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More on Berger’s God

Peter Berger’s “God in a World of Gods” (August/September) illustrates how quickly a Christian may pour out the baby with the bathwater if he is willing, for the sake of “political correctness” and “multiculturalism,” to make concessions on the chief points of apostolic Christianity. Mr. Berger asks, “If God was in Christ, could He also have been in other human bearers of revelation,” for example, “an unknown Christ of Hinduism?” Then he goes on to assure us that a question like that is not to be “answered conclusively in this world.” So first he asks if we would consider the Incarnation as a repeatable, impermanent outpouring of the divine presence into a human being, and then he says dogmatically that we can never know for sure that there were not many other such Christs.

Now this amounts to saying that the Apostles’ Creed can be chucked out, because the Creed does answer the question conclusively for Christians. The Apostles teach that the Incarnation is unique: God the Son became this man Jesus Christ once and forever, since He alone will judge the living and the dead in the end when time meets eternity. If a Christian were to follow Mr. Berger’s lead and regard the uniqueness of the Incarnation as simply one more pawn to be yielded in the chess game of interfaith dialogue, there would be instant checkmate: the dialogue would cease for the simple reason that there would no longer be a Christian.

When Mr. Berger explains how nonbelievers in the Orient might be scandalized by the crude “historical particularity” of God’s Incarnation as a Jew, he seems to forget that the ancient peoples of Greece and Rome had that stumbling block in reverse, in Jesus’ “Oriental” heritage. However, it seems to me that it is Mr. Berger who is scandalized by a faith that seems to fall so short of the fashionable “multiculturalism.” He would willingly defend a Jesus who was one of the “many avatars of God,” but the Jesus who is the unique Logos and Judge makes him blush. His rainbow-Jesus, in so many ethnic replications, would surely delight a savvy Roman Emperor like Julian. Yes, the “inclusivist” approach Mr. Berger “opts for” in practice comes to the same thing as what used to be called apostasy. I’m glad the ante-Nicene Fathers managed interfaith dialogues with more care for the Baby.

Anne Barbeau Gardiner
City University of New York
New York, NY

Though I have appreciated Peter Berger’s contributions and thoughts for many years, I would like to respond to his apparent direction in this article.

I agree with Mr. Berger that the Christian should be affirmed in his loving those who are not Christians (and loving without the ulterior motive of loving them only so that they’ll become Christians”but rather loving unconditionally, even though one still wants them to become Christian). The Christian should even appreciate others for who they are and affirm their goodness, regardless of their religious beliefs. But working as hard as Mr. Berger does to include them in a large circle of truth, spending such effort trying to find biblical truth within their religious beliefs and structures, certainly seems to be odd [for a Christian thinker].

Has Mr. Berger forgotten that Christianity is based on an exclusivity, and that while the mystical element (Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum or “awesomeness of God”) is certainly a part of the true worship of the Judeo-Christian God, as Christians we believe this common religious experience to be a part of God’s natural revelation as mentioned in Romans 1:18-20 and not something needed to be added? Those religions that have built systems upon this experience alone (without objective revelation) seem to have either built upon their own conjectures or have possibly followed the leading of some angel-gone-astray who is trying to distort truth in God’s system (Moroni, et al.) . . . .

(The Rev.) Jack Hafer
Aliso Creek Presbyterian Church
Aliso Viejo, CA

The Court on Abortion

I commend Russell Hittinger on his excellent article, “When the Court Should Not Be Obeyed” (October). As Mr. Hittinger noted, the United States Supreme Court in Casey v. Planned Parenthood held that states could not place an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to an abortion. Unfortunately, Casey may not mark an end to the expansion of abortion rights in this country. Two other events may serve to further institutionalize the slaughter of the unborn.

First, although Casey did, in Mr. Hittinger’s words, “leave a few crumbs of the abortion issue on the plates of state legislatures,” the Freedom of Choice Act of 1993 (FOCA), would wipe those plates clean. FOCA, which now has 41 sponsors in the Senate and 138 in the House, provides that a “State may not restrict the freedom of a woman to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy before fetal viability.” Except for “involving” parents or guardians in a minor’s abortion decision, the states would be powerless to restrict most abortions. Casey ‘s “undue burden” test goes the way of dirty dishwater. Given its support in both Congress and the Administration, FOCA may well become law.

Second, abortion rights advocates like Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Cal.) are urging President Clinton to include “abortion services” in his national health plan. Abortion advocates gleefully remind the President that, under the plan, abortion services would be funded out of private, not federal, funds. The Administration, in the name of providing the fullest possible range of insured medical services, supports the idea. While there will be some Congressional debate on this issue, it is likely that the Administration will get its way. History has taught us that the American public will accept what it perceives to be a lesser evil (in this case, abortion) for a greater good (in this case, controlling health costs while providing insurance to all) . . . .

If these two measures are adopted in their present form, abortion will become an inviolable federal right affordable to all women through national insurance. And, what is worse, other life-related rights may start to slide down the drain. In the name of providing ever more comprehensive medical services, the government may eventually expand insurance coverage to include contraceptive implants, abortifacient pills, euthanasia, or any other medical procedure that involves the prevention or destruction of human life . . . . If we are not vigilant, Mr. Clinton’s Bold New America may come to resemble Huxley’s Brave New World.

Timothy J. Donnelly
Newport Beach, CA

Russell Hittinger does not explain what it means not to obey the Court with reference to the right to abortion.

Moreover, his opposition to Roe and Casey is based on the assumption that early fetuses are persons, a view that has many adherents but that lacks serious support from science or history, which tend to back Aquinas’ view that ensoulment can occur only after a certain amount of fetal development.

Pro-choice and anti-choice people should join in finding ways to greatly reduce the number of unintended and problem pregnancies. That task would unite rather than divide.

Edd Doerr
Executive Director
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, MD

In Defense of Monasticism

In his fine review essay, “Evangelical Theology in Crisis” (October), Edward T. Oakes, S.J. implies that he accepts as valid the Protestant critique of medieval Catholic religion: “elitist” monks and nuns followed the evangelical counsels of poverty, celibacy, and obedience to a superior while everyone else followed the evangelical precepts (love of God and neighbor).

I have spent many years studying medieval monasticism and am convinced that the medieval “society of orders” in which some worked for all, some prayed for all, and some ruled and warred for all was communitarian and interdependent rather than “elitist” in the modern pejorative sense. Until the rise of the mendicant friars in the thirteenth century, monastic writers did not generally claim superior merit for their way of life; rather, they claimed their Rule-bound life was more free of anxiety for those who recognized their weakness, utter sinfulness, and need for a crutch. Monastic writers believed that all Christians are called to the same life of faithfulness, whether they live as enclosed monastics or lay people in the world. Monastic writers praised those who succeeded at living the life of Christian faithfulness outside the monastic rule but they also warned them to be sure they were up to the challenge, since, without the help of a Rule and the fatherly interpretation of a spiritual guide to whom one had to render account, devout lay people often failed to persevere.

The charges of elitism (enunciated forcefully by Lorenzo Valla in the fifteenth century) reversed the mendicant claims to superiority. Valla insisted that the devout layperson’s faithfulness is more meritorious than the same level of faithfulness by a monk because the monk leans in weakness on his own crutch of the Rule whereas the lay person heroically does it on his own. At the heart of Valla’s challenge and that of later Protestants, including Luther’s Judgment on Monastic Views , is a new concept of liberty that assumes a more subjectively formed, more independent, and less relational self than the socially formed, role-playing personhood of medieval Christian culture permitted.

The “society of orders” seems to have begun to disappear by Valla’s time. No longer could one person vicariously do something for another (fight, govern, work, pray). Four hundred years later we arrive at bourgeois egalitarianism: each person must fight, each must earn his own living, each must walk the sawdust trail, each must govern (of the people, by the people, for the people). While today we might be inclined to applaud this democratization and castigate “elitism,” we have to remember the price that came with it, individualism and growing alienation: I can and must do it all myself. Even the leisured wealthy must give the impression that they work with their hands. Priestly mediation becomes intolerable; sacrament-centered religion is attenuated in Protestantism in general and is totally rejected by the Radical Reformation. (I have attempted to describe and interpret medieval monasticism along the lines alluded to here in my book Fifteenth-Century Carthusian Reform [E. J. Brill, 1993].)

These issues lie behind David Schindler’s critique of George Weigel and Michael Novak in Communio during the past few years. Your readers may wish to give some thought to them as they assess the role of religion in American public life. It is easy to take potshots at medieval elitism and hierarchy from the perspective of modern democracy. Somehow we must, with John Paul II, affirm freedom in the modern world without sacrificing the mediated, sacramental heart of Christian religion. Whatever abuses of hierarchy and elitism may have taken place at various points in medieval Christendom (and there were plenty of them), the distinction between evangelical counsels and precepts and the monastic spirituality that grew from that distinction should not, in my view, be numbered among them . . . .

Dennis Martin
Department of Theology
Loyola University
Chicago, IL