In “Why We Can't All Just Get Along” (February), Stanley Fish sets out to persuade people “of religious conviction” that we cannot be liberals—that we cannot subscribe to a regime of equal rights and freedom of speech and conscience. He says we should want to “shut down” the marketplace of ideas and “silence” our “atheistic opponents.” To be true to our faith, we must be theocrats.
I suspect Fish is less interested in persuading religious Americans to be intolerant than he is in persuading nonreligious Americans that the religious are intolerant. If Fish is right that religious Americans inherently must be intolerant, that would serve as an excuse for refusing to tolerate them. That, presumably, is the rationale for his peculiar essay.
In any event, the argument is bogus. There is no philosophical incompatibility between believing in truth (and believing that this truth is relevant to issues of justice and the common good) and believing that disagreement in a republic of free and equal citizens should be resolved by deliberation rather than force.
It cannot be stressed too strongly that liberalism is not a coherent comprehensive philosophy of life. It is a prescription for government. As a comprehensive philosophy, it quickly collapses into self-contradiction. If liberalism really meant what Fish says it means (“a continual pushing away of orthodoxies, of beliefs not open to inquiry and correction”) then it would end up pushing itself away, for its strictures against orthodoxy would apply with as much force to itself as to any other belief system. Fish calls this a “debater's point,” but it is more than that. It is a demonstration that, on its own terms, liberalism understood as a comprehensive worldview is self-contradictory.
Constitutional liberalism—which is the only liberalism that truly exists and makes sense—is not based on the denial of the possibility of truth, but on restricting the force to resolve competing claims of truth. It takes no stance on the epistemology or theology of citizens, but limits the jurisdiction of government. In a liberal society, citizens are free to advocate whatever positions and worldviews they find persuasive (religious or nonreligious), on an equal basis. They may not, however, use force (governmental power) to impose their understanding of truth on their unpersuaded fellow citizens.
Constitutional liberalism is based not on skepticism about truth but on skepticism about government. To empower government to coerce belief is to invite coercion into error. Contrary to Fish, New York Times v. Sullivan did not devalue truth. It recognized that governments (specifically, common law juries) are an unreliable instrument for determining truth—that those holding the power of coercion will be tempted to use that power in the service of self-interest and ideology. Better to leave determinations about truth to the diffuse and decentralized authority of individual conscience—and, as to questions of justice and the common good, to public opinion expressed through representative institutions.
Far from being incompatible with Christianity, this argument for liberalism was originally developed largely by Protestant Christians, who were the first to proclaim that “God Alone Is Lord of the Conscience.” Coerced faith, they argued, is a contradiction in terms. The attempt by earthly authorities to control the relationship of the believer to the truth is not only pointless, but blasphemous. It is an impious usurpation of the role and function of the Holy Spirit. A Christian does not want to “extirpate” liberalism “root and branch,” as Fish asserts, because it is only under conditions of freedom that genuine conversion and worship can take place. Indeed, a religious believer feels no more need or desire to “shut down” the marketplace of ideas than anyone else who is convinced of the persuasive power of the truth. The believer is confident that a full and fair consideration of the evidence can only promote his cause. Error may need the power of state coercion, but truth, never.
Does Fish really believe that our liberal republic is inhabited largely by citizens who “bracket” all “value questions” in the course of their deliberations over justice and the common good? If so, he has been listening to different public discourse than I have heard. Feminists, environmentalists, libertarians, opponents and proponents of abortion rights, utilitarians, civil rights organizations, peace groups, and virtually everyone else with a coherent position in American politics advocate public policy from a committed stance, based on the “truth” about “value questions.” That does not mean that all of these groups would want to shut down the marketplace of ideas: on the contrary, with some notable exceptions, most citizens are committed to their vision of the truth within the context of a liberal democratic regime. The reason why we can “all get along,” most of the time, is that we are committed to the use of persuasion rather than force.
In evident contrast to Fish, most Americans know that it is possible to believe in truth and freedom at the same time. Most ask only that they be permitted equal access to the public debate, and they accept the process of representative democracy as a legitimate basis for collective action. This does not mean that they think the majority is right, but that they think a majority of their fellow citizens have the right, within constitutionally prescribed limits, to act on the basis of arguments that they find persuasive. It would not occur to most Americans that it would be just or fair to exclude anyone, on the basis of their religious faith or lack of it, from equal rights of participation in public deliberation. The suggestion that religious citizens “should want” to impose a theocracy lies somewhere between a misunderstanding and a canard.
Michael W. McConnell
School of Law
University of Chicago
Stanley Fish is known for his view that interpreters, in effect, create their own authors and texts; so, true to form, he has created George Marsden to suit his rhetorical purposes. I am particularly astonished that he suggests that The Soul of the American University does not exemplify the type of scholarship that it advocates. I should think that one who recognizes, as Fish does, the pervasive influence of first principles would see that every page of that work is shaped by questions that reflect my Christian commitments. The book is, as Fish acknowledges, an extended critique of liberal culture, yet he insists that liberalism itself is my ultimate allegiance. The fact that I try to be fair and civil should hardly count as evidence that I have abandoned Christian principles.
Fish bases his construction on a logical error or a rhetorical sleight of hand. He correctly argues that liberal culture is based on prior assumptions about reality. He then shifts to a conclusion, however, that seems to rest on the assumption that any endorsement of some of the particulars of a liberal polity must entail an endorsement of the whole system, including its presuppositions.
Christians should want to affirm some aspects of liberal culture as relative goods, without making that culture ultimate. They might even want to participate in it enough to try to change some of its rules, as I do with respect to the mainstream academic culture's view of religious perspectives. Such participation, however, does not imply that one is ultimately a liberal any more than a Christian's playing by the rules of basketball, or trying to change the three-point line, implies that basketball is one's first allegiance.
Fish's confusing of this sort of distinction leads to his misinterpretation of one of my arguments. I do not say that since there are no standards for truth Christianity should be accepted as intellectually as good as the next thing. Rather I say that because the mainstream academy lacks universal standards for truth, it is not in a good position to marginalize traditional religious perspectives on the old scientistic grounds that such perspectives have failed to meet some objective standards to which all educated people should assent.
Fish, for the purposes of his argument (which has the effect of discrediting all but fundamentalist Christian options), borrows a Reformed epistemology similar to my own. He then, however, makes a move much like the theonomists do with the views of my mentor Cornelius Van Til. They insist that the only consistent Christian position is an Old Testament stance of all—out cultural warfare between those committed to God and the hosts of Satan. So any consorting with liberalism is a sellout. My view, I think, is closer to the New Testament and Augustinian view of dual citizenship in which allegiance to the Kingdom of God is by far the ultimate one.
Department of History
University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, IN
Anyone fond of the game “What's wrong with this picture?” should make it a habit to read Stanley Fish on dull afternoons. Few controversialists are able to present such outrageous claims and arguments quite so winningly. The challenge is to extract the nihilistic marrow of his performances from the reasonable-sounding rhetoric that surrounds them like so much watercress. For of course the man who has assured us that “there is no such thing as intrinsic merit” and who has proclaimed, with Jacques Derrida, that we have no extra-linguistic access to truth or reality is a nihilist, however puckish. “Why We Can't All Just Get Along” is a classic Fish story, from its pose of concerned engagement with vital existential questions to its dark or even (as Professor Fish himself repeatedly suggests) Satanic implications for the idea of religious truth.
Professor Fish cuts a broad swath in this essay. Sometimes, it is true, he flirts with the merely preposterous, as when he writes that “Adhering to the convention [!] that two plus two equals four is like adhering to the convention that we drive on the right side of the road or to the convention that red means stop and green means go.” But his main enemy, as usual, is the idea that there exists a reality that transcends our efforts to grasp it but that nonetheless exercises legitimate claims on us. Professor Fish made a name for himself attacking the reality of literary experience. (In a way, his entire position is summed up in the title of one of his best-known books, Is There a Text in This Class?) Now, after a stint attacking the conviction that law bears any relation to the ideal of justice, he has moved on to religion.
What is most clever, and also most devious, about Professor Fish's procedure is the way that he plays on the widespread fear of being called antiliberal. Professor Fish knows that there is an essential hollowness at the core of liberalism; he knows that most academic intellectuals are reluctant to face up to this (hence his deft dissection of Stephen Carter, George Marsden, and Michael McConnell); and he knows that opposing religion to liberalism in the most categorical way possible is certain to send many of his opponents running into the arms of embarrassed equivocation.
But the real issue concerns not liberalism but the reality and status of self-justifying experiences. Professor Fish writes that “no sign can deliver up the norm by which to judge its own adequacy or significance.” There is a crucial sleight of hand here. For in the experiences that touch us most deeply—experiences of love, of great art, of religion—the question of “norms,” “evidence,” and the like only arises in the aftermath of experience. This was something that Plato, for example, recognized when he made “recollection”—an extra-linguistic, self-justifying intuition—the foundation of knowledge. And it explains why aesthetic experience, to take another example, has so often been described as “self-justifying.” Pace Stanley Fish, such experience does carry the patent of its own adequacy with it: not in terms of reasons or arguments, but in terms of the unshakable conviction it engenders.
The model for such experience is of course fundamentally religious. (Which indeed is why art and religion are as often rivals as collaborators: “Beauty,” as Dostoyevsky put it, “is the battleground on which God and the Devil battle for man's soul.”) Professor Fish wishes to equip all experience with a quotient of skepticism. But religion, as the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski has argued, “is not a set of propositions, it is the realm of worship wherein understanding, knowledge, the feeling of participation in the ultimate reality, . . . and moral commitment appear as a single act, whose subsequent segregation into separate classes of metaphysical, moral, and other assertions might be useful but is bound to distort the sense of the original.”
It is no doubt appropriate that Milton's Satan, with his dream of being “self-begot, self-rais'd,” should emerge as the hero of Professor Fish's essay. Satan's is an infatuating—and self-infatuating-fantasy. But, as Milton pointed out, his antihero experienced certain difficulties acknowledging any truth or reality outside himself. This led to various unpleasant consequences, not least in his ability to get along.
New York, NY
Stanley Fish uses a contrast between Satan's and Adam's first premises and ways of knowing in Paradise Lost as the basis of his argument. Richard John Neuhaus (“Why We Can Get Along,” February) answers Professor Fish's arguments quite well, and I do not wish to elaborate on that answer here. What I do want to do is point out that Professor Fish's own first premise is based on a lie—Satan's lie, I hasten to add.
Although Professor Fish discusses Satan's various statements about the nature of his being and origin, taking these statements as Satan's fundamental assumptions, he avoids mentioning Satan's prolonged soliloquy in Book IV, in which Satan acknowledges that he knows better:
Ah, wherefore! he [God] deserv'd no such return
From me, whom he created what I was
In that bright eminence, and with his good
Upbraided none; nor was his service hard,
What could be less than to afford him praise,
The easiest recompense, and pay him thanks,
How due! yet all his good prov'd ill in me,
And wrought but malice; lifted up so high
I ‘sdain'd subjection, and thought one step higher
Would set me highest, and in a moment quit
The debt immense of endless gratitude,
So burdensome, still owing, still to owe;
Forgetful what from him I still receiv'd,
And understood not that a grateful mind
By owing owes not, but still pays, at once
Indebted and discharg'd; what burden then?
Here Satan acknowledges that God has created him; and although he claims he once “thought” he might surpass God, “understood not” the nature of gratitude, and was “forgetful” of God's continuous holding him in being, these are equivocations. He knows now, and if Milton indeed held the prevailing idea of angels' instantaneous and intuitive knowledge (a point subject to debate, of course), what he knows now he has always known. At any rate, by using the past tense, Satan indicates that he now does hold as a “first premise” the fact of his creation by God and his true relationship to God.
The “forgetfulness” he claims, furthermore, is an inaccurate term on Satan's part. The more accurate term would be “refusal to acknowledge.” Significantly, Professor Fish also cites Mammon as starting from a similar ignorance of the truth as Satan's; but in Milton's description of Mammon in Book II, we learn that even while Mammon was surrounded by hard evidence of all the splendors of God, he has always ignored it rather than been ignorant of it:
. . . for ev'n in Heav'n his looks and thought
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heav'n's pavement, trodd'n Gold,
Than aught divine or holy else enjoy'd in vision beatific.
In fact, Milton makes a repeated point throughout Paradise Lost that all the thinking creatures of God (man and angels) have been given enough information to know the truth and act upon it, and their acceptance or rejection of what they know—not what their first premises are—is what they are judged on. Again, Milton's views on predestination and free will are subject to continual scholarly debate, but even Calvin had maintained that the reprobate are culpable although predestined, because they have seen the light and turned away from it.
In a particularly ironic section of Book II, when the subordinate demons are attempting to amuse themselves in Hell after Satan's departure for God's newest creation, those who take up philosophy condemn themselves to pointless conversation because—again—they have determined to leave the one fact out of the discussion that would make any sense of it, that is, God:
Others apart sat on a Hill retir'd,
In thoughts more elevate, and reason'd high
Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate,
Fixt Fate, Free will, Foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wand'ring mazes lost.
The “wand'ring mazes,” then, appear to be a precursor of deconstructionism: an attempt to deny the existence of a reality outside the self, and at the same time to insist on the reality of the self who is doing the denying and the audience who is reading the denial; an attempt to deny the possibility of communication but to deny it through the medium of communication; an attempt to claim that no one can understand anyone else's ideas, while expecting everyone to understand one's own ideas and (as Professor Fish obviously expects in his defense of his scholarly reputation) to be honored for one's own ability to understand; and above all, an attempt to evade responsibility for one's own actions. Like Satan, like Mammon, one “forgets” conveniently and looks away from what interferes with one's appetites; and then, like the demons in Milton's Hell, one complains—or points out triumphantly—that we somehow always wind up “in wand'ring mazes lost.”
Phoebe S. Spinrad
Department of English
Ohio State University
The exchange between Stanley Fish and Richard John Neuhaus is an important one. Fish makes an argument that many of us in the religious camp could sympathize with—up to a point. When talking with pro-choice people, for example, you sometimes realize that your first premises are so totally alien one from the other that the arguments pass without contact. One sees life as given, implying a giver, implying that the human community is not the source of value and valuing but rather the community of those whose work it is to learn what the valuing means. The other side sees the value of life as something determined in the face of an unmeaning universe, by a consensus of those who will or will not come to a common view of who it is that matters to the community, and who does not, and why they matter and do not matter. It is hard to see how we can agree.
But Fish argues that the religious argument must desire the simple extermination of the other. He assumes that persuasion is the equivalent of Mill's open marketplace of ideas. However, something else has been at work since the beginning of Christianity. (See the apologists, especially Justin.) Neuhaus argues for a larger world, in which persuasion is possible and no one needs to assume the flattening of the opponent or the absolute incommensurability of different arguments.
And there is evidence for Neuhaus' view. Fish's account of our ways of not communicating does not take into account the phenomenon of conversion. Experience of some sort has led atheists to belief, and believers to atheism. Persuasion that one's first principles were wrong is frequently part of this phenomenon. It could be argued that Saul becomes Paul because the chess board is replaced suddenly by a backgammon board, but for many the experience is gradual, an experience of slow persuasion. One friend of mine said that he went from agnosticism to belief, largely through a serious reading of Plato, and is now a Christian. This sort of movement is something Fish's approach does not account for, and Neuhaus' does.
Stanley Fish and Richard John Neuhaus can get along by splitting their difference, because “getting along” need not be a reciprocal relation.
Since our thought is circumscribed by our faith commitments, a lesser faith doesn't have eyes to see a greater faith. Those whose thought is grounded in something less than that “than which nothing greater can be conceived” are blind to the fullness of truth.
Tolerance is only an option to those who recognize something of value in another. Because we theists at least recognize the dignity of the person created in the image of God, we always have something with which to build a bridge to our fellow human beings. Nontheists have no necessary way of relating to others.
Thus we theists can get along with nontheists, but they can't get along with us. If nontheists control the public square, they will contrive to push theists out.
After the contentious Professor Fish, how calming it is to read Father Neuhaus' assurance that the most important reason religious coercion lost was that “Christians recognized it is incompatible with what they believe as Christians.”
But is that what really happened? Hasn't Father Neuhaus credited modern Christianity with liberalism's premier accomplishment?
Yes, he does make passing reference to it being “the will of God that we not kill one another over our disagreements about the will of God.” But except for a handful of Anabaptists and Quakers, Christians of this millennium have found it all too easy to find exceptions to the divine proscription. . . .
That I found many of Professor Fish's arguments persuasive came as a surprise as I'm clearly a member of a side with which he presumably believes he can't get along. Does this prove he's mistaken? That the exchange provokes such seemingly paradoxical questions is simply additional evidence of its worth. My only criticism is that we were never told exactly what was meant by the phrase “get along.” I was troubled, and my response reminded me that I'd encountered this issue before.
I'm a student and admirer of the historian and political philosopher Eric Voegelin. . . . Voegelin argues that debate between those disagreeing over first principles is still possible in the areas of logic and the natural sciences. However, Professor Fish and Voegelin are in agreement that true debate regarding issues central to the human person is impossible. Voegelin refers to Max Scheler's distinction of personperiphere and personzentrale areas, issues involving the former being debatable while issues involving the latter are not. Although troubled by this conclusion, I believe it to be correct.
On the other hand, Voegelin would also agree with Neuhaus that the Christian philosopher cannot remain passive—cannot choose to not “get along”—but has a moral obligation to confront the perceived falsehoods of opponents. It's of the very essence of the philosophical enterprise. According to Aquinas, “as it is incumbent on the sapiens to meditate on the truth of the first principle, and to communicate it to others, so it is incumbent on him to refute the opposing falsehood.” You can't “refute” an argument without at least giving it a hearing. The point is that the work of a Christian philosopher is intrinsically social and peaceable. Until we know what is meant when Stanley Fish uses the phrase “get along,” the suspicion will be that this may not hold true for our opponents.
South Bend, IN
In response to Stanley Fish:
And God made man
Or else man made himself
Or else he grew
To know not
Is to wonder
And to wish
One could consult
With fowl, beast
(The Rev.) Walter Bauer
Is Stanley Fish giving us an example of his rule that you can't think about your own first principles? Early on, he says “reasoning can't get started until a first premise is put in place.” “Satan and Adam are committed to both [knowledge by reason and knowledge by faith] simultaneously.” Reason, then, is a kind of lever. You must stand somewhere in order to use it (and, of course, you can't use it to move the ground you stand on). What gets moved where depends on where you stand, and where you reach.
A few paragraphs later, though, “For the modern liberal, beliefs are what the mind scrutinizes and judges by rational criteria that are themselves hostage to no belief in particular.” I have looked hard, though, and can find no explanation in this piece of how liberals can reason without beliefs. How does anyone do it? What is the method of judging that is based on the refusal to judge? How can you use a lever without standing anywhere? . . .
Craig M. White
Both Stanley Fish and Fr. Neuhaus, in their brief references to postmodernism, draw the wrong conclusions. Postmodern movements should be welcomed especially by Jews and Christians, since they represent a crushing defeat of the naturalistic paradigm in its latest (Enlightenment) form. The law, the prophets, and the Gospels all fought against the mythic conceptions of the self-subsistent universe regnant in their time, but we are fortunate enough to have seen the latest formulation of this worldview deconstruct itself.
In fact, late-twentieth-century scholarship has returned to the fundamental biblical categories of word and flesh (the shaping power of language and the meaning of embodiment), unconsciously demonstrating the continuing force of the Word.
The postmodern denial of the possibility of objective, neutral knowledge does not mean (as Fish writes) that “when it comes to proof, religious arguments are no worse off than any other.” It means that the appeal to some kind of objective “proof” is itself ruled out, and therefore religious arguments, which have never relied on such a standard, can be far more intellectually convincing to a contemporary audience than to earlier ones more assured of the validity of naturalistic explanation.
The biblical claim that the knowledge accessible to finite creatures is always incomplete requires humility (as Neuhaus argues), not control, as Fish seems to think. If our knowledge were total and uncorrupted, we would not need faith. It is not, so we do—as Augustine indeed argued in a different age of uncertainty.
University of New Hampshire
I compliment Professor Fish on a thorough and well-reasoned defense of liberalism. His argument provided me with one of the best explanations of what modern day liberalism is all about, what is believed, and why. It revealed the total denial of the existence of any idea or concept rooted in faith and how it has no room in the marketplace of ideas. He demonstrated that faith begins where knowledge ends and the two concepts will never overlap.
I was disappointed in Father Neuhaus' response to Professor Fish in that he did not address the issue in the same detail and spirit to adequately argue his position. In it I felt let down by Fr. Neuhaus for not attempting a more staunch defense of his position with the use of classical argument to uncover possible fallacies contained in Prof. Fish's argument. I believe Prof. Fish got the better of Fr. Neuhaus.
Aurelius M. Corina
Stanley Fish seemed to have well defended the twin propositions that, with given rules of argument, the choice of a premise, first, determines the conclusion and, also, conditions the arguer's understanding of the terms he uses, to the extent that, beyond mere “syntax and semantics,” these terms involve his emotions. But then he lets slip that “two plus two equals four” is a “convention” subject to choice and sufferance, something like the use of color in traffic signals. Unnerved by the prospect of contentious mischief-makers able to snatch from us our simple mathematics, and unable to swallow the notion that the space probe to Jupiter was just a lucky shot in the dark (even in “alternative geometries” simple arithmetic remains intact within the safe confines of “syntax”), I fell into anxious doubts about Professor Fish's own arguments. Then, lest I lose faith in his twin propositions, which (with simple arithmetic) I had thought obvious, I stopped reading, to quit while still ahead.
Karl E. B. Lofquist
For the sake of discussion, let us grant Professor Fish a validity to his interpretive psychology and suspect quasi-theology with regard to the characters in Paradise Lost. What strikes me as odd is his insistence that Satan as well as all others who rebel against God's order do so out of their rationality; they simply cannot accept the existence of God. Isn't it possible that they will not? St. Paul would say so and it would express the orthodox Christian understanding. . . .
Fort Collins, CO
Thank you very much for the provocative debate on “Why We Can/Can't Get Along.” I found it disturbing that as plausible and well supported as the arguments were I could find no resolution. . . .
There is a dimension to all this that was not discussed by either author. In many traditions, the goal of religious practice is to transcend reason: i.e., our rational justifications. Mystical traditions acknowledge that there is a dimension to life that subsists well beyond the rational. Their experiences in such maters are remarkably similar and share at least one notable attribute: they can't be described except by metaphor, parable, or paradoxical allusion. . . .
From a transcendent view, most of the contentious issues of life, whether political or social, adopt a character of triviality. This is not to say that there isn't a plethora of tragedy or that we don't think our problems are serious. It is, rather, that the majority of these problems arise from our misapplied rationality and that the solution is in attaining to a position beyond reason: to a place where we can see things as they truly are and not as we think they should be. Then, the solutions become obvious and, counter to what Mr. Fish would have us hold, they can't “be left at home or out of the ballot box” because they spring from a transformed nature.
First things are missing in the telling exchange between Stanley Fish and Richard John Neuhaus. Love is mentioned only once, in relation to tolerance. Will is not mentioned at all. Satan's sin, and ours (including many who claim to know and believe), is never an intellectual mistake. Nor is it a rebellion against authority. It is a refusal of reality, a failure of love. We are faithless, ignorant, and irrational because we have eyes and will not see, ears and will not hear, minds and will not understand. We don't get along with God and each other not because we can't, but because we won't. The debate could use a good dose of Dostoevsky, not to mention the prophets, John, Paul, and our Lord Jesus Christ.
(The Rev.) Thomas Hopko
St. Vladimir's Seminary
The interchange between Stanley Fish and Richard John Neuhaus was particularly illuminating. But I wonder if the initial decision for or against faith is really as self-generating and self-justifying as Prof. Fish would have us believe.
I find it telling that he finds the “truths” of arithmetic as conventional and as arbitrary as traffic lights or driving on the right side of the road: an odd view on the face of it, but one quite necessary for the Fish thesis that all initial metaphysical stances are arbitrary stances without prior rational justification.
Most professional mathematicians of my acquaintance are Platonists in their theory of number (however much some of them might resist the label, given the conventional wisdom of what constitutes Platonism). And Fish's so-called “alternative geometries” only confirm that Platonism after Einstein made such extraordinary use of them in his theory of relativity.
After reading the Fish-Neuhaus exchange, I could not help but feel that what should really worry Milton's Satan the most would be, not Michael's minions of loyal angels, but a Platonic ontology of number, one that would “make these odds all even.”
Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
Seton Hall University
South Orange, NJ
The debate between Stanley Fish and Richard John Neuhaus was a remarkable presentation of strong, well-reasoned, and convincing arguments on both sides. After reading the opening piece I was convinced that Prof. Fish was absolutely right. In his rejoinder Fr. Neuhaus then convinced me to the contrary. That I finally came away feeling that Prof. Fish had slightly the better part of the debate probably owed more to his having the last word than to the superiority of his logic. . . .
Robert C. Tompkins
Peter L. Berger's “At Stake in the Enlightenment” (March) notes that there were Christians in the seventeenth century who spoke against witchcraft persecutions. In fact such opposition was by no means unknown, nor can it be attributed to newly enlightened ideas. For example, the English Puritan divine George Gifford had even in the sixteenth century used orthodox Calvinist theology to argue against the reality of witchcraft.
Witchcraft was on its way to disappearing before the Enlightenment got underway. For example, the Enlightenment had little to do with the spirit of repentance which manifested itself in Salem a few years after the notorious cases there.
More important, Professor Berger makes the familiar move of judging the Enlightenment by its theory, Christianity by its practice. Although the Enlightenment preached tolerance, it kicked back swiftly and viciously in the Reign of Terror. Even if Voltaire, had he been alive, would have opposed the Terror, its perpetrators still owed much to Enlightenment ideas. Proponents of toleration routinely use the term “Inquisition” as shorthand for persecution. They could just as validly say “Committee of Public Safety,” but they never do.
Peter Berger's essay can serve only to reinforce the “moral confusion” of which he speaks, because that confusion is to a considerable degree the product of the historical misperceptions and logical mistakes so much in evidence in his article. The following points in particular deserve mention:
The assumption that the mid-seventeenth century in central Europe was a time when “Christian values were reasonably dominant” is questionable. Three hundred years of schism and religious wars had shattered the Christian unity of the West. No doubt most Europeans of the time considered their values to be Christian, but they now spoke with a hundred different voices, and their differences were hardly minor.
Similarly, it is not clear that the mid-seventeenth century was safely removed from the Enlightenment. The most famous figures of the century, Descartes, Bacon, Locke, Gallileo, Newton, were the patron saints of the philosophes. Furthermore, the Enlightenment was in many ways simply the logical completion of certain fundamental assumptions of the Reformation: the sufficiency of the individual conscience, the utopian or millenarian anticipation of an imminent new age, sovereignty of the people, hostility to authority (particularly clerical authority). The philosophes simply extended to all of Christianity the reformers' charges against the Church.
Berger's implicit assumption that witch trials were typical of Christian civilization is simply wrong. The “witch craze” was largely confined to the period 1500 to 1700 and to those areas most affected by the “radical Reformation.” It is telling that America's only witch trials occurred in Puritan New England and only in the seventeenth century.
Finally, and most importantly, Berger seems to think that the absence of witch trials after 1700 is due to some moral improvement owing to the Enlightenment. It is true, of course, that witch trials are unthinkable in the modern world, but are they morally unthinkable—or do we just not believe in witches anymore? Recall that the first great success of the enlightened heirs of the philosophes was the French Revolution and that in the first months of the Terror more “enemies of virtue” were hunted down and killed than in the entire two centuries of the witch craze. If this didn't establish the “moral superiority” of an age that had outgrown superstition, we have as further evidence the tyrannies, mass murders, reeducation camps, eugenics, and abortion mills of the twentieth century. All without historical precedent and all in the name of the “new morality.”
There is indeed a great deal at stake in understanding the moral implications of the Enlightenment. It is most disappointing to think that First Things may be ambivalent about this most crucial matter.
Both James Hitchcock and Stephen Bezanson point out that the Enlightenment too gave birth to all sorts of moral horrors. Of course it did. So did virtually every set of ideas in human history, including (and perhaps especially) those that presented themselves as doctrines of compassion. The best explanation of this regrettable fact is the doctrine of original sin. At the same time the Enlightenment did produce a number of morally admirable insights which, however much sinned against, have served to humanize life in a number of modern societies. But, in any case, my purpose in the column was not primarily to put in a good word for the Enlightenment (the title of the column was chosen by the editors). Rather, it was to raise a gentle question about the common assumption by Christian conservatives that, at some time in the past when Christian values allegedly dominated society, life was morally superior and more humane.
Bezanson thinks that my choice of the seventeenth century was a bad one—too many influences of the Reformation and various proto-philosophes contaminating the moral atmosphere. It seems he wants to go back some three hundred years. That puts us in the fourteenth century. A morally edifying century indeed. Would one think of the Avignon papacy? Or the Hundred Years War? The savageries here are of the public order. In the private existence of individuals one might perhaps turn to the moral splendors described by Boccaccio. Maybe one should click back one more century. Back to the thirteenth—no Protestants and no philosophes in evidence, surely. Instead we might contemplate such humane achievements as the crusade against Langue d'Oc, which has left its mark on what became southern France to this day.
But let me not quibble. I would ask Bezanson and anyone else sharing his views to pick any time between the Constantinian Establishment and the French Revolution, and then to describe a society in which Christian values were truly dominant and which we should seek to emulate morally.
James Nuechterlein is certainly right that postmodernism is not well calculated to inspire deep commitments in thoughtful people (“Idols of the Century,” March). But I wonder about the (growing?) editorial tendency of First Things to articulate its underlying commitments in opposition to postmodernism. . . .
Granted, some wave the postmodern banner over all sorts of dubious causes, but I don't think it is wise to grant such people the power to define such an open-ended concept. In fact, postmodern skepticism about the autonomy of reason and science has surely helped open the field to the traditionalism that Nuechterlein champions. It has even contributed to the greater interest in and openness toward the role of religion in public life that has fueled the growth and influence of First Things. Might First Things be better off helping to articulate some sort of “traditional postmodernism” than posturing as a traditionalist alternative to the p-word? I'm just afraid that defining oneself against anything so baggy and pervasive doesn't leave a Christian thinker enough room to operate honestly and persuasively.
Steven M. Jensen
West Palm Beach, FL
Mr. Jensen assumes that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Not necessarily. He may be instead a different—and even more dangerous—enemy.
I am grateful to Werner J. Dannhauser, from whose own writings on Nietzsche I have learned much, for the praise he offers in his review of my book, Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist (February). And I am keenly aware of the honor he does me by holding my work up to “the highest standards.” It is with a view to such standards, however, that I am obliged to observe that Dannhauser is not careful in every case to hold up to “the highest standards” the arguments I actually put forward.
Dannhauser takes special exception to my interpretation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, asserting that I have “domesticated” Nietzsche's thought through the “attempt to characterize the book as a whole as a failed ‘thought experiment.'“ Unfortunately, Dannhauser's characterization of my argument “as a whole” is seriously misleading.
Although I assert in the Introduction that Zarathustra's effort to achieve an unprecedented and supreme form of mastery fails, I at the same time stress that “what is a defeat in one sense is a triumph in another” (p. 19). And in the Conclusion I emphasize that “Thus Spoke Zarathustra is, . . . as Nietzsche himself judged, the most profound and farsighted of his writings” (p. 263). Throughout, I argue that the dramatization of Zarathustra's failure to make himself the absolute author of his existence is a triumph of Nietzsche's art, a vindication of his love of truth, and, in effect, a radicalization—as well as a radical criticism—of the characteristically modern tendency to understand freedom as autonomy, or living in accordance with a law one has given oneself. On what definition could such an interpretation be fairly characterized as a “domestication” of Nietzsche's thought?
Department of Government
My opinion that Nietzsche undergoes a “somewhat excessive domestication” at the hands of Professor Berkowitz applies to the book as a whole and not particularly to Thus Spoke Zarathustra. To support my view, I presented as much evidence as can reasonably be crammed into a book review. Professor Berkowitz fails to refute that evidence; he fails even to address it. His attempt, in this letter as well as in his book, to distance a wilder Zarathustra from a tamer Nietzsche has too little textual warrant and thus strengthens my verdict.
In “Who You Are II” (Public Square, March), Richard John Neuhaus expressed regret that the Jewish readership of First Things “is still much lower than we would like” and he added that “we don't know how to explain that.” I would like to venture an explanation.
Quite obviously, I cannot speak for Jews in general, but I believe that my feeling about First Things may be shared by many in the Jewish community. I was a subscriber and contributor to This World and I continue to read First Things with considerable interest. I share the magazine's basic political outlook and I appreciate its thoughtful attention to the culture wars of our time. Unlike many Jewish liberals who display disrespect and mistrust of religious people, I reject the demonization of the Religious Right practiced by many Jewish secularists. While not a theist myself, I have a healthy respect for the Jewish-Christian moral tradition, I share most of its precepts, and I agree that this tradition is crucial for the moral renewal that this country so badly needs. And yet I am also often put off by what I read in First Things. . . .
I am not a moral relativist and I admire the moral fervor of Pope John Paul II. I share his abhorrence of the moral decadence of modern society and I agree with the urgency of protecting unborn life. And yet, like many non-Catholics, I am uneasy about the Pope's claim to be the authoritative teacher of moral truth. As the Protestant theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has said, the view that the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church “has the status of ultimate truth . . . is a temptation to intolerance.” The idea that ecclesiastical teaching has the status of absolute truth, Pannenberg added, ignores the distinction between the “truth of God's revelation” which is ultimate and “our understanding of that truth [which] is always provisional and will remain so until the end of history.”
Even those of us who share many of the values enunciated by Pope John Paul II have difficulties with accepting the Roman Catholic Church as the arbiter of human morality. The position, stated by the Pope in his encyclical The Splendor of Truth and regularly affirmed in the pages of First Things, that the only way to avoid a relativistic conception of morality is to accept God as the essential condition of morality is surely not self-evidently correct. It is called into question by the existence of morally engaged philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and Sidney Hook. Such a point of view makes moral lepers of nontheists like myself and is sure to antagonize Jews, many of whom are religious agnostics.
It may well be that nonreligious persons considered morally praiseworthy are so considered because their conduct coincides with an implicit Judeo-Christian norm that is today part of our moral heritage, but the fact remains that it is possible to be a morally upright individual without religious belief in the formal and traditional sense of that term.
Like Father Neuhaus, I was more than interested in finding out who “we” are. Apart from my family, I, personally, know no other who shares our passion for First Things (not that we don't regularly do our share of “talking it up”). What the survey revealed about “us” was not entirely surprising, and yet there were a few intriguing statistics. You do well not to “take seriously” the data suggesting 85 percent of subscribers are male to 15 percent who are female. There are eight subscribers (although, technically, just four) in my family, only half of whom are male. The fact that the names of my husband and my sisters' husbands appear on the subscriptions may say a bit more about who we are. Just for the record, although my father is responsible for our exposure to the journal, it was the woman in this house who initiated that first year's subscription to FT. It is my sisters with whom I regularly converse concerning the contents thereof. Your “niche” may include a lot more of us than you suspect.
Another possibly revealing glimpse at who we are may be reflected in this family's habit of beginning many a cross-country phone conversation with the words, “Did you get the new issue of First Things yet?” . . .
Rebecca L. Keller
Richard John Neuhaus' tongue-lashing of Dr. Eugene Brand (The Public Square, March) is extremely ironic.
Father Neuhaus says Dr. Brand's “assertion” that “the only answer . . . is no” (in response to the question “Is there any earthly reason why women should not be ordained?”) is “confrontational rather than dialogical.” However, Father Neuhaus asserts, “In 1994 and 1995 the Catholic Church again—this time in a form that clearly makes the teaching unchangeable in the future—declared that the Church is not authorized to ordain women to the priesthood. As much as we can say ‘never' about anything in history, we can say that the Orthodox will never ordain women to the priesthood.” This is nonconfrontational, ecumenical dialogue?
Apparently, assertions by those opposing ordination of women are acceptable—they are “dialogical.” It's only assertions by those favoring ordination of women that are “confrontational.”
Forrest H. Scott
Please, please, don't pitch out the poems! I was not privileged to participate in your reader survey (“Who You Are II,” March). Even if I had, I probably would not have ranked poetry near the top of my favorite-features list either. But that was before you ruminated about dispensing with it altogether. Then I realized what a loss that would be. . . .
The poems are much more than mere relaxation from the stress of reading heavier stuff. Good poetry requires even more attention than good prose, but attention of a different quality. Someone has defined poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquillity.” It is nearly impossible to read the kind of high-quality poetry your editor Prof. Baumgaertner has provided unless you slow down to a smell-the-roses mental pace, fold your hands, and pay full and careful attention to the world evoked by the poem.
For example, when I read “Living Under Authority” by Suzanne Lawrence (October 1995), I was transported to a back yard in the midwest (Illinois? Iowa?) as the vast shadow of the moon swept over the land. With those few lines the author evoked emotions in me ranging from nostalgia to fear to awe, and some that even now I cannot express in words. It was a blessing, a vessel of grace received in the midst of a busy day. . . .
Karl D. Stephan