“The Two Shall Become One Flesh: Reclaiming Marriage” (March) is a clear articulation of the importance of marriage in Christian theology and the need for churches to remain faithful to Christian teaching. But for all that it gets right, the piece contains one line of argument that Christians should be on guard against. The authors write, “Christians have too often been silent about biblical teaching on sex, marriage, and family life.” It goes on, “In a few matters, we do not speak with one voice: We hold somewhat different views about the morality of contraception, the legitimacy of divorce, and clerical celibacy.” Finally, later: “An easy acceptance of divorce damages marriage; widespread cohabitation devalues marriage. But so-called same-sex marriage is a graver threat, because what is now given the name of marriage in law is a parody of marriage.” Taken together, these quotes represent a dangerous line of argument, because same-sex marriage cannot be abstracted from the wider background of marital collapse enabled by widespread divorce and contraception. This is true both as a matter of principle and of prudence. As a matter of principle, any argument against same-sex marriage that invokes the reproductive end of sex necessarily implicates contraception. Contraception frustrates reproduction no less than homosexual sex does. Therefore, to say that the morality of contraception is merely questionable but the morality of homosexual sex is clear is internally incoherent. And it’s not just pure logical consistency at stake, either. The Christian intellectual tradition has the sweep and grandeur of the Cathedral of Notre Dame; it is a space of cavernous beauty and monumental profundity. Anyone who takes even a step inside is immediately struck by the sense that something important happens here. You cannot separate the discussion of gay marriage from the full scope of Christian sexual ethics without limiting this sweep and grandeur. As a matter of prudence, prioritizing the wrongness of same-sex marriage over divorce or contraception (or even masturbation) only serves to reinforce the claim that Christians are motivated by some kind of anti-gay animus when they defend traditional marriage laws. The best defense against that charge is an equally vocal concern for all the threats to marriage, and all varieties of sterile sex. Many of the leading writers on gay marriage have spoken well about the need to limit no-fault divorce, and are clear about their moral opposition to contraception. Indeed, “The Two Shall Become One Flesh” makes several gestures in the direction I outlined above. For instance, the authors write, “Christians are implicated in this decline. Evangelicals and Catholics are more likely to divorce than they were fifty years ago. Moreover, Christians have adopted to no small extent the contraceptive mind-set that in society at large has separated sex from reproduction and so weakened the centrality and attraction of marriage.” But these statements coexist with the ones I quote at the start of this letter, and that creates an ambiguity that has bedeviled the marriage movement. The authors contend that Christians have often been silent on marriage. When it comes to gay marriage, this is simply not true. The debate over gay marriage has consumed the nation for several years, and there has been no lack of Christian voices expressing the Christian view. That Christians are “anti-gay” seems to be one of the few “facts” this country knows about us. But when it comes to divorce and contraception, we have not always raised clear objections. The uneasy relation this document bears to those issues does not really correct that silence. It dances around it.
washington, d.c. The Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement “The Two Shall Become One Flesh: Reclaiming Marriage” was an appropriate summary of the many articles on this question in First Things. But please allow me to express my disappointment that there was nowhere a recognition that there is a morally and theologically serious case for the validity of lifelong, monogamous gay relationships. In addition, there was no recognition of the tensions embedded in the text. Roman Catholics make the link between sexuality and procreation an absolute (thereby forbidding the use of contraception); Evangelicals allow contraception (and therefore implicitly concede that procreation is not necessarily a required possibility in every sexual act). In addition, with the overwhelming majority of people continuing to enjoy heterosexual marriage, I am not persuaded that the biblical theme of gender complementarity, which is modeled between Christ and the Church, is under threat, nor that this theme is authoritative for all relationships. The biblical image of our “heavenly Father and children” does not require us to exclude the legitimacy of adopted children becoming part of a family. Finally, the statement needed to explain why this issue is both more significant and less open to disagreement than other issues over which Christians disagree, such as just war and pacifism. In the long run, First Things must make a decision. First Things aspires to celebrate a creedal and orthodox faith. There will be friends who disagree with First Things on the issue of same-sex intimacy, but support it in other areas. I know plenty of gay and lesbian couples who are strong advocates of the fundamentals of the Christian faith. The question is: Are such friends welcome in these pages? There has been very little signal thus far that they are.
virginia theological seminary
alexandria, virginia R. R. Reno replies: I do not speak for the members of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, but only as a member. So this must be read as a considered response of one person, not a statement by ECT. The architecture of the Christian intellectual tradition admits of careful parsing. For this reason, I find Peter Blair’s claims unconvincing. The use of a condom in the sexual intercourse of a man and a woman has a different moral meaning than the intercourse of a man with a man. The first impedes by artificial means the intrinsic potential of the sexual act to give rise to new life. The second is an act that’s intrinsically sterile. The first enacts in an imperfect but real way the one-flesh union of a man and a woman, something Scripture suggests is fundamental to the human community. The second does something else entirely. In both regards, the procreative and unitive ends properly sought in our sexual lives are complex rather than simple, admitting of nuance and degree. For this reason, Evangelicals and others are not being incoherent when they allow for the use of contraception (a mistaken judgment) while judging homosexual acts immoral. Casuistry aside, I find it very hard to understand how some Christians, perhaps most, fail to see the fundamental threat same-sex marriage poses to the biblical view of marriage. Divorce wounds marriage. Cohabitation and a contraceptive mentality reflect a private indifference to the goods of marriage. But same-sex marriage does something much more fundamental: It asserts public control over marriage, detaches it from the reality of our bodies as male and female, and remakes it into a purely affective union for the sake of . . . affective union. Only the blind can fail to see the difference. Using pornography, a contraceptive mentality, premarital sex, divorce, adultery—all these transgressions ignore divine law, sometimes with a haughty disdain that says “To hell with traditional morality; I’ll do as I please.” Same-sex marriage is different. It insists on claiming the public sanction of the marital bond. Nobody is calling for a blessing of the condoms. Meanwhile, wedding photographers are being taken to court for failing to join same-sex celebrations. Let me put this a different way. Onan reminds us that human beings have always sought sex without consequences—the contraceptive impulse. The Old Testament allows for divorce as a concession to human weakness, as have other religious systems. Prostitution, adultery, fornication: These are perennial. All reflect our failure to live in accord with the biblical view of sex and marriage. But same-sex marriage? It’s not an all-too-human failure. Instead it’s an assertion of human will, the conscription of a sacred institution to serve a contemporary ideology. Where is that to be found in the Bible? In the prostitution of Israel to Baal. Blair worries that prioritizing the wrongness of gay marriage will make us seem anti-gay. Seem? Christianity is opposed to the contemporary ideology that equates us with our sexual desires and tells us we’re entitled to their satisfaction. We oppose the Gnosticism that says our bodies have no intrinsic moral meaning and are mere instruments in the service of our fine inner feelings. We assert the male-female union as normative, surpassed only by the sublime, supernatural vocation of the celibate life dedicated to divine service. Christianity can’t avoid being seen as anti-gay, because a failure to be “pro-gay” today is invariably regarded as “anti-gay.” Christianity is “pro-person.” I am profoundly sympathetic to Christians who want to provide hospitality and companionship to our gay friends—and that includes friends who don’t obey biblical norms, and even gay friends who have married. I have such friends—along with divorced friends and friends who cohabit—and friends who have stolen, cheated, and lied. The company of the perfect is vanishingly small, and I’m not among them. But we need to get a grip on reality: We are the bad guys of the sexual revolution. We are the heretics of our time: We forbid when it is forbidden to forbid. No appeals to the great cathedral of Christian doctrine are going to change that. Ian Markham is mistaken. The overwhelming majority of people do not enjoy heterosexual marriage. Forty years ago, 70 percent of American adults were married. Today 50 percent are. The decline comes from the collapse of marriage among the working-class and poor. Only those living in the gated moral world of elite America can possibly imagine that our grand experiment in sexual liberation has not come at a great cost to the most vulnerable. Gay marriage is a luxury good for the rich that will be paid for by the poor. I’m glad Markham raises the question of whether First Things welcomes articles arguing for the validity of “lifelong, monogamous gay relationships.” I appreciate the delicacy with which he cordons off the question of gay marriage. But, no, we won’t. In the present climate, it is for all intents and purposes impossible for a person who publically dissents from gay rights orthodoxies to get a job teaching in higher education. It’s increasingly impossible to be the leader of a major corporation or to get a job at a major law firm. The New York Times certainly won’t publish the most modest demurrals from these orthodoxies. And I dare say one cannot find preferment in the Episcopal Church unless one subscribes to the same orthodoxies. Pretending that there is an honest public debate about the gay rights agenda is an act of dishonesty. And not just dishonesty. There are many courageous people who have refused to capitulate to the ruthless Jacobin suppression of all dissent. Many have paid a heavy price, including gay writers who defend Christian teaching in our pages. Were we to play the idle game of “dialogue” on this issue, the implication would be clear: These people foolishly sacrificed their livelihoods and reputations for the sake of an ambiguity, not a truth. That’s an act of betrayal First Things will not commit. Continue Reading »
The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom
by michael shermer
henry holt, 560 pages, $32 The world was a dark and gloomy place until the Enlightenment came along, after which people began to think for themselves and break free from the shackles of religious authority. So we are told, once again, in The Moral Arc, a book by journalist Michael Shermer. For him, the Enlightenment did not merely accelerate humanity’s moral progress, but rather it reversed the moral regress characteristic of pre-Enlightenment human history. Since then, science and reason have been guiding humanity on a path toward justice, truth, and freedom. But what are “science” and “reason,” these forces to which we owe humanity’s moral progress? Unfortunately, Shermer’s definitions are unclear. Taken together, they seem to say that science and reason are simply the methods by which people test and think about truth claims in order to ascertain their veracity. As shown by his scattered remarks about pre-Enlightenment times, such as that it used to be acceptable merely to assert one’s beliefs rather than to argue for them, it seems that Shermer seriously believes that rational thought was nonexistent, or at least extremely rare, before the Enlightenment. One would think that an author so insistent on rational evaluation would offer some defense of such a bold assertion, but there is none. Continue Reading »
FREUD While “The Back Page” is usually my favorite part of First Things, I must object to David Bentley Hart’s characterization of Freudian psychotherapy as deterministic in “Roland on Free Will” (February). As a psychiatrist who has practiced and taught psychodynamic psychotherapy for years, I know that this type of therapy is actually one of the last vestiges of non-deterministic treatment in the cynical, superficial world of modern mental health care. Freud can certainly be read as a determinist. He wrote a lot, and he changed his mind regularly about his own ideas. But the true practice of psychodynamic therapy involves helping people live honestly, morally, and with dignity. In the best Socratic tradition, it involves coming to know oneself. Contemporary psychiatry should be the target of Hart’s attack on determinism, not psychoanalysis. Modern neuroscience, which is what he is actually describing in the second part of his column, is frighteningly deterministic, as are many cognitive and behavioral forms of therapy, which even describe themselves as “reprogramming.” Psychoanalysis, whatever its weaknesses, definitely is not reprogramming. It involves gaining insight into one’s self and thus making better life choices. Contemporary psychiatry has marginalized psychoanalysis precisely because it does not fit the deterministic paradigm of modern neuroscience. Psychiatry does believe that people are robots, and robots don’t need psychoanalysis. Modern psychiatry, in league with Big Pharma, has devolved almost purely into prescribing medication for pseudo-medical illness, giving pills instead of compassion, and thus trivializing human suffering. Airwaves are filled with commercials for antidepressants; by sales, the antipsychotic medication aripiprazole, marketed for depression, is the number-one drug in the U.S., with sales of well over a billion dollars per year. Roland might try to realize that Freud is a friend, not an enemy, and that darker and more powerful forces lurk in the shadows. Greg Mahr
Novi, Michigan David Bentley Hart replies: I thank Greg Mahr for his comments and, for what it is worth, I entirely agree with him that “The Back Page” is the most diverting part of First Things; I rarely find it disappointing. On the matter at issue, however, I do not really feel entitled to speak for Roland; and just at the moment he is in St. Louis and I am in Rochester, Minnesota. I know that according to certain archaic and barbaric usages in our legal code, I am technically his “owner”; but that does not mean I enjoy ready access to his deepest thoughts. I think he would agree that the old-fashioned “talking cure” is a more humane and humanistic approach to therapy than the mechanistic, neurobiological, pharmaco-centric psychiatric regime of our day. I did not understand him to be equating Freudian therapy with modern neuroscience; I thought, rather, that he took his own distaste for what he sees as certain mystifications in the former as a point de départ for reflections on a deterministic and mechanistic philosophy he finds even more distasteful. Speaking only for myself, I have a fairly pronounced dislike for Freud himself, at least as a thinker (though I do find Beyond the Pleasure Principle a deeply thought-provoking work). But I also acknowledge that he still believed that his patients were rational agents rather than biochemical automata. I might add, just for the sake of clarification, that there may be some small quantum of pardonable personal prejudice in Roland’s views. The lady psychiatrist at the SPCA establishment where he spent his earliest months was a fairly doctrinaire Freudian who kept trying to convince him that he was suffering from certain unresolved feelings about his mother, and who continually devised what Roland took to be ludicrous and even insulting interpretations of his dreams. I fear that Roland has allowed his experiences with her to color his opinion of the entire profession. Continue Reading »
Aquinas at Prayer: The Bible, Mysticism and Poetry?
by paul murray, o.p.
?bloomsbury, 288 pages, $27.95 How did Thomas Aquinas pray? In Aquinas at Prayer, Paul Murray, O.P., sheds light on Thomas’s more mystical side by commenting on the prayers and liturgical poetry that he wrote as well as on his writings on prayer. While the authorship of the prayers in question will undoubtedly remain contested, Murray makes a good case, based on historical documentation and considerations of genre, that they were in fact written by Thomas. He also shows that, contrary to critics such as Adrienne von Speyr, Thomas’s scholastic style does not indicate a lack of love or affective piety. Rather, as Jean-Pierre Torrell puts it, Thomas’s theology reveals “a religious attitude that has no equivalent except that of a mystic wholly consumed by love of the absolute.” Or as Murray says, borrowing a phrase from Ted Hughes, Thomas’s writing has “not the plainness of a white marble floor, but of deep, clear water, open and immediate.” The prayers Murray considers all show the influence of a letter sent by Humbert of Romans, then master of the Dominican Order, to all its friars at the time when Thomas was in his thirties or late twenties. Perhaps the most beautiful of these is Thomas’s prayer for the attainment of heaven. When he asks in the Summa whether prayer should last a long time, he replies that it should last “long enough to arouse the fervor of interior desire.” This prayer seeks to fuel the desire for the beatific vision that strongly marked Thomas and his work. Murray shows how the structure and wordplay of the poem “allow us not merely to think of eternity but almost to feel something of its joyous atmosphere.” Murray notes that while many medieval theologians undervalued prayers of petition, Thomas was unique in his argument for their importance. When prayers of petition or thanksgiving arise from the human heart, they are moved by impulses of the love given to us by the Holy Spirit. We should make such prayers confident that they will be heard because of God’s mercy, not because of our own merits. Reflection on God’s mercy gives us hope, and, Thomas writes, “prayer is the interpreter of hope.” That hope is manifest in the office that Thomas composed for the feast of Corpus Christi, from which come some of the Western Church’s most beloved eucharistic verses. For example, in composing the “Pange Lingua Gloriosi,” Thomas drew on both the patristic hymn writer Venantius Fortunatus and the great poet of medieval sequences Adam of St. Victor. Here, like other medieval authors, Thomas used his hymns to revel in and ponder the paradox of God’s divine economy: The Word becomes flesh and by words changes bread into that flesh. Murray ends by examining the “Adoro Te Devote,” which, he argues, Thomas composed for his own private use during the recitation of the eucharistic canon. This small masterpiece combines eucharistic devotion with longing for beatitude, linking two strong threads from Thomas’s academic work. With Paul Murray’s help, those more familiar with that academic work can gain a better sense of the spiritual life that fueled it and incorporate Thomas’s insights into their own lives of prayer. Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in theology at Boston College. Continue Reading »
perplexing pope In “Between Two Synods” (January), George Weigel thoroughly summarizes the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family and the issues at hand for the coming Ordinary Synod of 2015, except for one pressing question: Where is the Holy Father in all the controversy? Reading Weigel’s account, one could get the impression that the “Vatican” acted at the synod completely apart from Pope Francis. But the pope appointed Cardinal Baldisseri and Archbishop Forte, and the rest of the synod leadership, and was himself present at the synod, sitting in the middle at the head table. Has Francis repudiated the infamous mid-term report and reprimanded its authors, or those who released it to the press? Or did he want the report to go out as it was? Moreover, Pope Francis paid high compliments to Cardinal Kasper’s pre-synod paper with regard to divorced and remarried Catholics. Yes, Francis admitted that the proposal to allow Catholics in second marriages to receive Communion would be controversial; but did he say that such a proposal would be unacceptable since it is disjointed from the Church’s understanding of the sacraments? Has he affirmed the prohibition’s theological basis as identified by Familiaris Consortio, or the warning that if the long-standing prohibition were lifted, “the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage”? Perhaps I am mistaken to think that none of this has been answered satisfactorily. Nevertheless, it would be an important service at this time if the Catholic media and opinion makers, with reluctance and respect, were to inquire more deeply into the intentions of Pope Francis with regard to the synod.
Paul J. Malocha
ann arbor, michigan Continue Reading »
The Father’s Will: Christ’s Crucifixion and the Goodness of God
?by nicholas e. lombardo, o.p.
?oxford, 288 pages, $99 Sound Christian theology,” writes Nicholas Lombardo, “must keep a clear distance between God’s will and the moral evil of Christ’s crucifixion.” This is easier said than done. How is it possible to affirm, as Christians traditionally have done, that the violent death of Jesus is central to God’s eternal plan for human salvation and, simultaneously, that God is not responsible for the murderous anger of Jesus’s opponents, the savage brutality of the Roman guards, or the greedy betrayal of Judas Iscariot? Must we conclude, as some recent critics have, that to insist on the necessity of the cross for human salvation is “to make God a divine sadist and a divine child abuser”? Lombardo thinks not, and in his new book, The Father’s Will: Christ’s Crucifixion and the Goodness of God, he provides a bold and creative defense of both the necessity of the cross and the goodness of God. Lombardo’s primary goal is to provide a theological evaluation of three traditional understandings of the role of Christ’s death in human salvation. But he begins by laying out the tools for that task. In the first section of the book, Lombardo draws on recent discussions in analytic philosophy to bring added clarity to the language of will, intention, and the possibility of “double effect reasoning.” He does not think that these can serve as the foundation for a positive theological construction of the meaning of Christ’s death. His claims are more modest. Assuming that God is incapable of moral evil, Lombardo uses philosophy to lend greater precision to discussions of God’s will and intentions and of the human will of Jesus. Continue Reading »
marriage pledge R. R. Reno writes in “Government Marriage” (December) that he “can’t see how a priest or pastor can in good conscience sign a marriage license for ‘Spouse A’ and ‘Spouse B.’” Then, in support of the Marriage Pledge put forward by Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz, he proposes that priests and pastors get out of the business of signing marriage licenses, barring simply crossing out the neologisms that might stand in for “husband” and “wife.” This solution flies in the face of what has been said in First Things before, including by Reno himself. Religion has a public voice and shapes politics as a consequence, whether the secularists like it or not. The comforting metaphor of rending now instead of sewing seems a shabby cover for another: taking one’s ball and going home. If we ever want nominalist, legal positivism to show up as the banal tripe that it is, then I don’t see how not signing a semi-meaningless-though-legal document does this. Not signing misses a chance at witnessing to the truth. True, no presider who knows what marriage is should practically admit the existence of a separate, lower standard for conjugal union. This seems to be the premise on which Reno’s support for the pledge relies. But would it not be a better witness simply to ignore what a vacuously phrased license implies? What purpose of love or witness does preempting irrational behavior by the government serve? I see none, other than salving the conscience of the priest or pastor hung up on whether or not the words on a document are so imprecise as to be silly. “Spouse A” and “Spouse B” may be ridiculous, but they do not, by necessity, mean that a presider signs something illicit. All that is required is simply not to marry those whom the higher standard (the true one) rules out and let the fairness police do what they will. If nothing happens, well, fine. If a real wedding is declared as an extralegal ceremony, let the government make that declaration. Don’t do Pilate’s dirty work for him. I find it cognitively dissonant to read support of this pledge alongside an article in praise of Cardinal George, who dramatically predicted the likely imprisonment of his successor. I don’t see whatever might account for that imprisonment if a policy of “rending” is enacted.
hibbing, minnesota Continue Reading »
The purpose of my book, Making Gay Okay, is to see what natural reason can tell us about human sexuality and flourishing, most particularly in light of the claims of homosexual activists. It attempts to demonstrate what the consequences are if one abandons a natural law approach. In his review, Ephraim Radner objects to this because I don’t base my argument on revelation (“Sin’s Nature,” November). Specifically, he complains that “original sin has been airbrushed out”although I do mention “evil” thirty-eight times; “vice” fifty-six times; “virtue” forty-one times; “goodness” fifteen times; “moral” 275 times; “immoral” thirty-five times; and “immorality” nine times. What does he suppose would be added by calling it sinful? My argument is intended for the public square, where it is not revelation but “first things” that constitute the common ground. In Radner’s dismissal of Aristotle and the teleological view of nature, I am reminded of Luther’s denunciation of Aristotle: “any potter has more knowledge than is written in these books [of Aristotle, which] I can only believe the devil has introduced. His book on Ethics is the worst of all books. It flatly opposes divine grace and all Christian virtue.” Incidentally, the Aristotelian views used in the book, ones which Radner seems not to accept, were also the views of St. Thomas Aquinas. Perhaps, had I used Thomas rather than Aristotle, that would have removed the contamination from Aristotle’s positions on other things (like slavery), extraneous to my book’s subject, with which Radner says I should have dealt. But my bet is that, absent Aristotle, he would keep his review otherwise the same. That is because Radner nowhere acknowledges that a teleological view of nature is the only one from which sodomy can reasonably be said to be wrong. Without it, we are unarmed but for Scripture. This is a problem. For instance, in the Seventh Circuit Court’s recent ruling overturning Wisconsin’s constitutional definition of a marriage as between a man and a woman, Judge Richard Posner wrote, “The state does not mention the [moral] argument because as we said it mounts no moral arguments against same-sex marriage.” Radner’s approach would seem to leave us silent before the bench and in the public square, where the “explicitly Christian argument” he calls for is not welcome or even (legally) pertinent. In his “Letter to Oxford University,” St. Thomas More defended Greek studies against a move to throw them out as secular, pagan, and unnecessary, saying “there are some who through knowledge of things natural construct a ladder by which to rise to the contemplation of things supernatural; they build a path to theology through philosophy and the liberal arts, which this man condemns as secular.” Unfortunately, Radner knocks the ladder out from under this kind of effort in respect to the homosexual marriage question.
vienna, virginia Ephraim Radner replies: Robert Reilly’s book is worth reading, and I hope people do. They’ll get a good look at a lot of the un-reason that has driven the push for legitimizing same-sex activity and partnerships, including same-sex marriage. Reilly outlines this push well, and exposes the political bullying and manipulation behind it. But he doesn’t like the fact that I don’t think there’s a magic rational bullet to counter this, especially not Aristotelianism. He’s right: I think he’s wrong to put all his eggs in that basket. Aristotle is tainted goods when it comes to arguing “natural law” for human relations. Not only isn’t it going to convince GLAAD; it isn’t going to convince the Supreme Court. Nor should it: Aristotle got a lot of things wrong when it came to describing what is “natural” for human beings. And if a smart guy like him went so far off the rails (yes, slavery is relevant here), there’s no “reason” to suppose that Reilly, Radner, and Roberts are going to do a lot better. My own view is not that reason is without use in this debate. But it’s a form of reasoning that requires lots of different elements: history, biology, custom, self-examination, sociology, intuition, yes, and revelation (which is not opposed to reason), whose compelling character has its own train of intertwined elements. Too complicated and too contested? That’s precisely why a lot of people prefer bullying. And the fact that bullying is often preferable for people in these kinds of struggles is also related to the power of sinwhat we have called “original sin” (something that is not quantified by counting how often one uses the term “vice” in a discussion). Finally, the kind of human reason that is victorious over such sin as this is one that is itself ordered by the infused virtues of the Spirit of Christ, whose form provides the best kind of convincing witness there is. So while careful, solid, extended arguments of all kinds need to be put forward on the topic of sexual behavior in our day, they will never be reducible, in their force, to simple logicsAristotle’s, Thomas’s, whoever’s. There’s a lot more going on than this, and we are kidding ourselves if we think otherwise. Continue Reading »
Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World?
by mitchell stephens?
palgrave macmillan, ?336 pages, $30 In June 1512, John Bukherst, from the village of Staplehurst in Kent, England, was convicted of heresy before the Archbishop of Canterbury. But Bukherst was as much an apostate as a heretic. He rejected all the accoutrements of late-medieval Christianity as well as the divinity and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The record of Bukherst’s trial and his penance of parading around the village on Trinity Sunday are recorded in a manuscript preserved in the library of Lambeth Palace in London. As Mitchell Stephens notes in Imagine There’s No Heaven, religious skepticism has existed in all times and places. He doesn’t mention the Staplehurst trialsprimary sources are not really his thingbut he does pick up the nonbeliever noted by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in Montaillou, the celebrated exposition of medieval inquisitorial records. Imagine There’s No Heaven is at its modest best when telling the stories of unbelievers in earlier eras. Charles Bradlaugh, Jean Meslier, and Ernestine Rose, among others, deserve attention for their refusal to conform to the norms of their time. Stephens is good at capsule biographies. The most enjoyable chapter of the book covers the fraught relationship between the existential atheists Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre. But Stephens wants to do more than acknowledge his predecessors in unbelief. He asserts that the decline of religion has been associated with science, the protection of human rights, and progress. Unfortunately for him, on this matter, he is on the side of the angels. He demonstrates at most that the influence of atheism on the development of Western civilization has been extremely modest. Even the principle of religious tolerance was won by Christians in seventeenth-century England long before anti-Catholic Jacobins of the French Revolution perverted the ideals of liberty. Continue Reading »
Redeeming “The Prince”: The Meaning of Machiavelli’s Masterpiece
?by maurizio viroli
?princeton, 208 pages, $26.95 In Redeeming the Prince, Maurizio Viroli, professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University and now at the University of Texas, adopts a bold strategy: He dares to take Machiavelli at his word. Viroli says that the most important chapter in The Prince is the last, “Exhortation to Seize Italy and to Free Her From the Barbarians.” Here, Machiavelli calls for a leader to rise up against foreign oppressors to create an Italy whole and free. This is the project of the Prince, Viroli argues, and it is a project so beautiful that any means are appropriate to secure it. This is an audacious claim because the Exhortation is usually regarded as the worst and least interesting chapter in the book. For those who love Machiavelli for his cynicism, the fervor, patriotism, and piety in the Exhortation is puzzling. Was Machiavelli forced to include it? Was he merely shilling for a job? Is this some kind of trick? Is somebody being esoteric? Continue Reading »