Trust and Obedience
First Things has done me the favor of asking Professor Gilbert Meilaender to review my book, The Giving and Taking of Life: Essays Ethical (April). May I dialogue briefly with some of his remarks?
He attends, in the first place, to my central argument: that the moral import of human actions resides in their capacity to affect the character of those who perform them. Evil acts are those which tend to make us wither; good acts are those which bring us to flourish. The Christian venue of moral inquiry and discourse, then, is the cumulative wisdom from inspired experience whereby we appraise how certain acts characteristically stunt or enhance our persons. That is: how they ready us or disenable us to cleave to God (and anyone else) in love. And though this communal judgment of believers is served by the special vocational functions of the pastor, the scholar, and the prophet, it is the community which makes this appraisal.
“Catholics,” Professor Meilaender cautions, “think a church without a heavy-handed magisterium looks alluring; Protestants think a church with some semblance of order and authority would be positively refreshing. But the serious point is this: If there is a process of discernment that is important in the life of the church, may there not also be a time for authoritative decision? A time for participation but also a time for obedience?”
This he finds embodied in Trumpkin the dwarf in C. S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian. Charged by his High King Peter with a mission in which he does not believe, he finally accepts. “You are my king. I know the difference between giving advice and taking orders. You’ve had my advice, and now it’s time for orders.”
Let me offer a counter-illustration. In the beginning of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Gandalf the wizard confronts Bilbo with an injunction to yield up the Ring. He uses badgering, blandishment, and the claims of comradeship. But as Bilbo falters and is drawn into the undertow of the Ring’s sinister power, Gandalf commands him: “Give it up!” Bilbo pleads for time: “ ‘I don’t seem able to make up my mind.’ ‘Then trust mine,’ said Gandalf. It is quite made up.’” Gandalf presents Bilbo with a wisdom to trust, not a rule to obey.
Likewise, moral authority in the church evokes trust, not obedience. The commands of moral authority are issued from intellect, not from will. It is, of course, God’s will that we submit to the truth, but when humans present us with the truth they expose us to its imperatives, not theirs. They discern; they do not decide. Our church has no more order and authority than it has wisdom.
Meilaender then observes that our tradition is a historical one, subject to fluctuation, wavering, and dispute. Without an authoritative voice to define its authentic trajectory the community “will be subject to more spirits than the one termed ‘Holy’ by Christians. It will be shaped in large measure by the surrounding cultural context.”
There are indeed times when the voice of moral authority in the church is garbled, or double-tongued, or indecisive, or negligent. There are times when the clergy can be bought, or scholars either fawn on or embalm the past, or the prophets are slain. But other times come, when the church clears her mind and throat and speaks out in ways the “cultural context” finds positively offensive. She is repeatedly startled back from her confusion and apathy by someone as unexpected as young Daniel whose solo shout in the crowd saved Susanna. The authority of the Spirit is never quite quenched. Just when it seems to have been doused it spangles up like a flare. My brother at Oberlin also doubts my claim that the moral force of actions can be seen primarily in the effect they have upon the character of the perpetrators. “I find myself unable to suppose that we learn best whether it is right or wrong to bake an infant in an oven by considering whether such action causes the flourishing or the withering of the one who does it.” But we live in a “cultural context” where twenty-five million infants have been stifled, poisoned, and dismembered in the womb; and our moral consensus manages to conclude no more than that it is too bad, not that it is evil — more evil even for us than for the children. The children, as so often with victims, are unavailable for interview. Yet it is the sight of the destroyers, and especially the contrivance of their defense, that shows us how ill, how lethal for those who wreak it, is this carnage.
Ask yourself: have we learned more about the perversity of Apartheid from looking at the suffering of its black and “colored” victims, or from beholding the swagger and purposive blindness of those who wield the sjambok?
Professor Meilaender wants morality to be obediential: “Our souls belong to God . . . and the problem with Burtchaell’s formulation is that it too readily suggests that our souls belong to ourselves” — that what counts is simply our flourishing. But we flourish when we learn to be obedient to the will of God. . . . I am ready to affirm with him that we can flourish as moral beings only when we act virtuously . . . as long as he is willing to say much more clearly than he does that this flourishing may often be hidden entirely under the cross, visible only to faith and not to sight.” That is a balance I entirely accept. It is what I meant by stressing that without the prophet who sees things from the cross and cries to us to see them too, and without the faith that seems folly, the community cannot scrutinize the hearts of humans and descry there the hidden force of human actions, for death or for life.
James Tunstead Burtchaell, G.S.C.
the university of notre dame
Can Custom Protect?
In “Reflections on the Flag-Burning Case” (March), Mary Ann Glendon may not have meant to do so, but she points to the dangerous shoals ahead as we let down the barriers protecting custom in favor of freedom of expression — as in flag-burning. Andy Capp is quoted: “The difference between law and custom is that it takes a helluva lot more nerve to violate a custom.”
All things being equal, custom will protect the flag if society disapproves of those who do not respect it and who use it as the scapegoat for personal emotional vendettas. However . . . as year after year public schools graduate classes which have had no encouragement in respecting country, custom, or core beliefs; and as colleges graduate classes which have been steeped in the vindictive outbursts of faculty dedicated to overthrowing what we view as our “society,” what then will protect the symbols we have respected for generations? . . .
When “society” becomes representative of those who have systematically been imbued with the anti-patriotic teachings of those whom they are required to listen to in schools, those who now revere our national emblems will then be in violation of “custom,” and subject to condemnation . . . .Will law professors then teach punishment rather than protection?
Catholics and Protestants
Thank you for your excellent and timely publication. I am sure there are many others just as I who have long wished for just such a forum.
Your premier March issue was clearly up to my expectations. However, the article that piqued my interest the most sails under false colors. Promising a Protestant view, Stanley Hauerwas delivers little more than another Catholic perspective on Roman Catholicism in modern America (“The Importance of Being Catholic: A Protestant View”) . . . .
My main objection to Hauerwas’ thesis is not so much his support of Catholicism, but his misrepresentation of Protestantism. Because he mistakenly equates contemporary American secularism with the reformed Protestant ethos that shaped this nation, he seems to accuse Protestants of seducing Catholics into a sort of ethical and moral anarchy. While it is true that the entrenched bureaucracies of the so-called “mainstream” churches are guilty-as-charged of secular heresies, what Hauerwas and the Catholic mind cannot grasp is that these establishment voices do not speak for the Church. A lower-case moral majority still clings to the Reformation’s precious precepts which are far removed from liberation theology. The left-leaning Catholic bishops got there on their own.
All this being said, I agree wholeheartedly with Hauerwas’ basic premise. I too believe that Catholics should remain Catholic, not so much for the promulgation of Roman Catholicism, but to help Protestants remain Protestant. We need desperately to provide both sides with a healthy antagonism against which we can continue to define and comprehend those doctrinal views that have put us in touch with God . . . . After all, we both recognize Jesus Christ as head of the church universal, and that is all the unity we need.
Lawrence A. Orr, Jr.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?