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Living Religious Lives

Permit me to add my own experience in support of “The Life and Death of Religious Life” by Fr. Benedict Groeschel (June/July). In the early 1970s, at age twenty-one, I found the courage to take the leap from Conservative Judaism into the Catholic Church. As one can imagine, it was the culmination of a long spiritual journey begun in early childhood. What a surprise to find that the Church that the Lord called me into seemed to resemble a subway during rush hour, with most of the passengers wishing to exit and myself attempting to squish my way through the surging crowd to enter. My local community seemed to be composed of numerous exes: ex-nuns, ex-priests, ex-seminarians.

My preparation for baptism included no true explanation of the sacraments, and many questions I had were given superficial answers that left me unable to defend my faith. Indeed, the priest who prepared me for baptism, certainly a well-meaning servant of the Church, gave me Communion before my baptism. I suppose it was a bit like couples who see no need to wait when they plan on getting married anyway, except that there is a divine order for these things and there are always consequences when we ignore this order. Mine were the following: a rapid loss of faith in the Eucharist and all other sacraments and absolutely no appreciation for liturgy. I had never seen anyone kneel at the consecration, and I’m sure I didn’t even truly understand that there was one, nor had I ever experienced eucharistic adoration. Mary, the saints, holy water, etc. were relics of the past, as well as votive candles, novenas, rosaries, and First Fridays. I was told that we have the Holy Spirit and no longer needed that other stuff.

What was available were a lot of “spiritually based” political gatherings, women’s groups, and meditation and “Christian” yoga. One Sunday, my theology teacher at university was giving the homily at Sunday Mass. She wore a stole, of course, which she said she “deserved.” Deserved? At that time, I lacked the knowledge ­necessary even to question something that just didn’t sit right. While spending time at a ­Visitation Convent, I never once heard St. Margaret Mary Alacoque mentioned or the devotion to the Sacred Heart. It didn’t take long for me to migrate toward a church that at least seemed to take the Bible seriously, and so I spent the next twenty years in evangelical/Pentecostal churches in Europe, where I reside.

About ten years ago, I received the grace to rediscover the true Church. Perchance I had attended a Mass where the Lord, in his mercy, revealed his presence in the Eucharist. It was the beginning of a long journey home. Communities such as Fr. Groeschel’s, as well as my own, Emmanuel, are precious. They have dusted off the treasures of the Church and put them back in the window for those who care to see them. It’s almost like vintage clothing that is quite the rage at the moment—rosaries, miraculous medals, and scapulars are now trendy, like vintage Chanel and Yves St. Laurent.

I pray that many more liminals such as Fr. Groeschel and other founders of new communities will be recognized. Authentic Catholicism without compromise must become as visible as possible. Only then can those whose hearts will not settle for less respond.

Mili Hawran
Bry-sur-Marne, France

I appreciated the article on “The Life and Death of Religious Life” by Benedict Groeschel. But I have this question: Is the “authentic” religious life only lived where common life, frugality, uniforms, and apostolic work are the norm? Might another kind of authentic religious life be lived? Its features would include being called by God to a “secular” vocation, raising a family, biblically informed private devotions, and regular participation in public worship. Might not liminality also be applied to chastity bounded by marriage? In a world drunk on a mixture of phony spiritualism and the supreme authority of the self, might not a family devoted to the things of God and the Church be seen as severely departing from many of the mores of our culture? Is the religious life I lead (and millions like me) any less authentic?

Ray Johnson
Pastor, First Baptist Church
Titusville, Florida

I read Fr. Benedict Groeschel’s essay on the decline of the religious orders with some interest. I do think that his analysis lacks a certain historical balance. Let me use the example of the active orders of religious women in this country. There are almost five hundred such congregations in the United States. If one brackets out the contemplative orders, 90 percent of the active ­congregations were founded after the French Revolution. They are a modern phenomenon.

Many of these communities are now in precipitous decline, and that decline is due not only to aberrant forms of psychology, the higher criticism of the Bible, and vulgar Marxism, as Fr. Benedict alleges. Women simply found other opportunities to serve as Christians in the world that hitherto had been closed off to them. So, beginning in the late 1960s, women were able to enter law schools and medical schools in large numbers, or found ways to go off and serve without wimples in places like the Peace Corps. These opportunities do not explain everything, but they explain a lot.

The Church is a dynamic reality, with new experiments in the gospel form of life always emerging. What is happening before our eyes is the rise of “new ecclesial communities” where one will find untold numbers of women who forty years ago would have been in convents. Here at Notre Dame we see a steady number of young men who enter religious life but very few young women who choose convent life; instead we see women who serve as lay missionaries in Africa and Latin America or who live with the poor as Catholic Workers, as well as another few who have entered the contemplative life.

I do think that Fr. Groeschel is correct in stating that those religious communities that have held to a more traditional form of life have provided a liminal opportunity for some women, but I am afraid that most active communities of women in this country will not survive the century, though not for the reasons he alleges. Many religious communities of men founded in the Baroque era will also have a tough go of it in the future simply because they linked their charism to late-medieval and early-modern religious devotions that now seem to have had their day.

Lawrence S. Cunningham
University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, Indiana

I have subscribed to First Things for over a decade. As a Capuchin Franciscan friar also concerned about the decline of mainline religious congregations, I turned with interest to Fr. Benedict Groeschel’s “The Life and Death of Religious Life.” I was happy his perspective has also been influenced by the insights of Victor Turner and Gerald Arbuckle. At the same time, his arguments would have been more persuasive had he not resorted to broad generalizations, including unfounded references to my Capuchin Order.

He writes that he joined the Detroit province of the Capuchins in 1951, when it “had almost seven hundred friars.” Yet he did not indicate that this was a year before it amicably divided between the “East” (which became the White Plains province) and the “West” (the Detroit province). This division was the major reason for the subsequent large drop in numbers. At the same time,
I will be the first to admit that each new province, fifteen years later and beyond, experienced its own “exodus,” which took place in all groups of mainline religious congregations in this country.

Fr. Groeschel indicates that today “the province has fewer than a dozen men in formation.” If formation involves canonical postulancy and novitiate and temporary vows, then the Detroit province by itself has twelve men in initial formation. The White Plains province has twenty-six men. The combined total is thirty-eight, more than three times the number alleged by Fr. Groeschel, who also notes that, when he joined, the Capuchin Order was “the fourth-largest religious order of men in the Church.” It still is. We’ve stabilized at more than eleven ­thousand friars. We are projected to begin growing once again. Ten years ago, when I gave a series of workshops in South Africa to the African Capuchins, we already were in more than half the sub-Saharan African nations. In fact, since Fr. Groeschel’s departure, the order has expanded into more than twenty additional nations.

Finally, although he decided to leave the White Plains province, more than thirty years after the division between it and my province, I think I am familiar enough with events leading to the split between the province and him and his followers (who later had their own ideological split) to be surprised by his statement that “my own community experienced considerable resistance when we first attempted to reform within the jurisdiction of the Capuchin Order.” From my understanding, the order did not reject his reforming efforts. Indeed, it even offered him his own jurisdiction within the order to bring about his desired reform. It offered him an unclaimed area of the United States where he could create his own jurisdiction, with men joining him to bring about his desired reform, within the order. He refused. Rejecting offers to create his own separate jurisdiction, he left our order to found his own congregation. It didn’t need to be this way. I have met fine men who have joined his community, but I am inspired by the integrity, fidelity, and commitment of our new brothers as well.

Michael H. Crosby, O.F.M.Cap.
Saint Benedict the Moor Friary
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Fr. Benedict Groeschel’s article impressed me. In particular, I was taken by his introduction of the word liminal to describe the place of consecrated life in the world. It occurs to me that, conversely, he might have described the world as “liminal” vis-a-vis the religious life. We used to say that vowed religious “left the world,” that their vows marginalized the world for them as much as the world ­marginalized the men and women in monasteries and convents. A ­recovery of both attitudes might revive us.

On the other hand, monastic separation from the world is not characteristic of most forms of religious life. Vatican II recognized that their members in schools, hospitals, and social services need contact with the world in ways that necessarily reach over the margins, or “limina,” that Father Benedict described. The sophistication of thought required in modern apostolic work should not, however, compromise one’s chaste, poor, and obedient religious life.

Brendan Kneale
Napa, California

Fr. Benedict Groeschel gave an insightful, if dark, perspective on the decline of religious life since the Second Vatican Council. Whereas he does see hope in new orders, it seems he may have missed the ultimate reason for the old orders—God’s will. The religious orders of the Catholic Church came into being when God called their founders—his saints—to do so. There were no intellectual reasons to believe that somehow the Church was then “due” for some new vocations. The graciousness of God simply provided them. Most persisted through dark times; God preserved and renewed them time and again. Why should he not do so again, and unexpectedly too?

Blessed Frederic Ozanam, the nineteenth-century founder of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, said: “Hope! The fault of many Christians of our day is to hope too little. They believe that every battle and every obstacle will be the downfall of the Church. They are the Apostles in the boat during the storm: They forget that the Savior is with them!”

Scott Salvato
Valley Stream, New York

Fr. Benedict Groeschel replies:

I am grateful for the responses received from Mili Hawran of the Emmanuel community and from Pastor Ray Johnson of First Baptist Church, who points out very well that all true Christians have to be liminal people. A good Christian family will find itself, in some respects, on the edges of things, or the limen. The observation of Scott Salvato that religious orders are responsive to the divine will is well taken. Scott seems to think that God’s will can be effectively imposed by human beings over a short period of time. People can say no to God either individually or in groups. My opinion is that this is what has happened in religious life.

Dr. Lawrence Cunningham’s analysis of the effects of the decline of certain forms of piety leading to the decline of religious life, as well as the many opportunities now for women, is obviously to the point. I would leave Dr. Cunningham with this thought, however: The new communities and the older communities that are thriving are part of that piety. Teaching in various seminaries, I see a tremendous reigniting of interest in traditional devotions, beginning with adoration of Christ in the Eucharist and the rosary. One can observe this in the Notre Dame chapel. I wouldn’t write post-Reformation piety off quite yet.

Fr. Michael Crosby, O.F.M. Cap., my confrere, deserves a more serious response. I must say I am extremely pained when I must make observations about the Capuchin Order, which I love and of which I still ­consider myself a member, as do all the friars in our community. My remarks describing the Detroit province when I joined were meant to be complimentary.

I intend to contact Father Michael privately because I have always avoided discussing in public our most compelling reasons for taking the very painful step that we took. ­Otherwise this could be seen as airing the dirty linen in public.

I would like to clarify the fact that it was our intention to attempt to remain in the Capuchin Order with the support of the Congregation of Religious and the approval of the Father General. Unfortunately, the American provincials offered us a situation that would have made it impossible for us to grow. Indeed, all friars and our many advisers, including at least one Capuchin provincial, saw that it was not a viable offer.

It is worth mentioning that it was the intention of our community to be Capuchins, and, before I depart from this world, I will leave a letter stating that, when the situation in the order is acceptable in terms of traditional religious values, we should attempt to return. Our identity within our community is based on traditional Capuchin values, and we observe basically the old Constitutions and celebrate all the Capuchin saints. One very distinguished Ca­puchin who visited us assured us that we were “real Capuchins.”

The Depth of Death

Writing from New Orleans, one’s perspective on graves is a little different from that with which Joseph ­Bottum begins his essay “Death & Politics” (June/July). They are visible all around our city as family tombs, which visitors sometimes even mistake for little stone houses. Most seem to have survived the terrible flood intact, indeed better than many of the actual homes. Our challenge is not to remember the dead but to protect the living and provide for the future.

Bottum’s essay is full of gems: observing that life’s significance arises from thought about the future, its richness from knowledge of the past; noticing that Immanuel Kant omits any mention of death in “What Is Enlightenment?”; finding in the quadratic equation a brilliant metaphor for the negative and positive tasks of forming culture; taking Jefferson’s famous notion that “the earth belongs to the living and not to the dead” and posing against it Madison’s sensible reply that “the improvements made by the dead form a debt against the living, who take the benefit of them,” a debt payable only by “a proportional ­obedience.”

Moreover, I found much in the basic argument to be altogether sound: that liberal political theory since Thomas Hobbes has sought to avoid not merely violent death but thinking about death itself; that one consequence has been a fascination with death and violence on the part of liberalism’s critics, often with disastrous consequences; that true freedom requires giving thought to the metaphysical question of free will; that thinking about death is a route back to such thought; and that the failure to grieve, in stoicism as well as liberalism, leads to fatalism, as it were in spite of itself.

What I find less clear is what Bottum means by proposing “a complete revaluation of political theory: a return to an extra-political, even metaphysical, foundation for thought about politics.”

Does he propose returning to premodern or classical political philosophy, as he suggests at one point (“How much of the premodern does the modern need in order to flourish?”)? He will certainly find metaphysical foundations there—but not the centrality of death, tombs, or grieving. In The Republic, for example, Plato has Socrates refer his lawgiver founders to the oracle at Delphi for instructions about funerals and burial, but this seems intended rather to limit than to enhance the influence of the grieving on politics; in his explicit discussion of grief in book 10, Socrates criticizes Homer for his portrayals of grieving on the grounds that they nourish the pitying part of the soul, asserting instead that none “of the human things are worthy of great seriousness,” a statement Plato re­peats in the Laws.

Aristotle is no friendlier in the ­ Politics. The priestly function is necessary in the city, he argues, but it is given to retired statesmen, as if to let the old think about the dead. Without the moderns’ suppression of thought about death and dying, or in other words their substitution of avoiding death for seeking good as the aim of politics, classical political philosophy nevertheless attends principally to the living good; in the words of one modern analyst, political philosophy begins with the distinction of the good from the ­ancestral.

But perhaps Bottum’s point is to reopen what Plato’s Socrates called, in that same book 10, “the old quarrel between philosophy and poetry.” The poets are expelled from the best city, not because they fail to tell the truth about human souls, but because they understand too well what it is about humanity that resists the claims of the city and its common good. Socrates admits a certain shame before Homer and promises to listen if anyone can make a case against expulsion. Aristotle tries, with his argument that poetry purges dangerous passions rather than feeds them. Does Bottum actually mean to recommend the way of poetry? Or does he simply mean to remind us that politics cannot capture the whole truth about who we are?

Finally, I wonder what Bottum would say are the implications of his argument for today’s America. On the one hand, he is surely right to imply that Americans now set little store by traditions of any sort, readily abandoning ancient law and settled practice if someone accuses these of contradicting liberty or equality or of getting in the way of economic or social progress, rarely even pausing to look for the reason embedded in ­tradition. But this is not altogether new; the same Madison that Bottum quotes once asked, “Is it not the glory of the people of America that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own ­experience?”

Have we so forgotten “decent regard” that “good sense,” too, abandoned us? Have we only forgotten the truth in Bottum’s first and third propositions, on the critical value of the past, or was it inevitable that we do so in light of some founding error of the New World, thinking it could avoid the pathologies of the Old and so abandoning its virtues?

I thought Bottum’s second proposition—that “the fundamental pattern for any community is a congregation at a funeral”—is foreign to the American sensibility, which is more enamored of the wedding as a paradigm, more forward- than backward-looking, more optimistic about new life than attentive to the old. We celebrate Memorial Day, conduct state funerals with dignity, and even draw special instruction from those such as Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr., who were killed in the midst of political action, but linking funerals to politics is ordinarily more characteristic of those we are fighting in the Old World than of ourselves.

Or must this, too, change about us—and if it does, is it so clearly to our gain? “Let the dead bury their dead,” said an authority greater than any political party or power.

James R. Stoner Jr.
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Joseph Bottum’s “Death & Politics” is a profound and learned essay that (as he rightly puts it) stirs dangerous waters to life. Bottum puts together what he calls a “jigsaw puzzle” of concrete examples from history and literature, as well as the archaeology of cities and anthropology of funeral rites. The examples support three theses about how grief founds cultures, how funerals form the basic pattern for any community, and how a living community requires a presence of the dead. The result is a brilliant work that needs to be and deserves to be a book. Here are two suggestions to help to that end.

Bottum’s central metaphysical argument—he says it may be “the largest piece” of the puzzle—is that “our possession of free will requires the death of things other than ourselves,” because our exercise of ­freedom is the perpetual perishing of possibilities for freedom. He distinguishes the dying of substantial things like you and me from the death of qualities and locations, so, happily, he seems not to equate finitude (including finite freedom) and death. Indeed, he says that building a politics solely around the fact of death “may be a poor idea.” In addition, we need “metaphysically thick accounts of love, procreation, work, and the human purpose.”

I agree. But so tight are the ties between politics and death in most of his argument that I do not see how he can avoid some such identification. What, I would then ask, is the relationship between our ends as finite creature and our ends as dying ­creatures?

The essay offers deep criticisms of the modern disappearance of death, as well as the postmodern deification of death: the elimination of graves in cities like San Francisco and (I would say) some practices of cremation. So, too, the deification of death on the right and the left—from Schmidt’s proto-Nazi claims about the need to kill one’s enemies to Fanon’s proclamation of the political benefits of murder in the Algerian war.

But, assuming that Bottum would grant that a metaphysical response is a necessary but not sufficient response to the deification of death after the death of God, it is hard to find the explicitly theological response to such deifications. Bottum weaves some biblical traditions into his learned survey of premodern traditions from Babylon to the New Testament, and some more into his analysis of Girard’s deep account of the cross and mimetic violence.

But Bottum eventually criticizes Girard, however much he admires him, because, Bottum writes, “eschatology is a bad guide to ordinary politics.” Much more needs to be said about the relation between eschatology and ordinary life if theology is to shape the metaphysics rather than the reverse. That is, Christianity exists between Jesus’ empty tomb and the cemeteries of ordinary folks; the practice of caring for the dead (in­cluding relics of the saints, and praying for and sometimes to the dead) is a crucial way we exist between the times. We need, in other words, to hear from Bottum more about how Jesus’ death transforms what Alexander Schmemann describes as our “cosmic cemetery.”

James J. Buckley
Loyola College
Baltimore, Maryland

Thank you for Joseph Bottum’s insightful argument that the foundation for a culture is its communal grief and care for our dead. I offer two observations that strengthen his case.

First, it is impossible to understate the reverence and love the ancient Greeks extended to their dead. Bottum cites the Odyssey for Odysseus’ efforts to commemorate Elpenor’s death. More powerful evidence is provided in the Greeks’ founding epic, the Iliad, where conflicts concern two corpses, the beloved Patroclus and the hated Hector, which the gods have blessed against decay and despoliation. Four hundred years after Homer, the Greeks still regarded the corpse as key. Sophocles’ Antigone concerns how one should treat a relative who has committed treason: Should his corpse be loved and given burial, or should he be punished by leaving his body for the same birds and dogs that horrified Homer?

For the ancient Jews, too, treatment of corpses is revealing. Bottum properly cites the return of the bodies of Joseph and Jacob from Egypt, but the biblical evidence is even more compelling. The Jews first possess some part of the Promised Land when Abraham purchases a burial place for Sarah; significantly, he ­refuses to accept the land as a gift but insists on paying its full value. Traditionally, Jewish law has treated the care for the dead as a great mitzvah that, given the practical demands of time and the impossibility of gratitude from the dead, outranks giving money to the poor.

Respect for the dead is a foundation of culture. Culture transcends, preexists, and survives the quite distinct social invention called sovereignty. Bottum notes the Enlightenment’s neglect of death and the differing treatments of death by religious and secular Counter-Enlightenment thinkers. His analysis then mixes the cultural valuation of the dead with the different problem of a government’s power to monopolize and direct the violence that causes death. Sovereignty is resolved with violent death; the cultural issues begin with death. When our government sends Marines into combat, we have sovereignty. But when the Marines recover their dead for burial at Arlington Cemetery, we have culture.

Reverence for the dead can survive even the destruction of sovereignty. Herodotus describes the Egyptian priests’ secret burial of the cow-god Apsis after its slaughter by the Persian conqueror Cambyses. Moses could rescue Joseph’s bones because his people had reverenced and safeguarded the bones during generations of exile. Nicodemus and Joseph of ­Arimathea also show how a people under foreign occupation will continue to follow their culture’s commandments to respect the bodies of the lowliest dead.

Gerald E. Nora
Vernon Hills, Illinois

Joseph Bottum’s “Death & Politics” in my view was a perspicacious and interesting analysis of the role that death plays in culture. As a Christian, however, I feel some reserve about agreeing wholeheartedly with his theses on death and politics, knowing as I do that death was not a part of the prelapsarian state of man, where man lived in perfect community with God and with his fellow man.

Even St. Augustine points out how the “City of God” began with God creating the angels and men, and that the “City of Man” was “built” as a falling away from that communion with God and is destined to everlasting death. Death, according to St. Augustine, is the end and cornerstone of the earthly city, because it rejected the life and love of God due to an inordinate love of self.

Although I fully appreciate Bottum’s critique of the modern treatment of death and its role in the unraveling of Western civilization, I would pose the question as to how he could take his claim of death as a foundation of civilization and incorporate it into a fully Christian idea of death. If God created human beings to live in a civis, or polis, to live in communion with one another as a reflection of the Trinitarian bond of love, then how could death serve as a cornerstone for such a society, when God is not the author of death?

I would argue that our encounters with death as a society on a psychological and interpersonal level show us something by our tears and desire for consolation: This is not the way it was meant to be, but somewhere deep in the human psyche there is the realization that “we have not here any abiding city, but we seek the one to come.” In a sense, all mankind instinctively gathers weeping around the skull of Adam, hoping to raise their eyes to see triumph over death. Perhaps it is that “gathering together” due to our common mortality that helps unite us as a society this side of Eden.

David A. Waters
Glenmoore, Pennsylvania

Joseph Bottum replies:

My thanks to all those who wrote to comment on my essay “Death & Politics.” Several writers have suggested a symposium on the topic in a later issue of First Things, which remains a possibility. Meanwhile, these letters suggest some of the directions in which further consideration might go.

In the opening of his fascinating letter, my friend James Stoner catches my objectives well, and he names much of what I would want to claim as central to my essay about the role of death in human experience—particularly my insistence that the ­significance of life derives from our awareness of the future, while the richness of life derives from our awareness of the past. When it comes to the question of what it all means, however, Stoner wants to get off the Stygian boat I’ve constructed.

I think he’s quite brilliant to perceive, as I did not in any clear way, that the essay reinvents the ancient quarrel of poetry and philosophy. Here’s an example. At the essay’s conclusion, I suggest that Heidegger is simply wrong: The fundamental influence of death is not through fear and anxiety about our deaths but through grief at the death of others. I have, I believe, good philosophical reasons for thinking so, beginning with Wittgenstein’s observation that one’s own death is not an event in one’s own life. But my real reason for insisting on the primacy of grief is an intuition from poetry. For every one of the rare attempts by a poet to ­transmute external grief into internal fear—Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “It is Margaret you mourn for” in “Spring and Fall,” for instance, or John Donne’s “Any man’s death dimi-nishes me” in the seventeenth of his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasionspoetry gives us a thousand expressions of the incommensurability of grief and the utter uniqueness of what has been lost. The poets intuit what the philosophers reason away: “After the first death,” as Dylan Thomas wrote, “there is no other.”

Still, Stoner’s reading of the essay as poetry’s revenge—a counterblow in the long, long struggle with philosophy—raises my work into territory beyond its rather modest aims. I know I said I was seeking “a ­complete revaluation of political ­theory: a return to an extra-political, even metaphysical, foundation for thought about politics,” which looks a long way from modest. But the foundation I seek lies among the graves of ordinary, modest people who died ordinary, modest deaths. At John Keats’ quiet grave in Rome, I am moved by thoughts of the grandeur of poetry. At George Washington’s tomb in Mount Vernon, I am moved by thoughts of political greatness. But at my grandfather’s modest headstone in Rapid City, I do something different. I grieve.

Far too many of the political problems we experience these days derive, I believe, from the fact that our temporal horizons have narrowed badly in modernity—the horizon of the past, in particular, seems to have shortened up against us. I was serious when I made the philosophical claim that just as presence makes being available for human thought, so absence makes time available. We need the experience of absence to have a sense of time, and that experience is thickest and strongest when it is grief —the ghostly gap in the world that is the absence of our loved ones.

Jim Stoner notes that there is something un-American in all this, and, in a way, I believe he’s right. But there’s also something deeply and genuinely American. In different eras, at different moments, I might well have argued against the mortuary society, against the dwelling on death and the worship of ancestors. But we don’t live in those eras. We live when time has so narrowed that our deep ties to political society have become nearly nonexistent. The long effort of political theory to abolish metaphysics has borne too much fruit. Surely some of the premodern is ­necessary for the modern to flourish. Surely we need some political acknowledgement of the deep stuff that metaphysicians, like poets, know.

Several writers have mentioned my critique of René Girard, and this is, finally, my complaint with him—a thinker to whom I am deeply indebted and one I feel privileged to know. Girard, as I read him, gives us no middle ground. The metaphor of a quadratic equation with two solutions is my own description of the way in which he describes the foundation of political society, but I think it captures accurately his thought. There is a negative solution and a positive one—a satanic and a godly. On one hand, we have the mythological city, founded by the ancient blood sacrifice that the violent Counter-Enlightenment seems to want to re-create. On the other hand, we have the holy city of Isaiah, when our swords will be beaten into plowshares and we live at last without death.

Between them stands what? For the middle time in which we live, Girard leaves us bereft. Perhaps he means that modernity itself leaves us bereft—so sufficiently Christianized that we finally believe in no mythologies, but at the same time so de-­Christianized that we cannot grasp the positive solution. We can, nonetheless, undertake my grand project of revaluing political theory, I believe, if we cleave to modest, everyday deaths: if we look at them not as gigantic occasions for revenge and scapegoating but simply as our extensions beyond ourselves—the absence that makes time real.

Here’s a practical example: There has emerged, among many conservatives, an attempt to defend the idea of the family entirely by talking about the family’s sociological benefits for children. This strikes me as hopeless. The family as an institution will not extend to the future unless it has a foundation in the past. The reality of the family as an institution demands more than children. It needs the dead as well. All real communities do.

This points to the answer I would give my friend James Buckley. In his letter, Buckley notes that “much more needs to be said about the ­relation between eschatology and ordinary life if theology is to shape the metaphysics rather than the reverse . . . . We need, in other words, to hear from Bottum more about how Jesus’ death transforms what Alexander Schmemann describes as our ‘cosmic cemetery.’” David Waters makes a similar point in his letter, demanding “a fully Christian idea of death.”

Buckley and Waters have correctly identified the fact that “Death & Politics” does not pose itself as Christian theology. And yet, in another way, it is the most theological work I have ever done, just as it is the most serious piece of Christian apologetics I have undertaken. It is an attempt to describe the human situation as it actually is, which thereby proves the reality of the Fall—beginning with the fact that we are bound to death.

Christian revelation promises that in the end times there will exist a community of saints joined not by death. But Christian philosophy reports that in our middle time we cannot escape the foundation of death. The Enlightenment’s attempt to escape this fact only ends up reintroducing death—but this time as murder and the sacrifice of scapegoats. “Eschatology is a bad guide to ordinary politics,” I wrote, and so it is. We need a political theory that recognizes the foundational role of grief for the extension of the self in time that ­creates community”a point that Gerald Nora catches in his helpful letter about further ancient and biblical sources.

Children of the Rising Sun 

It is surely safe to say that Japan is at best on the mental periphery of most First Things readers, but, having spent the greater part of my life here, I cannot help feeling all the more interested when my adopted home appears in the pages of my favorite journal. Thus, I instantly turned to John Rose’s review of Michael ­Zielenziger’s Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation, only, as I shall explain below, to be disappointed.

Even for secular liberals, it is all too easy to dismiss Japan as the land of the Eloi, a happy-go-lucky but hollow people as “plastic” as the ­products they manufacture—timid, conformist, and at least mildly xenophobic. Their dark past combined with their seemingly bright present makes them, like the Germans, politically correct targets for stereotyping.

Yet, even for those of us who are quite conscious of being politically incorrect, contemporary Japanese ­culture can certainly be exasperating. Europe’s (supposedly) empty churches are thriving centers of faith in comparison with Japan’s temples and shrines, which, for the vast majority of people, are simply tourist landmarks. If Japan has no Richard Dawkins, sneering at his compatriots for their illusory religious beliefs, that is because there is no need for him. To the consumerist masses, questions of the transcendent are not a concern. On television, a famous international ice cream manufacturer advertises its products with a half-clad Occidental model, writhing to the sound of “Ave Maria.” In America, the Catholic League would protest, with the ACLU howling back in counter-protest. In Japan, one is silenced from the outset by sheer mindlessness. (“Why not use Ave Maria? It’s a soft, sweet song that makes us think ice cream.”)

Yet religious Americans appalled by Japan’s spiritual vacuity should take a good look at the construction of their own house before casting stones. One cannot speak of the Japanese as post-Shintoists or post-Buddhists in the same way that one refers to post-Judeo-Christians in the West. Even Japanese who have no formal ties to any religious body may still keep a Buddhist altar and routinely pray for and to their departed loved ones. The explanation for Japanese resistance to monotheism may not be modern atheism but rather an atavistic animism, blending nature worship, magic, and media-hyped superstition. Having spent nearly thirty years lecturing part-time on “religion in America” to Japanese students in their own language, I have often noted the contrast between their claim to mushukyo (no religion) and their willingness to accept all sorts of self-indulgent quackery regarding the supernatural. As a Catholic, I have no reason to rejoice in this, but at least the Japanese do not drive around with Darwin-fish plaques on their Toyotas.

John Rose’s review contains a number of errors, some minor, others serious, which, I hope, do not all reflect the contents of Zielenziger’s book. It is untrue that “there is no Japanese word for ‘self-esteem.’” The English phrase itself is not so very old, having been coined by William James in 1890. The Meiji-era novelist Natsume Soseki, who was influenced by James, used what may be a direct translation of the term, jisonshin“self-respect-spirit”—in a work published in 1908. It is now in common use. What is alarming about the reviewer’s claim is that it is used to bolster the hackneyed image of the Japanese as having no sense of self apart from the group. (As a longtime observer of Americans abroad, I would say that their land of rugged individualists is itself hardly immune to the herd mentality. And anyone who has experienced professorial life in America knows that the intellectual ant colony there is alive and well.)

The claim (apparently Zielenziger’s) that Japan traveled “at breakneck speed from feudalism to ­industrialization, to war and then reconstruction, without ever experiencing the Enlightenment” suggests remarkable ignorance of Japanese social and intellectual history. The entire Meiji (“enlightened rule”) era made much of bunmei to kaika (“civilization and enlightenment”); keimo, another term for “enlightenment,” is immediately associated with the revered founder of my university, the nonreligious Fukuzawa Yukichi, whose face now adorns the 10,000-yen note. Japan was a fledgling democracy before ultranationalism and militarism brought on disaster. Such was tragic but not inevitable. The suggestion that Japan even now is doomed because it lacks the “spirituality” essential to Western modernity would be more convincing if it did not sound so terribly smug.

“As a secular Jew living in Asia,” writes Zielenziger, as quoted by Rose, “I had never considered how Christianity influenced Korea’s modernization.” No one has ever been able to explain how it is that Christianity has struck such roots in Korea and not in Japan, but modernization is a different matter. It was the Japanese colonialists who, for their own purposes, ruthlessly imposed it, though as a former Korea resident myself I know just how unwilling the Koreans are to acknowledge that inconvenient fact. The entire Korean education system is still a direct reflection of Japanese institutions.

Denial of self-determination worked to turn many Koreans to Christianity, which the Japanese tolerated in the belief that it encouraged docility. Today’s South Koreans, regardless of their religion, are hardly more individualistic than the Japanese. They have only recently emerged from dictatorship and, for both good and ill, are still strongly influenced by Confucianism. Their ethnic nationalism, bordering on outright racism, makes the Japanese, of all people, look cosmopolitan by comparison. (In Japan, my “half-Japanese” children hold citizenship, something that in Korea, as late as 1998, they would have been denied.)

The claim that “suicide carries no moral stigma in Japan but is often perceived as an act of honor or ­absolution” could be made only by someone who has seen too many Hollywood samurai movies. Anyone who has dealt with the pain (and shame) of Japanese friends whose loved ones have taken their own lives knows ­better. Moreover, it is ­America, not Japan, that has produced Dr. Kevorkian and his deranged supporters.

The word for “house, household, family” is ie, not ei. The mistake is twice repeated in the review. Except for some farming families and traditional guilds, the concept of ie in its feudalistic sense has largely disappeared. Postwar Japanese families are highly nuclear, often led by weak, indulgent parents, and hence the number of grown children living at home. Kafka’s story of Georg Bendemann’s suicide in obedience to his father leaves my (rich, spoiled) students utterly baffled. But then so does the parable of the prodigal son. They conclude that the father is being irresponsible and unfair—and should have talked everything over with his wife first.

The clinical psychologist Kawai is merely telling an old and familiar story (one often told to foreigners looking for exotic Oriental truths) when he suggests that for the Japanese there is no God beyond society—beyond the Japanese ie. Soseki said in a novel published in 1906 that “the world was created ­neither by a deity nor a demon but rather by one’s next-door neighbors” and that there is no other realm to which to flee. Soseki was, however, a disillusioned, unhappily Westernized intellectual.

Whatever the shortcomings of Japanese history textbooks, they are still more honest than those of Japan’s neighbors. It is also highly misleading to imply that Prime Minister Abe has flat-out denied the existence of a wartime sex trade. He has (regrettably) hedged on details, notably on the murky issue of the military’s direct involvement and the degree of coercion, but the Japanese government has repeatedly apologized to the victims of that terrible era, though apparently in vain. (The Japanese are learning that guilty liberalism only ups the ante.) There are wildly conflicting views of the Nanking massacre, but, unlike China, which has deliberately and cynically muddied the waters, Japan is a democracy, where genuine debate is still possible.

Charles De Wolf
Keio University, Japan

John Rose replies:

I thank Mr. De Wolf for his response, but I don’t know why he feels the comparative faults of the United States, Korea, or China should prevent First Things from focusing on Japan in a review. The “anything goes” religious disposition among Japanese may not be what Richard Dawkins means by atheism (about this De Wolf is correct). But the failure of the Japanese even to take God seriously and their acceptance of all “self-indulgent quackery re­garding the supernatural” is arguably more worrisome, and functionally even more atheistic, than the unbelief of those people “driving around with Darwin-fish plaques on their ­Toyotas.”

As for my supposed errors, the word jisonshin is, at best, an approximation of our self-esteem and, in certain contexts, is used pejoratively (much like the English conceit ) to describe a confident independence. Regrettably, I did mistype ie as ei ; all the same, the idea persists in contemporary Japan, most noticeably in corporations. The Meiji-period Enlightenment, imported and undigested, was hardly an Enlightenment in the sense experienced by the West, a fact that helps explain how (even if not “inevitable”) it could have ended in hypernationalistic militarism. And given the numerous, widely accepted testimonies of women to the contrary, now former prime minister Abe’s repeated stance that there is no evidence of Japan’s military actively forcing women into prostitution amounts to more than hedging on details; it is a denial of facts.

De Wolf is adamant that Korea has Japan to thank for being brought into the modern world, kicking and screaming apparently. Fine. It was the way in which Christianity produced a healthier modernity in Korea that Zielenziger’s book took up. Then, two sentences after leaving Korea’s conversion and Japan’s non-­conversion to the realm of mystery, De Wolf is uncharitable enough to attribute the early Korean conversions to mere expressions of rebellious self-determination.

It is ironic that De Wolf should commend Japan’s democratic debate regarding Nanking. The Koreans, after all, weren’t the only ones to have foreign ways imposed on them.

Photo licensed by Pixabay. Image cropped.