The Public Square
The subject is bishops as theologians and theologians as bishops. The Christian world is much indebted to N.T. (Tom) Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham. His big and eminently readable The Resurrection of the Son of God , published in 2003, is just the thing to get a firm grip on the unbreakable connection between real-time history and salvation history. The latter is not only connected to the former, the latter is the former, and vice versa. To be sure, others have made a convincing case for the historical character of the resurrection of Jesus and its ramifications for all of history. In contemporary theology one thinks, for instance, of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s very scholarly Jesus”God and Man , published in 1968. But Wright has a knack”a knack that some would say is more typical of British writers”of reworking the wissenschaftlich into a form that is generally accessible, even popular. This gift is on display, albeit more ambiguously, in his new book, Surprised by Hope , just out from HarperCollins. (The reason for the title’s play on C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy is, I admit, elusive.)
Reading Wright again got me to thinking also about the teaching office in the Church. John Henry Newman wrote of three dimensions, or three offices, of leadership in the Church: the intellectual, the devotional, and the political. The first office is exercised by theologians, both clerical and lay, the second is expressed in popular piety and the lives of the saints, while the third is the office of governing the Church. All three are indispensable, and sometimes, although not too often, all three are exercised by the same person.
Hans Urs von Balthasar came up with a similar typology in his reflections on the Pauline, Johannine, and Petrine dimensions of ecclesial leadership. The theologian penetrates deeply into the intellectual and doctrinal foundations of the faith, sometimes probing and experimenting. Sometimes, as we say today, pushing the envelope. The saints exemplify the lived power of the faith in the holiness of service to God and neighbor. And the bishops draw on both in holding the community together in advancing with apostolic zeal the common mission of Christ through his Church. Of course, these are ideal types, and the various dimensions of leadership frequently overlap.
The Church has known many outstanding bishops who were also theologians and also saints. One thinks, for instance, of Augustine of Hippo, Gregory the Great, Anselm of Canterbury, and, in our time, John Paul the Great. Certainly Benedict XVI is a theologian of great distinction and may one day be acknowledged as a saint. But, as I say, the combination is rare. Among the almost two hundred Catholic bishops who are ordinaries”meaning that they are responsible for dioceses”in this country, there are many who are well educated and manifestly intelligent, but there is not one who is a theologian of distinction or has published books of intellectual note. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
It is different in Europe. To cite obvious examples, there is Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II), Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), and Walter Kasper, prefect of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, all of whom were distinguished academics before becoming bishops. In other communions, one thinks of figures of the last century such as Gustaf Aulen, Nathan Söderblom, and Yngve Brilioth of the Lutheran Church of Sweden. Admittedly, the moribund state of Christianity in Sweden is not a strong argument for having theologian bishops. The more interesting case, pertinent also to our reflection on the work of N.T. Wright, is the Church of England.
One recalls, for instance, the very impressive Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury from 1961 to 1974, and several equally impressive predecessors in Anglican history. In recent decades, however, the record of theologian bishops in the C of E is a decidedly mixed bag. There was, for instance, John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God in 1963, which caused a sensation (once again) by pretty well chucking most of the articles of the catholic creeds, and the former bishop of Durham”whom N.T. Wright calls his distinguished predecessor”who opined that the dust of Jesus’ bones is somewhere in Palestine and was glad to report that it didn’t make the slightest difference in his faith, which is possibly true.
Then there is the current unhappy circumstance of Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury. Like Wright, he studied and taught at Oxford and Cambridge, and, like Wright, he is given to stirring controversy by impromptu punditry on publicly disputed questions without benefit of careful thought. Most recently, Williams sparked a storm of outrage when, in a BBC interview, he suggested that the English were too attached to the notion that there must be only one rule of law applying to everyone, and maybe it’s time to make room in the legal system for aspects of Shari’a law to which Muslims are particularly attached. This he called plural jurisdiction. It was a rambling, convoluted reflection, as Dr. Williams’ public offerings tend to be, befitting an Oxford don exploring interesting possibilities from the lecture-hall podium, but it has prompted accusations of treason and calls for his resignation as archbishop.
His ruminations were particularly unwelcome among Anglican bishops in Africa, who represent the great majority of the Anglican Communion and are in many instances quite literally under the gun of those promoting Shari’a law. It does seem that Rowan Williams is sadly miscast in his present role, but it is very doubtful that, if he steps aside, he will do so before the Lambeth Conference scheduled for this summer. In any event, his tenure at Canterbury has not enhanced the case for academic distinction and intellectual curiosity as qualifications for being a bishop.
Which brings us back to N.T. Wright and Surprised by Hope . The first part of the book is a reprise of his argument for the historicity of the resurrection, which will be helpful for those not prepared to take on his more comprehensive Resurrection of the Son of God . Most of the book is devoted to making the case for a greater accent in Christian piety and liturgy on the final resurrection of the dead and the coming of the Kingdom of God. Or, as Wright likes to put it, we need to recover the biblical focus on life after life after death. I believe Wright is right about that. As he is also on target when he insists that the resurrection is not the story of a happy ending but of a new beginning. But his argument is grievously marred by his heaping of scorn on centuries of Christian piety revolving around the hope of going to heaven, and his repeated and unseemly suggestion that he is the first to have understood the New Testament correctly, or at least the first since a few thinkers in the patristic era got part of the gospel right.
Unseemly, too, is the pervasive edge of anti-Catholicism, although I suppose that is to be expected from those who must justify their separation from the centering authority of the ancient Church. In refuting Catholic ecclesiology, Wright invokes the authority of what he calls the magisterial work of Canadian theologian Douglas Farrow in the 1990s, apparently unaware that Farrow has long since become a Catholic. Both unseemly and risible is Wright’s claim that Pope Benedict is coming around to his own view of the traditional doctrine of purgatory, which Wright mockingly repudiates. Paraphrasing a text by Cardinal Ratzinger, Wright claims that it is a quite radical climb-down from Aquinas, Dante, Newman, and all that went in between. Bishop Wright would do well to consult Ratzinger-Benedict’s encyclical Spe Salvi and what it says about purgatory. As the pope recently said in a meeting with Italian clergy: God creates justice. We must keep this in mind. For this reason, it also seemed important to me to write about purgatory in the encyclical, which for me is such an obvious truth, so evident and also so necessary and comforting, that it cannot be omitted. It appears that Bishop Wright’s tutelage of the pope still has a way to go.
In the familiar manner of many British academics, Wright takes the mandatory potshots at capitalism and the United States. The answer to world poverty, he writes, is the remission of the debt of poor countries. In fact, America is in the lead in remitting such debts, but debt remission is hardly the solution for 60,000 percent inflation in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, or for the tribalism, thuggery, and corruption that afflict most African countries. Nothing daunted, Wright says that those who disagree with him will stand condemned by subsequent history alongside those who supported slavery and those who supported the Nazis. Bishop Wright, as it is said, doesn’t do nuance. Reading the collected works of F.A. Hayek in a comfortable chair in North America, he writes, simply doesn’t address the moral questions of the twenty-first century. I’m not sure what the bishop reads on economic development, but the last time I checked the accommodations at Durham Cathedral were very comfortable indeed.
Closer to the gravamen of his new book, Wright debunks traditional ideas of heaven by noting that Jesus could not have been referring to heaven when he said that the good thief would be with him today in paradise because Jesus still had to descend to hell and be resurrected and therefore was not himself in heaven on that day. Gotcha. Now why didn’t Thomas Aquinas and all those other smart theologians think of that? Here and elsewhere, N.T. Wright is as literalistic as the staunchest of fundamentalists.
Everything is in support of his central claim that the entire mission of the Church is to proclaim the time when God will fill the earth with his glory, transform the old heavens and earth into the new, and raise his children from the dead to populate and rule over the redeemed world he has made. The imagery is more suggestive of Joseph Smith than of St. Paul and falls rather short of the traditional understanding of the Beatific Vision, in which the whole creation, composed of micro and macro realities beyond our imagining, is fulfilled in union with the Absolute Being of God who is all in all (1 Cor. 15). Surprised by Hope is, if one may put it delicately, a very uneven book. Those who have read with justified appreciation The Resurrection of the Son of God will likely be very disappointed.
But we were discussing the merits of having bishops of intellectual and academic distinction. The experience of the Church of England and the Scandinavian countries is not encouraging. As for Catholic bishops in Europe, the contrast is not as striking as one might hope. Which brings us back to the American scene. Our episcopate, still Irish-dominated, is not fairly described as anti-intellectual, but neither is it intellectually distinguished, nor, in too many instances, is it even intellectually attentive. Bishops are drawn from the clergy available and, if one may say so without offense, priests are not generally noted for their interest in ideas, whether theological or otherwise. (I suspect that is related to the structure of seminary formation, but that is a subject for another time.)
I recently watched several videos produced by diocesan offices for priestly vocations. They are excellent in many respects, offering lively portrayals of the many important things priests do. None of them, however, mentioned preaching as one of the very important things priests do, or even hinted at priests studying, as, for example, in reading books. It is often remarked that we have the best-educated Catholic laity in history, and one has to wonder how they are being helped in their understanding of the faith by their preachers and teachers.
Admittedly, and unlike those in England and Europe, priests and bishops here do not usually have a lot of time on their hands. Pastoral and administrative responsibilities are onerous, with dioceses typically numbering Catholics in the hundreds of thousands, sometimes in the millions, and an average-size parish trying to care for two thousand or more people. (The average Protestant congregation with a full-time minister has two hundred members.) Catholic clergy are kept busy enough just servicing the Catholic population, as it is commonly put. Who has time to read, never mind engage in serious study? Of course, there are exceptions, possibly many exceptions, but that is the general picture.
Newman is instructive on the distinction between the intellectual, devotional, and political offices in the Church. And the examples of bishops elsewhere who combine these roles is both suggestive and cautionary. Of course, Catholic bishops are protected by the Magisterium from going off the doctrinal rails. All that having been said, one wonders whether in this country Newman’s distinction of office between thinkers, saints, and administrators has not become a division of labor altogether too strict. Bishops are ordained to teach, sanctify, and govern, and one might venture the suggestion that intellectual distinction is not necessarily a hindrance in the exercise of the first of those responsibilities. Nor, needless to say, holiness in the exercise of the third.
While We’re At It
Here he goes again. Born in Canada, Ronald Sider has for decades been America’s most influential evangelical on the port side of religion’s rough ride in the seas of political change. Founder of Evangelicals for Social Action and long-time professor at Palmer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, his latest book is The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: Why Are Christians Missing the Chance to Really Change the World? (Baker Books). Ah, at last a chance to really change the world. Author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience , Ron Sider is a regular scold. But he is indefatigably dialogical, he means well, he loves Jesus, and I believe he really does believe that he is politically and ideologically nonpartisan. In good evangelical fashion, he insists that every position be supported by explicit biblical mandate. On economics and the environment: Finally, wealthy nations must be ready to slow down economic growth, if such is necessary to restore a sustainable environment for our grandchildren . . . . There is no question about the need for major economic growth in all of Africa, and much of Asia and Latin America . . . . But does another expensive gadget or another thousand-dollar raise really add significantly to the genuine happiness of already wealthy North Americans or Europeans? Perhaps not, but economic growth is interconnected, as in, to coin a term, globalization. On immigration policy: Does a rich nation have the moral right to refuse entry to poor immigrants from needy nations seeking economic opportunity? There is nothing sacred about current national boundaries. They have emerged over time as the result of wars, often fought because of human greed and pride. There is no biblical or theological reason for saying that they dare not be changed or crossed. And so forth. There is no hint of recognition that concerns about immigration might be related to anything other than indifference or hostility to poor persons wishing to enter the country who are also brothers and sisters of the one heavenly Father who has given the wealth of this world to promote the common good of all people. On immigration, Sider sides with the Wall Street Journal in celebrating globalization unbounded. On abortion, however, Sider is commendably unambiguous: Except in the case of abortion, nobody argues that one person should be free to take the life of another merely because the first person truly believes that the other person is not truly human. That would allow Nazis to kill Jews. We must act on the assumption that unborn babies and handicapped newborns are truly human. Therefore abortion and infanticide are murder. In a pluralistic society, people should be free to do many things that others consider stupid or sinful. But tolerance toward others does not extend to allowing them to kill other people. That statement witnesses to the solidity of evangelical commitment to the culture of life and distinguishes Ron Sider from some prominent evangelicals who bend or abandon that commitment in order to advance the fortunes of the Democratic party. I like and respect Ron Sider, but The Scandal of Evangelical Politics evidences, once again, the limitations in moving from explicit biblical texts to public policies in dispute. This too frequently results either in pious generalities or in bending the Bible to sacralize one among several morally defensible options. Part of the scandal, and not only in evangelical politics, is the failure to engage public policy with arguments that, while supported by biblical faith, employ and advance a capacity for moral reasoning that is not limited to those who share that faith.
It is a question that has been addressed frequently here, but it is good to see the distinguished sociologist James Q. Wilson take it up in City Journal , the publication of the Manhattan Institute. The question is why Jews are so hostile to evangelical Christians who are in this country the largest base of support for the State of Israel. The article is titled, Why Don’t Jews Like the Christians Who Like Them? and this is Wilson’s conclusion: Whatever the reason for Jewish distrust of evangelicals, it may be a high price to pay when Israel’s future, its very existence, is in question. Half of all Protestants in the country describe themselves as evangelical, or born-again, Christians, making up about one-quarter of all Americans (though they constitute only 16 percent of white Christian voters in the Northeast). Jews, by contrast, make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, and that percentage will shrink as many as half of all Jews marry non-Jews. When it comes to helping secure Israel’s survival, the tiny Jewish minority in America should not reject the help offered by a group that is ten times larger and whose views on the central propositions of a democratic society are much like everybody else’s. No good can come from repeating the 1926 assertion of H.L. Mencken that fundamentalist Christians are yokels’ and morons.’ Of course, few who call themselves evangelicals today are fundamentalists, but the reference to Mencken is to the point. Whatever the reason for Jewish distrust of evangelicals leaves the question dangling. A contemporary version of Occam’s razor states that, when stupidity suffices, do not seek other explanations. But that can’t be the answer to Wilson’s question, Why don’t Jews like the Christians who like them? All kinds of studies, appearing with great regularity, tell us that Jews are, generally speaking, very smart.
One is forced, again and again, to return to the depressing subject of the sex-abuse crisis. How earnestly one wishes that Archbishop Wilton Gregory, then president of the bishops’ conference, was right when he announced to the press several years ago, That is history. The best book-length treatment of this unhappy business to date is Philip F. Lawler’s The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture , recently published by Encounter. The book is about Boston but, more comprehensively, it is about what Lawler describes as the corruption of Catholic leadership in this country. The crisis goes back long before it hit the front pages of the Boston Globe in January 2002. Journalists such as Jason Berry had been writing about it for years. Their claims were frequently ignored or derided as strident and sensationalistic. That was a big mistake. I am among those who should have paid closer attention at the time. Lawler says the crisis was and is about three things: the sexual abuse of young people, homosexuality in the priesthood, and the malfeasance or complicity of bishops in great wrongs. The first problem has been acknowledged and addressed; the second was briefly acknowledged, was later denied, and certainly has not been addressed; the third has been neither acknowledged nor addressed. In protecting children from abuse, the Catholic Church is now squeaky clean, probably more so than any other major institution in our society. As Lawler and others have observed, some measures aimed at protecting children are over the top and constitute an abuse of common sense, of privacy, and, in the case of abuse-avoidance education, of the sexual innocence of children. The necessary focus on protecting children and young people has distracted attention from other dimensions of the crisis. The prevalence of homosexuality in the priesthood is sometimes exaggerated but is more often ignored. As is the connection between homosexuality and sex abuse regularly denied, even though there is no dispute over the finding that more than 80 percent of reported cases of abuse involved teenage and younger boys. The third dimension, the culpability of bishops, is at the heart of what is aptly described as institutional corruption. There is no effective exercise of fraternal correction among bishops, and oversight by Rome is manifestly deficient. The discussion of episcopal responsibility inevitably raises questions of deceit and complicity, questions that Lawler addresses with a candor that is tempered but not compromised by discretion. I have quibbles and more than quibbles with Philip Lawler on this or that particular, but every bishop and priest, and every Catholic who loves the Church and wants to know what went so very wrong, should read The Faithful Departed .
I am hardly a disinterested party when it comes to commenting on the work of George Weigel. We first met when he was a brash young man in whom one could discern, with effort, the potential for his becoming the sage that he is. Over the years we have worked together on a thousand or so projects and discussed everything under the sun, agreeing and disagreeing with almost equal profit. But even were he not such a friend, I would wholeheartedly recommend to your attention his new book, Against the Grain: Christianity and Democracy, War and Peace (Crossroad). The subtitle indicates the range of subjects addressed in the informed and pungent manner to which Weigel readers are accustomed. The twelve chapters would serve as excellent grist for a discussion group. Some of the material is reworked from essays appearing in these pages; all of it is developed into the kind of coherent argument to which these pages are dedicated. Not for nothing am I not, with respect to the work of George Weigel, a disinterested party.
Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican from Iowa, is venturing onto very thin constitutional ice. Jesus comes into the city on a simple mule, he says, and you got people today expanding his gospel in corporate jets. Somebody ought to raise questions about whether it’s right or wrong. Well, a lot of people raise questions, and more than questions, about ministries of vulgar opulence, but this should be the subject of an investigation by the Senate Finance Committee, of which Grassley is ranking minority member? Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, corporate jets, $23
,000 commodes in a multimillion-dollar home, Grassley said on CNN. You know, just think of a $23
,000 marble commode. A lot of money going down the toilet, you might say. Actually, I’m told it’s not a commode but an antique cabinet in the headquarters of Joyce Meyer’s Ministries. From an editorial in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today : But churches”even ones that spout heresies like the health-and-wealth gospel”are protected by the First Amendment in ways that the Nature Conservancy and Smithsonian are not. It is a different matter if the health-and-wealth entrepreneurs are doing something illegal, but it is not illegal to preach a false gospel. The editors observe that the celebrities of this wing of the Pentecostal movement know that any real government intervention would be met with massive opposition, and there’s little fear of donor backlash when your donors see opulence as a sign of God’s blessing. The editors continue: For evangelicals, it’s I once was lost, but now I’m found.’ For the health-and-wealth types, it’s I once was poor, but now I’m rich.’
. . . Whether they’re proclaiming the true gospel is a separate question. And it’s a question that the church, not the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Finance, should answer. Christianity Today is right about the constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion. And its editorial is striking in the way it draws such a bright line between evangelicalism and an important part of Pentecostalism, which is usually seen as a part of evangelicalism. The concluding remark about the church addressing false gospels might be read as a challenge to Pentecostal groups such as the Assemblies of God and the Church of God. These might strike some readers as exotic disputes within marginal communities, but they involve millions of our fellow citizens who are, not incidentally, brothers and sisters in Christ. And the question of religious freedom, which requires unwearied vigilance, obviously involves us all.
It is an unpleasant subject, but it is not unimportant. I have commented before on the way Bartholomew I, patriarch of Constantinople, has in recent years been touring the West pandering to eco-sophists and global-warmists of varieties from the wrongheadedly sane to the downright kooky. In such circles he is celebrated as the Green Patriarch. Now he has a book from Random House, Encountering the Mystery: Perennial Values of the Orthodox Church , which, writes Charlotte Allen in the Wall Street Journal , majors not in spiritual mysteries but in lefty platitudes. This is a great pity, says Allen, when Orthodox and other churches in the Middle East are on the verge of extinction, and Christianity in Turkey, which is 99 percent Muslim, is a tiny and besieged minority of a few thousand people with only a few elderly priests and no priests in prospect because the government refuses to permit the reopening of the only seminary, which was closed in 1971. Bartholomew is now sixty-eight, and, since Turkish law requires the patriarch to be a Turkish citizen, it is quite possible that the two-millennium history of the patriarchate will soon be extinct. Allen alludes to one possible reason for Bartholomew’s pandering to the secular left in the West. He is a strong proponent of EU membership for Turkey, and he knows that, while the ruling circles centered in Brussels don’t give a rip about religion, they do insist that Turkey modernize, and modernization includes religious freedom. There are other factors in play, however. The commanding heights of Orthodoxy are controlled by the Moscow Patriarchate, and some observers believe that Moscow is not at all unhappy about the decline and possible death of the patriarchate of Constantinople. Orthodoxy in Russia is eagerly cooperating with Vladimir Putin in restoring old caesaropapist habits in the name of a renewed Russian nationalism. Meanwhile, Benedict XVI is following John Paul II in cultivating close and cordial relations with Bartholomew, also in mediating between Constantinople and Moscow, and thus exercising de facto a measure of the universal leadership that Rome claims de jure. It is a very complicated set of relationships that some might describe as Byzantine.
Here’s a wonderful little book. True, it’s 222 pages, but the pages are very small, about 3 by 5 inches, just the right size for pocket or pocketbook. I’ve been carrying it around for those moments between things. Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? 23 Questions from Great Philosophers, a translation of mini-essays published in Poland, is by Leszek Ko?akowski and has just been published here by Basic Books. Ko?akowski is one the great wonders of our age. Author of the classic Main Currents of Marxism and of many books on philosophy, religion, and the history of ideas, he is one of the very last of those Central European intellectuals whose learning is such as to force most of us to confess that our education is, by comparison, slapdash at best. Why begins with Socrates and goes on to Heraclitus, Epictetus, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Kierkegaard, and up through Husserl. Each little essay is a masterpiece of exquisitely refined intellectual summary and judgment. One may not always agree, but, in disagreement, one is prompted to think again. For instance, the reflection on Aquinas is titled, Knowledge, Faith, and the Soul: Is the World Good? Ko?akowski writes: [Aquinas] was concerned with the problem that preoccupied all Christian thinkers: since man participates in both orders, the temporal and the eternal; since he has a body but his chief concern is supposed to be his soul; since he lives in a world of sense-experience but his proper home is heaven; since he makes use of his faculty of natural reason but his source of illumination in the most important matters is faith; since he belongs to various temporal collectivities and communities, and is a participant in the secular, but also belongs to the Church, the mystical body of Christ, and is also a participant in sacred history”how are these two orders of man’s existence related, and how are they reconciled? That nicely summarizes the problem, and nobody proposed a reconciliation so thorough and systematic as that proposed by Aquinas. But then there is the problem of evil, says Ko?akowski, on which Aquinas agrees with Augustine that evil is a deprivation of good. Evil is the absence of what should be; it is not an evil for man that he does not have wings, but it is an evil for him to lack a hand. However, Aquinas does not share Augustine’s notorious belief in the ubiquity of moral evil, which seeps through into every aspect and domain of our existence. Nor does he share Augustine’s view that, after the Fall, the human will is capable only of doing evil unless guided by God’s gratuitously bestowed and irresistible grace. Aquinas believed that each of us is where he should be in the order of being; we all have our allotted place. He does not seem much interested in the demonic side of human existence (emphasis added). I hear howls of protest from Thomists of the strict observance”those who believe that Aquinas is the hardware that will run any software”but others who are inclined to think that Augustine’s view is not notorious but true may believe that Ko?akowski gets it just about right. For my present purpose of drawing attention to this splendid little book, I’m not taking sides on that one.
The comedian Bill Maher recently delivered himself of some rather decided views on religion in general and Catholicism in particular. On a late-night talk show he said, You can’t be a rational person six days of the week and put on a suit and make rational decisions and go to work and, on one day of the week, go to a building and think you’re drinking the blood of a 2,000-year-old space god. That doesn’t make you a person of faith. That makes you schizophrenic. He added that anyone who is religious is schizophrenic, sort of. As might be expected, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League blasted Maher for his twisted mind and hatred of Christians. That’s Dr. Donohue’s job. He likes to describe himself as a street fighter with a Ph.D., and the Catholic League is as inevitable as it is useful. Those of us with different vocations, however, might ask whether the Mahers, at least at times, do not, however inadvertently, render a service in pointing to the astonishing nature of Christian truth claims. Astonishing if they are not true, and more astonishing if they are. We are not schizophrenic, but we are keenly aware of the tension and, at times, the conflict between the gospel and culturally conventional understandings of reality. Christianity is indefatigably dialogical but never without an edge. Matthew Lickona puts it nicely in his memoir of a young Catholic, Swimming with Scapulars : Let’s be open and clean. Let’s drag this out into the light and discuss. Let’s not be shocked and resentful; let’s love the lonely. Perhaps, coming from a fanatic, the message of God’s love will regain some of its wonderful outrageousness. Listen. I have a secret. I eat God, and I have His life in me. It’s the best thing in the world; it leads to everlasting life. But first, you have to die to yourself.’
The hold that Freud and Freudianism(s) have on the minds of many intellectuals is a cause of continuing wonder. Theodore Dalrymple, a British psychiatrist and cultural critic, reviews George Makari’s new book, Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis . Dalrymple writes: Despite Freud’s many shortcomings”his deficiencies as a scientist, his urge to dominate, his intolerance of opposition, his lack of intellectual scruples”an aura of greatness still hangs over him . . . . No one could dispute that he was a highly intelligent and cultivated man, and a writer of such beguiling talent that he can still be read with pleasure even by those who expect to extract no truth from him. He was one of those figures who, in the wake of the collapse of religion, appeared to many, at least for a short time, to explain humanity to itself. The Freudian claim of explanatory power was false, as was the Marxist claim, and as the Darwinist claim, the most popular such explanatory claim today, will prove to be false. Freud’s fundamental flaw was an overweening ambition, in combination with intellectual impatience . . . . Mr. Makari’s conclusion, that, out of all the sordid maneuverings he chronicles in such detail, there nevertheless emerged the richest systematic description of inner experience that the Western world has produced’ is nonsense. Its very systematization is an impoverishment, not an enrichment, as anyone who has listened to psychoanalysts discuss anything will know. In such discussions, theory trumps description every time. Shakespeare is infinitely richer. Perhaps it is unfair to play the Shakespeare card, thus setting the bar almost impossibly high. The sad failure of Freud is demonstrated by much less exacting tests.
It is the sadness of this failure that comes through most poignantly in Mark Edmundson’s recent book, The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days. Edmundson, professor at the University of Virginia, is not out to debunk Freud. Like Makari, and unlike Dalrymple, he thinks Freud’s contribution is lasting. Freud, one might say, triggered a large-scale transference in the mind of the West. That is, people have aimed at him all the hopes and hatreds that have in the past infused their relations to authority. Freud should be read, he says, with irony, humor, and detachment but also with due openness when what he has to say proves to be illuminating”as it so often is. Edmundson goes further, describing Freud as perhaps the most potent and influential intellect of his century, the man who had probably done more than any other to change the way people in the West thought about who and what they were. Edmundson very effectively depicts the extreme physical suffering of Freud’s last days, after fleeing Nazi-occupied Vienna in June 1938, in order to die in freedom, which he did in London a little over a year later. He had suffered from a fierce cancer of the mouth and jaw that required a metal contraption (The Monster) which held his mouth open in order to hold his cigar, of which he smoked twenty per day. As the suffering became unbearable, he asked his doctor to assist his suicide by means of a lethal morphine overdose. Edmundson writes: Freud, the longtime atheist, never called out to God; he never asked celestial forgiveness; he never recanted his lack of faith; he was a stubbornly secular man to the end. When he was sick and dying, he stuck to his arduously created views and values, affirming what he had in other, better days. Freud was true to himself through to the end. One is reminded of the tragic banality of the song made popular by Frank Sinatra, I did it my way. Freud died on Saturday, September 23, 1939, the day of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. He had lived just long enough to write his last book, Moses and Monotheism , in which, in his excruciating physical pain, he gleefully deconstructed the central myth of Jewish faith.
Freud made a point of not reading philosophers and other seminal thinkers, says Edmundson, lest he discover that his own ideas were not so original as he wanted to believe them to be. Very notably, he avoided reading Nietzsche. He devoted his life to crafting his persona as the high priest of a new revelation. Writes Edmundson: He died in a way that would enhance his reputation as a leader, that would engender people’s loyalty over the years, that would move them in the way that kings’ and potentates’ passing can do, move them with the majestic sense that here was a man who was more than a man. This was someone worth believing in with fervor and worth following into the future. Freud wanted to create belief and adherence down through time and”though it is not entirely tasteful to say as much”he arranged his death in such a way as to help him to do exactly that.
Wittgenstein found Freud both alluring and misleading and credited him with having produced a very powerful mythology. Auden said, He would have us remember to be enthusiastic over the night. Edmundson writes, Freud’s thinking moved backward into the dark past”rather than forward into the highly reasoned future. He was enamored of pagan rituals, superstitions, and black magic. And, of course, the ancient Egyptian rites were key to his debunking of the founding biblical story in Moses and Monotheism . Freud was anything but a modern Enlightenment rationalist. It is commonly said that the three great modern masters of suspicion are Darwin, Marx, and Freud, each exposing that the world is not what it seems to be, and certainly not what the Christian West mistook for reality. Like Darwin and Marx, Freud claimed to be a scientist, and desperately wanted to be recognized as such, but constructed his supposed science on prescientific and even antiscientific foundations. Contradictions abounded. Carl Jung, among the more prominent of the disciples with whom he broke, was sympathetic to the Nazi takeover and developed theories about the singularity of the Aryan psyche. The Aryan unconscious, wrote Jung, has a higher potential than the Jewish; that is the advantage and the disadvantage of a youthfulness not yet fully estranged from barbarism. Thus did he excommunicate Freud who had excommunicated him from the church of psychoanalysis. Freud was not averse to the charms of barbarism. In 1934 he inscribed for Mussolini a little book he had written with, of all people, Albert Einstein, Why War? The inscription reads, From an old man who greets in the Ruler the Hero of Culture. (That is an item that Jonah Goldberg might have used in his recent book, Liberal Fascism .) Freud did not disguise what might be described as his disgust with humanity. Freud’s deep affection for dogs, Edmundson writes, sometimes resembles that of his great precursor, Schopenhauer, who said that he would rather converse with his dogs than he would with most people. Like Schopenhauer’s, Freud’s dog obsession probably arose in part from a mild misanthropy. (Hitler’s dog obsession signaled a misanthropy that was not so mild.) Freud wrote to a friend: It really explains why one can love an animal like Topsy (or Jo-Fi) with such extraordinary intensity, the beauty of an existence complete in itself . . . . Often when stroking Jo-Fi I have caught myself humming a melody which, unmusical as I am, I can’t help recognizing as the aria from Don Giovanni : The bond of friendship/Unites us both.’
Freud famously, or infamously, ruled his household and his collaborators with an iron fist. One might say, writes Edmundson, he was a patriarch who worked with incomparable skill to deconstruct patriarchy. He wrote and lived to put an end to the kind of authority that he himself quite often embodied and exploited. One might well sympathize with the Viennese wit Karl Kraus who quipped, Psychoanalysis is the disease of which it purports to be the cure. Freud had a dim view of human possibilities, once remarking that the purpose of psychoanalysis is to transform hysterical misery into common, everyday unhappiness. God is love, says the First Letter of John in the New Testament. In a curiously convoluted way, late in life Freud came to agree, but, in the absence of God, those seeking everyday unhappiness would have to settle for Freud. Edmundson describes a case in which the patient was making no progress after many weeks, and Freud cried out, You do not think that it is worth your while to love an old man. In the final phase of therapeutic practice”the mode of healing that Freud finally settled upon after trying a number of others”love was, in fact, at the heart of everything. Having made use of hypnotism and free association and dream interpretation, Freud now put himself, the physician, at the center of the drama. This was the theory of transference in which the patient brings all his (or, more often, her) longings for love and meaning, twisted and torn by years of hysterical misery, and lays them at the feet of the Master. And this, says George Makari in Revolution in Mind , is the richest systematic description of inner experience that the Western world has produced. I don’t think so. Others may dismiss it as mere coincidence, but I cannot shake the thought that the deepest sadness of Freud and his project is signified by death by suicide on the day of repentance, forgiveness, and the world made new, Yom Kippur.
Glenn Tinder, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts, is an undervalued treasure. He has published with some regularity in these pages, and his 1986 book, Political Thinking: The Perennial Questions , is a standard reference deserving of its reputation as a classic. Yet Tinder is a demanding author who requires of his readers an intellectual steadiness of purpose similar to his own. This is evident again in his latest work, Liberty: Rethinking an Imperiled Ideal (Eerdmans). In his intensely Augustinian insistence upon human sinfulness and the limits of history, Tinder contends against every form of political utopianism premised upon unearned certitudes. Liberty is known in the unsheltered life of historical contingency animated by a hope that is rightly named the eternal . While Tinder makes no secret of his Christian faith, a strength of the argument is in his determined effort to engage the secular humanist in reflecting on the inescapably eschatological nature of all human hope. The book was obviously written before Benedict XVI’s encyclical of November 2007, Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope), but the similarity of the argument is striking. The Augustinian strain is manifest in both thinkers, as is the appreciation of, and effort to appropriate, what is true in the Enlightenment tradition. There is a remarkable eclecticism in Tinder’s way of taking one thing from Kant and another from Wittgenstein and yet another from Thomas, but it is of a piece with his understanding of the unsheltered life that is unsheltered also by any system . There is more than a dash of Reinhold Niebuhr in Tinder’s thinking, especially with respect to moral man and immoral society, but it would be a mistake to call him a Niebuhrian. He is more explicitly and penetratingly Christian than was Niebuhr, and he grounds more deeply Niebuhr’s celebrated misgivings about the possibilities of history. Tinder writes, The estranged individual, even though in solitude, must, for the sake of community, establish and maintain his own inner community. This may sound forbiddingly doleful, but it is a solitude-in-community that is illumined by the words of 1 John, God is light and in him is no darkness at all, and is sustained by the promise of the prologue of John’s gospel that the darkness has not and will not extinguish the light. There is in Tinder’s understanding of the unsheltered life a determined, one might say a very Protestant, resistance to the proleptic power of the Church’s sacramental life, a resistance that is reminiscent of Kierkegaard, although he certainly does not share Kierkegaard’s indifference to the political. Liberty: Rethinking an Imperiled Ideal is an exercise in political philosophy, with the emphasis on philosophy , and on the ways in which serious philosophy cannot”although it is certainly not for the lack of trying”disengage itself from the questions that are rightly called theological. I don’t expect the book to make the Times ’ bestseller list, but I am confident it will be of intense interest to many readers of First Things .
The English language is so very rich, and not least when it comes to language about language. I confess to having a weakness for the aphorism. I like to quote them, and have even tried my hand at a few. A friend tells me I mean epigram, not aphorism. Maybe so, but the distinctions are subtle. It could be that my weakness is for the epigram, the maxim, the axiom, the adage, the apothegm, the pithy saying, or any of these in combination. But I think I’ll stay with calling it the aphorism. An aphorism, as I understand it, is a succinct statement of a general truth distilled by particular experience. A further confession: The above comments are but an excuse to quote something said by Alfred Polgar, a Viennese writer of the early twentieth century. The striking aphorism requires a stricken aphorist. Lovely. And, while I’m at it, this from poet Rainer Maria Rilke: Fame is the sum total of all the misunderstandings that can gather around a new name. You might want to keep that handy for the next time the conversation turns to our celebrity culture.
Here’s a forceful editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine . The editors say in no uncertain terms that nobody should think that the medical profession will be available to assist in the taking of human lives. When called upon to kill, doctors should remember the Hippocratic Oath and refuse to participate. The editorial is, as you might expect, in opposition to capital punishment. There is, of course, no mention of abortion or doctor-assisted suicide. About the latter, the NEJM is ambivalent, while it is unequivocally in support of the former. It is encouraging to see the reference to the Hippocratic Oath”which, unfortunately, is not taken in most American medical schools”but the editors’ reading of that venerable text is, to put it gently, very selective.
Some fifteen years ago, Eamon Duffy of Cambridge published The Stripping of the Altars , and the historical understanding of the Church in England has not been the same since. Of course, not everybody has heard the news. In a more recent conversation with a Church of England bishop, I was assured that secularization in England was neither surprising nor anything to worry about, since the English had never been Christianized to begin with. Eamon Duffy demonstrated in exacting detail that England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was deeply and richly Catholic and that those who cheered Henry VIII’s break with Rome, and indulged in the subsequent factionalisms, were in a distinct minority centered in London. The Stripping of the Altars came to mind while reading a marvelous new book by Augustine Thompson, O.P., Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes, 1125-1325 (Penn State). Most writing about that period has focused on monks, mystics, heretics (the Cathars in particular), and the Inquisition. Like Duffy, Thompson has dug into archives and dusty attic trunks to find out what everyday and holy-day life was for the ordinary Christians of the time. The result is a feast of charming, and sometimes alarming, minutiae, and, of course, larger themes are engaged as well. We had in these pages a little exchange a while back about the war of liturgical correctness against kneeling at Mass. It seems the same thing was going on in the thirteenth century, with laypeople insisting upon kneeling, despite the directives of their clergy. (It was popularly believed that a refusal to kneel could be an indication of heresy.) There was no disagreement about the importance of churches, along with clergy and people, facing east. It was not a matter of the clergy turning their backs on the people as it was a matter of everyone facing the Light of the World signified by the rising sun. But there is everything in Cities of God from marriage and burial rites to competition (sometimes unseemly) between religious orders, especially Dominicans and Franciscans, to contentions over bequests. Perhaps an inordinate number of the last, since, as Thompson notes, Lawsuits leave paper trails, friendly relations do not. The more than five hundred pages do not have one big thesis, and some might find the book altogether too detailed. But if you have ever wondered what it was like to be a Christian in the High Middle Ages, at least in central and northern Italy, Cities of God is a book that invites you to come in and look around.
Here’s a new thing under the sun. American Theological Inquiry is a big thick journal of theology, culture, and history available online at www.atijournal.org. Scheduled to appear twice a year, it is thoroughly ecumenical, welcoming submissions from writers committed to the conciliar tradition of the patristic era. Volume 1, no. 1 has a fine article by Father Thomas Weinandy, director of the doctrine committee of the bishops’ conference, on why attention to the fathers is imperative in our day, and another interesting article by John W. Cooper that is, to my mind, a bit too sweeping in its critique of panentheism in Christian thought. Theologians, would-be theologians, and the theologically attentive will want to check out American Theological Inquiry .
A friend tells of his grandfather who was born in Brooklyn, New York, and as a young man moved to a small town in South Carolina, where he reared a large family and was a leading member of the community for more than sixty years. On his tombstone, the citizens of the town had respectfully inscribed: It is as though he were one of us. Real community takes time. Harvard’s Robert Putnam is the author of the much-discussed 2000 book Bowling Alone , in which he popularized the idea of social capital. He has now issued a report on social diversity titled E Pluribus Unum . In an interview with the American Interest , he says: Many things affect civic participation”how much education you’ve had, how long you’ve lived here, and so on. So it’s clear that factors other than diversity account for some of the data. It’s just that everybody, well-educated and not well-educated, old-timers and newcomers alike, is affected negatively by increasing diversity. Holding constant socioeconomic resources, mobility, and many other things, as well, everybody is less likely to be engaged when they’re living in a more diverse town or city. That’s the research conclusion I found most startling: It’s not just that in the context of diversity people are less trusting of people who look different. It’s that in the context of diversity people are less trusting even of folks who look just like them.
Not surprisingly, Putnam’s findings have met with a mixed response. In our intellectual culture, diversity is a Very Important Thing. Most Americans, however, do not live in the culture designated as intellectual, and those who do are typically hostile to diversities that offend against their homogeneity on things that really matter, such as dissent from enthusiasm for diversity. And, of course, the question of diversity does touch in important ways on heated disputes over immigration. Putnam’s research took him to a suburb of Detroit where a large Latino population gets along swimmingly with those of European extraction, who are about equal in number. The Latinos arrived about sixty years ago. The trust and mutual respect that makes for civic vitality takes time. More than ten years ago, Alan Ehrenhalt published The Lost City , a study of Chicago neighborhoods in the 1950s, which was very thoughtfully reviewed by Mary Ann Glendon in our November 1995 issue. Neighborhoods flourished as enclaves of people who viewed themselves as being alike, and neighborhoods collapsed with the disappearance of alikeness. Only ideologues need a sociological study to inform them that like attracts like. And only ideologues view a dynamic so deeply set in human nature as a problem in need of fixing. There was a very real problem that needed fixing with legally enforced racial segregation. Yet more than forty years after the civil-rights acts, America is, except for the professional class among blacks, as racially segregated as ever. Biblical teaching strongly underscores respectful engagement with, and concern for, the other. Witness Jesus’ dealings with Samaritans or Paul’s insistence on the inclusiveness (i.e. catholicity) of the Church. Such moral examples and injunctions are necessary precisely because they go against opposing dynamics in the human grain. That is usually the way it is with morality. And, we do well to remember, the Church is, in this and many other ways, a society distinct from the society in which it lives. It is a great confusion of realms to think that society can or should be constructed on the model of the Church. Robert Putnam is not suggesting that diversity is not a good thing. He speaks of communal bonding and communal bridging. Shared social capital makes possible the bonding with people who are like ourselves and creates the confidence necessary to engage in bridging with those who are unlike ourselves. I expect most people find that rather obvious. As history testifies, the distinction between us and them can turn very nasty, and that is a necessary cause for concern. Without that distinction, however, the result is anomie and the death of community. The contribution of Putnam and his researchers is to help us think more clearly about the shibboleth of diversity, and to work harder at the bonding that makes bridging possible. Such work takes time. Although perhaps not as much time as is suggested by that South Carolina tombstone.
That exemplary sociologist of religion, David Martin, is mainly puzzled by John Gray’s new book, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. Gray is notorious for popping up in ideologically surprising places, usually in the mode of outraged indignation. This time Gray follows in the now well-worn path of Norman Cohn’s 1957 classic, The Pursuit of the Millennium , a book I regularly recommend to those who need it, which means most people interested in the interaction of politics and religion. Martin says of Gray that the ferocity of his indignation suggests that, occasionally, what is so obvious simply takes his breath away. Yet Black Mass provides some interesting twists. Martin writes: In recent rhetorical practice the expansion of what we mean by religion to include all fanaticism (for example, secular utopianism) is a tactic normally deployed in order to discredit religion and assert the speaker’s own innocence”say, as a tolerant, objective, scientific fellow who has put away childish things. What Gray does in Black Mass and several earlier works is to reverse the thrust of this tactic. Instead of simply transferring the category of religion to cover the horrors of the twentieth century to avoid their being blamed on secular thinking, Gray holds to account the Enlightenment and its dependent ideologies, from Liberal Imperialism to Communism, as being simply what T.E. Hulme would have called spilt religion,’ malformed theology in an eschatological mode without the restraints still kept in place by mainstream Christianity. The Enlightenment fused the two cities of Augustine and the two kingdoms of Luther to create, not the heavenly city, but hell on earth. At least (so Gray seems to say) the Christian story is clearly a form of solid poetry, whereas its secular translation fails to recognize its own mythic character, including the utopias envisaged by contemporary scientism. John Gray says he is an atheist, and his grim view of the world is that we are all straw dogs. An earlier book by Gray is Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals , in which other animals generally come off looking good by comparison. Where we go wrong, according to Gray, is in thinking that we are touched by a special light by virtue of being created in the image of God. Martin writes: It is not just that the Enlightenment is parasitic on the Christian metaphor of light, but that disgust is parasitic on the idea of a chronic disjunction: the evil that I would not that I do,’ as St Paul put it. Lions do not throw up, shaken to the core, at not being adequately leonine. Elephants do not roll in the mud to vent their desolation at being so grossly elephantine. Whatever else does or does not separate us from animality, the potential to imagine and body forth transfiguration and to acknowledge disfiguration, is what makes us human. Our sense of indignity is the essence of our dignity. Non sum dignus. Even our contemporary filleted liturgies admit as much. John Gray, Martin concludes, puts one in mind of the terrible sonnets’ of Gerard Manley Hopkins, in which the poet contends with God over the sheer waste of his supposedly good creation, and in particular contemplates Man as a shattered potsherd, only to ask how he could even have entertained the idea of a beacon, an eternal beam’ if such did not exist. How come a straw dog’ never imagined a burning bush, even for a moment?
We are all evangelicals now. That’s the message of Dagmar Herzog, professor of history at City University of New York, whose new book is Sex in Crisis , published by Basic Books, which, as publishing houses go, has a reputation for being serious. Liberals, says Dr. Herzog, have become confused and defensive as a consequence of the successful evangelical promotion of great sex”soulgasmic sex”between married men and women. Says Herzog: There has never been so much pressure on what we are supposed’ to feel about our relationships, our sexual choices, and our desire to feel pleasure. We wonder constantly whether our sex lives could be better, or whether we’re doing something wrong, or abnormal or inadequate. This is a radical new development”it just wasn’t this way even fifteen years ago. Let’s see, that would have been 1993, a time, as Herzog would have it, celebrated as a period of national tranquility, security, and satisfaction in matters sexual. Now, says Dr. Herzog, evangelicals have ushered in a period of sexual chaos by campaigning for abstinence and monogamy, opposing gay rights, and even telling women that abortions ruin self-esteem. Dr. Herzog is not going to take it any more. All of this is morally unconscionable, she declares, but it is also an effective and dangerous distraction”the bread and circuses that redirect the national conversation away from major issues like war and the economy. To move our attention back to the really big issues like war and the economy, Dagmar Herzog has written Sex in Crisis . If I understand her correctly, she is saying that it would be morally unconscionable to read her book. That’s putting it a mite strongly, but I expect she has a point.
One imagines French executives sitting around the boardroom table and brainstorming how to break in big-time to the American market. What do we have that the Americans don’t have? What do we have that we could make the Americans want to have? Voil ! exclaims a junior executive at the far end of the table. Water! The others think he’s gone mad. What? America doesn’t have water? Yes, they have water, he explains, but they don’t have French water! Thus was born the great success of Perrier, soon to be followed by Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and others in the multibillion-dollar bottled-water business. Actually, it didn’t happen quite that way. Perrier water is from a spring in Vergeze in the Garde département of France, which belonged to Louis Perrier, a local doctor, and was bought in the early twentieth century by Sir St. John Harmsworth, an English aristocrat, who had an unflattering”and, as it turned out, correct”view of the gullibility of the English bourgeoisie who admired things French. He bottled the stuff in green bottles in the shape of the Indian clubs he used for daily exercise, and, many years later, the company (now owned by Nestlé) discovered that the English appetite for buying something that had been free was as nothing comp