Father Neuhaus mistakes my position when he says (or implies) that I pit freedom of inquiry against truth or critical thought against a commitment to truth, or, more simply, faith against reason. In fact I don’t regard these as opposed to one another (they are not binaries) but as mutually interdependent. The difference between a believer and a nonbeliever is not that one reasons and the other doesn’t, but that one reasons from a first premise the other denies; and from this difference flow others that make the fact that both are reasoning a sign not of commonality but of its absence.
If, as Neuhaus says, a secularist liberal and a committed Christian recognize and deploy the same “rules of reason, evidence, and critical judgment,” sooner or later they will disagree about whether something is or is not evidence or about what it is evidence of , and such disagreements cannot be resolved by the rules of reason because the rules of reason unfold in relation to a proposition they do not generate. That proposition”God exists or he doesn’t, Christ is the word made flesh or he isn’t, human nature is perfectible or it isn’t”is an article of faith, and while two persons proceeding within opposing faiths might perform identical operations of logical entailment, they will end up in completely different places because it is from different (substantive) places that they began.
Let me turn again for an example to Milton. In Book VI of Paradise Lost , Satan’s rebels and God’s loyalists meet on the field of battle, but even to say this is to understate the level of their disagreement, since in the eyes of the loyalists this isn’t a battle at all”they know, as one of them declares, that God could have “at one blow / Unaided” settled the matter”while the possibility that there could be a battle”that God might, after all, be just the self-bestowed name of a boastful antagonist”is absolutely central to the rebels’ perspective, a perspective that determines both what will be seen by them as evidence and the conclusions they draw from it. This is no less true of the loyalists for whom evidence also emerges not in its own independent shape but in the shape given to it by the structure of their belief.
In the course of the “battle,” both parties meet with events that one might think could lead them to alter their basic commitments. The rebels for the first time experience pain and fear; but they respond by incorporating these new experiences into their sense of themselves as battling heroically against steep odds in what Satan has earlier named “the strife of glory.” The strife is glorious because (in their eyes) it is a struggle for independence in the face of a tyrant who demands their submission; and the fact that this tyrant has now been able to invent pain is received by them not as evidence that they should desist, but as evidence that confirms their self-image”the odds are even worse than we thought and yet we bravely fight on”and strengthens their resolve”if we can endure this, we can endure anything.
On the other side, the loyalists find themselves in a position that might “reasonably” be called humiliating. They are in the field because God has told them that as a reward for their loyalty they will have the honor and pleasure of driving the rebels “out from . . . bliss, / Into their place of punishment”; but as it turns out, God has so arranged it that the power of the two hosts is equal, which means that the loyalists cannot possibly do what he has ordered them to do and promised they will be able to do. In fact, the entire battle has been staged only to provide God’s anointed Son with a dramatic entrance. When he appears on the third day to claim all the honors, his first act is to say to the loyalists, “Thanks for the effort, boys, but this is a job for Superman.” They in turn respond not with disappointment or with a sense of injured merit, but (the verse tells us) with “joy”; not joy at being humiliated” they don’t see it that way ”but joy at having been joined and praised by one to whom they have sworn allegiance. What they could have easily seen as a reason to change masters, they contrive (that is, work) to see as a reason for continuing their fealty. They too can style this the strife of glory, but they have managed to find their glory (and the maintenance of their faith) in a willingness to resign it to another.
Note that both sides are exercising their reason and judgment; no one is “submitting uncritically.” The world continually throws up puzzles to be solved and everyone tries to solve them; it is just that, given the radically divergent presuppositions of the two parties, each engages in the task of reasoning by asking different questions: on the one hand, “since we are in the fight of our lives and the adversary seems to have a superior technology, what can we do to neutralize it?” (the rebels proceed to invent gunpowder); on the other, “since God is God and intends only good for us, how can we see this turn of events as further evidence of his goodness?”
In choosing that question to ask, the loyalists follow (or, rather, anticipate) Augustine’s counsel to those who meet with phenomena apparently subversive of the true faith, either in the Scriptures or in life: subject the phenomena “to diligent scrutiny until an interpretation contributing to the reign of charity is produced” ( On Christian Doctrine ). That is, since you know that in a world ordered by a just and benevolent God everything signifies his love for us and our obligation to love our fellow creatures for his sake, struggle with what the world presents to you until you are able to discern that signification. Knowing what the answer is in advance does not mean that there is no work to be done, nothing to reason about; for the answer is a general one whose application in particular circumstances is always an arduous task. “To the pure and healthy internal eye,” declares Augustine, “He is everywhere.” But since our eyes are as yet far from pure, seeing him everywhere is not a foregone conclusion but a continual challenge.
To this analysis of the interdependence of faith (whether satanic or godly) and reason, Father Neuhaus poses objections that might be put in the form of two questions:
1. Cannot reason be exercised before the first premise is in place?
2. In the course of reasoning cannot that first premise itself become the object of critical attention?
I would answer the first question by turning to the tract of Augustine’s that Neuhaus cites against me. In The Usefulness of Believing , Augustine addresses his friend Honoratus in an effort to turn him away from the Manichean position on the relationship between faith and reason. The Manicheans, as Augustine reports them, dismiss as “superstition” the notion that the Christian must be “by believing forearmed” before he can begin to reason; they urge instead that “no one . . . have faith without having first discussed and made clear the truth.” Augustine acknowledges the appeal (which he once felt) of this way of thinking, especially to young men intoxicated by the prospect of throwing off the shackles “of old wives fables” in order to “drink in . . . the open and pure Truth.” But he identifies the man who detaches himself from all authority with the fool who has nothing of wisdom inside him, but nevertheless sets out to determine, by reason alone, who is and is not a wise man. Since he does not begin with an inner understanding of that which he seeks he will be unable to recognize it. “For by no signs whatever can one recognize anything, unless he shall have known that thing,” known it, that is, in advance . Someone who inquires after something (truth, wisdom, the good) without having internalized its identifying criteria is asking of signs that they tell him, all by themselves, what they are signs of; and since no sign can satisfy that demand”no sign can deliver up the norm by which to judge its own adequacy or significance”all signs, at least for this unanchored inquirer, will either signify nothing in particular or (it is the same thing) signify anything at all.
A nice example is provided by the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Regained , who at the beginning of the poem assigns himself the task of figuring out just who this person is who has been singled out by John the Baptist at the river Jordan and on whose head “a perfect dove” has descended. We know that Satan is in trouble when he immediately says of the dove “whate’er it meant.” If he doesn’t know what it means when he sees it, the gap between him and knowledge will not be filled in by additional information, for that information will itself become drawn into the vortex of his uncertainty. For four books and thousands of lines Satan stalks the Son, subjecting him, as he says, to ever “narrower scrutiny,” and hazarding his “best conjectures” as to the nature of his adversary, but still finds himself, after all his surveillance and sifting of evidence, “yet in doubt.”
In the final scene he is still devising ways to “know . . . more” and announces, “Another method I must now begin.” This is the authentic voice of technological modernism, which holds out the hope that the world will deliver its truth when the right techniques”instruments of disinterested observation”are applied to it; but no matter how close the phenomena are brought to the doubting eye by sophisticated instruments of observation, that eye will see only its own doubt at once miniaturized and magnified. As Augustine puts it, “The fool is void of wisdom, therefore he knows not wisdom, for he could not see it with his eyes.” And moreover, if he could see it, he would no longer be a fool because there would now be something in him answerable to that which he seeks to know: “He cannot see it and not have it, nor have it and be a fool.” Were Satan to succeed in coming to know who the Son truly is he would no longer be Satan because it is his distance from that knowledge that defines him and makes him both what he is and what he isn’t, and what he is, at least until some moment of total conversion, is someone who says of the dove, “whate’er it meant” and will say the same of anything”the Son, baptism, the Trinity, resurrection, God”whose significance exceeds what is apparent on the empirical surface.
Satan is the very type of those who would reason before they believe. Such a one, Augustine insists, has things exactly backward; if you begin to reason before the mind has been cleared of error, your reasoning will be forever errant: “To wish to see the truth in order to purge your soul, when as it is purged for the very purpose that you may see, is surely perverse and preposterous.” Purge the soul first by orienting it to the appropriate object of desire, and then reason, for only then, says Augustine, are you “capable of receiving reason,” capable, that is, of engaging in reasoning that is not endlessly spinning its own wheels.
Spinning your wheels is what you would be doing if you were to bracket your first premise and make it the object of critical attention. To be sure, this is something you might do, at least as an experiment, but where would you be if you did it? You would be nowhere”at sea amidst innumerable interpretative possibilities”and you could only proceed by installing some other premise in the position of first (usually while pretending not to do so). This is what the Manicheans do when they urge the “premature” believer to set aside his conviction that what Christ “hath said is true, although it be supported by no reason” and begin instead to reason toward Christ’s truth under their guidance. But, objects Augustine, that is to ask the believer to exchange the authority of his church and its traditions for the authority, no less unsupported, of these self-appointed reasoners. For a Christian to “distrust and overthrow” what has been “handed down from our blessed forefathers” in favor of another kind of knowledge is “to seek a sacrilegious way unto true religion,” sacrilegious because it subordinates religious truth to a formalism that should serve, not judge, it. As Bruce Marshall has put it, “The narratives which identify Jesus are epistemic trump; if it comes to conflict . . . between these beliefs and any others, the narratives win” (“What Is Truth?” Pro Ecclesia , Fall 1995).
Does this mean, as Neuhaus asks, that the central beliefs of Christianity cannot be falsified? No, it means that the central beliefs of Christianity cannot be falsified (or even strongly challenged) by evidence that would not be seen as evidence by those who hold the beliefs. If you tell a believer that no one can walk on water or rise from the dead or feed five thousand with two fishes and five loaves, he will tell you (in the mode of Tertullian) that the impossibility of those actions for mere men is what makes their performance so powerful a sign of divinity. For one party the reasoning is, “No man can do it and therefore he didn’t do it”; for the other the reasoning is, “Since no man could do it, he who did it is more than man.” For one party falsification follows from the absence of any rational account of how the purported phenomena could have occurred; for the other the absence of a rational explanation is just the point, one that, far from challenging the faith, confirms it.
When Neuhaus declares that essential Christian truth claims would be in very deep trouble “were a corpse to be identified beyond reasonable doubt as that of Jesus of Nazareth,” it depends on what he means by “reasonable doubt.” If he means the kind of doubt an empirically minded nonbeliever might have, then the doubt is a foregone conclusion since it is implicit in the way he (already) thinks. “A virgin birth? A God incarnate? A dead God who rises again? Come on! Give me a break!”
But if Neuhaus means a reasonable doubt a Christian might have then it would have to be a doubt raised by tensions internal to Christian belief, and not by tensions between Christian belief and some other belief system. An atheist might see the Holocaust as further confirmation of the doubt that is an article of his (non) faith (“See, I told you there is no God”); a believer might see the Holocaust as something difficult to reconcile with his conviction of a God who is merciful and he might find himself in a state of doubt. He might then be able to overcome the doubt by finding a way to understand the event that did not deny God’s mercy; and then again he might not, in which case he would be in the middle of a crisis of faith. But whatever he did with the doubt, it will have been a doubt for him by virtue of what he believed and not because a challenge to his belief has come from someplace outside it. The discovery by an archeological expedition of a body in the vicinity of where Jesus’ tomb is thought to have been will not raise a doubt (or even be the first step on the road to doubt) for the Christian who reads in Matthew 28:11–15 that from day one nonbelievers have sought to substitute a naturalistic explanation for the mystery of the resurrection. It will take more than a body, or carbon dating, or “identifying marks” to shake a faith which is not built on that kind of evidence in the first place. What it would take I don’t know and, at any rate, the answer would vary with the strength and firmness of individual believers; but no believer will find his faith shaken by evidence that is evidence only in the light of assumptions he does not share and considers flatly wrong.
It seems unnecessary to say so, but when you think a view wrong, you don’t see what is seen by those who think it right”those who live and move and have their being within it. When Satan says of the war in Heaven, “ we style it the strife of glory,” he is responding to the archangel Michael who has just characterized the war as “evil.” It is only in a trivial sense that the two agents, operating within opposing first premises, are talking about the same thing. No feature of the battle is seen in common, and indeed, as I noted earlier, Michael would, if pressed, balk at the word “battle” itself, since it implies an encounter with a doubtful outcome whereas he harbors no doubts at all. Nor would it do any good to delay the action in order to allow time for the combatants to review and discuss each other’s vocabulary (the dream of liberalism), for even if they use the same words, the words are not really the same in that each hears them as referring to different things or non-things. Michael cannot understand the word “glory” as applied to an action (rebellion) that separates creatures from their God, since, for him, glory can only be found in obedience to, and union with, the Highest. And the word “evil” can hardly be heard intelligibly by someone who has earlier declared, “Evil be thou my good,” and by so declaring renounced the perspective of morality altogether.
When Neuhaus insists that “we encounter propositions all the time that we can quite well understand but happen to believe are not true,” he slides away from one sense of understanding”grasping the syntax and semantics of an utterance”to another”experiencing the truth of that utterance in your heart and soul. It is in the first sense that Milton’s fallen angels remain able to frame and receive sentences containing words like “Heaven,” “faith,” and “good,” but their “understanding” of those words is only skin deep (that’s why they’re devils) and so by “good” they understand “advantage to themselves,” and by “faith” they understand “firmness of apostasy,” and by “Heaven” they understand “the territory temporarily occupied by the enemy.” When Mammon surveys the topography of Hell, he sees natural resources out of which the devils will be able to simulate light and raise tall structures, and he exclaims, “and what can Heav’n show more?” He doesn’t know, he doesn’t understand .
And on the other side when Abdiel hears Satan urge rebellion in the name of freedom from God’s tyranny he responds by declaring the devil’s propositions (God is a tyrant; freedom can only be found apart from him) not only “blasphemous,” but “false.” Nor are they false in a way that could be corrected by better information. What would have to be “corrected,” or rather entirely replaced, is the false first premise in the light of which they are perspicuous. They are not at all perspicuous to Abdiel, who is in effect saying to Satan: how could you believe something that is so obviously not true? In this sense, to say of an assertion that it is “not true” is to say that you don’t understand it, that from your perspective while it has all the marks of a meaningful utterance”a syntax and a semantics”it is a formal husk with no content, just sound and fury signifying nothing. And that is how you understand it, as nothing, and therefore you don’t, except in a very superficial sense, understand it at all. (I would make the same analysis of Neuhaus’ declaration that “a Christian can understand what a liberal atheist is saying”; sure he can, he will understand the atheist as saying error, that which is not.)
Of course, understanding in a superficial sense is what makes most of the world’s business possible, and that is why, as Neuhaus correctly observes, “That two plus two equals four is true can be agreed on by Christian and non-Christian alike.” The question is, what does the agreement say about the level of understanding they share, and I would answer, “not much.” Adhering to the convention that two plus two equals four is like adhering to the convention that we drive on the right side of the road or to the convention that red means stop and green means go. You do it not because you are invested in its truth but because it is only if everyone adheres to the same conventions that automobiles won’t crash and contracts will be enforceable. The truths of arithmetic are (for most of us) indisputable because it is in no one’s interest to dispute them and in everyone’s interest to agree about them. All of us”Christians, non-Christians, liberals, Marxists, anarchists, republicans, democrats, preachers, pornographers”use them and use them in situations in which it is understood that what is at stake is the maintenance of civil order and that other things that might be at stake”the nature of truth, the health of our souls, the salvation of the human race”have been, for the time, bracketed.
“Liberalism” is the name of the political theory whose aim it is to bracket off as much of life as possible from these thorny questions, to fashion a public sphere held together by agreements like two plus two equals four and red means stop. In reaction to the apparent failure of mankind to identify the one truly meaningful thing around which life might be organized, liberalism sets out to identify the set of truly non meaningful things”things that no one will want to die for or kill for”around which life might be organized. The history of liberalism (which begins with debates about what is or is not a “thing indifferent” and about who is to have authority over things indifferent once the items in the category have been specified) is the unhappy discovery that for everything identified as truly nonmeaningful there will be someone for whom it means everything and who will therefore want to dispute or alter or eliminate the convention.
As yet two plus two equals four has not become such a flash point of disagreement, but it could (no one used to dispute the convention of using “he” to indicate an impersonal, non-gendered agent); for, as Hobbes pointed out, well in advance of the development of alternative geometries, the “doctrine of lines and figures” is not so “perpetually disputed” as the “doctrine of Right and Wrong” only “because men care not in that subject what be truth, as a thing that crosses man’s ambition.”
Until two plus two equals four crosses someone’s ambition it is a fact agreed on by all parties, but this doesn’t mean that there are truths above ideology, but that there are (at least by current convention) truths below ideology. So long as they remain below ideology (so long as they continue to be “things indifferent” and gore no one’s ox) they can safely circulate in the public sphere without any fear that their use will upset its orderly workings. Obviously, “Christ is risen” is not now such a truth (although there is an argument for saying that it once was and was therefore no more controversial than two plus two equals four), and because it is not, liberalism cannot allow it to have a public life in the sense that it might be put forward as a reason for taking this action (going to war, passing a budget, ending affirmative action) rather than another. The very stability of the liberal state depends on (1) maintaining a large set of truths below ideology and warding off efforts to “politicize” them (hence the resistance to political accounts of literary “masterpieces” presumed to be the repository of beliefs belonging to no one and everyone) and (2) removing from the day-to-day business of life truths already ideologically charged lest they tear apart the common fabric of society.
Of course what is and is not ideological is itself a determination of ideology, of that agenda or vision in the happy position of getting to draw the lines. What this means is that any arrangement of the categories will be to the disadvantage of some ideologies (whose central truths will be accorded the status of common sense) and to the disadvantage of others (whose central truths will have been labelled “not safe for deployment in public life”). In late-twentieth-century America the preferred truths and values of liberalism (autonomy, individual freedom, rational deliberation, civility) are in the first category”they “go without saying” and no agenda is legitimate unless it defers to them”and the preferred truths and values of Christianity (obedience, respect for authority and tradition, faith, the community of worship) are in the second”it is fine to adhere to them so long as you leave them at home when you enter the marketplace or the voting booth.
It is my contention that Michael McConnell, Stephen Carter, and George Marsden accept this state of affairs even as they complain about it because they accept the private/public split (McConnell), or the separation of a message from its source in religious conviction (Carter), or a distinction between reasonable and dogmatic religious views (Marsden). Neuhaus replies by suggesting that these men might be making tactical arguments, arguments designed to gain entry to the marketplace, for it is only by entering it that they might be able to transform it. I am simply reading too closely (with a “gimlet eye”) discursive gestures that are “preliminary moves appropriate to what some Christians call ‘pre-evangelization.’ “
This is a good point, and one that finds support in recent events. In Rosenberger v. Rector , decided just last June, the Supreme Court ruled that the University of Virginia could not deny funds to an avowedly evangelistic newspaper. The university had based its policy on a distinction between university-related activities and any activity that “primarily promotes a particular belief in or about deity or an ultimate reality.” But the Court rejected this “establishment clause” logic and reasoned that the key issue is “viewpoint discrimination,” and that a regulation supposedly neutral (because it does not disfavor any particular religion) is nevertheless biased against the “theistic perspective.” That this is precisely Michael McConnell’s argument is hardly surprising since it was he who argued the case before the Court on behalf of the Christian students.
Meanwhile, sometime before the Rosenberger ruling, Stephen Carter’s book was picked up by President Clinton, who publicly praised it and appears to have factored it into his thinking about moral issues in general and church-state issues in particular. George Marsden’s book is too recently published to have had any appreciable effects, but it is reasonable to expect that its large sweep and authoritative scholarship will command a wide audience not confined to Christian believers.
In different, but related, ways, then, the work of these three men (and of course not only of these three) is already enacting the strategy urged by Neuhaus: “You engage people at the point where they are engageable and then hope that they can be moved, step by step, toward the fullness of truth.” I am not sure that is what these authors had in mind; they present their arguments as if they were not tactical but philsophical; in short they claim for them coherence and I stand by my critique of that claim even as I acknowledge that these arguments, coherent or not, seem to be doing actual political work. (In general the incoherence of an argument is no bar to, and may even enhance, its political effectiveness.)
This brings me to a final point, which looks back to many of the issues raised in this exchange. Neuhaus notes that by the logic of my argument “a non-Christian could not understand the poetry of the very Christian John Milton,” a conclusion, he says, that flies in the face of the fact that “non-Christians such as Stanley Fish are recognized as authorities on Milton.” This would appear to be a “pincer” move that would force me to choose between my (imputed) status as an authority and the thesis of my paper. I shall avoid (or evade) the choice, however, by asking what kind of understanding qualifies one to be an authority on Milton? The answer is an understanding of the issues at stake in the community of Milton criticism, and while those issues will certainly touch on questions of belief, what the critic himself believes will not be one of those questions.
When I entered the conversation in the early 1960s, among the questions were: Is Milton an Arian, that is, an anti-Trinitarian? Was he a mortalist, that is, did he believe the soul died with the body? Was he a compatabilist, that is, did he believe both in free will and determinism? Like other Miltonists I pursued these questions by poring over Milton’s prose works, reading Augustine, Tertullian, and other church fathers known to have influenced him, reading contemporary sermons and theological tracts. I was not doing this work in order to decide what I myself believed about the Trinity or the resurrection of the soul or free will, but in order to decide what I believed about what Milton believed about the Trinity or the resurrection of the soul or free will. And when I did decide about what Milton believed the decision led me not to live my life differently than I had before but to interpret Milton differently than I had before. I might give different answers to questions like, Is the Son a free agent in Book III when he offers to die in place of Adam and Eve, and, Does Milton endorse the idea of the “fortunate fall”? In giving these answers, however, I would be saying nothing about my own relation to these doctrines and it would be perfectly possible for me to talk knowledgeably about them without having any relation to them at all because the knowledge I would be claiming is knowledge of what Milton thought, and not knowledge of a more intimate kind.
Indeed, an intimate (personal) knowledge of Milton’s beliefs is not only not required, it is beside the point. Being an authority on Milton means being able to answer a certain kind of question while knowing that another kind of question is not even to be asked. “Was Milton really inspired by God?” is such a question; it is not debatable within the conventions of Milton criticism unlike the question, “What role does Milton’s claim of inspiration play in his poetry and prose?” which is debated all the time under the professional rubric of “Milton’s muse.” If I am an authority on Milton I am a professional authority, a category that requires me not to share Milton’s beliefs but to be able to describe them. (The same holds for the critic-historian who compares different worldviews; he inhabits none of them.)
The distinction was brought home to me just the other day when I heard a discussion of Walt Whitman on National Public Radio. The discussion leader was a professor of American literature and he was saying the usual things professors say. However, some of those who called in to the show were true believers; they had been carrying copies of Leaves of Grass in their pockets since junior high school and they pulled them out whenever life presented a problem or forced a choice. Those callers “understood” Whitman in the sense of identifying with him, and unless they learn how to distance themselves from that identification, they are unlikely to say anything of interest to a Whitman specialist. A Whitman specialist pulls out his copy of Leaves of Grass in order to make a point, not in order to find a truth to live by. (I am aware that this distinction reinvents the public/private split and that the attendant exclusion of personal views from the public practice of criticism has been forcefully challenged by many under the rubric”and banner”of “personal writing.”)
To be sure, these categories are not as airtight as the previous paragraph may have suggested. A true believer could also be a specialist and the fact of his belief might give him a special purchase on Whitman’s or Milton’s thought. But then again a true believer might be blind to certain aspects of that thought because he was too deep inside it to see its “limitations,” and seeing limitations is one of the things a professional is supposed to do lest he be accused of worshiping what he should be studying. And if there were a true believer who also engaged in the professional practice of seeing limitations he might find his belief diminished by that practice; his faith might be shaken. But on the other side a nonbeliever who spent a lifetime studying Milton’s beliefs might wake up one day to find that he had become so committed to them that he felt constrained to live them out in his daily life; he will have found a faith while looking for something else.
My own thoughts about these permutations (and there are more than I have instanced) tend to coalesce around a moment in a Milton seminar I taught several years ago. The students were discoursing glibly (as my example had instructed them) about some matter or other”the intricacies of Milton’s verse, or the import of his allusions to Virgil”and I without thinking burst out, “No, no, he doesn’t want your admiration; he wants your soul!” Was this a professional comment? Had I crossed a line? Had something happened to me of which I was only dimly aware? Was I in danger (or in hope) of no longer being an authority and becoming something else? God only knows.
Stanley Fish is Arts and Sciences Professor of English and Professor of Law at Duke University, and also Executive Director of Duke University Press. His latest book is Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change (Oxford University Press).