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EVANGELISM

While I appreciated Robert Barron’s 2017 Erasmus Lecture, “Evangelizing the Nones” (January), the bishop overestimates the degree to which young “nones” take their cues from the New Atheism. As pernicious as that philosophy has proven to be, it is not the lodestar for young adults that Barron seems to think. During ten years in high school and college ministry and education, including two years of ministry in a residence hall of undergraduates, I met very few students who wrestled with the claims of the New Atheists in any depth. When students mentioned atheistic materialism, I sensed it was a cover, an intellectual excuse that obscured their real motivation to be liberated from religious constraints that conflicted with their desires.

This problem is closely tied to acedia, which Aquinas defines as a sadness because something good is difficult. Young people today are compassed about by such sadness. Some, indeed, are consoled by denying the existence of God—an easy appeal to a one-dimensional cultural narrative that asks nothing of them in return—but only insofar as it liberates them to act freely upon their desires, to live freely according to the ambiguous virtue of “being a good person,” to exist free from responsibility for the moral welfare of others. In this, young people are more heirs to the conclusions of New Atheism than champions of its doctrines.

To set one’s evangelical sights on dismantling New Atheism is to confuse the branch with the root, to answer questions that rich young men are no longer asking. The heart of the problem is desire, and to wrestle with it, we must search out the affective equivalent of Laplace’s quip, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” Yet in this, Barron hits the mark in his call to evangelize with the “winsome attractiveness” of the beautiful. And because we cannot love what we do not know, I also concur with his call for a new apologetics, beginning with the doctrine of God. It is such a God who asked, “What are you looking for?”

Jane Sloan Peters
new york, new york

Bishop Barron rightly proposes the beautiful as the first stage in evangelization. But he largely overlooks the fact that the principal means of proclaiming the beautiful is the liturgy. Just as catechesis was “dumbed down” after the Second Vatican Council, so too was the liturgy and especially its music. If, as Barron asserts, Catholicism “never threw anything out,” then why have Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony—granted pride of place (principum locum) by the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy—been largely lost?

It was a significant mistake of the post-conciliar era to believe that the principal function of the liturgy is instruction: The readings and the sermon were made the centerpiece, and music was seen to attract the congregation to this instruction. But what is really central in the liturgy is the mystical element—that the members of the body of Christ be prayerfully incorporated into the sacrifice offered by Christ on the altar. The structure of the sung liturgy, while giving prominence to instruction, rightly places ultimate focus upon this contemplative element, and it does so through its music.

Traditional liturgical music also complements Bishop Barron’s emphasis on the Christian fulfillment of the Old Testament, in that it is suffused with the language of the Psalms. Properly arranged chant and polyphony commemorate the whole history of salvation over the course of the liturgical year, culminating profoundly in Holy Week and Easter.

Finally, traditional sacred music has an objective quality which is at the same time palpable and introspective. It immediately poses order and purpose to the soul recalling the order and purpose with which the Creator endowed all creation, and so offers a ready means of approaching the transcendence of God. In this way, the sung liturgy synthesizes all the elements of evangelization, making them palpable and desirable. This is the real function of beauty in evangelization.

William Mahrt
stanford university
stanford, california

SEX TALK

It was inspiring to read how Evan Lenow helps students examine the issue of contraception in his seminary classes (“Protestants and Contraception,” January). The fruit of newly expectant parents speaks for itself!

Yet there is one point that I wish Lenow had made more explicit in the article. Most Protestants that I have talked to about this issue are not aware that the pill can have an abortifacient result in some cases. In addition to suppressing ovulation, the pill also works to prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus. So if the pill fails in its primary task, and ovulation occurs, a fertilized egg will not be able to implant, and the very brief pregnancy will be terminated. 

My sense is that younger Evangelicals may be open to reconsidering the uncritical embrace of artificial contraception that has been the norm for Protestants over the last few decades. Humanae Vitae might be a bit of a stretch for some of them, but simply gaining a more complete understanding of the way contraceptive technologies operate could be enough to provoke reassessment.

Jonathan Wilson
ypsilanti, michigan

I was encouraged by the general spirit and direction of Evan Lenow’s “Protestants and Contraception,” but if he intended to provide a clear moral takeaway, I could not find it. Lenow first catalogues the many marital and social ills born of the contraceptive revolution, and provides a scriptural foundation for the immorality of certain types of birth control. But in conclusion, he offers an escape hatch: It may be permissible for married couples to use barrier methods as long as they do so with the intent of “responsible parenthood” as that concept is defined, paradoxically, in Humanae Vitae itself. How is this not essentially the same waffling upshot of the 1930 Lambeth Conference that led us to where we are now—a world of deepening, and perhaps irremediable, moral and sexual disorder?

Stephen Patton
sacramento, california

Evan Lenow writes that he sees no difference between natural family planning (NFP) and the use of contraceptives. But the difference is great. A couple using NFP is simply having sex, albeit during the wife’s infertile period, whereas a couple on the pill is having sex while simultaneously eliminating its effects with a technological fix. The latter is not unlike a certain eating disorder wherein one preserves the pleasure of the act while expelling its consequences. Some would say that this isn’t even “eating,” and one might look at contraceptive sex in the same way.

There are many positive things to say about NFP, which my wife and I used during her childbearing years. It may be that the Catholic Church is alone in knowing that a couple who thwarts the procreative end of sex by artificial means is also thwarting its unitive end. But you have to get out of a Cartesian mindset to see this.

George Sim Johnston
new york, new york

Evan Lenow professes to see no difference between barrier methods of contraception and the natural techniques endorsed by Humanae Vitae because both methods appear to have the same end, namely, to avoid having children. But if there is really no difference, then couples using contraception ought to be receptive to the suggestion that they use natural means instead. In reality, however—as Janet E. Smith has pointed out—any such suggestion will be met with blank stares followed by the protest, “But that would be completely different!” One method requires periodic continence, and the other, well, doesn’t. Couples intuitively understand that this would require a massive, nay, heroic and sacrificial change in their behavior toward each other.

The reason is that each method employs a vastly different means of achieving the same end, both of which are intended by the couple, and, moreover, both of which must be good for the method to be morally permissible. Thus, the means can vitiate the end if it involves the agent in an intended evil, such as sexual relations for the sake of pleasure alone. One man goes out and gets a job; the other robs a bank. One person diets and exercises; the other purges. As St. Paul teaches, we must never do evil that good may come (Rom. 3:8).

My objections notwithstanding, I plead with Lenow to continue sharing Humanae Vitae with his students; he is clearly having a profound impact on their lives.

John P. McPheters
richland, michigan

While I am grateful for Evan Lenow’s exhortation to fellow Protestants to take seriously the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexual morality, I was surprised that he fails to see the fundamental difference between natural family planning (NFP) and contraception. The couple using NFP chooses not to engage in marital relations at fertile times; the couple using contraception engages in them but tries to prevent a natural result from happening. In one case there is a nonaction, in the other, an action. It is as absolute as the difference between being and nonbeing. From this ontological difference stems a moral difference. The NFP user intends to avoid a pregnancy, while the contraceptive user intends to prevent a pregnancy. The one, presumably for good reasons, respects a rhythm inherent in nature; the other, let us presume for equally good reasons, uses technology to interfere with the order of nature.

NFP is founded on an attitude of humility in the face of the mystery of fertility, whereby human beings cooperate with God in the creation of an immortal being destined for heaven; contraception is the result of a Baconian-Cartesian “mastery of nature” mentality that puts man in God’s place.

Finally, NFP can be abused if the mentality behind it happens to be antilife, but it need not be so abused. Contraception, on the other hand, is an abuse in and of itself, since it treats fertility as a problem to be overcome or thwarted. And this is offensive to the Creator of human nature.

Peter A. Kwasniewski
wyoming catholic college
lander, wyoming

Evan Lenow replies:

I am grateful for all the responses I’ve received in these letters, by email, and through social media. Civil dialogue on such an intimate topic is rare these days, but this exchange is encouraging.

On the issue of the pill, I am in complete agreement with Jonathan Wilson. If one reads the fine print on any variety of combined oral contraceptive, it becomes evident that one function is to diminish the endometrium and create an unstable environment for a fertilized egg to implant. Because life begins at conception, I view this as a violation of the sanctity of life. While it may be difficult, as Wilson observes, for many Protestants to reach this conclusion, I believe it is the right one. This is what I teach in my classes, and this is what pushes many of my students to begin questioning their uncritical acceptance of birth control. While I did not dwell on this component in detail, it is essential to my position.

The rest of the letters focus primarily on the allowance I made for barrier methods of contraception when used in keeping with the spirit of “responsible parenthood” as defined by the encyclical. Again, this was not the central point of my essay, but it is a significant corollary of the ideas I promoted. Two points from the encyclical may shed some light on my position.

First, Paul VI writes,

With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.

The encyclical acknowledges that responsible parenthood can be exercised by those who consciously choose not to have more children for a period of time or indefinitely. This is not a decision made lightly. A decision to have no additional children indefinitely requires much prayer and discussion. It also requires much effort on the part of the couple to prevent conception. If such a decision can be reached under the teaching of the encyclical, then there may be room for the separation of the procreative and unitive functions of intercourse within certain limits in the context of marriage. Barrier methods could accomplish this end, but they should not be used indiscriminately.

Second, we read,

Responsible parenthood, as we use the term here, has one further essential aspect of paramount importance. It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter. In a word, the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.

What this paragraph describes is the role of conscience in deciphering the will of God in this realm. Scripture does not give us explicit instructions on the types of contraception that may be allowed. Again, I make an allowance for barrier methods with an understanding that the husband and wife will be seeking God’s will as responsible parents and not simply convenience.

While these points may not wholly satisfy my critics, I hope they shed further light on my position. It is, at least, much closer to the Catholic view than the typical Protestant one today. Even among friends and colleagues, I find myself in the minority, yet I am happy to report that the minority is growing.

JESUS WITHOUT CHRIST?

While I very much appreciated Gabriel Said Reynolds’s review of my book, The Islamic Jesus (“Jesus for Muslims,” January), there are a few points I would like to clarify.

Reynolds defines my book, at least in part, as “Islamic apologetics.” But my primary intention was simply to open channels of understanding between Islam and Christianity. That includes my argument that Islam’s “low Christology” has its counterparts in early Christianity—a point Christians should consider. But it also includes points that Muslims should consider: that the Qur’an may not deny the Crucifixion, as is often thought, or that its harsh condemnations of the concept of the “Son of God” may in fact be targeting Arab paganism and its carnal deities more than Christianity.

Nor does my book attempt to argue that “Christians are wrong about Christ,” as Reynolds has interpreted it. Its more modest goal is to “highlight a view of Jesus that is somewhat different from the one that lies at the heart of Christians’ faith.” In this view, Jesus is a great prophet, the Messiah, even the “Word of God”—but not God himself. Islam, of course, holds this view. What is remarkable is that some early “Jewish Christian” sects—such as the Ebionites—held the same view, as we learn from the heresiographies of the Church Fathers. (Whether those Jewish Christian sects can claim a heritage from James the Just, as I discuss in my book, is admittedly contentious.)

The striking similarities between Islam and Jewish Christianity could be used to argue that Islam is nothing but a Christian heresy, as some Christians have already done. Alternatively, the data could also be interpreted to indicate that “true Christianity,” suppressed as heresy, confirms Islam—as some Muslims have already done. I tried a third way: to explore a uniquely Judeo-Islamic way of appreciating Jesus.

This brought me to the final chapter of the book, which Reynolds brilliantly summarized: “What Jesus Can Teach Muslims Today.” I see the contemporary Muslim world as analogous to the Jewish people at the time of Jesus—haunted by Herodians, Pharisees, and Zealots. I call on fellow Muslims to look up to Jesus to find a way forward. “Surely, we do not worship Jesus, like Christians do,” as I wrote at the very end of my book, “Yet still, we can follow him.”

Mustafa Akyol
the freedom project at wellesley college
wellesley, massachusetts

I appreciated Gabriel Said Reynolds’s brief but thoughtful review of Mustafa Akyol’s The Islamic Jesus. The book deserves attention and makes an important contribution to Islamic and comparative studies. In contrast to approaches that feign neutrality or try to manufacture baseline consensus, Akyol invites us to consider a robustly Islamic Jesus. Moreover, as Reynolds highlights, Akyol draws his Islamic Jesus not only from the Qur’an and Sunnah but also from the New Testament and early Christianity. It is a remarkable argument that, in effect, offers modern Muslims a way to directly engage Christian sources and assess what Islam considers to be their corruptions (e.g., claims of Christ’s divinity), all while extracting a much-needed Gospel remainder (Injil) for Islamic faith and practice.

Nevertheless, I concur with Reynolds that Akyol’s Muslim portrayal leans too heavily on outdated and problematic interpretations of Christian origins that pit a Hellenistic Paul against the supposed Jewish Christianity of James. Reynolds notes a few historical and textual problems with this portrayal, and others could be cited (the work of Larry Hurtado especially comes to mind). Reynolds also highlights some of Akyol’s oversimplified rhetoric, as when he calls the Paul/James divide “historical fact,” and questions some of Akyol’s debatable assumptions about the prominence of Jewish Christianity in Muhammad’s Arabia (a point that Reynolds is especially qualified to debate).

Still, Reynolds overlooks some of the nuances of Akyol’s argument. Drawing on historiography of Second Temple Judaism, Akyol creates a more textured and open picture of Jesus and his followers than that produced by other recent commentators such as Reza Aslan in ZealotAkyol also acknowledges his own interpretive choices and confessional biases. That is no small thing. Our sensationalized and polarized world often drives a wedge between humility and conviction, but Akyol manages to keep them together. The points of contention will remain, of course, but as a scholar and practitioner, I find this is a promising posture for interfaith interactions.

Yet The Islamic Jesus is altogether more than this and more than what Reynolds describes. It is more than a challenge to modern Muslims or an exercise in historical interpretation. It is an invitation to Muslims, Christians, and others from a fellow truth-seeker to reconsider Jesus. As a Christian pilgrim on my own road to Emmaus, I welcome such invitations, trusting that Jesus will reveal himself to those whose hearts burn.

John D. Barton
pepperdine university
malibu, california

Gabriel Said Reynolds replies:

I am grateful for Mustafa Akyol’s lucid response to my review of The Islamic Jesus. Akyol asserts with reason that his work transcends apologetics and challenges both Christians and Muslims to reconsider their views of Jesus. He also justifiably insists that while research on Jewish Christianity has been summoned to argue that Islam is nothing but a Christian heresy, or that Christianity is nothing but an Islamic heresy (or at least a heretical departure from the teachings of the Muslim prophet Jesus), his work attempts to strike a balance between these two trends. At the same time, and this was the point of the review, there are other ways to interpret the scholarship on Christian and Islamic origins with which Akyol engages. In particular, the notion that Jewish Christianity forms an unbroken tradition connecting Jesus to Muhammad is to my mind still unproven.

I happily concur with John Barton’s positive assessment of The Islamic Jesus. It is indeed noteworthy that instead of engaging in the sort of deconstruction found in a work like Zealot, Akyol presents Jesus as a prophet of liberation who might inspire Muslims. Moreover, it is commendable that Akyol engages with even the most revisionist scholarship on Islam’s origins and considers how that scholarship might shape Islamic theological reflection. In this regard I recognize the authenticity of Akyol’s quest, as well as its similarity with that of Christians who take seriously the task of faith seeking understanding.