerson, who declared: “It is by yourself without ambassador that God speaks to you. . . . It is God in you that responds to God without.” Bloom, rather loosely, calls the American religion “gnosticism,” the belief that each individual possesses a divine spark and salvation consists in the liberation of that divine spark from the body and from the particularities of its constraints in history and cultural space. Bloom writes:
Unlike most countries, we have no overt national religion; but a partly concealed one has been developing among us for two centuries now. It is almost purely experiential, and despite its insistences [to the contrary], it is scarcely Christian in any traditional way. A religion of the self burgeons, under many names, and seeks to know its own inwardness, in isolation. What the American self has found, since about 1800, is its own freedom—from the world, from time, from other selves.
Of course, Harold Bloom overstates his case. It is not sufficient, however, to point out that there are innumerable ministries in the several Christian communities that insist on the objectivity of truth, the authority of Scripture and Spirit-guided interpretation, the ecclesial means of grace, and the reality of moral good and evil. But in preferring such religion, Bloom might respond, one is still exercising a private preference. One’s preferred religion may be conservative or liberal, orthodox or squishy, but the point is that it is my religion, certified and secured by the fact that it is mine. By the privilege of privacy, it cannot be publicly questioned, and it is forbidden to publicly question the preferred beliefs of others.
“Gnosticism” may not be the right word for it, but it is what Bloom calls a religion of the self. It is a seductive way of accommodating differences by declaring a truce in contentions over truth. The “Christ without culture” model would seem to produce a circumstance in which religion is impervious to culture and culture is impervious to religion. But, in fact, it results in religion’s acquiescing in the culture’s demand that it confine itself to the sphere of privacy, William James’ radically individualistic solitude, even if that solitude is celebrated in a five-thousand-seat auditorium of a megachurch.
It was not so in the apostolic period, as witness Saint Paul’s opening hymn in the letter to the Ephesians, his depiction of cosmic transformation in Romans 8 and his anticipation in Philippians 2 of every knee bowed and every tongue confessing Jesus Christ as Lord. It was not so in the patristic era when Justin Martyr proposed Christianity not as a more satisfying religion among other religions but as “the true philosophy.” It was not so with Saint Augustine, who proposed in City of God that the story of the gospel is nothing less than the story of the world. Were Christianity what a man does with his solitude, there would be no martyrs. In every vibrant period of the Church’s life, it has been understood that her message and mission are based on public events, are advanced by public argument, and invite public response.
“The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes.” For the past three hundred years, that public proposal has been inhibited and stifled by Christians who acquiesced in the Enlightenment demand that religion, if it is to survive at all, confine itself to the closet of subjectivity. In America, that acquiescence was embraced as a virtue. The freedom of religion was purchased at the price of agreeing to the public irrelevance of religion. Religious empires were constructed and flourish today by catering to private salvation and the spiritualities of solitude.
Today the Enlightenment settlement that imposed a public truce with respect to the truths that really matter, divorcing fact from value, knowledge from meaning, and faith from reason, is being boldly challenged. Whatever one may think of papal authority, on the world-historical stage that challenge is being pressed most boldly, even audaciously, by the bishop of Rome. That was the real significance of Pope Benedict’s lecture at Regensburg University on September 12. The media excitement focused on a few words about Islam. And he did say that the use of violence to impose religion is to act against reason, and to act against reason is to act against the nature of God, for God has revealed himself as logos—the word and the reason by which all came to be and in which all coheres.
But the bulk of the Regensburg address was directed to Christian intellectuals who, in the name of “de-Hellenizing” Christianity, pit biblical faith against the great synthesis of faith and reason achieved over the centuries of the Christian intellectual tradition. At Regensburg and elsewhere, Benedict has challenged also non-Christian intellectuals to free themselves from the truncated and stifling definition of rationality imposed by the Enlightenment. It is not reasonable, he argues with great intellectual sophistication, to hold that atheism or agnosticism is the default position of rationality. Nor, he insists, can the undoubted achievements of modernity be sustained without reference to transcendent truth.
Since we cannot prove beyond all reasonable doubt that God is, the rational position is not to live as though God does not exist but to live as though God does exist. Here he is urging a form of Pascal’s wager. As you remember, the seventeenth-century genius Blaise Pascal proposed that it is more rational, in view of the benefits to be gained, to believe that God exists than to believe he does not exist. If the believer turns out to be wrong, he has lost what he had hoped for; if the nonbeliever turns out to be wrong, he has lost, quite simply and catastrophically, everything, including life eternal. In short, what is at stake is the infinite or the finite, and there is no commensurability between the infinite and the finite. C.S. Lewis rephrased Pascal’s wager this way: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, is of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
In these and many other ways, the case is advanced that Christianity is a public proposal within the realm of authentically public discourse, and requiring decisions of immeasurable consequences, both personal and cultural. In different times and in different places, the Church has understood its relationship to culture in different ways. There is Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ transforming culture. As I said, H. Richard Niebuhr’s useful taxonomy can be expanded and modified. The one model that is not possible, except by deluding ourselves and betraying the Church’s proposal to the world, is Christ without culture.
The above reflection is adapted from a lecture delivered at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.
While We’re At It
• “The argument is over,” announced former Vice President Al Gore. The subject was global warming. The television interviewer then asked, “You mean there is no argument about global warming?” Gore solemnly nodded and said again, very much like a judge pronouncing the final verdict, “The argument is over.” When and where, one might well ask, did the argument take place? Who was invited to take part in the argument? There are many very reputable scientists expressing skepticism or disbelief with respect to global warming. Never mind, they’re too late; the argument is over. As the presumed moderator of public discourse, Mr. Gore declares that the argument is over and that his side won. Writing in the Boston Globe, Ellen Goodman goes further, comparing global-warming skeptics with Holocaust deniers. They are not only ignorant, they are culpably ignorant. In fact, they are evil. One detects a growing pattern of refusing to engage in argument by declaring that the argument is over. It is not only global warming. Raise a question about the adequacy of Darwinian theory, whether scientifically or philosophically, and be prepared to be informed that the argument is over. Offer the evidence that many who once coped with same-sex desires have turned out, not without difficulty, to be happily married to persons of the opposite sex and you will be told politely—or, more likely, impolitely—that the argument is over.
• It does seem that there is a new spirit of anti-intellectualism abroad. Public discourse is increasingly aimed not at exploring the truth of a matter but at terminating the discussion. Conversation is displaced by propaganda. Self-appointed thought police patrol the conceptual borders against ideas and facts they find inconvenient. To be sure, this is hardly new, but the border patrol seems to be increasingly aggressive these days. Some arguments are rightly declared to be over. For instance, the argument for the legal segregation of the races. For instance, the argument that real communism hasn’t been tried yet. For instance, the argument that people should divorce for the sake of the children. And there are others that sensible people deem unworthy of debate. But there are subjects—for example, whether we are facing catastrophic climate change caused by human behavior, whether reason and spirit emerge from mindless matter, whether sexual desire is identity and destiny—that are eminently deserving of intelligent discussion. In We Hold These Truths, John Courtney Murray wrote that democracy is made possible by people who accept the open-ended discipline of being “locked in civil argument.” This is possible, and we must work at it. He writes: “And this belief and hope is strengthened when one considers that this dynamic order of reason in man, that clamors for expression with all the imperiousness of law, has its origin and sanction in an eternal order of reason whose fulfillment is the object of God’s majestic will.” Now that is a claim worth arguing about. It is a claim to be defended when confronted by anti-intellectuals who are, with a presumptuousness that would be amusing were it not so deadening, increasingly prone to declaring that the argument is over and that they won.
• A storm of criticism broke when columnist Dennis Prager suggested that there was something not quite American about Democratic representative Keith Ellison taking his oath of office with his hand on the Qur’an. He should, said Prager, swear on the Bible that represents the core religio-cultural tradition of the country. That, he noted, is what Jewish politicians customarily do, even though the New Testament is not their Bible. Ellison, who represents the Fifth District of Minnesota, was born in Detroit and converted to Islam while in college. The brouhaha engaged a number of interesting questions. There is, for instance, the fact that representatives are sworn in en masse in the chamber of the House. The individual taking of the oath is an after-the-fact photo-op. (It is said that more media showed up for Ellison’s photo-op than for any in the history of the House.) Then, too, there is the representative principle. The people of the Fifth elected him knowing full well that he is a Muslim, and presumably his highest allegiance is to God as revealed in the Qur’an. The point of taking an oath is to solemnly swear by one’s highest allegiance, which, for Ellison, is represented by the Qur’an.
• But then there is this delicious irony: Ellison is pictured taking the oath on a copy of the Qur’an borrowed from the Thomas Jefferson collection in the Library of Congress. Now, as it happens, Jefferson had very definite, and less than complimentary, views about Islam and good reason for consulting the Qur’an. After American independence, the Muslim pirates of the Barbary Coast, as it was then called, waged a war of terror against American shipping, taking thousands of American sailors and civilians captive as slaves. Payments in ransom and tribute to the privateering Barbary states amounted to 20 percent of United States government annual revenues in 1800. Jefferson thought enough was enough. When he was the U.S. ambassador to France, he had had some experience in negotiating with Muslims and was not favorably impressed. In 1786 there were negotiations with Tripoli’s envoy to London, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. He was asked by what right he extorted money and took slaves. Jefferson reported to Secretary of State John Jay, and to the Congress: “The ambassador answered us that [the right] was founded on the Laws of the Prophet (Mohammed), that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to heaven.” After being inaugurated as president in 1801, Jefferson declared the U.S. policy to be “millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.” In 1805, the Marines were sent in, marching across the desert of Egypt into what was then called Tripolitania, compelling the surrender of Tripoli and the release of all American slaves. Hence the U.S. Marines sing to this day: “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli/ We will fight our country’s battles in the air, on land and sea.” It is not evident from the news accounts whether Congressman Ellison intended the choice of Jefferson’s Qur’an as a sign of his support for America’s current struggle against Jihadism.
• Speaking of Jefferson, I see there is a big fight over removing the cross from the chapel of William and Mary, Jefferson’s alma mater. That may be viewed as a battle over paying tribute to another form of tyranny, although it is not likely to be resolved by sending in the Marines. The tyranny is a mindless form of multiculturalism, to which, as is evident in his view of the deeply held convictions of Sidi Haji Abdrahaman, Jefferson was decidedly cool.
• I recommend a careful reading of George Weigel’s article in this issue, “Just War and Iraq Wars.” I know it will not be easy for some readers. Not because the article is hard to understand but because passions about U.S. policy in Iraq have become so inflamed that in many quarters there is slight patience with calm and careful analysis. While thoughtful people do not indulge facile comparisons with the war in Vietnam, today’s fevered public rhetoric about Iraq is reminiscent of the Vietnam era. Such rhetoric is employed by those who accuse opponents of the war of being unpatriotic and, much more commonly and stridently, or so it seems to me, by those who declare U.S. policy to be unjust, wrongheaded, or even criminal. It is a cliché to say that war is hell, but it is a cliché because, in fact, so much about war is hellish. One can honor the noble intentions and courage of those who wage war while believing that the war they wage is wrong. Although on the scale of modern warfare the absolute numbers may not seem large, so many Americans have been killed or wounded, and then there are the thousands of Iraqis—there is no agreement on the number—who have been killed, maimed, or made homeless since the defeat of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The responsibility of America and its allies for Iraqi casualties is, of course, a question that is hotly disputed. Whether one supports or opposes U.S. policy in Iraq, it is necessary to understand what has gone wrong, but even more necessary to understand where we are and where we should go from here. This assumes that we are all—whether in support, protest, or uncertainty—prepared to accept a measure of moral responsibility for being part of the “we” of America and its role in the world. Weigel addresses with rare calm and clarity the theoretical and practical considerations attending that responsibility. We look forward to publishing what I expect will be sharply differing responses to his analysis.
• Many years ago, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. It was an always necessary caution against the moral arrogance of assuming that all the right and all the truth is on our side of whatever conflict in which we are engaged. A reader came across a recent statement by a Notre Dame law professor who reproached pro-lifers for claiming that they represent the forces of light against the pro-abortion forces of darkness. So our reader did a little research and discovered this quote: “Three years ago, in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services 492 U.S. 490 (1989), four Members of this Court appeared poised to ‘cas[t] into darkness the hopes and visions of every woman in this country’ who had come to believe that the Constitution guaranteed her the right to reproductive choice. Id., at 557 (Blackmun, J., dissenting). All that remained between the promise of Roe and the darkness of the plurality was a single, flickering flame. Decisions since Webster gave little reason to hope that this flame would cast much light. See, e.g., Ohio v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, 497 U.S. 502, 524 (1990) (Blackmun, J., dissenting). But now, just when so many expected the darkness to fall, the flame has grown bright. . . . I fear [however] for the darkness as four Justices anxiously await the single vote necessary to extinguish the light.” [Emphasis added.] That is heavy-duty language indeed. You may well ask who was the author of Manichean mindset who wrote the above. It was, of course, Justice Harry Blackmun, author of the Roe v. Wade majority decision, writing (and quoting himself) in the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. That having been duly noted, I have little doubt that the more than forty million children in this country who were not permitted to see the light would have little doubt, if they had a say in the matter, about who are the children of light in the battle over abortion.
• For clarity of mind, warmth of heart, and courage of expression, there is hardly a bishop in the United States to match Charles Chaput, archbishop of Denver. Yet I confess to having a problem with his recent pastoral letter on immigration reform. He reports that he has received a truly vicious protest against what he has said on the subject. “The e-mail is real. So is the person who wrote it. So is the coarseness of spirit that inspired it. Something is deeply wrong with the heart and the head of any person who thinks like this. It’s worth asking ourselves what kind of a God we believe in—the kind that ‘has no problem’ with a person who refuses to pray for others and hopes that families and children of arrested workers will ‘starve to death’? How can a person continue to consider himself a Christian with this kind of vindictive brutality on his lips?” No decent person would want to disagree with the bishop on that. But is it quite fair to imply that those who are skeptical of, or opposed to, the U.S. bishops’ stance on immigration reform—which includes language that sounds an awful lot like amnesty—are represented by the vicious email that Chaput rightly deplores? I think not. Despite some modest measures to strengthen border controls, thousands are still entering illegally each month. There is a widespread and irrepressible sense that there is something very wrong with a nation that does not have the will to control its own borders. Meanwhile, thousands upon thousands wait in line to enter the country legally. Surely that injustice is deserving of recognition. Nor should we turn a deaf ear to the many Americans who cry out against the ruination of their communities by an uncontrolled flood of illegal immigrants, bringing with them crime and an unsupportable increase in taxation. And it cannot be right that the Mexican government perpetuates poverty at home by encouraging illegal immigration to the U.S., becoming dependent on the money they send back, which, next to oil, is the largest part of that country’s GDP. Archbishop Chaput is right: “How we treat the weak, the infirm, the elderly, the unborn child and the foreigner reflects on our own humanity.” Most Americans, unlike the writer of the email to which he alludes, are not mean-spirited or lacking in compassion. They are disturbed by a circumstance that is wildly out of control and do not believe it is beyond remedy. “Control first” is a perfectly defensible position. Until control is much more believably established, talk about multifaceted reform plans and calls for compassion will almost inevitably be heard as an invitation to resign ourselves to unbounded lawlessness.
• I’m a bit late in getting to this. Paul Johnson, author of Art: A New History, has this to say in The New Criterion: “Nor do I believe that art can flourish for long without a spiritual element. I grieve over what happened to painting in the twentieth century, vitiated by a kind of barbarism not unlike the actions of governments which cost the lives of scores of millions. When I visit galleries today, I long for the fifteenth century, with its tender Madonnas and the outstretched arms of the infant Jesus on their knees, and even the paintings of the martyrs in woeful suffering have a purpose missing from the pointless images of violence now cast up, or the descent into depths deeper than any Hell of Hieronymus Bosch. I recall attending the opening of Tate Modern. I found a room there empty except for a large video screen and three children, a girl of about ten and her younger brother and sister. They were sampling modern art—a video of a man masturbating. That this kind of episode was no accident I deduce from the latest obiter dicta of Charles Saatchi, said to exercise enormous power over our art: ‘I know I sound like some ghastly creep, but there is something enchanting about seeing children sitting around a Chapman brothers piece showing penises coming out of girls’ eyes, and drawing it neatly to take back to their teacher.’“ As long as they’re drawing neatly.
• There are notes of both desperation and hopefulness in a study by Steven M. Cohen published by the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation. In the past, it is noted, Jewish identity was reinforced by two dynamics: the segregation of Jews by anti-Semitism and the assumption that religion is defined for life by birth. Those dynamics are now severely weakened or have disappeared. The study lays out a number of programs that can help young people to be “Jews by choice.” The majority of Jews have no specifically Jewish affiliation. At least 40 percent of Jews are married to non-Jews. Rabbi Irving Greenberg, president of JLN/SF, writes: “In this group, the participation numbers are troublingly low. Children of families with non-converted spouses are growing up and defining themselves as Jewish at very low rates. No community can afford to lose 40% of its body. Let it be clear. We do not believe that the act of intermarriage has an inexorable, determined assimilationist outcome. We believe that intermarriage is a symptom more than a cause. Primarily, Jewish life must be so enriched and Jews offered so much participation in vital education and living experiences that they will prefer Jews in marriage and if they fall in love with a non-Jew they will encourage conversion or, at least, will choose to raise their children Jewishly. Therefore, we need urgent attention to try to find programs that work in this sub-community.” He adds: “We are at a crucial crossroads in the history of American Jewry. If we choose not to act, dissolution and assimilation still await us. But, if we direct our efforts toward what works and if we have the commitments to address the historic challenge of full integration in American life, then the future of the Jewish people in the open society will be ensured. The choice is before us.” The language is of more than passing interest: against assimilation, which is equated with dissolution, and for full integration in American life. NB: Not full integration into American life, which, again, might connote dissolution. It is a language peculiar to the Jewish circumstance. Were the same locutions to be employed by leaders of, say, black, Asian, or Hispanic communities, it would raise all kinds of public controversy. Imagine Jesse Jackson publicly insisting that blacks should not marry whites. On the other hand, I expect few eyebrows would be raised by Catholics urging Catholics to marry Catholics, or evangelicals urging evangelicals to marry evangelicals. It is hard to imagine Methodists being very concerned that their children marry Methodists, although there are no doubt some Lutherans who very much want their children to marry Lutherans.
• Were I in Rabbi Greenberg’s position, I would be as straightforward in opposing “out-marriage” as he is. Christians who have a particular interest in converting Jews should take no comfort from the large number of Jews marrying non-Jews. As often as not, children of such unions are reared as neither Christian nor Jewish. Without denying the universality of the gospel of Christ, I believe it is in the interest of Christians to live side by side with a strong and vibrant Jewish community. We still have a lot to learn from Judaism about what it means to be Christian. (See my essay “Salvation Is from the Jews,” November 2001.) There are problems, however, with the JLF/SF’s promotion of a “Common Judaism,” described as “an articulation of classic Jewish values that can still inspire Jews of every stripe.” Judaism is nothing if not particularistic. One has to wonder what, apart from an ethnic spin, distinguishes such values from those that inspire Americans of every stripe—including, for most Christians, a commitment to the safety and flourishing of Israel. As many Jewish writers have noted, there is a big difference between devotion to Jewishness and devotion to—meaning observance of—Judaism. The former is tribalism or just another color in the “gorgeous mosaic” of American pluralism. The latter engages, as St. Paul ponders in Romans 9–11, God’s continuing covenantal purposes for his elect people.
• The editorial in The Economist carries the assertion in the subhead that “liberty should give way to equality.” You can be sure that The Economist, a notorious running dog of capitalist hegemony, is not referring to the pay packages of CEOs or proposing an expansion of government regulation of business. No, the subject is the request of the Catholic Church, backed by the Church of England, that it should be exempt from a new law requiring adoption agencies to place children with same-sex couples. The request has been denied by the Blair government, and The Economist strongly approves. To the concern that such adoptions may not be in the child’s interests, the editors respond that “there is virtually [no evidence] to suggest that the sexual orientation of parents affects the outcome.” Of course, there is slight evidence because there has been very slight experience with same-sex adoptions. One outcome that common sense suggests is almost inevitable is that such children will have a very different understanding of human sexuality. In any event, the Blair government is quite prepared to subject children to a social experiment that is, in the view of many experts, filled with high risks.
• “Churches, like societies, do change,” the Economist editors say. They mean must change, and they opine that “homosexual parents may come to seem another variety in the bewildering gamut of family structures.” While political philosophers from classical Greece to the present have contended that the family, as it has been understood up to now, is the foundational structure of society, the editors insouciantly ask, What’s wrong with a bewildering gamut of family structures? They are concerned about “the degree to which respect for different customs and faiths in multicultural Britain should dilute the law of the land.” Islam is mentioned in passing. The implication is that, if Christianity gets special respect, Sharia law will not be far behind, which says volumes about Britain’s confidence in its history and culture. But the underlying assumption of the editorial, an assumption common among those who are unthinkingly only economic conservatives, is that religion, conscience, and morality are purely private matters. The churches, they say, “are worried that the state is increasingly muscling in on areas that should be left to private conscience and religious teaching.” But, they say, when religion or anything else touches on public life, it should be brought under state control. Except for business, of course. The tax exemptions of churches and charities are “subsidies from the taxpayers” and therefore should bring such institutions under state control. They allow that there are exceptions to the rules. “The Economist‘s London offices are surrounded by gentlemen’s clubs, for example, to which ladies are admitted only as guests. But private clubs do not offer public services.” Apparently nothing goes on in those clubs that has a bearing on public life. A business magazine that pits equality against liberty and bows to the rule of Leviathan over any human activity of public consequence has not thought very carefully about the nature of business—never mind the nature of religion, conscience, and culture.
• My apologies to Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland of Yale and author of How We Die. In the February issue, I said that he wrote in his book that he had never witnessed an instance in which a patient had found in religious faith a mitigation of the horror of death. I was relying on my memory of having read the book when it appeared twelve years ago, and I was wrong. In the book, Dr. Nuland does distance himself from religious faith and writes, “Much less commonly than at any other time in this millennium do the dying nowadays turn to God and the promise of an afterlife when the present life is fading.” But he did not write what I said he wrote, and I thank him for bringing this to my attention.
• As many have observed, sociologists are an endangered species. We’re going to miss them. Or maybe not. Here’s a report from two of them, Dean Hoge and James Davidson, who are associated with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. They’ve discovered that young Catholics (“the millennium generation”) are strong on Catholic identity but low on commitment. Says Davidson: “There’s a disconnect between them and the institutional church. And when they get older, they are not going to be like the Catholics of previous generations. They are going to be the Catholics they are now.” This sounds more like fortune-telling than sociology. It seems improbable that this is the first generation of young people in history that is not going to change as they grow older. Prof. Hoge lays the blame for the “disconnect” from the Church on younger priests who, according to the report, are “becoming more strict about some church teachings.” Hoge says they adhere to the “cultic” model of priesthood rather than the “servant-leader” model. He cites the fact that 94 percent of priests thirty-five or younger say that they believe that ordination effects an ontological change in the person ordained, while only 70 percent of priests over fifty-six say that. Asked whether the Church “needs to move faster in empowering lay people in ministry”—presumably to make up for the declining number of priests—86 percent of older priests but only 54 percent of younger priests agree. It was also discovered that young Catholics are much less likely than their grandparents to agree with church teaching on abortion, homosexuality, and premarital sex. (Historians, psychologists, and the parents of teenage children might have a better grip than sociologists on why young people are inclined to be more permissive on matters sexual.) The theme of the Georgetown conference at which these findings were reported was “Young Adult Catholics: Believing, Belonging, and Serving.” Said Prof. Davidson: “Belonging is not a problem; they feel comfortable calling the Church home. And I don’t think serving is a problem. It’s the believing that’s the problem.” Apart from the believing thing, they’re good Catholics.
• I expect that from time immemorial there has been a significant difference between generations with respect to religious adherence. But, to the extent that the difference is more dramatic with today’s young Catholics, might that have something to do with older priests who disserved them and their parents by being more ambivalent (that is, less “strict,” meaning less orthodox) about church teachings and who embrace a “servant-leader” rather than priestly (that is, “cultic,” meaning sacramental) understanding of the priesthood? Just asking, mind you. I am glad to note that at the Georgetown conference there were two sisters who work with young people. The one said that “they are really hungry for God.” The other said that, while they’re interested in service projects and the such, they really get excited about “talking the talk about Jesus, the Gospel, and God.” I expect the younger priests—you know, the “strict” and “cultic” kind—understand that. Which is good news for everybody except, I suppose, sociologists with an agenda.
• Of the launching of new journals there is no end. Thank God. Here is Letter & Spirit, an annual published by the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology of Steubenville, Ohio, and edited by the noted Catholic apologist Scott Hahn. The first issue has a splendid article on biblical interpretation by Robert Louis Wilken of the University of Virginia. “Allegory is the Church’s love affair with the Bible,” he writes. From there Wilken goes on to critique the limitations of the modern preoccupation with the historical or “literal” meaning of biblical texts. It is routinely said that the text must be understood in its historical context. Please bear with this longish quotation. It’s worth it. “Context is, however, an elusive category. In dealing with ancient texts it is often assumed that what went before or what is contemporaneous with the text set the terms of interpretation. Yet one might ask why context should be restricted to what happened earlier. Is what went before more significant than what occurred afterward or what came about because of what happened, was said or was written down? With great political ideas, for example, it is only as they are played out in history that we know what they mean. In the telling of American history, President John Kennedy’s achievements during his presidency would be remembered much differently had he not been assassinated in his first term. Even in our personal lives and in relations with others we are constantly adjusting our view of the past and of the lives of others as new experiences unfold. We view a close friend who has patiently and heroically endured a grave illness differently than we did before his illness. Even the things done or said earlier appear different. Fyodor Dostoevsky thought that any understanding of the past that did not see things in light of what came later produced the ‘worst kind of untruth.’ As an example he referred to a painting by the Russian artist Nikolai Ge in which Christ and his disciples were portrayed as average Russian men and women of the 1860s. Dostoevsky writes: ‘There sits Christ, but is that Christ? It may be a very good young man, deeply hurt by his quarrel with Judas, the latter standing there getting dressed to go off and denounce him, but this is not the Christ we know . . . [and] we must ask the question: where are the eighteen centuries of Christianity that followed? . . . How is it possible that from such an ordinary quarrel of such ordinary people gathered to have supper . . . there could arise something so colossal?’ If we are to be true to what happened, a person or event from the past must be seen in light of subsequent developments ‘which had not yet occurred at the historical moment’ which the artist was depicting. Dostoevsky’s question is our question. Where are the 19 centuries of Christian life and history in our interpretation of the Bible? Echoing Dostoevsky we might say, ‘there stand the psalms as ancient Hebrew poems, but are they the psalms we know?’“
• Wilken continues: “When I read this passage from Dostoevsky in the final volume of the magnificent biography by Joseph Frank, I was reminded of the words of another nineteenth-century figure Adolf von Harnack, whose ideas have dominated the interpretation of the history of theology in the twentieth century (and, one might add, prejudiced generations of scholars against patristic exegesis). Many years ago I wrote down this passage from his Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte: ‘No religion gains anything through time, it only loses.’ For Harnack, the Church’s history had to be scoured by the acid of critical historical reason to uncover an earlier allegedly more pristine form of the gospel. Yet what is most characteristic of the Christian (and one might add the Jewish) interpretation of the Scriptures is that the words of the Bible do not arrive smooth and clean, scrubbed free of the experiences of centuries. Much of what we hold most dear in the Scriptures was discerned only over time. Time has endowed the words and images of the Bible with a fullness that can be known only by reading the text forward, not backward. A particularly egregious example of the unanticipated and unhappy consequences of self-imposed amnesia is the New Revised Standard Version translation of Beatus vir, ‘Blessed is the man,’ in Psalm 1. By translating the verse according to the perverse and ephemeral logic of the moment, ‘Happy are those who . . .’ the Christological interpretation of the psalm is swept away to become a forgotten chapter in the arcane specialty of the history of exegesis. Allegory resists the tyranny of historicism and invites us to see things as they are, not as we imagine them to have been centuries ago. This is one reason for the formative power of the liturgy on interpretation. The Church at prayer spans the great divide separating what the text meant from what it means. Allegory is about what has come to be, the accommodation that is inevitable because of what happened in Christ, in the Church, and what continues to unfold.”
• Wilken sums up his argument with this: “The unique vocation of the Christian exegetical tradition was to offer a comprehensive understanding of the Bible as the book of the Church centered on the Triune God. This required more than what is considered interpretation today. For the Bible of the early Church was a living voice, not only a document from ancient history. In its pages the fullness of Christian faith and life could be found in bewildering detail and infinite variety—all organized around the center which was Christ. Early Christian exegesis was not simply exegesis, but a distinctively Christian way of thinking. That we should find ourselves drawn to this synthesis does not mean that the exegesis of the early Church or the middle ages can be appropriated without being filtered through our experience and thinking, including our historical consciousness. But it does mean that at the beginning of the 21st century the time has come to take out of the closet and polish a very old word from the Christian lexicon, ‘allegory,’ and to discover anew why it is indispensable for a genuine Christian interpretation of the Old Testament.”
• There is much more of interest in Letter & Spirit. For instance, Avery Cardinal Dulles on how the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on Scripture and tradition has been misunderstood—sometimes deliberately, or so it seems. And John Cavadini of Notre Dame on the use of Scripture in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. An additional and attractive feature of the journal is the reprinting of texts of enduring interest by figures as diverse as Augustin Cardinal Bea, Hugh of St. Victor, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. (For more information, write Letter & Spirit, 2228 Sunset Blvd., Steubenville, Ohio 43952, or www.letterandspirit.org.)
• Duquesne University in Pittsburgh was the setting for an important talk by Walter Cardinal Kasper, head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, on the challenges and opportunities posed by the explosive worldwide growth of Pentecostalism. Ecumenism of the last century, he said, was heavily Christological and sometimes neglectful of the pneumatological, meaning the work of the Holy Spirit. Kasper praises the important work by the French Dominican Yves Congar and his book I Believe in the Holy Spirit for highlighting the theological neglect of the pneumatological in theology since the Council of Trent. That, he says, changed with Vatican Council II: “Thus, according to the Council there cannot be any doubt that the ecumenical movement is not the result of the spirit of liberalism or relativism but the fruit of an impetus of the Holy Spirit. The Council goes still a step further. The Holy Spirit is not only the impetus of the ecumenical movement, on its beginning, as the principle of unity (UR 2; cf. LG 7; 8; 13) he is its innermost soul and its dynamic principle. At the same time he is the presupposition of ecumenism, which makes possible the ecumenical process, because he is present also outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church ‘by his gifts and graces’ (LG 15). ‘For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them (i.e. the separated Churches and communities) as means of salvation’ (UR 3). Thus we are with them already now in real but not full communion. Also the way from incomplete to full communion is guided by the Holy Spirit; we as human beings cannot ‘make’ or organize unity; unity will be a gift of the Spirit, a new outpouring of the Spirit, a renewed Pentecost.”
• The burgeoning of Pentecostalism, especially in the Global South, is not without problems. “The aggressive proselytism and the immediate attractiveness of these groups has meant that the Catholic Church, in common with all the traditional Churches, continues to lose many faithful every year. The instruments and purposes of these movements are often by and large not as spiritual as they may seem, and indeed are sometimes far removed from Christian origin and spirit. Undoubtedly, these groups represent an urgent pastoral problem and an ecumenical challenge.” Already in the official Ecumenical Directory of 1993, it was emphasized that distinctions must be made “between sects and new religious movements, on the one hand, and churches and ecclesial communities on the other.” Kasper comments: “Because of this differentiated background and character we must be prudent and cautious with the term sect. The use of the term ‘sect’ generally has a negative and derogatory connotation. However, it should be borne in mind that the term sect cannot be defined only in a quantitative way and applied to all small groups; sect has a qualitative meaning and implies normally an exclusive self-understanding connected with fanatic, fundamentalist, and aggressive behavior, which makes dialogue normally impossible. Proselytism and proselytistic methods are part of the main characteristics of sects and a pastoral challenge with regard to Pentecostalism.”
• Kasper offers this suggestion: “Today worldwide Pentecostals (including Catholic charismatic renewal) number about 600 million Christians, and they are still growing very fast. By virtue of such numbers alone, these communities should not be called sects. On the other hand, they also cannot be called churches in the sociological sense of the term, because each assembly is independent and there is no representative body which can speak for the entire Pentecostal movement. Thus we should speak simply of ‘Pentecostals’ or ‘Charismatic communities.’“ After reiterating the Catholic teaching that is the foundation of ecumenical effort—namely, that all who are baptized and confess Christ as Lord are in certain but imperfect communion, and the task is to bring that communion to fulfillment—Kasper underscores that the first pastoral response to Pentecostalism is for the Church to examine herself, asking why so many are finding in these new movements an intensity of discipleship that they apparently do not find in the Catholic Church. The Duquesne lecture is a useful survey of developing approaches to Pentecostalism, moving the Church away from scornful dismissal of “the sects” to genuine and, needless to say, difficult ecumenical engagement.
• From the French Revolution’s Temple of Reason to the Soviet Union’s ritualized rites of passage, the godless have contrived ersatz ceremonies in poignant tribute to the absence of God. In that tradition, the government of the Spanish region of Catalonia has produced a “Civil Ceremonial Manual.” Noting that the number of civil marriages has surpassed the number of Catholic marriages, the government explains that “the concept of God has been strongly questioned from all points of view.” The substitute baptismal rite includes suggested readings from sources such as Pablo Neruda and Charlie Chaplin, along with music by Cat Stevens, Louis Armstrong, and the Beatles. Provision is also made for the participation of “godparents.” The rite for those who commit suicide or choose to be euthanized is called a “Farewell Ceremony” and includes “a loving and fraternal embrace.” At the burial, friends may talk about “his or her more human or even humorous side, which helps to relieve the tension.” Confronted by the awesomely ultimate reality of mortality and the meaning, if any, of life, the least we can do is to relieve the tension.
• Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton want it understood that they’re not starting a new church. But in January they brought together eighty leaders of some forty moderate—others would say liberal—Baptist groups to work toward a “New Baptist Covenant” to be celebrated at a huge confab in Atlanta in 2008. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), with some sixteen million members, was conspicuously not invited to the January meeting. Carter has referred to the SBC as “fundamentalist” and compared its conservative leaders with the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Baptist Press notes that Hillary Clinton will be running for president in 2008 and delicately adds, “Democrats have made the winning over of ‘faith voters’ a major election strategy.”
• That formidable theologian George Lindbeck, who, in his eighty-third year, continues to be a source of wisdom and encouragement for many of us, is interviewed by Christian Century. As a much younger man, he was a Lutheran ecumenical observer at the Second Vatican Council, where he developed a particular admiration for John XXIII. He was also very important to a three-day conference we sponsored some years ago with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger on the subject of biblical interpretation. Asked about his thoughts on Ratzinger-Benedict, he said: “My view on the basis of his writings and my own observations is that Ratzinger at the CDF struggled consistently (only God knows how successfully) to sustain his youthful commitments to the renewal of the church universal through return to the sources of the faith, and I hope and expect that Benedict XVI will do the same. Yet it is important if this is to happen that not only Catholics but we who are not Catholics pray for and support him as best we can. The papal governance of the Roman Church is an awkward business no less now, though in very different ways, than when St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote an entire book, On Consideration, to counsel Pope Eugenius III.”
• The interview ends with a question about what his career might be like if he were starting out as a theologian today. To which Lindbeck responds: “‘A life less planned is better’ is the gist of what I remember John XXIII saying when he met with the delegated observers during Vatican II’s first session. The Lord’s mercies ‘are new every morning’ (Lam. 3:22) was a verse he repeated every day when he got up, for without that assurance, the unpredictability of the future would paralyze him. Every major event in his life had been unimaginable beforehand—something he would have been totally unable to prepare for even if he had wanted to—yet the preparation had taken place. What he said to me, even if not viva voce, was that this unimaginability was for him one of the Lord’s mercies, not because it saves time—though it does that too—but because it adds to the joy of life. I find myself thinking in similar ways of my theological career, and that makes it doubly silly, especially for someone my age, to try to answer this question.” That strikes me as just about right. Was it Plato who said that the planned life is not worth living?
• The answer to a reader is that, of course, we are pleased to note the cropping up of new Christian magazines at several universities, some of them very consciously modeled on First Things. One of our junior fellows, Jordan Hylden, was instrumental in launching the Harvard Ichthus, and is helping with similar launches at Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Wheaton, and elsewhere. For more information, see www.theaugustineproject.blogspot .com. While we’re on the subject of student magazines, the pro-life folks at the University of California at Los Angeles are putting out an impressive magazine called The Advocate. For more information on that, check out www.LAadvocate.com.
• “In order to defeat the Islamic radicals abroad,” writes Dinesh D’Souza, “we must defeat the enemy at home.” That is the argument of his new book, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11. Mr. D’Souza is undoubtedly right that radical Jihadists exploit—among many other things they exploit—the pervasiveness of pornography, sexual licentiousness, and other depravities America exports through its commanding role in the global media. And there is in this country an intense and open-ended conflict, commonly called a culture war, between “the cultural left” and its opponents. But to suggest that those associated with the cultural left are “the enemy” in a way comparable to al-Qaeda and its allies are the enemy is over the top. The “responsibility for 9/11” rests solidly with the international network of Jihadists who have declared their determination to use any means necessary to defeat the U.S. and force the world’s submission to Islam. The idea that they or the millions of Muslims sympathetic to them will have a change of heart about America and the West if only we put our house in moral order is not persuasive. More troubling is the implication that America, if only the American left, is responsible for the war being waged by the Jihadists. Recall the late Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s speech at the 1984 Republican convention and “the blame-America-first crowd.” That crowd is large enough as it is. There’s no call for self-identified conservatives to join it.
• Nathan A. Scott Jr. has died. He was for a time our poetry editor, but that was the least of his distinctions. He held distinguished chairs at the University of Chicago and the University of Virginia for many years, and his passion was the intersection of literature and Christian faith. Samuel T. Lloyd III, dean of the Episcopal cathedral in Washington, spoke at the funeral in Charlottesville. He spoke of Nathan Scott as “one of the signal boundary walkers of our time.” He spoke of him as an accomplished raconteur who, with a martini in one hand and a cigarette in the other, held forth on the life and work of an astonishing array of notables, from Baudelaire and Kafka to Proust and Woolf. In one of his many books, The Broken Center: Studies in the Theological Horizon of Modern Literature, Nathan Scott wrote that modern writers “have not known the kind of confidence in the world and in temporal reality that was managed in happier moments in the literary tradition.” For him, that confidence was firmly grounded in the incarnation of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Dean Lloyd said of Nathan Scott: “He saw the world shot through with the grandeur of God, and his life embodied a profound trust that God’s radiant presence continues to shine even in these troubled times. He was for many of us a Virgil, leading us through a dark wood with wisdom and insight. He kept seeing the light, and kept calling for what he called a ‘reverential amazement’ in the face of the created world and the sense of a sacred presence in it.” Nathan A. Scott Jr. May choirs of angels welcome him to that place where martinis are always dry and cigarettes are good for one’s health. Analogically speaking, of course. As Nathan Scott might say.
• Universal testing of unborn children for Down syndrome should be considered socially mandatory, according to a story in the New York Times. Not in order to treat such children, of course, but to eliminate them. The story doesn’t actually say that. Abortion is not mentioned. It is the taken-for-granted solution for the problem posed by such children. But here is a story in the Times that is viewed as cause for moral hand-wringing. It seems that about one sheep in eight is homosexual, and Dr. Charles Rosetti of the Oregon Health and Science University has been trying to find out why this is so. There is an economic interest in the question, since sheep breeders are in the business of sheep that breed. When word got out about Rosetti’s research, a ruckus was raised by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and some LGBT advocates. The claim was that sheep have a right to their sexual orientation and gay sheep have a right to life just the same as other sheep. The Times quotes an expert on these matters who defends Rosetti’s work: “The prospect of parents’ eventually being able to choose not to have children who would become gay is a real concern for the future.” But he adds, “This concern is best addressed by trying to change public perceptions of homosexuality rather than stop basic science on sexuality.” I don’t have a developed moral position on gay sheep, but one cannot help but be struck by the reasoning. To abort a child who might have Down syndrome is a social duty, and the ability to detect the problem early is hailed as a medical advance. To abort a child because of a hare lip or because she is a girl may be distasteful to some but is a constitutionally guaranteed right. To abort a child because he or she might have a genetic predisposition to homosexuality, however, is an act of intolerable discrimination. If morality finally comes down to drawing a line, it would seem that the line with respect to the otherwise unlimited abortion license is homosexuality. As Orwell observed, all human beings are equal but some are more equal than others.
• I mentioned Walter Cardinal Kasper’s thoughtful address on Christian unity. On the same subject, close attention will be paid, also by evangelical and Pentecostal Christians, to Pope Benedict’s visit to Brazil this May for the opening of the Latin American Bishops Conference, known as CELAM. Many—not all but many—Latin American bishops have apparently not caught up to what the Second Vatican Council teaches about Christian unity, especially when it comes to evangelicals and Pentecostals. These groups are commonly derided as “sects,” with the additional claim that their rapid growth is part of a grand Yankee conspiracy to “Protestantize” Latin America. There is no doubt that many such groups are vigorously, even viscerally, anti-Catholic, which makes it more difficult for Catholics to act on the teaching of the council that those who are baptized and believe in Christ as their Savior are in a “certain but imperfect communion with the Catholic Church.” They are, in short, brothers and sisters in Christ. These realities were addressed at the 1997 Synod of the Americas convened in Rome. There it was urged that a careful distinction be made between separated Christians and non-Christian groups that can appropriately be described as sects or cults. After the 1997 synod, it seemed that that distinction was being observed, but in the last couple of years old habits appear to be reasserting themselves. Regrettably, even Pope Benedict, speaking to priests at Valle d’Aosta shortly after his election, referred to the sufferings of the Church in the Southern Hemisphere “because of the sects, who present themselves, as it were, as a Christian response that is better, easier, and more accommodating.” Scholars such as sociologist David Martin (Tongues of Fire) and historian Philip Jenkins ( The Next Christendom) emphasize that a large part of the appeal of these non-Catholic groups is that they are more demanding and less accommodating to destructive cultural patterns dominating much of Latin America. Frequently, Catholics who have never been catechized, on joining these communities, engage in Bible study, stop drinking, gambling, and abusing their wives, and often develop the elementary disciplines of regular work and micro-economic entrepreneurial activity. It is surely time for the Church in Latin America to candidly acknowledge its failures in evangelization, catechesis, and pastoral care; failures that result in millions of people finding in these other groups an encounter with the living Christ and a community of discipleship such as they did not know when they were nominally Catholic. Catholics, along with evangelical and Pentecostal Christians, should be listening carefully to how these questions are addressed at the meeting of CELAM in May. However strained the relationship, and whether or not they reciprocate the acknowledgment, many of these groups are not “sects” but communities of separated brothers and sisters in Christ.
• Why can’t the poor be like us? Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady did succeed in turning Eliza Doolittle into a match for her betters, but the story does not suggest a program for wider social reform. Kay S. Hymowitz has written a book of more general application, Marriage and Caste in America (Ivan R. Dee). Her interest is in the “marriage gap” between the poor and the others. Consider this: 92 percent of children living with two parents are in families that have an income of $75,000 or more; 20 percent of children in families earning under $15,000 live with both parents. Hymowitz asks, “Why would women working for a pittance at supermarket cash registers decide to have children without getting married while women writing briefs at Debevoise & Plimpton, who could easily afford to go it alone, insist on finding husbands before they start families?” The answer is that the poor have lost their “life script” for future-oriented child-rearing. They don’t embrace what Hymowitz calls The Mission, which is equipping children to grow into adults who are prepared to prosper in a complex, postindustrial society. And so forth. “To listen to some policymakers,” she writes, “one might think that . . . the requisite orderliness, discipline, foresight, and bourgeois willingness to delay gratification are natural instincts rather than traits developed over time through adults’ prodding and example.”
• Perhaps there are policymakers who are so dumb. And the evidence is overwhelming that, by any measure of human well-being, children are much better off if brought up by a mother and father who are married. Ms. Hymowitz is a great advocate of “rational self-interest,” which is generally a very good thing. But the fact is that many, if not most, of those women working the cash registers have no “life script” because they know they’re not going anywhere. And they’re not going to have husbands because of the non-socialization of men in an underclass, mainly black but increasingly Hispanic, in which the institution of marriage has largely disappeared. Acting in their “rational self-interest,” most pregnant women in the underclass abort their babies. (In large sectors of urban America, abortions outweigh live births.) Those who refuse to kill their babies do so for many reasons that they believe to be in their self-interest, even if those reasons are not entirely “rational.” Because having a baby is a rite of passage to being grown up; because they want somebody to love and by whom to be loved. Such motives should not be dismissed as irrational, and their willingness to assume the burden of motherhood is not untouched by nobility. In the urban underclass, clergy are the main leaders. Clergy may be fully convinced of the importance of marriage, but they also want to be supportive of, and not stigmatize, the many unwed mothers in their congregations. The great challenge is to socialize young men to accept open-ended responsibility for their offspring, which means marriage and, yes, the acceptance of The Mission. Toward that end, arguments based on rational self-interest such as that of Marriage and Caste in America are, I’m afraid, of limited help.
• I don’t say that all who knew him counted it a blessing. Those who were on the receiving end of his contrarian, and frequently polemical, essays may have a different view. But I am among the many who are grateful for the life and work of Milton Himmelfarb, who died this past year at age eighty-seven. Almost his entire life was spent in working at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and almost all his writing appeared in Commentary. In the American Jewish Yearbook 2006, a publication Himmelfarb edited, David Singer of the AJC has a fetching tribute to the man. Himmelfarb was perpetually vexed by non-Jewish Jews who want to replace America with a society that does not remind them that they are Jews. Among the fine passages selected by Singer is this: “Remove Christian religious influence from the public schools as completely as you wish, you are not going to change the fact that in the best circumstances a Jew is sometimes going to feel like an outsider . . . in an English-language culture of Chaucer and Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, of Milton and Hawthorne. Or take culture in an anthropologist’s sense. Having removed Christmas from the schools, if that were fully possible, you couldn’t remove it from the street or the stores or television. The message of American culture to a Jewish child is, Yes Ruthie, there is a Santa Claus; and No, he isn’t Jewish.” There are few things more absurd or self-defeating for Jews, Himmelfarb insisted, than claiming a minority’s right not to be offended by a majority, the chief offense being any public reflection of the fact that Jews are a minority.
• The sad plight of the post-Christian, even anti-Christian, student of culture is poignantly reflected in a column by Kenneth Baker, art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. He is much taken with a fifteenth-century “Virgin and Child” by Hans Memling that is on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. But he is unsure about how he can permit himself to be so taken with the picture, for he is among those who are “appalled to find ourselves entering a new era of religious warfare more than two centuries after the Enlightenment.” He has “faint feel for the apparitional magic that 15th-century eyes must have seen” in the painting. “The modern skeptic, for whom I speak, cannot follow them in this.” How can his appreciation be freed from the “damaging, consoling illusions” of religious faith? “But probably all of us can agree that we know, by the authority of science and of our experience of life, that the picture was entirely made by someone in most respects like ourselves.” “That one of us clever animals could make such a magnificent thing cannot but give us heart.” Such a work of art “may comfort the unbeliever . . . by reconciling us to mortality in a finite world on a solitary increate planet.” The painting proposes “the miraculous entering into the everyday,” but we know that is not possible. The painting is “an emblem of something that transcends its time and realm of belief: the human impulse and capacity to form ideals of goodness.” But, of course, the painting is not that at all. “Virgin and Child” is not a transcending human ideal but divine truth bending low in the irrefragable particularity of time and space. Mr. Baker takes Memling’s achievement to be a “small counterweight” to the brutal reality of “a world engineered, quite literally, to run on principles of testable evidence rather than faith.” (He says nothing about who or what might have engineered such a world.) The painting “astonishes modern eyes, delivering an impression of almost photographic veracity.” He admires the technical achievement of the portrayal, while rigorously rejecting the reality portrayed. But then he relents and allows himself to be comforted by the “ideals of goodness” of which we clever animals are capable, which is to move our attention quite away from the “Virgin and Child”—and from the Virgin and Child. He “appreciates” the painting with a bad conscience. His essay is an exercise in attempting to justify his refusal to repudiate a beauty that he believes he should despise but will not let him go. It is very sad; it is very typical of a determinedly post-Christian mindset; and it is, in its confused uneasiness, not without hope. Such astonishment, such deep astonishment, that compels embarrassed efforts to justify itself is not untouched by grace.
• The founder of Intel, Andy Grove, has, according to the Wall Street Journal, put big dollars into an organization called FirstFreedomFirst. It is a joint project of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (a.k.a. Americans United for a Naked Public Square) and the Interfaith Alliance. Their mission is to counter the influence of sundry “theocrats” and to support abortion, doctor-assisted suicide, and other causes that are, they claim, every bit as faith-based as the positions of their opponents. I am not usually inclined to give advice to declared enemies, but, if I were running a left-wing organization devoted to making the case that its positions are firmly grounded in religious faith, I would not choose as one of the two books recommended on its website Sam Harris’ A Letter to a Christian Nation. Sam Harris, it may be remembered, is the author of one of the recent bestselling atheistic tracts, The End of Faith. But then, who am I to tell them how to run their business?
• Our understanding of religious freedom goes way on back. There is, for instance, the counsel of Jesus about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. In 494, Pope Gelasius wrote to the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I, “Two there are, august Emperor, by which this world is ruled on title of original and sovereign right—the consecrated authority of the priesthood and the royal power.” Then there was the great Investiture Controversy of the eleventh century. Robert Louis Wilken reminds us that it was a “capital fact of ecclesiastical life in the early Middle Ages that the affairs of the Church were managed by kings and princes.” Pope Gregory VII challenged that capital fact of life, famously compelling Henry IV to kneel in the snow at Canossa in order to have his excommunication lifted. Although one remembers that Henry finally prevailed, and Gregory was deposed. His dying words were, “I loved righteousness, hated iniquity, and therefore die in exile.”
• In these and other instances, the great contest was over the libertas ecclesiae, which means not simply the right of the Church to govern itself but the duty of the Church to be a distinct “sphere of sovereignty” (both the Dutch Calvinist Abraham Kuyper and John Paul II employed the idea) over against the incipiently totalitarian claims of the state. Father John Courtney Murray (d. 1967) pressed libertas ecclesiae as the “new Christian theorem,” namely, that the Church “stood between the body politic and the public power, not only limiting the reach of the power over the people, but also mobilizing the moral consensus of the people and bringing it to bear upon the power.” In a recent article, “The Freedom of the Church,” Richard W. Garnett, professor of law at Notre Dame, notes that libertas ecclesiae has, regrettably, slight standing in American constitutional law. Religion is treated as private, a matter of individual choice, and “church” refers to voluntary associations of individual choices in provisional cooperation. This helps us to understand why First Amendment religious freedom questions are increasingly treated under the rubric of freedom of speech or expression. Garnett observes: “A freedom or independence whose contents and boundaries are, conceptually as well as practically, determined by the state and with reference to the state’s needs and interests is not likely to . . . sustain the project of constitutionally limited government. For now, though, it might be all we have.” That is a grim observation, but he may well be right. The idea of libertas ecclesiae requires the reality of an ecclesia. The Protestant traditions that defined the word religion in the American experience were and still are individualistic and ecclesiologically anemic. On this score, too, Catholicism in America has been, in practice if not in doctrine, “Protestanized” to a significant degree. It is hard to see how in the future the amorphously religious can become again a robustly communal “sphere of sovereignty.” Yet one may hope. It has happened before, and it can happen again, that the Church dares to be the Church.
• A half century and more ago, well before the Second Vatican Council, there was something of a renaissance of Catholic intellectual life in America. Notable thinkers such as John Courtney Murray, Yves Simon, and John Tracy Ellis were part of the launching of the Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs (CCICA) in 1946, an association of theologians, philosophers, artists, and political leaders that, as the name suggests, sought to engage a wide range of contemporary concerns with the Catholic tradition. For complex reasons, no doubt related in part to the reconfiguration of Catholic intellectual energies following the council, CCICA began to wane, holding its last annual meeting in 2000. The organization has now been formally terminated, and some modest funds remaining have been divided equally between Commonweal and First Things. We hope that this magazine will continue to advance at least some of the purposes of CCICA and are grateful for the much needed support.
• I think it was in sixth grade that I had a teacher, Mrs. Hutchinson, who was a most particular fan of the eighteenth-century Scottish bard Robert Burns. She shared his animus against religious pretensions and pressed upon us his “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” which might be read as a riff on Our Lord’s parable of the self-righteous Pharisee praying in the temple. Willie’s prayer ends with this:
And pass not in thy mercy by them,
Nor hear their prayer;
But for thy people’s sake destroy them,
And dinna spare!
But Lord, remember me and mine
Wi’ mercies temporal and divine!
That I for grace and gear may shine,
Excelled by nane!
And a’ the glory shall be thine!
We occasionally—well, more than occasionally—receive letters from readers commending us for smiting the enemy hip and thigh. Thank you, I’m sure, but such encouragements sometimes prompt a wince, remembering Holy Willie as I do. We resist the temptation to divide the world into “us” and “them,” and frequently succeed. While the reality of culture wars can hardly be denied, I prefer to think of First Things in terms of conversation rather than warfare. When in editorial meetings we discuss possible articles, the standard question is, “Does this advance the conversation?” Not, mind you, that we are averse to a judicious use of polemic. It is sometimes helpful in gaining the attention of those who are not aware of the nonsense they are spouting. But we try to be gentle, not wishing unnecessarily to offend the wrongheaded, and always holding out the hope that they might yet become partners in the conversation. The more encouraging messages from readers, and especially from the growing number of readers of college age, are those that say they discovered in First Things a perspective that enabled them to turn the cacophony of impassioned opinions into the paths of robustly constructive conversation. Which is why we are pleased to send a sample copy to people, young or not so young, who you think might become subscribers. Just send us their names and addresses, and we’ll let them know that you’re the one who thinks so highly of their good judgment.
Greenberg on marriage, public letter, January 26. British adoption, Economist, January 27. Young Catholics, CNS, February 7. Secular Spain, Catholic News Agency, January 25. Carter and Clinton’s church, Baptist Press News, January 10. Lindbeck interview, Christian Century, November 28. Hymowitz on marriage, reviewed by Charlotte Hays, Wall Street Journal, December 13. Baker on Memling, San Francisco Chronicle, December 23. Garnett on religious freedom, Journal of Catholic Social Thought, Winter 2007.