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Decter Pro and Con

Midge Decter’s “Farewell to the Woman Question” (June-July) was a superb little piece. She cuts through the two decades of self-deception, bullying, and patronizing since the so-called Sexual Revolution established its tyranny over American social life. Decter reveals the true fallout with startling candor: increased pride, self-pity, and narcissism among women, and sheepish apology for whatever-it-is-they’ve-done among men, coupled with eagerness to accommodate, atone, and improve for the decrying women. Many of the men, I add dishearteningly, are clergy. But for her insight we are all indebted to the Angelic Decter.

L. A. Carstens
Torrance, CA

I offer my sympathy to Midge Decter. How unfortunate that she must endure the trifling conversation of successful women. And how unfortunate for us that we must subsequently endure her frustration in a less than unequivocal pledge to refrain from indulging in the tedious pastime of commenting on the “woman question.” I am confident that many heads and tongues were clucking in unanimous applause for the derision of “libbers.”

Yes, I am acquainted with these women and with those who cling tenaciously to an agenda long since accomplished. But I try to bear patiently and lovingly with them in appreciation for the courage of their stalwart challenge to a status quo which rendered choice . . . an option for few women.

This reader is grateful for our Lord’s generous blessings, not least of which is the inspiration of women who persistently, though perhaps not quietly, handle the daily demands and rewards of living in a community that only recently accorded women the respect inherent in the ability and permission to make choices.

Mary Beth Marschik
Hummelstown, PA

Christian Politics?

I am honored that you chose to publish a review of my book The Scattered Voice: Christians at Odds in the Public Square (June-July), and I am thankful for the positive things that my friend Dean Curry had to say about it in his review.

My disappointment in reading the review, however, was to discover that Dr. Curry chose to review a book that I did not write, and it mystifies me why he chose to write what he did. I feel compelled, therefore, to clear up a few things for your readers.

First of all, the book is not about “political differences that divide American evangelicals.” It is about the full spectrum of contending Christian positions in America today In four of the seven main evaluative sections, I do indeed discuss those who might be considered evangelicals—as Curry points out. But nowhere does he even mention the fact that in other important sections the book evaluates work of the American Catholic Bishops, statements from several mainline Protestant churches, and publications of M. Douglas Meeks, Max Stackhouse, Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and several civil rights reformers, including Jesse Jackson. Curry ignored all of that. It reminded me of a Soviet reading of history—quite selective.

In the second place, Curry implies that I probably agree with him that “there is no uniquely Christian politics.” But he fears that I come “precariously close to arguing for a Christian politics that is sui generis.” His concluding paragraphs also show that he missed the whole thrust of the book. The book, from start to finish, is an argument for a distinctively Christian view of politics. The fact that the Bible is silent on how the U.S. and others should deal with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait is totally beside the point of my argument, which is urging the development of a Christian political philosophy. The fact that I attempt, very carefully, to show how a Christian public philosophy needs to take into account the contending views of various Christians—as well as our entire liberal/conservative political tradition—does not weaken my appeal for something more fully, integrally, and distinctively Christian. If by sui generis Curry means to suggest that I might secretly want to have my own private, gnostic perspective, then he is utterly mistaken. If, on the other hand, he somehow got a glimpse of the fact that I am calling for a biblically grounded and distinctive Christian political philosophy, then he should have seen that I do not merely “come precariously close” to trying to do such a thing; that is precisely what the book is about.

Since I know that First Things is about “truth telling,” no matter how hard it hurts, I hope you will publish these few words of truth to illuminate Curry’s review of my book.

James W. Skillen
Executive Director
The Center for Public Justice
Washington, D.C.

Dean Curry Replies:

I am sorry that Jim Skillen feels that I have misrepresented his book. Although my review of The Scattered Voice is critical—which, of course, is the function of all reviews—on balance I am positive about the book. Dr. Skillen complains that I have misrepresented his book, that it is not about political differences that divide American evangelicals. Skillen does devote three sections of his book to an evaluation of individuals who are not usually associated with American evangelicalism. However, this does not alter the fact that The Scattered Voice is written to, and with an interest in, the world of American evangelicals—that religious subculture with which Skillen is closely identified. In this regard, it is not irrelevant to point out that Skillen’s publisher is a mainstream evangelical publishing house.

With respect to his second complaint, I am afraid that Skillen has misunderstood my argument. I am fully aware that Skillen’s book is “an argument for a distinctively Christian view of politics”—this is the heart of what might appropriately be called the Jim Skillen Project. It is precisely this view that I challenge in the final paragraphs of my review. I believe biblical teaching and Christian discipleship do have important implications for the way we think about and do politics. Nevertheless, I believe that it is wrong to argue, as Skillen does, that we can define a distinctive Christian politics—that is, a political vision or public philosophy that is uniquely Christian. (It is in this sense that I used the term sui generis.) Unlike Skillen, whose Reformed theology bears the mark of strong Dooyeweerdian influences, I am persuaded by a more traditional reading of Reformed theology that understands politics as earthly service on behalf of the holy kingdom. There is nothing holy or special about the tasks of politics, just as there is nothing holy about any of the common tasks of common culture. Christians have access to the truths of common culture the same way as do non-Christians, through common grace. Christians have no special wisdom regarding politics; prudence is a gift to all men and women.

I continue to appreciate Jim Skillen’s thoughtful contribution to the forging of a biblically based Christian approach to public philosophy. I believe my friend is misguided, however, in his quest to define a uniquely Christian third way.

Halakhah and Modernity

My friend David Singer has once again enriched discussion and punctured stereotypes by knowledgeably discussing a sophisticated contemporary apostle of Orthodox Judaism (“The Unmodern Jew,” June/July). I am afraid, however, that there is more (or perhaps less) to David Bleich and the halakhic school he represents than the refreshingly unmodern unselfconsciousness that his essay celebrates. Simply put, a fair reading of Rabbi Bleich’s stunningly erudite oeuvre indicates that if he is untroubled by the anxieties of modernity it is not because he has somehow transcended or dissolved them but because he has never experienced them, and certainly never respected them. Bleich’s method is not, as David Singer says, “beyond modern consciousness” but prior to it. Indeed, his halakhic method proceeds utterly through resolutely antiseptic, positivist (in the jurisprudential sense) categories, untouched by notions of historical change or the larger purposes of the halakhah as law for the community or vessel of the spirit.

While in the responsum to which David Singer chiefly directs our attention Rabbi Bleich comes to the edifying conclusion that deaf-mutes may be accepted as full-fledged members of the community, he does so through so narrow a method that what we would think of as a moral Judaic result depends wholly on the ingenuity and (as Singer says) “personal predilections” of the lone rabbinic decision-maker, unaided by the categories of his discipline. He rather disingenuously accords the deaf-mute an halakhic personhood as the result of the secular world’s having regarded him as educable in the first place. Were it not for that fortuity, nothing in his own interpretive canons, so it seems, would have led him to conclude that deaf-mutes are also fashioned In His Image and should be educated, and afforded the opportunity of consciousness and expression, just like anyone else. Left to its own devices this failure to acknowledge the moral and social dimensions already at work, nolens volens, in the halakhic process ends up deciding basic questions of war and peace and human dignity by the same terms in which one approaches the kashrut of a chicken.

That any authentic Jewish movement must reckon with the normative force of halakhah is unassailable. That David Bleich is a master of halakhic literature is unquestioned. Whether he can in any way serve as a religious/legal guide to Jews, Orthodox or otherwise, who have truly experienced the liberations and disillusionments of modernity is another matter entirely.

Yehudah Mirsky
Washington, D.C.

Truth and Reason

Robert L. Wilken’s “The Christian Intellectual Tradition”(June-July) touches on the central issue of religion and public life: truth. In an era of “moving with the times,” “self-fulfillment,” and “actualizing the community consensus,” the ancient question of what is right and true is left begging for an answer. Professor Wilken’s article raises hopes of a serious discussion on this topic. “Faith is only as good as its object,” he tells us; a logically self-evident, but almost forgotten proposition among those who see truth as a shifting target sought after by the undefined and undefinable “people of good will.”

It appears that, while identifying one question, a question of paramount importance. Professor Wilken has answered another, lesser question of the role of reason (and of tradition) in apologetics, ethics, and polity. He wants faith to be a “reasoned conviction.” This is not an unworthy goal. We are always to be ready to give an answer for the faith that is in us. On the other hand, I have heard some immature, but nevertheless soundly reasoned, convictions about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Reasoned conviction does not protect us from faith in a false object.

Rolf Wegenke
Madison, WI

Sex and Semantics

The perceptive piece on “date rape” (“Boys and Girls: The Long Way Back to the Obvious,” The Public Square, May) highlights the fact that while many Americans are reinventing the wheel, many feminists are perversely insisting that it be square rather than round.

Language is enlisted not to communicate truth but as a weapon of war. Swarthmore College’s expansion of “acquaintance rape” to encompass even “verbal harassment” is intended to create (1) a class of “victims” to be mobilized as a pressure group, and (2) a class of people who are guilty no matter what they do and can find innocence only in getting permission for everything, i.e., surrender the dominant position in heterosexual transactions to women. Case in point: I happen to be a proud member of the rearguard of the Victorian Age, imbued with both reverence for women and old-fashioned romance, sentiments that find expression in kissing the hands of dates and women friends. I no more think of asking consent for this act than I do for a handshake. The logical conclusion from Swarthmore’s training manual is that, analogous to Moliere’s bourgeois gentilhomme, I’ve been committing rape all my life and never knew it.

As the logic is flawless, such a wrongheaded conclusion can only spring from wrongheaded premises. The feminist position springs not from the premise of our dignity, which applies to men as well as women and would preclude such partisan perversions of semantics, but from responding to the pernicious modem premise that sex is a drink of water with the equally wrongheaded premise that any politically incorrect act by a man is a glass of poison.

John Attarian
Ann Arbor, MI

Liberation Theology

While having enough respect for Michael Novak to read him with openness and humility, I was left disturbed by some of his insinuations in the article, “Liberation Theology: What’s Left” (June-July). Novak leaves the reader with the impression that Latin America’s devastating poverty is the result of the “misbegotten form of social analysis” employed by the liberation theologians. This not only exaggerates the influence of the liberationists on Latin American economic policy, it obscures the impact of five centuries of colonial/imperial domination . . . . There is an impressive amount of research indicating that the deteriorating condition of the poor majority in Latin America [in recent times] is largely the result of U.S. intervention and the imposition of “American style” democracy and free market capitalism. Whatever the merits of capitalist economic philosophy, the attempt to impose it (or any other economic system) upon Latin American society is doomed to fail unless the basic class/power structure is radically altered. This is the essential conclusion of the liberation theologians’ social analysis.

Equally disturbing is Novak’s suggestion that the liberation movement has little, or nothing, to offer toward the achievement of democracy in Latin America. Having recently returned from El Salvador, it was my observation that it is only within the base and repatriated communities that one finds genuine democratization of all aspects of social life. While grudgingly admitting that the base communities are “a necessary ingredient for the development of national democratic life,” Novak attempts to separate the base movement from its theological context. This is both unnecessary and dishonest. The base communities antedate the articulation of the movement’s theology precisely because, since its inception, the liberation movement has been popularly based. These communities are both the context of theological reflection and microcosms of the liberationists’ vision for Latin America. Far from being caught unprepared for the “democratic revolution,” these communities [offer] the vision, hope, and courage to achieve such a revolution. If there is despair on the part of these poor communities or the theologians who live and write in solidarity with them, it is less due to the change in Eastern Europe than to the prospect of facing unrestrained U.S. hegemonic domination within the emerging “New World Order.”

Kalin Grigg
Fort Lewis College
Durango, CO

Saving the Christian College

Your recent two-part essay by James Tunstead Burtchaell (“The Decline of the Christian College,” April and May) was insightful and courageous. His suggestion that such schools actively seek out and recruit faculty with a competence and interest in both their academic discipline as well as Christian intellectual and cultural tradition is long overdue. Without such “affirmative action” on behalf of Christian scholarship, it is clearly impossible to accomplish that “integration of the sciences and religious faith” which from the time of Newman and before has been the hallmark of a Christian university.

Such efforts will undoubtedly be hampered by secularized and inadequate notions of academic freedom. Much could be accomplished if the recent (September 25, 1990) “Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities” of John Paul II were taken seriously and implemented. The virulent anti-authoritarian bias and radical individualism so typical of liberal Christianity these days must be overcome. We desperately need to reinsert ourselves into the larger, longer “living tradition” of the Church.

(The Rev.) Edward Krause
Gannon University
Erie, PA

James Burtchaell’s “The Decline of the Christian College,”  has occupied a goodly share of my time recently, as the red underlining will attest. This is must reading for presidents and board members of colleges where the fight is still on and the battle not yet lost. My college, Whitworth, is one such school. The same may be true for many of the colleges in the Christian College Coalition, a group of about eighty evangelical Protestant schools.

One point that Burtchaell did not make (and is perhaps ignorant of) is that some schools still associated with a denomination find that link to be harmful rather than helpful in the struggle to maintain biblical fidelity. In such cases a close denominational tie is more of a burden than an encouragement. If once upon a time certain church hierarchies were populated with ignorant but faithful clerics, as Burtchaell declares, the story today is too often of sophisticated infidelity in the top echelons of church power. Colleges associated with such denominations must struggle against both secular society and denominational leadership. Under such circumstances the struggle to maintain a semblance of Christian orthodoxy is no small task.

Edwin A. Olson
Whitworth College
Spokane, WA

Churches and Authority

Gilbert Meilaender’s article “How Churches Crack Up” (June-July) has helped me find a perspective on the tragic events of the recent history of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. More than anything else I have read, and I have read a great deal from many authors involved in the struggle, Meilaender has identified the issue underneath all the other issues faced in this frustrating and painful controversy. Meilaender helped me to see how the question of authority within the Church, [rather] than something unique to Missouri, has shadowed all of Lutheran history. Perhaps the problem will never be solved until this confessing movement accomplishes its goal and stands within a Catholic Church renewed by the Gospel. Without a clearly defined and accepted teaching magisterium, a church is doomed to face crisis after crisis. Missouri has found little peace even though the controversy of the 1970s has come and gone.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America wrestles with the same dilemma. Several groups compete to speak for the Church and to declare what it is the Church believes, teaches, and confesses. But Lutherans are not alone. Other church bodies have their own problems deciding who speaks for their church. Even in Roman Catholicism, you can find theologians, bishops, and lay who challenge Papal authority to determine what is and is not Roman Catholic teaching.

(The Rev.) Larry A. Peters
Cairo, NY

Ethics and Technology

Max Stackhouse, in his article “Godly Cooking? Theological Ethics and Technological Society”(May), is mistaken in his belief that technology will “liberate the human spirit” and achieve the “purposes of God.” It is idealistic to believe that we know how our world ought to work. Only when we accept that we don’t know how it ought to work can we develop ethics for technology. We can “liberate the human spirit” and achieve the “purposes of God” only by loving our neighbor as ourselves, with God’s help. The purpose of ethics for technology is to allow us to focus on our neighbors and God. We can then live together in the world as God wants us to.

[Stackhouse’s] approach to “cooking” is to provide a religious foundation for the cooking. The problem is that, even with a religious basis, we don’t know how to transform our world into an ideal world.

We don’t know, even with the most precise analysis possible, what the effects are of our changes. Every effort at “cooking” demonstrates that we don’t know what we are doing. When we provide some change and view its benefit, there is a drawback associated with it. It is, in most cases, a drawback of which we were unaware when we provided the change. Often, it is not clear which has the greater impact, the benefit or the drawback. Our human nature does not include an ability to know what to change or “cook” to attain God’s purposes.

Not only do we not know what we ought to change the world into; we should not be changing the world at all. That is not what we are about. The view that we must “cook” the world to achieve God’s purposes may stem from a confusion of the nature of human nature. The way that we human beings gain fulfillment and meaningful lives is through relationships with our fellow humans and with God.

When previous cultures provided religious and ethical guidance in the process of technology, it was not to show that “ought” is built into the process and that “Godly cooking” is possible. The purpose was to provide limits for the process, because it was recognized that we don’t know how “things ought to work.” We, the modern world, have removed sacred ritual and religious guidance from the process of technology and thus have removed the limits on technology.

Mark Dillon
St. Paul, MN

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