The Public Square

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 74 (June/July 1997): 68-86.

This month: 

Rancho Santa Fe and the Culture of Death

No doubt many preachers on Easter Sunday referred to the thirty-nine suicides of Rancho Santa Fe in order to set forth, by way of sharpest contrast, the Christian understanding of body, soul, and life eternal. At least I hope they did. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the press and airwaves were clogged with the usual socio-psychobabble, and of course the "cult experts" got another turn in front of the cameras. "Experts on cult behavior," says the editorial in the New York Times, will help us understand "the underlying pathology that led such seemingly bright and articulate people to a tragic misjudgment." Misjudgment is an interesting term in this connection. Oops, forget the bit about suicide.

"Some find it shocking that a technically gifted group, earning its keep by designing web sites for businesses, could fall prey to aberrational beliefs that blended far-out science fiction with elements of Christianity," write the editors. "But technical expertise," they go on to note, "is no proof against bizarre beliefs," and they cite as evidence people who have a view of creation that differs from evolutionary dogma despite their "backgrounds in engineering or other technical subjects." Cults differ from "mainstream faiths," we are told, because the latter have ways of controlling such craziness. "Resurrection, the meaninglessness of the flesh, the primacy of the spirit, the conversion from the physical to the heavenly plane are features of several faiths. But the crucial safety brake in most theologies is that the believer himself cannot choose the moment of ascension. Only the central deity can do that."

Christianity and Judaism are supposedly big on "the central deity." In biblical faith, resurrection, far from being linked to "the meaningless of the flesh," is precisely resurrection of the flesh. The editors refer to the "ad hoc mumbo-jumbo" of the cultists even as they display their embarrassing ignorance of biblical basics. As celebrants of multiculturalism, the editors may protest that they cannot limit themselves to biblical faith, since, after all, it has no higher claim on their attention than that it is the religious connection of more than 90 percent of the population and the religio-moral foundation of Western Civilization. Forbid that it should be "privileged" and thus run the risk of violating the "no establishment" clause of the editors’ First Commandment. Better to toss Judaism and Christianity into the mish-mash of generalized religion for which "mainstream faiths," fortunately, provide a measure of control.

A piquant touch is the editors’ worry about cult figures who "convince the weak and wounded that he or she has acquired the godlike power to set the date and destination of life’s last journey." This from an editorial page that leads the pack in calling for doctor-assisted suicide as an essential component of "death with dignity." Were the editors not impressed by the videotaped dignity, calm, and downright cheerfulness of the Santa Fe suicides who were, as the jargon has it, freely choosing to take ultimate charge of their own lives? As to their presuming to set their destination, surely the editors cannot complain about that, since they so strongly agree with the Supreme Court dictum in Casey that there is no higher truth than "the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."

Why shouldn’t people set their own date and destination? It is their constitutional right. A case can be made that, in their rejection of authoritative tradition, in their fascination with novel spiritualities and high-tech expertise, and in the assertion of a right to control their lives and deaths, the suicides of Heaven’s Gate exemplify the "mainstream faith" of the Times’ editorial page.

One notes the coincidence that Santa Fe means "holy faith," and, like gnostics of all centuries including our own, the devotees of Heaven’s Gate twisted snatches of Christian faith into a doctrine of contempt for life and for the body, the latter being no more than a "physical container" that is to be discarded on the way to the "Level Above Human." In Christian doctrine, there is for human beings no level above human. In the Incarnation, God became man, thus investing our humanity with infinite worth. In the words of the second-century Irenaeus, "The glory of God is man fully alive."

Allegedly enlightened folk ridicule the Church’s concern for orthodox teaching, ignoring the fact that wrong beliefs lead to deadly consequences. The Times refers to the "psychiatric-spiritual saga" of the suicides. Psychiatry is the first and last resort of the mandarins of what Philip Rieff called the therapeutic society. The thirty-nine men and women at Rancho Santa Fe were in fact acting in accord with a not entirely incoherent, although dreadfully false, belief system. As the late mythologist Joseph Campbell would put it, they were "following their bliss."

In its essential assumptions, theirs is the belief system of what John Paul II has aptly called the culture of death. They are assumptions regularly promulgated by the editorial page of the New York Times. This is not to say that the editors approve of what was done in Rancho Santa Fe. Clearly, they do not. It deeply offends their sensibilities. They go so far as to call it a tragedy. But they have divested themselves of the language required to say why it was wrong.

The Most Intense Competition

In the many years of the Dulles Colloquium, there have been few sessions more scintillating and intellectually rewarding than a recent day with René Girard. As regular readers know, Girard is something of a cult figure among a large number of literary critics, philosophers, and theologians (see J. Bottum’s "Girard Among the Girardians," March 1996). He insists that he does not have a "system," but all kinds of people persist in trying to systematically fit everything under the sun into his key ideas about "mimetic desire" and "sacred violence." There is even a "journal of violence, mimesis, and culture" that is aptly and strikingly named Contagion. The following excerpt is from Girard’s essay in a recent issue on "Eating Disorders and Mimetic Desire," in which he contends that anorexia and bulimia are driven by a cultural obsession with being thin.

"Our thinness hysteria is unique, no doubt, because it is inseparable from our unique brand of radical and radically self-defeating ‘individualism,’ but some features of our current behavior are duplicated in other cultures, for instance in the famous potlatch of the American Northwest. The great American sociologist Thorstein Veblen was already aware of this fact and, in his Theory of the Leisure Class, he discussed the potlatch within the context of what he calls conspicuous consumption. Showing off one’s wealth has always seemed important to the nouveau riche type everywhere, and in our world there have never been as many nouveaux riches as in America. Being immigrants, or children of immigrants, these people could not pretend they came from old and prestigious families; money was the sole instrument of their snobbery. When the wealthy become accustomed to their own wealth, straight conspicuous consumption loses its appeal and the nouveaux riches turn into anciens riches. They perceive this change as the summum of cultural refinement and they do their best to make it as conspicuous as the former consumption. They invent a conspicuous nonconsumption, therefore, superficially discontinuous with the attitude it supersedes but, at a deeper level, it is a mimetic escalation of the same process. In our society, conspicuous nonconsumption is present in many areas, in clothes for instance. The torn blue jeans, the ill-fitting jacket, the baggy pants, the refusal to dress up, are forms of conspicuous nonconsumption.

"The politically correct reading of this phenomenon is that the rich young people regard their own superior buying power with a feeling of guilt, and they desire, if not to be poor, at least to look poor. This interpretation is too idealistic. The real purpose is a calculated indifference to clothes, an ostentatious rejection of ostentation. The message is ‘I am beyond a certain type of consumption. I cultivate more esoteric pleasures than the crowd.’ To abstain voluntarily from something, no matter what, is the ultimate demonstration that one is superior to that something and to those who covet it. The wealthier we are, the more precious the objects must be for which we deign to compete. Very rich people no longer compare themselves through the mediation of clothes, automobiles, or even houses. The more wealthy we are, in other words, the less grossly materialistic we can afford to be in a hierarchy of competitive games that become more and more rarefied as the escalation continues. Ultimately this process may turn into a complete rejection of competition, which is not always but may be the most intense competition of all."

Mature Advertising for Mature Audiences

The following story is from Advertising Age:

Pontifical Council Sets Guidelines for Making Ads
Vatican values leave U.S. admen unimpressed
By Carol Krol
Even before they’ve actually seen the Vatican’s new handbook stating what makes good and bad advertising, those who create ads are questioning its relevance.
"I think the Catholic Church has enough problems and they shouldn’t be worried about advertising," said Donny Deutsch, CEO Deutsch, New York. "They should stick to religion, and we’ll stick to advertising."
"It’s all well and good for Roman Catholics, but not for the rest of us. You can’t really dictate that sort of thing in a multicultural society like the U.S.," said Diana Loguzzo, U.S. marketing manager for Diesel Clothing.
In the making since 1993 (AA, Sept. 6, ’93), the Pontifical Council for Social Communications’ "Ethics in Advertising" handbook outlines the abuses and potential for harm of some advertising.
The guidelines reportedly acknowledge that advertising can be informative and entertaining but denounce shocking, exploitative ads.
While the handbook hasn’t yet been circulated widely in the U.S., the ad community seems unimpressed.
"I think [the handbook] is more of the kind of lecturing authoritarian nonsense that will put people off, particularly young adults and I think that’s a shame particularly these days when they need to be careful," said Martin Macdonald, managing partner-executive creative director at Wes-Wayne, Atlanta. "How many more teenage mothers and how much more does the incidence of AIDS have to rise before the boys in the Vatican, and they are all boys, wake up?"
Pope John Paul II is "taking the rules that have governed man and applying them to advertising.. . . I think he’s crossing over the line a little bit," said Laurence Boschetto, partner and exec VP-director of account services at Adler Boschetto Peebles & Partners, New York, who was a Christian Brother and has an undergraduate degree in theology. "I have one question for the Church: If we don’t abide by these laws that they put out, are we in the ad community doomed forever?"
John Nieman, vice chairman-chief creative officer at D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, said: "Any religious group has a right to communicate their views, but I don’t think you can stop the free flow of information."
One adman, Kevin O’Neill, president-chief creative officer of Warwick Baker O’Neill, isn’t taking it too seriously.
"As a graduate of Holy Innocents Grammar School in Brooklyn," he said, "I should’ve guessed that one day I’d be showing my storyboards to the Pope."

With his permission, here is a letter to the editor by Kenneth Woodward, senior writer at Newsweek. It is, I think, right on the button:

To the Editors of Advertising Age:
I haven’t seen the Vatican’s "Ethics In Advertising" handbook either, but from your brief summary of it, it sounds like common sense to me. Not so the puerile comments you collected from industry executives, all of whom strike me as folks who could use whatever ethical guidelines they can find.
Donny Deutsch’s notion that the Church should stick to religion and leave advertising to the likes of him might make sense if advertising—or any business—were free of ethical choices and moral effects. His view is a straight-faced echo of the old bombastic line, "The business of America is business." Back to school, Donny.
Diana Loguzzo, a marketing manager, presumes the Church is trying to "dictate" what a "multicultural society" should do. But guidelines by definition don’t "dictate," Diana, and last I looked the Roman Catholic Church was the most "multicultural" society in the world—more so, certainly, than the American advertising community. Watch clichés masquerading as thoughts, Diana.
Martin McDonald’s jibes at the Church’s sexual ethics are adolescent and beside the point—as if the Church were somehow more responsible for "teenage mothers" and "AIDS" than those who use sex to sell everything from cars to jeans. McDonald would be out of a job if advertising began to preach any form of self-restraint.
Laurence Boschetto proves that an undergraduate in theology is still an undergraduate. Yes, Laurence, you just may someday be held morally accountable for the work you do, like everyone else. No wonder you’re a former Christian Brother.
John Nieman labors under the illusion that advertising provides "information." Tell me, John, just what is the message of Calvin Klein’s exploitative underwear ads?
Kevin O’Neill demonstrates he is still a Holy Innocent. I doubt the Pope would be interested in your storyboards, Kevin. He is asking that you consider more than the client and the bottom line when you do your "creative" work.
As for Advertising Age, what sort of jejune journalism is it to solicit comments on a document that neither the interviewers or the interviewees have seen? Your age (adolescence) is showing.
Kenneth L. Woodward
Senior Writer

Hollywood Notwithstanding, Free Tibet

The actor Richard Gere has been the key player in lining up Hollywood to back the Dalai Lama and the cause of freeing Tibet from China’s oppression. Four movies on the subject are in the works, and benefits for Tibet feature such glitteraties as Harrison Ford, Sharon Stone, Steven Seagal, and Shirley MacLaine. China scholar Orville Schell says, "Tibet is going to enter Western popular culture as something can only when Hollywood does the entertainment injection into the world system. Hollywood is the most powerful force in the world, besides the U.S. military." That is surely among the more dismal thoughts of the decade.

In the late 1970s Tibet was not a fashionable cause, for it was suspected of being associated with that most unfashionable of causes, anticommunism. I was connected with what was then called the Council on Religion and International Affairs and became interested in Tibet. I was for a time the Dalai Lama’s man in New York, introducing him and his cause to people who might be helpful. A highlight was arranging an evening for Tibet at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Prior to the event, calls were going back and forth with Rome to make sure that what was said did not compromise Catholic doctrine by religious syncretism. The cathedral was packed, and the next day the New York Times had a big picture of the Dalai Lama and Terence Cardinal Cooke sitting side by side in the chancel and holding hands. The hand-holding was the Dalai Lama’s idea, and a somewhat embarrassed Cardinal Cooke did not want to appear unfriendly.

After the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and the likes of Shirley MacLaine turned him into a New-Ageish celebrity, I have had moments of ambivalence about my small part in all this. Says Melissa Mathison, wife of Harrison Ford and screenwriter of one of the movies, "The fascination is the search for the third eye. Americans are hoping for some sort of magical door into the mystical, thinking that there’s some mysterious reason for things, a cosmic explanation." That’s how Americans in Hollywood talk. "Tibet offers the most extravagant expression of the mystical," she says, and when people meet the Dalai Lama "you can see on their faces that they’re hoping to get this hit that will transcend their lives, take them someplace else." Cocaine or Tibetan mysticism, it’s the hit that counts.

My experience with the Dalai Lama suggests that he is more than a little amused by such spiritualistic gibberish and sensation-mongering, but he is masterful in garnering support where he can get it. Which is to his credit, for his cause is just. So I swallow hard and, Hollywood glitzmeisters notwithstanding, am pleased to be counted in the cause of a free Tibet.

Deep, Critical Reflection on the Education Front

"Character education" programs in public schools come in for a drubbing by Alfie Kohn, writing in Phi Delta Kappan, a publication for professional educators. It seems these programs are "designed to make children work harder and do what they’re told." "Even when other values are also promoted—caring or fairness, say—the preferred method of instruction is tantamount to indoctrination. The point is to drill students in specific behaviors rather than to engage them in deep, critical reflection about certain ways of being." No wonder Mr. Kohn is upset. There are few things more creative than a fourth grader engaged in deep, critical reflection about ways of being.

Character educators also encourage competition and give out awards for achievement. As Mr. Kohn complains: "When some children are singled out as ‘winners,’ the central message that every child learns is this: ‘Other people are potential obstacles to my success.’" Even worse, character education fosters self-restraint. "This is noteworthy," Kohn writes, "because the virtue of self-restraint—or at least the decision to give special emphasis to it—has historically been preached by those, from St. Augustine to the present, who see people as basically sinful." I think he got the character educators there. The texts on character education, says Kohn, "describe religious dogma, not scientific fact." Scientific fact "supports the idea that it is as ‘natural’ for children to help as to hurt." Ask any parent.

Then Mr. Kohn gets to the heart of the matter: "Character education rests on three ideological legs: behaviorism, conservatism, and religion. Of these, the third raises the most delicate issues for a critic; it is here that the charge of ad hominem argument is most likely to be raised. So let us be clear: it is of no relevance that almost all of the leading proponents of character education are devout Catholics. But it is entirely relevant that, in the shadows of their writings, there lurks the assumption that only religion can serve as the foundation for good character. (William Bennett, for example, has flatly asserted that the difference between right and wrong cannot be taught ‘without reference to religion.’) It is appropriate to consider the personal beliefs of these individuals if those beliefs are ensconced in the movement they have defined and directed. What they do on Sundays is their own business, but if they are trying to turn our public schools into Sunday schools, that becomes everybody’s business." The fact that leading proponents of character education (e.g., Kevin Ryan and William Kilpatrick) are Catholics "is of no relevance," but Mr. Kohn thought he would mention it just the same because "it is appropriate to consider the personal beliefs of these individuals." Now if only somebody somewhere along the line had "indoctrinated" Mr. Kohn and the editors of Phi Delta Kappan in the basics of clear thinking rather than letting them muddle toward adulthood in their befuddled engagement with deep, critical reflection about ways of being.

Schindler’s Complaint

It’s hard to know how best to respond to David Schindler’s new book. It’s a real grab-bag of arguments and complaints, as is suggested by the title, Heart of the World, Center of the Church: Communio Ecclesiology, Liberalism, and Liberation. Schindler, a professor at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., tackles what has gone wrong with Catholic higher education, technical disputes over Thomist understandings of "person," and the necessarily feminine-marian disposition of society to God’s grace, among other subjects. But the gravamen of the book is a renewed attack on "Catholic liberals," "conservative liberals," and "neoconservatives," which terms are used interchangeably to refer to Michael Novak, George Weigel, and your scribe, all of whom are, according to Schindler, following in the mistaken path charted by the late Father John Courtney Murray. Our fatal error, says Schindler, is to try to make Catholic teaching compatible with the American liberal regime that claims to be neutral toward religion but is in fact fraught with anthropological and even theological presuppositions that inevitably produce secularist decadence and, finally, what John Paul II calls "the culture of death."

Although the indictment is of many parts and typically expressed in arcane philosophical and theological terminology, the upshot is a sweeping charge that the Neuhaus-Weigel-Novak gang (sometimes Novak-Weigel-Neuhaus), while perceived as championing Catholic teaching and this pontificate in particular, is in fact selling out the store to liberalism. I say it’s hard to know how to respond, in part because Mr. Schindler is a personable fellow and, as I said in an article last month, every time we discuss these matters personally he declares himself reassured that we have no substantive disagreements, but then he returns to the attack, as in the present book.

"The burden of the present book," he writes, "is to suggest that liberalism cannot so easily claim the moral authority of Catholicism, and, at the same time, to indicate why an increasing liberal hegemony throughout the world should be viewed not altogether with favor but, on the contrary, with a certain alarm." Well, yes, if, like Schindler, one puts the worst possible construction on liberalism—meaning the American founding, liberal democracy, and market economics. And that is what Schindler tends to do. Liberalism is condemned tout court as a dogmatic system premised upon radical individualism, the autonomous self, calculated self-interest, and human creativity as opposed to receptivity to God’s grace. In sum, Schindler starts out by agreeing with those who construe the liberal tradition—and its chief historical instantiation, the American experiment—along rigorously secularist and un-Christian (maybe anti-Christian) lines. Those of us who defend the "Murray Project" might easily turn around and charge Schindler with selling out the American store to the enemies of the faith. I am not about to join him in giving up the argument and letting Laurance Tribe or the ACLU define the meaning of liberal democracy.

But some of the questions raised are too important to be content with exchanges of tu quoque. For instance, the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus says that the Church does not offer a "third way" between socialism (what Schindler calls liberationism) and democratic capitalism (what he calls neoconservative liberalism), and Schindler says he agrees. The Church, he writes, does not offer a third way as a specific social-political system, but: "My argument is that the Church nonetheless does offer such a third way as an ecclesiology; and that this ecclesiology, of its very essence as an ecclesiology, is destined to transform both socialism and democratic capitalism."

This new ecclesiology, or doctrine of the Church, goes by the name of communio, which is also the name of an international theological journal founded by such as Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar. (Schindler is editor of the English edition.) The neoconservatives, he charges, are engaged in a "con game" of reconciling liberalism with Catholicism in which they utilize a defective understanding of the Church, and also of the world, "because they have failed to understand the persons of Mary, Christ, and the Trinity as they are analogously revealed in spousal union, eucharist, and communio." In their writings the neocons, Schindler believes, water down Catholic truth in order to gain public acceptance, thus failing to offer a "unified Gospel spirituality." There is, writes Schindler, "a single basic spirituality for all Christians, and Mary is the model of that spirituality. Or, as Balthasar puts it: the marian fiat is the Urakt: the primary or originating act that serves as the ground of all Christian life and action." Any argument that fails to make that explicit is, in his view, less than authentically Catholic.

Schindler says the NWN gang, following Murray, claim that they are engaged in public discourse and therefore must make their arguments accessible to all reasonable persons, irrespective of their theological convictions or lack thereof. That, according to Schindler, is just the problem. A full-bore, undiluted presentation of Catholic truth is unapologetically aimed at converting people to that truth. He asks, "Would not an ethic that held less demand for conversion have a greater chance for widespread success?" He does not deny that, but simply responds by quoting Balthasar that "success is not a Gospel category."

So much for the task of trying to construct a comprehensive public discourse based upon reason and moral law. Attempting that is a liberal delusion, according to Schindler. It is worse than futile; it inevitably results in a betrayal of the fullness of the truth. Schindler’s position is in key respects a Catholic version of the position of R. J. Rushdoony and the theonomists among Calvinists and of Stanley Hauerwas in his more intemperate moments. In their view, a genuinely public discourse is an oxymoron. Although they may use the same words, between Christian and non-Christian (maybe, for Schindler, between Catholic and non-Catholic) there is no commensurable discourse. The Catholic intellectual should simply bear witness to the fullness of truth in the hope of converting others to it. Although he denies it, Schindler is, like the theonomists, disposed toward a monism that cannot abide the pluralism that is history before the End Time.

With David Schindler, I am a great admirer of Balthasar, and of his other theological heroes, such as Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II), Ratzinger, and de Lubac. We have no disagreement that the entirety of all that is must be understood in terms of the communio of the Church and, ultimately, in terms of human destiny in the communio of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—so that, in the words of St. Paul, it may become manifest that in Christ "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross." (Colossians 1)

Have all my writings and public statements—or those of Murray, Novak, and Weigel—communicated as effectively as they might have these core Christological and ecclesiological truths? It would be ridiculous to claim there is no room for criticism. That said, however, Schindler fails to recognize the ways in which Christian truth can be spoken in an American idiom that respects the sensibilities of our cultural context. Such is his animus against what he calls Anglo-American liberalism—and against the popular religion that attends it—that anything short of a direct assault upon it is a betrayal of Catholic truth.

I also confess to being a mite irritated when informed that I do not understand that the alleged neutrality of liberalism is typically not neutral toward religion. I wrote a book on that which received some little attention. It was called The Naked Public Square. And no one can fairly claim that that argument has been neglected over the years by this journal. There is, as well, a certain piquancy in being accused of uncritically baptizing American democracy while others are accusing me of "anti-Americanism" and subversion for raising the question of the legitimacy of judge-made law that violates the moral law and reflects contempt for the consent of the governed.

As John Paul II has repeatedly asserted, Catholic theology must be like St. Paul in the Areopagus, constantly teasing out and bringing to fulfillment the truths and half-truths present in the culture. That is what John Courtney Murray and many others have tried to do with Anglo-American liberalism and, more particularly, the American social and political experiment. Schindler will have none of it. Rather than, like St. Paul, declaring the true God to whom the "altar to an unknown god" is implicitly directed (Acts 17), Schindler demands that we join him in railing against the idolaters. As a consequence, he ends up undercutting the comprehensive (catholic and Catholic) nature of the Gospel he espouses. Positioned in such antithesis to culture, Catholicism begins to look very much like a sect, which I am sure is not what Schindler intends.

Moreover, he fails to see that direct evangelization through the reiteration of his favored theological formulas is not the only form of service to God and neighbor. Christians also serve who work at establishing a public moral discourse, knowing that all truth is ultimately one, and knowing also that many people will not be converted to the fullness of that truth in communio with Christ and his Church. Maybe Schindler is right and I should be editing a journal of Catholic apologetics and evangelization rather than "a journal of religion and public life." But that is not what God (I believe) and my bishop (I know) want me to do. While one should always receive intelligent and well-intended reproaches with gratitude, Heart of the World, Center of the Church could do with more respect for the integrity of diverse vocations.

A blurb on the dust jacket announces that the book "establishes David Schindler as the American Balthasar." Well, not quite. He is a serious student of Balthasar and, despite his abstruse and technical language, he provides useful insights to Balthasar’s thought. For a more accessible introduction to Balthasar, however, I recommend Edward Oakes’ splendid book The Pattern of Redemption, which has received extended attention in these pages. Strikingly unlike Schindler, Balthasar was very much an ecumenical theologian, as witness his magnificent interpretation of Karl Barth. Also, and again very much unlike Schindler, Balthasar was sympathetically and imaginatively engaged with his culture, illuminating with loving care the theological significance of the literature, music, philosophy, and social experience of Europe. That is what, if there is ever to be one, an "American Balthasar" will do in this cultural context. Meanwhile, we have David Schindler, who is no little gift. I look forward to our next amicable discussion, and brace myself for his next attack. (Readers interested in pursuing further these agreements and disagreements can obtain a videotape of a series of television dialogues between Dr. Schindler and myself that might serve as a provocative topic for study groups. $19.95 plus $3 s/h from The Christopher Shop, St. Charles Seminary, 100 East Wynnewood Road, Wynnewood, PA 19096; Phone: 610-667-9112.)

A Judeo-Christian Tradition?

With a fair degree of regularity we refer to the "Judeo-Christian tradition" in these pages, and just as regularly we receive letters questioning the appropriateness of the phrase. One response is that we are referring to a common moral tradition rather than a common religious tradition, although that is not entirely satisfactory since morality and religion cannot be so neatly separated. Matthew Parris takes up the question in the Spectator of London, provoked by a book by Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Dr. Jonathan Sacks, who regularly refers to "Judeo-Christian" values. "Dr. Sacks is not just off-target, he is 180 degrees out," says Parris. "The Judeo-Christian tradition is secular and draws its courage from the skepticism of Jews towards their old religion, and of Christians toward theirs." The proper name for the tradition in question, says Parris, is liberalism.

Parris goes further. He thinks a case can be made for a Judeo-Islamic tradition, since, among other similarities, both are unitarian rather than trinitarian, both believe in the ideal of a theocracy, and both are iconoclastic and opposed to the veneration of sacred objects. In the same way, he says, a case can be made for a Christian-Islamic tradition, since, unlike Judaism, they are not tied to "racial self-consciousness or blood-inheritance," and therefore try to convert the nations. "Finally," writes Parris, "though Judaism has its mystics it is by instinct suspicious of persons claiming divine inspiration. But Christianity and Islam were born in ‘witness’ (by Christ and Muhammad) and are impressed by new instances. Both are (in the polite sense) hysterical religions, where Judaism can sound like an immensely wise highway code. Both (unlike Judaism) have been attended by alleged miracles. Both (especially, in Islam, the Shi’ites) have a central place for passion. Though Islam and Christianity have often fought, they are fighting for similar ground. Judaism is in many ways, the odd one out."

In sum, the talk about Judeo-Christian values is the language of secular liberalism. "Properly understood, the two religions and their values are so very different. Yet the two peoples—if peoples we be—are no longer very different. It is easy to explain why. In Europe, most modern Christians and most modern Jews no longer take their religions very seriously. It is in our escape from our respective faiths, not in our adherence to them, that European Jews and European Christians find shared values and can speak of a common tradition. We come from two utterly different places but we are now traveling together. We are both traveling away from our ancient faiths."

Mr. Parris is no doubt right in thinking that some who speak about a Judeo-Christian tradition are in flight from both Judaism and Christianity. But this does not explain the fact that there are intellectually astute and religiously serious Jews and Christians who also speak of a Judeo-Christian tradition. The usage reflects the degree, commonly slighted by secularists, to which Western culture has been shaped by biblical religion. Admittedly, the influence was and is overwhelmingly Christian, but in this century, and especially in the last fifty years, there has been a genuine discovery by Christians of the irrevocably Jewish character of Jesus and the faith of his followers. In terms of substantive belief, historical experience, and present cultural reality, the Christian connection with Islam is in no way comparable, and is in most respects antithetical. In Romans 9 through 11, for example, it is true that St. Paul does not speak of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but only because it would have been inconceivable to him that Jesus the Christ could be separated from the Jewish story of salvation.

Mr. Parris suspects that the phrase Judeo-Christian began in America "as a way of saying ‘Christian values’ without leaving Jewish people out." It is a matter of manners. There is no doubt truth in that as well. I hear a good many Christians speak of "Judeo-Christian values" who have in no way internalized the theological and historical bonds between Judaism and Christianity. On the other hand, good manners—as in civility—are not to be despised. At a much deeper level, however, the unprecedented development in this century is that many committed Jews and Christians have come to understand that they share one story. For many reasons, this could happen only in America. Neither in Europe nor in Israel has the relationship between Jews and Christians made possible the kind of dialogue we know here.

There are many disagreements between Jews and Christians, most notably the disagreement over the identity of Jesus as the promised Messiah. The fact remains, however, that, while talk about a Judeo-Christian tradition may in some cases be no more than Christian politesse or secularist fudging, it most importantly reflects a discovery of the continuing significance of what St. Paul meant when he said that Gentile Christians are the branch grafted on to the root of God’s covenant with Abraham. The truth is that when Christians view Judaism as "the odd one out," they remove themselves from the story of redemption. But those who, like Mr. Parris, have "escaped" from their Christianity cannot be expected to understand that.

While We’re At It

Sources: New York Times editorial on cults, March 30, 1997. René Girard on anorexia and bulimia, Contagion, Spring 1996. On Vatican handbook about advertising, Advertising Age, March 3, 1997. China scholar Orville Schell on Tibet, New York Times, March 18, 1997. Alfie Kohn on character education, Phi Delta Kappan, February 1997. Matthew Parris on Judeo-Christian tradition, Spectator, March 8, 1997.

While We’re At It: Archbishop Harry Flynn on HLI, press release from Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Mark Lawson review of BBC film, Tablet, December 14, 1996. Roger Shattuck’s Forbidden Knowledge reviewed by Robert Alter in Times Literary Supplement, December 13, 1996. On parents telling children not to talk to strangers, Prager Perspective, December 15, 1996. Robert D. Linder on President Clinton’s civil religion, Journal of Church and State, Autumn 1996. Doe v. Bolton plaintiff Sandra Cano quoted, Washington Times, January 22, 1997. On Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue, New Directions, January 1997. William McGurn on Japanese demographics, Nikkei Weekly, January 27, 1997. Frank Johnson essay "The Tony Party at Prayer," Spectator, July 6, 1996. Gary Potter column quoted in Sursum Corda, Spring 1996. On religious affiliations of new Congress, Insight (newsletter edition, from National Association of Evangelicals), February 1997. Der Spiegel survey on religion in the former East Germany, cited in Religion Watch, February 1997. Robert D. Truog on "abstract theoretical concerns" in definition of death, Hastings Center Report, January-February 1997. On Frances Kissling and CFFC, National Catholic Register, February 9-15, 1997. On abortion trauma, New York Times, February 12, 1997 and personal correspondence with Dr. David C. Reardon. On "abortion-free zone," Bellevile News-Democrat, February 3, 1997. Randall Balmer and William A. Galston on President Clinton in E Pluribus Unum? A Symposium on Pluralism and Public Policy, published by the American Jewish Committee. On After Christianity by Daphne Hampson, publications catalogue of Trinity Press International, Spring-Summer 1997. Sister Mary Ann McGivern on economics and mass transit, Our Church Week, February 9, 1997. On ABC News, attack against Amish, news release from the Rev. William C. Lindhom of National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom, February 27, 1997. Paul Gigot on effort to limit judicial activism, Wall Street Journal, March 7, 1997. Alta Charo on cloning human beings, quoted by Linda Chavez column in Washington Times, March 6, 1997. Vice President Gore quoted on Carl Sagan, New York Times, February 28, 1997. Interview with Mary Robinson, Commonweal, March 14, 1997. Michael O. Garvey review of various books on Catholic theology, Commonweal, March 14, 1997. Archbishop George Carey quoted on the morality of sex outside of marriage, Washington Times, March 4, 1997. On New Jersey teenagers charged with murdering their newborn baby, New York Times, March 19, 1997. Mary McGrory on abortion, personal correspondence. A. J. Bacevich on American foreign policy, Crisis, March 1997. Jerry Falwell on Israel, press release from the National Unity Coalition for Israel, March 27, 1997. Linda Chavez on incest in drama, Chicago Tribune, March 26, 1997. Ed Koch criticism of Richard John Neuhaus, New York Post, February 28, 1997. On disparity in Protestant/Catholic giving, America, February 8, 1997. Excerpts from the writing of Colin Welch reprinted in Spectator, February 8, 1997.