Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 62 (April 1996): 2-4.

Christian Exclusivism

The review of Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion (January) struck me as a particularly wrongheaded effort to make two wrongs into a right. Not having read the book under review, I cannot say if the fault lies with author (S. Mark Heim) or reviewer (Paul J. Griffiths) alone.

The first wrong, in any event, is Christian exclusivism, the idea that Christianity is the one and only way to salvation. Intolerance has always seemed to me to be the great spiritual flaw of Christianity. It is the sort of spiritual flaw that not only poisons Christianity from within, but causes and has caused immeasurable suffering to non- Christians without. I am pleased the review at least recognizes this as a central problem for Christianity. Small consolation, however, given the "solution" suggested, namely, that all religions must now take up the Christian error of intolerance. For a war of one against all we should instead have a war of all against all? To propose that because Christianity is exclusivist therefore all religions should also become so strikes me as mad and dangerous. . . .

The real solution lies not in compounding intolerance, turning everyone into a bully, but rather in giving it up. Christianity and Christians must repent the heinous sin of exclusivism, rooting it out of their hearts. There are many ways to G-d, thank G-d. Nothing could be more obvious. My own path to G-d, for instance, Judaism, has always insisted that salvation is open to the righteous of all nations. Islam, for its part, holds the gates of salvation open to Christians and Jews. One may debate whether and in what manner the Islamic and Jewish paths are universal, but there is no doubt that they are broader than the particularistic "universalism" of Christian exclusivism. Hinduism, of course, goes beyond all three, recognizing millions, indeed billions, of pathways to G-d. Yes, at the end of time "He shall be One and His name shall be One," but on the many ways of time that lead to eternity, Christian exclusivism is an obstacle and roadblock. . . .

Richard A. Cohen
Department of Religious Studies
University of North Carolina
at Charlotte

Paul J. Griffiths replies:

Mr. Cohen's letter is a rant rather than an argument. He links together, in an unargued and hopelessly imprecise way, "exclusivism" and "intolerance." I can't tell what he means by either, although his letter rather suggests that for him "intolerance" simply means judging that someone else is wrong; if that's right, his own words are suffused with its spirit. In my review of Heim's book I tried to suggest that it is typical of religious traditions to proffer goals or ends to human beings, and to proffer them as unsurpassable. This is what differentiates properly religious goals from others. It is part of the grammar of Christian faith, certainly, to proffer such goals; trinitarian theology requires it. Several times each week, in public worship, I recite a creed that makes such claims. And I believe it. Believing it is quite compatible with judging that I am in no position to know who is saved and who is not; it requires of me only the judgment that whoever is saved is saved through Christ. Heim's book is a careful attempt to elucidate how people who are believing members of traditions that proffer such unsurpassable claims might come to think about those who are not, most especially about those who are believing members of other such traditions. This seemed and seems to me a worthy and interesting topic to think about. I'm sorry that the strength of Mr. Cohen's emotions makes it impossible for him to see its value. He would do well to read Heim's book, preferably in a calmer state of mind.

Babbitt and Religion

As a long-time student of Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) I am well familiar with the hostility directed against him by the intellectual powers-that- be since the early decades of the century. Only recently has the resurgence of interest in Babbitt's books and the expanding scholarly literature mitigated a tradition of often willful misrepresentation.

Gertrude Himmelfarb's "The Christian University: A Call to Counterrevolution" (January) presents a new and rather odd example of blatant distortion. Professor Himmelfarb cites Babbitt as a culprit in the secularization of the university, which was brought about, she contends, far less by "the idea of 'science'" than by "the idea of 'culture.'" The latter idea was a product of "the philosophy of rationalism" and was espoused in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries by certain "humanists," Babbitt prominent among them. These educators and intellectuals "thought that science . . . was as inimical to a liberal education as was religion."

To save space I have to forego broadly challenging this theory of secularization and its sweeping use of general terms. I must concentrate on the absurdly misleading depiction of Babbitt. It may be noted in passing that viewing him as a chief agent of the secularization of the university would make that development a rather recent phenomenon. Scholars would also have to abandon their view of Babbitt as an embattled intellectual outsider.

Let me respond only briefly to the curious allegation that Babbitt found science "inimical" to liberal education. He actually argued against traditionalist resistance to the critical spirit of modern science, saying that "one should . . . welcome the effort of the man of science at his best."

But Professor Himmelfarb's readers probably noted with particular interest her summary assessment of the allegedly secularizing intellectuals: "Some of these humanists were unbelievers, but they were not (except perhaps for Babbitt) aggressively antireligious."

Aggressively antireligious? Irving Babbitt? Are there no limits to what can be alleged against this man?

Fully demonstrating the gross inaccuracy of Professor Himmelfarb's depiction would be a matter of quoting Babbitt at length and citing relevant scholarship, including my own. Here, it may be said first that Babbitt considered himself to be not merely a friend but a defender of religion and that he was so regarded by devout Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and others who knew his work. In 1924 he wrote that eventually "the Catholic Church may perhaps be the only institution left in the Occident that can be counted on to uphold civilized standards." Babbitt did not preach to the choir, however, but tried to persuade honest modern skeptics and seekers who would reject a merely traditional approach to ethics and religion. Although he kept his distance from literalistic and dogmatic belief (which made T. S. Eliot, the Christian convert, uneasy), he emphatically affirmed and extensively wrote about the experiential reality of religion. The long essay that accompanies his translation from Pali of The Dhammapada, the Buddhist holy text, is one important example.

Babbitt saw it as his primary mission to explore the humanistic import of the transcendent power that he called the "inner check" or the "higher will." Yet he repeatedly stressed that this will has an "otherworldly," distinctively religious manifestation as well as a more "worldly," humanistic one. The power that should govern human life is, Babbitt insists, "ultimately divine." Taking care that his main emphasis on issues of aesthetics, ethics, and civilization not be misunderstood, he wrote, "I am not setting up humanism as a substitute for religion." He made clear that in a debate between naturalists and supernaturalists, he ranged himself "unhesitatingly on the side of the supernaturalists."

Although Babbitt's thought can be difficult, what he believed can be ascertained by actually reading what he wrote, something his critics have been strangely reluctant to do. . . .

Claes G. Ryn
Department of Politics
Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C.

Gertrude Himmelfarb replies:

I regret that Professor Ryn's passionate devotion to Irving Babbitt caused him to misread my remarks about him.

First, his letter makes it sound as if I had made Babbitt a "culprit" and "chief agent" of the secularization of the university. In fact I have only two passing references to him in my essay. The first has Babbitt "and other luminaries of American intellectual life" endorsing Matthew Arnold's definition of culture, "the best which has been thought and said in the world"-a comment that is indisputable (see Babbitt's essay on Arnold in The Spanish Character), and that certainly displays no hostility on my part; on the contrary, Arnold's definition is one I heartily endorse.

The second is the parenthetical reference to Babbitt as among the humanists who were unbelievers, but "not (except perhaps for Babbitt) aggressively antireligious." The "perhaps" modifies the "aggressively," and if I had been writing at greater length about Babbitt, I would have explained that his humanism was meant to be a spiritual alternative to any dogmatic, institutional religion based upon theology or divine revelation. This is why he was so well disposed to Buddhism, which he admired as "the least mythological of religions."

Professor Ryn quotes Babbitt's remark about the Catholic Church perhaps eventually upholding "civilized standards." But there is another famous remark he does not quote which may warrant the word "aggressively." "There is the enemy!" Babbitt told his great friend and fellow humanist, Paul Elmer More, when they were taking a walk and passed a church. "There is the thing I hate!"

Professor Ryn misquotes and therefore distorts my references to science. He omits two important clauses in the sentence he cites. What I wrote was that humanists "thought that science (or too heavy a dose of science) was as inimical to a liberal education as was religion (or too sectarian a religion)." (I've italicized the omitted phrases.) There is no question that that sentence, as I wrote it, accurately reflects Babbitt's views. (Here too he was entirely in agreement with Matthew Arnold.) Babbitt's Literature and the American College (published in 1908, the period I was speaking about) was an indictment of the two evils that he associated with democratic culture: romanticism, deriving from Rousseau who is said to have encouraged the excesses of individualism and the subversion of standards; and science, epitomized by Darwinism, which Babbitt believed to be materialistic and naturalistic, thus a denial of man's higher nature.

This kind of humanism, I made it clear, was only the first stage (and a relatively innocuous one) in the secularization of the university. It is in its later stages that a political agenda has replaced a religious one, that secularism has proved hostile not only to particular religions but to the very idea of religion, and that the "death of truth" is trumpeted together with the "death of God."

A Wall of Our Own

John Rodden's report ("Hard to Remember," January) of his encounter with German history teacher Frau Hintze's struggles to free her mind from the tyranny of Marxist groupthink was moving and chilling, especially the memorable line, "The Wall was in our head."

As I was reading this piece my anticipation for what seemed to me the obvious and ironic punch line grew-but it never came. Consider the following quotations: "I never really took seriously any oppositional viewpoint. . . . It was 'incorrect.' " "Only one opinion on a topic reigned. . . . I didn't take into account other opinions." "We were directed in our course of studies in college to think a certain way. Too many teachers . . . teach ideologically. . . . [They don't] foster independence of mind and awareness of other viewpoints." And perhaps the saddest: "I just wasn't strong enough to pursue the truth. . . . By cutting us off from the truth, [the nation] made cowards of us all."

Bunched together like this, don't these lines provide a fitting description of the American academy today?

John Bolt
Calvin Theological Seminary
Grand Rapids, MI

Once-Born, Twice-Born

James Nuechterlein's "Starting Over" (January) was so thoughtful and perceptive that it seems mere quibbling to take issue with it. I did have a problem, however, with the implications of some of his statements. I have experienced one of those "radical transformations," those "miracles of grace," that Mr. Nuechterlein says are "not the norm." Over a period of years, I underwent a radical conversion from being a hedonistic skeptic to being a born-again Christian. This transformation has affected my whole outlook, and it has led to dramatic moral changes in my life.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James identified two basic types of religious temperament, what he called the "once-born" and the "twice-born." Once-born and twice-born people cannot understand each other: the once-born tend to find the twice-born neurotic and unstable, while the twice-born find the once-born dull and shallow. Mr. Nuechterlein's article seems to me to be a beautifully written expression of the once-born way of looking at things, which is why I suppose I tend to find it problematic.

I don't know how common radical transformations or miracles of grace really are. I am a pastor of a mainline Protestant church, and I find that most of my congregants find the notion of being "born again" rather incomprehensible. But I suspect that miracles of grace are far more common that most of us realize. . . .

We need to be able to offer hope to desperate, despairing people. For people who already have their act pretty much together, Mr. Nuechterlein's wisdom is helpful. But for those who are trapped in drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual sin, skepticism, or other forms of bondage to Satan, only the miracle of God's grace can save them. . . .

(The Rev.) David J. Armstrong
St. John's United Church of Christ
Egg Harbor City, NJ