While visiting Mexico last February, Pope Francis intervened in America’s political battles. Although he did not mention Trump’s name, the reference was clear: “A person who thinks only of building walls, wherever it may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.” I sympathize with the Holy Father’s instincts. As St. Paul reminds the Ephesians, the blood of Christ has broken down the wall of hostility that separates Jew from Gentile. In the Old Testament, this wall is theologically central, and as it falls, so do all the walls that divide us from one another. For this reason, St. Paul proclaims to the Galatian followers of the Christian way: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This proclamation of unity pertains to the Church, the new commonwealth established in Christ, not to sovereign nations, a distinction we always need to keep in mind when thinking about immigration and refugees. That said, a culture influenced by Christianity cultivates virtues of hospitality and welcome, or as Pope Francis likes to say, “encounter” and “dialogue.” We should encourage them. But St. Paul does not say that God tears down walls simply because that’s a good thing to do. The future promised in Christ is not one of limitless openness and a world without boundaries. We are united because our baptism overcomes divisions, bringing us into the supernatural city of God that walls us off from the power of sin and death. Nothing could be more solid, reliable, and immoveable than our covenant with God in Christ, our rock and our salvation. The Lord’s enduring Word brings us together in a common love, not inclusive sentiments or proclamations of universal rights.
Bridges require firm foundations. They reach across division in trustworthy ways insofar as they draw upon solid, reliable, and shared loves. Today, there is far less that is solid, reliable, and shared. We are living in a time of accelerating dissolution. The once-solid covenant of marriage is much weakened. Divorce and cohabitation make the most intimate relationships temporary and untrustworthy. Once-reliable jobs have become rarer. In lower-class communities, civic organizations have collapsed. Public life slides toward division and rancor.
Too often, we imagine that what we need is greater openness and more “dialogue.” This misdiagnoses our problems. Most people in 2017 in the West have not enclosed themselves into hermetically sealed communities. We are not compacted into isolated, wall-ringed enclaves. One cannot speak of an era that puts transgendered people on the covers of magazines as rigid, insular, and constrained by boundaries. We are not living in 1957, or for that matter, in 1967. It is foolish to imagine that we do.
The reason our nations, communities, and souls cannot be capacious is that they are not stable. A great deal now falls under the sign of choice. Young people race to get ahead in the competition for degrees, internships, and jobs. We manipulate our bodies with piercings and tattoos. Even our gender is chosen. We are increasingly deprived of trustworthy civic inheritances. We are told that Western history is a long tale of discrimination, exclusion, and genocide. Monuments are purged. Commissions are set up to conduct heresy trials, bringing to the bar of judgment long-dead people, movements, and societies. All of this impoverishment and atomization gets compounded by a growing number of Nones, those without any connection to the most trustworthy place to stand, which is in God’s covenant.
Desperate castaways swimming in an endless ocean of flux and change cannot build bridges. Atomized individuals have no basis on which to enter into dialogue. You cannot invite someone into a home that does not exist. You cannot share an inheritance that you do not possess. This sounds dire—and to be frank, it is dire. Too many of our leaders, including Pope Francis, have not faced up to reality. The postmodern West does not suffer from too much consolidation or too much compacted rigidity. The title of Charles Murray’s influential book, Coming Apart, describes our circumstances accurately. This is also true of the Church. In both contexts, urgent, moralistic rhetoric about loosening, making things more open and fluid, and tearing down walls may be fitting in some circumstances. But Pope Francis and others often fail to see that making this kind of talk our default rhetoric contributes to the overall feeling of disintegration, and thereby deepens conflict rather than moderating it.
Victorinus was a Roman rhetor during St. Augustine’s time. His government position required him to make speeches honoring the gods of the empire. But he was interested in Christianity and read Scripture. One of St. Augustine’s friends, Simplicianus, often visited Victorinus. They would talk about spiritual matters. In private, the famous orator would confide, “I am already a Christian, you know.” Simplicianus, however, recognized that Christianity is a public identity, and he would reply, “I will not believe that, nor count you among Christians, until I see you in Christ’s Church.” Victorinus seems to have found this emphasis on outward expression of Christian faith superficial. Augustine reports that he said, “It’s the walls that make Christians, then?” To put it in contemporary terms, he needled Simplicianus, saying that this requirement of church attendance made him a “Doctor of the Law.”
Eventually, Victorinus realized that walls do make Christians. We are not with Christ in private. Our Lord has a body: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in their midst.” And so Victorinus enrolled as a catechumen, was baptized, and professed the Church’s creed before a packed crowd in one of Rome’s churches.
This is not an argument for a “beautiful” wall separating Mexico from the United States—although, as Peter Hitchens pointed out in the last issue (“In Praise of Borders,” October), at times walls are needed. Rather, I want us to remember that spiritual integrity and cultural hospitality flag under conditions of limitless, spontaneous, and open-ended possibility. The soul becomes beautiful when it is formed within the well-measured confines of God’s holy sanctuary. The same goes for moral and political integrity. They require the discipline of a trustworthy inheritance and the responsibilities that flow from being the custodian of a particular home.
Robert W. Jenson, R.I.P.
Johann Sebastian Bach featured prominently in Robert Jenson’s funeral on Saturday, September 16. Bach was one of his favorites, as one might expect of a Lutheran theologian. And rightly so, for Bach’s choral music is nothing if not theological, the fine flowering of a Protestant culture saturated with biblical language. We sang Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” a lusty song about Christ’s triumph over the Prince of Darkness grim. I shed some tears while singing, not only because I felt the loss of Jens acutely (everyone called him Jens), but also because there’s something powerful and moving about pushing back against the power of death by singing hallelujahs to God, especially with the full-throated, organ-resonating confidence of Reformation hymns. The service ended with “For All the Saints”—eight stanzas’ worth. We did not flag as we marched our way through the Vaughan Williams classic. It was a triumphal goodbye to a dear friend and mentor.
Jens was formed by the Norwegian strain of American Lutheranism. In the late 1940s, he attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, an institution founded by Norwegian immigrants to train young people for service in church and community. If I remember correctly, he majored in classics and ancient philosophy. (He once told me that when he was twelve, he was preoccupied with the question of why there was something rather than nothing.) He went on to seminary, also at Luther. This was a time when the bright young theologians emerging out of relatively conservative denominations were excited to read Kierkegaard and Bultmann, which Jens did. In this regard, he was like Schubert Ogden, Gordon Kaufman, Langdon Gilkey, and other prominent Protestant theologians who came of age immediately after World War II. They were not satisfied to remain within the well-worn grooves of their traditions. They were the party of aggiornamento, leading the charge to “update” the denominational theologies that then formed the core of seminary training.
Obviously gifted, Jens was sent off to Germany to do a doctoral degree at the University of Heidelberg, with the expectation that he would return to teach at Luther College. His director of doctoral research was Peter Brunner, a Lutheran dogmatic theologian who saw the Church and sacraments as integral to the Gospel, which was atypical of mid-twentieth-century Protestant theology and very different from the Norwegian Lutheran pietism of Jens’s own tradition back in the United States. Brunner’s influence was lasting. Jens’s 1978 book, Visible Words, argues for a high view of the sacraments, and he contributed to the movement within American Protestantism that argued for the recovery of rich liturgical worship. Along with Carl Braaten, a lifelong coconspirator, he founded the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. As he used to say, “That ‘catholic’ comes before ‘evangelical’ is not accidental.” The center published Pro Ecclesia, which Jens and Carl edited for many years. It combined ecumenical hospitality with a commitment to theological orthodoxy, making it a scholarly analogue to First Things. Richard John Neuhaus was a devoted reader.
Jens wrote his dissertation about Karl Barth, with whom he studied in Basel for a semester while he was a doctoral student. Jens’s first book, Alpha and Omega (1963), which grew out of his dissertation research, was judged by Barth to be one of the most perceptive interpretations of his theology. As was the case for so many, Barth’s influence was profound. When Jens returned to Luther College to teach, he came to be regarded with suspicion. He was a provocateur, pushing for curricular reforms and manifesting a gift for intellectual invention. This and his refusal to kowtow to the taboos against historical criticism and evolutionary biology that still characterized the cautiously conservative atmosphere of Luther College brought him into conflict with his elders. But Jens was never a liberal theologian appealing to feelings or a subjective frame of reference in order to soften the dogmatic outlines of Christianity. To read deeply in Karl Barth—and Jens certainly did—was to be forearmed against that temptation.
Engaging Barth encouraged Jens’s intellectual ambition and fearlessness. In his Church Dogmatics, Barth has long excurses that take up an extraordinary range of topics, which he analyzes, dissects, and reframes theologically. For Barth, theology is the queen of the sciences, licensing, no, requiring the theologian to gather all of God’s good creation into the vocation of faith seeking understanding. Jens certainly did so. He had thoughtful and often highly original things to say about literature, drama, music, and the visual arts. He was informed about science and politics. I doubt there was any topic or theme of significance that Jens could not gain command of and then write a very interesting article or book about. He shared this wide-ranging intellectual interest with Blanche, his wife of more than sixty years. Together, they maintained a theological-cultural salon. My wife and I count the dinners at their home among our fondest memories.
In one respect, however, Jens was an anti-Barth. The Swiss master wrote reams and reams of prose. There was never something that Barth said in one sentence that he wouldn’t say in ten. Jens was the opposite. He wrote with a true Norwegian’s economy of words. I have recommended his two-volume Systematic Theology to many of my professor friends. It is a masterly work that is exemplary in its conceptual rigor, which is not something one can take for granted these days. But more important for the teacher, the severe economy of Jens’s prose requires exposition and elaboration. This makes the seminar room or lecture hall a place of active reflection as arguments are unpacked and conceptual moves made explicit. One must burrow into his penetrating syllogisms. In this respect, Jens’s Systematic Theology has a pedagogy not unlike St. Thomas’s Summa.
Debates about who is the most important or most influential theologian can be tiresome, and sometimes unedifying. I’m reminded of Dante’s depiction of St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas in paradise. As a corrective, Dante has the great Franciscan theologian arguing for the greater charism of St. Dominic, while the great Dominican theologian argues for St. Francis. Perhaps, then, I’m the right person to say that Robert Jenson was the most important American theologian of the twentieth century. I’m not a Jensonian. He was too inventive for my pedestrian theological instincts. But that inventiveness was not reckless. One of his most important theological innovations involved redefining the eternity of God as divine time-fullness and divine impassibility as God’s triumphant futurity. Systematic innovations of this sort served to foreground the history of Israel and the gospel accounts of Jesus of Nazareth as sources of true statements about God more reliable than metaphysical reflection or any other mode of gaining knowledge that theologians are tempted to make into their master discipline, such as sociology and psychology.
One could summarize Jens’s theological project as the search for a purely scriptural metaphysics. That’s a daring undertaking that will thrill ambitious Christian minds in the coming generations. But it will do more than that. His project, however wrong it goes—and all theological systems go wrong, especially daring ones—draws upon and seeks to return to the Word of God. Which means that, spiritually speaking, it can’t go wrong. His theology nourishes, and all Christians in all ages need to be fed.
Grand Jury Duty
100 Centre Street. That’s the address of the New York City Criminal Court and the Supreme Court of the State of New York. In early July, I served there for two weeks as a member of a grand jury, which in New York is vested with the responsibility to hear preliminary evidence and decide whether or not to indict criminal suspects.
Much of one’s time on the grand jury involves learning about the bad, brutal things people do to one another. Murder, assault, theft, and fraud are ugly. And yet, as a wide range of ordinary New Yorkers appeared before us to testify as witnesses, I was impressed by the civic spirit of workaday people. Bank tellers, cab drivers, and shop clerks testified with composure. There were nurses who had been punched, and out-of-work, middle-aged men who had been shot. They conveyed self-respect without grandeur. There were no perorations worthy of Cicero, but people spoke with clarity and confidence.
In one instance, a man who had been shot and gravely wounded gave testimony. He was not someone of education or refinement. His vocabulary was limited. And yet, as the district attorney’s questions forced him to recall his trauma, he struggled for just the right words—and found them. There were seconds of silence as he concentrated. The shots to his chest. The haze of semiconsciousness as he collapsed in the street. He felt a duty to do justice to the reality of his experience. It was not a legal duty, but an existential one. I could feel the intensity with which he wanted what he said to be true. That desire—so fundamental to our common humanity—lifted him above the limitations usually imposed by his lack of education.
Jacques Maritain once wrote, “The intuition of being is not only, like the reality of the world and of things, the absolutely primary foundation of philosophy. It is the absolutely primary principle of philosophy.” For some, this comes through the power of their intelligence, which grasps things as they truly are. But for most, it comes when reality presses upon us and overwhelms our complacent reliance on clichés and easy truisms. We are taken captive by the power of love, for example—or by anguish, pain, and loss. What is real arrests us. I witnessed exactly that in the man who had been shot, and others as well. They were not philosophers. But they shared a human aptitude for the real.
Our future as a democratic culture does not depend upon “inclusion” or “diversity,” two overworked words in public life today. It depends upon our capacity for self-government, which in turn assumes the ability of ordinary people to stand firmly on their own two feet, taking the measure of things and making politicians answerable to reality. The people who passed before me while I served on the grand jury manifested those qualities to varying degrees, but with remarkable consistency. We are not a people entirely enslaved by smartphone screens, distracted from distraction by distraction, as T. S. Eliot put it. Nor are we merely supercilious worshippers of celebrity and consumption, though we are those things too. There’s a deep wellspring of solid realism and everyday competence in America—and a sense of duty to reality. This will hold us in good stead as we face, together, the challenges before us.
Last month, I penned a reassessment of Michael Novak’s Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. It evoked a good bit of conversation and some criticism. One carefully framed response came from Samuel Gregg, someone who has thought a great deal about theology and economics. He’s concerned that my take on free markets is “seriously flawed” and that I don’t do Michael justice.
One line of Gregg’s criticism concerns my claim that capitalism presses upon us a vision of human life framed in terms of choice, which works against the authority of moral truth. The marketplace is the arena in which we can freely pursue our own, self-chosen purposes. We can decide what it is we want, and the price mechanism nicely matches buyers and sellers so that our desires are satisfied, at least to the degree that our resources allow. This feeds into our cultural moment, I argue, one in which we can even choose to become male and female.
Gregg agrees that transgender ideology is “dangerous nonsense.” But he is skeptical that capitalism has anything to do with it. “Does people’s willingness to believe that Jack is ‘really’ Jill because ‘that’s Jack/Jill’s personal choice’ owe something to the spread of economic liberty?” he asks. He speculates that the nonsense stems from “flawed philosophical anthropologies, particularly dualistic conceptions of the mind-body relationship.” And he thinks me captive to dubious, ill-defined, and unproven assumptions: “What capitalism’s apparent victory has to do with gender ideology and some of the other contemporary social evils listed by Reno is quite unclear.”
I find myself puzzled by this line of criticism. Michael Novak was insistent that capitalism shapes culture. In many publications (including in First Things), he argued that the spread of economic liberty contributes to a culture of freedom more broadly. That’s why he was confident that China’s embrace of capitalism would bring that country into the orbit of liberal democracies. He reiterated that prediction in his last article for First Things, “The Future of Democratic Capitalism” (June 2015). He assumed that the political and cultural influences of economic liberty are, over the long run, irresistible. Gregg also believes that free markets do not simply deliver greater material wealth but also humanize society and encourage the development of liberal political institutions and a culture of freedom. This has been a major plank in bipartisan support for tariff reduction and global free trade. Commercial interaction is supposed to domesticate nationalistic passions, promote global peace, and lead to a more open world.
Given the strong consensus that the free market shapes culture and politics in good ways—a consensus promoted by the Acton Institute, where Gregg is research director—it seems odd that he would deny its negative and destructive cultural influences. What prominent social institution does not have negative consequences as well as positive ones? Indeed, it would be quite remarkable if the political, cultural, moral, and spiritual influences of capitalism were beneficial only, rather than a mixed bag.
Gregg thinks I misrepresent Michael Novak because I do not acknowledge how much he had to say about the moral and spiritual foundations of a free society. Michael did indeed speak eloquently about this, but when it comes to diagnosing our problems, he consistently cordoned off free market capitalism from implication in the degrading trends in our culture and politics. Gregg does the same. That was my point. By and large, Michael only saw the positive contributions capitalism makes to human flourishing and a free society. That’s a one-sided vision that has become a particular problem in 2017. We need to remember what Michael taught us. But we also need to recognize that he had blind spots, as do we all.
The unspoken concern in Gregg’s piece is that First Things is becoming “anti-capitalist.” This is misguided. The Federalist Papers itemize the deleterious dangers of democracy. But it would be absurd to describe Madison and Hamilton as “antidemocratic.” Quite the contrary, they wanted to assess the potential harms that democratic institutions can do to the body politic so that they could design a system of government that would save democracy from its worst excesses. I am not against capitalism; nor is First Things. But I count myself on Madison and Hamilton’s side. We need a new version of the Federalist Papers to diagnose the instabilities, dangers, and cultural perversions of global capitalism—and to propose ways to limit and balance it so as to bring out its best aspects while minimizing its worst.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ While reading Andrzej Franaszek’s fine biography of Czesław Miłosz, I was disappointed to find that the translator corrects the Polish poet. Miłosz wrote of his awakening from captivity to Marxist ideology, which sees us as pawns moved by the supposed laws of History: “I discovered that an individual can attain freedom only by acknowledging responsibility for their own past failures.” An individual—their? It’s unimaginable that a man who cared so deeply about language would commit such a solecism. The ideologically correct translation of the Franaszek biography (published by Harvard University Press) ill-serves Miłosz, who wrote so eloquently about the perils of ideological self-enslavement.
♦ Inclusive pronouns are prominent among Rich People Problems. Which is why one finds such “corrections” in books published by Harvard University Press.
♦ A friend pointed out a passage from Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. It’s germane to Samuel Gregg’s criticisms of my essay on Michael Novak. “The mobility of labour, associated with a climate of deregulation, is an important phenomenon with certain positive aspects, because it can stimulate wealth production and cultural exchange. Nevertheless, uncertainty over working conditions caused by mobility and deregulation, when it becomes endemic, tends to create new forms of psychological instability, giving rise to difficulty in forging coherent life-plans, including that of marriage.”
♦ The Once and Future Liberal is Mark Lilla’s expansion of and elaboration on his post-election New York Times article that criticized identity politics for undermining progressive politics. He was handled roughly by the political-correctness police. Unfortunately, this short book has lots of nasty, unfair things to say about conservatives. Perhaps he felt he needed to show his progressive bona fides. That aside, Lilla’s main thesis is sound: Recovering a sense of shared citizenship is the cultural and political imperative of our time. The first political party to reclaim the word “we” will dominate our future.
♦ One of the letter writers in this issue criticizes Matthew Schmitz’s August/September Back Page, “My Shamanic Healing,” and regards my decision to publish Schmitz’s story as “objectively scandalous.” He believes I should apologize for publishing it. By this reasoning, St. Augustine’s account of his entanglements with sin, error, and folly in his Confessions ought to be retracted as well.
♦ I’ve written about a temptation the Catholic Church faces: to become a chaplaincy to the culture of death. It sometimes succumbs. The Belgian Brothers of Charity run psychiatric centers in that country. The order was censured by Pope Francis for offering euthanasia to those with mental suffering. Some within the order have decided to ignore the papal warning, and a lay member of their board turned some of the Holy Father’s rhetoric back against him: “If you prohibit anything, any conversation will stop. We just want to enter into dialogue. Jesus also laid the rules aside.”
♦ The Brothers of Charity adopted their policy of offering euthanasia after a home for the elderly was fined more than $6,000 for refusing a seventy-four-year-old woman’s request for euthanasia, a practice that the Belgian government permits and that its courts have turned into a right. This is an example of the pressure placed on the Church by post-Christian culture, a pressure that forces us to decide whether we will conform ourselves to the new norms or say “no.”
♦ Google veterans Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan are launching an app called Bodega. Their concept is to have a local convenience store without employees. You order online and pick up the stuff down the street, unlocking unmanned storage lockers with your smart phone. This sets up a classic conflict for liberals. Silicon Valley “innovation” is so very good. But the name “Bodega” seems like “cultural appropriation.” Frank Garcia, chairman of the New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce says, “To me, it is offensive for people who are not Hispanic to use the name ‘bodega,’ to make a quick buck.” He adds, “To compete with bodegas and also use the ‘bodega’ name is unbelievably disrespectful.”
♦ Pope Francis announced that the John Paul II Institute on Marriage and Family is to be restructured. What this will mean is hard to tell. But the rationale follows a now well-established pattern. The restructured institute is to look “with the intellect of love and with wise realism, at the reality of the family today in all its complexity, with its lights and its shadows.” This is a statement of sentiment, not principle, which contributes to the authoritarian atmosphere of this papacy. Who is approaching ethical questions with “the understanding of love” and appreciation for the “light and shadow”? That’s a “discernment” to be made by those in charge. And it can’t be challenged. To do so would be unloving, a sign of rigid disregard for life’s complexities, etc.
♦ There was a kerfuffle over the appointment of Bradley Manning (who goes by the name of Chelsea Manning these days) to a visiting fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He was convicted of transmitting government secrets to WikiLeaks, only to have his sentence commuted by President Obama. It seems rather obvious that Manning’s celebrity as a transgendered hero (or is that heroine?) is more important than the rule of law and the integrity of our government.
♦ Meanwhile, Harvard’s administration canceled the admission of Michelle Jones to the history department’s PhD program. She spent twenty years in jail for a murder conviction. The Harvard brass reportedly was concerned “that her background would cause backlash among rejected applicants, conservative news outlets, or parents of students.” That sums it up: An ex-con black woman with intellectual chops loses out to a transgendered man who has nothing going for him other than the fact that he’s a poster boy for various elite causes.
♦ As it turns out, Harvard also tossed Manning overboard, rescinding his visiting fellowship.
♦ We’re not tossing any readers overboard. In fact, we’d like you to get even more involved in our project, which you can do by joining a ROFTERS group.
One is forming in Israel. To join, get in touch with Mike Gold (firstname.lastname@example.org), who lives conveniently in Modi’in, which is between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Edward Amsden will convene a new group in Port Huron, Michigan. Email him for details: email@example.com.
Still another ROFTERS group is starting up in Decatur, Illinois. Contact Gary Burlington (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Fr. David Eynon (FrDavidEynon@mail.goarch.org).