Whatever else we know about the readers of this journal—and, thanks to the recent readership survey, we know quite a bit—we know that you are voracious readers of books. Important ideas, as in thought about “first things,” flow into, through, from, and around books. What better way, therefore, to mark our first ten years than to ask some of our most distinguished writers to reflect on books of the century past that have made a lasting mark? As you will see, the influence of the books discussed is not in every case benign. But they are all important to understanding the ideas for which and against which we would contend.
Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (1953)
By Hadley Arkes
Harry Jaffa has remarked about his late teacher Leo Strauss that he had made it his vocation to stand against the tendency of modernity to reject both reason and revelation. Modern social science and philosophy would insist that we can have no ground of reason to speak of the truth or falsity of moral judgments. And a materialistic science would rule out the claims of a Creator as unknowable by empirical methods, and therefore beyond the domain of things that can be known. Against these tendencies in modernity, Strauss would seek to restore the tradition of classic philosophy running back to Plato and Aristotle; and at the same time he would take seriously again the tradition of understanding running back to the Hebrew Bible. He would stand, then, for the restoration of Jerusalem and Athens.
In Strauss’ reading, Socrates had brought forth political philosophy when he brought philosophy down from the clouds and brought it to bear on the questions of justice that arise in the city. For me, Jaffa finally brought Strauss down from the clouds when he composed his poetic, magisterial book on Abraham Lincoln, which brought the whole tradition of political philosophy to bear on the gravest crisis of the American regime, the Crisis of the House Divided. Between a master and his most devoted student, a wondrous alchemy may come into play; in this case the student came to shape the work of his professor. Strauss’ Natural Right and History shows Jaffa’s influence when it begins by invoking the Declaration of Independence, in its willingness to speak at once of certain moral truths, grounded in nature, and the Author of that nature, the Creator of a moral law universal in its reach. That move by Strauss reflected Jaffa’s deep persuasiveness on the significance of Lincoln and the central issue that marked his mission in our politics. As Lincoln argued, the American republic did not begin with the Constitution; it began with that “proposition,” as he called it, the first principle that “all men are created equal.”
Lincoln recognized that anyone who would try to alter the regime, or the work of the Founders, would have to strike at that central truth, expressed in the Declaration of Independence. In order to justify the enslavement of black people, a large portion of the political class was willing to talk itself out of the proposition that established, for whites as well as blacks, the right to be ruled only with their consent. A nation that talked itself into the rightness of ruling black people without their consent would make itself suggestible to the notion of withdrawing the franchise from certain poor whites as well, until the regime itself was converted into something else. The forms of a republic might remain, while the inner substance would be evacuated.
Just a few years ago, the contributors to that controversial symposium in First Things (“The End of Democracy?”, November 1996) were branded as incendiaries for making that point. But they could not be dismissed as implausible unless Lincoln could be dismissed for making precisely the same point. It was Lincoln’s genius to recognize the centrality of that principle articulated in the Declaration. His adversary, Stephen Douglas, might have provided a pragmatic way of barring the extension of slavery by keeping black people out of the western territories. And yet, the critical point for Lincoln was whether the souls of the American people would still be formed around the understanding of slavery as a wrong in principle, a wrong that could not be absorbed without imperiling, at the root, the right of people to be ruled with their own consent.
The genius of Harry Jaffa was to bring out this substance of Lincoln’s thought, precisely at the time when historians no longer considered Lincoln’s understanding of the Declaration and natural rights to be central, or even relevant, to any account of his life and work. Modern historians are more likely to say with the late Carl Becker that “to ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false is essentially a meaningless question.”
Jaffa’s work also makes clear that an adequate account of Lincoln could be given only by one accomplished in the study of political philosophy. Only someone versed in the texts would recognize that Lincoln, quite on his own, made his way back along the paths of reflection that Aristotle and Aquinas had marked off before him. At the same time, only one attentive to the claims of Jerusalem as well as Athens would notice Lincoln’s deepening of the teaching of the Declaration: the language of self-evident truths, accessible to our reason, reflected the confidence of the Enlightenment in the power of that reason. But as Jaffa pointed out, Lincoln annexed to those claims of reason the piety of the biblical tradition. At Gettysburg, he would speak of the Union as the patrimony given to us by “our fathers.” The principles of the Declaration would become, for Lincoln, our “ancestral faith,” and in his remarkable Second Inaugural Address he would suggest that the Civil War was the blood price being exacted from the country for the sin of slavery, the sin of falling away from that ancestral faith.
Lincoln claimed that Stephen Douglas was doing nothing less than “debauching” the public mind, that his policy reduced to this: “That if any one man choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to object.” And now, as Russell Hittinger has pointed out, our current laws on abortion, fashioned by the Supreme Court, can be condensed in this way: that one person may choose to kill a second, for reasons wholly of self-interest, and a third person may not object. For that killing is now a matter of “privacy.” Once again, a group of human beings may be removed from the class of “rights-bearing beings,” outside the protections of the law.
Some of us, tutored by Jaffa, have been persuaded that the issue of abortion retains its centrality, or its architectonic quality, in our politics precisely because it runs to the same root as the issue that formed the crisis for Lincoln. That is not a question that has engaged the passion of Professor Jaffa, but I take it as a telling sign that one of his most devoted students, Michael Uhlmann—whose commentary appears in these pages—has been one of the most gifted writers on the pro-life side, even before Roe v. Wade made of abortion a putative constitutional right.
Since the time that Leo Strauss posted his warnings, the hold of “relativism” in all its forms has only deepened in the universities and the culture. Jaffa had the wit to recognize that the best path of political resistance was to rally the public once again to the principles of the Declaration, and that the most compelling exposition of those principles would be found in Lincoln. There is fresh evidence every day that students are still stunned, astonished—and then summoned—by the poetic force of Lincoln, and by his burning moral clarity. Jaffa has rescued Lincoln from the moral witlessness of the historians, and in that work of high art he has prepared the ground for rescuing us all.
Hadley Arkes is the Edward Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College.
Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932)
By Matthew Berk
From the 1930s through the 1950s, Reinhold Niebuhr achieved a singular stature among twentieth-century American theologians. The son of a German immigrant pastor, Niebuhr (1892–1971) was not a popular evangelist but rather a philosopher of public life, bringing the insights of biblical truth to bear on the great issues of politics and social ethics. He spoke to and within the Church, but also to a broader educated public. Yet at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Niebuhr seems, at least to his disciples, a classic instance of the prophet who is without honor in his own country. This is not altogether surprising, for despite his stress on the possibilities for improving the temporal world, and, beyond that, his ultimate affirmation of hope and redemption, Niebuhr expressed a profoundly tragic sense of history that runs against the grain of American optimism.
An outspoken progressive and reformer from the start, Niebuhr was nonetheless always unhappy with the sentimentality and pacifism that pervaded the social program of liberal Christianity—especially mainline Protestantism—which (to oversimplify somewhat) sought to correct political injustices mainly through appeals to reason and conscience. In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr broke decisively with this “social gospel” outlook, insisting that power is the principal ingredient in arbitrating the competing claims of nations, races, and social classes. According to Niebuhr, conflict and tension are permanent features of history. While social improvement is possible, the justice of this world is born in strife and is always provisional, fragmentary, and insecure.
Niebuhr’s pessimistic account was based not merely on observation of the world as it is, but also on a theology which emphasized that sin is endemic to the human condition in history. Man, as a creature whose existence paradoxically combines spirit and matter, can sense his own “finitude and fragility” in the universe; annihilation and meaninglessness threaten all of his hopes, achievements, and affections. Thus man is tempted to prideful assertions of his will that provide an illusion of control and meaning. While he can ease his anxiety and pretension through faith in God rather than self, that faith is always imperfect (imperfect faith being, for Niebuhr, the essence of “original sin”). Reason can sharpen ethical sensitivity and practice, but, ironically, it can also sharpen the capacity to rationalize selfishness and the will to power—and, doubly ironic, sometimes both at the same time.
The tendency to rationalize, Niebuhr argued, is especially pronounced in man’s “collective life.” While individuals in their personal dealings often transcend self-interest (hence “moral man”), nations dealing with other nations, or social classes with other social classes, have little or no capacity for self-transcendence (“immoral society”). Nations and classes have limited understanding of the people they harm by their unjust self-assertion; they lack appreciation for the often complicated laws and institutions through which such injustice is perpetuated; and they are more inclined to embrace rationalizations of self-interest than prophetic denunciations. These facts, for Niebuhr, explain why dominant groups rarely yield their privileges except when put under pressure by some countervailing social force.
Niebuhr’s “Christian realism” was not, however, a Darwinian or Machiavellian ethic of pure struggle and the will to power. Niebuhr stressed the relevance of agape, or Christian love, not as a directly practicable political principle, but as the ideal toward which justice strives and the standard of judgment on all political achievements in history. Moral, rational, and religious appeals might be subordinate factors in the struggle for justice, but Niebuhr still counted them as real: if rational and ethical considerations alone don’t make oppressors yield just concessions to the oppressed, they often do enable them to internalize rather than contest reforms once they are established.
Political power is necessary in politics, Niebuhr insisted, but it should be exercised by men and women who possess prudence, self-knowledge, forgiveness, and charity. Equipped with these faculties and theological virtues, they will be better able to fight for justice in a way that makes reconciliation possible. (Lincoln and Churchill were Niebuhr’s models in this respect.) There is already in Moral Man and Immoral Society a hint of the appreciation Niebuhr later developed for the American constitutional system, with its checks and balances and its genius for recognizing—and thereby channeling and containing—society’s inevitable conflicts.
For all that, the realism of Moral Man retains a tragic sense: the fear that struggles for justice can end up being destructive for all parties, that oppressed and oppressor can merely reverse roles, that even a relatively just peace can often sacrifice important values. Moreover, Niebuhr’s realism made it painfully clear that people of genuine good will, whether religious or not, sometimes have to employ distinctly unloving means in the service of love and justice. Most of all, Niebuhr in this book begins to recognize that our fondest hopes and ideals for society must inevitably be frustrated. To seek their enactment in history (or as others would say, to “immanentize the eschaton”) is to fall into utopianism and, ultimately, fanaticism.
What finally prevents Niebuhrian realism from becoming a dark or even cynical vision is the promise of God’s kingdom—and His forgiveness. In history, men and women can only do what is possible within the specific and concrete circumstances of their time. For people to live with this terrible limitation on their moral impulses, Niebuhr thinks, they must believe that at the end of history God will complete, and thus give meaning to, their partial and ambiguous achievements. Perhaps even more important, they must rely on God’s forgiveness to bear the evil and guilt that political action inevitably entails. As in Aeschylus’ tragic drama, the lesser evil may still be so bad that the guilt it brings can be lifted only through divine intervention.
In a sentimental and superficially optimistic culture, such gravitas often seems alien. It is perhaps ironic that Niebuhr’s most famous words, taken from a sermon given shortly after Moral Man was written, were intended as a guide for politics and history more than personal spiritual renewal—yet they have become a kind of national motto for individuals at their extremes: “God, grant us grace to accept with serenity that which cannot be changed, courage to change that which can be changed, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Matthew Berke is managing editor of First Things.
The Humanist Manifestos (1933, 1973, 1999)
By J. Budziszewski
My nomination for the twentieth-century “Must Read” list is not a good book, but a revealingly bad one. When I first began teaching political theory and my students asked about a mysterious document called the “Humanist Manifesto,” I thought I had stumbled across the Southern evangelical version of the Roswell flying saucer myth. That shows the folly of studying philosophy apart from how it plays out in popular culture. My students had heard of the Manifesto because their pastors had read Francis Schaeffer, the Christian apologist who made evangelicals aware of the culture war. Card-carrying secular humanists do exist, I discovered, and there had been not one Humanist Manifesto but two—the first in 1933, the second on its fortieth anniversary in 1973. Finally reading them, I found an epitome of all the fallacies that as a child of mid-century I had ever been taught.
Even more amazing were the lists of signatories, which seemed to include everyone who was anyone: for example, John Dewey, Isaac Asimov, John Ciardi, Alan F. Guttmacher, Andrei Sakharov, Betty Friedan, and B. F. Skinner—the preeminent American philosopher of the first half of the century, a novelist and science popularizer, a poet and Dante translator, the president of Planned Parenthood, the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, the inventor of an idiom for American feminism, and the psychologist who turned behaviorism into a system.
These flaccid committee products make a dull read, but a fascinating comparison: they show how an antireligious worldview became an unofficially established religion but had to stop calling itself a religion to finish the job.
Both Manifestos call for a form of democracy with certain rights, some kind of socialism, and the renunciation of force as a step toward world government. They propose that children and adults be educated in their ideologies, and through the thirties expression “social and mental hygiene” and the seventies expression “altering the course of human evolution and cultural development” they hint at much more. “Social hygiene” and “altering the course of human evolution,” of course, mean eugenics; “mental hygiene” and “altering the course of human cultural development,” indoctrination.
The Manifestos are also naturalistic: they think nature is all there is. Scorning “salvationism” as a distraction from the pressing problems of the present life, they disavow belief in God and call upon human beings to “save” themselves. While holding that traditional Western morality is defective, they are cagey about which commandments they would jettison—except the ones about sex, naturally. The rest of the answer is found in Manifesto II, where we read that ethics is “situational.” This means, of course, that the rest of the commandments must also go.
Manifesto I blazons that humanism is a religion. Not only that, it demands the transformation of all older religions into its vessels. In the future, it boasts, “there will be no uniquely religious emotions and attitudes of the kind hitherto associated with belief in the supernatural”—the “emotions” presumably including wonder, awe, and the sense of the holy, and the “attitudes” including praise, adoration, and humility. By the time of Manifesto II, however, there had been a change. Though it still makes claims about the ultimate meaning of things, it no longer calls its creed a religion. By this time the Supreme Court had begun to ask whether secular humanism is a religion within the meaning of the First Amendment, and Torcasco v. Watkins (1961) even seemed to have provided the answer: “Yes.” Just how this would play out in subsequent cases was uncertain, but for any movement that seeks control of law and education, unequivocal recognition as a religion would spell disaster. The government could no more teach or promote it than Methodism or Roman Catholicism.
The Manifestos both hold up the scientific method as the model for all belief. This is remarkable, because although Manifesto I claims scientific grounding for humanism itself, Manifesto II claims merely that it cannot be falsified—which by its own standards would seem to make it meaningless. The third Manifesto, released just in time for the millennium, is even more defensive, although its triumphalist rhetoric blurs the picture.
Denying that secular humanism is a religion, Manifesto III pins the blame for this calumny on fundamentalists and right-wingers, never mentioning that the first Manifesto said it was a religion. Whining that secular humanists have been “unfairly accused of being unable to provide viable foundations for ethical responsibilities,” it does not even try to explain how there can be any ethics in a universe in which natural forces and objects are all there is. Decrying irrationalism, it fails to recognize that it thereby condemns its own child.
Vanity, vanity. Some movements exhaust themselves only after generations of misspent power. At the moment when its march through the institutions seems complete, this one is already dead. The next century will tell us how far a corpse can walk.
J. Budziszewski is Associate Professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (1949)
By Jean Bethke Elshtain
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and death are powerful witness to what it means to “put first things first.” Although it was never his overriding theological concern to work out the connections between the City of Man and the Kingdom of God, he never confused the two, as became clear when the issue was forced upon him during the dark night of National Socialism in Germany and Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet Union. The menace Bonhoeffer confronted directly was, of course, Nazism. As the vast majority of his countrymen and, shamefully, his coreligionists either made their peace with Nazism or actively promoted its advance, Bonhoeffer first demurred, then resisted, and finally moved into the active opposition that cost him his life.
Were Bonhoeffer among us today, he would insist that his opposition was much easier to understand than was the German obedience and enthrallment with Nazism or the active courting of the Nazi regime by the so-called “German Christians.” Many have seen the behavior of the state-worshiping “German Christians” as the ultimate outcome of Luther’s doctrine of the “two kingdoms.” Luther saw the need for rules and rulers as God’s punishment for human wickedness, and insisted as a consequence that believers ought to obey the rules unless ordered to explicitly deny the faith. Some alleged that this view gave nearly unchecked earthly or “profane” power to rulers. Their domain grew as the Church’s domain shrank. Unsurprising, then, that when the crunch came it was all too easy to capitulate and to see in Hitlerism an avatar of a specifically German brand of Christian particularism.
Bonhoeffer resisted this reading of Luther with all his strength in his unfinished Ethics. He argued that in condemning the state idolatry represented by Nazism, he was acting out of faithfulness to his tradition rather than in opposition to it. He rejected the sort of vulgarization of Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms that holds that there are two spheres, “the one divine, holy, supernatural, and Christian, and the other worldly, profane, natural, and un-Christian.” This reading of Luther’s doctrine, shaped (or deformed) by the Enlightenment’s apotheosis of reason in opposition to faith, finalized the severing of that which was “Christian” from that which was “profane.” The upshot over time was that human beings came to see the worldly domain as one in which they reigned as masters. The roots of totalitarianism lay in uninhibited human striving and willing, in which man begins to adore himself, denies the Cross, denies the Mediator and Reconciler, and has fallen out with the created world.
Bonhoeffer insists that deifying man’s sovereignty promotes Western godlessness. Faithfulness to Luther, rightly understood, requires that we accept our status as creatures whose actions are always partial and limited. We must distinguish the legitimate order of government from perversions which lead that order to overstep its appropriate boundaries. Legitimate government involves responsibility for limited tasks; within its limits and under normal circumstances, we do owe it obedience. But we do not owe government our very selves. The individual’s “duty of obedience is binding . . . until government directly compels him to offend against divine commandment, that is to say, until government openly denies its divine commission and thereby forfeits its claims . . . . If government violates or exceeds its commission at any point . . . then at this point, indeed, obedience is to be refused, for conscience’s sake, for the Lord’s sake.”
Government, then, is neither to be “diabolized” nor idolized. Religious belief always relativizes the claims of public life even as it calls us into stewardship and communal life. To sustain and support this balance, a strong and robust theology is necessary. Such a theology is conservative in the sense of claiming and clinging to what Bonhoeffer, in his prison letters, called the “full content” of the New Testament, for “the New Testament is not a mythological clothing of a universal truth; this mythology (resurrection, etc.) is the thing itself.”
Because Bonhoeffer never penned a full-fledged justification of his refusal to obey the Nazi state and his determination to resist even unto death, he has been turned by too many into a kind of all-purpose resister or radical. This he was not. He was a courageous man and serious theologian who saw such resistance as a tragic exception—a dire necessity—but only when it was clear that this state at this time had, indeed, become diabolical. But each state at any time must be viewed with a skepticism burnished by faith, a skepticism that helps to sustain a certain distance from any center of human power but especially that power lodged in an entity that is, as Max Weber had it, the legitimate repository of the means of violence. The state always bears watching.
Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago.
Irma Rombauer, The Joy of Cooking (1931)
By Molly Finn
I asked my daughter, an accomplished cook and master baker, if she ever uses The Joy of Cooking. She looked at me as if I were crazy. “Of course! I use it all the time.” “What for?” Pause. “If I need to look up a roasting time, if I want to find a certain cupcake . . . .” “Why do you like it?” No pause. “It works. It’s easy to use and there’s a nice helpful attitude. It’s American. It’s old-fashioned.” That just about says it all. Everyone I’ve asked, in my generation and in hers, has given essentially the same answer.
The Joy of Cooking is an American institution. It was the only cookbook chosen by the New York Public Library during its centennial celebration in 1995 as one of the 150 most influential books of the century. Since it was first published in 1931 it has provided encouragement, information, and remedies for kitchen emergencies to countless uncertain brides, college students, experienced cooks, innocents, and snobs. With its excellent index and well-tested recipes, it has been the reference book of choice for those interested in traditional American food.
The best thing about The Joy of Cooking, however, is the voice of its author, Irma Rombauer. She engages in a constant dialogue with her readers, telling stories about herself and her family, sprinkling the text with genuine witticisms and excruciatingly corny puns, and making sure everybody knows that cooking is not an occult science or esoteric art, but part of the everyday work of the vast majority of women (and a few men) that can be turned into fun with her help.
Irma is not perfect. True to her era and the society in which she lived as a highly privileged matron accustomed to having a household staff at her disposal, she is unembarrassed about quoting, in dialect, the quaint sayings of “colored” acquaintances or employees. And the downside of being an American institution is the positively hideous food to be found in Joy. How’s this for a tomato sauce in which to serve hard-boiled eggs: “1 can of tomato soup, undiluted, to which 1 tablespoon of butter has been added.” Or this, identified by Irma as “a winner in the race for time”:
1 can tuna (7 oz)
Use the fish can to measure an equal amount of condensed cream soup
2 tablespoons milk
Season, heat, and serve
Or this, to be found in all versions of the book, including 1997: Golden Glow Salad, a mixture of canned pineapple, shredded carrots, and lemon jello. “Serve with mayonnaise.”
But Irma always redeems her faults with her intelligence and humor. After describing how to eat steamed clams, she says, “This is a bathtub dish.”
About soybeans: “They really need an uplift, being on the dull side but, like dull people, respond readily to the right contacts.”
As a note preceding forty-nine recipes for “variety meats”: “The following is a hush-hush section, just between us girls.”
“The chicken is a world citizen to be found everywhere along with Coca-Cola, the Singer sewing machine, the Christian Science Monitor, and Hollywood movies.”
“When it comes to cooking vegetables, many cooks seem to suffer from arrested development.”
“Henrietta’s recipes made mouth-watering reading. That, as Archie of Duffy’s Tavern would say, is the ‘ipso,’ but the ‘facto’ is that they are almost impossible to follow.”
About using a modernized version of a recipe: “Even a German Cherry Cake rule must bow to the Zeitgeist.”
The Joy of Cooking has always been a family enterprise, and through all the revisions of the work as it changed and expanded from 1931 through 1975 it has been recognizable as essentially the same book. In 1951, for the third revision, Irma’s daughter Marion Becker joined her mother as coauthor, and after Irma’s death in 1962 Marion continued as author through the book’s fifth revision, published in 1975 shortly after Marion’s death. That edition sold about 100,000 copies per year between 1975 and 1997, by which time fourteen million copies of Joy had been sold.
As one might expect, Irma’s voice was the only one heard through the first two revisions and it continued to dominate even in the third, though Marion as coauthor injected her own (sometimes questionable) theories concerning healthful cooking and eating. By the time the fifth revision was published in 1975, the book had come more and more to resemble an encyclopedia, giving “definitive” information on a very wide range of subjects and, in the end, losing most of what made it interesting.
In 1997 the “All-New-All-Purpose” super-duper large-format four-pound revision was published. Thinking that they can find everything they want (or ought) to know about food and cooking in one place, Americans have bought about 1.5 million copies in the two years plus since this edition was published. It’s not appropriate to call this Joy a revision. Except for the title and a few recipes, this book, put together by a team of “experts” and purporting to offer a complete guide to worldwide foods and cooking, has little connection to the Joy of Cooking thousands of Americans know and love.
Here’s a sample of the evolution of the introductory material about potatoes. 1951: “In recent years the mania for girth control has played havoc with the fair name of the potato—bringing ‘insinuendoes’ against it.” 1975: “In recent years, potatoes have been maligned as over-caloric—although they are equal in this respect to the same-sized apple.” 1997: “Potatoes fall into three types. Potatoes containing relatively high moisture and low starch . . . are called boilers.” On salad dressing, in 1951: “Ingredients for good [salad] dressings should be mutually stimulating without incongruities or an individual striving for supremacy of flavor.” 1997: “A salad dressing is best described as an uncooked sauce and, like all sauces, its role is to enhance the flavor of the food.”
The differences between this new Joy and the one published twenty-three years ago reflect the revolution that has taken place in America’s cultural life. Does anybody want to listen to a crotchety, self-confident individual anymore, especially if she might be considered old-fashioned and irreverent about what we can only call food-worship, who doesn’t even have the credentials that have come to be accepted as de rigueur in the food writing/cooking/eating world? The editor of the 1997 Joy says “everybody works for a living now. Cooking has become more of a noble calling. It’s not something you have to do.” And who now wants to do it, in the unpretentious and cheerful way Irma did? Who respects the craft, the humble work of daily life, the universe of home, where “amateur” and “professional” have little meaning? Who cares about all the dimensions of how we nourish ourselves, the geographic, agricultural, economic, and religious traditions that imbue our food with richness and meaning, when they can get a series of formulas, a quick fix on any nation’s specialties? Who will be impressed that Irma Rombauer (who, quite as a matter of course, cites or quotes Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Aldous Huxley, Fred Allen, Saki, and Groucho Marx, among others) lives in a literate universe?
Irma’s voice is gone, replaced by a bland, impersonal, collective presence that lacks what was best about the old Joy: the unmistakable companionship of a humorous, friendly guide. Gone, too, are all the Finn family favorites: the Bunny Cake covered in fluffy white icing with broom straw whiskers and raisin eyes, snuggling into its bed of jelly beans every Easter; the Hurry-up Cake and Butterscotch Brownies, our contribution to dozens of school parties and bake sales; Mincemeat Drop Cookies, a surprisingly delicious way to stretch my green tomato mincemeat. The ice cream chapter, which included more than sixty recipes in 1951, is gone without a trace. Can this be progress?
We’ll have to wait and see whether the youngsters whose introduction to Joy is this lowest-common-denominator compendium are still buying it twenty years from now. In the meantime, keep an eye out for the 1951 edition, my favorite and the one I’ve given my daughters. It crops up regularly in second-hand bookstores.
Molly Finn is a writer living in New York City.
Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (1947)
By Stanley Hauerwas
In 1946, standing amid the ruins of Bonn University, Karl Barth gave the lectures that we now know as Dogmatics in Outline. He lectured without a script, because as he tells us, the “primitive conditions which I met with in Germany made it absolutely necessary for me to ‘talk’ instead of to ‘read.’” In fact Barth says it was impossible for him to be only an academic teacher (which he confesses came easy since he had never been that). But rather he had to be a kind of missionary, Sunday School teacher, and popular orator. Yet the result was and is a beautiful book that witnesses to the God who alone gives us hope that we can live in a world in which war is not assumed to be a given.
First Things, I assume, is committed to the proposition that God matters for all that is matter. That God, moreover, is not just any god, but the God who has made Himself known to us in Israel and Jesus Christ. It is not easy to speak well of such a God in a world that might assume God is but another piece in the metaphysical furniture of the universe. Even the most “orthodox” in such a world often discover that in spite of themselves, their speech about God turns out to be speech that serves to underwrite idolatry. Dogmatics in Outline is Barth’s short, but intense, course in how to speak of God in a world that has lost the habits of faithful Christian speech.
When he delivered the lectures in Bonn, Barth was sixty years old and he was working on the third volume of the Church Dogmatics. Barth lectured extemporaneously, but the words he spoke were ones that could come only from a life of struggle with the Bible. Indeed, one of the attractions of Dogmatics in Outline—in form, a commentary on the Apostles’ Creed—is that it really is an outline of Barth’s much larger Church Dogmatics. In the “Foreword” to the paperback edition of these lectures, Barth expresses some concern that some may try to substitute the reading of Dogmatics in Outline for the Dogmatics. Anyone who would do so he condemns by quoting Paul—”If any one will not work, let him not eat.”
Barth understood that recovering Christian speech is work and it is a work that the world literally cannot live without. The heart of Barth’s theology is the presumption that if we get God wrong, we get everything wrong—our politics, our science, our art, our very lives. Moreover, he thought the wars that had wracked this century were the result of our making ourselves rather than God the beginning and end of existence. Dogmatics in Outline, indeed the whole of the Dogmatics, was Barth’s attempt to help us regain the language adequate to our situation as creatures created to praise our Creator and thus capable of living at peace with one another.
Barth coyly observes, “A Christian Father once rightly said that Deus non est in genere, ‘God is not a particular instance within a class.’” That “Father” was, of course, Thomas Aquinas; and Barth, in spite of his attack on natural theology, knew he shared far more with Aquinas than he did with many Protestant theologians. Barth, like Aquinas, knew that God is God and we are not, and (also like Aquinas) took on the hard task of helping recover the grammar of the God Who is Trinity. Barth thought this work important because it cannot help but force men to speak and live precisely. For to say that “Jesus is Lord” overturns the presumption that we, not God, rule the world.
Consider, for example, Barth’s claim: “Men are timeless when we are without God and without Christ. Then we have no time. But this timelessness he has overcome. Christ has time, the fullness of time. He sitteth at the right hand of God as he who has come, who has acted and suffered and triumphed in death. His session at God’s right hand is not just the extract of this history; it is the eternal within this history.” Accordingly Christians need not leap Lessing’s ditch separating the necessary truths justified by reason from the claims of faith justified only by history and tradition. Our God’s history “is indeed an accidental truth of history.” Our task is not to try to fit God into our histories, but rather to understand the good news that God has made us part of His history.
God’s history, moreover, cannot be told or lived without the living presence of the Jews: “If as Christians we thought that church and synagogue no longer affected one another, everything would be lost.” Barth’s comment about the Jews is not an attempt to “make up” for the destruction of the Jews but rather a reminder to Christians that Hitler’s hatred of the Jews must be read as a judgment on our unfaithfulness to our Lord. Our recognition that our God is the Lord of history requires that we recognize that Jesus was “of necessity a Jew . . . . The problem of Israel is—since the problem of Christ is inseparable from it—the problem of existence as such. The man who is ashamed of Israel is ashamed of Jesus Christ and therefore of his own existence.”
In the midst of his lectures at Bonn, Barth was asked if he was aware that many of the people at the lectures were not Christians. With his usual good humor and the sheer joy he found in theology freely done, Barth responded, “It makes no difference to me.” Theology becomes a burden only when we take our unbelief seriously. Only faith is to be taken seriously—a faith, moreover, that recognizes that “we are not nearer to believing in God the Creator than we are to believing that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. It is not the case that the truth about God the Creator is directly accessible to us and that only the truth of the second article needs a revelation.” In both cases we are faced by the mystery of God and the recognition that our existence is the work of grace.
That God and man have become one in Jesus Christ, however, has made through Christ’s ascension not only the possibility but the necessity of the visible witnesses in the world called Church. Barth knew such witnesses could not help but appear in the world as “strangely human persons.” How could we not but appear strange, believing as we do that we are timeless, if God has not in fact redeemed us in Christ? Just to the extent that those committed to the witness of First Things might be tempted to forget our strangeness, I can think of no better reminder than a yearly reading of Dogmatics in Outline.
Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University.
Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia (1941)
By Alan Jacobs
In the spring of 1936, the British Council invited Rebecca West to lecture in Yugoslavia. Thanks to the rise of the Nazis and the ongoing depredations of Stalinism, tensions were rising in the Balkans—as if they had not historically been high enough. West wrote to an official of the Council that the country would inevitably be “overrun either by Germany or, under Russian direction, by communism; which would destroy its character, blot out its inheritance from Byzantium.” Soon she would realize, if she did not already, that that “inheritance from Byzantium” was also a tense and complex thing, since the Byzantium of Christian Orthodoxy was also the Istanbul of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Here was a land whose past, present, and future placed it always at the intersection of immensely powerful states, empires, and faiths. It was a place, West soon learned, of endlessly fascinating complication, and a place that was gravely endangered.
In the following years she would make two more trips to Yugoslavia, covering every province of the country from Croatia and Dalmatia through Bosnia and Serbia and on to Montenegro. All the time she was writing an account of what she saw, an account that began as an imagined “short book” but gradually transformed itself into one of the largest, most ambitious, and greatest books of the twentieth century. In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, West would combine her three journeys into one, changing names, linking events, and amplifying characters—but also spinning marvelous historical cadenzas. No one has written more compellingly than West about the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, which sparked what then was called the Great War, or about the tragic failure of the Emperor Stephen Dushan, or about the key moment in Serbian history, the crushing defeat of the Serbian people by the Ottoman Turks on the plain of Kosovo in 1389. (In the Vrdnik monastery in the Frushka Gora of Serbia, West saw, still lying in state, the headless body of Prince Lazar, who led the Serbs in that debacle. She touched his blackened and dessicated hand.)
West’s story is in at least one respect a classic tale of the modern world: the encounter of the liberal mind with something much older than itself, something alien to it—something fully historical. She begins her narrative with frequent expressions of her disdain for the Croats, whom she believes sold their precious birthright for the cold pottage of the money and power offered them by the Catholic Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Croats she met were proud of their links with the West, links that in West’s mind (and especially as German expansionism comes back to terrible life) should have been their greatest shame. Her love is reserved for the Serbs, who remained faithful to their Eastern and Orthodox and Slavic roots; she has a kind of Rousseauian passion for their “primitive” attachment to their own history.
But as she goes deeper into Serbia, she sees more and more clearly a side of this attachment that is dark and inexplicable to her. She thinks of a place called the Sheep’s Field in Macedonia, where these people whose “preference for the agreeable over the disagreeable” she loves meet at an ancient stone to sacrifice animals, in hopes of making women fertile. (“But what they were doing at the rock was abominable.”) She thinks above all of the strange fact that Prince Lazar is the greatest hero in Serbian history, not in spite of but because he lost the battle: the prophet Elijah, in the form of a gray falcon, demands that he choose between an earthly and a heavenly kingdom, and he chooses the latter. To the Serbs this is an act of great courage and piety, since the blood of so many of Lazar’s people will therefore be on his hands; to West, it is an abysmal revelation:
“If this be so,” I said to myself, “if it be a law that those who are born into the world with a preference for the agreeable over the disagreeable are born also with an impulse towards defeat, then the whole world is a vast Kosovo, an abominable blood-logged plain, where people who love go out to fight people who hate, and betray their cause to their enemies, so that loving is persecuted for immense tracts of history, far longer than its little periods of victory.” I began to weep, for the left-wing people among whom I had lived all my life had in their attitude to foreign politics achieved such a betrayal. They were always right, they never imposed their rightness. “If this disposition to be at once Christ and Judas is inborn,” I thought, “we might as well die, and the sooner the better, for the defeat is painful after the lovely promise.”
A few years earlier, West had written an angry and sometimes scornful biography of St. Augustine, but here she comes very close to an Augustinian view of the world. She does not, I believe, understand all that she sees, but she sees with a clarity almost unparalleled in this century.
When she finished her manuscript in early 1941, it was almost half-a-million words long. This was unfortunate, because in the midst of the war, paper was being strictly rationed. But West’s publishers, Macmillan of London, seem not to have hesitated: they were utterly compelled by the narrative. As her editor wrote, “Who would not be [compelled] by a book which demonstrated by its argument that the East End of London would not be lying in ruins if the Balkan Christian powers had not been defeated by the Turks in 1389?”
Alan Jacobs is Professor of English at Wheaton College.
C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (1945)
By Phillip E. Johnson
Most futuristic novels seem out-of-date after a decade or two, but That Hideous Strength is more timely today than when the book was published in 1945. On the day I began to reread the book for this essay, the press reported that a British government agency called the Human Fertilization and Embryological Authority (HFEA) is sounding out public opinion about the use of Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis, which will allow parents to screen their embryos for genetic defects. Critics believe that the HFEA has already decided to go full steam ahead with the procedure, and they don’t believe the Authority’s assurances that this technique (and others to follow) will be used only to screen for genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis and not to produce “designer babies.”
My suspicion that the critics are right was bolstered by an article appearing on the Web the same day from the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, titled “What is Immoral About Eugenics?” The article’s bottom line was that the use of genetic technology to produce the kind of children parents want, up to and including “eyebrow shape or freckle pattern,” should be allowed if the parents are not coerced and the children are not thereby disadvantaged. The role of ethics commissions in these situations is mainly to legitimate what the technocrats want to happen—namely, a reengineering of the human genome to improve the breeding stock. And why not, if the existing genome is merely the accidental product of mindless material forces? Since our ideas about ethics or the sanctity of life are also assumed to be products of genetic or brain chemistry, there is no reason to let them get in the way of progress.
In C. S. Lewis’ novel, the technological super-agency is the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (NICE), which is empowered to solve all sorts of social and genetic problems without being bothered by “red tape.” Mark and Jane Studdock are a young childless academic couple at Bracton College, whose faculty’s Progressive Element is willing to sell its woods and its soul to entice the NICE. Mark and Jane’s marriage is unhappy because, like most modern people, they see marriage as a contract for mutual advantage rather than as a sacred union. Mark’s consuming desire doesn’t even involve Jane. He wants to be a big shot, a member of the “inner ring” first at his college and then at the NICE. He gets his chance because he is good at writing propaganda.
The NICE turns out to be demonic in inspiration, and intends to impose upon England a regime of ruthless social engineering that Joseph Stalin would have admired. The apparent “Head” at the NICE’s mansion at Belbury is the head of a guillotined murderer, kept alive with advanced life support systems, but this gruesome object is merely the conduit for orders from the dark powers. Belbury’s human leaders recruit and flatter Mark, but the human resource they really want is Jane. She is a seer, whose visions involve the return to life of the magician Merlin, long entombed under Bracton Wood. If Belbury can unite its materialist magic with Merlin’s old-fashioned kind, it can achieve its dream of freeing the mind from messy organic life. “In us organic life has produced Mind. It has done its work. After that we want no more of it.”
Does that sound far-fetched? Artificial intelligence visionaries are keen to make it a reality. While the biologists make plans to reprogram the human genome, the cybergurus dream of uploading the human mind into advanced computers. Freed of the limitations of biology and possessed of superhuman intelligence, these “spiritual machines” might explore and conquer the cosmos. Or they might not bother to do so, since they could create a virtual reality for themselves that would be better than the real thing. Then “we” would truly be like God. But who is “we”? In real life, as in C. S. Lewis’ fiction, the dark side of the technological utopia is that it implies a huge difference in power between the few who do the programming and the many who are programmed. Belbury’s chief scientist understands that “it is not Man who will be omnipotent, it is some one man, some immortal man.” Those who understand what is at stake pursue a murderous rivalry to gain control of the power to program.
Belbury’s plot is foiled and Mark’s soul is saved when the risen Merlin joins forces with a small Christian enclave that is in communication with heavenly powers. Although magic and miracles play their part, in the end it is more the bravery of decent people and the self-destructive hatred of the wicked that decides the outcome.
To me, That Hideous Strength is a thrilling story that I enjoy more each time I reread it, but I have heard others say that the action is contrived, the characters one-dimensional, and the tone didactic. I suppose you could say the same of Paradise Lost. My guess is that those of us who love the book see it less as a fantasy and more as a realistic description of what eventually happens when people make technology their lord instead of putting their faith and love to the service of the true Creator. Like our modern mind—scientists, Belbury employs materialist philosophy to teach that the human mind and spirit are mere epiphenomena of bodily chemistry. Like our government-funded artists, Belbury uses art to mock the sacred and train the mind to see the perverse as normal. That’s not fantasy. That’s how we got where we are.
Phillip E. Johnson teaches law at the University of California at Berkeley.
Jacques Maritain, Integral Humanism (1936)
By Michael S. Joyce
For many of us coming of age in the early 1960s, our first serious exposure to the notion that “public life is not the first thing”—but that there do exist “first things (principles) for the right ordering of public life”—came in the writings of Jacques Maritain, particularly in Humanisme Intégral (translated by Geoffrey Bles in 1939 as True Humanism; the more recent English versions call it Integral Humanism). He taught us that the human person is both material and spiritual, and can become more than a merely self-interested individual by acquiring and practicing the habits necessary to actualize his humanity. Indeed, man may rise to the heights of reason and purpose latent within his nature, most efficaciously through prayerful communion with other persons under divine guidance.
The best political order, Maritain maintained, would encourage a true humanism reflecting this understanding of the human “made as he is in God’s image and likeness.” All forms of statism, however, tend to stifle the human essence, based as they are on the immoral philosophy of materialism—a shortcoming shared by the truncated kind of secular humanism that reduces man to a partial, isolated, utterly autonomous individual. Integral humanism is cultivated, though, within “revitalized democracy,” wherein “we are confronted with the fact that religion and metaphysics are an essential part of human culture, primary and indispensable incentives in the very life of society.” Maritain’s democracy would respect human difference and pluralism because, following his and our greatest teacher, St. Thomas Aquinas, it would never disparage or ignore the human person on earth, and would recognize the central role played by work, pleasure, and creativity unfolded in the natural associations of family, church, and community.
The insights of these two great teachers led me and many of my fellow pilgrims to be deeply critical of the modern forces that corroded the “mediating structures” essential for the humane ordering of public life. Capitalism in particular—whether manifested in savage markets, an oppressive state, or an imperialist military—seemed especially corrosive and repugnant in theory and practice. With all the intellectual hubris characteristic of young adults, I was convinced not only of my command of the tenets of the philosophia perennis, but also of my ideological and moral goodness. In short, I was firmly ensconced on the Christian left, where also was to be found my teacher Maritain. Or so I thought.
It is often said that it takes at least a decade for new ideas to filter down from the scholar’s pen to the consciousness of common folk. This was certainly the case for me. Sometime in the early 1970s, I came across Maritain’s decade-old Reflections on America. Reflecting his experience of living in America, Maritain confessed that “it took a rather long time for me to become aware of the kind of congeniality between what is going on in this country” and the democracy that he had described earlier. Considering now the “direction of certain essential trends characteristic of American civilization . . . Humanisme Intégral . . . had, so to speak, an affinity with the American climate by anticipation.”
So while I had been peering down contemptuously on the American scene from the heights of moral superiority, my teacher had been learning from his experience in my land. By the time Maritain died in 1973, I was having second thoughts about this self-governing republic of democratic capitalism, and was yearning for a moral defense of it that could rival the left’s moral critique. And along came Michael Novak, among whose many books is The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982), a must read for First Things subscribers.
Novak argued that the descriptions of Americans by both critics and proponents by no means reflect reality. The typical American citizen did not aspire to be “a rugged individual, isolated and alone. To be independent, yes, and also self-reliant. Yet also to be an active member of many communities, to be open to appeals from the needy, to be informed about the world at large, and to care about its problems.” American democratic capitalism in fact cultivated a unique associational or communal spirit that at once freed the individual from the stifling village traditionalism of the past, while encouraging free attachment to “intermediate associations” that would keep the individual from slipping into loneliness and isolation. Associations would cultivate the habits of self-control and other civic virtues essential to counter the corrosive potential of freedom, and would give ordinary citizens the opportunity to develop the God-given human potential so important to Maritain. Beneath the mask that had beguiled democratic capitalism’s friends and foes alike, “the hidden ideal of democratic capitalism is that of the communitarian individual.”
With the editors and readers of First Things, Novak is persuaded that public life is not the first thing, but that there are in fact first things or first principles for the right ordering of public life. Working in the tradition of St. Thomas and Maritain, Novak helped us understand that democratic capitalism is the ordering of public life most congenial to the realization of first things by its citizens. This side of the Kingdom of God, we can ask no more of the political order than the cultivation of the communitarian individual.
Michael S. Joyce is President of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932)
By Leon R. Kass
The urgency of the great political struggles of the twentieth century, successfully waged against totalitarianisms first right and then left, seems to have blinded many people to a deeper truth about the present age: all contemporary societies, the open ones no less than the closed, are traveling briskly in the same utopian direction. All are wedded to the modern technological project; all march eagerly to the drums of progress and fly proudly the banner of modern science; all sing loudly the Baconian anthem, “Conquer nature, relieve man’s estate.”
Leading the triumphal procession is modern medicine, the epitome of compassionate humanitarianism, becoming every day ever more powerful in its battle against disease, decay, and death, thanks especially to the astonishing achievements in biomedical science and technology—achievements for which we must surely be grateful. Yet contemplating present and projected advances in genetic and reproductive technologies, in neuroscience and psychopharmacology, and in the development of artificial organs and computer-chip implants for human brains, we now clearly recognize new uses for biotechnical power that soar beyond the traditional medical goals of healing disease and relieving suffering. Human nature itself lies on the operating table, ready for alteration, “enhancement,” and wholesale redesign.
Some transforming powers are already here. The pill. In vitro fertilization. Bottled embryos. Surrogate wombs. Cloning. Genetic screening. Organ harvests. Mechanical spare parts. Chimeras. Brain implants. Ritalin for the young, Viagra for the old, and Prozac for everyone. And, to leave this vale of tears, a little extra morphine accompanied by Muzak. What? You still have troubles? Not to worry. As the vaudevillians used to say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
Years ago Aldous Huxley saw it coming. More important, he knew what it meant and, in his charming but disturbing novel, Brave New World, Huxley made it strikingly visible for all to see. Brave New World is not a great book, and, in purely literary terms, even the author found it seriously flawed. Yet, in my experience, its power increases with each rereading, and coming generations of readers should—and I hope will—find it still more compelling. For unlike other frightening futuristic novels of the past century, such as Orwell’s already dated Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley shows us a dystopia that goes with, rather than against, the human grain—indeed, it is animated by modernity’s most humane and progressive aspirations. Following those aspirations to their ultimate realization, Huxley enables us to recognize those less obvious but often more pernicious evils that are inextricably linked to successful attainment of partial goods. And he strongly suggests that we must choose: either our misery-ridden but still richly human world, or the squalid happiness of the biotechnical world to come.
In this satirical novel, Huxley paints human life seven centuries hence, living under the gentle hand of a compassionate humanitarianism that has been rendered fully competent by genetic manipulation, psychopharmacology, hypnopeaedia, and high-tech amusements. At long last, mankind has succeeded in eliminating disease, aggression, war, pain, anxiety, suffering, hatred, guilt, envy, and grief. But this victory comes at a heavy price: homogenization, mediocrity, pacification, spurious contentment, trivial pursuits, shallow attachments, debasement of tastes, and souls without loves or longings.
The Brave New World has achieved prosperity, community, stability, and nigh-universal contentment, only to be peopled by creatures of human shape but of stunted humanity. They consume, fornicate, take “soma” and “violent passion surrogate,” enjoy “Riemann-surface tennis” and “centrifugal bumble-puppy,” and operate the machinery that makes it all possible. They do not read, write, think, love, or govern themselves. Creativity and curiosity, reason and passion, exist only in a rudimentary and mutilated form. Art and science, virtue and religion, family and friendship are all passé. What matters most is present satisfaction: “Never put off till tomorrow the fun you can have today.” Like Midas, brave new man will be cursed to acquire precisely what he wished for only to discover—painfully and too late—that what he wished for is not exactly what he wanted. Or, Huxley implies, worse than Midas, he may be so dehumanized that he will not even recognize that in aspiring to be perfect he is no longer even human.
Huxley’s novel is, of course, science fiction. But yesterday’s science fiction is rapidly becoming today’s fact. Prozac is not yet Huxley’s soma; cloning by nuclear transfer or splitting embryos is not exactly Bokanovskification; MTV and virtual-reality parlors are not quite the “feelies”; and our current safe-and-consequenceless sexual practices are not universally as loveless or as empty as in the novel. But the kinships are disquieting, all the more so since our technologies of bio-psycho-engineering are still in their infancy—and it is all too clear what they might look like in their full maturity. Indeed, the cultural changes technology has already wrought among us should make us even more worried than Huxley would have us be.
In Huxley’s novel, everyone without exception is genetically programmed and psychologically conditioned, beginning even before birth, under the direction of an omnipotent—albeit benevolent—world state. Accordingly, for Huxley, it is lack of freedom that will be the major price of engineered “perfection,” including the freedom to be unhappy. But the dehumanization he portrays does not really require despotism or external control. To the contrary, precisely because the society of the future will deliver exactly what people most want—health, safety, comfort, plenty, pleasure, peace of mind, and length of days—mankind can reach the same humanly debased condition solely on the basis of free human choice. No need for World Controllers. Just give us the technological imperative, liberal democratic society, compassionate humanitarianism, moral pluralism, and free markets, and we can take ourselves to Brave New World all by ourselves. If you require evidence, just look around.
In our age of cultural unraveling and dissolving moral agreement, it is heartening that readers are still revolted by Huxley’s picture of the life to which, absent some moral and religious reawakening, our cherished prejudices will take us. While philosophical essays and moral exhortation are today largely impotent, good literature can—at least for now—capture our impoverished imaginations and thus keep the human flame afflicker.
Leon R. Kass is Addie Clark Harding Professor in the College and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.
Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (1977)
By Gilbert Meilaender
War, like the poor, we have always with us. Continued reflection upon warfare is, therefore, one of the first things that must occupy the public life of any people. And anyone needing to engage in such reflection could scarcely find a better place to start than Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. As an opponent of the Vietnam War, Walzer promised himself that he would write such a book, and it transcended the occasion that produced it. Rich with historical illustrations rather than merely hypothetical cases, the book pushes its readers into the complexities of moral judgment. Reckoning with the fact that war is always hell, never falling into the trap of confusing mere violence with force, Walzer tries to think about our responsibilities within that hell—to carve out a moral regime even in the midst of hell.
Central to the morality of war is a tension between two kinds of judgments we make about it: judgments about the circumstances under which it is permissible to wage war, and judgments about what it is permissible to do in the conduct of war. But these two kinds of judgments may sometimes pull in different directions. What if the “good guys” (who have the best of reasons for waging war) seem able to win only if they fight in ways that are not permitted—and thereby become “bad guys”? What then?
Walzer develops the tradition of just war as a deontological tradition—that is, even the good guys are not allowed to do just anything that is necessary to win. Even they must fight justly, and if they do they may sometimes lose. There is no guarantee that truth and goodness will always triumph in human history. Sometimes the good guys must accept losing; they must fight justly, refuse to win by evil means, refuse to let good consequences outweigh evil methods, and bide their time as they wait for another day. That is the first and central response Walzer makes to the tension between the two sorts of moral judgment we make about war.
Nevertheless, consequences do matter. How could they not in politics, a realm in which some accept responsibility for the lives of many others? So Walzer considers the possibility that a time might come when the good guys simply had to win. Why? Because not to win would mean handing over our neighbors not just to an enemy but to an abomination. What kind of enemy would that be? It would, Walzer answers, be a “Nazi-like power,” one that simply had to be defeated, whatever it might take.
In such a moment, which Walzer calls a moment of “supreme emergency,” leaders have, he thinks, little choice but to let the consequences count. They embrace evil and accept guilt because, as political leaders responsible for others, they can do nothing else. They bomb German cities because the Nazi regime must be defeated—though if they bomb them longer than necessary, bomb them even when it would be possible to defeat that regime by morally acceptable (though slower and more costly) means, they have given in too easily and imagined they faced a supreme emergency when they did not.
Some moralists would argue that Walzer would have done better never to develop the notion of supreme emergency, never to accept that there could come a moment when the good guys would have to do evil. For then how can they still be good? Perhaps such moralists are right. It is certainly the central moral issue, and Walzer displays it for his readers with great imagination and force.
But what makes this book a “must read” is that he does still more. Grant, for the moment, the course of his argument. Grant that there might come a time when good—even the best—political leaders might have to dirty their hands in order to defeat an enemy that must be beaten. What then? To answer this question, Walzer reflects upon what he calls “the dishonoring of Arthur Harris.”
After the bombing of German cities had succeeded and the war had been won, Britain needed to find a way to reinstate the moral rules it had—in the moment of supreme emergency—overridden. Walzer interprets the dishonoring of Arthur Harris as such a reinstatement. Harris had directed the British Bomber Command’s campaign of terror against German cities. He had, it is perhaps not too strong to say, been good enough to be on the right side but not too good to do what was needed in Britain’s time of peril.
After the war he expected his reward: public honor. He received none, however, and finally left Britain and returned to his native Rhodesia. By dishonoring him, Britain dissociated itself from what had been done—it reinstated the moral code. We may, Walzer grants, feel that this is not quite fair to Harris, but it may be the best a people can manage.
Notice: the dishonoring of Arthur Harris does not solve the moral problem Walzer has unfolded. In the moment of supreme emergency the laws of war are overridden but not set aside, and those who override them are guilty for doing what they “had” to do. There is, in fact, no moral solution to this problem.
When Walzer reaches for “dishonoring” as a way of reinstating the once overridden moral code, he gropes for something that is better called religious than moral. Though Walzer himself never says so, who can doubt that Arthur Harris is the scapegoat of Leviticus 16—sent off into the wilderness on the day of atonement, bearing the sins of the people?
At the deepest reaches of morality we discover that we need something more than morality itself can offer: expiation. Whether Walzer himself intended it or not, that is where Just and Unjust Wars leads the reader. We see, in the end, what moral reasoning alone cannot accomplish.
Gilbert Meilaender holds the Board of Directors Chair in Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University.
Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)
By Daniel P. Moloney
Hailed by the poststructuralist left, wielded by feminists and fundamentalists alike, and hated by most practitioners of the field it purports to explain, Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is perhaps the single most important work on the nature of rationality since Descartes' Meditations.
To support this assertion, a little background. In the years immediately following World War II, most philosophers of science were logical positivists who believed that science involved two stages: first empirical research, then logical analysis of the results. Experimental science provided the raw data, while philosophers analyzed that data and clarified the theories used to explain it. Any statement that could not be verified by science—“The universe has a first cause” or “God is infinitely wise,” for example—these philosophers considered meaningless. Only by rigorous conceptual analysis and the rooting out of all unverifiable statements could scientists achieve certainty.
In the late 1940s, Kuhn, then a doctoral student in physics at Harvard, was asked to teach a course introducing nonscientists to the practices of science. As he later wrote, “To my complete surprise, tat exposure to out-of-date scientific theory and practice radically undermined some of my basic conceptions about the nature of science and the reasons for its special success.” As a result, Kuhn turned his attention to the history of scientific revolutions—those times when one widely held scientific theory is challenged on a fundamental level by another and eventually replaced. The best-known revolutions are associated with Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein in physics, but equally fundamental revolutions occurred with Lavoisier in chemistry, Maxwell in electromagnetism, and Planck in atomic theory, among others. Kuhn's studies revealed that at the time these revolutionary theories were proposed, there was no rational way to determine which theory was correct.
Although Copernicus simplified certain astronomical calculations by suggesting that the sun—not the earth—was the center of the universe, he did not explain the observed movements of the stars any better than the geocentric theory he opposed. Most astronomers were willing to treat his theory as a mathematical shortcut, a way of looking at reality from a different perspective, but they did not actually subscribe to it as fact. Yet some astronomers, Kuhn found, were also Renaissance Neoplatonists and Neopythagoreans, believing that mathematics was the basis of all truth and beauty. For them, the simpler calculations that Copernicus' theory permitted were enough to make a strong case for its truth. Despite what the textbooks say, it was not the logical consequences of astronomical observations that persuaded the first Copernicans; they believed the new theory because it fit with their peculiar religious theories about astrology and numerology.
Kuhn's own experience as a physicist bore this out. Scientists, like other people, have to make decisions about what projects to pursue and how to allocate their time. Younger scientists have to decide which research projects will get them tenure or grants or control of a laboratory. Older scientists have their reputations to defend. In addition, scientific articles are taken seriously only if published in certain journals, so research is constrained by what the editors of those journals will accept. What the scientific community takes up depends on all sorts of personality conflicts, nonrational prejudices, logistical problems, and what insurance companies call “acts of God.” Kuhn realized that because science textbooks were more useful if they just taught the conclusions and methods of science without all the false statrts and theories discarded along the way, the story science told about itself ignored the ambiguity of its actual practice.
Kuhn thought that these sociological factors explained why scientists would not divide up into the warring schools that marked other disciplines. Most of “normal” science consisted of problem-solving rather than research into fundamentals, because the pedagogy and institutions of science discouraged researchers from questioning the principles of the current scientific paradigm. Moreover, Kuhn argued (and this forever endeared him to postmodernists), a scientist's indoctrination into the reigning paradigm was usually so complete that it affected his observations and experiments. Scientists don't just conduct experiments to collect raw facts, but to prove or disprove some hypothesis. The hypothesis determines which variables to isolate and which to ignore, and they limit the acceptable explanations of the results.
Science is successful because scientists deliberately restrict their vision and their imagination in order to see some particular thing better. Kuhn showed that in doing so science also bound itself to a set of assumptions that it did not even recognize as such. Enough surprising or anomalous results can make the assumptions of a long-held theory visible again, but only if some free-thinking scientist pulls back from his hypothesis long enough to look at the big picture. The conservative culture of science discourages such free thinking as unscientific; Kuhn's achievement was o show that many of the great scientists of paradigms past were “unscientific” by this standard.
The Enlightenment view of reason defined rational arguments as those so clear, and consequently so certain, that no sincere person could reject them without being suspected of perversity. Kuhn showed that, within a paradigm, this view holds most of the time. But brilliant scientists who engage in different research programs based on different assumptions—i.e., who, in Kuhn's terminology, inhabit different paradigms—can have fundamental disagreements without ceasing to be brilliant scientists. We know this holds in other discipines—literary criticism, for example. It is just that we believed that scientific reasoning, reasoning at its best, would not be subject to the same uncertainties. Kuhn, by pulling back the curtain on real scientific practice, showed scientific reasoning to be just a species of dialectic, perhaps more disciplined than others, but not in principle different or indubitable.
The exciting result is that scientific reason can now be seen to be of a piece with the other great forms of dialectical reason in history: the Greek dialectic of PLato and Aristotle and the SCholastic disputationes of Aquinas. All of these marry a high level of logical rigor and an all-out pursuit of the truth with a method that appeals to an entire community to judge which arguments are the most sound. If reason is communal in this way, then Descartes' Meditations and Enlightenment epistemology in general are flawed. Sitting alone in his room, someone might be unable to tell his dreams from reality, but when engaged in a multifaceted discussion with very different sorts of people, one must concede that there is more to the reality he experiences than his imagination can contain. And if reason is communal, then it involves not just information and logic but rhetoric and poetry, charity and sensitivity, self-confidence and mutual respect. Most of all, it involves creating and sustaining a culture of inqiury, a high-level conversation that can include many voices without losing its direction. Kuhn called it a paradigm. Hans Urs von Balthasar compared it to a symphony.
Around here we call it A Journal of Religion and Public Life.
Daniel P. Moloney is Associate Editor of First Things.
Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History (1996)
By Mark A. Noll
The importance of the Christian tradition for the concerns, inquiries, and reflections constituting First Things (the magazine) and “first things” (the substantial reality) is patent. Without claiming an exclusive Christian monopoly over the resources necessary for laboring at the task, it still is the case that for much of the West the lessons, history, and counsels of Christianity remain the most fruitful place to begin an assessment of religion and public life. But not, as it now turns out, only for the West.
Since 1900, while the world’s population has multiplied 3.7 times, the number of identifiable Christians in Europe has increased by a factor of only 1.5 and in North America by a factor of 3.6. By contrast, over the same century the number of Christians in the Pacific islands has multiplied by 4.9, in Asia by 14.8, and in Africa an astounding 38.3 times. Where there were approximately nine million identifiable Christians in Africa in 1900, there are now over 330 million. On the basis of twentieth“century trends, the missiologist David Barrett projects that within thirty years, the number of Christians in Africa and Latin America each will outstrip the number in Europe, while the number of Christians in Africa will approach three times the number in North America.
Such a massive alteration in the geography of Christian adherence has created a burgeoning need to assess prospects of religion and public life from fresh angles”in Nairobi as well as New York, in Buenos Aires as well as Brussels, in Rio as well as Rome, in Hangchow, Hanoi, and Hong Kong as well as Hanover. One would think that such changes would have spawned a raft of thought“provoking books. Such, unfortunately, has not been the case.
To be sure, the number of authors writing seriously about the new demography of the Christian world has grown rapidly to include, among others, Gerald Anderson, Daniel Bays, Kwame Bediako, Edith Blumhofer, Paul Freston, Elizabeth Isichei, Adrian Hastings, Richard Madsen, David Martin, Samuel Moffett, Lesslie Newbigin, Karla Poewe, Lamin Sanneh, and Brian Stanley.
But no one has written with greater wisdom about what it means for the Western Christian religion to become the global Christian religion than Andrew F. Walls, emeritus director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non“Western World at the University of Edinburgh. In The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith , Walls presents in nineteen essays the distillation of a lifetime’s reflection on Christianity’s twentieth“century global transformation.
The book grows from Walls’ experience as a missionary educator in Sierra Leone and Nigeria, his extensive travel around the globe, and his extraordinarily multinational mix of graduate students. It is effortlessly learned, wondrously insightful, and sometimes even whimsically funny. When, for example, Walls arrived in Sierra Leone in the late 1950s, fresh from his theological training as a Scottish Presbyterian, there was no hesitation about setting the curriculum in ecclesiastical history: “The first year was for the early Church; the second, the Reformation; the third, Scotland”after all, what else is there?”
The process of finding out what else there was began almost immediately and yielded over time the reflections that make up this book. Walls’ themes are both historical and theological. By tracing the current movement of Christianity from the post“Enlightenment North to the animistic South, Walls can show how much the twentieth century has resembled the second century, when Christianity moved out from its Judaic origins into the Hellenistic Mediterranean, and also its seventh“and eighth“century experience of northward migration from that Greco“Roman world into the Germanic regions of Europe.
By reflecting on how questions once considered trivial by semitic Christians (like what to think of Jesus’ “natures”) eventually had to be reckoned with, Walls suggests that believers in the West need to wrestle seriously with “new Christians” on such apparently tangential questions as whether long“dead ancestors may also be able to experience the joy of accepting the gospel. At the heart of the book, history and theology converge: Walls argues that precisely as Christianity is “translated” from culture to culture, it reveals its truest nature as a religion of the eternal Word “translated” into human flesh.
First Things began with the editorial assertion that “for the sake of both religion and public life, religion must be given priority.” What Andrew Walls’ The Missionary Movement in Christian History brings to such an agenda is the indispensable reminder that Christian believers should be at home everywhere (because of the Incarnation) and nowhere (because of their longing for the return of Christ). A religion invigorated by that kind of tension is exactly the kind needed to nourish public life”both where Christianity has long been resident and in the many places around the globe where it has only recently found a home.
Mark A. Noll is Professor of History at Wheaton College.
Leszek Kolakowski, Modernity on Endless Trial (1990)
By Robert Royal
Everyone professes to dislike modernity, a characteristically modern stance. We all waver uneasily between what we know to be modernity’s attractions and achievements on the one hand, and its profound, even radical, hollowness on the other. Whatever modernity is, it appears in perpetual transition to something else. Matthew Arnold first and best conceptualized our situation: “Wandering between two worlds, one dead / The other powerless to be born.”
Good guidance in navigating this condition has been rare”too confident in one way, too tentative in another. Hence it is refreshing to turn again to Leszek Kolakowski’s Modernity on Endless Trial. Why this powerful, poised, and beautifully written book did not receive more attention when it was first pub lished is a mystery. Perhaps the neglect stemmed from its pacific intelligence, not easily reducible to any party program, political or religious. Kolakowski describes it as a collection of “semiphilosophical sermons” that explore currently insoluble dilemmas and argue for “moderation in consistency.” But it is much more than that.
To reduce Kolakowski’s multifaceted argument to a few simple points would be a travesty. But it would not be overly reductionist to say that, for him, both our uncertainty and our achievement point to why modern Western civilization is “Christian by birth.” Kolakowski deplores the Enlightenment currents in the West that were too quick to believe that certain truths had been established beyond question. Because of that hubris, Stalinism, Nazism, Maoism, and “other fanatical sects” became inevitable. That many celebrated modern intellectuals fell prey to murderous fundamentalisms reflects both their arro gance towards normal people and their subsequent need to identify absolutely with the downtrodden to justify their own existence.
A different approach is to see the “uncertainty, incompleteness, and unestablished identity” of our world as a Christian contribution to our self“understanding that is to be accepted rather than overcome. Out of that unsettled state, the religious tradition at its best provides us with motivation to know and do better”but also with the recognition that, in this life, perfection is beyond our reach. That tension is uncomfortable because “Christianity constantly strives to strike a stable balance that cannot be achieved.” But if we have learned anything in this bloody century, it is that there is no good alternative to that perpetual striving. We have seen every conceivable experiment at radical human freedom and social perfection, and the results are in: “The utopia of man’s perfect autonomy and the hope of unlimited perfection may be the most efficient instruments of suicide ever to have been invented.”
It is characteristic of Kolakowski that he does not regard a healthy uncertainty as a threat to all truths. In one essay, he asks: why do we need Kant? And his answer is that we have seen too many attempts at disguised moral suicide by Western intellectuals in the name of multiculturalism and other false humilities. Only a universal notion like Kant’s belief in the sacred core of the individual, whatever we think of the philosophical underpinnings of his position, can prevent us from rationalizing away slavery and worse. Kolakowski is no friend to socialism, but he says that socialism could become viable only by accepting something like Kant’s views.
It may be only a personal prejudice, but I believe the heart of Kolakowski’s argument is the chapter “Can the Devil Be Saved?” The title bears a double meaning. Kolakowski thinks we need to remember that Satan is a real being in order to avoid taking evil lightly and falling into a wishy“washy Pelagianism. The danger of the orthodox view is that we may think we can do everything or nothing against evil. But more interestingly, Kolakowski speculates about whether the Devil can be saved in a theological sense, and, if so, what that would do to our sense of the world. If evil will ultimately be transformed, we run the risk of relativizing it even as it occurs. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind and Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man are just two examples of the dangers that lie down this path.
But these dangers are not symmetrical. And that points towards an important feature of the world: “The fact that both affirmation and rejection of the concept of original sin have emerged as powerful destructive forces in our history is one of many that testify in favor of original sin. In other words, we face a peculiar situation in which the disastrous consequences of assenting to either of two incompatible theories confirm one of them and testify against its rival.”
Yet this seemingly undeniable presence of original sin does not leave us entirely helpless. In fact, it provides two benefits. First, it rules out utopian impulses. But, paradoxically, it also spurs us to seek to overcome our errors and limitations, within an overall understanding that we shall not, ever, reconcile all things here on earth short of the Second Coming. Doubt and uncertainty are thus transformed into witnesses to, rather than sources of, imperfection.
The Devil, too, is a source of doubt. Where his existence is acknowledged and a full“bodied Christian response to it is deployed, however, the Devil’s game changes. His very temptations remind us of the truth. Christianity has been recommended to us lately by revolutionaries as well as social reformers. Both groups may be right about the importance of faith for particular situations. But Christian thought is valuable long before we get to making such judgments precisely because it prevents us from assuming too little or too much about our condition. It is Good News both in good times and in bad.
All this seems to me to resemble the general direction of First Things over the last decade as well. May her editors and writers continue that work for many years to come.
Robert Royal is President of the Washington“based Faith and Reason Institute.
J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (1923)
By Walter Sundberg
The American church historian Sidney Ahlstrom once described J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism as “the chief theological ornament of American Fundamentalism.” While fittingly complimentary, this assessment is unfairly restrictive. Machen never cared for the term “fundamentalism.” He thought of himself as no more or no less than an orthodox Christian, confessional Presbyterian, and professor of New Testament, serving at Princeton Seminary until he resigned in 1929.
To be sure, Machen affirmed the doctrine of the plenary inspiration of Scripture. The Bible, he says, is a “true account” of divine revelation whose entire text is insured by the Holy Spirit. But this claim did not make Machen’s theology different from the historic teaching of his church or the heritage of Princeton Seminary. Inerrancy is not the teaching upon which the Church stands or falls. “There are many,” he wrote, “who believe that the Bible is right at the central point, in its account of the redeeming work of Christ, and yet believe that it contains many errors.” While insisting on a biblical basis for Christianity, Machen did not believe, like the stereotypical fundamentalist, that all points of the Bible are of equal importance. How Machen makes his argument concerning what is and what is not of central importance is especially relevant, I think, to the readers of First Things because it speaks to the essence of theological reflection apart from the particulars of religious loyalty.
In Christianity and Liberalism , Machen separates himself doctrinally from a number of Christian groups. He says that premillenialists are wrong to try to map out the specifics of Christ’s return. He rejects the Catholic allegiance to the Pope as the Vicar of Christ as well as the more general Anglican teaching that the office of bishop is a necessary mark of the Church. Against Wesley and Arminianism generally, Machen asserts that the human will is not free to choose salvation. Luther, he declares, was mistaken concerning the Real Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Despite these serious doctrinal disagreements, Machen affirms that those with whom he disagrees are part of the Christian family. While separated over doctrine, they are one in affirming the central object of faith: the exclusive lordship of Jesus Christ.
The denial of the object of faith is, according to Machen, the chief peril of theological liberalism. Liberalism treats historic doctrines, as well as confessional conflict, as the leftovers of a superseded supernaturalism. To be modern, says the liberal, is to interpret the world as a self“enclosed process in which there is no place for divine intervention. It is to understand the phenomenon of religion not as the encounter with an Other, but as the projection of human thought and desire. According to liberalism, the divine means nothing more than a vague feeling of an affirming “presence.” This “presence” symbolizes, like some ancient demiurge, “the mighty world process itself” or “the highest thing that men know.” The content of Scripture is reconceived as the symbolic quest for personhood that is to be judged according to how it advances “the healthy, harmonious, and joyous development of existing human faculties.”
Against such a teaching, all Christians”indeed anyone who respects the fundamental nature of religion”must object. To transform religion into a form of human subjectivity is a deeply hostile act of intellectual hubris that seeks to destroy the authority of religion in public life. This is why Machen declares that “despite the . . . use of traditional phraseology, modern liberalism not only is a different religion from Christianity but belongs in a totally different class.”
One contemporary observer who agreed with this assessment was, of all people, Walter Lippmann. In A Preface to Morals (1929), one of the most highly regarded books of its day and still considered a classic interpretation of American culture, Lippmann, a secular critic and nonbeliever, took the side of Machen in the debate against theological liberalism. To separate the ideas and values of Christianity from external events goes against the fundamental nature of religious belief, Lippmann argued. “There is gone that deep, compulsive, organic faith in an external fact which is the essence of religion for all but that very small minority who can live with themselves in mystical communion or by the power of their understanding.” Because Machen understands the essential connection between religion and historical externality, he “goes to the heart of the matter.” Thus Lippmann judged Christianity and Liberalism one of the most important books of the decade following the Great War. Seventy years later, and for precisely the same reason, the book retains its importance.
Walter Sundberg is Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided (1959)
By Michael M. Uhlmann
Harry V. Jaffa has few peers as a student of the American Founding and none as the expositor of the Declaration of Independence and the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln. He first established these credentials forty“one years ago with the publication of Crisis of the House Divided , which is, simply stated, the best commentary on American politics written in this century”indeed, since the death of Lincoln himself. Dismissed by the left as irredeemably unenlightened, and criticized by many on the right as suspiciously egalitarian, Jaffa has responded to both by arguing that the case for constitutional government cannot be understood or sustained without affirming the truths set forth in the preamble to the Declaration. The only alternative, he contends with eloquence and at times passionate intensity, is tyranny, whether of the few or the many.
The immediate purpose of Crisis was to refute diverse revisionists who asserted that Lincoln led the nation into an unnecessary civil war. Jaffa identified these scholars’ unexamined historicist premises, by virtue of which they either refused to take seriously Lincoln’s arguments concerning the Declaration’s principles or rejected outright the truths it proclaimed. Jaffa countered with an elegant philosophical and historical exegesis of Lincoln’s thought, beginning with the Lyceum Speech of 1838 and culminating in the celebrated debates with Stephen A. Douglas during the Illinois senatorial campaign of 1858.
A negotiated settlement of the slavery controversy, Jaffa argued, was no longer possible in the 1850s”not because Lincoln’s rhetoric had removed the ground of compromise, but because proslavery advocates had begun to insist on the rightness of slavery, whence it would follow that Congress had not only the right but the duty to protect their interests. Chief Justice Taney’s error in Dred Scott , Jaffa contended, lay not in recognizing that the Constitution had made certain practical compromises with slavery, which it certainly had, but in insisting that blacks possessed no rights that the white man was bound to respect. Once that proposition got itself embedded in constitutional understanding, the principles of the Declaration would become a nullity, marking the end of the American experiment in self“government. Lincoln merely articulated what was already implicit in the logic of the 1850s: the American people would have to affirm or deny the truth that all men are created equal, but they could not affirm that truth and at the same time agree with Douglas that majority will was the summum bonum of the Constitution.
By refocusing attention on the importance of natural rights in Lincoln’s thought, Jaffa at once corrected the historical record and sought to reestablish the centrality of the Declaration in the American constitutional order. The Declaration, in Jaffa’s view, is neither an abstract philosophical treatise nor a rhetorical set piece designed to mask or elevate baser motives. It is rather a living testament of political faith”one that in articulating the moral ground for government by consent also limited the powers of governments thereby created. It ratified not only the prescriptive rights of English subjects, but the sovereign right of all men everywhere to secure through government their divinely endowed rights. The Declaration was the summary document par excellence of the Founders’ political teaching, but was hardly unique in its sentiment; its antecedents and echoes are to be found in numerous contemporaneous American charters, pamphlets, sermons, and legal commentaries. Redolent of biblical understanding as well as natural theolo gy, the Declaration provides the ordering principle by which the American people became “We the Peo ple” of the Constitution.
In Crisis and in a series of books and articles written in the years since its publication, Jaffa has argued that the crisis of late“twentieth“century America, although lacking the immediate intensity of the slavery controversy, is morally analogous to it. Common to both is the rejection of natural rights. Douglas’ statement that he didn’t care whether slavery was voted up or down in the territories, but only whether the sense of the majority was free to work its will, is philosophically indistinguishable, says Jaffa, from arguments advanced today on both the right (e.g., by Robert Bork, William Rehnquist, and Antonin Scalia) and the left (e.g., by defenders of abortion). Jaffa rejects the jurisprudence of the so“called “living Constitution,” but he understands, in ways that Bork, Rehnquist, and Scalia apparently do not, that simple majoritarianism is no cure for the vice of judicial usurpation.
In this, he stands as one with John Paul II, who has affirmed that the principles of the Declaration, rightly understood, embody the distilled wisdom of both reason and Revelation on the moral rationale for human government. Once positive law is separated from the moral argument of the Declaration, both men have said, one not only invites tyranny but severs the connection to the divine.
Michael M. Uhlmann is Vice“President for Public Policy Research at the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
Flannery O'Connor, The Collected Works
By Robin Darling Young
The author of The Violent Bear It Away was a violent woman. Sitting quietly in front of a typewriter in faraway Milledgeville, Georgia, supplied with the eyesight of a bird of prey, Flannery O’Connor used her best instruments, insight and poetic expression, to force her characters right up to the edge of the artistic abyss. On the edge of the cliff, gesturing exaggeratedly to us, they are just one degree away from caricatures, often uttering words just this side of ridiculous, comic in their tragic devices and desires. They stalk their way through this visible world while the invisible one, the realm of grace, bears down on them with a mercy that often leaves them mortally wounded. O’Connor’s stories and novels shocked her readers; her essays and letters show that this gave her no small pleasure. Mortal illnesses require strong medicine, and she was delighted to apply alcohol and the knife where her contemporaries’ sickness was most malignant. Her intelligence told her that the sentimentally religious were often the sickest. If it weren’t for the Church and its sacraments, she wrote, she would have become “the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw.”
If categories are invoked, O’Connor is readily identifiable as a Southern and Catholic writer. To consign authors to the categories of the regional and religious is usually to diminish them by convenience; fortunately O’Connor’s writing defies diminution, because she wrote of the cities of God and man with a consciousness filled by something larger than merely a religious view, or a worldview, or a tradition. Her voice sounded a particular note, her eye saw and her hands crafted tales that told particular stories of the country to which she truly belonged”in the words of a contemporary author, John Casey, “that historical glacier the Church.”
That is why it is not wholly correct to say, as the dustjacket of the otherwise excellent Flannery O’Connor: The Collected Works (Library of America, 1988) does, that O’Connor “in her short lifetime . . . became one of the most distinctive American writers of the twentieth century.” O’Connor was an American writer only in a highly qualified way. No one with a passport from the una sancta can wholeheartedly embrace the American project of liberal commercialism, or why would O’Connor have made old Hazel Motes say, “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified”? The novel wherein Motes stalks ( Wise Blood ) takes him from his Church Without Christ, run out of his Essex automobile, to the self“inflicted blindness that gives him real sight. This theme”the paradox of faith that requires eyes to see what can’t be seen with human eyes”took O’Connor from her first novel to her last short story, “Parker’s Back,” written shortly before she died in August 1964. (In that story, Parker’s icon of the face of the God“man, tattooed on his back, drew the rage of his furiously, stupidly religious wife, who drove the idolater from the temple of her clean“swept house.)
O’Connor was often asked not only why her stories were not “nice,” but why she did not write apologetical fiction in order to promote Catholic dogma directly. She wrote to a friend, “The best of [my religious readers] think: make it look desirable because it is desirable. And the rest of them think: make it look desirable so I won’t look like a fool for holding it. In a really Christian culture of real believers this wouldn’t come up.” O’Connor was intrigued, but not deceived, by the religiosity of Southern Protestants and of Catholics who lived in the prewar South in a kind of diaspora. The South, she remarked, was not Christ“centered; it was “Christ“haunted.” All her characters reveal the uneasy conscience of a post“Christian South contented by the consolations of religion and caste. (To Mrs. Turpin’s warbling thanksgiving to Jesus for “making everything the way it is” in the short story “Revelation,” O’Connor has a truculent young woman respond, “Go back to Hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”)
The last thing O’Connor wanted to apply to the proud, unknowing desolation of American culture was a moralizing potion. To “A,” a beloved friend whose later apostasy grieved her, she remarked, “All these moralists who condemn Lolita give me the creeps. Have you read Lolita yet? I go by the notion that a comic novel has its own criteria.”
With such first principles, she could equally have been writing of her own work, comic in the sense that the last, happy word about the tragedy of human life comes from beyond it, as it does in “The Enduring Chill” to Asbury, delirious with undulant fever and staring at the pattern of a bird on the ceiling: “A last impossible protest escaped him. But the Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued, implacable, to descend.”
Robin Darling Young is Associate Professor of Theology at the Catholic University of America.
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
By Carol Zaleski
Alfred North Whitehead put it best: William James is “that adorable genius.” The Varieties of Religious Experience is not his best book”although there is matter for delight on every page”but it is our best book about religious experience, our best defense against skeptics, and our surest incitement to a genuine public dialogue about the significance of personal religious experience for our common life.
The Varieties is the text of James’ Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion, delivered in 1901 and 1902 at the University of Edinburgh. Already suffering from the heart problem that would take his life in 1910, James was nearly done in by the effort of collecting the two hundred personal narratives that make the work a thick stew of “facts of experience” rather than a genteel consommé of philosophical speculation.
Partly an act of filial piety (James was conscious of having underestimated the spiritual impulses of his Swedenborgian father, Henry James, Sr.), the work was also a continuation of his study of unusual states of consciousness (in The Principles of Psychology and the Lowell Lectures on “Exceptional Mental States”), a sequel to the 1896 lecture on “The Will to Believe” in which James championed the legitimacy of religious belief against W. K. Clifford’s naysaying, and an early manifesto for the pragmatism that is (for better or worse) the quintessentially American contribution to philosophy.
James begins the Varieties by clearing away intellectual obstacles. In his own day, it was fashionable to explain religious excitability as a form of autointoxication brought on by disordered digestion or nerves. (One thinks of Scrooge telling Marley, “There’s more of gravy than of grave in you.”) “Medical materialism,” as James calls it, “finishes up St. Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic . . . . Carlyle’s organ“tones of misery it accounts for by a gastro“duodenal catarrh.” As the founder of the first psychology laboratory in America, an anatomist, and a sufferer from neurasthenia himself, James would be the last to deny the importance of physiological factors. But, humane Darwinist that he is, he is unwilling to discount mystical insights, whatever their source: “For aught we know to the contrary, 103 or 104 degrees Fahrenheit might be a much more favorable temperature for truths to germinate and sprout in than the more ordinary blood“heat of 97 or 98 degrees.”
Today one is more likely to hear religious experience explained as the product of changing cultural fictions about gender, power, and selfhood; but the principle is the same. After one has counted up all the predisposing factors, James tells us, the real work of interpreting religious experience has just begun.
My students love the Varieties because they hear James making personal experience the arbiter of truth, rejecting institutions and dogmas, transforming religion into therapy, and indiscriminately validating everything from astrology to zazen. This is a common misreading of the Varieties for which James himself is partly to blame. He delineates his subject as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine,” and ends his lectures by observing that “the axis of reality runs through the egotistic places.” He delights in crackpot visionaries and defends their claims against more sober academic theologians, the “closet naturalists of the deity.” He draws a convincing picture of conversion experiences in which grace suddenly supervenes upon despair (psychologically interpreted as a gift from our “extra“marginal” consciousness), thus making sin and redemption plausible to a generation that knows only addiction and recovery. He is so warmly sympathetic toward the religious testimonies he presents”from the relentlessly cheerful affirmations of the mind“cure movement to the metaphysical reveries of nitrous oxide mystics”that one can miss his criticisms.
But the criticisms are there. James indicts the “religion of healthy“mindedness””grandpa to the New Age”for its shallowness in denying the reality of evil. He points out that the merely interruptive peak experience yields no spiritual benefit. Indeed, the whole of the Varieties is an exercise in the art of testing the spirits. Drawing upon Jonathan Edwards’ Treatise on Religious Affections , and thus inheriting a tradition of discernment that goes back to Cassian and the desert fathers, James proposes evaluating religious experience by its “fruits for life,” taking as our criteria “immediate luminousness, . . . philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness.”It was from the Varieties that Bill W., cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, learned not to put too much stock in his mystical “hot flash,” but to emphasize instead the lifelong process of conversion within a fellowship.
The Varieties ”with its individualism, privatism, and subjectivism”has been read as a catalogue of all that is wrong with our culture. But James’ brand of individualism is very different from our own. It presupposes a more robust sense of intellectual and cultural community than most of us have experienced. James sees himself as a public philosopher whose mission in the Varieties is “to redeem religion from unwholesome privacy, and to give public status and universal right of way to its deliverances.” He is a genius at friendship and at no“holds“barred argument, waging decade“long battles with Royce, Bradley, Pierce, and others without losing their goodwill and love. If we could hold such arguments today, then we would know that we were well on the way to a cure for our cultural disintegration and anomie.
James fails to appreciate fully ecclesial forms of faith, but at least he never definitively rules them out. His great contribution is to make religion a live option for those estranged from traditional faith. Never at home in the Christianity of his ancestors, James nonetheless manages in the Varieties to keep the door open for orthodoxy, for supernaturalism, for moral conviction, and for the kinds of religious engagement that make a real difference in the public square.
Carol Zaleski teaches philosophy of religion at Smith College.
John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994)
By Philip Zaleski
There has never been a book like Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Popes teach, exhort, pray, serve; they issue encyclicals, bulls, and apostolic letters; they most emphatically don’t write best-sellers. True, this century’s pontiffs have not entirely ignored the halls of literature. Leo XIII wrote Latin verse celebrating both traditional Catholic motifs and modern technology. (“Sun“wrought with magic of the skies / The image fair before me lies,” begins “Photography,” a typical effort.) Pius XI penned Climbs on Alpine Peaks , an energetic account of his mountaineering adventures. (“We wished to avenge ourselves for our failure on Mont Blanc two years before.”) John XXIII kept a diary published posthumously as Journal of a Soul . John Paul I left us Illustrisimi , an amusing collection of letters to Dickens, Pinocchio, and other famous figures.
And that, at least until a few decades ago, comprised the sum total of modern papal contributions to the world of books. The twentieth century’s nine Popes, like most of their predecessors, kept their authorial ambitions under wraps. That is, until the advent of that literary cyclone known to the world as John Paul II.
It’s difficult to determine just how many books this Pope has written. George Weigel’s Witness to Hope lists twenty by Karol Wojtyla and thirty“six by John Paul II, but some of these volumes are collections of talks or letters and thus not authored books, properly speaking. What we can say for certain is that a torrent of writing that has included philosophy, theology, poetry, prayers, and plays, as well as encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, apostolic constitutions, and apostolic letters, continues to flow from his generous pen. From the standpoint of ecclesiastical history, the culmination of this vast literary output”carried on in the midst of staggering duties as priest, bishop, archbishop, cardinal, and finally Pope”may well be three of John Paul II’s latest encyclicals: Veritatis Splendor (1993), Evangelium Vitae (1995), and Fides et Ratio (1998). From the standpoint of popular interest, however, the apex is surely Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994).
What is it about this book”cast in the form of written questions from Italian journalist Vittorio Messori and written answers by the Pope”that leads so many to treasure it? The reasons, as one might expect, are manifold. As I discovered when I used it last year in a college seminar for first“year students, Crossing the Threshold of Hope is a splendid distillation of Catholic thought, the Catechism in miniature, the essential teachings of the world’s largest religious body distilled into 244 elegant pages.
But catechetical summaries, while often valuable, are not unique. This book’s originality lies elsewhere, in the Pope’s willingness to roll up his sleeves and engage in deep, direct conversation with the modern world. He ranges through anthropology, cosmology, Christology, eschatology, psychology; communism, socialism, missionary activity, ecumenism; the thought of Levinas, Eliade, Marx, Buber, Rosenzweig. There is not a whiff of dilettantism here. The Pope has immersed himself in these thinkers (one remembers that he entered one of the 1978 Vatican conclaves with a book of Marxist ethics tucked under his arm), and what emerges is an invaluable effort to measure the last half“millennium, and our century in particular, against the eternal truths of God. Always the Pope subordinates politics to culture, culture to cult. The foundation and final measure remains God, whose action “passes through the heart of man and through the history of humanity.” I don’t know if John Paul II has read the mission statement of First Things, which states that “the first meaning of First Things is that, for the sake of both religion and public life, religion must be given priority,” but I suspect that he would heartily approve.
The book crackles with a vitality that, twenty years into his papacy, one takes for granted with John Paul II. One finds this energy in the declaration that began his reign and begins this book: “Be not afraid!” One finds it in the exhilaration that courses through the text, the sense that totalitarianism and atheism are on the run and that the future brims with hope for Christians, indeed for all men and women of good will. One finds it in the Pope’s bold overtures here toward the Church’s traditional enemies, as when he speaks kindly of Islam even while some Muslims continue to persecute Christian missionaries. One finds it, too, in his willingness to speak his mind at the expense of controversy, for instance in his remarks about Buddhism’s “negative soteriology” or in his insistence upon separating Jesus from all other religious figures: “If he were only a wise man like Socrates, if he were a ‘prophet’ like Muhammad, if he were ‘enlightened’ like Buddha, without any doubt he would not be what he is. He is the one mediator between God and humanity.”
Above all, however, this book haunts its readers because at its center lies the mystery of the papacy. It is difficult to read it without the impression that when the Pope speaks, the other 264 occupants of the Holy See speak with him. One senses, to get right to the heart of the matter, the presence of Peter. The text radiates an authority quite different from that of an encyclical or other official teaching document: it has a power grounded not only in the office but in the man who fills it, in a life lived close to eternal verities. John Paul II speaks here of the blood of the martyrs as “the foundation of a new world, a new Europe, and a new civilization.” It is not too much to say that his own long reign as Pope”in its own way a slow“motion martyrdom, an era of prodigious labor, great suffering, and glorious vitality”has also contributed, not least through this marvelous book, to laying the foundation for this new world and for its bounty, the civilization of love.
Philip Zaleski teaches religion at Smith College.