The current round of controversies has everything to do with the political shock of November 8, 1994, and alarums over the perceived ascendancy of the Religious Right. As a result, some Jews have ratcheted up to an almost painful degree their antennae for the detection of anti- Semitism. A few months ago, one of our local newspapers, the Times, went ballistic when the London Spectator ran a little article on the self-described dominance of Jews in Hollywood. The somewhat naive Spectator author thought he was doing nothing more than reporting an interesting circumstance and, as it turns out, was in large part relying on what Jewish writers had said about Jews and Hollywood. The young man did not understand that, according to the rules of the more extreme members of the anti-Semitism patrol, non-Jews are not supposed to notice when Jews publicly celebrate Jewish influence and success. As Ann Douglas has recently described in her acclaimed account of New York in the 1920s, Terrible Honesty (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), the central role of Jews in American popular entertainment goes back to the nineteenth century and, far from being a secret, has been frequently extolled in film and song. With weeks of letters and commentary in the Spectator, our British cousins had great fun with this little squall, chalking it up as yet another instance of American hypocrisy about our professed devotion to free speech.
Mr. Lind thought he hit pay dirt with the 1992 book, The New World Order, in which Robertson tells you everything you wanted to know, and more, about how the world got into its present sorry shape. Robertson's eccentric and sometimes bizarre account of modern history gives a prominent role to, among others, "European financiers" who allegedly have been pulling the strings of global politics for a very long time. Lind pounces on the fact that some of the sources cited by Robertson are also cited by anti-Semites who explain modern history by reference to the machinations of "Jewish bankers." That Robertson refers to them as European rather than as Jewish is clear evidence, to Mr. Lind, that Robertson is not only anti-Semitic but is trying to disguise his anti-Semitism. He is the worst kind of anti-Semite, the kind that refuses to criticize Jews. The ever-so-devious Robertson also cultivates Jewish leaders, invites them to speak at his public meetings, and has a Jewish attorney heading his religious freedom organization. Is more evidence of his anti-Semitism needed?
This is not to let Robertson off the hook. True, in justifying his use of notorious sources he invokes the authority of a respectable professor at Georgetown University who uses the same sources, and he notes that President Clinton has on occasion invoked the authority of said professor, who apparently taught him when he was at Georgetown. But none of this gets us anywhere helpful. The fact is that some of the sources employed in The New World Order are manifestly anti-Semitic, and Mr. Robertson would have saved himself a lot of sorrow by clearly and explicitly repudiating that anti-Semitism in his book. Even better, he should not have used such sources in the first place. The conclusion remains, however, that while Pat Roberston is guilty of writing bad history, there is no ground whatever for accusing him of anti-Semitism.
Frank Rich was not impressed. A few days later he barked back with a column imaginatively titled "The Jew World Order," in which he notes that Louis Farrakhan accuses "international bankers" of nefarious doings and so does Pat Robertson. So there. "Our two most prominent extremists of the 1990s," wrote Rich, "are both dipping into the same well of pseudo-history that once served Father Coughlin and Henry Ford." This is high hysteria even for a toy Doberman. Pat Robertson has as much in common with Farrakhan as Frank Rich has with ordinary decency. The circle of extremists is extended as Rich notes that, at the Christian Coalition convention last fall, "Phil Gramm, Lamar Alexander, and Elizabeth Dole, standing in for her husband, all kissed Mr. Robertson's ring."
Lest he overlook anyone, Rich concludes with the shocking report that Patrick Buchanan wrote in a publication of the Christian Coalition that Robert Rubin, Secretary of the Treasury, supported the Mexican bailout to enrich his old investment firm of Goldman, Sachs. (Rubin, Goldman, Sachs. They all sound Jewish. Therefore Pat Buchanan is an anti-Semite.) Never mind that many critics of the Mexican bailout, including perhaps a majority of members of Congress, claimed that its chief purpose was to save Wall Street from its own investment follies. Never mind that in the very same issue of the Times television critic Walter Goodman gave a favorable review to Bill Moyers' role as commentator on NBC nightly news, noting that he injected a note "more populist than partisan" when "he criticized the bailout of Mexico as benefiting mainly [U.S.] investors."
While critics, including some conservatives, believe that Buchanan has in the past toyed with anti-Semitic sentiments, his polemics against the Mexican bailout are solidly within the mainstream of political debate.
Rabbi Peter Rubinstein of New York's Central Synagogue says, "To be a Jew is not to be anymore in the mainstream of America. You watch the Republican convention, you read the 'Contract With America,' you listen to talk radio. Before I could have accepted that, as a Jew and as an American, my yearnings were going to be harmonious. Now, I'm not so sure." It would seem that the rabbi's anxieties have nothing to do with being Jewish and everything to do with being politically liberal. For many liberal Jews, however, the two are hardly distinguishable. (Seventy-eight percent of Jews voted Democratic last November.) The Wall Street Journal cites other instances of the perceived rise in "bigotry." In Phoenix, Arizona, some Jewish homeowners found advertisements put on their doorknobs promoting a free video on the life of Jesus. A rabbi who represents the American Jewish Committee in Phoenix reports that a woman complained to him that her son was handed a book by a fifth-grade classmate and told, "Read this." The book was about Jesus. Says the rabbi, "People are starting to talk in terms of, 'We are being persecuted.'" A little boy wants to share his faith with his Jewish classmate. Can pogroms be far behind?
Jews who are astute analysts of the American scene have a similar take on what is happening. William Kristol, the Republican strategist, observes that alarm about anti-Semitism "often does verge into paranoia among Jews." As for his own view, Kristol says, "I prefer the Christian right to the pagan left." Norman Podhoretz, the retiring editor of Commentary (Who ever would have thought to describe Norman Podhoretz as retiring?), observes that conservatives don't hate Jews. "They hate liberals. As it happens, most Jews are liberals." Midge Decter's 1995 Erasmus Lecture (to appear in a forthcoming issue) is titled, "Being Jewish in Anti-Christian America." If the choice is between a dominantly anti-Christian elite culture and the majority culture of Christians, it is suggested, Jews have compelling prudential and religious reasons to side with the Christians.
Another piece of nastiness that has received almost no attention in this country is a controversy generated over Human Life International, a pro- life organization based in Maryland that this spring held its convention in Montreal. B'nai B'rith of Canada launched an all-out campaign against HLI, charging that it is an extremist organization guilty of anti- Semitism. The campaign received major media attention in Canada, and some went so far as to demand that the government stop HLI delegates from crossing the border to attend the convention. B'nai B'rith also pressured the Archdiocese of Montreal, unsuccessfully, to refuse HLI the use of the cathedral for the convention's opening Mass. The prime exhibit in support of the claim that HLI is anti-Semitic is a chapter in a book by Father Paul Marx, Confessions of a Pro-life Missionary. Marx is a Benedictine priest and founder of HLI, and in that chapter he deplores the prominent role of Jews in the pro-abortion movement, arguing that Jews, of all people, should recognize the consequences when human life is devalued.
The chapter in question may be injudicious, and some points of fact may be disputed, but it is hardly anti-Semitic. No reasonable person will dispute the fact that Jews are disproportionately represented among the promoters of abortion, and drawing analogies between abortion and the Holocaust is hardly "extremist." Without taking a position on abortion, a number of prominent Canadian Jews courageously challenged the slander perpetrated by B'nai B'rith. In this country, Msgr. George Higgins devoted his column, which has a wide readership in the Catholic diocesan press, to the HLI affair. Msgr. Higgins, usually a more fair-minded commentator, accused HLI of engaging in a "flirtation with anti- Semitism," and says that the fact that bishops are associated with HLI makes it difficult for Jews "to distinguish the preachments of HLI from the official teaching of the Church, which clearly condemns forays into anti-Semitism." The Catholic Church does indeed condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms, but, pace Msgr. Higgins, there is no evidence that HLI is guilty of flirting with anti-Semitism. Promptly upon the appearance of Higgins' column, the interreligious affairs office of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League issued a press release commending him for his bold opposition to anti-Semitism.
The above-mentioned account in the Wall Street Journal reports the views of Daniel Levitas, described as a liberal Atlanta Jewish activist, who invokes memories of czarist Russia. "The Jews used to have a response when the Cossacks came to town," he says. "You close the doors, you batten down the hatches, and you shutter the windows. Eventually the dust will settle and you can come out again. The Jews used to say 'This too shall pass.' This time it's not going to pass." Such sentiments reflect the paranoia to which William Kristol refers and, not so incidentally, are an outrageous insult against non-Jewish Americans. The United States in 1995 is not czarist Russia and the American people are not Cossacks bent upon killing Jews. Whatever his own intentions, statements such as those of Mr. Levitas cannot help but exacerbate Jewish-Christian relations, inflaming anti-Christian feelings among Jews and anti-Jewish feelings among non-Jews.
But he got one thing half-right: "This time it's not going to pass." If the "it" in question is the freer expression of religion and religiously grounded moral convictions in public, a major and lasting change does seem to be underway. Given that this is America, such expression will be predominantly Christian in character. This circumstance is understandably worrying to many Jews, but the challenges that it entails can be explored by Jews and Christians in a manner that does not threaten but strengthens our common participation in the American experiment. This was recently demonstrated by a symposium at Harvard marking the fiftieth anniversary of Commentary at which Midge Decter and this writer, among others, spoke.
In the last quarter century, it was pointed out at the Harvard meeting, there has been a dramatic change among Christians-from Catholics to evangelical Protestants-in the understanding of Christianity's dependence upon Judaism. Not simply the Judaism of what Christians call the Old Testament but the living Judaism that continues in mysterious relation to God's election and unbreakable promise. References to a "Judeo-Christian" moral tradition, for instance, are not merely a euphemistic trope employed to avoid offending Jews, although that may sometimes be the case. There is a much deeper level at which Christians are coming to understand their providential entanglement with Jews and Judaism, an understanding that has slight precedent in the two millennia of interaction between Jews and Christians. This growing understandingshould be carefully nurtured by Jews and Christians alike.
From Birmingham, Michigan to Atlanta to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, many Jews have assumed that the more secularized America is, the safer it is for Jews. In this view, Jewish security and success has been achieved despite the fact that America is a predominantly Christian society. This view, which is probably shared, at least intuitively, by a majority of Jews, is of relatively recent vintage. An alternative view is that Jews are secure and successful because this is a predominantly Christian society. All too obviously, there have been predominantly Christian societies in which Jews have been anything but secure. But the argument is that Christianity in America really is different, that it has internalized the imperatives of tolerance as a matter of religious duty, and that, more recently, it has come to see Judaism as an integral part of God's purposes in history. In a forthcoming historical study of Jewish attitudes toward "Christian America," sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, Rabbi David Dalin of Hartford University and Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University examine earlier Jewish perspectives that are newly relevant to our changing religio-cultural circumstance.
Frank Rich and others of fevered imagination to the contrary, the reaction has nothing to with anti-Semitism. Unless, of course, Jews and Judaism are equated with, inter alia, promoting abortion, eliminating religion from public schools, advocating homosexuality, denigrating marital fidelity, shocking traditional sensibilities, and depicting Christians as potential perpetrators of genocide. Those who slander Jews and Judaism by making such an equation are indeed guilty of anti- Semitism, and it makes little difference whether the slander is peddled by Jews or by Christians.
If our reading is correct, the political culture has been dramatically changed in recent months and years, and more dramatic changes are in the offing. The deepest and probably most long-lasting change is the rediscovery of the free exercise of religion, and the assertion of religiously grounded moral conviction in the public square. This is a change that can be welcomed by both Jews and Christians-as citizens devoted to a free society, and as children of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. This change is understandably feared by determined secularists, Jewish and other, who are taken by surprise that American history is not turning out the way they had confidently expected. The vibrant resurgence of public religion forces them to reexamine their basic assumptions about America and the course of modernity, which is a difficult and painful undertaking.
Those who have constructed Jewish identity on the foundation of political liberalism have, according to Lipset and Raab, built upon sand. "Some want to believe that an intrinsic quality of Jewish life consists of such universally benevolent 'Jewish social values' as equality, social justice, and world peace. . . . But however strongly held, most of those social values are no longer particular to the Jews, and have clearly not provided the glue which can keep the Jewish community together."
As the Jews of tomorrow are more religiously observant, they will also be more socially and politically conservative. And that is because, as these scholars and many others point out, there is a strong connection between religious commitment and conservatism on a very broad range of questions.
Anti-Semitism is a very serious business. Christians, too, are responsible for seeing to it that it is watched assiduously and countered forcefully. That will not happen, however, if anti-Semitism is equated with opposition to the liberalism that many Jews believe to be the essential core of their "Jewishness." It will not happen if fair criticism of the behavior of some Jews, or many Jews, is recklessly condemned as anti-Semitism. And it will not happen if the dominant voice of Judaism in America is that of secular agencies whose stock in trade is to accuse non-Jews of anti-Semitism. Within American Jewry, there are a growing number of thinkers-including but hardly limited to those mentioned above-who point to a more promising way for the flourishing of Jews and Judaism in America. Jews will decide how their message is received, but the rest of us, as Christians and as citizens, have a deep interest in the revival of a Jewish identity that transcends the political partisanships of this historical moment.
Jews who are indifferent to the religious core of Judaism may, as Lipset and Raab suggest, be assimilated into the sector of secular Americans who are equally indifferent to Christianity. There they may maintain for a time an attenuated sense of ethnic identity, much in the way that others are vaguely Italian, Irish, or German "by extraction." But extraction means separation, and identities by extraction are by definition tenuous and short-lived. The interesting and promising future of Jewish-Christian relations rests with Jews and Christians who, in mutual respect and reverence, seek to discern and obey the will of the One who is, through Israel, the light to the nations, and not least to these United States of America.
Being Religious in Public Debate
After A Theory of Justice, it seemed that John Rawls was
established as the oracle of political philosophy among English-
speaking, or at least American, intellectuals. Remarkable in that light
is the relatively cool reception given his 1993 book, Political
Liberalism. Of course there is the fact that people enjoy taking
down a few pegs those who have been elevated to such heights, but in the
years between the two books there were significant changes in the
American intellectual culture. The ahistorical and individualistic
reasoning of A Theory of Justice no doubt played a part in
provoking a rash of books that lifted up the importance of community, of
"thick descriptions," and of reasons of the heart alien to the reason of
Rawls. Then too, while we do not embrace the notion that timing is
everything, Political Liberalism came at a time when the
irrepressible force of religion in public life and public discourse was
making itself newly felt. Although A Theory had occasional
intimations of something that might be called transcendent, Rawls'
project was self-consciously secular, and this became even more evident
in Political Liberalism.
Michael McConnell of the University of Chicago and an FT contributor, makes this point in an article in the Michigan Law Review. He notes that there is a "surge of new writing about the role of religion in public life," and reflects on how this might provide something like a "middle ground" in the abortion debate. McConnell has this to say about Rawls: "In the most serious entry in the field, John Rawls maintains that a society may justly base its laws only on a 'reasonable' political conception of justice, meaning a conception that is, or can be, 'shared by citizens regarded as free and equal' and that does not presuppose any particular 'comprehensive doctrine,' of which religious doctrine is a prime example. Applying this idea to the abortion issue, Rawls concludes (without much discussion) that 'any comprehensive doctrine that leads to a balance of political values excluding' the right to an abortion by a 'mature adult' woman in the first trimester 'is to that extent unreasonable,' because the 'political value of the equality of women is overriding.' This means, apparently, that the contrary balance-treating the life of the unborn as the 'overriding value'-is not just wrong but beyond the boundaries of reasonable argument, in part because it rests on a 'comprehensive doctrine' (though why respect for unborn life rests on a comprehensive doctrine while respect for the equality of women does not is something of a mystery)."
McConnell is actually reviewing a new book by Elizabeth Mensch and Alan Freeman, The Politics of Virtue: Is Abortion Debatable? (Duke University Press). Mensch is a liberal Protestant and Freeman is Jewish, and their purpose is to explore whether in fact "comprehensive doctrines" offered by religion might not open the abortion controversy to the possibility of a sustainable accommodation. They survey different religious approaches, including natural law doctrine associated with Catholicism, and end up being most impressed with the Protestant thought of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Of those two worthies McConnell says, "Their position might be described as 'anti-choice,' though not 'pro-life.'"
He notes that that is his characterization, not that of Mensch and Freeman, but it is a remarkable characterization. Both Barth and Bonhoeffer left no doubt about the evil of abortion. In his Ethics, for example, Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor killed by Hitler in the last days of the war, wrote that abortion is "nothing but murder," for a "nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life." McConnell thinks it significant that Bonhoeffer adds, "A great many different motives may lead to an action of this kind; indeed in cases where it is an act of despair, performed in circumstances of extreme human or economic destitution and misery, the guilt may often lie rather with the community than with the individual." That is significant, but it addresses only the culpability of the woman involved, not the wrongness of the act. In any event, McConnell seems to confuse theological and pastoral judgment with public policy prescription, almost as though Barth and Bonhoeffer were addressing the American abortion conflict in 1995. Were they part of the present debate, it seems very unlikely that they would not support the goal of the pro-life movement that every unborn child be protected in law and welcomed in life.
Returning to Mensch and Freeman, McConnell is skeptical of a Protestant proposal for a "compromise" that will end up with the law paying lip service to the sanctity of life while doing nothing about the practice of abortion. His words are sobering: "This is essentially the West European solution (coupled with some more serious protection for fetal life in the later stages of pregnancy than we have here), and it seems to satisfy most people. Let us abolish the 'right' of abortion discovered in Roe, declare that all life is deserving of protection, and then do nothing about it. Under this approach, the protesters, I predict, would diminish greatly in number; the Supreme Court's docket would be cleared of these contentious cases; politicians would be off the hook; but the number of abortions would stay the same. If there is a principled middle-ground position, it must lie in a noncoercive pro-life policy that works."
Reflecting on the subtitle of the book, Is Abortion Debatable?, McConnell ends with this: "By 'debatable,' the authors presumably mean that abortion is an issue about which debate is both possible and useful. I do not think that anyone will come away from this book persuaded of any particular thesis or program regarding abortion. I do think, though, that readers will be in a better position to see why even persons who share the authors' liberal-left, feminist worldview should understand the abortion issue as a question of justice-not simply of privacy or oppression-and even those of a secular orientation will be able to see how theological voices can contribute to the debate. Perhaps the first step toward having a productive debate-and hence toward finding a peaceful democratic solution-is to listen to one another's arguments and to stop attempting to rule 'out-of-bounds' those whose presuppositions are grounded in religious faith."
John Rawls' exclusion of "comprehensive doctrines," notably religious doctrines, from public discourse is, in our judgment, a not very well disguised argument against democracy. Democratic discourse is more about people than doctrine; people locked in civil discourse can bring whatever doctrines they want to that discourse, although admittedly some doctrines will be more politically effective than others, and the intrusion of some doctrines could make the discourse a good deal less civil. In this connection, McConnell's treatment of natural law is disappointing. McConnell, an evangelical Protestant, wonders whether natural law is religious at all, since it makes no appeal to revelation. "Perhaps God has nothing to do with it," he writes. But, as he notes in the same essay, natural law is divine law as much as is the positive law revealed in Scripture. The natural law claim is that God has so created the world that there are moral truths accessible to human reason (even fallen human reason) that makes moral deliberation possible among those who do and those who do not recognize the revealed truths of salvation. God has everything to do with it. It is the way He made the world and us in it. In trying to discern and obey the moral truth, one is doing one's religious duty. One does not need to be doing something identifiably religious in order to be religious. But that's an argument for another day.
A Court Is Not a Constitutional Convention
Brace yourself for a piece of good news. When, last year, Oregon
legalized doctor-assisted suicide "jubilant activists and sober critics
predicted that right-to-die laws would spread like wildfire. Four months
later, Measure 16 appears to be more of a brushfire that could fizzle,
at least this year." That's from Oregon's largest newspaper, the
Oregonian. This year, suicide bills have been introduced in at
least eleven states; several have already been defeated, and none
appears to be headed for passage. In addition, state and federal courts
have been ruling against a constitutional right to die. Especially
important is the Ninth Circuit Court that, in a decision written by John
Noonan, overruled the May 1994 decision of Judge Barbara Rothstein
in Compassion in Dying v. Washington State.
There have been complaints that media reports on the decision have made a point of noting that Noonan is a Catholic who has written extensively on the protection of life. We do not agree with the complaint. If reports on a decision to the opposite effect noted that the decision was written by a Methodist who has written extensively in favor of the right to die, that would seem to be fair enough. The unfairness lies in the fact that the media did, predictably, report Noonan's religion and moral views, and almost certainly would not in the second instance. If a judge decides in favor of protecting life, he decides as a Catholic; if a judge decides in the opposite direction, he or she decides as a judge. So you are still expecting fairness in journalism? In fact, we would like to think that Noonan's Catholic morality does have a bearing on the decision-not because of his position on the issue but because he understands that judges have a moral duty not to make up constitutional rights.
In any event, herewith excerpts from the majority opinion of the Ninth Circuit: "The conclusion of the district court that the statute deprived the plaintiffs of a liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment and denied them the equal protection of the laws cannot be sustained. . . . In the 205 years of our existence no constitutional right to aid in killing oneself has ever been asserted and upheld by a court of final jurisdiction. Unless the federal judiciary is to be a floating constitutional convention, a federal court should not invent a constitutional right unknown to the past and antithetical to the defense of human life that has been a chief responsibility of our constitutional government. . . . The district court declared the statute unconstitutional on its face without adequate consideration of Washington's interests that, individually and convergently, outweigh any alleged liberty of suicide. . . . 1. The interest in not having physicians in the role of killers of their patients. . . . Not only would the self-understanding of physicians be affected by removal of the state's support for their professional stance; the physician's constant search for ways to combat disease would be affected, if killing were as acceptable an option for the physician as curing. . . . 2. The interest in not subjecting the elderly and even the not-elderly but infirm to psychological pressure to consent to their own deaths. . . . 3. The interest in protecting the poor and minorities from exploitation. . . . Pain is a significant factor in creating a desire for assisted suicide, and the poor and minorities are notoriously less provided for in the alleviation of pain. . . . The desire to reduce the cost of public assistance by quickly terminating a prolonged illness cannot be ignored. 4. The interest in protecting all of the handicapped from societal indifference and antipathy. . . . An insidious bias against the handicapped-again coupled with a cost-saving mentality-makes them especially in need of Washington's statutory protection. . . . 5. An interest in preventing abuse similar to what has occurred in the Netherlands. . . . The physician's medical expertness is not a license to inflict medical procedures against your will. . . . You can be left alone if you want. . . . Tort law and criminal law have never recognized a right to let others enslave you, mutilate you, or kill you. When you assert a claim that another-and especially another licensed by the state-should help you bring about your death, you ask for more than being let alone; you ask that the state, in protecting its own interest, not prevent its licensee from killing. The difference is not of degree but of kind. You no longer seek the end of unwanted medical attention. You seek the right to have a second person collaborate in your death."
As welcome as the Ninth Circuit decision is, and as encouraged as we should be by the resistance to "right to die" measures in various states, complacency is entirely out of order. There are other legal ploys to be tried, and other courts more hospitable to the euthanasia cause. Euthanasia advocates were so buoyed by Oregon that in other states their bills dropped Oregon's "safeguards" and came out for what they really want: e.g., doctors allowed to give lethal injections, a broadened definition of "terminal" illness, and terminations of patients who have not given their consent. Having overreached in several states, the Hemlock Society and its allies will perhaps be more cautious in the future. Certainly they still think the future is theirs, and maybe they are right. The most recent encyclical of John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, makes a convincing case that "the culture of death" is on the move. But for the moment there are also hopeful signs that, halfway down the abyss, some political and judicial fences are being repaired.
Jesus Made to Order
A very long time ago Albert Schweitzer was thought to have nailed down
the coffin lid on "the quest for the historical Jesus." Most scholars
thought Paul Tillich had it right when he wrote: "Seen in the light of
its basic intention, the attempt of historical criticism to find the
empirical truth about Jesus of Nazareth was a failure. The historical
Jesus, namely, the Jesus behind the symbols of his reception as the
Christ, not only did not appear but receded farther and farther with
every new step." In the decade following World War II, however, there
emerged a "new quest of the historical Jesus," this time with the quite
different purpose of grounding the Christian proclamation in the
preaching and activity of Jesus, lest Christian faith drift off into
some kind of ahistorical gnostic myth or mystery. That quest, too, was
generally considered a failure, but none of this has prevented another
batch of scholars, mainly American, from launching a "new new quest" or
"third quest." Writing about the earlier questings, Schweitzer said
ninety years ago: "Each individual created Jesus in accordance with his
own character. There is no historical task which so reveals a man's true
self as the writing of a life of Jesus." As Schweitzer well understood,
the traditional Christological dogmas of the Church had to be shattered
before scholars could be free to proceed on the presuppositions that
they bring to the task of discovering "the real Jesus."
Carl Braaten, writing in the ecumenical journal Pro Ecclesia, invites us to cultivate a robust skepticism regarding this new new quest. "The answer to the question, 'Which Jesus? Whose Jesus?' cannot be given without coming clean on the matter of presuppositions. There were certain presuppositions at work in the formation of the Gospel traditions in the life of the early church. Easter and Pentecost were the crucial ones. We know what we know about Jesus only in the light of Easter and Pentecost. If we ignore them as functioning presuppositions in our scholarly approach to the historical Jesus, we will end up with a Jesus who looks very different from the picture of Jesus the Christ that we find in the New Testament and the Christian liturgy.
"The pictures of Jesus in the 'Third Quest' tell us more about their authors than they do about the 'real' Jesus of history. They are all very different; there is no consensus at all. For S. G. F. Brandon Jesus was a political revolutionary, for Hugh Schonfield a messianic schemer, for Morton Smith the founder of a secret society, for Geza Vermes a Galilean holy man, for Burton Mack a wandering Cynic preacher, for John Dominic Crosson a Mediterranean Jewish peasant, for Marcus Borg a countercultural charismatic trying to make the world a better place, for Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza a first-century feminist who called his disciples into an egalitarian community of equals, for Barbara Thiering a member of the Qumran community who married Mary Magdalene, had two sons and a daughter, divorced Mary, married someone else, and died in his sixties. For Bishop John Spong Jesus was born of a woman who had been raped, and all the stuff about Jesus' resurrection in the Gospels is nothing but later Christian 'midrash.'
"Usually I'm not so fond of the hermeneutics of suspicion, but here, with Schweitzer's verdict ringing in my ears, I cannot help but apply it. These Jesus-scholars have found a reflection of their own values and ideals in Jesus, painting his picture in accordance with their own character, or lack of it. Meanwhile, many believing Christians will respond to the plethora of exotic concoctions and novelistic fantasies about the historical Jesus much like Mary Magdalene lamented to the two angels at the tomb: 'They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him' (John 20:13)."
A Conflict of Religions
It's in the nature of conversations that they go back and forth,
sometimes tediously and sometimes engagingly so. In the latter category
is the discussion of whether a Christian understanding of the truth
protects the rights of secular humanists better than a secular humanist
understanding of the truth protects the rights of Christians. That was
the claim made in this space some months ago, to which secular humanist
William Sierichs, Jr. wrote an intelligently amusing rejoinder in the
January 1995 issue. Sierichs, you may recall, turned the standard
charges of Christian intolerance on their head, producing a tongue-in-
cheek historical account of how secular humanists have persecuted
Christians over the centuries. He ended with the plea, "Please don't be
paranoid. Our past does not predict our future." Francis Brislawn of
Laramie, Wyoming, was amused but not taken in. Along with his letter he
sends us a copy of a letter he wrote to Free Inquiry, the
magazine of the Council for Democratic/Secular Humanism, Dr. Paul Kurtz,
bishop and founder. Mr. Brislawn wrote:
"In the Fall 1994 issue of Free Inquiry, on the Notes from the Editor page, the question is raised: What right do parents have to impose their own narrow and chauvinistic ideas on their offspring? (Referring to religious ideas.) Further down in this article a principle of the Secular Humanist Declaration is quoted: 'We do not think it is moral to baptize infants, to confirm adolescents, or to impose a religious creed on young people before they are able to consent. Although children should learn about the history of religious/moral practices, these minds should not be indoctrinated in the faith before they are mature enough to evaluate the merits for themselves.'
"I don't know, maybe immature minds should not be indoctrinated. But it seems here that humanists are trying to deny to others the freedom they claim for themselves-they themselves want to indoctrinate young minds. There seems to be a double standard. Is this freethought? (Using freethought in a descriptive sense and not in a technical sense.) Why do humanists have the right to impose a humanist creed on young people before they are able to consent?
"A couple of letters to the editor in that issue, one from Sidney Kash and another from John S. Dearing, provide further examples of this mindset. Sidney Kash describes how he would indoctrinate children: 'If they do not get religious training, they should be provided with a basis in science and skepticism. . . . To introduce science, I suggest reading about biology (including the evolutionary progression of animals) and astronomy. Children ages three to five are not too young. Taking a lead from religion, it is important to expose children early to modern scientific views of the world around us. . . . '
"John Dearing states, 'Children need to be protected from religion. . . . One way to teach our children is by reading and discussing humanist freethought books with them.' This sounds like a Sunday School or Bible study for humanists.
"How can humanists claim the right to indoctrinate their children while denying that freedom to religionists? Is it because humanism, evolution, etc. are objectively true while religion is not? But religionists believe their ideas to be objectively true. Paul Kurtz asks: 'What right do they have to impose their own narrow chauvinistic ideas on their offspring? Children are not the possessions of parents, but autonomous beings.' Religionists will ask, 'What right do atheists have to impose their own narrow and chauvinistic ideas on their offspring? The kids do not belong to them.'
"If parents shouldn't impose their narrow ideas on their children, how do we prevent it? Thought police? It's scary. Some parents will be allowed to pass their values on but others will not. This whole thing has the flavor of an in-house quarrel between competing faiths-religious faiths have always sought ways to prevent rival religions from teaching their ideas."
The Pyrrhic Victory of Act-Up
After all the demonstrations and all the rallies, after the endless
promotions of "safe sex" and the billions of dollars spent seeking a
cure, a fatalistic attitude seems to have settled on the AIDS community,
researchers and activists alike. The disease has become the leading
killer of Americans between twenty-five and forty, according to Craig
Horowitz in New York magazine, and half the homosexual men in
New York City are HIV-positive. The virus-with its ability to mutate
rapidly-has defeated all medical efforts to combat it.
Fatalism, however, as the ancient Roman Stoics discovered, is one of the most peculiar of possible moral attitudes to the universe, for it leads simultaneously toward two apparently opposed results: toward irresponsible activity and toward hopeless inactivity. Fatalism both sets one free and loads one down, because nothing that one does makes any difference. And both of these results have begun to surface in the worlds of homosexual activism.
"This change in attitude is clearly visible," Horowitz observes. "The return of vintage seventies promiscuity has sparked a small boom in theaters, dance clubs, bars, and a variety of other venues that have back rooms and private cubicles for sex. . . . There is a new generation of men under twenty-five that simply hasn't had enough experience with the disease to really be afraid of it. . . . 'It's made them very susceptible to the mythmaking side of AIDS,' says Martin Delaney [a San Francisco AIDS activist]. 'That HIV isn't the cause of AIDS, that it's all a government plot, the whole area that I call the conspiracy-theory side.'"
Meanwhile, the older leaders of ACT-UP, after their first successes in focusing attention upon AIDS, have gradually despaired of victory. "I know that no matter how many meetings I go to, we're not going to walk out with a cure in my lifetime," one tired activist admitted. "Everybody's burned out," added Delaney, "I am; we all are."
The failure to find a medical cure has led to some of the homosexuals' fatalism. "No viral disease in history has ever had so much money thrown at it," the Nobel-laureate David Baltimore reported. The NIH alone spends $1.3 billion on AIDS research-though some critics, writes Horowitz, charge that the NIH is "an oversize, byzantine, bureaucratized black hole that sucks in federal dollars and delivers little in the way of results." But researchers have managed to do considerable research, and their "early success followed by disappointment and heavily politicized disputes over strategy" has finally succeeded in destroying the older activists' dream that they could get a cure simply by demanding one loudly and outrageously enough. "Though activists still argue that AIDS is being ignored and underfunded, that has become a harder case to make."
The only available way to prevent the spread of AIDS, as even homosexuals admit, is by a change in behavior. But the change they have promoted, the "safe sex" ostensibly offered by the use of condoms, has proven ineffective. The physical and psychological awkwardness of condoms has lessened their use, and the increasingly fatalistic attitude of homosexuals has lead to a recent rise in reports of unprotected sex- and to a rise in the rates of HIV infection. Even the activists themselves contributed to the rise. "Whatever else you want to say about it," ACT-UP founder Larry Kramer said, "ACT-UP was an incredible place to meet people. . . . It became the best cruising ground in New York. All the hot young men were there. Ask some of them how many guys they [had sex with] in the cloakroom. That's a part of ACT-UP people don't talk about."
As we remarked some months ago, the all-stops-pulled gay and lesbian campaign of 1993-marches, protests, and cover stories in almost all the major magazines-came a cropper. It was the revolution that wasn't. The disillusionment of yesterday's activists is poignant but, considering what their victory might have meant, one's sympathy is contained.
Dying for the Telephone Company
The title After MacIntyre takes off from Alasdair MacIntyre's
celebrated After Virtue. After MacIntyre, published by
University of Notre Dame Press, has seventeen philosophers criticizing
MacIntyre's project from various viewpoints and with varying degrees of
substantive disagreement. Then MacIntyre, as is the way with such books,
offers an extended response to his critics. The whole thing is great
fun, although most readers will undoubtedly think it an insiders'
quarrel among philosophers. In the course of his response, MacIntyre
indicates the ways in which he has become much more of a Thomist over
the years. He also gets off some sprightly observations about one of his
favorite bugbears, the movement that today goes by the name
"communitarianism." "Contemporary communitarians, from whom I have
strongly dissociated myself whenever I have had an opportunity to do so,
advance their proposals as a contribution to the politics of the nation-
state. Where liberals have characteristically insisted that government
within a nation-state should remain neutral between rival conceptions of
the human good, contemporary communitarians have urged that such
government should give expression to some shared vision of the human
good, a vision defining some type of community. Where liberals have
characteristically urged that it is in the activities of subordinate
voluntary associations, such as those constituted by religious groups,
that shared visions of the good should be articulated, communitarians
have insisted that the nation itself through the institutions of the
nation-state ought to be constituted to some significant degree as a
community. In the United States this has become a debate within the
Democratic Party, a debate in which from my own point of view
communitarians have attacked liberals on one issue on which liberals
have been consistently in the right."
Philosophical liberals are right in seeing the collectivist, even totalitarian, danger in the notion of the nation as a "strong community." What they do not see is that the problem is with the modern nation-state. "Liberals, however, mistakenly suppose that those evils arise from any form of political community which embodies substantive practical agreement upon some strong conception of the human good. I by contrast take them to arise from the specific character of the modern nation-state, thus agreeing with liberals in this at least, that modern nation-states which masquerade as embodiments of community are always to be resisted. The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one's life on its behalf. As I have remarked elsewhere, it is like being asked to die for the telephone company. Sometimes of course there are evils only to be resisted by ad hoc participation in some particular enterprises of some nation-state: in resisting Hitler and Stalin, most notably. And it is prudent to pay one's taxes and always just to accept obligations which one has incurred to the state and to its agencies. But to empower even the liberal state as a bearer of values always imperils those values. . . . In any case the liberal critique of those nation-states which pretend to embody the values of community has little to say to those Aristotelians, such as myself, for whom the nation-state is not and cannot be the locus of community." So is Alasdair MacIntyre a liberal or conservative or what? Stay tuned. He says he is working on a big new book that may, or may not, answer questions such as that. In any event, After MacIntyre demonstrates that it is ridiculously premature to title a book After MacIntyre.
A Requiem for Academic Theology
Oh, what a lovely fuss it has raised. United Methodist hierarchs
harrumph at Abingdon's publishing something so inappropriate, his
colleagues in academic theology rail against its incorrectness, and the
acolytes of Sophia claim that it is more than outrageous. They have gone
so far as to call it conservative, which in some circles is about as far
as you can go. The occasion of this ruckus is Thomas C. Oden's new book,
Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements (176 pages, $16.95). Oden,
a United Methodist teaching at Drew University, has more than three
decades of experience with seminaries and divinity schools, and he
offers good reason for being worried about what is going on. Herewith my
foreword to the book, offered in the hope that it will whet the appetite
of readers-and not only Methodist or Protestant readers-to accept an
invitation to a requiem that, God willing, is prelude to resurrection.
This place of origin, termination, and beginnings anew is historic Christianity. Sometimes he calls it "classical Christianity," sometimes "consensual Christianity," sometimes "catholic Christianity." And sometimes just "Christianity," meaning what C. S. Lewis meant by "mere Christianity." Oden knows that to leap out of a tradition is not to be liberated but to be lost. It is to lose one's connectedness with a story, and without a story we do not know who we are. Then we can only emit the intellectual signals-sometimes very cleverly articulated signals-of our lostness. Theological education has become, in very large part, the games with which lost souls entertain one another in order to distract their minds from the thought that they can't go home again.
And then along comes Tom Oden with the good news-not unrelated to the good news-that they can go home again. In fact, says he, they are more at home than they know. Their trivial games, their fashions, their entertaining breakthroughs, their insights marketed as New! New! New! are all variations on themes much more interestingly engaged by the Great Tradition. Their inventions have been invented many times before and, Oden does not hesitate to point out, were typically called heresies. Not always terribly interesting heresies, to be sure, not major league heresies, but heresies nonetheless. As Oden notes, there are few heresies less intellectually interesting than today's common claim that there cannot be heresy because, finally, there is no truth about which to be heretical.
In no way is Oden despairing. He knows that we have not the right to despair, and, all things considered, we have not the reason to despair. More and more "young fogeys" like Oden are discovering the truth that is "ever ancient, ever new" (Augustine). It is called the catholic faith, and it is a feast to which he invites us. It is a moveable feast, encountered wherever there is faith, and it is a moving feast, still developing under the guidance of the Spirit. Oden is like "Auntie Mame," who observed that life is a banquet and most poor slobs are starving to death. Origen, Irenaeus, Cyril of Alexandria, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, Calvin, Wesley-the names fall trippingly from Oden's tongue, like a gourmet surveying a most spectacular table. Here are arguments you can get your teeth into, conceptual flights of intoxicating complexity, and truths to die for. Far from the table, over there, way over there, is American theological education where prodigal academics feed starving students on the dry husks of their clever unbelief.
It is too simple to say that the problem is unbelief. Chesterton observed that the trouble with someone who does not believe in God is not that he will end up believing in nothing; it is that he will end up believing in anything. We live in an age of credulity, as is dramatically evidenced by the novelties-ever ancient-that provide such excitements in our seminaries and divinity schools. Oden invites us to an exploration toward faith in an age of credulity. When setting out on a great adventure, you take care to check out your travel companions. Oden is pleased to report that, after numerous disappointments, he has found a splendid company of friends with whom to travel. They have been traveling for centuries, and he has been traveling with them for some time now. He has found them to be faithful, wise, and filled with wonderful stories about the One who promised to travel with them "until the end of the age."
A number of us young fogeys-and some of us no longer so young-have been traveling together for a while. There have been memorable festivities along the way. In 1975 there was, for instance, the Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation. It caused quite a stir at the time, but today you would have to go look it up in the library. In the Hartford Appeal, about twenty theologians from the several churches upbraided contemporary academic theology for its "loss of transcendence." I think it made eminently good sense at the time, and I would not take back a word of it. But none of us anticipated the way that theme would be turned upside down in the twenty years that have followed.
The transcendence of God has been excitedly seized upon by the ringmasters of the circus that is theology today-and by nobody so exuberantly as by those whom Oden calls "ultrafeminists." God, they tell us, is so transcendently transcendent, so ineffably ineffable, so utterly utter, that no words, no creeds, no liturgies, no gestures can possibly claim to speak the "truth" about God. (It is a significant sign of our time that so many put truth in quotation marks.) It follows that talk about God is really talk about ourselves. Our feelings, our experiences, our needs, and, above all, our rage at the injustices visited upon us-this is the real subject matter of theology. In theology, what is meaningful and what is not meaningful to me has displaced what is true and what is false. Put differently, what is true or false means what is meaningful or not meaningful to me. Ludwig Feuerbach, thou shouldst have lived to see thy day.
Feuerbach (1804-1872), some contemporary students of theology may remember, contended that a transcendent God has no objective reality but is the product of projected human aspirations. His, however, was a happy and optimistic atheism, unlike the angry deconstructive atheisms of today's academics who turn theology into the projection of human discontents. When Oden says he is post-modern, he means, in significant part, that he is post-Feuerbachian. At least that is how I read him. Beyond human optimism and anger, he fell, by the grace of God, into the company of some very impressive thinkers who told him that they had heard from God. God spoke. To Abraham, at Sinai, through the prophets, and then God became his speaking in Jesus of Nazareth, the Word of God. Christian theologians have been trying to figure out what it means, and how best to say what it means, for some two thousand years, and Thomas Oden has discovered this to be the grandest, most daring, most mind- stretching and soul-stretching project imaginable. Certainly a heaven of a lot more interesting than "doing theology" with his self. Not that Oden does not have an interesting self. But he has found himself to be infinitely less interesting than God.
Funny how that phrase "doing theology" has caught on. As in making it up as you go along. Oden invites us to study theology, to think theology, to argue theology, to teach theology, all the while knowing that it is a language that, at best, only stumblingly approximates that of which it speaks. The language is not our invention. It is the language of a community to which we, all undeserving, have been joined by grace. It is a conversation and a grammar formed through time in response to the Word. The conversation is by no means over. There is a great deal still to be said. Maybe, in the long reach of history and in God's mysterious purposes, the conversation is just getting underway. But only those who know what has been said so far, only those who discipline themselves to the conversation's rhythms and eccentricities, will have much to contribute to the company of reflection and proclamation that is Christian theology.
As I read him (and I have been reading him for a very long time), that conversation is the feast that Thomas Oden has discovered, and to which he invites the reader of this rollickingly funny, devastatingly polemical, and instructively edifying little book. Do not be misled by the title. Beyond the requiem is resurrection, and behind the lament is laughter. Were it otherwise, there would be no conversation and no feast, either now or later.
(Requiem can be purchased by calling Abingdon's customer service department toll free at 1-800-672-1789 and asking for ISBN 0- 687-01160-4.)
While We're At It