The Public Square
Richard John Neuhaus died on January 8, 2009, at the age of seventy-two—a great loss to the magazine, to American public discourse, and to his many friends. We present here a few of our favorite items from the nineteen years of his work in The Public Square. The next edition of First Things—the April 2009 issue—will contain tributed to his extraordinary life and career.
I'll presume to call it Neuhaus' Law, or at least one of his several laws: Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed. Some otherwise bright people have indicated their puzzlement with that axiom but it seems to me, well, axiomatic. Orthodoxy, no matter how politely expressed, suggests that there is a right and a wrong, a true and a false, about things. When orthodoxy is optional, it is admitted under a rule of liberal tolerance that cannot help but be intolerant of talk about right and wrong, true and false. It is therefore a conditional admission, depending upon orthodoxy's good behavior. The orthodox may be permitted to believe this or that and to do this or that as a matter of sufferance, allowing them to indulge their inclination, preference, or personal taste. But it is an intolerable violation of the etiquette by which one is tolerated if one has the effrontery to propose that this or that is normative for others.
A well-mannered church can put up with a few orthodox eccentrics, and can even take pride in being so very inclusive. “Oh, poor Johnson thinks we're all heretics,” says the bishop, chuckling between sips of his sherry. The bishop is manifestly pleased that there is somebody, even if it is only poor old Johnson, who thinks he is so adventuresome as to be a heretic. And he is pleased with himself for keeping Johnson around to make him pleased with himself. If, however, Johnson's views had the slightest chance of prevailing and thereby threatening the bishop's general sense of security and well-being, well, then it would be an entirely different matter.
So it was that some church bodies muddled through for a long time with leaderships that trimmed doctrine to the dictates of academic fashion and popular prejudice (the two, more often than not, being the same) while permitting the orthodox option as a kindness to those so inclined, and as testimony to the “balance” so cherished by placeholders radically devoted to the middle way. It was not always an entirely unattractive accommodation. In religion, too, sensible people prefer to be neither fanatic nor wimp. Considering the alternatives, and if one has the choice, it is nice to try to be nice.
But then what used to be called orthodoxy came up against a new orthodoxy. The new liberal orthodoxy of recent decades is hard and nasty; compared to it, the old orthodoxy was merely quaint. The old orthodoxy was like a dotty old uncle in the front parlor; the new orthodoxy is a rampaging harridan in the family room. The old orthodoxy claimed to speak for the past, which seemed harmless enough. The new orthodoxy claims to speak for the future and is therefore the bearer of imperatives that brook no opposition. The choice of a few to live in the past could be indulged when the future was thought to be open and undetermined. Tolerating the orthodox was also a way of playing it safe. You never know: Maybe the ways of the past would come around again. But the old orthodoxy that is optional is proscribed by the new orthodoxy, which is never optional.
The easygoing liberal tolerance that long prevailed was at home with accommodating preferences but uneasy about the question of truth. Not that it denied that there is a truth about this or that, but, then, who was to say what that truth might be? When the question of truth is bracketed—that is, when it is denied in practice—one can choose to be tolerant of a splendid array of “truths.” Or one might decide that there really is no truth that makes tolerance necessary, and choose another course. The alternative to the course of tolerance is the course of power. Tolerance suspends judgment; the will to power acknowledges no reason for restraint.
In some churches, the new orthodoxy is most aggressively manifest in feminist and homosexual (or, as it is said, “lesbigay”) agitations. These, however, are but the more conspicuous eruptions that follow upon a determined denial of the normative truths espoused by an older orthodoxy. Proponents of the new orthodoxy will protest, with some justice, that they, too, are committed to normative truths. These truths, however, are not embodied in propositions, precedent, ecclesial authority, or, goodness knows, revelation. They are experiential truths expressing the truth of who we truly are—“we” being defined by sex, race, class, tribe, or identifying desire (“orientation”).
Identity Is Trumps
With the older orthodoxy it is possible to disagree, as in having an argument. Evidence, reason, and logic count, in principle at least. Not so with the new orthodoxy. Here disagreement is an intolerable personal affront. It is construed as a denial of others, of their experience of who they are. It is a blasphemous assault on that most high god, “My Identity.” Truth-as-identity is not appealable beyond the assertion of identity. In this game, identity is trumps. An appeal to what St. Paul or Aquinas or Catherine of Sienna or a Church council said cannot withstand the undeniable retort, “Yes, but they are not me!” People pack their truths into what Peter Berger has called group-identity kits. The chief item in the kit, of course, is the claim to being oppressed.
Nobody denies that there are, for instance, women, blacks, American Indians, and homosexuals beyond number who do not subscribe to the identities assigned their respective groups. This, however, does not faze those in charge of packing and distributing identity kits. They explain that identity dissidents, people who do not accept the identities assigned them, are doubly victimized—victims of their oppressors and victims of a false consciousness that blinds them to the reality of their being oppressed. Alternatively, identity dissidents are declared to be traitors who have been suborned into collaboration with the deniers of who they are. The proponents of truth-as-identity catch the dissidents coming and going. They say their demand is only for “acceptance,” leaving no doubt that acceptance means assent to what they know (as nobody else can know!) is essential to being true to their authentic selves. Not to assent is not to disagree; it is to deny their humanity, which, especially in churches credally committed to being nice, is not a nice thing to do.
This helps explain why questions such as quotaized representation, women's ordination, and homosexuality are so intractable. There is no common ground outside the experiential circles of identity by which truth is circularly defined. Conservatives huff and puff about the authority of Scripture and tradition, while moderates appeal to the way differences used to be accommodated in the early Church (before c. 1968), but all to no avail. Whatever the issue, the new orthodoxy will not give an inch, demanding acceptance and inclusiveness, which means rejection and exclusion of whatever or whomever questions their identity, meaning their right to believe, speak, and act as they will, for what they will do is what they must do if they are to be who they most truly are. “So you want me to agree with you in denying who I am?” By such reasoning, so to speak, the spineless are easily intimidated.
An Instructive Tale
Contentions between rival orthodoxies is an old story in the Church, and the battles that have been fought are riddled with ironies. An earlier round of the difficulties encountered by optional orthodoxy is nicely recounted by John Shelton Reed in a new book, Glorious Battle: The Cultural Politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism. The Oxford Movement associated with John Henry Newman set out to restore to the Church of England an orthodox and catholic substance that it had presumably once possessed. By the middle of the 1840s, Newman and others came to the conclusion that the via media they had championed as an Anglican alternative to both Rome and Protestantism was in fact a “paper church,” quite devoid of apostolic reality. After Newman and his companions left, the work of orthodox restoration was continued under the banner of “Ritualism” or “Anglo-Catholicism.” It enjoyed the impressive leadership of such as John Keble and Edward Pusey, but in the public mind it was more closely connected with sundry aesthetes and eccentrics for whom Anglo-Catholicism was, says Reed, a “countercultural” assault on the Victorian establishment.
It is a mark of the restorationists' success that they were soon perceived as a serious threat by the bishops at their sherry, and by Englishmen of consequence (their wives tended to be more sympathetic), who resented any departure from the unapologetic Protestantism of the national religion. In 1874, unhappiness led to parliament passing the Public Worship Regulation Act, which landed a number of Anglo-Catholic clerics in jail for short stays. Checked by this establishment opposition, Reed notes, the ritualists did an about-face.
In their earlier restorationist mode, they had insisted that the entire church should conform to the normative orthodoxy that they claimed was constitutive of the Anglican tradition. By the 1870s, however, it had become evident that any steps toward uniformity would be at the expense of the Anglo-Catholics. Whereupon Anglo-Catholics became the foremost opponents of uniformity and enthusiastically championed ecclesiastical pluralism. All they were asking for, they said, was “tolerance and forbearance” for their way of being Anglican. In 1867, the Reverend Charles Walker was urging upon the Royal Commission on Ritual that peace could be found in the agreement “that the National Establishment embraces in its bosom two separate religions.” Of course that appeal failed to carry the day, as is almost inevitably the case when previously tolerated options threaten the establishment.
Reed, an Episcopalian who teaches at the University of North Carolina, sums up the irony of Anglo-Catholicism: “A movement that originally championed orthodoxy had come to defend freedom; begun in opposition to religious liberalism, the movement now appealed to liberal values for its survival. Cardinal Manning, once an Anglo-Catholic clergyman himself, saw the irony, and maintained that ‘Ritualism is private judgment in gorgeous raiment, wrought about with divers colors.' He declared that ‘every fringe in an elaborate cope worn without authority is only a distinct and separate act of private judgment; the more elaborate, the less Catholic; the nearer the imitation, the further from the submission of faith.'” Reed adds, “Although some denied it, Manning had a point.”
It took a long time for Anglo-Catholicism to be thoroughly routed, but the job seems now almost complete. Among Anglo-Catholics in this country, many have left for Rome or Constantinople, some have joined up with groups of “continuing Anglicanism,” and a few are determined to make yet another valiant last stand, despite a long and depressing record of failed last stands. In England there is the peculiar spectacle of “flying bishops,” a kind of parallel episcopate ministering to parishes that are no longer in communion with their own bishops. That is generally conceded to be a transient arrangement.
Within the Episcopal and other liberal church bodies, it is still possible, here and there, to defend parochial enclaves of orthodox teaching and catholic sensibility. But those who seek safe haven in such enclaves frequently suspect that Cardinal Manning was right: There is something deeply incoherent about sectarian catholicity. There are numerous groups in this country—Baptist, Missouri Lutheran, Reformed, Pentecostalist—that maintain their version of orthodoxy in a way that is not optional. Setting aside the theological merits of their orthodoxies, such groups are sociologically secure; in their world, they are the establishment, and to that world the new and nasty orthodoxy of truth-as-identity is not admitted. Some of us may think such immunity comes at too high a price. But for those to whom sectarianism is no vice, and may even be a virtue, such withdrawal and disengagement seems like no price at all.
The circumstance is very different for those Christians to whom it matters to be part of the Great Tradition. One thinks especially of Lutherans, Anglicans, and those Reformed who claim the heritage of John Nevin and Philip Schaff; all think of themselves as “evangelical catholics” in ecclesial bodies temporarily separated from uppercase Catholicism and uppercase Orthodoxy. Anglo-Catholicism was the most impressively institutionalized form of this self-understanding. But, whether in its Reformed, Lutheran, or Anglican expressions, movements of normative restoration were compelled to settle for being tolerated options, and now it seems even that is denied them.
Almost five hundred years after the sixteenth-century divisions, the realization grows that there is no via media. The realization grows that orthodoxy and catholicity can be underwritten only by Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Perhaps more than any other single factor, the influence of Anglo-Catholicism among Protestants obscured this reality for a long time. It is a considerable merit of John Shelton Reed's Glorious Battle that it contributes to our understanding of why movements of catholic restoration, posited against the self-understanding of the communities they would renew, turn into an optional orthodoxy. A century later, an illiberal liberalism, much more unrelenting than the Victorian establishment, will no longer tolerate the option. It is very much like a law: Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed. (1/97)
While We're At It
• “The Politics of the Breast” is an opinion piece in the New York Times advocating the right of women to go bare-breasted on the subway. Two years ago the New York Court of Appeals ruled that the state laws against indecent exposure could not be enforced against women who wish to be topless in public. Judge Vito J. Titone wrote that differential treatment of female bodies violated constitutional guarantees of equality and was “rooted in centuries of prejudice and bias toward women.” One suspects he meant to say against women. A certain delicacy about the display of the female body in public is indeed rooted, apparently from the beginning of the species, in an enthusiastic male prejudice and bias toward naked women. Such considerations seem to carry little weight with the court, however. If human nature and the edicts of the court are in conflict, human nature will just have to change. Mayor Giuliani, being a generally sensible fellow, says the transit police will continue to arrest bare-breasted women on the subway. A police spokesman explains that, in the close press of subway travel, a “very, very attractive” topless woman could create excitements that would pose a public danger. Some subway patrons, he opined, could become so distracted that they might fall down escalators or even onto the tracks. The Times writer is buying none of it. She scoffs at the idea that “the power of the female breast is such that it can lure its beholders to untimely demise in subterranean channels.” She concludes that the bare-breasted subway rider is making the point “that her breasts belong to her and not to the onlookers.” It is not, however, the proprietorship but the public display of the items that is in question. To be fair to the writer, this is a man thing and it is perhaps understandable that she just doesn't get it. Her argument and that of the New York court, however, do helpfully illumine why it is so very difficult to make a case for public decency. The concepts of decency and indecency turn upon what is offensive. Today, unless you are a member of a certified victim group, you have not the right to be offended. If you are offended or, as in this case, aroused, the fault is with you. The fun for the more aggressive members of the certified victim group is to taunt and provoke you into protesting what they say or do, thus confirming that they are victims and you the victimizer. But this is old hat by now. And for all the media chatter about bare-breasted subway riders, we know nobody who has seen one to date. One expects it's not for the lack of looking. In any event, the ancient maxim is again vindicated that those whom the gods would destroy are, if madness be the sign, disproportionately New Yorkers. (12/94)
• In another publication we recently did a whimsical little piece occasioned by a politically correct manifesto issued by The Magickal Childe, a Manhattan store specializing in things demonic. In response to which comes a blast from one who styles himself as “The Reverend Peter H. Gilmore, Administrator, Church of Satan.” He is unhappy with us for many reasons, not least because our article suggested that Satanists, proponents of goddess worship, and neopagan stone fetishists are all part of the same phenomenon. Doctrinal distinctions are in order, according to the Reverend Gilmore. “In fact, these so-called ‘pre-Christians' reject any connection with Satan, and rightly so as they share the appalling doctrine of altruism espoused by Judeo-Christian and humanist ‘thinkers.' Satanism rejects these idealistic and unnatural creeds to embrace the world as it is: a ground for endless strife and struggle, a total war wherein the strong dominate the weak and the clever dominate the strong. We Satanists are our own Gods and consider Satan to be a symbol for the carnal nature of Man unleashed, as well as the dark force which permeates all of existence and fuels the evolutionary advancement of life itself.” Now if only more of our churches were so clear about what they stand for. (11/92)
• Among the most infamous of Nazi war criminals was Dr. Josef Mengele. At Auschwitz he was known as the “Angel of Death” for his lethal “scientific” experiments on prisoners. After the war, the Angel of Death escaped to Argentina, where authorities have now opened the files on Nazis who found refuge there. It turns out that Mengele made his living in Argentina as an abortionist. It figures. (6/92)
• We almost got away with it. But now Texe Marrs, who runs Living Truth Ministries in Austin, Texas, has told his thousands of readers the real story behind “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” It seems that Charles Colson is a “closet Catholic” who was recruited by the Vatican to arrange for Protestantism's surrender to Rome. Neuhaus is a “Marxist heretic” who answers to “both the notorious Catholic Order of the Jesuits and the infamous, Christian-bashing Jewish Anti-Defamation League.” “When Rev. Neuhaus abandoned the Lutheran Church to become a Catholic priest, the Vatican and its Jesuits knew they had a potential winner. With Rome's guidance (and financial means!), they reasoned, Richard Neuhaus could be used to manipulate millions of gullible Christians into joining in a grand crusade to destroy Protestantism.” In light of Marrs' revelations, we can see how sneaky Neuhaus has been in covering his tracks by pretending on occasion to be critical of the Jesuits and the Anti-Defamation League. “Colson and Neuhaus openly admit that they secretly worked for two years behind the scenes on this project. Their plan was to get the world's top evangelical and Catholic leaders to sign up and endorse the manifesto before expected opposition developed.” (In retrospect, it was probably a mistake for Chuck and me to admit it publicly.) Those who want to know more can get All Fall Down, a special report by Mr. Marrs that reveals “the stunning facts about the greatest sell-out in the history of Christianity.” It seems that Protestants have been recruited to work with Jews and Jesuits to bring “the whole religious establishment, under their supreme leader, the Pope, straight into the Great Apostasy.” In addition to the real dirt on Colson and Neuhaus, the report “unmasks the Vatican connections” of some of the biggest names in Protestantism, including Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, Bill Bright, Robert Schuller, Richard Land, and Larry Lewis. Oh yes, Marrs reveals that Neuhaus also publishes “a propagandistic magazine, Things Considered.” Don't say you were not warned. (2/95)
• The wisdom of “coming out of the closet” is a sometimes thing. It depends on what one is coming out about. Consider this little item by Matthew Parris in The Spectator (London): “I was telephoned from Australia this week by a friend who for years has been struggling with the question of whether to conceal his homosexuality. I have always urged him not to, assuring him the best people respect honesty, modern society in Britain is tolerant of every human type, one should be true to oneself, etc. He recently came to the same conclusion and acted upon it, so far without ill-effect. But he had not telephoned about that. ‘Matt,' he said, joyously, ‘I've become a Christian. I'm born again. I went to this evangelist's meeting and the Lord Jesus came to me. I wanted to tell you immediately. I want to tell everybody. I want to shout ‘hallelujah!' All I could do was mumble, ‘I'm pleased for you, Charlie.' Inwardly I thought, ‘I hope he doesn't feel he has to tell everybody about it; it would be pretty embarrassing. At dinner parties, I mean aren't some things best kept to oneself?' and, out loud to him, I caught myself saying, ‘It's a big step to announce this sort of thing, Charlie. You'll lose friends. You ought to think twice and maybe keep it to yourself.'” (1/92)
• Some years ago, Monsignor Harry Byrne of Epiphany Church in Manhattan visited the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Commenting on Leonardo da Vinci's painting of the Virgin and Child, the young guide mentioned some technical details and then said, “The subject of this painting is ‘Maternity.'” So effectively had her Marxist training erased any awareness of Mary and Our Lord, or so aware was she of what it was not permitted to say in public. The incident came to mind when a priest in upstate New York asked Msgr. Byrne what to do about a village atheist who was suing to have a crèche removed from a public space. Byrne, who is no slouch on church-state relations, told the priest about the legal niceties and then offered a suggestion. “It's a long shot, but you might take away the halos, rearrange the angels, remove any words proclaiming divinity, and then caption the display, ‘Maternity.' Everyone could then interpret the display as they wish.” It worked under communist oppression. Maybe we could get away with it under the oppression of currently cockamamie court rulings on religion in public. (12/91)
• Some readers may not believe it, but we really do not comment on every fatuity championed by the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union. There simply is not space. Here, for instance, is an item we never got around to. Local judges in Milwaukee have abandoned the longstanding practice of not evicting tenants from their homes during Christmas week. Landlords have always protested the practice, and now they have the support of the ACLU. “The moratorium serves no legal purpose and has the effect of promoting the religious celebration of Christmas,” Gretchen Miller of the ACLU told the courts. “No similar rules prevent eviction of Muslim tenants during the month of Ramadan or the eviction of Jewish tenants during Passover, Rosh Hashanah, or other commonly celebrated religious holidays.” Never mind that less than one-quarter of one percent of the population of Milwaukee is Muslim, and a Jew has not been evicted within living memory. Never mind that the courts are quite prepared to extend the practice to Muslims and Jews as the occasion arises. In a democracy, as defined by the ACLU, social reality must not be permitted to impinge upon the administration of the law. “I would like to continue [the Christmas moratorium],” said Judge Patrick J. Sheedy, “but if they are to bring an action against us, we would have no defense.” The separation of church and state means the separation of the law from common decency. The ACLU has the satisfaction of having vindicated the great constitutional principle that poor people should be put out on the street on Christmas Day. (12/92)
• St. Philip's Catholic Church in San Francisco is apparently one of those places where “the action's at.” Jane Gross of the New York Times reports on a recent family festival held there, and the point of the report is that, my goodness, there were all kinds of families present—“stepfamilies and foster families, multigenerational families and gay families . . . and other configurations that have yet to be named by social scientists or counted by statisticians.” Ms. Gross continues: “Even in this old-fashioned, godly haven, with crucifixions on the walls and children in neat uniforms, the families have changed indelibly but the values have not.” Crucifixions on the walls? It seems the action gets a little rough at St. Philip's. The pastor, Father Michael Healy, draws the lesson to be learned: “There's such a thing as family values, but who's to say who's living up to them?” Certainly not the pastor of St. Philip's. (Crucifixions on the walls remind us of a Detroit paper that reported some years ago on a Lutheran convention: “The procession was led by a young man carrying a 140-year-old crucifixion.” But then, why should we expect journalists to know any more about religion than about other matters of consequence?) (3/93)
• Commentary on the dismal state of Catholic preaching is a commonplace. There are exceptions, of course, but the general picture seems not to be encouraging. The Second Vatican Council's emphasis on the importance of the homily (Catholics shy away from “sermon”) in every Mass could not, of course, create instant competence for what was mandated. All kinds of homily services cropped up, some offering “hints” and “helps,” and others selling complete texts that are sometimes read by priests verbatim. The quality of homily services ranges from the banal to the brilliant, with occasional slips into the heretical. For instance, a reader in Grand Rapids, Michigan, sends us the “Homily Helps” for Tuesday of the Second Week of Advent from a service published by St. Anthony Messenger Press. The text is Matthew 18 with its warning about offending against one of these little ones who believe in Christ. To the St. Anthony author, this suggests, quite inexplicably, a homily on the need for the Church to provide housing for the elderly. Which leads to this: “A fraction of the resources we devote to the unborn redirected to the end of life could result in facilities for the elderly that would be a model for the nation.” One imagines Father, not yet fully awake, at the early morning Mass reading that and then thinking to himself, “What on earth did I just say?” Or devout Mr. McNaughton in the pew: “What on earth is he going on about now?” Then there was the homily service we glanced at while saying Mass in an upstate New York parish. The day was St. Matthias, celebrating the disciple chosen to take the place of Judas. The “homily suggestion” was that Our Lord's original choice of Judas “shows that God can make mistakes, too.” We find ourselves hesitant to suggest that Catholic preaching would be greatly improved by burning all the homily services, but we are not quite sure why. (3/95)
• Of course it's a lie, but the sheer brazenness of it elicits something akin to respect. It's this week's new Bible translation (it does seem there is one every week), which is, as is all too often the case, no translation at all. This one is called The Inclusive New Testament and is published by an outfit called Priests for Equality, in Hyattsville, Maryland. Read what Anne Carr, professor of theology at the University of Chicago, no less, says about it: “The text reads smoothly and beautifully, betraying no other agenda than a faithful rendition of the New Testament.” Uh huh. Then read the allegedly faithful rendition of, for instance, Colossians 3:18ff. But first recall the passage (Revised Standard Version): “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” And so forth. Now the same (so to speak) passage in The Inclusive New Testament: “You who are in committed relationships, be submissive to each other. This is your duty in Christ Jesus. Partners joined by God, love each other. Avoid any bitterness between you.” And so forth. What to do when faced with a problematic text? Simply to say it is wrong might offend the faithful. Explaining how it really says what one wishes it to say takes effort, and may be unpersuasive. The much easier, albeit dishonest, thing is to rewrite the text and call it a translation. Professor Carr is the author of Transforming Grace. Watch for her next book, Transforming Texts. (11/95)
• There are no doubt readers who, in their pitiful naivete, assume that some cultural artifacts are inherently superior to others. Continuing on that risible assumption, they hold to the view that there is something like a canon of cultural greatness—in literature, philosophy, music, painting, and so forth. In the name of multiculturalism, the entirety of the progressive academy has for some years now been earnestly engaged in discrediting such outdated notions. Nonetheless, the academy's herd of independent minds is still capable of producing a new wrinkle on regnant ideas. For instance, Gary Taylor's new book Cultural Selection (Basic) goes into great detail to demonstrate that presumed cultural superiority is the product of political, military, and economic imperialism. In the course of his argument, he avails himself of Darwinian theory and the scientific language of biology. The result is sometimes striking. Many people, for example, might think that the world recognized Shakespeare as great because he is great. Mr. Taylor devastates such simplistic thinking. “Shakespeare was like a local parasite—attached to a species that eventually dominated its own niche and migrated out into others, taking the parasite along and introducing it into new ecosystems that had, often, no defenses against it.” Wherever the English-speaking species has gone, the Shakespeare parasite has conquered. In fact, the reality is even worse than that, for the parasite has insinuated itself into numerous other languages suffering from immune deficiency. It would seem that the only defense against it is illiteracy, a defense greatly enhanced by the work of Mr. Taylor and critics similarly devoted to destroying the parasite's host culture. Since the parasite has so entrenched itself in other cultures victimized by the English-speaking disease, however, it seems likely that a hundred years from now an ascendant China, for instance, might reimpose Shakespeare upon what is left of Western culture. The battle against greatness never ends. It is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. As Burke might have said, the only thing necessary for the triumph of greatness is for literary critics to do nothing. (10/96)
• “Out of the Whirlwind: Claiming a Vision of Progressive Christianity.” We had mentioned earlier this national conference at Trinity Cathedral (Episcopal) in Columbia, South Carolina. According to news reports, “nearly one hundred” people showed up. Progressive is today's word for liberal, and it appears that participants huffed and puffed mightily to put some life into the poor thing. James Adams, for thirty years rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., presided, as inegalitarian as that sounds. “Here we are, a group of ninety people, gathered to talk about transforming an institution, the Church, that has a 1,900-year history of oppression and exclusion,” announced Adams. It sounds like the kind of thing that should be killed, not transformed. But, considering the transformation the group had in mind, that may be a distinction without a difference. In the opening sermon, the retired Episcopal bishop of Atlanta, Bennett Sims, preached on Mark's account of Jesus healing a blind man. “We know that it was not the faith of the Nicene Creed that made him well. That fourth-century formulation actually may make some people ill,” Sims said to laughter. “This is not to despise the Nicene Creed,” he added. Of course not. “Though there are better ways to frame it without sacrificing orthodoxy,” the bishop added. And this is just the group to do it. Dr. Frederica Harris Thompsett, academic dean of Episcopal Divinity School, asked, “How do you speak out in a post-Nicean way in a Nicean church? It probably means asking questions. The biblical prophets did.” The prophets were famous for asking questions. That's no doubt why the symbol for Jeremiah is a question mark. Andrew Getman of Washington, D.C., urged participants not to be nasty to conservatives. “Unless we can hear a conservative brother as someone who needs an arm around his shoulder and to be listened to, then that hurt can turn to violence.” Which, being translated, means, Don't provoke the animals. Not everybody was happy with the meeting. Gene Robinson, assistant to the New Hampshire bishop, said, “I'm not so sure that the $500 or so we each spent getting here might not have been better sent to the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, which is fighting for us on gay and lesbian marriages.” On the final afternoon, after extended small-group discussions, chair Adams offered a rousing call to arms: “I don't even want to identify what we have in common, because that would be divisive.” One is reminded, for some reason, of the old question: What do you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness and a Unitarian? Answer: Someone who goes around knocking on doors with nothing particular in mind. “Out of the Whirlwind: The Still, Small Sound of Expiring Air.” But a measure of sympathy is in order. The basic mistake of the convenors was to think that people would pay their way to a conference promoting “progressive Christianity” when expenses are covered for attending denominational meetings that do much the same thing. (12/96)
• The Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism, Professor Paul Kurtz founder and bishop, publishes Free Inquiry. A reader sends us a promotional letter he received in which the magazine lists all the important questions it covers in “preserving our freethought heritage.” Included is this, “The rise of Richard John Neuhaus and why he bears close watching.” I've been wondering about those people going through my garbage pails. Imagine, sneaky humanists disguising themselves as the homeless. I can't wait until tomorrow. “Good morning, Professor Kurtz. Looking for free thoughts?” (12/95)
• “I argue that in American culture, on the whole, language of the sacred, even language of God, can be pragmatically justified.” That's a relief; religion is given another reprieve. Even language about God!—although only “on the whole,” of course. The above bold assertion is offered by William Dean, professor of religion at Gustavus Adolphus College (Lutheran), in his new book The Religious Critic in American Culture (State University of New York Press). Dean is reviewed by United Methodist Philip Blackwell in the pages of Christian Century, who likes the book very much. Says Blackwell: “Many of us cannot in good faith subscribe to the claims of Christianity in a literal way, but we refuse to throw out the essential truths carried by the tradition. We are left to make something of the conventions of our faith.” A convention is defined “as a social tradition that has developed through several generations. It is neither a claim to an objective and universal truth nor the exercise of arbitrary and subjective willfulness.” It seems that the religious tradition that will come to the rescue of American culture has been developed over several generations, going back all the way to the ancients of the late nineteenth century. While its adherents do not subscribe to it in any literal sense, and it is not “true” in any ordinary meaning of the term, it is nonetheless the bearer of “essential truths.” Lest we suspect him of rigid adherence to an authoritarian tradition, Blackwell assures us that “conventions are revised continually by present interpretations.” People who think the way he does, Blackwell suggests, are the answer to his question: “In a culture that has lost its bearings, who can speak a word of confident direction?” It would appear that another Great Awakening may be on the way, what with people like Dean and Blackwell who are sensitively revising the, er, essential, so to speak, truths, as it were, of religious conventions constructed by three or more generations of liberal Protestantism. Blackwell concludes: “At a time when people are so desperate for stability that they try to recreate a past that never existed, who can show a new way forward? In a public conversation where talk of the sacred often is embarrassing, cynical, or self-serving, who can reclaim the noble vocabulary of our shared conventions? Dean says that it can be done, and that it must be done quickly or we will lose the conventional wisdom that has brought us this far.” The conventional wisdom that brought us to our present sorry pass has, in fact, lost its hold on more thoughtful Christians. Nonetheless, folk like Dean and Blackwell who are so desperate to believe that, in the absence of truth, their religion might still have some social utility will continue to console themselves with conventional nostrums such as “on the whole, language of the sacred, even language of God, can be pragmatically justified.” (10/95)
• And we have a winner in the Moral Equivalency Contest. The headline in the New York Times reads, “Amendment to Protect Flag Wins House Panel's Approval.” The sidebar reads, “In the balance: a cherished icon and a cherished right.” Ah yes, how to resolve the conflict between those attached to two grand old American traditions, saluting the flag and burning it. (10/95)
• New Yorkers, or at least New Yorkers who live in Manhattan, are inveterate walkers. It is therefore not surprising that snippets of overheard street talk are a staple of conversation. For example, the other day two bedraggled derelicts brown-bagging Thunderbird or perhaps some more choice vintage while tottering against the fence of Gramercy Park on East 20th Street. Says the one to the other: “I didn't say it wasn't a good idea. I said you'd never get it funded.” Which perhaps answers the question of what happens to failed directors of think tanks. It occurred to me that they might have been failed academics, but failed academics have tenure. (4/95)
• “Collective Spirituality Behind Youth Crowds for Pope?” asks the headline of a story in Religion Watch. We don't usually use the word “collective,” but some Christians, the apostle Paul included, do think Christianity is a corporate thing, as, for example, in “Church.” The report is based on a sniffishly dismissive article in The Tablet (London) on how the pope manages to attract crowds of hundreds of thousands and even millions all over the world. “The Pope believes in a powerful, visible, and obedient Church. The large assemblies of Catholics who congregate during his pastoral visits are the best expression of this muscular Christianity. . . . It is interesting to note that those who organize the youth days are the trusted ‘Pope's legions': Opus Dei, the Focolare, Communione e Liberazione, charismatics, and the rest, while those who attend are often the vast mass of drifters, of semi-believers, those who seek the warmth and emotion of a mass meeting, whether it be Woodstock, a Billy Graham rally, or St. Peter's Square.” In fact, events such as the recent world youth gathering in Paris are organized by the local church, but more interesting is the reassurance that properly liberal Tablet types would not be caught dead attending, never mind helping to organize, such gatherings of the great unwashed. “Charismatics and the rest” is a particularly nice touch. It has even been rumored that this pope has approved of eating with tax collectors and sinners. The more decorous Catholics of England cannot help but be nervous about what their Anglican friends will think of them. (2/98)
• Singin' them old third-way blues. For people who don't have a scorecard it must be explained that the new name for capitalism is neoliberalism. This is the usage among leftist intellectuals all over the Southern Hemisphere or what used to be called the Third World. And among their friends in the West who were so bitterly disappointed by the failure of real-world, existing socialism, a.k.a. communism. The vicissitudes of history, however, have not dissuaded them from their earnest search for a “third way” between socialism and capitalism, namely, socialism. Among Catholics of the left, the complaint is that the capitalist neoliberals have hijacked Catholic social teaching, with the help of a none-too-alert pope who in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus said the free economy is the way to go. “A theology of liberation is more needed today than ever—but a renewed liberation theology in a different form than previously,” Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Father General of the Society of Jesus, told a Swiss news agency. He and others have discovered that the global economy of neoliberalism has not benefited everyone equally. There are still poor people, he sadly notes. He says that the earlier liberation theology of the 1970s and 1980s had become “exhausted.” That is to say, Marxism was discredited by the very history to which it appealed for vindication. But that older liberation theology should not be forgotten, since it was “deeply rooted in the Gospel and real life of the People of God.” Fr. Kolvenbach said that a French Jesuit, Fr. Jean-Yves Calvez, is “working on proposals for a new papal encyclical on problems of marginalization, unemployment, and social rejection.” But the proposed new encyclical will not deal only with the problems being experienced by the Jesuits. It will also address what is described as the more general crisis of society. The older liberation theology was sharply criticized by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1984 and 1986. Nothing daunted, Fr. Kolvenbach says the third way is now being set to a new tune and “is undoubtedly needed in developed countries too, although not in any sense a copy of the Latin American theology.” He does not say whether the pope has been informed about the new encyclical that is in the works. In preparing new encyclicals, the Jesuits operate on what the intelligence community calls the NTK (“need to know”) principle. In the old days—back when “jesuitical” meant crafty—they didn't even explain their secrets to the news media. (3/98)
• Nicotine Theological Journal is not just about smoking, although the editors do keep returning to the subject in order to tweak religious liberalism about one of its most adamantly held dogmas, the unmitigated evil of tobacco. NTJ is published by the Old Life Theological Society and is “dedicated to recovering the riches of confessional Presbyterianism.” The current issue takes a skeptical view of the Southern Baptist boycott against Disney. They note a Jerry Falwell publication with the headline, “Walt Disney Would Be Ashamed.” So why, the editors wonder, are Christians obliged to honor the sacred memory of Disney? In addition, they note, Disney's involvement in so many enterprises has not overlooked the Christian market. Just south of the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, for instance, is a new Disney development called “Celebration.” It's for people who want the morality of the 1950s combined with “all the neat gear you have today.” “By subtly conflating 1950s-style wholesomeness with Christian virtue, it is luring white, middle-class, pro-family values citizens to live in a theme park. No longer is Disney content to get them for a week a year. It wants to buy their whole souls. (Oh yes, there will be churches in Celebration. The first to go up will be a Presbyterian [USA] church. But when will the first Southern Baptist church be built? And what happens when from the pulpit its pastor urges a Disney boycott?)” The issue also includes some comment on the FT question about “the end of democracy,” and it seems to come down on the side of David Bovenizer, whose letter to FT suggested that democracy ended with Lincoln. Although the editors insist that their publication is not “a Reformed version of Cigar Aficionado,” the issue does conclude by returning to a subject of more than incidental interest. J. Gresham Machen, that stalwart opponent of theological modernism, wrote to his mother during his last semester as an undergraduate at Princeton: “The fellows are in my room now on the last Sunday night, smoking the cigars and eating the oranges which it has been the greatest delight I ever had to provide whenever possible. My idea of delight is a Princeton room full of fellows smoking. When I think what a wonderful aid tobacco is to friendship and Christian patience I have sometimes regretted that I never began to smoke.” (1/98)
• As of this writing, I am contending with a cancer, presently of unknown origin. I am, I am given to believe, under the expert medical care of the Sloan-Kettering clinic here in New York. I am grateful beyond measure for your prayers storming the gates of heaven. Be assured that I neither fear to die nor refuse to live. If it is to die, all that has been is but a slight intimation of what is to be. If it is to live, there is much that I hope to do in the interim. After the last round with cancer fifteen years ago, I wrote a little book, As I Lay Dying (titled after William Faulkner after John Donne), in which I said much of what I had to say about the package deal that is mortality. I did not know that I had so much more to learn. And yes, the question has occurred to me that, if I have but a little time to live, should I be spending it writing this column. I have heard it attributed to figures as various as Brother Lawrence and Martin Luther—when asked what they would do if they knew they were going to die tomorrow, they answered that they would plant a tree and say their prayers. (Luther is supposed to have added that he would quaff his favored beer.) Maybe I have, at least metaphorically, planted a few trees, and certainly I am saying my prayers. Who knew that at this point in life I would be understanding, as if for the first time, the words of Paul, “When I am weak, then I am strong”? This is not a farewell. Please God, we will be pondering together the follies and splendors of the Church and the world for years to come. But maybe not. In any event, when there is an unidentified agent in your body aggressively attacking the good things your body is intended to do, it does concentrate the mind. The entirety of our prayer is “Your will be done”—not as a note of resignation but of desire beyond expression. To that end, I commend myself to your intercession, and that of all the saints and angels who accompany us each step through time toward home. (2/09)
On breast politics, New York Times, October 2, 1994; on Joseph Mengele, New York Times, February 11, 1992; Matthew Parris on coming out of the closet, the Spectator, August 10, 1991; maternity, Epiphany Church parish bulletin, June 23, 1991; evicting tenants, New York Times, December 25, 1991; on St. Philip's Catholic Church, New York Times, October 3, 1992; David Smolin on “lawless law,” Baylor Law Review, 1995; “Out of the Whirlwind” conference, Episcopal News Service, June 18, 1992; Blackwell review of Dean, Christian Century, March 1, 1995; on flag burning, New York Times, June 8, 1995; McBrien on priestly celibacy, Catholic Northwest Progress, January 2, 1997; on crowds following the pope, Religion Watch, October 1997; on neoliberalism and the “third way,” National Catholic Register, October 21, 1997; David Denby on “Yale Five,” New Yorker, September 22, 1997; on Southern Baptist Disney boycott, Nicotine Theological Journal, July 1997.