Cult or Religion?
I rarely find anything in the pages of your journal that is mean- spirited and ungenerous, but I’m afraid that cannot be said of Benjamin Wittes’ opinion piece, “The Scent of a Cult” (January).
The burden of this piece is that there are stigmata by which one can distinguish a “cult” (a pejorative term, apparently) from a “religion.” The distinguishing characteristics are the seven traits enumerated by the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) plus those added by Wittes, namely: the greater “vigor” (enthusiasm?) with which cults exhibit such traits, and Orwellian “doublethink” (the confusion and obfuscation of language in order to disorient the critical faculties). However, from the examples given, I would rather conclude that the distinction, if there is one, is between a mature religion and a religion in its birth stages.
Let’s take Christianity at its uterine stage of development and apply these test stigmata to it to see whether, in the eyes of a reasonable adherent of a mainstream religion at the time of Jesus (a Sadducee or Pharisee, for example), they might apply to Jesus, his followers while He lived, and to the Christian communities that sprang up after His death and Resurrection in various parts of the Roman world. First, the seven criteria of CAN:
- Mind control-Based on the account given in the Gospels, there can be little doubt that the Sadducees and Pharisees regarded Jesus not only as a heretic but as one who possessed a mysterious, almost demonic, mind control over the poor souls who followed Him blindly and without reason.
- Charismatic leadership-His contemporaries certainly would have described Jesus as a “charismatic leader” if they had a similar term in their vocabulary. Why? Because it must have seemed to them that part of Jesus’ effect on his following sprang from the force of His character and the dramatic way He taught and punctuated His teachings with the performance of “miracles.”
- Deception-Jesus’ critics also considered Him deceptive and dangerous in spreading false doctrines “out of the mainstream” at the very time that Judea and Israel most needed religious and cultural unity against an alien invader (John 11:47-48).
- Exclusivity-Jesus did advise those who followed Him to turn their backs on unbelieving family members and friends while devoting themselves wholly to the community of believers and to those still open to receiving the Truth, while rejecting the traps of the World outside the community (Matthew 11:35-37; Luke 12:51-53).
- Alienation-Same comment as above.
- Exploitation-Jesus’ advice to wealthier converts to share their wealth and patrimony with the poor (many of His followers were poor) or to divest themselves of it entirely (Mark 10:21; Matthew 19:21; Luke 18:22) could have been viewed by the family and friends of these converts as “exploitative” of their yearning for salvation and redemption, much as would parents today under similar circumstances.
- Totalitarian worldview-As I understand this term, it means a worldview of followers of a doctrine which teaches that every aspect of their lives is governed by that doctrine; there is no life outside it, only corrupting influences, the lure of Satan. Jesus taught this often (see scriptural citations in #4, above), as did His Apostles.
The distinctions favored by Wittes, based on the Orwellian concept of
“doublethink,” will not hold water either. The early stages of any
religion are always marked by seemingly inconsistent statements made by
the Founder, which are subject to various interpretations; and this was
as true of early Christianity as it is today of Reverend Sun Myung Moon
and his Unification Church. It took three centuries of continual
argument and disputation to hammer out a consistent doctrine and message
for Christianity, and even that agreement was only partial.
Misuse of language is also not an appropriate criterion because words are frequently used in many different ways and there is nothing particularly nefarious about the practice. Wittes’ own example of a misused term-the word “family”-is an instance of this: spiritual “family” as opposed to kinship “family,” “families” of biological species, language “families,” etc. As for Rev. Moon’s use of the term, “family” in the spiritual sense to refer to members of his Church, compare Christ in Mark 3:33-35. The early Christians used many Greek words to express ideas in their belief system that differed greatly from the original Greek meanings or from ordinary usage. I doubt that they intended to confuse or mislead anybody, but this raises the essential question when dealing with a charge of misusing or corrupting language: what is the intent of the person doing so? How can you tell when a new use for an old term to describe a new idea is intended to mislead or confuse?
My disposition in these matters is to be tolerant of religious “cults,” no matter how farcical I may think their beliefs to be, so long as they are sincere in believing them and as long as the Founder or organizational successors are not confidence men consciously exploiting the credulity of their followers for power, profit, or tax breaks. But these things must be proved to my satisfaction, not merely alleged . The reason for this disposition is that the parallels between the hostility that some of these modern “cults” are receiving and that which Jesus and his followers received from the “mainstream religions” of His day are just too many not to leave me with a feeling that we may just commit a horrid mistake again when Christ returns, as He said He would . . . .
Barton L. Ingraham
Santa Fe, NM
I am indeed surprised that the editors of your highly regarded journal
considered it appropriate to publish “The Scent of a Cult.” Benjamin
Wittes failed to introduce any compelling case for his argument that
greater distinctions ought to be made between groups he considers cults
and those he considers religions. He fell far short in this regard, but
did succeed in proving that those who seek to further divide the
religious community need to be confronted and repudiated, not published.
Did not the fact that Benjamin Wittes cites as his primary resource the Cult Awareness Network send off alarm bells in the offices of First Things? What Wittes generously refers to as “a Chicago-based clearinghouse of information on cults” is in fact an organization that has been condemned by most of the established religious community for its abusive and illegal activities, albeit conducted in the name of “cult-busting.”
CAN’s definition of a “cult,” though sounding neat and scientific, has in fact very liberal and malleable applications. CAN’s Steve Hassan characterized the spiritual group that Arianna Huffington purportedly belonged to and the Jehovah’s Witnesses as cults on Ted Koppel’s Nightline (October 4, 1994). In 1987, at a CAN conference in Trenton, New Jersey, Hassan characterized the Catholic Church as “the greatest cult in America.” CAN’s executive director, Cynthia Kisser, gave testimony in a custody dispute in North Carolina in 1993 that a member of The Way International was an unfit mother because of her religious affiliation. An appeals court in that case threw out her testimony.
Not satisfied with CAN’s criteria for what a cult is, Wittes goes further and submits as definitive proof of cultic affiliation the propensity for cultists to engage in “doublethink.” His corroborative proof of the Unification Church’s guilt in this regard is an alleged comment I made to a reporter some time last year. I have no recollection of this interview and can only surmise that it was not one that focused on the deepest aspects of Unification theology. But my response certainly does not support Wittes’ argument that Unificationists practice “doublethink.” If anything, my response indicates that I considered the answer to the question required something more than a convenient sound bite.
Mr. Wittes’ second scurrilous attack on the Unification Church is his reechoing of the CAN line that the church “urges new recruits to cut off contact with their biological families (parents in particular).” This is a lie. It is the natural instinct of most people to share something new and precious with those they love the most. That was my inclination when I first encountered the Unification Church, and my family, all of whom are devout Catholics, will testify to that. The sensational allegations of family disruption reported occasionally in the media have all the substance and credibility of the “apostate atrocity tales” that abound in the literature of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and anti- Mormonism. Those few and unrepresentative cases that do display extreme family fallout as a result of a family member associating with the Unification Church are products, from my own observations, of pre- existing family problems which are then exasperated and exploited by the proponents of the faith-breaking industry . . . .
Wittes persistently perpetuates the offensive epithet “Moonie” to refer to members of the Unification Church. He shamelessly engages in the use of sweeping stereotypes to describe those he disdains (examples: “the sadists and megalomaniacs who run most cults”; “most cults systematically malnourish their members”; and, “most Americans, properly, intuit a difference between the Scientologists and the Moonies on the one hand and the Lubavichers on the other”). This is prima facie evidence of his predisposed hostility towards those of a faith different from his own. It is bias that causes Wittes to falter in offering any coherent or logical arguments to support his emotional tirades. For example, he writes: “The difference between a cult and a religion, of course, lies in extremity. Cults generally exhibit all seven of the CAN’s criteria, while religions generally don’t, and cults exhibit them with far greater vigor than religions do.” Is Wittes implying that cults are doing a wrong similar to that propagated by religions in general, the only difference being one of degree? Or does he mean to criticize cults because they are more fervent and constant in their religious faith and bring the full application of their religious beliefs to the public square? . . .
Peter D. Ross
Director of Public Affairs
The Unification Church
New York, NY
While I commend Benjamin Wittes for attempting to establish a “test” by
which a religion can be differentiated from a cult, as a former
missionary with the Unification Church (1973 to 1984), I can state with
the certainty of experience that he has misapplied his measure in
regards to that particular religion . The Unification Church,
for all of its failings, does not engage in doublethink-though
antagonists, and particularly antagonistic journalists, have often
leveled that accusation based on superficial analysis and irresponsible
quotation. Mr. Wittes’ article is a case in point.
Though one may disagree with both the theology and its conclusions, there can be no doubt about the meaning of the word Messiah in Unification doctrine and no doubt that Reverend Moon is considered by Church faithful to be the Second Coming of the Messiah prophesied in Revelation. In Unification doctrine, the Messiah is the “anointed one” who has been called by God to realize the Kingdom of Heaven on earth by restoring all of mankind to the ideal God intended prior to the fall. Contrary to Mr. Wittes’ assertion, this principle is both coherently and consistently presented throughout Unification doctrine . . . .
Mr. Wittes also misrepresents that “the Moonies have rendered meaningless a series of words connected to family.” Unification Church members use the terms “brother and sister” in the same manner and with the same affection that their other Christian brethren use those terms. Mr. Wittes’ could just as easily be leveling this criticism against the Trappists or Jesuits. The reference to “true parents,” though a uniquely Unificationist term, likewise has its origins solidly within the gospels and the Christian doctrine of salvation through spiritual rebirth.
The Unification Church has in the past suggested its members pass through a period of separation from their families in order to solidify faith and make the transition to a more spiritual life easier. If Mr. Wittes is unfamiliar with this Christian practice, I suggest that he try more closely reading the gospels and the Church Fathers. Moreover, to imply that this break with one’s family is to be permanent is either an ill-informed assumption or an inexcusable misrepresentation. While I was in the Unification Church, I heard Reverend Moon instruct the member countless times in widely disseminated speeches to pray for, to contact, and to visit their families. Members were repeatedly told that they should return to their hometowns and start what the Unificationists call “Home Church.” Finally, Church literature does not mislead by emphasizing “family values” as asserted by Mr. Wittes. The goal of each and every Unificationist is to start his own “traditional nuclear family”-after first passing through a period of spiritual formation and public service . . . .
Jeffrey C. Scharfen
Rancho Santa Fe, CA
. . . How does a writer who manifestly lacks even elementary training in
theology or the history of Christian thought, and who in this day and
age acknowledges CAN (CAN!) as a legitimate resource make his way into
First Things? . . .
At first I could only imagine that something is going on that does not immediately meet the eye. Is it satire? Some strategy to attract letters? Am I missing something? If so, I am embarrassed. I missed the obvious ploy. The joke’s on me.
Who on earth uses the word “Moonies” in public discourse anymore? To my knowledge every major organ from ABC News to the New York Times has issued public apologies to Unificationists for having used the racist and bigoted epithet. How are Jews and blacks referred to in the pages of First Things? . . .
New York, NY
Now that you have opened up the horizon of First Things to theo-
journalism, I though you might be interested in another submission along
the same lines as Mr. Wittes’ “the Scent of a Cult.”
The Scent of a Papist
It might seem perverse for honestly religious people to group their clergy with those pedophiles and drunkards who run most Catholic parishes, but a growing number are doing just that. A substantial sector of religious America, for example, sees the rights of Catholic priests as equal in value to those of ministers. According to the commonly accepted criteria for defining clergy, the line between ministers and priests is fuzzy indeed, even under the scrutiny of the Catholic Awareness Network (CAN).
Do priests claim authority over congregants’ personal lives? So do ministers. Do priests present themselves as able to forgive sin? Ministers often do the same. Do priests all think and talk alike? So do a lot of ministers. Do priests systematically molest young boys? Well, it happens in Protestant churches as well. Are priests all addicted to alcohol? Many ministers have the same problem. Do priests parrot religious propaganda designed to deaden free thought? So do ministers.
The difference between a destructive papist and a minister, of course, lies in extremity. Destructive papists generally exhibit all seven of the deadly sins, while ministers generally don’t, and priests exhibit them with far greater vigor than ministers do . . . .
Now, the quickest way to detect a destructive hierarchy is to sniff for doublethink. The priest seeks control over his membership not by providing a coherent theological system but by providing the opposite: an unstable theology infinitely malleable to the needs of his hierarchy and uninterpretable at all times to anyone below that level.
Their use of the word “infallible” provides a case in point. The way the popes and priests twist it to suit their purposes is well-documented. . . .
The destructive papists have likewise rendered meaningless a series of words connected to family. The clergy call each other “brother” and “sister” and members are made to call them “father” and “mother.” The Pope calls himself the “holy father.” At the same time, every Catholic order tells new monastics to cut off contact with their biological families. Yet even as they interrupt normal family relations and appropriate the authority of parents, church literature refers to family values, clearly referring not to the church family but to the traditional nuclear family.
The Catholic “church” is no more a subset of religion than it is a subset of political parties. While priests orient themselves around religious language and behavior, and can thus appear to resemble a religious or spiritual leader, these destructive papists actually constitute a phenomenon of their own. Of course, we must protect the constitutional rights of Catholic priests. I wouldn’t dream of doing anything to undermine their right to protection. It would be a grave error, however, to conclude that all who come under that protection have anything more in common than the protection itself.
* * *
Of course, I submit this piece knowing full well that the Catholic
Church is a well-established presence in this country. I would not want
it published in a country in which Roman Catholics were a small minority
already marginalized by the media and commonly enduring persecution. No
Christian editor, I’m sure, would publish it under those circumstances
in any case.
Benjamin Wittes’ “The Scent of a Cult” displays an ignorance and animus
more characteristic of the Inquisition than of your usually fine
I will pass over his uncritical repetition of the anti-cultist litany of the supposed horrors of new religions. The “systematically malnourished” cultists whom I know from the groups that he mentions buy their own groceries. I would caution Wittes to remember the history of religious bigotry, where similar accusations, repeated over and over again by respected prelates, encouraged pogroms, witch-burnings, and the slaughter of heretics. Did the modern anti-cult litany, by demonizing the Branch Davidians, play any part in the government’s willingness to put them to a modern auto-da-fe? . . .
Wittes is particularly exercised that the Unification Church has a different definition of Messiah than that of traditional Christianity. But is that not a tautology? After all, the Unification Church is not a traditional Christian church. The National Council of Churches questioned its view of the Messiah in the context of a judgment as to whether the church could be accepted as a Christian church. We have here, to be sure, a typical intramural dispute among religions. But as such, it has no bearing upon the internal logical consistency of the Unificationists’ doctrines. If the measure of a cult is whether a group’s teachings conflict with those of traditional Christianity, then logic drives us back to embrace Wittes’ antithesis: “The only difference between a cult and a religion is a hundred years.” . . .
New York, NY
I can confirm Benjamin Wittes’ observations about the peculiarly
mercurial nature of “Moonie” theology and terminology. I was a follower
of Sun Myung Moon for ten years, from 1976 to 1986, and during that time
I was often called upon to use words in a deliberately dual sense, with
one meaning intended for public consumption and the other (often
conflicting) meaning meant to be understood by insiders only. Nowhere
was this more evident than in the church’s ambivalent view of Jesus
Christ. A Unificationist would not hesitate to say that “Jesus is Lord”
in the sense of a master or great individual, but Unification theology
specifically rules out the idea that Jesus and God are the same being-
which must surely be what Christians intend by the term “Lord.” The
ambivalence is deliberate. Rev. Moon teaches that ultimately all
Christians will “accept” him as the Messiah; therefore, he does not wish
to offend them by making it too clear what he actually thinks of Jesus.
In praising family values and traditional marriage, too, the Unification Church engages in a form of doublethink. While most Unificationists would leap to attention at the mere mention of these icons of the religious right, their own families are often split up quite willfully by Rev. Moon whenever he sees fit to do so. It is a part of church lore that Rev. Moon used to “call up” mothers with small children in Korea during the early days of the church. These women were then sent out to do “front line” activities such as proselytizing for the church while their children were dropped into the laps of relatives or kept in church childcare facilities for weeks or months. This practice has been followed in the United States on occasion.
Even the term “Moonie” itself, which is now hotly detested by Rev. Moon’s followers, was once an acceptable word within the church. In the early 1980s, a T-shirt was made available to Unification Church members that read, “I’m a Moonie and I (heart symbol) it!” The Unification Church only declared war on the term “Moonie” around 1986, just as I was leaving the organization. They did so because Rev. Moon had changed his strategy and was backing away from the proselytization campaigns that had generated so much negative publicity in the late 1970s. Instead, the Unification Church chose to go “underground,” by creating many proxy organizations with bland, inoffensive-sounding names such as the “Women’s Federation for World Peace.” In order to obscure the ties of these organizations to Sun Myung Moon, it became a priority to anathematize succinct terms like “Moonie” whenever they appear in newspaper headlines or articles. All of a sudden, followers of Rev. Moon who had once jokingly referred to each other as “Moonies” now found that they simply could not bear to hear such an abusive, degrading term. In a recent article published in Gauntlet magazine, Unification Church spokesman Peter D. Ross likened the word to “nigger,” “kike,” and “fag.”
Mr. Wittes’ article manages to capture with an admirable economy of words this peculiar feature of cults that sets them apart from more mainstream religions. By laying claim to the definition of words, they seek to make it impossible for members even to formulate the thought of rebellion. I have never seen it defined more aptly, except perhaps in George Orwell’s 1984 : “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”
K. Gordon Neufeld
Vancouver, British Columbia
Benjamin Wittes replies:
It looks like the Unification Church really called out the troops on this one. I apologize if the term “Moonie” clouds the issues I’ve tried to raise, but with that possible exception, I stand 100 percent behind my piece. As a matter of principle, I never argue about cults with people who are institutionally enmeshed with one or who refuse to specify the nature of their interest in defending a particular cult organization. Rather, I thank K. Gordon Neufeld for his very moving testimony, which more than answers for the integrity of my interpretations and the accuracy of my conclusions.
I must express my disagreement with your editorial in the February 1995 issue concerning a school prayer amendment to the United States Constitution. While I am in full accord with many of your arguments- including the dangers of an imperial federal judiciary, the evils of “naked public square” thinking, and the incoherence of current Supreme Court religion clause decisions-I think that your conclusion with respect to this particular problem misses the mark.
With all due respect, the issue is not whether there will be “voluntary prayer” in public schools; nor is it federalism and home rule. The real issue is whether public school teachers, agents of state and local government, themselves holding religious views as diverse as any other large national group of citizens, should be permitted to lead impressionable children in classroom devotional exercises. Should Christians trust public school teachers to influence the religious beliefs of their children? More to the point of your editorial, should each state or each local community be permitted to decide whether teachers will be given this opportunity and responsibility? My answer is “no” to both questions.
How would various local communities respond if given the decision? My guess is that those places with very diverse religious populations, where no one group would feel confident of its status as majority religion (New York or Los Angeles, perhaps), would reject teacher-led devotions. In those places where one religious tradition constitutes a strong majority (say, Salt Lake City), in-class prayer/devotions might well be approved by a majority of voters. A majority vote would not change the wrongness of the decision. A religious minority, whether it constitutes 49 percent or .0001 percent of the population, should not be forced to subject its children to offensive religious exercises in the government-run schools. No matter how much you try to structure classroom devotions as “voluntary,” peer pressure and the authority role of teachers will always place strong incentives on children who do not share the majority religious sentiment to hide their discomfort and join in with the group.
This does not mean that a constitutional amendment dealing with religious activity in the public schools would necessarily be a bad thing. There are many forms of school-related religious expression that, although probably already protected by the First Amendment, the Equal Access Act, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, create significant confusion and censorship among school officials. These would include individual student expression (religious-message clothing, private prayer, dialogue with other students, religious topics for class assignments, etc.), Equal Access student groups, released time religious education, moments of silence for truly voluntary prayer or meditation, and perhaps student-controlled prayer at graduation exercises. In all of these areas, teachers and administrators need to know beyond any doubt that private religious expression is constitutionally protected, and the law needs to be clear that “high walls of separation” under state constitutions cannot trump federally protected rights.
The distinction between individual action and government action is critical. Because the First Amendment is a limitation on government activity, there is nothing that a private citizen (such as a student) can do to unconstitutionally establish religion or prevent free exercise. Government schools and their employees, however, can violate the nonestablishment clause and do so whenever they encourage one religious tradition or expression over others.
Bradley P. Jacob
Center for Law and Public Policy
Beaver Falls, PA
Thanks for taking a straightforward, intelligent stand on the prayer
amendment. You’ve certainly convinced me.
There is one troubling point, however, involving your calling the desirable alternative to wrongheaded judicial rule simply “democracy,” a term that we should all know by now was thoroughly understood by the Founders and wisely rejected. (Fortunately, you tend to offset this error elsewhere.) This may seem nit-picking, but I believe that to continue repeating the slightest misconception that we are a “democracy,” an idea which has been largely encouraged by the same courts you criticize and in fact lies behind many of their erroneous judgments (along with the idea of “equality”), can only cause further harm. Many esteemed writers, I believe, might agree. I know Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s Liberty or Equality backs me up, as would Russell Kirk, M. E. Bradford, Irving Babbitt ( Leadership and Democracy ), etc.
“Democratic capitalism,” “democratic self-government,” “democratic process,” etc. are all within accepted parameters, but when decisions are “made by thousands of communities and local school boards across the country,” it is called decentralization and federalism , not “democracy.” The gong-show California initiative process is probably “democracy” but it is not our characteristic form of government. “Democracy” was not the goal of the U.S. Constitution, so let’s not apotheosize it . . . .
W. Edward Chynoweth
Your editorial about school prayer misses the obvious. The Constitution
may not contain any mention of school prayer by name, but it
does mention that the government may not establish a religion.
The question now becomes does imposed school prayer (one could and can always pray voluntarily and individually in school) establish a religion, or go in that direction?
The answer has got to be “yes” if the prayer is to Jesus, Allah, Krishna, etc. Then it gives government sanction to a specific religion. The critical thing that your editorial also fails to discuss is whether any prayer led by or instituted by a school (as an arm of the government) could really be viewed as “voluntary.” Who is to compose these prayers, and what will guarantee that they do not favor a particular religion? The task of being neutral would seem to be almost impossible, and the lack of a mechanism to assure voluntary participation in the prayers only by those who wish to do so is a daunting one.
In his excellent article “Toward a Post-Apollonian Theology” (January), Pastor Peter J. Leithart misunderstands Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.
Aristotle was attempting to prove God’s existence from reason alone, unaided by divine revelation. Thomas Aquinas, in his proofs for the existence of God in the Summa Theologiae , was again presenting what reason alone is capable of proving. Further on in the Summa Aquinas takes up what God has revealed about His triune nature, and he argues that this is something that human reason could never arrive at on its own. However fitting it may be that God exists as three Persons, without His self-revelation our reason can arrive at little more than that He is the ultimate cause of some observed effect.
On the other hand, it is truly marvelous that Aristotle saw that inasmuch as God is the cause of all being, He cannot be in need of any created thing. The human intellect simply cannot see any reason why God should have created us, much less why He should care about us. In the words of the Psalmist (8:5), “What is man that You should be mindful of him, or the son of man that You should care for him?” That God is love, and what that might mean, might enter in some feeble way into the mind of a poet or a holy man, but it could never be proved by rational argument.
That God exists is not a marvel, it is only a simple fact without which nothing else would exist. That we exist and that He cares about us, in a totally disinterested manner, i.e., without the possibility of any real gain on His part, that is the marvel of marvels! Those who have not received God’s revelation, or who have rejected it, can never know this truth.
E. William Sockey, III
Thomas Aquinas College
Santa Paula, CA
Peter J. Leithart replies:
Mr. Sockey’s letter betrays the same theological errors I find in Aquinas. Both claim that natural theology is true as far as it goes, but needs to be supplemented by special revelation because of the limits of human reason. Paul wrote, on the contrary, that God has revealed Himself clearly in creation, but that sinners suppress and distort the truth (Romans 1:18-32). Aristotle’s theology, by Paul’s diagnosis, was the product of suppression and distortion; though such a theology may occasionally stumble on the truth, fundamentally it is not merely limited but false. The unmoved mover is simply not the God Christians worship. It is not true, moreover, that Aristotle was “unaided by divine revelation.” It would be more correct to say that he was unaided by special revelation, though most of the Church Fathers expressed doubts even about that.
I found “The Zionist Imperative” by Emil L. Fackenheim (February) compelling and incisive both as regards its historical awareness and breadth and as regards its well-reasoned and decisive conclusions. It is not mere coincidence that a number of profound dialectics that are only seemingly unresolvable are presented in this article: the particular and the universal, the secular and the spiritual, action and reflection, the mundane and the miraculous, horror that enervates faith and profound insight that reillumines faith despite the multiplicity of reasons to suppress it.
It is the putatively unresolvable nature of these dialectics that so confounds and disturbs the Arab/Israeli peace process specifically and the modern and postmodern world in general. Yet Fackenheim weaves, like a golden thread, through all the expedient and casuistic rationales and in doing so emphasizes the extreme consequences and dangers in failing to do so . . . .
Renewing Your License
Christopher Wolfe in “The Marriage of Your Choice” (February) advocates legislation to make it possible for a couple to choose to enter freely into an indissoluble marriage. I would like to propose an idea of my own.
I would make the marriage license valid for only a stated period of time, like a driver’s license. At the end of the period, say four years, it would expire unless renewed by both parties. For the stated period the marriage would be indissoluble, with only separation legally possible. This arrangement, like present laws, would have no effect on one’s religious belief that marriage is for life and divorce impossible.
This arrangement would have several effects. It would force couples to deliberately renew their covenant if they wished their marriage to continue. If they did not, it would die quietly without all the mess and expense of a legal divorce. They could make their own arrangements about children and property.
Over time, couples who renewed their marriage license might want to make the time longer, say ten years or the rest of their life. Perhaps some state might try this as an experiment. The results could not be worse than they are now.
Charles J. Robbins
St. Joseph’s College
Murdoch the Moralist?
Alan Jacobs, in “Iris Murdoch’s Go(o)d” (February) notes with palpable discomfort the recent efforts of a conference of scholars “to investigate and celebrate the theological importance of the writings, especially the novels , of Iris Murdoch” (emphasis added).
Few contemporary novelists or philosophers (and Murdoch is both) embrace an orthodox faith, and she is evidently no exception. From this must we conclude, ipso facto, that no spiritual insight can be gleaned from their works?
People of faith who confine their search for spiritual significance in fiction to the writings of professing believers will find themselves working off a rather short reading list. Fortunately, we need not be so confined. Chalk this up, perhaps, to the Holy Spirit-to the tendency of truth to bubble to the top of an inspired and accomplished literary broth.
As luck would have it, I was reading Murdoch’s The Time of the Angels (1966) when Jacobs’ article came to my attention. The Spirit (I would submit) permeates the pages of Angels . Consider Murdoch’s Leo and Muriel: two young freethinkers discussing life . Leo is rebellious and hedonistic; Muriel is “experienced,” but thoughtfully so:
“Yes, I’m an aesthetic type. I have no morals. You don’t believe in God and all that crap, do you?”
“No,” said Muriel. “Though that’s not the same as having no morals.”
“It is, you know. I’m one of the problems of the age . . . .”
While noting that Murdoch’s “reputation rests chiefly on her twenty-five
[!] novels,” Jacobs is preoccupied with her philosophical writings.
Prof. Jacobs, an English teacher, should have stuck to the novels. It is
these that will be read in the next century-these that should be read
George G. Peery III
It would be amazing indeed if a philosopher of some ability were to
assure us of the objectivity and independence of goodness for five
hundred pages, and then on page 506 “give the game away” and turn out to
be merely a subjectivist about the good after all. Especially when the
philosopher writes on page 508 that our “experience of the reality of
good is not like an arbitrary and assertive resort to our own will; it
is a discovery of something independent of us, where that independence
Yet that is just what Alan Jacobs assures us is the case in Iris Murdoch’s book , Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals . The offending passage, moreover, immediately follows Murdoch’s assertions that “art and high thought and difficult moral discernment appear as creation ex nihilo , as grace . The Meno concludes that virtue does not come by nature, nor is it teachable, but comes by divine dispensation.” Something must be wrong.
And indeed, it is not hard to find an interpretation of the passage Jacobs cites that squares with the general theme (and title) of the book. Murdoch is here talking about the experience of the artist or thinker who “concentrates on the problem, grasps it as a problem with some degree of clarity, and waits.” Then something comes “out of the dark of non-being, as a reward for loving attention” (p. 505). What comes? The poem, the solution to the equation, the resolution of the difficulty. Without such “loving care,” nothing good, nothing beautiful can be achieved. That is the sense in which “the good artist, the true lover, the dedicated thinker, the unselfish moral agent . . . can create the object of love.”
It is not, as Jacobs would have it, that the Good “exists [only] insofar as it is worshipped.” Murdoch’s claim at this point is that existing good things (particular truths, works of art, moral acts) depend as much on the “spiritual energy” of the agent as on that mysterious-and independent-source of all good things.
Murdoch’s book is difficult, as the writings of mystics usually are. But no one should be deterred from its rewards by mistaking it as a mask for pragmatism or subjectivism. It is worlds away from both.
I greatly enjoyed Alan Jacobs’ ” Iris Murdoch’s Go(o)d .” He’s
right: compared with most other “serious” novelists on either side of
the Atlantic, Murdoch is a commanding talent. However, given the current
state of “literary” fiction, that’s not saying all that much. It’s easy
to be less sloppy than John Updike and still be quite undisciplined.
It’s easy to be less depressed than Joan Didion and still be far from
hopeful. If, by comparison with most of her contemporaries, to say
nothing of the new generation of novelists now coming into print,
Murdoch provides a “fresh and exciting alternative,” that fact says more
about standards in fiction overall than about any standards Murdoch may
have set for herself . . . .
Alan Jacobs replies:
When George C. Peery claims that spiritual insight can be gained from the writings of unbelievers, or people of unorthodox beliefs, does he expect me to disagree? But when he suggests that one must choose between Murdoch’s philosophy and her fiction, there I must demur. I don’t see why we can’t read both.
Norman Melchert is right to point out passages from Murdoch’s book that could lend themselves to a different interpretation than mine, and I thank him for his thoughtful response. But I am not convinced by his reading. If Murdoch is merely saying that our “spiritual energy” is necessary for good things to happen in the world, and believes that there is some ultimate “source” for those good things, then why does she return repeatedly to the theme of creating the good? Is she just sloppy in her use of words? For surely it is not difficult to distinguish an energetic and imaginative response to goodness from the creation of it. Moreover, if Murdoch believes in a “mysterious source” of goodness, why does she say, in a passage Professor Melchert quotes, that the reward for goodness comes “out of the dark of non-being ?” Can non-being be a source of anything? What I understand Murdoch to be saying in the passages Professor Melchert refers to is that goodness has no source, does not exist prior to our creation of it, but becomes independent of us after we create it. It goes out into the world and, if accepted by others, has meaningful effects. That is why I identify Murdoch with those modern artists who seek a “supreme fiction,” that is, a metanarrative which we know to be our own creation but which we choose to live by and subject ourselves to.
What Price Ecumenism?
I look forward eagerly to the “roundup and commentary” on developments concerning the declaration “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (foretold in “While We’re At It,” January). The declaration has generated, if nothing else, an enormous volume of extremely interesting conversation, printed and otherwise, all of which has given reflective Christians much to chew on.
In the meantime, I am compelled to comment on Richard John Neuhaus’ review of Pope John Paul II’s new best-seller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (The Public Square, January). It can hardly come as a surprise that many Catholics and evangelicals are uneasy about the declaration, calling as it does for ecumenical convergence, both theologically and programmatically, when they read here of the Pope’s theological perspectives, intended, we must assume, as the official teachings of the Catholic Church. I confess that I have not read the book, and yet I trust that Neuhaus is giving us a balanced and generally dependable, if incomplete, account of its contents.
I refer in particular to several passages in which Neuhaus recounts the Pope’s views on ecumenism and on soteriology. First, ecumenism. Many evangelicals note that the original declaration says very little about the Reformation, and in fact leaves much unsaid about the three great “sola” cries of the Reformers. For many protestants, sola gratia, sola fide , and sola scriptura capture the central biblical truths that are the heart of the faith, and without which there is no truly Christian-and certainly no truly evangelical-faith. On this view, the solas constitute a great theological divide between Protestants and Catholics that no amount of progressive convergence can or should remove.
Consider, then, this passage from Neuhaus, including his quotation from Crossing : “The healing of the breach between Rome and the Reformation requires an appreciation of a ‘certain dialectic’ in how the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth. ‘It is necessary for humanity to achieve unity through plurality, to learn to come together in the one Church, even while presenting a plurality of ways of thinking and acting, of cultures and civilization.’ Divisions, then, may have served a purpose, but that does not justify continuing divisions that do not serve the truth.”
With these few words, the distinctive faith of the Reformers, resting on the biblical pillars of sola gratia, sola fide , and sola scriptura , is thrown onto the pile of divisions that do not serve the truth-unless, of course, Neuhaus and the Pope intend to repair the cleavage by affirming the solas themselves. The concern of many Protestant evangelicals-that the price of the proposed ecumenism is the renunciation of the great biblical truths of the Reformation-appears, in spite of the placations of J. J. Packer and others, to be well-grounded. I can only imagine that many Catholics, well aware of the Council of Trent, will be similarly suspicious of the cost Catholic teaching will likewise pay for the proposed theological convergence.
How to complain without whining-more easily said than done, but I must say that the treatment I have received at the hands of the First Things editorial staff has been anything but “ecumenical.” First, in a “briefly noted” book review of Beyond Culture Wars (October 1994) the reviewer spent more time lamenting my “strident Reformed view of Protestant orthodoxy” in connection with Christians United for Reformation (CURE) than in dealing with the content of the book. Richard John Neuhaus added another log in February (The Public Square-While We’re At It section): “Being unecumenical can be fun. Who doesn’t miss something in the bare-knuckled religious polemics of yesteryear?” Next, Catholic Answers is said to have “struck up a polemical friendship” with me. “Mr. Horton is hard-core Calvinist and what he and Catholic Answers have in common, aside from the pleasure of polemics, is a strong dislike for the declaration ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together.’” “If that declaration is right,” he concludes, “it might take a lot of fun out of bashing each other.”
I mean, really. Who is getting “a lot of fun out of bashing each other” after all?
What CURE and Catholic Answers have in common is not “the pleasure of polemics,” but a passion for what we believe to be life-and- death issues of truth. Since Catholic Answers is defending Roman Catholic teaching (including Vatican II) and CURE is affirming classical Protestant teaching, neither group is engaging in outrageous behavior: we simply stand with our confessions. And since Fr. Neuhaus has the experience of having been both a confessional Protestant and now a Roman Catholic, his ecumenical agenda should surely have room for us. But, alas, it does not. Where we have only criticized “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” on its own merit-without the slightest condescending ridicule for its authors-Fr. Neuhaus has offered merely the latter to his critics.
As for my own views, let me set the record straight: I am a confessional Protestant who believes that the Gospel that was proclaimed by Luther, Calvin, and their ilk is identical to that announced in Scripture. In spite of fruitful dialogue, the Roman Catholic position (evidenced in the new Catechism) reaffirms Trent, and the “evangel” of “evangelicalism”-justification sola fide -has yet to be embraced by any official magisterial declaration. I do not, however, believe that this has to be the end of the story. With brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church I too long for reconciliation, as we both come to understand the greatest news ever heard, but some of us (Catholics and Protestants) still believe that a shallow understanding of the doctrinal issues can only lead to a shallow unity in the long run. I do not expect Fr. Neuhaus to agree, but in fairness I could have hoped that, in Christian charity, he would at least have tried to understand.
Richard John Neuhaus replies:
I have elsewhere in these pages noted that Catholic Answers wants it understood that it views “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” favorably. I not only agree but strongly agree with Mr. Horton that “a shallow understanding of the doctrinal issues can only lead to a shallow unity in the long run.” In the short run, too. “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” says that-emphatically and repeatedly. As for the book, briefly noteds must be brief, and authors understandably think their book deserves more attention. Finally, I do, both in charity and in respect for truth, try to understand. Nothing in Mr. Horton’s letter leads me to think that in this case I have not succeeded.