The Public Square
This is beyond left or right, conservative or liberal. So we are regularly told by those who are called the beyondists as they push familiar causes of the left or right. There are some things that really should be beyond partisan labels. For instance, that all human beings, no matter the stage of their development or decline, should be protected by law. That is now seen as a conservative position. When I first started addressing the abortion question many years ago, I argued that it should be viewed as the liberal position. After all, liberalism is for an expansive definition of the community for which we accept common responsibility. But in our public discourse we lost that argument a long time ago.
Similarly, today we are told that the environment, and global warming more specifically, is a concern that is beyond left or right. It is a scientific question and there is now a scientific consensus about the perils of climate change. Despite a large number of organizations receiving an estimated $50 billion in grants to promote concern about global warming, it seems that almost every week more scientists publicly register their dissent from the putative consensus. Even the Old Farmer’s Almanac is predicting a long period of global cooling. Whatever the science may be, it is increasingly evident that global warming is very much an ideological cause.
In many ways, it has replaced socialism as the weapon of choice in attacking the market economy, a.k.a. capitalism. Columnist Bret Stephens writes, Take just about any other discredited leftist nostrum of yore”population control, higher taxes, a vast new regulatory regime, global economic redistribution, an enhanced role for the United Nations”and global warming provides a justification. There is also a pronounced religious dimension. Stephens writes, Surely it is no accident that the principal catastrophe predicted by global warming alarmists is diluvian in nature. Surely it is not a coincidence that modern-day environmentalists are awfully biblical in their critique of the depredations of modern society: And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.’ That’s Genesis, but it sounds like Jim Hansen. Jim Hansen was key to launching the global-warming alarm with predictions offered twenty years ago in congressional testimony”predictions offered, he said, with 99 percent confidence.
The religious dimension is pronounced also in the solutions proposed, almost all of them involving radical changes in personal behavior, usually with an ascetic and rigorously moralistic bent: drive less, buy less, do penance for carbon emissions, walk lightly upon the earth. As Stephens puts it, A light carbon footprint has become the twenty-first-century equivalent of sexual abstinence.
I expect this helps explain why some evangelicals have so enthusiastically jumped aboard the global-warming bandwagon. Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t dance”such are the strictures of a stereotyped evangelicalism from which they wish to distance themselves. Now it’s don’t drive an SUV and don’t buy incandescent light bulbs. The new commandments of global warming allow one to be a moralistic scold and fashionable at the same time. Guilt and penance play well also with secularists today. Our achievements as a society are undeserved, our prosperity is morally suspect. Writes Stephens, In this view, global warming is nature’s great comeuppance, affirming as nothing else our guilty conscience for our worldly success.
It has often been observed that, in European politics, Green is the new Red. In this country, Green is also the new spirituality that neatly combines the old-fashioned altar call with conversion to a heightened environmental consciousness. A few years ago, there was a lively debate over the question What would Jesus drive? Apparently that received no definitive answer. But there’s no doubt about what Mother Nature demands of those seeking environmental redemption. It is a curious phenomenon, not untouched by intimations of magic, as evident in a presidential candidate’s suggestion that, with his election, the oceans would stop rising. The one thing the global-warming alarm is not is beyond left and right, liberal and conservative.
The Fantastic Shadows of Charles Dickens
Readers of long standing will recall that for a few weeks each summer at the family cottage in Quebec, across the Ottawa River from Pembroke, Ontario, where I was born and reared, I attend to a particular project, usually a re-reading of familiar texts. Last year it was the epistles of Paul, but the texts are usually of a literary nature; for instance, the tragedies of Shakespeare, the complete Joseph Conrad, and, time and time again, Dostoevsky. Any Dostoevsky, but most particularly The Brothers Karamazov , to which I think I will return next year. It is new on each re-reading, and I have long since learned to be patient with friends so obtuse as not to recognize it as the greatest novel ever written.
But this year, at the urging of many, such as my colleague Joseph Bottum whose literary judgment I trust, I returned to Charles Dickens. Against my inclinations, I admit, for I have repeatedly found Dickens a bit too much: too much in his broad caricatures; too much in his melodrama; too much in his sentimentality; too much in his sheer prolixity. Yet it is my experience that ages of life are differently attuned to different authors and, after giving him a rest for ten years or more, I was persuaded to have another run at Dickens. So it was that I packed a bundle of his novels to see if or how he or I had changed over the years.
But a preliminary word about life at the cottage. There is, of course, neither Internet nor television nor newspaper. The last factor is an annual reassurance that there is life after the New York Times . Not, to be sure, that anyone should need to be reassured about that. I would not exaggerate. Life on Allumette Island is not pristine wilderness. There is, for instance, a phone. It is an old dial contraption on a party line that rings twice to indicate that the call is for us, and the bilingual operator is always on hand to place long-distance calls. In the last several years, there is even FedEx to deliver proofs, manuscripts, and other things requiring urgent attention to a store in a hamlet only a few miles away.
It is a tradition of more than twenty years that for a couple of weeks George Weigel and his family, now extending to the third generation, are there, and the conspiracies extravagantly attributed to the two of us are plotted in leisurely evenings on the deck accompanied by Jack Daniels, cigars, and sunsets beyond description. This year Rabbi David Novak was not able to make his annual visit, so the further elucidations of the errors of Immanuel Kant will have to wait until next summer.
But back to Charles Dickens. Our daily newspaper at the cottage is the Encyclopedia Britannica and, as it happens, the extended article on Dickens is by the inimitable G.K. Chesterton. As you might expect, this is the old fourteenth edition of the Britannica . (I have the even more venerable eleventh edition at the house in New York.) Later, after Sears Roebuck bought the Britannica in 1920 and then gave it to the University of Chicago, it ended up falling into the hands of Mortimer J. Adler, whom I trust God has forgiven for turning it into something of a referential muddle, complete with a synopticon based on the 102 greatest ideas of history and a complicated compendium of subordinate ideas. The Britannica at the cottage is content to give one material to think about rather than a tutorial on how to think like Mortimer J. Adler. And Chesterton on Dickens gives one much to think about.
GKC, being GKC, is often generous to a fault. Dickens, he writes, is the most popular and perhaps the greatest of English novelists. GKC has no time for the snobbish critics who claim that Dickens’ best-known characters are little more than caricatures created by the outlandish exaggeration of common human characteristics. On Nicholas Nickleby , for instance, he has this to say: There is precious little difference between the rant and claptrap of the Crummles plays, which Dickens makes fun of, and the rant and claptrap of Ralph Nickleby and Mulberry Hawke which Dickens gravely narrates to us. All that, however, was of little consequence either immediate or permanent. Dickens was not proving that he could write smooth and probable narratives, which many people could do. He was proving that he could create Mantalini and Snevellicci, which nobody could do.
Fair enough, no doubt, and the observation can be extended to Mrs. Jellaby and Skimpole and the avariciously self-important lawyers of Bleak House , all of whom I was glad to meet again this summer. But GKC does have an unusually robust appetite for hyperbole. Reflecting his own trademark theme, GKC writes, The truth is that Dickens’ attitude to the abnormal has been misunderstood owing to the modern misunderstanding of the idea of the normal. He was in many ways a wild satirist, but still a satirist; and satire is founded on sanity. GKC might also be describing his own work when he writes, It is carrying a ludicrous train of thought further than the actual thinker carries it; but it requires a little thinking. It is making fools more gloriously foolish than they can be in this vale of tears; and it is not every fool who can do it.
That is pure GKC, and in Dickens he finds a soul mate on other scores as well. Dickens, like GKC, championed the commonplace. All his life, writes GKC, he defended valiantly the pleasures of the poor; and insisted that God had given ale and rum, as well as wine, to make glad the heart of man. Even those three Christmas stories, including A Christmas Carol , get high marks for their encouragement of Christian conviviality, despite the absence from their version of Christmas of either the Christ or the Mass. GKC makes the best of Dickens’ Christian faith, not conspicuously present in his works, observing that in his last will and testament he commended his soul to God, and to the mercy of Jesus Christ, and leaving his works to the judgment of posterity. Apparently God does not do literary criticism.
GKC is right that Dickens is very seldom cruel in his treatment of the grotesques and gargoyles in his stories, but I confess to failure in my effort to overlook his treatment of the heroes and heroines. The good people are so very, very good, filled to the brim with light and benignity, apologizing profusely if ever tempted to entertain a mean thought. Again, Esther of Bleak House comes to mind. They are typically strangers to complexity, which is something of a relief from the contrivedly tortured souls served up on market demand in contemporary fiction, but they are too often too good for polite company. Then too, most of the stories are so very long, a prolixity no doubt related to the author being paid by the installment for stories published in serial form in various magazines. With wearying frequency, he declines to employ one simile or description of a scene or character where a dozen will do.
In sum, and despite the intimidating authority of GKC, my re-reading of Dickens this summer did not fan the flame of appreciation into enthusiasm. With so much to read and so little time, I don’t think I’ll be going back to a major reconsideration of Dickens, in the full awareness that I run the risk of being deemed a cretin by his many admirers.
Mind you, I’m grateful for having made his acquaintance. Life would be poorer without the characters to whom he provided an introduction: Skimpole, Mrs. and Mr. Jellaby, Scrooge, Micawber, Edwin Drood, Miss Flite, Buzfuz, Fagan, Pickwick and Pecksniff, and on and on. And I am not inclined to offer even a murmur of dissent from GKC’s concluding judgment: But there can be no question of the importance of Dickens as a human event in history; a sort of conflagration and transfiguration in the very heart of what is called the conventional Victorian era; a naked flame of mere natural genius, breaking out in a man without culture, without tradition, without help from historic religions or philosophies or from the great foreign schools; and revealing a light that never was on sea or land, if only in the long fantastic shadows that it threw from common things.
It is all true enough, and importantly true. I do not begrudge the time spent in becoming reacquainted with Mr. Dickens. But as I think of the cottage in Quebec, now tightly closed against the fierce assaults of winter, I am thinking Dostoevsky. But why, I hear someone object, compare a mere entertainer with the greatest novelist who ever lived? Be careful or, in making that judgment of Charles Dickens, you will have the great Chesterton to deal with. Not to mention Joseph Bottum.
While We’re At It
There are no causes that are permanently lost, because there are no causes that are permanently won. That thought is attributed to a number of worthies, most commonly to T.S. Eliot. We come to the time of the year in which it will be asked once again whether the cause of the observance of the Advent season is permanently lost. Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe urge us not to give up the fight. They have put together a beautiful book, also beautifully illustrated, God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas (Paraclete Press). The point is that the meaning of Christmas is discovered on the far side of Advent. Among the authors who provides daily meditations for the weeks of Advent are Scott Cairns, Emilie Griffin, Kathleen Norris, Eugene Peterson, and Luci Shaw. And yes, your scribe, so you can see this is not an entirely disinterested plug. With the other authors, I am intensely interested in the rediscovery of Advent that can make more likely the rediscovery of Christmas, and I therefore suggest that you might want to take a close look at God With Us .
Writing in Concordia Theological Quarterly, David Scaer of the Fort Wayne seminary of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod does not approve of Lutherans who become Catholic. It is probable, he says, that a greater percentage of LCMS clergy read First Things , with its Lutheran-to-Catholic editor, than Catholic priests do. I haven’t run the numbers but that seems unlikely. Scaer adds, Card-carrying priests are less likely to take Neuhaus seriously. Those card-carrying priests have always been a suspect lot.
Many news articles reporting on Benedict’s visit to America carried the generic title Pope Visits Troubled Church. No surprise there. Among sixty-five to seventy million Catholics (depending on how you count), there is always an ample supply of troubles. Pick a thousand people at random and you’ll find plenty of troubles about many things, if that’s what you’re looking for, and it comes as no surprise”and there is little point in complaining about it”that this is typically what the media are looking for. Prominent on the conventional list of troubles is the closing or merging of parishes, especially in the cities of the Northeast. Slight attention is paid the establishment of new parishes in surburbia, or to the South and Southwest, where the Catholic population is experiencing explosive growth. But there is no denying that the closing and merging of parishes due to population shifts is a sadness frequently accompanied by heartbreak and bitterness. When the place where you were baptized, received First Communion, and were formed in the faith falls to the wrecking ball to make way for yet another condominium, it seems a part of your life”and perhaps the life of your family for several generations”has been destroyed, even if you had long since moved out of the old neighborhood. As long as the parish church was there, it seemed you could go home again. I have a personal angle on church closings. As a young Lutheran pastor, I went to St. John the Evangelist in Brooklyn, a big empty church built in the nineteenth century that the Lutheran district (diocese) wanted to close because the Lutherans had moved out of what was then a mainly black neighborhood. Within a few years, and as a result of the intense evangelization of the neighborhood by devoted members, St. John’s was again a vibrant parish, although of a very different racial and ethnic mix. Why don’t Catholics do that with these declining or thoroughly declined urban parishes? Catholics write me complaining that their bishops have a defeatist attitude, that they are in a mode of maintenance rather than mission, and no doubt that is true of some bishops. But even if bishops and priests are on fire with evangelistic zeal, it is often the case that there simply are not enough priests to go around, and they are needed to serve where the Catholic population has relocated. Catholic priests, unlike many Protestant clergy, are not vocationally formed to be entrepreneurs. With few exceptions, they understand their calling to be one of serving”or, as it is sometimes put, servicing”the Catholic population. Moreover, the laity are not trained or encouraged to be evangelists. They do not understand it to be their task to build the parish. The Church’s role is to service them and they have done their duty if they are there to be serviced. This unhappy mindset could be changed if there were more bishops, priests, deacons, and laity who embraced the missionary imperative that is integral to the life of the Church. Both integral and indispensable is the priest, and therefore the Eucharist that is the source and summit of the Church’s life. In most cases, bishops cannot assign a severely limited number of priests to keep alive old parishes as shrines to the childhood memories of parishioners long gone. It seems likely that this situation will not change until there is a dramatic increase in priestly vocations, combined with a dramatic change in leadership mentality from demography-dependent maintenance to Spirit-inspired mission. Each change requires the other. Until that happens, more parishes will be closed or merged, and we have nobody to blame but ourselves.
It appeared, briefly, on the best-seller lists and one reviewer described it as ironically profound, which is the kind of thing reviewers say when reaching for ironic profundity. The book is The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (Knopf). The author is David Shields, son of the Brooklyn Schildkrauts. The tone is a step up from the Borscht Belt, with Woody Allen wisecracks thrown in for a touch of philosophical class. By the end of the book Mr. Shields’ father is approaching death at almost a hundred years of age. The early part of the book is the author’s looking forward to his father’s death with marked ambivalence. There’s a short chapter on famous last words, of which some are memorable. For instance, General John Sedgwick, killed at the battle of Spotsylvania in 1864, looked over a parapet at the Confederate troops and said, They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist””. Toward the end of the book we read: What I’ve been trying to get to all along, in a way, is this: The individual doesn’t matter. You, Dad, in the large scheme of things, don’t matter. I, Dad, don’t matter. We’re vectors on the grids of cellular life. Aging followed by death is the price we pay for the immortality of our genes. You find this information soul-killing; I find it thrilling, liberating. Life, in my view, is simple, tragic, and eerily beautiful. One is left wondering why it matters so much that one does not matter. Obviously, David Shields matters to David Shields. But he finds it liberating that he does not matter in the large scheme of things. To whom does he not matter in the large scheme of things? From what is he liberated? One recalls again the words of Czes?aw Mi?osz in Roadside Dog : Religion, opium for the people. To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness, and serfdom, it promised a reward in an afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death”the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.
Dean Hoge, who died at age seventy-three this September, was professor of sociology at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and he for thirty years directed studies of almost every facet of the Church’s life in this country. Though he was a Protestant, he said he considered himself as much Catholic as Protestant. In a recent talk on the state of the priesthood, he noted that today’s seminaries are producing new priests at a rate of between 35 to 45 percent of what is needed to maintain the current number of active priests. In a nutshell, we need at least a doubling of ordinations to maintain the American priesthood as we know it. But this is impossible. I assume Prof. Hoge agreed that with God nothing is impossible. Doubling the number of ordinations in the near future, one may allow, is improbable. Hoge said that the average Catholic parish in the country has 3,200 members and, because of the growing number of Catholics, that average will increase by about 10 percent in the next decade. He made a number of interesting suggestions. We should not, he said, be relying on priests from Africa and Asia. (About four hundred are now coming each year.) I don’t see how any church . . . can thrive if its spiritual leaders”that is, mainly its clergy”are not from the same culture as its laity. I expect he was right about that. He suggested that the thousands of men who left the active priesthood should, if they wish, be readmitted. For a number of reasons, that idea is not likely to fly. He also suggested that the way should be eased for Protestant clergy, married or unmarried, who want to become priests. Now, he said, the process is long and arduous. You will not be surprised that I agree with him on that. My way to becoming a Catholic was long and arduous, but, once that step was taken, the way to priesthood, thanks mainly to John Cardinal O’Connor, was not. But for many others that is not the case, and some very capable candidates have had to go through the entire seminary formation, as though they knew nothing about Catholicism, when, in fact, such converts typically have impressive pastoral experience and are frequently more knowledgeable about Catholic faith and life than those who have not had to think and pray their way into the Church. Finally, however, the answer is to aim at the improbable. The hope of doubling the number of ordinations in the next decade depends on priests but also, even more so, on parents. Any qualified Catholic young man who has not been invited to seriously consider a possible vocation to the priesthood has been cheated. The greater sadness is not the shortage of priests but the number of those who were called and did not answer.
Lutherans are Catholics in exile. So said the eminent Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten in 1966, and so he says today. When I was but a lad in my twenties I was”in addition to being an inner-city pastor, a civil rights activist, a coordinator of the war on poverty in Brooklyn, and a fledgling writer”editor of Una Sancta , an ecumenical theological quarterly of some modest influence. There we published Braaten’s Rome, Reformation, and Reunion, and it provoked something of a storm. The Christian Century editorially attacked the article under the title Protestant Hara-kiri. Braaten had explained the Lutheran circumstance in analogy with the Free French who in World War II went into exile to work for the overthrow of the Nazi-imposed Vichy government so that they could then return home to a liberated France. In an article in Concordia Theological Quarterly that revisits his argument of more than forty years ago, Braaten writes: Now, what if the Free French forgot the reason for their exile, and as expatriates became so accustomed to life outside of France that they forgot about returning and reuniting with the French countrymen they had left behind? What if they began to think and act as though what was meant to be only a temporary arrangement in an emergency situation had actually become for them a permanent home and established settlement? Suppose they ignored the cause of liberation for which they had left France to join the Free French forces of General de Gaulle and instead set up a new government in some other colony, calling it New France, with no intention of ever returning to the land of their birth. If that would have happened, one would call it a tragedy, akin to the tragedy of the Reformation. Key to Braaten’s argument”an argument shared by us Lutherans who styled ourselves evangelical catholics”is the claim that the Lutheran Reformation, in sharp distinction from other Protestants who thought they were establishing the true Church, never intended to be a separate church but a reforming movement within the one Church. Braaten is still a Lutheran, and I will not be surprised if he dies a Lutheran. That is because he cannot return from exile so long as the Catholic Church is ruled by a false government. In his view, Vichy is still in power. In the course of his article, he insightfully surveys the present Lutheran scene in this country. The Missouri Synod (LCMS) has retained aspects of the confessional Lutheranism that Braaten champions, but it has no ecumenical vision and is powerfully tempted to jettison distinctly Lutheran elements of theology, liturgy, and sacramental life in order to join in the church growth and other excitements of evangelical Protestantism. The ELCA Lutherans have effectively thrown in their lot with liberal Protestantism and have settled into permanent exile from the Catholic Church as simply one more Protestant denomination among others. Braaten concludes his article with the statement that our best hope is to move toward rapprochement with Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, leading eventually to eucharistic fellowship in a communion of churches. It is not evident how this squares with his image of Lutheranism in exile from Catholicism. My friend Carl Braaten is obviously torn. Along the way he writes, Where do we go with our confessional Lutheran self-understanding, ecclesiologically speaking? What do we envisage for the ecumenical future of Lutheranism? History will not allow us to stand still. One can agree with that, while wondering how, given his grim analysis of the Lutheran circumstance, that goal might be advanced”and how it squares with the image of principled exile.
I have heard the question asked, Whatever happened to Fr. Richard McBrien of the University of Notre Dame? Well, he still has a column in a number of Catholic papers, but it is true that his public voice has been muted in the last few years. Part of the answer to the question is that he has been working on a very big book which is to be published by HarperCollins this month, The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism . It is almost five hundred pages long and McBrien describes it as a study in ecclesiology, covering the evolution of Catholicism from the New Testament to the present. In the preface he acknowledges that he has widely, although unfairly, been depicted as a raving liberal and dissenter. He writes, In spite of this almost inevitable resistance, one must continue to pursue a middle course, acknowledging all legitimate sides to a debate while remaining faithful, albeit not uncritically, to the relevant official teachings of the Catholic Church. Alice’s Queen now has seven things to believe before breakfast. To say that Fr. McBrien’s faithfulness to the Church’s teaching is not uncritical is a little like saying Ann Coulter adheres to the orthodoxy of the Democratic Party, albeit not uncritically. The difference is that Fr. McBrien really does love the Church, in his fashion. And, unfortunately, he is partly right, but only partly right, when he says his positions reflect a broad consensus among theologians and biblical scholars. Whether or not one is obliged to accept a magisterial document, McBrien writes, depends on whether, in one’s judgment, it passes a number of tests. The intrinsic criteria, in the form of questions, include the following: (1) Does the argument advanced in the document hold together? Is it coherent and compelling in its logic? (2) Does the language employed in the document reflect the current state of the discussion and debate, or does it indicate a lack of sufficient awareness of the issues involved and the various positions taken on them? (3) Are the conclusions proposed consistent with the experience and competence of qualified and interested parties? (4) Are they also consistent with the classical sources: Scripture, the early Christian writers, the teachings of ecumenical councils, and the great theologians of the Church, past and present? (5) To what levels of authority does the teaching appeal? And, in case those demanding tests are not enough, he cites what he calls a medieval axiom, Bonum ex integra causa, malum ex quocumque defectu, which, roughly translated, means that, if something is good in every respect but one, that one defect makes the thing bad. After the application of those criteria, it is hard to know what might survive as an authoritative teaching. It is hard to think of any magisterial document that would pass muster, and, of course, in this view it all comes down to what Newman called private judgment. Fr. McBrien is faithful to what he believes the Church’s teaching should be, which some would say is no faithfulness at all. In trying to understand Fr. McBrien’s argument, I prefer to think that a variation on Occam’s razor is applicable: When confusion is sufficient, do not seek further explanations.
The title of Roger Kimball’s essay in the June/July 2008 issue of First Things is The End of Art. That is intentionally ambiguous, of course, suggesting that when art has no end, meaning self-transcending purpose, it is the end of art. Charles Murray takes up the same question in a new and engaging book of essays edited by Christopher DeMuth and Yuval Levin, Religion and the American Future . Murray examines art in the light of the three transcendentals”the good, the true, and the beautiful. He quotes the meaning of beauty in Guillaume Apollinaire’s 1913 essay extolling cubism: The modern school of painting seems to me the most audacious that has ever appeared. It has posed the question of what is beautiful in itself. It wants to visualize beauty disengaged from whatever charm man has for man. The rejection of the aim to charm, writes Murray, is even more pronounced in Arnold Schoenberg, who announced the death of tonality in music. Schoenberg wrote: Those who compose because they want to please others, and have audiences in mind, are not real artists. They are not the kind of men who are driven to say something whether or not there exists one person who likes it, even if they themselves dislike it . . . . They are more or less skillful entertainers who would renounce composing if they did not find listeners. Murray writes, Contempt for the audience could not be plainer, nor the godlike role in which Schoenberg placed the artist. While Murray acknowledges some exceptions in the early twentieth century, their numbers dwindled as time went on . . . . The generalization remains: In large part, the literature, visual art, and concert music of the twentieth century is what they become when their creators do not tap into the transcendental goods. Then there is this dour observation that I wish could be convincingly dismissed: According to every indicator of population, wealth, access to education, and ease of transportation and communication, the twentieth century had a greater number of talented people available to create great art than in any preceding century in history, by many orders of magnitude. I submit that the legacy that will still be part of the cultural landscape in, say, the year 2300, in the same way that hundreds of writers, painters and composers from earlier centuries are still part of our cultural landscape, will be paltry. Any plausible explanation for their meager record must take into account the role of secularization. Even more bleak is the prospect that the artists from past centuries whom we now revere will be forgotten in the year 2300, or long before. In 1970 the French writer Jean Clay wrote, It is clear that we are witnessing the death throes of the cultural system maintained by the bourgeoisie in its galleries and museums. For those, like Schoenberg, for whom that is the cherished goal, art for art’s sake is the end of art. One cannot help but hope, and believe, that human nature’s propensity to rebel against earlier and now established rebellions will take hold before that happens.
For many years, Bishop John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne“South Bend has labored valiantly to maintain”or, as some would have it, restore”the Catholic character of the University of Notre Dame. Once again this year, over his protests, Notre Dame staged The Vagina Monologues . You can check the website of the diocese for exchanges between the bishop and the university president, Fr. John Jenkins. Of course, in making the case for the Monologues , Fr. Jenkins goes on about academic freedom, noting that a university has to deal with objectionable subjects. He cites the fact that documentary films on the early days of Nazism were recently shown on campus. To which D’Arcy responds: There is an enormous difference between showing a Nazi propaganda film in 2008 and showing it in 1938. One is a matter of historic and scholarly interest in a long-past event, while the other constitutes active cooperation in promoting a current and threatening evil ideology. Game, set, match to the gentleman with the purple beanie.
Swiss couples are going to church to get divorced. The liturgy for finalizing a divorce, says Pastor Frank Worbs, helps people get over the separation and achieve definite closure. Ruedi Reich, president of the Zurich Reform Church, says, Going through a ceremony like this is a way of showing God that the marriage is over. So there, God. Now please stop bothering us with your antiquated ideas about marriage.
Here comes the competition. Publishers Weekly announces that New Press, a far-left, not-for-profit publisher in New York, is launching a line of religion books. The first of eight books scheduled for this year is Daniel Maguire’s Whose Church? A Concise Guide to Progressive Catholicism . Maguire, an ex-priest, is best known for his work with Planned Parenthood in promoting reproductive rights. The second book is Whose Torah? A Concise Guide to Progressive Judaism by Rebecca Alpert, who is described as a lesbian and an ordained female rabbi. Our plan is to break down the stereotype of religion as a right-wing phenomenon, says Rita Brock of New Press, which describes the religion books as a political intervention. That has at least the merit of candor.
Historians are always more comfortable in the past than in the future or (sometimes) in the present, writes James O’Toole of Boston College in his recently published The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America (Harvard). That seems reasonable enough, given that the past is what makes a historian a historian. The book is a nicely written account of Catholicism in America as seen through the eyes of laypeople. The perspective is different from that of most such histories, the depiction being that of Catholicism in contraction, confusion, and conflict. The author does allow that Catholics from the eighteenth century to the present, were they to meet today, would still recognize one another as Catholics. As he tells the story, the emphasis on orthodoxy and tradition by younger priests who admire the current pope and his immediate predecessor does not bode well for the future of Catholicism in America. I expect that view is not shared by most of the Catholic laity who, says O’Toole, should have a greater say in the running of the Church. But that brings us back to the familiar dispute over whether one privileges, as it is said in the academy, faithful Catholics or those who might be faithful if the Church adopted their preferred changes. In the author’s telling of the period since the Second Vatican Council, the faithful of the book’s title are mostly of the second kind.
Academic fashions come and go, with some rushing to get in step and more-sensible people fleeing from the grave embarrassment of being fashionable. In the 1980s, starting in lit-crit English departments and spreading like an epidemic into history, philosophy, and much else, there was the fashion that went by such names as postmodernism, deconstructionism, and cognitive relativism. (Thirty years later, some evangelicals are catching up, with their excited discoveries of theological and spiritual possibilities galore in the emergent church.) In its heyday, postmodernism depicted science as a relativistic game in which European white males exercised hermeneutical hegemony by marginalizing the masses through the control of a reductionist dialectical scientism and technocracy. You may remember the jargon. Then, in 1996, Alan Sokal, a physicist and mathematician at New York University, published in Social Text , a journal of postmodernist chic, a paper titled Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. It included eruditely intimidating passages such as this: It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical reality,’ no less than social reality,’ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific knowledge,’ far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities. No sooner had the article been published than Sokal wrote an essay in Dissent revealing that the entire thing was a hoax and the editors of Social Text had fallen for it with all the enthusiasm fired by being on the cutting edge of deconstructive theory. There ensued much guffawing in the media and a fine time was had by all, except for the editors and other votaries of postmodernism. Now Prof. Sokal has published a book, Beyond the Hoax (Oxford), in which he explains what he did and why. It is an instructive, and frequently amusing, cautionary tale. Not, of course, that it will discourage academics of a certain age from aggressively disabusing their wards of their socially constructed notions of reality disguising the oppressive hegemony of a racist, sexist, imperialist, consumerist, technologist, etc., etc., etc. society.
Admittedly, there are not that many, but some fine people are included in their number. They typically describe themselves as traditionalists and are often affiliated with the Society of Saint Pius X and other schismatic groups. Driven to distraction by the bizarre and sometimes heretical acts perpetrated by the more extreme proponents of the spirit of Vatican II, some of them have ended up rejecting the Second Vatican Council altogether and, at least implicitly, the teaching authority of the Church. Thus do they appear to be more Protestant than those whom they accuse of Protestantizing Catholicism. Very welcome, therefore, is a new edition of The Pope, the Council, and the Mass: Answers to Questions Traditionalists Have Asked by James Likoudis and Kenneth Whitehead. It is a big and thorough book of 370 pages published by Emmaus Road Publishing of Steubenville, Ohio. If you have a friend who has been distracted to the point of alienation from the Church, it may be just the thing.
I met him only a couple of times, and then briefly, but my memory is that of meeting a saint, which is what many who knew him well say he was. Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan wore a pectoral cross made from the barbed wire of the prison where the Communists kept him for thirteen years, nine in solitary confinement. Paul VI named him Archbishop of Saigon in 1975. John Paul II invited him to Rome and created him a cardinal. He died in 2002. The following is from a Lenten reflection published in Our Daily Bread , by Fr. Ralph Wright: The most beautiful Masses of my life . Once more, I return to my own experience. When I was arrested, I had to leave immediately with empty hands. The next day, I was permitted to write to my people in order to ask for the most necessary things: clothes, toothpaste . . . . I wrote, Please send me a little wine as medicine for my stomachache.’ The faithful understood right away. They sent me a small bottle of wine for Mass with a label that read, medicine for stomachaches.’ They also sent some hosts, which they hid in a flashlight for protection against the humidity. The police asked me. You have stomachaches?’ Yes.’ Here’s some medicine for you.’ I will never be able to express my great joy! Every day, with three drops of wine and a drop of water in the palm of my hand, I would celebrate Mass. This was my altar, and this was my cathedral! It was true medicine for soul and body, Medicine of immortality, remedy so as not to die but to have life always in Jesus,’ as St. Ignatius of Antioch says. Each time I celebrated the Mass, I had the opportunity to extend my hands and nail myself to the cross with Jesus, to drink with him the bitter chalice. Each day in reciting the words of consecration, I confirmed with all my heart and soul a new pact, an eternal pact between Jesus and me through his blood mixed with mine. Those were the most beautiful Masses of my life! Our Daily Bread is a collection of eucharistic reflections from the first century to the present day and I suggest you check it out.
The question is what is to be done about public figures, usually politicians, who have publicly, flagrantly, and persistently violated their communion with the Church by supporting the unlimited abortion license. The question continues to agitate Catholics and attract the attention of the media. It could hardly be otherwise. The Church holds that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Church’s life, and receiving the body of Christ is the deepest expression of communio with the body of Christ, the Church. When a public figure rejects and opposes clear teaching on faith and morals and then receives Communion, as though such rejection and opposition is no big deal, the result is public scandal and confusion about whether the Church really means what she teaches. In this unhappy state of affairs, many bishops are complicit. Styling themselves as ministers of unity, above all, they are averse to anything that might be viewed as controversial or confrontational; they subordinate their responsibility as teachers and defenders of the faith to an expediency that is not easily distinguished from pusillanimity. The difference is not between hard-line and soft-line bishops, with the former depicted as legalistic and punitive and the latter as pastoral and compassionate. The difference, rather, is between those who do and those who do not evidence a bold devotion to the teaching and pastoral practice of the faith. As I say, the question of how to deal with prominent pro-abortion Catholics will likely be with us for a long time. There is reason for encouragement in the response of many bishops, and of the bishops conference, to the very public misrepresentations by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Joseph Biden of the Church’s teaching on the protection of innocent human life. These questions will also be high on the agenda of the bishops’ meeting in November. This still modest but heartening turn in episcopal leadership is due in large part to the example set by a few bishops”one thinks of Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver in particular”who have demonstrated that the faithful, the media, and the general public are responsive when these difficult issues are addressed with courage, clarity, and persuasive arguments. Episcopal timidity and mugwumpery has not gone out of fashion, but it does appear that a promising change is afoot. Which is an occasion to note also that Archbishop Chaput’s fine little book, Render Unto Caesar , previously discussed in this space, is doing very well on the sales charts.
The technology has changed but the point endures. Our friend Midge Decter once described the typical Jewish telegram: Start worrying. Letter to follow. Aaron David Miller, a veteran State Department adviser on the Middle East, speaks of the cosmic oy vey. Jews have over the centuries been given a lot to worry about. The New York Festival of Ideas this year took as its theme Jews and Power. That is from the title of a book by Ruth Wisse of Harvard, who says, The goal of my writing is to teach Jews to be tougher. Today the historic Jewish ambivalence about power is, of course, focused on Israel. Adam Kirsch of the New York Sun attended the festival and, after listening to speakers slice and dice the theme, arrived at this conclusion: What unites America and Israel is a dedication to the liberal democratic idea’ and to rationalism, as against the irrational authoritarian culture of their enemies. So long as both countries remain true to their liberal values, the conjunction of Jews and power will not be a prospect to be feared but a reason to be proud. I take second place to none in my devotion to reason and the liberal democratic tradition. But divorced from biblical faith, both Jewish and Christian, this is a shaky foundation, also for maintaining the bond between Israel and the United States. If that bond depends only on those secularists, in Israel and America, whose highest commitment is to rationalism and the democratic idea, it is very fragile indeed. In political, cultural, and religious fact, that bond was forged and is today kept strong by Christians and Jews who believe that the well-being of the People of Israel, which is today, for better or worse, inextricably entangled with the State of Israel, is part of a divine purpose that eludes our certain understanding. The failure of Adam Kirsch and so many others to understand this is a continuing source of misunderstanding and suspicion between Israel and the United States, and also between Jews and Christians in this country.
No one can reasonably question the scientific credentials of Freeman Dyson, the theoretical physicist and mathematician who has for years and years been writing also on matters environmental, very frequently in the New York Review of Books . This from a recent issue: All the books that I have seen about the science and economics of global warming, including the two books under review, miss the main point. The main point is religious rather than scientific. There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth, that despoiling the planet with waste products of our luxurious living is a sin, and that the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible. The ethics of environmentalism are being taught to children in kindergartens, schools, and colleges all over the world. Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion. And the ethics of environmentalism are fundamentally sound. Scientists and economists can agree with Buddhist monks and Christian activists that ruthless destruction of natural habitats is evil and careful preservation of birds and butterflies is good. The worldwide community of environmentalists”most of whom are not scientists”holds the moral high ground, and is guiding human societies toward a hopeful future. Environmentalism, as a religion of hope and respect for nature, is here to stay. This is a religion that we can all share, whether or not we believe that global warming is harmful. He’s surely right on several scores, although as a secular religion environmentalism lacks the utopian eschatology of socialism, or at least of Marxist socialism. Unless the happy ending is the posthuman future. I recently saw a National Geographic documentary on that subject. It depicted New York City crumbling into nothing and pleasantly assured us that, without people, it would take only a couple of hundred years before nature returned to what it ought to be. The last line of the program was, All we have to do is get out of the way. In any event, Dyson worries about the way in which global warming is skewing the new environmental religion. Unfortunately, some members of the environmental movement have also adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet. That is one reason why the arguments about global warming have become bitter and passionate. Much of the public has come to believe that anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming is an enemy of the environment. The skeptics now have the difficult task of convincing the public that the opposite is true. Many of the skeptics are passionate environmentalists. They are horrified to see the obsession with global warming distracting public attention from what they see as more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet, including problems of nuclear weaponry, environmental degradation, and social injustice. Whether they turn out to be right or wrong, their arguments on these issues deserve to be heard. We are trying to do our part.
At the Origins of Modern Atheism by Michael J. Buckley was published some ten years ago and remains an invaluable reference. Now Fr. Buckley reflects on the rash of books published under the banner of the new atheism, and his tone is that of disappointment with a serious argument reduced to juvenile rants. Atheism was once advanced by serious thinkers but has now become a market for hack writers pandering to intellectual laziness. Buckley writes: This became not the heroic disbelief of the prophetic voices of the nineteenth century, but rather the bourgeois indifference to transcendence and the superficially secured contempt of the crowd. Feuerbach, Marx, George Eliot, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Freud yielded place to Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Peter Atkins, and Richard Dawkins. It seems painfully obvious that the second string is of lesser caliber than the first; indeed, they should not besport themselves on the same field. Nietzsche’s madman railed at the crowd: God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed Him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murders of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives . . . . Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? The new atheism, writes Buckley, has simply given recent and celebrated names to the faces in the crowd. They have become the crowd, but the superficiality and self-assurance remain. He cites Terry Eagleton’s review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion in the London Review of Books . Eagleton wrote: Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds , and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.’ What one comes across are vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.’ Buckley respects an intellectually distinguished tradition of atheism and laments its trashing by the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who change the subject from God to religion and then exult in taking cheap shots at the latter. Their exhibits of bad things associated with religion simply illustrate what the history of rhetoric has asserted over thousands of years: that the choice and marshaling of examples is the induction of the sophist. A thesis can be asserted, or a list constructed and examples selected to prove anything. In a similar vein, in his second encyclical, Spe Salvi (Saved in hope), Benedict XVI speaks respectfully of a moral atheism that wrestles with the questions of justice, human and divine. These are questions of great moment and, as Nietzsche understood, the atheistic conclusion is of incalculable consequence. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris et al. are instances of Nietzsche’s pitiable Last Man indulging in what Allan Bloom called the debonair nihilism of the clever sophomore who declares the end of meaning to be very meaningful. Fr. Buckley is very unhappy with the new atheists who are giving atheism a bad name.
Among the most influential of biblical scholars in the Protestant mainline is Walter Brueggemann. He reviews in Christian Century a volume in the very ambitious series called The Church’s Bible” Isaiah: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, edited by Robert Louis Wilken. Brueggemann has high praise for Wilken’s scholarship, but his final judgment is unenthusiastic: We may wonder what the intent of this series is other than to invite readers to ponder the interpretive practice of the early Church . . . . My own judgment is that, although this commentary is of enormous historical interest, it is not likely that today’s readers will very readily follow in the early-Church tradition; the gains of historical criticism cannot be undone, and scholars in many quarters would not want them to be. He adds that he has no problem with Christians reading the Bible the way the Church Fathers did so long as they recognize that they are reading as Christians . Well yes, that is rather Wilken’s point, isn’t it? A point made very effectively in his recent article How to Read the Bible ( First Things , March 2008), an article adapted from the introduction to the Isaiah volume. Wilken and others involved in The Church’s Bible are fully aware of the gains, and the limits, of historical critical methodology. But they contend that how Christians have read the Bible as Christians is hardly, as Brueggemann would have it, a historical curiosity. Indeed, not to read the Bible as Christians is to turn the Bible into a historical curiosity.
One of the less frequently quoted observations of Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America is his claim that Americans will tend increasingly to fall into one or the other of two categories: those who abandon Christianity entirely and those who join the Roman Church. Less quoted, no doubt, because proved manifestly wrong. But the eccentrically brilliant Orestes Brownson, who traveled numerous spiritual pathways before arriving at Catholicism and becoming its foremost lay voice in the nineteenth century, tirelessly made the case that Tocqueville’s prediction should be true. Now Patrick W. Carey brings Brownson to life again in Orestes Brownson: American Religious Weathervane (Eerdmans). Is the prospect of the Catholic moment more plausible today than it was in, say, 1865? Of course, those who do not entertain the possibility will answer in the negative and add that it is a good thing, too. Others, more cautiously, might say they would want to know what such a moment would look like, being confident that it would not mean, contra Tocqueville, that all Christians become Catholics.
The idea of sovereignty is a very big subject, and it is examined with great range and energy by Jean Bethke Elshtain in Sovereignty: God, State, and Self (Basic Books), which is based on her Gifford Lectures of 2006. Thomas Hobbes made a hash of sovereignty in Leviathan , declaring the ruler to be above the law or, as Elshtain puts it, providing the rationale for an order (disorder) in which laws take the form of the sovereign’s untrammeled will. For a just and humane alternative, Elshtain explores the Jewish-Christian understanding of a sovereign God who binds himself by covenant with his people and respects both his gift of human reason and the order of nature that is his own creation. Elshtain is particularly astute in tracing this understanding as it is developed by Augustine and Aquinas. Adam Kirsch reviews Elshtain’s book and is not persuaded. He writes, For natural law, history shows, has an unsettling malleability: It tends to become an honorific for prejudice and custom. Our sense of the natural is constantly evolving”slavery and patriarchy once seemed natural, while in some quarters gay marriage is still stigmatized as unnatural. On the one hand, Kirsch criticizes natural-law theory for its unsettling malleabilty, and then embraces a moral presentism of such rapidity of change that he speaks of some people still thinking there is something unnatural about gay marriage. Imagine that. The innovation of same-sex marriage has been with us for all of several years and, if you can believe it, some people still think it is not what has been meant by marriage since history began. Kirsch doesn’t like the idea of natural law because ideas about what is natural change. He then turns on a dime and says the problem with natural law is that ideas about what is natural don’t change fast enough. He continues: Reading Sovereignty , one never gains a sense of the reasons why the West came to prefer the sovereignty of the individual to the sovereignty of a God whose will is never obvious, but has to be interpreted by human beings with their own failings and selfish interests. Only if you believe that God does actually govern the universe can you excuse human beings from the responsibility, and privilege, of governing themselves. Where to begin? Elshtain’s critique is of the sovereignty of the autonomous self, which by definition means the assertion of human failings and selfish interests, which Kirsch rightly distrusts. As he elsewhere in his review recognizes, she does not believe that God governs the universe in the positivist model of absolute command-obedience that, for instance, Muslims attribute to Allah. Rather, self-government means that people govern by rational participation in the truth of justice grounded in the transcendent authority of God. As, for example, in the laws of Nature and Nature’s God. Without that, self-government is no government at all but mere willfulness. In his animus toward natural law, and his deeper animus toward belief in God, it seems that Adam Kirsch ends up, willy-nilly, in embracing anarchy.
Every once in a while a book comes along to which everyone agrees attention must be paid, and respectful attention at that. Such a book is Charles Taylor’s very big (almost nine hundred pages) and long-awaited A Secular Age . Wilfred McClay gave it respectful attention in these pages (May 2008), ending with the question of whether Taylor’s intellectually rarefied understanding of Christianity in our time can sustain a community of living faith. Peter Steinfels, writing in Commonweal , offers an extended reflection on A Secular Age and arrives at the same question, although framed somewhat differently. He notes that Taylor gives great attention to many giants of religious sensibility and spirituality such as Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, T.S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, and Thérèse de Liseux. These are all religious virtuosi, says Steinfels, but what about the ordinary work of institutional leadership? How can the institutions necessary for the formation of a genuine religious identity”let us specify, a genuine Catholic identity”be maintained, examined, and renewed? A very good question indeed. Steinfels continues: Suppose we try to imagine a Catholic identity capable of confronting an unprecedented array of religious and spiritual options that cannot be easily dismissed, capable of living with greater doubt and uncertainty, and likely to undergo crucial formation in early adulthood rather than childhood. Excepting, of course, those natural religious virtuosi, is such an identity really possible without a quantum leap in theological knowledge, intellectual openness, and spiritual guidance compared to the past? Will it be found in homilies, parish life, Catholic educational initiatives? Steinfels, who was born in 1941, is author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America , in which he provides a moving depiction of the more or less intact Catholic culture of his childhood in Chicago. All that seems to be gone now, and hence a people adrift. Steinfels, who writes a regular column for the New York Times , has long been associated with Commonweal . Since the founding of the magazine in 1924 and up through the early 1960s, Commonweal Catholics were a proud and peculiar breed. It was a time when Catholic novelists and philosophers were making their mark on the intellectual world and many anticipated what would later be called the Catholic moment. But then it all started falling apart. The assumption was that an educated and affluent, but still intact, Catholic culture would engage, and maybe transform, the life of the mind in America. By the late sixties”the orchestrated dissent from the encyclical Humanae Vitae on human sexuality is the pertinent marker”the dream was dyi