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Civilization, it has been observed, depends upon obedience to the unenforceable. Similarly, it depends upon the observance of the unexamined. The Lutheran ethicist Gilbert Meilaender once wrote a brilliant essay titled “The Examined Life Is Not Worth Living” (in The Theory and Practice of Virtue, Notre Dame). His argument had to do with, inter alia, virtue as both gift and achievement, and how the things that are most important to living a good life elude our sure analytical grasp. Marriages, families, and friendships work best when we are not constantly scrutinizing their inner works. When examined, dissected, and reduced to contractual agreements, they are already in very deep trouble. The same is true of cultures and churches.

Even if they never heard of Edmund Burke, most sensible people are Burkeans. They are disposed to trust their intuitions, moral sentiments, and commonsensical experience as these are embedded in, and reinforced by, the communities in which they live. That is one reason why it can be such fun to be a cultural revolutionary. Defiance of custom and radical innovation take people by surprise. The innovator not only has the frisson of being revolutionary, but he can indulge the conceit of being intellectually superior since he has examined what others take for granted. “Give me three good arguments against incest,” he challenges. And his poor interlocutor has to admit that he really hasn’t given the matter that much thought. The fact that decent people have always thought incest a very bad thing does not count as a good argument.

A Few Sane People

In the New York City public school system at present a few sane people are desperately trying to come up with arguments in support of their belief that there is something radically wrong with teaching fourth graders the excitements of anal and oral sex—homosexual and heterosexual—accompanied by graphic illustrations and the doctrine that children have a “civil right” to sexual gratification according to their own preferences. Critics of this pedagogical advance complain that it is a radical departure from tradition, to which proponents answer that that is one of the best reasons for doing it. Critics say it offends the beliefs of parents, to which proponents say (sotto voce) that parents with children in the public schools are almost all poor and marginal and have been safely ignored for decades. Critics claim the program violates community standards, to which proponents triumphantly respond, “Community standards in New York City?” Enough said. Complaint dismissed. You might as well nestle down in the handbasket and enjoy the ride.

As in the culture, so also, mutatis mutandis, in the churches. Unlike incest and anal sex for nine-year-olds, the innovations here do not necessarily appear as direct assaults on traditional truth, and people of good faith and intelligence can and do disagree on the merits of such changes. As in the culture, however, there are dynamics that give the proponents of innovation the edge. It sometimes takes a long time for churches to pull themselves together in order to make a convincing response to proposed innovations. This has been the case with artificial contraception, mainly among Catholics, and with women’s ordination in those churches that did not promptly embrace the innovation when it became culturally attractive about twenty years ago. In a most instructive and scholarly work, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later (Catholic University of America), Janet E. Smith writes that the Catholic Church was ill-prepared to make a convincing case against contraception. That explains, in part, why Catholics were so shaken when numerous moral theologians and others rejected the teaching of the 1968 encyclical.

Until the Anglicans broke with it at the Lambeth Conference of 1930, the Christian tradition had been virtually unanimous in teaching that contraception is morally wrong, as John Noonan documented in his authoritative study, Contraception. By the 1960s, many Catholics, encouraged by developments around the Second Vatican Council, hoped that change in the Church’s teaching was only a matter of time. Their great disappointment with Humanae Vitae was understandable. Fr. Andrew Greeley, among others, has argued that the encyclical has, more than any other one thing, undermined confidence in the Church’s teaching authority. It may be more accurate to say that the widespread dissent from the encyclical, notably in Catholic academic circles, did the undermining.

Without mentioning Greeley, Smith agrees that the impact on effective teaching authority was enormous. One reason for this, she notes, is that the encyclical was taken as the occasion not for examining contraception but for advancing a larger agenda. “There was little true examination of the arguments of Humanae Vitae itself,” she writes. “Most of the debate immediately following the issuance of the encyclical focused on the status of the encyclical as infallible or authoritative, on the role of conscience and the legitimacy of dissent. Nor did the theologians later often take up the issue of contraception itself; rather, they questioned all the more radically the very principles on which the teaching on contraception and indeed the teaching on all moral matters has been traditionally based.”

John Paul II has vigorously and repeatedly reaffirmed the teaching of Humanae Vitae, although casting the argument in a more “personalist” philosophical framework that is less reliant on natural law arguments for a necessary connection between the unitive and procreative dimensions of sexual intercourse. Smith acknowledges that the Church is not yet beyond the initial shock of widespread dissent from Humanae Vitae, and it may be a long time before more pastorally effective arguments are mounted. “In the perspective of Church history,” she writes, “the debate about contraception is relatively new. Until recent decades there had been no serious challenge to the Church’s teaching on contraception. It is not unusual in the history of Church teaching on a given topic for the conclusions to precede the arguments and for a development of the arguments in support of a teaching to await the stimulus of dissenting objections.” On most important questions, it might be observed, conclusions precede arguments. Just as life precedes the examined life. And, if we are fortunate, survives it.

Our Issue for Controversy

Similar factors inform and deform the debate over women’s ordination. Some proponents of the innovation seem to suggest that the failure to ordain women was the result of a two thousand year spasm of absent mindedness, or because earlier Christians were “culturally conditioned” in a way that we enlightened folk are not. Here, too, conclusions precede arguments, or at least they precede arguments that persuade the advocates of change. That is among the points made in a collection of essays published some years ago, Women and the Priesthood, edited by Fr. Thomas Hopko of the Orthodox Church of America.

In his concluding essay, Hopko leaves no doubt as to what he thinks is at stake in the debate. “The question of women and the priesthood is but one important instance of what I see to be the most critical issue of our time: the issue of the meaning and purpose of the fact that human nature exists in two consubstantial forms: male and female. This is a new issue for Christians; it has not been treated fully or properly in the past. But it cannot be avoided today. How we respond to it, I believe, clearly demonstrates what we believe about everything: God and man, Christ and the Church, life and death. It is, in a manner of speaking, our particular issue for controversy: our gnosticism or Arianism, our Origenism or iconoclasm. It is the issue of our time, the issue that inevitably comes to every age and generation ‘in order that those who are genuine … may be recognized’ (1 Cor. 11:19). It is our controversy for judgment.”

Some readers may object that Fr. Hopko’s rhetoric is inflated, but keep in mind that for the Orthodox, as for Catholics, the question of women and the priesthood implicates theological truths in a way very different from those communions that have a less sacramentalized understanding of ordered ministry. Then too, as he says, women’s ordination is not an isolated question but engages fundamental understandings of male and female in creation, church, and culture. Few who have been involved in this discussion in the several churches would be inclined to disagree with Fr. Hopko on that score. Both proponents and opponents of ordaining women recognize that it has to do with much more than whether women are functionally competent to do what was previously done only by men. There is no denying that many women are a great deal more competent than many men.

But Hopko’s essential point is closely related to that of Smith and Meilaender, having to do with the connections between conclusions and arguments, between life and its examinations. “It is,” writes Hopko, “not a task of discovering what the truth is—it is rather the task of articulating and explaining it in proper theological language and concepts. It is the perennial theological task of finding the ‘words adequate to God.’ Just as the Church knew the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be equally divine and praiseworthy, but required centuries to forge the proper and convincing formulation of the dogma of the suprasubstantial Trinity, so, it seems to me, the Church knows what she believes and practices concerning men and women in the life of the Church, including the priesthood, but it appears certain that it will take years of theological labor for her to arrive at a fitting dogmatic statement to explain and defend it.”

The Future of Tradition

However people may differ on contraception, the ordination of women, and efforts to redefine the meanings of male and female, they can recognize the difficulties posed in defending what is given by tradition—in making the case for obedience to the unexamined and the unenforceable that, when challenged, must be examined and somehow enforced. The difficulties are intensified in a culture that is obsessed with “change” and what is “new.” Precisely because something is given by tradition, it is suspect. Admittedly, this neophiliac disposition is more pronounced among intellectuals and the purveyors of advanced thought in the knowledge class. After all, status among their peers depends upon their being “creative,” which is to say “innovative.” Relatively few thinkers understand it to be their task to provide an intellectual defense of the wisdom of tradition. To voice the possibility that our grandparents may have been as smart as we are is to invite the awful fate of being called a conservative.

Effective resistance to innovation, when one is convinced that resistance is called for, requires courage and imagination. It also requires being embedded in a community that has an identifiable history that is sustained by authoritative claims to truth. Among Christians today, it would seem that Orthodox and Catholics have such a community, although it is very much under attack from within and without. And so do many conservative Protestants who, while eschewing the idea of authoritative tradition, hold firmly to that part of the tradition that is the inspired Scriptures. As for American culture, it is increasingly hard to believe that it has a sustainable story. The ravages of “multiculturalism,” plus courts that make up the law as they go along, plus an establishment of middle-aged juveniles who cheer on the unbridled vandalism of “creativity” in history, literature, and the arts—all combine to unravel whatever story America once had.

Of course, as the man said, it ain’t over until it’s over. While it is increasingly hard to believe in a sustainable American story, one has a duty to try. For Jews and Christians, who are part of a much greater and longer story, the doing of that duty is neither onerous nor marked by desperation. Unlike those who are in thrall to the imperious now, they have the assurance that they have all the time that there is, and that it is all time toward home. In that confidence, they exercise the courage to conserve, and to reform in order to conserve. And they are not at all intimidated by the not so awful fate of being called conservatives.

Life After Television

To say that someone is an enthusiast is, to our way of thinking, not necessarily a compliment. And George Gilder is sometimes given to getting carried away with his enthusiasms. In a new little book, Life After Television, he extols a future of fiber optics and telecomputers that, he declares, “can renew our entire culture.” “The telecomputer,” he says, “will enrich and strengthen democracy and capitalism all around the world.” Why, he asks, doesn’t the information technology that we have now better inform and uplift us? “This,” says Gilder, “is the most important question of the age.”

His hyperbole might put off some readers. That would be a shame, since Gilder has a strong record of enthusiasms that have been subsequently vindicated. His Sexual Suicide (an argument updated in Men and Marriage) was one of the earliest and most devastating critiques of radical feminism, while Wealth and Poverty anticipated by a decade much of today’s thinking about market economies and the plight of the urban underclass. A more recent book, Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology, describes “the overthrow of matter” in the production of wealth in a way that is also theologically suggestive. (This writer draws on Gilder’s argument in Doing Well and Doing Good [Doubleday 1992] in explaining Pope John Paul II’s contention that human ingenuity is the chief, and inexhaustible, economic resource.) That Gilder should be theologically suggestive is by no means accidental. He is a Christian (Episcopalian) of serious intent.

Gilder insists that the U.S. has a strong lead in communications technology but is in danger of frittering it away in a misguided competition with the Japanese over high density television (HDTV). Television, Gilder and others claim, is a thing of the past. The future belongs to telecomputers linked by fiber optics, a technology that will give us almost infinite variety in the production and distribution of programming. If true, the prospect has far-reaching implications also for religious programming and the ways in which the churches communicate their messages. Many of the technical details of Life After Television quite thoroughly elude this technologically illiterate writer, but the possibilities limned seem both persuasive and attractive.

Obstacles to Progress 

Gilder has an unflinching view of the way in which the existing television imperium works, or doesn’t work. To take advantage of the present media, “the artist usually has to make a Faustian deal.… He must bow to the lowest terms of mass appeal. Then he must join the queue for access to the limited number of video-entertainment channels. Television acts as a severe bottleneck to creative expression, driving thousands of American writers and creators into formulaic banality or near-pornographic pandering. The current system dictates that thousands of writers and directors labor to supply a few channels and distributors and that few of America’s best TV and motion picture artists regularly have their work produced. Rather than creating original works, most TV writers merely fill in the blanks of formatted shows, contriving shocks and sensations to satisfy a mass audience.… The very nature of broadcasting means that television cannot cater to the special interests of audiences dispersed across the country. Television is not vulgar because people are vulgar; it is vulgar because people are similar in their prurient interests and sharply differentiated in their civilized concerns.”

The existing production and distribution pattern is no better with movies. “All right,” says Gilder, “let’s go to the movies. There are 50 theaters within driving distance, but they are showing only 10 movies. Five of them are for teeny-boppers or perverts. Two are comedies about men and babies. One is about corrupt cops, call girls, and drug runners. You have already seen the other two. Perhaps one was worth the effort. The same requirement of achieving mass appeal that afflicts TV also restricts films to a few vulgar themes or sure-fire sensations.” With fiber optics and the telecomputer all this changes, according to Gilder. Of course, nearly unlimited programming alternatives may increase the incidence of the yet more perverse and dehumanizing, but that, Gilder suggests, is the price we pray for the freedom to multiply programs of artistic and moral excellence. The key thing is to break the monopoly of the network and cable systems that dictate and thereby constrict what is on offer.

A Hope for Change 

The logic of both the market and technological change is on the side of the revolution that Gilder describes, or so he contends. This does not mean that the revolution is not meeting with powerful counterrevolutionary resistance. He cites a passage from Machiavelli’s The Prince: “It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institutions and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new ones.” That master of management, Peter F. Drucker, opines that no new system can displace an established one unless it outperforms it by a factor of ten. “Otherwise, the established system will have enough money, momentum, expertise, legal clout, capital plant, installed base, and satisfied customers to hold off the new concept.”

Although he is optimistic, Gilder does not discount the possibility that the combined obtuseness of government regulators and business-as-usual corporate officers could fend off the revolution—at least for several decades. There is reason to hope, however, that Gilder’s more sanguine reading is right. If he is right, the days of the pervasive and chiefly corrupting influence of television and the movies are numbered. We very much doubt that this will mean the renewal of our culture, however. Human nature has demonstrated an impressive capacity to devise new instruments of corruption. Then there is the additional worry, voiced by some, that there may come a time when the communications and entertainment media will be so diverse that there will no longer be any sense of a “national community.” That, in our judgment, is a risk well worth taking, considering that the alternative is a national community whose styles and standards are defined by ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, and Hollywood.

We share with Gilder the prejudice that the risk of diversity is the risk of democracy. In the New Media Order that is projected, millions of people will no doubt continue to favor the banal and debased. But, all in all, we have more confidence in the cultural and moral judgments of ordinary Americans than of their putative betters in a media industry that exploits a largely captive audience to secure its great wealth and power. Call that populism if you must, but it reflects an informed respect for the remarkable resilience of most people who have gone on living more or less sensible lives despite three decades of sustained assault by a media peerage that makes no secret of its disdain for quotidian virtues. We don’t know if George Gilder is right about what is going to happen in the next few years, but we rather hope that he is. (Life After Television: The Coming Transformation of Media and American Life is published by Norton, 126 pp., $14.95.)

An Establishment In Travail 

It has been observed that radical environmentalism is a replacement enthusiasm for people abandoned by defunct Marxist causes. This is evident also in reports coming out of the “Earth Summit 92” held in Rio de Janiero. Paul Wee, a Lutheran World Federation veteran enthusiast of almost every leftist fever that has afflicted this fevered century, has taken the demise of Marxism in stride without skipping a beat. The real action at Rio was not at the meeting of world leaders, he writes, but at the “Global Forum” where hundreds of NGOs (non-governmental organizations), many church-related, celebrated the resurrection of utopian dreams. He praises Maurice Strong, Secretary General of UNCED (UN Conference on Environment and Development), who recognizes that the NGOs are the driving force not only of environmentalism but “of the United Nations itself.”

As with radicalisms past, the Global Forum heaped blame on the “first world,” and especially on the U.S., for the “environmental oppression” of the poor of the world. The eco-enthusiasts drew up “alternative treaties” to those debated by world leaders, calculating in one treaty that the North owes the South $25 trillion for damage to the ozone layer alone. The “lamentation, anger, and passion” of those at the Global Forum, writes Wee, was led “by very articulate individuals and groups who needed no convincing as to either the legitimacy of their cause or their right of access to the political forum.” We have no doubt. The movement also has its ready-made martyrs. “A number of those present carried in their bodies the scars of environmental and political oppression. Some who had the courage to give public testimony returned home fearing for their own safety.” There can be no feel of an authentic revolution without the waving of the bloodied shirt.

And so some church bureaucrats desperately sniff about for discontents to be exploited in order to maintain their posture of “prophetic witness” against the real or imagined powers that be. At least some of them no doubt do believe that they are playing the role of “fools for Christ,” as distinct from plain fools. Which is occasion for mentioning that, in the immediate aftermath of the Los Angeles riots, the Geneva-based World Council of Churches announced that it was dispatching a task force to study racial oppression in the United States. Their report is awaited with an undetectable level of anticipation. In response to the Los Angeles bloodlettings, the head of the National Council of Churches called for a “Marshall Plan” for our cities, and a notably progressive Catholic bishop was widely reported as declaring that the events were a “wake-up call for America” to abandon its racism and address the “root causes” of poverty. Catchy phrases, those. With such inventiveness does religious leadership make its distinctive contribution to our public discourse.

Most contemporary religious pronouncements on social issues are so easy a target that one almost feels guilty in drawing attention to them. It was not always so. Historian William King (“The Reform Establishment and the Ambiguities of Influence”) argues that, after World War II, a secularized social gospel movement in Protestantism lost its transcendent sense of justice and became much more ideological and political in the partisan sense. He attributes this turn, in large part, to the influence of the Presbyterian layman, John Foster Dulles, who enlisted the oldline churches for the anti-Communist cause. He also thinks that the churches declined into being but one partisan political voice among others when they emphasized the “representative” rather than “prophetic” character of their witness. This, King believes, was a mistake since it was apparent to almost all that there was a growing gap between the leadership and the local churches.

It may be that Dulles and others were responsible for “ideologizing” the oldline churches at one point, albeit in the eminently worthy cause of anti-Communism. But King’s analysis would seem to overlook the degree to which the earlier, presumably less secularized, social gospel movement was very much enlisted in causes easily locatable on the political spectrum. More to the point, it was perhaps predictable that churches that served a dominantly centrist political agenda in the 1950s would, almost naturally, adjust themselves to serving the dominant and “radicalized” agenda of the 1960s. The principle, as oft-stated in a slogan of the time, was that “the world sets the agenda for the church.” The world changes (or at least that part of the world to which church leaderships pay attention) and so the church must change in order to stay in step.

King is certainly right in noting the tension between being “prophetic” and being “representative.” For decades, the oldline churches (and their agencies such as the World and National councils) claimed that their “prophetic” witness was institutionally authorized by their constituencies as expressed through the process of representative democracy. Prophecy by majority vote was never a very plausible concept. In more recent years, the church-and-society curia (and it is one curia, cutting across denominational lines) has tended to abandon the claim to being representative and, along with it, has abandoned accountability to the church constituencies. As a result, the groups involved have been abandoned by their constituencies. Despite severe budget cutbacks, and despite the fact that almost nobody is paying them attention, a remnant (they would no doubt say “faithful remnant”) can still raise the price of an air ticket to events such as the Global Forum and can still grind out unread press releases proposing radical remedies for the putative root causes of myriad discontents.

The King essay is in a book edited by William R. Hutchinson, Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment in America (Cambridge). The title suggests that the present doldrums of the oldline are not forever. We all have reason to hope that that is the case. It seems unlikely, however, that any of the variations on the social gospel themes, from the late-nineteenth century onward, provide a useable past to guide the future. A recent study of the Presbyterian Church (USA) indicates that church membership decline is attributable to a basic ignorance of and indifference toward Christian doctrine. The question is not whether leaderships should be representative or prophetic but whether they are, in any serious sense, Christian. It is, in sum, a crisis of faith.

The “travail” analyzed in the Hutchinson book will soon become the death throes of oldline Protestantism unless there is a conversion to teaching elementary Christian truth claims. Without that, leaderships will continue to expend their energies either on desperate “restructurings” aimed at institutional self-preservation or on prophetic posturings that give the churches the satisfaction of feeling that they are useful to whatever utopian spasms have seized the elite culture at the moment. Or, most likely, on both.

The Problem With “Values”

Martin Diamond was a political philosopher at the University of Chicago and a mentor to some of the most sensible folk today thinking about the nature of politics. He died as a relatively young man in 1977, but one of those sensible folk, William A. Schambra, have now put together a first-rate collection of Diamond’s essays, As Far as Republican Principles Will Admit (American Enterprise Institute, 405 pp., $34.95). Here, for example, is some wisdom on the connection between values and facts: “Thus the arbitrary element—so important to the modern usage regarding ethical and political values—was always implicit in the traditional term. But as far as I can tell, the word values was never used hitherto to mean opinions of justice or the common good. And that is precisely the change that was wrought: questions of justice were transferred from the realm of opinion to the realm of ‘values,’ which is to say, from the realm of the partly rational to the realm of the wholly arbitrary. Treating justice under a term heretofore reserved for material things and their conventional values proved an extremely effective rhetorical ploy, because whether applied to commodities or to justice, the word value persuasively implies that neither the commodities nor justice have any intrinsic merit, but only what men subjectively and arbitrarily attach to them. Indeed, when applied to justice, the word came to imply a wholly arbitrary matter; after all, everyone always knew that most commodities have some objective, intrinsic worth.

“Values being thus understood, there is naturally a radical distinction between facts and values. The word value rhetorically prejudges the case and settles all the important questions before they can even be asked. For example, hear how the term value judgment settles the matter: a value judgment is a judgment made as to whether one likes or dislikes certain facts, but only after the facts have already been considered. The very term presupposes and thus seems to confirm that facts and values belong to different realms—facts are accessible to scientific reason, while values belong to the ‘noncognitive’ realm of interests and passions.”

To say that there is no truly value-neutral analysis is not to suggest that all values are equal. We have, Diamond believed, the capacity and responsibility to distinguish between the rational and the rationalizing, between the sound and the foolish, between the fraudulent and persuasive. No matter what the subject matter, values come into play and should be dealt with openly and rationally. He illustrates the point: “When political scientists analyze patterns of aggressive behavior or the question of violence, they presuppose knowledge of what the right behavior is, that is, behavior that is neither aggressive nor timid but just right; one might almost say they presuppose knowledge of a sort of Aristotelian mean. Analysis of ghetto riots and of ‘backlash’ similarly presupposes normative knowledge. For example, riot behavior has to be discriminated into categories of ordinary criminality and political militancy; that is, the behavior has to be judged as either self-seeking or vicious, or as justifiable and manly wrath. And what happens to the fact-value distinction when the very word backlash means an unjustified or excessive hostility or punitiveness? For example, in a survey study of backlash, every characterization of a respondent would involve a normative judgment. In short, all important empirical analyses of behavior rest upon tacit value premises; and if the value premises can have no objective validity, neither can the empirical conclusions. You can’t tell one factual datum from another without a normative score card.”

Mother God

“Inclusive language” in God-talk is all the rage. Sociologist Andrew M. Greeley suggests that critics are making much ado over very little. He points out that survey research he has done indicates that a third of Americans picture God at least equally as Mother and Father, and 12 percent “think of Her more as Mother than Father.” He goes on to note that medieval theologians such as Anselm and Bernard realized that all language about God is metaphorical and therefore had no problem speaking of God as father, mother, sister, brother, knight, and king. Well, yes and no. Many Americans at their prayers and Anselm writing his books are hardly engaged in the same enterprise as radical feminists pushing their “re-imaging” of God.

It is not the fault of the latter if we do not understand by now that their revolutionary intention is to overthrow the putatively oppressive patriarchalism of historic Christianity. They have been telling us this in no uncertain terms for more than two decades. We should do them the courtesy of believing that they want to do what they say they want to do. The assumption is that religious language is a social construct that can be re-imaged in order to conform to our experience and advance the struggle for liberation from sexist hegemony. Of course Fr. Greeley’s truism is true, that all God-talk is metaphorical. Metaphorical does not mean arbitrary or infinitely malleable, however.

Orthodox Christians believe that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is the name of God. Much like Mary Smith is the name of Mary Smith. God has revealed that as the name by which He is to be addressed. We may talk about Mary Smith as a rock, a martini, or a raccoon, but the most accurate thing to say about Mary Smith is that she is Mary Smith. This is not to deny that talk about God, and to God, is metaphorical. It is to recognize, with the Great Tradition of Christianity, that some metaphors happen to be true. Fr. Greeley opines, “The imagery one chooses to use when picturing God and dialoging with Him ought to be a matter of personal taste.” No doubt some people will go on picturing God as a kindly grandmother, a cosmic engineer, a seductive lover (male or female), or protective cop, and there is no necessary heresy in that. The Church, however, does not picture God according to taste but proclaims God according to revelation—as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

While We’re At It

♦ Addressing a conference on the Human Genome Project held in Houston, John Habgood, the Church of England’s Archbishop of York, warned against exaggerating the genetic determination of personal human characteristics. “The fact that we share 98 percent of our genes with chimpanzees does not mean that there is only a 2 percent difference between being chimpanzee and being human,” he observed. One of the most striking characteristics of human life is its open-endedness, he said. “All of us live, whether we believe it intellectually or not, as if we were free to create our own future.” As to whether a person should be told of his genetic abnormalities, Dr. Habgood suggested that “it is probably wisest to know the best or worst about one’s genes, provided the information can be properly interpreted, and provided there is a proper recognition of the inherent limitations of this knowledge.” Those told that they are subject to genetic risks “need to be aware of the danger of spreading an unnecessay blight over their lives.… There is also the danger of being seized by a belief in genetic determination which then becomes self-fulfilling.… One of the trickiest aspects of genetic counseling must be in knowing how to balance an awareness of statistical probabilities against … the open-endedness of human nature, the personal resources for coping with an unlucky inheritance.” On the subject of pre-natal screening, when abortion is the only “treatment” proposed, Dr. Habgood warned that, “given the increasing ability to diagnose major abnormalities at a very early stage, the minority who continue to be born with severe genetically based disablements will find themselves even more disadvantaged by the unspoken assumption that they ought not to have slipped through the net.” Dr. Habgood’s understated warning, it is to be feared, comes rather late. The birth of the severely handicapped is already viewed by many as the imposition of an unnecessary burden upon society. As our colleague Christopher Lasch wrote some while back, there is also social significance in the disappearance of “freak shows” in our culture. We tell ourselves that we are too sensitive to view abnormalities as entertainment, and there is no doubt something to that. Lasch suggests that it may be equally true that our clean, healthy, rational world has no place for freaks. They ought to have been “treated” so as to prevent their imposing themselves upon our delicate sensibilities.

♦ There is no denying that clergy and other public scolds fell in love with Habits of the Heart. For whatever reason, the more recent offering of the Robert Bellah team, The Good Society, has not met with such a favorable reception. Bellah, who is a gentle man, thought our review of the first volume (Public Interest, Spring 1986) was “somewhat churlish,” and it is true that we had stiff reservations about the thesis and the way it was argued. But that review was a veritable rave compared with a scathing essay in Society (May/June 1992) in which Andrew M. Greeley dissects both volumes. Greeley convincingly shows that the data do not support, indeed they contradict, the Bellah claim that Americans are distinctively “individualistic,” “selfish,” “consumerist,” and so forth. As for the institutional reforms proposed in The Good Society, there is, says Greeley, a vast literature on subjects such as poverty and education of which the authors appear to be appallingly ignorant. Greeley concludes with the hope that Bellah & Co. will modify their approach in order to take account of the facts that are, however imperfectly, known, but he does not expect that to happen. “But to modify one’s strategy in such a fashion in response to the data would mean that one would have to admit that individualism and commitment are not necessarily contradictory and that they can co-exist in the same society and in the same person. It would mean to abandon the high ground of moral self-righteousness with which one condemns other Americans. It would mean that one would have to give up the pose of passionate zeal with which one calls Americans to repentance. One would have to stop whining and start discussing. I am not sure that Robert Bellah and his co-authors are willing to modify their style. I am even less persuaded that their enthusiastic admirers would do so. It is too much fun beating other Americans over the head with the club of your commitment and their individualism.”

♦ In a wide-ranging article on how the left and right in the Catholic Church reinforce one another’s worst propensities, the editor of Commonweal, Margaret Steinfels, has this aside on matters liturgical. “The traditionalists have their Tridentine Mass; they have Latin—and bless the Lord, they don’t have to look at a clerical face; meanwhile among the revolutionists there are non-clerical Eucharists and non-Eucharistic liturgies. A recent flier sent to the Commonweal office inquires: ‘Looking for a community to celebrate Eucharist? Join us at our women’s center for a safe place to pray … with fun-spirited people’—date and time are given, but, sorry, no liturgy on April 19, Easter. Is that the day everyone goes to a fake liturgy or an unsafe place—without fun-spirited people?”

♦ John D. Hartigan, a prominent New York lawyer active in the fight against condom distribution in the schools, has written an informative little booklet, “What Parents and School Officials Need to Know About Curbing Teenage AIDS Infection.” It is available for $1.75 from The Catholic Campaign for America, Suite 404, 905 16th Street NW, Washington D.C. 20006.

♦ According to Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU), support for Israel is declining among evangelical Protestants in this country. They cite a survey of readers conducted by Christianity Today in which 39 percent say that their stance toward Israel has become “more critical.” While a majority of readers agree that Israel holds a special place in the future of God’s kingdom, only 24 percent agree that “the biblical mandate is for Christians to support the state of Israel.” Reasons given for the declining support include efforts by EMEU and others to foster closer relations between Palestinian Christians and religious leaders here. It is also noted that there is a decline in “dispensational” theology, which emphasizes the restoration of Israel as a condition for the coming of the End Time. Others say that there is a new “progressive dispensationalism” emerging that is less “land-centered” and “future-centered” than earlier dispensationalisms. An additional factor, it is reasonable to think, is a correlation between evangelical and more general public opinion that has tended to side with the Bush administration’s harder line on questions such as Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Despite the purported decline, evangelical Protestantism continues to provide what may be the single most important non-Jewish source of support for Israel in this country. 

♦ Americans United for Separation of Church and State—the institutional bellwether of extreme separationism—has done a survey of its membership. According to retiring executive director Dr. Robert Maddox, AU is “religiously diverse.” Fifteen percent of the members are Jewish, 10 percent are Seventh-day Adventists, 9 percent are Unitarians, and 13 percent Christian Scientists. What Dr. Maddox does not say is that this means that 47 percent of AU members are drawn from religious groups that add up to a little over 2 percent of the population. “Religiously diverse” is not the phrase that would occur to most observers. The other finding from the survey is that the membership is very old. Dr. Maddox puts a brave face on this, noting that “many of our members are retired and have spare time to read up on church-state issues or get involved locally.” He also notes the obvious, that without younger members there will be nobody “to defend the wall of separation during the next century.” We do not worry about that. There will always be, for whatever reflective or cranky reasons, extreme separationists. But one may hope that they will be marginal to our public debates, more so even than Americans United is marginal today.

♦ There’s a big publicity campaign for Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life (HarperCollins). This book is bad enough to become a best-seller. Moore says he was a monk for some years but is now a “lapsed Catholic.” He has apparently lapsed into a rather genial form of paganism premised upon the insight that polytheism makes for happiness. Kierkegaard said that purity of heart is to will one thing, whereas Moore declares that singleness of heart or mind is the curse of curses. “The most rewarding quality of polytheism is the intimacy it can make possible with one’s own heart. Whenever we try to keep life in order with a monotheistic attitude—do the right thing, keep up the traditions, make sure life makes sense—our moralism against ourselves can keep certain parts of our nature at a distance and little known.… An attitude of polytheism permits a degree of acceptance of human nature that is otherwise blocked by single-mindedness.” Moore says he is offering a “fiction of self-help” that will never be understood by people who are hung up on the question of truth. The ever perspicacious Paul Mankowski comments in The World & I: “For all its talk of depth and mystery, Care of the Soul is a shallow book for shallow people: those who have either given up the struggle for integrity or have never embarked on it. It is written for a world in which there is no evil, only inappropriate dogmatism; no wrong choice, only insufficient appreciation for the down side of each choice. It is a world in which the main terror is boredom. There can be no true profundity in this world; it deals with the surfaces of things. It is incapable of comprehending suffering; it has no natural sympathy for another’s pain. Jesus, Moore tells us, with a staggering obtuseness, ‘has a melancholy side, epitomized in his agony in the garden.’ This is a universe of boundless self-absorption, of a solipsism which deadens rather than quickens perception, a world incurious of tragedy and, consequently, incapable of joy.”

♦ Tolerance is breaking out all over. Albert Ellis of the Institute for Rational-Emotive Therapy, New York, writes in American Psychologist, the journal of the mammoth American Psychological Association, that he has been badly misunderstood. He does not believe that “religiousness is irrational and equivalent to emotional disturbance.” Dr. Ellis is given to making fine distinctions. “I think I have made it quite clear in my writings that religion, in its usual definition, is not irrational nor disturbance creating but that what I call devout religiosity tends to be emotionally harmful. I define devout religiosity as pietistic, rigid, dogmatic belief in and reliance upon some kind of supernatural, divine, or ‘higher’ power and as strict obedience to and fanatical worship of this hypothesized power.” Lukewarm religion that does not take too seriously the human projection called “God” can be quite harmless to mental health. The problem comes with people who “tend to assume that some deity and this deity’s commands at least in part control their actions.” Such fanatics will also “feel compelled to choose paths that their supreme being views as correct,” thus limiting the range of “choice” in their lives. In coping with stress, they “will be inclined to ignore irreligious stress strategies (e.g., indulgence in sex and other pleasurable forms of relaxation) and resort mainly to prayer and religious rituals.” Dr. Ellis is quite prepared, however, to give a clean bill of mental health to those whom he describes as “open-minded religionists” who take care not to offend against the orthodoxy of the denomination called Rational-Emotive Therapy. That such sturdy primeval specimens as Albert Ellis survive and flourish in the American Psychological Association a century after William James is powerful testimony to the human mind’s resilience under the assault of thought.

♦ Controversy continues to swirl around Josemaria Escrivá de Balaguer, the founder of Opus Dei who died in 1975 and was beatified by John Paul II on May 17. A January story in Newsweek raised major questions both about the personal sanctity of “The Father” and about the alleged rapidity with which his “cause” had been advanced by the Holy See. Now Robert Moynihan, editor-in-chief of The Catholic World Report, has done a searching examination of the objections that have been posed and arrives at what strikes us as a sober and sensible judgment regarding Opus Dei and its founder: “It seemed to me that Opus Dei was a powerful institution of the Church, founded by a charismatic, hard-driving Spaniard under conditions of persecution, which has expanded steadily over the years due to the loyalty, unity, intelligence, and Christian commitment of its leaders and members. It had won little favor under Paul VI, prompting understandable irritation from Escrivá and other in Opus Dei who disagreed sharply with the excesses they perceived in the post-Council years. But it had come back into favor under the present pontiff, who found its discipline, doctrinal orthodoxy, and personal loyalty praiseworthy and useful. I was persuaded that there is no ‘deep, dark secret’ at the heart of Opus Dei, simply a profound, if very Spanish, Catholic faith. But it also seemed to me that Opus Dei’s perceived conservative style had aroused suspicions and some enmities even within the Church, and that the triumphal progress of beatification was a case in point.”

♦ The fear of “hate literature” is spreading in Middle Europe, including Poland. Should, for instance, Hitler’s Mein Kampf be freely available? Polish historian Adam Michnik answers in the affirmative. He says he keeps Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion side by side on his shelf and thinks it better that they be sold in editions with critical introductions than disseminated under the counter in raw form, as is the case in Germany. “We are wiser because of Auschwitz and Katyn,” Michnik concludes. “This is why we must read the writings of Hitler and Stalin and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in critical editions.… We must know what ideas and words lead us to kill men. I repeat: read Hitler, read Stalin.”

♦ 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 neo-pagan stone fetishists are all part of the same phenomenon. Doctrinal distinctions are in order, according to the Rev. 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.

♦ Bishop John Shelby Spong strikes again. Coming out from HarperCollins is Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus. The biblical lie that Mary was a virgin, says Spong, has done awful things to our culture. In addition, “the female aspect of God so long oppressed by the masculine patriarchy is roaring back into our awareness, sweeping away our male prejudices and even our male definitions of the ideal woman.” Redefining God is one thing, but redefining the ideal woman is really getting serious. This also has roared into the bishop’s awareness: “Only the church that manages to free itself from its sexist definition of women, anchored significantly in the virgin Mary tradition, will survive.” That, presumably, explains why orthodox churches are going down the tubes while Episcopalianism is flourishing.

♦ “A healed relation to each other and to the earth calls for a new consciousness, a new symbolic culture and spirituality. We need to transform our inner psyches and the way we symbolize the interrelations of men and women, humans and earth, humans and the divine, the divine and earth. Ecological healing is a theological psychic-spiritual process.… We must see the work of ecojustice and the work of spirituality as interrelated, the inner and outer aspects of one process of conversion and transformation.” For more of the same, see Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing by Rosemary Radford Ruether (HarperCollins). (The above is not, repeat not, a parody.)

♦ We don’t know how many readers follow the horses, but some may remember that Pat Day was the jockey who rode Lil E. Tee to victory in the Kentucky Derby. The Wall Street Journal story included this: “But Day, who is conspicuously religious, said he ‘always knew there’d be a Derby with my name on it,’ and that it would come ‘in God’s good time.’ ” We’re not sure that God picks winners in the Derby, but to be “conspicuous” about one’s convictions sounds like a compliment that we all might covet.

♦ Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship doesn’t claim to be on top of every new wrinkle in the popular culture, but he and his wife Patty did finally get around to watching the video of Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves. Costner brings bad news to his Indian brothers: more white men are coming. How many? they ask. Costner points to the star-packed skies above their campfire. “As many as the stars,” he says. Colson comments: “Few Christians could miss the biblical phrasing. But here the allusion to the glorious Abrahamic covenant is big, bad news—perhaps the film writer’s not so subtle way of saying that the Judeo-Christian civilization is the real enemy.” A few months later, he and Patty decide to watch Costner’s Robin Hood, figuring that nobody could mess up that tale. They discovered otherwise. “The old story has some new twists. The heroine is no maiden in distress, but a nineties-style ‘Ms.’ Marian. Friar Tuck is a drunk whose Christianity is depicted as the same superstitious ignorance that fueled the tragic and bloody Crusades from which Robin has just returned. The modern version also has a new hero: Azeem, a Muslim Moor. Repeatedly, Azeem gets to demonstrate the superiority of Muslim culture to the skewed Christianity of Crusade-era England. In one scene, Friar Tuck solemnly pronounces that a woman in difficult childbirth must die; it is God’s will. Azeem quietly delivers the baby by Caesarean section. There is no Muslim in the original story. What’s Azeem doing in Sherwood Forest?… Well, maybe as a class, white males aren’t allowed to look good in the nineties. Western culture is painted with a broad brush as giving us the imperialists who killed the infidels in the Crusades and oppressed Native Americans here.… Never mind those little Western contributions like democracy. No, it is the Muhammed-inspired Muslims and the pantheistic Native Americans who are the real good guys.… I have talked to Christians who dismiss my concerns as merely the ravings of a white sixty-year-old male who sees bogeymen behind every bush in Sherwood Forest. Maybe. But it’s better to point to the wolves dancing in sheep’s clothing than to sit by and watch while the flock is ravaged.”

♦ Muslims in America now feel sufficiently “at home” that they are prepared to engage in the social activism that is a mark of religion in this country. That, at least, is the claim of The Minaret, a publication of the Islamic Center of Southern California. Its “Agenda for the 90s” focuses on abortion, euthanasia, AIDS, sex education in the schools, drugs, and homelessness. Maher Hathout, chairman of the Islamic Center, says that Muslims have been “introverted” in the past but now “immorality has taken over and the silent majority has to speak.” The behavior of Muslim young people has, says Hathout, shattered the illusion that they are immune from the pathologies of the culture. “Muslims don’t want to impose their morality on others,” he says reassuringly, “but we don’t want others to impose their immorality on us either.” Arab Muslims, according to Hathout and others, are taking cues from American black Muslims on how to cooperate with black churches in contending for their moral agenda. It seems improbable that Richard Nixon had Arab Muslims in mind when he first talked about the silent majority more than twenty years ago, but then what’s a majority for if it can’t welcome another minority?

♦ Governor William Weld of Massachusetts declared at a press conference that, if a pro-choice bill permitted abortions through the ninth month of pregnancy, that is a “price I would pay in order to have government stay out of the thicket.” Within two weeks a full-page advertisement in the Boston Globe carried a statement written by Prof. Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School and signed by more than four thousand women. The final paragraph puts the matter nicely: “Now about the imperial ‘I.’ It is not you, Governor Weld, who will pay the price for that ninth-month abortion. A little boy, or, more often, a little girl will pay with his or her life, and don’t delude yourself that the end will be painless. The price will also be paid by the second victim of every abortion—the child’s mother, often a woman who feels abandoned, helpless, and frightened. Don’t you have anything better to say to that woman, Governor, than that she has the right to kill her own unborn infant? If not, your abortion legislation is just a new edition of an old male message to women faced with a crisis pregnancy: ‘Get rid of it, honey, I’ll pay the price!’”

♦ For people who want to keep up with what is being taught, and what will be taught, in the country’s public schools, the Social Studies Review is an invaluable resource. Published by the American Textbook Council (475 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10115), the review is studiously nonpartisan, although the authors are obviously restraining themselves in their evaluations of materials being pushed by radical feminists, black studies advocates, and sundry multiculturalist enthusiasts. Increasingly politicized textbook adoption procedures in a few key states pretty well determine what will be taught America’s children, or at least those children who have no choice but to attend government schools.

♦ Of the many independent newspapers of a conservative bent that are being published on campuses around the country, Peninsula, put out by students at Harvard, is surely one of the best. For a sample copy write them at P.O. Box 2180, Cambridge, MA 02238.… Those who want to stay on top of what bright and (mainly) younger blacks are thinking in an era that has passed by the radical shuffles of the old civil rights and black power establishments there is Issues & Views. A free copy is available by writing P.O. Box 467, New York, NY 10025.… David H.C. Read and Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., are two veteran preachers of note (one Protestant, one Catholic) and they have just come out with the premier issue of The Living Pulpit. It is definitely worth a look, especially by our clergy readers who are engaged in the impossible glory of preaching regularly. For information write The Living Pulpit, 5000 Independence Avenue, Bronx, NY 10471.

♦ “The problem of the black underclass is a problem that will only be solved one by one and from the inside out.” That’s black political scientist Glenn Loury, a frequent contributor to these pages, as quoted by Midge Decter in a Commentary article on the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots. The chattering classes couldn’t get enough of “anger and rage” as the explanatory factor, indeed the justifying factor, behind criminal behavior on a massive scale. Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” gave thugs from L.A. gangs a platform to explain that they have no alternative to mugging, stealing, killing, and impregnating girls with babies for whom they accept no responsibility because the unemployment rate is so high, and anyway George Bush did the same thing in the Gulf War. The wisdom of Loury’s observation, writes Decter, is difficult to deny. She concludes: “Difficult—but not, it would appear, impossible. For not even a quarter of a century of failure has been enough to dislodge the belief that society at large must furnish the means—the magic program or school curriculum or legal reform—to make everything all right for the black underclass. And the reason this belief cannot be shaken when it comes to blacks is that giving it up for them would force the liberal culture to give it up for everyone else as well.

“Assuming responsibility for one’s life, for one’s everyday choices as well as for one’s moral conduct, is a practice that has been eroding in American life for a long, long time: every private weakness is by now regarded as a legacy of parental misbehavior, every discomfort as an injustice, every wrong turn as an enforced imposition from outside, every defeat as a malfunction of the system. From something as fatal as AIDS to something as nebulous as acquaintance rape, the slightest suggestion that the consequences might be connected with one’s own behavior has become anathema.

“This is what accounts for the absurd hue and cry over Vice President Dan Quayle’s disapproving remark about the decision of a TV-sitcom heroine to have a child out of wedlock. Full-page headlines were devoted to this attack on Murphy Brown by the Vice President; talk-show guests shouted at one another about it. People attempted to charge Quayle with triviality, but their very passion in doing so belied their intention. Quayle was suggesting that both the producers and the more privileged consumers of American popular culture have a house of their own to put in order. But this stuffy message, which is to say, this truth, is what the main managers of our public discourse can least bear to hear—never mind the cost to those poor blacks whose interests they have for so long and with such self-exculpating gratification appointed themselves to serve.”

♦ In a generally favorable review of the first volume of the papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Eugene D. Genovese offers a number of intriguing asides on liberal theology. In the review, Genovese suggests that Dr. King was more theologically conservative than many have assumed, and therefore he was politically radical. That is to say, King recognized that original sin sharply limited the human capacity to respond to moral appeals, and therefore more forceful (although not violent) measures were required to advance justice. Along the way of his review, Genovese notes that the Southern “Agrarian” poet John Crowe Ransom published in 1931 a stinging rebuke of liberalism titled God Without Thunder. Ransom’s point was that a God who does not thunder can hardly command our reasonable worship. Genovese reflects: “When years ago, I finished reading God Without Thunder, I threw it aside, muttering that I would rather burn eternally in hell than submit to the will of such an arbitrary, not to say monstrous, God. But then, as an atheist, I am at liberty to indulge in such grandstanding. Were I in grace and in fear of the wrath of a God who proclaims himself ‘a jealous God,’ I would think again. Liberal (and liberationist) theology, in white or black, should warm every atheist’s heart. For if God is a socially conscious political being whose view invariably corresponds to our own prejudices on every essential point of doctrine, he demands of us no more than our politics require. Besides, if God is finite, progressive, and Pure Love, we may as well skip church next Sunday and go to the movies. For if we have nothing to fear from this all-loving, all-forbearing, all-forgiving God, how would our worship of him constitute more than self-congratulation for our own moral standards? As an atheist, I like this God. It is good to see him every morning while I am shaving.”

Photo by Evangeline Shaw on Unsplash. Image cropped.

Sources: Paul Wee on the Earth Summit in Rio, Lutheran World Information, 1992. Andrew Greeley on inclusive language in the Wall Street Journal, May 27, 1992. On the Human Genome Project, The Tablet, 4 April 1992. John Updike on John Cheever’s Journals in The New Republic, December 2, 1991. Jared Kass quoted on religious experience, Washington Post, March 11, 1992. John Chancellor on Gulf War casualties, “NBC Nightly News,” March 12, 1992. On declining Evangelical support for Israel, Religion Watch, April 1992. Membership survey of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Church & State, February 1992. Albert Ellis on religion in American Psychologist, March 1992. Adam Michnik on hate literature, The Catholic World Report, May 1992. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt review of Robin Lane Fox’s The Unauthorized Version, New York Times, May 11 1992. On Pat Day’s religion, Wall Street Journal, May 4, 1992. Chuck Colson on the depiction of white males in contemporary films, Christianity Today, April 27, 1992. Muslims and silent majority, Religion Watch, May 1992. Gov. Weld on abortion, and Mary Ann Glendon reply, in the Boston Globe, May 6 and May 20, 1992. Margaret Steinfels on liturgies in America, May 2, 1992. Midge Decter, “How the Rioters Won,” Commentary, July 1992. Eugene Genovese on God, The New Republic, May 11, 1992.

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