The ABCs of AIDS


The First Things article “AIDS and the Churches” underscores a sad reality in the HIV/AIDS community: that communication and dialogue are ferociously difficult no matter what the intent. Our response here thus aims to frame the issues Edward C. Green and Alison Herling Ruark address as we understand them, and respond briefly. We hope it is taken as an invitation to dialogue and continuing exchange. I have great respect for the motivations and intent of Green and Ruark and hope they accord us the same.

What the Green and Ruark commentary does not address is the context and purpose of the Berkley Center report. The report’s purpose is to provide information and encourage dialogue; it is an academic and not an advocacy document, and it sets out to offer a straightforward and honest assessment of how often sensitive issues are framed and discussed. It provides a broad overview of how the extraordinary array of often very different faith-inspired institutions and activities are approaching HIV/AIDS. It seeks to bridge large communication gulfs that impede understanding, learning, and partnership among many faith and secular organizations. Its foundation is that faith communities have large and underappreciated roles to play, and that lack of communication, mutual preconceptions, and disparaging views are a barrier to both cooperation and partnership, undermining many programs and policy dialogue. The Berkley Center report is a living document, to be elaborated and updated; ongoing learning is part of the endeavor.

The Berkley Report takes as a backdrop something acknowledged time and again in widely varied discussions about religion and HIV/AIDS: that religion is “part of the problem, part of the solution.” This perspective needs to be part of the discourse. Within the vastly varied religious communities that are in some fashion engaged by the HIV/AIDS issues, there is a plethora of reactions. I have heard deeply thoughtful religious leaders acknowledge that they came late to an appreciation of the pandemic, that preconceptions influenced their initial reactions, that some leaders have taken harsh stances (for example, refusing to bury people whose families acknowledge that they died of AIDS), and that their focus on ideal behaviors can obscure what is real and live. Nevertheless, the deep compassion, outreach, and action of many faith communities are inspiring. Yet many secular organizations still have scant appreciation of the active roles that faith institutions play and thus tend to distort their motives.

The Green and Ruark article argues that the Berkley Center report gives too little “credit” to the success of abstinence and faithfulness efforts, especially in Uganda. A recent World Bank strategic document says of priorities on HIV/AIDS: “prevention, prevention, prevention.” This reflects an appreciation that the war against the pandemic, despite enormous resources, is not yet succeeding, as new infections continue to increase. Treating one’s way out is not a solution; it would be absurd to allow people to get sick and focus on giving them treatment. The basic facts are clear: Sexual behavior and above all multiple simultaneous sexual partners are the problem, because that is how infection is spread. There is no ambivalence there. The questions turn on what can change behavior. The Berkley Center report, somewhat obliquely (as this is not the centerpiece of the argument), notes that there are competing moralities at work. This is pretty obvious, and even different faith traditions have different views”for example, on homosexuality and loving relationships outside marriage. But the real question still is what influences behavior. Is it preaching, or knowledge, or political leadership, or results of testing, or seeing people around suffering and dying?

My own view (based on hundreds of discussions and experience in some fifty countries) is that two factors have paramount importance: information, so people can make informed decisions, and joint leadership across sectors (the more unlikely the better). The impact is enormous where religious and political leaders have joined forces (as in Uganda and Senegal). The broad HIV/AIDS community, based on mounting evidence, is rightly and highly skeptical of approaches that focus solely on promoting abstinence and faithfulness (however desirable these goals). The “best practice” these days is an approach that has multiple layers and approaches, used for different circumstances. More complex questions arise as to how partners with different ethics work together. Again, pragmatism shows that, driven by caring, good sense, and the realities of each situation, communities can work out approaches where no institution is asked to work against its basic values but where there is respect for differences and a commitment to a broader end.

The Berkley Center did review the very extensive literature about both scientific and more operational findings that pertain to these debates. We underscored the unfortunate mingling (on all sides) of scientific, ethical, and moral factors in assessing evidence. My view is that the jury is very much out, but that different approaches work in different situations. A thorough review of the arguments for and against abstinence programs in Uganda specifically is available on the Human Rights Watch website. A summary of the extensive Mathematica evaluation of U.S. abstinence and related programs can be found at www.mathematica-mpr.com/welfare/abstinence.asp.

In any event, the Uganda case is fiercely debated these days, and Dr. Green is a pioneer in research about what Uganda’s success means. But the story is evolving (with worrying recent trends), and the significance of reduced infection rates is hotly debated. The Berkley report and the World Bank case study on Uganda presented at the Shanghai Scaling Up Poverty Conference reflect widely held practitioner views that the causality is complex and multiple and that the “Green explanation” is an important part of the story”but by no means the whole.

To be crystal clear, we are not “uncomfortable” with abstinence/faithfulness messages, and fully recognize that sexual behavior is a large part of the issue, but are persuaded that a single approach is not only unrealistic but damages the multipronged approaches that are vital to adapting to differing circumstances and reaching different groups and constituencies. The results of abstinence-only approaches is at best mixed. Let’s keep studying the evidence and look to multiple approaches that focus above all on information and leadership for the present.

The Green and Ruark article sees “conventional wisdom” in the stress that the Berkley Center report places on HIV/AIDS as a development issue, linked to poverty. Links between poverty and HIV/AIDS are obviously very complex: Many wealthy people succumb, and, most tragically, intelligent people like teachers have higher incidence levels. But HIV/AIDS is surely a development issue, and poor countries with terrible health infrastructures are poorly equipped to respond to the pandemic. Poor people tend to have less knowledge, less ability to assess scientific information, and fewer options to earn their livings. The operational point is that HIV/AIDS needs to be part of the development approach in a series of complex and interlocking ways, especially in poorer countries with severe fiscal constraints. And everywhere, despite some complexities around education levels and HIV/AIDS, information and education are keys to the long-term solution.

Too many areas of Africa are still shaken by conflicts, and HIV/AIDS is part of that story. Ironically, conflicts such as Mozambique’s civil war can retard the spread of the pandemic, because communications are truncated and population movements are inhibited. The onset of peace and reconciliation can reverse these conditions, with devastating consequences. Ironically, people with few resources may have fewer sexual partners. But the Mozambique story is a horrible morality story, as the pandemic spread with incredible speed as people resettled and resumed their normal lives after peace. The emerging understanding of how widespread sexual violence is, especially in conflict situations, also points to transmission routes; the potential for moral and pragmatic leadership by faith leaders is enormous.

Stigma against people with HIV/AIDS is pretty widespread”even children suffer it in schools across many countries”and faith communities are by no means alone in stigmatizing people. But with their moral voice and moral sway, their role has special importance, and wise faith leaders work hard to combat such tendencies. The moral challenge that faces many faith communities is how to accept and love people when you disapprove of their behavior.

The Green and Ruark article also comments on the Berkley-report discussion of the active debate about the ABC approach. It generates passions on all sides: At the Toronto HIV/AIDS meeting, crowds booed people who mentioned ABC. To be forthright, I am convinced that, despite the strong commonsense appeal of ABC, it is time to move on to richer and more complex slogans. Pastor Rick Warren illustrates how this can work to the common good. He talks of STOP and SLOW, appreciating that both are necessary: STOP means “Save sex for marriage, Teach men to respect women, Offer treatment in churches, and Pledge yourself to one partner”; SLOW means “Supply condoms, Limit number of partners, Offer needle exchange, and Wait for sex until older.” Again, multiple approaches and slogans are what we need.

The diversity of faith traditions, teachings, and communities is remarkable. The central reality is that they matter and need to be studied, debated, and assessed. Harsh polemics may be inevitable where moralities clash and facts are not easy to establish, but they do not help much. What we are after is thoughtful and respectful engagement across different traditions and perceptions of what is happening. The common ground that HIV/AIDS is devastating communities and causing untold suffering calls for working together.

Katherine Marshall
Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs
Georgetown University
Washington, D.C.

Edward C. Green replies:



Much of the confusion over identifying effective responses to AIDS epidemics could be cleared up if only the fundamental differences between two basic types of epidemics were acknowledged and truly understood. In most of the world, we find so-called concentrated epidemics, where most HIV infections are found among sex workers, gay men, and injecting drug users. The global AIDS industry got off to the wrong start twenty years ago by assuming this was the only type of epidemic we would face. AIDS-prevention thinking went something like this: Gay men don’t want to change their behavior, thanks very much; drug users cannot change behavior because they’re addicted; and sex workers need the money they make and are therefore unlikely to change their behavior. So, if we start with the premise that sexual behavior cannot”or should not , for some”be changed, we end up with a very limited set of prevention options, namely risk or harm reduction . We do not get at (or “interfere with”) the underlying behavior driving the epidemic; we simply reduce the risk or harm by providing condoms, clean needles, treating the curable sexually transmitted diseases, etc.

Katherine Marshall mentions that most of the AIDS communities”at least the Westerners among them”are very unhappy at the prospect of changing sexual behavior. Readers should understand that various alliances of Western-controlled AIDS activists that make up this “community” are by no means representative of any sort of national or naturally aggregating population. At what other forum than a global AIDS conference do we encounter loud booing at the very mention of words like faithfulness or abstinence ? These audiences should not be taken as representative of countries, regions, or anything else.

What is the other basic type of HIV epidemic? Some of us began to realize many years ago that AIDS epidemics in eastern and southern Africa were completely different from the types of epidemics that generated what was to become the universal response. In the “hyperepidemics” of parts of Africa, most HIV is found in the general population, among regular people, not high-risk groups. Now in Africa, most people are rural, religious, and fairly conservative when it comes to sexual behavior, despite lurid stereotypes of oversexed African men forcing themselves on women and girls without a thought. Africans do not have the reflexive, knee-jerk negative response to words like abstinence and fidelity , such as we find among Western AIDS activists. Most Africans in fact like these ideas and the programs that ought to develop around them (but are often shot down by Western donors). It is we Western AIDS experts that have the negative bias about restraining sexual behavior in any way, not Africans.

We already discussed Uganda in our original essay. We now have examples from seven or eight African countries where the proportion of men and women reporting more than one sexual partner in the past year has declined significantly, and this is followed by a general decline in HIV prevalence at the national level. We do not see any such associations with levels of condom use, however measured. In fact, we consistently see an unwanted association between higher levels of condom use and higher HIV-infection levels.

Again, recognizing the different transmission patterns and AIDS-prevention requirements of generalized versus concentrated epidemics would resolve a lot of highly emotional and bitter argument over AIDS prevention. It should also be understood that one does not necessarily need to take a religious or moral approach to transmit the public-health message about the health and survival merits of restraining sexual behavior. We say this because the word morality seems to be anathema to so many Euro-American AIDS activists. Messages of fidelity, monogamy, and delay of first sexual experience can be transmitted in a secular manner”for example, through life-skills programs at schools”and/or these messages can come through religious leaders and organizations. We don’t know which of these approaches are best. What we do know is that, except for Uganda and a number of FBOs around Africa, there’s been little or no financial support for programs of sexual-behavior change, even though these are precisely what are needed most in the hyperepidemics of Africa. We in the West need to get past seeing African epidemics as American epidemics. We need to overcome our ideological biases, our financial self-interests, and we need to do a good deal of listening and learning from Africans. Think about it: We in the United States have not brought down our own HIV-infection rates, yet we are advising Africans countries that have brought down HIV infection about how to prevent AIDS. We should be learning from Africans.

We too think that Rick and Kay Warren’s use of SLOW/STOP to capture risk-reduction (SLOW) and risk-avoidance (STOP) measures is masterful and includes, of course, the critical ABC (Abstain, Be faithful, use Condoms) behaviors. I was one of the first colleagues from whom Rick and Kay Warren sought feedback on the new acronyms. SLOW/STOP is great for teaching purposes, and I have used it often myself. But it is also more complicated than ABC”it requires remembering more words”and we are not aware of any country in Africa or elsewhere that has adopted SLOW/STOP as a national AIDS policy, whereas ABC (partly because of its simplicity) continues to be widely used in Africa, including in national AIDS policies and strategies. While many in the AIDS community may feel it is time to “move on” from ABC, this is really the decision of countries and communities themselves. “ABC” is a simple, life-saving message, and perhaps we “experts” should show greater humility when suggesting that our improvements are necessary.

The Sixties and So On


With regard to the ever-expanding reach of secularism from the Sixties forward, I was surprised that George Weigel chose the publication of Harvey Cox’s The Secular City as a defining moment of the Sixties (“The Sixties, Again and Again,” April). It seems to me that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the school-prayer cases had a much deeper and more powerful impact on the culture. Before those cases were handed down ( Engel v. Vitale in 1962 and Abington School District v. Schempp in 1963), America was quite comfortable with political and cultural leaders affirming religious truth in the public square. After those decisions, Americans became more and more uneasy with public expressions of religion until, by the early 1980s, religion had been almost completely banished from public discourse. Among the victims of this spreading secularism were the mainline Protestant churches, which fell far too easily under the spell of spreading secularism. Rather than being the omen that Weigel sees in it, the publication of The Secular City was merely a symptom of a malady already plaguing the body politic.

My disagreement with Weigel on this point might be a quibble except that our differing understandings of what fueled cultural secularization point to different causes, and thus to different cures. If, as Weigel seems to suggest, the difficulty is with our churches, the problem may have already corrected itself. The secularization of the churches hollowed out mainline Protestant denominations, but it did not end the American thirst for genuine contact with God. The rise of evangelical and Pentecostal Protestantism, the advent of Pope John Paul the Great, and the ascent of more-traditional strains of Judaism all appear to signal the weakening hold of secularism on American religious life. But if the problem began, as I would suggest, with the courts, then the battle continues and will not end until the Supreme Court proclaims a new dispensation more respectful of the appropriate role of religion in the public square.

Joseph G. Cosby
Falls Church, Virginia

George Weigel has given us a very instructive overview of the Sixties and the tremendous consequences that have followed from his six “moments.” And while it is surely obvious that not everything can be covered in a discussion of this length, I would argue that the prayer and Bible-reading decisions of the early Sixties have had a far greater impact politically, culturally, and legally on American society than many scholars realize. One need not be a historian of education or a theologian to assess the damage done to public education and then to society in general by how these cases were decided and what public school officials were empowered to do (or so they believed) despite the clearly given cautions from the Supreme Court itself.

What has come down to us after forty-five years of rancorous debate and case after case before the High Court is a rudderless and failing national embarrassment called public education. Hardly an election at any level is free of calls for improving our schools, and presidential candidates avoid the topic at their peril. The disaster of school shootings and the plague of venereal disease (is it one in four teen girls now?) bring the usual yipes of dismay from liberal professional associations followed by finger-pointing at whoever disagrees with the sexual free-for-all that passes for sex education in today’s enlightened schools.

Could all this have been avoided had those early-Sixties decisions been otherwise? It is surely tempting to think so. Can we mend things by going back? The genie’s out of the lamp. There’s no going back. But the way forward is a topic on which George Weigel may be admirably suited to comment.

Dennis J. Brown
Elizabeth City, North Carolina

George Weigel’s essay offers valid points about the importance of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), but he makes two errors. First, the principal law in Connecticut banned not the sale but the use of contraceptives. Sales could be prosecuted under the criminal accessory component of this law, though such prosecutions were rare, because the state’s policy was meant to prevent birth-control clinics from operating in Connecticut.

Second, Weigel errs in saying that Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) extended the right to contraceptives to “nonmarried couples.” In fact, the majority opinion says nothing about “couples.” In Eisenstadt , the Court simply took the right to “associational privacy” in Griswold (which was justified by reference to the importance of marriage) and extended it to single adults.

Another problem should be mentioned. Weigel wants to link Griswold to later cases such as Roe v. Wade (1973), Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), and Lawrence v. Texas (2003). As a matter of legal history, the links are beyond dispute, but the language that Weigel uses to connect the cases could be exploited by those who would defend the “right to privacy” and its successor doctrines. Rather than suggest a chainlike progression”which is a liberal stratagem meant to ease the skeptic’s acceptance of the whole series of cases”Weigel should have stressed the disjunctions in these cases. Thus, regardless of one’s opinion about the soundness of Griswold , the ruling in Eisenstadt goes far beyond it. The same must be said of Roe vis- -vis Eisenstadt . And, as Weigel seems to recognize, Lawrence is also new terrain, the possible groundwork for imposing “same-sex marriage” on the nation.

David L. Tubbs
King’s College
New York, New York

I read with multiple nods George Weigel’s excellent “SparkNotes account of the cultural disaster we refer to as the Sixties. He has identified all the crucial loci, save one: the rise of postmodernism, as illustrated by Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge . The only problem is that the book wasn’t published until 1979. But it is a “report” of an already-existing “condition” and has great ex-post-facto heuristic power. Like a coroner’s report, it helps us understand the philosophy that induced the death throes of Western civilization in the Sixties. The collapse of confidence in objective Truth and its substitution with subjective truth has resulted in an epistemological collapse. We now have no confidence in our ability to know anything”through revelation or reason”with certainty.

Thomas C. Pfizenmaier
Senior Minister, Bonhomme
Presbyterian Church
Chesterfield, Missouri

George Weigel replies:



I thank my correspondents for their kind words and for their interest in a turbulent period in our national history, the effects of which are self-evidently clear every time Senator Barrack Obama”quintessential candidate of the Authorized Version of the Sixties”speaks.

On the question of secularism and the Supreme Court’s decisions on prayer and other religious activities in the public schools: No doubt these decisions, which repudiated both history and the wishes of parents and state legislators alike, played a significant role in the acceleration of what Richard John Neuhaus later dubbed the “naked public square.” But did the problem begin with the courts, as Joseph Cosby suggests? I don’t think so.

In the mid-1950s, long before Madalyn Murray O’Hair was heard of or heard from, John Courtney Murray warned that the moral “consensus” at the foundations of the American democratic experiment was coming apart at the seams: For neither mainline Protestantism, Murray argued, nor the universities any longer held fast to those “elementary affirmations,” drawn from the natural moral law, that had formed the moral-cultural framework for public deliberation about the public good since the Founding. In other words, at least a decade before the Supreme Court got into the game, the path to a naked public square dominated by the Imperial Autonomous Self was being blazed by the institutions that had been the transmitters of the religiously informed moral truths at the root of our democracy for generations. Now, to be sure, the Supreme Court’s inane religion-clause jurisprudence accelerated this process. But did it initiate it? I doubt it.

Nonetheless, Cosby and Dennis Brown are quite right that a different kind of Supreme Court First Amendment jurisprudence could, in the future, play a significant role in clothing the naked public square. And Brown is surely right that our public schools are, in the main, a national embarrassment; I would add that their failures in our inner urban areas are a crisis of justice lamentably unaddressed on the port side of American politics. Still, I would wonder whether the public schools”or, as I prefer, the government schools”ever played as large a role in the religious education of Americans (and, by extension, the clothing of the American public square) as some assume. They certainly didn’t for Catholics, many of whom went to their own schools, not least because the government schools were created in part to deal with the perceived threat to democracy from waves of Catholic immigrants. On the other hand, I certainly don’t wish to deny that government schools that inculcate a vacuous, secularized political correctness do no service to the project of rebuilding the moral-cultural foundations of American democracy.

I am grateful to David Tubbs for his clarifications on Griswold and Eisenstadt . As far as my legally _minded colleagues and I are aware, there was never a prosecution under Griswold prior to the sham “prosecution” that was clearly intended to deliver the result it did at the end of the appellate road. As for Eisenstadt not mentioning “couples,” fine. But, at the risk of salaciousness, permit me to suggest that it’s not altogether clear how an individual right to contraception would be exercised . . . individually, so to speak. On the far more important point raised by Tubbs, the Supreme Court did, from Griswold on, make it up at each stage of the game”despite the legal paper trail (or, pace Tubbs, chain) I referenced in my article. As the recent absurd and dangerous decision Boumediene vs. Bush illustrates, they’re still making it up as they go along, on any number of fronts.

I am perhaps dating myself by thanking Thomas Pfizenmaier for alerting me to SparkNotes; in my day, CliffsNotes were the crib of choice. In any event, he is surely right that the collapse of the universities as repositories and transmitters of Murray’s “consensus” was a signal event in the Sixties, whether one chooses Berkeley, Cornell, or Columbia as Ground Zero. For not taking up this point in my Simon lecture and this essay, I can only plead the limits of time and space; should my essay find itself growing into a small book some day, that crucial point (and others) will be addressed.

Enlightened Bible Reading


After finishing James Kugel’s book How to Read the Bible, I read R.R. Reno’s comment on it with interest and pleasure (“The Bible Inside and Out,” April). Kugel argues that reading the Bible as the Word of God in the manner of Jews and Christians in earlier times is simply incompatible, both in method and in results, with treating it as a historical and cultural document containing information to be extracted with the tools of modern scholarship. Reno basically agrees about this split, though he suggests that Kugel may have slightly overstated it. Like Kugel, he prefers the old-time approach.

I had a different reaction. The split that Kugel identifies seems to me to have very different consequences for Judaism on the one hand and Christianity on the other. According to Kugel, modern scholarship has essentially demolished any affirmative evidence for the truth of Judaism’s founding stories. Genesis is a collection of myths. The Hebrews never invaded and conquered the Holy Land. There may have been some kind of small exodus from Egypt led by a man named Moses, but that is all we can say.

Similarly, the Torah was written centuries after the events it describes by a series of anonymous authors with different and sometimes contradictory perspectives. This is sometimes true, to a lesser extent, of the prophetic writings.

Given all this, Kugel, if I read him correctly, opts for treating the Scriptures as the starting point for a continuous process of interpretation and reinterpretation rather than as statements that are true in themselves in any obvious sense. As Kugel argues, this makes the community of interpretation over time more important than the text being interpreted. This may all make sense for Judaism, but I think it leaves open the question of how someone might come to believe that Judaism was true.

Christianity presents these issues in a very different perspective. Its founding story”that Jesus rose from the dead”makes a hard-edged historical claim that calls for an “objective” defense and that can, in fact, be objectively defended. Similarly, the question whether Mary had other children besides Jesus can be investigated historically, and the answer makes a difference to the faithful even today.

Most New Testament documents claim to report the words and views of Jesus, Paul, and other historical figures. Many of those claims have stood up to modern scholarship very well; others have not. Whatever the outcome, the ability to evaluate historically what Christianity’s actual founders actually said limits interpretive freedom. If scholarly efforts change our view of Jesus’ or Paul’s true message, religious beliefs and practices built on the earlier view will inevitably be brought into question.

In short, it seems to me that Christianity by its very nature must admit the claims of Enlightenment scholarship to a greater extent than does Judaism, and that it can survive the dissolving effect of those claims far better. But at this point the circle turns back. As both Kugel and Reno document in detail, Jesus and Paul read their Scriptures with a great deal of interpretative freedom. So if one were to be convinced by Enlightenment arguments that Christianity is true, what would that say about the proper way to read the Bible?

William F. Pedersen
Washington, D.C.

R.R. Reno replies:


Mr. Pedersen raises a very good point. Without a doubt, the significance of historical study for a traditional Christian reading of the New Testament differs significantly from its influence on traditional Jewish reading of the Torah. Modern study of the Pauline letters has shed important light on the specific circumstances of his teaching on the law, faith, and justification. This work helped Protestant and Catholic scholars break out of tired, polemical post-Reformation patterns of interpretation (which were greatly reinforced by earlier, supposedly “scientific” Protestant historical critics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries).

But I think Pedersen overestimates the significance of modern historical-critical study of the Bible. When historians claim to know what Jesus could and could not have said, they are engaging in a highly speculative project, one I sometimes enjoy observing from a distance, but the results of which I never invest very much in intellectually, to say nothing of spiritually. Moreover, it can’t be the case that we need historical-critical information to read the Bible faithfully. For if that were true, then all Christian readers before the modern era were misguided, a conclusion that shipwrecks any notion of the apostolic continuity of the Church based on biblical teaching.

I can’t speak for James Kugel, who as I observed in my essay tends to overdraw the contrast between what we can reliably know historically (as opposed to the often agenda-driven projects of modern critics) and the ways in which the Bible was read in the earlier traditions. But I think Pedersen misunderstands the role of the Torah in rabbinic Judaism, and this leads him astray. To draw a crude analogy, the Talmud is to the Torah for Jews as the New Testament is to the Old for Christians. Classical Jewish theology and practice is not “based” on the stories in Genesis or Exodus, although certainly the rabbis spent a great deal of intellectual energy showing the continuity of Torah and Talmud, just as the Church Fathers worked hard to show the continuity of the Old Testament with the New. Therefore, just as Christians do not believe that Jesus is the risen Lord because of a conviction that the story of Joseph “raised” from prison by Pharaoh is both a prefiguration and historically accurate in the details of Genesis, so also Jews do not commit themselves to observance of the law on the basis of convictions about the historical accuracy of the book of Exodus.

In sum, too often we think that the Bible provides premises for theological syllogisms, or teachings that Jews and Christians adopt directly. This, it seems to me, is a historically inaccurate and radically implausible assumption that we have inherited from the Enlightenment (and that is too often perpetuated by the unsuccessful counter-Enlightenment Christian movement, fundamentalism). If we chuck this assumption, as I think we should, then modern biblical study turns out to have a sometimes complicated, sometimes useful, and sometimes nonexistent relationship to classical Jewish and Christian beliefs. Never, so far as I can tell, has modern historical study made it impossible for a contemporary person concerned about intellectual integrity to believe what the Church (or the synagogue) has long taught as necessary for true faith.

Something Stinks


The arrival of First Things strains my brain and challenges my Calvinist upbringing and engineering mindset. The depth of debate and information widens my understanding and interest. I therefore fail to understand where Sally Thomas’ rather degrading article about our friends and allies in “Smelly Olde England” (April) fits in.

Yes, there are smelly places on our planet. And, as the author confirmed, the past was not the romantic, idealistically clean realm of a Jane Austen novel in England or elsewhere. Smell can become psychotic if one gives credence to the strangeness of Patrick Süskind’s book Das Perfum . But before our days of thermostat serenity, mankind smelled of horse manure, smoke, nonexistent sewer systems, and sweaty humans.

Thomas’ well-written article, however, succumbs to the modern media trend of letting negative experiences dominate. My English experiences are absolutely non-smelly. It is puzzling how a generation that knows unequalled high standards of living rejoices in the negative. For the sake of objectivity and balance, will the author’s next contribution be about the sweet fragrance of the lilies of the valley in Tennessee?

John H. Egbers
Hockessin, Delaware

Sally Thomas replies:


Gracious, I had no idea. But even gloomy people, alas, have a living to make. And “a good time was had by all” hardly strikes me as much of a story, even if it’s true a lot of the time. I am unfortunately prevented from writing much about the sweet smell of lilies of the valley, as they don’t grow well in my part of Tennessee. I come from the part where everybody died of yellow fever. We’re also tops, statistically speaking, in property-crime rates and a close contender in the murders-per-capita category. Our mayor recently resigned, to near-universal cheers, then unresigned when the school board declined to offer him the city superintendent’s job. But in the interest of objectivity, I will forbear from pointing all this out. I will say instead that the azaleas are lovely in the spring, and that right now the magnolias smell wonderful.

Tongues No Longer Tied


I owe James K.A. Smith a debt of gratitude for giving me a context in which to place my own charismatic Christian experience and eventual homecoming to the Catholic faith (“Thinking in Tongues,” April). During my college years, I was transformed from self-reliant agnostic to a committed disciple of Christ, much through the witness and love of the members of a “third-wave” charismatic fellowship. The aspects of the Pentecostal worldview that Smith notes”especially the radical openness to God and the dynamic presence and activity of the Spirit”were part of our group’s worldview, and I will ever be thankful to have taken my first Christian steps within a body that placed the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ above all else.

The suggestion that Pentecostalism holds a sacramental worldview is borne out in the ease of my accepting the sacraments of the Church. When one has lived for fifteen years expecting and experiencing God’s presence in prayer, the gifts of tongues and prophecy, physically expressive worship, and healing, the concept of the Real Presence in the Eucharist is only a reasonable next step. After years of praying and hoping for the Lord to “make himself present” in worship, I found a place where he always truly is”the tabernacle. The Eucharist is the closest I can come on earth to all that I sought in those earlier days.

A major impetus to my conversion to Catholicism was a hunger for a rigorous intellectual conversation with the faith. And though the Church has her struggles with dissidence, her longevity and consistency of creed through two thousand years of sin and strife seemed a mighty refuge compared with the church start-ups and split-ups and I experienced in the charismatic movement. I have sometimes been disappointed in the clergy or in the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church, but never in her saints, her teachings, or in the two popes I have called father.

I love being Catholic, but there are a few things I miss: the freedom I shared with my brethren in spontaneous prayer; the radical openness to God that asked “What is God doing?” as opposed to “What’s next on the program?”; the understanding of worship as a true meeting with the Almighty that demanded wholehearted participation; and the unrelenting quest for submission to Christ. I can pursue all these as a Catholic”as the saints before me did”but I’ve been given help doing so from my Pentecostal experience.

Eileen M. Cunis
Campton, New Hampshire

I appreciate James K.A. Smith’s sympathetic and perceptive article surveying Pentecostal theology. In Pentecostal circles, theology and practice are inseparable, so I would like to offer some observations drawn from my own experiences “on the ground” in Pentecostal churches, which may help corroborate and clarify some of Smith’s insights. He is right in observing that Pentecostal theology sometimes tends toward sacramentalism, as some Pentecostal theologians have already suggested, though the term sacramental should be used with caution. If Pentecostals are sacramental, then it is highly ironic that they tend not to believe that there is any real spiritual power invested in the rites of baptism and Holy Communion, holding instead that they are only symbols and marginalizing their presence in their services. (This tendency stems partly from the suspicion of ritual that is the natural result of a heavy emphasis on spontaneity in worship.)

On the other hand, most Pentecostals believe that practices such as laying hands on the sick and anointing them with oil are invested with real supernatural power, so it may be fair to call such belief sacramental, even though many practicing Pentecostals would balk at the term.

Aside from its emphasis on bodily forms of worship and physical healing, Pentecostalism is, as Smith points out, rooted in an “affective mode of knowing.” Perhaps a comparable term would be mysticism . The term is not without its ambiguities, so I understand why Smith would not resort to it. Yet, as I look back on my own Pentecostal upbringing, I can see a good many practices that I now recognize as forms of Christian mysticism. Whether or not most Pentecostals are aware of their similarity to other Christian mysticisms, there are distinct parallels. Pentecostal mysticism is characterized by self-denial and a desire to be “taken over” by the Holy Spirit. “Let go and let God” is still a popular admonition in many congregations. Some actively encourage meditation on Scripture, and Pentecostalism has long been known for its tendency to privilege the inner voice of the Spirit over all other ways of knowing.

For the most mystical of Pentecostals, the height of spirituality is an ineffable, ecstatic experience of intimacy with God. As with the mystical tradition in general, the danger is that the Pentecostal mystical experience becomes a mere escape from the world rather than a preparation for a purposeful reinsertion into the world. The temptation to reject life in the world and instead seek experiences of spiritual rapture is sometimes exacerbated by the expectation of the imminent eschatological Rapture proposed by the dispensationalism many Pentecostals embrace.

Smith is certainly right, however, to link Pentecostal valuation of the body with the tendency of some Pentecostals to embrace the prosperity gospel, and I too have wondered whether Pentecostalism will be able to “critique the prosperity gospel that so often attends it.” I think it can. Many Pentecostals practice a form of mysticism that contains a strain of asceticism that resists an easy acceptance of the more vulgar forms of the prosperity gospel. I hope that the more temperate forms of Pentecostal mysticism may correct the excesses of the prosperity gospel. The challenge is to articulate a healthy self-denial that can maintain the longstanding Pentecostal emphasis on ministry to the poor. (I would hesitate to call the Pentecostal concern for the poor “social justice,” as Smith does, since the term has political connotations that may or may not apply to Pentecostals.)

The best of what I am calling Pentecostal mysticism envisions a “worldly” ministry in which “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

Stephen J. Schuler
Golinda, Texas

James K.A. Smith replies:


I appreciate and welcome Ms. Cunis’ and Mr. Schuler’s testimonies that deepen some of what I hoped to suggest in my article. I think the crucial question for Pentecostals and third-wave charismatics in the next century is to wrestle with catholicity on many levels, and their letters suggest the tangible grounds for being hopeful about such a conversation.

As for Pentecostals being sacramental but not valuing the sacraments, as Schuler suggests, I concur with him. My own work is trying to get Pentecostals and charismatics to think differently (and more consistently) about these matters. Indeed, I have a treasured memory that gives me hope in this regard: I was once a member of an inner-city Reformed congregation that was also home to a woman from the neighborhood who considered this congregation her parish church, as it were. This woman hailed from a Pentecostal background, and I always watched with some disappointment as she clearly felt constrained in worship, as if she needed to sit on her hands. But there was one moment of worship where this didn’t work”when she went to the rail for communion. This often erupted into an ecstatic experience of joy for her, and she would return to her seat in tears and shouts, and we would sometimes pray together spontaneously.

This pictured, for me, the wedding of the charismatic and the Catholic that I hope will come to characterize Pentecostal and Catholic worship.

Acceptable Religion


As an American Jew who not only likes Christians who like my people but who, as a sociologist of religion, also respects, honors, and defends them in academic and public discourse, I will offer my understanding as to why many Jews don’t like who they should like”and like who they shouldn’t.

As pointed out by Father Neuhaus (While We’re At It, April), “all kinds of studies appearing with great regularity tell us that Jews are, generally speaking, very smart.” It seems to me that you can’t be very smart if you don’t like those who like you. This is especially true if there are forces out there who don’t like you to the point of wishing you great ill. I must then ask, In what way are Jews very smart? Is it because of their disproportionate number of doctors, attorneys, and academics? For sure, this is smartness, in the secular meaning of the word, as measured by the yardstick of achievement in the secular realm.

Of course there is the “smartness” of Jewish intellectuals, who appear to be ubiquitous in contemporary American culture. Jewish religious intellectuals exist as well, but they are in a minority status. Secular Jewish intellectuals are by belief antireligion”“anti” any and all religion. They would prefer a society in which religion is consigned to the historical dustbin of private ideas, a society in which all traces of religion are banned from the public square. The idea of individuals’ believing in eternal salvation, in resurrection and life everlasting, and in a personal God who punishes evil and rewards good, performs miracles, and answers prayer is anathema to them. This does not reflect the beliefs of all Jewish intellectuals or the rank and file of American Jewry. But the place of Jewish secular intellectuals in Jewish America is profound and highly visible. Their biases trickle down to the rest of the Jewish community, to the nonelites, however they are defined.

Some Jewish intellectuals of a somewhat religious bent draw the line when it comes to what type of religion is acceptable. Acceptable religion to them is religion that is non-God-centered and has only a tenuous connection at best with the supernatural. Humanistic Judaism, New Age Earth worship, JuBus (Jewish Buddhists), and sometimes Unitarianism are tolerated. Tikkun Olam without too much God is fine, too. Religious beliefs, Jewish or Christian, that are God-centered are considered beyond the pale of good taste in their eyes and are subscribed to only by “yokels” and “morons” of either faith. The injury inflicted on Christian faith by these intellectuals has been exceeded only by the injury inflicted on Jewish faith.

Herein lies the kernel of destruction (God forbid) for Israel and American Jewry. In the blind attempt of Jewish secular intellectuals to tear down and delegitimize religion in general, they tear down and delegitimize Israel and Judaism, which of course may well have been their original goal after all.

Martin Laskin
So. Connecticut State University
New Haven, Connecticut

Patriarchal Orthodoxy


I am an Orthodox Christian priest and often lament that there has been so little evidence of the Orthodox world in your magazine, until lately. In recent months, there have been a few short blurbs in While We’re At It that have left me mildly annoyed. In fact, the reference in the April issue was a little bit more than mildly annoying, mostly because it was a mixture of fact and fiction. We Orthodox are used to this in a culture where we make up, at most, 1 percent of the population. Still, the references to Orthodoxy in your magazine lately need some correcting.

The green theme emerging from Constantinople and from the Greek-speaking Orthodox world has, to say the least, been interesting. At times it is quite inspiring; often it is rather perplexing; occasionally it is even suspect. And it is true that the venerable See of Constantinople is having a tough time of it. We all are saddened by this.

Yet, as Orthodox, we recognize no papal authority. Should the See of Constantinople cease to exist or be transferred to another location, the Orthodox Church would remain the same in terms of its structure of authority, its theology, and its sacramental reality. The tragedy of the disappearance of Constantinople from the scene would be real and profound, but the nature of the Church would remain the same. We have no Head besides Christ, whose authority on earth is mediated through each and every Orthodox bishop equally as attested to by the entire Body of the Faithful.

The way in which we Orthodox experience “authority” is fundamentally different from the way Roman Catholics do. It is inconceivable to imagine the Roman Catholic Church without the pope. It is tragic to imagine the Orthodox Church without a patriarch of Constantinople but quite conceivable (except, perhaps, to Constantinople!). We would survive the tragedy theologically and ecclesiologically unscathed.

Father John Daly
Worcester, Massachusetts