The Public Square
When I was a young Lutheran seminarian, I was struck by a professor’s forceful declaration that the phrase growth in grace is a contradiction in terms. The grace of the gospel of forgiveness is absolute, unqualified, perfect. It allows for no growth or improvement. The law of God, stating what God demands of us, is the enemy, from which our only refuge is the gospel. Put simply”but upon it entire theological systems have been constructed”the law is the bad news and the gospel is the good news. This is the well-known Lutheran dialectic of law and gospel, sometimes called a theology of paradox: an underscoring of the freedom of the Christian from the law.
This does not make it easy for Lutherans to pray, for instance, Psalm 119, which goes on and on about loving the law, cherishing the law, exulting in the law. Years later, in conversation with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel about these matters, he remarked, With your law“gospel antithesis, it seems to me that your law is our gospel. That’s not quite right, yet not only Jews but most Christians through time have had no theological problem with the invitation of the psalmists to rejoice in the law of the Lord. Luther was fiercely insistent about the utter gratuitousness of God’s saving grace, lest faith be contaminated by any hint of pride or works righteousness. The preface to his commentary on Galatians, for instance, is an exhilarating display of uncompromised grace and faith, which has drawn the admiration of many non-Lutherans, including Wesleyans, as Methodists sometimes call themselves, and Catholics.
The same Luther, in his catechism’s explanations of the Ten Commandments, however, begins each with the words, We should fear and love God so that . . . The commandment to fear and love God is obviously the law, which is to be obeyed. We might even grow in obeying it, as in growth in grace ”perhaps even in virtue. If Luther was not always consistent in the passion of his preaching and teaching, the theologians of Lutheranism would soon remedy the fault, creating an intellectually elaborate and relentless system that sought to seal every seam and plug every conceivable leak in the law“gospel dialectic.
Although he titled it Luther , W.H. Auden’s poem applies better to the systematizers of Lutheranism and those who preached the system:
With conscience cocked to listen for the thunder
He saw the Devil busy in the wind
Over the chimney steeples and then under
The doors of nuns and doctors who had sinned.
What apparatus could stave off disaster
Or cut the brambles of man’s error down?
Flesh was a silent dog that bites its master,
World a still pond in which its children drown.
The fuse of Judgment spluttered in his head:
Lord, smoke those honeyed insects from their hives;
All Works and all Societies are bad;
The Just shall live by Faith, he cried in dread.
And men and women of the world were glad
Who never trembled in their useful lives.
Lutherans do tend to lead useful lives. They are, all in all, law-abiding folk, despite their frequent pitting of the gospel against the law. Lutherans recognize that the law itself cannot be bad since it is given by God. So the law has its uses”some say two and some say three. The law has the indispensable use of accusing us of our sins and thus driving us to seek refuge in the forgiveness achieved by Christ. This use is the law as a mirror that shows us our need for the gospel. Second, the threat of God’s judgment as revealed in the law can serve as a restraint on the wicked. This use is the law as a curb that checks the human propensity for evil. In addition to these two uses of the law, there have been centuries of theological controversy over a third use: the law as a guide in the living of the Christian life. Opponents of this third use insist that it is a slippery slope leading to ideas such as growth in grace, which end up denying grace altogether. Give an inch to Pelagianism and the idea that we can cooperate with grace and Pelagius ends up taking the whole game.
Always the Same
Closely connected to the above, Lutherans have another key phrase: simul iustus et peccator” usually translated as always, and at the same time, both justified and sinner. This is often called the great paradox of the gospel. The phrase caused considerable difficulties leading up to the Lutheran“Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification, signed in Augsburg, Germany, in 1999. And after the signing as well, as is evident in the large number of Lutheran theologians and some ecclesial communities who roundly rejected the joint declaration. Catholic participants did their best to affirm the utterly gratuitous nature of grace while not compromising the truth of a universal call to holiness that, by God’s grace, entails real change in the person called, with the result that those whom we call saints are not the sinners they once were. They have grown in grace. They are still sinners, however. At the requiem Mass of every Catholic, whether of the saintly or wantonly wicked, the persistently repeated prayer is Lord, have mercy . This does not satisfy those for whom simul iustus et peccator has become a fixed dogma.
This reflection on law and gospel is prompted by a remarkable essay by Gilbert Meilaender, a Lutheran moral theologian and frequent contributor to these pages. (Lutherans do not use the term moral theologian , for reasons close to the heart of Meilaender’s concerns.) The essay is titled Hearts Set to Obey and appears in a collection edited by Carl Braaten and Christopher Seitz, I Am the Lord Your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments . Meilaender’s essay title is taken from a Collect for Peace used in Evening Prayer since at least the seventh century: O God, from whom come all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works: Give to us, your servants, that peace which the world cannot give, that our hearts may be set to obey your commandments . . . . Hearts set to obey God’s commandments? Meilaender loves to pray that prayer but, given their construal of law and gospel, he understands why some Lutherans have problems with it.
Meilaender makes clear that he is offering a critique of a a certain understanding of Lutheranism that in its law“gospel dialectic eventually arrives at a kind of practical antinomianism”which is all too readily accompanied by a strident moralism”but that, were it consistent, would have no reason to pray that our hearts may be set to obey God’s commandments. This is evident today, for instance, in ELCA Lutheranism’s efforts to develop an ethics of human sexuality”and, very controversially, of homosexuality”accenting the freedom of the gospel and the law of love as liberation from the law, including the need to obey God’s commandments. It must be admitted that there are also Catholic theologians, sharply criticized by the magisterium, who teach that, if one has made a fundamental decision for Christ, then one may understand his words in John 14 to mean If you love me, you need not keep my commandments.
Meilaender quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the heroic theologian-martyr killed by the Nazis, whose Ethics and other writings provided a powerful corrective to the distortions of the law“gospel dialectic. Discussing the ways of the Psalms in exulting in God’s law, Bonhoeffer wrote, It is grace to know God’s commands. It is in no way contrary to the life of discipleship, writes Meilaender, that we should, again and again, experience ourselves as simply caught in the tension between the reality of our sin and the reality of God’s forgiveness. What is contrary to the path of discipleship is that we should rest content in that static condition, that we should not in prayer strain against it as we ask Christ’s Spirit to make the history of redemption an ever more effective reality in what we think, say, and do. Strive,’ says the Letter to the Hebrews, for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.’
The contrast is between Lutheranism’s dialectical framework and Catholicism’s linear framework. Meilaender writes, For Catholicism, that is, the Christian life is understood as a via , a journey (destined ultimately to end in the vision of God). At least at its non-Pelagian best, Catholicism emphasizes prevenient grace, understanding it as the justifying power that makes possible gradual progress toward a holiness that is fit to stand before God. In this framework one can affirm simul iustus et peccator , but the formula must be understood quantitatively. Divine grace, Meilaender writes, is a power that gradually makes us more and more’ righteous”less sinner, more saint, to put it a bit too crudely.
The consequence of the dialectical law“gospel framework is that it keeps sending the Christian back to square one. Meilaender: Grace is in no sense a power that enables us to become more and more’ what God wills we should be; rather, grace is pardon that announces God’s acceptance of the sinner and thereby elicits the faith that puts sinners in right relation with God. That grace having been announced, there is no more to be said”other than to say it again and again.’ In fact, serious struggle to grow in righteousness, to obey God’s commands more fully, is sometimes viewed as sin, since it deflects attention from the extrinsic righteousness of Christ to one’s own spiritual and moral efforts. Expressing a sinful preoccupation with self, such concern simply demonstrates that, in ourselves, we are indeed wholly and entirely slaves to sin.
Complacency or Despair
In the preaching and pastoral care derived from this dialectical theology, the person addressed is either complacent man or despairing man. If complacent, he must be brought to despair; if despairing, he is ready to hear the gospel. Moreover, it is sometimes suggested that, if one is not despairing, one is complacent, and the goal is then to bring the bad news of the law to bear in order to produce the despair that makes one ready to hear the good news of the gospel. Yet in our own experience of the Christian life, and the experience of those whom we encounter every day, we know that spiritual states are not limited to complacency or despair. There is also the working out of our salvation with fear and trembling, as St. Paul says, and also with faith, gratitude, and a sense of joyful adventure. It is grace all the way, but, in the story of salvation as well as in the life of individual Christians, grace has a history. It is not simply a perpetual and radical oscillation between complacency and despair, an again and again returning to where we began.
Grace, says Meilaender, is not only the imputed righteousness of Christ but the imparted possibility to live and grow in his righteousness. Grace is not only pardon but also power. Meilaender concludes by returning to that seventh-century collect in Evening Prayer: We should pray God to put an end to the simul , that our hearts may be set to obey. The command of God, which calls for our obedience, comes to us day by day as the command of the One whose grace has been revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. And because that is true, because we must say Amen’ to him, we should listen for the promise in the commands of the Decalogue: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. You shall become a child who loves the Father, a bride eager to greet her bridegroom, a creature who loves the Creator from whom comes life and every good thing . . . . All this you shall be. And to trust that promise”the promise that we shall become people whose hearts are set to obey God’s commandments”is both our duty and delight.
To be sure, not all Lutherans live their lives by the severe law“gospel dialectic described by Meilaender. As Auden’s poem suggests, formal doctrine is often divorced from lived reality. Lutheran textbooks do treat of sanctification as well as justification, but usually very gingerly, lest interest in the former compromise the truth of the latter. Sanctification’s interest in transformative grace must be kept in close check, lest it become a fatal distraction from what really matters”the imputed grace of Christ’s righteousness. The two states of theological and salvational significance are complacency and despair. Once complacency is shattered by the law and despair relieved by the gospel, what follows is, at best, a footnote.
Debates will continue about whether Luther’s sola gratia and sola fide were a necessary and inspired response to late-medieval corruptions. This will intensify in the years of preparation leading up to the five-hundredth observation of the Reformation in 2017, in which Catholics are also actively participating. As will debates continue about the continuity between Luther and later Lutheran theologians, including the architects of the radical law“gospel dialectic. Gilbert Meilaender’s Hearts Set to Obey is, from the Lutheran side, an invaluable contribution to these deliberations.
About the same time I read Meilaender’s essay, Benedict XVI gave a general audience touching on Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Benedict is a close and appreciative student of Luther and has made inestimable contributions to healing the breach of the sixteenth century between Rome and the Reformation. Luther’s doctrine of justification is correct, if care is taken not to oppose faith to charity, the pope said.
St. Paul’s conversion, says Benedict, changed his life radically. He began to regard all his merits, achievements of a most honest religious career, as loss’ in the face of the sublimity of knowledge of Jesus Christ . . . . It is precisely because of this personal experience of the relationship with Jesus that Paul places at the center of his gospel an irreducible opposition between two alternative paths to justice: one based on the works of the law, the other founded on the grace of faith in Christ, the pope explained. The alternative between justice through the works of the law and justice through faith in Christ thus becomes one of the dominant themes that runs through his letters.
Benedict then takes up Meilaender’s set of concerns. In order to understand this Pauline teaching, he said, we must clarify what is the law’ from which we have been freed and what are those works of the law’ that do not justify. Already in the community of Corinth there was the opinion, which will return many times in history, which consisted in thinking that it was a question of the moral law, and that Christian freedom consisted therefore in being free from ethics . . . . It is obvious that this interpretation is erroneous: Christian liberty is not libertinism; the freedom of which St. Paul speaks is not freedom from doing good.
Instead, Benedict said, the law to which Paul refers is the collection of behaviors extending from an ethical foundation to the ritual and cultural observances that substantially determined the identity of the just man”particularly circumcision, the observance regarding pure food and general ritual purity, the rules regarding observance of the Sabbath, etc.
These observances served to protect Jewish identity and faith in God; they were a defense shield that would protect the precious inheritance of the faith, he remarked. But at the moment of Paul’s encounter with Christ, the Apostle understood that with Christ’s resurrection the situation had changed radically.
The wall”so says the Letter to the Ephesians”between Israel and the pagans was no longer necessary, Benedict said. It is Christ who protects us against polytheism and all its deviations; it is Christ who unites us with and in the one God; it is Christ who guarantees our true identity in the diversity of cultures; and it is he who makes us just. To be just means simply to be with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Other observances are no longer necessary.
Because of this, Benedict explains, Luther’s expression by faith alone is true if faith is not opposed to charity, to love. Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into his love.
Paul knows, he added, that in the double love of God and neighbor the whole law is fulfilled. Thus the whole law is observed in communion with Christ, in faith that creates charity. We are just when we enter into communion with Christ, who is love. Benedict’s reflection is strikingly similar to the argument of The Gift of Salvation, the 1997 statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Salvation is by faith alone, but living faith is never alone. Put differently, justification is not so much a doctrine as a person, the person Jesus Christ.
Growth in grace is nothing less than growth in Christ. Meilaender’s problems with a law“gospel dialectic, which leaves room only for complacency or despair and results in pitting God’s grace against God’s commandments, have bedeviled Christian thought for centuries and have deprived innumerable Christians of rejoicing in the law of the Lord. As we prepare for the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, it is time to follow the lead of Benedict in claiming again the radically christological insight of Paul (and of Luther) that hearts set to obey God’s commandments are not a distraction from but the very way of justification, which is the lifelong journey of growth in grace.
While We’re At It
Avery Cardinal Dulles, the closest of collaborators and friends, died December 12 at age ninety in the infirmary of the Jesuit residence at Fordham University. Avery Dulles was a master of the Catholic theological tradition by which he was mastered and which he joyfully served. He combined erudition, intellectual intensity, and ecclesial fidelity in a lifelong devotion to the Church, joined to a wry sense of humor and disarming humility about his part in the grand scheme of things. Generations of Christian thinkers have been placed in his everlasting debt. You can be sure that there will be much more about Avery Dulles in these pages. For the moment, we thank God for love’s fire that burned to the end, and we pray that the truth to which he bore tireless witness is now opened to him in the fullness of the Beatific Vision for which he longed with nothing less than everything.
Some call it a media cornucopia and others call it anarchy and a formula for the dissolution of a common culture. The subject is the wild multiplication of media through which people deliver their opinions on anything and everything, to which the Internet has given an unprecedented boost. Brian Anderson and Adam Thierer have written a very helpful little book on the subject. It’s called A Manifesto for Media Freedom . So you know what side they’re on”against those who want to restore a Fairness Doctrine for the control of the media. The Fairness Doctrine dates back half a century and applied to radio and television, requiring that they be fair and balanced (as Bill O’Reilly might put it) in broadcasting controversial views. Then television was controlled by a few networks, in contrast to the thousand or more cable channels available today. Relatively few people decided what was fair and balanced, with government regulators at their side to reinforce their judgments. Even an expression of concern from the regulators usually brought independent broadcasters into line, so threatening were the possible penalties and the certain legal fees involved in fighting an alleged violation of the Fairness Doctrine. One may at first think that Anderson and Thierer are excessively partisan in their criticism of the Democrats and the left more generally, but then that, not surprisingly, is where the agitation for imposing government regulation is coming from. Much of the agitation focuses on the danger to children posed by pornography and violence, and the authors have a whole chapter very persuasively detailing what parents can do to monitor the viewing and video game“playing habits of their children. Constitutional scholars such as Cass Sunstein claim that state regulation is necessary in order to maintain, or restore, something like a common culture. Now, they say, everybody lives in an ideological, political, and cultural bubble of their own selection simply by clicking the mouse. There is substance to this argument. Many remember the olden days when most Americans listened to Jack Benny or watched Ed Sullivan, providing a community of shared banter at the water cooler the next day. Were we better off before cable television and the Internet? An argument can be made. I am of the view that ours would be a better society if more people turned off both and spent more time in conversation with family and friends and in the reading of books and serious magazines. About such things each of us can make decisions about the better ordering of our lives. But the argument over reimposing the Fairness Doctrine and inventing new forms of government regulation is not about moral improvement”although some may claim it is”but about control and, more specifically, control by those who presume to know what is best for ordinary folk who cannot be trusted to make their own decisions. And, as Anderson and Thierer convincingly contend, it is about the First Amendment. It is an unremarked oddity that advocates of government control readily exempt newspapers from their proposals. It is as though, on this question, they are the champions of originalism rather than the living constitution in their legal interpretation. Since the founders knew only about newspapers when they forbade abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, the First Amendment, they seem to be suggesting, does not apply to other forms of communication. I am not as sure as some that today’s media cornucopia is an unmitigated good, but it seems clear enough that the proponents of government control, in the name of ensuring fairness and neutrality, are engaged in a partisan power grab that is distinctly unfriendly to freedom, which is among the greatest of social goods.
It is not so much a very big thing as a very odd thing. From the name of the magazine, Newsweek , you might think it contains the news of the week. So what is the news of the week for December 15, just in time for Christmas? The big news of the week is that Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek , and Lisa Miller, religion editor, have come out unequivocally in favor of gay marriage. Newsweek thought you needed to know. The cover story, making the religious case for gay marriage, is a muddle of vituperation against the ignorant, biblicist, and bigoted people who disagree with them. The prejudice is in all points analogous to racial segregation, Mr. Meacham informs us. He is decidedly on the liberal side of the storms in the Episcopal Church and informs us that the resort to biblical authority is the worst kind of fundamentalism. To argue that something is so because it is in the Bible is more than intellectually bankrupt”it is unserious, and unworthy of the great Judeo-Christian tradition. In order to remedy this sorry state of affairs, Mr.?Meacham publishes a cover story arguing that the loving acceptance of gay marriage is mandated by the Bible and therefore it is so. As I say, it was a very odd item. Maybe all the other editors were on vacation. Or maybe Newsweek has decided to get out of the business of the news of the week in favor of venting the strident prejudices of its editors. Admittedly, you might think that happened some time ago. But at least there was a thin veneer of what used to be called journalism. In any event, it was some distance from Mr. Meacham’s variation on the old gospel song that Jesus loves gay marriage because the Bible tells me so.
At an ecumenical gathering in connection with an International AIDS Conference in Mexico City, Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of ELCA Lutherans, prefaced his presentation by washing the feet of two women who are HIV-positive. He described this as an act of humility and repentance. The ELCA press release says he told the gathering that male heterosexual religious leaders must be willing to talk about their own sexuality, rather than talking about the sexuality of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. This is noteworthy because the usual line is that HIV-AIDS is not, or is not mainly, the result of disordered sexual activities. Also interesting is why anyone other than their spiritual directors would be interested in hearing Mark Hanson and other male heterosexual religious leaders talk about their own sexuality. Surely it is enough to know that Bishop Hanson is, by his own account, humble and repentant.
The culture wars and the political battles by which they are fought are a day-by-day thing, the stuff of sound bites and news cycles. Attention must be paid to, but even greater attention is due to, the longer-term changes in the way we talk and think, as we know that the way we think is powerfully influenced by the way we talk. Toward that end, William Brennan, a social scientist at St. Louis University, has a new book from Sapientia Press, Confronting the Language Empowering the Culture of Death. It is a close study of the thought and language of John Paul II, who taught the Church and the world to understand the contest of the culture of life versus the culture of death. Rhetoric is never mere rhetoric, and the past election witnessed novel efforts by some Catholics to capture John Paul’s language and employ it to opposite effect. With apparently some significant success, evangelical and Catholic supporters of Senator Obama attempted to hijack the language of the culture of life, claiming that they are the authentic pro-life proponents because, by reducing poverty and expanding comprehensive sex education, Obama will decrease the number of abortions. This despite his adamant support for the unlimited abortion license, his support for government funding of abortion, and his backing of the Freedom of Choice Act, which would establish abortion as a fundamental right and eliminate all regulation of abortion, including state measures such as waiting periods, informed consent, and parental notification, which, along with abstinence (It works every time!), have the proven effect of reducing the number of abortions. Such Orwellian distortions are bizarre, but, as William Brennan reminds us, they are also the longstanding modus operandi of the pro-choice cause. And, of course, he is right in seeing John Paul the Great as a master of infiltrating truth into what, against all evidence to the contrary, we persist in calling public discourse.
Poor Anne Rice. Recognizing that she does not claim to be a theologian, I had some kind words for her Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana . Christopher Badeaux, writing in the Baptist magazine The City , is not prepared to let her off so easily. He allows that she obviously wants to be an orthodox Catholic, but she gets the two natures in Christ, human and divine, into a terrible muddle. He writes: Indeed, the divine nature seems like a hectoring scold, a lumbering brute, always on the edge of breaking down poor Yeshua and destroying his psyche and his world. (Again, his terrified, weary reaction to this is what makes the human Yeshua so compelling.) This Jesus does not merely laugh, he all but lusts (chastely, to be sure). His humanity is not remotely in doubt. His divinity is. Yet over the course of the book, Jesus transforms into the Christ, like an evolving caterpillar without a real need for the cocoon before becoming a butterfly. She has not, he says, escaped from the literary genres that made her famous. To anyone trying to grapple with the mystery of the Incarnation, it seems oddly abrupt, and at least as importantly, clearly a reflection of Rice’s thirty-year immersion in modern American science fiction and fantasy. The story of the young man thrust into an impossible world who rapidly grows superpowers and rises to the fore in the space of mere months is a peculiarly twentieth-century twist on an old archetype, and Rice’s Yeshua is such a protagonist. The outcome is predictable: As a result, after the baptism in the Jordan, her Christ swings almost 180 degrees and becomes an Eutychianist Monophysite Christ almost instantaneously, his human nature extinguished in all but name. That humanity becomes mere window dressing for his suddenly undeniably divine existence. Rice tries to, but cannot, salvage the man from the overbearing divine. All of the talk of hunger, of pangs of love, of regret, even of affection for his mother, seem like window dressing for a God who walks among men, who condescends to stand in time with his creation before leaving it. You will remember that Monophysites contended that Christ really had only one nature, and Eutyches was a fifth-century heretic who said Christ’s human nature was not consubstantial with ours. These confusions were addressed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. If Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana was presented as a doctrinal treatise on Christology, Badeaux’s strictures would be entirely in order. But please, Rice is doing something quite different. Hers is an exercise of the devout imagination, more along the lines of the spirituality of Ignatius Loyola and others who encourage us to enter into the biblical narrative, composing and reconstructing events as though we were there. Of course nobody can adequately describe the experienced reality of being both God and man since nobody else is true God and true man as Christ was and is. To ponder, explore, meditate upon, and in some small way attempt to penetrate the mystery of the Incarnation is not to be confused with explaining the mystery. Nicea and Chalcedon do not claim to explain the mystery but only to provide the language appropriate to thinking about it. Attempting, with difficulty, to remain within that rule of faith, Anne Rice offers a suggestive narrative of a truth that surpasses understanding and she should, I think, be cut considerable slack. She does not presume to have done adequately what cannot be done, but she is to be credited with provoking her readers to think their way more deeply into the bottomless truth of what we will really know only when we know as we are known (1 Cor. 13).
As you probably know, David Bentley Hart is a man who knows his mind and is not reticent in letting you know it too. Now he has brought together a book of essays and occasional pieces, most of which appeared in First Things . But I would understand if you wanted to read them again, as well as those that appeared elsewhere. The book is In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments , and it is published by Eerdmans. In the introduction he writes, Editors, moreover, will insist on making small changes in what one writes, even when no particular improvement is discernible as a result. Of course he does not mean our editors. I think. In these articles, Hart writes, I have given my natural inclinations towards satire and towards wantonly profligate turns of phrase far freer rein than academic writing permits . . . . One feature of my style for which I am not inclined to feel penitent, but for which reason tells me I ought to offer some apology, is an occasional want of restraint, most particularly in my expressions of distaste for an idea or for the mind that produced it . . . . My only defense”apart from confessing my sense that imperturbably mild manners often make for boring copy”is that I have never intentionally used language I thought disproportionately fierce in regard to any proposition or any thinker, and that in reviewing these essays I cannot honestly find an instance of invective I particularly regret. Yes, it is invective, but in the good sense of the word. He allows that perhaps his most savage personal remarks are in the essay on bioethicist Joseph Fletcher. They still do not seem unwarranted to me given the altogether loathsome nature of Fletcher’s ideas and the scandal that so many of our tenured intellectuals do not recoil from those ideas with the horror and revulsion they merit. The intelligence of David Hart is not in dispute. His style is not everyone’s cup of tea. As for me: Yes please, with two sugars.
Richard Garnett, professor of law at Notre Dame, wants us to consider this: Most of what we call church“state disputes in American law are nothing of the sort. Where is church in battles over menorahs or nativity scenes in public squares, in whether a child in public school can read his favorite story that happens to be from the Bible, or whether the religiously motivated use of peyote is permitted, and on and on? These are called church“state controversies, but they typically pit individual freedom of conscience against the power of government. There is certainly state
in these disputes, but there is typically no church.
In 2000, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protects the Boy Scouts of America from engaging in what would otherwise be illegal discrimination in selecting its leaders. The court called the Boy Scouts an expressive association. Is that how we should understand church in relation to the state? With respect to religious institutions and discrimination, the courts allow a ministerial exception. But why? Garnett writes: If, for example, it would be illegal for Wal-Mart to fire a store manager because of her gender, then why would a religiously affiliated university be permitted to fire a chaplain because of hers? Or, why should antidiscrimination law not reach the refusal”or, more precisely, the asserted inability”of the Catholic Church to ordain women as priests? There seems to be what might be called an institutional deficit in First Amendment jurisprudence. Garnett: Rightly understood, separation of church and state’ would seem to denote a structural arrangement involving institutions, a constitutional order in which the institutions of religion”not faith,’ religion,’ or spirituality’ but the church’”are distinct from, other than, and meaningfully independent of the institutions of government. What is at stake, then, with separation is not so much”or not only”the perceptions, feelings, immunities, and even the consciences of individuals, but a distinction between spheres, the independence of institutions, and the freedom of the church.’ The last phrase is of course the libertas ecclesiae , which has a long and colorful history in our civilization. The famous confrontation between Pope Gregory VII and King Henry IV at Canossa, as well as the murder of that meddlesome priest St. Thomas Becket by another ambitious King Henry, demonstrate, in the words of the distinguished legal philosopher Harold Berman, the principle that royal jurisdiction was not unlimited, and that it was not for the secular authority alone to decide where its boundaries should be fixed. A more institution-sensitive jurisprudence might treat churches as First Amendment institutions, in a way similar to the treatment of newspapers, political parties, universities, and libraries. It is an argument of more than passing interest. Finally, writes Garnett, we might agree to consider the possibility that an institutional approach could, and should, make room for, and build upon, the commitments embodied in the ancient idea of the freedom of the Church,’ an idea that, with all due respect to the Boy Scouts, is bigger than be prepared.’
Twenty-some years ago, Jeffrey Tulis published The Rhetorical Presidency , in which he emphasized the sharp break between the founders’ understanding of that office and how it is understood today. The essence of the modern presidency, he argued, is rhetorical leadership. Today it is taken for granted that presidents have a duty constantly to defend themselves publicly, to promote policy initiatives nationwide, and to inspirit the population. In some versions, the nation is viewed as a family; the president is the father and everyone else”that is, the children”is urged to help the father achieve his lofty visions for the well-being of all. Theodore Roosevelt (TR) exemplified the rhetorical presidency. Reflecting on Tulis’ argument all these years later, political philosopher Thomas Pangle writes: All of that being said, TR’s conception of the presidency, unlike Lincoln’s, constitutes the first serious critique of the founding theory’ of the presidency. The founders believed that an administrative republic would not need great leaders because the most difficult political issues would be replaced by the smaller concerns of citizens no longer contentious about the kind of regime they wished to constitute.’ In turn, Lincoln saw his presidency as a unique response to a one-time disruption in this administrative’ routine. But TR saw the nation periodically contending again with regime-level questions and disputes.’ Whereas The Federalist defended a theory of governance that would not require and did not provide support for the statesmanship of founders after the founding,’ TR believed that periodically, the perspective of founders needs to be adopted to preserve or improve the constitutional order.’ Improving the constitutional order did not mean replacing it with another. It was simply that, as Tulis puts it, the founders had not envisioned the full range of possibilities that their doctrine implied. The living constitution was pregnant with possibilities of which the founders had not dreamed. From this systemic’ perspective, writes Pangle, TR entered . . . to restore and repair”but also to refurbish by adding previously forbidden (demagogic) levers. Yet those levers were, so to speak, labeled: To Be Used Only in Emergencies ! Like the father-presidents who followed him, TR attempted to rally the family to emergencies without end.
In 1983, the Catholic bishops issued, to much media applause, a pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response. It is now viewed as an embarrassment that almost everybody would like to forget, including most bishops. Riddled with the language of appeasement and coexistence and addressing geopolitical and military details in which the bishops had no plausible competence, the letter was a direct assault on the policies of the Reagan administration that are generally recognized as having been vindicated five years later, with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. Not all the bishops are embarrassed, however. Speaking at Jesuit-run Seattle University, Bishop Gabino Zavala, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and president of the Catholic peace group Pax Christi USA, called for a celebration of the 1983 letter, asserting that the only thing that has changed is that the war on communism has been replaced by the war on terror, and we have yet to learn that violence only begets violence. The bishop is calling for a grassroots consultation that, in honor of the 1983 letter, will produce a people’s peace pastoral. I can curb my enthusiasm, but it’s likely to do less damage to the Church’s credibility than another peace pastoral by the pastors.
You may remember Mark C. Taylor. He’s chairman of the religion department at Columbia University, who a while back announced in the New York Times that his ambition is to make sure that students are more confused and troubled at the end of his course than they were at the beginning. Now that’s a sense of calling and a real challenge: to confuse and trouble young people. Taylor has committed yet another book, After God . It is reviewed by Anthony Kenny in the Times Literary Supplement . Taylor writes: God is not the ground of being that forms the foundation of all things but the figure constructed to hide the originary abyss from which everything emerges and to which all returns. While this abyss is no thing, it is not nothing”neither being nor nonbeing, it is the anticipatory wake of the unfigurable that disfigures every figure as if from within. Kenny comments: Religion, Taylor tells us, is perfectly possible without God”and given his elastic definition of religion, this is surely true. Given Taylor’s definition of God, his absence seems no great loss. Kenny is right about that, but perhaps he fails to appreciate sufficiently Prof. Taylor’s declared vocation, namely, the intellectual abuse of minors.
The historian Drew Gilpin Faust is the new president of Harvard University, and a while back we drew attention to her rather curious understanding of the intellectual life as revealed in her inaugural address as president (see First Things , March 2008). Now she has published a curious book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War . It is an assiduously detailed, melancholy, and often macabre account of the suffering and dying of 620,000 Confederate and Union soldiers, along with copious attention to the ghastliness of medical care and burial practices of the time. Suffering and death is, of course, a legitimate subject of scholarship, but Faust wants to make a larger point: The Civil War was not about freedom”despite the freeing of four million slaves”nor about saving the Union, nor about political purposes in conflict, nor about military heroes. It was about suffering and death. Well yes, a lot of people suffer and die in wars, and in some ways the Civil War was particularly brutal. That is the best reason for avoiding unnecessary wars, and the arguments will continue interminably over whether the Civil War was necessary. And yes, the glorification of warfare, even though it is often experienced as the supreme moment in the lives of those who fight wars, needs to be held in very close check. General Robert E. Lee was not being callous but was telling the plain truth when he said, It is well that war is so terrible or we would grow too fond of it. But, in Faust’s attempt to demythologize a defining event in the American story, the Civil War was only about death. As one reviewer observes, The North imposed its will and vision for the future on the South. Wars are not only about death. They are also about winners and losers. And most will continue to believe that the Civil War was also about freedom and whether, as Lincoln understood it, a nation so conceived and so dedicated could long endure. This Republic of Suffering , while filling in lacunae in Civil War history, reveals a simplicity of mind incapable of grasping the elusive ways in which good and evil are entangled in a course of history finally not under human control. As with the moralistic certitudes of her inaugural address, the book is further evidence that Dr. Faust is impatient with the attention to nuance on which Harvard prides itself.
Give a boy a hammer and he discovers the whole world needs hammering. Give an intellectual enthusiast a really big idea and he discovers it explains just about everything. Ernst Haeckel (1834“1919) was such an enthusiast and, along with many others, his really big idea was Darwinism. He had no problem with being accused of worshiping Darwin and was an influential popularizer of his thought. A new biography of Haeckel, The Tragic Sense of Life , by Robert Richards, notes his prodigious productivity, including what he considered a central pillar of Darwin’s theory”the idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. This means that in the first two months of development a human embryo can scarcely be distinguished from the tailed embryo of a dog or other mammals. In other words, the embryo of a contemporary species goes through the same morphological changes in its development as its ancestors went through in their evolutionary descent. I have met people who still hold to Haeckel’s theory and contend that an abortion only interrupts an evolutionary process, and we do not know what the embryo would have turned out to be at the end of its evolutionary development. Haeckel published a book with an illustration juxtaposing three embryos (dog, chicken, and turtle) and pointing out, as evidence in support of Darwin’s theory, that the three images were indistinguishable. A sharp-eyed reviewer noted that they were indeed indistinguishable. The same woodcut had been printed three times. Haeckel’s reputation never recovered. T.H. Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, wrote him a letter of consolation: May your shadow never be less, and may all your enemies, unbelieving dogs who resist the Prophet of Evolution, be defiled by the sitting of jackasses upon their grandmothers’ graves! A true believer, like a little boy with a hammer, is not easily deterred.
Despite devastating critiques of his positions, Peter Singer goes on and on. Holding a Princeton professorship doesn’t hurt. But there’s something about the man himself, call it self-confidence, insouciance, hubris, or something else. He wrote the long article on ethics for the Encyclopaedia Britannica . After many pages surveying the history of ethics, his conclusion is that the future of ethics as a serious discipline presupposes the collapse of traditional ethics. As it happens, he had written a book subtitled The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics. History is Peter Singer. Now he reviews a new book on ethics and writes, [The author] agrees with what now seems to be a near-consensus among philosophers that speciesism’”the view that we are entitled to take the interests of animals less seriously than we take human interests, simply because humans are members of our species”is not a morally defensible position. Speciesism is a Singer neologism and it seems he really believes what he says about there being a near-consensus on it. Surely the world cannot be that far behind Peter Singer! I doubt if anyone has a statistical breakdown on the matter, but I expect that only a small minority of philosophers, perhaps a very small minority, agrees with Singer that, for instance, between a year-old pig and a newborn baby, the pig has rights superior to those of the baby because of its greater self-consciousness. In all the possible reasons for the exalted self-confidence that keeps Peter Singer going, do not underestimate the power of sheer delusion.
Kenneth Anderson teaches law at American University in Washington, D.C., and has wise things to say in his review of Philip Bobbitt’s new book, Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century . Bobbitt makes a strong argument that what he calls the market-state is the best defense of democracy against terrorism. Anderson writes: As a believer in liberty and consent, I should greatly like to share Philip Bobbitt’s hopes for the market-state. It does not take a conservative to wonder, however, whether this is enough to sustain liberal democracy in the face of spiritual threats. A long tradition of what Lawrence Solum has called the left Burkeans’”Christopher Lasch, for example, or Zygmunt Bauman”has argued that the market is as much socially corrosive of the values of liberal democracy as it is materially supportive. The market and democracy are both sustained by wells of social capital that stable material prosperity helps to deepen, but which are not the moral logic of the market itself. The market of the market-state is not self-sustaining. On the contrary, it requires a form of social life that goes outside it in order to function in the long term. Honor, loyalty, sacrifice, gratitude to those who came before”these are not the evident virtues of capitalism, but they are necessary virtues in a liberal-democratic-capitalist form of life. Without them, society eats its seedcorn, the social capital bequeathed by the past to bless the future. Even after the marvelous argumentation of this marvelous book, therefore, room remains to question whether the market-state pays sufficient attention to the spiritual habits of the heart that make the market-state”and the willing defense of states of consent against states of terror”over the long struggle of years in this twenty-first century even possible.
Through much of the commentary on the death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn last August, there was the repeated intimation”and sometimes vulgar assertion”that, after his return to Russia in 1994, he descended into crotchety old age and irrelevance. This is not new. The same complaints were loudly heard more than thirty years ago when he gave that controversial commencement address at Harvard. There he said, among other things: Even if we are spared destruction by war, our lives will have to change if we want to save life from self-destruction. We cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man’s life and society’s activities have to be determined by material expansion in the first place? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our spiritual integrity? Such reflections were met by both embarrassed silence and cries of outrage. Who is he to presume to preach to us about the spiritual wreckage of our culture?! And to do so at Harvard, the shining campus on a hill that glows with the achievements of the brightest and best the world has ever produced. The answer is that he was one of the relatively few giants of the last hundred years, a man whose moral courage, literary genius, and uncompromising devotion to his calling alerted millions to the higher possibilities in being human. Through his years in the earthly hell of the Soviet prison system, to the publication of A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962, and, later, the multivolume Gulag Archipelago , Solzhenitsyn challenged the world to look unblinkingly at the good and, with relentless specificity, the evil of which we are capable. In this he offended the good taste by which we protect our pitiable conceits and dirty secrets. In the September 2008 issue of the New Criterion , Roger Kimball lifts up another factor that made Solzhenitsyn so very unacceptable to most of our intellectual class. He showed that communism and Nazism were but two sides of the same evil coin. The myth of communist idealism’ was, and perhaps still is, a hardy perennial. George Steiner, reviewing Gulag Archipelago in the New Yorker in 1974, typified the attitude of the left-wing Western intellectual: To infer that the Soviet terror is as hideous as Hitlerism,’ Steiner lectured, is not only a brutal oversimplification but a moral indecency.’ At least communism meant well; the pity is that it employed such brutal means, and the greater pity is that it failed. The left-wing historian Eric Hobsbawm was asked by an interviewer whether his position doesn’t come down to saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified. To which Hobsbawm unhesitatingly answered Yes. Kimball worries whether America, now in the grips of crowd politics rallying to utopian promises, might be headed in the direction of what Friedrich Hayek, following Tocqueville, called the road to serfdom. I hope, as he no doubt hopes, that he is wrong about that. One way to ward off that dreadful prospect is to have indelibly imprinted upon our minds the life and literary legacy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Just one more word on our friend Avery Dulles. I note the obituary written by Fr. Drew Christiansen, S.J., editor of America , which suggests that Dulles’ conservative turn in the 1970s had to do with his signing the 1975 Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation at the request of his friend Richard John Neuhaus. This is, I am afraid, a grave disservice to Cardinal Dulles’ intellectual integrity in his determination to think with the Church. Others have also suggested that Dulles’ betrayal of liberal orthodoxy is attributable to his having fallen under the influence of the First Things crowd. As a matter of fact, Dulles did not simply sign the Hartford Appeal. He was one of its initiators and architects, having spent several days hammering out the statement in cooperation with such luminaries as Peter Berger, George Forrell, Stanley Hauerwas, Thomas Hopko, George Lindbeck, Ralph McInerny, Richard J. Mouw, Carl Peter, Alexander Schmemann, Gerard Sloyan, George Tavard, and Robert Louis Wilken. Far from having signed the statement as a personal favor, in the book on Hartford, Against the World for the World , Dulles wrote a major essay in its support, Unmasking Secret Infidelities: Hartford and the Future of Ecumenism. As a matter of further fact, Dulles had about the same time, in his capacity as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, made a memorable address on why many, if not most, academic Catholic theologians were no longer doing Catholic theology as he understood that task. These were themes he constructively developed in his numerous essays in First Things over the last almost twenty years. The truth is that many Catholic theologians are deeply embarrassed that their most distinguished and honored colleague was unabashedly a conservative in that he was a formidable and persuasive defender of the faith as it is taught by the Church. Those who, like then Cardinal Ratzinger, admired Avery Dulles and supported his creation as a cardinal understood that his life’s work was marked at every step of the way by courage, candor, and care. As Benedict XVI wrote on the news of his death: I join you in commending the late cardinal’s noble soul to God, the Father of Mercies, with immense gratitude for the deep learning, serene judgment, and unfailing love of the Lord and his Church which marked his entire priestly ministry and his long years of teaching and theological research. At the same time I pray that his convincing personal testimony to the harmony of faith and reason will continue to bear fruit for the conversion of minds and hearts and the progress of the gospel for many years to come.
Studs Terkel died last October at age ninety-six, and the obituaries were many and fulsome. He made it big-time with what were called oral histories of ordinary Americans, beginning with Division Street in 1967 and many others following, including Chicago and Working. He was, as they say, an icon in Chicago, where he ran a feisty radio talk show for years and years. Terkel was a more or less unreconstructed representative of the Old Left of the 1930s and a champion of the Popular Front, for which the trope of indomitable hope was Come the revolution. His form of journalism was not universally admired. A.M. Abe Rosenthal, longtime executive editor and columnist for the New York Times , who in his last years did much to bring religious persecution around the world to public attention, referred to Terkel as a schmuck with a tape recorder. I had a limited but instructive experience of Terkel’s journalism when he was doing a book celebrating radical religious activists who were trying to shut down the city of Pittsburgh. It was very much in the news at the time. Terkel said he needed a voice from the other side. He showed up with his tape recorder, put it on the table, and handed me a sheet of paper on which were typed several questions prepared, he said, by his assistants. Turning on the recorder and taking a seat, he said, Take your time, an hour or so should do. Don’t mind if I doze off, they’ll get it all down on the transcript. I talked, he slept, and then, after half an hour or so, I stopped talking, he woke up, declared it a very useful interview, gathered up his tape recorder, and left, apparently pleased with yet another contribution to what his obituaries described as his aural history of the real America. Studs Terkel once said he wanted as his epitaph Curiosity did not kill this cat. My impression is that the last thing Studs Terkel had to worry about was his curiosity.
Jean Piaget, often called the father of cognitive development, said somewhere that, if we could understand what is going on in the mind of a baby during the first year of life, we could understand a thousand times more about ourselves than we do. I’m no expert on cognitive development, but, like most people, I have some very vivid memories of things that happened at age three or four but have often experienced a measure of frustration in trying to remember what happened before then. Obviously, things were happening both around me and in my mind. Psychologist Alison Gopnik reviews new studies of babies and what we can know about what they know, arguing that they are very active participants in their cognitive development and not, as some would have it, mere receptacles into whom experiences, reactions, and thoughts are poured. This will come as no news to attentive parents, but it’s always good to see science working its way around to the obvious. In the late 1980s, Gopnik writes, cognitive developmentalists began to ask a question empirically that up till then had been the province of philosophy”how do people come to understand the minds of others, and their own minds too? The unexpected answers to that question shaped a whole field, the theory of mind.’ In answering that question, we will, I expect, continue to rely more on philosophy and on careful attention to everyday experience”since, for starters, nobody asks a question empirically” but the help of the empirical sciences is welcome. Gopnik is on more solid ground in concluding: That kind of science makes our everyday experience of children even richer. Perhaps it will also give us psychologists the confidence to proudly embrace our study of the soft, warm, and occasionally fuzzy creatures we call people, and the even softer, warmer, and fuzzier ones we call babies.
As of this writing, I am contending with a cancer, presently of unknown origin. I am, I am given to believe, under the expert medical care of the Sloan-Kettering clinic here in New York. I am grateful beyond measure for your prayers storming the gates of heaven. Be assured that I neither fear to die nor refuse to live. If it is to die, all that has been is but a slight intimation of what is to be. If it is to live, there is much that I hope to do in the interim. After the last round with cancer fifteen years ago, I wrote a little book, As I Lay Dying (titled after William Faulkner after John Donne), in which I said much of what I had to say about the package deal that is mortality. I did not know that I had so much more to learn. And yes, the question has occurred to me that, if I have but a little time to live, should I be spending it writing this column. I have heard it attributed to figures as various as Brother Lawrence and Martin Luther”when asked what they would do if they knew they were going to die tomorrow, they answered that they would plant a tree and say their prayers. (Luther is supposed to have added that he would quaff his favored beer.) Maybe I have, at least metaphorically, planted a few trees, and certainly I am saying my prayers. Who knew that at this point in life I would be understanding, as if for the first time, the words of Paul, When I am weak, then I am strong? This is not a farewell. Please God, we will be pondering together the follies and splendors of the Church and the world for years to come. But maybe not. In any event, when there is an unidentified agent in your body aggressively attacking the good things your body is intended to do, it does concentrate the mind. The entirety of our prayer is Your will be done”not as a note of resignation but of desire beyond expression. To that end, I commend myself to your intercession, and that of all the saints and angels who accompany us each step through time toward home.
Mark Hanson in Forum Letter , Oct 2008; The City , published by Houston Baptist University, Summer 2008; Garnett in St. John’s Journal of Legal Commentary , Fall 2007; Pangle on Tulis, Critical Review , 19, nos. 2“3; Bishop Zavala, Origins , Oct 30, 2008; Haeckel, Times Literary Supplement , July 25, 2008, Peter Singer, Times Literary Suppleme