Cult or Religion?
I rarely find anything in the pages of your journal that is mean-
spirited and ungenerous, but I'm afraid that cannot be said of Benjamin
Wittes' opinion piece, "The Scent of a Cult" (January).
The burden of this piece is that there are stigmata by which one can
distinguish a "cult" (a pejorative term, apparently) from a "religion."
The distinguishing characteristics are the seven traits enumerated by
the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) plus those added by Wittes, namely: the
greater "vigor" (enthusiasm?) with which cults exhibit such traits, and
Orwellian "doublethink" (the confusion and obfuscation of language in
order to disorient the critical faculties). However, from the examples
given, I would rather conclude that the distinction, if there is one, is
between a mature religion and a religion in its birth stages.
Let's take Christianity at its uterine stage of development and apply
these test stigmata to it to see whether, in the eyes of a reasonable
adherent of a mainstream religion at the time of Jesus (a Sadducee or
Pharisee, for example), they might apply to Jesus, his followers while
He lived, and to the Christian communities that sprang up after His
death and Resurrection in various parts of the Roman world. First, the
seven criteria of CAN:
- Mind control-Based on the account given in the Gospels, there can
be little doubt that the Sadducees and Pharisees regarded Jesus not only
as a heretic but as one who possessed a mysterious, almost demonic, mind
control over the poor souls who followed Him blindly and without reason.
- Charismatic leadership-His contemporaries certainly would have
described Jesus as a "charismatic leader" if they had a similar term in
their vocabulary. Why? Because it must have seemed to them that part of
Jesus' effect on his following sprang from the force of His character
and the dramatic way He taught and punctuated His teachings with the
performance of "miracles."
- Deception-Jesus' critics also considered Him deceptive and
dangerous in spreading false doctrines "out of the mainstream" at the
very time that Judea and Israel most needed religious and cultural unity
against an alien invader (John 11:47-48).
- Exclusivity-Jesus did advise those who followed Him to turn their
backs on unbelieving family members and friends while devoting
themselves wholly to the community of believers and to those still open
to receiving the Truth, while rejecting the traps of the World outside
the community (Matthew 11:35-37; Luke 12:51-53).
- Alienation-Same comment as above.
- Exploitation-Jesus' advice to wealthier converts to share their
wealth and patrimony with the poor (many of His followers were poor) or
to divest themselves of it entirely (Mark 10:21; Matthew 19:21; Luke
18:22) could have been viewed by the family and friends of these
converts as "exploitative" of their yearning for salvation and
redemption, much as would parents today under similar circumstances.
- Totalitarian worldview-As I understand this term, it means a
worldview of followers of a doctrine which teaches that every aspect
of their lives is governed by that doctrine; there is no life
outside it, only corrupting influences, the lure of Satan. Jesus taught
this often (see scriptural citations in #4, above), as did His Apostles.
The distinctions favored by Wittes, based on the Orwellian concept of
"doublethink," will not hold water either. The early stages of any
religion are always marked by seemingly inconsistent statements made by
the Founder, which are subject to various interpretations; and this was
as true of early Christianity as it is today of Reverend Sun Myung Moon
and his Unification Church. It took three centuries of continual
argument and disputation to hammer out a consistent doctrine and message
for Christianity, and even that agreement was only partial.
Misuse of language is also not an appropriate criterion because words
are frequently used in many different ways and there is nothing
particularly nefarious about the practice. Wittes' own example of a
misused term-the word "family"-is an instance of this: spiritual
"family" as opposed to kinship "family," "families" of biological
species, language "families," etc. As for Rev. Moon's use of the term,
"family" in the spiritual sense to refer to members of his Church,
compare Christ in Mark 3:33-35. The early Christians used many Greek
words to express ideas in their belief system that differed greatly from
the original Greek meanings or from ordinary usage. I doubt that they
intended to confuse or mislead anybody, but this raises the essential
question when dealing with a charge of misusing or corrupting language:
what is the intent of the person doing so? How can you tell when a new
use for an old term to describe a new idea is intended to mislead or
My disposition in these matters is to be tolerant of religious "cults,"
no matter how farcical I may think their beliefs to be, so long as they
are sincere in believing them and as long as the Founder or
organizational successors are not confidence men consciously exploiting
the credulity of their followers for power, profit, or tax breaks. But
these things must be proved to my satisfaction, not merely
alleged. The reason for this disposition is that the parallels
between the hostility that some of these modern "cults" are receiving
and that which Jesus and his followers received from the "mainstream
religions" of His day are just too many not to leave me with a feeling
that we may just commit a horrid mistake again when Christ returns, as
He said He would. . . .
Barton L. Ingraham
Santa Fe, NM
I am indeed surprised that the editors of your highly regarded journal
considered it appropriate to publish "The Scent of a Cult." Benjamin
Wittes failed to introduce any compelling case for his argument that
greater distinctions ought to be made between groups he considers cults
and those he considers religions. He fell far short in this regard, but
did succeed in proving that those who seek to further divide the
religious community need to be confronted and repudiated, not published.
Did not the fact that Benjamin Wittes cites as his primary resource the
Cult Awareness Network send off alarm bells in the offices of First
Things? What Wittes generously refers to as "a Chicago-based
clearinghouse of information on cults" is in fact an organization that
has been condemned by most of the established religious community for
its abusive and illegal activities, albeit conducted in the name of
CAN's definition of a "cult," though sounding neat and scientific, has
in fact very liberal and malleable applications. CAN's Steve Hassan
characterized the spiritual group that Arianna Huffington purportedly
belonged to and the Jehovah's Witnesses as cults on Ted
Koppel's Nightline (October 4, 1994). In 1987, at a CAN
conference in Trenton, New Jersey, Hassan characterized the Catholic
Church as "the greatest cult in America." CAN's executive director,
Cynthia Kisser, gave testimony in a custody dispute in North Carolina in
1993 that a member of The Way International was an unfit mother because
of her religious affiliation. An appeals court in that case threw out
Not satisfied with CAN's criteria for what a cult is, Wittes goes
further and submits as definitive proof of cultic affiliation the
propensity for cultists to engage in "doublethink." His corroborative
proof of the Unification Church's guilt in this regard is an alleged
comment I made to a reporter some time last year. I have no recollection
of this interview and can only surmise that it was not one that focused
on the deepest aspects of Unification theology. But my response
certainly does not support Wittes' argument that Unificationists
practice "doublethink." If anything, my response indicates that I
considered the answer to the question required something more than a
convenient sound bite.
Mr. Wittes' second scurrilous attack on the Unification Church is his
reechoing of the CAN line that the church "urges new recruits to cut off
contact with their biological families (parents in particular)." This is
a lie. It is the natural instinct of most people to share something new
and precious with those they love the most. That was my inclination when
I first encountered the Unification Church, and my family, all of whom
are devout Catholics, will testify to that. The sensational allegations
of family disruption reported occasionally in the media have all the
substance and credibility of the "apostate atrocity tales" that abound
in the literature of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-
Mormonism. Those few and unrepresentative cases that do display extreme
family fallout as a result of a family member associating with the
Unification Church are products, from my own observations, of pre-
existing family problems which are then exasperated and exploited by the
proponents of the faith-breaking industry. . . .
Wittes persistently perpetuates the offensive epithet "Moonie" to refer
to members of the Unification Church. He shamelessly engages in the use
of sweeping stereotypes to describe those he disdains (examples: "the
sadists and megalomaniacs who run most cults"; "most cults
systematically malnourish their members"; and, "most Americans,
properly, intuit a difference between the Scientologists and the Moonies
on the one hand and the Lubavichers on the other"). This is prima facie
evidence of his predisposed hostility towards those of a faith different
from his own. It is bias that causes Wittes to falter in offering any
coherent or logical arguments to support his emotional tirades. For
example, he writes: "The difference between a cult and a religion, of
course, lies in extremity. Cults generally exhibit all seven of the
CAN's criteria, while religions generally don't, and cults exhibit them
with far greater vigor than religions do." Is Wittes implying that cults
are doing a wrong similar to that propagated by religions in general,
the only difference being one of degree? Or does he mean to criticize
cults because they are more fervent and constant in their religious
faith and bring the full application of their religious beliefs to the
public square? . . .
Peter D. Ross
Director of Public Affairs
The Unification Church
New York, NY
While I commend Benjamin Wittes for attempting to establish a "test" by
which a religion can be differentiated from a cult, as a former
missionary with the Unification Church (1973 to 1984), I can state with
the certainty of experience that he has misapplied his measure in
regards to that particular religion. The Unification Church,
for all of its failings, does not engage in doublethink-though
antagonists, and particularly antagonistic journalists, have often
leveled that accusation based on superficial analysis and irresponsible
quotation. Mr. Wittes' article is a case in point.
Though one may disagree with both the theology and its conclusions,
there can be no doubt about the meaning of the word Messiah in
Unification doctrine and no doubt that Reverend Moon is considered by
Church faithful to be the Second Coming of the Messiah prophesied in
Revelation. In Unification doctrine, the Messiah is the "anointed one"
who has been called by God to realize the Kingdom of Heaven on earth by
restoring all of mankind to the ideal God intended prior to the fall.
Contrary to Mr. Wittes' assertion, this principle is both coherently and
consistently presented throughout Unification doctrine. . . .
Mr. Wittes also misrepresents that "the Moonies have rendered
meaningless a series of words connected to family." Unification Church
members use the terms "brother and sister" in the same manner and with
the same affection that their other Christian brethren use
those terms. Mr. Wittes' could just as easily be leveling this criticism
against the Trappists or Jesuits. The reference to "true parents,"
though a uniquely Unificationist term, likewise has its origins solidly
within the gospels and the Christian doctrine of salvation through
The Unification Church has in the past suggested its members pass
through a period of separation from their families in order to solidify
faith and make the transition to a more spiritual life easier. If Mr.
Wittes is unfamiliar with this Christian practice, I suggest that he try
more closely reading the gospels and the Church Fathers. Moreover, to
imply that this break with one's family is to be permanent is either an
ill-informed assumption or an inexcusable misrepresentation. While I was
in the Unification Church, I heard Reverend Moon instruct the member
countless times in widely disseminated speeches to pray for, to contact,
and to visit their families. Members were repeatedly told that they
should return to their hometowns and start what the Unificationists call
"Home Church." Finally, Church literature does not mislead by
emphasizing "family values" as asserted by Mr. Wittes. The goal of each
and every Unificationist is to start his own "traditional nuclear
family"-after first passing through a period of spiritual formation and
public service. . . .
Jeffrey C. Scharfen
Rancho Santa Fe, CA
. . . How does a writer who manifestly lacks even elementary training in
theology or the history of Christian thought, and who in this day and
age acknowledges CAN (CAN!) as a legitimate resource make his way into
First Things? . . .
At first I could only imagine that something is going on that does not
immediately meet the eye. Is it satire? Some strategy to attract
letters? Am I missing something? If so, I am embarrassed. I missed the
obvious ploy. The joke's on me.
Who on earth uses the word "Moonies" in public discourse anymore? To my
knowledge every major organ from ABC News to the New York Times
has issued public apologies to Unificationists for having used the
racist and bigoted epithet. How are Jews and blacks referred to in the
pages of First Things? . . .
New York, NY
Now that you have opened up the horizon of First Things to theo-
journalism, I though you might be interested in another submission along
the same lines as Mr. Wittes' "the Scent of a Cult."
The Scent of a Papist
It might seem perverse for honestly religious people to group their
clergy with those pedophiles and drunkards who run most Catholic
parishes, but a growing number are doing just that. A substantial sector
of religious America, for example, sees the rights of Catholic priests
as equal in value to those of ministers. According to the commonly
accepted criteria for defining clergy, the line between ministers and
priests is fuzzy indeed, even under the scrutiny of the Catholic
Awareness Network (CAN).
Do priests claim authority over congregants' personal lives? So do
ministers. Do priests present themselves as able to forgive sin?
Ministers often do the same. Do priests all think and talk alike? So do
a lot of ministers. Do priests systematically molest young boys? Well,
it happens in Protestant churches as well. Are priests all addicted to
alcohol? Many ministers have the same problem. Do priests parrot
religious propaganda designed to deaden free thought? So do ministers.
The difference between a destructive papist and a minister, of course,
lies in extremity. Destructive papists generally exhibit all seven of
the deadly sins, while ministers generally don't, and priests exhibit
them with far greater vigor than ministers do. . . .
Now, the quickest way to detect a destructive hierarchy is to sniff for
doublethink. The priest seeks control over his membership not by
providing a coherent theological system but by providing the opposite:
an unstable theology infinitely malleable to the needs of his hierarchy
and uninterpretable at all times to anyone below that level.
Their use of the word "infallible" provides a case in point. The way the
popes and priests twist it to suit their purposes is well-documented. .
The destructive papists have likewise rendered meaningless a series of
words connected to family. The clergy call each other "brother" and
"sister" and members are made to call them "father" and "mother." The
Pope calls himself the "holy father." At the same time, every Catholic
order tells new monastics to cut off contact with their biological
families. Yet even as they interrupt normal family relations and
appropriate the authority of parents, church literature refers to family
values, clearly referring not to the church family but to the
traditional nuclear family.
The Catholic "church" is no more a subset of religion than it is a
subset of political parties. While priests orient themselves around
religious language and behavior, and can thus appear to resemble a
religious or spiritual leader, these destructive papists actually
constitute a phenomenon of their own. Of course, we must protect the
constitutional rights of Catholic priests. I wouldn't dream of doing
anything to undermine their right to protection. It would be a grave
error, however, to conclude that all who come under that protection have
anything more in common than the protection itself.
* * *
Of course, I submit this piece knowing full well that the Catholic
Church is a well-established presence in this country. I would not want
it published in a country in which Roman Catholics were a small minority
already marginalized by the media and commonly enduring persecution. No
Christian editor, I'm sure, would publish it under those circumstances
in any case.
Benjamin Wittes' "The Scent of a Cult" displays an ignorance and animus
more characteristic of the Inquisition than of your usually fine
I will pass over his uncritical repetition of the anti-cultist litany of
the supposed horrors of new religions. The "systematically malnourished"
cultists whom I know from the groups that he mentions buy their own
groceries. I would caution Wittes to remember the history of religious
bigotry, where similar accusations, repeated over and over again by
respected prelates, encouraged pogroms, witch-burnings, and the
slaughter of heretics. Did the modern anti-cult litany, by demonizing
the Branch Davidians, play any part in the government's willingness to
put them to a modern auto-da-fe? . . .
Wittes is particularly exercised that the Unification Church has a
different definition of Messiah than that of traditional Christianity.
But is that not a tautology? After all, the Unification Church is not a
traditional Christian church. The National Council of Churches
questioned its view of the Messiah in the context of a judgment as to
whether the church could be accepted as a Christian church. We have
here, to be sure, a typical intramural dispute among religions. But as
such, it has no bearing upon the internal logical consistency of the
Unificationists' doctrines. If the measure of a cult is whether a
group's teachings conflict with those of traditional Christianity, then
logic drives us back to embrace Wittes' antithesis: "The only difference
between a cult and a religion is a hundred years." . . .
New York, NY
I can confirm Benjamin Wittes' observations about the peculiarly
mercurial nature of "Moonie" theology and terminology. I was a follower
of Sun Myung Moon for ten years, from 1976 to 1986, and during that time
I was often called upon to use words in a deliberately dual sense, with
one meaning intended for public consumption and the other (often
conflicting) meaning meant to be understood by insiders only. Nowhere
was this more evident than in the church's ambivalent view of Jesus
Christ. A Unificationist would not hesitate to say that "Jesus is Lord"
in the sense of a master or great individual, but Unification theology
specifically rules out the idea that Jesus and God are the same being-
which must surely be what Christians intend by the term "Lord." The
ambivalence is deliberate. Rev. Moon teaches that ultimately all
Christians will "accept" him as the Messiah; therefore, he does not wish
to offend them by making it too clear what he actually thinks of Jesus.
In praising family values and traditional marriage, too, the Unification
Church engages in a form of doublethink. While most Unificationists
would leap to attention at the mere mention of these icons of the
religious right, their own families are often split up quite willfully
by Rev. Moon whenever he sees fit to do so. It is a part of church lore
that Rev. Moon used to "call up" mothers with small children in Korea
during the early days of the church. These women were then sent out to
do "front line" activities such as proselytizing for the church while
their children were dropped into the laps of relatives or kept in church
childcare facilities for weeks or months. This practice has been
followed in the United States on occasion.
Even the term "Moonie" itself, which is now hotly detested by Rev.
Moon's followers, was once an acceptable word within the church. In the
early 1980s, a T-shirt was made available to Unification Church members
that read, "I'm a Moonie and I (heart symbol) it!" The Unification
Church only declared war on the term "Moonie" around 1986, just as I was
leaving the organization. They did so because Rev. Moon had changed his
strategy and was backing away from the proselytization campaigns that
had generated so much negative publicity in the late 1970s. Instead, the
Unification Church chose to go "underground," by creating many proxy
organizations with bland, inoffensive-sounding names such as the
"Women's Federation for World Peace." In order to obscure the ties of
these organizations to Sun Myung Moon, it became a priority to
anathematize succinct terms like "Moonie" whenever they appear in
newspaper headlines or articles. All of a sudden, followers of Rev. Moon
who had once jokingly referred to each other as "Moonies" now found that
they simply could not bear to hear such an abusive, degrading term. In a
recent article published in Gauntlet magazine, Unification
Church spokesman Peter D. Ross likened the word to "nigger," "kike," and
Mr. Wittes' article manages to capture with an admirable economy of
words this peculiar feature of cults that sets them apart from more
mainstream religions. By laying claim to the definition of words, they
seek to make it impossible for members even to formulate the thought of
rebellion. I have never seen it defined more aptly, except perhaps in
George Orwell's 1984: "In the end we shall make thoughtcrime
literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express
K. Gordon Neufeld
Vancouver, British Columbia
Benjamin Wittes replies:
It looks like the Unification Church really called out the troops on
this one. I apologize if the term "Moonie" clouds the issues I've tried
to raise, but with that possible exception, I stand 100 percent behind
my piece. As a matter of principle, I never argue about cults with
people who are institutionally enmeshed with one or who refuse to
specify the nature of their interest in defending a particular cult
organization. Rather, I thank K. Gordon Neufeld for his very moving
testimony, which more than answers for the integrity of my
interpretations and the accuracy of my conclusions.
I must express my disagreement with your editorial in the February 1995
issue concerning a school prayer amendment to the United States
Constitution. While I am in full accord with many of your arguments-
including the dangers of an imperial federal judiciary, the evils of
"naked public square" thinking, and the incoherence of current Supreme
Court religion clause decisions-I think that your conclusion with
respect to this particular problem misses the mark.
With all due respect, the issue is not whether there will be "voluntary
prayer" in public schools; nor is it federalism and home rule. The real
issue is whether public school teachers, agents of state and local
government, themselves holding religious views as diverse as any other
large national group of citizens, should be permitted to lead
impressionable children in classroom devotional exercises. Should
Christians trust public school teachers to influence the religious
beliefs of their children? More to the point of your editorial, should
each state or each local community be permitted to decide whether
teachers will be given this opportunity and responsibility? My answer is
"no" to both questions.
How would various local communities respond if given the decision? My
guess is that those places with very diverse religious populations,
where no one group would feel confident of its status as majority
religion (New York or Los Angeles, perhaps), would reject teacher-led
devotions. In those places where one religious tradition constitutes a
strong majority (say, Salt Lake City), in-class prayer/devotions might
well be approved by a majority of voters. A majority vote would not
change the wrongness of the decision. A religious minority, whether it
constitutes 49 percent or .0001 percent of the population, should not be
forced to subject its children to offensive religious exercises in the
government-run schools. No matter how much you try to structure
classroom devotions as "voluntary," peer pressure and the authority role
of teachers will always place strong incentives on children who do not
share the majority religious sentiment to hide their discomfort and join
in with the group.
This does not mean that a constitutional amendment dealing with
religious activity in the public schools would necessarily be a bad
thing. There are many forms of school-related religious expression that,
although probably already protected by the First Amendment, the Equal
Access Act, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, create
significant confusion and censorship among school officials. These would
include individual student expression (religious-message clothing,
private prayer, dialogue with other students, religious topics for class
assignments, etc.), Equal Access student groups, released time religious
education, moments of silence for truly voluntary prayer or meditation,
and perhaps student-controlled prayer at graduation exercises. In all of
these areas, teachers and administrators need to know beyond any doubt
that private religious expression is constitutionally protected, and the
law needs to be clear that "high walls of separation" under state
constitutions cannot trump federally protected rights.
The distinction between individual action and government action is
critical. Because the First Amendment is a limitation on government
activity, there is nothing that a private citizen (such as a student)
can do to unconstitutionally establish religion or prevent free
exercise. Government schools and their employees, however, can violate
the nonestablishment clause and do so whenever they encourage one
religious tradition or expression over others.
Bradley P. Jacob
Center for Law and Public Policy
Beaver Falls, PA
Thanks for taking a straightforward, intelligent stand on the prayer
amendment. You've certainly convinced me.
There is one troubling point, however, involving your calling the
desirable alternative to wrongheaded judicial rule simply "democracy," a
term that we should all know by now was thoroughly understood by the
Founders and wisely rejected. (Fortunately, you tend to offset this
error elsewhere.) This may seem nit-picking, but I believe that to
continue repeating the slightest misconception that we are a
"democracy," an idea which has been largely encouraged by the same
courts you criticize and in fact lies behind many of their erroneous
judgments (along with the idea of "equality"), can only cause further
harm. Many esteemed writers, I believe, might agree. I know Erik von
Kuehnelt-Leddihn's Liberty or Equality backs me up, as would
Russell Kirk, M. E. Bradford, Irving Babbitt (Leadership and
"Democratic capitalism," "democratic self-government," "democratic
process," etc. are all within accepted parameters, but when decisions
are "made by thousands of communities and local school boards across the
country," it is called decentralization and
federalism, not "democracy." The gong-show California
initiative process is probably "democracy" but it is not our
characteristic form of government. "Democracy" was not the goal of the
U.S. Constitution, so let's not apotheosize it. . . .
W. Edward Chynoweth
Your editorial about school prayer misses the obvious. The Constitution
may not contain any mention of school prayer by name, but it
does mention that the government may not establish a religion.
The question now becomes does imposed school prayer (one could
and can always pray voluntarily and individually in school) establish a
religion, or go in that direction?
The answer has got to be "yes" if the prayer is to Jesus,
Allah, Krishna, etc. Then it gives government sanction to a specific
religion. The critical thing that your editorial also fails to discuss
is whether any prayer led by or instituted by a school (as an arm of the
government) could really be viewed as "voluntary." Who is to compose
these prayers, and what will guarantee that they do not favor a
particular religion? The task of being neutral would seem to be almost
impossible, and the lack of a mechanism to assure voluntary
participation in the prayers only by those who wish to do so is a
In his excellent article "Toward a Post-Apollonian Theology" (January),
Pastor Peter J. Leithart misunderstands Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.
Aristotle was attempting to prove God's existence from reason alone,
unaided by divine revelation. Thomas Aquinas, in his proofs for the
existence of God in the Summa Theologiae, was again presenting
what reason alone is capable of proving. Further on in the
Summa Aquinas takes up what God has revealed about His triune
nature, and he argues that this is something that human reason could
never arrive at on its own. However fitting it may be that God exists as
three Persons, without His self-revelation our reason can arrive at
little more than that He is the ultimate cause of some observed effect.
On the other hand, it is truly marvelous that Aristotle saw that
inasmuch as God is the cause of all being, He cannot be in need of any
created thing. The human intellect simply cannot see any reason why God
should have created us, much less why He should care about us. In the
words of the Psalmist (8:5), "What is man that You should be mindful of
him, or the son of man that You should care for him?" That God is love,
and what that might mean, might enter in some feeble way into the mind
of a poet or a holy man, but it could never be proved by rational
That God exists is not a marvel, it is only a simple fact without which
nothing else would exist. That we exist and that He cares about us, in a
totally disinterested manner, i.e., without the possibility of any real
gain on His part, that is the marvel of marvels! Those who have not
received God's revelation, or who have rejected it, can never know this
E. William Sockey, III
Thomas Aquinas College
Santa Paula, CA
Peter J. Leithart replies:
Mr. Sockey's letter betrays the same theological errors I find in
Aquinas. Both claim that natural theology is true as far as it goes, but
needs to be supplemented by special revelation because of the limits of
human reason. Paul wrote, on the contrary, that God has revealed Himself
clearly in creation, but that sinners suppress and distort the truth
(Romans 1:18-32). Aristotle's theology, by Paul's diagnosis, was the
product of suppression and distortion; though such a theology may
occasionally stumble on the truth, fundamentally it is not merely
limited but false. The unmoved mover is simply not the God Christians
worship. It is not true, moreover, that Aristotle was "unaided by divine
revelation." It would be more correct to say that he was unaided by
special revelation, though most of the Church Fathers expressed doubts
even about that.
I found "The Zionist Imperative" by Emil L. Fackenheim (February)
compelling and incisive both as regards its historical awareness and
breadth and as regards its well-reasoned and decisive conclusions. It is
not mere coincidence that a number of profound dialectics that are only
seemingly unresolvable are presented in this article: the particular and
the universal, the secular and the spiritual, action and reflection, the
mundane and the miraculous, horror that enervates faith and profound
insight that reillumines faith despite the multiplicity of reasons to
It is the putatively unresolvable nature of these dialectics that so
confounds and disturbs the Arab/Israeli peace process specifically and
the modern and postmodern world in general. Yet Fackenheim weaves, like
a golden thread, through all the expedient and casuistic rationales and
in doing so emphasizes the extreme consequences and dangers in failing
to do so. . . .
Renewing Your License
Christopher Wolfe in "The Marriage of Your Choice" (February) advocates
legislation to make it possible for a couple to choose to enter freely
into an indissoluble marriage. I would like to propose an idea of my
I would make the marriage license valid for only a stated period of
time, like a driver's license. At the end of the period, say four years,
it would expire unless renewed by both parties. For the stated period
the marriage would be indissoluble, with only separation legally
possible. This arrangement, like present laws, would have no effect on
one's religious belief that marriage is for life and divorce impossible.
This arrangement would have several effects. It would force couples to
deliberately renew their covenant if they wished their marriage to
continue. If they did not, it would die quietly without all the mess and
expense of a legal divorce. They could make their own arrangements about
children and property.
Over time, couples who renewed their marriage license might want to make
the time longer, say ten years or the rest of their life. Perhaps some
state might try this as an experiment. The results could not be worse
than they are now.
Charles J. Robbins
St. Joseph's College
Murdoch the Moralist?
Alan Jacobs, in "Iris Murdoch's Go(o)d" (February) notes with palpable
discomfort the recent efforts of a conference of scholars "to
investigate and celebrate the theological importance of the writings,
especially the novels, of Iris Murdoch" (emphasis added).
Few contemporary novelists or philosophers (and Murdoch is both) embrace
an orthodox faith, and she is evidently no exception. From this must we
conclude, ipso facto, that no spiritual insight can be gleaned from
People of faith who confine their search for spiritual significance in
fiction to the writings of professing believers will find themselves
working off a rather short reading list. Fortunately, we need not be so
confined. Chalk this up, perhaps, to the Holy Spirit-to the tendency of
truth to bubble to the top of an inspired and accomplished literary
As luck would have it, I was reading Murdoch's The Time of the
Angels (1966) when Jacobs' article came to my attention. The Spirit
(I would submit) permeates the pages of Angels. Consider
Murdoch's Leo and Muriel: two young freethinkers discussing
life. Leo is rebellious and hedonistic; Muriel is
"experienced," but thoughtfully so:
"Yes, I'm an aesthetic type. I have no morals.
You don't believe in God and all that crap, do you?"
"No," said Muriel. "Though that's not the same
as having no morals."
"It is, you know. I'm one of the problems of the
age. . . ."
While noting that Murdoch's "reputation rests chiefly on her twenty-five
[!] novels," Jacobs is preoccupied with her philosophical writings.
Prof. Jacobs, an English teacher, should have stuck to the novels. It is
these that will be read in the next century-these that should be read
George G. Peery III
It would be amazing indeed if a philosopher of some ability were to
assure us of the objectivity and independence of goodness for five
hundred pages, and then on page 506 "give the game away" and turn out to
be merely a subjectivist about the good after all. Especially when the
philosopher writes on page 508 that our "experience of the reality of
good is not like an arbitrary and assertive resort to our own will; it
is a discovery of something independent of us, where that independence
Yet that is just what Alan Jacobs assures us is the case in Iris
Murdoch's book, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. The offending
passage, moreover, immediately follows Murdoch's assertions that "art
and high thought and difficult moral discernment appear as creation
ex nihilo, as grace. The Meno concludes that virtue
does not come by nature, nor is it teachable, but comes by divine
dispensation." Something must be wrong.
And indeed, it is not hard to find an interpretation of the passage
Jacobs cites that squares with the general theme (and title) of the
book. Murdoch is here talking about the experience of the artist or
thinker who "concentrates on the problem, grasps it as a problem with
some degree of clarity, and waits." Then something comes "out of the
dark of non-being, as a reward for loving attention" (p. 505). What
comes? The poem, the solution to the equation, the resolution of the
difficulty. Without such "loving care," nothing good, nothing beautiful
can be achieved. That is the sense in which "the good artist, the true
lover, the dedicated thinker, the unselfish moral agent . . . can create
the object of love."
It is not, as Jacobs would have it, that the Good "exists
[only] insofar as it is worshipped." Murdoch's claim at this point is
that existing good things (particular truths, works of art,
moral acts) depend as much on the "spiritual energy" of the agent as on
that mysterious-and independent-source of all good things.
Murdoch's book is difficult, as the writings of mystics usually are. But
no one should be deterred from its rewards by mistaking it as a mask for
pragmatism or subjectivism. It is worlds away from both.
I greatly enjoyed Alan Jacobs' "Iris Murdoch's Go(o)d." He's
right: compared with most other "serious" novelists on either side of
the Atlantic, Murdoch is a commanding talent. However, given the current
state of "literary" fiction, that's not saying all that much. It's easy
to be less sloppy than John Updike and still be quite undisciplined.
It's easy to be less depressed than Joan Didion and still be far from
hopeful. If, by comparison with most of her contemporaries, to say
nothing of the new generation of novelists now coming into print,
Murdoch provides a "fresh and exciting alternative," that fact says more
about standards in fiction overall than about any standards Murdoch may
have set for herself. . . .
Alan Jacobs replies:
When George C. Peery claims that spiritual insight can be gained from
the writings of unbelievers, or people of unorthodox beliefs, does he
expect me to disagree? But when he suggests that one must choose between
Murdoch's philosophy and her fiction, there I must demur. I don't see
why we can't read both.
Norman Melchert is right to point out passages from Murdoch's book that
could lend themselves to a different interpretation than mine, and I
thank him for his thoughtful response. But I am not convinced by his
reading. If Murdoch is merely saying that our "spiritual energy" is
necessary for good things to happen in the world, and believes that
there is some ultimate "source" for those good things, then why does she
return repeatedly to the theme of creating the good? Is she
just sloppy in her use of words? For surely it is not difficult to
distinguish an energetic and imaginative response to goodness
from the creation of it. Moreover, if Murdoch believes in a
"mysterious source" of goodness, why does she say, in a passage
Professor Melchert quotes, that the reward for goodness comes "out of
the dark of non-being?" Can non-being be a source of anything?
What I understand Murdoch to be saying in the passages Professor
Melchert refers to is that goodness has no source, does not exist prior
to our creation of it, but becomes independent of us after we
create it. It goes out into the world and, if accepted by
others, has meaningful effects. That is why I identify Murdoch with
those modern artists who seek a "supreme fiction," that is, a
metanarrative which we know to be our own creation but which we choose
to live by and subject ourselves to.
What Price Ecumenism?
I look forward eagerly to the "roundup and commentary" on developments
concerning the declaration "Evangelicals and Catholics Together"
(foretold in "While We're At It," January). The declaration has
generated, if nothing else, an enormous volume of extremely interesting
conversation, printed and otherwise, all of which has given reflective
Christians much to chew on.
In the meantime, I am compelled to comment on Richard John Neuhaus'
review of Pope John Paul II's new best-seller, Crossing the
Threshold of Hope (The Public Square, January). It can hardly come
as a surprise that many Catholics and evangelicals are uneasy about the
declaration, calling as it does for ecumenical convergence, both
theologically and programmatically, when they read here of the Pope's
theological perspectives, intended, we must assume, as the official
teachings of the Catholic Church. I confess that I have not read the
book, and yet I trust that Neuhaus is giving us a balanced and generally
dependable, if incomplete, account of its contents.
I refer in particular to several passages in which Neuhaus recounts the
Pope's views on ecumenism and on soteriology. First, ecumenism. Many
evangelicals note that the original declaration says very little about
the Reformation, and in fact leaves much unsaid about the three great
"sola" cries of the Reformers. For many protestants, sola gratia,
sola fide, and sola scriptura capture the central biblical
truths that are the heart of the faith, and without which there is no
truly Christian-and certainly no truly evangelical-faith. On this view,
the solas constitute a great theological divide between Protestants and
Catholics that no amount of progressive convergence can or should
Consider, then, this passage from Neuhaus, including his quotation
from Crossing: "The healing of the breach between Rome and the
Reformation requires an appreciation of a 'certain dialectic' in how the
Holy Spirit leads us into all truth. 'It is necessary for humanity to
achieve unity through plurality, to learn to come together in the one
Church, even while presenting a plurality of ways of thinking and
acting, of cultures and civilization.' Divisions, then, may have served
a purpose, but that does not justify continuing divisions that do not
serve the truth."
With these few words, the distinctive faith of the Reformers, resting on
the biblical pillars of sola gratia, sola fide, and sola
scriptura, is thrown onto the pile of divisions that do not serve
the truth-unless, of course, Neuhaus and the Pope intend to repair the
cleavage by affirming the solas themselves. The concern of many
Protestant evangelicals-that the price of the proposed ecumenism is the
renunciation of the great biblical truths of the Reformation-appears, in
spite of the placations of J. J. Packer and others, to be well-grounded.
I can only imagine that many Catholics, well aware of the Council of
Trent, will be similarly suspicious of the cost Catholic teaching will
likewise pay for the proposed theological convergence.
How to complain without whining-more easily said than done, but I must
say that the treatment I have received at the hands of the First Things
editorial staff has been anything but "ecumenical." First, in a "briefly
noted" book review of Beyond Culture Wars (October 1994) the
reviewer spent more time lamenting my "strident Reformed view of
Protestant orthodoxy" in connection with Christians United for
Reformation (CURE) than in dealing with the content of the book. Richard
John Neuhaus added another log in February (The Public Square-While
We're At It section): "Being unecumenical can be fun. Who doesn't miss
something in the bare-knuckled religious polemics of yesteryear?" Next,
Catholic Answers is said to have "struck up a polemical
friendship" with me. "Mr. Horton is hard-core Calvinist and what he and
Catholic Answers have in common, aside from the pleasure of
polemics, is a strong dislike for the declaration 'Evangelicals and
Catholics Together.'" "If that declaration is right," he concludes, "it
might take a lot of fun out of bashing each other."
I mean, really. Who is getting "a lot of fun out of bashing each other"
What CURE and Catholic Answers have in common is not "the
pleasure of polemics," but a passion for what we believe to be life-and-
death issues of truth. Since Catholic Answers is defending
Roman Catholic teaching (including Vatican II) and CURE is affirming
classical Protestant teaching, neither group is engaging in outrageous
behavior: we simply stand with our confessions. And since Fr. Neuhaus
has the experience of having been both a confessional Protestant and now
a Roman Catholic, his ecumenical agenda should surely have room for us.
But, alas, it does not. Where we have only criticized "Evangelicals and
Catholics Together" on its own merit-without the slightest condescending
ridicule for its authors-Fr. Neuhaus has offered merely the latter to
As for my own views, let me set the record straight: I am a confessional
Protestant who believes that the Gospel that was proclaimed by Luther,
Calvin, and their ilk is identical to that announced in Scripture. In
spite of fruitful dialogue, the Roman Catholic position (evidenced in
the new Catechism) reaffirms Trent, and the "evangel" of
"evangelicalism"-justification sola fide-has yet to be embraced
by any official magisterial declaration. I do not, however, believe that
this has to be the end of the story. With brothers and sisters in the
Roman Catholic Church I too long for reconciliation, as we both come to
understand the greatest news ever heard, but some of us (Catholics and
Protestants) still believe that a shallow understanding of the doctrinal
issues can only lead to a shallow unity in the long run. I do not expect
Fr. Neuhaus to agree, but in fairness I could have hoped that, in
Christian charity, he would at least have tried to understand.
Richard John Neuhaus replies:
I have elsewhere in these pages noted that Catholic Answers
wants it understood that it views "Evangelicals and Catholics Together"
favorably. I not only agree but strongly agree with Mr. Horton that "a
shallow understanding of the doctrinal issues can only lead to a shallow
unity in the long run." In the short run, too. "Evangelicals and
Catholics Together" says that-emphatically and repeatedly. As for the
book, briefly noteds must be brief, and authors understandably think
their book deserves more attention. Finally, I do, both in charity and
in respect for truth, try to understand. Nothing in Mr. Horton's letter
leads me to think that in this case I have not succeeded.