The Public Square
In 2007, as the Anglican communion was tearing itself apart, the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, announced that he was taking a sabbatical, causing eyebrows—and in some quarters alarums—to be raised. Was he throwing in the towel? Or was he retiring to gather his strength for the Lambeth conference of 2008? Whatever else he was doing during that sabbatical, much of it spent with the Jesuits at Georgetown University, Rowan Williams was writing a book that is now published as Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction.
If the world gets better than it deserves, there will be no end of books on Dostoevsky. Another big one has just appeared from St. Augustine's Press, Dostoevsky and the Affirmation of Life by Predrag Cicovacki of Holy Cross College. It is a thoughtful, if somewhat rambling, treatment of the major works, laced with numerous excurses on related literary themes. But it is to Rowan Williams' book that I will be attending here.
Williams obviously knows his Dostoevsky, has an impressive command of Dostoevsky scholarship, and does not hesitate to correct translations when he thinks it called for. Greatly influenced, as all Dostoevsky scholars are, by Michael Bakhtin's work, published in English in 1984 as Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Williams urges us to move beyond the countless books claiming that Dostoevsky's novels are about wrestling with the problem of belief or unbelief in the existence of God. Dostoevsky settled that question a long time ago. Writing toward the very end of his life in 1881, he declared, “It is not as a child that I believe in Christ and confess him. My hosanna has passed through a great crucible of doubt.”
The great question addressed in multiple ways by Dostoevsky is this: What does it mean to believe in Christ as the Son of God in a world that so brutally denies his claims? Or, as Williams puts it, proposing this as the theme of his book, “What is it that human beings owe to one another?” His subtitle— Language, Faith, and Fiction—is key to Williams' understanding of Dostoevsky's answer to the question.
While he of course never mentions the problems afflicting the Anglican communion, one can hardly go wrong in inferring that he believes Dostoevsky's answer is pertinent to what Anglicans owe one another. Here is a representative passage: “The enterprise of growth and so the life of narrative thus always involves a venturing into that uncontrolled territory where dialogue and interaction bring to light, not to say bring into being, hidden dimensions in a speaker. To engage in this venture is to accept at the outset that no speaker has the last word, and that the position taken up in an initial exchange is going to be tested and sifted and renegotiated in the process. It is to accept that at the outset no one possesses the simple truth about their identity or interest, and to treat with the deepest skepticism any appeal to the sacredness of an inner life that is transparent to the speaker.”
This is vintage Rowan Williams—an endlessly patient insistence on respect for the “the other” and “otherness,” a dialogical enmity toward every form of closure, an obligation to keep the narrative open. It is in many ways an attractive disposition, although at times its expression, frequently littered with literary jargon, can be cloying. For instance: “In sum: Responsibility is the free acceptance of the call to give voice to the other, while leaving them time and space to be other; it is the love of the other in his or her wholeness, that is, including the fact of their relatedness to more than myself; it is the acceptance of the labor of decentering the self and dissolving its fantasies of purely individual autonomy, and it is to be open to a potentially unlimited range of relation, to human and nonhuman others.” That is certainly Rowan Williams. Whether it is Dostoevsky is quite another matter. My own impression is that Dostoevsky would gag at that way of putting the matter.
And yet, Williams also offers flashes of insight such as this: “The cultural situation evoked in Devils illuminates that teasingly familiar formula in Karamazov about everything being permitted if God does not exist. What happens ‘if God does not exist' is not that a particular item is withdrawn from the sum total of actual things, so that no punishment for evil can be guaranteed. It is that we are no longer able to see violence against others as somehow blasphemous, an offense against an eternal order; no longer able to see our dealings with each other as opening on to a depth of interiority that we cannot fathom or exhaust. In a world deprived of such possibilities, it is reasonable enough to respond to a suicide by saying ‘it was the best solution'; there is nothing definably insane about taking one's own life.” The great question posed by Dostoevsky in asking about what human beings owe to one another is how we can be counted on to respect that to which we are not obliged by a truth beyond our own contriving. That is the context in which the proposition is entertained that, if there is no God, all things are permitted.
Rowan Williams persuasively makes the case that Dostoevsky's novels are a “polyphonic” exercise in which the many voices of his characters, including the voices of his conflicted self, address with inspired passion, cool rationality, demonic possession, and radical faith the question of what we human beings owe one another. In making that case, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction is—despite the author's excurses in strumming the jargon of fashionable literary theory—a magnificent contribution to understanding the questions that haunted and drove the world's greatest novelist. Critics may be right in thinking that the archbishop's sabbatical was ill-timed, that he should have been devoting his energies to heading off the clashes in the Anglican communion. But, at a level more searching and profound than is usually possible in the moderating and negotiating of ecclesiastical conflicts, Dostoevsky illuminates what we human beings owe one another. That may not cash out in a formula of reconciliation for the Anglican communion, but it does provide needed wisdom in tempering the rancor of the bellicosity to which we human beings, including we Christians, are prone.
While We're At It
• How you pose the question has everything to do with the answer you're likely to get. For instance: Should institutions that receive government funds be permitted to discriminate in hiring? Or: Do religious organizations have a constitutional right to hire people who will advance their mission? Joseph Knippenberg greatly admires John DiIulio, the former director of the Bush administration's faith-based initiative and author of Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America's Faith-Based Future. But he thinks DiIulio falls into the trap set by opponents of the initiative by asking the wrong question. DiIulio tries to draw a bright line between faith-based and “faith-saturated” programs, and that, says Knippenberg, is a line that government cannot, and should not try to, draw. “The right of religious organizations to take religion into account in their hiring—even for nonministerial positions—was acknowledged by the 1964 Civil Rights Act (as amended in 1972), unanimously upheld by the Supreme Court in Corporation of the Presiding Bishop v. Amos (1987), and codified with respect to government contractors for certain programs in a series of bills signed into law by President Bill Clinton.” In Presiding Bishop, “the Supreme Court upheld the right of a Mormon-affiliated gymnasium to require all its employees, even a building custodian, to be in good standing with the church.” There is, writes Knippenberg, no evidence to support the frequently heard claim that faith-based organizations that take their faith seriously are willing to serve only coreligionists. “Indeed, I suspect that the groups most interested in hiring only those of the same faith would also be most interested in reaching out to nonbelievers. For them, the occasion of service is also an occasion to witness—subject of course to restrictions about proselytizing with government money.” To which I would add that proselytizing is a very slippery term and, as a general rule, beyond the competence of the state to regulate. The legitimate interest of government is in seeing that the social services for which it contracts are effectively provided, and, if the providers want to tell people why they're engaged in good works, that's their business. It should make no difference whether the providers are faith-based, faith-saturated, or atheists. The last is an academic point, of course, since, for some reason, there are few atheist charities.
• “The French may think that master narratives have had their day but in my view that only tells us they have lost the plot.” That is an incisive aside in an essay by the distinguished British sociologist David Martin in the Scottish Journal of Theology. A master narrative of the Enlightenment is that religion recedes as science advances. It would be more plausible were it supported by the evidence, writes Martin. “In terms of cross-cultural comparison, countries at roughly the same level with regard to scientific advance have religious profiles pretty well across the complete range.” It is also the well-established case that natural scientists and people working at the edge of technological advances tend to be more religious than those in the humanities and social sciences. One problem is that, among academics in what Peter Berger calls the global faculty club, assumptions about secularization are driven by the intellectual history of ideas, with slight attention being paid to what persists in being the real world. Martin tells the story of a highly respected colleague who objected to his claim that America is religious. That cannot be, his colleague said, “given its intellectual representatives were people like Richard Rorty and John Rawls.” Yet the master narrative remains that there is an avant-garde and it is on the side of secularization. “Louis Menand's account, in The Metaphysical Club, of the secularization inaugurated in the United States by the move to philosophical pragmatism is,” writes Martin, “only an irrelevant fifth wheel as concerns the religious history of Americans as a people. Theirs is a religious practicality not a philosophical pragmatism.” Religion's connection to intolerance, violence, and other evils is a key part of the master narrative. “It happens that there is no continuing Enlightenment institution in secular contexts comparable to the Church in religious contexts to take the moral flack hurled at the corruptions of power....Christianity can be blamed for what happened when adopted as the faith of the Roman Empire, whereas Darwinism can innocently wash its hands of what happened when converted by capitalist society into Social Darwinism or deployed by Nietzsche. Yet the metaphors of Darwinism are decidedly more susceptible to malign conversion than the metaphors of Christianity.” Martin concludes with this: “If I were an atheist anxious to disturb the faith of intelligent young friends, I would recommend a course in biblical criticism, or in psychobabble and sociobabble, or, best of all, a vigorous drench in romantic literary Weltschmerz. But not, definitely not, a bracing course in astrophysics. They might too easily suppose they were tracing ‘the Mind of the Maker.'”
• Will there ever be peace between Israel and the Arabs? It is a question that, like many other questions of great moment, partakes of eschatological speculation. Geoffrey Wheatcroft, a distinguished historian of Zionism, reviews a host of new books on the subject. He writes, “It is the single most bitterly contentious communal struggle on earth today (something which itself casts an ironical light on the aspiration of the first Zionists to ‘answer the Jewish question' by ‘normalizing' the Jews and removing them from the pages of history); it must receive more media coverage than India, which has a population a hundred times greater....And yet it sometimes seems that the more strongly people feel, the less they actually know about the story of Zionism. Maybe it should be a requirement for anyone who wishes to hold forth on the subject to write first a few lines each on Ahad Ha'am, Max Nordau, George Antonius—or Vladimir Jabotinsky.” I'm not sure I could do that, so I will not hold forth on how to achieve peace in the Middle East. Although I have had a longstanding interest in Jabotinsky, a great writer and a most contentious agitator in the conflicting ideologies of Zionism, who died in exile in America in 1940. “Jabo” fought with everybody, including such founding fathers of Israel as Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion. One thing on which they all agreed is that the Jewish state had nothing to do with the Jewish religion. “Zionism,” writes Wheatcroft, “was a very pure case of invented tradition, which had no roots at all in existing Jewish life, least of all religious tradition, of which it was a radical rejection.” There are many orthodox Jews, also in Israel, who agree with that and therefore are adamantly opposed to Zionism. Among the books Wheatcroft reviews is Jimmy Carter's Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Wheatcroft thinks the negative reaction to the book is somewhat unfair. “The book is all of Carter: pious, plodding, and platitudinous, its awestruck accounts of meetings with the mighty padded out with what-I-did-in-my-holidays jottings (‘all of us experienced the extraordinary buoyancy as we swam in the Dead Sea...'). He is nonetheless well-meaning in his artless way, and no less interesting than the book itself has been its violent reception in America.” In fact, says Wheatcroft, in the 1970s Israeli leaders did seriously consider adopting a policy of “grand apartheid” similar to that of South Africa in an attempt to solve the problem of their minority rule by dividing the country into autonomous cantons or “homelands.” While Carter's use of the term apartheid was condemned as inflammatory, there are still Israelis of influence who think it a promising idea. It is only in understanding the vision of Jabotinsky and other Zionist ideologists of a Greater Israel in which Jews and Palestinians would live together in one state effectively ruled by Jews, Wheatcroft writes, that one can appreciate today's acceptance of (resignation to?) a two-state solution, which is the current policy of both Israel and America. A policy that, despite regular announcements of a new “peace process,” is very far from realization. Not so incidentally, I just read Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's impressive essay in Foreign Affairs on “American Realism for a New World.” It is a comprehensive survey of American foreign policy, covering every region of the world, and it argues for a delicate interaction between national interest and American values. Eleven of the twenty-six pages are devoted to the Middle East.
• Academic fashions, especially in the humanities and most especially in literary criticism, tend to have a short shelf life. Although they seem very long to those who have to live through them. There was the structuralist, poststructuralist, psychoanalytical (Freudian, Lacanian), historical materialist, Marxist, and no doubt several I've forgotten. Raymond Tallis reflects in the Times Literary Supplement on the latest entry, based on neuroscience and neurophysiology. He calls it neuro-lit-crit. He quotes Ernest Gellner, who said, “When a priest loses his faith, he is unfrocked; when critics lose theirs, they redefine their subject.” I wish Gellner was right about that. There are too many instances of priests losing their faith and then redefining their subject, usually along psychotherapeutic or political lines. But I digress. “The literary critic as neuroscience groupie is part of a growing trend,” writes Tallis. He takes up the case of A.S. Byatt, who purports to explain John Donne's poetry according to neuro-lit-crit. As in earlier lit-crit fads, understanding is replaced by “overstanding.” “The capacious frame of reference in which the work is located—evident to the critic but not to the author—places the former in a position of knowing superiority vis-à-vis the latter. The work becomes a mere example of some historical, cultural, political, or other trend of which the author will have been dimly aware, if at all. The differences between one author and another are also minimized. Like hypochondriacs, theory-led critics find what they seek: So Jane Austen and the Venerable Bede are alike in representing the hegemony of the colonizer over the colonized, the powerful over the powerless, or the voiced over the voiceless; or in their failure to acknowledge the fictionality of the bourgeois fiction of the self.” In the case of neuro-lit-crit, the overstanding is in knowing that the work of art, or the sensation of love, or whatever, is the product of tweakings and synapses of parts of the brain. “The appeal to brain science as an explain-all,” writes Tallis, “has at its heart a myth that results from confusing necessary with sufficient conditions.” The brain is a necessary but not sufficient condition of thinking, or consciousness. Tallis writes: “For the extraordinary thing about human beings—and what captures what is human—is that they transcend their bodies; that human experience is not solitary sentience but has a public face; it belongs to a community of minds. This is a process that has developed over many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years since hominids parted company from the monkeys. The neuromythologist, trying to find citizens and their worlds in neurons, stuffs all that has been created by the collective of brains back into a stand-alone brain; indeed into a small part of such a brain. True, we require a brain to participate in the community of minds; but that participation is not to be reduced to activity in bits of brains.” Neuro-lit-crit. Its prospective shelf life may not make it worth your time in giving it too much thought, but there is a certain satisfaction in knowing about yet another peril from which your sanity is saved.
• Faithful readers know about the problems with the New American Bible (NAB), the eccentric and flat-footed translation that, in its perpetual revisions, is imposed upon the Catholic people for readings at Mass. From the same school of linguistic banality, which after the Second Vatican Council confused updating ( aggiornamento) with downgrading, came the “translations” of the Latin prayers for the Mass in English. A good many of those prayers at the opening, at the offertory, and after the communion can be summed up in the self-congratulatory petition “Lord, please make us even nicer people than we already are.” Many of them have slight relationship to the much richer Latin texts. Some years ago, Rome ordered a thorough overhaul of the English distortions. The work has been proceeding nicely, and we were promised relief in the next couple of years. But now, at the June meeting of the American bishops, the defenders of the status quo, led by Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania, made a surprising show of force against the proposed rectification. They found unexpected support from a few bishops who raised legitimate questions about the integrity of the Latin translations being proposed. On the larger question of the inadequacies of the prayers by which we are presently burdened, Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, New Jersey, who is also chairman of the Committee on Doctrine, had this to say in his diocesan newspaper: “The new translations also have a great respect for the style of the Roman Rite. Certainly, some sentences could be more easily translated to mimic our common speech. But they are not. And with reason....Why should we strip the English translation of the distinctive theological emphases of the Latin text? A slightly noncolloquial word order can lead the listener to a greater attention to the point of the prayer. Our present liturgical texts are framed in simple syntax. The new translations use more subordinate clauses. This, in and of itself, does not render them unproclaimable. By the very fact that, in some instances, the new translations require thoughtful and careful attention to pauses when speaking helps to foster and create a less rushed and more reverent way of praying. Not a small gain for a proper ars celebrandi (the art of celebration). The new translation at times may use uncommon words like ‘ineffable.' The word is not unspeakable! For sure, this word does not come from the street language of the contemporary individual. But, then, why cannot the liturgy use words that elevate the language from the street to the altar? People may not use certain words in their active vocabulary. This does not mean they will be baffled by their use in the liturgy. ‘If indeed, in the liturgical texts, words or expressions are sometimes employed which differ somewhat from usual and everyday speech, it is often enough by virtue of this very fact that the texts become truly memorable and capable of expressing heavenly realities' (quoting Liturgiam Authenticam, a Roman instruction). Liturgical language should border on the poetic. Prose bumps along the ground. Poetry soars to the heavens. And our Liturgy is already a sharing of the Liturgy in heaven.” One prays that Bishop Serratelli and others of like wisdom will prevail so that the People of God will be subjected to fewer aesthetic and theological bruises from bumping along the ground. Now if only the bishops would permit relief from the rude bumpings of the New American Bible.
• This year is the tenth anniversary of the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). In every daily Mass I include a petition for “our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ”—usually with particular reference to the Middle East, North Korea, China, or some other place of notorious oppression. It is of inestimable importance that people who think they are doing God a favor by going to church be reminded that innumerable others are killed, imprisoned, and otherwise maltreated for their devotion. The movement that produced IRFA was mainly led by evangelicals, although with important backing by Catholics and others. Ten years later, Allen D. Hertzke of the University of Oklahoma, who has written extensively on religious persecution, says there are worrying signs that interest in the cause is waning. Writing in Faith & International Affairs, he echoes the complaint of Thomas Farr in these pages (“The Diplomacy of Religious Freedom,” May 2006) that the office in the State Department set up to implement the Act has frequently been sidelined by the diplomatic bureaucracy. He criticizes in particular the practice of “double hatting,” meaning that violations of religious freedom “result in no sanctions beyond those imposed for other reprehensible behavior.” And, of course, countries of strategic importance to America get off with a light slap on the wrist. Yet IRFA has put religious freedom on this country's foreign-policy agenda, at least formally; the law is in place, ready to be employed more vigorously when there is a will to do so. As Hertzke writes: “Ultimately, what is needed is a renewed commitment among religious communities to extend the freedom they enjoy in the United States to others around the globe.” That might happen if every time we gather to worship we remember in prayer those who pay a high price for doing so.
• What do you do with all those back issues of First Things? Of course, I can understand if you have them neatly lined up in a glass-enclosed, thermostatically controlled, elegant oak bookcase with the intention of passing them on to the next generation as the priceless treasures that they are. But, if you have run out of space for preserving them in style, you might be interested in the Theological Book Network, Inc. TBN is a fine operation that sends books and periodicals of substance to seminaries, Catholic and non-Catholic, in the very poor countries of the world. This is a service greatly needed, and they pick up, package, and ship. You can contact TBN at (616) 532-3890, at 2900 Wilson Avenue, Grandville, Michigan 49418, or at www.theologicalbooknetwork.org.
• For thirty-five years, Gallup has been asking about confidence in the country's major institutions. The current polling results have the military coming out on top, with 71 percent saying they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in it. That's followed by “small business” (60 percent), the police (58 percent), and “the Church or organized religion” at 48 percent. It's sharply downhill from there: the medical system, public schools, the Supreme Court, television news, newspapers, the criminal-justice system, labor unions, “big business,” and, at the very bottom, Congress, with 12 percent. I don't know how big a business must be in order to be called “big business,” but I expect that almost nobody outside the corporate boardrooms is disposed to say they like big business. And, after the market storms of recent months, maybe even they don't think so highly of it. “The Church or organized religion” is also an interesting category. Comedian Lenny Bruce said, “The Catholic Church is the church we mean when we say ‘church.'” That's no doubt true for many Americans. As for “organized religion,” we are all familiar with the response, “I don't belong to an organized religion. I'm a Baptist” (or a Methodist, or a Lutheran, or a whatever). “Organized religion” elicits a negative response from Americans who like to think of themselves as engaged in the spiritual journeys of their uncompromisingly unique and authentic selves. In any event, and however the institutional clusters are labeled, some might argue that we're not in such bad shape if there is high confidence in the military, entrepreneurship, the police, and religion. As for Congress, the Founders designed it to be unpopular, although Gallup says the rating for this Congress is “the worst Gallup has measured for any institution in the thirty-five-year history of this question.” As of this writing, the political bookies are giving odds that the Democratic majority will be rewarded for its singular achievement.
• I didn't see it, so ABC's The Secret Life of the American Teenager may be as hackneyed as Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times says it is. But her review does not instill confidence. Amy, a fifteen-year-old, is pregnant. “Her friends tell her she has options, but abortion is apparently not one of them; that choice is dismissed right away in horrified tones.” Which obviously horrifies Ms. Stanley. She writes that ABC “chose a more traditional drama format and then promptly forgot who its audience is.” She continues: “For a generation of young viewers raised on The Simpsons, South Park, and Degrassi Junior High (not to mention reruns of Sex and the City) this kind of earnest...agitprop is almost comical, a parody of an after-school special.” To understand Ms. Stanley's horrified tones one must understand her ignorance of, or disdain for, millions of young people who do not think that the clever profanity of South Park or the desperate man-obsessed women of Sex and the City are models for a life well lived.
• This Gerald McDermott is a very productive fellow. I recently recommended his Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate, written with Robert Millett. And now there is this little (144 pages) and very welcome paperback, The Baker Pocket Guide to World Religions. McDermott is a believing Christian and he wrote this for believing Christians in search of an understanding of the basics about Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Shinto, Islam, and, not incidentally, Christianity. The book is informed, balanced in its judgments, and very accessible in style. McDermott is an evangelical Anglican who teaches at Roanoke College in Virginia. In addition to the basics of each religious tradition, the pocket guide provides a useful glossary and suggestions for further reading. I haven't seen anything quite like it, and I expect it will be welcomed by many.
• The second part of the big study conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has been released. We have given a good deal of attention to the study, and the new material adds a few interesting wrinkles. Contra the wishful thinking of Jim Wallis Democrats and the hysteria of those sounding the tocsin about an impending theocracy, not much has changed. The study again confirms that the more religiously committed give priority to concerns about abortion, homosexuality, and threats to the family. All the news reports I've seen emphasize, with an evident sense of relief, that the more than 90 percent of Americans who are religious in one way or another are “nondogmatic,” “flexible,” or “nonexclusive” in their beliefs. Only with the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses do a majority say that their religion is the only way of salvation. Somewhat surprising is that only 51 percent of all Americans say they have a personal relationship with God, while others seem to think of God as a universal spirit or cosmic force, although even they, along with people who say they are atheists, tend to believe in angels, demons, and answered prayers. Go figure. And so, for the umpteenth time, it is revealed that religion in America, meaning mainly Christianity, is pervasive and maddeningly confused. Faced with such research findings, some people are relieved, while theologians and preachers pull out their hair in frustration. “Haven't these people been listening to what we've been teaching all these years?!” Many, if not most, evangelical churches do teach that only those who accept Jesus as Lord and Savior can be saved. The Catholic teaching is that God denies to no one the grace necessary for salvation and that even those who have never heard of Christ are, if they are saved, saved because of the redemption effected by Christ. But the troubling truth is that most Christians are “nondogmatic” because they are ignorant of, or unpersuaded by, the dogma—meaning the most fundamental teachings—of their churches. The statement that one religion is as good as another reflects not religious generosity but religious indifference. And, in fact, the Pew findings do not indicate that most Christians say that. The survey does indicate that the great majority of Christians say that their religious community does not have a monopoly on the truth, which is true enough. For more traditional Christians—whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant—one might say that it is a matter of dogma. Of course, the recognition that there is truth we do not know is no reason for not bearing clear witness to the truth we do know.
• It had a very short shelf life in the news but is the subject of lively discussion in various scholarly journals. A slab of stone was turned up in Israel, presumably from the first century before Christ, with what appears to be a prophecy, written in Hebrew, of a messianic figure who will die and rise after three days. (There is considerable dispute about the translation.) Understandably, some Christians have leaped to the conclusion that this refers to Jesus. In fact, there were quite a few of these apocalyptic pronouncements at the time, although this one has the distinction of having been delivered, or so it is claimed, by the archangel Gabriel. Yet there are still some biblical scholars who insist that the gospel writers cooked up the resurrection stories, since the idea of resurrection was alien to the Judaism of the time. Jon Levenson of Harvard has very convincingly countered that with his Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, although, to be sure, he addresses the corporate resurrection of the people rather than the resurrection of a messiah figure. One of the best discussions of these matters is still Wolfhart Pannenberg's 1968 book, Jesus— God and Man. “Resurrection,” says Pannenberg, was the culturally available metaphor employed by the gospel writers to convey their experience of encounters with Jesus after his death. To say it is a metaphor is not to say it did not actually happen but is only to indicate the utter uniqueness of an experience that transcends explanation. What happened with Jesus is not comparable to resuscitations of the dead such as the young man from Nain (Luke 7:11-7), the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5: 35-43), or Lazarus (John 11), all of whom returned from the dead only to die again. The resurrection of Jesus and the Christian hope of resurrection, by way of sharpest contrast, involves a life radically different from life as we know it. St. Paul makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 15 that the resurrection body is a “spiritual body,” for “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” This is something entirely new and transformative, “for this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality.” As with so many archaeological discoveries of this kind, there are those who are eager to claim that it poses a great challenge to traditional Christian understanding. A couple of years ago it was the flurry over a burial vessel that presumably contained the remains of Jesus. Nobody should be surprised at whatever is the next thing in the long succession of presumably explosive findings. These things feed the imaginations of fantasists such as Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, and his lesser imitators. They also keep the pots of credulity, falsely labeled as skepticism, boiling for the purposes of scholars such as Elaine Pagels, who make no secret of their preference for the sundry variants of Christianity current in the early centuries over the reality of what became, in fact, Christianity. Neophiliacs, those addicted to whatever presents itself as new or iconoclastic, have an insatiable appetite and will always be with us. It is one way of avoiding decision about the truth of what Jude called “the faith once delivered to the saints.”
• “To blame religion for the wars conducted in its name is like blaming love for the Trojan War,” writes Roger Scruton of Oxford University and the Institute for Psychological Studies in Washington. The book is Religion and the American Future, essays from a conference at the American Enterprise Institute. (The reference at the end of the following reflection by Scruton is to Jürgen Habermas, who Scruton thinks is greatly overrated.) “Nevertheless, there is a tendency, fed by the sensationalism of television, to judge all human institutions by their behavior in times of conflict. Religion, like patriotism, gets bad press among those for whom war is the one human reality, the one occasion when the Other in all of us is noticeable. But the real test of a human institution is in peacetime. Peace is boring, quotidian, and also rotten television. But you can learn about it from books. Those nurtured in the Christian faith know that Christianity's ability to maintain peace in the world around us reflects its gift of peace to the world within. It is that peace which secularism destroys: It leaves us without the principal resources of the lonely heart, which are prayer, confession, atonement, and the love of God—all of them paths back to membership in this world, and a preparation for blessedness in the next. Muslims say similar things, and so do Jews. So who possesses the truth, and how would you know? We don't know, nor do we need to know. All faith depends on revelation, and the proof of the revelation is in the peace that it brings. Rational argument can get us just so far, in raising the monotheistic faiths above the muddled world of superstition. It can help us to understand the real difference between a faith that commands us to forgive our enemies, and one that commands us to slaughter them. But the leap of faith itself—this placing of your life at God's service—is a leap over reason's edge. This does not make it irrational, any more than falling in love is irrational. On the contrary, it is the heart's submission to an ideal, and a bid for the love, peace, and forgiveness that even that old bore Habermas is seeking, since he, like the rest of us, was made in just that way.” Nicely put, and yes to almost all of it. But I hope there is a place among the blessed also for Evelyn Underhill, who wrote, if memory serves, “I hope there is a purely intellectual way to God, for it is the only way I know.”
• In the same book, Stephen Barr responds to a paper by Leon Kass. Both are friends and appear frequently in these pages. Kass, who is a religiously serious Jew, spoke about an inherent conflict between religion and science, the one depending on revelation and the other on reason. Barr responds: “To be blunt, none of this makes sense to me. I just do not know what he is talking about. As Kass rightly says, ‘The primary point of contact and contest between science and religion happens to be about truth.' Precisely. If you are saying there is a conflict, you are saying that there are truths asserted by religion and truths asserted by science that are in logical conflict with each other. Now, I can speak only as a Catholic. I ask myself: Are there doctrines of Catholicism—authoritative, binding teachings—which are logically in conflict with well-established scientific facts and theories? I do not know of any, and I have been thinking about such questions for over forty years. I do not think there is a conflict. Now, if you believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis, there is a conflict. If you believe that rain dances cause rain, there is a conflict. Certain religions are in conflict with science, but at least Catholicism is not, and neither is Judaism. What there has been is not conflict, but estrangement. That is the problem. In the Middle Ages, there was a philosophical system, Aristotelianism, which was a common language between science and theology. When Aristotelianism broke down, that common language was lost and theology and science drifted apart. Because they speak separate languages, they cannot communicate very easily with each other. Thus what is needed is not harmonizing. And in fact that is not what people are doing. What people are doing is trying to build bridges so that scientists and theologians can talk to each other—they are not trying to harmonize, but to show that these things are, in fact, already in harmony. We must reclaim the history of science. Unfortunately, many scientists and scientifically minded people are socialized into the idea that there is a conflict and that there has historically been a conflict between science and religion. That is almost entirely a myth. I will not go into detail trying to rebut this myth. But one finds hints of it in Leon Kass's essay where he talks about the Christian culture against which science emerged. Nothing could be further from the truth than this myth. Almost every great scientist of the seventeenth century, the century of the Scientific Revolution, was deeply devout, including Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Boyle, and Newton. And that was true even through much of the nineteenth century. The two greatest physicists in the nineteenth century, Faraday and Maxwell, were not only devout but unusually so, even by the standards of their day. It is simply not true that modern science built itself in opposition to religion. I do not understand the idea that miracles make genuine science impossible. That statement has been falsified by history, because almost every one of the great founders of modern science from the seventeenth century until the mid-nineteenth century believed in miracles. Not only did that not make it impossible for them to do science; they created modern science. We have to reclaim the story of science and show that conflict between science and religion is a myth, created largely by anticlerical and atheistic propaganda.”
• A subscriber who ran out of summer reading material resorted in desperation to In Search of Canadian Liberalism by Frank Underhill (1960), where he found this intervention by Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière in the 1865 deliberations to form a British North American Confederation: “I propose the adoption of the rainbow as our emblem. By the endless variety of its tints the rainbow will give an excellent idea of the diversity of races, religions, sentiments and interests of the different parts of the Confederation. By its slender and elongated form the rainbow would afford a perfect representation of the geographical configuration of the Confederation. By its lack of consistency—an image without substance—the rainbow would represent aptly the solidity of our Confederation. An emblem we must have, for every great empire has one; let us adopt the rainbow.” Solidity in a symbol without substance. The man was a hundred years ahead of his time. Of course, the land of my birth finally ended up with the maple leaf rather than the rainbow, but it meets the description. And, with Canada on the cutting edge of criminalizing skepticism about homophilia, the rainbow may yet take pride of place on the flagstaff.
• “The reality for Catholic and evangelical academics, as for Catholic and evangelical traditions as a whole, is that Catholicism and evangelicalism represent two quite different forms of Christianity.” That's Mark Noll, a distinguished evangelical historian who teaches at the University of Notre Dame, in conversation with James Turner, also of Notre Dame, in a little book from Brazos Press, The Future of Christian Learning: An Evangelical and Catholic Dialogue. (Noll has developed the point about two forms of Christianity in an earlier book, Is The Reformation Over?) He is responding to Turner's reflection on what holds Catholics together and what holds evangelicals together “just tightly enough that we can call [each] by a single name.” Turner: “The glues are of radically dissimilar composition. ‘Catholicism' exists because a single institutional church houses all Catholics and provides for them a common sacramental worship. Otherwise, contemporary Roman Catholics fall all over the place in terms of their theology, their ecclesiology, their understanding of the Bible, their degree of institutional loyalty, their moral tenets, and so forth. The Vatican can publish a catechism, but no pope can make Catholics read it, much less assent to everything it says.” Turner then alludes to the many, often very stark, differences among evangelicals and writes: “Why do we call all of these folks ‘evangelicals,' and why do they so label themselves? It is solely because they share certain core beliefs—about the Bible, about new birth in Christ, about the awakened Christian's duty to spread the good news. Catholics do not agree among themselves about a single one of those items. But, then, they do not need to in order to be ‘Catholics.' The very structure of being ‘evangelical' and being ‘Catholic' could hardly differ more sharply.” That catches a part of the truth of the matter. Evangelicalism accents the doctrinal (“core beliefs”), the affective, and, usually, the moral. Catholicism accents the communal (ecclesial) and sacramental, joined to a mix of the moral and aesthetic. Add to that more of the doctrinal than Turner seems to allow. One is formally a Catholic if one is in sacramental communion with a bishop who is in communion with the bishop of Rome. Catholics are ecclesial Christians. By contrast, one identifies oneself as an evangelical if one adheres to the core beliefs, has had a conversion experience, and is not a Catholic or a liberal Protestant. Evangelicals are, in the sociological jargon, elective Christians. An evangelical recognizes Catholics as brothers and sisters in Christ—often adding, “despite their being Catholic”—because they witness to a saving relationship with Christ. Catholics recognize evangelicals as such because they are validly baptized into Christ and therefore into his body, the Church, however “imperfect” their communion with the Church may be. Put differently, evangelicals recognize Catholics as Christians because they are, by profession, really evangelicals; Catholics recognize evangelicals as Christians because they are, by sacramental grace, really Catholics. It is the difference between communio as mystery and fellowship as agreement. The communal dimension, if not communio, is not absent from the evangelical way of being Christian, as witness the endless disputes over who is and who is not an evangelical among Baptist, Calvinist, Pentecostal, and other traditions. For most who call themselves evangelicals, the “mainline” magazine Christianity Today is the forum for the endless discussion of who does and who does not “belong.” From time to time, Christianity Today grows weary of the discussion and suggests dropping the term evangelical in favor of just saying Christian instead. And then the discussion starts up all over again, this time about who is and who is not a Christian. If only Mark Noll were right when he says there are only two “quite different forms of Christianity.” We will likely be trying to sort all this out for a very long time to come.
• “I am quite aware of how ephemeral literary assessments can be, but in Borges' case we can quite justifiably state that he is the most important thing to happen to imaginative writing in the Spanish language in modern times, and one of the most memorable artists of our age.” That's the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa on Jorge Luis Borges in a little book of essays called Wellsprings (Harvard). I believe he is right about Borges, whose stories such as “The Circular Ruins,” “The Theologians,” and “The Alelph” never fail to intrigue all over again. Such Vargas Llosa novels as The Feast of the Goat and The Storyteller have made their own distinguished contribution to Spanish literature, and his clear-eyed defense of liberal democracy in Latin America is to be cheered, even if his libertarian propensities prevent him from appreciating the potential of Catholic social doctrine in countering the fatalistic fanaticism of that continent's political culture.
• Our friends at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute have put out a very big, meaning 970-page-long, anthology of forty years of the Intercollegiate Review. It is titled Arguing Conservatism, and that pretty well describes what the Intercollegiate Review has been doing all these years, with persistence, verve, and a determination to get it right. So what is conservatism in America? For many commentators, it is any position opposed to the long-regnant liberalism variously voiced in the New York Times, The Nation, and the orthodoxies of the faculty lounge. As Arguing Conservatism makes manifest, however, those who have spent their lives in the service of “the conservative movement” understand themselves to be constructively engaged in advancing an alternative understanding of anthropology, culture, morality, social change, political authority, and economic productivity. In short, they've been urging us to rethink, and rethink radically, how the world works and what can and cannot be done about it. It is very doubtful that a comparable anthology, perhaps titled Arguing Liberalism, would display the same intellectual energy, erudition, and wide range of interests. That is in large part because the writers of Intercollegiate Review have known themselves to be in opposition and have felt the need to sharpen their arguments in order to refute the memorably dismissive comment of John Stuart Mill that conservatives are the stupid party. In his introduction to the volume, editor Mark C. Henrie refers also to Lionel Trilling's observation in The Liberal Imagination (1950): “But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” There are irritable gestures aplenty in Arguing Conservatism, but they are mainly expressions of irritation with liberals who refuse to engage serious ideas. I think it fair to say that one has a very limited understanding of American social and political thought if one has not given careful consideration to the arguments of at least half of the following writers in this anthology: Robert Bork, Robert Conquest, Will Herberg, Willmoore Kendall, Harry Jaffa, Russell Kirk, Ludwig von Mises, Robert Nisbet, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, Richard Weaver, Paul Vitz, M.E. Bradford, M. Stanton Evans, Ellis Sandoz, and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. I confess that arguing conservatism—or, for that matter, arguing liberalism—has not been a major preoccupation of my life. Debates about what is authentic conservatism or what is authentic liberalism tend to construct their separate ideological hothouses. Not that I hold myself aloof from such debates, mind you. I have been over the years both affirmed and excoriated as a liberal and a conservative. A long time ago I wrote that I hoped always to be religiously orthodox, culturally conservative, politically liberal, and economically pragmatic. I still hold to this quadrilateral, although the meaning of politically liberal has changed dramatically since I first wrote that. I am keenly aware that, in the view of some of the writers in this anthology, my political philosophy, such as it is, is suspiciously liberal, but, whatever I am to be called, I do not hesitate to acknowledge my debt to many of the thinkers represented in Arguing Conservatism, and I commend the book to your attention.
• There is doubt, and then there is doubt. Cardinal Newman memorably said that ten thousand difficulties do not add up to a doubt. He is speaking of doubt as a decision against, or at least a withholding of consent. The act of faith does not preclude but invites curiosity and interrogation, but that is not doubt. I think I know what people mean when they say that faith includes doubt, but that can also be misleading. It is frequently said that Mother Teresa's “dark night of the soul” illustrates the power of doubt in creating a sustained crisis of faith. A lovely little book just issued, I Loved Jesus in the Night by Paul Murray, offers a different perspective on the nature of her anguish. “In the case of Mother Teresa, it was not simply the darkness weighing on her inner heart which constituted the anguish of the night. What most troubled her spirit was what she called ‘this torturing longing for God.' Thus, on November 6, 1958, she wrote: ‘I did not know that love could make one suffer so much.—That was suffering of loss—this is of longing—of pain human but caused by the divine.' In this state, John of the Cross explains, the soul lives by one thing only: namely, the ‘driving force of a fathomless desire for union with God.' And, as a result, the absences of the Beloved which the soul suffers . . . are very painful; some are of such a kind that there is no suffering comparable to them.'” There is suffering in being lost, and there can be greater suffering in being found.
• Daniel Burke of the Washington Post covers a miniature brouhaha over a change voted by the American bishops in the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. That book aims at being a more accessible, some would say dumbed-down, version of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, and it included this statement: “Thus the covenant that God made with the Jewish people through Moses remains eternally valid for them.” Not surprisingly, some people took that to mean that, for Jews, the redemptive mission of Christ is not necessary. Catholic teaching, of course, is that, while God does not deny anyone the grace necessary to be saved, all who are saved are saved by virtue of the reconciliation effected through Christ. In place of the former statement in the catechism, the bishops now follow The Catechism of the Catholic Church by quoting St. Paul in Romans 9: “To the Jewish people, whom God first chose to hear his word, ‘belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed forever. Amen.'” As Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, who helped edit the adult catechism, explains: “There was a concern that we were trying to say too much in too few words. When you get into an area of theological complexity, brevity doesn't always serve you well.” Some Jewish leaders, including of course Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, are not happy with the change. Burke writes that among Jews there are “lingering resentments over The Passion of the Christ.” One notes in passing that it is a testimony to the cultural marker that Mel Gibson's film has become that a journalist thinks it unnecessary to mention that he is referring to a film. Foxman complains: “Why take a very simple sentence and replace it with a very complicated paragraph? When did the Catholic Church decide that our covenant was finished?” The response is simple: The simple sentence was misleading, and the point of St. Paul's statement, and of the Church's teaching, is that the covenant is not finished but incomplete. The squabble took on an edge of nastiness when Robert Sungenis, who styles himself a Catholic apologist and seems to have a problem with Jews, took credit for the change, having generated a letter-writing campaign through his website. It is possible that this played a part in bringing the problem posed by the original sentence to the attention of the bishops. The question of the relationship between the people of the Old Covenant and the people of the New, however, has a long and complicated history that receives regular attention in these pages. It is the very point of Paul's reflection in Romans that it will not likely receive a conclusive answer until the End Time. That is the truth reflected in the bishops' decision to replace a sentence too easily misunderstood with a biblical citation beyond our sure understanding.
• I see that Canada's National Gallery, located in Ottawa, is advertising for a director in the Times Literary Supplement. The notice ends with this: “The Government of Canada is committed to ensuring that its appointments are representative of Canada's regions and official languages, as well as of women, Aboriginal peoples, disabled persons and visible minorities.” Not, mind you, that Canada countenances discrimination against invisible minorities, but even its ever alert Human Rights Commissions find it hard to detect.
• A little organization of great importance is Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East, headed up by Dominican sister Ruth Lautt and operating out of the “God Box”—as it used to be called when occupied by the oldline Protestant churches for which it was built—at 475 Riverside Drive here in New York. One senses that it is with a certain weariness that Fair Witness is compelled again and again to turn its attention to America, a Jesuit magazine, which, under its editor, Fr. Drew Christiansen, has an apparently irrepressible urge to engage in bashing Israel. A recent article, “Gaza's Children,” by Fr. Donald J. Moore, also a Jesuit, goes so far as to provide a jumbled narrative in which action and reaction are reversed, so that the Jewish state's response to Palestinian rocket attacks is depicted as the reason for the attacks. No thoughtful person will offer a blanket endorsement of Israel's every action, but reversing the order of aggression and response is more than a bit much. Regrettably, this is not atypical of America's treatment of matters related to the Middle East. Fr. James Loughran of the Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute is to the point: “ America's penchant for blaming Israel for all Palestinian suffering reveals a bias against the Jewish state and does not help the Palestinian people. When Yasser Arafat turned down the chance for statehood within the Clinton Parameters, a deeply flawed Palestinian leadership was unambiguously revealed. A more responsible leadership that can lead its people out of violence, despair, a pervasive sense of victimhood, and statelessness will only emerge when our churches and the rest of the international community start holding Palestinians accountable for their own bad behavior, as America never tires of doing with the Israelis.”
• Herewith a word of wisdom from Alasdair MacIntyre of the University of Notre Dame: “To have been first aware of the presence of God and then later to find that presence withdrawn is of course a terrible and difficult moment. But those familiar with phenomenological accounts of absence will have understood its possibility as inseparable from the possibility of presence. To experience the absence of something or someone is not just different from, but incompatible with, treating that something or someone as nonexistent.”
• There are books about how to successfully pretend that you have read books that you haven't. I always liked the response of the late senator Pat Moynihan when the discussion of a book came up and he was asked whether he had read it: “No, not personally.” And then there are books that you are quite confident that you have read at one time or another but in fact you haven't. Such a book, I discovered this past summer, is Morris West's The Devil's Advocate, published in 1959. (Not to be confused with the movie of that title.) Toward the end of World War II, a stranger going by the name of Giacome Nerone shows up in a southern Italian village and, by works of altruism and true grit, brings hope from tragedy. After his death, he is the object of a popular cult, miracles are attributed to his intercession, and his “cause” for sainthood reaches Rome. A skeptical and dying English monsignor, Blaise Meredith, is sent to investigate. He is the “defender of the faith,” commonly called the Devil's Advocate, whose job is to prevent anyone from being declared a saint who isn't. If you've read the book, you know how the story turns out; if you haven't, I won't give it away. Suffice it to say that it's a gripping tale and, along the way, there are passages of true profundity on the meaning of sainthood and the Church's efforts to deal with the frequent weirdness and wildness that both mask and reveal the presence of the holy. I am pleased to see that Loyola Press has reissued The Devil's Advocate.
• Jeffrey Sachs tends to be rather passionate in the expression of his opinions. He is professor of economics at Columbia University, director of the Earth Institute, and author of The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, among other books. Some months ago he was present at a debate, sponsored by The Economist, at which I was defending the role of religion in political life. Afterward he cornered me and expressed in very heated terms his objections to what I had written here in praise of Paul Collins' The Bottom Billion, a book that is critical of Sachs' somewhat one-sided emphasis on development aid as the solution to world poverty. I was a bit taken aback by the forcefulness of his attack. Now he has published a piece deploring the “anti-intellectualism” of religious fundamentalists, the Republican Party, the Wall Street Journal, and others who are “deniers” of the imminent catastrophe posed by global warming. “To be sure,” he writes, “some of these deniers are simply scientifically ignorant, having been failed by the poor quality of science education in America,” but others “reject modern science” for religious reasons. He lauds the United Nations' Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—which, along with Al Gore, won the Nobel Prize for raising consciousness about global warming—as having “set the gold standard for scientific rigor in analyzing the threats of human-induced climate change.” In fact, the mission of the IPCC is to propagate the more alarmist scenarios of global warming, and it has been roundly criticized by many in the scientific community. Nonetheless, Sachs writes, “America must return to the global consensus based on shared science rather than anti-intellectualism. That is the urgent challenge at the heart of American society today.” The issue, he says, is not religion versus science. “The Golden Age of Islam a millennium ago was also the age in which Islamic science led the world.” To be sure, that was a very long time ago. And he exempts the Catholic Church from his assault on “religious fundamentalism,” noting that John Paul II “declared his support for the basic science of evolution,” and Catholic bishops strongly favor limiting human-induced climate change. In response to Sachs' kind words, Catholics should say thanks but no thanks. His obvious purpose is to recruit the moral prestige of the Church to his broad-brush indictment of Christians and others who are, for good reasons, skeptical of the increasingly fanatical agitations about global warming. At Bill Clinton's Global Initiative conference in September, Al Gore stridently called on environmental warriors to practice “civil disobedience” in opposing clean coal, somewhat to the embarrassment of other conference participants. There are, unfortunately, Catholics who are all too eager to embrace the exemption from censure offered by the likes of Jeffrey Sachs. They, too, want to drive a sharp wedge between Catholics and other Christians, mainly evangelical Protestants, who are skeptical of the putative scientific consensus in favor of philosophical evolutionism, global warming, and other orthodoxies. Toward that end, they are all to ready to join in the sweeping condemnation of the skeptical as antiscientific fundamentalists.
• In connection with the foregoing, one watches with keen interest the planning for a March conference in Rome sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture, the Gregorian University, and the University of Notre Dame. The conference is to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, and it has been announced that proponents of “creationism and intelligent design” will not be invited. The lumping together of creationism and intelligent design is telling. They are quite distinct enterprises; the former is typically in defense of a literal reading of Genesis while the latter is a scientifically based theory of purpose or teleology in natural development. Fr. Marc Leclerc, a Jesuit philosophy professor at the Gregorian, explained that the organizers “wanted to create a conference that was strictly scientific” in order to discuss, as Catholic News Service puts it, “rational philosophy and theology along with the latest scientific discoveries.” Fr. Leclerc said that arguments “that cannot be critically defined as being science or philosophy or theology did not seem feasible to include in a dialogue at this level.” The report continues: “Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said the other extreme of the evolution debate—proponents of an overly scientific conception of evolution and natural selection—also were not invited.” So let's see now: The conference is strictly scientific. In that case, there would seem to be no reason for the Church to be sponsoring it, since there are numerous other institutions that attend to the strictly scientific. Then we are told the conference will also include philosophers and theologians, but only those who are rational—meaning, presumably, those who do not raise critical questions about the strictly scientific. We are told it will exclude scientific ideologues who reject what philosophers and theologians have to say about creation, history, teleology, and human nature and will also exclude scientists who, on the basis of scientific evidence, contend, as the Catholic Church contends, for design and purpose in nature. The organizers seem to think they are being even-handed, but it is all quite confusing. One would not like to think that the purpose of the March conference is to secure for the Catholic Church a clean bill of health from Jeffrey Sachs and others who condemn any deviation from scientistic ideology as anti-intellectualism.
• It has been a deep embarrassment to watch some Catholics brutally twist their minds and consciences into the service of defending their claim that faithful and staunchly anti-abortion Catholics should support a radically pro-abortion presidential candidate who says his first act in office will be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which would, by federal mandate, eliminate even the most minimal legal discouragements of the killing of unborn babies. Douglas Kmiec, professor of law at Pepperdine University, is the most conspicuous of such Catholics. Once we get beyond those troublesome questions about the culture of life versus the culture of death, he says, we will be able to focus on “the balance of Catholic social teaching,” which addresses questions such as poverty and world peace, all of which will presumably be secured by President Obama. “Relations between Benedict XVI and the Holy See under an Obama administration would be very, very positive,” says Kmiec. (I assume he means relations with the pope and the Holy See.) Asked if he might be Obama's pick for ambassador to the Vatican, he says he would “never rule anything out.” Then there is Nicholas Cafardi, professor of law at Duquesne University. He says, “While I have never swayed in my conviction that abortion is an unspeakable evil, I believe that we have lost the abortion battle—permanently.” The time has come to resign ourselves to the fact that the unspeakable evil has triumphed. There is no point in protesting it, never mind giving such protest political effect. It is now the permanent reality in this country that some who are unquestionably human beings may legally be killed at will. Not just some but millions. This line of reasoning astonishes. On what other great question of human rights, in this case the most fundamental right, which is the right to be protected from willful killing, does Cafardi say “the battle is over—permanently”? To what other “unspeakable evil” does he suggest we should resign ourselves? Of course he's right that abortion, euthanasia, and the destruction of embryos are not the only “intrinsic evils.” But his hope that Sen. Obama will dramatically reduce poverty and secure world peace is a prudential judgment. It may or may not be true. By way of dramatic contrast, it is beyond dispute that an abortion kills an innocent human being at an early stage of her development, and it is beyond dispute that Sen. Obama favors an unlimited license to perpetrate such killings.
• If Cafardi's is a counsel of despair and surrender in the face of unspeakable evil, Douglas Kmiec finally came around to adopting the pro-choice position while continuing to call himself pro-life. Following the McCain-Obama debate in which abortion was addressed, Kmiec wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "Sometimes the law must simply leave space for the exercise of individual judgment, because our religious or scientific differences of opinion are for the moment too profound to be bridged collectively. When these differences are great and persistent, as they unfortunately have been on abortion, the common political ideal may consist only of that space. This does not, of course, leave the right to life undecided or unprotected.” It is totally baffling, however, how the right to life is to be protected if the abortion license imposed by Roe and Doe is to be kept in place, which is what Kmiec clearly seems to favor, calling abortion a “sensitive moral decision” that “depend[s] on religious freedom and the voice of God as articulated in each individual's voluntary embrace of one of many faiths.” In short, Kmiec's is the “personally opposed but . . .” position given currency by Mario Cuomo many years ago. The great debate is not over sentiment but justice, not over personal preference but public policy. Every thoughtful person has understood that the pro-life position—explicitly and consistently articulated by the Catholic Church at every level of teaching authority—is that justice requires that every unborn child be cared for and protected in law. And it has been understood that the pro-choice position is that the life or death of the unborn child is a private matter to be decided at the sole discretion of the mother—for any reason and at any point of the child's life up through the moment of being born. It is a bizarre attempted obfuscation for Kmiec and others, at this late date, to claim that their personal disapproval of abortion makes them pro-life in their support of the pro-choice position.
• Kmiec and Cafardi are by no means alone. Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, has on these questions an unfortunate record of making opaque the pellucidly clear teaching of the Church. At an October conference on Catholics and political responsibility at Loyola University in New Orleans, he did say that abortion is “the gravest of the moral evils today” and the “most weighty thing.” But then he went on to say, “Someone may approach the whole question of abortion and weigh it with the whole question of war. Weigh it with the question of the treatment of hostages. The treatment of captives, the treatment of prisoners. One might judge it against an unwillingness to help the poor. There's a whole series of things.” Thus does the gravest and most weighty get weighed in the balance and found to be not so grave and weighty after all. In this political season, many bishops were unusually clear, even bold, in articulating the Church's teaching against gross misrepresentations of that teaching by abortion advocates such as Nancy Pelosi and Joseph Biden. That some Catholics, such as Douglas Kmiec, rationalized themselves into an intellectual and moral muddle to support Sen. Obama is not surprising. But Nicholas Cafardi may be the first to say out loud what I expect many of these people really believe: The abortion battle is over. Yes, it is an unspeakable evil, but there is no point in voting against it. Get used to it.
• “This is who we are. This is church as usual.” So said Amy Slater of Living Stones Church in Crown Point, Indiana, when asked about her pastor joining thirty-two other pastors in the “Pulpit Initiative” of the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal-aid organization. The initiative was aimed at challenging IRS regulations that forbid churches to endorse political candidates. As it happens, her pastor, the Rev. Ron Johnson, did not explicitly endorse Sen. McCain in a PowerPoint sermon in which he laid out the positions of the candidates on abortion and same-sex marriage, leaving no doubt that McCain gets an A and Obama an F. But should he and other clergy be free to make such endorsements? In principle, it is hard to answer in the negative, claiming that this would be a violation of church-state relations. The Religion Clause of the First Amendment contains a no-establishment and a free-exercise provision, with the former being in the service of the latter. Pulpit endorsements are not an instance of the state establishing a religion, unless one wants to argue, as some do, that a tax exemption is in fact a “tax subsidy.” In that case, tax exemption of churches is in itself a forbidden establishment of religion. That argument is a real stretch and is not likely to gain legal traction. As for free exercise of religion, that is for religious adherents to define, within the minimal limits of preventing fraud and maintaining civil order, and, if ministers believe it is their religious duty to endorse political candidates, it is hard to see how the state can say no without violating their free exercise. The argument is made that tax exemption is a privilege and not a constitutional right. But to deny to some a privilege extended to others is to burden the free exercise of those denied. And a very good case can be made that religious tax exemption is constitutionally grounded. Here the necessary text is Dean Kelley's Why Churches Should Not Pay Taxes. Moreover, the question at hand is clouded by a racial factor. Since long before the IRS regulation was put in place half a century ago, black churches routinely have endorsed candidates and even let them campaign from their pulpits. Nobody has a political appetite for taking on the black churches. So should the Reverend Johnson and his colleagues be permitted to endorse candidates from their pulpits, and should the IRS regulation be changed so that they need not do so as an act of civil disobedience? I believe the better part of the argument is in the affirmative. At the same time, and whether or not it is constitutional or just, the IRS regulation serves the salutary purpose of discouraging the excessive politicizing of religion. It is an unimaginative priest, minister, or rabbi who cannot clearly and persuasively present moral teaching on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage without explicitly endorsing political candidates. In the Catholic understanding, people are to form their consciences in faithfulness to moral truth, and vote accordingly. Obviously, many people do not do so and therefore, following an ill-informed conscience, vote in sincere error. If an unerring conscience were required for membership, the Catholic Church would be much smaller than it is. It is different with smaller and more homogeneous groups such as Living Stones Church, of which it can be said, “This is who we are. This is church as usual.” To which it might be added, “If you don't like our social and political views, you can join the church up the highway where you'll be more comfortable.” Catholic ecclesiology is very different, which is why you will not see Catholics joining the Alliance Defense Fund's “Pulpit Initiative.” The difference is not in the understanding of the First Amendment. The difference is in understanding what kind of society the Church is.
• In all that you've probably read about the financial crisis, I expect you never came across even the slightest hint of the awful reality. “Jews Blamed for Financial Crisis” is the headline of an alarm issued by the Anti-Defamation League. ADL has discovered some very nasty sentiments on “online message boards.” Such as: “Jews are greedy, rotten slime balls.” “Jews have infiltrated Wall Street and Government, and have ruined our country.” ADL says, “As this crisis deepens, the threat continues to grow. We all understand how dangerous this is to Jews everywhere. In this time of challenge and uncertainty, we need your support more than ever.” It is a sadness that the solemn question of anti-Semitism is reduced to a cheap money-raising gimmick. What percentage in a country of 330 million people believes that Jews are greedy, rotten slimeballs? One percent? Two percent? I doubt it, but it is possible. No doubt a much larger percentage has similarly uncomplimentary views of blacks. Bigotry and hatred are to be condemned wherever they appear. But obscenities found on online message boards pose a “dangerous threat” to “Jews everywhere”? Many more people believe that conservative Christians, especially evangelicals, are illiterate theocratic fanatics bent on overthrowing our constitutional order. That is a bigotry expressed not just on online message boards but with some regularity in the pages of the New York Times and the New Republic. A country this large has a lot of nuts, some of them on the commanding heights of culture and some of them deep in the valley. ADL is a big organization, with an annual budget of more than $50 million. As with any such organization, money-raising is a constant task. Because anti-Semitism has a very particular and terrible history, however, concern about it should not be debased and discredited by the reckless alarums to which ADL, regrettably, is all too prone.
• I've never seen the program, but a reader tells me that, on a television program called Jeopardy, a contestant was given this clue: “Robert Louis Wilken's The Spirit of Early Christian Thought is subtitled Seeking the Face of [fill in the blank].” The contestant, a fellow named Wes, answered, “Christ.” The correct answer is “God,” and it appears that Wes lost $18
,600. It is another instance of the costly consequences of not being a regular reader of First Things. Moreover, as I explained to my friend Wilken, when one's scholarly book is an item on a television quiz show, it gives a whole new meaning to “public intellectual.” To which he responded, “It would have been even better on Oprah.”
• Here's something both charming and a bit strange. It's in a large (283 pages), slick magazine format, lavishly illustrated with striking photos, and contains the entire text of the New Testament (Good News Translation). It's published by the American Bible Society as Bible Illuminated: The Book. We are told there will be a similar volume with the Old Testament. One's first thought is that this cost an awful lot of money, but then the ABS has an awful lot of money, and it is spent in getting out the word of God in thousands of different formats, so why not this one? Admittedly, there is a rather blatant ideological slant, with photos and captions promoting, among other things, the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, and a big two-page spread plugging women priests. The latter is designed to illustrate the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, “For when the priesthood is changed, there also has to be a change in the law.” The woman in the photograph is looking at “the shroud she's going to wear when she becomes the first female priest in Sweden.” A shroud? One might think that's a rather grave view of female priests, but then ABS is a mainly Protestant outfit and can't be expected to know about chasubles. Another big picture has a very kitschy piece of vulgar Catholicism, a plastic-wrapped “Three Pack Holy Family Set.” The accompanying caption is Paul's words in Ephesians, “It does not matter! I am happy about it—just so Christ is preached in every way possible, whether from wrong or right motives.” I suppose the same might be said of Bible Illuminated: The Book.
• I don't know whether it is true that we are all being googled into idiocy, as some commentators claim, but it is certain that the digital revolution is less than discriminating in the flood of information that it produces. A student friend thought he should do some serious reading in Calvin and was emailed this: “Dear Amazon customer: We've noticed that customers who have purchased Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin have also purchased Dogspell: The Gospel According to Dog by Mary Ellen Ashcroft.” That notice comes with a recommendation of the book by a canon at the Episcopal cathedral in Washington who says, “It is too good to believe that God would love us as much as our dog, but it is true!” I assume he means as much as our dogs love us, not as much as God loves our dogs, but I'm not sure. Either way, I expect Calvin would have a real problem with that.
• A bright young seminarian of my acquaintance is excited by his discovery that Christmas is not all that it is cracked up to be. The chief feast of the Christian year, and the reason we observe Sunday as the Lord's Day, is Easter. Christmas, he points out, is something of a latecomer in the fourth century, and has some dubious associations. December 25 was chosen to oppose the pagan feast of the Natalis Solis Invicti with the Christ, the “Sun of Righteousness.” It was embraced after the conversion of the emperor Constantine and spread from Rome, and is therefore part and parcel of the much vilified “Constantinianism.” In the East, January 6, marking the Epiphany and baptism of Christ, was more important, and the Armenian Orthodox still do not observe December 25. All that is true enough, but it rather misses the reasons why, by the fourth century, the Church's reflection on the mystery of the Incarnation, and therefore Christmas, became so important. Easter remains the premier feast of the Christian year, but pondering the victory of Christ as our victory forces deeper reflection on the truth that he assumed our humanity from the Blessed Virgin Mary. In God's becoming man, man's relationship with all the rest of the created order was dramatically changed. For most of human history, people lived under the tyranny of various determinisms. The more sophisticated of the Romans had confined the gods and goddesses to the realm of mythology, removed from the events of history. They believed that events in the real world were in the control of cosmic forces that Paul describes in the second chapter of Colossians as “the elemental spirits of the universe.” With the coming of Christianity, that form of determinism was broken. The fourth-century Gregory of Nazianzus offers the engaging suggestion that, at the very moment when the Magi, guided by a star, came to worship the child of Mary, astrology was finished. From that moment onward, the cosmos orbits around the newborn king. That may strike us as a charming but fanciful image, yet it is closely related to the very serious claim that Christ is the logos—the word and the reason by whom all exists and to whom all is ordered. The above passage from Gregory is cited by Benedict XVI in his second encyclical, Spe Salvi—saved by faith. We are now living in a time in which the old determinisms, “the elemental spirits of the universe,” are making a comeback. This is evident in the environmental mythologies that have become for many people nothing less than their religion. The Creator proclaimed by Israel made it clear that man is central to the drama of history. “Man,” wrote the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “is the cantor and caretaker of the universe.” This truth is radicalized beyond measure by the Christian understanding that God actually became man in Jesus, the son of Mary. This is the truth underscored by St. Francis of Assisi when, in 1222, he erected the first crèche, or nativity scene. The ox and donkey, representing all created things, like Gregory's Magi, now and forever acknowledge that all reality orbits around the newborn king. Pace my seminarian friend and his discoveries, the elevation of Christmas represents a necessary development of Christian understanding and is the most sure defense against the return of the tyranny of “the elemental spirits of the universe.”
First Things gift subscriptions to students—perhaps a son, daughter, niece or nephew?—have been known to change lives. Think about it. And, if you know someone who is a likely subscriber—student, senior, or somewhere in between—we will gladly send a sample issue and mention that you're the one who thinks so highly of their intelligence. Just send us names and addresses.
Knippenberg on DiIulio, the Claremont Institute website; David Martin, “Does the Advance of Science Mean Secularisation?” Scottish Journal of Theology, Feb; Wheatcroft in Times Literary Supplement, Feb 22; Rice in Foreign Affairs, July/August; Tallis in Times Literary Supplement, April 11; Hertzke in Faith & International Affairs, Summer; Gallup on institutions, Wall Street Journal, June 26; Burke in Religion News Service, Sep 13; America and Israel, Fair Witness press release, Sep 17; MacIntyre quoted in Image, Fall 2007; Jeffrey Sachs in New York Sun, Sep 23; Vatican evolution conference, Catholic News Service, Sep 16; McCarrick, Times Picayune, Oct 2; Cafardi, National Catholic Reporter, Sep 30; Kmiec, report by John Allen, National Catholic Reporter, Oct 1; Alliance Defense Fund, Wall Street Journal, Oct 3; Jews and the financial crisis, ADL statement, Oct 7.