The Public Square
The Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, is a remarkable place. It very much reflects the vision of Timothy George, its founding and present dean, a Baptist of Calvinist proclivities who believes that evangelical Protestantism should be fully engaged in the quest for greater Christian unity. Beeson is mainly Baptist but makes a point of being interdenominational, evangelically speaking. George is also an invaluable participant in Evangelicals and Catholics Together. A while back, Beeson held a conference, in cooperation with the theological journal Pro Ecclesia, on the 2003 “Princeton Proposal” for the future of ecumenism (see First Things, June/July 2003). At the Beeson conference, I was assigned the topic “The Quest for Full Visible Unity: The Role of the Roman Catholic Church.” It was an occasion for rethinking what was meant by ecumenism in the last century and the meaning of ecumenism today.
If ecumenism is understood as the quest for full visible unity, and if full visible unity is understood as what the Catholic Church means by “full communion,” then it is perhaps not quite accurate to speak of “the role” of the Catholic Church. If that is the definition of ecumenism, perhaps it is more accurate to explore the possibility that, in crucial respects, the Catholic Church is the ecumenical movement. Not exclusively, of course, but in a singular way related to her self-understanding. If the Catholic Church is what she claims to be, ecumenism is not optional but constitutive. She cannot settle for understanding herself as one church among the churches in the way that other churches and ecclesial communities can and do understand themselves.
The 2003 Princeton Proposal reflects key aspects of a Catholic understanding of ecumenism. Guided by the prayer of the Church's Lord in John 17, the signers declare that the statement of the 1961 World Council of Churches assembly at New Delhi remains “the most adequate and comprehensive description” of the unity that we must seek. New Delhi said: “[This unity] is being made visible as all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord and Savior are brought by the Holy Spirit into one fully committed fellowship, holding the one apostolic faith, preaching the one gospel, breaking the one bread, joining in common prayer, and having a corporate life reaching out in witness and service to all and who at the same time are united with the whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages, in such wise that ministry and members are accepted by all, and that all can act and speak together as occasion requires for the tasks to which God calls His people.”
That was forty-five years ago. The Princeton Proposal is undoubtedly correct in saying that where we are now is not where the ecumenical movement was supposed to be at the beginning of the third millennium. When the Princeton statement was first issued, I warmly welcomed it but noted its poignant tone. I wrote that it might better have been titled the Princeton Protest or the Princeton Prayer.
The Catholic commitment to the quest for full visible unity as full communion is, as has been reaffirmed again and again in the years since the Second Vatican Council, “irrevocable.” The Catholic Proposal and the Princeton Proposal are similar, if not identical, in their goal. In the Catholic understanding, the Catholic Proposal has been on the table since the apostolic era. In the unhappy circumstances following the sixteenth-century divisions, that proposal was typically put in terms of other communities' “returning” to the Catholic fold. As Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, then head of the pontifical council for Christian unity, said many years ago, the word return is no longer part of the Catholic ecumenical vocabulary. Certainly individuals do return, but ecumenism is about the reconciliation of ecclesial communities.
Also ecumenically, a certain turning and returning is in order. The 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint invites us to look again to the first millennium, before the tragic divisions both between East and West and within the West, to see if there are not there possibilities for realizing the unity to which we are called. The call, however, is not to the past but to the future—toward the fulfillment of Christ's prayer in John 17, which is a prayer for visible unity among all who call him Lord.
When full communion among all Christians is realized, nobody will feel a need to speak of the Roman Catholic Church, and there will certainly be no talk of “returning” to Rome, for then there will be, quite simply and comprehensively, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The Catholic Proposal, unlike the Princeton Proposal, is not a protest against what has been lost or a wan plea for what might be restored, but is an anticipation of the promised future. It is not a program with goals and schedules; it is simply the Catholic Church as the present form of the promised reality of the one Church. That present form of the promised reality is held in trust, and lived in trust, for all Christians. Indeed, it is held in trust for all humanity, for, as the Second Vatican Council affirms, the Church understands herself as a sacrament of unity in and for the world.
Laying the Groundwork
With respect to what might be called ecumenical strategy, Ut Unum Sint is clear that unity with the Orthodox has, and must have, priority for the Catholic Church. Here is where the great divisions began, and here is where the healing must begin. John Paul II spoke repeatedly of the need for the Church to breathe again with both lungs, East and West. I believe it is true to say that the chief hope of John Paul upon becoming pope in 1978 was that his pontificate would see the healing of the breach between East and West. It follows that the deepest disappointment of his pontificate was the failure to reach that goal.
But in Ut Unum Sint, and in numerous other initiatives, he laid the groundwork for that healing to happen. It is fair to say that, between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, the only thing lacking for full communion is full communion. In terms of doctrine, liturgy, and ministry, everything is in place. What is lacking is the will. The will to unity in Orthodoxy may await another generation or two, or more. And, of course, it is manifest that Benedict XVI is determined to build on the groundwork laid by the council and subsequent pontificates.
As the Princeton Proposal makes painfully clear, ecumenism as the quest for full communion has, in the West, come upon very hard times. For many, this is the winter of ecumenical discontent and disillusionment, which we must not permit to become terminal discouragement. It is fair to say that the two long-standing dialogues in the West that bore highest promise and once seemed to discern on the horizon the prospect of full communion were the dialogues with the Anglican and Lutheran communions. Even in the view of the most ecumenically zealous, that prospect is no longer in sight.
The developments that now appear to be shattering the Anglican Communion are cause for deep sorrow. To be sure, there are Catholics who seem pleased to note that these developments simply vindicate John Henry Newman's grim assessment, offered more than a century and a half ago, of Anglican claims to catholicity. But that is not the disposition of Rome, which since the council has tried to put the best possible construction on Anglican claims in the hope of moving toward eventual reconciliation. That a hope is disappointed does not mean an effort was misguided.
Admittedly, there was long a dispiriting air of unreality about the otherwise admirable work of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). This has everything to do with the well-known problem of “reception,” the huge gap between official theological dialogue and the actual faith and life of the churches. One might say that, as in the case with the Orthodox, ARCIC has laid the groundwork and sowed the seed for promising developments in the future, and indeed we must pray that is the case.
At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that Anglicanism, unlike Orthodoxy, has embraced changes and will likely embrace more changes that pose new obstacles to unity. Walter Cardinal Kasper, head of the pontifical council for unity, has spoken very candidly about the fateful ecumenical consequences of the decision by the Church of England to ordain women as bishops. And there is the matter of Christian moral teaching, notably sexual morality. Early in his pontificate, John Paul was criticized for placing ethics and morality on the ecumenical agenda. Questions of faith and order, however, while they can be distinguished from questions of faith and life, cannot be separated from faith and life, meaning the faith lived faithfully.
There are striking similarities between Anglican and Lutheran developments, and they provide naught for our comfort. With Lutherans, too, full communion, at least in the view of some, could for a time be discerned on the distant horizon. Perhaps some still believe they see it, but I fear it is a delusion. For instance, the seven years since the signing of the Joint Declaration on Justification, understandably hailed as a momentous ecumenical breakthrough, have been gravely disappointing. Carl Braaten points out that, among many Lutherans, the Joint Declaration has been met by a great yawn. It is asked, “Who today cares about those musty doctrinal disputes of the sixteenth century over questions such as justification?” Lutherans historically declared justification to be the article by which the Church stands or falls. If only Rome would allow the preaching of this great truth, Lutherans said, ecclesial reconciliation would be possible. But now many Lutheran theologians reject the Joint Declaration, while others are discovering new “fundamental” differences that stand in the way of such reconciliation. It would seem that, in the view of many, what is distinctively Lutheran cannot be maintained except in separation from the Catholic Church.
Quite apart from disputes within the theological guild, the institutions of Lutheranism, both in this country and elsewhere, both in their “liberal” (ELCA) and “conservative” (LCMS) embodiments, appear to have resigned themselves to being permanently separated Protestant denominations. Within these denominations are the valiantly defiant enclaves of “evangelical catholics,” but few, if any, of them believe that Lutheranism as actually lived and institutionally embodied is open to Carl Braaten's call of almost forty years ago—in the theological journal Una Sancta, which I then edited—for Lutherans to bring to an end the “long exile” from the Catholic Church. It is, however, more than conceivable that, at some point in the future, the company of “evangelical catholics” now within Lutheranism will enter into a dialogue directed toward full communion. And, of course, the same could happen with sectors of Anglicanism after the reconfiguration of the Anglican Communion.
Worlds Within Worlds
I have mentioned Anglicans and Lutherans, but that of course does not address the great majority of Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church. There are the communities of mainline-oldline-sideline Protestantism that, we do well to remember, include about a third of the Christians in this country. While there are theologically and evangelistically vibrant congregations here and there, the leadership of these declining bodies seems to be irrevocably set upon replicating a Kulturprotestantismus for a spiritually moribund liberal culture. In those bodies, once describing themselves as the ecumenical churches, it seems that nobody of influence is pressing for or is even seriously thinking about the visible unity in full communion under discussion here.
Then there are the worlds within worlds of what is generally called evangelical Protestantism. I am, I trust it is needless to say, wholeheartedly committed to the project of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). We are, as we said in our first statement in 1994, “brothers and sisters in Christ.” What the Catholic Church calls our “certain but imperfect” communion with evangelicals and with all Christians will, please God, one day be perfected in full communion. ECT will in one form or another have, I hope, a long future, far beyond the lives of its founders and present participants. There is so much work to be done in correcting misunderstandings, in discovering and exploring commonalities, in tempering or removing hostilities, in contending for cultural renewal, and, above all, in proclaiming the saving gospel of Jesus Christ with one another rather than against one another.
But I assume nobody on either side of the ECT project expects that proposals for ecclesial reconciliation, and therefore for full communion, will be on the agenda in the foreseeable future. That, we may hope, will be the work of another generation, or the one after that. Yet even that hope is tempered by an awareness of the institutionally successful but theologically problematic dynamics of entrepreneurial evangelicalism that, through the church-growth movement and related strategies, perpetuate and increase ecclesial fragmentation.
And what are we to think about the explosive growth of Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere, notably in Africa, Latin America, and Asia? When—and I think it is a question of when—China really opens up, we may indeed witness what John Paul II anticipated when he spoke of the third millennium as “the springtime of evangelization.” But the majority Christianity of the South—and it is already the majority of Christians—poses new ecumenical questions. There are a little over two billion Christians in the world, of whom about 1.2 billion are Catholic. Catholicism and evangelicalism/Pentecostalism are the two rapidly growing movements in the Southern Hemisphere. But the terms evangelical and Pentecostal, as we understand those terms, do not begin to capture the wild diversity of this growth. There are tens of thousands of movements and communities, each of them counting thousands and, in some cases, millions of adherents.
Many of these movements may strike us as bizarre, syncretistic, and dubiously Christian. Thirty years ago, I traveled much of Africa studying new religious movements and was honored to meet the leader of one sizeable movement who was, he assured me, John the Baptist reincarnate. The founder of another movement was the Virgin Mary's younger sister and the true mother of Jesus. (I forget the details of the putative history and theology behind these somewhat improbable claims.) Some of these movements spring from American or colonial European initiatives, while others are entirely indigenous, borrowing this or that from the Christian tradition. Many, as is to be expected among the very poor but not only among the poor, are movements focused on health and wealth, with miracles, signs, and wonders at the center of a fervent piety.
Catholics and even more traditional evangelicals and Pentecostals are given to referring to these movements in the global South as sects or cults. I think we should be cautious in using such terms. Twenty or fifty years from now, we will likely be in official dialogue with some of them, recognizing them as ecclesial communities, and it will not be helpful if they remember, as they surely will remember, that we once derided and dismissed them as cults and sects. Nor should we belittle the possibility that theological dialogue with these movements might one day be the more fruitful because their self-understanding is not, at least in most instances, defined by the longstanding Protestant-Catholic antitheses of the Northern Hemisphere.
Such, much too briefly and too generally, is the state of the quest for full communion with the Orthodox, with the Anglicans, with the Lutherans, with the mainline-oldline-sideline, with evangelical and Pentecostal Protestantism, and with the burgeoning Christianity of the South. The Catholic Church's irrevocable commitment to Christian unity requires that we establish and maintain conversations with all parties in the maddeningly diverse worlds of all who call Jesus Lord, which, according to St. Paul, does not happen except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3).
Communio in Truth
Christ and the Church are coterminous; the body cannot be severed from the head. Where Christ is, there, in some spiritually significant sense, the Church is also. When the Second Vatican Council teaches that the Church of Jesus Christ uniquely “subsists” in the Catholic Church, it is to say that the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time. This is the understanding advanced by the declaration Dominus Iesus, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith six years ago under the leadership of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict. In the teaching of the council's constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), the saving and sanctifying graces to be found in abundance outside the boundaries of the Catholic Church gravitate toward unity with the Catholic Church.
This is not said in pride of possession—although it must be confessed that Catholics sometimes do speak in that mode. The Catholic Church is not our achievement. We have no grounds for boasting. What the Catholic Church believes she uniquely is is received and guarded as a gift for all Christians. As that reality is received by others, the Catholic Church will no doubt be greatly enriched and changed by the gifts that others have received and guarded during their time of exile. It must also be confessed that some Catholics bridle at the suggestion that the Catholic Church should in any way be changed. But the life of the Catholic Church, too, reflects in many ways the unhappy fact of Christian disunity. Catholics, too, must be aware of a sense of exile from the fullness of the Christian community.
The hoped-for consequence of the Catholic Church's irrevocable devotion to full communion among all Christians will bring with it changes that we cannot now anticipate, as is also made clear in Ut Unum Sint. At the same time, it is underscored that there can be no compromise on those things that are constitutive of the Catholic Church being the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time. There is no point in full communion in anything less than communio in the fullness of the truth that the Church has been given to teach and guard. Anything less would result in the grave impoverishment of us all. At the same time, we must continue to explore together what is and is not required for communio in truth.
In this winter of ecumenical discontent and disillusionment, we await the stirring of the Holy Spirit, praying with John Paul II that the third millennium will be “the springtime of Christian unity.” As the second millennium was the millennium of divisions, he wrote, so must the third millennium be the millennium of unity. We do not know, we cannot know, the future. “Behold, I am doing a new thing,” the Lord says to the prophet Isaiah. What that new thing may mean for the fulfillment of Our Lord's high priestly prayer is now hidden from our view. It may be some new challenge to our civilization, such as that posed by Islam, that will serve as a catalyst for a new Christian solidarity with implications for ecclesial unity. We do not know, we cannot know. We wait together, we study together, we pray together, and we must never tire of talking together.
While the movement of the Spirit and the gyrations of world-historical change are unknown to us, we here and now know the work that is ours. Toward the end of Ut Unum Sint, John Paul cites some of the questions that must be addressed in conversation with the communities issuing from the tragic divisions of the sixteenth century:
(1) The relationship between Sacred Scripture, as the highest authority in matters of faith, and Sacred Tradition, as indispensable to the interpretation of the Word of God;
(2) The Eucharist as the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, an offering of praise to the Father, the sacrificial memorial and Real Presence of Christ and the sanctifying outpouring of the Holy Spirit;
(3) Ordination, as a Sacrament, to the threefold ministry of the episcopate, presbyterate, and diaconate;
(4) The Magisterium of the Church, entrusted to the pope and the bishops in communion with him, understood as a responsibility and an authority exercised in the name of Christ for teaching and safeguarding the faith;
(5) The Virgin Mary, as Mother of God and Icon of the Church, the spiritual Mother who intercedes for Christ's disciples and for all humanity.
The exploration of these great truths, John Paul described as a “courageous journey toward unity.” We could no doubt add to this list of five ecumenical challenges. We have more than enough work to do as we wait upon the Spirit. We have not the right and, finally, we have not the reason to despair. There is cause aplenty for discouragement, but there is no excuse for permitting that discouragement to become terminal. Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?” Implicit in that question is another: Will he find people of faith who never halted, who never wavered, in laboring for the fulfillment of his prayer that “they may all be one”?
Over the years, Cardinal Ratzinger frequently spoke of ecumenism in terms of awaiting a movement of the Holy Spirit that we can neither foresee nor control. In 1986 he responded to an invitation from the editor of the Tübinger Theologische Quartalschrift to set forth his understanding of ecumenism. He concluded his reflection with this:
I can imagine that many will not be pleased with the concept sketched here. But whatever one can say about it, there is one objection to it which ought not to be raised: that this is a concept of stagnation and resignation or even a renunciation of ecumenism. It is quite simply the attempt to leave to God what is his business alone and to discover what then in all seriousness are our tasks. Among these tasks of ours belong doing and enduring, activity and patience. Anyone who deletes one of these pairs distorts the whole. If we tackle everything we have to do, then ecumenism will continue to be something very much alive and demanding, even more so than it has been. I am convinced that, freed from the pressure to do it ourselves and the overt and covert deadlines set by such pressures, we shall approach one another more attentively and profoundly than if we start to transform theology into mere diplomacy and faith into mere commitment.
It is in that spirit of doing and enduring, of activity and patience, that I return to my assigned topic and suggest that “the role of the Catholic Church in the quest for visible unity” is in faithfully being the Catholic Church, which includes an irrevocable devotion to full communion among all Christians.
Homosexual But No Longer Gay
There continues to be a lively, and sometimes ugly, controversy over ministries to gays such as Exodus International. Gay activists subscribe to the motto “once gay, always gay”—frequently suggesting that also those who were never gay are living in denial. Now along comes a book that throws considerable light on the subject: Tanya Erzen's Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement, published by the University of California Press.
Erzen is a social scientist at Ohio State University, and she reports on her year spent with participants in a California ministry called New Hope. Her study convinced her that change is an extraordinarily complex process in the ex-gay movement.
Change is a conversion process that incorporates religious and sexual identity, desire, and behavior. Sexual identity is malleable and changeable because it is completely entwined with religious conversion. A person becomes ex-gay as he accepts Jesus into his life and commits to him. Much has been written about the widely publicized sexual scandals of prominent ex-gays, but in the ex-gay movement it is far more scandalous to abandon Jesus than to yield to same-sex desire.
It is commonly accepted that a person will continue to experience desire and even occasionally lapse into same-sex behavior as part of the overall conversion process. Recovery and relapse are built into the creation of an ex-gay identity, and sexual falls are expected. Rather than becoming heterosexual, men and women become part of a new identity group in which it is almost the norm to succumb to temptation and return to ex-gay ministry over and over again. As long as the offender publicly repents and reaffirms her commitment to Jesus, all is forgiven.
Organizations such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign are adamantly opposed to ministries such as New Hope. They are heavily invested in the claim that sexual identity is fixed, unchangeable, and perhaps biological. Gay activists and writers promote the view that sexual orientation is innate, that people are born that way. Erzen writes that “studies such as those of Simon LeVay and Dean Hamer, which argue that a gay brain or gay genes exist, are revered as the basis for a minority identity and entrance into U.S. civil rights discourse.” The argument for gay rights and anti-discrimination laws depends heavily on asserting the analogy with the civil rights movement, in which skin color is not a choice but an unchangeable given.
Of course, there are many men and women who once identified themselves as gay and were part of the gay subculture and who then made a successful transition to another way of being in the world, including marriage and children. Gay activists vehemently try to deny or belittle such success stories. Psychiatrists and others connected with the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), however, say that the psychotherapeutic success rate with homosexuals is about the same as with other patients struggling to overcome a deep-seated problem, namely, about one-third. But these are not the people who interest Tanya Erzen in Straight to Jesus.
The queer thing—by which she means the odd thing—about the people at New Hope is that their identity is not that of gays who have become heterosexual but that of gays who are now ex-gays. “Ex-gay movement members, like other conservative Christians, view themselves as part of a positive transformation of American culture and religious life, often describing themselves as embattled or besieged by secular culture or the gay rights movement. They present a cultural critique of conservative Christianity, which often ignores homosexuality, of a secular culture that denies the right to attempt sexual conversion, and of the possibilities for living as gay men and women.” Ex-gays may still be homosexual, meaning that they experience same-sex desires, but they are no longer gay, meaning that they no longer equate their identity with their desires.
Make no mistake. Tanya Erzen is no sympathizer with what she describes as the Religious Right, although gay activists sometimes suggest that her sympathy for people in the ex-gay movement means she is just another conservative “homophobe.” What she does in Straight to Jesus is to add necessary dimensions to our understanding of those struggling with homosexual desire in the context of Christian discipleship. Straight to Jesus is a book deserving of serious attention.
Israel in the Service of Judaism
At a recent conference sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua ruffled feathers, to put it gently. He declared that “only Israel, and not Judaism, could ensure the survival of the Jewish people.” Unless Jews lived in Israel and “took part in the daily decisions” of life in a Jewish state, “they did not have a Jewish identity of any significance.”
As might be imagined, this did not go over well with an audience of AJC members from all over the United States. They do not live in Israel but are sure that they are Jews. Hillel Halkin, who does live in Israel and who writes regularly for Commentary and the New York Sun, comments: “If expressing his opinions about American Jews meant hurting their feelings, [Yehoshua] should have picked another time and place for it.”
Before getting to his disagreement with Yehoshua, Halkin says this: “Indeed, despite the great inroads made by assimilation—in some ways, as a reaction to them—the hard nucleus of the American Jewish community, which numbers somewhere between one and two million people, is, Jewishly speaking, better organized, better educated, more committed, and more culturally and religiously creative than it has ever been before. And, the more committed they are, the more American Jews tend to care about Israel, too, and to give it their political and financial backing. This is hardly of ‘no significance.' These Jews deserve an Israeli's respect and gratitude, not his disdain.”
Mr. Halkin later got his turn on the AJC platform. He was asked whether, in view of all the threats to Israel, it was not a good thing that the Jews of the world also live in the diaspora. He responded, “You know, if, God forbid, Israel should someday be destroyed or go under, I couldn't care less about the Jews of the Diaspora or what has happened to them.” In his column, Halkin elaborated on that impromptu response:
It's not that Jewish life in the Diaspora has no significance, it's that Jewish life in Israel has more. Israel represents such an enormous Jewish adventure—the only adventure in which the Jewish encounter with modernity is complete and all-embracing—that it's hard for me to understand how any Jew who really cares about being Jewish would want to be anywhere else. Why would anyone want to sit out such an adventure on the sidelines? . . . It's possible to strike out in history no less than in a ballgame. The loss of the First Temple was the Jewish people's first strike. The loss of the Second Temple was its second. One more and—as far as I'm concerned-it's out. If the Jewish people cannot maintain the state of Israel, it does not deserve to survive even one more day. If that, bad manners aside, is what A.B. Yehoshua really had in mind, I agree with him this time, too.
That strikes me as a remarkable statement. Those who know Israel much better than I do say that it reflects a viewpoint very widespread among Israelis. It is for Jews to offer a Jewish response to that position, but it is for Christians to try to understand it. The idea that only Israel, and not Judaism, can ensure the survival of the Jewish people is arresting. Reliance upon, and obedience to, the God of Israel apparently does not enter the picture.
And what is the significance of the Temple if it is not the Temple of the Lord? Is it, in fact, being suggested that, in the absence of the Lord, the state of Israel is the Third Temple? Is it the case that the state of Israel simply is Judaism? There are Jewish thinkers, such as Rabbi David Novak, who caution Jews against turning the state of Israel into a false god. There are Christian Zionists who assign to the state of Israel a central role in God's plan of salvation, quite apart from whether Jews share that discernment. Then there are the deep probings of St. Paul in Romans 9 through 11, exploring the purposes of the one God in the one covenant binding two peoples in a common destiny.
It is possible that the destruction, God forbid, of the state of Israel would be seen by many Jews as the end of the People of Israel. For both Jews and Christians, that is a compelling reason to be committed to the survival and safety of the state of Israel. In this commitment, however, it is understood that the state of Israel is in the service of Jews and Judaism, not—as Yehoshua and Halkin would seem to believe—the other way around.
An Answer to Theological Impoverishment
There is much to agree with in Luke Timothy Johnson's essay “After the Big Chill: Intellectual Freedom and Catholic Theologians,” published in Commonweal. He writes, inter alia, “When the pope is understood not only as final arbiter to the deposit of faith but also its only source of theological reinterpretation, there is surely at least an impoverishment of the Church's theological life.” Agreed. That can be a problem.
But then there is in his and similar articles so much tendentiousness that makes honest conversation about the problem exceedingly difficult. Begin with the title suggesting that John Paul's “repressive instincts” created a big chill in Catholic theology. One might more plausibly argue that John Paul's many pedagogical initiatives are an invitation to high theological adventure and exploration.
In the Church that Prof. Johnson prefers, he writes, “No longer would a respected and respectful editor of a Jesuit journal be removed for the sin of advocating fairness; no more would a leading theological ethicist be removed from a tenured position or a systematic theologian be quelled by the same threat.” This is not worthy of Prof. Johnson, who is himself a respected New Testament scholar.
Fr. Thomas Reese was removed as editor of America by his Jesuit superiors-perhaps at the prompting of Cardinal Ratzinger—because under his editorship it was no longer clear that the magazine was on the Church's side of many controverted issues. And assuming Prof. Johnson is referring to Fr. Charles Curran and Fr. Roger Haight, the former orchestrated the effort in the Catholic academy to reject unambiguously the Church's teaching on human sexuality as set forth in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, and the latter refused to clarify his published ambiguities about whether, among other things, Jesus is truly God. Fr. Curran is now teaching at a Methodist university and Fr. Haight at a liberal Protestant seminary, where they can both teach whatever they want and there is still a certain panache attached to Catholics who daringly defy church authority.
What is gained by Johnson's employing a sneer phrase such as “the sin of advocating fairness”? Fr. Reese and his superiors disagreed on what constitutes journalistic fairness, and Fr. Reese lost. One can disagree with those who made that decision without suggesting, as Johnson does, that they are opposed to fairness. Perhaps there is still an adolescent frisson provided by the image of the Roman inquisitor saying, “Fr. Reese, you stand accused of advocating fairness.”
In a similar vein, Johnson writes: “Defenders of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith argue that its investigations and sanctions of theologians are about ‘truth in advertising'-Catholic theologians in Catholic colleges should teach the way the Vatican says they should teach. Such a claim does little more than reduce theological truth to catechesis.”
To be sure, theology is more than catechesis. Given the state of doctrinal illiteracy among Catholics today, however, catechesis is nothing to sniff at. References to “truth in advertising” are usually in the claim that courses on Catholic theology should teach Catholic theology—what the Magisterium of the Church teaches—not what alienated academics think the Church should teach. As in any discipline, there is a “knowledge” to be transmitted. Certainly the great tradition of Catholic dogma, doctrine, and theological reflection is immeasurably more interesting than theories borrowed from current fashions in religious thought. Minimally, students should know the tradition before they are encouraged to question it. And yes, Catholic colleges claim that their aim is to educate students who will intelligently embrace and live the faith. That is why they are called Catholic colleges. Why is this aim dismissively described as reducing theological truth to catechesis?
“Theology's role,” writes Johnson, “is not simply to transmit the faith, but also to interrogate the faith in the name of and on behalf of the truth.” Agreed. “The greatest theologians in the Church, from Origen through Aquinas to Rahner, have tried to strike this delicate and dangerous balance.” Agreed again. One might also mention Hans Urs von Balthasar as a recent example of one who interrogated the faith in order to deepen and enrich it.
But “interrogating” the faith can take different forms. One may interrogate the faith in the sense of asking questions, on the assumption that the faith provides answers. Or one may interrogate the faith in the sense of throwing the faith into question, on the assumption that it must conform to our answers. Worthies such as Aquinas and Balthasar did the former, in the hope of eliciting answers from what the Church calls the deposit of faith and also helping the Church to articulate those answers more precisely and persuasively.
But what does this have to do with teaching theology in Catholic colleges today? How many theologians comparable to Origen, Aquinas, Rahner, or Balthasar are members of the Catholic Theological Society of America, the trade guild of academic theologians? And can one imagine Aquinas or Balthasar inviting college sophomores to interrogate—which in this context clearly means to challenge and question—doctrines that they only heard of yesterday?
Johnson writes: “For a vast number of Catholics, especially younger Catholics, it is axiomatic that the pope is not only chief pastor but also sole theologian. On every matter, the pope is not only the last word (arguably a legitimate and necessary role) but also the first word (arguably a dreadful displacement of ecclesial functions).” There is something to that, but maybe people trust the pope, in a way that they do not trust most academic theologians, to tell them the truth about the Catholic faith. That is not “axiomatic.” It is simply a conclusion based on unhappy experiences with college teachers of theology.
The problem of a papal-centric Church that Johnson deplores is reinforced by the fact that many academic theologians have devoted their lives—and confused and demoralized innumerable young people along the way—to sustained guerilla warfare against the Church's Magisterium. Johnson speaks of how the experience of women, homosexuals, and others can “become an effective interpreter of God's self-disclosure in the world.” This raises the conventional litany of dissent, including items such as the ordination of women and the moral acceptance of homosexual acts.
On these and related questions, many theologians, including Luke Timothy Johnson, endlessly press for change, even though the Magisterium has unambiguously held that they are settled. That they are settled does not mean that they cannot be discussed, as is often asserted. A teaching must be discussed in order to be taught, but the discussion—including the discussion of questions lodged against the teaching—is in the service of the truth taught. While the Magisterium is not the only theological word, it is, as even Prof. Johnson allows is at least arguably true, the last theological word.
Yes, theologians should interrogate the faith. But in Prof. Johnson's own writings, the difference between interrogating the faith and rejecting, even mocking the faith is far from evident. For instance, he wrote in Commonweal (June 20, 2003) on the Church's solemn pronouncement that she is not authorized to ordain women to the priesthood:
The Roman church's willingness to lose an ordained priesthood altogether rather than ordain married men or (horrors) women may be noble to some, but to more and more American Catholics, it appears as suicidal self-delusion. Its eagerness to ordain old men or widowers and married men into the diaconate appear as desperate avoidance mechanisms and an expression of fear and loathing toward normal sexual beings and above all toward women's bodies. It is now no longer even possible for theologians to speak in favor of women's ordination despite the fact that every argument advanced for an all-male clergy is laughable (at best) and blasphemous (at worst).
He treats in a similarly dismissive manner the Church's teaching on contraception, the morally disordered nature of homosexual acts, and other matters of great moment. The question that Prof. Johnson might well ask himself is this: Why should the Church's leadership, or Catholics more generally, heed a putatively Catholic theologian who declares that the Church's official teaching is laughable or blasphemous and unworthy of serious consideration?
Johnson writes, “The theological impoverishment of the Church today is real and, if something is not changed, it will undoubtedly get worse.” I could not agree more. But the analysis of the problem offered by Johnson and many others is entirely papal-centric. The fault lies, they say, with the exercise of papal authority. What is lacking in these complaints is an element of self-examination, of honestly coming to terms with what has gone so radically wrong with the academic theological guild, especially in this country and Western Europe.
Complaints such as Prof. Johnson's would be taken more seriously if they engaged carefully nuanced reflections on the problem, such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1990 document, “The Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,” or Avery Cardinal Dulles' 2003 essay, published in these pages, “True and False Reform.” As it is, theologians go on endlessly about the repression of academic freedom and of their ever-so-creative ideas while ignoring the Magisterium's invitation to face up to the full importance and dignity of their task. That task is, first of all, to communicate the faith faithfully and effectively, and also to interrogate the faith in order to deepen, enrich, and more persuasively propose that faith to the world.
It simply will not do to continue to blame our theological impoverishment on the pope. The answer to theological poverty is to provide theological riches. Incessant whining, dissent, and agitation against papal authority is a distraction from that theological task.
The Nazis did not invent, but they ruthlessly acted upon, the notion of lebensunwertes Leben, life that is not worthy of life. “Quality of life” rhetoric is today employed by the proponents of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer clearly saw that “The distinction between life that is worth living and life that is not worth living must sooner or later destroy life itself.” On April 9, 1945, Pastor Bonhoeffer was executed for his opposition to a regime that was blind to that truth. In the following passage from the Ethics, he is discussing just war and capital punishment, and he asserts, “All deliberate killing of innocent life is arbitrary.” The discussion continues:
This last principle has not remained uncontradicted. The problem which arises here is the problem of euthanasia. The question of principle is this: Is it permissible to destroy painlessly an innocent life which is no longer worthy of living? Two kinds of motive lie behind this question, consideration for the sick and consideration for the healthy. But before any particular aspects of the problem can be examined, it is necessary to state, as a matter of principle, that the decision about the right to destroy human life can never be based upon the concurrence of a number of different contributory factors. Either an argument is cogent enough in itself to bring about this decision, or else it is not cogent at all, and if this is the case, no number of good additional reasons can ever justify such a decision. The destruction of the life of another may be undertaken only on the basis of an unconditional necessity; when this necessity is present, then the killing must be performed, no matter how numerous or how good the reasons which weigh against it. But the taking of the life of another must never be merely one possibility among other possibilities, even though it may be an extremely well-founded possibility. If there is even the slightest responsible possibility of allowing others to remain alive, then the destruction of their lives would be arbitrary killing, murder. Killing and keeping alive are never of equal value in the making of this decision; the sparing of life has an incomparably higher claim than killing can have. Life may invoke all possible reasons in its cause; but only one single reason can be a valid reason for killing. To fail to bear this in mind is to undo the work of the Creator and Preserver of life Himself. It follows from this that to support the rightfulness of euthanasia with a number of essentially different arguments is to put oneself in the wrong from the outset by admitting indirectly that no single absolutely cogent argument exists.
While We're At It:
• From its beginnings in 1992, Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) has been very deliberately an unofficial project composed of a continuing working group of participants who speak from and to their several ecclesial communities. There is an acknowledged difference between Catholic and evangelical participation, in that Catholic participants are bound by and determined to be faithful to the central teaching authority, or Magisterium, of the Catholic Church. In the communities that comprise contemporary evangelicalism, doctrinal and theological leadership is exercised by individuals and institutions that have earned the confidence of Christians within their various spheres of influence. We are pleased to note that the following evangelical leaders are among those who have endorsed the most recent statement, “That They May Have Life” (see page 18):
Alan K. Andrews, CEO, The Navigators
Mrs. Jill Briscoe, author and speaker
Dr. Bryan Chapell, president, Covenant Theological Seminary
Dr. David S. Dockery, president, Union University
Dr. Os Guinness, senior fellow, The Trinity Forum
Dr. David P. Gushee, Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy, Union University
Ted A. Haggard, president, National Association of Evangelicals
Bill Hybels, pastor, Willow Creek Community Church
Dr. Duane Litfin, president, Wheaton College
Dr. Richard Mouw, president, Fuller Theological Seminary
David Neff, editor and vice president, Christianity Today
Tony Perkins, president, Family Research Council
Dr. Cornelius Plantinga, president, Calvin Theological Seminary
Dr. Ron Sider, president and founder, Evangelicals for Social Action
Joni Eareckson Tada, founder, Joni and Friends International Disability Center
Rick Warren, pastor, Saddleback Church
Dr. James White, president, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
• There are numerous send-ups of how contemporary politicians or scribblers might render the Gettysburg Address. “About eighty-seven years ago, a group of public-spirited leaders decided . . .” etc., etc. One might call this the Cliffs Noting of historical greatness. The other day, I ordered from Netflix a DVD of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. The slipcover tells the story: “Fearful that Caesar will become Emperor of Rome, fellow senators Cassius and Brutus conspire against him. Caesar ignores warnings to lie low, heads to the Senate and is brutally stabbed. Caesar's right-hand man, Mark Antony, rallies the public against the conspirators, who flee Rome—with Antony's army hot on their heels.” Evelyn Waugh would love it. “Right you are, up to a point, Lord Copper.”
• Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, a number of writers, the late Susan Sontag among them, opined that, however wrong their action, we must recognize a certain courage and perverse heroism in the action of those who flew those planes into the Twin Towers. Such comments prompted outraged protest, in part because they were sometimes joined to the implication that America got what it deserved. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Freeman J. Dyson returns to the question. “They were soldiers enlisted in a secret brotherhood that gave meaning and purpose to their lives, working together in a brilliantly executed operation against the strongest power in the world.” Dyson has been reading newly published diaries of the Japanese kamikaze pilots at the end of World War II and suggests that the September 11 terrorists “were motivated like the kamikaze pilots, more by loyalty to their comrades than by hatred of the enemy. Once the operation had been conceived and ordered, it would have been unthinkable and shameful not to carry it out. . . . Even after recognizing the great differences between the circumstances of 1945 and 2001, I believe that the kamikaze diaries give us our best insight into the state of mind of the young men who caused us such grievous harm in 2001. If we wish to understand the phenomenon of terrorism in the modern world, and if we wish to take effective measures to lessen its attraction to idealistic young people, the first and most necessary step is to understand our enemies. We must give respect to our enemies, as courageous and capable soldiers enlisted in an evil cause, before we can understand them. The kamikaze diaries give us a basis on which to build both respect and understanding.” Mr. Dyson is on morally treacherous ground, verging on the nihilistic French adage that to understand all is to forgive all. Elements of human dignity and sympathy are not entirely obliterated by the abominations of which human beings are capable. Dante's damned are nonetheless human beings created in the image of God. It may be that the most perverse of sexual practices are not untouched by a glittering scintilla of the desire to love and be loved. Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, wrote sympathetically of the courageous and capable soldiers who did not shrink from doing the necessary evil that it was their duty to do. Giving respect to terrorists set upon the slaughter of innocents is not, contra Dyson, an effective measure for reducing the attraction of their demonically twisted idealism. Quite the opposite is the case. The evil they do is to be objectively named, condemned, despised, and opposed. The subjective state of their mind and soul is the business of God. It is in the absence of God that a shriveled and sentimental humanism produces an inverted morality that requires the gilding of evil with respect for the idealism of its perpetrators.
• The picture shows a woman with a hole in her body. The hole is the shape of a baby, and behind the woman is the same shape floating in the air as a haunting presence. Similar pictures can be found in the literature of groups such as Feminists for Life, illustrating the abiding heartbreak of women who had their babies killed by abortion. In this case, however, the picture accompanies a review in the New York Times Book Review of a book by Ann Fessler, The Girls Who Went Away. The book recounts Ms. Fessler's interviews with one hundred women who gave up their babies for adoption in the years prior to the unlimited abortion license decreed by Roe v. Wade in 1973. “The language of adoption,” writes the reviewer, Kathryn Harrison, “makes it clear: Babies are surrendered. They're given up. Relinquished. Mothers, even very young and panicked mothers, don't usually part from their babies without a struggle.” Fessler tells of a nun in a maternity home saying to a young woman, “Write down on this side of the paper what you can give your baby. Write down on the other side what the adoptive parents have to offer.” That the adoptive parents could offer so much more in terms of family and financial security was obvious. On the first side of the paper, however, the young woman wrote simply one word, Love. For the reviewer, this is a clinching argument. Unmentioned is that the adoptive parents could also give the baby love. The message of the book and the review is anti-adoption. More explicitly, it is pro-abortion. Because of legal abortion, women in difficult circumstances need no longer have their babies adopted. They can have them killed. That's putting the matter bluntly. In fact, as Paul Swope wrote in these pages in “Abortion: A Failure to Communicate” (April 1998), studies suggest that many unmarried young women who are pregnant view abortion as the least of three evils. They feel that to keep the baby would be a kind of “death” to their life plans and sense of who they are, while to let the baby be adopted would be a form of child abandonment. Abortion presents itself as the easiest way out. The well-documented and widespread consequence is “post-abortion syndrome,” which is medical terminology for the most human of responses: a deep and abiding awareness of guilt for having betrayed the most fundamental of bonds, a mother's protection of her child. We can be rather sure, however, that a book telling the stories of women who experience lasting remorse about having had an abortion would not be reviewed, never mind reviewed favorably, in the Times.
• I had some fun in my book Catholic Matters with the rationale offered by the bishops of England and Wales when, many years ago, they rescinded mandatory Friday abstinence from meat. The gist of their explanation was that the practice might make Catholics feel that they are different. The elimination of Catholic differences has done wonders for church life in the UK. The logic is that making it easier to be Catholic will generate greater interest in being Catholic. It obviously doesn't work that way. Never mind, the bishops of England and Wales have now decided to move holy days—Epiphany, Ascension, and Corpus Christi—to the nearest Sunday. The press release says that the change is needed “to boost Mass attendance on Holy Days.” Boosting Mass attendance on holy days by eliminating holy days is a neat idea. The release continues: “The circumstances of modern life in England and Wales has made it impossible for a large proportion of the Catholic community to attend Holy Days.” Impossible or just inconvenient? Inconvenience is part of doing one's duty. It has always been the case that the obligation in what are called holy days of obligation does not apply to those for whom attendance is truly impossible. Christmas Day, the Assumption of Mary, and All Saints will not be moved to a Sunday of convenience. It doesn't say so, but one assumes that Ash Wednesday and Good Friday will also continue to be observed on their respective weekdays.
• I was asked the other day to contribute to a national symposium on the changing meanings of liberal and conservative. I declined. I rather dislike the business of defining political or ideological labels, although it goes on and on and maybe even serves a necessary purpose in some way not readily discerned. James Nuechterlein, former editor of First Things, would regularly, with a wry smile, sum up his philosophy: “Change is bad.” He is given to wry smiles. British prime minister Lord Palmerston is reported to have said, “Change, change, change! All this talk about change! Aren't things bad enough already?” A later prime minister, Lord Salisbury, contemplating developments in the Middle East, remarked, “Whatever happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible.” Then there was my father of revered memory who said of a colleague, “He's so conservative that, had he been present at the creation, he would have voted for chaos.” So you can see I didn't have much to contribute to the symposium.
• Please say it three times after me: preimplantation genetic haplotyping. It is a new technique for screening embryos for six thousand inherited diseases. Elizabeth R. Schiltz, a law professor, writes in BusinessWeek: “From time to time, we are all confronted with the disconnect between how we see ourselves and how others see us. I've always seen myself as a responsible, law-abiding citizen. I recycle, I vote, I don't drive a Hummer. But I've come to realize that many in the scientific and medical community view me as grossly irresponsible. Indeed, in the words of Bob Edwards, the scientist who facilitated the birth of England's first test-tube baby, I am a ‘sinner.' A recent book even branded me a ‘genetic outlaw.' My transgression? I am one of the dwindling number of women who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome and choose not to terminate our pregnancies. So when I hear about medical breakthroughs like preimplantation genetic haplotyping (PGH)—a new technique to screen embryos in the in vitro fertilization process for 6,000 inherited diseases—I can't help but see 6,000 new reasons that parents will be branded as sinners or made to feel socially irresponsible for bringing their children into this world.” Prof. Schiltz is author of Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics. For many people, aborting a potentially “defective child” is a no-brainer. Such a child would be an intolerable burden upon the parents, upon the family, and upon society. Many others simply refuse prenatal screening altogether, or only for the purpose of discovering a problem that might be remedied in the womb. Their commitment is to accepting and loving the life entrusted to them. But Prof. Schiltz is right: With the return of eugenics, such people are increasingly viewed as antisocial, if not “outlaws.” The late Christopher Lasch wrote that we congratulate ourselves on our moral progress because we no longer tolerate “freak shows” at the county fair. The real reason, he said, is that we are fast becoming a society that has no tolerance of, no place for, freaks. They should never have been allowed to be born. Moral discourse today, especially in the academy, is rife with talk about respecting the “other.” So long as the other is not so other as to be a burden.
• Gays pressing for same-sex marriage are, in fact, strengthening “family values” conservatism. That is the complaint of gay activist Bill Dobbs and others who long for the old days when the gay subculture of bathhouses and unbridled promiscuity defied bourgeois constraints. The proponents of same-sex marriage are, he says, agreeing with an oppressive social order when they say, “You must be coupled to be really fulfilled, for us to treat you as a full person.” On the contrary, he insists, a choice to be gay is a choice for promiscuity—he calls it “sexual generosity”—in which “every man is linked to every other man by at least the potential of being his lover.” At the same time, 250 academics, celebrities, and writers have issued a manifesto titled “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision for All Our Families and Relationships.” The manifesto is signed by, inter alia, Gloria Steinem, Barbara Ehrenreich, Rabbi Michael Lerner, and Cornel West. While supporting same-sex marriage, they insist that a similar recognition should be extended to all kinds of relationships involving any number of people who are connected in whatever ways they choose. Opponents have long said that that is the logic of the push for same-sex marriage, and now at least some supporters of same-sex marriage agree. Between the debased libertinism of Bill Dobbs and others, on the one hand, and the polyamorous social revolution proposed by “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage,” on the other, some conservatives may find themselves in the odd position of looking more favorably on the bathhouses. They may figure that the toleration of a subculture, no matter how morally abhorrent, is to be preferred to the dismantling of the social order. The politics of marriage and family makes for, if one may be permitted the phrase, strange bedfellows.
• A big spread on the front page of the New York Times features the Rev. Gregory A. Boyd, a megachurch pastor in Maplewood, Minnesota. “Disowning Conservative Politics, Evangelical Pastor Rattles Flock.” Boyd has been outspoken against evangelicals who equate allegiance to Christ with loyalty to the Republican party and is offended by those who appear to displace the cross with the flag. Fair enough. There no doubt are such excesses and distortions, some of them bordering on blasphemy. One has to wonder, however, whether the Rev. Boyd is alert to the way he is being used by the Times to advance one side in the very “culture war” that he says evangelicals should eschew. To paraphrase: Woe to you when the New York Times portrays you as a hero. Laurie Goodstein, the reporter, makes much of Boyd's denial that America is a “Christian nation.” Demographically and in terms of its beginning and continuing cultural dynamics, America is inexplicable apart from Christianity. It is, in that sense, a Christian nation. If one means by Christian nation, however, a nation singularly marked by Christian virtue or divine election, America is decidedly not a Christian nation. The insistence of the New York Times and many others is that America is a secular nation gravely threatened by Christianity, and most particularly by Christian conviction applied to the public order. It is perfectly understandable that the paper celebrates on its front page a Christian leader whose position can be construed, or misconstrued, in support of that understanding of religion and public life.
• On the cliff by the thruway in large white letters somebody had painted “Jesus Saves.” Frederick Buechner reflects: “In the depths of his own pain the good thief said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power.' Remember me. Remember me. Jesus said, ‘I will.' He said preposterously, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.' Spindle-shanked crackpot, Mary's boy, God's son, flattened out on a face of a cliff, like a spider he scrambles up past the four-letter words and the names of lovers to slap up his preposterous pitch-Jesus Saves-and the preposterousness, the vulgarity almost, of those words that make us wince is finally, of course, the vulgarity of God himself. The vulgarity of a God who adorns the sky at sunrise and sundown with colors no decent painter would dream of placing together on a single canvas, the vulgarity of a God who created a world full of hybrids like us—half ape, half human—and who keeps breaking back into the muck of this world. The vulgarity of a God who was born into a cave among hicks and the steaming dung of beasts only to grow up and die on a cross between crooks. The vulgarity of a God who tampers with the lives of crooks, of clowns like me to the point where we come among crooks and clowns like you with white paint and a brush of our own and nothing more profound to say, nothing more precious and crucial to say finally, than just ‘Yes, it is true. He does save—Jesus. He gives life, he makes whole, and if you choose to be, you will be with him in paradise.'“ That's from Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons. Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian, is an old man now and this may be among his last books of sermons, if not his last. The collection includes a very early sermon preached at Phillips Exeter Academy around 1959 to boys who he assumed thought religion was “hogwash” and were only there because chapel attendance was required. That was a long time ago. Buechner is in the tradition of the Protestant pulpit toward the end of the mainline's secure establishment, when eloquence joined to craftsmanship, plus a theology mistakenly assumed to be unthreatened by accommodation, appealed to the cultured despisers of religion, young and old, in the hope of persuading them to give a hearing to the possibility that religion is not hogwash. The tone is typically tentative, literary, teasing, exploratory, and not without a powerful charm. William Willimon, a Methodist in the post-establishment of that pulpit tradition, says of the book, “Here is the word made wondrous.” Catholic priests accustomed to jotting down a few notes to fill up the time for the homily, and evangelical preachers content with rabbling the amen corner, might benefit by reading Secrets in the Dark.
• Alan Wolfe of Boston College, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, offers an extended response to my “Dechristianizing America” in our June/July issue. In that essay, I singled out Mr. Wolfe, who is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, as representative of secular writers who, for complicated reasons, seem determined to make the case that Christianity in America is not really very Christian, and therefore non-Christians need not fear it or pay it much mind. I discuss this in more detail in my December 2003 review of Mr. Wolfe's book The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith. For a fuller explanation of my difficulties with Mr. Wolfe, you might want to take a look at that. His argument is made problematic by, among other things, his insistence that the “we” in the subtitle and the “faith” under discussion is not Christianity or Judaism but his preferred understanding of American culture. As he wrote in his book, “In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture—and American culture has triumphed.” This is obviously what he wants to believe and wants his readers to believe. While Wolfe calls attention to his having on occasion said kind (if condescending) things about religious conservatives, his own ideology is radically secularist. In his Chronicle essay, Mr. Wolfe says that I resent a non-Christian writing about Christianity because such an outsider is “presuming to venture onto his turf.” That is nonsense. I have frequently paid tribute to non-Christians, for instance the Jewish Will Herberg, who have written very intelligently about Christianity in America. “Most insidious,” writes Wolfe, is my suggesting “that Jews, or members of any religious minority, do not quite qualify for full membership in a Christian society.” That is vicious nonsense and not deserving of a response. Permit me to make it as clear as I can possibly can: My problem with Mr. Wolfe's writings on American religion is that he does not inquire into its internal dynamics; he is by his own declaration unsympathetic to it; he evidences little intellectual curiosity about it; and his putative research is more or less consistently in the service of his ideological argument that religion in America is, at best, culturally epiphenomenal. In his Chronicles response, Mr. Wolfe again says that he does not have a religious bone in his body. He does not seem to recognize that that is more than a little like a music critic saying he does not have a musical bone in his body. The music critic need not be a musician any more than Mr. Wolfe needs to be a believer, but it would seem exceedingly odd if he encouraged indifference to music. I have no objection to Mr. Wolfe belonging to the world he describes as “We secularist public intellectuals.” He says his status as an outsider may give him a useful perspective on religion, and that could be. He does not allow, however, that another person's status as an outsider may provide a useful perspective on the world of “secularist public intellectuals.” But again, my chief problem with Mr. Wolfe is that he does not seem to be very interested in the subject on which he presents himself as an expert, namely, religion in America. His lack of intellectual curiosity about the subject on which he writes makes it hard to take him seriously. I am sorry he was offended by my little essay, but I cannot help but think he would be happier if he took up a subject that he deemed more worthy of his attentions.
• Hunter Rawlings III is president of Cornell University, and a couple of months ago he gave a thoughtful lecture titled “Intelligent Design and the Place of Religiously Based Ideas in American Politics” at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. While Intelligent Design is mentioned in passing, his chief concern is with religionized politics and politicized religion. He said: “‘Politics is in large part a function of culture'; and ‘at the heart of culture is religion,' Richard John Neuhaus wrote three decades ago, as he worried that the public square had become ‘naked,' that is, shorn of religious belief and values. Neuhaus, as it turned out, had nothing to fear. But Madisonians do.” That, I would suggest, is much too neat. To his credit, however, Rawlings bites the bullet on the question that most powerfully divides and that leads liberals in the academy and elsewhere to think that they are under siege from a theocratic popular reaction:
Abortion is the most divisive domestic issue afflicting America today. We academics have consistently misunderstood and undervalued religious arguments about abortion, much to our own and the nation's detriment. Our inability to appreciate the role of religious conviction in discussing abortion is probably the single greatest cause of our diminished role in public policy debate.
Most academics are secular humanists. That is neither surprising nor especially noteworthy, but academic disdain for religion, specifically for Christianity, is noteworthy, and it has unfortunate consequences. Such disdain diminishes the capacity of many academics to understand American culture and politics, and thus lessens their influence in the public square.
It is thought-provoking to note that, although it is liberals who have moved America to an ever more inclusive definition of humanity and human rights over the past century, it is now anti-abortion advocates who are calling for expanding our conception of human life. This is the religious voice speaking, like Abolitionists in the 19th century, while, on the other side, liberal academics seem often to accord more respect to animal rights arguments than to appeals for the “rights of the fetus.”
It takes courage for a person in Rawlings' position to say that. I have both quibbles and serious disagreements with some of what he said, but we are at one in affirming the wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr, whom he quotes as saying, “The religion which is socially most useful is one which can maintain a stubborn indifference to immediate ends and thus give the ethical life of man that touch of the absolute without which all morality is finally reduced to a decorous but essentially unqualified self assertiveness.”
• The major Swedish papers ran the item on the inside pages. It was no big deal. Anders Wejryd was elected archbishop of Uppsala, making him the primate, so to speak, of the Swedish church. The electors belong to various diocesan and national councils controlled by the political parties. Few of them, and even fewer of the general population, ever darken a church door. The Swedish church is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Swedish state. A minority of Swedish clergy and the churchgoing laity have theological objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood, but Wejryd and the controlling political parties are solidly with the pro-feminist, pro-gay agenda. Svenska Dagbladet reports that in an interview, “Wejryd was asked how he would describe himself as a leader. He compared himself to a circus director—everybody may do their tricks.” It brought back memories from years ago when my friend James Morton became dean of St. John the Divine, the Episcopal cathedral in New York. It was his goal, he said, to turn the cathedral into a circus. Which he did. I suggested at the time that he was overrating his entertainment value. Archbishop Wejryd is not all fun and games, however. After his appointment, he told Dagens Nyheter he would not hesitate to report to the police priests who refuse to work with ordained women. “We have a law against discrimination and in these cases it is question of particularly insulting treatment.” Who was it who said that where orthodoxy is optional it will sooner or later be proscribed?
• The ACLU is fond of saying that the remedy for speech you don't like is more speech. Following that maxim, it famously supported the right of Nazis to march through a largely Jewish neighborhood that included Holocaust survivors. It seems the ACLU remedy for speech opposed to abortion, however, is to shut up the speaker. The Reproductive Freedom Project of the ACLU is hard at work trying to outlaw license plates that carry the message “Choose Life.” The older principle of more speech as the remedy might suggest that the ACLU should be pressing for license plates with “Choose Abortion” or “Choose Death,” but for some reason they are not pursuing that tactic. At the same time, in New York and elsewhere, the ACLU is supporting legislation that would outlaw advertising by crisis-pregnancy centers. The centers, they claim, engage in deceptive advertising by saying that they help women with problem pregnancies when, in fact, they do not offer the ACLU's favored form of help, namely, getting rid of the baby. Now deceptive advertising is no doubt a bad thing. Perhaps the ACLU should go after the nation's largest institutional perpetrator of abortions, an organization that deceptively calls itself Planned Parenthood.
• Smiting the vulgarians hip and thigh, and doing so with impressive wit and erudition, is always great fun. Readers of Theodore Dalrymple get to join in the pleasures of his outrage in a new collection of essays, Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses. Dalrymple is the pseudonym of a physician working in the slums and prisons of England, and his focus is on what has gone wrong with the mandarins and masses of Britain. That's what bothers Richard Davenport-Hines, who reviews the book in the Times Literary Supplement. “Dalrymple has, it must be stressed, written an urgent, important, almost essential book.” He agrees with Dalrymple that the legendary British reticence, fortitude, and good taste have been replaced by “the hug-and-confess culture” that is marked by “a banal, self-pitying, witless, and shallow emotional incontinence.” “A nation famed not so long ago for the restraint of its manners,” writes Dalrymple, “is now notorious for the coarseness of its appetites and its unbridled and anti-social attempts to satisfy them.” Weekend mass alcoholic binges routinely terrorize town centers, and British soccer fans are as feared as carriers of the plague. With all this, and much more, Davenport-Hines agrees, but he complains that almost all of Dalrymple's essays were written for American audiences in publications such as City Journal and the New Criterion. What Dalrymple fails to tell his American readers, says Davenport-Hines, is that the emotional incontinence and cultural collapse of Britain is imported from America. Who invented Oprah and fast food and the shrieking pseudo-emotion of confessional television shows? His review ends on this note: “Theodore Dalrymple does not tell his American readers what they do not want to hear. He confronts so many bullies and demolishes so much delusive thinking in this brave, emphatic, and undeniably important book; but the greatest ogre of all he will not even name.” The greatest ogre is, of course, the export of the trash of American popular culture.
• I'm not so sure. My impression—based, admittedly, on limited experience—is that Dalrymple (and Davenport-Hines) are right about the dramatic change in British public life and national character. Except for the urban underclass and perhaps the denizens of the tackier trailer parks of America, junk television—never mind McDonald's and Burger King—has not had as great a debilitating effect upon American life. Iowa City and Bethesda, Maryland, are not shut down on weekends by hordes of thugs on a binge. Maybe it has something to do with America's being a more open society less dominated by mannerly proprieties. The entertainment, including television entertainment, of emotional incontinence is just that, entertainment. It is taken in stride. The once-famed British style of reticence, deference, and the stiff upper lip was something more brittle. It snapped upon encountering the excesses of freedom to which Americans are accustomed. I expect Dalrymple may agree, and he may further agree that religion has much to do with the difference. Of British secularization he writes: “The loss of the religious understanding of the human condition—that man is a fallen creature for whom virtue is necessary but never fully attainable—is a loss, not a gain, in true sophistication. The secular substitute—the belief in the perfection of life on earth by the endless extension of a choice of pleasures—is not merely callow by comparison but much less realistic in its understanding of human nature.” Britain, and Western Europe more generally, having largely abandoned the religious depth-dimension of their own cultures, are much more susceptible to the invasion not of Americanism but of America's more meretricious cultural exports. That, at least, is a hypothesis worth entertaining. Of course, others may say that we have always been a more barbarous people and are therefore indifferent to the latest assault upon decorum and decency. Another and less contemptuous way of putting the matter is that we are more culturally resilient. Unlike others, such as Davenport-Hines, who complain about their societies being infected by the American disease, we were early on inoculated against our excesses. The resulting immunity is far from total, but it provides a measure of protection.
• Here is something of great beauty. A Drama of Reform is a very handsome book from Ignatius Press that marks the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal (now the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Renewal). The thing of greatest beauty is the story it tells of a vibrant religious community arising from the ashes of so much that went wrong with monastic life in recent decades. The book includes numerous pictures and commentaries that are framed within the mysteries of the Rosary. Fr. Benedict Groeschel was the initiator and is the continuing spiritual guide of this remarkable community that is attracting vocations from around the world and is now establishing outposts in Europe and Latin America. In his introduction to A Drama of Reform, Fr. Benedict reflects on why a reform of the reform, as he calls it, is necessary. There is, for instance, this:
Having counseled clergy for decades, I can testify that many priests left the ministry because their faith had been undermined or at least had shifted from certitude to a hopeful supposition or positive opinion. In such an atmosphere, the personal experience of a relationship with Christ disappears. It stands to reason that a total commitment of one's life to discipleship, which is what religious life is supposed to be, was thereby undermined. So was the vocation of the diocesan priest. But because many religious orders provided security and retirement, some who had lost any sense of discipleship stayed on, most of them doing an honest day's work for their daily support, but with an ever diminishing sense of devotion and discipleship.
The past fifty years have witnessed an unprecedented interest in popular psychology, and no group has been more psychologized than the clergy—first the Protestants, then the Catholics, and finally members of religious communities. Many schools of clinical psychology that were in vogue during that era—for example, the Freudian and the Jungian—have all but gone by the board for many of the same reasons that the historical/critical study of Scripture is beginning to be questioned. While claiming to be scientific, they repeatedly ignored the rules of scientific investigation.
Unfortunately, therapists of all kinds took on the work of spiritual directors and the care of souls, even if they were unbelievers. I have written about this popular procedure, which went against the tradition of religious life and substituted shaky psychological theories, some of them obviously antireligious, for guidance based on Scripture, tradition, and the teaching of the saints. Psychology well understood and confined to its own proper provenance could be and was helpful, but psychology as a religion was a disaster. The almost complete naturalism that followed thus lost sight of sin (both original and actual), grace, conversion, God's providence, and the necessity of faith, hope, and charity. There was no place for devotion to Christ, which was seen as a form of sublimation or a manifestation of the need to have a hero. The consequence was a series of scandals involving people identified as following the three vows but who actually followed none of them. It is one of the tragedies of the history of organized religion, including the Catholic Church, that when bad ideas enjoy a time of popular acceptance, little is done to identify and reject them, even when they do much harm.
A Drama of Reform, however, is not a critique of what went wrong so much as it is the compelling story of the many young men and women determined to get it right. The “it” they are determined to get right is an unqualified response to the invitation of Jesus, “Come, follow me.” Clergy, religious, laypeople, Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox—anyone desiring a deeper understanding of that invitation—will be challenged, inspired, and perhaps directed by the stories told in A Drama of Reform.
• Here is a sad-funny piece in Nicotine Theological Journal. When Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) came out with its statement on “The Gift of Salvation,” it prompted a critical response from several dozen Reformed (Calvinist) pastors, teachers, and sundry other leaders. In 1996 they met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to form the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and issued a sharp rebuke of evangelicals involved in ECT for having compromised the Reformation teaching of “justification by faith alone.” The Alliance statement was widely hailed as a landmark in various Protestant worlds. Now, ten years later, John R. Muether looks back on the Alliance and its Cambridge Declaration. Some of its chief movers have died, others have lost interest, and yet others have abandoned the Reformed tradition altogether, having embraced new theological enthusiasms. Muether writes: “If the Cambridge Declaration was an evangelical consensus moment, it fizzled dramatically. The past decade witnessed remarkable changes in the landscape of the American Reformed and evangelical world—Rick Warren's purpose driven spirituality has eclipsed Bill Hybels' contagious Christianity, emerging churches are brazenly rejecting any demands for theological or liturgical coherence, and micro-Presbyterian denominations seem to sprout up almost as fast as microbreweries.” He notes, however, that the World Reformed Fellowship has announced that it is working on a new statement of the Reformed faith for the twenty-first century. So perhaps not all is lost.
• As the Anglican Communion continues to agonize over its future, or whether it has one, it is reassuring to know there are voices of moral sobriety underscoring the fundamentals of right and wrong, good and evil. Richard Chartres, bishop of London and the third-ranking hierarch of the Church of England, has published a book on environmental concerns, Treasures on Earth. “Making selfish choices such as flying on holiday or buying a large car,” he says, “are a symptom of sin. Sin is living a life turned in on itself where people ignore the consequences of their actions.” Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, endorses the book, noting, “We make choices of moral significance and our relation to the environment is no exception.” Chartres says humanity must reduce its “carbon footprint” on planet earth. The London Sunday Times story on Chartres' campaign observes that the Church of England “owns some of the largest and draughtiest buildings in Britain, including medieval cathedrals, gothic churches, and aging parsonages.” Not mentioned is that the longstanding Catholic offer to take the cathedrals and churches back may be withdrawn in view of environmental-impact studies. While their spiritual and aesthetic value is not disputed, the environmentally conscientious now realize that those cathedrals should not have been built in the first place. “We have no right to appeal to our contemporaries on this issue if we have failed to put our own house in order,” says Chartres, whose name suggests that he may know a thing or two about cathedrals. The story reports that Lambeth Palace, the residence of Rowan Williams, has been audited and criticized “for using inefficient light bulbs rather than the low-energy alternatives.” Light and energy at the heart of the Anglican Communion. It seems that, at last, something is being done about it.
• “Faith, Reason, God and Other Imponderables” is the title of Cornelia Dean's roundup of recent books on science and religion in the New York Times. There is a slew of them, some reflecting a concern to rehabilitate the reputation of science among believers. Owen Gingerich, author of God's Universe, says of Richard Dawkins, who contends that evolutionary theory and atheism are inseparably linked, that he “singlehandedly makes more converts to intelligent design than any of the leading intelligent design theorists.” Ms. Dean's report reads a little like those endless stories about how the Democratic party is trying to recast itself as religion-friendly. As in those efforts, the attitude toward religion is smugly condescending. Biologist Lewis Wolpert is quoted: “We have to both respect, if we can, the beliefs of others, and accept the responsibility to try and change them if the evidence for them is weak or scientifically improbable.” In other words, we scientists will attend to reason and will try to bring those irrational believers around in time. Ms. Dean sums up what she has learned: “This is where the scientific method comes in. If scientists are prepared to state their hypotheses, describe how they tested them, lay out their data, explain how they analyze their data and the conclusions they draw from their analyses—then it should not matter if they pray to Zeus, Jehovah, the Tooth Fairy, or nobody.” Science and religion are reconciled by everybody agreeing that science is about truth and religion is about private whimsy. You have problems with that?
• In my commentary on Pope Benedict's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (First Things, May 2006), I noted some striking parallels with Martin Luther's treatment of the “right hand” and “left hand” rule of God and the distinction between love and justice. I opined that other theologians might want to explore that aspect of the encyclical more fully. Which is just what Paul Hinlicky, professor of Luther studies at Roanoke College, Virginia, has done. Writing in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, he says: “Assured faith, certainly faith in the love of God in spite of contrary experience. The theology of the cross in the face of incomprehensible suffering. The freedom of the Christian—also from political correctness. The simple, direct ministry of charity to the neighbor in need. The two-kingdoms theology requiring the patient, political, non-utopian work for justice in society. The redemption and sanctification of eros rather than its suppression or renunciation. The primacy of grace over human choice. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist as the source of Christian discipleship. The firm rejection of terrorism and fanaticism in religion. Faith forming love in the image of the Crucified. All this ‘taught with authority, unlike the scribes and the Pharisees.' Shall I go on? Is it any wonder that Lutherans who have any substantial memory of their own tradition slip away to the bosom of the erstwhile foe where that theological tradition, though not (yet) honored by name, is nevertheless honored in fact? It is no wonder. What is a wonder is the Lord of the Church, who works stunning reversals.” Prof. Hinlicky sums up with this: “Benedict is our pope, too, even though we remain ‘separated' sisters and brothers belonging to an ‘ecclesiastical community.' I hope many of us ‘separated' will read this encyclical and ones to come. There are perhaps sticking points that others will find more important than the deep commonalities with our forgotten tradition that I have uncovered in this review. No doubt they exist. But it ought deeply to perplex us that our tradition is better preserved today in the Roman Catholic Church than in our own nominally Lutheran Church in America.”
• There was some perfectly understandable grumbling when Theodore Cardinal McCarrick reported on the work of the Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians to the June meeting of the bishops, and the sum of the task force's labors, after the great brouhahas of the 2004 election year, seemed to be a laissez faire recommendation that each bishop decide for himself what to do about politicians in flagrant dissent from the Church's teaching. The complaint was that the bishops could be emphatically explicit about public policy questions such as immigration but, when it comes to the Eucharist, the very “source and summit” of the Church's life, it is every bishop for himself. Well, that is not quite a fair assessment of what has happened. The bishops have assigned to their committees on doctrine and pastoral practices the task of coming up with a thorough statement on worthy reception of the Eucharist. It is expected that the document will be submitted to the bishops at their November meeting, after this year's political election but well before that of 2008. While the document will address worthy reception on the part of all Catholics, I am told it will also be quite specific about the responsibilities of Catholics in public life. All are urged to stifle the grumbling—or is grumbling already a stifled outcry?—until the bishops get a chance to address these questions more thoroughly in November.
• Christopher Hitchens has a feisty piece in the Wall Street Journal against an amendment to the Constitution that would ban the burning of the flag. He begins by telling how, the night before his interview for U.S. citizenship, he stayed up all night reading the Constitution. “The King James Bible aside,” he writes, “the Constitution is probably the greatest document ever composed by a committee.” His reverence for the stylistic merits of the King James Bible aside, Mr. Hitchens is very stridently hostile to religion. And, for all his study of the Constitution, he has the same problem with the First Amendment that we noted some while back in connection with the website of the ACLU. The website boldly declared that free speech is the first freedom mentioned in the First Amendment. After it was pointed out that the free exercise of religion is the first freedom of the First Amendment, the ACLU amended its website. Mr. Hitchens' mistake is stated somewhat differently. He writes, “No other country has such a terse and comprehensive statement of the case for free expression: considered important enough to rank first, and also to rank with the freedom of religious conscience.” Back to your presumably well-studied text, please, Mr. Hitchens. Free expression does not rank first, unless he means the free expression of religion. But he cannot mean that, because he then says freedom of expression ranks with the freedom of religious conscience. Which, of course, is also wrong, since the first freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment is not the freedom of religious conscience but of religious exercise. I'm glad that Mr. Hitchens is a citizen and I don't suggest his citizenship be withdrawn, but it is a nuisance that ideological secularists have such difficulty making their peace with the fact that most of the Founders believed that religious freedom is the foundation of all freedoms. Their right to disagree with the Founders is guaranteed, but their persistent misrepresentation of what the Founders believed and did is at least unseemly.
• All sixty-five bishops of ELCA Lutheranism signed a plea for what they called a “moral” federal budget. Forum Letter overheard this at a pastors' gathering: “I find it remarkable that the conference of bishops aren't of one mind on sexuality, they aren't of one mind on abortion, they aren't of one mind on ordination. But they are completely of one mind on federal student loans.” To which another pastor replied, “Well, they all have kids in college.” Think low.
• From Augustine's City of God to Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy is a stretch. But Eugene McCarraher of the American Council of Learned Societies manages it with apparent ease. Reviewing Phillips in Commonweal, he has nary a dissent from the book's grim depiction of the American circumstance, embracing even the bizarre claim that the Southern Baptist Convention is in thrall to the late R.J. Rushdoony's “Reconstructionist” vision of replacing the Constitution with Bible law. McCarraher writes: “Phillips sees little chance for escape from our harrowing descent into ignominy. Rather, like Hapsburg Spain or Edwardian England, petro-financial-fundamentalist America will sink into a slough of despond, mortgaged to Asian banks, bedazzled by end-times speculation, and narcotized by pabulum about hard work and uplift. In a dispirited conclusion, Phillips implies that the best we can hope for is probably a skillful management of demise. But what if decline turned out to be a blessing? Far too many American Christians conform to the current dogmas of venality, belligerence, and pride. Christians who really mean what they say about the redemptive power of weakness would welcome the ebbing of America strength as a genuine gift of Providence. Disabused of the delusion that the world can't be saved without America's money, computers, and gunships, a nation less selfish and arrogant would certainly be weaker, by the standards of the world, but it would also be a wiser homeland, freer to measure its common life by a saner calculus. And a Christianity relieved of civil-religious duty would be weaker but wiser as well.” Christians of a certain mindset are inclined toward nostalgia for the catacombs, yearning to be relieved of the moral responsibilities inconveniently imposed by history. That was certainly not true of St. Augustine, however. In City of God he generously recognizes the achievements of the Roman Empire in which he accepted responsibility as a citizen, even as he is keenly aware of the libido dominandi that marks all earthly realms. One cannot imagine Augustine relishing the prospect of the empire's “harrowing descent into ignominy” or welcoming its demise as a blessing. In his coda, McCarraher writes of the need for Christians to “set out to achieve another country.” What country might that be? Not, it seems, the heavenly Jerusalem, which, in any case, is not ours to “achieve.” No, it seems evident from the context and from his uncritical adoption of Kevin Phillips' fevered description of our national calamity that McCarraher is in search of any country other than America. As with Richard Rorty's Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, there is a species of very non-Augustinian patriotism that is prepared to be resolutely loyal to another earthly city of one's own design and desiring that is therefore deserving of one's loyalty. The Augustinian alternative is to accept responsibility for the earthly city in which we find ourselves while reserving our ultimate allegiance for the City of God on its way to the New Jerusalem.
• Wicked, a play that seeks to humanize the Wicked Witch of the West, has been enjoying a long Broadway run. And at Lincoln Center, Grendel of Beowulf infamy got a sympathetic remake in the opera Grendel: Transcendence of the Great Big Bad. We are given to understand that such villains had unhappy childhoods, justified grievances against others, and so forth. The author of Wicked said he got the idea of portraying the witch in a more positive light when he was upset by the “excessive demonization” of Saddam Hussein in the early 1990s. The idea is that people do things that are, if not justifiable, at least understandable, and therefore not evil. Edward Rothstein is prompted to ponder these sympathetic portrayals of evil in connection with a new book by Princeton professor of religion David Frankfurter, Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History. With exceptions “like Hitler, perhaps, or mothers who kill their children,” Rothstein writes, “Mr. Frankfurter seems to suggest that by calling anyone evil, we are simply tapping into the old imagined archetypes without explaining anything.” Frankfurter writes: “The real atrocities of history seem to take place not in the perverse ceremonies of some evil cult but rather in the course of purging such cults from the world. Real evil happens when people speak of evil.” Evil, in short, is created by the “discourse” that assumes the reality of evil. Mr. Rothstein, being a sensible fellow, is not persuaded. “Evil is not a term of explanation,” he writes. “It is a term of judgment. It states that some phenomena are so abhorrent they should remain beyond empathetic understanding. Of course judgments of evil have been mistaken (though I don't think they have been about Grendel or the Wicked Witch, or about some of the other forces now loose in the world). But when the word is applied to an act, we know just precisely what it means: There is no human excuse.” Well, yes, but that will not quite do the job. Contemplating Auschwitz or Dachau or Stalin's gulag, it seems a little limp to say, “There is no excuse for this.” The problem is likely with Rothstein's reference to human excuse. To speak adequately of evil, one must penetrate to the supra-human source of evil in principalities and powers, in Satan, who would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven and seduces human beings into joining his conspiracy. Evil is rebellion against the good and the Good; it is, in the fine phrase of the KJV, “the mystery of iniquity” that would ensnare us. Mr. Frankfurter writes that the “myth of evil conspiracy lies deep in culture-'hard-wired,' as it were, to society and self.” Declining such academically fashionable trivializations, one notes that evil conspiracy lies in conspiring with evil, which is no myth.
• Universities used to matter in a way they no longer do. Of course it is still important, maybe increasingly important, to have a college degree to get on in life, but universities are marginal to the task of informing and sustaining a common culture. Part of the problem is that they have not only succumbed to fashion, but have become the chief generators of fashion, and fashion is the enemy of culture. This is among the arguments in a provocative new book, The Decline of the Secular University, by C. John Sommerville, a teacher at the University of Florida and a First Things contributor. The university now serves “the news,” Sommerville writes. “In the 1960s, intellectuals and even the public talked a lot about Marshall McLuhan's theory of a print revolution at the beginning of modern history, which he explained in books like The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media. The theory was that in the sixteenth century printing had decisively changed the way Western minds worked. Print promoted rationality, factual discourse, and linear thinking by fixing subjects so that they didn't get too slippery for careful dissection. Print had revolutionized Western society, secularizing culture and encouraging science. McLuhan went on to point out that we were even then watching another revolution overtake the print revolution. An electronic revolution was encouraging television and films to undermine print culture, leading to a kind of secondary orality. What McLuhan didn't notice was that the essential feature of this electronic revolution had long been present in daily publication. Periodical publication had imperceptibly created a news consciousness, a fixation on daily trends and fashions instead of more comprehensive treatments of significant subjects. Over three centuries, news schedules had driven philosophy and such to the margins of culture. Newspapers and books are both printed, to be sure, but they are not the same in their effect. Newspapers are the opposite of books, taking things apart rather than putting them together. You must disassemble reality if you want to make a business of selling information. There must be a new issue or broadcast every day, whether or not the world has turned a corner. Even if journalists are following an old story, they must go in a new direction with it each day. If they can't, they must switch our attention to something else.” The news takes reality apart in order to produce a daily “news product.” The role of the university is to make the connections required for a cultural conversation over time. In carefully dissecting what went wrong, The Decline of the Secular University suggests how universities might matter again.
• They're tearing down American Airlines Terminal 8 out at JFK airport. I suppose it's not surprising. When was the last time you were at a major airport that wasn't in the process of being torn down and rebuilt? But Terminal 8 was special. When it was built in 1960 at what was then called Idlewild, it boasted the world's largest stained-glass window—317 feet by 23 feet. Some of the smashed glass will be used to make key chains for airline employees. Many years ago, I was lecturing at a famous Catholic church in Minnesota. Its modernistic stained glass obliquely hinted at themes of traditional Christian iconography. If you knew the history, you could make out the blues of Mary receiving the reds of the Holy Spirit, the hint of the twelve human-like figures suggested the apostles, and so forth. In a former age, stained glass in churches played an important pedagogical role. Not in this church much acclaimed for its advanced architecture. Here you had to know the code of the tradition to see that the glass had something to do with the Christian story. On my way back, I landed at Terminal 8 and paused to admire the massive stained-glass window. It dawned on me that, with some knowledge of traditional iconography and just a little imagination, the art of the American Airlines terminal was every bit as Christian as the glass of the Minnesota church. Of course, the fact that the latter was in a church building suggested that it might have something to do with Christianity. I am really sorry to see Terminal 8 go. I'm not sure that I would be so sorry to see the demise of some church buildings that only obliquely gesture toward the sacred that is their reason for being.
• The lines of William Cowper (1731–1800) are so familiar that it may be forgotten that somebody actually said them first: God moves in a mysterious way / His wonders to perform. Except for what he has clearly revealed, we really do not know what God is up to in the particulars of time, including the part we may be playing. This thought was prompted by a question asked at a recent Barnes & Noble book signing for Catholic Matters. How much difference, I was asked, has First Things and my much writing really made? I muttered something about my hardly being the best judge of that, and then, all unbidden, came the remembrance of the words from the last verse of Cowper's “Light Shining Out of Darkness”: Blind unbelief is sure to err, / And scan his work in vain; / God is his own interpreter, / And he will make it plain. Precisely, and sufficiently, so.
Israel in the service of Judaism, New York Sun, May 9. Theological impoverishment, Commonweal, January 27. Freeman Dyson and terrorism, New York Review of Books, June 22. Pro-abortion and anti-adoption, New York Times Book Review, June 11. English Catholic holy days, The Universe, July 25. Palmerston and Salisbury, The “Quote . . . Unquote” Newsletter, July. Prenatal screening, Business Week, July. Beyond same-sex marriage, New York Times, July 30. Rev. Gregory Boyd and the culture war, New York Times, July 30. Alan Wolfe and “Dechristianizing America,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July28. Theodore Dalrymple, Times Literary Supplement, 28 October 2005. Confessing Evangelicals, Nicotine Theological Journal, April. Anglicans and the environment, Times (London), July 23. Cornelia Dean, New York Times, July 25. Christopher Hitchens, Wall Street Journal, July 3. ELCA bishops, Forum Letter, July. Edward Rothstein, New York Times, July 24. Terminal 8, New York Times, July 23.