There has been intense interest in the exchanges between Alyssa Lyra Pitstick and Fr. Edward Oakes on the theology of Hans von Balthasar and the meaning of heresy, which will conclude, at least for the time being, in the March issue of First Things . Although a few readers of this site have grown impatient. As one puts it quite succinctly, "I don’t give a d—- about Balthasar or what Catholics think is heresy." Well, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. The work of Balthasar is without doubt one of the most impressive theological projects of the past hundred years. Anyone not interested in Balthasar is not interested in theology. Or in much else—for he wrote very suggestively about culture, literature, the role of classical Greece in contemporary philosophy, the possibilities of historical change, and the strange relationships between the beautiful, the good, and the true. So not to be interested in Balthasar is not to be interested in the questions that are the reason for the existence of First Things . In his contribution here earlier this week, Fr. Oakes concluded by quoting Pope Benedict, who urged theologians to study Balthasar with an eye to his thought’s "efficacious application" in the Christian tradition. Benedict, as usual, is very careful in his choice of words. The statement cited by Fr. Oakes is hardly an endorsement of Balthasar tout court . Dr. Pitstick, too, is obviously interested in the efficacious application of Balthasar’s thought, and in guarding against applications that are not efficacious. In talking with people and looking over the large and lively correspondence in the March issue of First Things , I am struck by the oddity that many people assume that Oakes is on the liberal side of this exchange and Pitstick on the conservative side. Now Dr. Pitstick is undoubtedly conservative in the sense that she is defending what she views as the mainstream of the received tradition, especially on the meaning of Christ’s descent into hell. But note also that it is Fr. Oakes who is regularly invoking what authoritative figures such as John Paul II and Benedict XVI have had to say about their personal and intellectual respect for Balthasar. Dr. Pitstick is in a venerable tradition of theological inquiry when she is not intimidated by ad hoc tributes, even when they are offered by popes. In fact, her contributions to First Things and her book, Light in Darkness , which will be out at the end of this month and develops her argument more fully, exemplifies the task of the theologian as described in the 1990 instruction from Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, " The Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian ." She is—as the instruction says theologians should— helping the Magisterium of the Church to clarify a hotly disputed question of doctrine. A very distinguished and indisputably orthodox theologian of my acquaintance said after reading an advance copy of her book that he didn’t know whether to be more impressed by Balthasar’s scholarship or by Pitstick’s critique of his scholarship. For a young woman with a newly minted doctorate, Dr. Pitstick has done a very daring—some would say impertinent—thing in taking on a figure so venerated as Hans Urs von Balthasar. Agree or disagree with her, she is a first-rate theological talent, and that should not be overlooked in these exchanges.
Now that I am to be a bishop, I will have to be more judicious in what I say. But please permit a comment on a little brouhaha over the annual award of the National Book Critics Circle reported in Thursday’s New York Times . It seems that Bruce Bawer’s While Europe Slept is in the running and some of the judges are violating protocol by publicly protesting that the book is, among other things, "racist" and "Islamophobic." Strong language, that. I hold no brief for Mr. Bawer. A gay writer, he some years ago published A Place at the Table , in which he tries to make the case for the acceptance of homosexuality as a conservative cause. He and I engaged in an extensive exchange about his argument in the pages of National Review. Bawer later moved with his partner to Scandinavia in the hope of finding a more liberated culture but after a few years was appalled by Europe’s pusillanimous response to aggressive Islam in its midst. From that experience comes While Europe Slept, sounding the tocsin against what Bat Y’eor some years ago described as the emergence of "Eurabia." (For more on Bat Y’eor in First Things , see here and here .) There are now, in addition to Bawer’s, a number of prominent books on the threat of Eurabia. In Londonistan , Melanie Phillips describes a UK of Muslim-dominated areas that are, in effect, "no go" zones for the rule of law. There is the late Oriana Fallaci’s The Force of Reason , which scorchingly critiques Islam as inveterately irrational and violent. The same argument is made in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel . Hirsi Ali, a Somalian who found refuge for a time in the Netherlands, is now being given shelter at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. According to her and others of like mind, "moderate Islam" is a Western delusion and she aspires to do for Islam what Voltaire did for Catholicism—to smite it hip and thigh. And then, of course, there is the inimitable Mark Steyn’s America Alone , which, with a special focus on demography as destiny, contends that Europe is lost, having neither the wit nor the will to extricate itself from the consequences of its immigration policies. These themes are thoughtfully addressed also in George Weigel’s The Cube and the Cathedral . The received wisdom is that a more fair and balanced treatment of the Eurabia question is Ian Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance . I’ve just finished it, and recommend it as a great read. But there is naught, or at least very little, for our comfort in Buruma’s book. His depictions of van Gogh, Pim Fortuyn (a politician who was also murdered), Hirsi Ali, and others are incisive and frequently devastating. At the same time, in his search for a more hopeful future for the Netherlands and Europe more generally, he profiles a Muslim, Abdelhakim, who teaches Dutch history in a Dutch school and thinks what he has to teach is complete rot. He despises the West, has nothing but contempt for Christianity, hates Jews, and prays for the day when sharia law will dominate the world. But he does not think that day can be advanced by resort to violence. Buruma holds up Abdelhakim as a model for the future of Islam in Europe. No matter how much he despises us, at least he doesn’t want to kill us. "Abdelhakim," writes Buruma, "is spiritually akin to an older, more orthodox Dutch society, which was mostly swept away by the cultural tide of the 1960s." Well, not quite. The fact that Buruma’s analysis is praised as more fair and balanced by those offended by "Islamophobia" suggests that the awareness of Eurabia is reaching a critical mass. Maybe the story of Europe is over. I don’t know. If so, it would be a sadness of immeasurable proportions. The reality of Islam in America is, for many reasons, very different. And, the folks over at The American Muslim notwithstanding, First Things will do its bit to ensure that that continues to be the case.
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