Almost four years ago I wrote in these pages about a pro-choice legal brief signed by 281 American historians and submitted by New York University law professor Sylvia Law to the Supreme Court in the 1989 Webster case (“Academic Integrity Betrayed,” August/September 1990). The brief’s two central claims-that abortion was not illegal at common law and that only recently has the moral value of the unborn become a motivating concern of abortion opponents-were false. Key signatories knew, or had ample reason to know, that they were false. The brief relied at critical points on James Mohr’s Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, 1800-1900. But Mohr’s book actually contradicted the claims it was mustered to support. Despite that, Mohr himself signed the brief. When I challenged him on it, Mohr said that he stood by his book wherever its conclusions differed from the brief’s. He nevertheless defended his endorsement of the brief’s arguments. He signed the brief, he said, as a “citizen” concerned to protect the legal right to abortion, not as a “scholar” whose goal was to present an accurate account of the historical facts.
Professor Law also acknowledged the brief’s “serious deficiencies” as truth telling. One “deficiency” was the drafters’ conscious decision not to tell the Court that most nineteenth-century feminists supported laws restricting access to abortion. It appears, however, that Professor Law has not repented. She put together a substantially similar brief and filed it in Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the 1992 decision reaffirming Roe v. Wade. One prominent Webster signatory did not sign the Casey brief: James Mohr.
Professor Law conceded in a published defense of “advocacy history” that she thinks it wiser to use historians in a written brief rather than in “live testimony, which is subject to cross-examination.” No wonder. Had James Mohr, for example, testified under oath to what he subscribed to in the brief, the question of perjury would be raised. At a minimum, cross-examination of someone such as Mohr would neutralize his value as a witness by the simple expedient of asking him to read aloud from his own publications. (Needless to say, these were not Professor Law’s published reasons for her preference for briefs.)
The Webster and Casey briefs were not submitted under oath. When I reported on the misrepresentations made to the Court in the former brief, I did not imagine that even the most fervent “advocacy scholar” would cross the line and commit simple perjury. If he or she would not be dissuaded by ethical considerations, surely pragmatic self-interest would preclude such a course of action.
Second thoughts are forced upon me by the October 1993 trial of Colorado’s Amendment 2. Adopted by popular vote in November 1992, the amendment would have prohibited laws making gay, lesbian, or bisexual conduct or orientation a ground for “minority status, quota preferences, protected status, or claim of discrimination.” The amendment was challenged on the ground that it violates the federal constitution. Central to the litigation is the question whether moral opposition to homosexual conduct is necessarily based on “mere prejudice” or revealed religious teaching or some other constitutionally impermissible ground, or whether such opposition can instead be grounded in principles for which plausible philosophical reasons can be adduced (the “rational basis” test).
Homosexual activists protested the amendment as a license for “gay bashing.” A New York Times editorial even said that it turned gays into “nonpersons.” Hardly. The point of Amendment 2 is that precisely as such gays and lesbians enjoy no special status. Its import was to overthrow ordinances enacted by liberal enclaves such as Denver and Aspen which had, for example, made it an offense for landlords to act on their conscientious moral and religious beliefs if these beliefs prevented them from renting to couples or groups whose manifest intention was to engage in homosexual practices.
A Denver trial court enjoined enforcement of Amendment 2 before its effective date, on the ground that it violated the United States Constitution. Last summer the Colorado Supreme Court upheld the injunction in what the Times hailed as a “creative” opinion. One has come to understand, however, that any judicial opinion, especially one concerning gay rights, that strikes the Times as “creative” is probably contrived and unconvincing. In this case, it is also incoherent. The full-scale lawsuit over constitutionality was tried in October 1993 before Judge Jeffrey Bayless. He concluded, in an opinion issued December 14, 1993, that Amendment 2 was unconstitutional. He made the preliminary injunction permanent. The case is now on appeal to the Supreme Court of Colorado. An appeal from there to the United States Supreme Court is likely.
Judge Bayless rested his decision upon what he described, following the Colorado Supreme Court injunction, as a Fourteenth Amendment right not to be “fenced out” of the political process. Because certain laws that gays might “desire” were ruled out by Amendment 2, Bayless asserted, they were disenfranchised. A reviewing court-say, the United States Supreme Court-may very well determine that “creativity” has here crossed the line into fantasy. In that event, the challenge to Amendment 2 will turn upon the “rational basis” test.
This familiar constitutional standard has served the gay rights cause well. District of Columbia Circuit Judge Abner Mikva overturned the Naval Academy’s dismissal of a gay midshipman on its authority. Judge Terry Hatter relied on it last year when he restored sailor Keith Meinhold to active Navy duty. In each case, the decisive move was the judge’s assertion (not conclusion, for it followed no argument at all) that opposition to the gay claimant was mere prejudice without a rational basis. In Hatter’s words, the opposition was “baseless” and the product of “cultural myths and false stereotypes.” Judge Bayless distinguished a “rational” basis from “prejudice” and from reasons that are religious in nature.
The question posed by the rational basis test is this: Is there a plausible secular philosophical argument for Amendment 2? The parties to the lawsuit produced testimony and sworn statements from some of the most distinguished academics of the English-speaking world on precisely that point. Testifying for the existence of a “rational basis” were Harvard Professor of Government Harvey Mansfield and Princeton legal philosopher and U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Robert P. George. Oxford moral and legal philosopher John Finnis, visiting this year at Boston College, submitted the fullest statement-a lengthy, sworn affidavit-in support. On the other side, Stephen Macedo of Harvard offered testimony against the Amendment, as did Martha Nussbaum, Brown University Professor of Philosophy, Classics, and Comparative Literature, and recently Visiting Professor at Chicago Law School. Nussbaum is also a long-time consultant to the United Nations on matters of moral philosophy and public policy, and was chosen to deliver the highly prestigious Gifford Lectures.
This is the story of Martha Nussbaum’s part in the Colorado trial. The reader will want to keep in mind the distinction between advocacy and scholarship, assuming there is still such a distinction in the contemporary academy. Equally important for this story are distinctions between misstatement, misrepresentation, and deliberate falsehood.
The testimony and sworn statements at the trial focused at length on the judgments of classical authors, particularly Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, on sodomy. Both sides recognized that if these writers-committed as they were to reasoned analysis of moral questions, and untouched by the monotheistic faiths that shape our religious commitments-argued against and condemned sodomy, then a rational basis very likely exists. In his affidavit, Finnis contended that, despite an upper-class ideology of same-sex (and specifically man-boy) “romantic relationships,” the public morality of Athens in the fourth century b.c. treated sexual conduct between males as involving at least one of the parties in something shameful, unnatural, and wrong. Finnis argued that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle regarded homosexual conduct as shameful and immoral. He set forth what he considered to be a central insight of these philosophers, as of other thinkers unaffected by Christianity (notably the Roman Stoic Musonius Rufus and Plutarch), that homosexual and other nonmarital sex acts are incapable of participating in, actualizing, or truly expressing the intimacy and good of friendship.
In her first filing, Nussbaum declared that “in all of these [pre-Christian Mediterranean] traditions and civilizations, same-sex romantic relationships, attachments, and sexual conduct were highly regarded. . . . Such relationships were never considered shameful. . . . Thus, prior to the Christian tradition, there is no evidence that natural law theories regarded same-sex erotic attachments as immoral, ‘unnatural,’ or improper.”
Nussbaum then testified in court and repeated her claim that, in “Greek culture of the fifth and fourth centuries b.c., and on, really, through to the first century a.d. where Christianity starts to have a big impact, homosexual acts between consenting males, and in rarer cases between consenting females, are attested as received with great approval.” This amounts to a simple disagreement with Finnis. By itself, this sustains Amendment 2. Its defenders do not have to show that Finnis (for example) is right and that Nussbaum is wrong. Amendment 2 needs merely a rational basis, not the unequivocal verdict of reason. Its opponents needed to do more than rebut Finnis’ account of the classical writers. They needed to show that his account is unreasonable or incompetent-not just debatable or inadequate.
Nussbaum tried to destroy Finnis’ contentions by saying that his moral argument was a sectarian Catholic view without foundation in the secular and rational “natural law” views of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. She rejected Finnis’ appeal to Plato on the ground that it relied on English translations which falsified Plato’s texts. In reality, she maintained, neither Socrates nor Plato nor Aristotle had moral objections to homosexual conduct that did not involve coercion, prostitution, or the seduction of students. She repeatedly drew attention to her mastery of the classical languages and intimate familiarity with the classical texts, implying (falsely) that Finnis has access to classical writers only in translation. She went on: “I have to say that Finnis is no classicist. He’s a distinguished philosopher and religious authority, but he has no training in classics, and he has access to the ancient texts only through translations. He’s made a pretty cursory examination even of those. . . .”
Robert George of Princeton then gave evidence contending that the translations which Finnis had quoted were confirmed by translations of the same passages given by classicists accepted by Nussbaum as highly authoritative. Such classicists include Sir Kenneth Dover, the author of the leading book on Greek homosexuality and, according to Nussbaum herself, a “giant” in the field. Moreover, George argued that Nussbaum had misrepresented both Dover and Finnis.The decisive engagement was joined.
On the last day of the trial, Nussbaum filed an affidavit in which twenty-four single-spaced pages are devoted to these issues. On the same day, Finnis filled an affidavit of twenty-four double-spaced pages in rebuttal of Nussbaum’s oral testimony. George filed a short affidavit rebutting points made against his testimony in the first twelve paragraphs of Nussbaum’s affidavit. She had sent him those (but only those) paragraphs the previous day, together with a letter demanding that he retract his claims that she had misrepresented Finnis and Dover.
Nussbaum made some rather remarkable statements in court. In denying the validity of Finnis’ reading of Plato’s Gorgias, she directed the court to her “lengthier discussion of the [disputed] passage in [her] The Fragility of Goodness, ch. 5.” Presumably, she assumed that the judge would not go and look up the citation, for it turns out that chapter 5 of The Fragility of Goodness supports Finnis. In that chapter Nussbaum insists with great force that this very passage [Gorgias 494-95] shows how “the interlocutors” (Callicles and Socrates) share the “social prejudices” of “a Greek of Callicles’ class and background” in regarding the sexual enjoyment and activity of “the passive homosexual” as ridiculous, loathsome, disgraceful, shameful, and wretched.
In paragraphs 34 and 35 of her affidavit she further suggested that any allusion to homosexual pleasures in Gorgias 494-95 is restricted to those of “the male prostitute,” and that the court would find this substantiated in the same chapter of her book. This, too, was not the case. In that chapter (as again in chapter 7, p. 231) she unhesitatingly (and rightly) interprets the passage’s allusion, and its adverse normative judgments (which in a footnote, she actually goes out of her way to tell the reader she does not share), as including the activities and pleasures of any and every “passive homosexual.” But in court and in her affidavit she denied that Greek public morality or any great Greek philosopher ever made such adverse normative judgments. Such judgments, she maintained, came only with Christianity.
In fact the writings of Plato contain numerous condemnations of homosexual intercourse. Perhaps the bluntest and most withering comes in Laws 636c. Here Plato, speaking through the character of the Athenian stranger, rejects homosexual behavior as “unnatural” (para physin), describes it as an “enormity” or “crime” (tolmema), and explains that it derives from being enslaved to pleasure. Finnis had cited this passage, among others, to show that Plato, among other great pre-Christian thinkers, rejected homosexual acts on moral grounds. Thus, Nussbaum faced the daunting task of explaining away what appears to be Plato’s clear condemnation of acts she had claimed no pre-Christian philosopher had ever objected to.
How did Nussbaum deal with Laws 636c? Her strategy was to attack the translation relied on in Finnis’ first affidavit. “Repeatedly,” she said, Finnis imported into Plato’s text “things that are not in the Greek” and indeed whole “sentences” that “just are not there in the Greek.” This claim, which was crucial to the attack on Amendment 2 as bereft of any rational basis, was false.
Nussbaum cited only one particular to support her remarkable claim that Laws 636c does not condemn sodomy. She alleged that the Loeb translation of Plato’s Laws 636c by Bury is incompetent, prejudiced, erroneous, and unsustainable. According to Nussbaum, Bury’s translation makes Plato convey adverse judgments on homosexual conduct that Plato did not make there, or anywhere else. Nussbaum contended both in court and in her sworn affidavit that to find even a “nuance” of wrongdoing conveyed by the Greek words ton proton to tolmema, which Bury had translated as “enormities,” is outside the range of reasonable scholarly opinion. The conclusion: since Finnis found more than a “nuance” of wrongdoing, this part of his testimony was well outside the range of reasonable scholarly opinion.
Nussbaum’s contention about tolmema is insupportable. The very authorities whom she proposed to the court as trustworthy in these matters, Kenneth Dover and A. N. Price, translate it respectively as “a crime” and “crime of the first rank.”
In order to bolster her inaccurate claims about the state of scholarly opinion on tolmema in Laws 636c, she wrote precisely this in her affidavit: the “Liddle [sic, “Liddell”], Scott, Lexicon of the Ancient Greek Language, the authoritative dictionary relied on by all scholars in this area,” translates tolmema as “an adventure, enterprise, deed of daring” and includes no pejorative definition corresponding to Bury’s “enormities.” Note well: Nussbaum told the court that the dictionary from which she was quoting is “the authoritative dictionary relied on by all scholars in this area.” Yet if one looks at Liddell and Scott’s A Greek-English Lexicon (which was never entitled “A Lexicon of the Ancient Greek Language”), one finds, in addition to the definitions of tolmema recited to the court by Nussbaum, the plainly pejorative definition “shameless act.”
The reader may have noticed the blank space in my quotation of Nussbaum’s reference to the lexicon’s definition of tolmema. The affidavit almost certainly contained the words “Liddle, Scott, and Jones,” and the words “and Jones” were whited out. (As a matter of fact, a version of the affidavit with the words “and Jones” included was served on the defendants at the same time the “whited out” version was lodged with the court.)
This is no mere pedantic quibble. More than fifty years ago a large team of specialists under the leadership of Sir Henry Stuart Jones dramatically reworked the nineteenth-century lexicon compiled by Liddell and Scott. That revised dictionary (still known by classicists as “Liddell & Scott”) is in fact “the authoritative dictionary relied on by all scholars in this area,” including Nussbaum in her own published work. So Professor Nussbaum put a dictionary before the court as “the authoritative dictionary relied on by all scholars in this area,” but the quotation that she said was from that dictionary is in fact from a long out-of-date version of that dictionary, one that is not authoritative or relied upon by all scholars or indeed by any scholars. To have quoted from the truly “authoritative dictionary” would have destroyed the fundamental contention of Nussbaum’s oral evidence and of her affidavit; but to have allowed the court to know the truth about the long-superseded nineteenth-century source of her lexicography would have deprived her testimony of the appearance of authoritative support it so badly needed to offset the devastating counterevidence of Dover.
Nussbaum went on to claim that “in the thousands of occasions of its occurrence in the language,” “the word” does not once convey any nuance of wrongdoing. By “the word,” she meant tolmao in its various forms (for she had just referred to “Plato’s use of the word” in “many passages,” and the form tolmema itself occurs but once in Plato). She failed to inform the court that the very dictionary that she was citing (like its authoritative successor) indicates that tolmao’s primary meanings include: “to have the courage, hardihood, effrontery, cruelty, or the grace, patience to do a thing in spite of any natural feeling.” (Emphasis added.)
Nussbaum asserted the non-pejorative (“morally neutral”) character of all the “thousands of occasions of its [tolmao’s] occurrence in the language,” and appealed to the “many passages” where “Plato’s use strongly connotes approval.” What she withheld from the court is the elementary information that, in Plato’s Laws alone, about two-thirds of the uses of tolmao are manifestly pejorative, and many spectacularly so. For instance, the term signifies for Plato the depraved and abandoned shamelessness exemplified in such enormities as slaughtering one’s own mother, father, or brother, or robbing temples (all of which, according to Plato, deserve the gravest penalties, including death), as well as (just a few pages after Laws 636) the more generic shamelessness involved in saying, permitting, or doing what is shameful (aischron) (Laws 649d).
These matters were not belabored by the witnesses as some fascinating but arcane academic dispute, as Jeffrey Rosen’s account of the trial in The New Republic implied. This is no more a haggle about a word than the question of whether Tonya Harding knew about the Kerrigan assault “before” or “after” it took place is a trivial matter of what time it happened to be. It is noteworthy that neither Nussbaum nor the other participants knew then that Judge Bayless would not in the end rule on the “rational basis” question. (It may even be that his reticence to do so owed something to the dispute I am describing.) Whether Nussbaum could show that Finnis’ classical scholarship was distorted by his Catholic commitments was likely to be a critical part of the anticipated decision.
The Amendment 2 episode raises, as did the historians’ brief in Webster, the important question of ethical standards for academic participation in public policy debates. The question has yet to receive the attention from academics that it deserves. Nussbaum seems to have backed off her early demand for a retraction from Robert George. After Finnis devastatingly exposed her claims, she began to paint the whole affair as a good faith dispute among scholars.
But the Amendment 2 trial was not a scholarly disagreement. It was a matter of what it means to be and to hold oneself out as a scholar. More particularly, when one holds oneself out to public authority as a scholarly expert, does one forswear dissembling and distortion however deeply one desires to advance a cause? The link between behavior of the sort engaged in by Mohr and Nussbaum and the phenomenon of “political correctness” in the academic world is well worth considering. One can only imagine the fate of a historian who did what Mohr did as part of an effort not to support “abortion rights” but to protect fetal rights, or the fate of a philosopher who did what Nussbaum did not to advance the cause of the homosexual movement but to oppose it. Something in the academy has gone radically wrong.
Gerard V. Bradley is a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School.
Christopher R. Seitz
What is the ministry of Christians in the pluralistic society of the 1990s? I teach Old Testament and so will begin by considering the Bible’s perspective on ministry in a pluralistic context. My larger question will be, ministry in the name of what, and to whom? We might assume that the answer to that question in our case would be: ministry in the name of Christ, to a pluralistic society.
Ministry in the name of Christ can of course be seen in the New Testament, so we might hope to take our cue from what we see there. But when we raise the question, “to whom,” and answer, “to our pluralistic society,” problems arise. It is not clear how close the fit is between the world addressed by Paul and the apostles and the world in which we live and move and have our being. There can be no doubt that those confronted by the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the New Testament represented a religiously pluralistic society. The book of Acts shows Christian ministry in a wide variety of contexts. “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” we hear one group cry; another appeals to Caesar and the Roman state as divine order personified; another sets up a statue to an unknown God; one even worships a stone that fell from heaven.
In the New Testament, in other words, religious pluralism is firmly in place, and religious issues and conflicts are no laughing matter. A shrine to an unknown god makes a fairly ironic statement, but it is still some distance from what we mean by secularity. Atheism and secularity find no place in either the Old or the New Testaments; in the ancient world, the debate was not whether God existed or could be talked about or related to public actions, but about who God is and what God requires. Who God is has immediate consequences for how men and women are to act in the “real world,” not just in their shrines and sacred places.
Things are different today. Where pluralism in the New Testament is quintessentially religious, for us pluralism involves ethnicity and race and class and gender. Pluralism in modernity takes us out of the realm of competing religious claims and into another realm where we speak of distinguishing “secular” from “religious” perspectives. We talk about separating church and state; religious beliefs, we maintain, can be isolated from other sorts of beliefs. Indeed, we press for these various sorts of distinctions automatically, as though they were self-evident. By contrast, when Paul goes to Athens, the New York of its day, no one regards him as quaint or peripheral when he describes all Athenians as “very religious.” Some of them, it is true, scoff at the notion of the resurrection of the dead-not, however, because they want to keep religious beliefs out of the realm of public discourse, but because, to their minds, it is bad religion.
My point here is not to challenge America’s separation of church and state. But I do confess to being concerned that one tendency of that separation has been to make religion a private matter, or, if public, tolerable only in the realm of good deeds (e.g., care for the homeless) and not as part of serious public discourse and reflection. It’s hard to imagine serious, ongoing, religious discussions on CNN or MacNeil-Lehrer. Yet serious religious discourse is precisely where Paul began at Athens and in many other places.
In this sense, modern Christians are at a disadvantage compared to Paul. When we speak about ministry in the name of Christ to a pluralistic society, we could never lead off with the declaration, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious,” and then launch into a public debate designed to convince the already “very religious” about the superior claims of Christianity or the inadequacy of the religion they presently adhere to. We would have to take the opposite tack: “I know you’re not a religious person, but have you given any thought to . . .” In short, to talk about the way ministry in the name of Christ is conceived within the Bible is to see at once how different that context is from our own.
If we do not recognize this difference, two problems may result. We might assume, first, that ministry in a pluralistic society really does not involve beliefs and convictions that truly matter and in fact lie at the heart of Christian faith, and prefer instead to focus on actions alone or private piety immune from the strains of public discourse. Yet specific beliefs and convictions are what Paul is most concerned about. Second, we might assume that the Bible and the world it describes has an immediate fit with ours where it really doesn’t, pluralism being for us of a secular or intra-denominational character-two perspectives absent from the pages of the Bible. Let me elaborate this second point more fully. My concern in pointing out the difference between the Bible’s world and our own is not to render it outmoded or irrelevant; it is rather to suggest that the distance of our world and its conceptual framework from that of the Bible is a problem for us, not for the Bible.
If we are going to talk about ministry in a pluralistic culture, we must begin with what has been called “the scandal of particularity.” Here the Bible’s perspective is helpful. The Bible does not assume that God can be known or experienced generally. God reveals himself fully only to Israel, and within Israel, to a few chosen individuals whose responsibility is then to pass on what they know to others within Israel. Only in this way does Israel learn that God’s ways will eventually have to do with other nations and peoples, beyond her orbit-whether they know it or not, care about it or not. Now the modern will object that this is because the Bible is written from Israel’s own perspective-but that is the whole point. The very truth of the revelation of God in Scripture has to do with the Scripture’s attachment to a particular people, whom God has elected for a special and rather burdensome task. In this consists its claim to be Holy Scripture. No election, no particular revelation, no Holy Scripture.
One clear implication of this controversial point is that knowledge of God must be communicated socially-literally, by word of mouth, from God, to Moses, to Israel, and outward, in the fullness of time, to all nations and peoples, penetrating every pluralistic pocket. Psalm 78 summarizes this perspective: “God established in Jacob a testimony, in Israel he appointed a law, which he commanded our fathers to teach their children; that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God.” Not God in general, but Israel’s named LORD, in particular, who has acted in specific and even hidden ways with his own particular people.
Consider how removed and in fact offensive such a notion is to modern, channel-surfing sensibilities. Immediate access to everything, whenever we want it, is the watchword of the information superhighway. Would it not be unfair and undemocratic, we may cry as Americans, for something so important as knowledge of God not to be universally available to any individual, directly, without any sort of interference? A direct cable hook-up. And as Christians, it may strike us as offensive to be reminded that what we know of God we learn through the witness of another people’s scriptures, which become our own only because that people’s king has declared us to be his people by adoption. “Now remember, you Gentiles,” Paul says in Ephesians, “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenants of promise, and without God in the world.” Only through Christ do we Gentiles become fellow heirs, through adoption, of promises once preserved within the bosom of Israel.
Or consider the wider witness of the New Testament. Throughout the book of Acts, Paul’s appeal to God in Christ is made on the basis, not just of his personal experience (which looks pretty unrepeatable), but on the witness of the scriptures, the Old Testament. Acts ends with Paul in Rome “testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets” (28:23). Paul uses Israel’s own literature to witness to Christ, to Jew and Gentile. There is no separate strategy for the Gentiles, i.e., use the scriptures for Jews, appeal to general religious instincts for others that have no point of contact with those scriptures. The one decisive message of God in Christ is rooted in an ancient witness and ancient promises. In the New Testament there is no New Testament, but only the scriptures of Israel which testify to Christ and reveal him and the Father to the world beyond Israel’s own borders.
The point here is that Christian ministry in a pluralistic society does not start outward, out there, and move inward. The Church’s primary task is to be the body of Christ, to build itself up in the knowledge and love of God. To love the neighbor as oneself is a commandment like the first, but it is not a replacement for the first. Paul’s overriding concern is not love of neighbor for its own sake, but the knowledge and love of God-a particular God revealed particularly in Christ-who has the power to give life in ways neither the neighbor nor the world can give. In order to do this Paul appeals to the Church’s scriptural legacy and the basic story of Jesus: his life, his death, his resurrection, and his continued presence in word and sacrament.
What are the implications of this biblical understanding of revelation and pluralism for Christians today? Stripped to essentials, Christian ministry begins with the capacity to make a robust, intelligent accounting of the faith we hold. Can we state with clarity and conviction what it is that we believe, as this has been handed down to us? What does it mean to say that we worship a crucified and risen Lord? That we believe in a final judgment of the quick and the dead? That we believe the God who created the world is not identical with creation? That we look to Christ’s return in glory? Before we move to commend the faith to others in this pluralistic society-however we might do that-can we first state with comprehensiveness and conviction what it is that we ourselves believe, as this has been handed down to us, from Israel to the apostles and from one generation of faith to the next?
Christian ministry in a pluralistic society begins with the capacity to speak the faith intelligently and persuasively to ourselves and to one another within the household of faith. We should not be ashamed or concerned to have this as our primary goal. For the pluralism the Gospel seeks to address is as omnipresent as the air we breathe, and exists within our midst as much as outside of it. The challenge is not how to address pluralism with some sure thing we presume to know that then must be adapted or modified in order to get an effective hearing; the challenge is how to identify the faith we claim to hold, that laid hold on us in baptism, in the face of a pluralism that is already our daily bread.
I am an advisor to a seminarian preparing for ministry at Yale. Together we are to write an evaluation of his work thus far and his preparedness for ministry. The first question to be addressed is his grasp of the Christian tradition. Why? To show that he can distinguish between Anselm and Aquinas? Certainly not for its own sake, or in order to appear on “Jeopardy” and ace the religion questions. Then why? So that we can trust him to teach the faith to children, to others, to a new generation of Christian people; so that he can hand on to others the faith that was commended once to him: by priest or pastor or mother or Bible-reading or even those old confirmation classes that taught us what a sacrament was.
This responsibility is not peculiar to the ordained. We do expect the ordained to be on call all the time and ever ready to commend the faith of the Church in word and deed, in the same way we set aside a 911 number we count on, with somebody always at the end of the line. Yet the same responsibility to commend the faith of the Church, to be able to interpret with care and intelligence the creeds we recite every Sunday-this is precisely the responsibility every one of us takes on as godparents, as parents, as baptized Christians trying to live in a pluralistic society.
So before we run to tackle some agreed-upon benevolent activity, before we defer to the wisdom of the age because it has the imprimatur of the talk-show hosts, before we assume that ministry involves others more inspired or more suited or more whatever than ourselves, it should not be forgotten that ministry begins with the simple confession of faith corporately held. The Church is the place where that faith is taught, preached, nurtured, and shared. The world is where that faith is passed on with vigor, humor, and compassion.
The recent movie Shadowlands received enthusiastic reviews. Why? Because it tells a moving story about an aging academic who falls in love, and who then loses this love through sickness and death? C. S. Lewis is certainly not the first man to have loved-even poignantly-and lost. What gives the story its special appeal is that it concerns a great Christian apologist, a man who sought to interpret to the world around him-to children, to the general public, to his own academic colleagues, and also, finally, to himself-matters of God and life and death and heaven and hell and sin and sickness and doubt and hope. What happens to a great Christian apologist who loves and loses? That is a story worth hearing.
If the lost art of Christian apology means anything, it means commending the faith that is in us as did Lewis in his day: with rigor, with intellectual honesty, and with a conviction born of deep personal struggle, where the faith the Church commends corporately has become the experience of the living God, who alone can speak from the depths of death and doubt and despair as forcefully as from realms of power and majesty. This is the sort of faith that can weather the onslaughts of life and address more poignantly than anything else the challenges of our pluralistic society in the 1990s. This is what lies at the heart of Christian apology. And good Christian apology is where ministry in a pluralistic society begins and ends, in every age and especially in our own.
Allow me a final comment from the perspective of a teacher in a divinity school that trains ministers in the 1990s. A discussion of specifically lay ministry as against clerical ministry may trade on a distinction between those who know the faith well or professionally and those who hold the faith poorly or casually. This is a distinction we can no longer trust, especially when it comes to assessing present-day seminarians and the sorts of formal Christian education they bring with them to seminary.
In a recent essay on theological education, my colleague Thomas Ogletree draws a distinction between catechesis and a more mature engagement with the Gospel. In describing his former theological school’s commitment to multicultural education (Drew), with attention to the pluralistic society of the late twentieth century, he contrasts catechetical instruction with “advanced professional and graduate education.” “To be sure,” he says, “catechetical instruction has its place in the life of the Church, but that place is not advanced professional and graduate education. Catechesis furnishes milk for babes in Christ, not the solid food of the Gospel which can equip men and women for leadership in the church and its worldly mission.”*
That comment sums up well how theological education has been carried out over recent decades. My question is whether the assumption on which it is based is any longer accurate. Can we today be sure that the students who come to us have received catechetical instruction of the sort Ogletree both appreciates but also contrasts with something more solid and substantial? The question is important because teaching people to think critically about the faith they hold obviously requires that they already hold some faith, in a precritical, even catechetical, framework. Today, it seems more likely that critical thinking of the sort that works in graduate institutions is what students already have a good grasp of; what they don’t have is catechetical training. Most don’t know the names of half of the books of the Bible, whether Calvin lived before or after Augustine, what it means to say that Christ descended to the dead or acted “in accordance with the Scriptures,” what the wrath of God means or how to understand a final judgment of the quick and the dead. And of course good catechetics would mean not just knowing something about these things, but also being able to interpret their significance to a radically pluralistic world in vigorous and compelling ways.
I wonder if catechetics is what Lewis meant by “mere Christianity,” and if so, I can think of no more noble or even advanced goal for a divinity school than to train students catechetically. To put it another way: schools might try to discover what the art of robust Christian apology might look like in our day. But for that we need a stronger foundation of basic Christian faith. Theological educators will disagree about what constitutes good education in a graduate school setting. What should be less controversial is the degree to which we expect our students to arrive with anything like a grasp of basic Christian tradition: creedal, biblical, historical, theological. Without this foundation in the tradition, instead of Christian apology we have the sharing of deep feelings and strongly held convictions, pluralism for its own sake, whose horizon is the possibility of entente and mutual regard between differing factions. But to the larger world this looks like intramural squabbling and a sign of decay, not serious engagement with either the tradition or the public square. Our problem is that we have so-called critical thinking built upon no substantive base, a presumed teasing out of the implications of catechetical faith with such faith never having been in place to begin with.
The challenge is how to construct a theological curriculum that respects this changed situation and yet is more than a remedial run-through of basic Christian teaching. In this respect, the situation is the same for churches and seminaries, for lay and ordained, for young and old. The erosion we have experienced has been no respecter of traditional distinctions. Solid food is no doubt the stuff of mature Christian apology. But this demands that we first be fed on milk. It was precisely to a divided and factious assembly at Corinth that Paul spoke about the necessity of foundations being in place-he used the metaphor of mother’s milk-before he could address them as spiritual men and women.
There is another New Testament text relevant to our situation: “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” (Acts 17:21) Christian apology consists in telling something old, passed on by others to us, in faithful and compelling ways to a new generation, “that they might know them and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God.” What would a curriculum, in church or in seminary, look like that had that as its goal? Until we can answer that question we will have difficulty, whether clergy or laity, being effective ministers of Christ in the pluralistic society of the 1990s.
Christopher R. Seitz is Professor of Old Testament at Yale University Divinity School.
This is a story about two men named Stanley. They live in the same town in North Carolina. In fact, they are neighbors. Not only that, they work at the same place, though in different departments. If they were in some other occupation, one might expect them to share rides to work, but they are college professors (Duke), and therefore keep irregular hours. So carpooling probably doesn’t work for them. Still, they must have some interesting conversations from time to time. I draw this inference because one of the Stanleys has recently come to sound more and more like the other one. Oddly, though, this influence does not seem to work both ways. I wonder why.
One Stanley is a theologian. His last name is Hauerwas. The other (more famous) Stanley is a literary and legal theorist. His last name is Fish. There was a time when Stanley Hauerwas said things that closely resembled the things said by a philosopher named Alasdair MacIntyre, who teaches at the university (Notre Dame) where Hauerwas used to teach. (Perhaps they shared rides to work.) Nowadays Hauerwas says things that resemble the things said by Fish.
Fish, on the other hand, sounds like himself most of the time, and when he doesn’t, he sounds like a philosopher named Rorty. But he never sounds like Stanley Hauerwas. For instance, while Hauerwas now uses words like “interpretive communities” and “strategies of interpretation,” Fish has not yet been heard to talk about God or the Church. Both ends of this comparison suggest, to me anyway, an unfortunate state of affairs.
One might readily conclude-and it appears that Hauerwas has so concluded-that Fish’s “interpretive communities” are pretty much the same as MacIntyre’s “traditions.” And indeed the two thinkers have some key beliefs in common. Both argue that the Enlightenment’s picture of the rational thinker-a person free from adherence to traditions and prejudices that cloud the mental vision and impair one’s objectivity, and who is thereby able to consider questions disinterestedly and, eventually, to reach conclusions that could not be denied by any other rational thinkers-describes an impossible beast. Both agree that all thinking, all decision-making, goes on within the context of what one calls an interpretive community and the other calls a tradition; moreover, our standards of rationality, our judgments about art or politics or science, are bequeathed to us by the traditions or communities into which we are educated, rather than being built into the fundamental structures of our minds. Of course, it is not just MacIntyre and Fish who share these convictions; another famous proponent of this general position is the German philosopher of hermeneutics, Hans-Georg Gadamer. And then there is Pope John Paul II.
The invocation of that last name may serve to warn many readers that people who share the convictions just described do not necessarily share much else, and that as common ground goes, such an anti-Enlightenment view of rationality doesn’t constitute a particularly expansive patch. This is a point that appears to be lost on Hauerwas. His most recent book, Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America (Abingdon Press), contains a chapter entitled “Stanley Fish, the Pope, and the Bible,” which attempts to convince his readers that that patch of common ground is a great deal bigger than it really is. “Stanley Fish and Pope John Paul II are on the same side when it comes to the politics of interpretation,” he writes. “Both men assume that the text, and in this case the text of Scripture, can be interpreted only in the context of an ‘interpretative community.’ For John Paul II (and all the apostles before him in the tradition), the community necessary for the reading of Scripture is the Roman Catholic Church, which includes the Office of the Magisterium.” These sentences provide an excellent example of a claim that is true as far as it goes, but because it doesn’t go far enough, conveys error. An unbridgeable chasm yawns between Fish and the Pope, and Hauerwas ignores it.
The key is this: it is correct to say that for the Pope, and for any Christian who holds a high doctrine of the Church, the whole truth about who Jesus is and about God’s purposes for his people and his world cannot be ascertained by the unaided operations of reason. The ancient division of the Seven Cardinal Virtues into the four Rational virtues, which can in principle be discovered and understood by anyone, and the three Theological virtues, which can only be known through divine revelation, is theology’s most famous acknowledgment of the limitations of human reason, but the same insight has been formulated in many other ways. However, while Christians with a low doctrine of the church would argue that those Theological virtues are typically revealed directly by God to the individual believer, the Pope (along with millions of other Christians, many if not most of whom are not Roman Catholics) would contend that it is only through the mediation of the Church, the Body of Christ-the interpretive community that it represents, the tradition that it embodies-that such revelation can be given and received.
Now, what must be noted here is the simple fact that, faced with the competing claims of many rival traditions and communities (both within and outside the sphere of Christianity), the Pope and Alasdair MacIntyre both claim that it is not only possible but rationally defensible to claim that one of these traditions can be essentially right, the others (if not in every respect) wrong. Stanley Fish, conversely, thinks that two conditions in our interpretive world force us to conclude that no one can say whether one tradition is more truthful than another: first, there are many different and conflicting interpretive communities; and second, there is no solid ground outside of any community from which to judge these rival claims. “Truth” can be nothing more than “truth-for-me,” or rather, “truth-for-my-community.” In other words, Fish believes what MacIntyre says that people like him believe. Here is MacIntyre in one of the most concise and brilliant analytical moments in contemporary philosophy (from Whose Justice? Which Rationality?):
Post-Enlightenment relativism and perspectivism are thus the negative counterpart of the Enlightenment, its inverted mirror image. Where the Enlightenment invoked the arguments of Kant or Bentham, such post-Enlightenment theorists invoke Nietzsche’s attacks upon Kant and Bentham. It is therefore not surprising that what was invisible to the thinkers of the Enlightenment should be equally invisible to those postmodernist relativists and perspectivists who take themselves to be the enemies of the Enlightenment, while in fact being to a large and unacknowledged degree its heirs. What neither was or is able to recognize is the kind of rationality possessed by traditions.
But the Pope (again, along with many other Christians) does recognize this rationality, and in particular the rationality of his own Christian tradition. He believes in Truth with a capital T, but also believes that this Truth in its fullness is accessible, not to any randomly chosen “rational person,” but only through the tradition or the community called the Church. This position, articulated so powerfully by MacIntyre, is one that Fish, as far as one can tell, has never considered; to him it is obvious that if the Enlightenment’s attempts at establishing an indubitable foundation for rational knowledge have failed, then rational knowledge is perforce impossible.
In so cavalierly and dangerously linking Stanley Fish and the Pope, Stanley Hauerwas has, it seems to me, fallen into a trap that is currently snaring many Christians-and it is indeed an appealing trap. For two centuries or more now, many thoughtful Christians have granted the validity of the Enlightenment’s definition of rationality, and have then set about trying to defend Christianity according to the demands of that particular philosophical scheme. Such attempts have not been wholly unsuccessful; even Josh MacDowell’s often-belittled Evidence That Demands a Verdict books have persuaded many people that, for instance, the notion of the Empty Tomb is not as absurd as it may, prima facie, appear. But books like MacDowell’s tend not so much to provide a solid foundation on which to ground faith as to pry partly open some firmly closed minds. And the general public quite clearly believes, and has believed for a long time, that what they think of as “rational” or “objective” evidence works against rather than for Christianity.
So one can see why many Christians have been rather pleased to discover that the Enlightenment’s standards of rationality and evidence-which as weapons, in their hands anyway, have proved more dangerous to the users than to the targets-are unworkable. This is why you hear so many Christians today claim, with the relief of a just-pardoned Sisyphus, that postmodernism (what Fish calls “anti-foundationalism,” MacIntyre “post-Enlightenment relativism and perspectivism”) at long last “levels the playing field.”
But what good is a level playing field if there is now no agreement on the rules of the game, or even on what game is to be played? In the old days, it now appears, the standards of rationality and evidence were defined in such a way that Christianity could not compel widespread assent from those who adhered to such standards; but, on the other hand, those who made the strongest cases for Christianity could count not only on a hearing but on certain kinds of counterarguments, some of which might help the apologists strengthen and clarify their own arguments. Moreover, the would-be apologist knew precisely what the rules for disputative engagement were and how to follow them.
Our postmodern “level playing field,” on the other hand, can provide no one a compelling reason to listen or to respond to the Christian case. Richard Rorty was once heard to say, in answer to a question about just this issue, that the theists are certainly free to talk, but “we don’t have to listen.” Fish writes (in the course of an argument more subtle than the following quote will make it appear) that “all preferences are principled [and] all principles are preferences.” The judgments of the Court of Preference admit of no appeal; there is no higher judiciary to which one can make recourse. Either your case for Christianity happens to persuade your audience or it doesn’t. this is progress?
Yet there is quite clearly no way of returning to the heyday of Enlightenment rationalism and foundationalism, even should one want to do so. Therefore what is required now is what Stanley Hauerwas, at least in his most recent book, so conspicuously fails to give: a recognition of the different forms of anti-foundationalism, an acknowledgment that the enemy of my foundationalist enemy is not necessarily my friend. Or, to put it more bluntly and perhaps more reductively, an awareness of the difference between a postmodern thinker like Fish and a premodern like the Pope.
Yes; that is too reductive a formulation. Because premodernity is for all of us impossible; we cannot pretend that the Enlightenment never happened, or even that it was a mere blip on the historical screen. The kind of rationality proclaimed and sought after by the thinkers of the Enlightenment has shaped, and continues to shape, our world in ways too extensive and profound for full description. Thinkers like MacIntyre, who works in the Thomist tradition, and John Milbank, the English theologian whose magisterial Theology and Social Theory attempts to renew Augustinian social and political thought, are fully aware of this fact: the one cannot be a Thomist as Aquinas was, nor the other an Augustinian as Augustine was. But, as John Henry Newman, Jaroslav Pelikan, and MacIntyre, among others, have cogently argued, traditions grow and develop. It is possible that, by standing on the shoulders of giants like Thomas and Augustine, we may be able to see a little farther than they could.
This, needless to say, is not Stanley Fish’s way of thinking, and it is a pity that Hauerwas in his new book fails to acknowledge the great chasm between, on the one hand, Fish and Rorty and their coreligionists, and, on the other, MacIntyre, the Pope, Milbank, and the Anglican theologian Lesslie Newbigin. What metaphor may best describe this difference?
Let us imagine a trail, a trail blazed by the thinkers of the Enlightenment, which most who have walked on it agree has ended in a swamp, or at the foot of an unscalable cliff. Say some, “Now that this trail has culminated in a dead end, it is clear that we can never reach our destination. In fact, the very idea of a ‘destination’ was a misbegotten fantasy. We should remain content where we are.” But others decide to retrace their steps and to rejoin what they now have come to understand as the main road, the highway, from which this abortive trail had diverged. As they take up that highway, though, they evaluate it in a new way; they remember what they saw, some of it quite interesting, and what they learned, some of it quite valuable, along the dead-end trail. But make no mistake: they are now quite sure that there is all the difference in the world between a highway and a cul-de-sac, that there is a destination to be reached, and that it would be a great shame and a pity not to reach it, or worse, not even to try.
Where shall we place our two Stanleys in this little allegory?
Alan Jacobs teaches in the Department of English at Wheaton College.
Peter L. Berger
The most prominent victim of the wave of neo-Nazi letter bombs that rocked Austria some months ago was Helmut Zilk, the mayor of Vienna. Vienna is a state in the Austrian federal system, so that its mayor is also the head of the most important regional government. The bomb shattered his left hand, and he lost several fingers. Zilk had become a target because of his repeated statements opposing the anti-foreigner campaign and because of his actions on behalf of refugees from the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and other zones of misery. There were other reasons why Zilk attracted the hatred of the neo-Nazis. Throughout his political career he had confronted the horrors of the Third Reich, which many Austrians like to forget, and as mayor he had actively fostered the reestablishment of Jewish institutions and community life in Vienna.
Following the attack there was an outpouring of sympathy for the wounded mayor from people across the political spectrum, coupled with declarations that such acts of hate-driven violence must never be allowed to happen again. A statement of this kind was also issued by Joerg Haider, the leader of the right-wing Freedom Party, who had spearheaded the anti-foreigner campaign and whose rhetoric had undertones with disturbingly racist associations. In a surprising move that was widely criticized as politically inept, Zilk invited Haider to visit him in the hospital. They had a long conversation about the inadmissibility of violence and about the importance of democratic decencies. Haider asserted that the conversation left him deeply moved. Be that as it may, the incident yet again revealed Zilk as a politician with a penchant for civility and conciliation.
In the 1950s a German film titled “The Murderers are Among Us” was shown. It gave voice to the awareness that the perpetrators of the most unspeakable atrocities were now living lives of bourgeois respectability, unrecognized and unrecognizable in the new postwar normality. And indeed, anyone with a degree of sensitivity about these matters would, upon meeting a stranger, ask himself what this individual had been doing a few years earlier. One would be alert to telltale bits of information, to slips of the tongue and certain nuances of language. Mercifully, this is no longer the case. Today someone would have to be at least in his seventies to have played a significant role, or, as in most cases, even a minor one, in the Nazi nightmare. Most people one encounters, like Zilk and the great majority of Austrian political figures, are too young. In that sense, Kurt Waldheim was an exception. The question today is only rarely whether the person one is talking with may have been a mass murderer in an earlier incarnation. The question is rather how this person confronts, or fails to confront, the murders of the past, and following that, how he stands up to the new murderers and would-be murderers who are among us again.
Zilk comes out of a highly distinctive political culture, that of Viennese Social Democracy. Early in this century and since then during any period when there were free elections, the Social Democratic party controlled the municipal government and thus, since 1945, the Vienna state government. The Rathaus, the ornate city hall on the famous Ringstrasse that encircles the center of the capital, has long been the symbol of “Red Vienna.” During their many years in power the Social Democrats managed to create much more than a highly effective political organization. They also created a culture, in some sense a counterculture, with its own social and educational institutions, and with an unmistakable flavor. To be sure, this distinctive culture has weakened in recent years, as, due to increasing prosperity, the old class distinctions have faded and as the party has been successfully appealing to voters outside its traditional working-class constituency.
There is no reason to romanticize this culture in order to acknowledge its virtues. Its original ideology, so-called Austro-Marxism, was a curious mix of brilliant insights and an untenable worldview. An important part of this worldview was a visceral secularism, which had unfortunate political consequences in a country with abidingly vital Catholic traditions.
But the culture of “Red Vienna” has had a number of characteristics that deserve considerable respect. From its inception it has been unambiguously in favor of democracy, and therefore as staunchly anti-Communist as anti-Fascist. It has stood for ethnic tolerance. It has been unusually open to critical debate, and for much of its history its leading intellectuals were Jews. Thus Zilk, aside from his own personal merit, represents a political culture judged to be essentially decent even by people who disagree sharply with many of the positions and policies of the Social Democratic party.
In my childhood in Vienna in the 1930s I had a school book with the title Our City. As far as I can recall, it had no particular civic purpose, but was intended to teach reading. Naturally, on its cover, was a picture of the Rathaus. The book contained stories on the various municipal services involved in making the city a safe and enjoyable place for children-the police, the fire and sanitation departments, the water works, the streetcars. The streetcars, then as today, were red in color, with the coat-of-arms of the city, a white cross on a red field, emblazoned on their sides. I frequently travelled on the “J” line (it too is still called that) from the center, where my father’s store was located, to our home. The streetcar turned left from the Ringstrassse within sight of the Rathaus. I also recall walking near the Rathaus shortly after the Anschluss. A gigantic swastika flag was hanging over its front entrance. The city, then, was no longer a safe place for some of its children.
I had never been inside the Rathaus until a few months ago, when I was invited to a dinner given by Zilk for the participants in an international conference on European migration. It so happened that I ended up sitting at his table, along with the French ambassador and his wife and several Austrian political types. The conversation was mostly carried on between Zilk and the politicos, and was mostly taken up with various outlandish events in the city’s politics. The French spoke excellent German, but they were frequently lost when Zilk and his fellow-politicos lapsed into broad Viennese dialect. Earlier, when I was introduced to Zilk as someone who had been born in Vienna, Zilk wanted to know where I had first lived as a child. I told him-the Eighth District, Josefsstadt. He wanted to know the street-I told him that too. He nodded. I felt certain that he knew how that neighborhood had voted in every election over the last three decades. He then wanted to know the exact address of the house. That, however, I had forgotten. But I told him that there had been a business on the ground floor that manufactured and sold prosthetic devices; it had been there a few years ago, when I had been in the area; I didn’t know if it was still there. “It’s still there,” said Zilk.
There had been a showcase exhibiting various products of the firm-wooden arms and legs, iron hooks and grasping devices, leather supports. I had as a child found these objects frightening and I always avoided looking at that showcase. My memory may well deceive me after all these years, but it seems to me that it was in that place where I first received an intimation that terrible things can happen and that the world was a less safe place than Our City had led me to believe.
Peter L. Berger is Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University.