To look at the big picture of the relationship between Christ and culture is, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a dizzying experience. Our most immediate cultural world is chiefly Europe and the Americas. We do well to keep in mind, however, that the majority of Christians, and the most expansive growth of the Christian movement, is today in the Global South, led by Catholics and those who are described as evangelicals and Pentecostals, although many indigenous movements do not fit easily into our familiar categories. Only God knows what world Christianity will look like a hundred years from now, and that is perhaps just as well.
Speaking of Christ and Culture will, for many, immediately bring to mind H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic book of that title. Recall his typology of the ways in which the relationship between Christ and culture, meaning Christianity and culture, has been understood over the course of Christian history. Niebuhr suggests that there are essentially five ways: Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ transforming culture. While Niebuhr’s typology is suggestive and therefore useful, it is also seriously misleading on several scores. I confess that, after some years, I stopped using it in classroom teaching when I found that I was spending more time in arguing with Niebuhr than in being guided by him.
Nevertheless, Niebuhr is certainly right that the questions of Christ and culture have been a constant in Christian history from the apostolic era to the present, and will be until Our Lord’s promised return in glory. Barrels of ink have been spilt in trying to define what is meant by culture, and I do not presume to have the final word on the subject. By culture I mean the historical ambiance, the social context, of ideas and habits, within which the Church proclaims and lives the gospel of Christ. This includes the dominant moral assumptions, the widely held aspirations, and the beliefs and behaviors that characterize economic, political, religious, and educational life, along with the institutions that reflect and support those habits, beliefs, and behaviors. One might go so far as to say that culture is to us what water is to fish; it is more assumed than analyzed.
There is an American culture. Although the phrase is hotly contested, we speak of the American way of life. In a society so vast and various as ours, there are many subcultures and even countercultures. Indeed, the proponents of unbounded pluralism would persuade us that there is no longer an American culture; that what was American culture has been displaced by a maddening mix of subcultures and each of us lives in one subculture or another. Those who feel marginalized, constrained, or oppressed by the prevalent patterns of life in America tend to think this is a very good thing.
People who have a more comprehensive appreciation of world history, however, along with those who have the experience of living in other and very different societies, know that there is such a thing as American culture. Precisely in its being a capacious and hospitable culture with a marked respect for pluralism, it is American culture. Although it includes many non-Europeans, American culture is in the main an extension and reconfiguration of European culture, which is to say it is part of the culture of the West. And today it is the strongest and most vibrant part of the cultural tradition of the West. The challenge of Islam in its militant form of Jihadism powerfully reinforces our awareness that we are part of the West and, however ambiguously so, the Christian West.
In addition to the above-mentioned five ways of framing the Christianity-and-culture relationship suggested by H. Richard Niebuhr”Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ transforming culture”we might add a sixth way to his typology: Christ without culture. Now, as a matter of historical and sociological fact, Christianity is never to be found apart from a cultural matrix; Christianity in all its forms is, as it is said, enculturated. In relation to a culture, the Church is both acting and being acted on, both shaping and being shaped. What then do I mean by suggesting this sixth type, Christ without culture? I mean that the Church”and here Church is broadly defined as the Christian movement through time”can at times adopt a way of being in the world that is deliberately indifferent to the culture of which it is part. In the Christ without culture model, that indifference results in the Church unconsciously adopting and thereby reinforcing, in the name of the gospel, patterns of culture that are incompatible with her gospel.
Saint Paul writes, Be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind (Rom. 12:2). Worrying about the cultural conformity of Christianity is nothing new. Such worries are a staple in the history of Christian thought, from the third-century Tertullian’s defiant question What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? to Kierkegaard’s withering critique of culturally domesticated discipleship, to Karl Barth’s emphatic Nein! thrown in the face of the Kulturprotestantismus that was the form taken by the Christ of culture model in liberal Protestantism. And, of course, there are today in America forms of principled nonconformity finding expression among both left-wing and right-wing Christians who would revive, at least in theological and moral rhetoric, a Christ against culture model, meaning most specifically Christ against American culture.
If the subject of the future of Christianity is reformulated as the future of religion in this society and the world, there is, from a historical and sociological perspective, nothing to worry about. For as far as one can see into the future, religion is a bull market. In America, where more than 90 percent of the people say they believe in God and well over 80 percent claim to be Christians of one sort of another, Christianity is a bull market. We can debate until the wee hours of the morning whether this is authentic or biblical or orthodox Christianity, but the fact is that this is the form”composed of myriad forms”of the Christian movement in our time and place.
Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is a bull market because it is now evident that homo religiosus , man in search of transcendent meaning, is irrepressible. The secularization theories that held sway over our high culture for three hundred years, ever since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, have been falsified by the very history to which they so confidently appealed. Or at least so it would seem. That form of Enlightenment rationalism confidently assumed the unstoppable progress of modernity. As people became more modern”meaning more enlightened and skeptical”religion would gradually wither away, or at least be confined to the sphere of privacy where it is hermetically sealed off and prevented from exercising cultural influence. In important respects, history is not turning out that way. I have already mentioned the explosive growth of Christianity in the Global South. When China really opens up, it may seem that we are witnessing the fulfillment of Pope John Paul II’s vision of the twenty-first century as the springtime of world evangelization. And then there are other forms of religious resurgence, such as the newly assertive Islam mentioned earlier.
If one is inclined to put it in vulgar terms, one might say that this is a good time to be in the religion business. And yet the Enlightenment prognosis of secularization may not be falsified in its entirety. While religion is certainly not withering away, one may wonder whether, in its very flourishing, it is fulfilling the second part of the prognosis; namely, that the Christ without culture model is impotent, and quite prosperously happy in its impotence, when it comes to exercising cultural influence. In our society, there is a greater awareness of the public influence of religion than was the case more than twenty years ago when I published The Naked Public Square . But that awareness is almost entirely centered on the political influence of religious voters and activists, leading to alarmist cries of a threatening theocracy. At the risk of generalization, I think it fair to say that Christianity in America is not challenging the habits of the heart and habits of the mind that dominate American culture, meaning both the so-called high culture and the popular culture.
On the contrary, some of the more flourishing forms of Christianity not only do not challenge those habits; they exhibit a wondrous capacity to exploit them, and thus to reinforce them. Preachers of self-esteem and the gospel of happiness and prosperity uncritically accept the debased and pervasive notion that unhappiness and discontent with one’s circumstance in life is a disease; they would lead us to believe that self-criticism, along with its inevitably depressing discoveries, is a dangerous indulgence. The entrepreneurial spirit has built empires of Christian books, Christian music, and entertainment mislabeled as worship, all of which creates the delusion of living in a vibrant Christian subculture that is, in fact, a mirror of the habits of heart and mind that its participants think they are challenging”or at least escaping. As everything goes better with Coke, so everything goes better with Jesus, and, if that doesn’t work, there is always Prozac.
The fact that such religious enterprise presents itself as evangelization should not mislead us. Despite all the talk about a religious resurgence or revival, the percentage of the population characterized by a disciplined commitment to Christ, however that might be described, and by active engagement in Christian service to the Church and the world has not grown appreciably. At least I have seen no evidence to that effect. Rather, religious entrepreneurs are increasingly competing for niche markets within a stable population that prefers religion to Prozac, or prefers their Prozac with a panache of religion.
I do not wish to paint too grim a picture. There is, to be sure, the undeniable reality of the culture wars. There are Christians not only voting their moral convictions but, especially with respect to the conflict between the culture of life and the culture of death, making truth claims and advancing arguments in terms of public reason aimed at engaging the centers of cultural influence. For instance, there is the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement issued last fall, That They May Have Life. That is a welcome exception, but it is an exception.
The centers of cultural influence in this country do not recognize that they are being challenged by Christians, except for the allegedly theocratic challenge in electoral politics. They do not recognize that they are being intellectually, conceptually, and culturally challenged, in largest part because Christians are not persuasively articulating such a challenge. Their complaint is that Christians are trying to impose their values on them. They do not understand that we want to engage them in a civil argument about the possibility of moral truth, about what kind of people we are and should aspire to be, and therefore about how we ought to order our life together. They do not understand that because so few Christians understand and attempt to practice such engagement.
Engagement is very different from imposing one’s understanding of the truth on others. In his encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer), John Paul II said, The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes. But what she proposes she believes to be truth. She proposes as a lover to the beloved, reflecting as she does the words of John 3:16 that God so loved the world. She proposes persistently, persuasively, and winsomely. Unlike an imposition, a proposal is not a conversation stopper but a conversation starter.
Of course, it is true that many people will reject the proposal, and many will simply refuse to be engaged by it. They simply know that, no matter how winsomely proposed, the conversation with Christianity is but a cunningly disguised threat of imposition on their freedom. Their default position, so to speak, is one of methodological, if not metaphysical, atheism. Any reference to God or transcendent truth, any proposal associated with religion, and especially any proposal associated with Christianity is a threat to the autonomous self and to the achievements of a rigorously secularist modernity. They live in what Max Weber called a disenchanted world, and they are determined to keep it that way.
This is a mindset powerfully influential in our culture. Karl Marx spoke of those who control the commanding heights of economies, and so we may speak of those who control the commanding heights of culture. Even though they may be a minority of the population, they succeed in presenting themselves as the mainstream through their control of powerful institutions in the media, in entertainment, in the arbitration of literary tastes, in the great research universities and professional associations, and in the worlds of business and advertising that seek the approval of those who control the commanding heights of culture.
It is necessary but not sufficient to alert them to the fact that they are a minority by defeating them in electoral politics. Yet such alerts intensify their alarm that The theocrats are coming! They are thus reinforced in their determination to resist what they view as a populist uprising against the hegemony of their enlightened ways. On many questions pertinent to the right ordering of our public life, Christians view those who control the commanding heights of culture as political opponents, and they typically are that. While we view them as political opponents and engage them in fair battle, we must not view them personally as our enemies. Many of them may view us that way, because, for many of them, politics is the name of the game. It is the only game in town. But we know, or we should know, that politics is not enough.
The great contest is over the culture, the guiding ideas and habits of mind and heart that inform the way we understand the world and our place in it. Christians who, knowingly or unknowingly, embrace the model of Christ without culture are captive to the culture as defined by those who control its commanding heights. They are not only captive to it but are complicit in it. Their entrepreneurial success in building religious empires by exploiting the niche markets of the Christian subculture leaves the commanding heights untouched, unchallenged, unengaged.
Christianity does indeed have its own culture, its own intellectual tradition, its own liturgy and songs, its own moral teachings and distinctive ways of life, both personal and communal. The Church must carefully cultivate that culture and, in times of severe persecution, cultivate it, if need be, in the catacombs. But that is not our time in America, although there are Christians who, embracing the model of Christ against culture, invite us to take refuge in the catacombs of their own imagining.
A rich ecclesial culture, a distinctively Christian way of being in the world, sometimes finds itself positioned against the world as the world is defined by those who are hostile to the influence of the Church. But even when the Church is against the world, she is against the world for the world. The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes. In season and out, whether the response is sympathetic or hostile, she proposes what Saint Paul at the end of I Corinthians 12 calls a more excellent way. The way proposed is not so much a message as a person, the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. The Second Vatican Council says that Jesus Christ is not only the revelation of God to man but the revelation of man to himself. Those words of Gaudium et Spes were insistently repeated in the pontificate of John Paul the Great and have a prominent place in the teaching of Benedict XVI.
The Christian proposal of a more excellent way is not just one option among others, although it must be freely chosen. Some years ago, in conversation with a prominent Anglican bishop in Britain, I asked how he would define the mission of the Church of England. After a pause for thought, he said, I suppose I would say that the mission, so to speak, is to maintain the religious option for those who might be interested. Needless to say, those who control the commanding heights of British culture do not feel threatened by that understanding of the Christian mission.
While religion flourishes here in America, it is largely of the Christ-without-culture variety. What in recent decades have been the distinctively Christian contributions that deserve to command the attention of the cultural gatekeepers of America? In literature and the arts, in music and entertainment, in political philosophy and the humanities, such contributions are few and far between. Distinctively Christian cultural products typically cater to the Christian market. They are not proposals of a more excellent way for American culture. Recently the Fox movie studio announced that it was inaugurating a new series of films under the label of FoxFaith. Does this indicate a growing Christian influence in our public culture? Perhaps so, but it is much more obviously a commonsensical capitalist decision to take advantage of the niche market that is the Christian subculture.
The Christ without culture model induces contentment with being a subculture. But, as I have suggested, Christianity that is indifferent to its cultural context is captive to its cultural context. Indeed, it reinforces the cultural definitions to which it is captive. Nowhere is this so evident as in the ready Christian acceptance of the cultural dogma that religion is essentially a private matter of spiritual experience. Against that assumption, we must insist that Christian faith is intensely personal but never private. The Christian gospel is an emphatically public proposal about the nature of the world and our place in it.
Many Christians, possibly most Christians, have uncritically accepted the dichotomy between public and private, between fact and value, between knowledge and meaning. These dichotomies are deeply entrenched in American religion and culture and are closely associated with what is often described, and frequently decried, as American individualism. In what is called our high culture, this understanding of religion as private and intensely subjective was influentially depicted a hundred years ago in William James’ classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Early on in that work, James defines religion as the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. In this understanding, church, community, doctrine, tradition, morality”all of these are secondary and, as often as not, hindrances to genuine religion. Genuine religion is subjective experience , and subjective experience in solitude .
Many years later, in 1992, the influential literary critic Harold Bloom published The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation . The post-Christian nation, says Bloom, emerged a long time ago and is exemplified in Ralph Waldo Emerson, who declared: It is by yourself without ambassador that God speaks to you . . . . It is God in you that responds to God without. Bloom, rather loosely, calls the American religion gnosticism, the belief that each individual possesses a divine spark and salvation consists in the liberation of that divine spark from the body and from the particularities of its constraints in history and cultural space. Bloom writes:
Unlike most countries, we have no overt national religion; but a partly concealed one has been developing among us for two centuries now. It is almost purely experiential, and despite its insistences [to the contrary], it is scarcely Christian in any traditional way. A religion of the self burgeons, under many names, and seeks to know its own inwardness, in isolation. What the American self has found, since about 1800, is its own freedom”from the world, from time, from other selves.
Of course, Harold Bloom overstates his case. It is not sufficient, however, to point out that there are innumerable ministries in the several Christian communities that insist on the objectivity of truth, the authority of Scripture and Spirit-guided interpretation, the ecclesial means of grace, and the reality of moral good and evil. But in preferring such religion, Bloom might respond, one is still exercising a private preference. One’s preferred religion may be conservative or liberal, orthodox or squishy, but the point is that it is my religion, certified and secured by the fact that it is mine. By the privilege of privacy, it cannot be publicly questioned, and it is forbidden to publicly question the preferred beliefs of others.
Gnosticism may not be the right word for it, but it is what Bloom calls a religion of the self. It is a seductive way of accommodating differences by declaring a truce in contentions over truth. The Christ without culture model would seem to produce a circumstance in which religion is impervious to culture and culture is impervious to religion. But, in fact, it results in religion’s acquiescing in the culture’s demand that it confine itself to the sphere of privacy, William James’ radically individualistic solitude, even if that solitude is celebrated in a five-thousand-seat auditorium of a megachurch.
It was not so in the apostolic period, as witness Saint Paul’s opening hymn in the letter to the Ephesians, his depiction of cosmic transformation in Romans 8 and his anticipation in Philippians 2 of every knee bowed and every tongue confessing Jesus Christ as Lord. It was not so in the patristic era when Justin Martyr proposed Christianity not as a more satisfying religion among other religions but as the true philosophy. It was not so with Saint Augustine, who proposed in City of God that the story of the gospel is nothing less than the story of the world. Were Christianity what a man does with his solitude, there would be no martyrs. In every vibrant period of the Church’s life, it has been understood that her message and mission are based on public events, are advanced by public argument, and invite public response.
The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes. For the past three hundred years, that public proposal has been inhibited and stifled by Christians who acquiesced in the Enlightenment demand that religion, if it is to survive at all, confine itself to the closet of subjectivity. In America, that acquiescence was embraced as a virtue. The freedom of religion was purchased at the price of agreeing to the public irrelevance of religion. Religious empires were constructed and flourish today by catering to private salvation and the spiritualities of solitude.
Today the Enlightenment settlement that imposed a public truce with respect to the truths that really matter, divorcing fact from value, knowledge from meaning, and faith from reason, is being boldly challenged. Whatever one may think of papal authority, on the world-historical stage that challenge is being pressed most boldly, even audaciously, by the bishop of Rome. That was the real significance of Pope Benedict’s lecture at Regensburg University on September 12. The media excitement focused on a few words about Islam. And he did say that the use of violence to impose religion is to act against reason, and to act against reason is to act against the nature of God, for God has revealed himself as logos ”the word and the reason by which all came to be and in which all coheres.
But the bulk of the Regensburg address was directed to Christian intellectuals who, in the name of de-Hellenizing Christianity, pit biblical faith against the great synthesis of faith and reason achieved over the centuries of the Christian intellectual tradition. At Regensburg and elsewhere, Benedict has challenged also non-Christian intellectuals to free themselves from the truncated and stifling definition of rationality imposed by the Enlightenment. It is not reasonable, he argues with great intellectual sophistication, to hold that atheism or agnosticism is the default position of rationality. Nor, he insists, can the undoubted achievements of modernity be sustained without reference to transcendent truth.
Since we cannot prove beyond all reasonable doubt that God is, the rational position is not to live as though God does not exist but to live as though God does exist. Here he is urging a form of Pascal’s wager. As you remember, the seventeenth-century genius Blaise Pascal proposed that it is more rational, in view of the benefits to be gained, to believe that God exists than to believe he does not exist. If the believer turns out to be wrong, he has lost what he had hoped for; if the nonbeliever turns out to be wrong, he has lost, quite simply and catastrophically, everything, including life eternal. In short, what is at stake is the infinite or the finite, and there is no commensurability between the infinite and the finite. C.S. Lewis rephrased Pascal’s wager this way: Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, is of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.
In these and many other ways, the case is advanced that Christianity is a public proposal within the realm of authentically public discourse, and requiring decisions of immeasurable consequences, both personal and cultural. In different times and in different places, the Church has understood its relationship to culture in different ways. There is Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ transforming culture. As I said, H. Richard Niebuhr’s useful taxonomy can be expanded and modified. The one model that is not possible, except by deluding ourselves and betraying the Church’s proposal to the world, is Christ without culture.
The above reflection is adapted from a lecture delivered at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.
While We’re At It
The argument is over, announced former Vice President Al Gore. The subject was global warming. The television interviewer then asked, You mean there is no argument about global warming? Gore solemnly nodded and said again, very much like a judge pronouncing the final verdict, The argument is over. When and where, one might well ask, did the argument take place? Who was invited to take part in the argument? There are many very reputable scientists expressing skepticism or disbelief with respect to global warming. Never mind, they’re too late; the argument is over. As the presumed moderator of public discourse, Mr. Gore declares that the argument is over and that his side won. Writing in the Boston Globe , Ellen Goodman goes further, comparing global-warming skeptics with Holocaust deniers. They are not only ignorant, they are culpably ignorant. In fact, they are evil. One detects a growing pattern of refusing to engage in argument by declaring that the argument is over. It is not only global warming. Raise a question about the adequacy of Darwinian theory, whether scientifically or philosophically, and be prepared to be informed that the argument is over. Offer the evidence that many who once coped with same-sex desires have turned out, not without difficulty, to be happily married to persons of the opposite sex and you will be told politely”or, more likely, impolitely”that the argument is over.
It does seem that there is a new spirit of anti-intellectualism abroad. Public discourse is increasingly aimed not at exploring the truth of a matter but at terminating the discussion. Conversation is displaced by propaganda. Self-appointed thought police patrol the conceptual borders against ideas and facts they find inconvenient. To be sure, this is hardly new, but the border patrol seems to be increasingly aggressive these days. Some arguments are rightly declared to be over. For instance, the argument for the legal segregation of the races. For instance, the argument that real communism hasn’t been tried yet. For instance, the argument that people should divorce for the sake of the children. And there are others that sensible people deem unworthy of debate. But there are subjects”for example, whether we are facing catastrophic climate change caused by human behavior, whether reason and spirit emerge from mindless matter, whether sexual desire is identity and destiny”that are eminently deserving of intelligent discussion. In We Hold These Truths , John Courtney Murray wrote that democracy is made possible by people who accept the open-ended discipline of being locked in civil argument. This is possible, and we must work at it. He writes: And this belief and hope is strengthened when one considers that this dynamic order of reason in man, that clamors for expression with all the imperiousness of law, has its origin and sanction in an eternal order of reason whose fulfillment is the object of God’s majestic will. Now that is a claim worth arguing about. It is a claim to be defended when confronted by anti-intellectuals who are, with a presumptuousness that would be amusing were it not so deadening, increasingly prone to declaring that the argument is over and that they won.
A storm of criticism broke when columnist Dennis Prager suggested that there was something not quite American about Democratic representative Keith Ellison taking his oath of office with his hand on the Qur’an. He should, said Prager, swear on the Bible that represents the core religio-cultural tradition of the country. That, he noted, is what Jewish politicians customarily do, even though the New Testament is not their Bible. Ellison, who represents the Fifth District of Minnesota, was born in Detroit and converted to Islam while in college. The brouhaha engaged a number of interesting questions. There is, for instance, the fact that representatives are sworn in en masse in the chamber of the House. The individual taking of the oath is an after-the-fact photo-op. (It is said that more media showed up for Ellison’s photo-op than for any in the history of the House.) Then, too, there is the representative principle. The people of the Fifth elected him knowing full well that he is a Muslim, and presumably his highest allegiance is to God as revealed in the Qur’an. The point of taking an oath is to solemnly swear by one’s highest allegiance, which, for Ellison, is represented by the Qur’an.
But then there is this delicious irony: Ellison is pictured taking the oath on a copy of the Qur’an borrowed from the Thomas Jefferson collection in the Library of Congress. Now, as it happens, Jefferson had very definite, and less than complimentary, views about Islam and good reason for consulting the Qur’an. After American independence, the Muslim pirates of the Barbary Coast, as it was then called, waged a war of terror against American shipping, taking thousands of American sailors and civilians captive as slaves. Payments in ransom and tribute to the privateering Barbary states amounted to 20 percent of United States government annual revenues in 1800. Jefferson thought enough was enough. When he was the U.S. ambassador to France, he had had some experience in negotiating with Muslims and was not favorably impressed. In 1786 there were negotiations with Tripoli’s envoy to London, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. He was asked by what right he extorted money and took slaves. Jefferson reported to Secretary of State John Jay, and to the Congress: The ambassador answered us that [the right] was founded on the Laws of the Prophet (Mohammed), that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to heaven. After being inaugurated as president in 1801, Jefferson declared the U.S. policy to be millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute. In 1805, the Marines were sent in, marching across the desert of Egypt into what was then called Tripolitania, compelling the surrender of Tripoli and the release of all American slaves. Hence the U.S. Marines sing to this day: From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli/ We will fight our country’s battles in the air, on land and sea. It is not evident from the news accounts whether Congressman Ellison intended the choice of Jefferson’s Qur’an as a sign of his support for America’s current struggle against Jihadism.
Speaking of Jefferson, I see there is a big fight over removing the cross from the chapel of William and Mary, Jefferson’s alma mater. That may be viewed as a battle over paying tribute to another form of tyranny, although it is not likely to be resolved by sending in the Marines. The tyranny is a mindless form of multiculturalism, to which, as is evident in his view of the deeply held convictions of Sidi Haji Abdrahaman, Jefferson was decidedly cool.
I recommend a careful reading of George Weigel’s article in this issue, Just War and Iraq Wars. I know it will not be easy for some readers. Not because the article is hard to understand but because passions about U.S. policy in Iraq have become so inflamed that in many quarters there is slight patience with calm and careful analysis. While thoughtful people do not indulge facile comparisons with the war in Vietnam, today’s fevered public rhetoric about Iraq is reminiscent of the Vietnam era. Such rhetoric is employed by those who accuse opponents of the war of being unpatriotic and, much more commonly and stridently, or so it seems to me, by those who declare U.S. policy to be unjust, wrongheaded, or even criminal. It is a cliché to say that war is hell, but it is a cliché because, in fact, so much about war is hellish. One can honor the noble intentions and courage of those who wage war while believing that the war they wage is wrong. Although on the scale of modern warfare the absolute numbers may not seem large, so many Americans have been killed or wounded, and then there are the thousands of Iraqis”there is no agreement on the number”who have been killed, maimed, or made homeless since the defeat of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The responsibility of America and its allies for Iraqi casualties is, of course, a question that is hotly disputed. Whether one supports or opposes U.S. policy in Iraq, it is necessary to understand what has gone wrong, but even more necessary to understand where we are and where we should go from here. This assumes that we are all”whether in support, protest, or uncertainty”prepared to accept a measure of moral responsibility for being part of the we of America and its role in the world. Weigel addresses with rare calm and clarity the theoretical and practical considerations attending that responsibility. We look forward to publishing what I expect will be sharply differing responses to his analysis.
Many years ago, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. It was an always necessary caution against the moral arrogance of assuming that all the right and all the truth is on our side of whatever conflict in which we are engaged. A reader came across a recent statement by a Notre Dame law professor who reproached pro-lifers for claiming that they represent the forces of light against the pro-abortion forces of darkness. So our reader did a little research and discovered this quote: Three years ago, in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services 492 U.S. 490 (1989), four Members of this Court appeared poised to cas[t] into darkness the hopes and visions of every woman in this country’ who had come to believe that the Constitution guaranteed her the right to reproductive choice. Id., at 557 (Blackmun, J., dissenting). All that remained between the promise of Roe and the darkness of the plurality was a single, flickering flame. Decisions since Webster gave little reason to hope that this flame would cast much light. See, e.g., Ohio v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, 497 U.S. 502, 524 (1990) (Blackmun, J., dissenting). But now, just when so many expected the darkness to fall, the flame has grown bright . . . . I fear [however] for the darkness as four Justices anxiously await the single vote necessary to extinguish the light. [Emphasis added.] That is heavy-duty language indeed. You may well ask who was the author of Manichean mindset who wrote the above. It was, of course, Justice Harry Blackmun, author of the Roe v. Wade majority decision, writing (and quoting himself) in the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey . That having been duly noted, I have little doubt that the more than forty million children in this country who were not permitted to see the light would have little doubt, if they had a say in the matter, about who are the children of light in the battle over abortion.
For clarity of mind, warmth of heart, and courage of expression, there is hardly a bishop in the United States to match Charles Chaput, archbishop of Denver. Yet I confess to having a problem with his recent pastoral letter on immigration reform. He reports that he has received a truly vicious protest against what he has said on the subject. The e-mail is real. So is the person who wrote it. So is the coarseness of spirit that inspired it. Something is deeply wrong with the heart and the head of any person who thinks like this. It’s worth asking ourselves what kind of a God we believe in”the kind that has no problem’ with a person who refuses to pray for others and hopes that families and children of arrested workers will starve to death’? How can a person continue to consider himself a Christian with this kind of vindictive brutality on his lips? No decent person would want to disagree with the bishop on that. But is it quite fair to imply that those who are skeptical of, or opposed to, the U.S. bishops’ stance on immigration reform”which includes language that sounds an awful lot like amnesty”are represented by the vicious email that Chaput rightly deplores? I think not. Despite some modest measures to strengthen border controls, thousands are still entering illegally each month. There is a widespread and irrepressible sense that there is something very wrong with a nation that does not have the will to control its own borders. Meanwhile, thousands upon thousands wait in line to enter the country legally. Surely that injustice is deserving of recognition. Nor should we turn a deaf ear to the many Americans who cry out against the ruination of their communities by an uncontrolled flood of illegal immigrants, bringing with them crime and an unsupportable increase in taxation. And it cannot be right that the Mexican government perpetuates poverty at home by encouraging illegal immigration to the U.S., becoming dependent on the money they send back, which, next to oil, is the largest part of that country’s GDP. Archbishop Chaput is right: How we treat the weak, the infirm, the elderly, the unborn child and the foreigner reflects on our own humanity. Most Americans, unlike the writer of the email to which he alludes, are not mean-spirited or lacking in compassion. They are disturbed by a circumstance that is wildly out of control and do not believe it is beyond remedy. Control first is a perfectly defensible position. Until control is much more believably established, talk about multifaceted reform plans and calls for compassion will almost inevitably be heard as an invitation to resign ourselves to unbounded lawlessness.
I’m a bit late in getting to this. Paul Johnson, author of Art: A New History , has this to say in The New Criterion : Nor do I believe that art can flourish for long without a spiritual element. I grieve over what happened to painting in the twentieth century, vitiated by a kind of barbarism not unlike the actions of governments which cost the lives of scores of millions. When I visit galleries today, I long for the fifteenth century, with its tender Madonnas and the outstretched arms of the infant Jesus on their knees, and even the paintings of the martyrs in woeful suffering have a purpose missing from the pointless images of violence now cast up, or the descent into depths deeper than any Hell of Hieronymus Bosch. I recall attending the opening of Tate Modern. I found a room there empty except for a large video screen and three children, a girl of about ten and her younger brother and sister. They were sampling modern art”a video of a man masturbating. That this kind of episode was no accident I deduce from the latest obiter dicta of Charles Saatchi, said to exercise enormous power over our art: I know I sound like some ghastly creep, but there is something enchanting about seeing children sitting around a Chapman brothers piece showing penises coming out of girls’ eyes, and drawing it neatly to take back to their teacher.’ As long as they’re drawing neatly.
There are notes of both desperation and hopefulness in a study by Steven M. Cohen published by the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation. In the past, it is noted, Jewish identity was reinforced by two dynamics: the segregation of Jews by anti-Semitism and the assumption that religion is defined for life by birth. Those dynamics are now severely weakened or have disappeared. The study lays out a number of programs that can help young people to be Jews by choice. The majority of Jews have no specifically Jewish affiliation. At least 40 percent of Jews are married to non-Jews. Rabbi Irving Greenberg, president of JLN/SF, writes: In this group, the participation numbers are troublingly low. Children of families with non-converted spouses are growing up and defining themselves as Jewish at very low rates. No community can afford to lose 40% of its body. Let it be clear. We do not believe that the act of intermarriage has an inexorable, determined assimilationist outcome. We believe that intermarriage is a symptom more than a cause. Primarily, Jewish life must be so enriched and Jews offered so much participation in vital education and living experiences that they will prefer Jews in marriage and if they fall in love with a non-Jew they will encourage conversion or, at least, will choose to raise their children Jewishly. Therefore, we need urgent attention to try to find programs that work in this sub-community. He adds: We are at a crucial crossroads in the history of American Jewry. If we choose not to act, dissolution and assimilation still await us. But, if we direct our efforts toward what works and if we have the commitments to address the historic challenge of full integration in American life, then the future of the Jewish people in the open society will be ensured. The choice is before us. The language is of more than passing interest: against assimilation, which is equated with dissolution, and for full integration in American life. NB : Not full integration into American life, which, again, might connote dissolution. It is a language peculiar to the Jewish circumstance. Were the same locutions to be employed by leaders of, say, black, Asian, or Hispanic communities, it would raise all kinds of public controversy. Imagine Jesse Jackson publicly insisting that blacks should not marry whites. On the other hand, I expect few eyebrows would be raised by Catholics urging Catholics to marry Catholics, or evangelicals urging evangelicals to marry evangelicals. It is hard to imagine Methodists being very concerned that their children marry Methodists, although there are no doubt some Lutherans who very much want their children to marry Lutherans.
Were I in Rabbi Greenberg’s position, I would be as straightforward in opposing out-marriage as he is. Christians who have a particular interest in converting Jews should take no comfort from the large number of Jews marrying non-Jews. As often as not, children of such unions are reared as neither Christian nor Jewish. Without denying the universality of the gospel of Christ, I believe it is in the interest of Christians to live side by side with a strong and vibrant Jewish community. We still have a lot to learn from Judaism about what it means to be Christian. (See my essay Salvation Is from the Jews, November 2001.) There are problems, however, with the JLF/SF’s promotion of a Common Judaism, described as an articulation of classic Jewish values that can still inspire Jews of every stripe. Judaism is nothing if not particularistic. One has to wonder what, apart from an ethnic spin, distinguishes such values from those that inspire Americans of every stripe”including, for most Christians, a commitment to the safety and flourishing of Israel. As many Jewish writers have noted, there is a big difference between devotion to Jewishness and devotion to”meaning observance of”Judaism. The former is tribalism or just another color in the gorgeous mosaic of American pluralism. The latter engages, as St. Paul ponders in Romans 9“11, God’s continuing covenantal purposes for his elect people.
The editorial in The Economist carries the assertion in the subhead that liberty should give way to equality. You can be sure that The Economist , a notorious running dog of capitalist hegemony, is not referring to the pay packages of CEOs or proposing an expansion of government regulation of business. No, the subject is the request of the Catholic Church, backed by the Church of England, that it should be exempt from a new law requiring adoption agencies to place children with same-sex couples. The request has been denied by the Blair government, and The Economist strongly approves. To the concern that such adoptions may not be in the child’s interests, the editors respond that there is virtually [no evidence] to suggest that the sexual orientation of parents affects the outcome. Of course, there is slight evidence because there has been very slight experience with same-sex adoptions. One outcome that common sense suggests is almost inevitable is that such children will have a very different understanding of human sexuality. In any event, the Blair government is quite prepared to subject children to a social experiment that is, in the view of many experts, filled with high risks.
Churches, like societies, do change, the Economist editors say. They mean must change, and they opine that homosexual parents may come to seem another variety in the bewildering gamut of family structures. While political philosophers from classical Greece to the present have contended that the family, as it has been understood up to now, is the foundational structure of society, the editors insouciantly ask, What’s wrong with a bewildering gamut of family structures? They are concerned about the degree to which respect for different customs and faiths in multicultural Britain should dilute the law of the land. Islam is mentioned in passing. The implication is that, if Christianity gets special respect, Sharia law will not be far behind, which says volumes about Britain’s confidence in its history and culture. But the underlying assumption of the editorial, an assumption common among those who are unthinkingly only economic conservatives, is that religion, conscience, and morality are purely private matters. The churches, they say, are worried that the state is increasingly muscling in on areas that should be left to private conscience and religious teaching. But, they say, when religion or anything else touches on public life, it should be brought under state control. Except for business, of course. The tax exemptions of churches and charities are subsidies from the taxpayers and therefore should bring such institutions under state control. They allow that there are exceptions to the rules. The Economist s London offices are surrounded by gentlemen’s clubs, for example, to which ladies are admitted only as guests. But private clubs do not offer public services. Apparently nothing goes on in those clubs that has a bearing on public life. A business magazine that pits equality against liberty and bows to the rule of Leviathan over any human activity of public consequence has not thought very carefully about the nature of business”never mind the nature of religion, conscience, and culture.
My apologies to Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland of Yale and author of How We Die . In the February issue, I said that he wrote in his book that he had never witnessed an instance in which a patient had found in religious faith a mitigation of the horror of death. I was relying on my memory of having read the book when it appeared twelve years ago, and I was wrong. In the book, Dr. Nuland does distance himself from religious faith and writes, Much less commonly than at any other time in this millennium do the dying nowadays turn to God and the promise of an afterlife when the present life is fading. But he did not write what I said he wrote, and I thank him for bringing this to my attention.
As many have observed, sociologists are an endangered species. We’re going to miss them. Or maybe not. Here’s a report from two of them, Dean Hoge and James Davidson, who are associated with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. They’ve discovered that young Catholics (the millennium generation) are strong on Catholic identity but low on commitment. Says Davidson: There’s a disconnect between them and the institutional church. And when they get older, they are not going to be like the Catholics of previous generations. They are going to be the Catholics they are now. This sounds more like fortune-telling than sociology. It seems improbable that this is the first generation of young people in history that is not going to change as they grow older. Prof. Hoge lays the blame for the disconnect from the Church on younger priests who, according to the report, are becoming more strict about some church teachings. Hoge says they adhere to the cultic model of priesthood rather than the servant-leader model. He cites the fact that 94 percent of priests thirty-five or younger say that they believe that ordination effects an ontological change in the person ordained, while only 70 percent of priests over fifty-six say that. Asked whether the Church needs to move faster in empowering lay people in ministry”presumably to make up for the declining number of priests”86 percent of older priests but only 54 percent of younger priests agree. It was also discovered that young Catholics are much less likely than their grandparents to agree with church teaching on abortion, homosexuality, and premarital sex. (Historians, psychologists, and the parents of teenage children might have a better grip than sociologists on why young people are inclined to be more permissive on matters sexual.) The theme of the Georgetown conference at which these findings were reported was Young Adult Catholics: Believing, Belonging, and Serving. Said Prof. Davidson: Belonging is not a problem; they feel comfortable calling the Church home. And I don’t think serving is a problem. It’s the believing that’s the problem. Apart from the believing thing, they’re good Catholics.
I expect that from time immemorial there has been a significant difference between generations with respect to religious adherence. But, to the extent that the difference is more dramatic with today’s young Catholics, might that have something to do with older priests who disserved them and their parents by being more ambivalent (that is, less strict, meaning less orthodox) about church teachings and who embrace a servant-leader rather than priestly (that is, cultic, meaning sacramental) understanding of the priesthood? Just asking, mind you. I am glad to note that at the Georgetown conference there were two sisters who work with young people. The one said that they are really hungry for God. The other said that, while they’re interested in service projects and the such, they really get excited about talking the talk about Jesus, the Gospel, and God. I expect the younger priests”you know, the strict and cultic kind”understand that. Which is good news for everybody except, I suppose, sociologists with an agenda.
Of the launching of new journals there is no end. Thank God. Here is Letter & Spirit , an annual published by the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology of Steubenville, Ohio, and edited by the noted Catholic apologist Scott Hahn. The first issue has a splendid article on biblical interpretation by Robert Louis Wilken of the University of Virginia. Allegory is the Church’s love affair with the Bible, he writes. From there Wilken goes on to critique the limitations of the modern preoccupation with the historical or literal meaning of biblical texts. It is routinely said that the text must be understood in its historical context. Please bear with this longish quotation. It’s worth it. Context is, however, an elusive category. In dealing with ancient texts it is often assumed that what went before or what is contemporaneous with the text set the terms of interpretation. Yet one might ask why context should be restricted to what happened earlier. Is what went before more significant than what occurred afterward or what came about because of what happened, was said or was written down? With great political ideas, for example, it is only as they are played out in history that we know what they mean. In the telling of American history, President John Kennedy’s achievements during his presidency would be remembered much differently had he not been assassinated in his first term. Even in our personal lives and in relations with others we are constantly adjusting our view of the past and of the lives of others as new experiences unfold. We view a close friend who has patiently and heroically endured a grave illness differently than we did before his illness. Even the things done or said earlier appear different. Fyodor Dostoevsky thought that any understanding of the past that did not see things in light of what came later produced the worst kind of untruth.’ As an example he referred to a painting by the Russian artist Nikolai Ge in which Christ and his disciples were portrayed as average Russian men and women of the 1860s. Dostoevsky writes: There sits Christ, but is that Christ? It may be a very good young man, deeply hurt by his quarrel with Judas, the latter standing there getting dressed to go off and denounce him, but this is not the Christ we know . . . [and] we must ask the question: where are the eighteen centuries of Christianity that followed? . . . How is it possible that from such an ordinary quarrel of such ordinary people gathered to have supper . . . there could arise something so colossal?’ If we are to be true to what happened, a person or event from the past must be seen in light of subsequent developments which had not yet occurred at the historical moment’ which the artist was depicting. Dostoevsky’s question is our question. Where are the 19 centuries of Christian life and history in our interpretation of the Bible? Echoing Dostoevsky we might say, there stand the psalms as ancient Hebrew poems, but are they the psalms we know?’
Wilken continues: When I read this passage from Dostoevsky in the final volume of the magnificent biography by Joseph Frank, I was reminded of the words of another nineteenth-century figure Adolf von Harnack, whose ideas have dominated the interpretation of the history of theology in the twentieth century (and, one might add, prejudiced generations of scholars against patristic exegesis). Many years ago I wrote down this passage from his Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte : No religion gains anything through time, it only loses.’ For Harnack, the Church’s history had to be scoured by the acid of critical historical reason to uncover an earlier allegedly more pristine form of the gospel. Yet what is most characteristic of the Christian (and one might add the Jewish) interpretation of the Scriptures is that the words of the Bible do not arrive smooth and clean, scrubbed free of the experiences of centuries. Much of what we hold most dear in the Scriptures was discerned only over time. Time has endowed the words and images of the Bible with a fullness that can be known only by reading the text forward, not backward. A particularly egregious example of the unanticipated and unhappy consequences of self-imposed amnesia is the New Revised Standard Version translation of Beatus vir , Blessed is the man,’ in Psalm 1. By translating the verse according to the perverse and ephemeral logic of the moment, Happy are those who . . . ’ the Christological interpretation of the psalm is swept away to become a forgotten chapter in the arcane specialty of the history of exegesis. Allegory resists the tyranny of historicism and invites us to see things as they are, not as we imagine them to have been centuries ago. This is one reason for the formative power of the liturgy on interpretation. The Church at prayer spans the great divide separating what the text meant from what it means . Allegory is about what has come to be, the accommodation that is inevitable because of what happened in Christ, in the Church, and what continues to unfold.
Wilken sums up his argument with this: The unique vocation of the Christian exegetical tradition was to offer a comprehensive understanding of the Bible as the book of the Church centered on the Triune God. This required more than what is considered interpretation today. For the Bible of the early Church was a living voice, not only a document from ancient history. In its pages the fullness of Christian faith and life could be found in bewildering detail and infinite variety”all organized around the center which was Christ. Early Christian exegesis was not simply exegesis, but a distinctively Christian way of thinking. That we should find ourselves drawn to this synthesis does not mean that the exegesis of the early Church or the middle ages can be appropriated without being filtered through our experience and thinking, including our historical consciousness. But it does mean that at the beginning of the 21st century the time has come to take out of the closet and polish a very old word from the Christian lexicon, allegory,’ and to discover anew why it is indispensable for a genuine Christian interpretation of the Old Testament.
There is much more of interest in Letter & Spirit . For instance, Avery Cardinal Dulles on how the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on Scripture and tradition has been misunderstood”sometimes deliberately, or so it seems. And John Cavadini of Notre Dame on the use of Scripture in the Catechism of the Catholic Church . An additional and attractive feature of the journal is the reprinting of texts of enduring interest by figures as diverse as Augustin Cardinal Bea, Hugh of St. Victor, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. (For more information, write Letter & Spirit , 2228 Sunset Blvd., Steubenville, Ohio 43952, or www.letterandspirit.org.)
Duquesne University in Pittsburgh was the setting for an important talk by Walter Cardinal Kasper, head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, on the challenges and opportunities posed by the explosive worldwide growth of Pentecostalism. Ecumenism of the last century, he said, was heavily Christological and sometimes neglectful of the pneumatological, meaning the work of the Holy Spirit. Kasper praises the important work by the French Dominican Yves Congar and his book I Believe in the Holy Spirit for highlighting the theological neglect of the pneumatological in theology since the Council of Trent. That, he says, changed with Vatican Council II: Thus, according to the Council there cannot be any doubt that the ecumenical movement is not the result of the spirit of liberalism or relativism but the fruit of an impetus of the Holy Spirit. The Council goes still a step further. The Holy Spirit is not only the impetus of the ecumenical movement, on its beginning, as the principle of unity (UR 2; cf. LG 7; 8; 13) he is its innermost soul and its dynamic principle. At the same time he is the presupposition of ecumenism, which makes possible the ecumenical process, because he is present also outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church by his gifts and graces’ (LG 15). For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them (i.e. the separated Churches and communities) as means of salvation’ (UR 3). Thus we are with them already now in real but not full communion. Also the way from incomplete to full communion is guided by the Holy Spirit; we as human beings cannot make’ or organize unity; unity will be a gift of the Spirit, a new outpouring of the Spirit, a renewed Pentecost.
The burgeoning of Pentecostalism, especially in the Global South, is not without problems. The aggressive proselytism and the immediate attractiveness of these groups has meant that the Catholic Church, in common with all the traditional Churches, continues to lose many faithful every year. The instruments and purposes of these movements are often by and large not as spiritual as they may seem, and indeed are sometimes far removed from Christian origin and spirit. Undoubtedly, these groups represent an urgent pastoral problem and an ecumenical challenge. Already in the official Ecumen