Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Laughing Matters

I am gratified that much of my assessment of Kierkegaard’s humor is confirmed by a critic as distinguished and rigorous as David B. Hart (see “The Laughter of the Philosophers,” January).

In his critique, Mr. Hart has focused intently on a single sentence concerning the gauntlet that the book lays down, which is simple and explicit: “Bundle together any other ten philosophers who have made a major impact in the history of philosophy. I challenge any reader to assemble a selection of humor from all of them put together that is funnier than what you find in this volume of Kierkegaard.” What I intended as a provocative metaphorical goad, Hart took literally as a definite and categorical challenge, which I welcome. Whether his candidate, J. G. Hamann, has indeed had a major impact on the history of philosophy, or whether he in fact is a philosopher, Hart himself debates. It is only when someone produces a book on the humor of Hamann (plus nine other philosophers) that by some form of common consent exceeds The Humor of Kierkegaard that the question of who is the funniest can begin to be settled. Meanwhile the gauntlet remains down.

Against Kierkegaard’s light-hearted charge that latitudinarian Danish Christendom has become something like a “‘Christian’ whorehouse,” Mr. Hart surprised me by going so far as to argue that indeed “there are ‘Christian’ whorehouses.” This made me want to learn a lot more than I presently know. It is dubious that such Kierkegaardian analogies are more vitriolic than Mr. Hart’s own favorite whimsical anecdote about Schopenhauer throwing an old lady down the stairs. Which is funnier is a question of aesthetic assessment about which reasonable persons can disagree.

I have made entirely clear my sole criterion for making these selections: Are they funny to me? What other criterion would have been possible to an anthologist of humor? I leave it entirely to others to judge whether portions of the book are funny. I respect their judgment and hope they will recognize mine as a feeble attempt to do justice to the task, however necessarily subjective it is. From the outset I warned my reader that many of these episodes are “merely a droll analogy, witty reasoning, or a ridiculous metaphor.”

Hart would have preferred a shorter volume. Many seasoned Kierkegaard readers have a favorite story and would have been outraged had I left it out. I did not include every anecdote but preferred to err by amplitude rather than by paucity.

Thomas C. Oden
Department of Theology Drew University Madison
New Jersey

For the sake of a Christianity that is philosophically informed and exploratory, I strongly protest David B. Hart’s comments on Immanuel Kant in the January issue of FIRST THINGS. Mr. Hart dismisses the texts of Kant’s philosophical maturity, presumably including all three Critiques, as well as the Prolegomena and the Groundwork , on account of their “sublime spiritual sterility.” It is hard for me to believe that Mr. Hart has ever read these works with any care, if at all. He has almost certainly not read Karl Jaspers’ little book on Kant, nor has he, even though an Eastern Orthodox theologian, apparently paid much attention to the writings of Nicolas Berdyaev. Although not a Christian by profession, Jaspers’ philosophy was Christian in many of its tenets, and he was also systematically Kantian. Jaspers’ book on Kant brings out the Prussian philosopher’s rich spiritual resources. Berdyaev, whose writings seem to me quite the opposite of spiritually sterile, admired Kant above all other philosophers, and he counted himself, at least at times, a Kantian (and at the same time, of course, as Christian). It goes without saying that the bearing of Kant’s philosophy on Christianity is open to debate. What is not open to debate, however, is the relevance of that philosophy to spiritual concerns.

Mr. Hart also considers Kant to be “the most boring man ever to darken a wigmaker’s doorway.” This presumably is due to his being so sublimely spiritually sterile. I grant that Kant was not a gifted or graceful writer. I grant, too, that reading him is hard, and sometimes exasperating. Need I point out, however, that his impact on writers and thinkers ever since the publication of The Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 has been explosive? He has no doubt misled some of them, whether wittingly or not, but he has not bored them.

I don’t feel that statements so uninformed and unthinking as Mr. Hart’s should be published in a serious intellectual journal. But perhaps I am just lacking a sense of humor. That this is the case is perhaps indicated by the fact that I do not find “amusing” the story of Schopenhauer’s throwing a cleaning woman over a balustrade to the landing below.

Glenn Tinder
Lincoln, Massachusetts

In “The Tangled Web” (Public Square, November 2001), Richard John Neuhaus referred to Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians as an “effetely sneering exercise in debunking one’s betters.” I was reminded of that as I read David B. Hart’s “The Laughter of the Philosophers.” Here we discover that Kant was “the single most boring man ever to darken a wigmaker’s doorway” and that his Critique of Pure Reason is “nearly as fanciful, silly, and diverting as Alice in Wonderland ,” that Hegel possessed a “grindingly pompous soul,” that Derrida was insufferably self-infatuated, that Kierkegaard’s contribution to philosophy is “dubious” and his understanding of Christianity “disastrously false,” and that Isaiah Berlin was “one of the twentieth century’s most indefatigably fraudulent intellectuals.” Perhaps as he flounders in such deep waters, Mr. Hart’s struggles for breath become raspberries. But why would FIRST THINGS publish such tripe?

Ben M. Carter
Irving, Texas

David B. Hart is appealingly hopeful about those who, while themselves undedicated to Christ, may yet be haunted by the love of Christ communicated to them through the signs and symbols of a once-Christianized society. But he is still too quick to exclude the legitimate place of shrillness in the community of the lapsed or the lazy. (From within the Orthodox tradition, one thinks of the almost unbearable urgency of St. Symeon the New Theologian.) As for Mr. Hart’s attack upon Kierkegaard’s Attack Upon Christendom , it seems that for all of Hart’s interest in gnomic communication, he takes Kierkegaard a bit too straightforwardly here. For one thing, this particular work was never meant as a complete statement upon Christianity in the world. One need only read Kierkegaard’s journal to see this. Nor was it intended as an object for pure contemplation (let alone entertainment). It was a self-consciously hyperbolic wake-up call, a “shock-book.” To judge it according to the criteria Mr. Hart employs is to detach it from its context.

Would one object to the Prophet Amos because he was shrill in denouncing empty liturgical show? Should Kierkegaard, too, have been more spiritually advanced”somehow”than to get himself all worked up over hypocrisy? Mr. Hart’s hero of faith, Hamann, may have been beyond such things. Scripture, though, along with the bulk of the patristic and canonical tradition, is shrill and tiresome rather more in the manner of Kierkegaard.

Will Cohen
Doctoral Candidate in Theology Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C.

David B. Hart’s article was an essay in praise of J. G. Hamann disguised as a review of Thomas C. Oden’s book. The author expresses such antipathy toward Kierkegaard’s thought that one wonders why he would agree to review a work on Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard’s humor is said to be tiresome, his philosophical contributions dubious, his understanding of Christianity false in significant respects, his critique of another’s philosophical positions obvious at best, his assault on “Christendom” barren and unsubtle, and his presentation of the Christian paradox a meretricious and misleading appeal. Have Hart and I read the same author? (I, too, am a believer.)

According to Mr. Hart, Hamann, not Kierkegaard, deserves the title of “most amusing” philosopher. Kierkegaard turns out to be an epigone of Hamann and only questionably a humorist. Meanwhile, Thomas Oden’s book is damned by faint praise.

But not to worry: Kierkegaard can be enlisted in Thomas Oden’s defense. And as usual he has the situation well covered in his own astute (and humorous) way:

A reviewer he cannot properly be called, but the whole episode, like many earlier ones in literature, reminds me of what one sees in daily life. On market day, the farmer drives in with his wares; he has them carefully packed in clean wrappings; he is already happily anticipating that when he opens up, everything must look clean, inviting, and tempting to the buyers. But the buyer does not come first. No, first come three or four loathsome marketplace loafers who paw and tear at the wares and soil the clean meat with their loathsome handling. This reviewer can best be compared to that kind of marketplace loafer; they have not only loathsomeness in common but also their aim: to earn a little drink money”by carrying home and by reviewing.

Or did Hamann say this also? And better?

Robert B. Scheidt
Van Wert, Ohio

David B. Hart describes Hegel’s philosophical prose as “leaden, caliginous bombast.” But there is another Hegel, possibly influenced (like Kierkegaard) by Hamann, who is tremendously witty and an able competitor with Kierkegaard. This is the Hegel who says that Kant, whose Critique of Pure Reason asks us to understand reason before trying to use it, is like the “scholastic who wanted to learn to swim” before getting in the water; who says that Kant’s description of the cosmological proof for God’s existence as a “nest of contradictions” applies best to Kant’s own moral philosophy; who compares emotivist philosophers to those about whom the Psalmist says “God gives them wisdom in their sleep” (and thus what they produce is only dreams); who characterizes the “Absolute Idea” of Schelling as the in which all cows are black” and an “infinite abyss” into which all concrete content vanishes; who advises those who wonder whether they can really know sense objects to consider the wisdom of brute animals, who don’t stand paralyzed before sense particulars but just “gobble them up”; and who speaks about the humor of nature, which “combines the organ of its highest fulfillment, the organ of generation, with the organ of urination.”

Howard P. Kainz
Philosophy Department Marquette UniversityMilwaukee, Wisconsin

David B. Hart replies:

The danger of writing an ostentatiously opinionated piece, and of using flippancy as a means for securing a few cheap laughs, is that the objects of one’s irreverence are often the objects of others’ sincerest devotion. That said, I remain largely impenitent regarding this article, principally because I do not believe”nor do I think it legitimate to conclude”that every unflattering remark made about some aspect of a philosopher’s work or personality is equivalent to a complete rejection of that philosopher. Of many of the figures I mock, I am both an admirer and a student.

Thomas C. Oden is correct to defend his selection from Kierkegaard’s works; I remain firm in my opinion”which is of course a purely subjective judgment”that the volume contains many passages that are not very amusing, and some that are not meant to be. It is an excellent selection for all that, and gives me yet another reason to admire Professor Oden’s scholarship. As for my remark about Christian whorehouses, it was”in context”clear enough I think; in case I am wrong about this, however, please be assured that I was not attempting some devious defense of illicit entertainments. It was, I should mention, the express desire of the editor of the article that I should attempt to take up Prof. Oden’s “gauntlet”; given the nature of the anthology, he wisely thought that a more interesting course to pursue than writing a simple review.

I can assure Mr. Tinder that I have read all of Kant’s major works, often and carefully. To remark that Kant was a very boring man is to say nothing that even his admirers would not generally acknowledge, and to confess my low opinion of the developed form of his transcendental idealism is hardly to deny his epochal significance or his genius. I do in fact like several aspects of Jaspers’ treatments of Kant. I have not read much Berdyaev, though, since my early twenties; I tend to think that this is about the time at which one should stop reading him, but perhaps a second look is called for. As for the Schopenhauer anecdote, de gustibus non est disputandum .

While I am of course entirely disarmed by the richness of Mr. Carter’s argument, I am not confident he can properly assess the degree of my intellectual buoyancy or determine whether I am indeed “floundering in deep waters” (and, surely, in the cases of Derrida and Berlin, the metaphor should have been something more like “thrashing in the shallows”). I suspect (or at least hope) that FIRST THINGS publishes my tripe because the editors believe that my judgments, however misguided, at least proceed from some measure of scholarly competence. It is, I like to think, a very high quality tripe.

I must add, though, that Mr. Carter has attributed to me a remark I did not and would not make; it was the Critique of Practical Reason ”not Pure Reason ”about which I was so rude, and my remark was anything but frivolous. Frankly, the second Critique has been so often and so devastatingly taken apart (Hegel’s attack on Kantian ethics, for instance, is a tour de force ) that it is a wonder that the poor beast has not long since slouched off to some secluded grotto to expire peacefully from its wounds. Let me point to just one notorious defect of Kant’s ethical thought, identified originally by such contemporaries of Kant as Tittel and Pistorius: that the categorical imperative’s universality cannot be demonstrated apart from an examination of consequences. Hence Kant’s infamous appeal (in the Grundlegung ) to the trustworthiness of money lending, which all at once renders what is supposed to be an austerely deontological ethics indistinguishable from pure utilitarianism.

This is not a momentary wobble: at this point the acrobat has slipped off the high wire altogether and brought the show to a tragic halt. Simply said, it is manifestly false that the moral law can be grounded in the transcendental subject; reason”at least as Kant understands it”cannot establish the categorical imperative in itself: either it must submit to some calculation of consequences or it must degenerate into sheer assertion, premised upon a transcendental feat of will. This latter course, in fact, is already adumbrated at certain junctures in the Opus Postumum . This is one reason why the transcendental project could not help but gravitate towards the metaphysics of the will in Fichte and even in Schopenhauer (who correctly viewed himself as a child of Kant) and Nietzsche (as Heidegger so acutely recognized). It is also one reason why I (personally) find the second Critique fanciful, silly, and diverting.

If I could grant that Kierkegaard was indeed a prophetic (or, as he might have it, apostolic) witness to Christian truth, I would concede Mr. Cohen’s point without reservation. But this I cannot fully grant, for the reasons I give in my article, and for others.

Mr. Scheidt treats certain of my remarks about Kierkegaard as though they were obiter dicta , insouciantly tossed off without context or explanation. Since I said at some length both what I admire in Kierkegaard and what I do not, I feel little need to explain myself further. Mr. Scheidt is clearly distressed to learn that there might be theologians and Christian philosophers whose appreciation of Kierkegaard is more equivocal than his; but I am far from being unique in this regard. As for the (really very badly written) quote Mr. Scheidt adduces from Kierkegaard’s private papers, it is a good specimen of precisely those aspects of Kierkegaard’s work I find so disheartening. It might have been apposite to my article if Kierkegaard’s work were only now appearing on the scene; it scarcely applies to a considered opinion upon his entire legacy 150 years after his death. And yes, as it happens, Hamann did say much the same thing, but with much less peevishness and far more wit.

With Professor Kainz I am mostly in agreement. I did not mean to give Hegel short shrift. I observed that his prose was turgid and his character pompous, which is correct on both counts. He also, however, possessed a savage and sometimes surgically exact wit. Moreover, he possessed one of the most majestic philosophical minds the world has ever seen, and no one else’s thought excites in me so intoxicating a combination of rapt admiration and sincere dread.

Which is only to emphasize, once again”as the excitable Mr. Carter would do well to remember”that irreverence is not the same thing as contempt. Occasionally it is a sign of long familiarity and perhaps an absence of misplaced piety.

Pledging Allegiance

In “Saving the Pledge” (January), Vincent Phillip Muñoz laments the Pledge Protection Act, which removes the Pledge of Allegiance from Supreme Court jurisdiction, and recommends instead that conservatives pursue a Supreme Court decision favoring the “under God” language of the Pledge. Professor Muñoz is worried that state courts will otherwise reject it. But given that Congress has “plenary authority” and that the Supreme Court cannot be trusted (yet) on this issue, why not leave it to Congress (with executive branch help if necessary) to state plainly the position of the federal government in favor of “under God”? Not being a legal scholar, I don’t know if this means pursuing a constitutional amendment or whether it can be done by some simpler tactic. But I think it makes sense to bypass the High Court if possible.

Steven P. Sawyer
Fountain Hills, Arizona

I substantially agree with Vincent Phillip Muñoz’s point. If you want to defend the wording of the Pledge as it is, stripping the Supreme Court of jurisdiction over Pledge cases is not a good way to do so. But I think Professor Muñoz’s argument overlooks several important distinctions that are relevant to the topic of First Amendment jurisprudence.

First, Prof. Muñoz fails to distinguish between (what I would call) religious and theological uses of the term “God.” A religious use of the term is an invocation of God”calling upon God, or talking to God. A theological use of the term is not an invocation of God, but a reference to God”not talking to God, but talking about God. In his article, however, Muñoz seems to suppose that every use of the term “God” is religious.

Second, within the realm of theological uses of the term “God,” the article does not distinguish between talking about supernatural truths and talking about natural truths. The Catholic tradition makes a clear distinction between those (natural) truths that can be known on the basis of reason alone and those (supernatural) truths that must be revealed if they are to be known. In the Catholic tradition, many references to God fall within the realm of natural truths. The question that must be answered, then, is whether calling the United States “one nation under God” is a natural or a supernatural truth.

Perhaps this article was not the place to establish or discuss these distinctions, but until they are observed and become part of the “furniture of the mind” in both the judiciary and the general public, there will be very little clear thinking about First Amendment issues.

Edward M. Hogan
Theology Department Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart
Omaha, Nebraska

Vincent Phillip Muñoz replies:

I thank Steven P. Sawyer and Edward M. Hogan for their letters.

One problem with bypassing the Supreme Court, which Mr. Sawyer suggests, is that even if the federal government announces that it supports “under God,” state supreme courts would still be bound by the Supreme Court’s establishment pre-cedents. A fair reading of those precedents does not favor a religious Pledge of Allegiance. So bypassing the Supreme Court is not a sure way to protect “under God.” As I stated in my article, a better course of action would be to go on the judicial offensive and attempt to overturn those misguided precedents through a second Pledge case.

Professor Hogan nicely explains the difference between theological and religious uses of the term “God.” He suggests that there “will be very little clear thinking about First Amendment issues” until the courts take cognizance of such distinctions. I do not want to underestimate their philosophical capacities, but the last group whom I would trust to accurately distinguish natural from supernatural truth is the federal judiciary.

Anglican Engagement

Douglas Farrow’s analysis of the state of Anglicanism after the Windsor Report (“Anglicanism Runs Aground,” January) was thorough, insightful, and moderately compelling. Having askedsimilar questions about Anglicanism myself, I ammoderately inclined towards at least one of his conclusions: the Worldwide Anglican Communion is, in some ways, being “theologically and ecumenically irresponsible.” However, I am not sure if I understand Dr. Farrow’s suggestion that we should “put in at the nearest Roman harbor . . . and prepare to talk honestly about the situation.” Is he simply suggesting a conversation to see if unity with the Roman Catholic Church is possible? Or, along with thousands of other Anglicans (the “Anglican Continuum” included), is he suggesting that we should abandon ship and submit to Rome? If he is suggesting the former, I heartily agree. If he is suggesting the latter, I militantly disagree.

Honest and loving dialoguebetween churches is a biblical and evangelicalimperative. And far more conversation is required. Nevertheless, Rome is not the only viable answer. While I appreciate the implications of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism” Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One)”I am not sure that it provides adequate answers to our present debacle. While we Anglicans may fail by providing an atmosphere of compromise and tolerance that (in application) far exceeds what either Holy Scripture or the sixteenth-century Reformers intended, Rome fails by providing structures that are far too restrictive. Let us remember, in spite of the many fine points of Ut Unum Sint , that its arguments and conclusions are essentially Roman and not ecumenical (i.e., catholic). That is, it suggests that non-Roman churches should offer suggestions as to how the gift of papal authority should be understood and exercised”but entirely on Roman terms. To cite but one example, if I were to propose that papal infallibility should be dispensed with, the suggestion would be flatly rejected.

(The Rev.) Donald P. Richmond
Anglican Province of America (Western Diocese)
Apple Valley, California

Douglas Farrrow replies:

It was very Anglican of me, I fear, to be only “moderately compelling,” rather than to offer something with which one might “heartily agree” or “militantly disagree.” But what did I mean by my final remark? Was I implying that the HMS Anglican might well be parked permanently in a Roman dry dock, were its crew to respond in good faith to the invitation embodied in Ut Unum Sint ? Perhaps I was. But obviously Pastor Richmond and I are not reading that document in the same way. I don’t see it as a veiled demand for submission, but as an invitation in good faith. Does it not take its bearings from the martyrial faith that trusts only in the Lord, and not in instruments of worldly wisdom or power? The Roman Catholic Church may not as yet have fathomed the deep into which it has sailed with Ut Unum Sint , but to dismiss the document as “essentially Roman and not ecumenical” is neither fair nor charitable. Indeed, that dismissal itself sounds rather like a demand for submission.

Just War Today

In “Just War, As It Was and Is” (January), James Turner Johnson makes a good case for the development of just war theory to deal with the “actual face” of modern war. However, his description of contemporary war misses the mark. He sees civil wars, fights between warlords, containment of terrorists, and employment of smart-bomb technology, but he doesn’t see the other side of the coin: détente of mutually assured destruction, which continues now between the U.S. and Russia and is the model for the present standoffs between Pakistan and India, Israel and Iran. In all countries with nuclear wea-pons, it is likely that orders have been issued to the military for their use under certain conditions. This is the face of cold war, which is just as much “war” as is the containment of terrorists. In order to be useful, just war theory must deal with mutually assured destruction and other uses of modern weapons not just as addenda but as core issues.

Bob Hagenmaier
Winter Haven, Florida

James Turner Johnson’s discussion of the just war tradition is a truly significant account of the ways in which recent formulations of just war teaching depart from the authentic just war tradition.

I am in substantial agreement with Professor Johnson’s critique of the “presumptionist” position and its cousin, the “Catholic peace tradition,” but I do not see the latter as a lay expansion of the sacerdotal priesthood’s combat exemption. To be sure, Catholic tradition has always opposed the notion that the secular state of life is equal in merit to the religious state, but this recognition of a distinction of merit should not be confused with a supposed “historical (and doctrinal) distinction between the ‘high’ morality of the religious and the ‘lower’ morality of the laity.”

In his Opusculum XVII (1257), Thomas Aquinas argues that no such split-level or stratified morality characterizes Catholicity in the first place”which is also to say that no such stratified morality separates those whose state of life exempts them from “carrying the sword” from those whose state of life obliges them to do so. Against Vigilantius, Aquinas writes: “[T]hey say, we must go from the Commandments to the Counsels, as from imperfection to perfection. But this proposition is false. We know from the very words of Our Lord [Matthew 22:37], that the first and chief commandment of the Law is the love of God and of our fellow men . . . . Hence, as the Apostle says to the Colossians [3:14], ‘But above all these things, have charity, which is the bond of perfection.’ . . . For charity binds all things together.”

There is a single ethic of perfection, then; whence the full force of Aquinas’ decision, as Johnson notes, to place “his discussion of just war in the context of his treatment of the virtue of caritas.”

As for the “modern-war pacifist” position, I am not sure I would follow Prof. Johnson in his reading of the bishops’ Postulata of 1870 as linearly related to modern-war pacifism. I see the Postulata instead as a prophetic document. Its protest against large standing armies is, in effect, a protest against the grave ambiguity created by their mobilization. It is no easy task to determine whether a standing army is on a defensive or offensive footing. Recognition of this difficulty belongs to what Prof. Johnson calls the “consensual normative wisdom” of the just war tradition, just as”soldier by soldier”these armies belong to mankind’s normative memory; and to normative memory’s “weak” redemptive power: “The scent of freshly mown clover redeemed the perished armies and // the meadows glittered in headlights forever” (Czeslaw Milosz).

John F. Maguire
Natural Law Jurisprudence Center
Berkeley, California

James Turner Johnson replies:

I thank Bob Hagenmaier and John F. Maguire for the observations they make in these letters, though I suspect they have misunderstood me in critical ways.

I have no quarrel with Mr. Hagenmaier’s main point, which is that the just war tradition (not “theory”) must deal with the question of nuclear proliferation and possible use of nuclear weapons in war. In other contexts, such as in my 1984 book Can Modern War Be Just? , I have done my best to show how the just war tradition is useful for thinking about this question. But in the paragraph of my article Mr. Hagenmaier refers to I was talking about something else”namely, the distortion of just war thinking that resulted from the “conception of gross destructiveness as inherent in modern warfare,” which I argued was one of the roots of the “presumption against war” set out in The Challenge of Peace . I noted that this document “rejected Ramsey’s conception that even in the case of nuclear weapons the key issue is human moral control” and that it instead adopted a conclusion mirroring that of Jonathan Schell in The Fate of the Earth . The bishops judged that nuclear weapons are by their nature indiscriminate and disproportionate. Like others arguing against nuclear weapons at the time, they seem to have believed that any war involving the superpowers or any war into which they might be drawn, even if it began locally and conventionally, would escalate to a general nuclear exchange and a global nuclear holocaust. Hence the “presumption against war.” But my point in the article was that this assumption was wrong: “the actual face of warfare since 1945 has been that of civil wars and regional armed conflicts,” which did not in fact escalate to a global nuclear exchange between the superpowers. Just war thinking needs to be able to address such warfare on its own terms, not on terms shaped by the effort to rule out use of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Maguire’s comments on exactly how Catholic thought relates the moral life of the religious to that of the laity are welcome. I note that I put “higher” and “lower” into quotation marks when referring to the morality of the religious and that of the laity. To be sure, everything aims at charity and finds its perfection there. But there is a distinction nonetheless between those in the religious life and the laity: the former have received a special vocation, which is a sign of a particular gift of grace that the laity do not have. In the moral life, this translates into a different relationship to the virtues and into different possibilities for developing and manifesting virtue. It also means that religious live their earthly lives differently in important respects. To take some important examples: they do not marry; they do not own property; they do not carry the sword. Their relationship to war is thus one that follows from the vocation and the grace they have received. The laity are assumed not to have that special addition of grace, and so their lives, their relationship to the virtues, and their responsibilities are different. Thus, as I argued in the article, it was a mistake to interpret the idea that the spirituality of the religious should be extended among the laity to mean that the laity, too, should not bear the sword. One might as well have said that the laity should not marry, should not own property, should not hold public office, and so on.

As to the matter of the 1870 Postulata , Mr. Maguire reads its “protest against large standing armies” as “a protest against the grave ambiguity created by their mobilization.” He continues by observing that it is not easy “to determine whether a standing army is on an offensive or defensive footing.” The document is certainly a protest against mobilization, but the language of the document opposes the armies themselves and the destructive capacity of their weapons. I do not read its opposition to “illegal and unjust wars” as a reference to offensive (as opposed to defensive) uses of those armies: the idea that only defensive wars may be just and that offensive ones are always unjust belongs to the twentieth century, while in 1870 the legality and justification of resort to military force had to do with other things. I read this document as protesting the type of war that would result from the use of those large standing armies and their highly developed destructive powers. It was the destruction to be expected from such war”the “hideous massacres spreading far and wide””that the authors of the Postulata saw as evil, whether their mobilization and use was for offensive or defensive purposes. And this is modern-war pacifism in a nutshell: the position that the use of armed force itself, regardless of reason, has become unjust because of its inherent destructiveness.

Abortion Battles

I was disappointed to see that your journal has once again chosen a lead article that diminishes the full teaching of the Catholic Church. In “Bob Casey’s Revenge” (January), William McGurn tells us that anyone who thinks that the pro-life message is larger than the issue of abortion is an “enabler” of death and an ally of the pro-choice movement. Mr. McGurn’s article does a disservice to conscientious Catholics who try to see all issues through a pro-life lens, and who refuse to be held captive by the myopia promoted by so many political ideologues and journalists. In the end, I suspect that articles like Mr. McGurn’s further divide the Church along political lines and alienate brothers and sisters in Christ who do not share the same political allegiances.

Mr. McGurn appears to be saying that only one issue actually matters”and that anyone who isn’t working to eliminate abortion in just the way that Republicans are is an “enabler” of the pro-choice movement. While at the margins this might be true, it seems hard to indict all pro-life Democrats for their belief that other pro-life issues matter, and that abortion may be best addressed in this political climate through different means.

Perhaps the real issue is that our country lacks a legitimate pro-life party. Instead of trying to divide our church between Republicans and Democrats, First Things should try to promote a thoroughly pro-life position that transcends our current two-party system.

Brendan Wilson
Washington, D.C.

While it remains to be seen whether “Bob Casey’s Revenge” will aid the Democratic Party in rediscovering its priorities, don’t expect too much from Casey’s own backyard of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Although Catholics in this region are devoted to the Governor’s memory, the pro-life movement is thriving, unemployment is down, and President Bush made numerous visits to the area, all it took was an endorsement from Bob Casey, Jr. to hand over the region’s Catholics (and with it possibly the state) to Senator Kerry.

Glen Andrew Poggi Johnson
Department of Theology University of Scranton
Scranton, Pennsylvania

Newton’s God

I read with pleasure Avery Cardinal Dulles’ rich essay on “The Deist Minimum” (January). The timing seems providential in that just this week I read that Anthony Flew, the British poster boy for atheism, has at the age of eighty-one abandoned his atheism in favor of belief in a super-intelligent being who is the designer of the universe. Flew explains that he continues to reject the biblical God of the Christians and Muslims (and Jews?) as an “oriental despot” akin to Saddam Hussein but favors the idea of the deist conception of God held by Jefferson. Cardinal Dulles makes the statement that deism served as a kind of “halfway house on the road to atheism.” One now wonders if it may provide shelter on the return trip. Let us pray.

I would, however, like to raise a question about Cardinal Dulles’ assessment of Isaac Newton. He leaves the impression that Newton was a deist, or nearly so. This represents an earlier scholarly consensus that should now be abandoned. Not only was Newton not a deist; he believed deism heretical and harmful. For this reason he was instrumental in the formulation of the Boyle Lectures, whose avowed purpose was “to prove the truth of the Christian religion against infidels.” The infidels du jour were the atheists and deists.

Cardinal Dulles writes that Newton discovered mathematical laws that henceforth made divine intervention superfluous. This was the conclusion that the French Encyclopedists imposed on Newton’s mechanics. Newton himself believed that God was actively involved in upholding creation by the continual exercise of His will. Deists rejected the concept of revealed religion. Newton embraced it”especially in regard to biblical prophecy and chronology, on both of which he was expert.

Even Newton’s Trinitarian views, which Cardinal Dulles says caused him to “reject the doctrine of the trinity and incarnation as irrational” are under reassessment. I believe that by the 1690s Isaac Newton’s Trinitarian position could be considered compatible with the position of the Eastern Church Fathers of the fourth century, especially Eusebius of Caesarea and Basil of Ancyra.

Scholarship on Newton’s religion is gradually bringing him in from the cold. People may continue to debate various elements of his religion, but, in the words of Newton scholar James Force, one thing is sure: “He was no deist.”

Thomas C. Pfizenmaier
Bonhomme Presbyterian Church
Chesterfield, Missouri

Avery Cardinal Dulles replies:

I agree, and actually said, that Newton was not a deist and that his God was active in the universe. Newton accepted revealed religion and was in some sense a Christian. On these points there is no dispute.

In saying that Newton rejected the Trinity I was following the standard accounts. According to James Gleik, in his 2003 biography, Newton regarded Christ as God’s son, a mediator between God and humanity, chosen to be a prophet and messenger, and exalted to God’s right hand. But on the ground that Christ was not God, he refused to use the initials “ad” for reckoning dates. He likewise denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Not only did he reject the Trinity; he regarded Trinitarianism as a sin of idolatry.

I am grateful to Dr. Pfizenmaier for the information that Newton at some point in his life accepted positions similar to those of Eusebius of Caesarea and Basil of Ancyra, who are generally classified as semi-Arians. That removes him from the strictly Arian camp but still leaves him short of a robust Trinitarian orthodoxy.

I did say that Newton’s mathematical physics gave “indirect support” to deism. The use made of him by the French Encyclopedists may be considered evidence.

The Virtue of Tolerance

It was a surprise to read Richard John Neuhaus’ assertion that “tolerance is a virtue” (While We’re At It, January), since several arguments can be made refuting the idea.

First, the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls upon us to always be filled with this or that virtue, each of which is clearly described and discussed. Tolerance is not on the list. To the contrary, we are called upon to be sometimes intolerant in the face of unjust laws (§§ 1903, 2242). It is worth noting that Catholic teaching never admonishes us to be unwise, intemperate, pitiless, cowardly, weak, or otherwise non-virtuous in any way.

Second, tolerance must always be directed towards, and supportive of, wrong things only , to the exclusion of good things. This is a characteristic unknown to virtuous acts. It is impossible to “tolerate” good things, for good things are welcomed and embraced rather than tolerated. Virtue exists for the Good; tolerance exists for the sake of the wrong.

Third, there are indeed times and situations requiring us to reluctantly tolerate wrong things, but we must not be misled to believe that the tolerance itself is the virtuous act. Tolerance, like war, is at best a necessary evil. The virtuous acts in such cases are those that sustain us as we tolerate, or fight, the evils at hand, and would include serenity, patience, courage, and others as the situation dictates.

A case could be made that tolerance is more of a vice than a virtue. I do not know the origin of the following but am told that Dorothy Sayers gets the credit: “Tolerance, which in hell is called despair, is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.”

Donald H. Griese II
Eureka, Missouri

RJN replies:

Tolerance is defined in many different ways, as I indicated in the item to which Mr. Griese is responding. The discussion was not about tolerating good things or bad things but about tolerating persons, in which case toleration is more than reluctantly putting up with someone. It is genuine respect for the dignity of the person created in the image of God, no matter how wrongheaded he or she may be. That is the virtue, often called tolerance, that is to be cultivated.


In “Santayana Lately Revisited” (FT February), the proper date for his lecture “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy” is 1911, not 1932.

00 Days
00 Hours
00 Minutes
00 Seconds
Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before the clock above hits zero.

First Things is proud to be a reader-supported enterprise, and the Spring Campaign is one of only two major reader giving drives each year. It ends on June 30 at 11:59 p.m.

Your gift will fortify First Things to speak boldly on behalf of religious voices in the public square ahead of a pivotal season for our nation and the church.

Please give now.

Make My Gift