(October 2001)

Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 116 (October 2001): 2-7.

Judging Historical Guilt

I was surprised to find in James Nuechterlein’s “Pride and Patriotism” (May) a chain of arguments that struck me as rather un-Christian. I am not surprised to hear that “a great many Americans” find the German language quite revolting, being well conditioned to think immediately of Hitler, the Holocaust, and Nazism. Did they think of Bach, Beethoven, Kant, or Goethe at any other time between 1900 and today? Were any of them ever grateful to the German nation for having produced such extraordinarily gifted human beings, the likes of whom we have not met again and probably never will?

The moral burden on the German nation is a special one insofar as any moral burden is a special one. As for comparisons, I suggest a disinterested look at the crimes of Joseph Stalin, whose responsibility for mass murder surpasses Hitler’s. Nevertheless, there is no hint of repulsion from the use of the Russian language, nor has there been any suggestion of a special burden on the Russian nation. We know why that is so: the Russians and the Red Army were the most useful allies the United States had in World War II.

That is why the indescribable atrocities committed by the Red Army in Germany, especially in Eastern Prussia, are not registered. The same applies to the torturing and murdering of Germans by Czechs and Poles, mostly after the war. They were allowed to drive twelve million Germans from their homes, more than two million of whom died of malnutrition, wounds, and diseases that were not treated because the persons afflicted were Germans.

Bombing German cities, American and British forces killed about 600,000 civilians, mostly women and children, outrageous examples being Hamburg and Dresden, where fire bombs were combined with other means of destruction in a way to make escape impossible. The will of destruction behind this can certainly be compared with that of the planners of concentration camps. It would appear to be quite impossible to take a lofty moral stance when you have to take responsibility for these acts of depravity.

More than a million German soldiers died in Soviet POW camps, and hundreds of thousands were left to die in open fields as POWs under American orders. One must bear in mind in considering this matter that these and other atrocities were committed by an alliance that claimed to fight for a better world, led by high moral standards. But then we know that the victorious party writes the history of past wars.

In short: in order to have the right to condemn Germans to all eternity the winners of 1945 would have to be able to present a totally clean conscience—not one that is whitewashed by closing one eye and substituting the other by a magnifying glass.

Gerald Frodl
Erlangen, Germany

James Nuechterlein replies:

Gerald Frodl has misread what I wrote. In the process of doing so, he raises large moral questions that I can respond to only in summary fashion.

I nowhere suggested that “the winners of 1945”—or their descendants—have the right “to condemn Germans to all eternity.” Indeed, I clearly indicated that most Germans of today do not bear responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi regime. The great majority of them were not alive or not of age in those years, and the Germany they have built since 1945 bears no resemblance to that of the Hitler years. Therefore, I concluded, those Germans who today express normal patriotic pride in their country “seem to me correct.”

Mr. Frodl goes much further than this. He suggests that the Nazis themselves could and can be criticized only by those “able to present a totally clean conscience.” This argument fails on several grounds. First, tu quoque is not an adequate moral defense. The fact that the Allies themselves committed atrocities—as they did—does not exonerate the Nazis for their crimes nor require that those who fought them in sometimes deplorable ways abstain from moral criticism. Mr. Frodl seems one of the very few of today’s Germans unable to recognize that point. (As for the implication that Bach, Beethoven, Kant, and Goethe somehow balance the ledger against Hitler, Goebbels, Göring, and Himmler, the less said of that the better.)

Second, the argument for moral equivalence between the Allies and the Nazis is repugnant. The Allies on occasion committed evil deeds, some of them horrific, in fighting Hitler. But their regimes (the USSR excepted) were not in themselves evil. The principles for which they fought were just, and the Nazi regime they rightly opposed was evil in essence and to its core. The moral burden associated with Nazi Germany is not a special one only “insofar as any moral burden is a special one.” Nazi Germany rightly remains the icon of evil of the twentieth century. Does Mr. Frodl actually believe that that statement requires elaboration?

Third, while it is true that the presence on the Allied side of Stalinist Russia complicates moral judgment, it does not render it impossible. The other Allies, fully cognizant (some of them anyway) of Stalin’s crimes, nonetheless fought alongside the USSR against Germany because they judged, surely correctly, that the Nazis represented the clearest immediate threat to civilization. And after the Nazis were taken care of, the Western Allies saw to the containment of the USSR.

Finally, I can only wonder what it is in my argument that makes it “un-Christian.”

The Decline of Philosophy?

I very much appreciated Peter Simpson’s essay on “The Christianity of Philosophy” (May). I agree with the author’s viewpoint that modern and contemporary philosophy is much more like a worldly profession than what philosophia used to be in its ancient context. I would like to comment on three points in Professor Simpson’s paper.

First, it should be noted that not even Greek philosophy understood philosophia as something ultimate. According to both Plato and Aristotle, philosophia does not only purport to reach wisdom; as Prof. Simpson rightly notes, it strives too to reach “salvation.” Philosophical salvation, in accordance with their views, cannot be “reached” in the ordinary sense of the word: this is the moral of many passages in Plato and in Aristotle. In other words, what later became the dualism between philosophy and theology was already present in the classical Greek conception of philo­ sophia. Greek philosophy was understood as a kind of “introduction” to some “brighter world” which cannot, properly speaking, be gained, but only somehow given (cf. for instance Republic, 531d; 518a; Second Letter, 313b).

Second, it needs to be considered whether modern philosophy can be treated exclusively in the context of decline or the breaking up of an original philosophical unity. I agree with Prof. Simpson’s argument as to the role of Descartes in modern thought. I would, however, ask what in fact has taken place in the modern development of philosophy, or, more generally, in human history. I do not think that an approach based merely on a theory of decline is sufficient to understand this development—the development of our contemporary world. John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio is indeed an important text which answers this problem only in an implicit way: it encourages its readers to reestablish “philosophy’s sapiential dimension”; it invites its readers to continue fearlessly their inquiry for truth—a gesture you find also in Plato, for instance in the Theaetetus. Plato clearly thought that there was a certain logic in the course of any development, cosmological or philosophical, as is shown by his cosmological myth in the Statesman.

The third comment concerns the role of contemporary philosophy. My impression is that Etienne Gilson’s approach to contemporary thought is not sufficient to understand either the relationship between Christianity and philosophy, or the very nature of philosophy itself. I find Prof. Simpson’s skeptical comments on Hegel and Heidegger somewhat oversimplifying. It seems that as soon as we understand the classical conception of philosophy not only as a way to salvation but also as a kind of development described symbolically in the cosmological myth of the Statesman, then we may have a key to modern and contemporary philosophy as well. Or at least it becomes easier to understand the role of Hegel and Heidegger—or even that of Kant—in this development. True, none of them can legitimately aspire to the status of being the representative of “ultimate wisdom.” But at least Heidegger did not intend to do so: he understood that philosophy can never have the final word.

It may be important to note that Christianity has an eschatological sense that is hardly expressed in philosophical terms. Philosophy, however, as Plato makes clear, was originally conscious of this dimension.

Professor Balazs Mezei
Department of Philosophy
Budapest University

Peter Simpson replies

I am grateful to Professor Balazs Mezei for his comments on my essay. It is gratifying to learn that others have ideas similar to one’s own. It is no less gratifying to receive from them responses that help one to clarify and correct those ideas.

Prof. Mezei’s first comment about my essay concerns the fact that philosophy in its original sense was not understood, even by the Greeks, as ultimate but as a preparation or introduction for something “brighter” that one could not gain but only receive as a gift. In this sense Prof. Mezei sees Greek philosophy as already containing within it what later became the dualism between philosophy and theology. I certainly agree that philosophy was not viewed as ultimate insofar as it was desire for wisdom and not yet possession of wisdom (the message of Diotima’s speech in Plato’s Symposium). In this sense there is something beyond philosophy, namely, wisdom or sophia itself.

But this is not the sense I meant to speak of in my discussion of how medieval Christian theologians distinguished theology from philosophy. For in this sense there is something beyond theology too, namely, the beatific vision in which wisdom is finally seen face to face. Christianity did, indeed, give us a great deal more of wisdom, and a surer path to wisdom, than Greek philosophy was able to discover, but even Christianity does not give us final possession of wisdom this side of the grave.

The difference between philosophy and theology that I was trying to trace is rather a difference within the traditional sense of philosophy, or within the range of discursive reasoning. It is the difference between what we can know by unaided reasoning and what we can know by reasoning aided by Divine Revelation. I was not intending to trace the difference between discursive reasoning generally and mystical or beatific vision. I take it that what Plato is talking about in the passages Prof. Mezei refers us to is this difference between discursive reasoning and mystical vision.

Second, Prof. Mezei wonders whether one can properly treat modern philosophy as a decline or as a breakup of an original unity. He says there is in fact more to philosophy in our contemporary world than I seem to allow, and specifically that one can find there a continuing drive for truth and for wisdom. I do not disagree with the latter view, but my point was slightly different. I did not want to say that modern philosophy has declined so much as that it has absolutized a medieval Christian abstraction (though I think that did also, in fact, involve a decline).

The whole philosophical phenomenon of the ancient world embraced in one what medieval theologians, for purposes of analysis and clarification, factored into a part they called philosophy and another part they called theology. Modern philosophers took this medieval part called “philosophy” and made it the whole, which at once separated them not only from the medieval theologians but also from the ancient philosophers. In fact, most of them went further and made “philosophy” the handmaid, no longer of theology, but of science. Science became the source of superior wisdom—and for most people today it still is. But Prof. Mezei is right to say that there is no need to do this. One can, even today, philosophize while keeping philosophy’s original sapiential dimension very much in mind. Prof. Mezei and I agree, following John Paul II, that that is what indeed we should be doing.

Third, and continuing on from this point, Prof. Mezei says that at least some of the great modern philosophers must be understood as retaining the sapiential dimension in their thinking, and he specifically mentions Hegel, Heidegger, and Kant. I agree with this as well, and my own too brief mention of Hegel and Heidegger in my essay was meant as a concession on that point. My skepticism was not about whether this was how they were to be understood but about how far their speculations really were wise. It is certainly true of Heidegger, and I would say of Kant too, that neither thought they had penetrated to the ultimate reality. They both thought there was a something beyond, which thinking could not reach. In this sense they were both Platonists and both mystics. Of course, the sapiential dimension they included within their thinking was that of the tradition of German Idealism, not that of the medieval theo­ logians. And about German Idealism we have good reason, I think, to be skeptical.

The Jews and Jesus

Professor Thomas F. X. Noble has done a marvelous job of demolishing James Carroll’s horrible book, Constantine’s Sword, about Catholic-Jewish relations (May). In addition to all he said about the lack of scholarship, balance, and objectivity, he might have observed how insufferably boring the book was.

I wish, however, to make another observation. It is clear to all sides by now that the Christian break with Rabbinic Judaism and the Jews was essentially the work of Jewish Christians who saw in the Christian faith the true heir of biblical Judaism. What I would wish were more clear is that very large numbers of Jews, how many we cannot know, became Christians in the pre-Constantinian period. The Jewish rejection of Jesus as described by Paul of Tarsus was true largely during the period a.d. 40-60. Estimates of the Jewish population of the Roman Empire identify about 10 percent of the imperial population as Jewish. What happened to these people and their heirs so that by the end of the fifth century the Jews in the Empire, East and West, were a much smaller minority? Rodney Stark suggests persuasively that the mission of the Church to the Jews largely succeeded (The Rise of Christianity) and that these converted Jews disappeared as Jews, much I should say like the Ten Lost Tribes were not really lost but ceased to be Israelites and became, what, Syrians? Arabs? Who knows? Thus a lot of ink is spilled about the rabbinic remnant we call “the Jews,” but little about the vast numbers who became Christian.

Professor Norman Ravitch
Department of History
University of California, Riverside

Abortion and Crime

Richard John Neuhaus offers a lively discussion of the paper Steve Levitt and I wrote concerning the impact of legalized abortion on crime (While We’re At It, May). It seems that he thinks we shouldn’t have written the piece, but I wonder if he can imagine why it might be helpful to know why crime has dropped so sharply in the 1990s. If the legalization of abortion is the reason, wouldn’t that be important information? Our paper makes clear that reducing the number of unwanted births seems to have had important social benefits, but those benefits can be obtained by reducing unwanted pregnancies, which I would think Father Neuhaus would be interested in encouraging. I know that religious believers are often willing to sacrifice the truth to conform to some religious dogma, but I hope that First Things is not engaging in that historically discredited and socially harmful practice.

Professor John J. Donohue
Stanford Law School
Stanford, California

RJN replies:

The doctrine (or dogma, if one prefers), which is not uniquely religious, is that it is a grave wrong to kill an innocent human being. The problem with the study in question is not that it explores the relationship between abortion and crime but that, the authors’ disclaimer notwithstanding, it at least implies that the unlimited abortion license contributes to the common good rather than, as I believe is the case, undermines the foundation of civilized order, and does so at the cost of millions of innocent lives and untold injury to women who are complicit in the killing of their children.

A Tumult of Translations

In “Bible Babel” (Public Square, May) Richard John Neuhaus argues, as he has before, for the superiority of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) over other English translations of the Bible. I would like to address a few comments made by him regarding his favorite translation.

 Not including the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the RSV itself can be found in three editions. There is the original, which finds its completed copyright in 1952, a revision that was copyrighted in 1971, and a Catholic edition that is based on the original copyright with certain revisions to conform to Catholic tradition and copyrighted in 1965 and 1966. Interestingly, all of these editions are more or less “felicitous” translations of the Greek text; however, in spite of Father Neuhaus’ assertions, none of them is exactly “above” all the others.

For example, in translating the words malakoi and arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9, the 1952 edition uses the word “homosexuals” with a footnote indicating that two Greek words have been rendered by the one English word. The New American Standard Bible (NASB), the modern translation that most “gatekeepers” regard as the most true to the Greek texts, renders the two words as “effeminate” and “homosexuals,” indicating the true meaning of what St. Paul is trying to convey. The 1971 edition of the RSV, however, renders the two words by the phrase “sexual perverts” and thereby removes any reference to homosexuality, leaving open to interpretation exactly what it is that St. Paul is condemning. What, one must ask, constitutes a sexual pervert? As a friend of mine has observed, “Sexual perversion is anything that goes one step beyond what I would do.” So much for language conveying meaning. Even the NRSV, the edition that Fr. Neuhaus charges with being gender-inclusive (true) with dumbed-down language (arguable), renders the two Greek terms by their English equivalents: “effeminate” and “homosexuals.” So much for the charge of this translation being “politically correct.”

 But all of this isn’t necessarily to pick a fight with the RSV. It’s just a point of indicating that there are, perhaps, better translations of the Scripture to be had. The updated NASB is an excellent translation, though I do wish that the word “bishop” had been retained for the Greek episkopos in 1 Timothy and Titus, and that “firepans” in the Old Testament had been left as “censers” (the latter being much less a theological nuance than the former, and even then both of these being much less so than the RSV-CE rendering of “brethren” for “brothers”). And the New International Version (NIV), another translation that receives Fr. Neuhaus’ nod of approval, reads so closely to the NRSV that with the exception of the gender-inclusive language I’m not sure how it can escape the same charge of being “dumbed-down.” Perhaps the New KJV is the closest thing to something that is both modern and “familiar to the ear,” but neither is it free from its problems. So in the end, I’m not sure that either the RSV in the 1952 edition, or the 1971 edition, or the RSV-CE of 1965 is substantially better or more “felicitous” in its translation of the Greek texts than are the others mentioned. All, it seems, have their faults; some more, some less.

 But I do sympathize with many of Fr. Neuhaus’ views. The proliferation of English translations has crippled Bible memorization and virtually eliminated a common biblical language (and by the way, while there are perhaps over two hundred study editions of the English Bible, there are only a handful of actual English translations). And the exclusion of the Apocrypha from many of these translations seems to brighten the divide not only between those used by Protestants and those used by Catholics, but also the divide between the groups themselves.

 So maybe in the end the real solution isn’t to be found in an English translation that is used by all of English-speaking Christendom (although that would be nice), but in one of the traditions carried on by our Jewish friends. Before young boys or girls are officially brought into the faith, they are taught the language of their fathers. Perhaps we would be better served to once more return to the Greek texts in order to find out what the Bible really says (at least the New Testament, and I’m ignoring textual variations here), and perhaps part of the Confirmation process should be translating the Gospel of John from Greek into English. But since this isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, perhaps all we can do is dream that one day we will all be “reading off the same page.” Until then, we’ll just have to make do with what best conveys the Word of God into our minds and into our hearts.

(The Rev.) Michael L. Ward, SSA
St. Mark’s Church (Anglican)
Vero Beach, Florida

The “linguistic destabilization” of which Richard John Neuhaus complains not only deprives Catholics of a common biblical language, it severs one generation from another and, in so doing, debilitates the Church’s most powerful engine of evangelization. Since Vatican II, we have focused far too much attention upon “experts” and our ecclesial bureaucracy (both clerical and lay) as vehicles of evangelization and catechesis. We have paid far too little attention to the fact that the Catholic faith is, for the most part, lived in and passed on through families, through the “domestic churches.” Most of us do not become Catholic because we read a magazine article or attended a debate or had a striking conversion experience; most of us remain Catholic because we remember how our grandmother taught us the Rosary, or how the family always celebrated our grandfather’s saint’s day, or how our mother so naturally resorted to St. Anthony to find a lost household item, or how our father, never saying a word about it, took us to Mass every single Sunday.

For us “cradle Catholics,” i.e., for most Catholics, these devotional family ties, so much and so foolishly denigrated by ecclesiastical intellectuals, are the ties that bind. They have powerfully inducted us into the family of God, into the very household of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. By introducing supernatural realities into the comprehensible earthly context of our everyday lives, they explain such realities, not on an intellectual, verbal level, but on a deep, emotional level. Here, on this deeper level, is where the faith resides. Within this living context, nourished by the grace of the sacraments and by prayer, such a faith acquires the strength to survive doubt, persecution, and sin.

By destroying the continuity of biblical language over time, biblical translators deprive Catholic families of a scriptural idiom that resonates across generations and instead raise linguistic obstacles to the passing on of the faith within the domestic church. If one were to be cynical, one could say that it is in the experts’ own interests to do so. Were scriptural language entrusted to all the faithful, and were families allowed to continue as the main evangelizers of Catholic children, then the means of evangelization and catechesis would remain dispersed. But in order for experts to control a process, in order for them to be able to reshape traditional teachings to make them more relevant to the passing fashions of each successive generation, that process must be centralized.

Joseph E. Rendini
Medford, Massachusetts

Miss Anscombe and Mr. Lewis

John M. Dolan’s “G. E. M. Anscombe: Living the Truth” (May) was fascinating and informative. It also provided a profound example of how God nudges or jolts the responsive into the place and the work that He wants for them. Without his philosophical/ theological “defeat” by Anscombe, combined with his own humble teachability, C. S. Lewis might have spent his life as just another competent academic philosopher/theologian. Instead, he became the inspired common sense interpreter of Jesus Christ to the nonscholarly. Hundreds of thousands of those who never heard of Anscombe, and many who never read Aristotle, Aquinas, Anselm, or Frege for themselves, read and were won over by Lewis.

For all her wonderful exposition of truth and living of that truth, perhaps Anscombe’s greatest service to her Lord and to the human race was prompting Lewis into becoming the apostle to the nonacademic.

Dorothy T. Samuel
St. Cloud, Minnesota

More on Sydney Smith

You never know what improbable gem will pop out when you open up First Things. My favorite historical character who usually got things wrong was Sydney Smith, and I’m relieved to see that Richard John Neuhaus agrees with that opinion (While We’re At It, May). When the House of Lords defeated the political reform bill of 1831, it was the bishops of the Church of England whose negative vote was decisive, a very unpopular position to have taken. Smith noted that “it was not safe for a clergyman to appear in the streets.” Nine years later he recalled the incident in a letter: “The bishops never remained unpelted; they were pelted going, coming, riding, walking, consecrating, and carousing; the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the town of Canterbury, at the period of his visitation, was only saved from the mob by the dexterity of his coachman.”

Herbert Schlossberg
Burke, Virginia

Church Weddings in Japan

Reading the comments of Richard John Neuhaus about Japanese “Christian-style” weddings (While We’re At It, May) prompts me to offer another side to the story.

My wife is Japanese—she is from Kobe and belongs to a small Baptist church there. The pastor, who is an uncompromising sort, regularly gets requests to officiate at such ceremonies and as regularly rejects them. There was one particular case, however, where, to the scandal of his congregation, he insisted that he would officiate. He said that, while praying about it, he felt that God was prompting him in this case—a claim greeted with some skepticism by the independent-minded congregation. However, he went ahead, acted as minister, and made the small resources of the church available for the service. After this, the newly married couple found themselves more and more involved with the life of the church. Some twenty years later, the couple are both active Christians—in fact, the husband is now pastor of a sister Baptist church in Kobe.

Of course, this is not the usual outcome of a church wedding in Japan. Nevertheless, there are occasions where believing Japanese Christians cooperate with “the eclectic worship of kitsch” in order to evangelize.

Edward Curran
London, England

Briefly Read?

In addition to its obvious, intended meaning, the heading “Briefly Noted” (where my Why Religion Matters appears in the books section of FT, March) also means briefly read. The book’s “main point is [not] to propose, against the innumerable ‘spiritualities’ with which we are culturally inundated, that ultimate wisdom and human flourishing are to be discovered in the historically grounded and communally normative religious traditions of the world.” I touch on the way spirituality seems to be nosing out religion as a good word in my chapter on higher education and devote two pages to it in my closing chapter. That’s all.

Paul Griffiths has me right when (in his June 1 Commonweal review of the book) he writes that “for Smith, our fundamental problem is . . . the scientism and materialism of modernity . . . which make it impossible for us to take seriously any non- or anti-materialistic Big Picture. As a result, we cannot be seriously religious—or at least, those in charge, the intellectuals and the media barons and the aggressively materialistic advocates of scientism, cannot be, and that means that serious religion is no part of our public life.”

Thank you, Professor Griffiths, for setting the record straight.

Huston Smith
Berkeley, California

The Editors reply:

The reviewer says he should have written that the point about spirituality and religion is what was mainly of interest in the book.

In Defense of Critical Theory

“Never stay up on the barren heights of cleverness,” Ludwig Wittgenstein advised, “but come down into the green valley of silliness (Dummheit).” Alas, so long as Richard John Neuhaus insists on dismissing Marxian-revisionary critical theory as “self-indulgent silliness” (While We’re At It, May), he could do worse than to follow Wittgenstein’s advice.

Indeed, if critical theory is a valley of Dummheit in Wittgenstein’s sense, it is so, I submit, because its floor is rich with nourishing if bitter fruit: Max Horkheimer’s Critical Theory, Theodor W. Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, Herbert Marcuse’s Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis, Franz Neumann’s Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933-1945, Otto Kirkheimer’s Political Justice: The Use of Legal Procedure for Political Ends, Jürgen Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. As Wittgenstein also advised: “One must go down to the original sources so as to see them all side by side, both the neglected and the preferred.”

John F. Maguire
Natural Law Jurisprudence Center
Berkeley, California