The Public Square
That April 8, 1966, cover of Time magazine became something of a cultural marker. It was completely black, except for the three words in bold red, Is God Dead? The subject, of course, was the death of God movement with which some theologians had excited public interest for a time. Now Christianity Today , the mainline evangelical magazine, comes out with a black cover and five words in bold red, God Is Not Dead Yet. Why does this seem a little odd? Maybe it’s the gap of forty-two years, from which some might infer that Christianity Today is a bit slow on the uptake. But I think it’s the Yet , inviting a Monty Python rejoinder that God is not dead yet but is on life support, or something like that.
The accompanying article in Christianity Today is a more or less unexceptionable defense of apologetics, with a particular focus on the importance of natural theology, and featuring various evangelical thinkers making the rational case for the existence of God. In his comprehensive account of such enterprises, A History of Apologetics , Avery Cardinal Dulles underscores the distinction between defending the truth and being defensive about the truth. Apologetics frequently comes across as being, well, apologetic. As in God Is Not Dead Yet.
I’ve always been somewhat ambivalent about the apologetics project. I recall reading as a young man a book, God Was in Christ , by Donald Baillie, a Church of Scotland theologian, in which he said that as long as he could remember he could not not believe in the existence of God. I read this with an enormous sense of relief. As someone who aspired to being a thinking person, I had secretly been feeling guilty about my inexperience with the angst that was supposed to accompany a thinking person’s requisite wrestling with atheism. Donald Baillie gave me permission to admit to what seemed obvious: that there is a reality for which the conventional term is God , although it could also be called X .
This is not necessarily the God of Christian faith, of course. In this context, the word God refers, rather, to the precondition of the astonishing fact of existence itself. To my boyish mind it seemed passing strange that, in all of reality, the only exception to the rule that every effect has a cause was the claim that reality itself is uncaused. I have had other problems with much of Christian apologetics. I am nervous about arguments for the existence of God, as though God is one existent among others. The problem is not solved by speaking about the reality of God, since God does not refer to one reality among other realities but to the precondition of reality itself. Neither is God a being among beings, but uppercase Being is probably the best we can do.
God is, as St. Anselm would have it, that greater than which cannot be thought. God is also the Being without which (whom?) we would not be, meaning also that we would not be thinking about God. The French thinker Jean-Luc Marion has written interestingly about God beyond Being, but I was never able to quite follow his argument and I understand he has since moved beyond it. Whether that to which we refer to as God is personal or impersonal, good or evil or indifferent”these are very different questions. I am persuaded that, as revealed through the history of the People of Israel and its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, God is love (1 John 4:8). To be persuaded that the God who is is the God revealed in Christ is, of course, the source of immeasurable joy. But like Donald Baillie, I never needed to be persuaded that God, whoever he or it may be, is.
On that question I’m with Dr. Johnson and his kicking of the famous stone. Which is why, during the fifteen minutes of fame bestowed on the death of God theologians, I was not much taken with intelligent people working so hard at not knowing what they could not not know. And which is why I do not understand, or maybe I do not want to understand, why a Christian magazine would carry the banner headline God Is Not Dead Yet.
On the Question of Miracles
Miracles , published in 1947, was C.S. Lewis’ last sustained work of Christian apologetics. After that it was Chronicles of Narnia , Till We Have Faces , and personal writings more in the realm of imagination than that of reasoned apologetics. One still hears from time to time that the 1948 debate with Elizabeth Anscombe at the Oxford Socratic Club knocked the pins out from under Lewis on the nature of causality and that’s why he abandoned the task of systematic apologetics. Alan Jacobs (author of The Narnian ) and others have convincingly deflated that claim.
But it is not without interest that Anscombe was a Catholic and Lewis, for all his catholic sympathies, a Protestant. Lewis defined miracle as an interference with Nature by supernatural power, and was particularly eager to defend the miracle accounts in the Bible, and most particularly the Grand Miracle of the Incarnation. The possibility of miracles, the relationship between the natural and supernatural, has long been a subject of lively debate among Protestants, but not so much among Catholics. In fact, the history of the Protestant debate is marked by a strong anti-Catholic streak, Catholics being viewed as superstitious miracle-mongers manipulated to self-serving ends by the minions of the pope.
Against numerous accounts of the saints and more modern phenomena such as Lourdes, Protestants vigorously defended the limited age of miracles, meaning that miracles ended with those reported in the Bible. The defense of miracles was, of course, part and parcel of the defense of biblical inspiration. The story of the Protestant debate about miracles is well told by Robert Bruce Mullin in his book Miracles & The Modern Religious Imagination (Oxford University Press). Mullin, an Anglican, believes in the possibility of miracles functionally defined as an event understood as an intervention by God into the world of humanity or nature that has some public character and is in some way connected to the great events recorded in scripture.
The miracle debates took many twists and turns over the last several centuries, with one of the more fascinating being what Mullin calls the new Humean argument. Mullin writes: David Hume’s original argument, which presupposed the knowability and fixedness of the natural order, had been that claims for miracles were invalidated by the known regularity of nature. Now miracles were to be rejected for the opposite reason”that human knowledge of nature was so finite that no event could ever be certified to have fulfilled the criterion of violating it. What was now seen as ultimately problematic was not the event itself, but its classification as supernatural or miraculous. T.H. Huxley, in his study of Hume, offered the most succinct statement of this new attitude. As he explained it, no event was so extraordinary in character that it required invoking a supernatural explanation: If it be said that the event exceeds the power of natural causes, who can justify such a saying? The day-fly has better grounds for calling a thunderstorm supernatural, than has man, with his experience of an infinitesimal fraction of duration, to say that the most astonishing event that can be imagined is beyond the scope of natural causes.’
One might well make the case that the Catholic disposition is closer to Huxley than to Hume, recognizing with Gerard Manley Hopkins that the world is charged with the grandeur of God. After all, Catholics believe in the Real Presence”that bread and wine really become the body and blood, the humanity and divinity, of the crucified and risen Christ. It happens every day, thousands upon thousands of times every day. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms miracles but does not presume to define what constitutes a miracle, being content to speak of signs and charisms that witness to the mighty, and mysterious, works of God.
Mullin’s modern religious imagination is for the most part Protestant prose. Catholicism is prose that leads on to poetry, and, for some, begins in poetry. Physicist Stephen Barr, not incidentally a Catholic, writes that the more we know about reality, as in pondering the deeper reaches of quantum theory, the more it becomes evident that the universe is less like a grand machine than a grand thought.
One thing, I expect, is certain: When the cosmic drama is finally wrapped up and we see the world for what it really is, we will all be greatly surprised. But not entirely surprised. For along the way to that denouement we were put on alert”as in and became man and he is risen and take, eat; this is my body. And, more than maybe, by the lovely lady at Lourdes who said, I am the Immaculate Conception. With respect to the quotidian and the miraculous, the natural and supernatural, Catholicism is closer to T.H. Huxley than David Hume, even though Mr. Huxley, regrettably, drew the wrong conclusion from the truth he perceived.
Evangelicals Play the Big Time
Frances Fitzgerald is a woman of enthusiasms. Her latest find is The New Evangelicals, and, in an article by that title in the June 30 issue of the New Yorker , she writes them up with glowing appreciation. The drafters of An Evangelical Manifesto, discussed in the last issue of First Things , probably didn’t expect such quick results. When was the last time evangelicals were lionized in the New Yorker ? I expect the answer is never.
Ms. Fitzgerald, who has never disguised her ultra-left sympathies, is a journalist of distinction who achieved prominence with her 1972 book Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam , the gist of which was that the Vietnamese belonged there and the Americans didn’t. She joins figures such as Ed Asner, Noam Chomsky, Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, and Seymour Hersh in petitioning for this and that. She writes regularly for the New York Review of Books and is on the editorial board of The Nation , the country’s largest-circulation progressive magazine. In short, she is not the kind of person you would expect to be singing the praises of evangelical Christians. But these evangelicals are different.
She allows that in the past there were a few good evangelicals. She names Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and Ron Sider, but, until now, their constituencies seemed permanently confined to a progressive minority. But now, she says, the new movement has come to life. Among those receiving particular recognition are David Neff, editor in chief of Christianity Today (a pivotal figure in the movement), megachurch pastors Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, and Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals. But the central figure in her encomium is Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland, a megachurch in Orlando. She spent time with him at his home in Florida and discovered that he is no ordinary evangelical. He is even something of an intellectual who reads eclectically in philosophy, science, history, and current affairs, and rereads a Jane Austen novel every year. He reads serious books. The new evangelicals indeed.
Hunter has worked with a group of evangelicals and secular progressives to try to establish common ground on such polarizing issues as abortion and the role of religion in public life. The language of common ground recalls the Common Ground Initiative, now defunct, a much ballyhooed Catholic project promoting the seamless garment effort to smooth the sharp edges of Catholic doctrine.
The New Evangelicals, she says, oppose government coercion on issues of private morality, which is generally understood as opposing the legal protection of the unborn, which would coerce a mother into giving birth to her baby. She quotes theologian David Gushee, who supports a consistent pro-life agenda, which, she explains, is one that accords with Catholic social teachings on war, poverty, and human rights. Throughout the essay, it is taken for granted that the Democratic Party has a monopoly on concern about war, poverty, human rights, and other good things that progressives care about and to which conservatives are, at best, indifferent.
Joel Hunter is depicted as someone who did not seek a leadership position among the New Evangelicals. It just sort of happened. What has passed for an evangelical’ up to now, he says, is a stereotype created by the people with the loudest voices. But there’s a whole new constituency out there that it doesn’t apply to. Now something is happening. You can feel it like the force of a tsunami under the water. The Jerry Falwells, one might note, did have loud voices but they were never given a platform such as the New Yorker .
In any event, Hunter will not shirk his duty to lead the tsunami. He speaks of the older leaders of the religious right, such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Pat Robertson, and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, as the enforcers of an evangelical party line. You have to come to a certain stature in what you’ve done to even be on a playing field with a Jim Dobson or Pat Robertson, he says. In his view, writes Fitzgerald, it took not only a change in evangelical attitudes but also the emergence of a new generation of leaders with power bases of their own to challenge the right. (In order to separate them from the New Evangelicals, Fitzgerald throughout refers to the religious right, right-wingers, or simply the right.) Power is the name of the game. Ultimately, says Hunter, the voices of cooperation will prevail, but I think it’s going to be a battle, and it’s going to get very nasty from now until November. He is referring specifically to the presidential election, but Fitzgerald gives us to understand that his words apply also to the battle over who speaks for evangelicalism.
Ms. Fitzgerald says of the New Evangelicals: Unlike the right, they don’t engage in partisan politics, but many of the policies they espouse coincide with those of the Democratic party. What they aspire to is nothing less than an end to the culture wars and the polarization of American politics. It is understood, of course, that supporting the policies of the Democratic Party is not partisan politics, and that the quickest way to end culture wars and polarization is for conservatives to capitulate to their opponents. Ms. Fitzgerald, on behalf of the New Yorker and all it represents in the culture wars, is manifestly delighted to accept the surrender. She approvingly quotes E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post , who has declared that the era of the religious right is over. In this he follows similarly celebratory claims in the New York Times and elsewhere that we are witnessing the great evangelical crackup.
One is struck by the prominence of global warming in the political reconfiguration described by Fitzgerald and others. Hunter has signed on to the Evangelical climate initiative, promoted by Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals, which declares that millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors. The prominence of global warming is striking not only because of the many inconvenient truths ( pace Al Gore) scientists have raised against the climate-change hysteria but also because the arguments against a radical reduction in global economic growth are most particularly attuned to its catastrophic consequences for the world’s poor. Moreover, in this depiction of the New Evangelicals, there is no mention of social-justice causes in which evangelicals have played a prominent role in recent years, such as prison reform, the prevention of international sex trafficking, and the fight against the growing incidence of religious persecution around the world. In view of all the injustices that today cry out for remedy, the preoccupation with global warming among the New Evangelicals depicted by Fitzgerald can only be described as curious.
Finally, however, it must be acknowledged that Ms. Fitzgerald’s essay is in largest part an exercise in wishful thinking. Toward the end, she reluctantly admits that Americans change their party allegiances slowly. But it is her hope that, with the help of the young and more educated of the New Evangelicals, enough will change to secure a Democratic victory in November. Fitzgerald’s partisan purpose is hardly disguised and I would not be surprised if some of the New Evangelicals who are the objects of her praise are more than a little embarrassed about being recruited to her ideological side in the great contests over the future of society.
Nonetheless, something important is happening in the world, or worlds, of evangelicalism. In the last issue I discussed An Evangelical Manifesto, with its palpable and touching eagerness to be accepted by those whom its signers view as their cultural betters. The message of the manifesto is: Please, we are not that kind of evangelical. They want to be, as Ms. Fitzgerald puts it, the New Evangelicals. And it is true that there is a generational change in the way evangelicals relate to the public square. Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy are dead. Pat Robertson seems just a little dotty, as reflected in his endorsement of Rudy Giuliani. And James Dobson sometimes sounds more like a political boss with his talk about throwing his votes to one candidate or another. What its opponents dubbed the religious right”depicted as strident, bigoted, and displaying theocratic aspirations, and with its leaders too often playing to type”arose in the late 1970s. In the view of many younger evangelicals, that is a very, very long time ago. But those with a larger historical perspective also recognize that change is both inevitable and necessary.
It is not simply a matter of a generational shift, and the change that is needed goes beyond style. Too often, the leaders who emerged in the late 1970s, some of whom are still with us, acted as political power brokers, playing blocs of believers as cards in a deck”promising, threatening, bluffing in electoral games, exulting in their newfound clout in the real world. It was sometimes hard to recognize in them representatives of the one who was crucified by imperial authority, who came not to be served but to serve, who in the wilderness renounced the temptation to exercise the counterfeit power of the ways of the world. However otherwise flawed, that is part of what An Evangelical Manifesto was trying to get at. Christian engagement in the public square, whether from the left or the right, must be more manifestly Christian, reflecting a large measure of humility and an eagerness both to learn and to persuade, while maintaining an uncompromised devotion to the truth of both revelation and reason in addressing the essentially political question of how we ought to order our life together.
But sometimes what passes for change is a replay of very old stories. Rick Warren is quoted by Fitzgerald as declaring to a Baptist convention that the great need is for a second Reformation, one that would be about deeds not creeds. I hope he is misquoted. The first Reformation was about deeds not creeds? The slogan deeds not creeds was of course the rallying cry of the social-gospel movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was the modernism to which first fundamentalism and then its post-World War II reconfiguration in evangelicalism was the response. And now the New Evangelicals are hailed as the social-gospel movement redivivus. As one never runs out of occasions for mentioning, history has many ironies in the fire.
Part of this is linked, of course, to enthusiasm for the candidacy of Senator Obama. A political-action committee (PAC) for Obama is a big presence on the Internet. It’s called the Matthew 25 Network (For I was hungry and you gave me to eat, thirsty and you gave me to drink), and it perfectly exemplifies the social-gospel creed of deeds not creeds. All of this is eerily reminiscent of the self-destruction of mainline/oldline/sideline Protestantism incisively analyzed by Joseph Bottum in the last issue of First Things (The Death of Protestant America, Aug/Sep 2008). And, as one would expect, Senator Obama has been vigorously appealing to evangelicals: I’ve met Jesus and he’s met me. Those with a grasp of history that extends farther than the day before yesterday will be struck by the similarities with Jimmy Carter’s appeal to evangelicals in 1976.
But election-year politics aside, the New Evangelicalism celebrated by Frances Fitzgerald is a radical departure from the evangelical trajectory traced back to Carl Henry’s 1947 The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism . In 1956, Henry and Billy Graham launched Christianity Today in order to promote what was then called neo-evangelicalism or, more commonly, the new evangelicalism. The effort was to encourage a biblically grounded and theologically informed engagement with American culture, and it had great ambitions to change that culture by moving it in a direction more approximately consonant with Christian morality.
In the late 1970s, prompted in large part by what they viewed as Jimmy Carter’s betrayal on critical questions of public policy, some evangelical activists moved that engagement into the political arena. Figures such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were sometimes embarrassingly strident and confused, but they caught the attention of the liberal political class in a big way. They got evangelicalism onto the playing field, so to speak. The Frances Fitzgeralds and E.J. Dionnes would not be lionizing the New Evangelicals were it not for those earlier evangelicals they so fervently despise. Nobody would have come to the news conference announcing An Evangelical Manifesto were it not for the sponsors’ announced purpose to disown the evangelicals who went before them. Evangelicals as the new liberals is newsworthy.
The only reason a Frances Fitzgerald is interested in evangelicals or evangelicalism is that these people are political players. For people such as Fitzgerald, politics is the real world. In the perspective of Carl Henry’s 1947 manifesto and the emergence of that earlier instantiation of the new evangelicals, the so-called religious right of recent years may be seen as the first inning in the game of cultural and political engagement. The evangelicals didn’t always play it well, but at least they were playing in the big leagues. Now, impressed by their unaccustomed influence, some evangelicals are prepared to concede the game in return for a permanent pass to the stadium. If Fitzgerald and like-minded commentators are right, evangelicalism is joining liberal Christianity on the well-worn path to public irrelevance.
I do not believe they are right. Yes, some evangelicals are touchingly eager to be respected by the liberal political class and are prone to cultural accomodationism. Their call for civility is no doubt sincere, but those to whom they appeal interpret it as their promise to abide by the rules established by the left. Such evangelicals are weary of being controversial. And yes, some, especially younger evangelicals, are caught up in the excitements of this election year and that could make an important difference in November. But one must hope that most evangelicals have not forgotten the vision of leaders such as Carl Henry and Billy Graham or, going back earlier, the culture-transforming tradition of William Wilberforce. The inning played by the religious right in recent years was not always played well, but that is no reason to concede the game. It is a heady sensation to be exalted by the likes of the New Yorker , the Washington Post , and the New York Times , but it is an embarrassingly paltry reward for betraying the promise of evangelicalism in American public life, and I am persuaded that most evangelicals will not accept the deal.
While We’re At It
In our running critique of judicial activism ” better described as the judicial usurpation of politics ” you must not think we are oblivious to the number of judges who observe the self-denying ordinances appropriate to their role in this constitutional order. Such a judge is Michael W. McConnell of the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In Secular Reason and the Misguided Attempt to Exclude Religious Argument from Democratic Deliberation, he takes on John Rawls’ claim that public reason must forswear comprehensive accounts of reality and, most particularly, religious accounts. McConnell writes: The argument based on the greater divisiveness and absolutism of religious political activism thus falls short on empirical grounds. But perhaps more importantly, it falls short on normative grounds, as well, by undervaluing the capacity of the democratic process to resolve conflicts peacefully. Indeed, the ideal of public reason short-circuits that process by insulating whole classes of speech from the moderating forces of public conversation. No more effective mechanism for fostering compromise and mutual accommodation has ever been found than a system in which every group and interest is permitted to argue its case, and decisions are based on voting and coalition-building. Democratic participation creates an incentive for sectarians of all stripes to express their opinions in language that will attract outsiders, to enter into conversation with potential allies from other groups, to craft compromises and coalitions. Even the losers in such a process may emerge mollified. We are more likely to accept the results of a process in which we were able to play a part, even if we do not prevail. By contrast, when particular groups are excluded from democratic participation, they become alienated and radicalized. They rarely get out of politics.’ Instead, they engage in a different kind of politics”politics outside of the system. When certain issues, like abortion, are taken out of politics’ by the Supreme Court, they do not cease to be the subjects of controversy. The venue for controversy merely shifts from legislative hall to street demonstration, and the most extreme voices in the movement gain ascendancy over those with an incentive to reach acceptable middle-ground solutions. I believe that the disdain expressed by some liberal establishment figures for Christian activists’ and the religious right’ has contributed to their radicalization, just as I believe their welcome reception in the Republican party has contributed to their assimilation and moderation. To attempt to keep people with religious convictions out of politics, or to force them to change their mode of argument as the price of admission to the public square, will not decrease divisiveness and promote toleration. It will deepen the anger and hostility that these citizens feel toward the hegemonic and exclusionary practices of the secular power structure. Their exclusion will also prevent secular Americans from learning about the beliefs, ideas, and motivations of large numbers of their fellow citizens. It is difficult to appreciate that which one does not understand. Rawls’s conception of public reason promises to make citizens not more open, not more tolerant, but more of a mystery to each other, isolated and politically solitary, clinging silently to deeply felt principles they are forbidden to discuss in public. This is not the picture of a healthy and robust democracy. Excluding religious reasoning is not the way to promote the virtues of liberalism.
While we’re at it, one more excerpt from McConnell’s article: It is hopelessly utopian to think that laws in a pluralistic republic can be based on shared premises, common to the entire populace. And it is silly to believe that democratic theory, which is all about how to resolve disagreements, should insist on such a thing. The minority is not disadvantaged or treated unjustly when the majority adopts a law informed by premises the minority does not share. If that were true, majority rule would be unworkable and republican government inherently unjust. So long as the fundamental rights of all citizens are protected, including especially their right of access to the political sphere, majorities are free to enact laws they think wise, for reasons they deem persuasive. Once it is recognized that every worldview is held by some and disputed by others, there is no sound reason to block one family of worldviews”religions”from the public square. Arguments are not more or less accessible’ in the way Rawls posits. They are more or less persuasive, depending on what listeners make of their underlying premises. Democracy is best served by allowing every citizen an equal right to argue for collective public ends with the most persuasive arguments they can muster, without prior limitations based on the epistemic, methodological, or ideological premises of their arguments. Then we allow other citizens to accept or reject those arguments, based on their own opinions. That is liberal democracy. That is free government. Any questions?
Well, this is good news from medical ethicists, I suppose. Legalizing doctor-assisted suicide does not lead to a slippery slope’ of excess deaths among the vulnerable poor, uninsured, elderly or other patients, according to a U.S. study in the October issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics . Many people have long been of the opinion that a death rate of 100 percent is excessive. It is reassuring to learn that euthanasia does not exacerbate the problem.
This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Great Code: The Bible and Literature by Northrup Frye. Frye was one of the great literary critics of the second half of the twentieth century. It was probably inevitable that he would turn to the Bible. As Lord Macaulay wrote, A person who professes to be a critic in the delicacies of the English language ought to have the Bible at his fingers’ end. Yet when Frye set about to think about the Bible in a disciplined way, he was surprised by what he found. Too often, the folks who are paid to know what the Bible says are oddly incompetent. Overtaken by an obsession with the Bible’s historicity, biblical scholars offer, as Frye noticed, little insight into the narrative and poetic integrity of the canonical text that provides so much of the DNA of the Western literary imagination. Many things have changed since 1982, but not this strange fact. What we call biblical scholarship is often of little help to the student of literature, culture, or religion who wants to understand how this huge sprawling, tactless book, as Frye calls it, came to exert such a deep and enduring influence on what people believed and continue to believe. It’s a peculiar phenomenon: biblical scholars who are unable to give a clear account of how to read the Bible as a text that teaches compelling truths. Of course, today’s literary critics pretty much follow in the same train, reading texts as codes of power where the older biblical critics read codes of historical evidence. The alternative proposed by Northrup Frye seems as fresh and inviting as it did twenty-five years ago.
Ancona is a football (I think they mean soccer) team in Italy and it has announced that it is adopting a rigorous new code of ethics that it is hoped will be a model for other teams. The Italian press promptly reported rumors that the team had been bought by the Vatican. The Holy See’s press office issued a statement saying that the Vatican approves of the positive and commendable aims of the code, but it has no formal connection with Ancona. The Second Vatican Council emphasized that laypeople have the primary responsibility for moral leadership in the world, but such leadership is so rare that, when it is does appear, it is immediately attributed to the clergy. At least in Italy. Just for good measure, the Vatican press office noted that the Ancona team would participate in a general audience in St. Peter’s Square, but this does not mean that the pope has sponsored or taken responsibility for the working of the team. It seems he has enough to do without managing a football team.
Last October marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged , and the occasion received widespread media attention. The book still sells 150,000 copies per year. It is long, tedious, and intellectually vulgar. And yes, I did try to get through it once. Rand was a deeply troubled woman. She and William F. Buckley did not get along. Meeting at a social event, Rand told him, You’re too smart to believe in God. Buckley had a great deal of fun with the thinly disguised Rand character in his 2004 novel, Getting It Right . Rand exuberantly flaunted her belief in the virtue of selfishness, and, like a bargain-basement Nietzsche, mocked the Christian virtues of self-sacrifice and charity. David Kelley is the founder of the Atlas Society and has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that concludes with this: We will know the lesson of Atlas Shrugged has been learned when business people, facing accusers in Congress or the media, stand up like Hank Rearden [a Rand hero] for their right to produce and trade freely, when they take pride in their profits, and stop apologizing for creating wealth. Oh, come now. Business people should stand up for all those things, but that does not require chucking morality. On the contrary, freedom and productivity are best secured by a Christian and moral foundation. This truth is very convincingly set forth in John Paul the Great’s 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus , on which I did a book-length commentary, Doing Well and Doing Good (Doubleday, 1992). It is a pity that the Wall Street Journal runs such rot as an encomium to Ayn Rand, thereby reinforcing the stereotype that capitalism is a system of unbridled greed and selfishness. And it is a pity that so many business people are still reading Atlas Shrugged , thereby producing another generation of capitalists with a bad conscience, for they know deep down that their work and their lives are not adequately explained in terms of greed and selfishness.
They’re undoubtedly delighted to have someone from a Catholic university so vigorously promoting the pro-abortion position, remarked a friend. She was referring to Abortion Politics, an essay in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Lawrence O. Gostlin of the Georgetown University Law Center. Gostlin deplores what he sees as the creeping willingness of the Supreme Court to allow the government to intrude on the private lives of women and the clinical freedom of physicians. Another party to the above conversation responded, I doubt if they know that Georgetown is a Catholic university. He is quite possibly right about that.
Here’s an interesting exercise in political science. It’s by Jon Shields of the University of Colorado, writing in the academic journal Critical Review . The article is Christian Citizens: The Promise and Limits of Deliberation. The usual media presentation of pro-life activists as religiously inspired fanatics is simply contrary to fact, writes Shields. It gives rise to books such as Laurence Tribe’s Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes . A clash of absolutes makes rational discussion impossible, and therefore, according to Tribe, the present unlimited abortion license should remain in place. This is called neutrality in the face of an irresolvable conflict. In fact, Shields points out, pro-life activists are concerned to engage their pro-choice opponents in discussion that is based on public and rational arguments that invoke no specifically religious warrants. He cites two evangelical groups, Stand to Reason and Justice for All, that assiduously train activists for such engagement. In sum, says Shields, pro-life activists are more open and eager for genuine dialogue than are their pro-choice counterparts. So you can put the refusal of pro-lifers to engage in democratic deliberation on that long list of things that everybody knows that aren’t so. But you probably had it there already.
You are loving, or you are judgmental. It is one or the other. Those who protest that way of putting the matter frequently speak of the need for tough love, which is too often a hybrid that is neither tough nor loving. I don’t very often quote C.S. Lewis, in part because so many others quote him incessantly, and he is so very quotable that it becomes a habit hard to break. But I came across this again the other day. It’s from The Problem of Pain , and Lewis is discussing what it means to say that God is love. There is kindness in Love, he writes, but Love and kindness are not coterminous, and when kindness is separated from the other elements of Love, it involves a certain fundamental indifference to its object, and even something like contempt of it. God is not magnanimous. He does not generously overlook our transgressions and indulge our weaknesses. Lewis: When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has some disinterested,’ because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: You have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the lord of terrible aspect,’ is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes. In sum, the loving that is conventionally contrasted with judgmental can be, and too often is, an indifference that is the opposite of the love by which we are loved by God and called to love one another. Dorothy Day, following Dostoyevsky, called it a harsh and dreadful love. As in the passion of the cross.
Why is (or was) Lonergan considered a great Catholic thinker; and what, if anything, does he have to say to the times we live in now? The question is from Mary Ann Glendon, currently the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, and she says it’s a tough one. There is no doubt that Bernard Lonergan (1904“1984) was considered a great Catholic thinker, some said the greatest of the twentieth century, and some still say that. His major, and frequently perplexing, books are Insight and Method in Theology , and I know many Lonerganians who solemnly aver that he changed their lives, although they usually have difficulty in explaining just how he did so, and the explanations offered ” inevitably turning on his maxim to experience, understand, and judge ” are often diametrically opposed and lead to diametrically opposing positions. Glendon’s question was occasioned by a Lonergan workshop in which it was not evident what was particularly Lonerganian in what the various speakers said. Glendon concludes: The reason Lonergan’s influence on them was hard to discern was that what they had learned from him was how to make better use of their own minds, to become conscious of what they were doing when they were knowing, to think in terms of the development and schemes of recurrence, to notice what is going forward in their various disciplines and to become more aware of the biases that can distort one’s perceptions and analyses. As one Lonergan expert put it, He introduces people to themselves in a unique way.’ Put differently, as best I can understand it, he helped people to think clearly by thinking clearly about thinking, which is no little thing. Those who have tried but failed to understand the intellectual greatness attributed to Bernard Lonergan should not begrudge his admirers their gratitude.
A while back in this space, I raised an eyebrow, so to speak, at an article that contrasted the thought of the young Neuhaus with the old Neuhaus. Which prompted a reader to send me the following by Edmund Waller (1606“1687):
The seas are quiet when the winds give o’er;
So calm are we when passions are no more.
For then we know how vain it was to boast
Of fleeting things, so certain to be lost.
Clouds of affection from our younger eyes
Conceal that emptiness which age descries.
The soul’s dark cottage, batter’d and decay’d,
Lets in new light through chinks that Time has made;
Stronger by weakness, wiser, men become
As they draw near to their eternal home.
Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view
That stand upon the threshold of the new.
I am grateful for the bits of light let in by the chinks that Time has made.
From the nineteenth century through the 1960s, really serious theology was German theology. At least so it was among Protestants, but also to a large degree among Catholics with figures such as Karl Rahner and, counting Swiss as German, Hans Urs von Balthasar. An indisputably major figure in post-World War II theology is Jürgen Moltmann, now eighty-three years old, whose A Broad Place: An Autobiography has been published by Fortress. The publisher claims he is the most widely read, quoted, and translated theologian of our time. That is quite possibly true, if our time means the time after giants such as Karl Barth, Rahner, and Balthasar. Much of the book is an itinerary of globe-trotting in giving lectures, attending conferences, and receiving honors, with notes on restaurants enjoyed, museums visited, and good times with good friends. Moltmann’s Theology of Hope in the early 1960s put him on the map. He recalls the zeitgeist: In 1964 the Theology of Hope met its kairos. The subject was, so to speak, in the air, in the church and in public life. In the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church opened itself for the paradigm of the modern world. In the United States, the civil rights movement reached its climax with Martin Luther King in the struggle against racism . . . . In Czechoslovakia socialism with a human face’ emerged under Alexander Dubcek, a democratization of the Stalinist dictatorship, while in Latin America, after the successful 1959 revolution in Cuba, a Christian revolutionary spirit was abroad. As the poet said, Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven! Wolfhart Pannenberg makes multiple appearances in the book. He and Moltmann were linked in launching the theology of hope, but then Pannenberg, in his view, took a conservative turn, falling into the bad company of people associated with this magazine and even supporting Ronald Reagan’s rudeness in dealing with the Soviet Union. Moltmann and Hans Küng are great friends. When Küng was officially decertified as a Catholic theologian, Moltmann assured him that he thought of him as a Catholic theologian but also suggested that he should become a Protestant, at which suggestion Küng took umbrage. Liberation theology, secular theology, feminist theology, eco-theology ” Jürgen Moltmann lent a measure of Germanic gravitas to them all. He recounts a 1971 conference that included Pannenberg, Johann Metz, John Cobb, Schubert Ogden, and Joseph Sittler. The discussions were hard but heartfelt, for our common concern was the one common truth. The conference was one of the last of its kind, before postmodern arbitrariness set in, and everyone was content with his own truth. That last sentence is poignant. A Broad Place is the story of a greatly gifted man who has lived robustly and is touchingly grateful for friends and honors. It would have been a more interesting book had the author reflected self-critically on his contributions to the circumstance of liberal theology that made that conference one of the last of its kind.
Pascal wrote that there are two basic intellectual errors: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason. In Solomon Among the Postmoderns , a pleasant stroll through contemporary philosophy, literary theory, and cultural studies, Peter J. Leithart tries to guide his readers away from both mistakes. On the one hand, he argues, we have inherited the modern project of life directed by reason alone. On the other, we now find ourselves in the midst of a postmodern reaction to the failure of this project. The word on the academic street is that reason is the spin that arbitrary power gives to its lust for domination. Just say no to truth and teach the world to sing the glories of difference. Neither satisfies. Leithart writes, Modernity has for many moderns been a singularly joyless place. He explains why: And no wonder: If the burden of reducing the world to order fell on you; if you were tasked to construct a theory of everything and then write out the equation; if you had to be on constant patrol along the empty razor-wire borders between religion and politics, art and life, theology and philosophy, nature and society, us and them; if you had to ensure that the trinity of control, freedom, and progress remained in place for all ages”if you had all this to do, you might not exactly be bubbling buoyantly with childish glee. In view of the high seriousness of modern rationalism, should we be surprised, asks Leithart, that a silly postmodern playfulness now takes its place? But there is a problem. Postmoderns have their own gloomy moments. They deny reason to make room for the frolics of difference, but they end up anxiously worrying that life without truth is dark and cruel. Thus the thesis of the book: A theology of culture that follows the wry but ultimately faithful observations of the book of Ecclesiastes gives us the right mix. According to the tradition, Ecclesiastes is credited to Solomon, and, by Leithart’s reading, Solomon shows the way to real joy. And what lines the path? On one side Solomon helps us see that we’re not in charge. That’s the postmodern moment. But it’s not the case that there is no truth. Rather ” and here we get the modern conviction that truth really does govern in the end ” we need not build an Empire of Reason, because that’s Somebody Else’s job. Leithart may be overly sanguine about the potential of a Christian postmodernism, and also about the theological weight of the book of Ecclesiastes. There is an aroma of fideism in his treatment of both. But Solomon Among the Postmoderns is a fun read, and, even if he hits the curbs now and then, Leithart is going in the right direction.
When the subject turns to the Religion Clause of the First Amendment, it is almost inevitable that the Virginia debates of the mid-1780s come into the discussion. Neglected are related debates in Philadelphia at the same time. That is the argument of Philip Hamburger in Religious Freedom in Philadelphia, published in the Emory Law Journal . Hamburger is professor of law at Columbia University and author of the benchmark study Separation of Church and State . The issue posed in Philadelphia, says Hamburger, is the crucial difference between a freedom under law, regardless of one’s religion, and a freedom from law on account of one’s religion. The Quakers of Pennsylvania were rich, powerful, and generally cool to the revolutionary cause. They argued that their religious convictions should exempt them from bearing arms in that cause and, further, from financial support for others to bear arms. The most fervent supporters of the struggle for independence, centered in Philadelphia, begged to disagree, contending that it is the first Principle of Nature and of duty owed the supreme Director and Governor of the Universe that those belonging to a political society are obliged to defend that society, and that those who withdraw themselves from this Compact cannot be entitled to the Protection of the Society. In sum, He who receives an equal Benefit ought to bear an equal Burthen. While their conscientious objection to bearing arms was respected, the Quakers lost the argument about the nature of religious freedom. Hamburger notes the irony that the Society of Friends adopted the moral logic of the revolutionaries when it came to the Free Quakers who rejected pacifism but insisted on their right to continue as members in good standing of the society. The Quaker establishment responded: Freedom of enquiry is allowed, and liberty of action is allowed, so far as can be consistent with the nature and peace of society, which cannot be properly supported if its members are suffered to live in the breach of its rules and orders, without any animadversion. In other words, the Society of Friends, like the political society, cannot be sustained if its members are free to claim religious exemption from the rules by which it exists. Hamburger’s distinction between of religious freedom under law (regardless of one’s religion) and religious freedom from law (because of one’s religion) is useful. At the same time, however, I believe that the moral reasoning in support of a conscientious objection to bearing arms was not only a concession to political realities, as Hamburger suggests, but also a legal acknowledgment, albeit a carefully circumscribed acknowledgment, of religious freedom as freedom from law. Or, put differently, an acknowledgment of the limits of the authority of law. But that is a subject for another time.
There is no such thing as the future, only futures plural, from which we try, not always successfully, to choose. That is historian Niall Ferguson taking to task historian Ian Kershaw in his review of Kershaw’s Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World 1940“1941 . Ferguson thinks it eminently worthwhile to explore the what ifs of history. His own 1999 book on the great conflicts of the last century, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals , emphasizes the contingent character of events and speculates on the possible consequences if, for instance, Britain in 1940 had decided to accept a position like that of Vichy France under German hegemony. I’m a little puzzled that Ferguson says there are plural futures from which we choose, since rational choice assumes that we know what those futures are, and we don’t know that. We can only imagine possibilities and try to nudge events toward favored outcomes. But he is surely right to criticize historians who are in thrall to the nineteenth-century Leopold von Ranke, who decreed that history should be written wie es eigentlich gewesen (as it actually was). Of course, historians should be scrupulously honest in dealing with the evidence, but von Ranke’s formula can also lead to what Ferguson calls hindsight bias, in which we rationalize events when we look back, devising chains of causation that were generally invisible to us before the fact. In defense of contingency, Ferguson writes: These what ifs’ are more than merely the stuff of historical parlour games,’ in [E.H.] Carr’s notorious phrase. Pace Ian Kershaw, they are as much a part of a philosophically educated historiography as what actually happened.’ These questions are not without metaphysical and theological implications. In our time, Wolfhart Pannenberg has pressed most rigorously the understanding of God as the Absolute Future. In the light of God’s omniscience, there is such a thing as the future. But it is a wisdom conducive to humility if we remember that, given the intellectual powers of us mortals, there are only futures plural.
So what are we looking for in the fine arts of literature, painting, and music, and why are these arts called fine? The British philosopher Roger Scruton ventures an answer in his latest book, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter). The fine arts are replete with intrinsic values; not aesthetic values only but the moral values which they cause to shine forth in sensory form. King Lear does not justify or vindicate suffering, but it leads us to see that death is not senseless when life has striven to ennoble itself and been defeated by a fatal flaw. Criticism has aesthetic value as its subject matter. But all criticism worth the name is devoted also to revealing the moral content of works of art”the aspect that transfigures and redeems through sympathy, and which teaches us what to feel.’ The moral value of art does not lie in the fact that it makes you good”maybe it has no such potential. Its moral value consists in the fact that it perpetuates the idea of moral value, by showing that there really is such a thing . That is from the final chapter of the book, titled Rays of Hope, with most of the book being devoted to why such rays are few and far between. Scruton understands culture to be the reflective self-consciousness of a civilization, and he makes the case that culture is of necessity high culture.
Michael Novak has a new book out from Doubleday, No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers . He addresses many of the questions agitated by the new atheists, but with the twist that believers, too, don’t have a neat and satisfying answer to the intellectual problems that atheists exploit. For instance, the perennial question: If God is God and God is good, how can there be evil? Atheists and Christians can agree on the conundrums that drive them to opposite conclusions. Along the way, he cites a response offered by physicist Stephen Barr, a frequent First Things contributor, to the question of chance. Barr writes: To be responsible agents means being able to impose our own ordering upon events. This requires that some apparent disorder’ be present in the situations that confront us as the raw material upon which we can act. A world without disorder, without chance’ and random’ events, would be a world in which everything unfolded according to a single, simple, and predictable pattern. But a world in which many wills are acting cannot have a single, simple pattern. It must of necessity be a multifarious world, a world with many patterns, and plots, and chains of causation existing side-by-side, occasionally impinging on each other and intersecting each other and throwing each other off course. That is precisely what chance’ amounts to. A world without chance would be a world with a single overarching and controlling pattern, one plot without sub-plots, one storyline rather than a tangled web of storylines. Everything marching in lockstep. Such a world would have no scope for freedom. It would also have no scope for courage, or hope, or vigilance, or daring, or human providence. As I say in my blurb for No One Sees God , The word dialogical might have been invented to describe Michael Novak. At some points I would make the argument differently, but Michael is generous to a fault and indefatigably patient in engaging those who disagree.
It’s no news that newspaper circulation is declining. In the second quarter of this year the profits of the New York Times fell by 82 percent. I was, however, somewhat surprised by the reason given. According to this story in the Washington Post , Chief Executive Janet Robinson says business was hurt by the U.S. economic slowdown and secular forces playing out across the media industry.’ Perhaps Ms. Robinson should have a word with the editorial-page editor.
When Tony Blair was prime minister, his press secretary, asked about the role of religion in the government’s decision-making, responded, We don’t do God. Now that Blair has stepped down as prime minister and stepped up to becoming Catholic, he has further thoughts on that and offers them in what is called the Cardinal’s Lecture in the Diocese of Westminster. It is considered weird, he says, when a politician speaks of his faith. Some think he’s taking his cues from the promptings of an inscrutable deity or wants to impose his religion on others, or is claiming a status of moral superiority, or, worst of all, trying to co-opt God to bestow a divine legitimacy on his politics. He’s often asked whether faith is important to his politics. To which he says, It’s like asking someone whether their health is important to them or their family. While he was in office, Blair was sharply, and justly, criticized for his positions in conflict with the culture of life, but it is evident that he is serious about his faith. He is establishing a foundation to bring religions together in order to advance peace and understanding, and it is hard to argue with that, although one keeps in mind that getting to know others can sometimes generate more conflict and misunderstanding. He says his project will also be concerned with promoting the idea of faith itself as something dynamic, modern, and full of present relevance. He is not to be criticized for not being a theologian, but he should know that there is no such thing as the idea of faith itself but only faith in particular persons, truths, and causes. As it happens, his proposed vision of peace, justice, human dignity, and cosmic promise is decidedly Christian and grounded in the person Jesus Christ. A striking passage in the lecture speaks of China, and Asia more generally, and says that for the first time in centuries the West will have to come to terms with the seismic change happening about it. The East is rising. At the least, it will demand parity with the West. And perhaps more. The result will be an immeasurably poorer, more dangerous, and more fragile, and above all, more aimless world if there is not a greater measure of shared moral and spiritual understanding. One’s distinct impression is that, relieved of political office, the real Tony Blair has been freed to speak from his deepest convictions. His Cardinal’s Lecture evidences a certain roseate view about the idea of faith itself, but also a genuine conversion, which is always a work in progress.
I have mentioned before Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West . Lilla, who depicts himself as an escapee from fundamentalist Protestantism, teaches intellectual history at Columbia University. I have been following the reviews of the book, almost all of which have been sharply critical. The famously mild-mannered Charles Taylor verged on outraged indignation. A late entry is by Jeffrey Collins of Queen’s University, Ontario, in the Times Literary Supplement . It may be remembered that Lilla’s thesis is that political theology has been the curse of mankind. A new politics began with Spinoza and, most important, Thomas Hobbes, who laid the intellectual foundations of a rigorously secular state, the kind of democratic order that we now enjoy but that is threatened by theocrats who are conspiring to re-sacralize our public life. The Stillborn God is a call to rally to the defense of the Great Separation between religion and public life. Collins writes: Hobbes and Spinoza exhibited the irreligion that Lilla requires, but they were not separationists.’ Both advocated religious establishments, theological censorship, political controls on the clergy, and minimalist religious creeds designed to valorize state power. In crafting an autonomous political logic, they sought to co-opt (rather than sequester) the social power of religion. Lilla has domesticated Hobbes in particular, who was capable of writing: Is not a Christian king as much a bishop now, as the heathen kings were of old?’ And Rousseau hardly betrayed Hobbes on this point. Lilla’s narrative, astoundingly, ignores The Social Contract , where Rousseau’s account of civil religion’ pays homage to Hobbes for boldly fusing religious and political power. As an aside, Collins notes that Lilla repeated