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The Public Square

William Pannell of Fuller Theological Seminary is part of the Christianity Today symposium. He has recently published The Coming Race Wars? (Zondervan). Although the question mark is a hedging of bets, Pannell’s message is grim. In the symposium he says, “We’re going to have to take some rather courageous and extraordinary steps to avoid a race war. The first step is sincere repentance of racism by white evangelicals. Until something like that happens, I don’t envision black evangelicals taking their white counterparts seriously.” One does not quite know what to make of that. Using such combustible language with great care, there is no denying that there is a lot that qualifies as racism among white Americans, evangelical and other. And a call to repentance is almost always in order, but white Americans of good will are increasingly confused about what they are supposed to repent of, and what help such repentance might be to blacks.

The Rev. Hycel Taylor of Second Baptist Church in Evanston, Illinois, takes a somewhat different tack. “For us, as an African-American people, we have to ask some serious questions. What’s going wrong with us? Not so much in relationship to white people, but in relation to ourselves. What’s so stigmatic in our minds that we have now turned on ourselves and begun to kill each other, where now we become our own lynch mobs? We’re looking at genocide so insidious that if we quantified the dying of African Americans just for twenty-four hours across this nation, we’d need to call for a state of national emergency. We’re dying of AIDS; we’re dying of hypertension; we’re dying as stillborn babies; we’re dying from drugs.”

These are the issues recently being pressed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, in a welcome return to some of the themes he championed before being taken captive to national politics. Jackson has been going around the country exhorting young blacks to take charge of their lives, pointing out that today in America there are more blacks killed by blacks every year than were lynched by whites in more than two hundred years of slavery. Similarly, the Rev. Earl Rivers of the Dorchester, Mass., Azusa Christian Community has been attracting attention, both white and black, to the nature of the crisis. In the left-leaning Boston Review he has sparked a lively exchange around his argument that, within the fairly near future, more than half of young black men will be killed before they reach age twenty-five. Today, in addition to those who are dead, more than a quarter of black males under twenty-five are in the criminal justice system-imprisoned, awaiting trial or sentencing, or on parole.

There is no doubt that these doleful realities are related, more than to any other factor, to the dissolution of the black family. More than two-thirds of black children are born with no adult male accepting responsibility for them, and the figure reaches toward 90 percent in the inner cities. This pattern of male flight from the family, combined with misguided welfare policies that encourage girls to have babies and set up housekeeping on their own, have created an ominous set of problems that are tying public policy experts in knots. Lest white Americans be complacent, it is noted that nearly one-third of white children are now born without fathers who claim them. That is almost exactly the figure for black America thirty years ago, and in both cases the numbers are climbing. (Presumably, in the black inner city the increase will stop somewhere short of 100 percent.) All this constitutes crisis to be sure, crisis without parallel in American experience. But it is hard to know what it has to do with white repentance of racism.

Race wars seem highly improbable. For many years now, black militants have been doing their revolutionary shuffle, intimidating whites with the threat of racial violence. Whatever the merits of their cause, it simply isn’t working anymore. This is part of the decline of a certain kind of liberalism; fewer whites have a cultivated appetite for feeling guilty about race. In addition, there is a confidence that the threatening population can be yet more radically isolated, by coercion if necessary. One fears that that is at least part of the popularity of “getting tough on crime” in our current politics. It is true, as the Kerner Commission said so many years ago, that we are “two nations, separate and unequal.” It is more true today than it was then. Except the divide between the two nations is not racial. On the one side are whites, the majority of blacks, the great majority of Hispanics, and almost all Asians and other recent immigrants. On the other side of the divide is the urban underclass. For reasons that are at the heart of the formation and deformation of the American experiment, the distinction between black and white has a singular place in our moral consciousness. But it is increasingly less relevant to the political, cultural, and economic realities of American life.

President Clinton learned this when he played the race card in last year’s mayoralty campaign in New York. At least one hopes he learned it. He suggested that people would not vote for David Dinkins because he is black. This did not sit well with most New Yorkers. For large numbers of white New Yorkers, the fact that Dinkins is black was the only good reason for voting for him. Weighing against it was his legendary incompetence and astonishing indifference to the sensibilities of those who are not black (or gay), notably Catholics and Jews. In New York, a very liberal city, just enough people had had enough of feeling guilty and being intimidated by threats of racial violence, and as a result Mr. Dinkins is now the former mayor.

The Christianity Today symposium resurrects the old line about eleven o’clock Sunday morning being the most segregated hour of the week. It was a good line, but surely it should be put back to sleep. Since the days of the civil rights movement, denominations that are almost totally white have devoutly adopted affirmative action programs for increasing black membership. Some oldline denominations embraced the idea that they wouldn’t get over their racism until their black membership equalled the proportion of blacks in the general population, which is somewhat more than 10 percent. Of course to do this would require intensive evangelization among blacks, or outright sheep stealing from black churches. Needless to say, they did not consult the clergy of the black churches as to the advisability of this enterprise. Also needless to say, such recruitment programs did not get very far, and are not likely to go anywhere in the future. Nor should they. Whatever potential for moral and social renewal there is in the inner cities, it is very largely to be found in the black churches.

When it comes to concrete proposals, the symposiasts urge new linkages between black and white churches in urban and suburban areas. Perhaps some kind of “sister church” arrangement in which congregations simply visit each other from time to time. As an example, Christianity Today highlights a wealthy suburban congregation near Atlanta whose members went into the inner city to help blacks rebuild some dilapidated housing. Some will think such steps are awfully tame, and awfully old, and maybe just a little condescending on the part of whites. Perhaps they are all of that. Such steps do not have the frisson of revolutionary violence and radical change. But they bring the radically isolated (on both sides) into contact, and create the potential for building trust and friendship. Given the awful history of black-white relations in America, every such relationship of trust and friendship is to be valued as a good in itself.

Whites should be challenged to do what they can, but should not feel guilty about not doing what they cannot. No matter how repentant, compassionate, and eager they are, they cannot redress the moral and cultural deficit of the urban underclass. That must be done by black leaders who have the wisdom and courage to act on the new reality of race in America. This is not a case of letting whites off the hook. To suggest that is white arrogance and an insult to blacks. It assumes that the problem of the underclass must be resolved by whites. Why should blacks alone, of all the identifiable groups in America, be thought incompetent to take charge of their lives? Slavery and enforced segregation were singular injustices visited upon blacks. Both are now a long time ago. Even under segregation, most blacks managed to take moral charge of their lives. Since segregation, that continues to be the case, but approximately a third at the bottom have become wards of the welfare state living in circumstances of soul-destroying dependency and lethal anarchy.

To the extent that whites are complicit in well-intended but misguided social policies, this is a white problem. To the extent that whites can help transcend the divide between themselves and the radically isolated, this is a white obligation. But the reality of the urban underclass is overwhelmingly a black problem and a black obligation. And a black moral opportunity. The sooner this is recognized by both blacks and whites, the sooner we will move on from distracting talk about “the myth of racial progress” to building the story of American progress that includes everybody.


An Ethic of Thinking

Religious folk of all persuasions are perennially embroiled in questions about the connection between reason and revelation, knowing and faith. During last year’s visit to Lithuania, Pope John Paul II addressed members of the academic and cultural communities at the University of Vilnius. Here is some of what he said: “When man thinks, he experiences his own finiteness, becoming aware that he is not the truth and must even grope his way toward it. At the same time he notices that his search cannot and will not stop at petty, limited goals, since he is powerfully driven ever higher, toward the infinite.

“The exhilarating adventure of human thought lies in this essential dynamic that situates man between his awareness of limits and the need for the absolute. For this reason, when man ‘thinks’ deeply, with intellectual rigor and integrity of heart, he is on the way toward a possible encounter with God.

“But why then—we can reasonably be asked—have the most systematic and radical denials of God been made precisely by men of thought?

“The Church has an answer for this disturbing question: If it is true that God’s existence can be known even by reason alone, nevertheless in the human race’s present condition, clouded by sin, reason is marked by great weakness. The progress of human thought does not resemble a solitary, cerebral process, but is profoundly linked to the individual’s existential journey.

“Therefore, if one wants human thought to harvest its ripest fruits, especially in the search for metaphysical truths, it is necessary to cultivate an ethic of thought, one which is not limited to striving for logical correctness, but which situates the mind’s activity in a spiritual atmosphere rich in humility, sincerity, courage, honesty, trust, concern for others, openness to the mystery. This all-encompassing ethic of ‘thinking’ does not excuse one from searching but rather facilitates and supports it, and even gives it direction in matters concerning the mystery, because of the intrinsic connection between the verum and the bonum, which in God coincide with his very essence.”

Lutheran theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote critically about a “God of the gaps” who fills in the spaces left by reason. John Paul would seem to agree with Bonhoeffer. Noting that it is reasonable to believe that “we are at an epoch-making turning point in the world’s history,” he says: “In this difficult transition to a future which no one today can foresee or describe its features the commitment of intellectuals cannot fail to play a decisive role, one to be promoted with new vigor at a time when the collapse of ideologies threatens to cause a paralyzing lack of confidence and human thought seems prone to sink into skepticism and a dangerous pragmatism.

“No one should in any way think that this crisis of thought can allure the believer, as if faith should inherit the areas vacated by the surrender of reason. Authentic faith, rather, presupposes reason and utilizes, consolidates, and stimulates it, as the church’s magisterium has stressed many times.”


Mumbling Will Be Tolerated

Michael McConnell of the University of Chicago Law School, and a frequent contributor to this journal, writing on the interpretation (and misinterpretation) of the Religion Clause of the First Amendment:

“In The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche, the fountainhead of postmodernism, tells of a madman who on a bright morning lights a lantern and runs to the marketplace proclaiming ‘God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! . . . There never was a greater event—and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!’ The effect was powerful. For those capable of understanding, ‘some sun seem[ed] to have set, some old profound confidence seem[ed] to have changed into doubt.’ In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s mythic hero carries the same message—‘God is dead!’—throughout the earth, in a parody of the gospels, calling it his ‘gift’ to mankind. But there is one exception. The book begins with an encounter between Zarathustra and a holy man living alone in the forest. Zarathustra asks the hermit what he does in the forest, and the hermit replies: ‘I make hymns and sing them; and in making hymns I laugh and weep and mumble: thus do I praise God. With singing, weeping, laughing, and mumbling do I praise the God who is my God.’ The hermit then asks Zarathustra what he had brought as a ‘gift.’ Zarathustra, surprisingly, does not take up this invitation to tell the hermit the terrible truth of the death of God. Instead he says, evasively, ‘What should I have to give to thee! Let me rather hurry hence lest I take aught away from thee!’ And Zarathustra leaves the old man to worship in peace.

“This is the story of religious freedom in the postmodern world.

“The first thing we notice about the story is the extraordinary gentleness with which Zarathustra treated the holy man. This is startlingly out of character for a philosopher who celebrates strength and derides mercy, who tells unflinchingly the hard truths and has no respect for those so weak that they must take refuge in comfortable lies and superstitions. Nowhere else in Zarathustra does the hero spare the sensibilities of his hearers. Nietzsche thus suggests that there is something different about the holy man. While for most men, word of the death of God is a ‘gift,’ for the saint it would ‘take away’ something precious. And in like manner, the postmodern world is willing to leave the believer in peace. Religious belief, we realize, is precious to those who have it, and it would be pointless and mean to interfere with it.

“But what we notice next about the story is that the hermit was quaint and wrong. He was behind the times. He simply had not gotten the word. When Zarathustra was alone, Nietzsche tells us that he marvelled to himself, ‘Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest hath not yet heard of it, that God is dead!’ Zarathustra’s forbearance was not based on any respect for the possible truth of the saint’s beliefs. Zarathustra did not entertain that possibility. He could not. God is dead. You cannot argue with facts. His forbearance was an act of kindness, an indulgence—not the product of a mind open to the possibility that the other possesses a truth.

“The third point we notice about the story is that it involves a hermit, living by himself in the forest. He did not preach or proclaim the word of God. He did not go into the village. He sang, laughed, wept, and—most revealingly—’mumbled,’ but these inarticulate sounds did not communicate. Zarathustra’s toleration was toward one who neither participated in public life nor entered public discourse. No such forbearance was shown to anyone in the village. If the hermit left the forest and attempted to enter the public discussion and debate, he would be given the news of God’s death like everyone else.

“Can we recognize in Zarathustra the enlightened attitude toward religious faith in our age? Religious freedom is to be protected, strongly protected—so long as it is irrelevant to the life of the wider community. But allow religion to affect the law pertaining to, say, abortion; or allow religion to affect the way we educate our children in our communities’ schools; even allow religion to affect the way we celebrate holidays in public, and there is trouble. When these quaint and discredited beliefs spill over into the life of the community, we have crossed the line. Religion, the Supreme Court has told us on more than one occasion, is a ‘private matter for the individual, the family, and the institutions of private choice.’ Religion in public is at best a breach of etiquette, at worst a violation of the law. Religion is privatized and marginalized. It has nothing to offer to the public sphere. We will not interfere with solitary hermits in the forest, but they must stay out of the public square.”


The Logic of Damnation

“Go to hell.” That’s a very rude thing to say, but relatively few people today would think themselves solemnly cursed were they on the receiving end of it. There is very little thinking about hell, solemn or otherwise, these days. Jerry L. Walls, who teaches philosophy at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, is trying to do something about that. Written from a moderately Calvinist viewpoint, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (University of Notre Dame Press) is a forcefully argued reopening of questions that most liberal theologians had long thought to be decisively closed. From Walls’ conclusion: “At the outset of this essay, I confronted the controversial nature of the traditional doctrine of hell, particularly the claim that it is morally repugnant. This creates, I noted, a dilemma for the Christian believer. On the one hand, the person who believes in Christ and accepts the authority of his teaching seems inextricably committed to believing the doctrine of eternal hell. If he does not believe this, he undercuts the ground which makes it possible to be a Christian. But on the other hand, if one accepts the doctrine, he seems to be committed to a morally offensive notion.

“I believe Christians must squarely face this dilemma. If the doctrine is indeed morally bankrupt or unintelligible, it should frankly and forthrightly be discarded. But if it is not, it should be reclaimed and faithfully taught. Either way, it involves claims of such immense importance that it cannot responsibly be ignored.”

Walls acknowledges that Scripture is properly interpreted in interaction with what is known from other sources, such as reason and experience. Numerous Christian theologians have held to some version of “universalism,” the hopeful doctrine that, in the end, all will be saved. Given the many explicit scriptural statements that are at odds with that, Walls concludes that the “universalist interpretation of Scripture depends heavily on the philosophical case against the traditional doctrine of hell. I have tried to show that that case is yet to be made.”

Walls contends that some of the more “sensational” depictions of hell—the kind of thing in which Jonathan Edwards excelled—weaken the credibility of the doctrine. In Walls’ view, hell is the continuing and intensified consequence of choices freely made in this life. “It will be clear by now that the picture of hell I have presented is in essential continuity with traditional theology in holding that hell is a place of misery. It is not, admittedly, as gruesome an account of hell as that held by some notable classical theologians. If it were, I could not plausibly hold that some persons may freely choose it. So there are also points of contrast with some traditional ideas. I do not, however, think there is any less reason for a person who desires his ultimate well-being to want to avoid hell if it is anything like I have suggested. Indeed, such a person may have more reason to take hell seriously if the misery it holds is of the kind I have described.

“This is the case, I think, because the conception of hell I have defended has a moral seriousness about it that is sometimes obscured or distorted in more frightful accounts. The idea that the misery of hell is the intrinsic consequence of choosing to become a certain kind of person has a stark realism about it that is often absent when hell is depicted as the supreme torture chamber. It is a dreadful but credible thought that we might come fully to prefer the deformed sense of satisfaction endemic to sin, and that God will finally give us what we want.”

Walls recognizes an additional problem posed by Kantians and those influenced by Kant. The doctrine of hell, they say, has a negative effect on genuine moral motivation. That is, if one is moral only to avoid hell, one is not really moral at all. Walls responds: “This sort of objection has the most force when the misery of hell is conceived as externally imposed punishment, with no necessary relation to the nature of the sin involved. It loses some of its force, however, when the anguish of hell is seen as an internal component of a life of sin and evil. To choose evil is to choose misery, and the one who so chooses does so freely. On the other hand, the one who resists evil will, as a matter of course, also be choosing to avoid hell. This is why Wesley could urge us to ‘abhor sin far more than death or hell; abhor sin itself far more than the punishment of it. Beware of the bondage of pride, of desire, of anger; of every evil temper or work. The one who is duly wary of sin and its bondage needs no further fear of hell to give him reason to be moral.’

“This will not, however, entirely dispose of the objection, for the Kantian can now rephrase it as follows: If you avoid sin because a natural consequence of it is anguish for you, then you are still selfishly motivated. In that case you do not do your duty for its own sake, so you lack the proper moral motivation. Even if you do the right act, you do not do it for the right reason.

“At this point, I am willing to concede to the Kantian that the traditional doctrine of hell does appeal to our self-interest as a reason to love God and be moral. But I want to insist that not all self-interest is selfish, and that proper self-interest is a legitimate part of genuine moral motivation. So the traditional doctrine of hell adds positive moral import to the Christian conviction that it is impossible to further one’s ultimate best interest by doing what is wrong, just as it is impossible to act against one’s ultimate best interest by loving God and doing right.”

In a morally frivolous and therefore very evil age, there is good reason to welcome serious thought about hell. One therefore hopes that the argument of Hell: The Logic of Damnation will get an attentive hearing. At the same time, Walls is perhaps too quick to lump alternative views together in the catch-all category of universalism. There is venerable Christian precedent for the teaching of universalism, from Origen in the third century to Hans Urs von Balthasar in this one. Then there is the official Catholic teaching, represented by, for instance, the 1991 encyclical Redemptoris Missio (see this writer’s commentary in October 1991). That teaching has also been described, mistakenly, as universalism. It would seem to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for an orthodox Christian to flatly deny the reality of hell. What hell is like (aside from being very bad indeed) and who, if anyone, is “there”—these and other questions are subject to thoughtful disagreements. There ought to be firm agreement, however, on the understanding that who we are and how we live have eternal consequences, for better or for worse. By helping us to think more carefully about the “worse” in that proposition, Jerry Walls has provided a bracing antidote to the moral frivolity and evil of our time.


Oy Vey, Arthur, You Have To Say It In Public?

The Philadelphia Inquirer calls him the “renowned rabbi, author, and historian Arthur Hertzberg.” He is surely well known in certain circles, and the American Jewish Congress may be wishing that he did not attract the attention that he does. At the seventy-fifth anniversary celebration of the Congress, Hertzberg opined that the threat to Jews today is not anti-Semitism but conflicts with other groups. “They are conflicts especially with parts of the black community which wants what we’ve got,” Hertzberg said, “which wants to be higher up in the pipeline of the ethnic succession and would like to grab what Jews have.” Of the school attended by his two daughters in Englewood, N.J., Hertzberg said that “it had become so interracial that they could not go to the restroom without watching their pocketbooks.” The Inquirer archly reports that “some in the audience found his language insensitive.”

Rankling those who make their living in the anti-defamation business, Rabbi Hertzberg went on to observe that Jews are no longer discriminated against economically and professionally. “We are now in a different set of circumstances,” he said. “We are not the prime victims in the world, not in America, not in Yugoslavia. Jews are today the American elite. We are not fighting with the WASPs to be the American elite. We have half displaced them.” (One is reminded of actor Walter Matthau who, when asked why he falsely claimed to be Jewish, answered, “It’s simple. Upward mobility.”)

AJC board member Barry Ungar tried to smooth any sensitive feathers ruffled by Hertzberg, especially black feathers. (WASP feathers don’t ruffle.) Hertzberg’s saying that blacks want what Jews have, explained Ungar, “was a very shorthand way in which he was trying to describe the frustration and disappointment in the black community that the Jewish community’s success at the end of the civil rights movement has been much greater than that of the black community. His shorthand was really much too shorthand.” The report does not indicate whether Rabbi Hertzberg was grateful for Mr. Ungar’s clarification of what he was trying to say.


An Unnecessary Idolatry

“To be sure, the defense of idolatry can never be enthusiastic,” admits Steven D. Smith, Professor of Law at the University of Colorado. But he contends in the Virginia Law Review that idolatry may be necessary when we can no longer make the case that the authority of the law is supported by some kind of commanding truth. His article, “Idolatry in Constitutional Interpretation,” argues this way: “From the perspective of the political state, idolatry may be preferable to nonbelief. Rousseau made the essential argument: Because ‘no State has ever been established without having religion for its basis,’ the state should establish a civil religion, or ‘a purely civil profession of faith,’ in order to cultivate ‘sentiments of sociability without which it is impossible to be either a good citizen or a faithful subject.’ This position need not be understood as tyrannical or self-serving on the part of those who control the state; indeed the governors might promote idolatry solely in the interest of the governed. If the alternative to idolatry is the loss of community, or even civil chaos, then the interests of the citizens may require cultivation of an idolatrous civil religion.

“It might seem that religious believers should reject this political rationale for idolatry, or at most tolerate it grudgingly as a necessary evil. But even from a religious perspective, idolatry may be preferable to outright unbelief. The person who pays devotion to an idol is at least exercising his spiritual faculties; he is cultivating attitudes of reverence, humility, and faith. To be sure, from the religious perspective, these faculties are misdirected—focused on an improper object. Still, the exertion of spiritual faculties, even though misdirected, may be a step toward a more pure or proper worship; when the true object of devotion is presented the idolater may be prepared to accept it. In the unbeliever, by contrast, spiritual faculties might atrophy through lack of use, so that the unbeliever will be unable to accept a true object of worship when it is presented to him.

“In a legal world that aspires to be secular, no appeal to ‘transcendent authority’ and no ‘Kierkegaardian leap of faith’ are permissible. Consequently, the legal idolater must at the same time tacitly affirm and explicitly deny (even to himself) the qualities that he imaginatively ascribes to law in order to make it worthy of being ‘interpreted’ and obeyed.” Smith concludes with this: “For those who believe that a higher source is real and accessible or, conversely, for those who think we can live with the knowledge that ‘we are all we have,’ idolatry in the law may be unnecessary and unseemly. But for a political community that needs to believe in something beyond itself but cannot acknowledge any actual higher source, the imaginative endowment of law with transcendent wisdom or moral meaning may be the only way to maintain an illusion too precious to be relinquished.”

For all the intellectual and moral contortions involved in deceiving oneself about what one believes, Smith’s is not an uninteresting argument. A response would have to take up several points. Not for nothing is the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” It is not a question of whether an idolatrous religion is better than no religion, since nobody is without religion. Everybody has something, if nothing more than his own pleasure or self-esteem, that he worships. Whatever “that” is, it is, functionally speaking, his god. Other religions (Islam, Buddhism, etc.) may in fact have the advantage of opening persons to the transcendent, but are not possible commitments for those who believe them not true. Unlike other religions, Smith’s proposed idolatry not only is not true but it is not interesting enough to warrant the kind of commitment that he, rightly, thinks is necessary to endow law with the transcendent authority of Law. Not unimportantly, his proposal is also in radical discontinuity with a constitutional order that is premised upon “We hold these truths”—the very order that Smith wants to morally legitimate.

Among other problems with Smith’s intelligently wrongheaded argument is his assumption that law has to do chiefly with the judiciary’s reading of constitutional texts. In a representative democracy, one might counter, law is chiefly a legislative process based upon regard for one’s citizen-neighbor. In this representative democracy, fortunately, the overwhelming majority of citizen-neighbors do believe, in continuity with the Founders, that “a higher source [of authority] is real and accessible.” The law, meaning the state, has little to say about that source or how to obtain access to it, leaving those questions to “the people” from whom the legitimacy of law is derived.

Were it ever to happen that a critical mass of the people no longer believed in such higher authority, it seems almost certain that this democratic experiment would be finished. The crisis that Smith’s article helpfully illuminates is that, in large sectors of our legal culture, the absence of such higher authority is assumed—or at least the statement of its presence is not “permissible.” This naked public square exists in the minds of judges, lawyers, and legal philosophers. Because they are persons of considerable influence, it has been imposed in large part upon the real world of how Americans try to order their lives together. Happily, it has not yet carried the day entirely. If that were to happen, we doubt that the American people would bow the knee to the idolatry proposed by Professor Smith in order to save this constitutional order. More likely they would discard this order and replace it with another, and not necessarily better, system of governance.

Were one to respond to Professor Smith more fully—and our comments are by no means an adequate response to his elegantly complicated argument—these are some of the considerations that would need to be explored more carefully.


An Embarrassed Silence

“Men astutely trained” is the phrase that was commonly used to describe the formation of Jesuits. Trained in some things better than others, it seems. John Conley, a young Jesuit who teaches philosophy at Fordham, writes in National Jesuit News that during his training he discovered that provincials and professors were utterly lucid about the environment, inclusive language, racism, and a long list of other social concerns. The great injustice that went unaddressed was abortion. Not, of course, that Jesuits were pro-choice; it just seems that abortion is not a very big deal with them. In a mildly stated and therefore all the more telling indictment, “The Silence of the Society,” Conley cites case after case in which Jesuits and Jesuit publications fudge or evade the “embarrassment” of the abortion question.

For instance, the national Society is strongly on record with enthusiastic support for Clinton’s proposed government management of health care. The national statement includes this: “One additional concern has to do with the possible inclusion of abortion in the benefits package of any health care reform. It is sincerely hoped that this single issue will not destroy the historic opportunity to enact national health care reform for the sake of so many Americans. At the same time, its inclusion raises a serious moral dilemma for the Roman Catholic community.” That, writes Conley, “is an extraordinary dismissal of the heart of the abortion question.” Conley’s point is that abortion is hardly a narrow, sectarian concern just for Catholics. It poses the most elementary question of human rights in our time.

And apparently it is not only the American Jesuits. Conley cites a document from Roman headquarters, preparatory to the thirty-fourth General Congregation of the Society in 1995. It lifts up for the Society’s consideration a litany of social concerns: drug addiction, AIDS, exploitation of children and women, illiteracy, racism, capitalism, organized crime, ecological threats, fundamentalism, and so forth. “The plight of the nascent child killed by abortion and the woman maimed by abortion,” Conley notes, “is simply passed over.” It is not even mentioned once. “The drama of abortion,” Conley concludes, “appears to lie outside the Society’s spiritual compass.”

Some of our best friends are Jesuits. Really. But the Society seems to be continuing to drift away from its constituting genius. Certainly its embarrassed silence on abortion is in sharpest contrast with the Second Vatican Council (which termed abortion “an unspeakable crime”), the public witness of the bishops, and the urgencies that animate the ministry of John Paul II. (One recalls, at the risk of raising another embarrassment, that the Jesuits started out as the very particular servants of the papacy.) And the silence on abortion is but one symptom among many. At levels high and low within the Society, the question is raised whether the Ignatian “charism” has become, some four centuries later, so distorted as to be eminently dispensable. Some of those who know the Society well and love it deeply wonder whether the 1995 General Congregation might be the last chance to reform a movement that has lost its way. The questions raised by Father Conley, it seems to us, aid reflection on the possibility that the Society of Jesus, as distinct from many of its members, has become a net liability as the Catholic Church travels into the Third Millennium.


The Bottom of the Slope

The Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics has a special section on the euthanizing of newborn children in the Netherlands. In that country, thousands of people are terminated by doctors each year with legal impunity. The aged in particular never know whether the doctor comes to cure or to kill. The editors of the quarterly comment, “Quite possibly as a natural outgrowth of the euthanasia movement, concerns about incompetent patients qualifying for the ‘kindness’ of euthanasia have led to reports of active involuntary euthanasia, not only of adults but of handicapped newborns.” Keep in mind that the proponents of euthanasia usually insist that their concern is for the autonomy of the patient. The editors are more insightful in recognizing the “natural outgrowth” of the logic of euthanasia itself.

Richard Doerflinger, editor of Life at Risk, writes: “The first article in the section, by Dr. Cor Spreeuwenberg (editor of the journal of the Royal Dutch Medical Association), describes how his own brain-damaged son Laurens was dispatched by his pediatrician with an overdose of morphine back in 1973. The act was a secret between doctor and parents, because it was illegal and because the non-Catholic pediatrician performed the deed in a Catholic hospital. This was the year that Dutch courts had just begun to open up loopholes in the law against voluntary euthanasia. Spreeuwenberg says some ‘liberals’ think only voluntary euthanasia is acceptable, but argues: ‘I concur that autonomy ought to be the point of departure in euthanasia decisions, but it should not be the only principle considered. Because newborns cannot exercise autonomy does not mean that they should be denied beneficence. There are many less important decisions we make in their behalf, why should they be denied perhaps the most caring choice of all?’

“Crystal clear in the Pediatric Association’s report is the physicians’ certainty that they are qualified to make the decision as to when death is a ‘caring’ choice. ‘Without hesitancy,’ note ethicists E. van Leeuwen and G. K. Kimsma, ‘the members of the committee claim that the decision in matters of life and death is part of the responsibility of the acting physician‘—though ‘this responsibility must be shared with the parents involved’ (emphasis added). According to ethicist Heleen M. Dupuis, the committee’s certainty on this point is so great, at a time when nonvoluntary euthanasia still violates all legal guidelines, that the report suggests that ‘physicians should not report cases of infant euthanasia because of the uncertainty of what would happen if they do.’ Dupuis says she did not think it ‘wise’ to voice support for infant euthanasia ten years ago, when she was president of the Dutch Society for Voluntary Euthanasia, because ‘the discussion of euthanasia for adults was so new’; now ‘requested euthanasia can no longer be jeopardized because it is so accepted in the Netherlands,’ so killing a patient without his or her request can be openly discussed. She adds: ‘I doubt now, more than ever, the validity of slippery slope arguments. I do not believe we are on a slope,’ because ‘we are actively making careful decisions to act in the way we do.’ A few years ago, such nonvoluntary euthanasia was universally acknowledged as the abyss at the bottom of the slope.”


While We’re At It

• Thomas Day has gone and committed another book. He’s the author of Why Catholics Can’t Sing, which got a lot of people terribly unhappy and others (more others, we hope) relieved that somebody had so wittily cut through the liturgiological fog hanging over the subject of how Christians worship-Methodist Christians, Lutheran Christians, and, not least of all, Catholic Christians. The new book is Where Have You Gone, Michelangelo? The Loss of Soul in Catholic Culture (Crossroad). Here’s a sample: “What does it all mean? One telephone call I received was from a man who was both upset and amused. It seems that he happened to attend Sunday services in a Lutheran church and saw something that almost totally monopolized his attention. The minister, choir members, and a big group of young children, all in the front of the church, had strings around their necks and hanging from each piece of string was a plastic fork. Prayers were prayed, hymns were sung, and plastic forks dangled. The congregation was without a clue. Finally, the minister talked to the children and explained the symbolism of the forks. ‘Remember those times when you were eating dinner and your mother told you to save your forks?’ Continued cluelessness from the congregation. The minister, sensing that further clarification was needed, continued: ‘You know, save your forks for dessert . . . for heaven.’ What does it all mean? First of all it means that Roman Catholics are not the only ones capable of liturgical nuttiness. Secondly it means prepare for the worst. We must surely be living in a dangerous era when any religion begins to treat human beings as if they were little kitsch toys-without yearnings, without imperfections, without imagination, without the gift of a soul, without art. We would expect dictators, radical political theorists, and others who have a low opinion of people to indulge in amusing games with symbols, as a sign of their contempt for the idiots called human beings, but in religion this sort of thing is bad news. It means the end of that idea of a special, creating human ‘soul,’ and the beginning of an age when people in churches will be manipulated as if they were stupid machines—easily turned on or off (with a gimmick) by smart machines. It means head for the hills.”

• So you think it’s easy to be politically correct. Incorrect. A professor friend writes that he gave a lecture at a university and, the way you are supposed to these days, he inserted an occasional “she” into the text. Talking about a believer and an atheist, he made the atheist “she.” The first “question” following the lecture strongly challenged his using the feminine for the atheist. The next time he gave the lecture, at another university, the believer was “she” and the atheist “he.” Sure enough, the first “question” protested his stereotyping men as hardboiled and rational while females are soft and emotional. “What’s a PC professor to do?” he asks. Another professor friend says he takes a different tack. At the start of his course he declares that his feminist convictions prevent him from going along with the idea that centuries of English literature using “he” were not influenced by women. Therefore, he defiantly asserts, he will use “he” to include both men and women, thus appropriating the tradition for the feminist cause. He reports that the students generally approve of his “radical” linguistic tactic. The doleful conclusion is that many of today’s college students are as dim-witted as their (plural of her/his) PC teachers.

• Reading The Nation is a useful reality check when you’re tempted to think that reality is getting the upper hand. This issue of unreconstructed leftisms frets about the increasing activity of America’s “religious right” in the former Soviet Union. “A new and unholy alliance between activists of the East and West is ominous. In the past year, Planned Parenthood and a host of other groups have worked to mitigate incursions by family values proselytizers and to defend a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion. Many Russians, however, stripped of their ideological roots, buffeted by economic turmoil and social unrest, have become increasingly vulnerable to the sermons of these Western missionaries. Exporting family values may soon replace the hyping of economic shock therapy as the United States’ most destructive contribution to post-Cold War interventionism.” Comment one: It’s heartening to know that Planned Parenthood is protecting the right of Russian women to have, as they now do have, an average of eight to twelve abortions during their childbearing years. Comment two: Note that “family values” is no longer in quotes. The Nation is not opposed to so-called family values but, quite simply, to family values. Alright, so you already knew that. But maybe some other readers didn’t.

• Yes, we quote Gertrude Himmelfarb a lot. But then she is so eminently quotable. This is from an essay in the American Scholar on John Stuart Mill’s doctrine that all of society should be ordered by the “one very simple principle” of liberty. “Liberals have always known that absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. A liberty that is divorced from tradition and convention, from morality and religion, that makes the individual the sole repository and arbiter of all values and puts him in an adversarial relationship to society and the state—such a liberty is a grave peril to liberalism itself. For when that liberty is found wanting, when it violates the moral sense of the community or is incompatible with the legitimate demands of society, there is no moderating principle that can curb those demands or accommodate that moral sense, no resting place between the wild gyrations of libertarianism and paternalism.”

• We received this some months ago and are not sure whether the publication in question survived or not. It’s a nice color brochure that invites us to “Test Drive New Theology Review Absolutely Free!” The liberationist Presbyterian Robert McAfee Brown likes it. He says, “Although it has a clear Catholic orientation, members of other religious traditions will profit from its pages.” The “although” is a nice touch, we thought. The brochure says that readers “will find the most current treatment of issues at the heart of their lives and vocations.” The review “covers the broad plane of theology, seeking the most recent interpretations and insights.” In sum, “New Theology Review is your key to the latest and best in Christian theology!” Being very doubtful that the latest is best, we are inclined to take our theology old, so did not subscribe. We did notice that the magazine is published by The Liturgical Press at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and that was occasion for remembering how, oh so very many years ago, St. John’s Abbey was a vibrant center of theological and pastoral renewal. You pay a price for not subscribing, of course. Now we’re going to miss what the brochure announces as major themes coming up in the magazine: satanism, theology and ecology, and the challenge to Christian ethics posed by biomedical practices. Shouldn’t that be the challenge to biomedical practices posed by Christian ethics? Ah well, there you have it; that old theology raising silly questions again.

• In his novel The Son of Laughter (HarperSan Francisco), Frederick Buechner has Jacob narrate the family saga, from grandfather Abraham to his son Joseph. Virginia Stem Owens, who has been influenced by Erich Auerbach’s classic work, Mimesis, thinks Buechner’s effort does not quite work. “The Son of Laughter definitely succeeds in terms of entertainment and passionate narrative. Yet, like other novels borrowing from biblical stories, it simply fills in too much, closing the gaps which, Auerbach says, are intended ‘to overcome our reality.’ Any reality we add will always be exasperatingly partial. Instead of explaining the biblical world in our terms, we must ‘fit our own life into its world’ and allow ourselves ‘to be elements in its structure of universal history.’ The gaps are meant to swallow us.”

• They’re called “Banzhaf’s Bandits.” They’re the students of John Banzhaf at the George Washington National Law Center who are trained in law by bringing innumerable suits on any question that interests them. Banzhaf’s proteges are generally credited with the legal success of the antismoking campaign of recent years, creating interdictions against “passive smoking” from second-hand smoke, whether or not such measures make scientific sense. In an interview with the National Catholic Register, Banzhaf says, “I tell the students they can be for abortion or against abortion, for gun control or against gun control, for drug testing or against drug testing. It doesn’t matter so long as there is a significant number of people who will benefit from the activism.” Which helps to explain the litigiousness of American society, and why “activism” is so often accompanied by the adjective “mindless.”

• Unitarian minister John Pridinoff heads up the Hemlock Society, premier promoter of euthanasia. In its quarterly, Pridonoff reflects on the religious claim that life is a gift from God. “My understanding of a gift,” says Pridonoff, “is that it is given without any strings or attachments. If God has truly ‘given me a gift of life,’ then it is mine to do with as I wish.” Pridinoff also says that his organization believes in the sanctity of life. “We believe that life is sacred as is death and the dying process. . . . Each of us should be able to determine what is appropriate for our self. The right to self-determination is a most sacred right—in living, in dying, and in death.” Self-determination in death may pose problems, but we thought you would want to know that the champions of euthanasia are not incapable of religious reflection, of a sort.

• Here’s a promising idea, The Walker Percy Society. Those putting it together have in mind meetings, conferences, and, of course, a newsletter to nurture exchange among Percy scholars. For information, write: John Desmond, Department of English, Whitman College, Walla Walla, WA 99362. (One envies those living in Walla Walla, Washington if for nothing else than the pleasure it must give to tell people where you’re from.)

• Writing in the Times Literary Supplement (London), Mary Midgley takes on a passel of recent books on philosophy. “Moral theories, in fact, are not a very useful commodity,” she observes. Theories such as utilitarianism are “Procrustean doctrines [that] have only looked plausible because they were used equivocally. On the one hand, they were seen as formal, neutral, simplifying devices for explaining all morality. But they were also used, on the other, as campaigning banners to gain victory for one moral policy over its opponents.” Midgley continues: “This ambiguity has vitiated utilitarianism from the start. In Bentham and Mill, who were obviously practical reformers first and foremost, it was just a peripheral weakness. It showed logical negligence, but it did not much disturb their moral and practical argument for paying more attention to consequences, which were their chief strength. But when the torch was passed on to professional academics, concerned not with reform but only with building consistent theories, more serious trouble followed. Increasing stress was laid on the claim that the doctrine was exclusive, watertight, and logically necessary. The hope was always that formal simplicity and consistency could be used to arbitrate clashes of values. But the painful tangles of moral problems cannot possibly be loosed in this way. The great moral philosophers of the past were in business because they wanted to change the world. From Socrates to Nietzsche, they shaped their conceptual schemes so as to make particular changes possible. When their work is taken over by people who do not have that intention, people who reckon to be neutral between all possible changes, the consequences become very odd, and—as is now pretty widely agreed—a dead end is soon reached.”

• Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, reflects on some of the themes of his latest book, Out of Control, in an interview with the Catholic World Report. Totalitarianism has collapsed, says Brzezinski, but that’s cold comfort. “The rich West today increasingly projects to the rest of the world an image of a hedonistic, morally relativistic, value-neutral social order which I fear will not be adequately responsive to the socioeconomic and emotional dilemmas that the vast majority of the global population living in poor countries faces. If liberal democracy is not able to infuse its culture and philosophical character with a somewhat more morally driven set of imperatives, then I fear that what the West stands for today will be seen increasingly as an empty shell, as reflecting progressive demoralization, as foreshadowing a way of life that is ultimately aimless.” And what is at the heart of that demoralization? “The breakdown of the West’s morality is the product of many facts of which abortion may not only be the cause but also the effect.” Brzezinski, a Catholic, talks about the crucial importance of the global leadership of John Paul II, and then turns to the subject of Islam. “I see a danger in the simplistic, stereotype reactions which tend to stamp all of Islam as an enemy. The world of Islam is enormously differentiated, it embraces more than one billion people, it is in some respects the most vital religious force in the world today. This group of one billion people spans black west Africans through conservative Moroccans, through the secular Algerians who are not hostile to us, to secular Egyptians who are friendly, to very fundamentalist Saudi Arabians who are friendly, to secular radical Iraqis who are unfriendly, to fundamentalist Iranians who are unfriendly, to secular central Asians—Pakistani, Bangladesh, and Indonesians—who are not unfriendly to us. In brief, to stamp the world of Islam with a single stroke of the paintbrush and to label them as fundamentalist could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

• Last month we remarked on the execrable sixteenth edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, edited by Justin Kaplan. The New York Times Book Review pulled together items from that and four other books of quotations. “A quick glance through the average book of quotations,” writes Laurel Graeber, “gives the impression that most of history’s enduring statements came from either Shakespeare or God.” And it is true that a quick glance can give all sorts of silly impressions. Ms. Graeber enthusiastically offers examples from these more up-to-the-minute collections. “Love is just a system for getting someone to call you darling after sex.” (Julian Barnes) “Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it.” (Alice Walker) “Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburgers.” (Abbie Hoffman) “I’m all for bringing back the birch, but only between consenting adults.” (Gore Vidal) “I have a brain and a uterus, and I use both.” (Patricia Schroeder) Such are the cultural treasures to be transmitted to the next generation. One may doubt that any of these soporifics will be remembered twenty years from now. Except by innocents who buy and read the current rash of quote books, the chief importance of which is to provide further evidence of the continuing long march through our institutions by the children of the sixties who are now hoary-headed adolescents.

• A medical researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, who describes himself as an “ardent FT reader” sends along a couple of items from Science magazine that he thought might be of interest. This issue is given over to “AIDS: The Unanswered Questions.” We go to the editorial for some answers. The best way to prevent AIDS, we are told, is “behavior modification... ranging from repeated educational messages about AIDS to spermicides with anti-viral capacity that can help empower women worldwide.” The prospect of women around the world being empowered by spermicide takes some pondering. The editorial continues: “Currently, condoms can be an effective prophylactic vaccine. Therefore, in order to protect our teenagers, a major component of our AIDS strategy should be an intelligent program of sex education in the schools.” You wouldn’t want to deprive your kid of a vaccine would you? The lead article in this issue is by a Michael Merson of the World Health Organization. His concern is to help women avoid getting AIDS. “For women, the agenda is to change the circumstances in which sex takes place. Over the long term, this needs to be done through the improvement of their educational, legal, and economic status, and in the short term, through stratagems for circumventing their subordination. For example, prostitutes have been organized to raise their prices simultaneously so they can afford to turn away clients who refuse condom use; this is a particularly useful stratagem because it enhances women’s agency and control rather than leaving them passive.” The reader might infer that it is too bad more women are not prostitutes, but surely that is not what Mr. Merson has in mind. What he and the editors of Science do have in mind is not entirely clear. Except that AIDS is a very bad thing and it should be avoided through “behavior modification” that does not involve abstinence or fidelity.

• Most folk object when they’re called secular humanists. Not Paul Kurtz, retired philosophy professor, founder of Prometheus Books, and author of thirty books, including Humanist Manifesto II. He has a new book out, Toward a New Enlightenment: The Philosophy of Paul Kurtz (Transaction). Is billing oneself in a subtitle a precedent? We’ve been on platforms with Kurtz and find him a personable fellow who is utterly relentless. In the present book he notes an article we wrote a while back suggesting that atheists cannot—as good citizens should be able to do—transmit the constituting truths of the American order. Kurtz asks in tones most ominous, “Is this the opening salvo of a campaign to deny atheists their rights?” Relax, Mr. Kurtz. Your rights are secured by our understanding of the truth, even if ours are not by yours.

• Ian Ker, the celebrated biographer of John Henry Cardinal Newman, minces no words about the significance of the Church of England’s decision to ordain women. “If at long last that potent ‘spell’ which Newman thought prevented Anglo-Catholics from recognizing the true nature of the Church of England has been finally broken, then the consequences for the whole Anglican communion will be far-reaching. Theology apart, Newman the great realist would welcome the ending of these anomalies. For the departure of orthodox Anglo-Catholics would have three effects: first, there would no longer be the unreal situation of two churches claiming to be the Catholic Church in the same country, where there are now more practicing Roman Catholics than all practicing Anglicans put together; second, in a country which has lost its empire and is now slowly returning to Europe after four centuries of insularity, there would be an end of the pretense that the English must have a different ‘branch’ of the Catholic Church from all other European countries; and third, the winding-up of the Oxford Movement would allow the majority of Anglicans to have the church they have always really wanted—an all-embracing national Protestant church. As for Catholic ecumaniacs who supposed reunion was just around the corner, they might have heeded Newman’s warning that ‘To make that actual, visible, tangible body Catholic would be simply to make a new creature—it would be to turn a panther into a hind.’”

• Many readers say that, upon the arrival of each issue, they immediately sit down and devote three to five hours to reading it, every word, cover to cover. It almost makes the editors feel guilty about making such a large demand on the reader’s time. On the other hand, some readers complain that the journal is just too large. Here is a professor from Wisconsin: “It’s so good, I want to read it verbatim. However, doing this takes so long, I have a many-months-long backlog of issues staring me in the face.” The answer: moderation and discernment in all things. There is so much that needs saying, and so many good writers able to say it well, that the size of the journal seems to us just about right. But we do not assume that every item in each issue will be of equal interest to every reader. The best we can suggest is that you read it all, if you can make the time, or read those items of particular interest and then put it on the shelf to come back to other things, maybe, later. But please do not compound the editors’ sense of guilt by blaming us for your feeling guilty about not reading everything in every issue. (As each large issue goes to press, Jim Nuechterlein, incorrigibly Lutheran, declares, “Sin boldly!”)

• There is Lord Peter Wimsey of course, but then there is The Man Born to be King and Dorothy Sayers’ theological plays. A new biography (Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul by Barbara Reynolds, forthcoming in this country) says that Sayers felt unsuited to be a Christian apologist. She explained that the only presupposition of Christianity she could swear to from personal inward conviction was sin and the acceptance of sole responsibility for her own wrongdoing. “Since I cannot come to God through intuition or through my emotions, or through my inner light (except in the unendearing form of judgment and conviction of sin), there is only the intellect left and that is a very different matter... The passionate intellect is really passionate. It is the only point at which ecstasy can enter. I do not know whether we can be saved by the intellect, but I do know that I can be saved by nothing else.” And this she wrote to a friend and colleague: “When we go to heaven, all I ask is that we should be given some interesting job and allowed to get on with it. No management; no box office; no dramatic critics; and an audience of cheerful angels who don’t mind laughing.” We like to think that Dorothy Sayers is getting on with it, and the angels are much amused.

Sources: Symposium on “The Myth of Racial Progress” in Christianity Today, October 4, 1993. Pope John Paul II, address given at University of Vilnius, quoted in Origins, September 16, 1993. Michael McConnell on the Religion Clause of the First Amendment in Brigham Young University Law Review, Volume 1993, Number 1. Arthur Hertzberg on Jews and blacks, Philadelphia Inquirer, November 22, 1993. Steven D. Smith defense of idolatry, Virginia Law Review, April 1993. John Conley on Jesuits and abortion in National Jesuit News, December 1993/January 1994. Richard Doerflinger on euthanasia in the Netherlands, Life at Risk, July-August 993. The Nation on family values and “religious right” in Russia, November 1, 1993. Gertrude Himmelfarb on John Stuart Mill in the American Scholar, Autumn 1993. Virginia Stem Owens on Frederick Buechner’s The Son of Laughter in Christianity Today, September 13, 2003. On Banzhaf’s Bandits, National Catholic Register, September 12, 1993. John Pridinoff on “the gift of life” in Hemlock Quarterly, April 1993. Mary Midgley on philosophy books, Times Literary Supplement (London), June 18, 1993. Zbigniew Brzezinski interview in Catholic World Report, August/September 1993. On books of quotations, New York Times Book Review, December 6, 1992. On AIDS and behavior modification, Science, May 1993. Ian Ker on Cardinal Newman, Catholic World Report, January 1993. Dorothy Sayers quoted in The Spectator, April 24, 1993.