The Moral Law
Reading Robert George’s “Law and Moral Purpose” (January 2008), I found myself nodding in agreement. His brief critique of libertarianism helped me cement my own thoughts about what is fundamentally missing from that otherwise admirable position, and his analysis of embryo research is on the mark. Nevertheless, his defense of marriage left me puzzled; though we agree totally on this critical issue, there was something about his argument I fear would smack of sophistry to the general populace. He began strongly enough, but his later development wanders into some tall grass. Fine distinctions between Aristotelian primary and secondary goods, and monistic and dualistic modes of reasoning, will not divert this coming juggernaut, and it would be a shame to lose the conflict owing to the country’s collective attention deficit.
“Societal cost” arguments fare only marginally better. Heterosexuals such as myself could not be induced to consider homosexual unions were every state in the nation to grant them tax privileges, nor do I suspect there would be any fewer children born to heterosexuals. I also think we must reluctantly confess that there is no cost-benefit analysis likely to sway the masses. Nor is there a strictly logical basis for denying same-sex unions, for there are too many and varied exceptions to the norm among traditional marriages for us to single out this one class of union for special abhorrence. George seems to recognize this dilemma and attempts to counter it, but I think in the end he is unconvincing. You simply cannot on logic alone hold reproduction to be the overriding interest of the state in sanctioning unions while maintaining exclusive exemptions for sterile heterosexual families.
So what is wrong with “nontraditional” marriage, other than that we now have to explain it to people old enough to vote? The answer has nothing to do with costs, philosophy, or syllogisms and is the path I thought George was surely taking before he chased the lion into its lair. He rightly champions a truth that is “luminously powerful” (a wonderful expression), but, in his attempt to illuminate the moral basis for marriage without the benefit of being able to use moral language, he already concedes too much to those who prefer to split legal hairs. Yes, I realize we must ultimately join the fray in the courts, but I would pursue a more mundane strategy even there. To wit, for the same reason I cannot meaningfully declare myself a horse, I cannot, if words mean anything, “marry” one.
Caligula famously declared his horse a senator, but, mad as he was, he had no delusions that his horse was not a horse. For five thousand years, the concept of marriage has been synonymous with heterosexual, though not always monogamous, union, predating government in some cases by centuries. Even in those cultures where homosexuality was rampant and generally accepted, no one until now thought of using the word marriage to describe any relationship other than that between a husband and a wife, the basic unit of civilization. Having blithely kicked away the pillars of civilization over the past century, we are now digging furiously at its foundation stone. So the first objection to same-sex “marriage” under any rubric is that it destroys, literally, a key concept of society by debasing the language.
This is not quibbling over semantics, for once we grasp its full implications we recognize a powerful argument rooted in our founding and common law. George ever so briefly alludes to this and is at his most convincing in what appears almost as a coda, where he forcefully argues the need for a national resolution on the issue. With the virtues of federalism in view, he laments the need for a preemptive strike against “judicial usurpation,” an unchecked power that could subject us all to radical upheavals. Marriage is sacred if anything is and constitutes the society that in turn legitimizes the state, which may only affirm and protect it. That is, it is not in the state’s domain to define marriage away by fiat. It simply does not own the term. We rightly charge the state to stand surety for our marriage contracts, safeguarding but one of its dimensions (the legal), but there are other dimensions beyond the purview of the state, and we the people do not implicitly grant it power to destroy that ancient institution. Tragically, society may do just that through neglect or self-indulgence, but there are other repositories of authority, independent of and complementing the state, that can provide a bulwark. (Church, anyone?)
The article began down this path but then turned aside to what, in my mind, were far weaker arguments, diluting the full force of what might otherwise have been delivered. Perhaps we can view this moment as a golden opportunity to reeducate the public on the checks and balances between autonomous societal constructs. I trust that George will receive this light criticism as a stone on which to sharpen his indispensable pen in the ongoing battle to restore sanity before marriage is surreptitiously defined to be congress between any two humans. Or between three. Or with a horse.
Lacking the referents, reason consumes itself. It is not enough to rely on reason operating against the referent of nature (when seen as an amalgamation of purposeless laws) to justify man’s inherent dignity. Rather, a second referent is needed, namely, what man can become.
What can man become? Godlike, yes, but only at a cost that renders the prize more costly than the status quo ante. And there’s your second referent: God, but only as he’s revealed himself, beginning with “I am,” which also means, “I’m not one of you, nor are you one of me.”
Human reason seeks God but does not find him unless it relies on revelation as one referent and nature/human nature as the other. Along this path we find the natural law.
Note, therefore, that while relying on reason and nature, we find only substantive law in nature for lack of purpose and positive law in human nature for purpose. Is this not inverted when one accounts for the second referent?
Many of Robert George’s arguments reveal a tortured logic that shows why marriage is in the difficult position we find it in today. He starts by saying, “Our task should be to understand the moral truth and speak it in season and out of season.” But there is no “the” moral truth, and there never has been with respect to marriage. This institution has changed drastically over the years”and centuries.
At one time, women were prohibited from being anything other than wives and mothers. They were subject to beatings and treated despicably, actions sanctioned by both church and state. Today that is generally not the case. And, as George is no doubt aware, there are about 700,000 interracial couples today. This was illegal in many states until the mid-1960s. So the mere fact that marriage is changing is not an argument that change is wrong.
George says, “The central and justifying point of sex is not pleasure, however much sexual pleasure is rightly sought as an aspect of the perfection of marital union; the point of sex, rather, is marriage itself.”
But this is simply wrong. Sex is a pleasurable act in and of itself, and there is nothing immoral in a nonmarital sexual act. His “moral truth” of sex is capricious and without merit. Other than appealing to religious values, there’s little objective logic in saying the point of sex is marriage.
Robert P. George replies:
I am grateful to Vincent Owens for his kind words. He, too, wants to build a culture in which marriages flourish because people understand what marriage is (and isn’t) and why it is so profoundly valuable. I hope he will agree, however, that there is no magic bullet. Much needs to be done, by many different people, making contributions of many different types, if the goal we share is to be accomplished.
The rigorous philosophical explication of marriage is among the things needing to be done. It is not the only thing, nor do I pretend that it is the most important one. But it cannot be left off the “to do” list. And that means some of us will have to shoulder the task of demonstrating that marital communion is an intrinsic (and not merely instrumental) human good whose contours are what they are because human persons are what they are, namely, unities of body, mind, and spirit rather than nonbodily persons (minds, spirits, centers of consciousness or feeling) who merely inhabit and use nonpersonal bodies. Will this involve drawing “fine distinctions”? Yes, unavoidably. Will these distinctions “smack of sophistry” to some people? I suppose so. But only to partisans of the redefinition of marriage who have closed their minds to intellectual argument and are unwilling to consider the possibility that the conjugal conception of marriage as the union of husband and wife is true and good. Such people are, in my own experience of debating the marriage issue, still in the minority.
A sound account of marriage, one that attends to the meaning and implications of the sexual-reproductive complementarity of men and women, will help us to understand not only why marriage is intrinsically a male-female union, but also why same-sex and polyamorous unions cannot, in truth, be marriages. To really understand why the conjugal conception of marriage is the correct conception, it is insufficient simply to advert to the historical fact that “for five thousand years, the concept of marriage has been synonymous with the heterosexual.” We need to think about what marriage actually is; we need to understand that marriage is not a merely instrumental good (as advocates of the redefinition of marriage implicitly believe) but is rather an intrinsic one (as defenders of conjugal marriage rightly insist). We also need to grasp how it is that marriage, as a unique and uniquely valuable form of interpersonal communion, fulfills human persons and serves in various ways (and indispensably) the common good of the larger community.
All this may sound abstruse to people who have no patience for philosophy. I fear that Owens may be such a person. He says, “You simply cannot simultaneously hold reproduction to be the overriding interest of the state in sanctioning unions while maintaining exclusive exemptions for sterile heterosexual families on logic alone.” But he would not be asserting any such thing if he were to consider thoughtfully the philosophical arguments that have been presented by many defenders of conjugal marriage (and never successfully answered by critics) to show why the law has always, and rightly, considered spousal infertility to be no impediment to marriage, while at the same time treating consummation by a sexual act fulfilling the behavioral conditions of reproduction to be necessary for the legal completion of a marriage (rendering it nonannullable). The state’s primary (though not exclusive) interest in marriage is indeed a concern for the rearing of children. But, for reasons explained by sociologists as well as philosophers, that concern itself gives the state reason to give special recognition and support to marital unions, including the marriages of spouses who cannot have children, and to avoid recognizing as “marital” (or the equivalent) sexual partnerships that are intrinsically nonmarital.
I wonder if Robert Bennett shares a bit of Owens’ impatience with philosophy, though perhaps for reasons of his own. It is true that philosophers sometimes make the mistake of viewing their craft as self-sufficient and standing in no need of illumination by God’s revelation. If I have fallen into that error, I’m happy to be corrected. If I understand Bennett correctly, however, he thinks that human purpose cannot be discovered or understood, even imperfectly, apart from the light of revelation. I disagree. I would affirm, with St. Paul, that God has created man in such a way that “even the Gentiles who have not the law of Moses have a law written on their hearts,” that is, an understanding of purpose and the human good that is sufficient for moral accountability. And I would affirm with Pope John Paul the Great that faith and reason are the “two wings on which the human spirit ascends to contemplation of the truth.”
Robert Puharic seems to be a man given to sweeping ex-cathedra-style declarations. For example, he announces that “there is no ‘the’ moral truth, and there never has been with respect to marriage.” His evidence? “This institution has changed drastically over the years and centuries.” As a logical matter, however, evidence of the diversity of moral opinions and practices cannot establish the absence of moral truth. Consider the case of slavery. In different times and in different places various forms of slavery and involuntary servitude have been practiced and even treated as laudable. Alas, forms of slavery exist in some places even today. Would Puharic conclude from these facts that there is no such thing as the moral truth that slavery is wrong? If so, he would be guilty of the same elementary logical fallacy he is committing in the case of marriage. As for his pronouncement that “there is nothing immoral in a nonmarital sexual act,” I would note only that he neither offers arguments for his view nor addresses the counterarguments that I and others have advanced against it. I set forth my own arguments regarding sexual morality, and respond in detail to arguments that have been advanced by people who share Puharic’s views, in several chapters of my book In Defense of Natural Law (Oxford University Press, 1999), as well as in Self-Body Dualism and Contemporary Ethics , written with Patrick Lee (Cambridge University Press, 2008).
Digging Through Nietzsche
Presumably “Nietzsche’s Deeper Truth” (January 2008) has something to do with morality! But the Genealogy of Morals itself is more or less a lab experiment of ideas connected with morality. An engaging writer, Nietzsche can nevertheless oscillate wildly from one thought to another so that his work sometimes reads like a psychological “tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” But, in lucid moments, amid all his talk about the noble ideal, asceticism, and the “slave morality,” he does provide a clear idea of where he is heading, which R.R. Reno doesn’t bring out sufficiently. Nietzsche clearly states his moral ideal, by depicting what he considers to be a moral genius, in the final paragraphs of part two of the Genealogy : “This tocsin of noon and of the great verdict, which renders the will again free, who gives back to the world its goal and to man his hope, this Antichrist and Antinihilist, this conquerer of God and of Nothingness” he must one day come . . . . Zarathustra the godless.”
If this does not exactly sound like the sort of thing we usually connect with “morality,” the ideal is spelled out more clearly in some of Nietz-sche’s other works. In Beyond Good and Evil , he declares: “At present . . . when throughout Europe the herding animal alone attains to honours, and dispenses honours, when ‘equality of right’ can too readily be transformed into equality in wrong: I mean to say into general war against everything rare, strange, and privileged, against the higher man, the higher soul, the higher duty, the higher responsibility, the creative plenipotence and lordliness”at present it belongs to the conception of ‘greatness’ to be noble, to wish to be apart, to be capable of being different, to stand alone, to have to live by personal initiative.” In other words, at the very least, the Nietzschean ideal has to do with rising above the “herd mentality” of socialism and other egalitarian movements overtaking Europe. In Steppenwolf and Demian , the novelist Hermann Hesse, a disciple of Nietzsche, portrayed the Zarathustran personality as the highly individualized and uniquely principled person who does not kowtow to any extant morality but works harder than anyone else in formulating or, more precisely, creating his own distinctive values”bringing about the “transvaluation” of values.
In his posthumous Will to Power , Nietzsche counters not only socialist egalitarianism but what he perceived as the leveling effect of Darwinian evolution”achieving survival of the fittest by reproduction”with the anti-Darwinian idea of the possible success of evolution’s producing just one Übermensch ”a moral superman who had completely conquered himself to become the supreme individual, creating a morality that is uniquely his own and can never be a rule for anyone else. It is not clear whether Nietzsche believed this lofty state would ever be attained, but he may have thought that even approximations would make all of evolution worthwhile. In any case, the ideal state is so sui generis that not even a card-carrying relativist would be able to adopt it as a norm.
Howard P. Kainz
While Reno’s essay on Nietzsche is well done and avoids the usual pitfall of Nietzsche as “The Atheist,” the question needs to be asked whether atheism for Nietzsche should be understood in its usual strict sense or in a metaphorical sense. We know that Nietzsche declares the Plato-Augustinian conception of life, culture, and therefore God to be exhausted, and that a revaluation is required. The following quotation might help here:
If, however, we place ourselves at the end of this colossal process, at the point where the tree finally matures its fruits, when society and its morality of custom finally bring to light that to which it was only a means, then we find as the ripest fruit of its tree, the sovereign individual , that resembles only himself, that has got loose from morality of custom, the autonomous “super-moral” individual . . . in short, the man of the personal, long, and independent will, competent to promise ”and we find in him a proud consciousness become vivified in him, a genuine consciousness of power and freedom, a feeling of human perfection in general. ( On the Genealogy of Morals ; emphasis mine)
Who is this “ sovereign individual , that resembles only himself”? And what is the competency to promise? Can such a sovereign individual be found within the ascetic ideal? Does Nietzsche think that the ancient ascetic ideal has the energy to mold modern man as it successfully did previously? The ascetic ideal by its very nature posited a dual reality, a reality that was metaphysical”beyond the here and now and the physical. The human being found his identity only through that dichotomy of metaphysical and physical. In the Christian world, it was God who saw all events, and it was he who would judge the living and the dead. This metaphysical (and now religiously interpreted) picture was the consolation and recompense for all those who suffered and endured pain. Just think of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Lazarus is given peace while the rich man is in a place of torment. Divine justice indeed! But you will notice that Lazarus is compensated only through the divine mercy. Thus, he is not sovereign but dependent on someone else (God) to grant him justice. He does not confer justice on himself!
Nietzsche decries the ascetic ideal as preventing modern man from achieving sovereignty. Might this not be what he means metaphorically by atheism? Man’s competency to promise is a self-realizing and self-identifying activity. Man receives his identity by fidelity to promises and ruins himself by denying his promises. Nietzsche rejects the ascetic ideal as unworkable and wrong, because it keeps man from achieving his sovereignty”God still is the judge, man is not his own judge. In his rejection of Western religion and its older viewpoint of God, Nietzsche is an atheist, but perhaps as Socrates was an atheist in Meletus’ understanding. It is at this point that I would differ with Reno. Nietzsche disengages morality from God and religion and makes man the judge”of himself. It is only when man has responsibility for himself, to make or break himself, that we can find “the sovereign individual, that resembles only himself.”
Rev. William R. Sokolowski
R.R. Reno replies:
I wish I could write more clearly. Both Howard Kainz and William Sokolowski seem to think I have failed to recognize Nietzsche’s true moral and spiritual ambitions. Professor Kainz describes this ambition as the “Zarathustran personality,” a life lived out of the inner resources of the individual, unbound by moral systems. Rev. Sokolowski rightly quotes Nietzsche’s affirmation of “the sovereign individual,” the person capable of legislating right and wrong for himself.
This is all very familiar. Read a little Emerson and one has the vision of the “super-moral” person well in hand. Or read Jean-Paul Sartre in his existentialist phase. Or Erich Fromm. Or Herbert Marcuse. Or Norman O. Brown. The side of Nietzsche that so passionately denounces the leveling, dehumanizing effects of inherited morality is a twentieth-century commonplace. It is now a dogma of postmodern philosophy. Critiquing “power” and giving priority to “difference” is just another way of furthering Nietz-sche’s main project: to midwife a new era in which human beings can simply live as they are rather than as God or the categorical imperative or bourgeois morality would have them. Rev. Sokolowski is quite right. The Nietzschean ideal”the postmodern ideal”is to escape from the religious and metaphysical and moral projects of the past, all of which want us to live for the sake of something other than ourselves.
So I grant the point. I thought I had granted it in the essay. It’s the standard reading of Nietzsche, based on an accurate assessment of what Nietzsche seems to have wanted, both for himself and for others. Prof. Kainz, Rev. Sokolowski, and armies of scholars could multiply the quotations many times. Nietzsche longed for the possibility of living without reference to truths or ideals or principles that inevitably seek to exercise authority over our inner lives.
But I wrote the essay because a closer reading of the Genealogy of Morals shows that Nietzsche was neither a street-corner existentialist nor a jet-setting professor sermonizing about “the Other.” He understood the human condition. He saw that the soul is given life by the invasion of demand into the depths of the human psyche, and he suspected (to his horror and dismay) that a life worth living requires an ascetic submission of individuality to something higher. I never claimed that Nietzsche wanted to see this deeper truth. Nor did I argue that it accorded with his eschatological dreams. I only claimed in my essay that Nietzsche’s integrity of mind freed him from easy modern pieties about human flourishing in a secular, disenchanted culture”and forced him toward an Augustinian view of the restless human heart.
Nietzsche thought of himself as a Seer. To a certain degree, I’m inclined to agree. He certainly saw the strange paradoxes of post-Christian culture: the high demands of authenticity, the rigorous self-discipline of Zarathustra, the attractive deceptions of modernity. Yet, like all Seers, Nietzsche could not control what was revealed to him. This master of suspicion seems to have had suspicions about his own suspicion of the ascetic ideal. That he suppressed them should not surprise us. It is very difficult to live without lies. But we need not lie to ourselves about ourselves. In fact, if we would be genuine humanists, then we cannot.
Scorn for Porn
Thank you to Jason Byassee for his essay on the pornography problem (“Not Your Father’s Pornography,” January 2008). This topic receives too little attention, and even less intelligent attention. Despite Byassee’s apparent envy of evangelical and Catholic statements against pornography, these seldom amount to more than denouncements. After years of hearing evangelical sermons, and subsequent years of Catholic homilies, I can recall this issue being addressed fewer than five times”and the message was pretty much the same: “Pornography is bad, fellas”don’t do it.”
We are becoming more anesthetized to the influence of pornography, obviously, but most of us still know it is wrong. Consider the evidence of our shame. As Byassee points out, the places of consumption are more private than ever before. Men still endeavor to hide their cyber-fornications from their wives and families. Despite all my attempts at filtering software, even my kids’ computer still gets advertisements disguised as “warning” messages advising them to cleanse their computer (and their conscience) of any potential records of pornographic forays.
We do not know how to escape pornography, or at least we are unwilling to take the drastic steps necessary to escape it. During more than one Lent, my family has given up television, only to turn it back on two months later to find that Byassee is right. Pornography is everywhere. Not just TV: It’s in the language, the music, the dancing, the revealing attire, the magazines, the billboards, the office conversations, the high schools, and the junior high schools. We eat, drink, clothe ourselves with, and bathe in sexuality. When Byassee makes the statistical case for how many men use pornography, I wonder if he means that we should be surprised. We should, in fact, be surprised that the statistics are not worse.
The fact that so many good men are falling should not cause us to stand agape; it should move us to face the problem with more than finger wagging or ignorance. People, mostly men, need help. A Google search for “porn addiction” returns more than half a million results.
Many of these offer assistance, though there is something ironic about getting support for pornography addiction online. I confess ignorance regarding the best solution on an individual level. Perhaps support groups at the parish and congregational level, seminars, or frequent and constructive sermons and homilies might help. But the problem must also be addressed on a societal level and on much more aggressive terms. How many times can one man turn away from the billboard, shut off the TV, or throw away the magazine before succumbing to temptation? The popular perception of pornography as a private sin, even by Christians, has contributed to pornography taking root in our culture and our homes. Before anyone will fight a war on pornography, they will have to acknowledge that there is a war to be fought.
I am writing to express my disappointment in Jason Byassee for his opinion piece in the January 2008 issue, and my disappointment in you for publishing it.
I found the article to be hysterical, and not in the comic sense. There were, I counted, nine references to statistical proof of the epidemic of pornography in this country, but only two of those statistics had any sort of reference, and those two were Christianity Today and Pastors.com ”not exactly models of scientific objectivity. One statistic struck me as so wild that I wondered whether anyone had edited this article at all. Byassee writes, “One survey suggests that 90 percent of eight- to sixteen-year-olds have viewed pornography online.”
In order for this claim to be true, 90 percent of eight- to sixteen-year-olds would have to have access to computers with high-speed Internet capability. Do you really think that this is the case? While hard numbers on pornography may be “hard to find,” as Byassee says (though he seems to have found a lot), hard numbers on the rates of childhood poverty are rather extensively available. Here in Houston there are still people”working people with full-time jobs”who suffer through the misery of a summer without air-conditioning because they can’t afford the electricity bills. Do you think that 90 percent of children in those households are surfing the Internet?
Courtney Guest Kim
I am happy to see the article by Jason Byassee about pornography. I work in campus ministry and have seen how destructive sexual addiction can be with our college students. The statistics are frightening, but the consequences of the pornification of our culture are only now being realized. With the growing number of regular users and addicts, we will continue to see a rise in the staggering number of people who cannot function regularly in an intimate relationship.
Byassee says that evangelical churches haven’t dealt with the subject as well as Catholics. While I cannot speak for the evangelical side of the issue, I do not believe that Catholics have addressed the issue all that well either. Some dioceses and bishops have met the issue with a strong response, but others have done nothing at all. Regardless, we need to take a firm and consistent stand against pornography”across the Body of Christ.
In my opinion, we already have the antidote for the poison, and it is found in John Paul II’s theology of the body. It is the affirmation of our sacredness that is discovered in our sexuality. Yet, without sound teaching, training, prevention, and treatment, I don’t see that this issue will get better anytime soon. This will require the combined efforts of bishops, clergy, and lay leaders. I pray that a conversation can be started in both Catholic and evangelical circles that can accomplish such a solution. Otherwise, I fear the problems have only started to come to light.
College Station, Texas
The opinion piece by Jason Byassee put me in mind of Shakespeare’s untaught, unread, and unknown Sonnet 129: The expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action .
Jason Byassee replies:
Most of these letter writers share my sense of the scale of pornography as a growing social problem. My suggestion of a liturgical response should not be taken as an alternative to the sorts of legislative ones for which David Eron calls; I’m just not sure how it would work legally. I’m also less interested in passing laws than I am in the faithfulness of the Church”one hopes the world will be inspired by that faithfulness in ways we can’t now imagine.
I struggled with how many statistics to include”there are lies, damned lies, and statistics, as Disraeli said. One thing I could not do is properly document even the small number I did use”it would look cumbersome and readers would tune out. (Most come from Pamela Paul’s book Pornified , others from articles at Slate.com and the various ecclesial statements I reference.) Courtney Guest Kim clucks her tongue at one in particular, about how 90 percent of eight- to sixteen-year-olds view porn online. Sure enough, I should have been more careful to say Internet users of that age, as bishop of Kansas City Robert Finn’s pastoral letter more specifically reports.
But I am confused by why Kim thinks so few kids have Internet access”schools and public libraries are eager to provide it, cell phones are not far behind, and, as I argue throughout, pornography is increasingly found everywhere, not just online. I’m curious as to exactly who the unbiased observers of this problem might be”many of the sources I use, such as Slate.com, The Atlantic , the Covenant Church, and so on are not exactly sources of socially conservative demagoguery. Kim seems to think one could either oppose poverty or oppose pornography”a dichotomy not only false but ridiculous.
Kim hints at the problem that animates me: Why is this a “conservative” issue? It is liberal-mainline church leaders who tell me it’s a problem for their parishioners and colleagues. Feminists have long rallied against porn. These sorts of arbitrary conservative/liberal divisions in American culture and church life should simply be ignored rather than glorified. Kim could give thanks to God that this is not one of the problems that threatens the goodness of her life or that of people she loves”but she also ought not assume everyone else is so blissfully carefree.
Jesus’ Friends Respond
In his article “No Friend in Jesus,” Meir Soloveichik has written one of the most significant contributions to Jewish-Christian dialogue since . . . well, since David Novak last wrote on this theme. That said, however, I cannot help but think he has trapped himself in an unnecessary bind by accepting too uncritically C.S. Lewis’ famous “trilemma,” which allows only three possible responses to claims of Christ’s divinity: either Jesus was right, mad, or lying. Rabbi Soloveichik clearly rejects the first option but delicately”and no doubt wisely”declines to call Jesus either mad or demonic, although by his own account it would seem he has no other choice.
But the New Testament narrates another option. To be sure, the gospels recognize something like a trilemma, since they report that Jesus’ own family (however defined) thought he was mad (Mark 3:21), while his opponents claimed he came from the devil (Mark 3:22). But even among Jesus’ closest followers, the most common reaction was incomprehension . It would do great violence to the evidence of the gospels (including the Fourth Gospel) to assert that the disciples accepted Jesus as God simpliciter by the mere fact that they were his disciples. For one thing, important strains in the New Testament tradition assert that Jesus was made Lord and Christ in the Resurrection (Acts 2:36, Rom. 1:3-4), however that “making” is to be understood.
Let us call this, then, the New Testament “quadrilemma.” I draw attention to this theme of incomprehension not so much to criticize Rabbi Soloveichik’s article as to point out the inadequacy of Lewis’ more truncated and simplistic trilemma. For one thing, Christians hardly want to box Jews into either accepting Jesus or calling him mad or demonic. After all, who does not, ultimately, find Jesus baffling?
Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
University of St. Mary of the Lake
I have admired Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s theological writings for some years. He is the future of theology in Judaism. His fine commentary (“No Friend in Jesus,” January 2008) on the exchange between my A Rabbi Talks with Jesus and Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth favors dialogue between Judaism and Christianity limited to a shared contemporary program of social reform and rejects theological disputation on religious truth set forth in the gospels and the Torah. On that basis, he takes exception to the critique of the Sermon on the Mount that I constructed out of the teachings of the Torah of Sinai as handed on by the rabbis of oral tradition.
To engage in dialogue is to affirm the integrity of the other, even while insisting on the unique truth of one’s own position. I think he is entirely correct in his observation and do affirm that much in the teaching of Jesus derives from the Torah of Moses and forms the grounds for interfaith disputation, not merely secular dialogue.
Annandale-on-Hudson, New York
Meir Soloveichik’s discussion of the dialogue between Jacob Neusner and Pope Benedict XVI about Jesus reminds me of comments made by Martin Buber in 1930 to a conference on Christian missions to the Jews (published as “The Two Foci of the Jewish Soul” in The Writings of Martin Buber ):
What have you [Christians] and we [Jews] in common? If we take the question literally, a book and an expectation. To you, the book is a forecourt; to us, it is the sanctuary. But in this place, we can dwell together, and together listen to the voice that speaks here . . . . Your expectation is directed toward a second coming, ours to a coming which has not been anticipated by a first . . . . But we can wait for the advent of the One together, and there are moments when we may prepare the way before him together.
Pre-messianically, our destinies are divided . . . . This is a gulf which no human power can bridge. But it does not prevent the common watch for a unity to come to us from God, which soaring above all of your imaginations and all of ours, affirms and denies, denies and affirms, what you hold and what we hold, and replaces all the creedal truths of earth by the ontological truth of heaven which is one.
Daniel Love Glazer
As a former Jew and now a Catholic, I read Meir Soloveichik’s “No Friend in Jesus” with both interest and agreement. I appreciate his sincerity and honesty, and I agree with him completely in his conviction that the potential accord of Jews and Catholics lies in their shared resistance to relativism rather than in any kind of agreement on Jesus. It is precisely our disagreement about Jesus, after all, that divides us. We cannot expect to agree there. Dialogue will be much more profitable to both religions if it focuses on topics where agreement is at least possible.
I agree with Soloveichik’s point that A Rabbi Talks with Jesus , which receives such concentrated attention from Benedict XVI in Jesus of Nazareth , is “problematic.” Its author, Jacob Neusner, imagines himself in conversation with Jesus, and, according to the pope, Neusner “is constantly moved by the greatness of Jesus, departing from him only with great respect and reverence.” Soloveichik rightly points out that such a response would be impossible: Jesus claimed to be God. How could a Jew possibly respond to such a claim with “respect and reverence”?
Soloveichik uses the words of C.S. Lewis to clarify the “problem” he has with Neusner’s assumed response to Jesus: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a ‘great moral teacher.’ . . . He would either be a lunatic”or else he would be the Devil of Hell.” Neither possibility would evoke respect or reverence.
It’s worth pointing out, however, that Lewis was not writing for a Jewish audience. In a sense, using his words in this context does them a bit of a disservice, just as Neusner’s “respect and reverence” does some disservice to Judaism. Indeed, if a Jew of Jesus’ day did not become a disciple, the only possible response to Jesus would be horror. And, while the pope may focus too much on Neusner’s book, Soloveichik himself may rely a bit too heavily on Lewis for his criticism. Lewis was not so much imagining what could have been a Jewish response to Jesus as he was attempting to evoke a response from a contemporary Gentile reader.
Judaism is the expression of highly advanced ethical thinkers. The claim of Jesus to be the Son of God”God himself”violates the most basic foundation of the Sh’ma. No believing Jew can ever accept it without completely abandoning his own religion, nor could he ever regard such a claim with anything like respect or reverence, even if he could admire the claimant’s ethics. Christianity, however, is not composed of highly advanced ethical thinking alone, and it is in the arena beyond ethics that the two religions can never become one, no matter how closely related they are.
In “No Friend in Jesus,” Meir Soloveichik takes the relationship of Jews and Christians back to the Middle Ages when he argues that only “a friendship founded on our mutual resistance to relativism can unite us despite our theological differences.” Such a statement, if true, would be the basis for friendship not only between Christianity and the Jewish faith but also for friendships with radical Islam, communism, and Nazism, since all these ideologies are also opposed to relativism. Solovei-chik makes his case partly using rhetorical quotes from C.S. Lewis, who once stated, in effect, that Jesus was either God or a lunatic. Lewis and other writers, however, were calling attention to the seriousness of the issue at stake”not giving ultimatums to non-Christians. It is inconceivable, for example, that Pope Benedict XVI would propose such a binary choice of Jesus as God or lunatic to his friend Rabbi Jacob Neusner or to anyone else.
What is appropriate as a challenge to the Christian, or to the prospective Christian, would be severely disrespectful as a condition of friendship to those committed to other faiths, including agnostics and atheists. In the end, Soloveichik would have Christians accept as friends for serious discussion those who openly label Jesus Christ a madman. One only wonders how he would label Muhammad for a discussion with his Muslim friends.
Can anything, then, be used as the basis for friendship? Perhaps this: the acknowledgment that the life of Jesus was heroic even in tragedy. As such, the life of Jesus is worth emulating, even if he were only a man who thought”perhaps through imaginings”that men and women were worthy of redemption through a love that suffers.
Camus describes such a man as our true friend, one who sleeps on the cold ground while we are in prison, hoping for our release through his effort. Only the Spirit can take us further than this in our belief, but first we must accept and admire the man. Meir Solovei-chik needs to encounter the Jesus of Mark’s gospel, courageous and misunderstood, forsaken even by God at the cross, a Jesus who forgives even those who think him foolishly insane.
Daniel J. Biezad
San Luis Obispo, California