The Public Square
Going on five years since September 11, 2001, and many, if not most, Americans seem very uncertain about what it means that we are at war”or whether we really are at war. There is a nearly unanimous agreement that there are terrorists out there, and maybe some among us, and that they mean us harm; therefore we should be alert and take appropriate preventive measures. But there is still a puzzlement in public discussions about why they dislike us so much and how best to engage in dialogue in order to stop a minority of fanatics from hijacking the peaceful religion of Islam for their violent purposes. It is dangerously misleading, some say, to speak of our being at war. We do face a challenge, and it could assume ominous proportions, but the way to respond is by dialogue and, when dialogue fails, by police action to stop or punish criminal activity. But we must not let ourselves think that we are at war.
There have also been forceful voices rejecting that view as naive and potentially suicidal. Norman Podhoretz has been writing in Commentary about our being in the midst of World War IV (the Cold War was World War III). And, although many describe it as alarmist, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is an unavoidable presence in these discussions, while others were awakened to the present danger by David Pryce-Jones’ The Closed Circle or Bat Y’eor’s writings on jihad, dhimmitude, and Europe’s continuing decline and fall into Eurabia.
Of particular interest also are the books of Fouad Ajami, Dream Palace of the Arabs and The Arab Predicament . The scholarly work of Bernard Lewis has received extended attention in these pages. His What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam are invaluable introductions to the historical, cultural, and political origins of the resentments that feed radical Islam’s hostility to the West. Although these writers are not agreed on every aspect of what the phrase means, they are convinced that we are at war.
As almost always, there is another side to the argument. Popular on college campuses is John Esposito’s The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? The case for Islam as a religion of peace is pleasantly advanced in Karen Armstrong’s recent Islam . And then there are the anti-American tirades of Noam Chomsky, such as Hegemony and Survival and Imperial Ambitions . Leaving aside the many partisan rants against the Bush administration and all its works, there are thoughtful writers who are eagerly, even desperately, determined to resist the claim that we are at war.
Into this frequently confused and heated discussion comes a new book from Yale University Press. Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror is by Mary Habeck of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. The book, which is admirably accessible also to the nonspecialist, is particularly valuable in its careful distinction between Islam as such and those within Islam who have no doubt that they are at war with the rest of the world, including most of the Islamic world (which they view as the pseudo-Islamic world).
Some speak of radical or fundamentalist Islam, others prefer the terms Islamism and Islamists. Habeck suggests that the more accurate terminology is jihadis and jihadism. She leaves no doubt that, whatever the terms used, the threat is inextricably part of Islam. For perhaps understandable reasons, she wants to distance herself from the Huntington argument which critics depict”falsely, I think”as over-heated. She writes, The conflict that jihadis believe is inevitable has nothing to do with Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations.’ It is the jihadis, she contends, who believe in the Huntington thesis:
In their reading of history, the conflict between the United States and Islam is part of a universal struggle between good and evil, truth and falsehood, belief and infidelity, that began with the first human beings and will continue until the end of time. A literal clash of civilizations is taking place around the world and, in the end, only one system can survive: Muslims must rid the earth of democracy or else the supporters of democracy (especially the United States, but the entire West as well) will destroy true Islam.
A particular merit of Habeck’s book is that she takes with utmost seriousness the centrality of religion in the jihadist view of the world. Economic and political factors related to modernization and the history of colonialism of course play a part. But Habeck writes:
In contrast to Western critics of colonialism, who attribute European imperialism to capitalism, power politics, or greed, the jihadis argue that religion alone explains this hostility. The entire purpose of imperialism was, in this view, to destroy Islam . . . . The decline of Islam is thus not mainly the result of internal weaknesses or sin by the Muslims themselves, but is rather the deliberate policy of an external religious enemy whom jihadis can”and do”blame for all the evils suffered by Muslims around the world.
In this view, the Crusades have never ended. Habeck writes, The five-hundred-year gap between the ending of the Crusades and the start of French and British incursions into Egypt is glossed over as if it does not exist. To eliminate Islam, the Christian colonizers used every wicked tool at their disposal. Missionary and educational efforts, the imposition of European legal codes, and every other facet of colonialism were aimed at destroying Islam. With the collapse of the European empires, the United States took up the cause and”through its ideology of liberalism”is now the leading spirit behind the attempts by falsehood to destroy Islam and kill or convert the Muslims. For this reason, the United States is called the Greater Unbelief, worse even than the unbelief of apostate Muslims (of whom, in the jihadist view, there are many).
Sympathetic Western writers about Islam laud the period in which Islam was an advanced culture, integrating Greek philosophy and scientific curiosity, and employing the capacities of human reason to interpret sacred texts. The jihadis, writes Habeck, will have none of this argument, since for them the intermixing of Greek and Western ideas with Islam only further polluted an already weakened religion. The jihadist interpretation of Islam, she underscores again and again, is the traditionalist interpretation. They are not the innovators who have hijacked Islam for alien purposes but are the defenders of a faith that they believe has been lethally compromised by Muslims in thrall to the seductions of modernity. Here is Habeck’s central argument:
The consistent need to find explanations other than religious ones for the [jihadist] attacks says more about the West than it does about the jihadis. Western scholars have generally failed to take religion seriously. Secularists, whether liberals or socialists, grant true explanatory power to political, social, or economic factors but discount the plain sense of religious statements made by the jihadis themselves. To see why jihadis declared war on the United States and [try] to kill as many Americans as possible, we must be willing to listen to their own explanations. To do otherwise is to impose a Western interpretation on the extremists, in effect to listen to ourselves rather than to them.
It is the great merit of Habeck’s book that she compels us to listen to them rather than to ourselves. Extreme jihadist thinking goes way back, certainly long before the modern period, colonialism, and developments such as the establishment of the State of Israel. The ideological lineage is traced from the thirteenth century up through Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792) of Saudi Arabia’s officially promoted Wahhabism, Mohammed Rashid Rida (d. 1935), Hassan al-Banna (d. 1949), and the powerfully influential Egyptian theorist Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966). Although there are variations and disagreements among these figures, this is the religious-ideological lineage claimed by al-Qaeda and figures such as Osama bin Laden.
If one asks what they want, the answer is that they want the world to submit to Islam, which is to say, to Allah as revealed in the Qur’an and authoritatively interpreted by what they consider to be authentic tradition. The generally accepted Muslim belief is that the Torah and Gospels were sent down for a particular people at a particular time, while the Qur’an is for all of humanity throughout all time. While all Muslims believe that Islam is intended for the entire world, jihadis believe the world must be brought to recognize this fact peacefully, if possible, and through violence if not. Habeck says there is hope that a more tolerant vision of orthodox Islam can win out, using the very traditions and texts that the extremists claim to honor, but it would appear that that more tolerant vision is today on the defensive.
In the jihadist vision, Islam becomes a sort of liberation theology, designed to end oppression by human institutions and man-made laws and to return God to his rightful place as unconditional ruler of the world. In this connection, Christians may recognize similarities not only with liberation theology but also with the theonomist or reconstructionist ideology associated with the late R.J. Rushdoony, a Calvinist of a theocratic bent. In jihadi eyes, the most fundamental error of Western liberalism is the distinction, even division, of the sacred and profane, resulting in what the very influential Qutb termed a hideous schizophrenia. Christians misread (or perhaps invented) the words of Jesus about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, which resulted in the Christian failure to seize and hold state power. Muslims, they say, must not make the same mistake.
Western apologists routinely point out that jihad can mean not warfare but a personal spiritual struggle. However, by far the dominant meaning of jihad, Habeck notes, is warfare understood not as holy war but as just war”a war that is justified for Muslims because it means to free other people from falsehood and lead them to truth. This just war is open-ended. In the words of al-Banna, Moreover, we will not stop at this point, but will pursue this evil force to its own lands, invade its Western heartland, and struggle to overcome it until all the world shouts by the name of the Prophet and the teachings of Islam spread throughout the world. Islam is nothing less than a universal army of salvation to conquer the world.
There are, to be sure, passages in the Qur’an suggesting that people of the book, meaning Christians and Jews, can be peacefully tolerated. But the Qur’an was sent down to Mohammed over twenty years, and the tradition to which the jihadis subscribe holds that the later passages abrogate the earlier. As Habeck writes, There is thus no longer any need to accept Christians and Jews as fellow believers. They have only the choices outlined in the later verses of the Qur’an”either to accept Islam, to submit to Muslim domination [dhimmitude], or to die. Polytheists (like Hindus) have only the choice of conversion or death.
There are strategic disagreements among jihadis. Some hold that the first front of war is to reestablish authentic Islam within the Islamic world, while others contend that the Greater Unbelief embodied in the United States is the priority target. It is agreed that any land once conquered by Islam, or where Islam was prevalent, must be brought under the sway of dar al-Islam (the house of Islam). The jihadis who carried out the March 2004 bombings in Madrid gave as one of their reasons the Spanish crusades against the Muslims (the reconquista ), noting that it has not been so long since the expulsion from Al-Andalus and the courts of the Inquisition. By the same claim, the entire Balkans, Hungary, Romania, Austria, the Crimea, and Poland are eternally Islamic lands for which a defensive, albeit belatedly defensive, jihad is to be waged.
No Borders With Unbelievers
Jihadis agree on the imperative of opening the nations for Islam. Habeck writes: Jihadis thus neither recognize national boundaries within the Islamic lands nor do they believe that the coming Islamic state, when it is created, should have permanent borders with the unbelievers. The recognition of such boundaries would end the expansion of Islam and stop offensive jihad, both of which are transgressions against the laws of God that command jihad to last until Judgment Day or until the entire earth is under the rule of Islamic law. In sum, Muslims have been given the leadership of the entire planet.
It is recognized that the achievement of this goal will be neither fast nor easy, especially since most of existent Islam is deemed to be apostate. One influential jihadist group argues that the false Muslims now in control of Islamic lands will have to be killed, along with everyone who in any way supported them, even if this led to the killing of millions of Muslims and to the martyrdom of millions of believers. (Believers, as distinct from nominal Muslims.) Jihadis tell their supporters not to be discouraged by a lack of a mass uprising by the umma , the Muslim community, but to patiently persevere in obedience to the command of God. This, writes Habeck, is a war that could last two hundred years, but eventually Islam will produce another Salah al-Din [Saladin] who will rouse the Islamic world, unite the Muslims against their enemies, and drive them from the lands of their community.
We in the West would like to believe that Muslims, like everybody else, basically want the peace, freedom, and prosperity that we associate with democracy and a market economy. What we would like to think they want the jihadis view as the heart of the evil against which they are waging war. Sovereignty, including political sovereignty, belongs to God alone. Rulers and legislators of every sort have only one duty, which is to uncompromisingly implement the revealed laws of God without the slightest modification. The democratic theory that the people are sovereign is simply blasphemy and rebellion against the rule of God. Unlike Islamists, writes Habeck, who agree that there should be no separation between religion and politics but who do not necessarily reject democratic governance, jihadis want nothing to do with man-made’ laws or men legislating according to their own choices and desires. It is argued that, even if the laws were identical to those of the sharia , if they were adopted in a democratic system, they would be illegitimate and kufr ”meaning contrary to Islam.
The Best Hope
This is fanaticism of a very bloody and rigorous order. Mary Habeck’s great service is to help us understand what these jihadis believe, and that what they believe is firmly rooted in Islamic tradition, although it is not the only understanding of that tradition. When it comes to what we should do, she is modest. She believes that the U.S. attack on the jihadi regime of Afghanistan badly shook the confidence of leaders such as bin Laden. In view of feckless American responses to jidahi attacks in Beirut, Somalia, and elsewhere, he had assured his followers that the United States did not have the will or ability to fight back. Habeck has relatively little to say about U.S. policy in Iraq but emphasizes that Islam might take a more tolerant turn were the Palestine-Israel conflict somehow resolved. One can readily agree with that, but such a resolution is nowhere on the horizon.
She writes, The term war on terror’ has never been satisfactory because it suggests that this is war against a tactic, that there is no agency (or enemy), and that it will be difficult if not impossible to know when the war is won. She suggests we might call it the war on jihadis or the war on jihadism or the war on the khawarij. (The khawarij were heretics who, soon after the death of Mohammed, claimed they were the only true believers.) I don’t see the war on the khawarij really catching on. Perhaps the war on Jihadism, if the term became as recognizable as Nazism or Communism. Meanwhile, it seems we’re stuck with the war on terror.
Claiming no originality for the suggestion, Mary Habeck ends her book by suggesting that democracy is the best hope, although democracy attuned to Islamic religion and culture. Only democratization will directly attack the jihadist ideology while creating governments that are more responsive to their citizens. The jihadist argument is that democracy is completely antithetical to Islam and moreover is specifically designed to destroy the religion. If democracies can flourish in Islamic lands without disturbing the practices and beliefs of Islam, the entire jihadist argument will collapse. In view of everything she has said up to the last page, that is an ominously big if.
But, as with almost all decisions of consequence, one must ask, What is the alternative? Habeck does not speculate on how many Muslims are part of or sympathetic to the jihadist cause, along with its networks of terrorism intended to advance what is viewed as a just war against the infidel. She is very clear that their religious beliefs justify and, in some circumstances, mandate suicide bombing and mass slaughter by nuclear, biochemical, and other means. I recently heard an expert on Islam remark”I think he intended to be reassuring”that probably no more than ten percent of Muslims support the jihadist ideology. Ten percent is somewhat over a hundred million people. How many of a hundred million are prepared to die in attacks, including suicide attacks, on the Greater Unbelief? Nobody knows.
Fanatical ambitions to conquer the world will strike many as simply fantastical, and they almost certainly are that. But we can only speculate on what would be the American response to an attack in this country that killed, say, a hundred thousand or more people. The jihadis have speculated long and hard about that, and they are confident that any probable scenario would play into their hands, rallying more millions of the faithful to their cause. And it is possible that they are right. One alternative is not to respond. As Toynbee observed, most great nations die by suicide.
The wan hope is held out that Islam will become more tolerant as Muslims become more secular. Certainly many Muslims are attracted to the fruits of modernity”fruits both rich and rotten. But secularization as a comprehensive process is a now-dated phenomenon peculiar to Western, and mainly European, societies. It seems very unlikely that most Muslims will buy into modernity if it means a betrayal of their identity as faithful Muslims.
So it comes down to who gets to define what it means to be a faithful Muslim. Jihadism in its various forms has for two hundred years been a contender in defining Islamic fidelity, and it would appear to be stronger today than ever before. Its cosmic vision of Islamic victory is promulgated in mosques and schools around the world, being handsomely funded by oil-rich nations such as Saudi Arabia.
As is obvious in Europe, that vision is powerfully appealing to young Muslims, including those who are second or third-generation immigrants. The jihadis declare that they are prepared for a war of two hundred years, or as long as it takes, even to the Day of Judgment.
Knowing the Enemy will strike some as an excessively belligerent title. But when a formidable force declares itself to be your deadly enemy, and is effectively acting on that declaration, it is the better part of wisdom to recognize it as an enemy and try to understand what it is up to, and why. That recognition does not provide clear answers on how to counter or defeat the enemy. Certainly every resource of honest dialogue and negotiation should be employed to persuade people that they need not and should not be our enemy. But a careful reading of Habeck”along with the likes of Huntington, Ajami, and Lewis”leaves no doubt that millions of people possessed of lucidly lethal intentions in obedience to what they believe to be the commands of God have declared war on us, and therefore we are, not by our choice, at war. It is deeply troubling that so many Americans have not yet come to recognize that sobering reality.
Challenging A Giant
In any intellectual discipline, there are those whom we call giants. A giant is someone so big you can’t get around him. In the recent history of theology there are, for instance, the Protestant Karl Barth and the Catholic Karl Rahner. A person who has not come to terms with, or at least taken a position with respect to, Barth and Rahner can hardly be taken seriously as a theologian. No more than someone ignorant of or indifferent toward Einstein or Planck is a serious physicist. In the last twenty years or so, Hans Urs von Balthasar has been widely hailed as another such theological giant, with Catholics, Protestants, and, to a lesser extent, Orthodox thinkers producing numerous monographs on his prodigious corpus. Balthasar plays a large part in, for instance, David Hart’s recent and justly acclaimed The Beauty of the Infinite .
Balthasar was a Swiss thinker who died at age eighty-three in 1988 and was created a cardinal by John Paul the Great (although he did not live to receive the red hat). The most invitational introduction to Balthasar’s great enterprise is Edward T. Oakes’ Pattern of Redemption . It is an excellent summary, and a very frisky summary at that. Balthasar’s own writings, filling a very long bookshelf, are usually anything but frisky. He went in for heavy-duty intellection that is sometimes ponderous and exhaustingly discursive, but always adorned with dazzling erudition and rewarding one’s effort with scintillating insights of a frequently counterintuitive nature. One spends pleasurable hours reading Balthasar not so much in an analytical mode as in surrendering oneself to the beauty of how his mind works and its adventurous probings of theological imagination. Reading Balthasar is in large part a meditative exercise bordering on the contemplative.
But now comes along a young scholar of a determinedly no-nonsense disposition with a five-hundred-page indictment of Balthasar for being at serious odds with cardinal teachings of Scripture and the consensual tradition of Christian orthodoxy. Lux in Tenebris: The Traditional Catholic Doctrine of Christ’s Descent into Hell and the Theological Opinion of Hans Urs von Balthasar is a dissertation, by Alyssa Helene Pitstick, accepted by the prestigious University of St. Thomas (better known as the Angelicum) in Rome. The title may suggest a limited critique of Balthasar’s argument that”contrary to the tradition of liturgy, iconography, and teaching, both East and West”the Holy Saturday descent into hell was not triumphant but was the completion of Christ’s redemptive work in his absolute alienation from God in the state of the damned. Far from being an arcane academic dispute, Pitstick contends, this theological opinion of Balthasar’s entails grave departures from orthodox teaching on the two natures, human and divine, in the one person of Christ, and indeed raises fundamental questions about the co-equality of the Son in the Holy Trinity.
Alyssa Pitstick gives no quarter. Along the long way of her argument, she notes instances in which Balthasar, in her view, misrepresents scriptural, patristic, and magisterial texts and simply ignores aspects of the tradition inconvenient to his argument. I confess that at first I thought she was being terribly ungenerous, even nitpicking, but she finally convinced me that, on the descent into hell and some other signature themes of the great man, there are, at least implicitly, possible incompatibilities with the received structure of faith. It is an audacious thing for a doctoral student to take on a thinker of the stature of Balthasar, but Alyssa Pitstick has thrown down a gauntlet that other theologians should not ignore.
Her critique notwithstanding, I continue to admire and delight in the mind of Hans Urs von Balthasar. At his funeral, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, described Balthasar as perhaps the most learned man in Europe. That John Paul created him a cardinal for his contributions to Catholic theology cannot lightly be dismissed. His restoration of the categories of beauty and drama in contemporary theological reflection is a singular achievement. His book on Karl Barth and the relationship between nature and grace is, if one may be permitted the term, magisterial. I recommend reading Father Oakes’ introduction and then going on to some of the Balthasar texts. Anyone with a healthy theological curiosity risks being hooked in short order. And yet, like the third-century Origen, to whom Balthasar was deeply devoted, Balthasar may end up with a somewhat ambiguous reputation in the history of Christian thought. There is no doubt he is a giant, albeit a flawed giant. Thanks to Alyssa Helene Pitstick, a new and lively debate over his achievement is almost certainly underway. It is hoped that her thesis, revised in book form, will be out from Eerdmans later this year.
Born in 1906, a hundred years ago, and executed on the direct orders of Hitler on April 9, 1945, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a deep insight into the dynamics of modern tyrannies of whatever ideological flavor. As Pope John Paul II tirelessly taught, disdain for God and the common good is inextricably linked to disdain for man. Bonhoeffer wrote in his Ethics :
The news that God has become man strikes at the very heart of an age in which both the good and the wicked regard either scorn for man or the idolization of man as the highest attainable wisdom. The weaknesses of human nature are displayed more clearly in a time of storm than in the smooth course of more peaceful periods. In the face of totally unexpected threats and opportunities, it is fear, desire, irresolution and brutality which reveal themselves as the motives for the actions of the overwhelming majority. At such a time as this it is easy for the tyrannical despiser of men to exploit the baseness of the human heart, nurturing it and calling it by other names. Fear he calls responsibility. Desire he calls keenness. Irresolution becomes solidarity. Brutality becomes masterfulness. Human weaknesses are played upon with unchaste seductiveness, so that meanness and baseness are reproduced and multiplied ever anew. The vilest contempt for mankind goes about its sinister business with the holiest of protestations of devotion to the human cause. And, as the base man grows baser, he becomes an ever more willing and adaptable tool in the hand of the tyrant. The small band of the upright are reviled. Their bravery is called insubordination; their self-control is called pharisaism; their independence arbitrariness and their masterfulness arrogance. For the tyrannical despiser of men popularity is the token of the highest love of mankind. His secret profound mistrust for all human beings he conceals behind words stolen from a true community. In the presence of the crowd he professes to be one of their number, and at the same time he sings his own praises with the most revolting vanity and scorns the rights of every individual. He thinks people stupid, and they become stupid. He thinks them weak, and they become weak. He thinks them criminal, and they become criminal. His most sacred earnestness is a frivolous game. His hearty and worthy solicitude is the most impudent cynicism. In a profound contempt for his fellow-men he seeks the favor of those whom he despises, and the more he does so the more certainly he promotes the deification of his own person by the mob.
While We’re At It
The people over at the New York Times take a lot of ribbing about their claim to be the newspaper of record. Never mind. There are in fact some things we would never know about were they not reported in the Times . For instance, in the February 13 National Report section, there is a long front-page story with the headline At Churches Nationwide, Good Words for Evolution. You possibly didn’t know about this nationwide marshalling of religious forces to defend the theory of evolution against the advocates of Intelligent Design and related nuts. It is happening. For instance: At St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church, a small contemporary structure among the pricey homes of north Atlanta, the Rev. Patricia Templeton told the 85 worshippers gathered yesterday, A faith that requires you to close your mind in order to believe is not much of a faith at all.’ Wait, that’s not all. In the basement of an apartment building in Evanston, Illinois, the Rev. Mitchell Brown said to the 21 people who came to services at the Evanston Mennonite Church that Darwin’s theories in fact had compelled people to have faith rather than look for special effects’ to confirm the existence of God. That’s it. A small Episcopal church in Atlanta and a smaller Mennonite gathering in a basement in Evanston. The rest of the story quotes people who agreed with what the two ministers said. It mentions that ten thousand mainline/oldline clergy had signed a letter declaring February 12 to be Evolution Sunday. The two reporters on the story checked with other clergy who had signed, but they said they did not mention evolution in their sermons. Never mind, a story is a story. At Churches Nationwide, Good Words for Evolution. Anyway, nationwide is a term of art. If you’re the newspaper of record and, not incidentally, committed to puffing evolution, you gotta go with what you got.
I have discussed in this space the brouhaha over religion at the Air Force Academy. Some chaplains tell me there really was a problem with some evangelical Christian officers who aggressively evangelized in a way that suggested that, if you are not one of them, you’re really not with the program. After months of controversy and deliberation, the air force has come out with a brief set of guidelines, including this: In official circumstances or when superior/subordinate relationships are involved, superiors need to be sensitive to the potential that personal expressions may appear to be official or have undue influence on their subordinates. Subject to these sensitivities, superiors enjoy the same free exercise rights as all other airmen. That sounds about right. It doesn’t sound right to Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, however. He complains that the guidelines will result in religious expression being biased toward Christianity. Given that 90 percent of the people involved are Christians of one sort or another, it is not surprising that religious expression would tend to be Christian. As I previously mentioned, Mr. Foxman hoped to pocket a militantly secularist victory with the air force and then move on to banning table prayers at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. In this he was joined by Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (a.k.a. Americans United for a Naked Public Square). Mr. Lynn was very upset by the new air-force guidelines. He said, It appears that the air force does not understand that all prayer, including so-called inclusive prayer,’ is an inherently religious activity for which not all staff and cadets wish to be subject to. To paraphrase Churchill, the free exercise of religion is something that Mr. Lynn will not up with put.
It has been said, and said truly, that John Paul the Great had a more informed appreciation of America”the Catholic Church here, but also American forms of religious, cultural, and political relationships”than any pope in history. In the modern era, Rome’s ways of thinking about democracy and religion were much more influenced by the French Revolution of 1789 than by the American Revolution of 1776. John Paul’s appreciation of the American experience is continued and in some respects refined in the thought of Benedict XVI. In Without Roots , recently published by Basic Books, Benedict responds to an essay by Marcello Pera, President of the Italian senate. He writes: In this regard, I would like to quote a significant phrase from Tocqueville: Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot.’ In the letter that you addressed to me, you quote an expression from John Adams that expresses a similar thought, namely, that the American Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.’ In the United States, too, secularization is proceeding at an accelerated pace, and the confluence of many different cultures disrupts the basic Christian consensus. However, one senses much more clearly in America than in Europe the implicit recognition that the religious and moral foundation bequeathed by Christianity is greater than any single denomination. Europe, unlike America, is on a collision course with its own history. Often it acts as a spokesperson for an almost visceral denial of any possible public dimension for Christian values. Why is this so? Why is Europe, which has such an ancient Christian tradition, unable to know a consensus of this type? A consensus that, irrespective of membership in a specific faith community, accords a public, sustaining value to the fundamental concepts of Christianity? Since the historic bases for this difference are well known, a brief description of them should suffice. American society was built for the most part by groups that had fled from the system of state churches that reigned in Europe, and they found their religious bearings in free faith communities outside of the state church. The foundations of American society were thus laid by the free churches, which by the tenets of their creed and their very structure are not a state church but rather a free assembly of individuals. In this sense you could say that American society is built on the foundations of a separation of church and state that is determined and indeed demanded by religion (a separation whose motivation and configuration could not be more different from the conflictual separation of church and state imposed by the French Revolution and the systems that followed it). In America the state is little more than a free space for different religious communities. It is in its nature to recognize and permit these communities in their particularity and non-membership in the state. A separation that is conceived positively, since it is meant to allow religion to be itself, a religion that respects and protects its own living space distinctly from the state and its ordinances. This separation has created a special relationship between the state and the private spheres that is completely different from Europe. The private sphere has an absolutely public character. This is why the non-governmental is not excluded in any way, style, or form from the public dimension of social life. Most of America’s cultural institutions are non-governmental, such as the universities or arts organizations. The legal and tax system favors and enables this type of non-governmental culture, by contrast to Europe, where, for example, private universities are a recent and only marginal phenomenon.
Benedict has over the years been kept closely informed about the American religious situation and especially about the project called Evangelicals and Catholics Together. In the same book, he writes: American Catholics also recognized the positive character of the separation between church and state, for both religious reasons and for the religious freedom that it guaranteed them. It is also thanks to their significant contribution that American society has maintained a Christian consciousness. Their contribution is more valid than ever at a time in which profound, radical changes are taking place within Protestantism. Since the traditional Protestant communities are continuously adapting to secularized society, they are losing their internal cohesion and their ability to persuade. The evangelicals, who used to be the most relentless enemies of Catholicism, are not only gaining ground on the traditional communities, but they are also discovering a new commonality with Catholicism, which they are coming to see as a defender against the pressures of secularization and an upholder of the same ethical values that they themselves profess: values that they feel have been given short shrift by their Protestant brothers.
Stanley Fish is a bright and engaging gadfly. He has been known to describe himself as a sophist in his mission to upset conventional wisdoms, most of which travel under the banner of liberalism. I have debated him in these pages (see Why We Can Get Along, February 1996) and frequently fail in resisting the temptation to see what he is up to now. Here he is again on the New York Times op-ed page. The subject is Christianity and Islam, and why Christians don’t stand up to radical Islam’s demands for submission. His message, in brief, is: Let’s you and them fight. Religions worth their mettle, according to Fish, are comprehensive accounts”they purport to be the truth about everything and true for everyone. You either believe what you say you believe and are therefore a thug, or else you only pretend to believe and are therefore a liberal wimp. As Fish would have it: A firm adherent of a comprehensive religion doesn’t want dialogue about his beliefs; he wants those beliefs to prevail. Dialogue is not a tenet in his creed, and invoking it is unlikely to do anything but further persuade him that you have missed the point”as, indeed, you are pledged to do, so long as liberalism is the name of your faith. But of course that is utter poppycock. A firm adherent to orthodox Christianity is firmly committed to dialogue. To be sure, he wants the truth in which he believes to be accepted by others. But it is very much a tenet of his creed that his duty is to faithfully bear witness to the truth, and to commend to God the truth’s prevailing. Some Christian theologians consider Stanley Fish an ally in the great battle (and great fun) of smiting liberalism hip and thigh. That is, I believe, a serious mistake. Fish’s contention that religion that hasn’t sold out to liberalism is fanaticism will be rejected by those who decline to choose between being a wimp or a thug.
In the March issue I wrote about the dismissal by Wheaton College of a faculty member who entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. The president of the college said the decision turned on whether a Catholic could accept the authority of Scripture as construed by the Protestant Reformation. I pointed out that numerous heresies, before and after the sixteenth century, appealed to scriptural authority. Friends at Wheaton have pointed out to me, in turn, that the college’s Statement of Faith (available on Wheaton’s website) precludes most of the heresies I mentioned. True enough. I was aware of Wheaton’s Statement of Faith, but my comment was addressed to the president’s claim that acceptance of scriptural authority is the criterion by which a Catholic is excluded from teaching at Wheaton. I should have made that distinction more clearly. At the same time, I stand by my observation that there are at Wheaton, and in evangelicalism more generally, doctrinal disagreements of great moment that are not resolved by appeal to scriptural authority”nor, I would add, by appeal to Wheaton’s Statement of Faith. As I said, the reason given for the dismissal that gave rise to this discussion does seem to focus rather narrowly on preventing Catholics from teaching at Wheaton. (For a discussion of this and related questions, see the reflection in this issue by Alan Jacobs, who teaches at Wheaton.)
Somewhat amusing are many of the responses to Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est . The dominant note in the news reports is that Benedict was engaged in something like a public-relations game, putting forward a friendly face to counter the impression of Joseph Ratzinger as the Vatican enforcer. After all, what could be so warm and fuzzy as an encyclical entitled God Is Love. News reports here and elsewhere spoke of a document that is free from the strictures of orthodoxy and avoided such controversial issues as sexuality or priestly discipline. All of this is, I am convinced, quite entirely to miss the point. In the first encyclical of this still-new pontificate, Benedict recalls us to the most fundamental and radical of Christian truth claims: All that is is brought into being and sustained in being by love, by the God who is love, and who calls and enables us to respond to His love as supremely exemplified in the cross of Christ. This is the call to radical discipleship that is now, as always, the most controversial of the Church’s proposals to the world. Indeed, it is the enduring scandal of the gospel. If we don’t get that right, we are not likely to get much else right”including the numerous controversies that generate endless chatter about what’s right and what’s wrong about the Church and the world. An extended examination of the radical teaching of Deus Caritas Est is planned for the next issue.
Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic is taking no prisoners. The subject is Daniel C. Dennett’s book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon , in which the author sets out to smite religion hip and thigh, much in the style of village atheists of yore, but this time in the name of the dubious science of evolutionary biology. In his own opinion, writes Wieseltier, Dennett is a hero. By asking for an accounting of the pros and cons of religion, I risk getting poked in the nose, or worse,’ he declares, and yet I persist.’ Giordano Bruno with tenure at Tufts! Dennett explains the development of religion by means not scientific but scientistic, says Wieseltier. There are a number of things that must be said about this story. The first is that it is only a story. It is not based, in any strict sense, on empirical research. Dennett is extrapolating back to human prehistory with the aid of biological thinking,’ nothing more. Breaking the Spell is a fairy tale told by evolutionary biology. There is no scientific foundation for its scientistic narrative. Even Dennett admits as much: I am not at all claiming that this is what science has established about religion . . . . We don’t know.’ So all of Dennett’s splashy allegiance to evidence and experiment and generating further testable hypotheses’ notwithstanding, what he has written is just an extravagant speculation based upon his hope for what is the case, a pious account of his own atheistic longing. Wieseltier concludes: Dennett recognizes the uses of faith, but not its reasons. In the end, his repudiation of religion is a repudiation of philosophy, which is also an affair of belief in belief. What this shallow and self-congratulatory book establishes most conclusively is that there are many spells that need to be broken.
Lose a few, lose a few. That’s the frequently muttered motto of those contending for truth and justice in public affairs. But then, every once in a while, they win one. That seems to be happening in the campaign of vilification against Pius XII and his silence, or worse, in the time of the Holocaust. Churchill said that a lie gets halfway around the world before truth gets its pants on. Truth is now up and running fast. There was The Pius War , edited by Joseph Bottum and Rabbi David Dalin, and now there is Dalin’s own The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis , together with Ronald Rychlak’s Righteous Gentiles: How Pius XII and the Catholic Church Saved Half a Million Jews from the Nazis . All three books devastatingly debunk the scurrilous attacks that have appeared in the past seven years by the likes of John Cornwell ( Hitler’s Pope ), James Carroll ( Constantine’s Sword ), Garry Wills ( Papal Sin ), and Daniel Goldhagen ( A Moral Reckoning ). Rychlak, who is a professor of law and knows all the forensic ins and outs, is especially effective in a point-by-point rebuttal of the reckless charges that have been made against Pius. Cornwell, incidentally, has been forced to withdraw his claims, in a way, and now says we don’t know enough to make a definite judgment about what Pius did or could have done. Some detractors of Pius claim that we cannot be satisfied that he intended to rescue Jews in the absence of an actual written order from him to that effect. Rychlak notes that in this they are following the line of the Holocaust deniers who say that Hitler is exonerated because there is no written order by him calling for the killing of Jews. It will be remembered that, until Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy in the early 1960s, Pius was much praised, by Jewish leaders among others, for his efforts to rescue victims of the Holocaust. Then, quite suddenly, everything changed and he was depicted as a villain. Rychlak notes the close friendship between British Holocaust denier David Irving and Rolf Hochhuth. When, in November 2005, Irving was arrested in Austria for Holocaust denial (which is a crime in some European countries), he was the guest of Rolf Hochhuth. There is obviously an affinity between those who play fast and loose with history, in this case between a Holocaust denier and a defamer of Pius XII. (As of this writing, Irving told the Austrian court that he used to be but is no longer a Holocaust denier, claiming to have been convinced that it happened after studying journals and other documents of Heinrich Himmler. The Austrian court nonetheless sentenced him to three years in prison.) Not long before the pope’s death, Father Peter Gumpel of Rome’s dicastery for saints told me that John Paul the Great expressed the hope that he would live long enough to beatify Pius XII. That was not to be, but, if he is beatified, the vindication will be in significant part due to the efforts of people like Dalin and Rychlak. Lose a few, win a few.
When this past February many thousands of Muslims ran amok in protest against a Danish newspaper that printed unflattering cartoons of Mohammed, many commentators, including your scribe, said the West must stand firm in making clear that we are not about to live by Muslim rules. There followed an article in the Wall Street Journal by a French writer, Amir Taheri, making the case that, in fact, Islam does not forbid the visual depiction of Mohammed and has often tolerated even the making fun of aspects of Islam. Mr. Taheri writes: Islamic ethics is based on limits and proportions,’ which means that the answer to an offensive cartoon is a cartoon, not the burning of embassies or the kidnapping of people designated as the enemy. Islam rejects guilt by association. Just as Muslims should not blame all Westerners for the poor taste of a cartoonist who wanted to be offensive, those horrified by the spectacle of rent-a-mob sackings of embassies in the name of Islam should not blame all Muslims for what is an outburst of fascist energy. It is good to be assured that Mr. Taheri and many Muslims both past and present have a more friendly disposition toward the freedoms cherished by democracies. But we already knew that. Their argument is with Muslims, not with us. We can only hope that they win the argument.
So I am asked: How come you’re now in favor of the media’s mocking of religion? The answer is that I’m not. I am in favor of censorship, with it being understood that the best form of censorship is self-censorship, which is simply another way of saying self-control. But, when governments try to quash free speech”except in cases such as yelling Fire! in a crowded theater”I’m generally on the side of free speech. And when mobs threaten violence or death against those exercising the freedom to criticize, I’m always on the side of freedom. In the Christian understanding, the protection of freedom is integral to respect for the dignity of the human person, also when the person abuses that freedom. An additional and very important factor in the February events is that you had in Europe a demand, backed by threats, that Europe must live by Muslim rules. This is what is meant by the prospect of Europe becoming Eurabia. In this case, as in other cases over the last several years, the response of many European governments was not reassuring.
In February’s violent Islamic protests against the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed in an unfavorable light, on February 5 to be exact, a gunman shot and killed Father Andrea Santoro while he was praying in his little church in Trabzon, Turkey. Herewith an excerpt from Fr. Santoro’s last letter to his friends: Meanwhile, in Trabzon, the minute Christian community has met every Sunday morning to celebrate the Liturgy of the Word, and the church has been opened twice a week to Muslims, under the responsibility of a trustworthy person. I will let you know how it goes. I greet you, commending these reflections to you and exhorting you to always put faith in contact with the present moment. It must not be an abstract and generic faith, but a faith like that of the first beginnings,’ which has been transmitted to us from generation to generation. As the gospel says, leaven has a mysterious capacity to ferment the dough, if it comes into contact with it”the dough of all times, all places, all generations. Moreover, Jesus said: I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness.’ If his light illuminates us, not only will it illuminate every situation, even the most tragic, but in addition we too, as he always said, will be light. The tenuous light of a candle illuminates a house, an extinguished lamp leaves everything in darkness. May he shine in us with his Word, with his Spirit, with the sap of his saints. May our life be the wax that is consumed willingly. Affectionately, Father Andrea.
The great anxiety was to maintain one’s credentials as a liberal intellectual. Within that world, death came in the form of being perceived as having sold out or, even worse, having become a neoconservative. Such risks were run over the decades by writers such as Michael Walzer and the late Irving Howe, who criticized the more mindless excesses of the Left. The late and much-missed Christopher Lasch was almost alone in keeping his liberal audience while not caring a whit whether he was still seen as a man of the Left. It is very different with Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism at Columbia and, back in the olden days, president of the radical Students for a Democratic Society. Those of a certain age will remember the 1962 SDS Port Huron statement which condemned intellectuals who were victims of unreasoning anti-communism. Now Mr. Gitlin has published The Intellectuals and the Flag (Columbia University Press), criticizing the fundamentalist left for its contempt of patriotism. Viewing U.S. power as an indivisible evil, the fundamentalist left has logically foregone the possibility of any effective opposition, he writes. This was said many times during the 1960s and 1970s by liberal intellectuals. When I was still counted among them, I was impressed by the virulent reaction to my writing that American power is, on balance and considering the alternatives, a force for good in the world. I think I understand what Mr. Gitlin is going through. The remarkable thing is that he is still going through it thirty years later. Reviewing his book in the New York Sun , Gerald Russello puts it nicely: Despite these strengths, the book will appeal only to that generation of Vietnam-era intellectuals who still believe left-wing nostrums, suitably repackaged, will carry the day. Despite Mr. Gitlin’s obvious sincerity and vigor of thought, these essays remain firmly in the bedrock of conventional liberalism. There is no talk here of immigration, abortion, crime, or other issues most voters consider central to their understanding of a civil community. Questions of culture are here, but they are refracted through Mr. Gitlin’s triple inheritance of [David] Riesman, [C. Wright] Mills, and [Irving] Howe . . . . Even when calling for a newly engaged leftism, disdain for those not imbued with the revolutionary zeal breaks through. What others view as superannuated nostrums, Mr. Gitlin and a few stalwarts view as keeping the faith. Distancing themselves from the vulgar Michael Moores, Howard Deans, and Al Frankens, they are on the academic sidelines of censorious oldsters reminiscing about the days when there was an intellectual left of public consequence. The old ideas are repackaged, it is even allowed that conservatives may have a point on this or that, but beneath it all and through it all is the unquenchable byword of leftist continuity, Come the revolution!
In recent years it has become a tradition”dare one say a venerated tradition”to stage The Vagina Monologues on February 14 on college and university campuses, including Catholic colleges and universities. The tide is turning. Father Brian Shanley, president of Providence College in Rhode Island, has read the play with care. He notes that it claims to be a celebration of female sexuality in all its complexity and mystery and a bible for a new generation of women. It is, he says, no such thing. Far from celebrating the complexity and mystery of female sexuality, The Vagina Monologues simplifies and demystifies it by reducing it to the vagina. In contrast, Roman Catholic teaching sees female sexuality as ordered toward a loving giving of self to another in a union of body, mind, and soul that is ordered to the procreation of new life. The deeper complexity and mystery lies in the capacity of human sexuality, both male and female, to sacramentalize the love of God in marriage. Any depiction of female sexuality that neglects its unitive and procreative dimensions diminishes its complexity, its mystery and its dignity. Moreover, to explore fully the dignity of woman requires not only a consideration of female sexuality, but also of the capacity of woman for intellectual, artistic, moral, and spiritual activity; none of these dimensions are featured in The Vagina Monologues . He draws attention to a monologue wherein the alcohol-fueled seduction of a sixteen-year-old girl by a twenty-four-year-old woman is described as resulting in salvation’ and a kind of heaven.’ Committed as Providence College is to the original Bible and a quite different understanding of salvation, Father Shanley concludes that the college will no longer sponsor or permit The Vagina Monologues .
The Vagina Monologues , along with a Queer Film Festival, also figures in an extensive reflection on academic freedom, excellence, and integrity by Father John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame University. The issue, he says, is not censorship but sponsorship. His statement, published in the February 9 edition of origins , includes this: The Vagina Monologues and Queer Film Festival have raised difficulties because they either are or appear to be at odds with certain fundamental values of a Catholic university. The fact that they have been sponsored annually by units of the university and have been widely publicized prominently associates the university’s name with them. Such occurrences suggest the university endorses or at least finds compatible with its values certain views which are not in fact compatible. The wide publicity and prominence given such events tends to instrumentalize our collective identity and our higher meaning. The concern here, as I said, is not with censorship, but with sponsorship.
Father Jenkins also said this: You have, then, my thoughts on this matter. I am absolutely committed to Notre Dame’s continuing quest to be a truly preeminent university, to be a leader in inquiry and creative expression, to be a place of vibrant debate and intellectual engagement. I am equally committed to maintaining our distinctive Catholic character”indeed, with the other fellows of the university, I bear a special responsibility in this regard. It is with this mission of the university in mind that I have offered you my thought on academic freedom and our Catholic character. One might raise a question about the equally committed, which could be misunderstood as suggesting that there is a tension between Catholic character and academic excellence. As fine and courageous as Fr. Jenkins’ reflection is, the case needs to be made more explicitly that Notre Dame’s commitment to excellence has its source and most critical support in its constitution as a Catholic university. But let me not quibble. Since becoming president, Fr. Jenkins has signaled that the country’s premier Catholic university is newly confident about its distinctive character and mission, and that is altogether good news.
The editors of Commonweal are most decidedly displeased with my little essay The Truce of 2005? in the February issue. Their long editorial begins with this: Fr. Richard John Neuhaus is clearly a man to be reckoned with. Counselor and confidant of presidents, cardinals, and popes. Conjurer of naked public squares, neoconservative triumphs, Catholic moments, Great’ pontificates, and the authoritative interpretation’ of Vatican II. Scourge of liberals, secular humanists, the imperial judiciary, lax bishops, mainline Protestants, and feminists. Writer, theologian, and self-confessed martini aficionado. Indeed, he is by all accounts precisely what he insists those who would follow him into the Catholic priesthood must be: He is a manly man.’ The niceties over with, they get down to business. (Of course, their estimate of my influence is grossly exaggerated, but that seems to serve their purposes.) Neuhaus dares to issue an ultimatum to the pope, they say. Others have it that I have thrown down a gauntlet to the pope. This is very odd. I point out that some prominent Catholic leaders have very publicly challenged the instruction, issued by the pope’s authority, on not admitting homosexuals to the priesthood and suddenly I am the one challenging papal authority. The editors say that the Truce of 1968, having to do with the widespread rejection of the encyclical Humanae Vitae , is a neoconservative myth. They write that many Catholics, placing their trust [in] their own moral experience, were using artificial contraception well before the encyclical was issued. Just as many gay Catholics today say they have no moral problem with homogenital sex. Of course the editors are right. Then and now and always, there are many who are not faithful to the Church’s teaching. The question in 1968 and the question now is whether official teachers in the Church”as distinct from lay-edited publications such as Commonweal ”can with impunity publicly reject what the Church teaches. If the answer is yes, it seems inevitable that the conclusion will be drawn that the Church does not mean what she says”about this or perhaps anything else of moral consequence. The editors do not explicitly reject the teaching that homosexual acts are intrinsically immoral and therefore the desire to engage in such acts is objectively disordered. Neither do they affirm the teaching. They write, It is true that, like many Catholics, Commonweal is engaged in the difficult task of discerning whether new understandings of homosexuality are compatible with the gospel and the Church’s moral tradition. We look first to the Church for guidance and instruction. But since God’s presence in the world is not confined to the Church, we also look to the lives and testimony of our friends and neighbors . . . . Neuhaus, on the other hand, argues that the Church’s teaching about homosexuality is not open to debate or evidently to any further development. The debate, however, is taking place, and Catholics betray no disloyalty or impiety by participating in it. I would go further: Faithful Catholics should participate in the debate”on the side of the Church’s teaching. As for the possibility of doctrinal development, if there are new understandings of homosexuality that contradict the unanimous and unbroken moral tradition from ancient Israel and the early Church up to the present, they are, by definition, misunderstandings. The Church’s understanding can always be refined and deepened, as can our sympathy for those afflicted by same-sex desires, as can our awareness that we all depend more on the forgiveness of sin than on the perfection of virtue. But with respect to the gospel and the Church’s moral tradition, it would seem that Commonweal s difficult task is not to discern what they think the Church’s teaching should be but to assent to what the Church’s teaching is. It is not always easy. It is made still more difficult when dissent is presented as discussion and debate.
Some Vatican diplomats have been made uncomfortable by Benedict XVI’s candor with respect to the religious dimension of the threat posed by terrorism. In his annual message to the gathering of diplomats from the many countries with which the Holy See has