Being Together

R. R. Reno writes in “Solidarity” (June/July) that “solidarity involves sharing social space and a living culture, not just bloodless financial resources.” One hundred years ago, when the great majority of Americans lived in small towns or on farms, solidarity was organic, natural, and necessary.

Sharing social space was difficult to avoid in a small town. You sat on the front porch, and it faced the street. Almost everybody acknowledged and believed in the same morality, and many, if not most, attended church. You worked, worshipped, and traded with your neighbors. Families were not equal, but they intermarried, giving solidarity a biological basis.

But “colored-town” was the ugly side of the same coin. Small towns kept these “others” separate but never apart. Solidarity can be as much against “the others” as it can be inclusive. Natural solidarity has a dual polarity, and it can work against civic friendship as vigorously as it promotes it.

Even so, the intimacy of knowing each other that comes with shared social space tended to reinforce a common morality. There was never much disagreement (on either side of the tracks) about right and wrong.

Technology has conquered time and space, and it is destroying the “small” part of community. Neighborhood is dead and gone. Economies of scale hopelessly favor Walmart over the corner grocer.

We are free to choose our social space anywhere. It doesn’t matter if you are in Belmont or Fishtown: You don’t have to live where you are anymore. George Zimmerman’s house and Trayvon Martin’s father’s house were about a block apart. These two antagonists were sharing social space immediately before and during their confrontation, just not with each other. Zimmerman was on the phone with 9-1-1 and Martin with Rachel Jeantel.

The ancient question “Who is my neighbor?” is now multiple choice. We have never been able to choose our neighbors”maybe to our benefit”but we do now.

True solidarity is a shared morality, and “love your neighbor as yourself” is its central tenet. If everybody is my neighbor, perhaps nobody is. If love isn’t specific and particular, it isn’t love. Technology creates for us an unlimited supply of virtual neighbors, but it also makes it more difficult to love them. The compelling narrative of the Good Samaritan is hard to square with Facebook.

William Abbott
Columbus, Nebraska

R. R. Reno replies:

William Abbott is certainly correct: Small towns have ugly sides, as do family pride, ethnic loyalty, patriotism, and every other form of solidarity. That’s true of other social goods. Freedom has malign manifestations, equality false forms. Like admirable personal characteristics, social justice requires a golden mean.

An admirable solidarity encourages loyalty, but not to the point of xenophobia; it makes room for hospitality without undermining our obligations to our little platoons. It would be the very opposite of social justice, for example, if our society discouraged parents from giving special care to their children.

By and large, our age thinks we get to the golden mean by way of moderation. Thus our children are taught about the excesses of ethnic or national or religious loyalties. They learn about the wars of religion or the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The pedagogical goal is “critical”: to get them to see what’s ugly about our natural impulse toward solidarity, encouraging them to back away a bit from their native loyalties. Multiculturalism represents an ideologically rigorous version of this approach.

But as Abbott suggests, this method of moderation encourages isolation. He emphasizes the technological changes of recent years, but modern capitalism is surely, I think, a more fundamental factor. Its tremendous benefits flow from creative destruction, which include social and cultural realities. Many neighborhoods have been demolished to make way for something more profitable.

Although I had not thought of it when writing the “Public Square,” Abbott’s letter makes me think that our pedagogies of “critique” and the ideology of multiculturalism are ideological outgrowths of capitalism. Solidarity is and always has been an impediment to the free flow of labor and capital, and it’s precisely this impediment that is weakened by the pedagogies of critique.

The only real remedy to a false love is a true love, not a weaker love. This holds true for the excesses and dangers of solidarity. Multiculturalism teaches a superficial civic etiquette of ritualized affirmations and inclusions. It fails to encourage genuine solidarity, something that, given our fallen nature, always needs to be renewed, all the more so today when our economic system and new technologies atomize and isolate us.

We need true loves. Abbott is right that they are specific and particular, but they need not be closed and limited. On the contrary, a true love prepares our hearts for a higher, more comprehensive love. It’s the team, the neighborhood, the family reunion, and other forms of limited solidarity that often first enchant us with intimations of a higher unity.

Yes, these forms can encourage haughty superiority and a spirit of exclusion, but they’re also schoolrooms for the loyalty we need if our common life together is to be more than a financial transaction in which the rich pay to palliate and pacify the poor.

Faithful Images

I’m grateful to Carl R. Trueman for writing a thoughtful, lucid assessment of the place of tragedy in contemporary Christian worship (“Tragic Worship,” June/July), but I couldn’t help but think of one glaring omission in his assessment for which Protestantism has been rather unhelpful: the image of the crucifix. He is right to point to the death of Christ as a central locus of Christian reflection, but it is peculiar that he gives no mention to the fact that images of Christ’s death have held a central place in Christian worship since the earliest centuries of the Church. Of course, such images remain central in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions (not to mention Anglican and Lutheran), but their absence in the broader Protestant tradition is a direct result of the continental Reformers’ interpretation of the second commandment.

I am not suggesting that the Reformers opposed such images because of some allergic reaction to tragic themes in the Catholic faith. Yet, in hindsight, it is not difficult to see how this has become an unintended consequence. I have often heard Protestants defend the exclusive use of a plain cross (sans corpus) on the grounds that we should always remember that Christ is no longer on the cross, but in heaven. Whatever merits this argument possesses, it at least suggests an unhelpful move away from the necessarily tragic elements that Trueman wishes to reinvigorate.

The image of Christ on the cross is perhaps the most powerful image of the Christian faith. For centuries, the faithful have been shaped by this image. Regardless of the historical reasons for abandoning it, one can’t help but speculate about the side effects caused by this void in the Protestant tradition. I only hope that Trueman’s article will serve as a wakeup call that perhaps a reevaluation is in order.

Stewart Clem
University of Notre Dame
South Bend, Indiana

Carl R. Trueman replies:

I am very grateful to Stewart Clem for his thoughtful and intriguing comments on the loss of the visual in Reformed Protestantism. This is an area I had not considered in my original article and which clearly deserves more attention and more dialogue.

As he indicates, this loss was the result of the interpretation and application of the second commandment, and a truly adequate response would require a much broader discussion of theological and exegetical issues than is possible here. If, for the sake of argument, we set aside the theological objections to crucifixes and the like, I would suggest that two things are worthy of consideration. First, it does not seem to me, as an outsider, that Catholicism has fared any better than Protestantism in maintaining a tragic sensibility in worship, as evidenced by “worship wars” similar to those we find in Evangelical Protestantism.

Further, the sentimentalization of so much popular Catholic art indicates that retaining an emphasis on the visual is no safeguard. Michelangelo’s Piet is one thing; a casual browse in the local Catholic bookstore indicates a much more banal aesthetic sensibility is certainly dominant. Indeed, even the crucifix itself stands as an example of this: When young girls wear such things as fashion accessories, one can surely say that the true significance of the symbol has been evacuated of its original agony and terror. When the tragic becomes a commodity, the result is a bathetic descent into cheap sentimentalism.

Second, I do believe that Reformed Protestantism has the resources available to maintain the tragic if it cares to use them, even if a traditional understanding of the second commandment is maintained. At a theological level, a robustly Augustinian anthropology, and at a practical level, a little more use of the Psalter (and perhaps a little less use of hymns written between 1850 and 1900, and any praise song written after 1980!), would be a start. If that basic theological and liturgical framework is missing, the path from the tragic to the kitsch in religious artwork is a very short one indeed.

The loss of the tragic sensibility is at root the result of the failure to take seriously the biblical narrative of divine and human identity and of the failure to refract human experience through biblical categories and horizons of expectation. Christian art at its best should, of course, contribute to reinforcing such matters; sadly, it has too often been a means of marginalizing, domesticating, or sentimentalizing them.

Stopping Speech

Paul Coleman (“European Faith Made Private,” June/July) is surely right to warn as European public manifestations of faith are pushed into the private sphere. Yet there is a necessary intermediate step on the road to persecution that can be resisted, namely, the creation of a hierarchy of rights.

The problem of so-called “hate speech” is symptomatic. Only seventy-five years ago, most countries in Europe forbade homosexual activity. Now, as gay rights wax, religious freedoms wane. Politicians across the continent have largely shied away from addressing how these two sets of cultures, largely incompatible, can be reconciled in the public square. This leaves a haphazard legal mess.

In Britain, the ever-liberal courts are filling the void without seeking true accommodation. When the European Convention on Human Rights was directly incorporated into English law, courts were obliged to have “particular regard to the importance” of Article 9 (which protects the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion) in the “determination of any question” regarding individual or collective freedom. Since the turn of the millennium, legislative changes and judicial decisions have considerably lowered the privilege granted to religious freedoms.

The Sexual Orientation Regulations gave domestic effect to European directives requiring the equal treatment of people on the grounds of sexual orientation. The Labour government used these regulations to criminalize Catholic adoption agencies that sought to place children with traditionally married parents. The European Court approved the rationale of this and other decisions, holding that it is within the state’s “margin of appreciation” or discretion to disproportionately target any “discrimination” even if such discrimination was theoretical, abstract, and never a practical problem.

No one wants a return to the past. The only answer is a statutory obligation to make reasonable accommodation for religious practices and beliefs in the workplace, with a presumption (albeit rebuttable) in favor of the religious, similar to disability protections. Such a solution can carve out a space for mutual tolerance and understanding.

Peter Smith
Maidenhead, Berkshire
United Kingdom

Paul Coleman replies:

In pointing to the need for a “statutory obligation to make reasonable accommodation for religious practices and beliefs in the workplace,” Peter Smith would have Europe move closer to North America in its treatment of religious freedom. I would fully support such a move but I am also cautious about a legislative solution to solve Europe’s current problems.

The continent has many laws that protect religious freedom. We have international treaties, human rights laws, non-discrimination laws, and domestic constitutions that all protect freedom of religion in clear, unambiguous language. I think the greater problem is not so much the absence of legislative protection, but the largely theoretical nature of the laws already in existence.

If European courts can look at the numerous protections for freedom of religion and consistently elevate newly created “sexual orientation” rights above it, would a new law succeed in shifting the balance? To be sure, I would like to see “reasonable accommodation” introduced in Europe, but I fear that in the current climate, the courts may prevent it from solving the hierarchy of rights problem that Smith highlights.

Spiritual Freedom

Rudolf Bultmann was, as R. R. Reno states in his review, “a learned and adept historical critic,” and his efforts to establish a more modern approach to understanding the biblical text had a “disastrous legacy” (“Dead-End Dialectic,” June/July). It is instructive in contrast to know the story of Eta Linnemann (1926“2009). She studied under Bultmann, who called her one of his brightest pupils. At first, she wholeheartedly accepted his destructive higher-critical approach to the Scriptures, and, when she became a professor herself, followed in his theological footsteps.

Among her students were a number of Evangelicals who determined that she had not been converted. They met with and prayed for her, and shortly Eta came to Christ.

She eventually went to Batu, Indonesia, as a missionary and taught at a Bible Institute. She put her academic skills to good use in learning the language and translating Scripture, hymns, and theology for her new students. Praise God, she is presently experiencing the beatific vision.

Ralph E. MacKenzie
San Diego, California

R. R. Reno replies:

Eta Linnemann’s story is heartwarming. It also provides a useful reminder. Bultmann expected his students to be able to read the New Testament in Greek without the aid of lexicons and grammar books. This pedagogy produced an intimate knowledge of the biblical text, something that neither depended upon or required modern interpretative techniques such as demythologization.

Linnemann detached her biblical expertise from the tacit theologies entailed in the theories driving “higher criticism.” Others have done so as well, to a greater or lesser extent. For someone like Gary Anderson or Richard Hays, that hasn’t meant rejecting all or even most of the interpretive techniques of modern biblical scholarship.

But it has meant that they have the spiritual freedom to be theologically critical of historical criticism. We need more of that sort of freedom.

All-Seeing Eye

Glenn C. Arbery’s “Search Me, O God” (June/July) is an engaging, learned, and timely consideration of the relationship between our longing to know ourselves and our awareness of what it means to be known by and to others, whether God, the state, or the invidious auto-surveillance systems of global technology. His array of literary and cultural and religious references is an apt testament to his deep and wide reading. But it also suggests that his ostensible main text”Cory Doctorow’s Homeland ”fails to merit the extended analysis to which he subjects it, not simply in literary and intellectual terms, but also as a symptomatic cultural document with respect to regnant construals of meaning and value among young people today.

In simpler terms, tech-addled young people today aren’t falling into tech-aided atheism”as Arbery effectively suggests in his reading of a relatively popular young adult novel that uncritically recommends just this course. Instead, young people are too busy pursuing tech-aided narcissism. Arbery has little to say about the turning-inward that technology encourages amongst all of us and especially young people (“digital natives”), specifically via the self-spectacle and self-involvement made possible, indeed prized, by social media”Facebook, Twitter, etc.

In other words, is Arbery brilliantly barking up the wrong tree? The problem isn’t that our online searching has replaced our search for God while subjecting us to intrusive searching by the “back-end” elements of contemporary consumer technology and media. The problem is that, at the end of the day, too many people aren’t searching for anything greater because they’ve been convinced they’ve found all they need in their own digital reflections.

Randy Boyagoda
Ryerson University
Toronto, Canada

Glenn C. Arbery replies:

As Randy Boyagoda sees very well, even bringing a modest range of reference (Tillich, Hawthorne, St. Augustine) to bear on a novel like Cory Doctorow’s Homeland seems to be a misguided exercise”at best, an instance of asymmetrical warfare, culturally speaking. But I think it’s defensible in this case. My concerns in the essay are with the far-reaching effects of the metaphor of God as the inimical Watcher, the real Big Brother. To flee from such a Watcher seems necessary for freedom, as Nietzsche’s “Ugliest Man” knew.

Why Doctorow? I had been musing for several months about faith and surveillance when Tom Shippey’s review of Homeland, a novel about surveillance, appeared in the Wall Street Journal back in February. I downloaded the book onto my Kindle (which somehow seemed fitting) and read it in the next day or so.

I don’t entirely share Mr. Shippey’s opinion that “ Homeland is as dead serious as 1984, as potentially important a ‘novel of ideas,’ with a much more engaging central character.” Nevertheless, it’s an engaging book. For my purposes, it was worth reading precisely because it explicitly identifies God with Big Brotherly surveillance”well, except that technological surveillance is real for Doctorow’s main character, whereas God isn’t.

In Doctorow’s world (continuous with, say, the readership of the New York Times ) , “mindfulness” and other varieties of heightened attention or narcissistic self-awareness are okay. What’s not acceptable is the idea of a watchful, all-seeing, judgmental being from whom nothing whatsoever is hidden.

But “Truth in the inmost being,” as the Psalmist puts it, is the source of our capacity for genuine freedom and charity. My hope was less to diagnose young people or to make Homeland seem important than to expose the circuitry of an increasingly hardwired metaphor.

Goods From Evils

I greatly enjoyed Paul Griffiths’ careful response to Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution (“Impossible Pluralism,” June/July). However, I hold a few concerns.

The first is Griffiths’ apparent unconcern with the impending sixth major extinction event as a result of anthropogenic climate change. He writes that someone discovering that “major extinction events are a regular feature of our planet’s life, with or without human involvement, might think of them like forest fires: perhaps necessary, even though prima facie destructive, and thus not necessarily to be prevented, even if they could be.”

Yet this disregards the obvious moral difference between the two: The comparison should not be between two forest fire-type extinction events, but between naturally caused forest fires and arson. Humans are actively destroying the earth because of unthinking consumption at unprecedented rates. While Bellah’s call for a world civil society and the end of the Church may not be the solution, Griffiths’ metaphysical shrug offers no hope at all.

Of course, Griffiths would object to my characterization of the first five extinction events as amoral. For him, the cosmos is “deeply damaged” and thus even the first five events hold a moral component”a point which he develops at the end of his article. According to his metanarrative, all the previous extinction events are the “arson” of creation, caused by fallen angels who “rebel against their creator and introduce thereby deep damage into the otherwise harmoniously beautiful space-time fabric of the cosmos. All creatures, material and immaterial, living and nonliving, are damaged by this fall.”

I have several objections to Griffiths’ articulation of the Christian metanarrative. First, it does not cohere with the biblical narrative of creation. To find something like Griffiths’ account of events in, say, the early chapters of Genesis, one would have to stretch back to pre-Reformation interpretations. Modern interpreters (for example, Gordon Wenham) reject a primordial fall in Genesis 1, and they also reject the identification of the snake in Genesis 3 with any sort of satanic figure. There is no strong exegetical basis for a narrative like the one Griffiths constructs.

Second, the natural sciences tell us that the “violent” and “hellish” strands of the natural world are the driving elements of much of its beauty and diversity. As Holmes Rolston once poetically said, the “cougar’s fang has carved the limbs of the fleet-footed deer.” If rebellious forces are responsible for the cougar’s fangs, are we also to attribute to them the responsibility for the agility and beauty of the deer?

Third, Griffiths’ metanarrative, with its emphasis on human election as part of the “gradual healing of the cosmos,” ought to result in a call similar to Bellah’s for ecological action in light of the impending sixth major extinction event. Surely it is a curious response to evil to simply pass it off as “a regular feature of our planet’s life.” If every major extinction event is a result of evil influence, as Griffiths would have us believe, then the role of humanity as agents of God’s kingdom in the world should certainly be to preserve life and work against those forces that destroy. I don’t understand, then, his skepticism of Bellah’s warning that the hour is late for ecological action.

The first and second of these objections, to me, seem the most important to resolve in light of articulating a Christian narrative that engages biblical studies and the natural sciences.

Bethany Sollereder
Exeter, United Kingdom

Paul Griffiths replies:

I’m grateful for Bethany Sollereder’s thought-provoking letter. I suspect that she and I share a deep moral concern with species extinction. For me, such events prompt lament. They are, like all deaths, among the marks of a fallen world, to be lamented no less (and no more) when we humans cause them than when they’re caused in other ways.

We do differ, though, in what we think about human capacity to control and order our environment. That’s why I chose the forest fire example. We thought for decades that large-scale burns were bad, and did everything we could to prevent them. That was a mistake. Forests, and the animals and birds that live in them, need regular and large-scale burns if they’re to flourish.

Our best science was wrong. It seems to me that it usually is, at least when it comes to predicting the outcome of tinkering with complex systems”a brief glance at the history of our attempts to control our environment shows this. This means that we should undertake such tinkering with deep modesty about our capacity to predict outcomes. Perhaps Sollereder is sure that she knows what we should do to avoid future species extinctions. The degree of her certainty is likely to be closely indexed to the scope of the disasters produced by doing it.

We differ, too, about how to read Scripture. I do that as a Catholic, in the context of a long tradition. Sollereder appears to think that good scriptural interpretation began with the Reformation (another example of an optimistic meliorist-progressivist philosophy of history?), and that what Scripture means is evident on its surface.

I don’t think those things. I’d rather read Scripture with Augustine and Aquinas and Bonaventure and Pascal as interlocutors and guides, than with “modern interpreters.” And so, yes, I do think that Scripture tells the story of an angelic fall. I recommend a close reading of books eleven and twelve of Augustine’s City of God, together with the scriptural texts he engages. It’s an invigorating exercise. The cougar’s fangs and the fleet-footed deer? You need a doctrine of providence for that. The cougar’s fangs are for killing; killing is an artifact of the fall; but the Lord’s providence can bring goods from evils. That doesn’t mean we should shut our eyes to what’s evil.

Articles by Various