Religion and Politics: “The Great Separation”
I approached Mark Lilla’s new book with considerable interest and with the expectation of encountering a fresh way of thinking about perennial problems. The book is The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (Knopf). It is true that Lilla gave a glowing endorsement for a recent and rather silly book attacking this magazine and me personally as dangerous proponents of theocracy, but I wasn’t going to let that put me off. Lilla and the author of that book go way back and it is not easy to decline a friend’s request for a blurb. In any event, I had been reading Lilla over the years and frequently found his arguments suggestive.
Lilla has impressive credentials. Formerly with the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, he is now professor of humanities at Columbia University. As I expected, erudition abounds in The Stillborn God. He sets out to offer a grand narrative of religion, politics, and liberal democracy, and after more than three hundred pages he arrives at a conclusion that is, I believe, as wrongheaded as wrongheaded can be:
“We have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands. We have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good. We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by the light of revelation. If our experiment is to work, we must rely on our own lucidity.”
Setting aside one’s irritation with the imperial “we,” and agreeing that it is a very good thing to secure fundamental liberties and avoid political messianism of all kinds, his notion of religion as revealed commands from on high that are in competition with human reason—a notion that controls his entire narrative—is nothing short of astonishing.
Early on in the book, Lilla writes that “readers will notice the absence of modern Catholic thinkers from this study. . . . Telling the Catholic story would require another book.” Well, yes, this reader did notice the absence of any reference to the two hundred years in which Catholic social thought has developed the tradition of Paul, Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory the Great, John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, Thomas More, and, running up through the Second Vatican Council, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. It is a rather ostentatious lacuna. As George Weigel, reviewing Lilla in Commentary, remarks, “Writing any part of the history of the Western debate over religion and politics without a serious wrestling with Catholic sources is a bit like writing the history of baseball without mentioning the National League.”
It is not only Catholic sources, however, that are almost entirely ignored. Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, John Calvin, and Hugo Grotius are not seriously engaged. Worthies such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are favorably mentioned but only because they reined in the dangers of “biblical messianism.” I confess, however, that I somewhat guiltily enjoyed Lilla’s spirited, if not original, demolition of nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism and its poignant efforts to put religion into the service of liberalism by the expedient of abandoning Christianity.
In its selective, and finally eccentric, reading of the turbulent and fascinating story of religion and politics in Western history, The Stillborn God tries to make the case for what I have described as, in a book by that title, the naked public square. Part of Lilla’s grand narrative will be familiar to any college history major. Religion and politics, the authority of revelation and the authority of reason, were at constant loggerheads over the centuries, and then things turned really nasty in the wars of religion after the Reformation. At that point, rational men had no choice but to exclude religion from the public square, confining it to the private sphere of life until—as many of them hoped or assumed—it would disappear altogether.
The most rational of rational men, in Lilla’s telling, was the seventeenth-century Thomas Hobbes. Of course, Hobbes had a very unpleasant view of human nature, and the Leviathan state to which he would surrender absolute authority looked an awful lot like tyranny. Hobbes’ cutting of the Gordian knot between religion and politics was, as Lilla would have it, made palatable by John Locke, who developed a contract theory for a livable liberalism that was adopted by the American Founders. Thus the Great Separation, as Lilla calls it, was secured.
Unlike the most strident of today’s secularists, Lilla recognizes that the eighteenth-century Jean-Jacques Rousseau had more than a point in recognizing the irrepressibly religious in the human bosom. As Lilla tells it, you never know where or when “biblical messianism” is going to erupt again, sometimes in ostensibly “secular” terrors such as Nazism. In a combination of gratitude and anxiety, Lilla affirms American exceptionalism. In fact, as he puts it in the New York Times Magazine’s extract of the book, America is “utterly exceptional.” America’s good fortune is attributed to “a strong constitutional structure and various lucky breaks.” Apparently the lucky breaks matter most. Lilla concludes, “It’s a miracle.”
To which Weigel delicately responds:
“But it is not a miracle, and it never was. It was, and is, an accomplishment. And no matter how we weigh the various influences—some manifestly secular, others clearly religious—that shaped the religion clause of the First Amendment and the culture that crafted it, accepted it, and lived its provisions, it is a simple demographic fact that respect for religious freedom and commitment to religious toleration are, in the main, a religious accomplishment in the United States. How could it be otherwise, given the vibrant, confusing, sometimes maddening, but impossible-to-ignore religiosity of the American people? Can Lilla really believe that the social, cultural, and moral consensus that keeps America from reprising the wars of religion is based on a national fondness for Thomas Hobbes?”
No, I don’t think Lilla really believes that. But he does seem to believe that Hobbes is the grim genius who successfully proposed the Great Separation between religion and politics, which proposal, as made presentable by Locke, is the basis of the American constitutional order that has survived by a series of “lucky breaks,” and, if “we” are vigilant in resisting any contamination of politics by religion, it may be that we can keep the “miracle” alive for an indefinite future.
Revelation vs. Reason
Lilla’s argument for a naked public square finally turns, I believe, on his view of religion as an alien threat to human reason. He uncritically accepts at face value the modern idea that religion as revelation is the enemy of rational ways of knowing. This results in a divine-command theory of religious morality that is much closer to Islam than to the long history of Christian thought in which human reason participates in the mind of God. Thomas Aquinas is perhaps the most influential exponent of this Christian way of thinking, but he is joined by many of the notables mentioned above. It is a way of understanding the relationship between faith and reason that has more recently been set forth in John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio, with its implications for the right ordering of society elaborated in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, which is, I believe, the most comprehensive, coherent, and compelling account of what makes for a free and just society on offer today.
Lilla’s simplistic pitting of religion-as-revelation against politics-as-reason is of a piece with his uncritical acceptance of the modern claim that the wars of religion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries left temporal rulers with no choice but to exclude religion from public life in order to secure civil peace. As many scholars have argued, that exclusion was driven mainly by the ambitions of the emerging nation-states that were determined to eliminate any challenge to their absolute rule. The idea of the “divine right of kings,” for instance, was in no way a Christian idea but was devised to protect state power from any rival authority, whether that of the Church, of reason, or of popular demands.
The interaction of religion and politics in Western history is, of course, an exceedingly complicated story. Part of that story is very nicely summarized by A.D. Lindsay in his classic 1943 study, The Modern Democratic State. Through the centuries, writes Lindsay, the Church as a distinct society, for all its frequent corruptions, provided a corrective and challenge to the ambitions of the state. The following passage deserves quotation at length:
“It was perhaps equally important that the existence and prestige of the Church prevented society from being totalitarian, prevented the omnicompetent state, and preserved liberty in the only way that liberty can be preserved, by maintaining in society an organization which could stand up against the state.”
“The adjustment of the relation between these two societies was, of course, no easy matter. The history of the relations between Church and state in the Middle Ages is the history of a long dispute waged with wavering fortune on either side. Extravagant claims by one side called forth equally extravagant claims on the other. The erastianism of post-Reformation settlements was the answer to earlier imperiousness on the other side. But the disputes between the secular power and the papacy, however long and embittered, were boundary disputes. Neither party denied that there were two spheres, one appropriate to the Church, the other to the state. Even those partisans who made high claims for their side did not deny that the other side had a sphere of its own. They only put its place lower than did their opponents. The Christian always knew that he had two loyalties: that if he was to remember the apostle’s command ‘to be subject unto the higher powers,’ he was also to remember that his duty was ‘to obey God rather than man.’ There are things which are Caesar’s and things which are God’s. Men might dispute as to which were whose, but the fact of the distinction no one denied.”
They were boundary disputes. The new thing that Mark Lilla and many others celebrate is the erasure of the boundary by the leviathan state. The erastian settlements, epitomized by Henry VIII declaring himself the supreme head of the Church in England, turned the Church into the instrument of Leviathan. Thomas Hobbes provided the theory by which the Great Separation would be secured, ensuring that Leviathan could not be challenged by appeal to any other power.
The long history of religion and politics in the West so masterfully related by Lindsay and continuing today is the story of the conflict between monism and pluralism. From Constantine to modernity, the Church in Christendom sometimes made monistic claims, equating itself with society and claiming that temporal powers received their authority from God as mediated through the Church. Remember the Investiture Controversy of the eleventh century and Henry IV kneeling in the snow of Canossa in submission to Pope Gregory VII. As Lindsay notes, exaggerations on one side provoked exaggerations on the other. Thus the “divine right of kings” and, later, Leviathan in forms as various as the radical laicism of the French Revolution and the totalitarianisms of the century past.
Of all the things that were new in the novus ordo seclorum of the American founding, none is more important than its resistance to the monistic impulse. That resistance is embodied in the first freedom of the First Amendment—the free exercise of religion. For perhaps the first time in human history, a state imposed on itself a self-denying ordinance not to seek to control the religion of its citizens—meaning the convictions of deepest and ultimate importance. In the First Amendment, the first freedom is of a piece with, indeed in the same sentence with, freedom of speech, assembly, and the right to challenge government policy.
The sovereignty of the government is deliberately and expressly checked by the sovereignty of the people, who are free to appeal to whatever higher sovereignty they acknowledge, and to form associations, such as churches, to give that appeal effect, also in the public square. This is the pluralism that is built into our constitutional order and is the surest safeguard against the monistic impulse that drives the ambitions of the modern state and, when unchecked, leads to totalitarianism. And, of course, its theoretical grounding is not in Hobbes and his Great Separation but in the Declaration of Independence and its acknowledgment of rights bestowed by Nature and Nature’s God. Professor Lilla, for all his admitted erudition, is very mistaken.
While We’re At It
• In May 2006, James Piereson published a remarkable article in Commentary, “Lee Harvey Oswald and the Liberal Crack-Up.” The article has now been expanded into a book, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution (Encounter). Briefly put, the argument is that the assassination of John F. Kennedy and, more important, the interpretation of the assassination flipped the meaning of liberal and conservative in American public life. Piereson depicts the supreme confidence of liberals in a “Whig” or progressive understanding of history going back well before FDR’s New Deal. And then November 22, 1963, happened. Led by Jacqueline Kennedy in her sorrow and anger, and eagerly assisted by Arthur Schlesinger, Theodore White, and other court intellectuals and journalists, JFK’s brief presidency was cast as Camelot, a brief shining moment of which a violent, vulgar, and racist nation was unworthy. Following the tragedy in Dallas, a host of pundits did turns on the theme “We did not deserve him.” Until then, conspiracy theories—mainly of the anticommunist kind—were associated with the right; now they mushroomed in a New Left that challenged the old liberalism of which, ironically enough, JFK had been an exemplar. Along with conspiracy theories came a virulent anti-Americanism that repudiated the sense of national purpose and promise of which JFK was also an exemplar. That liberal sense of purpose and promise was restored by the conservative Ronald Reagan, with the support of the liberals of 1960 who became the new conservatives (commonly called neoconservatives) of the 1980s. It is all very strange, you might well say, and so it is. The Camelot theme turned that older liberalism into nostalgia, and the youthful radicals of the 1960s gleefully, and violently, attacked “the liberal establishment” in the name of revolutionary fantasies. These curious twists and turns were in part, as Piereson explains, driven by a need to cope with “cognitive dissonance.” JFK was killed by Oswald, a self-identified communist, and, a few years later, Robert F. Kennedy was killed by Sirhan Sirhan, an anti-Israel Palestinian, both leftists. But it would never do for liberalism to blame the left. The alternative was to blame America. Camelot and the Cultural Revolution has much on the JFK assassination and other events that will be familiar to those who lived through those times. But it is all well told, and, for younger readers who are puzzled by today’s confused uses of left and right and conservative and liberal, the book will be an education. James Piereson has succeeded in providing a fresh and persuasive way of understanding the political and cultural history of America’s last half century.
• I’ll be coming back to Gerald McDermott’s new book, God’s Rivals: Why Has God Allowed Different Religions? (Intervarsity). Meanwhile, a comment on an appendix to the book in which he explains why he uses the masculine pronoun in referring to God. This, as you know, is a very big issue with some feminist or “womanist” theologians. Some of them simply switch genders, using she and her, or using them alternately with he and him, but that results only in highlighting the gender-specificity that they want to overcome. As McDermott notes, others prefer expressions such as Godself, but this undermines the understanding that God is a person. “It is particularly important,” he writes, “to highlight God’s personhood when discussing religions that deny it. Philosophical Hindus and Buddhists, for example, insist there is no personal God because there is finally no distinction between God and the cosmos.” The Christian God is not “an amorphous essence” but the Father whose Son died on the cross. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “[These] are not human constructions in response to ineffable religious experiences, but names for God given to humans by God himself. The very names encapsulate the entire story of the triune God.” The names are not our “metaphors” but God’s self-revelation as Father, Son, and Spirit. The names must be understood in the context of the narrative. There is this fine quote from Garrett Green: “This God does not jealously hoard his power. As husband he does not beat his unfaithful wife but cries out with the pain of a jilted lover and redoubles his efforts to win her back. As Father he does not spare his own son but gave him up for us all. As Son he did not claim the prerogatives of power and lord it over his subjects but emptied himself, taking the form a servant—and humbled himself on a shameful cross. As Spirit he incorporates us into the mystical body of Christ, in whom there is neither slave nor free, male nor female. As king he does not isolate himself in heavenly splendor but wills to dwell with his people, to wipe away every tear from their eyes and to deliver them from all that oppresses them, even death itself.”
• Then McDermott quotes theologian Ellen Charry, who writes, “If men have identified manliness with an understanding of divine fatherhood and sonship that reinforces their own proclivities to control, subjugate, or wreak violence upon others to bolster their own feelings of power, they have [hijacked] the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the reason for the incarnation, the power of the cross, and the hope of resurrection.” This is in no way to deny that the Bible itself uses feminine imagery, especially that of motherly concern, in describing God’s relationship with his people—see, for example, Numbers 11, Psalms 22, 71, 139, Isaiah 49, and Matthew 23—but to speak of “Godself” or God as “she” is to be well on the way to embracing a religion other than Christianity, which is the narrative of God’s self-revelation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
• To appreciate the following, you have to know that Samuel Schmucker (d. 1873) was a leader who promoted the “Americanizing” of Lutheranism by dropping many of the doctrinal, liturgical, and sacramental distinctives of the tradition. Here is Pastor John Hannah reflecting on the consequences of the Missouri Synod convention of 1973 in New Orleans, at which “conservatives” decisively defeated the “moderates” then represented by the faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, which is, not incidentally, my alma mater. Hannah writes: “From then on Missouri would be known for its fundamentalism. Not everyone subscribed to fundamentalist tenets immediately but soon it became clear that no one dare offend that hermeneutic of the Bible. That self-understanding became more important than any of the distinctive Lutheran characteristics, such as those attacked by Schmucker in the 19th century. Schmucker’s proposal to ‘Americanize’ was properly resisted by all Lutherans, including Missouri, but now Missouri had capitulated to the same temptation albeit with a different face. That let our sister Lutherans ‘off the hook’ for distinctive confessional claims. Missouri became the Evangelical Protestant party of American Lutheranism, while the ELCA conveniently now serves as the Mainline Protestant party. As confessional theology was sidelined, political ideology ascended. Missouri became the Red State; ELCA the Blue. It is entirely conceivable that many LCMS congregations could join the much larger Southern Baptist Convention, providing that the Convention would tolerate what vestiges (robes, candles, etc.) of old Lutheran ways remain. Apparently, for some congregations there are not many vestiges left to tolerate.” It is understandable that some would prefer to think that Hannah is exaggerating.
• Walter Benjamin’s is a name to be conjured with in the academic disciplines where “theory” is king. A Jew and a Marxist, he was killed in 1940 while trying to escape Germany, having been rather late in catching on to what the Nazis were up to. Benjamin is not for bedtime reading. There is this, for instance, from Selected Writings: “Far from inaugurating a purer sphere, the mythic manifestation of immediate violence shows itself fundamentally identical with all legal violence, and turns suspicion concerning the latter into certainty of the perniciousness of its historical function, the destruction of which thus becomes obligatory.” Or maybe it is bedtime reading, for insomniacs. Unless one is an insomniac who reads for meaning, in which case one will be up all night. Clive James, the British cultural critic, is less than sympathetic to Benjamin and his influence: “Part of his sad fate has been to have his name bandied about the intellectual world without very many of its inhabitants being quite sure why, apart from the vague idea that he was a literary critic who somehow got beyond literary criticism: he got up into the realm of theory, where critics rank as philosophers if they are hard enough to read. Clever always, he was clear seldom: a handy combination of talents for attaining oracular status. More often mentioned than quoted, he has become a byword for multiplex cultural scope. But the unearned omniscience of postmodernism depends on its facility for connecting things without examining them, and the routine invocation of Benjamin as a precursor is symptomatic.” Perhaps so, but just think what “critical theory” would be like if its practitioners did read him.
• I’m not sure that James is right in thinking that Benjamin’s intellectual obfuscations served as a cushion against the reality of anti-Semitism, but he has this interesting observation about that disease: “Born into comfortable surroundings, Benjamin nevertheless concluded at an early age that the Jewish bourgeoisie were kidding themselves about assimilation. The better they did in every field of the arts, science, the professions and commerce, the more they were resented. The more they fitted in the more they stood out. In other words, they were disliked for themselves. Before World War I, Theodore Herzl had drawn the central impulse of Zionism from no other assumption. Victor Klemperer, in To the Bitter End, the 1942-1945 volume of his monumental diary, noted that a total rejection of assimilation for Jews was the point on which the arch-Nazi Hitler and the arch-Zionist Herzl were of the same mind: les extrêmes se touchent.” As with others of a Marxist bent, Benjamin chose to blame not the goyim for their prejudice but the Jewish bourgeoisie for their naivety, and, by extension, the bourgeoisie as a class. Zionism, anti-Semitism, and Marxism—all confusedly entangled in the shared perception that Jews are and always will be the “other.” That is part of the story of the murderous ideologies of the last century. It is not safe to assume that this new century is immune to new configurations of the same.
• There are a number of fetching essays in the current issue of The Chesterton Review. It’s called The Special Polish Issue, and on that theme there is GKC himself after returning from a visit to Poland in 1927, as well as Dermot Quinn on “The Search for Polish Anti-Semitism,” an incisive critique of the incessant slandering of the Poles as partners in Hitler’s Holocaust. I was particularly taken, however, with an off-theme essay by Joseph Pearce of Ave Maria University, “In Persona Christi: The Priest in Modern Fiction.” The priest, Pearce observes, is frequently depicted as acting in the person of Christ but sometimes also in persona anti-Christi. He cites a passage in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where Stephen is being lured into becoming a priest by the temptation of power: “To receive that call, Stephen, said the priest, is the greatest honor that the Almighty God can bestow upon a man. No king or emperor on this earth has the power of the priest of God. No angel or archangel in heaven, no saint, not even the Blessed Virgin herself has the power of a priest of God: the power of the keys, the power to bind and to loose from sin, the power of exorcism, the power to cast out from the creatures of God the evil spirits that have power over them, the power, the authority, to make the great God of Heaven come down upon the altar and take the form of bread and wine. What an awful power, Stephen.”
• And Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” Joyce’s Stephen was rightly repelled by the appeal to power, an appeal so easily and so often disguised in the pious language of a “high” view of the priesthood. As you might expect, my counsel is frequently sought by Protestant ministers who are becoming Catholic and hope to become priests. They are, with few exceptions, a great gift to the Church. But there are exceptions. One related in detail all the difficulties he had with an unruly church council that treated him, he said, as though he were a hired hand. “If I were a Catholic priest,” he said, “I would have real power and authority.” That is true, and that is a very bad reason for becoming a Catholic priest. Not, of course, that there are not many priests who have fallen into the power trap. Among the many titles of the pope is Servus Servorum Dei—servant of the servants of God. True authority is derived from and displayed in service. As a general rule, when a priest has to explicitly invoke his authority, he is on the way to losing his authority, if he has not already lost it. Not theologically or canonically, to be sure, but in the real world of relating to those whom he is called to serve. Even worse, he may be, as Joseph Pearce puts it, on his way to acting in persona anti-Christi.
• A few years ago, Thomas Oden published The Justification Reader, and now, also from Eerdmans, he gives us The Good Works Reader. Both mine the rich deposits of the early Church that Oden calls the “consensual tradition” shared by all orthodox Christians. The first book attends to Christianity’s struggle against “works righteousness,” the idea that we are saved by our good deeds apart from faith, while the second is aimed at what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace, the idea that faith does not have to be active in works. Oden is a Methodist and a key participant in Evangelicals and Catholics Together. With these books and his editorship of the multivolume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, he is in the forefront of contemporary efforts to restore to all Christians the riches of the patristic era.
• The story first appeared in these pages. Carol Zaleski beautifully described the life of spiritual heroism in her article “The Dark Night of Mother Teresa” (May 2003). We were therefore a little surprised by the media explosion this past summer, including a cover story in Time magazine, puzzling over the question of whether Mother Teresa was an atheist. But only a little. Several months later, it is worth revisiting that media whirlwind of commentary and ask what might be of lasting importance. The attention was occasioned, of course, by a heavily promoted new book containing Mother’s anguish of spirit expressed in letters over the years to her spiritual directors. The book is Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C., and published by Random House. Fr. Kolodiejchuk, who is the postulator of Mother’s cause—she has been beatified and is presumably on her way to canonization—dropped by our offices a while back. In our conversation, I was greatly impressed by his understanding of what had happened in her life. As you know, in the Christian mystical tradition it is said that there are three stages of spiritual growth: the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive. It seems that, as a young nun, Teresa experienced, very briefly, that third and final stage, in which God gave her to understand that she would, for the rest of her life, be deprived of spiritual consolations, meaning experienced evidences of his presence and purpose in her life. In this way, her faithfulness and, indeed, her faith would be further purified. Among the results are the letters described by Carol Zaleski and contained in the new book edited by Fr. Kolodiejchuk. Far from suggesting that Mother Teresa was an atheist, her words and her life are an astonishing testimony to a faith-driven endurance in radical surrender to the promise of God.
• Writing in the National Catholic Register, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household, offered this reflection on how we should understand the experience of Mother Teresa. It could hardly be more different, he writes, from the juvenile rantings of Christopher Hitchens and others who tried to enlist her in their campaign for atheism. Fr. Cantalamessa writes: “This mystical experience is a participation in the dark night of the spirit that Jesus had in Gethsemane and in which he died on Calvary, crying: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou abandoned me?’ Mother Teresa was able to see her trial ever more clearly as an answer to her desire to share the sitio (thirst) of Jesus on the cross: ‘If my pain and suffering, my darkness and separation, give you a drop of consolation, my own Jesus, do with me as you wish. . . . Imprint on my soul and life the suffering of your heart. . . . I want to satiate your thirst with every single drop of blood that you can find in me. . . . Please do not take the trouble to return soon. I am ready to wait for you for all eternity.’ . . . The world of today knows a new category of people: the atheists in good faith, those who live painfully the situation of the silence of God, who do not believe in God but do not boast about it; rather they experience the existential anguish and the lack of meaning of everything: They too, in their own way, live in the dark night of the spirit. Albert Camus called them ‘the saints without God.’ The mystics exist above all for them; they are their travel and table companions. Like Jesus, they ‘sat down at the table of sinners and ate with them’ (see Luke 15:2). This explains the passion in which certain atheists, once converted, pore over the writings of the mystics: Claudel, Bernanos, the two Maritains, L. Bloy, the writer J.K. Huysmans and so many others over the writings of Angela of Foligno; T.S. Eliot over those of Julian of Norwich. There they find again the same scenery that they had left, but this time illuminated by the sun. . . . The word ‘atheist’ can have an active and a passive meaning. It can indicate someone who rejects God, but also one who—at least so it seems to him—is rejected by God. In the first case, it is a blameworthy atheism (when it is not in good faith), in the second an atheism of sorrow or of expiation. [Mother Teresa wrote]: ‘I wish to live in this world that is so far from God, which has turned so much from the light of Jesus, to help them—to take upon myself something of their suffering.’”
• Keep in mind that Mother Teresa’s sense of abandonment, of God being hidden from her, was not her choice but her vocation. It was not, and is not, the experience of all saints and mystics. The experience of many saints—insofar as we can tell from their writings and what was written about them—is that of sustained spiritual serenity and joy. There is great spiritual peril in anguishing over the circumstance of not being spiritually anguished. In much of the current commentary about Mother Teresa, one encounters facile statements about how doubt is a normal part of faith. Well, yes and no. John Henry Newman wrote that ten thousand difficulties do not add up to a doubt. The word doubt is used in different ways. There is the doubt that has difficulties, even severe difficulties, in understanding how or whether God is keeping his promise. Then there is the doubt that is disbelief in his promise. There are parallels in human relations. Someone may promise to do something extraordinary for you. There is a big difference between telling that person that you have difficulty in understanding how he will do it, on the one hand, and telling him that you doubt he will do it, on the other. Ten thousand difficulties do not add up to a doubt. Doubt may come, but it is not to be sought or thought to be obligatory in the spiritual life. The lesson to be learned from the letters of Mother Teresa is not the “virtue” of doubt but the endurance of faith mightily tested and finally purified—despite and even against experience—in the total surrender of self to God.
• It says in this morning’s paper that Sen. Hillary Clinton has laid out a new approach, emphasizing the importance of experience and “working within the system” but “without sacrificing important values like preserving Social Security and protecting abortion rights.” She is obviously making a pitch for those “values voters.” She says she is also determined to “reclaim the future for our children.” According to our parish paper, “she wants her presidency to be a means of helping parents raise their children. ‘I want to be able to say to you as your president, “Our children are well,”’ she said.” No doubt many parents will be reassured. It appears that it now takes not only a village but a country to raise a child. Which puts me in mind of an exchange some years ago between Sen. Phil Gramm and a federal bureaucrat who wanted to expand a program of government child care. Gramm opined that mothers and fathers are best equipped for child-rearing because they love their children more. The official objected, saying, “I love your children as much as you do, Senator.” To which Gramm responded, “I am very pleased to hear that. What are their names?”
• “I am afraid, Madam, that you have things quite backwards,” said Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to a woman who complained that the liturgy of the Sabbath service did not say what she wanted to say. “The point is not for the service to say what we want to say but for us to want to say what the service says.” Sound advice, that. But then the question is: Which service? The answer apparently is, according to the Reform movement of American Judaism, the service of your choice. Reform Judaism has come out with a new prayer book, the product of twenty years of labor, and, according to the New York Times, it has been tested for “feedback” from more than three hundred congregations. Rabbi Elyse D. Frishman of New Jersey headed up the editorial committee, and she is keen on diversity. “There are even those in my community who come to Shabbat worship each week who don’t believe in God,” she says. “How do we help them resonate with the language of prayer, which is very God-centric and evokes a personal God that talks to you in a sense? There are many, many Jews who do not believe in God that way.” Christians, too, one might observe, have always had problems with the “God-centric” nature of revelation. Although I have to admit that a personal God that talks to you, rather than who talks to you, doesn’t seem very personal. But then, it’s only “in a sense.” The story underscores that the what or who of God-centricity is never He. The book is “inclusive language” all the way. As befits a consumerist society, it is also pick-and-choose all the way. “Rabbis who prefer to lead a more traditional service can choose a prayer from the right-hand side of the page, while those who prefer a more alternative approach can choose from the left side.” Those not satisfied with an alternative can choose a “more alternative.” As Rabbi Peter Knobel, president of the association of Reform rabbis, says, you can be “as traditional as you can be within the Reform movement.” He doesn’t say just how traditional that is. But Laurie Goodstein, the Times reporter, says that Reform practice has moved toward “some acceptance of tradition, featuring services for Israeli Independence Day and Holocaust commemoration.” Admittedly, that tradition is not taking things all the way back to Sinai, but it’s a start. On the other hand, says Rabbi Knobel, there is an alternative to the traditional, or perhaps it is a more alternative. With the new book, he says, “You can do something extremely creative.” A Scott Shay is quoted, and it seems he agrees that extreme creativity is what is needed to bring back the more than 75 percent of Jews who don’t go to synagogue. Mr. Shay is the author of Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry. Abraham Joshua Heschel weeps.
• John Lukacs says of his new book from Yale, George Kennan: A Study of Character, that it is “not the memoir of a friend but the work of a historian.” Lukacs is a historian, the author of Five Days in London: May 1940 and many other respected books, and one can understand why he might say that, but the book is a movingly affectionate tribute to his friend George Kennan. Affectionate and sometimes effusive: Kennan was a “conscience of a nation” and a “man for all seasons” of whom it can be said, “now he belongs to the ages.” Kennan is chiefly remembered as the author of the “Long Telegram” from Moscow in 1946, which became the article by “X” in Foreign Affairs in 1947, setting forth the doctrine of “containment” that largely defined America’s response to the Soviet challenge during the Cold War. He later and for a long time (he lived 101 years, dying in 2005, and was writing almost to the end) complained that his argument had been hijacked by militarists and “anticommunists,” both of whom he held in contempt. Kennan wrote, “No people is great enough to establish world hegemony.” “That single sentence, written in 1940,” Lukacs writes, “sums up much—perhaps everything—of George Kennan’s view of the world, and of the United States too.” One may agree with that sentence while disagreeing with Kennan’s vehement opposition to almost every American military commitment, from NATO to Vietnam to Somalia to Iraq. Kennan’s influence was undoubtedly limited by his evident dislike of the United States, an aversion that Lukacs does not seek to hide. “He would, because he must, remain loyal to his country,” Lukacs writes, and he follows that with this line by Kennan: “But it would be a loyalty despite, not a loyalty because, a loyalty of principle, not of identification.” Kennan’s view of American politics and culture as vulgar and meretricious was inseparable from what Lukacs calls his “distaste for democracy.” He once advocated a Council of State, composed of distinguished personages appointed by the president, which would be able to govern the country without undue influence by public opinion. For all his loneliness, eccentricity, and frequent bitterness, George Kennan had dear friends and a deeply devoted wife. John Lukacs, obviously, was one of those friends. And his country was kinder to Kennan than he was to his country. Over the years, Kennan received a generally favorable and often fawning press, and in 1989 Ronald Reagan awarded him the Medal of Freedom. In addition to friendship, however, Lukacs’ encomium to Kennan is based on ideological—or, as he would no doubt prefer, philosophical—fraternity. Lukacs, a refugee from communist Hungary in 1946, has long contended that in America over the past fifty years conservatism has been fatally identified with anticommunism. Communism, including Soviet communism, was but a veneer of preposterous ideas disguising what he and Kennan agree is the perennial real-world dynamic of “the struggle of nations and their states.” The Soviet Union was Russia, and the Russian Empire was bound to collapse for old-fashioned geopolitical reasons. Nobody “won” the Cold War. These are not liberal arguments, Lukacs insists, for he, like Kennan, is no liberal. Lukacs has been making these arguments for a long time, and it is not surprising that he found in George Kennan a friend and soul mate. There are in George Kennan: A Study of Character a few surprises. For instance, Lukacs says that Kennan, born and reared a Presbyterian, for a time teetered on the edge of becoming Catholic but died in the embrace of Anglicanism, which Kennan once described as “a partially rebellious child” of the Church. John Lukacs is always worth reading, whether in agreement, disagreement, or respectful puzzlement. I once described him as “that elegantly erudite curmudgeon” and warmly recommend the very large John Lukacs reader published by ISI, Remembered Past. There are conservatives, neoconservatives, paleoconservatives—and then there is John Lukacs, with whom I agree on everything except those things on which we disagree. George Kennan is a tribute to a rare gift: an intellectual friendship, and an intellectual friendship kept, as Dr. Johnson said friendships must be kept, in good repair.
• That formidable student of Islam, Bernard Lewis, recently gave a wide-ranging lecture on the fourteen hundred years of struggle between Islam and what Muslims, more than Christians, understand as Christendom. Along the way, Lewis notes: “The Crusades were a late, limited, and unsuccessful imitation of the jihad—an attempt to recover by holy war what had been lost by holy war. It failed, and it was not followed up.” Then there is this vignette revealing how radically perceptions have changed. “A striking example of the modern approach comes from France. On October 8, 2002, the then prime minister, Monsieur Jean-Pierre Raffarin, made a speech in the French National Assembly discussing the situation in Iraq. Speaking of Saddam Hussein, he remarked that one of Saddam Hussein’s heroes was his compatriot Saladin, who came from the same Iraqi town of Tikrit. In case the members of the Assembly were not aware of Saladin’s identity, M. Raffarin explained to them that it was he who was able ‘to defeat the Crusaders and liberate Jerusalem.’ When a Catholic French prime minister describes Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem from the largely French Crusaders as an act of liberation, this would seem to indicate a rather extreme case of realignment of loyalties or at least of perceptions. According to the parliamentary record, when M. Raffarin used the word ‘liberate,’ a member called out, ‘Liberer?’ The prime minister just went straight on. That was the only interruption, and as far as I know there was no comment afterwards.” Muslims liberated the city from Christians who had liberated the city from Muslim conquest. The mind begins to spin at the spinning.
• It’s long past time for liberal Catholics to face the fact that their fifteen minutes—or, more accurately, twenty-five years—are over. So says John Allen in an extended essay in the newspaper of record for liberal Catholicism, the National Catholic Reporter. He is far from the first to say it, but its publication in NCR is of more than passing interest. Francis Cardinal George put it more succinctly several years ago: “Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project.” Readers may have noticed that observations in a similar vein have appeared in these pages from time to time. From the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) until the mid-eighties, the taken-for-granted assumption was that the forces of liberalism, progressivism, reform, renewal—all marching under the banner of aggiornamento