Like many American Jews, Martin Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic, had until now a deep inhibition about ever, ever visiting Germany. But he took the plunge and returns with some instructive observations about that country, and ours. Germans, he suggests, have almost gone overboard to "mortify themselves over anti-Semitism despite Germany having done more to purge this poison than any other country in Europe." He writes admiringly of Germany as Europe's "most responsible collective citizen" in responding to the masses of refugees trekking Westward as a consequence of the turmoils following the collapse of Communism. Although shortly after his visit Berlin put new restrictions on such mass immigration, one doubts that this would change Peretz's respect for the German model as the world tries to cope with changing notions of citizenship and nationhood.
"The advanced countries," Peretz writes, "are now having to choose between being civic nations and ethnic nations, a choice they could elude so long as huge masses of 'others' did not pass through their portals. It was easy to be a civic nation of individuals until new ethnics with new demands for ethnic rights put into question what 'we' meant. This is tinder-box material, especially when ethnic and racial minorities demand cultural and political outcomes that they want to deny to the defining or founding majorities. This has not quite occurred in Germany, at least not yet, but it is happening in the United States."
The distinction between an ethnic and civic nation is important but not as clear-cut as it may at first appear. Civic habits and presuppositions are not unrelated to what we have come to call ethnicity. The civic nation is not simply one of "individuals" but of individuals tied to communities of memory, character, and mutual help. But it is true that, from earlier discussions about the "melting pot" through today's patter about "gorgeous mosaics," most Americans have insisted that the United States has never been an ethnic nation. That claim has frequently tended to overlook the degree to which the "founding and defining" majority in the American project was, at least until fairly recently, Anglo-Saxon and very Protestant. Scholars can dispute whether Anglo-Saxon-or even North European-qualifies as an ethnic group, but nobody moderately familiar with American beginnings doubts that the founders and definers were not, for example, Arab, African, or Japanese.
The synthesis of Puritan religion and the philosophy of John Locke that defined the civic nation presupposed cultural, moral, and even theological assumptions. The Puritan "errand in the wilderness" and sense of Providential mission, as well as the constitutional bid for a novus ordo seclorum, are the product of a singular cultural phenomenon that, somewhat paradoxically, imprinted upon the American mind both the conviction of universal purpose and the conviction of being a people apart. With what might be called the Protestant Descendency of the last century-a decline recently accelerated by new waves of immigration-these constituting convictions are being sorely tested. It is by no means clear that millions of new citizens can easily be educated to embrace the institutions and procedures of the civic nation without reference to the cultural-ethnic history that brought those institutions and procedures into being.
We should be disturbed but not surprised that there is today a rising agitation-mainly on the right but not only on the right-against massive, some say uncontrolled, immigration to the United States. There is little disagreement about the scandal of a great nation not being able to impose discipline upon access to its borders, notably its border with Mexico. But the present and building debate is about much more than that. It is once again becoming respectable to fret in public about the declining birth rate among Americans of native stock (the "founding and defining" part of the population that may soon no longer be a majority). The huge influx of Latin American, Asian, and Middle Eastern immigrants poses, it is argued, a possibly fatal threat to the civic nation, precisely because the civic nation depends upon undergirding habits and presuppositions that are historically and at present inseparable from cultural and ethnic experience. The great truths proclaimed by "We the People" presuppose some notion of the people involved. Are the "alien hordes" who have no real relationship to that people, aside from envy of their material success and wanting to share in it, capable of internalizing the civic nation's foundational truths that are inescapably derived from a particularist history of beliefs about, for instance, Nature and Nature's God?
These anxieties about immigration are hardly new, but neither are they dismissable simply as a replay of the Nativism of the last century. The Protestant Descendency, a felt threat in the nineteenth century, is now undeniable reality. The patterns and communities of adhesion that then made it possible to think of America as a nation have become increasingly tenuous. It is not unreasonable to worry that Madison, Jefferson, and others are being vindicated in their fear that our civic institutions were not designed for, and cannot survive, what they called a "vastly extended Republic." However right he was about slavery-and he was undoubtedly right about slavery-Lincoln may have been wrong in thinking that the war that effected its abolition could secure a nation "so conceived and so dedicated." The conception and dedication was the handiwork of the founding and defining leadership that, even in the 1860s, feared that it was losing its hold on the nation's future.
The arguments and agitations about immigration that are now gaining currency do indeed raise questions about what is meant by "we" and about the meaning of civic and cultural nationhood. This is "tinder-box material," but much of the anxiety is, in our view, misdirected. It is possible that the millions of new Americans arriving in recent years will turn out to be a force alien to and alienating from the American experiment. But that fear was much more politically potent, and perhaps plausible, in the late-nineteenth century when the country faced the "invasion of the great unwashed," composed mainly of Catholics, Jews, Slavs, and others who had not been part of the founding and defining moment. Such fears turned out to be unjustified as the nation rightly took pride in its demonstrated powers of assimilation, in its ability to "Americanize" the newcomers into a population that revivified the founding and defining ideas of the American enterprise.
The preponderance of evidence today suggests that immigrants continue to be a revivifying force in our national life. Asians in particular demonstrate an astonishing capacity to enter into the economic and educational dynamics of American opportunity. In polyglot immigrant communities such as those found in Queens, New York, where peoples from fifty or more nations live together in remarkable amity, the level of American patriotism is almost embarrassingly robust. As Linda Chavez has recently reminded us (Out of the Barrio), the largest immigrant group, the Hispanics, is in fact many distinct groups, almost all of whom enthusiastically embrace the chance to enter into the mainstream American experience. (The possible exception being Puerto Ricans, who, by virtue of their peculiar ties to the United States, have been infected by the mindset of being an alienated and victimized minority.)
Admittedly, the story of the present chapter of immigrant history is still unfolding. It is possible that some of those from the most radically different religio-cultural background-Muslims come most immediately to mind-will assertively and collectively dissent from the foundational beliefs of our constitutional order. But this is highly speculative. Muslims are still a relatively small immigrant group. Despite higher and much publicized claims to the contrary, there are probably no more than a million Muslim immigrants in America. And to the extent that there is an organized Muslim immigrant community, its leadership is determined to demonstrate that Muslims are good Americans. Witness the still nascent but eager Muslim efforts to develop "dialogue" relationships along the lines of the long-standing Jewish-Christian dialogues.
A serious problem is posed by the aliens among us, but it is not the problem perceived by those who are agitating an anti-immigration agenda. The aliens among us are not the recent immigrants but sectors of the population that have been here for a very long time and have, for many and complex reasons, become alienated from the American experiment. One thinks, for instance, of the urban and mainly black underclass that is dangerously marginalized from the opportunities and responsibilities of the societal mainstream. Their alienation is exacerbated and exploited by a civil rights overclass that persists in preaching the calumny that the American experiment is inherently and incorrigibly racist. It is far from clear that the civil rights leadership really wants black Americans to be full participants in the society. The political alliance between the civil rights establishment and the gay and lesbian movement, for example, seems designed to guarantee that many blacks will continue to think of themselves as marginal, for homosexuals who constitute no more than 2 or 3 percent of the population are the very definition of social marginality.
More influential than the exploited black underclass are the aliens among us who are entrenched in elite positions of cultural leadership, notably in the media, the arts, and academe. In the nineteenth century, the cultural elites had few doubts about their responsibility to "Americanize" the newcomers to these shores. That is not the case today. It is commonly proposed among journalists, writers, academics, and a significant portion of the religious leadership that to be Americanized, to be assimilated into this putatively unjust social order, is to be victimized. The multicultural fevers that have seized upon almost the entirety of the American academy reflect an explicit and rancorous rejection of the core beliefs and institutions of the civic nation and the cultural experience that undergirds it.
If there is "tinder-box material" in problems posed by immigration, the fault lies not with the new immigrants but with members of the "defining and founding" population who have turned themselves into aliens in their own land. There are, however, countervailing forces to those in the societal elites who have abdicated their responsibility to transmit to new Americans the promise and obligations of the citizenship to which they aspire. The Protestant Descendency has been largely a decline of the oldline denominations, and in recent decades it has been at least partially countered by the ascendency of a newly assertive evangelical Protestantism that will no longer accept its exclusion from defining how we conduct business in the public square. These "new" Protestants are really the old Protestants redivivus. They are, for instance, quite prepared to pick up the religio-cultural task implicit in the Puritan perception that this is a covenanted nation devoted to "self-evident truths" about humanity and moral duty.
And there are sixty million Catholics, composed mainly of the descendents of the great unwashed, for whom the American dream has been generally vindicated. Perhaps in a quest for social status, some Catholics have followed the Protestant definers and founders into the wilderness of alienation from the American experience. But the general Catholic pattern gives credence to John Courtney Murray's musings of forty years ago that the day would come when Catholics would have to pick up from oldline Protestants in providing moral and religious legitimation for what he called "the American proposition." Catholics, who bore the stigma and realized the promise of the immigrant experience, are not likely candidates for the new anti-immigration campaign that may now be underway.
Nobody should argue against a more rational control of the flow of immigration to this country. A country that loses control of its borders loses something of its sovereignty and self-respect. But more rational control need not mean reduced immigration. The problem of immigration is posed not by the aliens who are coming but by the aliens who are among us. Americans who understand and affirm our defining and founding moment can confidently welcome and assist the millions who will in the years ahead come to seek their piece of that moment's promise. This will only happen, however, if we recognize that the choice is not between our being a civic nation of disengaged individuals or an ethnic nation of group solidarity. The time is long past when America had the option of being an ethnic nation. The hope is to be a civic nation, a community of communities, held together by the shared affirmation of the original definers and founders that "We hold these truths." Given the generally sorry record of nations trying to cope with the challenge of unity in diversity, America has not done at all badly in the past, and keeping that in mind can help it do even better in the future.
Government funding of abortions through Medicaid and other agencies has upped the ante for Christian citizens, according to David Carlin, a Democratic politician in Rhode Island. Of course Christians might object to many government programs, but distinctions are in order, says Carlin. "But there are moral objections-and then again, there are moral objections. It is one thing to hold a mild moral objection to a government program; an objection that is peripheral to one's fundamental beliefs and values, not central; an objection grounded on intuitive preference not closely tied to one's religious and ecclesial commitments. (Let us call this a Class I objection.) It is quite something else to hold an intense moral objection that is central to one's basic belief and values, grounded on carefully thought-out principles and intimately connected with one's church and religion. (Let us call this a Class II objection.) If we picture a spectrum running from Class I objections at one end to Class II objections at the other, we will find that most moral objections to government programs cluster toward the Class I end. In such cases, we may grumble and protest and promise to vote against the perpetrators next election day, but we do not feel that we have become victims of an outrage. We do not experience the sense of having been violated in the depths of our personality. But on those rare (and for most people perhaps nonexistent) occasions when we hold Class II objections, we do indeed feel a sense of having been outraged and violated. Or it might be more accurate to say this: We feel that certain values more important than our mere individual personalities have been violated, and it is only because we are committed to those values that we ourselves, indirectly as it were, become victims of an outrage. In an earlier age many Americans had Class II objections to the Mexican War and the Fugitive Slave Act. More recently, many had Class II objections to the Viet Nam War."
Yet most Christians hesitate to draw the conclusions pertinent to our new circumstance. Carlin writes: "American religious believers have been reluctant to cry 'foul' and to claim that their religion is unfairly under attack. At least in part this reluctance stems from an historical bad conscience. Their view of history convinces them that the history of religion, especially the history of Christianity, has all too often been a history of intolerance. Thus they are slow to claim to be the victims of a sin which their forebears so often committed and which, they fear, may be a tendency inherent in their religion. That this view is somewhat out of date-deriving as it does from Voltaire and Gibbon-is beside the point. The fact that so many hold the view is what counts here."
Those who do not effectively protest, argues Carlin, invite further bullying: "The injury done to religious believers and denominations by Medicaid abortions and 'Rainbow' curriculums does not amount to religious persecution. It is not the late-twentieth-century equivalent of throwing Christians to the lions and bears. But without question it is an injury. It definitely does involve violations of the social contract. If religious believers are too modest to insist on their rights-to insist just as emphatically that the secularists abide by the social contract as the secularists have insisted that the believers abide by it-then they must expect a train of further violations to follow."
Carlin, a Catholic and political liberal, is perhaps a bit embarrassed to find himself sounding a little like those who are dismissively referred to as "the religious right." For the last several years, and notably during the 1992 campaign, one frequently encountered news reports referring simply to "the Christians" or "the Christian position" on this or that issue. Whatever one thinks of the religion and politics mix today, there is something eerie and maybe a little wonderful in the observation that, at the beginning and the end of these two millennia, one witnesses a decaying empire complaining about the problems posed by the Christians. (The reader may protest that the United States is not a decaying empire, but this is written on Thursday and on Tuesdays and Thursdays the stench is undeniable.)
When this writer first went to Africa in 1971, he was able to visit about twenty-five countries over a period of months. Most of them seemed to offer hope of tolerable living conditions, politically and economically. Almost a quarter-century later, most of these countries have slid from crisis to catastrophe. To think of Africa is to weep.
In this connection, British historian Paul Johnson has made a proposal that has roused a good deal of interest, and of ire. He suggests that the world should move toward a reestablishment of colonialism, or, if people prefer, a United Nations-sponsored trusteeship system. The United States humanitarian intervention in Somalia got him to writing about this. "As things stand, the American intervention in Somalia will fail because it is merely military, not political also. It rests on the baseless assumption that an honest and efficient government of Somalia can eventually be created from among the local politicians. That is a fantasy, and it applies to many other African states (and one or two outside Africa, such as Haiti). The helpless Somalis can have no hope of a safe, prosperous future except as a colony of one of the civilized powers. The idea is not new. The Versailles Treaty tried to deal with the problem of inchoate states by the trustee system."
Under the "mandates" of the old trustee system, Johnson argues, places such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Tanganyika (now Tanzania) were much better governed than they have been since independence. "This applies to the Sudan, an Anglo-Egyptian condominium which was the model for the League's trustee formula; it made spectacular and rapid progress as a colony, and since independence has become a blood-soaked and starving ruin."
This Johnson quotes Samuel Johnson, "First, clear your mind of cant." That, according to this Johnson, is what we must do to move beyond the excuses usually given for Africa's disasters. "Creating a UN trustee system will involve dismissing a fatal illusion that most African problems are created by colonialism or demographics or shortage of credit or natural, climatic disaster. All the horrors, including famine, are directly created by government: bad, incompetent, or corrupt government-usually all three together-or no government at all." Relief assistance, says Johnson, more often than not reinforces the power of dictators and warlords who control its distribution. He continues: "Indeed, for more than 30 years the international community has been treating symptoms, not causes. The basic cause is obvious but is never publicly admitted: most African states are not fit to govern themselves. Their continued existence, and the violence and human degradation they breed, are a threat to stability and peace as well as an affront to our consciences. It is not a question of giving time to inchoate states to learn the art of self-government. One of the most miserable of them, Liberia, goes back to the 1840s (Haiti to the 1790s): its cry for help was voiced by a desperate Liberian, when three rival bands of heavily armed savages were engaged in slaughtering (and in some cases eating) civilians as well as each other. He said to a U.S. Marine guarding the embassy, 'For God's sake come and govern us!'"
Johnson intends to be provocative, and he is. The easiest reaction is to say that his proposal is racist. He makes a point of arguing, however, that countries such as India, China, and multiethnic Russia should have major roles in the UN system that he envisions (if they ever get their own acts together). But that still leaves the black African nations in a somewhat singular category (Johnson allows that Botswana is decently governed). What is one to say? Obviously, there cannot and should not be a return to colonialism in any meaningful sense of the term. Not only is the word heaped with opprobrium, but the world has changed too dramatically.
And yet, we expect that the intervention in Somalia is a precedent, not a case standing by itself. It is worth asking what that precedent may portend. It may be that in the coming years there will be the development of some kind of United Nations-sponsored system of shared or guided governance. Where beastly things happen to masses of people because of the cruelty, corruption, incompetence, or absence of government, there will be among the powers of the world a strong impulse toward thinking that something should be done. If it can be done within the bounds of bearable costs. The time is now for students of the morality of politics among nations to be giving this prospect some very careful thought.
For our sins, or as testimony to our civic highmindedness, we were appointed by President Bush to a presidential commission on improving the effectiveness of the UN. Perhaps by the time this appears, the commission will have issued its report. Whether the report will include the question of building a trusteeship system is not certain, but it certainly was discused in meetings. One influential ambassador noted that there are nations that have a stake in "the international system," nations that are defiant of that system, and others that can only be called "failed nations." Somalia, Haiti, and too many others are in the last category, with yet more waiting to join them. Those participating in the discussions agreed that it would not be possible to use the "condescending" language of trusteeship, but perhaps the UN could employ the more neutral language of "constitution building." In any event, Paul Johnson's argument is probably prescient as well as provocative, and it seems likely that it will be around for a while.
The headlines had it that the Pope had finally admitted that the Church was wrong about Galileo. That, you may recall, was late last fall, and many commentators had a little fun with how long it takes Catholicism to catch up with what everybody knows. Now Robert Spaeth of St. John's University in Minnesota has taken a second look at what John Paul actually said and he concludes that there really was no apology or admission of error-at least not explicitly so-with respect to the Church's treatment of Galileo more than three hundred years ago. Spaeth finds the recent papal statements most unsatisfactory and cites Lord Acton, who wrote in a letter to Cardinal Newman, "It is the presumption in favor of papal acts, the tenderness for papal examples, that is the difficulty for Catholicism." Spaeth opines, "Owing to John Paul II's unwillingness to speak unambiguously about Galileo, the controversy will continue."
One might ask whether in this century there has been anything deserving the term controversy with respect to Galileo and the Catholic Church. That the earth revolves around the sun is pretty well accepted, or so it seems to us. As it is accepted that most of the ecclesiastical and scientific authorities, backed by the papacy, were wrong about Galileo. Do we really need the Pope to say what we all know to be the case? As for Acton's complaint, a certain "tenderness" toward one's predecessors' acts seems not unlike a virtue in these indelicate times. Now if the Pope had said that the scientific and ecclesiastical establishments back then were correct in condemning the Copernican theory, Catholics might have a problem. But he didn't, and they don't. Pace Professor Spaeth, there are controversies enough without scraping the historical barrel for yet others.
The following excerpt from an essay they published is cited by the editors of Commonweal, the liberal lay Catholic magazine, to promote subscriptions. Presumably, it represents the spirit of what today is meant by Commonweal Catholicism. Readers can readily substitute Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, or whatever, for the word Catholic. The essay, by Nancy M. Haegel, is a rather touching affirmation of an older form of liberalism, by no means dead, that is deserving of careful attention.
As Catholic Christians,
we embark from
an immense tradition
and yet it is only that-
an embarking point.
Ultimately, we must each call
upon our own individual experience.
I have had just enough of what
might be termed "religious experience"
to entice, startle, and intrigue me.
Just enough so that
I can never deny it, but not
so much that I don't wonder,
in an expression I heard somewhere,
why "God is so damn subtle."
So if my work colleagues
know that I am a Catholic,
they know that I am
a doubting and tolerant one,
believing in a God
who is merciful with our doubts
and prefers them
to our certainties.
Note, first, that the "immense tradition of belief" is only prelude. Paul, Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Catherine of Sienna, Thomas Aquinas, all the way through von Balthasar-it is all an embarking point, and "only that." An embarking point is what you leave behind, it is what you are freed from in order to get on with-what? Why, with ME, with "our own individual experience." That experience, we are told, entices, startles, and intrigues. The question of truth does not arise, at least not directly. Her own experience is strong enough that she cannot deny it, but not so strong that she does not wonder. Presumably, strong conviction, even conviction about one's own experience, is the enemy of wonder. God is indeed often subtle, all must agree, but the point of Christianity is God's revelation of himself. Revelation does not figure in this creed, unless "individual experience" counts as such.
"So if my work colleagues know that I am a Catholic . . . " If. It is not the kind of thing about which one is public in these very secular times, don't you know. It is not the kind of thing that is so important a part of me that anyone who knows me would know it. But if, despite all, they do happen to find out that I am Catholic, "they know that I am a doubting and tolerant one." A convinced and faithful Catholic, it is suggested, would likely not be tolerant. Catholicism wholeheartedly embraced, it follows, is intolerant. No anti-Catholic, or anti-Christian, could have put it more succinctly.
From, presumably, the revelation of her individual experience, she has learned to believe "in a God who is merciful with our doubts and prefers them to our certainties." The God of biblical revelation is certainly merciful with our doubts, there is no doubt about that. But he prefers our doubts to our certainties? God is, we are asked to believe, displeased with St. Paul's "I am persuaded" (Romans 8) or a congregation boldly asserting, "We believe in God, the Father Almighty . . . " And is the only thing exempt from Ms. Haegel's doubt the certainty that God prefers doubts to certainties? How on earth did she arrive at that certainty, which she seems not at all to doubt?
The paleoliberal creed puts one in mind of Chesterton's remark about an absolutely open mind being like a constantly open mouth, never able to come down on anything solid. This affirmation, which Commonweal offers as representative of its editorial posture, calls for a tentative, timorous search for truth in the understanding that truth- truth for sure-is not to be found. It is an embarrassed Catholicism. "Yes, I admit to being a Catholic, but, despite that, I am not (fill in any caricatures of Catholics that come to mind)." It is the creed of apologetic Christians that has given apologetics a bad name.
Finally, we are glad to say that the editors of Commonweal are wrong. Ms. Haegel's creed is not representative of the magazine today, which is with growing frequency feisty, assertive, self-critical, and unapologetic about being Catholic. The fact, however, that the editors would lift such a vacuous essay from the past to sell their wares indicates that the paleoliberal fever has not been definitively shaken. Pray for continued recovery.
Sherwood Sugden & Co. is not one of your big name New York publishers, but they are to be much commended for bringing back into circulation a number of classics, such as Christopher Dawson's 1930s lectures, Progress and Religion ($8.95 paper, 315 Fifth Street, Peru, Illinois 61354. Free catalog available.) We had occason to be rereading this admirable work when the news was filled with the tragic business about David Koresh and the siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Television commentators chattered about the dangers of religion when it takes collective forms, and one network reporter opined that this "is another incident that adds to a bad time for religion in the modern world."
As Dawson understood, to say that religion is having a bad time is like saying that breathing has come under suspicion. So pervasive is the religious impulse that it seeks expression in innumerable pseudo- religions, including religions of science, revolution, and progress. He also understood that, if religion cannot find expression in a way that gives meaning in the mainstream of the culture, it will burst out in sometimes violent ways among those who have despaired of the culture. Dawson quotes, of all people, Nietzsche. "Let us not forget," wrote Nietzsche, "in the end what a Church is, and especially in contrast to every 'state': a Church is above all an authoritative organization which secures to the most spiritual men the highest rank, and believes in the power of spirituality so far as to forbid all grosser appliances of authority. Through this alone the Church is under all circumstances a nobler institution than the State." According to Nietzsche, the "plebeianism of the European spirit" is the consequence of the loss of that spiritual authority.
Sixty years ago in discussing the fate of Europe (meaning the West), Dawson offered a conclusion that needs slight emendation, if any, today. "This, however, is but a temporary phenomenon; it can never be the normal condition of humanity. For, as we have seen, the vital and creative power behind every culture is a spiritual one. In proportion as the spiritual element recovers its natural position at the center of our culture, it will necessarily become the mainspring of our whole social activity. This does not, however, mean that the material and spiritual aspects of life must become fused in a single political order which would have all the power and rigidity of a theocratic state. Since a culture is essentially a spiritual community, it transcends the economic and political orders. It finds its appropriate organ not in a state, but in a Church, that is to say a society which is the embodiment of a purely spiritual tradition and which rests, not on material power, but on the free adhesion of the individual mind. It has been the peculiar achievement of Western Christianity in the past to realize such an ideal in an organized spiritual society, which could co-exist with the national political units without either absorbing or being absorbed by them. The return to this tradition would once more make it possible to reconcile the existence of national ndependence and political freedom, which are an essential part of European life, with the wider unity of our civilization, and with that higher process of spiritual integration which is the true goal of human progress."
The theologically astute Lutheran pastor, Leonard Klein, protests Elizabeth A. Johnson's "A Theological Case for God-She," published in Commonweal. Klein writes: "The gospel is not our effort to approximate the mystery and to 'Image God' and it cannot endure the religious turn to the subject, of which feminist theology is merely the latest installment. The gospel is a saving word to mortal sinners, addressed to us from outside us, by a God who offensively took flesh in one time, one place, and one man. Human religiosity has struggled against that gospel from the time of the church at Corinth, which likewise claimed a bundle of fresh revelations."
Johnson, to her credit, grasps the nettle, declaring it a "startling statement that the gospel cannot endure the religious turn to the subject." She declares: "In the early Christian centuries, some argued in similar fashion that the gospel could not survive the turn from a Jewish to a Hellenistic expression. In hindsight we see that if the gospel had not been preached in terms of Hellenistic culture, it would not have won the minds and hearts of most of the people in the then-known world. In fact, the very power of the gospel is revealed in its ability to keep pace with ongoing historical experience. For religions die when their lights fail, when they lose the power to connect people's current experience of the world with the ultimate mystery of God. The very best of nineteenth- and twentieth-century theology, both Protesant and Catholic, has been engaged in executing modernity's turn to the subject and, by now, its corrective in postmodern categories. Without this restatement in contemporary terms, the gospel would not be audible to most thinking Westerners today. To claim that the gospel cannot endure the turn to the subject is, in my view, to underestimate the gospel."
Whether or how Christianity made a "turn from a Jewish to a Hellenistic expression" is a complicated and much controverted question on which numerous books have been written since Adolf Harnack (d. 1930) gave the question its present shape. The logic of Johnson's argument would seem to be that, since one or more major accommodations of the gospel were accepted in the past, the accommodation that feminists propose must also be accepted. But surely that does not follow. As the Christian tradition bears witness to numerous accommodations, it also bears witness to numerous rejections of what was deemed incompatible with the gospel. Throughout Christian history, affirmations are accompanied by anathemas.
It may be true that what Johnson and others consider "the very best" of modern theology has been "engaged in executing modernity's turn to the subject," but maybe those theologians have been wrong. There are giants such as Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar who hardly fit her description of the very best. For those readers who are by now wondering what on earth is meant by the turn to the subject, it can be stated rather simply. The question is whether reality is recognized in the object that we perceive or whether reality is constituted by our perception. Put differently, does the subject determine the object or does the subject discover the object?
Some, wrongly in our judgment, attribute the turn to the subject to Descartes. It was Immanuel Kant who gave dogmatic definition, as it were, to the assertion hat reality, including God, is the product of human subjectivity. As Nietzsche had the wit to point out, such a God is not what anybody means by God and therefore, if Kant and his epigones are right, God is dead. The atheist Ludwig Feuerbach provided a fuller elaboration of the claim that God, and indeed all of religion, is the product of human projection. As Klein observes, this is a very old controversy in which certain forms of feminist theology are "merely the latest installment." If, according to the turn to the subject, God is but the infinitely malleable imaging of our religious consciousness, why not God-She, or God-It, or, for that matter, God-Me?
The above discussion provides an occasion for mentioning, and warmly recommending, a book that we had intended to review but that undeservedly fell through the cracks. It is Josef Seifert's Back to Things in Themselves (Routledge/Kegan Paul), and it provides a very engaging philosophical alternative to the turn to the subject. Seifert represents the school called "phenomenological realism," which builds on the work of the early Edmund Husserl and does spirited battle against the legions of "transcendental idealists" (i.e., subjectivists) who fight under the banner of Kant and his sometimes improbable allies.
Admittedly, all of this might seem impossibly esoteric, but it has everything to do with what is preached from thousands of pulpits and taught to those who will bear the ministry of the churches in the years ahead. It has everything to do with whether, as Leonard Klein puts it, "The risen, cosmic Christ is the male, Jewish, wine-drinking, celibate, crucified apocalyptic prophet Jesus of Nazareth, who taught as of first importance and as liberating news to call God 'Our Father,' and who also in remarkable ways called women into a new community." Feminist theology has become today's focus of Christianity's ancient contest with gnosticism. Or, to say it in modernity's terms of the turn to the subject, the question is whether we constitute God or God constitutes us. Most believing Christians and Jews, unencumbered by the "very best" of theological education, have not had a hard time answering that question.
While We're At It: On U.S. Catholics' policy toward China, Puebla Institute release, December 23, 1992. Robert Bachelder on political activism of churches in Initiatives, National Center for the Laity (Chicago, Illinois). Planned Parenthood president on the Catholic Church quoted in Washington Post, March 2, 1993. Cynthia Mailman on the destruction of her art, New Yorker, March 15, 1993. David Yeago article in Pro Ecclesia, Winter 1993. Ad "Can An Intelligent Person Be Religious?" in The American Scholar, Spring 1993. Anthony Ugolnik letter to the New York Times, March 28, 1993. Oscar Handlin on the Bill of Rights in The American Scholar, Spring 1993. The New Republic editorial on the murder of an abortionist, April 5, 1993. On the National Council of Churches at the White House, New York Times, March 27, 1993. On "religion week" at George Washington University, GW Hatchet, April 1, 1993. Glenn Bucher on PC in Theology Today, January 1993. "Strange Death of Soviet Communism" in National Interest, Spring 1993.