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Reason and Revelation

There is a deep divide between Jonathan Rauch’s belief that marriage is a malleable social institution and the belief of those (like me) who believe that it is an ontological reality that can be discerned through natural law and human reason, but we both assume that the good can be at least partially discerned and realized through human reason (“Thirteen Theses on Marriage,” October). As the lone Muslim respondent, Sherman Jackson undercuts the whole debate by denying that God is necessarily bound to human reason and by writing that “there is no universal morality that all of us will recognize as such.”

We must look forward to the day when our society can “accommodate multiple communal claims to absolute moral truth.” To complicate things, God may prefer the a-reasonable or the less-than-reasonable to the reasonable. God can be both logos and alogos.

Reasonable people will ask, “Aren’t there some moral truths that we can’t not know?” And if there are, then shouldn’t we seek to establish them as “universally valid norms”? We all know, for example, that child abuse is evil. Why not seek to make this moral claim universally valid?

The greatest divide in this debate may actually be between those who believe that reason can lead us to reasonably good ends and those who do not believe this. For if reason, enlightened by natural law, empirical evidence, common sense, and human experience (as well as, for many of us, biblical revelation), can all lead us astray, there is nothing to do but submit not just to the inscrutable (which is what we all must do at times) but to the unreasonable and the irrational. Such submission would end the debate, but not further the truth.

Eric M. Riesen
Zion Lutheran Church
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Sherman Jackson replies:

My point in denying that God is bound by human reason was not that there is no correlation between human reason and what we might justifiably expect of God. My point was simply that God is not absolutely bound by what humans might reasonably expect or demand; God’s actions might proceed on the basis of a-rational (not irrational) preferences; and there are grounds other than reason that inform divine action.

If God is absolutely bound by human reason, does this not impose limits upon a presumably omnipotent God? And cannot God’s acts of mercy or forgiveness actually defy the dictates of reason? Can God acting on reason alone explain the clearly disparate distribution of human flaws and talents? Again, none of this should be seen as negating all correspondence between human reason and divine intent. It simply negates total correspondence between the two.

As for the possibility of moral truths on which we can all agree, I believe they can and do exist. The problem is that they are often quite abstract and thus limited in socio-political utility. We can agree, for example, as Riesen suggests, that “child abuse is evil.” But once we come to concrete application, the waters get murky. Some, for example, would hold that raising our children as Christians, Jews, or Muslims is “child abuse.”

These disparities in perspective cannot be overcome by simply making ever-more-heroic appeals to reason. For reason—liberal claims notwithstanding—is inextricably grounded in history. And as our histories and traditions differ, so too will the results of our reasoning. Thus, beyond those things on which we might spontaneously agree, the question is not how we might reason our way to full agreement but how we might reason our way to effective, civil, and compassionate management of disagreement.

On this understanding, rather than “undercutting the whole debate,” another reading of my response might see it as actually enriching it. In the meantime, I agree that the notion of being compelled to submit to the abjectly irrational is horrifying. But so is the idea of having to submit to an idea of the supremely rational that is grounded in a tradition of reasoning that is not one’s own. For the mere fact that I am simply a better reasoner than you does not at all guarantee the moral superiority of my reasoned preferences over yours.

Ryan Redux

R. R. Reno’s Public Square piece on Paul Ryan’s economic proposals is very welcome (“A Tale of Two Ryans,” October). Catholic social teaching originated among priests in Europe trying to counter working-class advocacy of socialism. Sometimes they went as far as advocating anti-Semitism and a third way between capitalism and socialism that came to look an awful lot like fascism.

There is nothing anti-Catholic about telling elderly people that their taxpaying neighbors cannot afford their hip replacements, their monthly nail clipping, or other less-than-necessary procedures. Before Holy Medicare came in to double or triple doctors’ incomes, patients paid doctors and hospitals what they could afford. With Medicare and health insurance, fees have multiplied without end, and we are coming to face fiscal insolvency.

The so-called preferential option for the poor is all very well and good. But there is no requirement morally that it be public. Whatever happened to charity—especially among health professionals, as well as among ordinary citizens?

Norman Ravitch
Savannah, Georgia

If Paul Ryan believes that transferring today’s federal debt to future generations is unjust, there is a simple solution to the problem: Pay off the debt during this generation. A policy of raising taxes and reducing spending would be likely to accomplish that goal. That is the type of policy that gave us several years of federal surpluses during the 1990s. A strategy of increasing income and reducing costs is what any individual household with huge debts would be expected to attempt.

Although Ryan has stated that the growth of the federal debt is the “overarching threat to our whole society,” his budget plan lowers taxes, increases military spending, and cuts social spending, almost certainly increasing the federal debt—thus exacerbating the problem that he has described as our country’s most critical. Studies indicate that Medicare wastes billions of dollars annually paying for unnecessary and ineffective procedures. Rather than focusing on eliminating those expenses, Congressman Ryan focuses on shifting costs from the government to individual seniors.

The editor writes that Ryan’s entitlement reforms involve “devolving hard choices about spending down to individuals and families.” My impression is that Congressman Ryan’s reforms do not address hard choices at all and shift costs to individuals and families.

I fully agree with the editors that we should constantly be examining the consequences of policies intended to promote social justice and should be willing to make changes to those programs, as was done in 1996. I am not convinced that Ryan’s budget proposals are economically sound or that they represent a sincere effort at developing effective policies to promote social justice.

John Neville
Mountain Brook, Alabama

R. R. Reno replies:

I can’t pretend to economic expertise, although expertise of that sort isn’t exactly a high-value asset. If you get five economists in a room, you’ll get six opinions—or maybe more.

And so I find myself less sure than John Neville about whose budget proposals are “economically sound,” and I’m skeptical about Norman Ravitch’s claim that the advent of Medicare and health insurance explains rising health costs. Economic systems are profoundly complex and don’t rise and fall in accord with single factors and causes, which is why F. A. Hayek was right to warn that efforts to plan and control them invariably fail.

Predicting is as likely to fail as planning. (They depend on the same conceit that we understand the mechanics of economic systems.) I’m not altogether confident Paul Ryan’s way of thinking will get us where we need to go. Yes, I’m persuaded that it’s reasonable to suppose that high taxes and excessive regulation suppress economic growth in the United States. But there’s also globalization, the ebb and flow of technological innovations, and deep cultural changes that influence our work habits and economic choices.

A healthy skepticism needn’t paralyze. We’re entitled to overall judgments about what sorts of economic policies will serve the common good. But that skepticism should chasten us.

Two Feminisms

In her response to Douglas Farrow (“Thirteen Theses on Marriage,” October), Paige Hochschild posits that “speaking meaningfully of complementarity” is necessary in defending the good of heterosexual marriage, yet she is skeptical of the voice of Catholic “New Feminism” in this conversation, implying that it is not “good theological anthropology.” Instead of addressing the question of woman in the Catholic theological tradition, she suggests that the New Feminists simply avoid the problem by redefining the terms.

But to embrace the term “passivity” as positive is not the same as redefining it. To recognize that there is power in weakness is not to claim that weakness is power. The New Feminism does not so much redefine as it does rediscover.

Decades of secular feminism have established a default mode of operation that commands instant recoil at traditional descriptions of femininity. A veil of aggressive suspicion has long hung over certain words of saints like Thomas and Augustine, but the New Feminists have emerged from behind the veil. Their school of thought does, in fact, offer an “honest examination of the tradition,” not by apologizing for it but by acknowledging—honestly—that women do not have to be, well, masculine.

The battle of the sexes is one we don’t have to fight. Being different is okay. In fact, it’s good. The New Feminism has cast out the “old” feminist fear of tradition and replaced it with a radiant receptivity that is bearing fresh fruit for the twenty-first century.

Gina Loehr 
Marian University of Wisconsin
Fond du Lac, Wisconsin

Paige Hochschild replies:

Gina Loehr is right to reaffirm, as I do in my short piece, that men and women are different and enjoy complementarity—correlative difference—across a whole spectrum of factors. But when St. Augustine speaks of complementarity in De Trinitate , he is primarily interested in the implications of soul—body unity for the resurrection of the body. Man and woman are embodied images of the twofold character of the spiritual life. There is some reflection in his writings on men and women per se, but not much.

This is no shortcoming, but it does put in context my comment that authors such as St. Augustine or ?St. Thomas may be of limited usefulness in fleshing out more modern questions. To observe the limits of an anthropology that assumes that the female is inadequately developed with respect to the full actuality of the male does not commit one to an “aggressively suspicious” hermeneutics on the whole—here, too, I agree with the letter.

The goals of “New Feminism” are right and good, worthy of investment. But we must differentiate between philosophical and theological language. The logic of the Cross is not that of the world. The original theses intend to speak to a broader, secular audience.

When New Feminists hang their arguments on theological metaphor and gendered, von Balthasarian trinitarian language (something Augustine explicitly excludes), they run the risk of speaking a language that is meaningful only to themselves: profound but dangerously vague, seeming to say much, but on a practical level saying very little. The meekness of Christ on the Cross simply is not the principle of potency that corresponds to a specific actuality, determining the dynamism and nonnecessity of a thing. When St. Thomas speaks of male and female as active and passive principle, it is in light of the latter understanding, not the former.

We need to decide when we are doing metaphysics and when we are not. Ideally, we always speak metaphysically, and if so, theologians may better contribute to public discourse about marriage and complementarity.

Scriptural Politics

The great bugaboo of modern political theory is a reduction of political order to a contest among the parts of a political community for power over the whole: a “will of the people.” On his reading of the history of Israel, the best Yoram Hazony (“The Biblical Case for Limited Government,” October) appears able to offer is the addition of yet another power that must be contended with: the “theory of dual legitimacy,” which has divine power limiting all other human powers, like the powers of the state.

It is of limited usefulness to characterize the history of Israel as an oscillation between anarchy and imperialism. Such a portrayal plays easily into the reduction of political order to the perpetual contest of self-interested players, among whom we may or may not count God. Also, Hazony’s use of “the state” and “the will of the people” is anachronistic. There can be no easy correspondences drawn between a text testifying to a sort of government that is largely the personal expression of a ruler’s will and a sophisticated system of legally entrenched, and so largely impersonal, checks and balances that is the modern democratic state.

But I think it more valuable to think on what is missing from Hazony’s presentation: an account of Israel’s “constitutional” moment. Given by God to Moses at Sinai, the Law obviously leaves a number of issues unresolved, like the question of whether YHWH’s divine kingship is supposed to have a human analog, and what form that human analog should take. Possible answers to the question will be explored in subsequent texts like the Deuteronomist’s “law of the king” (Deut. 17:14-20) and the Prophet Samuel’s use of the same law in his diatribe against all kings (1 Sam. 8:10-22).

Hazony’s presentation of the political philosophy of Israel, I believe, would be strengthened by a discussion of the place of the Law as such, not solely of its “kingly” provision. The Law condemned the worship of idols and the arbitrary abuse of one’s fellows, connecting the love of God and neighbor. The Temple contained not a degrading graven image before which one bowed but a box containing a record of the Law, conferring dignity upon worshipers by calling them to respond as partners in a covenant.

In order to make the sort of argument for limited government that he does, Hazony omits reference to the comprehensive framework provided by the Law. In which case, it would seem that all we are left with is a mere contest of wills: human beings with other human beings, and humanity with God.

When God’s government is treated merely as a limiting will, however, what goes missing is the very same divinely given, rationally accessible, objective order that Hazony rightly appeals to at the end of the article. Otherwise put: If the main function of God in the history of Israel was to limit human power, it is rather difficult to speak of him as the creator and sustainer of life.

Richard Greydanus
McGill University
Montreal, Quebec, Canada

In his important article on the Old Testament’s imposition of limits on government, Yoram Hazony describes the period of the judges as “one long indictment of anarchy.” If so, the time of the kings must have been an indictment of monarchy. More important, that indictment turns against YHWH, since he himself had set up this system of elected judges that Hazony so freely refers to as anarchy. I prefer to see it as a time of freedom that God had designed although men misused it.

Henry T. Barton
Rockwall, Texas

In “The Biblical Case for Limited Government,” Yoram Hazony laments the absence of the Hebrew Bible from public school and university courses in philosophy and political theory because in the public schools “they are seen as works of revelation, not reason” and in the university professors “see their work as the study of reason, not revelation.”

Hazony succeeds admirably in demonstrating that a careful reading of the first half of the Old Testament reveals a strong case for limited government, but ironically, he also establishes the indispensable role played by revelation in this Hebraic biblical political theory. This is initially apparent when, after showing that it was “God’s reluctance” and his subsequent decree that led to restrictions on the actions of the Israelite kingdom, he argues that divine reservations and prohibitions are the model for constitutional government.

The political service of God is, if anything, even more prominent in his reminder that social-contract (consent) theory was morally incapable of convicting Nazi leaders in the wake of World War II. Conviction of these legally elected and appointed officials was made possible only through “reference to an independent standard of right” that, for Hazony, is a legacy of the divine command and authority that is prominent in what he labels “the History of Israel.”

Hazony is scarcely alone in maintaining that a rational and moral politics requires the existence of “an independent standard of right.” Some students of political life find such a standard in reason and call it “natural right.” To the extent, however, that he grounds the independent standard in the authority and will of God, he is again in the shadow of revelation.

This need not be a problem, since reason cannot refute revelation. But to the degree that the political lessons of the Old Testament are dependent on the existence and authority of God, it is unrealistic to expect those who dismiss revelation, or believe it has no place in public school or university, to look there for plausible guidance.

Jon Fennell
Hillsdale College
Hillsdale, Michigan

Yoram Hazony’s thesis agrees in substance with the basic thrust of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Statesman’s Manual or The Bible the Best Guide to Political Skill and Foresight (1816). Coleridge’s argument, as he himself put it, concerned “the Old Testament, considered as a Code of true political Economy, and a specimen of bona fide philosophical History.”

Unfortunately, as Coleridge’s twentieth-century editor, R. J. White, observes, when the book appeared, “the ‘enlightened’ of that age, like the enlightened of most modern ages, suspected that they were being asked to subscribe to a fundamentalist tract.” Let us hope that Hazony’s argument escapes such a fate.

J. Gerald Janzen
Christian Theological Seminary
Indianapolis, Indiana

Yoram Hazony was traveling and unable to reply.

Pure Love

Ephraim Radner, in his fine review of my biography of François Fénelon (“Quietest Controversy,” October), frames the famous Fénelon“Bossuet debate as a difference of opinion on the import of the particularity and specificity of the Incarnation. Fénelon, he argues, hangs loose to the centrality of the Incarnation by thinking of God as “the Absolute,” while Bossuet clings tightly to its real, historical nature as the very basis of our salvation. The result was that Fénelon, in mystical-Quietist fashion, seemed willing to discard concrete religious practices and their potential entanglement with human egocentricity, while Bossuet fiercely resisted any such tendency.

Radner thus gives new voice to the old charge that mysticism “begins in mist and ends in schism.” Actually he is touching on a dynamic built into Christianity itself”that is, the claim that the Word became flesh but also ascended into heaven: This is the iconic“aniconic tension.

Part of the genius of Fénelon was that he recognized the need that we have for the structure of church-sacrament-creed”i.e., the iconic, if “pure love” is to be anything but vaporous talk”but also the need to recognize that particular forms must be transcendable, that they must become aniconic, once they become contaminated by human sin and retard the progress of “pure love.” It is a very delicate balance, which we easily lose in a polarized world.

Peter Gorday
Atlanta, Georgia

Ephraim Radner replies:

I appreciate Peter Gorday’s gentle note. He rightly emphasizes Fénelon’s search for a balance between those aspects of divine reality given in the historically representable forms of scriptural life (“iconic”) and those that somehow lie “beyond” representation (“aniconic”).

He also hints that to ignore the search for such a balance is to mis represent the truth of God. Fair enough. But I would want to say more in this case.

For instance, though Fénelon was genuine in his search, I do not think he in fact succeeded. For all his careful distinctions”for example in his Maxims of the Saints ”he cannot find a way to root his explanations in Scripture, and could do so even less than his model Francis de Sales. His discussion rarely gets beyond either the methodology of prayer or the more “transcendent” abstractions that he is attempting to tether in the tradition. Sometimes he even seems to make the distinction between the Old and the New Covenant line up with the one between iconic and aniconic. This is not a good avenue to go down!

Just here is the problem, I think: It is an avenue too many have followed in our own day. And I generally believe that the slippery-slope argument is not a fallacy: Fénelon’s interests and mode of defending them tended to play into a developing cultural disdain for the created forms”and finally “uncreated” forms, if we are to take seriously the Incarnation’s divine origin”of revealed truth as somehow imperfect and finally truth-obscuring.

Augustine, to whom Fénelon appeals, moved in a different direction: Whatever the ultimate possibility of Scripture-less knowledge of God might be (and he acknowledged it), the very mediating reality of Jesus Christ as God’s own “form” made this possibility both unnecessarily pursued in this life and undesired. Even in Fénelon’s own day, unlike the context of some of the medieval authors he cites, “mystical” prayer had begun to assume the role of critic of Scripture. If Fénelon erred, then, it was in failing to understand that the balance had already dangerously shifted, as it has yet more drastically today.

Marriage and State

Douglas Farrow’s provocative “Thirteen Theses on Marriage” (October) seem limited in scope to those who already accept the Christian view of the institution. Below is an alternative approach, Ten Syntheses on Marriage, using some of Farrow’s concepts adapted for the more secular society in which we live:

1) Throughout history and in every culture, Homo sapiens has depended on the complementary difference between male and female for its propagation.

2) Variations of sexual desire or orientation from heterosexuality represent a tiny percentage of the population and should not become a basis for public policy beyond reasonable toleration.

3) The state should not assume or be granted the authority to decide who can marry. Marriage is an entirely private matter.

4) The state may define a civil-union contract undertaken by two competent persons who choose to share a life together.

5) The state’s interest in such contracts is primarily the propagation and protection of the next generation.

6) Nonstate institutions, including churches, may follow their own traditions and procedures by accepting for marriage those couples possessed of a valid civil-union contract.

7) The state may grant tax and other advantages to those civil unions that produce and protect children.

8) Stable civil unions of parents, whether or not followed by marriage, are a public good by virtue of the natural law of fecundity. This public good exists prior to the state, which is obligated to offer such unions its support.

9) The state may regulate the dissolution of civil unions, and its regulation may include the requirement that parents have residual responsibilities for children produced in such unions.

10) The state remains indifferent to the sexual orientation of those entering a civil union beyond insuring the competence to enter civil contracts. But for those unions capable of producing children, additional requirements may be made to insure the health and safety of the next generation.

Clifford P. Hackett
Washington, D.C.

Douglas Farrow replies:

When Pico della Mirandola posted (at the age of 23) his 900 theses in Rome, he displayed a daring to match his enormous erudition. I have posted but thirteen in First Things, yet some may conclude that my impudence far outstrips my modest learning. So I welcome the fact that Clifford Hackett has stuck his neck out as well, and put ten more theses into play.

Were any of our theses actually to be debated”the pope, to my knowledge, has not forbidden it”I should want to challenge in particular his third thesis, for I do not think marriage, or religion either, a strictly private matter. Indeed, I think those who take that view are misconstruing secularity and making a mistake of great magnitude.

Before I elaborate, let me say that I am deeply grateful to the nine who forged the original responses. That said, I was mystified by the idea (which Thomas Joseph White so nicely disposed of) that I was making an argument, or series of arguments, rather than merely offering to do so. I was surprised, moreover, to discover that some respondents live in places where it is unnecessary to defend publicly the “heteronormative” heresy, or at all events quite quixotic to do so. Even Paul Griffiths, while broadly supporting the first nine theses, thinks that public advocacy of the last three only “makes the Church look ridiculous.”

Where I live, one may be regarded as worse than ridiculous”indeed, as a threat to public order”for holding even to Thesis 1. Jonathan Rauch lives where I live. But (if I may say so) he avoids the public arguments I have already made and prefers rather to adopt an ad hominem approach so as to hear no more.

Griffiths and I, by the way, are not far apart even on Thesis 10, which he misquotes; it is sexual intimacy, not human sexuality, that requires marriage as its proper context. I would much enjoy watching him and Rauch debate this thesis. At the final clause of Thesis 11, however, Griffiths also parts company with me. I am still pondering the fact that the parting occurs at the very spot where this thesis reproduces Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ”an article shaped by Catholic input but widely embraced in other religions and cultures.

Which brings me back to Hackett’s claim that marriage is an entirely private matter: To speak of marriage as private is as oxymoronic as speaking of morality as private. There is no such thing as private morality, and no such thing as private marriage. (Pico, as some readers will know, found this out the hard way.) Moreover, nothing could be more relevant to the state than marriage, for marriage is the institution that regulates the family as “the natural and fundamental group unit of society [which] is entitled to protection by society and the State,” as the Universal Declaration puts it.

What does Hackett hope to gain by preferring civil unions to marriages, if he still wants to distinguish the type of union that is procreative from the type that is not? Does he not realize that this distinction is disallowed by the goal toward which the whole discourse is directed, viz., the demise of heteronormativity in the interpretation of human sexuality?

Two complementary strategies are employed to achieve that goal. One is to change the meaning of marriage to eliminate its heteronormative character; the other is to eliminate marriage itself and replace it by contract law. The former (call it Rauchian) is for more conservative audiences, the latter for more liberal ones. The endgame remains the same.

Ironically, there is a growing chorus of disparate voices, to which Hackett’s belongs, insisting that everyone”individuals, communities, and the state itself”will benefit if the state gets out of marriage. Nonsense. That would mean the erasure of Article 16 and all that it protects.

There is a certain sense, however, in which the state alone will profit at the others’ expense. For the complete elimination of marriage as a public institution will leave an enormous vacuum in the administration of human affairs for the state to fill.

Unfortunately, this will be the case even where the Rauchian approach prevails. For on that approach, too, the state will no longer see any citizen as husband or wife, son or daughter; that is, as belonging to a mediating institution whose freedom the state must respect. It will see only citizens existing atomically in various asymmetrical relations that threaten the vulnerable (especially children) and tend to chaos. In short, it will no longer recognize the family as fundamental, or marriage as marking a sphere with natural rights and liberties (including the education of children) into which the state may venture only cautiously and deferentially.

Most of my interlocutors would agree that the serious erosion of marriage we have already witnessed in our society is one major cause of the dangerous expansion of the modern state, to say nothing of the ruinous deficits being piled up for the next generation. Many of them would agree further that the recovery of “an authentic humana vita,” as White puts it, requires a fresh engagement with the vision of human dignity to which I tried to point in Theses 7“10. Others suppose that we must find a solution with less, rather than more, theological content.

Here again I say that there is no such thing. There are only different theologies, among which we must choose.

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