Christian Societies

“In the long run Christians by culture could hardly exist without some communities of actual believers,” notes Andrea M. Maccarini in his review of Marcello Pera’s indispensable Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians: The Religious Roots of Free Societies (“Christian Europe?” May). Absent true believers, Christian mores would lack the essential tool of faith without which “Christian society” is nothing more than yet another pure will to power. Likewise, without true believers, natural rights are nothing but a positive-law ruse.

For the faithful, the real value of cultural Judeo-Christianity (as Pera calls it) is to cut a clear path sothatall might someday be Christian by faith. In other words, believers follow Christ not because he delivers the best cultural payoff but because they yearn for God.

I’m not sure, however, to what Maccarini is referring when he calls for a “new way” for societies to translate Christ’s demand that each of us care for the poor as individuals. A faithful Christian cares for the poor, end of story. The only question is whether a particular society has enough of the faithful to care for its poor so as not to have the charitable vocation usurped by the state, at which point it is no longer a Christian society. Indeed, in societies where charity reigns, welfare programs wither”and vice versa”as a comparison between the more Christian United States and post-Christian Europe shows.

Furthermore, as Edward Norman has written, “Once Christ is represented as primarily concerned with justice and welfare, rather than with sin and corruption, the equation of his religion with the leading tenets of modern Humanism is easily effected. Humanism, however, in whatever guise it presents itself, is about the sovereignty of humanity and its imagined needs, and not about the demands of God at all. It is not only inherently an enemy of authentic Christianity, but also its probable successor.”

J. Douglas Johnson
Chicago, Illinois

Materiality Matters

Anyone who denies the immateriality of God risks sounding metaphysically insolent if not downright irrational, so I want to thank Phillip Cary for his generous summary and careful analysis of my book, Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (“Material God,” May). My motive for denying God’s immateriality has to do with the need to rethink what matter is, not the desire, in Cary’s words, “to make God vulnerable to passion [and] emotionally responsive to the suffering of creation.”

If matter is a perfection of the divine, then it is true, as Cary says, that God “has enough in common with us that he is not beyond our understanding,” but it does not necessarily follow that “materialist metaphysics leaves God fundamentally dependent on what is not God.” Even in classical theism, the question of whether God is “above the law” is deeply complex and quite possibly aporetic, since if God has a nature, it seems to follow that God is dependent on that nature. If God does not have a nature, then divine decisions are radically voluntaristic (the product of God’s will, not God’s character).

To avoid that conclusion, Aquinas defended an eternal law and thus drew a tight connection between divine decisions and eternal truths. If matter is a perfection of God, then God is dependent on matter only in the sense that he is dependent on his own nature, and the world he creates out of his nature is dependent on him, not the other way around.

It also follows that the world is not a conglomeration of arbitrary and purposeless accidents, as Darwinians insist. Our world is fine-tuned because Jesus is its foundation; everything was created by, for, and through him (1 Cor. 8:6). Creation and redemption both find their origin in the Incarnation.Far from pushing the view that God suffers, I follow a version of monophysite Christology by arguing that even before the Resurrection, Jesus had a body with at least some of the signs of incorruptibility. How else could he have walked on water? The Son’s body was not an alien or unanticipated addition to his eternal nature; it was a revelation of that nature. Otherwise, his resurrected body would be a heavenly limitation, and our union with God would have to take a detour around him.

Matter does not serve just as the precondition for our salvation, as a ladder that once climbed can be dismantled or destroyed. Moreover, if heaven is more like a restoration than a recreation of the world, then God must have given material bodies the potential to become one with him. When something actualizes its potential, it becomes more itself; if material bodies become divinized when they become all that they can be, then they must have always had the form of divinity implicit in their very substance. That form is none other than Jesus Christ.

Cary’s main objection to these lines of thought in my book is Plato’s point that “a material being is not simple but composed of parts that are other than the whole.” For a classical theist like Cary, a God with parts is not perfect because something composed can also be decomposed. In other words, the parts of a unified whole can be related to each other in different ways, so a composed being always has the potential to change. That argument assumes, however, that matter is purely passive. If matter is a perfection of the divine, then we have a completely different story.

Stephen Webb
Wabash College
Crawfordsville, Indiana

Phillip Cary replies:

On such complex issues Stephen Webb is a terrific conversation partner to have. But our disagreements remain deep.

First, if God is nonmaterial, then he can be simple”which is to say, not composed of stuff other than himself. This is Aquinas’ view, for example. It means God is not dependent on a nature other than himself, because he is identical with his own nature. God is his own eternal divinity, life, law, and good, and therefore never ceases to be divine, living, lawful, and good. He is unchangeable because he is simple, and simple because he is utterly immaterial.

By contrast, a material being cannot be simple, because it is composed of parts that are other than the whole. That is why I persist in saying that if God has a material nature, then the material he is made of is more fundamental than he is. This explains why, in the materialist view of the Mormons, he can become God”just as we can. Stuff that once was not divine can grow into the body of a god. But there’s also, inescapably, the possibility of change in the opposite direction: Any material being can be affected by other material beings, can be moved, wounded, suffer, and die. Despite what Webb may want to say, a material god is inevitably a corruptible god, one to whom bad things can happen.

As both the Old and New Testament vocabularies imply, flesh means vulnerability, corruptibility, and mortality”all things alien to the God of the Bible. This is why divine incarnation, according to the hymn in Philippians 2, shows us God in lowliness and humility: It is quite a come-down for the immortal and incorruptible God to take up our mortality and corruptibility, making it his own. So the Incarnation is not sheer revelation of what God already is, but also a taking up of what God is not, and therefore a beautiful concealment, “Godhead here in hiding.” It reveals divine love and mercy, but conceals divine power and eternity: The king walks among us incognito, as in Kierkegaard’s parable.

And yet the power of eternal life remains unchangeably his by nature, so as a result of his taking up our mortality and corruption, we can be clothed in his immortality and incorruption (1 Cor. 15:53). We can become gods, but”as the Church Fathers put it”only by the grace of adoption, for divine immortality does not belong to us by nature. To glimpse the depth of love that is at work in this blessed exchange (our mortality becoming his, his immortality becoming ours) we need to discern the depth of humiliation behind it; and for that, we need to understand that mortality and corruption really are alien to his divine nature.Our Lord was not forced to lower himself so far as to share our materiality, flesh, and death. That he actually did so displays the glorious freedom of divine love, which is obscured by the conception of a material God.

Unity In Suffering

Jesus’ uniqueness as a deity who saves through suffering may resolve in part the questions of salvation outside of Christianity and/or the Church that John Hick posed (Gavin D’Costa, “Remembering John Hick,” May). Assuming a need for salvation, it is through God’s suffering that we can be saved, whether we acknowledge it, are aware of it, or have been at all exposed to the concept.

It is through participation in this suffering, the Church teaches, that we can contribute to our own salvation, and to the extent that anyone participates in the “baptism” of desire or blood for the sake of the truth, they participate in the catholic call of all humanity to make noble the suffering we all endure. In this way they all follow the way Jesus preached.

Richard Shonk
Cincinnati, Ohio

The Need For Politics

Wilfred M. McClay’s “Liberalism After Liberalism” (May) defines the liberal project in America as consisting of individualistic Protestantism, free-market economics, and personal politics. His appeal to the dignity of humanity, the toleration of differing ideas, and emotivism finds a needed alternative in James Rogers’ response from a Christianity that observes how sin perpetuates “the indignity of the human person.” That author’s substantive discussion of grace and the Holy Spirit improves any reduction of Christianity to Westernism.

McClay’s description of truth as “epistemic suspension” rightly portrays liberalism’s shapeless ontology, but his “public expression of a moral community” cannot replace a theological definition of the Church. Further, he never says what form a “general renewal of culture” might take. José Ortega y Gasset’s salvific rendering of liberalism as a “discipline too difficult and complex to take place on earth” redeems this article. That is why humanity may never recognize the sought “after,” should it ever appear.

Paul Bischoff
Wheaton, Illinois

Wilfred M. McClay’s article posed the crucial issue regarding liberalism: “There are liberal ideas that deserve to survive, but they can do so only if they can find confirmation in deeper and more enduring sources.” Unfortunately, he does not identify these sources, except to conclude that they are to be derived from God.

A step in the right direction is his reply to the woman in Istanbul that free will in religious matters is of paramount importance. This answer, however, reveals the problem with identifying liberalism’s “enduring sources” with dogma: Belief in dogma requires a faith not universally accepted. If society is to be modeled on the idea of a city of God, how can the requisite ethical and political values be promoted in a society harboring a multiplicity of dogmas, as well as people believing no dogma at all?

The answer: by reference to the huge overlap of dogma and philosophy, wherein ideas can be assessed logically and empirically. McClay avoids digging for the roots of liberalism’s moral order in philosophy, and so, by remaining in the arena of politics informed by religious dogma, can only ask at the end how liberalism should develop, with very gloomy prospects indeed.

Yuval Levin mentions philosophy, but only to undercut it by positing a disjunction between philosophical theory and reality. This error makes possible the remark that “liberalism has always been much better than the theory,” a remark derived from Burke’s conservatism, which opposes abstract ideals with a liberalism “cautiously evolved through centuries of trial and error.” But what was this trial and error if not the painstaking working out of abstract ideals and then testing them in real situations? If particular ideals failed, they were revised, perhaps radically”but the enterprise of fashioning ideals was never wholly scrapped.

The Founding Fathers clearly worked through trial and error in writing the Constitution, informed by firm ideals as to what should and must work. Their one great flaw”the acceptance of slavery”resulted from abandoning those ideals. Emancipation might have been delayed for decades if a minority of diehard idealists had not made such a fuss insisting on a philosophically consistent application of the ideals of liberty and equality under the law. It was the Burkean conservatives, such as Daniel Webster, who retorted that slavery was far too deeply embedded in society’s fabric to uproot”hadn’t it existed since the beginning of civilization? Fortunately, the abstract idealists would have none of it.

All three writers (James Rogers included) avoid addressing the dire need for philosophy, to which there are no alternatives except, as Chesterton pointed out, “between being influenced by thought that has been thought out and being influenced by thought that has not been thought out.” Though McClay, Levin, and Rogers are obviously influenced by “thought that has been thought out,” as intellectuals struggling with such an important enterprise as the working out of a political system, they really must do some philosophizing themselves.

Bruce Marr
Brooklyn, New York

Wilfred M. McClay replies:

Both Paul Bischoff and Bruce Marr have misconceptions about the intent behind my article, and about the background assumptions of the symposium of which it was a part. Perhaps, then, the best way to begin answering these two correspondents would be to clarify that larger context.

Neither I nor my colleagues were seeking to supply a secular expression of “moral community” that would supplant “a theological definition of the Church” (Bischoff), or promote a “society modeled on the idea of a city of God” (Marr). Speaking for myself, although the same would be true for most of the others, I was working within a broadly Augustinian way of thinking about these matters”a tradition that sharply distinguishes between the city of God and the city of man, and insists that the one can never be transformed into the other.

It seems to me that both of my correspondents, in neatly opposite ways, choose to reject this tradition. Bischoff wants to insist upon the futility of any expression of public morality that is not ecclesiastically based. His bent therefore is toward theonomy or theocracy. Marr wants to insist on the futility of any expression of public morality that must rely on theological premises (which he calls “dogma”). His bent therefore is toward secularization of the public sphere. In my view, both of them are wrong.

Bischoff is wrong because he fails to engage seriously the challenge of living as peacefully, fruitfully, and justly as possible in a society whose inhabitants have radically different ideas about ultimate things. The city of man is by definition incommensurable with the city of God, meaning that the former does not and cannot gradually approach the condition of the latter. The goals at which it aims are provisional ones at best.

But that does not mean that there are not better and worse ways of ordering our societies and conducting our affairs in the city of man”just as the “indignity” well described by James Rogers is in no way incompatible with the “dignity” for which I argue. The question before us is how well liberalism succeeds or fails in achieving the provisional goals that are the proper task of the political order.

Marr does take the challenge of pluralism seriously, but he is wrong because he thinks that the transcending of religious speech and reasoning (which is what he means by “philosophy”) is the sine qua non for meeting such a challenge. He believes that secular reason will produce social consensus where religion fails but provides no empirical or historical evidence for this assertion. Indeed, his references to history consistently undermine his case.

I will leave a fuller defense of Edmund Burke to Yuval Levin, who is an expert on the subject, but Marr badly mischaracterizes Burke as a kind of Deweyan pragmatist and experimentalist, when in fact Burke believed in the authority of tradition and precedent, in a predisposition toward reverence for the past, in the notion of God-given rights, and in the necessity of transcendental beliefs and institutions as a grounding for political society.

Marr also mischaracterizes Daniel Webster, who opposed slavery and opposed its extension into the territories but was willing to make political compromises about slavery to preserve the Union; who fully expected slavery to gradually disappear in the Southern states; who supported plans for the colonization of freedmen outside the United States; and who in general held views on the subject that were strikingly similar to those of his follower and ardent admirer, Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, one can see Webster’s views about the status of slavery in the Southern states faithfully reflected in the language of Lincoln’s first inaugural address.

And that “minority of die-hard idealists” whom Marr praises for bringing about the end of slavery? These were not “philosophers” in his sense. These were zealous, energetic, Evangelical Protestants, men and women who were motivated almost entirely by their religious commitments. Their “abstract idealism” was fiercely and profoundly religious in its grounding. It was they who heaped opprobrium upon Daniel Webster for his endorsement of the Compromise of 1850, with its loathsome Fugitive Slave Law. They are the worst possible examples for Marr to adduce.

Contra Messrs. Bischoff and Marr, then, I would argue that the philosophizing that still needs doing has to begin by resisting their respective positions. The need for politics cannot be replaced by a raw assertion of religious authority. But neither can politics, particularly liberal democratic politics, function for long without reference to sustaining roots, and especially to assumptions about the inviolable sources of human dignity that can rightly be called religious in character. The two forces sometimes contend, sometimes cooperate, as well as frequently overlap and trespass on one another. But each also has its rightful place.

Same Services

Sincere thanks to Thomas Howard for his moving piece on how the burial rite of the Church is no respecter of men (“Two Deaths,” May). It brought to mind my own experience with the funeral of a dear lady who’d lived what we call around here “a hard life” and was best known in the small rural community as “the bootlegger’s widow.” Bernice had left the church in profound humiliation when, as a little girl, one of the more prominent ladies in the congregation insulted her in the local general store, but near the end of her life she had reconnected with the church of her childhood.

The funeral was “by the book””the Burial Office from the traditional Book of Common Prayer in its Canadian incarnation. Parishioners remarked how great it was that Bernice got such a beautiful, dignified send-off after all she’d suffered in her lifetime. As it turned out, the parishioner who had made that insulting remark so many decades earlier got the very same service, and her nice casket was covered at the door of the church by the same pall that covered dear Bernice’s very lowly casket.I look forward to the day when Bernice and the other lady stand side by side before the throne of heavenly grace. Thank you, Thomas Howard, for reminding me.

Ian Wetmore
Fredericton, New Brunswick

Expanding Mandates

In “The Selma Analogy” (May), R. R. Reno wrote, “I certainly hope that if I had been in Goldwater’s position I would have voted for the Civil Rights Act.” Nevertheless, he decried, and actually seemed surprised by the fact that the jargon, presumptions, odor of sanctity, and especially the legal tools left over from the civil rights movement’s glory years, now three generations past, are being used to sanction homosexual unions and in general make of non-heterosexuals yet another legally privileged group.

I am surprised that this could surprise him or anyone else, even before gender equality, age, and disability were added to what he called the “antidiscrimination mandate.” Any weapon, once created, can and will be used by anyone with a reason to seize it; the Civil Rights Act created a whole arsenal, and fallen human nature provides ample reason. The novel concept of a public accommodation ended the constitutional guarantees of private property and freedom of association. The new category of crime vaguely defined (and whimsically prosecuted) as the violation of civil rights removed the bar against double jeopardy; and the unchecked power of administrative commissions and civil suits reversed the presumption of innocence.

Even the Voting Rights Act, which I like to think I would have voted for, has been used for a new form of gerrymandering intended to guarantee that a voting district will elect a minority. The upshot: Instead of many legislators having to heed the significant minorities in their districts, there is a handful of minority legislators too small in number to be a significant voting bloc.

While Reno may be correct that courts have struck down “the strict use of quotas in most cases,” they have largely ignored quotas when rebranded as equal opportunity, outreach, affirmative action, or targeted hiring. This has created yet another new class, of commissioners and bureaucrats who administer the various laws, for there is no law so bad that people will not line up to be paid to administer it.

Since the Civil Rights Act, discriminationhas become a dirty word”no matter that it is no more than an upscale, polysyllabic synonym for choice. Although choice and discrimination are things to be treasured by any people who want to be self-governing and not merely administered, this demonization of the word discrimination means nearly any new right claimed is a right deserved and, soon enough, bestowed, usually without the bother of legislation.

These new rights are not protections from government. They are privileges, really, impositions on some citizens and their interests to the advantage of others and their interests, impositions enforced by government. The advantage is often immediate and financial. And no one, certainly not the proponents of homosexual marriage, wants to face its impact on taxation, Social Security eligibility, and other mundane but expensive matters.

Entirely too many careers, too much money, and too much of money’s evil twin, political clout, are now involved: The discrimination state will not wither away, so we all had best get used to it. We have little cause for surprise or complaint at yet another instance. To mangle a metaphor: Reno’s oxen are coming home to be gored.

Terry Graves
Wintersville, Ohio

R. R. Reno replies:

I’m not surprised by the Selma analogy. The sexual liberation movement naturally takes up the language of civil rights, and claims the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. It’s the tried and true way to get political, legal, and cultural clout these days. Heck, it’s not all that different from our strategy when we complain that religious believers are discriminated against in secular universities.

Terry Graves is right, however, to suggest that legal instruments designed to achieve the goals of the civil rights movement are dangerous. They are tools for social engineering, coercive methods that penetrate very deeply into our everyday lives. That most Americans have not felt it as tyranny stems from the fact that most of us agree with the goals of racial equality.

I’m not alone in thinking that the civil rights apparatus has often been crude, clumsy, and unjust in application. It has created a constituency of special interests (as do all government programs), and there have been many unintended negative consequences (another inevitability). Do I therefore regret the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the subsequent legislation? No. In the political life of every nation, challenges and crises must be met. The solutions are always only partial.

In many instances, the instruments we invented to meet past challenges are turned into dangerous tools in the hands of others today. This is beginning to happen in the gay-rights movement’s efforts to use the civil rights apparatus. I’m not happy about this prospect. Yet it does not cause me to look back and think Lyndon Johnson and others made a mistake. The man who first forged a sword to fight injustice undoubtedly grieved when it was later used to murder a countryman. However, if he remembers the injustice, he regrets the abuse, not the sword.