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Beyond Good and Evil?

Elaine Pagels has forged for herself a brilliant career as an academic superstar (Jeffrey Burton Russell, “Getting Satan Behind Us,” November 1995). The Gnostic Gospels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, and now The Origin of Satan are literary events that push their way into the consciousness of the reading public not only by the extravagant publicity that accompanies their publication, but also by inherent virtues that make them a pleasure to read. Pagels has an uncanny ability to find topicality in her material. Like few others, she is able to reflect in an entertaining manner on the conjunction between ancient religious ideas and fashionable contemporary notions of the secular literati. This is no mean feat but it does have its dangers—above all, the distortion of subject matter for ideological purposes. In Pagels’ books, contemporary fashion always wins the day. If Christianity survives at all in her ruminations, it is only because she has remade it in the image of the sophisticated professoriate.

These dangers are fully exposed by Jeffrey Burton Russell in his superb review essay of The Origin of Satan. There is no greater master of the subject of Satan writing in English than Russell, and his essay is an education in itself. It is informed by a detailed understanding of how evil was perceived in the ancient world religiously and philosophically that corrects many of Pagels’ blatant howlers. But it also takes up that which is so important to Pagels’ argument: the contemporary belief (which she shares) that sharp distinctions between good and evil are the stuff of religious fanaticism and must give way to an enlightened pragmatism that accepts the relativity of moral choices. Russell is right on the mark: “The popular, wacky assumption is original to post-Enlightenment Romanticism, and it goes against experience. Any explanation of the Holocaust or the gulag must fail unless it confronts the problem of evil.”

Without the vigorous effort to understand evil and reject it as the malignant spiritual force it is, there can be no serious moral reflection. By this criterion, Pagels’ book is missing something essential at its very core.

Walter Sundberg
Luther Seminary
St. Paul, MN

Jeffrey Burton Russell, in his drunken-sailor review of Elaine Pagels’ The Origin of Satan, staggers around over enough territory to land face-down in the occasional puddle of insight. . . .

Russell would have us believe that the externalization of evil is universal and not the result of toxic cultural influences. Perhaps he could back this up with an inventory of Buddhist holy wars, Buddhist inquisitions, Buddhist witch hunts, Buddhist colonial genocides, Buddhist slaveries, and Buddhist pogroms. This won’t take long to compile, but it might prove embarrassing to those accustomed to thinking that by their roots ye shall know them.

Russell admits that “by casting opponents as adherents of the Prince of Evil, Christians forged a tool that many would wield clumsily, cruelly, and sinfully.” In the right hands, presumably, this multipurpose tool could be wielded skillfully, kindly, and sinlessly. . . .

Russell correctly points out that dualism was not invented by Christians. All right, now we’re getting somewhere. Neither dualism nor any other significant part of Christianity was original, but was stolen from competitors by the faith once delivered unto the saints. Here’s an operating hunch: Maybe Pagels was more interested in the successful marketing of dualism than in product development or patent infringement. . . .

Payne Thomas
Indianapolis, IN

Professor Russell’s review of The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels is commendable in a number of ways. He calls into question most of her main points about Christianity and the Gospels, her doctrinaire relativism, and her vague moral and intellectual pragmatism. However, the second and third paragraphs of his essay read as though he is inclined to agree with her that the Gospels demonize the opponents of Jesus and his disciples.

I would note two things about this question of demonization. First, the Gospel of Mark sets the synoptic pattern of always associating demons and demon possession with crowds. (Most of the mentions of demon possession in John relate that a crowd of people accuse Jesus of having a demon. John 7:20; 8:48, 52; 10:20.) The one apparent exception to the synoptic pattern, the episode of the Syrophoenician woman who seeks out Jesus to exorcise her daughter (Mark 7:24-30), simply proves the rule. He has retreated from the crowds and she, in faith, has come out of the crowds (like the woman who touches Jesus in Mark 5:25-34). Not once is any person called a demon or devil.

Second, the association of demons with crowds is important for understanding the origin of Satan. The Gospels attest that Satan is “mimetic desire.” This is Rene Girard’s term for the basic human desire evoked by the other. It results inevitably in rivalry, conflict, and violence. Satan, that great “spirit of self-destruction and nonexistence,” as Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor describes him, is the spirit of the desire to outdo the other, the spirit of accusation and violence. Satan is the projection and personification of mimetic desire. The crowd scenes in the Gospels are remarkable for showing the working of desire for ill (Mark 3:7-13, 21-30; 15:6-15), but sometimes for good if the model is one of sharing and reconciliation (Mark 6:34-44; 8:1-9).

It is this and not, as Pagels contends, the Gospel writers’ political maneuvering that best accounts for the relatively favorable light in which Pontius Pilate is cast: even the representative of mighty Rome is subject to the power of the crowd according to Mark. And if he is depicted increasingly in Matthew, Luke, and John as resistant to the crowd before finally submitting, this portrayal emphasizes that power originates with the crowd, whose seething desires would turn them against one another or the authorities unless they found an outlet in a victim.

Satan’s origin in the mimetic desire of the crowd also clarifies other passages. If Pharisees are intended as the “sons of the evil one” in Matthew 13:38, which is not at all certain, this would be because they are persecutors of Jesus, trying to turn crowds against him. As for the Jews in John 8:44 who are told they belong to “your father the devil,” they had once believed in Jesus and now they threaten to turn on him as a mob. The point is not that Pharisees or Jews are more likely than any others to lynch the innocent victim in times of crisis. The point is rather the exposure of desire and scapegoating that is the key to the Gospels.

Pagels concludes her book by expressing the hope that her research “may illuminate for others, as it has for me, the struggle within Christian tradition between the profoundly human view that ‘otherness’ is evil and the words of Jesus that reconciliation is divine.” If it is a “profoundly human view” that “otherness” is evil, then it is universal, not just a phenomenon of the history of Christianity. And how can we know and accept that Jesus teaches divine reconciliation if the Gospels are attacked as the primary texts for propagating the power of Satan, the spirit of accusation and triumph over the other?

James G. Williams
Syracuse University
Syracuse, NY

For Jeffrey Burton Russell to close his essay with “Pagels joins those who want to save [Christianity] by remaking it in their own image and likeness” is about as close as you get to divulging that he didn’t get what she was saying.

Pagels has been writing about the infant Church for many years, her research being thorough and enlightening, for which she has received appropriate commendation. The theme of her writing depicts the suppression of the portion of the Church that was spirit-filled-and not inclined to follow willy-nilly the growing ecclesiastical hierarchy of orthodoxy. That spirit-filled segment became known as the Christian Gnostics (those who knew the Lord) and were ultimately banished by the more powerful orthodox segment.

That banishment was rough—many were jailed, some were killed, and virtually all were purged from participation in the Church.

Remember when Jesus, considered a heretic by his fellow Jews, was accused of having a demon (an unclean spirit). Jesus denied it, and announced that to so blaspheme the work of the Holy Spirit was not only sinful, but was unforgivable.

If someone like Russell doesn’t “get” the seriousness of what took place in the Church in those early centuries, it is just as well—he avoids that drastic condemnation. But for those who have eyes to see, let them shout it from the rooftops.

Thomas J. Scannell Schodack
Landing, NY

As Elaine Pagels’ book illustrates, hatred of orthodoxy seems the law of the land these days in academia. And the equation of truth with novelty is the inevitable outcome. Before the infamous decade of “free love” and “do your own thing,” people at least had their hunches about reality and fact (even if their “personal knowing” admitted to perceptual flaws). With that admission of partial knowledge came also a humble sense of the knowability of things and a certain trust in the integrity of “mere” tradition (without any necessary slavery to it).

Every generation has its gnostics. My problem of late is figuring out why any of them would want to call themselves Christians given the smorgasbord of spiritual systems to choose from these days (with no stigma attached to opting out of the Church). If what we want is the intoxication of gnostic illumination sans historic orthodoxy, why not jumbojet to India where masters of that particular poison abound.

Bruce Herman
Gloucester, MA

While I am in general agreement with the opinions expressed by Jeffrey Burton Russell, I am slightly uneasy about his description of Pauline gnosis as “simple understanding, not secret illumination.” The author is certainly correct to contrast Paul’s understanding to any sort of early gnosticism, yet I would hardly characterize Paul’s understanding as simple: the reality of the Resurrected Christ wherein the Law has found its fulfillment (Romans 10: 4) is hardly that. Nor would I then summarize a Pauline understanding of law as being “made for humans rather than humans for the law,” which almost appears to read Paul through the lens of Mark 2:27 (without 2:28!). My worry then is that Prof. Russell’s characterization of Paul and the law ultimately might serve to encourage the moral relativism that he so eloquently argues against in this essay.

Charles Bobertz
St. John’s School of Theology
Collegeville, MN

Names Can Never Hurt Me

Since my name and my family were mentioned, and assumptions made about them, in the article by Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass (“What’s Your Name?” November 1995), I would like to correct the authors’ error. Based on an article in the New York Times that described our choice of the surname Sienna, they wrongly asserted that our family name is “in no case the name of the entire family but of the children only.” Had your authors bothered to do some fact checking with us, they would have learned that indeed Sienna is the name of our entire family. Both my husband and I have the name Sienna hyphenated legally onto our birth name. Thus I am Elyse Goldstein-Sienna, my husband is Baruch Browns-Sienna, and our children are Noam, Carmi, and Micah Sienna. We are the Sienna family, and while it is true that our name has no past, it has a present and a future. Both my husband and I have our separate birth identities and a common married identity. All of our friends who chose family names have done the same. I would have liked to know if the other families mentioned in the article have adopted the same practice.

Historically, for many ethnic groups all last names were a matter of choice. My great-grandfather in Romania was not Goldstein. None of the Jews in his shtetl had last names. They were known in Hebrew as the son or daughter of their parents’ Hebrew names—first names! The name Goldstein was chosen for him at Ellis Island. So much for the notion of a long chain of history being passed through a last name. In fact for Jews, it is the first name, not the last, that has spiritual meaning and gives identity. My children are named after beloved dead relatives by first names, not last.

While it would be more comfortable to live in a world of clear patriarchal expectations, where women and men accept the status quo by accepting one identity, one history, one family—the husband’s—the article’s dire predictions of our children’s “broken family identity” based on their last names is ridiculous. We have also been told that it would be easier for our children’s identity if they had “normal” English names like Norman, Carl, and Michael instead of Hebrew names. Our three Sienna children are, in spite of the Kasses’ discomfort, extremely well adjusted and identified as happy, healthy, and productive members of the Jewish community, the larger Canadian community, and our family.

(Rabbi) Elyse Goldstein-Sienna
Kolel Thornhill, Ontario Canada

Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass reply:

We are, of course, glad to learn the truth about the Sienna family and are sorry if they are distressed. Our mistake was to trust the New York Times’ story, which celebrated such creative last-naming. No doubt Rabbi Goldstein-Sienna has also written the Times to correct its misrepresentation.

Not content to correct a personal factual error, Rabbi Goldstein-Sienna reaches for Jewish tradition to justify her practice, managing to introduce a few errors of her own. In Western Europe, Jews have used surnames beginning as early as the eighteenth century. True, in the Eastern European shtetlach, Jewish children were known often by their patro-nymics (LRK’s mother, of blessed memory, was Chana Chaim-Leizer’s), but the patronymic is not a matter of choice, any more than belonging to one’s family of origin is a matter of choice. And, by the way, we mean patronymic: traditionally, Jewish boys and girls were—are—officially named as sons and daughters of their father (Leib ben Shmuel, Chava bat Kalman). (A lovely exception: in prayers for the recovery of the sick, the mother’s name is sometimes invoked instead, it being thought to carry greater weight in an appeal for God’s mercy.) Are we to understand that Rabbi Goldstein-Sienna takes shtetl or traditional Judaism as normative in this—or any other—matter? Not likely, when under its laws and customs she could have aspired no higher than rebbetsin (the Rabbi’s wife).

Rabbi Goldstein-Sienna personalizes and psychologizes our argument. We were not interested in what is “more comfortable” or in who is “extremely well adjusted.” We made no “dire predictions” about her children or anyone else’s. Our argument concerned rather the symbolic understanding of marriage and lineage embedded in our surnaming practices. We tried to make clear the deep inner meaning (and great good sense) of the traditional practice of the wife accepting the gift of her husband’s family name. Rabbi Goldstein-Sienna, incapable of controlling her animus against “clear patriarchal expectations” and “the status quo,” has not bothered to try to understand or to respond to the substance of our argument.

The Mind as Algorithm

In “The Atheism of the Gaps,” (November 1995) Stephen M. Barr presents the deeply flawed Lucas-Penrose argument that there could not possibly be a computer program (or algorithm) that could perform all the mental feats of which a man is capable. Seeking to deduce a contradiction, the argument begins with the assumption that there is such an algorithm. Call it algorithm M. Professor Barr then claims that “a human mathematician (or group of mathematicians) could construct a ‘Godel proposition’ for [M].”

This claim is false because it mistakenly assumes that M is consistent. A man capable of doing arithmetic is capable of making arithmetic errors. Thus M too must be capable of making arithmetic errors. This means M can arrive at false arithmetic conclusions, which is to say M is not consistent. As Mr. Barr himself points out, Godel’s theorem applies only to consistent theorem provers: those algorithms that generate only true statements of arithmetic. There is no such thing as a Godel proposition for any other kind of algorithm. Thus there is no Godel proposition for the inconsistent algorithm M.

Since the Lucas-Penrose argument assumes that there is such a Godel proposition for M, the argument is unsound. The argument does not show that men can perform special mental feats that algorithms cannot, and it remains possible that the mind is an algorithm.

Daniel M. Offutt
Westport, WI

Stephen M. Barr replies:

Mr. Offutt suggests that the human mind may be an “inconsistent algorithm.” This is indeed one of the most common objections to the Lucas-Penrose argument. I cannot give a full answer to it here, but fortunately I do not have to since Lucas effectively demolished it in both the essay and the book that I cited in my article. Moreover, Penrose devotes most of chapter three of Shadows of the Mind to a painstaking and exhaustive treatment of this and related objections. Here I must content myself with a few brief remarks.

There is a crucial difference between a computer that normally operates by a sound and consistent algorithm but occasionally makes an error because of a glitch (due, say, to a cosmic ray changing a “bit” in its memory, or—in the case of a human—to a lack of sleep) and a computer that operates by a truly inconsistent algorithm. It has been shown that in any inconsistent formal system every proposition can be proven both true and false. True inconsistency of an algorithm, therefore, implies a radical inconsistency. Such an algorithm, unlike us, would be incapable of recognizing its own errors and correcting them. It would be as able and as satisfied to demonstrate that 2+2=17 as that 2+2=4.

If Mr. Offutt is right that such an inconsistent algorithm underlies his own mental processes, so that they are intrinsically and radically unsound, then he is by virtue of that very fact not someone to be argued with.

Irish Conservative Blues

Let this letter sound as a keen to echo the lament of David Quinn for the state of conservatism in Irish society (“To Be a Conservative in Ireland: A Lament,” November 1995). As a first generation American of Irish extraction and an observer of things Irish, I have caught the odor of Irish cultural decay for some time.

It is sad to hear of even elderly relatives and acquaintances in the Connemara Gaeltacht, hardly avatars of personal autonomy and pick and choose Catholicism, who have given up attendance at Sunday Mass after the sexual scandal of Galway’s Bishop Eamon Casey. This apparent loss of faith, resulting from clerical misconduct, is one example that points to a weakness which David Quinn has correctly identified as a formerly overbearing church which is now weakened and open to continuous onslaught from an adversary cultural cadre loaded for bear. Also, the neo-paganism one detects among many of the newly arrived Irish in America disappoints those of us who had hoped that perhaps Chesterton was correct in believing that it was nations like Poland and Ireland that held out hope as counterweights to secular modernity. Instead we see Ireland stumbling down the road of indulgence and relativism.

It has now become indisputable that the quasi-clericalism relied on by leaders like Eamon de Valera and practiced by the Irish Church was shortsighted and cloaked fundamental cultural difficulties. The crutch has been pulled away. The building of an Ireland true to its deepest self requires that the civil society, with the Church as a solid anchor, be reconstructed along lines closer to America’s experience (sans the sixties) than the toxic solutions that are being offered by the likes of the editors of the Irish Times.

Michael Walsh
Boston, MA

David Quinn’s lament over Ireland hints at the difficulty of translating North American conservatism into United Kingdom terms. A line from Forrest Gump has furnished considerable grist for thinking about this problem of translation. Because every box of chocolate in the United Kingdom clearly labels each of its contents, the force of the analogy comparing life to a box of chocolates was completely lost. The words are intelligible but the point is missed. Similarly, while conservatives in the U.K. make similar kinds of noises as their North American counterparts about economic competition, lower prices, and greater opportunity, somewhere a key point is missing.

What is missing is exemplified by the privatization of state-run industries. In spite of conservative rhetoric about free markets and expanded opportunity, privatization is largely perceived as the swapping of badly managed government-run monopolies for slightly-less-badly-managed “private” monopolies with state protection. Conservatives, it seems, fail to understand that the conflict is not between the state and the private sectors. The real battle is over de-privileging the myth of managerial expertise in both the state and private sectors. In the U.S., various advocates of the conservative moral vision take issue with the claims that society can be ordered by “planning,” “regulating,” and “managing.” Here, there is no compelling articulation of a political, economic, and moral vision of Michael Novak’s order unplanned. Instead, Tories busily position themselves against a reinvigorated Labor party as the best managers—hardly the stuff of great political vision.

The jig is up for the Tories. The working class has rightly intuited that the managerial myth, no matter how impressive its sales rhetoric, is neither morally compelling nor in their own best interest. Given the choice between a future shaped by the Tory platform of private bureaucracy “working closely” with coercive government or the Labor platform of government in control of the bureaucracy, the choice seems to be for Labor. During the time when Labor again owns the reins of power, it must be hoped that there will be a truly conservative U.K.-fashioned alternative to the managerial, bureaucratic order of society. What Quinn and all who care about the future of the whole U.K. await is a new St. Newt.

D. K. Weber
Sunderland, England

Yeshiva Lessons

I read with particular interest the Public Square article “What Dennis Prager Did, and Didn’t, Learn in Yeshiva” (October 1995) on Jewish truths that should be known to all, because his experience so much resembles mine as a yeshiva student in Montreal over two decades ago. It is certainly true, as he recalls, that in yeshivas the world of the goyim is nonexistent. This xenophobia is especially evident in the ultra-Orthodox ones, where secular studies and a university education are also scorned.

This strikes one as very parochial today, as the world has become a global and interdependent village. Then again, even after the Holocaust the relation of non-Jews to Jews is still that of hostility and jealousy. Nothing crystallizes this so clearly as the attitude of non-Jews toward the reborn Jewish homeland, the State of Israel.

Why is the world obsessively counting and scrutinizing each and every acre of land that Jews reside on in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the heart of Jewish patrimony—won in a just war in 1967—which together with Israel proper still form a tiny sliver of a country? Huge countries have seized vast lands and the world could not care less. The Christian and Islamic countries together possess some 150 capitals, and yet they are vehement in not allowing Jews to have their only capital, the old city of Jerusalem.

The Jews have contributed enormously to civilization, and without the Hebrew Bible and prophets there would be no Christianity and Islam. In Judaism, hakarat hatov means the duty to recognize and appreciate the good someone does for you. Unfortunately, Mr. Prager omitted this fundamental truth one also learns in a yeshiva, which Gentiles should also be taught.

Jacob Mendlovic
Toronto, Ontario Canada

O.P., not S.J.

Although the Jesuits will mind only a little and the Dominicans somewhat more, Dinesh D’Souza’s misidentification of Francisco de Vitoria as a Jesuit (“The Crimes of Christopher Columbus,” November 1995) should be of concern for him and his allies beyond the feelings of Jesuits and Dominicans.

Francisco de Vitoria was a Dominican, an O.P.—not a Jesuit, an S.J. And the reason for concern is precisely to avoid the recent criticism Glenn Loury aimed at D’Souza, that is, that his scholarship is faulty. The mistake is not a serious one, but it is not trivial either.

In tackling the topics that he does, D’Souza must be especially careful.

Nino Langiulli
St. Francis College
Brooklyn, NY

Sanctified Work

Fr. Neuhaus’ Public Square piece on Opus Dei, “The Work of God” (November 1995), was a much appreciated and welcomed effort to be fair, judicious, and helpful in this delicate if somewhat tiresome “controversy.” He brings a refreshing and wise perspective to bear on the universal Christian phenomenon of “radical discipleship.”

After thirty-four years of deeply satisfied membership, I can only say that as more people come to know first-hand the depth and simplicity of Blessed Josemaria’s message—that all our work and ordinary duties must become an expression of love for God—in most cases the controversies vanish.

I would only make a small correction and a comment: Opus Dei began working forty-five years ago in this country, not twenty, at the University of Chicago. And I think it a misnomer to call it a “movement.” Rather, as a Personal Prelature, Opus Dei represents a new and permanent dimension of the Church’s ordinary care of souls. It is a vehicle of the Holy Spirit to spread worldwide the universal call to sanctity for laymen in their ordinary duties, offering a program of spiritual formation to aid in living it out. While the vocation to Opus Dei is not for everyone, this new message is—which amounts to a spiritual awakening for many who drink deeply of this spirit of the sanctification of work. We strive to combine the serious cultivation of interior life with hard work and total immersion in worldly affairs. Thus do we propose to contribute to “restoring all things in Christ.”

Daryl J. Glick
South Orange, NJ

Unconstricted Reconstructionists

As a so-called Christian Reconstructionist, who writes a regular column for the Chalcedon Report (Box 158, Vallecito, California 95251; free sample copy available on request), I was amused to see brother Neuhaus refer (Public Square, November 1995) to the world of Reconstructionism as “constricted.” But it isn’t. Our world is God’s world. We believe the Lord Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords, that all power is given to Him, in Heaven and on Earth, and that every area of life is to be governed by His Law—Word. I cannot imagine a less “constricted” theology than this one.

John Lofton
Laurel, MD