At a time when many are attempting to foment a conflict between science and religion, Cardinal Dulles brings much-needed calm and clarity to the discussion of evolution (“God and Evolution,” October 2007). For too long, fundamentalist foes of evolution and militantly atheist disciples of Darwin, such as Richard Dawkins, have set the terms of public debate. The voices of those who, like Pope Benedict, think it “absurd” to imagine a conflict between evolution and Christian faith tend to be drowned out. The article of Cardinal Dulles will therefore be of great and lasting benefit.
Dulles’ article clarifies many issues. I think even more clarity is required, however, especially in the use of such terms as Darwinism and neo-Darwinism. Nearly all dictionaries define Darwinism as the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection, and neo-Darwinism as the synthesis of Darwinism and Mendelian genetics. These definitions correspond to how scientists generally understand and use these words.
On the other hand, some people prefer to use these terms in a broader sense that encompasses philosophical naturalism and radical reductionism. For instance, Cardinal Schönborn in his well-known 2005 New York Times piece defined neo-Darwinism as involving the belief that evolution is an “unplanned” process (a belief that no Christian could accept, of course). A broad sense of the term is also to be found at certain points in Cardinal Dulles’ article. For instance, he refers to “the neo-Darwinian view that evolution is sufficiently explained by random mutation and natural selection. . . without any kind of governing purpose or finality” (emphasis mine). And he faults “Christian Darwinists” for “running the risk of conceding too much to their atheistic colleagues” by being “over-inclined to grant that the whole process of emergence takes place without the involvement of any higher agency.”
It should be kept in mind that many believing Christians and Jews (probably including the great majority of those who are scientists) are Darwinists in the proper scientific sense while also firmly believing that a “higher agency” governs the universe and is involved in its operations in the most intimate way. Moreover, many of them believe, as the Catholic Church teaches, that the spiritual in man is not reducible to the material, and that man cannot be understood as a mere product of material forces and biological processes but only as the possessor of a spiritual soul conferred on him directly by God. To use the word Darwinism as though it implies (or at least suggests) a denial of divine involvement in nature or a philosophical naturalism or reductionism is a disservice to such people. It leaves them with no word to describe their scientific beliefs that does not distort their philosophical and religious beliefs.
Moreover, such usage will inevitably lead to misunderstandings that are both unnecessary and costly. The statements of theologians who intend only to criticize philosophical errors will be heard and quoted as attacks on scientific theories. And, finally, we should not concede to the Dawkinses of this world that Darwinism—or at least the term Darwinism—belongs to them. The conceptual breakthroughs of Darwin will always be seen as among the most important pillars of modern science. We cannot become frozen into a rhetorical stance of opposing “Darwinism.” If we lose the battles over words, we may lose the battles over ideas.
A certain ambiguity of language also affects the discussion of teleology in the cardinal’s article. What does the word purpose mean as applied to the natural world? It may refer to the purpose in the mind of God when he created things to be a certain way; or to an intention in the mind of a creature, such as an animal hunting for food or a human being building a house; or to an unconscious tendency of things to move toward certain ends, as water flows downhill or certain plants reach toward sunlight; or it can refer to purpose in the sense of function, as eyes are “for seeing.” One can be a Darwinist in the scientific sense and believe in all these kinds of purposes. Indeed, one can be a hard-boiled atheist and materialist and concede purposes in nature in every sense but the first (as Dawkins expressly does).
In explaining why it is wrong to eliminate final causes from “the purview of science” (as some people think modern science has done), the cardinal notes that “the brain is not intelligible without reference to the faculty of thinking that is its purpose, nor is the eye intelligible without reference to the function of seeing.” Those statements are true, of course, but I doubt many biologists would deny them. Modern biology not only understands that the eye is an organ of sight but also that the visual cortex is for vision, the immune system for immunity, the reproductive system for reproduction, and so on. That is why modern biologists gave those systems those names.
Contrary to what is often claimed, even by some scientists, modern science has not eliminated final and formal causes. It uses them all the time, even if unaware that it is doing so. For example, a liver and a muscle are made up of the same material constituents—hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and so on—acting on each other by the same basic forces. It is precisely their forms, their organic structures, that differ and enable them to play different roles in the body.
The same is true in physics. The very same carbon atoms can form a diamond (transparent, hard, and electrically insulating) or a piece of graphite (opaque, soft, and electrically conducting). What explains their different properties is the difference in form, in intelligible structure. Indeed, as one goes deeper into fundamental physics, one finds that matter itself seems almost to dissolve into the pure forms of advanced mathematics.
Some people think that the Darwinian mechanism eliminates final causes in biology. It doesn’t; the finality comes in but in a different way. Why does natural selection favor this mutation but not that one? Because this one makes the eye see better in some way, which serves the purpose of helping the creature find food or mates or avoid predators, which in turn serves the purpose of helping the animal to live and reproduce. Why do species that take up residence in caves gradually lose the ability to see? Because seeing serves no purpose for them, and so mutations that harm the faculty of sight are not selected against. (Even a Dawkins would not deny purpose in this sense; he would deny only that these purposes were in the mind of God.) Darwinian explanations can account for very little indeed without bringing intrinsic finality into the explanation.
Cardinal Dulles is certainly right to emphasize that certain things about animals cannot be explained by Darwinism, such as the fact that some have consciousness. For example, a Darwinian explanation of the evolution of eyes requires only the following links: that certain genetic configurations are needed to produce eyes and a nervous system; that eyes and a nervous system are needed for seeing; and that this ability is advantageous for some organisms. The Darwinian explanation would seem to work just as well, however, if an animal’s power of “sight” were like that of a light-detecting robot that could process and act on data received from its “sensors” while having no awareness whatsoever. That tells us that the Darwinian explanation of the senses has a very hard time accounting for the fact of consciousness and sensory experience (or what philosophers today call qualia)—a point much worried over by philosophers and evolutionary biologists. But it does not seem to weaken the Darwinian explanation of the evolution of the physical sensory apparatus. What is in trouble, therefore, is not Darwinism per se—which need not be able to explain everything to be a true scientific theory—but rather physicalist reductionism.
Cardinal Dulles very helpfully makes clear that one can be both a Darwinist in science and an orthodox Christian. I am simply arguing that one can also be a Darwinist and believe in a considerable amount of teleology—final and formal causation—the irreducibility of spirit to matter, and the inexplicability of consciousness and subjectivity by physicalist reductionism. Darwinism is merely a scientific explanation of how certain structures and behavior seen in the biological world evolved. As such, it is completely harmless. It is only those who seek to make more of it who make it obnoxious.
Stephen M. Barr
University of Delaware
Avery Cardinal Dulles touches on the crux of the origins debate when he notes that many seem “fiercely opposed to any theory that would bring God actively into the process of evolution.” Such people tend to view God as a perfect watchmaker with no need to “meddle” in his creation. But the Christian God isn’t a Gnostic god unwilling to get his hands dirty in the stuff of creation. Nor is Christian orthodoxy compatible with a god whose creative activity is undetectable to human reason. Pope Benedict XVI emphasized this at Regensburg—and has for company the apostle Paul, who insisted that “what can be known about God is plain” because God’s nature “has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.”
Does evidence of purpose in nature suddenly grow dim when viewed through today’s powerful telescopes and microscopes? No—it grows more vivid. Cardinal Dulles rightly cautions against reflexively inserting God into the gaps of our knowledge about the natural world; but, as he also suggests, when scientists remain open to formal and final causes, to evidence of purpose in the universe, they have tools for making a positive argument to design based on knowledge.
This is the approach taken by such Intelligent Design theorists as Guil-lermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards ( The Privileged Planet, and more recently ourselves (A Meaningful World); both books are cross-disciplinary works that focus on the deep intelligibility of the natural world. These works have much in common with the second and third schools in Cardinal Dulles’ taxonomy. (The second school emphasizes direct intervention; the third, God’s dynamic presence.) Indeed, a patient look at the writings of various Intelligent Design theorists further blurs the distinction between the second and third schools.
Take, for instance, biochemist Michael Behe. He argues that sophisticated biological systems provide strong evidence of design; but whether this purposeful activity occurred through divine intervention, the dynamic presence of God, or the fine-tuning of the universe in that first Big Bang is beyond the scope of his argument. He also emphasizes that his Catholic theology is open to any of these possibilities. As he notes in The Edge of Evolution, “The assumption that design unavoidably requires ‘interference’” is misguided. “There’s no reason that the extended fine-tuning view I am presenting here necessarily requires active meddling with nature any more than the fine-tuning of theistic evolution does.” He emphasizes that the universe may have been fine-tuned to such a degree that it “underwent ‘its natural development by laws implanted in it.’ One simply has to envision that the agent who caused the universe was able to specify from the start not only laws, but much more.”
Those in the first school of Cardinal Dulles’ three-part taxonomy insist that Behe and others who see strong evidence of purpose in the natural world have simply given up science for theology. Hewing to the core tenet of methodological materialism, these critics insist that natural scientists must consider only explanations that fit into the mathematical/mechanical paradigm. Notice that this same criticism can be leveled against a theistic evolutionist such as geneticist Francis Collins, who infers design from the Big Bang, the fine-tuning of the physical constants of nature, or the moral law within the human heart. Methodological materialism rules all such inferences out of court, and that’s a problem. Investigators should be allowed to follow the evidence.
As a rule of thumb, methodological materialism is useful. But too often it degenerates from a way of thinking into a way of stopping thought, a Procrustean bed for chopping off and discarding whatever doesn’t fit within its narrow confines. The problem, Pope Benedict suggested at Regensburg, is “the modern self-limitation of reason,” a self-limitation that amounts to a kind of perverse binding of our intellects. As he emphasized at the Castel Gandolfo meeting on evolution last fall, we must be about the task of recovering a dimension of reason we have lost, without which “faith would be banished into a ghetto” and lose its significance.
As always, Cardinal Dulles provides a thorough analysis and defense of the Church’s position regarding evolution. What bothers me is that, along with official church statements, he repeats the nondebatable conclusion that humans are individually created by means of the insertion of a spiritual soul. This is a conclusion that has to be rethought. It’s true that we still have much to learn about evolution, but everything we know now leads to the natural-order conclusion that all living things evolved, including humans and everything about humans. The Church’s position logically argues that humans do not become human until they individually receive a spiritual soul. This has to be considered a confounding of the natural and supernatural orders; it is also a version of Intelligent Design theory, with all its “God of the gaps” implications.
Now, I consider myself a follower of Dulles’ third school of thought and am no defender of the scientism of Dawkins, Dennett, et al. At the same time, I have to own up to serious misgivings about the Church’s stand. The Church has to be open to theological investigation of humans’ completely evolving naturally and having been created with the potential to create their own “souls” and gradually become spiritual beings through God’s grace, the sacraments, and/or acknowledgment of God’s creative goodness.
Cardinal Dulles did not make reference to the Communion and Stewardship document issued by the International Theological Commission in 2004 and discussed by Byers in America (February 7, 2005). Byers notes that the commission “argues for special divine intervention in the creation of the first human beings, interestingly identifying this event not with the appearance of the genus Homo 2.5 million years ago but with the emergence of Homo sapiens ‘in a hominid population of common genetic lineage’ 150,000 years ago.” The timing of divine intervention was explained as follows: “The development of our large brain and the expansion of its powers (self-consciousness, intentionality, etc.) made the defining difference.”
This statement by the commission does two things. Apart from encouraging the cynical observation that there must have been “one fine day in the Pleistocene epoch” when God selected the best spearhead manufacturers for insertion of spiritual souls, it also makes clear that someone in the Vatican was beginning to wonder about individual human creation. Isn’t it time the Church gives serious attention to the possibility that humans are not created rational by definition but in prospect, with the potential to make themselves persons—that is, to have “souls”—and acquire spirit through contact with God in all the forms of grace he has provided?
Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania
As usual, Avery Cardinal Dulles brings sense to a difficult issue in his piece on evolution and belief.
As Dulles points out, the concept of the “God of the gaps” is a dangerous expedient, because gaps can be, and often are, filled over time. Scientific attempts to prove (or disprove) the existence of God often prove to demonstrate little more than the limits of science at the time of the alleged proof. Put otherwise, the majesty of the created world is suggestive of a creator but is not a proof thereof.
In addition, a knowledge of God is not achieved by pure analysis—some instillation of belief by and through God is needed. God is revealed to believers who, through such personal revelation, come to know God. Absent such revelation, and a heart willing to accept it, faith is purely formal.
Avery Cardinal Dulles criticizes neo-Darwinism, which explains the emergence of living bodies in terms of random mutations and the survival of the fittest. Such a view, he believes, limits God’s creative action to the moment of the Big Bang, when God established the matter and energies that would gradually develop into vegetable, animal, and human life. Darwinism is supposed to exclude divine intervention in the course of evolution, and Dulles therefore compares it to deism. But this seems unnecessary. Science says nothing about when God acts on the world. Hence there is no reason to say that Darwinism limits his action to the beginning of creation or to any particular time. Authors such as Francis S. Collins apparently take such a position, but that is not part of Darwinism itself.
Dulles favors an opposing view that emphasizes the limitations of Darwinian science. On this view, evolution has a teleological forward thrust unknown to science that depends on God’s dynamic presence to his creation. Dulles speaks of the emergence of life from nonlife and its development as requiring an “intrinsic aspiration to live and grow.” “Many adherents of this school would say that the transition from physiochemical existence to biological life, and the further transitions to animal and human life, require an additional input of divine creative energy.” But there seems to be no reason why the theistic Darwinist couldn’t equally say that God influences the entire course of biological evolution through his dynamic presence. Perhaps the processes described by Darwinian science also provide occasions for the input of God’s creative energy.
Avery Cardinal Dulles’ excellent summary of current affairs related to evolution notes that recent attacks on religion based on atheistic scientism are “an ominous sign.” There’s reason to think, however, that the shrill tone of these outbursts—and their utter lack of novelty—really reflect a growing sense both within the scientific community and the public generally that the mechanistic and reductionist account of biological evolution given by neo-Darwinian theory is inadequate.
Most Christians who are scientists recognize that there is a good deal of evidence that some sort of evolution, an enormous increase in diversity and complexity of biological systems, has occurred since life first began on Earth, and that this process has occurred over many millions of years. In this very weak sense, evolution is a “fact.” It is also an extremely plausible hypothesis that the means of this unfolding is a process of biological descent from a common ancestor or ancestors, which is why the paradigm of biological evolution is so important as a conceptual framework for biological science. Nevertheless, as Cardinal Dulles has pointed out, the mechanistic and reductionist model offered by neo-Darwinism is less than convincing as an account of how this process has occurred, especially in its appeal to “mere chance” as an effective element. In many areas of science, the appeal to chance, the null hypothesis, is really an admission of ignorance—and, in my view, it should also be understood as such here.
Cardinal Dulles identifies three schools of thought among those Christians who agree that evolution in this general but weak sense is a “fact”: (1) that of theistic evolutionists, such as Kenneth Miller or Stephen S. Barr, who believe that the explanation of biological evolution given by neo-Darwinism will prove adequate in the long run; (2) that which argues that the emergence of biological complexity cannot be accounted for by such mechanistic models and instead propose Intelligent Design as a nonnaturalistic alternative; Cardinal Dulles mentions especially the ideas of Michael Behe; and (3) the Michael Polanyi alternative, suggesting that Polanyi builds on ideas of Henri Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin. The fundamental thesis in this view is that living things are in some way sui generis, more than merely physical-chemical systems. Cardinal Dulles expresses his own inclination toward this third view, while acknowledging that the other two viewpoints are legitimate positions for Christian theists.
Traditionally, those who endorse Darwinian theory have been harshly critical of the third alternative. Ernst Mayr, for example, in This Is Biology dismisses in pejorative fashion Polanyi’s ideas as “vitalism.” The same opinion has frequently been expressed by others who believe in the adequacy of neo-Darwinist explanations. The substance of such criticisms is that vitalism per se has no specific scientific implications or content. To the extent this is the case, these criticisms have some merit.
If Michael Polanyi had said nothing more about biology than is suggested by the vitalist philosophy of Bergson or others, the third alternative would lack scientific potentiality. Many people, however, fail to understand that Polanyi’s comments on the subject really offer a substantive proposal toward a truly scientific enterprise. Polanyi points out that biological systems, like machines, are logically organized toward performing limited kinds of functions or achievements—and that this organization cannot be explained by the mechanistic and reductionist principles of physical science. Polanyi’s point in the analogy with a machine was not to suggest the theological argument from design but instead to emphasize that, unless we take this logical organization seriously as an objective reality, we shall not really understand biosystems in a scientifically adequate manner, any more than we can understand a machine technically as a machine without recognizing the reality of its logical organization toward function.
Space here does not permit further development of Polanyi’s arguments, but I would point out that Michael Behe’s idea of “irreducible complexity” makes sense only within that context: “systems composed of several, well-matched interacting parts that contribute toward the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the entire system to cease functioning.” Finally, I would emphasize that Polanyi intended a new kind of scientific enterprise in biology by developing ideas about “the logic of achievement” (or what I would call the logic of function). This enterprise, like physical science, would have naturalistic assumptions but would not assume that only mechanistic explanations are scientific. Michael Behe argues that irreducible complexity is evidence for “intelligent design,” but following up Polanyi’s ideas would lead instead to a naturalistic science of biology, which for the first time recognizes in “the logic of function” manifest in biosystems a limited kind of telos in living things.
I do not think we are yet able to frame this new enterprise in adequate terms conceptually, precisely because it is as novel today as physical science, “the mechanical philosophy,” was in the seventeenth century, when Boyle and Newton proposed it. Cardinal Dulles has rightly pointed out that philosophical questions regarding our concepts of telos are entailed in such approaches. I am not convinced that the categories proposed by Aristotle in antiquity (formal and final causes, etc.) are specific enough to this task: The development of such universal logical organization in biosystems may have occurred as part of evolution itself, a kind of striving by living things themselves to innovate, rather than a preprogramming by some kind of imposed “forms.” Yet I do believe that, with Polanyi’s key innovative ideas about “the logic of achievement,” the “third alternative” favored by Cardinal Dulles can have scientific potential rather than being merely a philosophical intuition about the nature of living things.
Walter R. Thorson
American Physical Society
As a neuroscientist, I fully support Cardinal Dulles in his view that atheistic scientism must not go unchecked, but throughout his article he fails to distinguish between the scientific theory of evolution and its use by atheists to advance a materialistic worldview. In my opinion, it is a mistake to ask Christian Darwinists to tailor their scientific thinking to reflect religious beliefs. I base this on the accepted view that the goal of science is to seek natural explanations for natural phenomena—that is, science methodologically avoids proposing ultimate explanations for observed phenomena and should not become a substitute for philosophy.
Dulles acknowledges the difference between science and philosophy, yet he approvingly quotes Phillip Johnson’s criticism of Christian Darwinists for leaving God out of evolutionary thinking, again implying that science should include God in scientific theorizing. Individual scientists should indeed consider ultimate questions, but as thinking human beings, not as professional scientists.
No doubt many scientists operate on the unconscious assumption that the material world is all there is. Dawkins and others have simply made this explicit, but they should not be recognized as speaking in the name of science. When expressing such views, they are knowingly or unknowingly engaging in philosophy, and, when venturing beyond science, they need to acquire the competence appropriate to philosophy. This is what Dawkins has failed to do.
There is much theoretical exploration going on in biology and philosophy that does not require theological explanation. Nonphysical theories do not require divine intervention, for they lie within the legitimate sphere of science and natural philosophy. The metaphysical questions they raise, however, are outside the competence of science, and it is a mistake for philosophers or theologians to expect science to answer them. Scientific theories should be criticized to the extent that they fail to explain the observed data.
For this reason, it is a real stretch for Cardinal Dulles to state that Intelligent Design, as proposed by Michael Behe, is supported by an “important school of scientists.” This position is roundly rejected on purely scientific grounds by most biologists. This does not mean that small random variations explain everything, for many other options are being discussed.
The term neo-Darwinian is confusingly used by this author and others to refer to a philosophical doctrine about the lack of purpose or finality in nature and therefore in the overall scheme of things. Evolutionary theory has been used to justify materialism, but that is not its scientific role, and it should not be criticized because of its misuse by some. Within science, it provides the most satisfactory explanation for the amazing diversity and similarity of all forms of life. It represents one of the most significant accomplishments in the scientific understanding of the world. Unfortunately, many have extended it beyond its legitimate scope. It does not by itself explain how humans differ fundamentally from the rest of creation.
Evolutionary theory is currently in a great state of ferment owing to developments in genetics and molecular biology, and human uniqueness is made ever more evident by the explosion of neuroscientific studies. Many ideas are being advanced to deal with the complexities of living systems—their self-organization and goal-oriented and self-directed behavior, for example—none of which fit the old paradigm of physicalist reductionism. Old paradigms die hard, however, as shown by Dawkins’ book.
Correspondingly, when philosophers or theologians address the topic of evolution they must carefully distinguish its scientific meaning from its use to advance certain philosophical or theological positions. Unfortunately, this was not clearly done in Cardinal Dulles’ article or by Cardinal Schönborn in his New York Times op-ed piece.
Rudy A. Bernard
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan
Avery Dulles replies:
I wrote my piece “God and Evolution” with some apprehension, uncertain whether my thoughts would make sense to the scientific community. I am delighted, therefore, that the article has evoked serious responses from accomplished scientists. They express both agreements and disagreements with me, but they also disagree in part with one another. Such disagreements should not be surprising, for, as Rudy Bernard observes, evolutionary theory is currently in a state of ferment.
The letters deserve a more complete response than I have time, space, or ability to compose. The conversation must go on, especially among experts in biology and biochemistry. Here I shall confine myself to a few interim observations.
Stephen Barr seeks more consistency in the use of terms such as Darwinism and neo-Darwinism. My own usage reflects the present discrepancies among authors who apply these labels to themselves. Even if one accepts Barr’s version of neo-Darwinism, the risk remains that God will be banished from his creation in an almost deistic fashion.
As for the language of teleology, Barr finds ambiguity where I find analogy. Finality, to be sure, takes radically different forms in intelligent agents, in animals, in plants, and in lifeless minerals. But the principle of finality (“Every agent acts for an end”) is verified in some way on each of these levels.
I hope to learn more about Darwin’s use of final causes. As usually explained, Darwinism accounts for evolution in terms of random mutations and survival of the fittest. If finality were a causal factor in the process, the mutations would not be random but purposive.
After reading Barr’s letter I wonder to what extent he is a Darwinist. His remarks on consciousness are admittedly opposed to that system. And his conviction that the evolutionary process is guided from above by a divine governing purpose surely goes beyond the standard presentations of Darwinism and neo-Darwinism.
I have no substantial disagreement with Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt. I wrote my article before I was aware of Michael Behe’s recent The Edge of Evolution, in which he seems to forsake the controversial positions on “irreducible complexity” taken in his Darwin’s Black Box. As Wiker and Witt imply, Behe now blurs the distinction between the second and third of my models. I can only applaud this shift.
Tom McNamara raises some questions about the immediate creation of the soul. I accept the doctrine as a matter of church teaching, but I would like to see it further discussed on the philosophical level. The doctrine, as I understand it, does not require God to intervene from outside, for he is present and active whenever created causes exist and are at work. I am puzzled by McNamara’s concluding statement that people acquire spirit from contact with grace. Could they have contact with grace if they were not already spiritual?
James Morton seems not to disagree with me, and therefore I shall gratefully pass over his letter with one reservation: I would not wish to be understood as rejecting all proofs of God’s existence, as Morton perhaps does.
With Donald Buzzelli we are back to the definition of Darwinism. If Darwinists admit that all things have an orientation toward life and growth, and that God’s creative energy enters positively into the process of evolution, I might find out that I am a Darwinist after all!
Walter Thorson acknowledges that most Darwinists reject Polanyi’s views as a form of vitalism. Polanyi, however, makes it clear that his view of evolution goes beyond the vitalism of Hans Driesch and depends on forces resembling Bergson’s élan vital and the creative agency postulated by Teilhard de Chardin. Thorson wants to defend Polanyi’s position on purely scientific grounds. This can be done only if one understands science, as Polanyi did, as “personal knowledge.” One reason why the Polanyi project has received so little acclaim from scientists is that he redefined the whole concept of science. Reluctant though he was to venture into theology, he recognized the relevance of God for his scientific view of the universe.
Rudy Bernard has an idea of science that rigorously avoids ultimate explanations. Such a self-limitation is methodologically possible. I not only grant but insist that science should not try to answer metaphysical questions with scientific methods. But when the scientist finishes his project, the question still arises: Does the resultant theory have any implications for disciplines that focus on ultimate explanations? Are the disciplines totally irrelevant to one another? Or should conversation occur among theologians, philosophers, and physical scientists? Like Pope John Paul II, I favor a conversation in which each specialty can pose questions to the others. The human mind craves an integration of knowledge in which the findings of the various disciplines are seen to be compatible and harmonious.
Refighting the Civil War
Thank you to George McKenna for addressing the moral complexities of the American Civil War (“The Blue, the Gray, and the Bible,” August/September 2007).
An honest assessment of Lincoln’s legacy concludes the war was tragically misguided and unnecessary. No matter which rationale one cites—preserving the Union or freeing the slaves—the war was unjustified.
First, Lincoln was wrong. The South should have been allowed to secede. As the Declaration of Independence asserts: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another. . . ” The South’s list of grievances mirror almost point for point the complaints the colonies had against England one hundred years earlier. If you had told the colonies in 1776 that they would not have the right to withdraw from the Union, few if any would have signed on. In fact, several states—Northern and Southern—had written into their state constitutions the right to secede. The Southern states had the right to throw off a government that no longer represented them. For Lincoln to sacrifice 620,000 lives to prove otherwise demonstrates his fundamental failure to understand the principles of freedom and self-determination on which this nation was grounded.
Second, even when the emancipation of slaves is cited, the rationale for the war remains dubious at best. By grafting slave emancipation onto the bloodiest war in America’s history, and coupling slave liberation with the violent destruction of the South and her economy, Lincoln nearly ensured that race relations would be strained to the breaking point for the next six generations. Only recently have we started to recover from the incredibly bloody manner in which Lincoln chose to bring about emancipation.
Alternatives existed. For millennia, chattel slavery was a worldwide phenomenon until a few decades before the War Between the States. Every other nation managed to eliminate slavery without having to go to war against itself. It would have been more effective and less bloody for the North to secede from the South. By doing so, the North would have been freed from the clause of the Constitution that protected slavery and freed from their obligation to uphold the Fugitive Slave Act.
Lincoln—and Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay before him—had long envisioned a more prominent role for the federal government: corporate subsidies, higher protectionist tariffs, a national bank. But that vision of an American empire shaped in the likeness of her European counterparts had been repeatedly thwarted by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But with the solvent of war, Lincoln was able to eviscerate the Constitution and bring about his vision of an expanded federal government. Lincoln may have saved the Union as a geographical entity, but he destroyed it as a freely formed association of independent states. Lincoln gave birth to the welfare/warfare state and its accompanying ideology of nationalism that still plagues us today.
Lincoln has been co-opted by a variety of groups, but they all have one thing in common: They call for an expanded role of the state. The left adores Lincoln because his rhetoric endorses their vision of a maternalistic, redemptive state. The right reveres Lincoln because his actions justify their desire for an expanded, interventionist war machine. Lincoln is the patron saint of statists all along the political spectrum.
Lincoln was not an American Moses who nobly led us through the dark hours that Destiny had thrust on us. He was a standard-issue politician who coalesced power to himself and used it to wage a destructive, immoral, and unjustifiable war on his own citizenry for the purposes of furthering his vision of a unified, expansionist nation-state.
West Dundee, Illinois
George McKenna’s “The Blue, the Gray, and the Bible” fails to consider the most disturbing question raised by the theological debate over slavery in the United States: Does the failure of the Bible to clearly condemn slavery show that biblical religion cannot provide us reliable moral guidance? If we cannot rely on the Bible to resolve great moral disputes in politics, does this show that we must appeal to some natural moral sense to settle such disputes? Charles Darwin was a lifelong opponent of slavery, and he grounded his opposition to slavery in natural moral sentiments that he saw as part of our evolved human nature. Does this suggest that biblical morality needs to be corrected by a Darwinian natural morality?
Northern Illinois University
I enjoyed reading George McKenna’s article “The Blue, the Gray, and the Bible.” I would like to offer, however, an alternative paradigm that may be more fitting. In order to understand the Civil War, we must go back to Tertullian’s famous question: Quid Athenae Hierosolymis? (“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”) The Civil War was a nineteenth-century manifestation of the eternal struggle between Jerusalem and Athens.
The Northern colonies consisted of societies biblical in nature. They emphasized hard work, self-discipline, self-reliance, personal responsibility, and duty before pleasure. The Bible served as their model of conduct. The Southern colonies, by contrast, were enamored of Greek civilization. Like the Greeks, they had an economy that was based on slave labor. Like the Greeks, they did not consider their slaves to be human beings.
To be sure, slavery existed in the world of the Bible. Yet there was one huge qualitative difference: The slaves of the biblical world were considered human beings with definite rights. The inhabitants of the Southern colonies were pleasure-loving people who eschewed the Puritan values of the Northerners. They even tried to imitate Greek architecture in the building of their estates.
The Civil War was the inevitable, apocalyptic clash between biblical America and Greek America. Fortunately, biblical America emerged triumphant. Even the growth and maturation of Abraham Lincoln mirrors this struggle. As time went on, Lincoln assumed different roles: frontiersman, lawyer, politician, war strategist, and, ultimately, theologian. This personal growth is reflected in his Second Inaugural Address. Lincoln, to a large extent, was the ultimate biblical personality.
The struggle between Jerusalem and Athens will always be with us. Secularists and the devotees of a utilitarian approach to human problems will always be at war with those of us whose values are morally informed by the Bible. The Civil War decided that America was to be a Jerusalem-type of society, not an Athens-type of society.
Rabbi Louis J. Feldman
Van Nuys, California
The Blue, the Gray, and the Bible” points to the notion of American exceptionalism, or, as George McKenna is more likely to call it, “chosenness.” Though Noll finds its roots in the revolutionary generation, and Stout in New England covenantal theology, both see this crucial component of American self-consciousness as the fuel that imparts to the (post-Antietam) war the immense moral fury that ends up consuming 620,000 soldiers’ lives and laying the South in ashes. All things are apparently allowed when one is executing God’s “righteous sentence.” (See “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”)
Both authors challenge us to deal, says McKenna, with this vision and perhaps bring something constructive from the lessons this holocaust ought to lay on our consciences. McKenna adds that, since this notion of chosenness continues to shape our history (September 11 and its aftermath being the latest example), perhaps we as a nation, certainly as individual Christians, ought to dig more deeply into the ideal so we might more thoroughly, as he puts it, “work with it” or dismiss it for good.
I would like to suggest that the most constructive interpreter of American exceptionalism and chosenness is still probably Abraham Lincoln himself. Lincoln began the war plainly believing in at least a pragmatic exceptionalism. To split the Union was to destroy the world’s only viable democratic experiment. We were indeed the “last, best hope.” After Antietam, he came to believe that God had “chosen for the slaves,” that God had willed a “new birth of freedom”—and so the president loosed a crusade whose fury he would not restrain. Yet, at the Second Inaugural, he neither celebrated a nation reunited nor a Northern moral crusade fulfilled, but submitted himself and his nation to the justice of an eternal and righteous God who he now believed had sent the war as just punishment on both North and South for the sin of two hundred and fifty years of slavery.
Such a piercing view will not allow us to wallow in a self-righteous “chosenness” but defines “chosenness” by reference to the Bible’s chosen and, yes, chastened people, who also were given an “errand in the wilderness”—revealing that we, like them, must understand that “chosenness” means also being under the watchful eye of a God whose “judgments are true and righteous altogether.”
Rev. Philip Niblack
George McKenna replies:
Jack VanNoord thanks me for addressing “the moral complexities on the American civil war,” but I’m afraid that he has not taken much account of those complexities. He declares baldly that the war was unjustified and that “the South should have been allowed to secede.” Echoing the South’s defenders at the time, he puts secession in the same category as the Declaration of Independence’s breaking of the “political bands” to England—seemingly forgetting that the bands of our Union were freely entered into by all parties when they ratified a document that began “We the People of the United States.” This point was elaborated on at length by Alexander Hamilton, John Marshall, Daniel Webster, and Lincoln himself during the first eighty years of our nation’s history, and, while there were replies to it, the ultimate reply had to come on the battlefields of a war that consumed 620,000 young lives. If we have learned any lesson from the Civil War, it is that we don’t want to start that argument again.
Larry Arnhart thinks my review didn’t consider the question of whether the Bible’s failure to condemn slavery shows “that biblical religion cannot provide us reliable moral guidance.” Actually, that very question runs through my entire review of Mark Noll’s book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. As I noted, Noll thinks that it was so disturbing to Christian moralists that they implicitly agreed not to bring Scripture into major public-policy debates. On that point I disagreed with Noll, but I did agree that the question must be very upsetting to those who think that all you need to do to understand the Bible is open it and read. If that has been Mr. Arnhart’s view, I don’t think he has to go to Charles Darwin for fresh guidance. There are much better sources, starting with the Church Fathers.
Rabbi Louis Feldman proposes an interesting dichotomy, Athens versus Jerusalem, which he thinks might represent respectively the worldviews of the South and the North. The problem is that the paradigm doesn’t fit the facts. Most Southerners were not “secularists,” as Rabbi Feldman thinks, “enamored of Greek civilization.” They didn’t know much about Greek civilization, and if they did they wouldn’t have liked it very much; they were not secularists but God-fearing evangelical Christians. A better dichotomy would be this: on one side, Yankee Puritan evangelicals, bursting with an activist do-goodism fueled by their sense of mission; on the other side, Southern evangelicals—emotional, subjective, and hostile to any change in their society. At his inauguration as president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis called the Yankees “a traditionless and homeless race. . . disturbers of the peace.”
The Reverend Philip Niblack suggests that “the most constructive interpreter of American exceptionalism and chosenness is still probably Abraham Lincoln himself.” Far from allowing us to indulge in triumphalism, in his Second Inaugural he submitted “himself to the justice of an eternal and righteous God” who sent the war “as a just punishment upon both North and South for the sin of two hundred and fifty years of slavery.” I quote the Reverend Niblack at some length because—forgive the plug—his views are exactly the same as those I argue in the fourth chapter of my latest book, The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism (Yale).
Muslims and Pagans
Spengler’s article “Christian, Muslim, Jew: Franz Rosenzweig and the Abrahamic Religions” (October 2007) misleads more than enlightens as to the challenge facing the three Abrahamic faiths.
Rosenzweig’s differentiating of Judaism and Christianity from Islam by equating paganism with Islamic submission is, to my mind, just wrong. Islam is consistent with Christianity and Judaism in being a monotheistic faith with a belief in God, who created and rules the world and who places demands on human beings consistent with his plan for the world.
Likewise, all three faiths have an element of submission. Martyrdom is certainly a valued virtue in Christianity and Judaism, and martyrs are revered. Indeed, Judaism has certain commandments that one must lay down one’s life rather than violate. The three faiths also have an element of elevating faith over reason. In Christianity, St. Jerome said that “the true profession of the mystery of the Trinity is to own that we do not comprehend it.” The Jewish understanding of the experience at Sinai was that the Israelites responded to the commandments by saying, “Na’aseh v’nishma”—literally, “We will do and we will hear.” Commentators explain this to mean that the Israelites would do the commandments before understanding them, developing an understanding later. This is probably an accurate description of the way many Jews actually experience Judaism.
The material difference between the faiths is that Judaism and Christianity have been influenced by certain values so as to remove elements of forced conversion, forced rule, and the use of violence to accomplish religious ends. Islam is now wrestling with that same process in dealing with its core notions of dar al-islam and dar al-harb, the umma and dhimmitude, and jihad.
The notion of common values should be the focus of attempts to forge understanding and the ability to live in peace. To talk about paganism and the like is wrongheaded and irresponsible incitement.
Peter R. Silverman
As for Rosenzweig’s suggestion that Islam does not qualify as one of the Abrahamic religions, it would be a mistake to blink away the fact that this suggestion, in effect, has been rejected by the Second Vatican Council. Muslims, the council acknowledged, “adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly even to His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God” (Nostra Aetate). Compare the Qur’an 29:46: “Our God and your God are one, and unto Him we submit.”
Now comes First Things’ pseudonymous contributor Spengler to argue against the Abrahamic character of Islam. In so doing, Spengler presses Franz Rosenzweig into the service of his own polemic. Although Rosenzweig’s “unfairnesss” to Islam has already been noted (see, for example, Julius Guttmann’s Philosophies of Judaism: The History of Jewish Philosophy from Biblical Times to Franz Rosenzweig), Spengler gives himself license to intensify that unfairness. What Rosenzweig actually writes in Star of Redemption is: “Despite its vehement, haughty insistence upon the idea of God’s unity, Islam slips back into a kind of monistic paganism, if you will permit the expression. God competes with God at every moment, as if it were the colorfully contending heavenful of gods of polytheism.” Spengler suppresses Rosenzweig’s nuanced “as if,” the better to issue an iron-clad indictment: “Allah is an apotheosized despot, ‘the colorfully contending gods of the pagan pantheon rolled into one.’”
However exorbitant the “pagan” mortgage on the house of Islam might be, that mortgage, I would argue, remains in dialectical tension with Islam’s Abrahamic character. The “monistic paganism” Rosenzweig attributes to Islam as a backsliding tendency does not disqualify Islam as an Abrahamic religion.
To be sure, there are Muslim writers who have hyper-transcendentalized God’s will as arbitrary or despotic. This “voluntarist” position, however, cannot gainsay the divine Logos. All things are possible with God, yet God can do no wrong; nor can God cause two contradictories to be true at the same time, just as he cannot speak what is absurd, nor do what is contrary to his own being as love. What sustains the dialogue between the three Abrahamic religions is this context—and just this context—of God as Logos.
John F. Maguire
Natural Law Jurisprudence Center
Read in full context, Rosenzweig’s indictment of Islam as “monistic polytheism” becomes harsher than in the sentence I quoted in my article. It is clear that Rosenzweig is not speaking of “backsliding” by an Abrahamic religion but rather about Islam’s fundamental character. The passage in question follows directly on Rosenzweig’s qualification as “magic” of al-Ghazali’s normative teaching that Allah is the final cause of each and every action in the universe, refuted by Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas. It is to this issue that Benedict XVI referred in his September 12, 2006, Regensburg address when he observed that “for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.”
Rosenzweig wrote (in my translation):
This has been the doctrine of the ruling orthodox philosophy in Islam. The whole impact of divine creative power crashes into every individual thing at every single moment. It is not so much that every thing is “renewed” at every moment; rather, it is “created” with hide and hair. Nothing can save itself from Allah’s frightful, infinitesimally split providence. The idea of “renewal” of the world [in Christian thought] maintains the connection between the individual thing and the one Creation, and thereby with the unity of existence, precisely because it comprehends it within the whole, and thus grounds Providence within Creation. But this [Islamic] interpretation of Providence as constant interference on the part of the Creator destroys any possibility of such a connection. In the first case, Providence seen as the renewal of the act of Creation through events is the fulfillment of what essentially is set into Creation; in this [Islamic] case, Providence—despite its intrinsic interference into Creation at every moment and in every case—is a permanent competition between acts of creating and the unity of Creation, in fact, a competition between God the Ruler of the World, and God the Creator. It is magic, not a sign made by God the World Ruler for God the Creator. Despite its vehement and haughtily carried-forward idea of the unity of God, Islam slides into a monistic paganism, if one might use that expression; God competes with God at every moment, as if it were the colorfully contending gods of the pagan pantheon rolled into one.
Al-Ghazali remains the benchmark for normative Islam, according to such Muslim scholars as Tariq Ramadan. It is not, as Maguire suggests, a matter of “some Muslim writers who have hyper-transcendentalized God’s will” but rather the authoritative current in Islamic theology. Rosenzweig’s forcefully expressed view hardly needs to be “intensified” by me. Whether Rosenzweig was right or not is a different question, which I have addressed extensively in essays for Asia Times Online and need not repeat here.
Honor and Respect
Jordan Hylden is entitled to his opinion of what he was able to understand of my book, Honor: A History (Briefly Noted, October 2007), and even, perhaps, of that larger portion of it that he was unable to understand. To me it seems absurd to say that there is anything in the book that could be construed as “brushing aside” just-war theorists, let alone defending the proposition that “justice is the rule of the strong,” but readers will have to make up their own minds. I hope, however, you will at least afford me the opportunity to clarify for your readers that what in the context of his review looks like a criticism and a correction of my point of view—namely that “chivalry was a product of Christian ethics, not the other way around”—is in fact precisely my opinion as stated in the book.
Ethics and Public Policy Center
Jordan Hylden replies:
To properly honor a thing is to give it the respect it is due, and I am afraid I did not do so with Bowman’s book. I did recommend it as “fascinating” and “perceptive,” but such praise ought to have been more central to my review. Even so, my quarrel with the lessons Bowman drew about honor remains. I do not think I am wrong to understand him to hold that “national honor,” crucially involving pride and jealousy for reputation, can be part of a just rationale for war. (General Josiah Bunting III, writing in the Wall Street Journal, identifies precisely this as Bowman’s position.)
Bowman does, it is true, applaud the contributions made by Christian ethics to the concept of chivalric honor. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that it is both wrong and sub-Christian to include pride and jealousy for reputation in the moral calculus of warfare. Neither do I think I am wrong to worry, as a result, that this is akin to calling justice the rule of the strong, with all the danger that entails. But Bowman is entitled to his opinion.