♦ It came in the context of Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s refusal to throw his weight behind the push to OK gay-married clergy in the Church of England. Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, Martyn Percy isn’t happy. He makes the usual claim that history has spoken. “A theologically conservative church is not an attractive proposition to the emerging generation.” “A non-inclusive church is an evangelistic dead-duck.”
To which fellow Anglican Ian Paul responds:
The palate of the nation is hardly salivating over the idea of repentance, the kingdom of God, Jesus as the embodiment of the very presence of the Holy One of Israel, the cross as God’s atoning work of reconciling sinful humanity, and the horizon of eschatology as the hope for humanity—so what does “being a broad church” mean in this context? Given that the Church’s differences with society on sexual ethics are tied in to each of these, how can this question be dismissed so casually?
Exactly right. We’re living in a therapeutic age, one that promises salvation by affirmation, not by repentance and new life in Christ. The rejection of traditional sexual ethics is an integral part of this therapeutic promise, as its proponents have always recognized. (Read Wilhelm Reich’s The Sexual Revolution, written in the 1930s.) We don’t need to look further than the first chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans to be reminded that sexual morality (unlike tax policies) is closely tied to our relation to God. Percy’s idea that Christians can gain the evangelizing initiative by downplaying biblical teaching about men, women, sex, children, and marriage is risible.
♦ It was reading Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s speech to the 2016 gathering of Anglican primates that alerted me to a remarkable undertaking by one of his episcopal colleagues. Archbishop John Sentamu was born and raised in Uganda. He came to England to study for the ministry and has served in various capacities in the Church of England, culminating in his appointment as the 97th archbishop of York, the most important see after Canterbury. He’s known for his sharp comments about public issues, ones that often run counter to political correctness. But those are just skirmishes in the culture wars. Recently, Archbishop Sentamu has gone on an all-out Gospel offensive. In December, he began a six-month evangelism pilgrimage through his diocese, walking and praying with and for those whom he encounters.
No doubt early archbishops of York were on the road a great deal in their efforts to convert the Angles and Saxons who had recently invaded. But as Welby points out, Sentamu may be “the first [archbishop of York] to do that in centuries, even perhaps over 1,000 years.”
♦ Welby reads Sentamu’s evangelizing endeavor as a sign of the times. There’s a lot that ails the Church of England (and Anglicanism elsewhere in the rich world), but good things are happening, too. C of E leaders were able to turn back efforts to legalize assisted suicide in Great Britain. The Church of England secured an exemption from the same-sex marriage act, “showing that our voice is still heard against the prevailing wind of society,” Welby said in his speech at the international Anglican gathering, “and at much cost to ourselves, by the way.” This courage to stand up to the pressures of a post-Christian culture reflects, perhaps, a new center of gravity in the Church of England. Welby: “The bench of bishops is described by the longer standing members as the most orthodox since WWII.”
I hope he’s right in his reading of signs of renewal.
The core issue at stake in the Little Sisters of the Poor’s legal case before the Supreme Court concerns what counts as the exercise of religion. Does the First Amendment’s full protection apply only to acts of worship, explicit religious proclamation, and doctrinal confession? Or is the meaning of religious practice more expansive? Does a mission to care for the poor or educate the young count as religious and thus qualify to be properly protected by our traditions of religious liberty? A great deal of the future of religious liberty in America will depend on how the Supreme Court answers that question.
♦ At Oxford University, some of the Rhodes scholars have lobbied to remove all memorials to Cecil Rhodes, the man whose bequest established the scholarships that bear his name. The leadership of Oriel College, the site of a Rhodes plaque and statue, followed the Ivy League model of caving to demands. By contrast, Oxford University Chancellor Chris Patten delivered a strong rebuke. “If people at a university aren’t prepared to demonstrate the sort of generosity which Nelson Mandela showed towards Rhodes and towards history,” he said, “then maybe they should think about being educated elsewhere.” He continued with the observation that the ideological purification of institutional histories ends up creating an educational environment that produces “a bland diet of bran to feed people.” He added, “If you want universities like that you go to China where they’re not allowed to talk about ‘Western values,’ which I regard as global values.”
♦ Patten also described the notion that universities should be “safe spaces” as “madness.” Strong words, ones I wish an American university president had the testicular fortitude to say.
♦ Robert VerBruggen, editor of RealClearPolicy, has long favored drug legalization. He made the usual assumptions: It would reduce incarceration, end the illegal market that encourages violence, and expand personal freedom. Sure, drug use might go up some, but not by much, and in any event, the war on drugs has been a failure. It’s time to try something else.
And then he noticed that over the last fifteen years, deaths from drug overdoses have more than doubled. They occurred at a rate of six per 100,000 people in 1999. In 2014, the rate rose to 14.8 per 100,000. This rise (which does not include rising mortality rates indirectly caused by drug addiction) has given VerBruggen second thoughts: Maybe drug legalization will accelerate an already deadly trend.
♦ The New York Times reported the sharp increase in drug overdose deaths, discussing it in a way that demonstrated the liberal refusal to face up to reality. The Times paraphrases an expert saying that the drug deaths in New Hampshire are “symptomatic of a larger problem: The state is second to last, ahead of only Texas, in access to treatment programs.”
So there you have it. It’s not the deregulation of our moral culture that’s to blame—a deregulation championed by the Times. No, no, it can’t be that. Instead, it’s our lack of public expenditures on treatment programs. That’s like saying binge drinking among college students is “symptomatic” of the larger problem of the lack of AA meetings at convenient times.
♦ It’s also a way of saying that low-tax, limited-government conservatives are to blame. If only liberals were unhindered in their efforts to ramp up public spending for treatment . . .
♦ Over the last fifty years, American society has undergone a series of moral revolutions, all championed by progressives. We were told to “loosen up” and, more recently, to “be accepting.” All this hasn’t harmed the sorts of people who read the New York Times. It’s been hell on the bottom of society, however.
♦ Martin Mosebach: “In the West it is believed, among both Christians and atheists, that religion can be allowed to pass away into philanthropy and human rights. But Christianity does not want to propose solutions for overcoming social difficulties; it wants to lead the individual person into the presence of the living God.”
♦ Hillary Clinton recently garnered endorsements in her presidential bid from Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign. Asked if he was upset that these influential organizations were behind his adversary, Bernie Sanders replied, “We’re taking on not only Wall Street and the economic establishment, we’re taking on the political establishment. So, I have friends and supporters in the Human Rights [Campaign], in Planned Parenthood. But you know what, Hillary Clinton has been around there for a very, very long time, and some of these groups are in fact part of the establishment.”
♦ Cecile Richards has been president of Planned Parenthood since 2006. Her mother was governor of Texas. An Ivy League graduate, she was at one point Nancy Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff. In 2010, she became a Ford Foundation trustee. It doesn’t get more establishment than that.
♦The sad fact, however, is that Sanders agrees entirely with the liberal establishment he claims to oppose. He brags about his “100 percent lifetime pro-choice record” and early and consistent support for gay rights. He may give Wall Street indigestion, but he’s a loyal foot soldier in the culture wars being waged by the liberal establishment.
♦ I’m not optimistic about the future of liberal Catholic theology. By my reading of twentieth-century theological history, this intellectual tradition received its strongest rationale in Karl Rahner’s observation that the heresy most threatening to modern Catholicism is Docetism. What he meant was that although we might have a full array of spiritual convictions, our faith floats above reality, never connecting in a meaningful way with the realities of contemporary life. To be “liberal” in theology thus involves reconnecting faith with life, often in the form of nuanced arguments about how this or that feature of the human condition opens up toward the transcendent. Rahner was particularly good at that.
The weaknesses of a recent article by Daniel Rober, “Engaging the Neo-Thomist Revival: Considerations and Consequences for Theology and the Church,” suggest that this liberal tradition in theology is coming to a dead end. A well-researched and measured essay by a young theologian, published in Horizons, the house journal for the College Theology Society, it argues mainly that the sorts of theologians who write for First Things have a “totalizing rhetoric” that is not open to “pluralism.” Roughly translated, this means we make arguments that have conclusions that are either true or false, and if true, then true-true, not true-for-me or true-for-our-historical-moment.
Here I find myself flummoxed. Rober criticizes Thomism for being “convinced of its own correctness.” Well, yes, one does tend to be convinced of the correctness of one’s arguments. That’s why one publishes them. Presumably that’s true for Rober as well. He regards pluralism as an unequivocal good. But isn’t that a “totalizing rhetoric”? It certainly rules out folks (like me) who have come to the conclusion that there are some theological approaches that fundamentally go wrong and thus ought to be judged heterodox.
♦ And then there’s his use of “propositional orthodoxy” as a slur, a habit he’s picked up from his teachers. Again, I’m perplexed. “Jesus rose from the dead” is a proposition, one St. Paul singles out as indispensable for orthodoxy. Is St. Paul sinning against pluralism? After all, this proposition about Jesus is “totalizing.” To believe it to be true entails rejecting as false a very powerful truth claim that we hear all the time: Death has the final word.
As I said, Rober’s essay is well researched and seeks to be fair-minded. He seems quite capable, but he’s trained by the theologians at Fordham who have rigorously excluded any challenges to their post–Vatican II theological liberalism (so much for pluralism). That training seems to have left him with little more than pseudo-concepts such as “totalizing discourse.” Thin beer when it comes to the noble vocation of theological reflection.
♦ I admire Karl Rahner. I once wrote a book about him. But I think his assessment of the spiritual challenge we face is no longer relevant. The besetting heresy of our time is Nestorianism. We’re all over-eager to protect the integrity of history, culture, and personality, just as Nestorius wanted to protect the humanity of Christ. The heresy is most evident when we reject authoritative moral norms and insist upon our right to be ourselves.
♦ Those who love classical poetry know the work of A. M. Juster. He’s an accomplished translator of Latin verse and a noted poet in his own right. (His translations and original poems have appeared in our pages, as has “Scops and Scalds,” his recent review of a book about early Anglo-Saxon poets.) On the evening of January 14, he was in our offices to deliver a talk on his most recent book, a translation of St. Aldhelm’s riddles, a remarkable set of early medieval Latin poems composed to both instruct and please. Marly Youmans reviews the book in this issue’s Briefly Noted section. You can see a video of his talk on the media page at firstthings.com.
I’m happy to report that we met our goal for fundraising in 2015. Like other influential magazines committed to serious discussion of ideas, First Things is a money-losing operation. Were it not for the generous support of readers, we’d never be able to survive. Many thanks to all who donated in 2015.
♦ Keeping the voice of faith in the public square courageous and strong is a long-term project. You can contribute to our future by making First Things part of your will or estate plan. We have the capacity to issue charitable gift annuities and other financial vehicles to help you balance your desire to provide support with the need to plan for retirement. Let me know if you’re interested.
While We’re At It sources: Archbishop Justin Welby: christiantoday.com, December 16, 2015. Ian Paul’s response: psephizo.com, December 31, 2015. Rhodes debate: timeshighereducation.com, January 13, 2016. Drug overdose epidemic: nytimes.com, January 19, 2016. Mosebach: firstthings.com, January 20, 2016. Neo-Thomist revival: journals.cambridge.org, December 2015. A. M. Juster on riddles: firstthings.com, August 2015.