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Uprooting Spirituality

In his review of Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (“Lost in Space-Time,” April 2010), David P. Goldman calls most of her arguments “straw men.” It seems to me that Goldstein presents them in an ironic manner and that the book takes the position of a skeptical ambiguity toward God that leans toward generalized wonder and spirituality. I thought she was saying that it is foolish to believe in a God that is knowable and definable but just as foolish to believe that by knocking down the classical arguments for God we can demolish the ambiguous but tantalizing “something out there.”

Indeed, the very organization of the book into 36 chapters, each with the title “The Argument from . . . ” suggests that these arguments (that is, the argument from “soul-gazing,” from “the existence of the poem,” from the “arrow of time,” from the “longing on the gate,” and so on), and not the ones in the appendix, are her real arguments for the existence of God. She is saying that the formal arguments can be defeated (although you gave excellent reasons to the contrary), but that still does not defeat the ineffable presence of an ambiguous “something more.”

The book was weak, because of Goldstein’s weak, unformed (and uninformed) view of God. But Cass Seltzer”a famous atheist who nevertheless is always having little personal spiritual experiences”paradoxically embodies her theme. The combination of the title, the appendix, and the chapter titles was meant to be a hint to the reader of intended irony.

Rachel Wolf


David P. Goldman replies:

Rebecca Goldstein has said that she intends to publish an expanded version of her appendix containing purported refutations of every known argument for the existence of God. From this I conclude that she takes them quite seriously indeed. It is true, as Rachel Wolf suggests, that Goldstein allows her characters a touch of spirituality, provided, of course, that it has nothing to do with any God that a Jew or Christian might worship. One approaches God with fear and trembling. In some of her earlier novels, Goldstein’s characters put their souls at risk; in 36 Arguments , their concerns are as mundane as her logic.

Reading Scott Hahn

I am not persuaded by R.R. Reno’s criticism (Briefly Noted, April 2010) that Scott Hahn’s Kinship by Covenant is at cross-purposes, employing historical-critical methodologies when examining each covenant in its Old Testament context and then using a more canonical, holistic reading of the Christian canon when examining the New Testament’s fulfillment readings. What else could Hahn have done? He has to take the findings of historical-critical scholarship on the covenants seriously, for it helps to show the differences of these covenants (he reads these different covenants as evidence of various phases of kinship relationships) and serves as a guard against approaches such as that of Heinrich Bullinger, who saw only one covenant in all of Scripture. He has to look back from the New Testament to the Old Testament and to biblical theology; otherwise he would not be reading from inside the New Testament authors’ perspectives.

The book as a whole makes genuine advances in exegesis by helping to explain how the Old Testament writers move so easily between what were previously caricatured as conditional and unconditional covenants and highlighting how significant the deity’s oaths are in both canons. Hahn’s use of findings from historical-critical scholarship is not inappropriate “cherry picking.” Nor is it merely the work of an “apologist” who is “redeploying the supposed authority of biblical science to support orthodox theological interpretations.” It is, rather, the cross-fertilization of the literal and anagogical senses, which has borne fruit for centuries.

Mark Reasoner


Having positively reviewed Scott Hahn’s Kinship by Covenant in the evangelical Bulletin of Biblical Research , I am compelled to express that I find R.R. Reno’s brief review of the book grossly unfair.

Reno’s real target seems to be the so-called historical-critical method. Certainly that method as practiced in a modernist key shatters the canon into pieces that “resist integration into . . . a ‘canonical’ or ‘narrative’ reading of the Bible.” But Hahn, like Reno, belonging to a tradition that sees value in plundering the Egyptians, is cautiously appropriating the fruitful insights of biblical research into the concept of covenant in service of a broader canonical, theological project.

For Hahn and other believing biblical scholars like myself who are concerned for theological and ecclesial exegesis, historical work is a necessary endeavor in prolegomena”a starting point, not an end. We’re concerned to put the parts into a more coherent whole, to ask how the texts relate to the triune God and how the Bible functions as the Church’s Scripture. Reno’s protestations aside, the category of salvation history may indeed be a fruitful avenue, for whatever its potential difficulties in various conceptions thereof, it takes both salvation (God) and history seriously.

Reno is either accusing Hahn of simply having a modernist worldview, which Hahn does not, or accusing him of not seeing the problems inherent in appropriating historical-critical work for broader theological endeavors. If the latter, Reno should have dug deeper into the book and demonstrated the fault lines. He doesn’t. Instead, he strongly suggests history and theology must be divided and flags Hahn for playing on the wrong side of the divide. What Reno rightly calls “our present crisis in biblical interpretation” will not be solved by taking a quasi-Gnostic flight from history.

Both Hahn and Reno treat Scripture not merely as a collection of ancient artifacts but as Scripture, and they approach it from theological and ecclesial perspectives. It’s all the more puzzling, then, that Reno would misread the book so badly and, at the end of the review, mention John J. Collins, whose historical-critical work would seem a more fitting target than Hahn’s.

Leroy Huizenga


R.R. Reno replies:

The main difficulty with Kinship as Covenant concerns the way in which Hahn uses historical-critical conclusions and modes of analysis to construct an account of covenant in the Old Testament. He turns to recent scholarship to build an elaborate, multistage argument, adducing many “findings” that serve as premises. None of these enjoy a 100 percent probability of truth, and when enough are strung together in a chain of conditional reasoning, they produce a conclusion with a small likelihood of truth. However theologically winsome, when viewed purely as a historical argument based on the particular judgments of other historical scholars, the conclusion to the first portion of Kinship as Covenant has very little likelihood of being true. This is a problem because the highly unlikely conclusion plays a central role in still further elaborate arguments about fulfillment in the second half of the book. Thus my advice: Drop the historical-critical science.

For more than two centuries, the tradition of historical-critical study of the Bible has sought authoritative readings of the Bible that distill key normative theological concepts out of the many studies of particular strata of the biblical text and its history. Because of the mathematics of conditional probability, these efforts cannot succeed. Historical judgments about discrete portions of texts and slices of ancient Israelite history can discipline and enrich our larger-scale, traditional interpretations of the Bible.

But the techniques of modern historical analysis that provide critical insight lack the creative, synthetic power to generate canonical readings. When we try to do so, as does Hahn, the results are unpersuasive historical arguments and ersatz theological constructions. We do better to leaven our canonical readings with, rather than construct them out of, modern historical-critical study of the Bible.

Casey and Control

In John McCormack’s article criticizing pro-life Democrats for selling out on health care (“The Case Against Casey,” April 2010), the author has glossed over a fundamental distinction we as Christians would do well to maintain. The new health-care legislation will provide subsidies to enable individuals to buy health insurance. In so doing, it will not restrict the recipients from buying insurance plans that cover abortion. The government is not funding abortions; individuals are, albeit with government subsidy.

A distinction without a difference? We may object in principle to government providing economic assistance, but as long as the government provides subsidies, we should advocate that they be provided with no strings attached because otherwise religious organizations are disadvantaged. Any attempt to expand the use of school vouchers, for example, will hinge on the principle that government provision of economic assistance should be done with as little infringement on citizens’ freedoms as possible. Our outcry on this issue reinforces the view that government must control whatever it touches.

Rich Gaffin


John McCormack replies:

Abortion has warped our thinking about biology, morality, the Constitution, and apparently even basic accounting. Rich Gaffin thinks that under Obamacare, the “government is not funding abortions; individuals are, albeit with government subsidy.” If we were discussing a government program providing subsidies to individuals to purchase handguns at a nominal price, it would be easier for some to see that federal money does not magically become private money the second it passes through an individual’s hands.

If the government is going to provide health-care subsidies, it will define what may legitimately be purchased with those subsidies. For decades, federal employees were prohibited from purchasing insurance plans that included elective abortion coverage. Now, the Democrats who control Washington argue that a small portion of health-care premiums may be diverted to a special pile of “private” money to pay abortionists.

Gaffin says that Christians should go along with this abortion-subsidization plan so that there will be “no strings attached” for religious groups receiving government subsidies in the future. But the obligation of Christians is not to secure their own unfettered access to federal cash. The moral obligation of Christians”rather, of human beings opposed to the intentional killing of innocent human beings”is to oppose abortion through all legitimate means.

Counting on The Census

Jill Colvin’s article on the 2010 Census (“Down for the Count,” April 2010) was informative and elegant. I write only to quibble with her law and to add a note on politics.

It is not true that the Supreme Court has ruled sampling unconstitutional. In the case cited by Colvin, Department of Commerce v. U.S. House of Representatives , Justice O’Connor held for the majority that sampling violates the Census Act. However, she explicitly declined to reach the question of whether sampling would violate the Constitution itself.

This presents a puzzle. Why didn’t the Democratic Congress of 2009 revise the Census Act? (After all, as Colvin points out, the benefits of apportionment under sampling would accrue mainly to Democrats.) The answer lies, as so dismayingly often in our politics, with the Court. O’Connor wrote alone; her opinion relied on concurrences from other justices for its authority. Justice Scalia’s concurrence, cosigned by Justices Kennedy, Thomas, and the late Justice Rehnquist, hinted very broadly that sampling would violate Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution.

Since 1999, when Department of Commerce came down, the Court has changed. Justice O’Connor has retired, and Justice Rehnquist has left this world. It does not take much imagination to see why Congressional Democrats have kept sampling under wraps. They fear, with some justification, that Justices Alito and Roberts would go where Justice O’Connor would not, and bar sampling for good.

James Montana


Jill Colvin replies:

In Department of Commerce v. U.S. House of Representatives , Justice O’Connor held that sampling violates the Census Act, not the Constitution. In attempting to simplify the case, I glossed over that crucial distinction. As the majority opinion states: “We conclude that the Census Act prohibits the proposed uses of statistical sampling in calculating the population for purposes of apportionment. Because we so conclude, we find it unnecessary to reach the constitutional question presented.”

Interestingly, the court’s decision concerning sampling applies only to its use for apportionment (which determines how many seats are allocated to each state), not for redistricting. That means that, theoretically, in future years, the census results used for apportionment could differ from those used for redistricting. While such a predicament seems unlikely, with so much power and so many billions of dollars at stake, you never know what might happen.

A Lite in the darkness

Mary Eberstadt’s “Christianity Lite” (February 2010) has the interesting thesis that the mainline churches’ rejection of traditional Christian sexual mores in part or in toto led to their demise, in contrast to the Catholic Church and in the face of the conventional wisdom that making Christianity easier makes it more attractive. The thesis holds well for Catholics and mainliners, but what about evangelicals?

Many evangelical congregations are already following in the mainline’s footsteps, but the theologically serious congregations do not fall as easily into Eberstadt’s schema. While these evangelicals really believe that the Nicene Creed is right, that extramarital sex is wrong, and that marriage is only between a man and a woman, they are more lax on matters of divorce and birth control than the Catholic Church, although more strict than the mainline.

So what will happen to Albert Mohler and Billy Graham? Will their acceptance of birth control lead to a diminished Christology and acceptance of gay marriage in the future? Perhaps, but it seems more likely that at least some serious evangelicals will continue to forge the path they are on, a path different from that of Rome or Riverside Drive.

Nathaniel Peters


I was deeply moved by Eberstadt’s article, but I have wondered if another trend explains the widespread departure from orthodoxy in the United States today. Is it not true that American Christianity has, by and large, been satisfied with making converts without regard for the Great Commission in which Jesus commands his disciples to make disciples, not just converts?

Only a disciple can make a disciple. Paul denied himself, took up his cross, and followed Christ. Paul’s motto was “Follow me as I follow Christ.” How many clergy and how many theologians are intentional disciples? How many ordaining bodies require candidates to be willing to say to their congregations “follow me as I follow Christ?”

Only accepting pain makes disciples. The cross the disciple takes up causes literal emotional and physical deprivation and pain. Unless pain is embraced, the mind is not renewed. The sins Jesus first proscribes in the Sermon on the Mount”anger, lust, deceit, and vengeance”all feel good. Restraint in these areas hurts.

Jesus teaches that the narrow road of discipleship requires fasting, “amputations,” denying the self, taking up crosses. Might the failure to do this not be the ultimate reason for a self-indulged “Christianity Lite”?

Joseph H. Winston


Eberstadt’s chest-thumping cases for orthodox Catholicism begin to wear on the nerves. The implicit logic of “Christianity Lite” seems to be that one should never question the Catholic Church, for any reason, because it will inevitably lead to graver and more serious departures from truth. This does nothing but foster blind obedience and knee-jerk reactionism. Her reasoning runs thus: Henry VIII’s extraordinary divorce leads first to a gradual relaxation of divorce censures, then to an institutional approval for divorce. This sets the pattern for the later debate over contraception and homosexuality.

Each reversal or abandonment of true dogma, characterized as a “failed experiment” or road leading “down, down, down,” begins with a slight departure, a questioning that, however well intentioned, should not have begun. One sidebar states, for example, that “The okaying of contraception was born largely of compassion for human frailty””as though such compassion is unfortunate, ill advised, or otherwise inconsistent with Christianity.

Eberstadt may correctly identify the steps in cultural and ecumenical paradigm shifts, including what look in retrospect to be those oh-so-perilous first steps. But what an Anglican, Episcopalian, or otherwise non-Catholic Christian is supposed to take away from her characterization”other than stinging ears”is less clear.

A Catholic myself, I feel that Eberstadt’s recent articles, with their prevalent undercurrent of “We were right all along,” do little either to recommend Catholic orthodoxy or foster ecumenical or evangelical dialogue. So well-informed a writer could have found something more useful to say about “Christianity Lite” than what emerged here: namely, just another rant about sexual topics.

Thomas Bragg


The decline of churches that rebelled against orthodoxy over sexual morality brings up another point. Sex is not a sufficient integration point for the meaning of human existence. As central as sex is to what makes us human, it makes a poor religion. It is not enough, and when we try to make it more than it is, it becomes first an idol and then an addiction.

Gil Crosby


Church history provides a label for Eberstadt’s article: Gnosticism. The Gnostics’ special knowledge typically includes both revisionist theology and revisionist mores in sexuality, as Irenaeus showed in Against Heresies 1.26“28. Because the human is made in God’s image, any change in the human perception of the divinely given pattern for how the human embodies the divine image can trigger a concomitant revision of the human’s understanding of the divine. This is why sexual immorality and idolatry are inseparably linked in Scripture (Num. 25:1“5; 1 Cor. 10:8; Rev. 2:14).

Conversely, Paul assumes that a revisionist theology can trigger a revision of the human embodiment of the divine image (Rom. 1:23“27). If, as John Paul wrote in Familiaris Consortio , “the communion between God and his people finds its definitive fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom who loves and gives himself as the Savior of humanity, uniting it to himself as his body” and if this gift “reveals the original truth of marriage,” we would expect changes in theology to imply changes in sexuality and the converse.

Mark Reasoner


It is intriguing to note the parallels in the development of (chiefly) mainline Protestant innovations in topics of sexual ethics such as divorce, artificial contraception, and homosexuality.

That said, I found myself wary of the rhetorical technique Eberstadt employed. Her argument seemed to evolve out of a largely consequentialist schema: Don’t depart from these teachings and practices (even in exceptional circumstances), for if you do, you will open doors to various redefinitions of Christian orthodoxy, the multiplication of heresies, dwindling numbers of people in the pews, fewer dollars in the plate, and so on.

It is ironic that she seems to be encouraging people to maintain”or return to”traditional Church teaching on these issues by employing a more deontological system of morality (dutiful obedience to God and Church Tradition) while making her argument in this consequentialist form. Moreover, I wonder if she is committing the logical fallacies of post hoc ergo propter hoc and correlation implies causation.

The rhetorical technique of dire warning certainly has its place. Nonetheless, out of genuine love and concern for our mainline Protestant sisters and brothers, might we hear and discuss more of the positive theology behind the Church’s stance on such divisive ethical issues?

Patrick Conley


In making her excellent point that misguided sexual ethics has been “leading some churches to abandon the old rules about sex altogether,” Mary Eberstadt fails to point the finger of blame to the abandonment long ago of the authoritative source for such rules: the gradual and often aggressive assault on the reliability and trustworthiness of the biblical foundation for ethics in general and sexual ethics in particular.

For example, mainline Protestant and some Catholic scholars have for years questioned the historic reality of Adam and Eve and the transcultural truthfulness of Genesis 1“11. Thus there is no normativity to a passage such as Genesis 2:23“24: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and they will become one flesh.” The creation of the man and the woman and their one flesh union is a crown of God’s creation.

This biblical norm sets the foundation for this original institution Christ blessed and Paul exalted (Eph. 5:32“33). When Jesus speaks about divorce, he is, I believe, referring to this creation norm: “It was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matt. 19:8“9).

The unraveling of the historic Christian view of sexuality in the mainline denominations began with the unraveling of their view of Scripture and their reducing it to culturally conditioned stories. Without a commitment to the first thing of Christian morality, namely that God has spoken truthfully and authoritatively, traditional historic Christian sexual ethics will be jettisoned.

John H. White


Eberstadt effectively divides Christians into two categories: orthodox Christians and those who follow Christianity Lite. The latter group comprises mainstream Protestants who have steadily followed the slippery slope from the rejection of the pope’s supremacy in the past to the current acceptance of abortion, contraception, and homosexual relationships.

Her thesis begins to unravel with her final paragraphs, when she admits that there are also many “cafeteria Catholics””the “in-house version” of Christianity Lite. Indeed. North America is following Europe. In Scandinavia, Protestant Christianity has been abandoned to the caress of the state’s palliative care. However, France, Spain, and Italy, the heart of Catholic Europe, have seen the same decline in orthodoxy and growth of secularism that characterized Scandinavia seventy years ago and, more recently, North America’s Protestant mainstream.

Eberstadt believes that the greater strength of orthodoxy will turn out to be the cornerstone of a continuing, lively Church. On the other hand, it may be that orthodox Christianity, like orthodox Communism, will mostly survive in committed but eccentric pockets”analogs of Albania, China, Cuba, and Laos. She also assumes that remaining orthodoxy is to be found in a select people living pure and spiritual lives. But the evidence for that is not compelling. While some strong communities, such as the Amish, live simple and less sinful lives, so do the dubiously orthodox Jehovah’s Witnesses and the clearly unorthodox Mormons. It would be difficult to argue that those countries with the strongest residual Catholic faith are better living than those with a defunct Protestant faith; compare Central America to Scandinavia. Ah, but they are different social contexts. Precisely.

I am arguing here that the truth of the slippery slope is not very helpful in addressing the question as to how Christians, orthodox or not, should live their lives. As an unorthodox Christian, I happen to agree with many of Eberstadt’s values, such as the centrality of traditional marriage to societal, spiritual health. But it will not help me to receive instruction on the evils of contraception, female priests, and the historical accuracy of the gospels.

Further, a case can be made that intellectual Catholics themselves started down the slippery slope years ago. How many of them believe in the literal truth of the Nicene Creed, that Jesus “ascended” (from a flat earth to a place called heaven above) and now “sits” at the “right hand” of God? No, those, the orthodox tell me, are metaphors. The orthodox would have to set up a closed society, like the sects, to be largely exempt from the slippery slope.

There are many ways in which Christians can be classified. On or off the island is just one. Benedict XVI recently asked orthodox Christians to work with others, including nonbelievers, who share Christian social values. In that light, it is particularly valuable to support those who are seeking God, albeit through a vision of the Bible and Christian tradition foreign to the orthodox believer.

What people believe as fact is less important than what is in their hearts; what they say, less meaningful than what they do. Knock, and you shall enter”with no provision that you must first sign a covenant.

Mark Holmes


Eberstadt’s focus on the revision in Christian teaching on sexuality”even while acknowledging the reality of the sexual revolution”as the central cause of the decline is problematic. Christianity is, if it is anything, a call to take up the cross. Do Christians see their leaders bearing the cross? Yes and no. There are too many striking examples of uninterested or confused Christian leaders, Christian leaders pursuing status and living in elegant comfort or consumed by careerism. These cannot call forth courage and commitment from the young men and young women, hence the decline in membership.

Clarity and precision in the articulation of doctrine is essential if it is to guide the Christian community. The starting point for the clear, precise, and credible articulation on the appropriate expression of sexual intercourse is the explication of the nature of marriage and the nature of sexual intercourse. This explication directs the ordering of the ends of marriage and determines the eligibility for marriage. The failure to articulate this clearly risks the possibility of the defense of marriage in the public square, risks the rational ordering of the finality of offspring within marriage, and results in the failure to present an appropriate theology to guide the married in their vocation.

While there are many reasons for pessimism, there is hope. As Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us, “We can be allowed only that degree of pessimism that is permitted in the presence of belief in divine Providence.” The darkness of my own pessimism arises not only from happenings in the institutions that claim to be Catholic universities in America but also from the visible Church herself, both locally and at large. The darkness is dispelled by the renewed embrace of Catholicism by the gifts of each generation and by the hope that in a Church that holds as dogma the resurrection of the Lord, there remains the possibility of the surprise of new life.

Margaret Monahan Hogan


Mary Eberstadt replies:

I’ll address a misunderstanding apparently shared among several readers. Some incorrectly saw “Christianity Lite” as an exercise in sectarian triumphalism. It was instead an examination of the fate of those churches that have rejected or watered down the traditional Christian moral code. And, as noted in my essay, the decline of certain nontraditionalist churches does not tell us anything about the fate awaiting the traditionalists.

The point of “Christianity Lite” was to argue that certain Protestant denominations are in such steep decline because they reject the sexual moral code. Perhaps one more metaphor will help to make the point. We know that a human being can live without a gallbladder but not without a heart. He can live without one lung but not without both. The phenomenon of Christianity Lite shows something like that degree of epistemological certainty about what Christianity can and cannot throw overboard.

In other words, Christianity can live and thrive without certain traditional trappings”the Latin Mass, say, or the covering of women’s heads in church. The traditional sexual code is not one of those nonessential accessories. To observe as much is not to indulge in triumphalism”any more than it makes a doctor “triumphalist” about, say, appendixes versus livers to point out that his patient can indeed live without one but not the other.

Nathaniel Peters suggests the (vibrant) evangelical churches do not fit into this scheme because their leaders accept contraception. Yet, as I noted, some evangelical leaders have publicly questioned whether the current evangelical view of birth control, which might be characterized as uneasy acceptance, may need a second look; and even to suggest that second thoughts may be in order on that unpopular issue is to situate oneself rather obviously on the other side of the divide from the churches of Christianity Lite.