The Public Square
One doesn't want to make too much of a fifth anniversary, but neither
is it nothing. Just surviving for five years is something. Most new journals
do not manage that. First Things has not only survived but has flourished,
and continues to grow in readership and by every measure of influence.
I am grateful to editorial colleagues who do most of the hard work, to
benefactors who have supported a risky venture, and, most particularly,
to our thousands of extraordinarily devoted readers. If Our Lord continues
to delay His return, there is every reason to believe that First Things
will be flourishing twenty- five and fifty years from now.
Readers who were present at the creation will remember that this project
was originally the Center on Religion and Society and was affiliated with
the Rockford Institute in Rockford, Illinois. Under those auspices we published
a monthly newsletter, The Religion and Society Report, and a quarterly
journal, This World. In May of 1989 we went independent and reconstituted
ourselves as the Institute on Religion and Public Life, combining what
was done in the earlier publications in a new monthly journal that made
its first appearance in March 1990. At the time, I told potential supporters
that I expected First Things would have 5,000 paid subscribers in
the first five years, and thought it possible that it might have as many
as 10,000. I certainly did not expect that in 1995 there would be nearly
30,000 paid subscribers, plus newsstand sales and a controlled circulation
to educational and other institutions. As the growth continues at an encouraging
pace, I have stopped speculating about what may be the potential readership
of a journal such as this. There is undoubtedly a limit, for this is definitely
and designedly a publication for a particular kind of reader, and that
will not change.
In this issue we republish the editorial statement of purpose that appeared
in the first issue, "Putting First Things First." Five years
later, we still affirm that statement wholeheartedly. Looking back on the
first fifty issues, the editors believe that we have really tried to do
what we promised to do. At the risk of immodesty, on some promises we think
we have done very well indeed, better than could have been reasonably expected.
Where that has happened, the credit goes chiefly to the large and varied
company of contributors that First Things has attracted. Editors
can encourage (and sometimes prod, provoke, and pester), but finally the
journal depends on writers who have something important to say, know how
to say it well, and want to say it to this audience.
For all that has been gratifying in the first five years, you should
know that almost every editorial meeting includes intense questioning about
how we can do better. The inaugural editorial says that "the key word
is conversation," and notes that "a real conversation, as distinct
from intellectual chatter, is marked by discipline and continuity."
These five years have witnessed some remarkable changes that cannot help
but have a marked impact upon the continuity of the conversation. In the
really big picture, of course, there is always a certain wisdom in the
adage, Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. But in the world
measured by months and years, things happen. And some things have happened
that have a bearing on what we mean by "Putting First Things First."
A few examples may suffice. The end of communism and the consequent
collapse of socialism as the ordering principle of social progress. Yes,
there are still socialists around who have not gotten the news, but something
definitive has happened, and our intellectual and moral discourse has hardly
begun to take it into account. This is a weird historical moment. Now almost
everybody says that of course communism was an evil empire and socialism
is a dumb idea. But only a few years ago, most did not say that, and many
insistently said the contrary. We need better to understand what happened
and why in the great, and finally successful, contest with totalitarianism.
For the sake of historical honesty, for the sake of the victims and the
heroes and the heroines whom we must honor to maintain a hold on our own
humanity, and for the sake of cultivating an idea of freedom more clearly
ordered to moral truth. The end of this contest with totalitarianism complicates
the meaning of freedom beyond yesterday's undeniable (although often denied)
imperative of defending the free world.
For another example, in these five years there has been a marked change
in thinking about church-state relations and, more generally, about the
role of religion in public life. Our protest against "the naked public
square" was then a distinctly minority position, whereas today there
is a much more widespread recognition that church-state jurisprudence is
a shambles, and that the democratic process requires the vigorous engagement
of the religiously based moral convictions of the American people. I do
not suggest that the ACLU has lost its punch or that there are not in the
prestige backwaters of the academy extreme separationists still weaving
their theories for a radically secularized public order. But, in the courts
and other public forums, the ACLU now has impressive competition, while
the political sea change of November 1994 has created a circumstance much
more sympathetic to the public expression of arguments informed by religious
tradition. So great is the change in the political climate that it seems
likely we will have to pay more attention to the danger of uncritical enthusiasm
for religion in public, especially when religion is promoted as an instrumental
good for the achievement of sundry purposes public and personal. "We
will not begin to solve our problems," a very major Republican figure
announces, "until we give God a more important place in American life."
The intention is laudable, no doubt, but if we are really talking about
God, He is not awaiting a promotion by us. Such rhetoric suggests that
we should perhaps move Him up from Number Seven to Number Two. Or maybe
appoint Him the nation's Premier Role Model.
Five years later, the great change regarding abortion is that the Supreme
Court is now isolated. It is obvious to all but the willfully blind that
the Roe v. Wade regime imposed by the Court has not been ratified
by the American people. The Court and the Court alone stands in the way
of the political process seeking a way in which the unborn will be protected
in law and welcomed in life. In its 1992 Casey decision the Court
said that the country faces a "crisis of legitimacy" if the people
fail to follow the Court in upholding the present abortion license. It
is now evident that it is the Court that is caught in a crisis of legitimacy
that is of its own creation. The unspeakable injustice of thousands of
innocent lives taken each day with the blessing of the law continues to
be the single greatest threat to the moral legitimacy of this political
order. The second editorial in that inaugural issue was titled "Redefining
Abortion Politics." We saw hope for change then; we see hope for change
now. Even if we are wrong, this question will not let us go.
The more things change, the more things change. The now almost universal
acknowledgment of the crisis of welfare and the poor as evident in the
urban underclass. The near disappearance of mainline Protestant influence
in the public arena, and the remarkable emergence of a conservative evangelicalism
prepared to move from protest to governance. The striking steps toward
rapprochement between Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants in both
faith and public responsibility. The astonishing vibrancy of this pontificate's
assertion of Catholic social teaching. The slow, steady, and ever more
secure building of a moral and even theological foundation of trust between
Christians and Jews. The widespread recognition of the limits of statist
solutions for social problems, and of the indispensable role of mediating
institutions such as families, churches, and voluntary associations. These
are among the notable differences between 1990 and 1995. Most of them,
taken all in all, are differences for the better. There are other and less
happy differences between then and now: the growth of the euthanasia movement,
the slide toward eugenics and the manipulation of the human genotype, the
looming war against immigration and, maybe, against immigrants.
The Familiar and the Abiding
In that very first issue we spoke about our society being embroiled
in a Kulturkampf, a war over the definition of our common life. That struggle
continues as, in various guises, the vaunted revolutions of the counterculture
of the sixties are prosecuted on every front. We have published many articles
on the polymorphous perversities of multiculturalism, deconstructionism,
sexual liberationism, and other causes championed by the apostles of decadence
and debonair nihilism. And we will undoubtedly publish more such articles
as the occasion requires. But these revolutions are familiar now; they
have long since lost their capacity to shock, and are fast losing their
capacity to influence, at least outside the confines of the elite academy
and what passes for the arts. In the larger culture, the counterrevolution
seems to have begun in earnest. If so, the counterrevolution, generally
described as conservative, will surely bring its own problems. It is a
trustworthy maxim that everything human, given time enough, will go wrong.
Familiar debates will be reconfigured, and on this question or that old
allies will be opponents and opponents will become allies. The more things
change, the more things change.
But this reflection on the first five years has dwelt too much on changes
in public life. That opening editorial declared, "The first thing
to be said about public life is that public life is not the first thing."
I believe that even more strongly now, much more strongly now. It has to
do with age, no doubt, and with having been rather rudely put on more intimate
terms with mortality. My colleagues, younger and less scathed, share my
determination that First Things will continue to put first things
first. We will continue to publish arguments about the great transcendentals,
the good, the true, and the beautiful, that are brazenly irrelevant to
any social or political purpose. And we will publish articles that can
claim no virtue other than whimsy, which is no little virtue. And so we
hope to temper the sweated earnestness of the battles of the earthly city,
knowing that this is not the city that abides. Putting first things first,
we will for the next five years, and for however many years there are to
be, take as our own the words that Eliot gave Thomas Becket:
I have had a tremor of bliss, a wink of
heaven, a whisper,
And I would no longer be denied; all things
Proceed to a joyful consummation.
Protestant Reformation and Universal Church
At Oxford University and at Regent College, Vancouver, Alister E. McGrath
is a waxing light in evangelical Protestant theology. In a recent issue
of Christianity Today he reviews the new Catholic Catechism under
the title, "Do We Still Need the Reformation?" (His answer is
clearly yes, and some Catholics would agree, while questioning whether
the Reformation still needs churches separated from communion with Rome.)
Being a Reformed (Calvinist) theologian of considerable earnestness, McGrath's
essay understandably dwells at length on the formula "justification
by faith alone," and related questions about, for instance, the connection
between justification and sanctification. McGrath cheers, inter alia, the
Catechism's uncompromising insistence upon the grace of God as the sole
source of salvation and upon the centrality of Christ in the Christian
life, but he is troubled that the Catechism does not explicitly or in detail
address the controversies between Rome and the Reformation in the sixteenth
"The Roman Catholic reader of this Catechism will learn little,
if anything, of the Reformation debates over this matter or of Protestant
sensitivities over Roman Catholic teaching. While emphasizing that salvation
takes place by grace, on the basis of the work of Christ rather than human
effort or achievement, the Catechism seems reluctant to engage with the
questions raised above and does little to reassure the anxieties of any
readers familiar with the sixteenth-century debates." McGrath is right.
The Catechism is not only "reluctant to engage" the debates of
the sixteenth century; it resolutely declines to do so, at least directly.
And that for the very simple reason that it intends to be what its title
suggests, the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Its intention is
to affirm and explain the faith, life, and worship of the Catholic Church,
and the fact is that-historically and theologically-the disputes with Lutherans,
Calvinists, Zwinglians, and others in the sixteenth century is far from
being the most formative experience in the Church's understanding of her
faith, life, and worship.
That the disputes of the sixteenth century are not addressed directly
does not mean that they are ignored in the Catechism. While the purpose
was to keep the focus on the pedagogical and avoid the polemical, those
intimately involved in the production of the Catechism, most notably Joseph
Cardinal Ratzinger, have throughout their lives been intensely engaged
in the questions raised by the Reformation. And, of course, the Catechism
gives major attention to the Council of Trent, which was the Church's reforming
response to the Protestant reformers. In addition, for the last three decades
Rome has invested immense energy in theological dialogues with the various
Protestant communities. As is underscored in the 1994 declaration, "Evangelicals
and Catholics Together," to which McGrath is in part responding in
his article, much more needs to be done in specific dialogue with evangelical
Protestants. As Cardinal Ratzinger has emphasized on a number of occasions,
the acute reader of the new Catechism will recognize that the Catholic
faith is there presented in a manner that has taken into account, albeit
not addressing directly, the critique advanced by the Reformation. Whether
or not that critique has been sufficiently taken into account is,
of course, something on which both Protestant and Catholic theologians
may have their own views.
Not the Most Important
For many, if not most, Protestant Christians, the sixteenth century
is the defining moment in their religious identity as Protestants.
To be a Protestant is not to be a Roman Catholic. The Reformation was a
protest and intended to be a corrective; the Catholic Church was the thing
protested and putatively to be corrected. To be a Catholic, on the other
hand, is not not to be a Protestant. It is true that, for Catholics
in those countries strongly influenced by the Reformation traditions, the
consciousness of not being Protestant is one facet of being Catholic, but
being Catholic is not defined by Protestantism in the way that being Protestant
is defined by Catholicism. Catholics (at least orthodox Catholics) understand
themselves to be members of the most fully and rightly ordered expression
of Christ's one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church through time. Given
that understanding, it would be entirely inappropriate for a Catechism
of that Catholic Church to address directly and in detail one moment-admittedly
a very important moment-in the history of theological and ecclesiastical
controversy. Those questions are addressed appropriately and earnestly
in other forums, such as the aforementioned theological dialogues. They
are also addressed in catechetical materials prepared specfically for countries
with an intense Protestant-Catholic interaction, such as Germany and the
The complaint of Alister McGrath and other thoughtful Protestants leads
to another question that has become clearer in the many responses to "Evangelicals
and Catholics Together." The claim that "justification by faith
alone" is the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae (the
doctrine by which the Church stands or falls) is a distinctly minority
position among Protestants who call themselves evangelicals. (The theological
variety of evangelicalism is helpfully illuminated by Mark Noll of Wheaton
College in a forthcoming book of essays, also called Evangelicals and
Catholics Together.) Evangelicals in the various Holiness, Wesleyan,
and Arminian traditions are, one may suggest, much closer to the Catholic
understanding of the relationship between justification and sanctification
than they are to the more rigorous Lutheran and Calvinist champions of
"justification by faith alone." In recent years some of these
Calvinist thinkers have achieved the status of being something like the
theological brain trust of American evangelicalism, but that development
is now in the process of being critically reexamined in the light of responses
to "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." One hastens to add
that to say these thinkers are in a distinct minority is not to say that
they are wrong. Truth is not determined by majority vote. But, in response
to the criticism of McGrath and others, it does suggest why it would be
inappropriate for the Catechism of the Catholic Church to address
directly the specifics of a controversy that is as much an intra-Protestant
dispute as a dispute between Protestants and Catholics.
While produced by the teaching authority (magisterium) of the Catholic
Church for the Catholic faithful, the Catechism also keeps other Christians
in mind. More than in relation to Protestantism, this is frequently made
explicit in relation to Orthodoxy. One should not forget that Orthodoxy
has pride of place on Rome's ecumenical agenda, and necessarily so. Only
Rome is in a position to mend the schism between East and West. While the
two goals should not be pitted against each other, the healing of the breach
between East and West has priority over the healing of the breach between
Rome and the Reformation. Orthodoxy was spared (some Protestants might
say deprived of) the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Formulations
such as "justification by faith alone" are no part of the Orthodox
experience. Apart from the one billion Roman Catholics, Orthodoxy is the
largest ecclesial configuration of Christians in the contemporary world.
The theological disputes that raged in northern Europe in the sixteenth
century, and still rage in some Protestant circles, are largely irrelevant
to, and would be a distraction from, the goal of reestablishing full communion
between East and West.
A New Ecumenism
Moreover, the great majority of the intended audience for the Catechism
of the Catholic Church have been only marginally touched, or not touched
at all, by the controversies of the sixteenth century. Most Catholics today
are in the developing world, where the Catholic Church is growing most
rapidly. In Africa, for example, it might be argued that Christians are,
in important respects, more pre- Reformation than post-Reformation. Both
Catholics and Protestants say, "We know that we are divided, but we
don't know why we are divided." Does anyone really think they should
know in the way that we who are heirs of the sixteenth-century schism know?
Should they be dragged through the sixteenth-century disputes so that they
will understand why it is so important to be a Protestant or a Catholic?
The Catholic Church thinks not. On the contrary, Pope John Paul II has
suggested that the churches of Africa, for example, provide an important
link with an older and undivided Church before the schisms of both 1054
and the sixteenth century. It would be a great sin against Christian unity
to impose our divisions upon them. Rather, they may represent "the
new ecumenism" from which we are to learn.
There are approximately 1.8 billion Christians in the world today.
They are with very few exceptions either Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox,
classical Reformation (Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican), or what is broadly
called evangelical Protestant. A relatively small number of Protestant
theologians are exercised by a sixteenth-century dispute over "justification
by faith alone," and claim that it is the articulus stantis et
cadentis ecclesiae. That claim is challenged by the reality that the
overwhelming majority of Christians in the world, who are in the broadest
sense the ecclesia, have never heard of "justification by faith
alone," and most who have heard of it have not the foggiest notion
of what it means. Some might respond that the claim is challenged by that
reality but not refuted by that reality. Perhaps so, but upholding the
claim in any meaningful sense would seem to require repristinating and
universalizing the disputes of sixteenth- century Europe that gave definition
to the theological shibboleths by which Christians identified their bloody
divisions as Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Zwinglians, Anabaptists,
and whatever. That would be a terrible thing to visit upon world Christianity
at the threshold of the Third Millennium. Fortunately, there is no conceivable
way it could happen.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not reject the distinctive
Reformation formula that justification is by grace alone through faith
alone because of Christ alone. Neither does it affirm it. To address it
at all would require going on to make clear that grace is not alone but
confirms human freedom, that living faith is not alone but issues in a
life of obedience, that Christ is not alone but always to be found in the
company of His Church. Entering into the disputes over all the necessary
distinctions and qualifications lands us right back in the sixteenth century,
which, one is inclined to believe, is not where the Holy Spirit intends
to lead the Church at the end of the twentieth century.
The theological disputes of the sixteenth century, while very important,
are not the most important disputes in the history of the Church. Certainly,
for instance, the Christological and Trinitarian controversies of the early
centuries have been more universally formative for Christian faith. Especially
in those cultures, such as ours, that have been significantly influenced
by the Protestant Reformation, it is important for Christian thinkers to
engage the disputes of the sixteenth century. Even here, however, our culture
today poses numerous challenges to Christian faith and life that need to
be addressed at least as urgently as the questions issuing from the sixteenth
century. In any event, the Catechism of the Catholic Church intends
to be a universal (i.e., catholic) Catechism and is not the place to replay
the controversies with Wittenberg, Geneva, and Dort. Alister McGrath is
right in saying that the Catechism "must be in the hands of every
person concerned with the future of evangelical relations with Roman Catholicism."
But such persons will be greatly, and rightly, disappointed if they expect
the Catechism to run the entirety of Christian faith and life through the
grid of the Reformation protest. "Evangelicals and Catholics Together"
is an invitation not to refight the wars of the past but to cross the threshold
of hope into a Third Millennium of common witness and discipleship, including,
please God, greater visible unity among all who follow Christ.
The Historically Verifiable Jesus
The second volume is out. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical
Jesus: Mentor, Message, and Miracle by John P. Meier (Doubleday, 1,055
). Long-term readers may recall our rather extended commentary
on the first volume ("Reason Public and Private: The Pannenberg Project,"
March 1992). We saw all kinds of problems with Father Meier's near divorce
of the "Jesus of history" from the "Christ of faith,"
and with his extremely truncated definition of history and of the historian's
task. Remember his method for really getting at the truth about the historical
Jesus. You get "a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an agnostic-all
honest historians cognizant of first-century religious movements . . .
locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library, put on
a spartan diet, and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a
consensus document on Jesus of Nazareth."
It is an experiment not without hypothetical interest, but at most it
would tell us what four late-twentieth-century hungry historians at Harvard
said they could say together about Jesus. And since they must say it together,
the result would inevitably be reductionistic, for the agnostic would have
veto power over affirming anything of theological significance. In any
event, Fr. Meier has not actually conducted the experiment, except in his
head, where he exercises veto power over what he assures the reader is
his perfectly orthodox Christian faith.
Luke Timothy Johnson, a New Testament scholar at Emory, reviews the
second volume in Commonweal and admires the erudition and minute
detail with which Meier goes about his task. But finally, Johnson says,
Meier's project is not so much the quest of the historical Jesus as the
quest of the "historically verifiable Jesus." Meier's "strict
criteria" for what counts as historical are, Johnson suggests, violated
by Meier himself when he presumes to say what Jesus was "aware of"
or why he did this or that. According to Johnson, "the synthetic picture
of Jesus that Meier begins to advance in this volume . . . owes more than
a little to a process of false inference, and to the contribution made
by the Gospel narratives and interpretations that [Meier's] method began
by explicitly eschewing." Even when Meier bends his own rules, Johnson
wonders about "the yield of all this impressive effort that he has
pursued with such diligence, intelligence, and integrity." The quest
for "the historically verifiable Jesus" ends up with nothing
more than an estimate about greater and lesser probabilities, and what
is historically verifiable "is not at all necessarily what is most
central or pivotal to Jesus' ministry, any more than we can deduce from
what is unique to a person what is essential to that person."
"I suspect that when the dust settles," writes Johnson, "we
shall find that the 'historical Jesus' is just where he was all the time:
in the fourfold testimony and interpretation of the Gospel narratives.
For, if what is essential to a person is not the facts of when and where
or the facts of what was said and done, but rather the meaning of
those facts for those whose experience and memory of the person was also
part of their historical reality, then there is no place else for us to
look." Johnson offers a thoughtful critique of Meier's project but
one has to wonder whether he does not end up coming perilously close to
following Meier in divorcing fact from meaning, history from faith. The
disciples' "experience and memory of the person" is not something
apart from the facts about Jesus-when and where and what. One hopes Mr.
Johnson would not disagree.
In recent years there has been a major move among biblical scholars
to "reclaim the Bible for the Church." Brevard Childs of Yale
and, on the Jewish side, Jon Levenson of Harvard have been key figures
in the effort to reappropriate the text as sacred text, a text produced
and interpreted by and for the believing community. This was the question
addressed also by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in his Erasmus Lecture of 1988,
which was the basis of the ecumenical conference from which came Biblical
Interpretation in Crisis (Eerdmans). (See also the symposium on the
Pontifical Biblical Commission's treatment of these questions in FT, "Interpreting
the Bible," August/September 1994).
More recently the Institute sponsored a meeting of distinguished theologians
and biblical scholars at which one participant took his colleagues aback
by asking, "Compared with all the mischief it has done, what of real
significance has 150 years of historical-critical methodology contributed
to our understanding of the Bible?" The question was intentionally
provocative, and in response several participants suggested that critical
scholarship had helped us to understand somewhat better this or that about
the Bible. If you had locked up all twenty scholars in the bowels of the
Harvard Divinity School library, put them on a spartan diet, and not allowed
them to emerge until they had come up with a longer list of the contributions
of historical-critical methodology, they probably could have done so. But
the consensus out of this meeting was that the contributions were, at best,
very marginal. As in A Marginal Jew.
The Scandal of Faith
A Lutheran professor of theology in the Midwest sends along a clipping
from USA Today about which he is vaguely irritated and wonders what
we make of it. The story is about the family of the Rev. Scott Willis,
a Baptist minister in Chicago. In a freak accident with a truck on I-94,
the Scott car exploded, killing their six youngest children. The headline
is "Still Thankful in Sea of Sorrow: Family's Faith Unshaken by Loss
of 6 Children." In the account, Willis and his wife testify to their
abiding faith in Christ and the eternal hope that tempers their grief.
Apparently this was a puzzlement to the USA Today reporter, and
so she consulted a psychiatrist. "Different people have different
ways of dealing with grief, says Dorothy Starr, a psychiatrist who has
not met the Willises. But she expects they'll have an angrier reaction
at some point. 'They may well be numbed, and it may take some time for
it to sink in,' Starr says. 'I would still expect these people to have
trouble, even with their incredible faith.'"
Our theologian friend thought this whole business terribly condescending
toward Christianity, and it is that. On the other hand, maybe the reporter
and her editors were genuinely puzzled by the phenomenon of vibrant Christian
faith in the face of tragedy. It is a form of deviant behavior. Perhaps
admirable in some ways, but nonetheless deviant. It requires explanation
by an expert, and the relevant expert in a therapeutic society is the psychiatrist.
Enter Dr. Starr, who sympathetically explains that the Willises have not
yet had time to understand what really happened. The inference is that
their affirmations of Christian faith are a form of denial. Such denial
disguised as faith is a common stage in the grieving process. And so forth.
The Willises, mind you, speak forthrightly about their grief and their
loss. There is no evidence of denial. The sticking point with the USA
Today people is that the Willises confidently posit the great "nonetheless"-nonetheless
they are confident of God's continuing love that triumphs over tragedy.
It is that apparent confidence, combined with a readiness to forgive the
truck driver who caused the accident, that USA Today thinks needs
to be explained by a psychiatrist. The "healthy" reaction to
what happened to them is anger and rage against the meaninglessness of
the universe. And so forth.
But it is not simply that the Willises refuse to conform to the prescribed
therapeutic rituals of anger. The difficulty is with their giving a religious
reason, a so very explicitly Christian reason, for their peace and
hope in circumstances that are supposed to induce turmoil and despair.
Imagine others, frequently featured in the news, who reflect tranquility
when confronted by disaster. A gay man's lover has died of AIDS and he
tells a reporter that he is comforted by the hope that his friend contributed
to overcoming the prejudices of a homophobic society. A white man's wife
is killed in a mugging by a black man, and he calmly and eloquently bears
witness to his hope for interracial understanding. In neither case, we
are sure, would USA Today call in a psychiatrist to explain such
deviant reactions to tragedy. In the cognitive world of contemporary journalism,
these approved reactions are, while rare enough to deserve a word of commendation,
not in need of psychiatric explanation. Indeed, to suggest that there is
something not quite plausible about these reactions would be considered
It is this Christian thing that poses a puzzlement and a problem. One
can imagine the exchange in the newsroom. "Yes, maybe it's true that
the great majority of Americans go to church and sing songs like 'I know
that my Redeemer liveth,' but these Willis people seem actually to believe
that stuff." "It isn't real." "Anyway, we can't go
with a story that looks like it's pushing religion." "We need
to get a more impartial take on this." "Better call Dr. Starr
to give you something to put this in perspective." "Ah yes,"
says Dr. Starr, effusing professional confidence. "We frequently run
across this kind of thing in the grieving process. They may well be numbed,
and it may take some time for it to sink in."
Meanwhile the Rev. Willis is puzzled by the reporter's puzzlement.
"We're ordinary people," he says. "This faith people keep
talking about is freely available to anyone." In the cognitive world
occupied by USA Today, it will likely take a long, long time for
that to sink in.
Hijacking the Civil Rights Movement
Again the other day, one runs across an article that observes in passing,
as though it is taken-for-granted knowledge, that the conservative trend
in our political culture reflects Americans' rejection of the civil rights
movement of three decades ago. This is, in our view, mischievous nonsense.
What most Americans reject is the transmogrification of the civil rights
movement, which was specifically directed at righting a great wrong in
black-white relations, into an all-purpose movement of group victimization
and special entitlements. This grotesque twisting of what is meant by civil
rights has not been lost on some blacks. Writing in the influential black
paper, Chicago Defender, Ray Scannell puts it this way.
"The attack on the character of Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Clarence Thomas by militant white feminists, in books and newspaper articles,
should not be ignored by anyone concerned with the misuse of the Black
American Civil Rights Movement. Media feminist activists are using allegations
of personal misbehavior that are over ten years old and selective personal
anecdotes to discredit the ability and judgment of a high profile professional
jurist. The efforts can only be rationalized as ongoing attempts at intimidating
Justice Thomas in personal behavior cases that will come before him. Character
assassination aside, it is time for anyone seriously concerned with social
justice to examine the damage the feminist movement has done to the Black
American Civil Rights Movement. The use of administrative agency case law
to license group entitlements and legal preferences has been the undoing
of the movement in the post-1964 years. Equating laissez faire personal
behavior as a concern for principled civil rights is a gross misinterpretation
of the law. Recent sex discrimination cases resulting in large settlements,
in some cases awards of multi-million dollars, to be split with aggressive
trial attorneys, are the latest examples of misusing the Civil Rights Act
of 1964. The increasing number of sexual misbehavior cases and the huge
settlements and awards demonstrate the success of post-1964 militant feminists
in co-opting the concerns of the Black American civil rights movement to
advance their group self-interest for private gain."
In the mid-sixties, most of the proponents of the civil rights movement
segued into the anti-Vietnam war movement, then into the more generalized
counterculture, with all of its continuing sideshows of radical feminism,
gay advocacy, and so forth. For many who still call themselves liberal,
all these diverse and frequently contradictory movements constitute The
Movement, a continuous course of progressive change. For some, it has been
possible for thirty years to live in The Movement, a cognitive world impervious
to both internal contradictions and challenges from the outside. Apart
from the fetid backwaters of the academy, nowhere has this possibility
been pressed so far as in the bureaucracies of mainline Protestantism.
A friend recently returned from a meeting of United Methodist social justice
executives who were evaluating the significance of the November election
and reports that the conclusion seemed to be unanimous: The November election
represented the last desperate hurrah of the white, male, racist establishment
to perpetuate its control of American society.
Such a reading strikes most of us as amusingly implausible, but it
is important to understand that there are cognitive enclaves in which it
is thought to be entirely persuasive. As Mr. Scannell and some other blacks
(albeit still a minority) recognize, one real victim of this way of thinking
is the legacy of the civil rights movement and the legitimate concerns
of black, especially poor black, Americans. Through all the contortions
of causes and ideologies that hijacked the civil rights movement, we have,
after more than thirty years, moved from talking about "colored people"
to talking about "people of color." It is by no means clear that
this is much of an achievement, especially when "people of color"
is now but one category in an endless catalogue of victimizations and entitlements.
Black leaders also have much to answer for in allowing the interests of
black Americans to be taken hostage by elite and well-funded organizations
pushing causes unrelated to, frequently alien to, American blacks. Witness
the precipitous and possibly fatal collapse of the NAACP. Latching on to
the mantle of the civil rights movement gave these causes a measure of
moral credibility for a time, but now they have brought discredit upon
themselves and upon the movement to which they parasitically attached their
This is a great shame, for the civil rights movement of, say, 1956
to 1964 was a luminous moment in American history. Martin Luther King,
Jr., whatever problems people may have with his personal life or philosophy,
is deservedly lifted up as a figure who helped remedy a great wrong in
our national experience. It is not only blacks who are deprived when the
movement that he led is exploited and trivialized by interest groups and
ideologues intent upon embroiling America in a class warfare in which blacks
are but one, and by no means the most important, of alleged victim classes.
The Golden Calf of Research
Please understand that I have profound respect for you, but regrettably
I must do you in. That's an attitude that bothers Daniel Callahan in "The
Puzzle of Profound Respect." Callahan is president of the Hastings
Center, which is a very major player in the debates over biomedical ethics.
His article is occasioned by the National Institutes of Health proposal
to fund producing human embryos in the laboratory solely for the purpose
of research (see "The Inhuman Use of Human Beings," FT, January
1995). The report recommending such funding speaks of "the profound
respect" with which we must view the embryo that we will then destroy.
Such talk about profound respect, says Callahan, is "wafting incense"
designed to make us feel a little better about what we're doing.
In the vulgar utilitarianism of the NIH panel's reasoning, the impermissible
becomes permissible, even mandatory, if it might advance the goals of scientific
research. Callahan writes: "What a free ride this is for the researchers,
whose claims of potential benefits are treated with the kind of deference
and credulity not seen since the days when the golden calf was worshipped.
But of course for modern medicine research is the golden calf, questioned
only at one's own risk. Duly reverential, the panel satisfied itself with
simply listing all the research possibilities, including the improvement
and increased safety of IVF, the creation of cell lines that might someday
be useful for bone marrow transplantation, repair of spinal cord injuries,
skin replacement and, naturally, the hint of a greater understanding of
It is time, says Callahan, to challenge the "research" mantra
with a strong dose of skepticism. "The report notes that four countries
already allow embryo research and that it has been going on for some years
in private laboratories in this country. Yet not a single actual benefit
derived so far from that research is cited to back the claims of great
potential benefits from having even more of it. There is, oddly, no mention
of any results whatever from that research, other than the oblique suggestion
that it would be much improved if government funds could be brought to
bear. Would it be unfair to conclude that either there have been no notable
research benefits so far and thus the subject was finessed, or that the
panel just forgot to ask? In any case, we are asked to bet on the future
benefits. I wonder what odds the bookies in Las Vegas would give on this
one." To give in to the supposition that research is always and in
every instance a necessary thing to do is to surrender to a technological
imperative that denies human freedom and may well destroy the possibility
of a humane future. Callahan concludes: "Research that stays within
moral limits is worthy of respect. Research that restlessly seeks to find
a way around them, holding out some supposedly higher goods, is not. If
there can be such a thing as modern idolatry, that is it. Can not the research
community find a Moses to go after that golden calf?"
If they understood what was happening, one might credit them with a
measure of courage, or at least with a piquant contrariness. But the New
York Times does not understand; the people in charge there do not,
as it is said, get it. They are like the New Yorker movie critic
who wrote in November 1972 that she did not believe Richard Nixon had been
elected because she knew absolutely no one who had voted for Nixon. And
so it is that the editorial page of the Sunday Times of December
11 led off with a long piece "In Praise of the Counterculture."
The 1960s and its effluence were, we are told, a universal blessing. We
would not have had the feminist movement, the gay rights movement, and
a host of other improvements had it not been for the wonderful "Thoreauvian"
dissenters of that era. That Thoreau was a humbug who is only kept in print
by his capacity to capture the passing fancies of impressionable adolescents
is neither here nor there to the editors of the Times, who apparently
feel entitled to indulge their own impulse to throw an adolescent snit
in protest against a nation that appreciates them insufficiently.
Outraged that Newt Gingrich-joined, it seems, by a majority of Americans-takes
a rather dim view of "the counterculture," the Times lobs
an in-your-face editorial at a nation that dared perpetrate an in-your-face
election against the orthodoxies of the Times and its satellite
worlds of correctitude. "In Praise of the Counterculture" could
be read as the paper's letter of resignation from the world of power and
influence outside midtown Manhattan. If the country is going to get uppity
with the Times, the editors sniff, the country can just go and find
itself another newspaper to tell it what to think. On the other hand, it
seems improbable that the Times will really withdraw from "the
power and the glory" of directing the affairs of the nation and the
world, or at least pretending to. But one never knows.
Anna Quindlen, for one, is not going to put up with it anymore. Writing
her farewell column shortly before Christmas, she says, "I leave you
with good tidings of great joy: Those who shun the prevailing winds of
cynicism and anomie can truly fly." So there goes Ms. Quindlen flying
far away from the ugly thing that America has become. But not before she
thanks "a newspaper that stands for the very best that newspapers
can provide," and offers us some final ponderings on what she called
"the great issues of the day." The great issue of her final column
is how she could remain such a wonderful person over all these years. "For
more than twenty years I've been a reporter, a job that people say is sure
to make you cynical and has somehow only left me more idealistic."
It is with her, she explains, as it was with Anne Frank who, less than
a year away from death in Bergen-Belson, wrote in her diary, "In spite
of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart."
Unlike Anne Frank, Ms. Quindlen is only going off to New Jersey, but the
Republicans are in control there, too. She is generous in sharing with
us what she has learned: "That is the most important thing I have
learned in the newspaper business, that our business is one another."
Brushing away a tear, one is comforted by the thought that others are left
to carry on in the tradition of Anna Quindlen.
Columnist Frank Rich, for example.
President Clinton dismissed the Surgeon General Joycelin Elders for
advocating, or seeming to advocate, the teaching of masturbation skills
to the country's sexually challenged youngsters. In response, the Sunday
Times of December 18 carried no less than two pieces in praise of
masturbation. Frank Rich boldly and imaginatively entitled his article,
wouldn't you know it, "The Last Taboo." (Incest was last year.)
After the obligatory observations on Dr. Elders being a black and a woman
(and we all know what America does to blacks and women), he lauds her for
daring to speak "the dreaded M-word." Mr. Rich notes that sophisticated
folk such as D. H. Lawrence, Woody Allen, and Philip Roth have given masturbation
an honorable place in our high culture. Portnoy's Complaint, there
are no doubt those who still remember, was largely about the bathroom fantasies
of a boy who had big problems with his father.
Mr. Rich does not claim onanism is the most elevated form of sexual
expression. He cites the observation of Mark Twain that "Of all the
various kinds of sexual intercourse this has the least to recommend it."
Among the problems with masturbation noted by Twain, "It is unsuited
to the drawing room." With an entirely straight face, indeed with
moral earnestness, Frank Rich continues in that idealistic vein for which
Anna Quindlen was so admired by herself: "Perhaps these drawbacks
are still troublesome today, but they are nothing next to such alternatives
as unwanted babies or disease. That was the only point Joycelyn Elders
was trying to make, and precisely because it cost her her job, this time
it may finally get through." If we got him right, Mr. Rich finds it
troublesome that masturbation is still thought to be unsuited to the drawing
room, but if we encouraged a lot more of it there would be fewer unwanted
babies and less disease. Dr. Elders said she wanted to educate the American
people, and it appears she succeeded with a few, an inordinate number of
whom are children of the counterculture working at what used to be called
the nation's newspaper of record.
While We're At It
- Speaking to students at Cornell recently, I was struck by a young woman
who kept saying of some Intervarsity students who were there, "I just
can't get into their universe." I was reminded of that by an A. N.
Wilson column in the Spectator. Wilson, readers may recall, was
an atheist, was converted, became something of a Christian apologist, wrote
a curious biography of C. S. Lewis, and then went back to being an atheist,
except this time of the very noisy variety. In his column he deplores the
number of public figures-cabinet ministers, bishops, and now the Prince
of Wales-who are going in for rather ostentatious public confessions. The
whole thing reminds Wilson of "what it would be like to attend one
of those Buchmanite meetings of the Oxford Groupers in the 1930s. (A friend
of mine once attended a meeting of theirs at the Randolph Hotel and slipped
out of the back having heard a burly Rhodes Scholar tearfully acknowledge
that he was in the habit of blowing his nose on his bath towel.) Much as
I admire the daring of all those seized with the confessional urge, I find
it baffling. 'I do not recall committing a single blameworthy act,' Ivy
Compton-Burnett once said. I could not quite echo this, but it is closer
to my position than that of the new breast-beating school. Surely if one
is a well-balanced person one simply does not do things one considers to
be wrong." Imagine that. No sin, no confession, no need for forgiveness.
As the young woman at Cornell would say, I just can't get into his universe.
In the view of "well-balanced" persons such as A. N. Wilson,
just as well, no doubt.
- Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, applied for a trademark for
its logo. When the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published a list of
trademark requests, the application was challenged by the Calvin Klein
Inc. clothing company. The challenge was withdrawn when it was explained
to the lawyers that Calvin was on the scene before Klein, but the incident
got Martin Marty of the University of Chicago to pondering. "All kinds
of parallel possibilities come to mind; a word gets uprooted from its tradition,
and ends up seeming unfamiliar," Marty observes. It says something,
he thinks, about a culture that suffers from severe amnesia, especially
when it comes to religion. "Other lower-case Christian words may be
in trouble: Cross pens might want a monopoly on the cross as a logo, and
Christians might have to hire lawyers to win it back. Even 'Christian'
itself is not safe in the world of commerce: the Christian Dior fashion-design
firm has a patent on its name and may think that the 1.8 billion people
called Christian are intruding into the domain where money is to be made.
I advise these people to get a good lawyer."
- A group called Christians in Political Science had a meeting in Washington
some time ago that was addressed by A. James Reichley of Georgetown University.
Among many other important things, he said this: "Christians live
in a world in which miracles sometimes happen, in which prayers are heard
and are answered-though often in ways different than we had expected. Most
importantly, we view the whole of reality as pervaded by moral purpose
and meaning. This is quite different from Alfred North Whitehead's description
of the physical universe assumed by natural science: 'A dull affair, soundless,
scentless, colorless, merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.'
Whitehead went on: 'No alternative system of organizing scientific truth
has been suggested. It is not only reigning, but it is without a rival.'
But he added: 'And yet-it is quite unbelievable.'" Reichley concludes:
"Let me emphasize that we do not value Christianity primarily as a
cultural support for democracy or a market economy. Our primary loyalty
is to God and to God's word and to God's work. But the fact is that experience
has now shown that a healthy free society is unlikely to be built on any
base but the biblical tradition-at least it has not been shown that this
is possible in the West."
- George Marsden, the noted evangelical scholar, has done pioneering
work on religion and higher education. His recent The Soul of the American
University, portions of which first appeared in these pages (FT, January
1991), is receiving well-warranted attention among educators in both religious
and secular schools. As a Protestant, Marsden is concerned also with what
is happening in Catholic higher education, as he makes clear in reviewing
David J. O'Brien's From the Heart of the American Church: Catholic Higher
Education and American Culture (Orbis). O'Brien's title, of course,
is a play on Ex corde ecclesiae (from the heart of the Church),
a recent Vatican document calling on Catholic colleges and universities
to be more distinctively Catholic. Marsden notes that Catholic academics
in America are made extremely nervous by talk about Catholic "distinctiveness."
It immediately reduces them to shouting mantras such as "academic
freedom," "diversity," "the spirit of Vatican II,"
and "One Charlie Curran is enough." (The last meets with widespread
agreement far beyond the academy.) David O'Brien, Marsden writes, "rejects
the option of Catholic 'distinctiveness,' which 'is what got us in trouble
in the first place.' Religion, he says should be understood as 'the search
for meaning and value.' The engagement with America must always be positive,
with emphases on cooperation and dialogue that promote justice and good
citizenship." Marsden, however, has heard all this before. He observes,
"Without some sense of real tension between the church and the rest
of culture to complement a sense of a transforming cultural mission [dialogue,
etc.], there will be little way to sustain the religious sensibilities
that can turn these ideas into more than conventional rhetoric. O'Brien's
proposals seem to follow the path taken by mainline Protestants earlier
in the century, when the mission of the churches was so blended with citizenship
and morality that the churches became superfluous to the mix." Marsden
confesses that he doesn't know exactly what must be done if Catholic higher
education is not to go the way once-Protestant colleges and universities
have gone, but he does know that "positive new steps must be taken
to counter the paralyzing negative reactions to Catholic distinctiveness
that haunt so many intellectuals in the American Catholic community."
- A few more findings from that Richard Wirthlin poll done for the National
Right to Life Committee. We've been tracking survey research on abortion
for more than twenty years, but the Wirthlin poll adds a few new wrinkles.
The question is asked, "Which one of the following statements most
closely describes your personal position on the issue of abortion?"
Prohibit in all circumstances (9 percent), except to save life of mother
(11 percent), except in cases of rape, incest, or save life of mother (33
percent). Counting those positions as pro-life, 53 percent of the general
population and 51 percent of those who voted in November are "pro-life."
On the other side the figures are these: Legal abortion in first three
months of pregnancy (27 percent), legal in first six months (5 percent),
legal any time (9 percent). By these reckonings, 41 percent of the general
population and 43 percent of those who voted in November are pro-choice.
(Others "don't know" or refused to answer.) The abortion license
of Roe v. Wade, of course, makes abortion legal at any time during
a pregnancy-a position supported by only 9 percent of the general population
and 11 percent of those who voted. The platform position of the Republican
Party is pro-life. The question was asked, "If the Republican party
were to change their official position on the issue of abortion, would
you be more or less likely to support Republican candidates?" Of the
voters, 28 percent said they would be more likely to vote Republican, 40
percent said they would be less likely. A powerful caution, it would seem,
against the Christine Whitman-Bill Weld-Pete Wilson proposal that the party
back off from abortion. Another finding indicated that, if the presidential
candidates of both parties are pro-choice, there is no advantage to either,
but if the Republican is pro-life and the Democrat is pro-choice, the Republican
has an 8 percent advantage. All these findings are politically important,
no doubt, but perhaps the most interesting is that only 9 percent of the
American people support the regime of Roe v. Wade. In years past
that figure has varied from 15 to 20 percent. Given that the question asked
was pretty much the standard one, it seems that support for abortion on
demand is significantly slipping. Keep in mind, however, that other surveys
have shown that less than one in ten Americans knows that Roe legalized
abortion at any time during a pregnancy. A continuing task of the pro-life
movement is not simply to present the arguments against Roe but
to inform the public about what Roe actually did to abortion law
- The Sunday Visitor is the diocesan paper of Lafayette, Indiana.
But now they've changed it to The Catholic Moment. In the editorial
announcing the change, they note that they asked for my permission and
they said some nice things about your scribe. Permission? We're pleased
as punch. Frequent contributor Hadley Arkes of Amherst never fails to remind
us of his book First Things (Princeton). When he refers to us, it
is always very pointedly as "First Things, the journal." In truth,
we think he's pleased as punch, too. The fact is you don't need permission
for titles; they can't be copyrighted. Anyone can, for instance, publish
a novel titled Moby Dick, so long as they put their name (or pseudonym)
on it. But you can't use the pseudonym "Herman Melville." So
why are we mentioning this? You think everything in these pages has to
have a point?
- "Mormons Ban Schindler's List." That's how the story
played, but it is not quite the case. The case is that Brigham Young University
has a movie theater in its student union building, and the university has
a long-standing policy of not showing R-rated films there. When they do
show films that have an R rating, they edit out the offending violence,
nudity, or whatever. Only after they had announced Schindler's List
did they learn that Steven Spielberg and his friends would allow no
editing whatever. Our friend Bruce Hafen, Provost of BYU, has written to
explain that they were then "forced to make an embarrassingly public
choice between an institutional standard to which we had never made an
exception and a significant film that addressed issues of great importance
to our students." He adds, "BYU's institutional unwillingness
to endorse any unedited R movie stems from the conviction that Hollywood
should find ways to make its films- regardless of the intrinsic value of
the subject matter-in ways that respect the boundaries of public propriety
that existed before what Walter Berns calls 'the publification of sex.'"
Good for BYU. Of course students are free to go see the movie off campus.
As for the suggestion that BYU has something against dealing with the Holocaust,
Dr. Hafen notes that this year the 25th anniversary meeting of the international
Annual Scholars Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches will be hosted
- "A statistician is someone who is good with figures but who doesn't
have the personality to become an accountant." The source for that
is the most quotable person who ever lived, "Anonymous." But
we got it from The "Quote . . . Unquote" Newsletter, available
from The Executive Speaker Co., Box 292437, Dayton, OH 45429. The same
publication has a little article on "God grant me the serenity to
accept. . . ." Commonly called the AA prayer, it was allegedy written
by Reinhold Niebuhr who, according to Quote . . . Unquote, sometimes
claimed and sometimes denied authorship. Their conclusion: "God give
us the serenity to see that it doesn't really matter who wrote it. It exists,
and many people obviously find it very helpful."
- The meeting that marked the first anniversary of the much- discussed
RE-Imagining conference in Minneapolis attracted several hundred feminists
and featured what were billed as prominent theologians. Embattled defenders
of the November 1993 conference insisted, according to the National
Christian Reporter, on "the women's right to meet, explore the
Christian faith, and examine existing and emerging theological precepts."
A taste of the "precepts" being explored was offered by Rita
Nakashima Brock of the Methodist-related Hamline University in St. Paul,
Minn. Ms. Brock explained: "Abusive systems look for scapegoats or
people to blame for a problem. Is the question so much who killed Jesus
as what killed him? . . . Is the answer our sin or the huge oppressive
and exploitative system of power he lived within? If we say Jesus' death
was necessary to save us, does that put us in a position of being grateful
he suffered?" At the risk of shocking those who are exploring the
outer edges of theological precepts, yes, ladies, that is pretty much the
position that Christians think they've been in from the beginning. As Saint
Paul acknowledged, it is somewhat of a scandal, and perhaps even more so
for those who work so hard at scandalizing Christians who know and believe
the basics of the faith.
- A new international journal has been announced by the Institute for
the Study of Christianity and Sexuality. It will be called Theology
and Sexuality and the publisher, Sheffield Academic Press, promises
that it will be "exciting and innovative, with creative and imaginative
styles of scholarship." No doubt.
- Tom Kuntz writes this article titled "The Rage to Kill Those Who
Kill." It's all about the alleged frenzy of the American people in
favor of capital punishment. "Will all this killing do any good?"
asks Mr. Kuntz. "Will it deter crime? Is it cost effective? Or are
we simply talking about retribution here-real Old Testament stuff?"
Were it not in the New York Times, someone might suspect that we're
simply talking anti-Semitism here.
- One can hardly count the number of editorials and other commentaries
deploring the nasty, ugly, hateful rhetoric now current in our political
life. They are all right, of course. Here for instance is a speech given
by the Rev. Jesse Jackson in New York and Chicago in which he compares
the Christian Coalition to Nazis, slave owners, and Jim Crow segregationists.
"The ideological kinship is right down through the years," says
Mr. Jackson. "It's not a personal thing. They've been rather consistent
in opposing remedies to historical errors." "The Christian Coalition
was a strong force in Germany" (when the Nazis came to power). Responding
to critics who took issue with his remarks, Mr. Jackson explained, "I
don't want these statements to be misinterpreted. I'm not seeking a confrontation.
I'm seeking understanding. I'm seeking an end to polarization."
- The Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention is
doing a very nice series of pamphlets under the title "Sanctity of
Human Life." The latest is an eighteen-page reflection on "The
Ethics of Human Embryo Research and the Brave New World." Write the
Commission at 901 Commerce, #550, Nashville, TN 37203.
- Naperville, Illinois, is one of thousands of towns where churches are
encouraging the movement in which teenagers take a vow to remain virgins
until marriage. This fascinated Mary Gaitskill, who went out to Naperville
to investigate, and to write up her findings in Elle, a fashion
magazine. (No, we don't read everything, but readers do send things in.)
Ms. Gaitskill apparently made a pretty raunchy time of her teen years,
and she finds herself surprisingly sympathetic to the young people today
who want to avoid the mistakes she and others made. Although, as the fashion
magazine genre apparently requires, she makes clear that she is not able
to get into the Christian thing embraced by these kids in Naperville. The
article is typical of the way liberals who risk being sensible go to great
pains to make clear that they are not becoming conservative. It has a nice
self-deprecating ending, however. She tells her mother about the article
she's been writing, and her mother asks her, if she had teenage kids, what
would she tell them about sex? "Well, I said, I would tell them that
before they had sex they should be sure they're able to deal with their
feelings about it. That they should be careful to ascertain what their
real feelings are instead of acting on ideas of how they should feel. That
they can feel all kinds of things." "Okay," her mother said.
"But I mean, what would you tell them?"
- So here we suggested (November 1994) that Rabbi Marc Gellman had come
up with the one thing that all religions, without exception, had in common-all
use candles. Then comes this one sentence note from Dr. Lloyd Eby of Washington,
D.C.: "The Mennonites I came from did not use candles."
So much for that hypothesis, Rabbi.
- Commentary on the dismal state of Catholic preaching is a commonplace.
There are exceptions, of course, but the general picture seems not to be
encouraging. The Second Vatican Council's emphasis on the importance of
the homily (Catholics shy away from "sermon") in every Mass could
not, of course, create instant competence for what was mandated. All kinds
of homily services cropped up, some offering "hints" and "helps,"
and others selling complete texts that are sometimes read by priests verbatim.
The quality of homily services ranges from the banal to the brilliant,
with occasional slips into the heretical. For instance, a reader in Grand
Rapids, Michigan, sends us the "Homily Helps" for Tuesday of
the Second Week of Advent from a service published by St. Anthony Messenger
Press. The text is Matthew 18 with its warning about offending against
one of these little ones who believe in Christ. To the St. Anthony author,
this suggests, quite inexplicably, a homily on the need for the Church
to provide housing for the elderly. Which leads to this: "A fraction
of the resources we devote to the unborn redirected to the end of life
could result in facilities for the elderly that would be a model for the
nation." One imagines Father, not yet fully awake, at the early morning
Mass reading that and then thinking to himself, "What on earth did
I just say?" Or devout Mr. McNaughton in the pew: "What on earth
is he going on about now?" Then there was the homily service we glanced
at while saying Mass in an upstate New York parish. The day was St. Matthias,
celebrating the disciple chosen to take the place of Judas. The "homily
suggestion" was that Our Lord's original choice of Judas "shows
that God can make mistakes, too." We find ourselves hesitant to suggest
that Catholic preaching would be greatly improved by burning all the homily
services, but we are not quite sure why.
- From Bloomington, Indiana, a reader reports seeing this sticker on
a carry-on bag at the airport: "Keep a woman's right to choose-unless
George Bush volunteers to babysit." The reader asks, "How can
anyone trivialize abortion like that?" The answer is that those who
support the abortion license have no choice. Not to trivialize choice is
to run the risk of thinking about what is chosen.
- You don't have to be a rocket scientist, as it is said, to know that
the two-parent family is far superior to any alternative. But it does take
a modicum of courage to counter arguments that, as George Orwell remarked,
only intellectuals could believe. "The Social Significance of the
Traditional Two-Parent Family: The Impact of Its Breakdown on the Lives
of Children, Adults, and Societies" reinforces courage with an excellent
summary of the pertinent findings from social science. In every area-education,
law-abidingness, health, and life chances generally-children raised in
two-parent families do dramatically better than others. Alright, so you
already knew that. But if you find yourself in the position of having to
prove the obvious to the obdurate, you might want to get the report from
Glenn T. Stanton at Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, CO 80995.
- Protestants, notably evangelical and pentecostal Protestants, give
more generously to their churches than do Catholics. Responding to this
reality, and getting real about priorities, Msgr. Joseph Champlin, well-
known writer and lecturer, told the diocesan paper of St. Cloud, Minn.,
"The big question is not about the ordination of women or married
clergy or the decline in clergy or pedophilia or abortion or assisted suicide.
All are vital questions, but money is the crucial one because without money
we simply cannot carry on all the things that need to be done in a vital
parish." Seek ye first a balanced budget. . . .
- Noticing that those going to abortion clinics tend to shy away from
sidewalk counselors, picketers, and even rosary-reciters, Mariam Bell of
Annandale, Virginia, came up with a different idea. Outside the clinic,
she and her husband and friends set up checkered-cloth-covered tables to
which are attached brightly colored helium balloons and a banner proclaiming
"Choose Adoption" and "We Care About You." They offer
free coffee and packets of information on adoption. The appeal is strengthened
by the presence of couples eager to adopt children. Most important, this
approach works in dissuading pregnant women from killing their children.
For more information on how they do it, Mariam Bell may be contacted at
4617 Columbia Rd., Annandale, VA 22003, (703) 941-2788. For more information
on adoption in general, the National Council on Adoption (202) 328-1200.
- The translation is a bit rough, but the words are clear and encouraging.
When last December the trouble began to brew between Chechnya and Moscow,
some observers saw a major Christian-Muslim conflict in the offing. In
order to avoid that, Alexy II, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, joined
with Alsabekov, Grand Mufti of the Chechen Republic, in issuing a statement
that included this: "We categorically reject the very idea that the
conflict around Chechnya can develop into the Christian-Moslem opposition.
The true followers of the two religions only desire peace. The use of sacred
Christian and Moslem symbols and concepts with the purpose of stirring
up enmity and provoking conflict between religions is a sin and an illegality
in the face of God. We ask all our brothers and sisters-Christians, Moslems,
people of good will- all those who are involved now in the conflict unpleasant
to God-to stop and to change their mind. We call our flock to pray that
peace may return to the land of Chechnya." Cynics may observe that
praying for peace is one thing, securing it is quite another. But even
they must acknowledge the benefit to peace in heading off what could become
also a religious war.
- As noted last month, in his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, President
Clinton wished us, inter alia, a "meaningful work experience."
Then came his Kwanzaa Message. Kwanzaa, most readers will recall, is a
recently contrived African American seven-day celebration that runs from
December 26 through January 1, and has been much criticized by blacks and
others as a commercial gimmick designed to demonstrate that blacks can
be as consumerist as anybody else. Anyway, the presidential blather (for
no other word will do) goes like this: "A vibrant and energizing celebration,
Kwanzaa offers millions an opportunity to embrace the rich cultural traditions
of the African heritage." Yes, dear reader, we feel your pain. The
President continues: "The seven principles of Kwanzaa - unity, self-determination,
collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity,
and faith - serve as vital tools in building hope and opportunity in our
communities and throughout our country." With "principles"
like creativity and faith, you can hardly go wrong. The message ends with
greetings from Hillary. The politics of demeaning, as it were.
- A hard-core Thomist, I have come to believe, is someone who believes
that Thomism is the hardware that will run any software. Professor Ralph
McInerny of Notre Dame is a hard-core Thomist. He is saved from the extremes
of this affliction by possessing also a rare aesthetic temperament and
impressive literary gifts (also in the writing of many mystery stories).
If I needed an excuse for thinking pleasant thoughts about Ralph McInerny,
which I don't, a recent comment by him on Harold Bloom would provide it.
McInerny very much likes much of what Bloom does in his recent book The
Western Canon. For instance, Bloom vigorously and with wondrous erudition
defends the notion of excellence against the barbaric multiculturalists
and radical feminists in our midst, but McInerny suggests that there is
an awful emptiness at the heart of Bloom's project. Comparing Bloom with
T. S. Eliot and C. S. Lewis, McInerny observes: "Eliot's Christianity
was not merely a personal patina; it had relevance for his poetry and for
his criticism as well. It enabled Eliot to see the wellsprings of most
of the great works of Western literature. Lewis accounted it a bonus of
his conversion that he had come to share the faith that animated the writers
whose works he studied. I am sure that Eliot saw faith as a bonus for poetic
creation as well. One of the results of secularism, in a man of Bloom's
sensibility, is the effort to turn literature itself into a religion. One
gets the picture of a disheveled distracted scholar, moving from canonical
work to canonical work, in quest of the meaning of life. But the meaning
he finds in his reading is not the meaning of life that those great works
convey. Bloom is engaged in a quest without transcendent object, a poring
over books, and makes of aesthetic experience, itself as painful as it
is pleasurable, the purpose of life. Call this the loose canon. The great
works unmoored and set afloat. One is reminded of the author of another
Bloom who dreamt of creating in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience
of his race. Joyce meant a substitute for faith. That seems to be what
literature is for Harold Bloom."
- There are fellowships for ten American students to participate in a
three-week seminar in Krakow, Poland, on "The Free Society and Centesimus
Annus," July 3 through 22. Faculty includes Michael Novak, George
Weigel, Russell Hittinger, and this scribe, plus guest lectures by Polish
religious and political leaders. Fellowships cover tuition, lodging (at
a twelfth-century Dominican priory), meals, and excursions. Students pay
airfare. Fellowships are open to graduate students or upcoming college
seniors. To apply, send c.v., writing sample, and 300- word essay on liberty
to Mr. Brian Anderson at American Enterprise Institute, 1150 17th Street
NW, Washington D.C. 20036. This is the fourth year we've done this, and
it is both great fun and a splendid learning experience. Aside from the
ten Americans, the students are from Central and Eastern Europe and are
typically excited by the challenge of rebuilding their world after the
catastrophe of communism.
- "Thank God we do teach secularism in our public schools,"
writes Richard Marius, director of Harvard's Expository Writing Program.
"Secularism, with its appeal to rationality, undermines inflexible
religious principles," he claims. For Marius, it seems, almost any
religious believer is a "fundamentalist." He discusses a case
in Stephen Bates' book Battleground in which a Christian mother
protests what she believes to be anti-Christian teaching in the public
schools. Marius asks, "Can we prove that she is 'irrational' in standing
up for her principles? Maybe not." But, then, maybe so. Marius, writing
in Harvard Magazine, joins philosopher Robert Nozick in saying that
the mark of rationality is that it is always dissatisfied with itself,
or, as Nozick puts it, rationality "requires imagination." Fundamentalism
fails on this score, Marius believes. "For fundamentalists, alternatives
are sin. Fundamentalism requires the suppression of the imagination. I've
always suspected that most fundamentalists are atheists at the core, living
in terror of losing their faith. Given freedom, they acknowledge, most
people will choose not to be fundamentalists." Certainly those whom
Mr. Marius calls fundamentalists appear to threaten the inflexible principles
of his secularism. His polemic bears all the marks of someone who believes
he has had a narrow escape from a fundamentalist childhood and is living
in terror of losing his liberation. That being said, however, there are
no doubt supra-orthodox Christians (and Jews and Muslims and others) who
have little confidence that "their" truth can engage and comprehend
truths appearing from elsewhere. The alternative to such fear-filled religious
rigidity is not a vacuous secular "rationality" premised upon
nothing but dissatisfaction with itself. The alternative is an uncompromisingly
reasonable faith, which is to say a faith-filled confidence that all truth
is finally one because God is One. Explaining that to inflexible secularists
is no easy task, so great is their terror of religion, which they view
as the enemy of their ever so fragile freedom. In many cases it is not
too much to say that hostility to religion defines their freedom, with
the ironic result that religion defines their freedom. It must always be
a fragile freedom that is hostage to what it hates.
Sources: Alister E. McGrath on the new Catholic Catechism, Christianity
Today, December 12, 1994. Luke Timothy Johnson on John Meier's A Marginal
Jew in Commonweal, November 18, 1994. On the Rev. Scott Willis, USA Today,
November 23, 1994. Ray Scannell on attacks against Clarence Thomas, Chicago
Defender, November 30, 1994. Daniel Callahan on research, Hastings Center
Report, January-February 1995. Anna Quindlen farewell column, New York
Times, December 14, 1994. While We're At It: A. N. Wilson column
in the Spectator, November 12, 1994. Martin Marty on commercialization
of Christian symbols, Christian Century, November 9, 1994. A. James Reichley
address to Christians in Political Science, CPS Newsletter, Fall 1994.
George Marsden review of David O'Brien book, Commonweal, November 18, 1994.
Statistics on public opinion regarding abortion, National Right to Life
News, November 18, 1994. Sunday Visitor name change announced in November
20, 1994 issue. On RE-Imagining conference in Minneapolis, National Christian
Reporter, November 11, 1994. Reference to Theology and Sexuality in Touchstone,
Fall 1994. Tom Kuntz on capital punishment, New York Times, December 4,
1994. Jesse Jackson quoted on Christian Coalition, Washington Times, December
9, 1994. On telling teenagers about sex, Elle, December 1994. Msgr. Joseph
Champlin on money, Catholic Trends, December 17, 1994. On Mariam Bell,
Life Insight, December 1994. President's Kwanzaa Message reported in the
Washington Post, December 26, 1994. Ralph McInerny on Harold Bloom, Crisis,
November 1994. Richard Marius on rationality, Harvard Magazine, November-December