Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 99 (January 2000): 63-83.
Some years ago, in October 1991, we published C. John Sommerville’s "How the News Makes Us Dumb," and I still think it one of the most winsomely wise pieces we have run. Sommerville, professor of history at the University of Florida, has now expanded that essay into a book by the same title, with the subtitle The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society (InterVarsity, 168 pp., $10.99).
A problem with newspapers and the TV news, says Sommerville, is "periodicity," the need to package the "news product" in order to fit the schedule of a news industry whose purpose is to attract a crowd for its advertisers. Another problem is our laziness. "We take in only what we can get in periodical form—in small, predigested, daily bites. There are plenty of books out there that would enlighten us, but we are satisfied to read only the reviews by journalists who may be more interested in seeing the ideas dismissed. Can you imagine what a review of this book would look like?"
This is not so much a review of How the News Makes Us Dumb as a few representative pickings, offered in the hope of whetting your appetite for a little book much worth reading. Sommerville allows that there are from time to time really big developments—Watergate, for example—that we probably should know about. "But all that this proves is that we might want to buy a newspaper when there is an important story—every twenty years or so." He cites novelist George Eliot, who was already in the nineteenth century skeptical about the claim that labor–saving devices create more leisure. Eliot didn’t care much for this new leisure that "only creates a vacuum for eager thought to rush in." "Even idleness is eager now," she wrote, "eager for amusement; prone to excursion–trains, art museums, periodical literature, and exciting novels; prone even to scientific theorizing and cursory peeps through microscopes. Old Leisure was quite a different personage. He only read one newspaper, innocent of leaders [editorials], and was free from that periodicity of sensations which we call post–time [when the papers arrived]. He was a contemplative, rather stout gentleman, of excellent digestion; of quiet perceptions, undiseased by hypothesis; happy in his inability to know the causes of things, preferring the things themselves." The periodicity of sensations—an excellent phrase denoting that to which news junkies are addicted.
Real power, says Sommerville, shuns publicity. "If you only know what is in the newspapers, you are an outsider." People who make a point of keeping up with the news think they are in the know. "Actually it means just the opposite. People who are in the know watch news reports only to see what sense the reporters are making of things and what the ‘peasants’ will soon be thinking." The news is full of polling data, about which it is said that there is a margin of error of a few percentage points. "The real margin of error in most polls," Sommerville contends, "is about 100 percent. The error is to think that we have any thoughts on most subjects. Of course we will have a response. For we just know that this kind pollster, looking modestly down at her clipboard, is really testing us. She secretly knows the right answer to the question and is only pretending to be indifferent to our answer. Naturally those who read the most news are those who will be the least likely to have views of their own. They will try the hardest to recall the attitudes they think informed people will have."
The book concludes with a lovely vignette. Sommerville arrives at the university one morning and finds a colleague at the New York Times vending machine who looks very unhappy. "He had put in his money and pulled out . . . yesterday’s edition! Today’s hadn’t yet arrived. He expected sympathy. But I wondered what the matter was. Yesterday that edition would have been just fine—probably a high point in his routine day. Surely, I reasoned, if it was a good issue it would bear reading and savoring again. He told me that I reminded him of a rabbi he knew who used to say things like that."
How the News Makes Us Dumb is not averse to hyperbole, and the reader need not be terribly smart to catch the author in the occasional contradiction. (And where does he get all those examples of the fatuities of "the news product" if he is not spending a good deal of time with the news? I suppose he might answer that he, like the physician, attends to what he diagnoses, which does not mean he likes it.) But Sommerville says the real test of the value of his book is whether its reader can ever again view the newspaper or evening news in the same way. By that measure, this little book is a smashing success. (By the way, and in the event you were wondering, he thinks the reading of a serious monthly such as the one you have in hand is a very good thing, maybe even a way toward something like wisdom.)
In the nineteenth century, Samuel Schmucker tried to get American Lutheranism to drop its doctrinal and sacramental "vestiges of Catholicism" and join up with the Anglo–Protestant mainline. That effort was turned back in what, up until about twenty–five years ago, historians of American religion called "the triumph of conservative Lutheranism." Now, according to Pastor Leonard Klein, a prominent Lutheran commentator, Schmucker’s time has come around at last.
Reporting on the recent Denver convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA—by far the largest of the three Lutheran groups in the U.S.), he notes that full communion with the Episcopalians means that ELCA clergy will eventually be included in the Anglican line of apostolic succession, which, although not recognized by Rome, is a step in a "catholic" direction. At the same time, however, the ELCA has established full communion with Protestant mainline groups, implicitly abandoning the Lutheran insistence on such fundamentals as baptismal regeneration and the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Klein notes that some claim this makes the ELCA a "bridge church," but he observes that the bridge does not extend to either of the two major sectors of Christianity—Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism.
The ELCA, he says, is now firmly entrenched in a loose coalition of liberal Protestantism based upon doctrinal indifferentism. "Orthodoxy (of a couple different kinds) has its place too," he writes, "but in the mainline we have long seen Neuhaus’ Law in operation—‘where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.’" He concludes that the ELCA is now "further from reconciliation with Rome than ever, at least so far as human beings can see." The ELCA is not "a liturgically, doctrinally, morally sound Church of the Augsburg Confession, oriented by that very confession not to Protestantism but to the Catholic Church of the West." It may still be "the best mainline Protestant church to be in [but] for those like me who never imagined being in any such place, the 1999 journey in Denver is a wrenching disappointment."
Some of us who, as Lutherans, labored for years to heal the breach of the sixteenth century between Rome and the Reformation know well that wrenching disappointment. It is not simply that such reconciliation is not on the horizon "so far as we can see." Rather, such reconciliation may be impossible in principle; and that because Rome of the sixteenth century (and of the centuries before and after) is present and ready, while the Lutheran Reformation has gone AWOL. At least it is neither present nor ready in the ELCA, which has retreated—along with mainline Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, et al.—into a liberal enclave secured against the challenge of both Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism. The wrenching disappointment is joined to the wrenching irony that this separatism has been effected in the name of ecumenism.
Authentic ecumenism—as distinct from indifferentism to theological and moral truth—remains an urgent task. Achievements such as the Joint Declaration on justification by Catholics and Lutherans should not be minimized; and there can be no doubt that the Catholic commitment to Christian unity is relentless, irreversible, and open–ended. (Open–ended means that the unity that is sought will transcend all the present ecclesial configurations of our divided existence, including, as John Paul II anticipates in Ut Unum Sint, the exercise of the papal office as the apostolic center of the universal Church.) On the Lutheran side, however, the circumstance is every bit as grim as Pastor Klein portrays it. Samuel Schmucker may or may not be pleased. The mainline he wanted Lutherans to join was then the mainline, quite plausibly presenting itself as the Christian future.
Watch very carefully now. There are three cards: one named Spirit, one named Matter, and the other Science. The dealer shuffles them quickly and places them face down. Now, which is Spirit, which Matter, and which Science? It’s illegal, of course, but three–card monte is regularly played by young hustlers on the streets of New York (less regularly since Giuliani). They set up a cardboard box for a table and can count on gathering a crowd of locals and tourists, the former enjoying the gullibility of the latter who invariably lose the dollars they put down in the misplaced confidence that their eye is faster than the dealer’s hand.
Most of us are tourists, so to speak, when it comes to the great debates among scientists and philosophers about the nature of reality. But it’s marvelous fun to listen in. There is, for instance, this continuing confabulation about the connections between brain, mind, and consciousness. It seems that at least two new books on the subject appear every week. This week there is Colin McGinn’s The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World (Basic Books). McGinn, a British philosopher currently at Rutgers, argues that the existence of consciousness in a material world is a deep mystery that we will never unravel. It is, he insists, an entirely natural phenomenon that emerges from the physical brain ("a hunk of meat"), but we don’t know how that happens and we never will know. And that for the simple reason that, as I have written elsewhere, our minds are not complex enough to understand our minds, and, if our minds were more complex than they are, our minds would have to be that much more complex in order to understand our minds. And so forth ad infinitum.
Galen Strawson of Jesus College, Oxford, has also produced a book on mind and consciousness. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, he is not unsympathetic to McGinn’s claim that consciousness is an unfathomable mystery. McGinn’s mistake, he writes, is to think that consciousness is unusual in this respect. McGinn thinks that, unlike matter, which we can understand, consciousness is a mystery. The truth of the matter, contends Strawson, is that we can’t understand matter either. "Current physics thinks of matter as a thing of forces, energy, fields. And it can also seem natural to think of consciousness as a form or manifestation of energy, as a kind of force, and even, perhaps as a kind of field. You may still feel the two things are deeply heterogeneous, but you really have no good reason to believe this. You just don’t know enough about matter." Those who know enough about matter know that it, too, is a deep mystery.
Here’s where the three–card monte comes in. Strawson opines that maybe Bertrand Russell was right when he conjectured more than seventy years ago that "we know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events except when these are mental events that we directly experience." Strawson writes: "It is not easy to hold onto this line of thought (it requires a kind of meditative effort), but it’s the way to go. . . . It shows that there is nothing to be surprised about when it comes to consciousness, although there is a very great deal we don’t understand. It deepens one’s feeling for the material world—the only world there is."
The last five words clearly indicate where the card marked Matter is, right? Just as clearly, in this variation of the game, Matter is trump and therefore materialism wins, right? But think again. Remember that matter is "a thing of forces, energy, fields." It is all mystery, says Strawson. It sounds very much like "being," which many philosophers (knowing this line of thought requires intense meditative effort) say is that which you cannot think not to be. Strawson presents himself as a materialist. When people do that, it usually means they don’t want to get into the God question and all that. But he is already into it, and possibly over his head. The trick of the game is that the Matter card is now the Spirit card, and the Science card is Philosophy, which can also be used in a variation of the game, called Theology. To speak of reality as infinite mystery, as many scientist–philosophers now do, is to say that we can only speak of it analogously (analogy being a much more sophisticated concept than Russell’s "mental events").
Analogy goes like this: "A is to B as C is to D." So, for example, "God is to the world as the artist is to his painting." Theological language—and philosophical language that addresses how things really are—is necessarily analogous, and that because we can only speak of ultimate reality (a.k.a. God) in terms of the created things that we know. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) declared that "No similarity can be found [between God and His creatures] so great but that the dissimilarity is even greater." Strawson is surely right; the distinction is not between matter, which we understand, and consciousness, which is a mystery. Rather, it is, so to speak, mystery all the way down and all the way up. Nor does "mystery" denote the terra incognita beyond the limits of our present understanding; that way of speaking makes mystery synonymous with a puzzle that we may one day come to understand. Mystery is not what is left over after our understanding fails. Rather, it is the case that we have come to understand that it is mystery all the way up and all the way down. Put differently, matter, too, is spirit. (In the first volume of his Systematic Theology, Wolfhart Pannenberg very suggestively discusses the Holy Spirit in terms of what contemporary science calls the universal force field.)
For very understandable historical reasons, as distinct from logical reasons, most scientists dealing with questions such as the brain–mind–consciousness connections have a powerful aversion to anything hinting of religion or theology. In scientific circles, to be known to be a believer is to be vulnerable to the suspicion that your science is tainted by your religion. This goes way back to Hume’s divorce of "fact" and "value," with science addressing the former and religion (along with poetry, literature, and other private indulgences) addressing the latter. For a long time, most scientists and theologians have been content to play on their side of the divide between fact and value, with theologians frequently wanting to treat the divide more as a net in a game of table tennis. (See Basil Mitchell, How to Play Theological Ping–Pong: Essays on Faith and Reason, 1990.) Scientists typically were not interested in playing that game.
One way for scientists to avoid being bothered by pesky theologians or by philosophers who want to take on the big questions was to adamantly declare themselves to be materialists. The material world, asserts Strawson, is "the only world there is." The late television astronomer Carl Sagan delighted in concluding his programs with the pronunciamento that matter is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be. But what to do when the most rigorous scientific thought about the hardest evidence leads to the conclusion that matter and spirit are not antithetical, that at the deepest level matter is spirit, and maybe even Spirit? Galen Strawson is right in saying that this line of thought is the way to go. But the perduring aversion to religion, theology, and serious philosophy is such that we should not expect most scientists to advance quickly or directly in this line of thought. Be prepared for decades to come in which some scientists will persist in the sleight of hand by which they switch the cards marked Matter, Spirit, and Science. Three–card monte is a mug’s game, but we can understand why some people think they need it.
It is mystery all the way upward, all the way downward, and all the way backward. It is the last direction that was addressed twenty years ago by astronomer Robert Jastrow in God and the Astronomers. In trying to discover the origin of the universe, he wrote,
We would like to pursue the inquiry farther back in time, but the barrier to further progress seems insurmountable. It is not a matter of another year, another decade of work, another measurement, or another theory; at this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.
The danger of that well–known passage is that it can contribute to smugness among theologians, and it can be used to perpetuate the old idea that theology is unrelated to reason. As so powerfully argued in the 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio, faith that does not think is no faith at all. But Jastrow’s observation does underscore the end of an older form of scientific reason—sometimes called scientism—that was relentlessly constrictive and reductionist in what it permitted people to think. Now the best of science opens toward wonder, and the opening toward wonder can be an opening toward wisdom. It is not equivalent to, but neither is it unrelated to, the words of the psalmist, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."
Watch very carefully now. The cards are quickly shuffled and placed face down. Which is Matter, which is Spirit, and which Science? What if each is all and all each? The next time you meet someone who declares himself a materialist, and if he is an intellectually serious person, you might want to encourage him. Perhaps he is not materialist enough. As Galen Strawson says, it’s the way to go. And, I would add, to keep on going, ever deeper into the mystery, at the heart of which—or so it has been discovered by most of the most thoughtful of our species—is Wisdom.
Our policy is not to print letters in response to letters appearing in the correspondence section. We get a lot of them. To print them would drag exchanges on and on, with readers wondering who had previously said what to whom. Plus, the space is needed for letters responding to current articles. But what’s the point of being Editor–in–Chief if you cannot make exceptions to policy? At least a partial exception. Charles Ford of St. Louis University, in response to a letter published in the November 1999 issue that reflects a view widely held, makes a substantive argument about invidious comparisons:
The letter by Robert Alpert about Pius XII and the Jews (Correspondence, November 1999) reveals some serious misunderstandings. He criticizes Eugenio Pacelli (Pius XII) by comparing him unfavorably with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who was executed for taking part in attempts to eliminate Hitler. Mr. Alpert states that "the proper Christian response was Bonhoeffer’s, not Pacelli’s. The call for Christians during the period of the annihilation of European Jewry was witness and resistance even if it involved martyrdom."
The criticism is that Pacelli failed to make explicit, unequivocal, public condemnation of the Nazi campaign of annihilation during World War II. Mr. Alpert dismisses the reasons given in defense of Pacelli as "hollow and ignoble."
He has no grounds, however, for holding up Bonhoeffer as a model for what Pacelli failed to do. During the war, Bonhoeffer never gave public condemnations of the Nazis. On the contrary, he feigned public approval. The reason—not to draw attention to illegal activities—is the same reason given by Pacelli. It is as valid for Pacelli as for Bonhoeffer.
From the very beginning of the war, the Roman Catholic Church was involved in illegal actions to rescue Jewish people. About one million Jews survived Nazi occupation because of rescue actions. About 85 percent of these were carried out by Roman Catholics. Eugenio Pacelli feared that more forceful public statements would invite more severe Nazi reprisals. Mr. Alpert regards this argument as "the most disingenuous and disturbing of all. More severe? . . . For the Jewish community nothing could have been more severe." But Nazi reprisals would inevitably have hindered rescue work. The resulting annihilation of yet more Jews would indeed have been more severe.
Mr. Alpert sees Oskar Schindler as another model for what Pacelli failed to do. In fact, however, Schindler performed the type of rescue action that Pius XII was fostering all over Europe. Like Bonhoeffer, Schindler did not speak out publicly against the Nazis, but feigned agreement while engaging in rescue activities.
In 1939, the year Eugenio Pacelli was elected Pope, Dietrich Bonhoeffer joined the German resistance movement. From then on, Pacelli was kept informed about the resistance. This made him the more likely to refrain from forceful public statements. Nothing indicates that Bonhoeffer or the resistance disagreed. Dr. Joseph Müller, a Catholic lawyer, served as the contact between the resistance and Pius XII. He and Bonhoeffer developed a deep mutual respect. They were arrested together in April 1943.
The implicit comparison of Pacelli with Roosevelt and Churchill, presumably because they also failed to speak out, is inappropriate. Bonhoeffer wanted Roosevelt and Churchill to encourage the resistance and to publicly discuss peace aims. They refused to do either. Pius XII is the only leader who took the resistance seriously and publicly discussed peace aims. Pacelli understood, as Roosevelt and Churchill did not, the significance of the German resistance.
Bonhoeffer’s path led to martyrdom. No one who has followed carefully the career of Eugenio Pacelli, however, can doubt that he would have risked martyrdom in defense of the Jews. His decision against a forceful public stand was not taken out of unwillingness to risk martyrdom but rather for the purpose of saving more lives. For his part, Bonhoeffer never sought martyrdom. He was exceedingly skillful in misleading his interrogators. Up to the day before his execution, he expected to survive the Nazis. When martyrdom did come, though, Bonhoeffer accepted it in full submission to the will of God.
The "witness and resistance" of Eugenio Pacelli and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are similar. Both were important figures of Christian resistance, motivated by a desire to prevent further destruction, especially of the Jews. Both engaged in clandestine activities and avoided direct public statements that might draw attention to these activities.
Mr. Alpert states that "the people of Israel have every right to comment on a man whose actions were intimately bound up with their survival during World War II." Indeed. Under Pacelli’s direct leadership, 12 percent of the Jewish population under Nazi occupation was successfully rescued. The puzzle is not, as Mr. Alpert would have it, why John Paul II would attempt to beatify Eugenio Pacelli, but rather why anyone, especially leaders of Jewish organizations, would oppose it.
The Association of Christians in Political Science was launched some years ago, mainly by evangelicals, and is today a lively and ecumenical group that recently held its annual meeting at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. I was invited to give a public lecture on the subject of President Clinton and the American character (you know what I have to say on that) and the next day there was a special session to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the publication of The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America.
In preparation for that, I went back for the first time to reread The Naked Public Square. For a writer, it is both encouraging and discouraging to recognize the continuity in one’s thinking; encouraging to see how arguments have held up, discouraging to see how little the basic arguments have changed. But that, too, is vanity. Only the writer is inside his own head, and he should not assume that others will see all the continuities he sees. I conceive of writing as engagement in a conversation, and the reader’s questions and challenges are essential to the conversation continuing. After we have fallen into silence, as we inevitably shall, we may hope that others will take up the conversation where we left off.
While it does not seem to me that my mind has been greatly changed with respect to the basic arguments, the circumstance at the beginning of a new century is very different. Upon rereading The Naked Public Square, I was struck by how taken I was with the Italian social theorist Vilfredo Pareto and his idea of "the circulation of elites" in social change. Put too briefly, I posited that what was in the early 1980s called "the new religious right" was positioned to succeed, over time, the liberal Protestant mainline in giving moral–cultural definition to the American experiment. That may still happen, it may in fact be in the process of happening. The prospect has subsequently been reinforced by developments such as "Evangelical and Catholics Together," in which evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics join in acknowledging one another at the deepest level as brothers and sisters in Christ, and also embrace together the great tasks of cultural reconstruction.
This convergence was anticipated in The Catholic Moment, a book published three years after The Naked Public Square, in which I speculated that Father John Courtney Murray may have been right in the 1950s when he foresaw a time when Catholics, picking up a fallen banner, would take the lead in publicly articulating the constituting truths of the American order. Murray could not then imagine that this would be done in cooperation with evangelical Protestants, who were then easily dismissable as a band of self–isolated "fundamentalists" quite content to let America go to Hell in a handbasket of its choice while they awaited the Rapture.
The kind of major reconfigurations of social forces discussed in those two books take a long time to work themselves out, and I am certainly not prepared to say that what I anticipated then has been falsified by subsequent events. On the contrary, the convergence of evangelical and Catholic dynamics in giving religio–cultural redefinition to American life continues to be the only believable game in town. But such a redefinition is not going to prevail any time soon. On the Catholic side, the episcopal and intellectual will is still flabby and undecided. The mindless rush to prove that Catholics are "good Americans" and "just like everybody else" has slowed down, but has hardly been reversed. The greatest disappointment, at almost all levels of Catholic leadership, is the failure to seize upon the comprehensive program of renewal proposed in the social teaching of the pontificate of John Paul II.
And, as I said at Calvin College, I have been sobered by the evidence of the apparently incorrigible individualism of so much of evangelical Protestantism that simply does not see the connection between God’s salvific purposes and the tasks of cultural engagement. This is underscored by, for instance, Christian Smith’s American Evangelicalism, in many ways an excellent book but one that is resigned to evangelicalism being forever a loosely linked network of subcultures providing individuals with "sacred umbrellas" while evidencing little interest in the "sacred canopy" (Peter Berger) of public meanings. (For a discussion of Smith’s argument, see "Those Unsecular Evangelicals," Public Square, August/September 1999.) But, as I say, these things take time, and I am by no means prepared to withdraw what I have proposed as the promise of both Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism, and of evangelicals and Catholics together.
The Fading of Secular Humanism
Upon rereading The Naked Public Square, I was also struck by how seriously I and others took the arguments of those who were then described, and described themselves, as "secular humanists." The band of supremely confident secular intellectuals who gathered around figures such as John Dewey to issue proclamations such as the 1933 "Humanist Manifesto" appeared as a force to be reckoned with. In 1984 I noted that that kind of assertive secularism seemed to be no longer so confident, and maybe was going on the defensive. Today it seems that species is almost extinct, although it is more likely that they now present themselves in a different guise. In public education, from grade school through graduate school, there is less frequently a frontal assault on Christianity and the Judeo–Christian moral tradition. Almost nobody today is explicitly proposing, as John Dewey did, a "religion of secularism" or "a common faith" to replace biblical religion. But the religions and quasi–religions of "multiculturalism" are pervasive and they provide a more insidious replacement. The newly imagined religions of Native Americans and devotions to Mother Earth and her pantheon of nature gods and goddesses are a commonplace in school curricula. The currents of thought that now run under the banner of "postmodernism" are a major factor in undermining the former confidence of secularists who opposed religion in the name of Enlightenment rationality.
In going back to what I wrote in 1984, I am impressed by how powerful was the remembered presence of the Vietnam War, and the real presence of the Cold War of which Vietnam was part. I proposed then that a crucial dividing line in the culture war is between those who do and those who do not agree with the proposition that "On balance, and considering the alternatives, America is a force for good in the world." That formulation caught a lot of flack from liberal critics who condemned it as "simplistic." I thought it rather carefully nuanced. No doubt there are still many who would deny that proposition today. But they do not now make such a big issue of it. Agreement or disagreement with the proposition does not now, as it did then, go a long way toward answering the question, "Whose side are you on?" The reason for that, of course, is the disappearance of the totalitarian alternative of the evil empire. That is perhaps the biggest difference between then and now.
Fifteen years later, and ten years after the end of the Cold War, there are signs that elements of the left and right are coming together in opposition to what is widely recognized as a kind of American imperium in maintaining world order. The fecklessness of the Clinton policies—from Haiti to Somalia to Kosovo—has precluded any clear definition of the imperium, but that will likely change in the years ahead, resulting in some curious realignments in response to the proposition that "On balance, and considering the alternatives, America is a force for good in the world."
Confusing the Cities
In important respects, our circumstance at the beginning of the twenty–first century is more promising than we had any right to expect fifteen or thirty years ago. The argument about the dangers of the naked public square is not thought to be so controversial today as it was in 1984. Perhaps because the dangers have become more evident. There are other factors as well, such as the way in which the courts, including the Supreme Court, are backing off somewhat from a rigidly secularist understanding of "the separation of church and state." Yet one also notes today the growing habit of writers, both religious and secular, to speak of America as a post–Christian society. Among some Christians, this way of speaking reflects disappointment that, after two decades of their full bore political activism, the nation has not been returned to the paths of righteousness.
Talk about post–Christian America typically assumes a necessary connection between Christianity and civic righteousness, and of course that connection cannot be denied. Christianity, however, is also very much about sin and sinners, and how to cope in an earthly city that is not to be confused with the city of eschatological promise. Some conservative Christians who have turned against what they call post–Christian or neo–pagan America have learned one right lesson: that most of what ails our culture cannot be fixed by politics. Unfortunately, they have also drawn from that a wrong lesson: that political engagement is futile.
Even more than I did in The Naked Public Square, I would today draw attention to the Jewish–Christian connection. Most Christians simply do not understand why Jews—who are, after all, about 2 percent of the population—should be so important to reconstituting the civil public square. Today we must address that puzzlement in a way that will provoke a new way of thinking about these matters among both Christians and Jews. In 1984 I cited a friend, a Reform rabbi, who asserted, "When I hear the phrase ‘Christian America’ I see barbed wire." He reflected what was then an almost unanimous sentiment among American Jews. Fifteen years later, there are important Jewish voices, even a few Reform voices, saying that it is in the interest also of Jews that American culture reassert its Christian identity, always remembering that such an identity is grounded in a Judeo–Christian moral tradition in which the "Judeo" is by no means incidental.
Toward the end of The Naked Public Square, I took up the contention of those who then said that the day of liberal democracy is past. There were many who said that, as there are still some who say it today. Most of those who said it then—in the churches, the universities, and the media—held the view that America was "on the wrong side of history." In their passionate support for "liberation struggles" in Cuba, Nicaragua, Angola, and elsewhere they left little doubt about what they thought—"on balance, and considering the alternatives"—was the right side. The conclusion of the book considered the "dour prospect" of the end of liberal democracy. The hazards in the new century now underway will be different of course, but America will continue to be an experiment, and it will continue to be an experiment that is sustained by an intelligent anxiety about what it would mean were it to fail. In short, I am not persuaded by Francis Fukuyama’s "end of history" argument. We have to consider the prospect of the experiment’s failure, and what I said about that in the concluding passage of The Naked Public Square I would still say today:
It makes little difference whether the successor regime is of the right or of the left or unclassifiable. By whatever ideology the idea, this audacious democratic idea, would be declared discredited. By whom, where, under what circumstances, by what conception and what dedication could it ever be tried again? Yes, of course, life would go on and God’s purposes will not be defeated, not ultimately. But the world would be a darker and colder place. That it can happen is evident to all but the naive and willfully blind. That it will happen seems probable, if we refuse to understand the newness, the fragility, the promise, and the demands of religion and democracy in America.
The phrase "defining moment" is much overused. Were there as many of them as people declare there to be, definitions of anything and everything would be up for grabs, which maybe is what some people have in mind. But the 233–31 vote of the Catholic bishops in favor of implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae (from the heart of the Church) may aptly be described as a defining moment. The impetus of the 1967 Land o’ Lakes statement, which was a virtual declaration of independence from the Church on the part of the Catholic higher education establishment, has been decisively broken, although by no means reversed. The approved steps for implementation, which will almost certainly be confirmed by Rome, are exceedingly modest. The bishops are so very careful to assure the 230–plus colleges and universities that they are in no way threatening their "institutional autonomy."
After ten years of wrangling, the overwhelming vote last November was in some respects a symbolic action, but especially in the Church it is understood that symbolic actions are never "merely symbolic." It is now policy that those who teach theology in Catholic schools should receive a mandatum from their bishop upon giving assurances that they will not present as authentic Catholic teaching views that are at variance with the Magisterium. Not to misrepresent Catholic teaching is a simple matter of honesty. It is not specified what would happen to institutions that hire or retain theology teachers who do not obtain a mandatum. It is clear that a bishop could, if forced to it, publicly declare that a college or university is no longer recognized as Catholic by the Church, which in most cases would have dire consequences for recruitment of students and alumni support. Observers claim that a few schools—Georgetown, for instance—could flourish without the Catholic label, and may be glad to get rid of it. But, in general, Catholic colleges and universities would be in deep trouble if they were not publicly perceived to be Catholic.
The Catholic academic establishment, led by the Jesuits, made a disastrous misjudgment in relentlessly opposing even so modest an implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. The misjudgment reflects the degree to which they have been out of touch with what has been happening in Catholicism, and in the American episcopate, under the vigorous reforming leadership of John Paul II. Even the Jesuits, however, could not present a solid front of opposition, as was made evident in the article by Father John J. Piderit, S.J., president of Loyola University in Chicago, in these pages ("The University at the Heart of the Church," June/July 1999). Nobody can feel more vindicated by the action of the bishops than Fr. James Burtchaell, former provost of Notre Dame, who first wrote in this journal about the history of the secularization of Protestant and Catholic church–related colleges and universities ("The Decline and Fall of the Christian College," April and May 1991). That two–part article turned into the book The Dying of the Light (1998), which has been widely read and was repeatedly invoked at the meeting of the bishops. Burtchaell’s scholarship provided the bishops with case studies of what they saw happening before their eyes in Catholic institutions of higher education, and thoroughly discredited the opposition’s claim that there was no cause for concern.
Since the November action, the Catholic left has been in an uproar over this putatively reactionary and authoritarian turn that threatens intellectual inquiry, academic freedom, and other good things. A common theme is that the action will have a "chilling effect" that will discourage younger academics from going into theology. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, nonsense. The reality is that most younger academics are intensely interested in Catholic theology that is truly Catholic. They have no interest whatsoever in playing the equivocal, and frequently dishonest, games with Catholic theology that have consumed the careers of so many of an earlier and now superannuated generation. They want to be Catholic theologians. If Ex Corde Ecclesiae discourages younger academics who do not share that desire from becoming teachers of Catholic theology, that can only be counted as a very good thing for them, for students interested in Catholic theology, and for the Church.
The 233–31 vote is also an important measure of what has happened to the American episcopate during the years of this pontificate’s bold advancement of the vision of the Second Vatican Council. As little as a week before the November meeting, some bishops crucially involved in the proposal thought the vote would be much closer. Among the predictably vocal members of the declining minority in reaction against the reforms promoted by this pontificate was Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, who declared, among other things, that the implementation of Ex Corde would lead to "pastoral disaster." Somewhat amusingly, Gustav Niebuhr of the New York Times, in his report on these developments, says that Archbishop Weakland is "considered one of the few remaining moderate figures in the church hierarchy." He is probably considered that by the thirty bishops who voted with him. If he is a moderate, it would seem to follow that more than 80 percent of the bishops are extremists. So much for all the news that fits the weary story line of the liberalism of yesteryear.
The bishops were undoubtedly wise to adopt so modest a plan for implementing Ex Corde. This should be viewed as a beginning. It will not effect great changes immediately. It does clarify the principle that the bishops, in communion with the bishop of Rome, are the chief teachers of the faith, and as such have a necessary and undeniable interest in persons and institutions purporting to teach Catholic theology. Critics to the contrary, the November action is not a matter of clamping down but of inviting colleges and universities to open up to the high intellectual and spiritual adventure of studying and teaching the faith in the splendor of truth. It is, as aforesaid, a defining moment.
We begin the new millennium without millennialism. At least in our public life there is little talk about the unfolding of a providentially directed plan for the world, with America cast in the leading role. It was very different in the beginnings of the American experiment. The framers of the Constitution declared this to be a novus ordo seclorum—a new order for the ages. Those words appear on the Great Seal of the United States and are printed on the back of every dollar bill. The idea of newness, of progress, has always been at the heart of the American experience. Also in our political life of more recent decades we have had Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, and Ronald Reagan’s "It’s morning in America." Although it may now be hard to remember, Bill Clinton ran in 1992 on the promise of a New Covenant, meaning a renewed relationship of mutual trust and obligation between leadership and people.
Such political slogans are weak echoes of an understanding of history that was once given powerful expression in the public life of "Christian America." The millennialist (or millenarian) vision is grounded in Judeo–Christian tradition, notably in the Old Testament’s Book of Daniel and late Jewish apocalyptic literature of the pre–Christian era. The main source of the teaching and its subsequent impact on history, however, is the New Testament Book of Revelation, especially chapter twenty. Christian millennialists fall into two camps, premillennialists and postmillennialists. Premillennialists believe that the second coming of Christ will precede the millennium, which is a thousand–year period in which the world will know perfect peace, justice, and general blessedness. Postmillennialists believe that Christ will return after we have succeeded in establishing such a happy circumstance on earth.
Most Christians of both the past and present are not millennialists of any variety. What the Book of Revelation means by a thousand–year reign of the saints on earth is, in the mainstream of Christian orthodoxy, taken to be a deep mystery about which the greatest reticence is in order. On this question, too, St. Augustine (354–430) prevailed, especially in the Christian West, with his antimillennialist reading of history. In Augustine’s view, the "city of God" and the "city of man" would continue in ambiguous tension and conflict until the final judgment when Christ returns in triumph and brings history to a definitive end.
The Augustinian view discourages excessive excitements about the possibilities of history. Millennial excitements erupted from time to time, as with the twelfth–century Joachim of Fiore, and exploded in the sixteenth century among Anabaptists, Bohemian Brethren, and other groups belonging to what is called the radical Reformation. Postmillennial convictions, however, were by no means limited to a radical fringe. In this country, the belief that America is God’s instrument for establishing the millennium and thus ushering in the Kingdom of God was, with varying degrees of theological explicitness, the official faith of Christian, and very Protestant, America. Postmillennialism dominated public thought and speech well into the twentieth century.
Putting Reason on Alert
The Enlightenment of the American Founders was not that of Voltaire or Rousseau but of an Anglo–Scottish stream of thought that put reason on alert to what was thought to be the unfolding of Providential purpose in history. John Adams, who would become the second President of the United States, wrote ten years before the Declaration of Independence about the Protestant Reformation liberating the world from the evil "confederacy" of Romish religion and political tyrants who had for centuries held humankind in thrall.
Thus, as long as this confederacy lasted, and the people were held in ignorance, liberty, and with her, knowledge and virtue too, seem to have deserted the earth, and one age of darkness succeeded another, till God in his benign providence raised up the champions who began and conducted the Reformation. From the time of the Reformation to the first settlement of America, knowledge gradually spread in Europe, but especially in England; and in proportion as that increased and spread among the people, ecclesiastical and civil tyranny . . . seem to have lost their strength and weight.
It was in the world of the American Founders a conventional trope that, as with the course of the sun, enlightenment, liberty, and empire moved from East to West. From the Near East to Greece, from Greece to Rome, from Rome to England, and now, with wondrous consistency, across the Atlantic to America. In this vision, world history and spiritual destiny were unbreakably joined. Mark Hopkins, the preeminent nineteenth–century educator, gave voice to the common understanding:
Christianity has, indeed, always proposed to herself the subjugation of the world; but she had practically fallen back from her undertaking, not knowing the extent or character of her field. Gradually these were opening upon her, until about the commencement of the present century, when the command of Christ, interpreted by modern discoveries, began to work in the heart of the Church. This, though as yet far from assuming the place and creating the movement it ought, is still to be regarded as the central idea. Everything tends to show that this is to be the ultimate result of God’s plan.
The idea that Christ’s command to evangelize the world awaited implementation until the Protestant Reformation and the development of America may strike us as somewhat implausible, but it was from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century a commonplace in Christian America. In this context, "modern discoveries" such as the telegraph, transoceanic cables, and transcontinental railroad were all integral to the unfolding of Divine purpose. J. Downell, a representative Congregationalist minister, declared in 1869: "We must see a Divine adaptation and harmony in all this—a fitting together of means and ends, a playing of material instrumentalities over into the objects of the spiritual kingdom. Not a railroad is swung by God into its orbit, that he does not put to work on this upward mission." The upward mission of America, said Hopkins, is nothing less than "that triumph of Christianity in which alone the perfection of society is involved." Science and progress do not operate by their own momentum but are God’s instruments for fitting the human being to "receive those influences of Christianity through which alone our perfect manhood can now find its consummation."
The Israel of Our Time
The much later Herman Melville of Clarel would become disillusioned and even bitter, but in White Jacket, the book that came just before Moby Dick, he powerfully summarizes the doctrine of his time in Christian America. A representative passage deserves to be quoted in full:
Escaped from the house of bondage, Israel of old did not follow after the ways of the Egyptians. To her was given an express dispensation; to her were given new things under the sun. And we Americans are the particular, chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. Seventy years ago we escaped from thrall; and besides our first birthright—embracing one continent of earth—God has given to us, for a future inheritance, the broad domains of the political pagans, that shall yet come and lie down under the shade of our ark, without bloody hands being lifted. God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are the pioneers of the world; the advance–guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours. In our youth is our strength; in our inexperience, our wisdom. At a period when other nations have but lisped, our deep voice is heard afar. Long enough have we been skeptics with regard to ourselves, and doubted whether, indeed, the political Messiah had come. But he has come in us, if we would but give utterance to his promptings. And let us always remember that with ourselves, almost for the first time in the history of earth, national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy; for we cannot do a good to America, but we give alms to the world.
Heady stuff, that. And it would live on through the stream of American consciousness, sometimes repressed and flowing underground, only to erupt again in moments of crisis or national exuberance. After World War I, a failing Woodrow Wilson took his case for ratifying the League of Nations to the American people. In Oakland, California, on September 18, 1919, he declared: "I wish that they [opponents of ratification] could feel the moral obligation that rests upon us not to go back on those boys, but to see the thing through, to see it through to the end and make good their redemption of the world. For nothing less depends upon this decision, nothing less than the liberation and salvation of the world." Something of the same intuition about the American possibility resonates in Martin Luther King’s "I have a dream" speech of August 28, 1963, and the distance between John Winthrop’s 1630 anticipation of a "a city upon a hill" and Ronald Reagan’s "morning in America" is not so far as many seem to think.
While it is important to recall the vision of what Ernest Lee Tuveson, in an engaging book by the same title, called the "Redeemer Nation," there is no denying that it is not the dominant vision in our public life at the beginning of a new millennium. Many changes in society and the political culture have worked transformations in the way we think of America and its role in world history. But perhaps more fundamental is the different way in which we think about progress, and especially moral progress. (See my article, "The Idea of Moral Progress," August/September 1999.) From John Winthrop and John Adams up through the present, there has been frequent bombast and boosterism—and no little measure of sinful pride—in the ways people have talked about America’s "destiny" and its meaning for world history. Current enthusiasms marching under the banner of "multiculturalism" are, in part, motivated by the fear of a revival of national arrogance. In very small part, I should add, since the more aggressive forms of multiculturalism represent an attack on Western culture across the board, including its moral injunctions against arrogance.
There are many ways to explain the absence of millennial excitements today. Some might say that we have learned from history the tragedies produced by such excitements, as so thoroughly documented in, for instance, Norman Cohn’s admirable book, The Pursuit of the Millennium. That may be part of it. But it is at least worth considering that our disinclination or inability to speak about God’s purposes in history, and of America’s part in His purposes, may reflect a failure of theological nerve. The modesty on which we pride ourselves may, in fact, be a lack of faith, or at least an unwillingness to let faith think in public about what God may be up to through time. Thinking about what God may be up to is not unrelated to what Christianity, from the New Testament through the Second Vatican Council, has meant by "reading the signs of the times." Such thinking need not be marked by hubris or apocalyptic excitements, as is amply demonstrated by St. Augustine and other worthies. Such thinking does assume that there are signs to be read and, in full awareness of the risks entailed, to be acted upon in faith.
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.
When we first discovered we were gay, most of us would have probably preferred finding the exchange window of heaven to return our natural homosexual orientation for a heterosexual one. Life would have been easier. Paul and other biblical writers did not know today’s distinction between sexual orientation and behavior. They, like many heterosexuals today, assumed everyone was born like them, and that homosexual behavior involved some choice contrary to one’s natural inclination. Paul associated the phenomenon with idolatry. How then do we account for Christians who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual? Clearly, Paul is wrong. Reason and experience (and science their product) contradict his understanding. Ironically, Paul’s own teaching contradicts his judgment. His letter to the Romans is devoted to the principle that we are not made holy by conformity, but by faith in Jesus Christ. We cannot be saved by behaving heterosexually, only by following Christ.
Christ Jesus, give us the faith to follow you, rather than the idolatrous god of heterosexuality.
We seek God’s word and will in a time and place not necessarily of our choosing but certainly of our trial. It is probably not the definitive time and place, surely not the best time and place, but it is our time and place, and His with us. It is a time of many times. A time for dancing, even if it be to the songs of Zion in a foreign land; a time for walking together, and in solitude; a time for marching in momentary triumphs, and in defiance of impending defeats; a time for crawling through hopes shattered and dreams betrayed; and then a time for falling to the final enemy—but not before, through our tears, we glimpse the New Jerusalem and hail it from afar, knowing it is all time toward home.
Sources: Leonard Klein on the recent convention of the ELCA, Forum Letter, October 1999. Colin McGinn’s The Mysterious Flame reviewed by Galen Strawson, New York Times Book Review, July 11, 1999. Bishops vote on implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae, New York Times, November 18, 1999.
While We’re At It: Derek Humphry on euthanasia, "Hemlock Founder Slams ‘Greedy Geezers,’" Life at Risk: A Chronicle of Euthanasia Trends in America, January 1999. On nurses and abortion, Republican National Coalition for Life FaxNotes, May 10, 1999. David Rieff on "compassion fatigue," Times Literary Supplement, May 7, 1999. On the Holy See and the UN’s Cairo+5 conference, Guardian, June 30, 1999 and New York Times, June 30, 1999. On the Trinitarian Fathers, ZENIT, June 24, 1999. "Cracking the Gay Market Code," Wall Street Journal, June 29, 1999. Divinity school cartoon, Wall Street Journal, June 29, 1999. John O’Sullivan on "renegade liberalism," New Criterion, June 1999. On Wiccan chaplains in the U.S. Army, National Review, July 12, 1999. Dennis Prager on Jews and Bibles at Duke, Prager Perspective, May 15, 1999. Michael Ford’s Wounded Prophet reviewed by Robert Durback in America, July 3, 1999. Mark Steyn on the celebrity culture, National Post, August 26, 1999. R. Albert Mohler on Hell, Fidelity, August 3, 1999. On Africa, ZENIT, September 9, 1999. On charter schools, Wall Street Journal, September 15, 1999. On memorial for victims at Columbine High School, Catholic League press release, October 6, 1999. On pregnant twelve–year–old in Scotland, Pro–Life Infonet, October 13, 1999. On United Methodists and the Boy Scouts, press release of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, October 14, 1999. John Cornwell reply to Vatican criticisms of his book on Pope Pius XII, ZENIT, October 19, 1999. James M. Wall on possible drug use by George W. Bush, Christian Century, September 8–15, 1999. On Smithsonian Institute book Timelines of the Ancient World, Family Research Council press release (n/d).