The Culture War Front
In “Hard Truths About the Culture War” (June/July), Robert H. Bork correctly identifies the most important fronts where our culture is under attack, but I think he gives too much credit (or blame) to liberal ideology. Could the ideologically motivated “cultural elite” of the media, academe, and entertainment industry really have brought about our current state of cultural decay all by themselves? Is ideology really sufficient explanation for the devastation we have witnessed? At the risk of sounding Marxian, I would suggest that there are material as well as ideological forces behind the cultural and moral malaise. Madison Avenue encourages and exploits American consumers’ vanity, lust, and lack of self-control. Moreover, it has an interest in undermining cultural values that lead to self-control, since those values limit our receptivity to its advertising ploys. Appeals to sex sell products, and if Americans learned to say no to sex, who knows where it might lead? We might next work up the nerve to say no to whatever Madison Avenue is hawking this month. The last thing advertisers want is for Americans to lead contented lives of simplicity, fidelity, and responsibility. They happily collude with liberals in our culture’s degeneration in a shortsighted effort to boost sales.
” Bruce A. Lawrence
When Robert Bork says that conservatives are “intimidated” by the egalitarian passion that has fueled the growth of government, he does not go nearly far enough. Republican thinking about government actually mirrors that of Democrats. For instance, when it comes to remedying the social pathologies of the underclass, conservatives and liberals are equally likely to reach for the levers of federal power. Liberals engineer ever more complex systems of sticks and carrots to coax people off the dole. Republicans brandish federal laws dictating to state governments that unmarried mothers may not receive AFDC benefits. If one thing is clear from the past thirty years of social policy it is that federal legislators and bureaucrats are several light-years removed from the wisdom necessary to do either of these things . . . .
” Brent Orrell
Robert Bork’s essay on cultural decline is like a lot of what one hears from cultural conservatives these days: it is relentlessly pessimistic. Not only are we going to hell in a handbasket, Bork argues, but the handbasket is moving a lot faster than we had thought. I wonder, though, whether this pessimism isn’t being carried a bit far. I work in a large, secular university-the sort of place that gives pessimists a lot to be pessimistic about, or so one would think. But I see positive signs everywhere. A decade or two ago, drugs were widely regarded in academic circles as a lifestyle choice on a par with having a beer after dinner. Now, only crackpots think cocaine use or heroin use is a socially or morally neutral act, and even marijuana defenders seem to be in hiding. Only a few years ago, drive-through divorce was thought by intellectuals to be an unqualified good. Now secular, politically correct academics talk seriously about the need to restrain divorce, to keep families intact for the children. And the wackier strains of feminist thought notwithstanding, fathers are coming back into fashion. One can even express concern about teenage sex without raising eyebrows.
All these trends are examples of academics catching on to the havoc they have wrought: a generation ago the elite culture shifted on drugs and sex and families, the mass culture soon followed suit, and the result was social disaster. It will take a long time to clean up the mess. But a sea change-a positive change-is happening in the elite culture, one that few could have foreseen even six or eight years ago. It is still incomplete, but it’s real. And it may be the first step toward saving the society: positive changes can filter through to the mass culture just like negative ones. Some optimism, maybe even a little celebration, might be in order.
This change may yet topple the greatest intellectual orthodoxy of all, the view that serious religion is either crazy or dumb. I can’t speak for other disciplines, but in law schools (Bork’s old home) religious conviction is treated much more respectfully than it used to be. The First Amendment literature of the 1970s tended to treat faith as a danger to democracy that must be contained at all costs. Today a growing strand of the literature talks about how the state should try to accommodate believers. The fame and reputation of people like Mary Ann Glendon, Stephen Carter, and Michael McConnell shows that being a serious Christian is no longer an automatic disability among law professors. The day may be coming when belief has as much status in academic culture as unbelief . . . .
” William J. Stuntz
. . . I would like to make an effort to clarify why it is that there seems to be a contradiction in Robert Bork’s general thesis regarding egalitarianism and the leftist politics of those in Hollywood. Since, as Mr. Bork points out, so much of the root of leftism is envy, why would those of such extreme possessions be so unitedly on the left? The answer is found in a study and understanding of theatrical artists . . . .
It is vital to understand, when it comes to artists, that they are most often damaged people. Born with great sensitivity, they suffered at a very young age in ways that others don’t, often because they were “different.” As a teacher of actors for years I found a disproportionate amount of child abuse of one form or another present in their early lives-broken homes, alcoholic parents, etc. The very act of acting is to escape into an imaginary world of one’s own creation. Artists are obviously more comfortable in and yearn for a fantasy world, since early in their development the real world was recognized as too harsh to live in . . . .
The key element in the personalities of artists, theatrically speaking, is a sense of alienation from society. They just don’t feel a part of things.
. . . A conservative philosophy is rooted in the ability to face and accept the harsh realities of this world. It’s why we have the joke that a neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged. Those who are artists are just too sensitive, too vulnerable, have been hurt too deeply to be able to accept the reality of life, so they spend their lives creating another reality of their own, an imaginary one. This basic drive flows into their politics. They accept the fantasies of the left because those fantasies are easier to live with and seem to offer the hope of a better, fairer society one day. And being members of the left and proponents of this hope salves artists’ consciences as they themselves, if successful, live like kings and queens . . . .
” Robert Carnegie
North Hollywood, CA
The Fading of Positivist Belief
Contrary to a common misconception, science is not a monolithic enterprise committed to positivism. John J. Reilly (“After Darwin,” June/July) is right on the mark in identifying the views of contemporary biologists such as Brian Goodwin as Platonic. In fact, from the time of the scientific revolution, biology has encompassed three major philosophical streams: Aristotelian, neo-Platonic, and mechanistic. The Aristotelian approach held that organic structures must be understood according to built-in purposes (generally understood as divine purposes). Famous Aristotelians included Ray, Linnaeus, and Cuvier. But contemporary biologists are also giving Aristotle grudging credit; for example, Nobel prize-winner Max Delbruck delivered an address half-playfully entitled “How Aristotle Discovered DNA,” arguing that the Aristotelian concept of Form is remarkably similar to the modern concept of a genetic program. Brian Goodwin is a contemporary example of the neo-Platonist tradition, which emphasizes formative principles in living things and searches for fundamental anatomical patterns-”archetypes”-for each class of organism. Neo-Platonism blossomed in the eighth century as a reaction against the Newtonian world-machine of the Enlightenment, and was especially popular among embryologists, who sought an inner Law of Development to explain organic forms. (It is no accident that Goodwin is a developmental biologist.) The mechanistic tradition began with Descartes, became radically reductionistic in the mid-nineteenth century, and achieved dominance in biology after Darwin proposed a completely materialistic mechanism for evolution. As historian Neal Gillespie argues, Darwin’s intention was to promote a positivist epistemology limiting science to materialist explanations. Today the neo-Darwinist mechanism for evolution (centered on mutation and natural selection) is being discredited-and with it, the positivist epistemology. As a result, the neo-Platonist tradition is becoming emboldened again, often encouraged by New Age spirituality (Goodwin’s critics describe him as a New Age mystic); Aristotelianism is likewise making a comeback, particularly in creationist arguments for the validity of concepts such as purpose and design in biology. Reilly seems worried about the sludge that might “bubble to the surface” as Enlightenment positivism cracks up. But I suggest that we are merely seeing a revival of the philosophical diversity that has always characterized biology. In the broad scope of history, the hegemony of positivism is a temporary aberration, a mere blip on the screen, already beginning to fade.
” Nancy R. Pearcey
The August/September issue contains an interesting juxtaposition of apologies, one for Protestantism (Peter J. Leithart, “Why Protestants Still Protest”) and one for Roman Catholicism (John M. Haas, “Why Protestants Protest Too Much”). I found my heart left strangely cool by both pieces. Mr. Leithart claims that sola Scriptura is an epistemological doctrine answering the question, From what source do I learn how I can commune with God? “ Sola Scriptura means the Scriptures are Christ’s unique revelation of the way of life; it means that Scripture alone, being the word of God, identifies where the living and life-giving Christ can be found.” Now a Catholic might very well reply that of course the Scriptures are the source for our knowledge of God, but that, contrary to the belief of some Protestants, no text is self-interpreting. Thus the sola of sola Scriptura is epistemologically untenable, no matter where one stands in the hermeneutical wars of postmodernity. And since it is conceded by all that interpretation necessarily takes place within a context, why not the context of the Church’s interpretation of Scripture through time? Further, it is somewhat strange that after Luther and Barth Mr. Leit-hart should insist on the identity of Scriptures and Word of God. Biblically speaking, more than promising a written copy of the Word of God, Jesus promised his spirit to lead his followers into all truth. Finally, Jesus “never promised to encounter them through icons or relics.” Neither, however, did he promise to meet them in church on Sundays. These things develop, Mr. Leithart. The question is whether the aforementioned Spirit is behind the development. Turning to Mr. Haas’ apology, there is scarcely less to which to object. Whereas Mr. Leithart was not willing to admit of any legitimate development in Christianity, Mr. Haas is not willing to admit of any illegitimate development, provided that it occurs within the Roman church. Hence, his incredible statement that the growth of the superstitious search for and veneration of relics in the Middle Ages “ bordered on excess and credulity.” Not only Erasmus, but many other faithful Catholics prior to and during the Reformation showed that it was not only Luther who thought the border had been crossed in a major way. More fundamentally for his position, Mr. Haas seems to found his veneration of the things Mr. Leithart despises on a strange Christological doctrine. “Catholics worship the Sacred Humanity of Christ that has redeemed them.” This seems to be a strange kind of Nestorianism. Christ’s “humanity” cannot be separated out and worshipped; He must be worshipped whole. Implications may be drawn from the Incarnation, but let us follow the Church Fathers as a model of critical reason and aesthetic good sense, and not use the Incarnation as an all-purpose justification for any kind of popular piety. Finally for this side, Catholic biblicism is no more palatable than its Protestant relative. When, in Matthew 16, Jesus gives the power of “binding and loosing” to Peter, this refers not to the forgiveness of individual sins, but to the Pharisaic/rabbinic practice of making authoritative pronouncements about Halakhah. In John 20, Jesus gives the power to forgive sins not to Peter, but to all his disciples. So the attempt to find the fully developed papacy already in the words of the biblical Jesus fails, and all the more so in regard to the historical Jesus. Any theology pleasing to God must be both evangelical and Catholic. It may not eschew critical, historical thought, for reason too is part of the Christian heritage. Dare I suggest that there may still be a place in the world for the Anglicanism of Hooker and Andrewes?
” David Barrett-Johnson
Peter J. Leithart raises traditional Reformation complaints about Catholicism that still deserve reflection by Catholics. In a religion like Catholicism where expressions of piety are varied, the temptation to idolatry has always been strong. Pastor Leithart’s argument that the teaching can’t be applied correctly because error is at its root is not necessarily illogical; I just don’t think it’s the real story. The ex-Catholics I meet at work and play who have joined Protestant churches and “found Christ” are universally ignorant about the basics of the Catholic faith. Is the Catholic Church to blame for this? In many local cases, it is. Is it the teaching that leads to spiritual sloth and lassitude? Hardly. Catholics a generation or two ago who knew their Catholic faith and rejected it typically ended up becoming the village atheists. Departed Catholics today cannot give up what they’ve never had. If the Church was really doing its job of proclaiming the teachings of Christ in all its fullness from the pulpit maybe the Catholic Church wouldn’t lose any marginal Catholics . . . .
David J. Lancaster
I could not believe the “denominational myopia” exhibited by Professor John M. Haas. His entire article betrayed a typical Roman Catholic bias: namely, to lump all Christians not in the Roman Catholic denomination into one camp and then to call them “Protestants.” He betrays another myopic symptom by attributing to all non-Roman Catholics what may or may not be true of some . . . .
” (The Rev.) R. R. Krueger
Christ Lutheran Church
Platte Woods, MO
John M. Haas replies:
Nestorianism, of course, held that there were two separate persons in Christ, one divine and the other human. Consequently, Nestorius was willing to attribute to Mary the title of “Mother of Christ,” but not “Mother of God.” The orthodox doctrine, affirmed at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and seen in its declaration that Mary is indeed Mother of God, holds that Christ is a single person, at once God and man. Because the flesh of the Virgin was assumed by the Word, Christians do indeed worship the sacred humanity of Christ. It is the very reality of the hypostatic union which assures us that we worship the whole Christ, divinity and humanity. That was the very point of my argument. And from that reality flows the entire sacramental life of the Church. How Anglican of Mr. Barrett-Johnson to have misunderstood my argument because it appeared to offend “aesthetic” good sense. Further, in presenting his interpretation of Matthew 16 and John 20, he merely illustrates the Protestant dilemma of a lack of common faith and practice resulting from each Christian interpreting Scripture as he will in the absence of a divinely sanctioned interpreter, the Catholic Church. Finally, Mr. Barrett-Johnson pines for the Anglicanism of Hooker and Andrewes. Well he might. Would that there were still a place in the world where it could be found! Pastor Krueger is correct that it is impossible to attribute the same beliefs and practices to all Protestants. But there must be some common characteristics. Otherwise we simply could not speak of Protestantism at all. One common characteristic, exhibited admittedly to varying degrees in the range from Mennonite to Anglican, is the rejection of the belief that the redemption won for us in the Incarnation must now be appropriated through the sacraments as the extension of the Incarnation through time and space.
As a non-Catholic subscriber, I object strongly to the advertisement for the New Oxford Review in the June/July issue. The question headlined in the advertisement-”Why Is the Catholic Church So Hated?”-seems to me to engender paranoia in those who accept the premise of the question. Is the New Oxford Review so desperate for subscribers that it must use such language? . . .
” James L. Sanders
I heartily agree with J. Bottum’s opinion that T. S. Eliot’s religious verse can be less than satisfactory as a handbook of the Christian spiritual journey (“What T. S. Eliot Almost Believed,” August/September) . . . . I agree with Mr. Bottum that the “red flags” are sometimes written into the work itself: there is definitely the “detachment,” there is the tendency to use the subjunctive, and there is the superciliousness and the curious need to be “difficult.” . . . But if we are to debate the character and quality of Eliot’s Christianity, we should not ascribe so much power to the human mind that we would (for example) believe ourselves capable of knowing whether a professing Christian possessed real faith. Of course, if we were to enter into such a hopeless speculation, we have in Eliot’s case much more to go on than his poetry and prose, much of which was never intended to be personal or confessional. Eliot’s is a well-documented life. We observe a brilliant man who had doubted and was searching for the meaning of it all . . . . We learn of a person who struggled with depression, felt deeply the harrowing of hell, was guilt-ridden and hopeless. And we know that this same man at last publicly turned to Jesus Christ as his only salvation. Those who knew him attest that Eliot was an unusual duck and therefore was an unusual Christian; but he was considered by most to be a devout and faithful Christian . . . . But Mr. Bottum’s article, in spite of its cleverness and insight, is finally confusing in terms of its own spiritual perspective. The fundamental issue in any discussion of T. S. Eliot’s spirituality is whether the human intellect (in spite of what may happen to it in the event) participates in the ultimate experience of the human person, the Vision of God or whatever one would call it: Eliot believed the intellect does participate in this event. In this he was standing in a long and venerable tradition within the Church . . . . Eliot was an artist, and a person’s art should be judged by what a person was setting out to accomplish and not by what the reader thinks an allegedly Christian poem or poetry ought to “say” or be. And Eliot was a Modernist poet: We do not enjoy The Waste Land the way we enjoy Wordsworth’s Ode on immortality, and we are put off by many of Eliot’s idiosyncrasies, but we still believe The Waste Land to be one of the greatest Modernist poems. When we get to Four Quartets we are still dealing with art, we are still studying a Modernist work of art, and we are handling a poem of awesome complexity and even (perhaps) confusion: but we are not reading a work of mystical theology. The artist renders life in his or her own way; and I think we are justified who believe that Eliot the artist was successful with Four Quartets . I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Bottum wrote his Eliot article as one who has been disillusioned. Perhaps he was one who was once taken in by the beauty and mystery of Eliot’s poetry, asked from the poems a spiritual guidance they cannot possibly give, and, finally outgrowing the very unique mysticism he found there, was put down hard and made a little angry by the experience. But I can’t possibly know if this is the case. I do know that many Christians have come a long way since we expected Eliot to get us closer to Heaven; yet he remains a magnificent poet, our brother in Christ, and in many ways an inspiration . . . .
” (The Rev.) W. L. Prehn
St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church
San Antonio, TX