Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 84 (June/July 1998): 61-78.
There is the risk of being excessively self-referential, but friends tell me I should respond to this just to keep the record straight. And of course the questions engaged involve many people other than myself. At issue is a very long article in the Winter 1998 issue of that excellent journal Pro Ecclesia written by Scott H. Moore, a philosopher at Baylor University, titled "The End of Convenient Stereotypes: How the First Things and Baxter Controversies Inaugurate Extraordinary Politics." In fact, in the book The End of Democracy? (Spence), I did deal with an earlier unpublished version of Moore’s article. But perhaps some additional points are in order.
Readers may recall that the "Baxter controversy" has to do with Father Michael Baxter, a young theologian who is a disciple of Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University and was appointed to the theology department of the University of Notre Dame against the wishes of most of the faculty. There have been exchanges on that controversy in these pages. Moore is sympathetic to the Baxter-Hauerwas position, and believes, with justice, that the controversy exposed the ideological captivity of the Notre Dame theological establishment to a liberalism that cannot countenance a radically Christian challenge to its form of cultural accommodation, and must therefore try to dismiss someone like Baxter as "sectarian." As for the First Things part of his subtitle, Moore is referring of course to the controversy over "the judicial usurpation of politics," and to the attacks by neoconservatives, notably in Commentary magazine, on arguments appearing in these pages.
Along the way of his argument, Moore intelligently dissects papers given by Gertrude Himmelfarb and myself at the inauguration of a new president at Baylor University. Both of them were published here under the rubric "The Christian University" (January 1996). He is right in seeing that there is a significant difference between Himmelfarb and myself on the place of religion in the Christian university. Himmelfarb respectfully affirms a "role" for religion within the limits of a university that is defined by terms essentially secular and liberal, whereas I propose that a Christian university is one in which all roles are defined by reference to a Christian understanding of the truth that the university is to serve. This is indeed a very important difference, and Moore is right to see in the Baylor papers the source of the disagreement that later erupted in Himmelfarb’s reaction to the FT arguments about judicial usurpation. It is possible that she believes it is illegitimate for religion to challenge the legitimacy of the government, just as it would be illegitimate for religion to challenge the liberal definition of the university. In the case both of higher education and of government, the controlling definition of reality is supplied by liberalism. Within that definition, religion can be tolerated and even celebrated, so long as it is subordinate to the controlling liberal definition.
Moore, however, may be attributing to Himmelfarb a more systematic and rigorous position than she in fact holds. With Hauerwas & Co. he betrays a tendency to reify "liberalism," turning it into a concrete and coherent doctrine far beyond what many who affirm "the liberal tradition" recognize as their own position. This can be useful in teasing out possible implications of a position held by others, but it can also end up by imposing upon them meanings that are not theirs. Moore is right in saying that I want to view Himmelfarb and people of like mind as allies. In fact, they are allies on most of the questions currently contested in our public life. He is wrong in suggesting that I am being "reluctantly" forced to recognize that they are not allies because they are operating on liberal presuppositions that are in irreconcilable conflict with the Christian construal of reality.
Moore’s thesis is that we are in a moment of "extraordinary politics" in which it is being "demonstrated that the convenient stereotypes of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative,’ with respect to religion and politics, are now bankrupt." I have always thought that terms such as liberal and conservative are of only limited usefulness. In the 1960s I was called a liberal, and often a radical; from the early 1970s on, I have generally been described as a neoconservative or simply a conservative. Now some of my neoconservative friends worry that I’m reverting to radicalism. My flip response to those who inquire about these "changes" is to quote Cardinal Newman to the effect that to live is to change, and to be perfect is to change often. "Obviously, I’m on my way to perfection," I have said. In a more serious mode, I certainly do not want to deny that I have changed, but I am much more impressed by the continuities than by the discontinuities.
The chief continuity with respect to religion and public life is that I have always believed and believe now that we live in a fallen world that is radically disjointed. There is no one universal discourse that can do justice to the myriad approximations of truth by which people try to make sense of the world. Such a discourse awaits the promised Kingdom of God. Now that promised future is proleptically anticipated in the speaking of the gospel and, most adequately (or least inadequately), in the Church’s liturgy. Short of the Kingdom, our public or political task in an inescapably pluralistic world is to find common moral ground for establishing and maintaining a humane life together. Christianity is unique in providing conceptual and practical resources for doing precisely that. In making arguments over the years, I have been ecumenical in enlisting resources as various as the Augustinian "two cities," the Lutheran "twofold kingdom of God," the Calvinist "spheres of sovereignty," the "Christian realism" of Reinhold Niebuhr et al., and the Catholic understanding of the common good grounded in natural law and explicated in the Church’s social doctrine. All of these are, I believe, compatible with and supportive of the liberal tradition that I affirm.
If liberalism is understood as Hauerwas & Co. construe it—as upper-case Liberalism, a philosophy that claims to be a neutral and universal discourse that is capable of comprehending and thereby neutralizing all particular discourses—then I am not and never have been a liberal. Such a Liberalism is a snare and delusion, indeed an idolatry, greater than, because more subtle than, Marxist ideology and other madnesses to which human beings succumb when they refuse to live provisionally, which is to say, when they refuse to wait for the promised Kingdom of God. But there is Liberalism, and then there is liberalism.
Prof. Moore speaks of Neuhaus being forced to a "reluctant sectarianism" and of "the depth of the passion of his tortured soul on these questions." He cites my May 1997 article, "The Liberalism of John Paul II":
"This article is critical not only of current defenses, which Neuhaus calls ‘distortions,’ of Liberalism (like that of Rawls and Dworkin) but also of current critiques of Liberalism (like that of Hauerwas and MacIntyre). Neuhaus is clearly calling for the Church to engage in an extraordinary politics of a sort, though he mistakenly thinks it can be achieved through the attempt to ‘reappropriate and rebuild the liberal tradition.’ Neuhaus understands this endeavor as ‘contending for the soul of the liberal tradition.’ However, to understand oneself as ‘contending for the soul of the liberal tradition’ is already to have placed oneself against and outside of Liberalism. This ‘tradition,’ so-called, is one which denies the very idea of soul and which has lived and died on the assumption that it is not the embodiment of a tradition but rather of those neutral, self-evident realities the recognition of which is necessary to sustain a rather truncated version of human freedom in society. Neuhaus certainly recognizes this difficulty even if he thinks it might be accomplished through a reinvigorated Liberalism."
Prof. Moore is over-excited. I have never subscribed to what he means by upper-case Liberalism, and certainly do not want to reinvigorate it. I have written at length, not least in The Naked Public Square, in criticism of the various "monisms," including secular liberal monisms, that deny the provisional and pluralistic character of existence before the eschatological End Time. Only in the academic precincts of political philosophy, jurisprudence, and theological ethics does one find people who inflate Liberalism or Conservatism into veritable religions over which they exercise the passions of their tortured souls. I am quite entirely untroubled by the claim that my defense of the liberal tradition is "against and outside of Liberalism." I have never sworn allegiance to the religion of Liberalism. By the liberal tradition I mean something quite modest but nonetheless of great value. Indeed it is valuable precisely because it is modest.
The liberal tradition that I would defend is a set of sensibilities, habits, and institutions such as those exemplified, however imperfectly, in the American experiment. Respect for the dignity of the person, human rights, tolerance, limited government, the rule of law, checks and balances, ordered liberty—these are among the key components of the liberalism that I believe is affirmed also by John Paul II. I develop this understanding of liberalism more fully in "Christianity and Democracy" (October 1996), which begins with the statement: "Jesus Christ is Lord. That is the first and final assertion Christians make about all of reality, including politics. Believers now assert by faith what one day will be manifest to the sight of all: every earthly sovereignty is subordinate to the sovereignty of Jesus Christ." That, I would insist, is not "sectarian" but is the firmest foundation of the liberal democratic tradition. People like Rawls and Dworkin say it is sectarian, but I don’t know why Christians such as Scott Moore should concede the point.
Similarly, the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus argues that democracy is only secure when it is grounded in the deepest convictions, including religious convictions, of the people. When the question of truth is excluded and democracy is reduced to allegedly neutral principles and procedures, says John Paul, it can easily turn into "thinly disguised totalitarianism." Exactly right. Moore says that this argument is "against and outside of Liberalism." So much the worse for Liberalism. He and others have charged that in the article he cites I am in fact using a conservative argument to defend liberalism. There may be something to that. In the article, I discuss why it is that those who defend the liberal tradition along the lines I suggest are today often called conservative. The point is that the sensibilities and institutions that I designate as "the liberal tradition" can be defended on a number of grounds, and I believe with John Paul II that the strongest ground for its defense is biblical faith. I understand why this argument is problematic for liberal secularists—and for Christian thinkers who recognize only the Liberalism that is a comprehensive belief system incompatible with Christian faith.
I cheer wholeheartedly an Alasdair MacIntyre who pricks the pretensions of that Liberalism when it claims to be a universal discourse above the fray of contending traditions. He masterfully exposes such Liberalism as but another "rival tradition," and not the most impressive of traditions by any means. I wish him many years of smiting the enemy hip and thigh. Such intellectual battles are of great importance. But there is a problem when Hauerwas & Co. conflate that Liberalism with the liberal tradition under discussion here. Surely they are connected, both historically and conceptually, but distinctions are in order. The Enlightenment Liberal Tradition against which my friend Hauerwas rails is mainly, although not entirely, confined to textbooks. It is—or at least it was until the advent of sundry postmodernisms—the regnant and frequently oppressive philosophy in some institutions, notably in the university and the courts. The liberal tradition that I defend, on the other hand, is a lived experience largely outside the world defined by textbooks. It is the institutions, sensibilities, and habits that characterize, for instance, the American experiment as actually experienced. It, too, has its classic texts. Tocqueville provided one of the greatest; Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray provided others. And, although by no means limited to its American version, John Paul has provided a powerful defense of the experiment for our time in, among other texts, Centesimus Annus.
Like Hauerwas, Baxter, Moore, and others, I believe that Christianity is inherently countercultural. Every culture contains within it the temptation to commit an act of closure, to assume that it is or that it can become the culmination of history. Put differently, every culture is tempted to make an idol of itself. Against that danger, Christianity stands in eschatological resistance—declaring to the world, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!" It frankly astonishes me when critics suggest that I do not understand that, for it has been such a persistent theme in my writing and speaking of the past three decades.
Raising the question of the moral legitimacy of government is not something I first did in 1996 in connection with the judicial usurpation of politics. In Movement and Revolution, I examined governmental legitimacy and the advocacy of revolutionary change in the light of the Christian criteria for just war. That was published in 1969. In Freedom for Ministry (1979)—which Hauerwas has kindly called the best book available on the subject of Christian ministry—the central proposition is that the minister is "the ambassador of a disputed sovereignty." The title of Against the World for the World (1976) speaks for itself. That argument is developed with specific reference to the American experiment in Time Toward Home (1976) and America Against Itself (1992). But I go on, as God knows I have gone on over the years, leaving a paper trail of more than twenty-five books and somewhere around a thousand published articles.
Whether my subject is ministry, liturgy, ecclesiology, ecumenism, medical ethics, church-state law, or politics, always the theme is oppositional or, if you will, dialectical—always the "now" of history and the "not yet" of eschatological promise, always the sacred absolute challenging the profanely idolatrous, always the interplay of the critically affirmative and affirmatively critical. But still I read things such as Prof. Moore’s assertion that my "tortured soul" is being reluctantly forced to the recognition that there is perhaps a tension between Christian truth and the world as defined by secular liberalism. Others go further, claiming that my driving devotion is to a certain politics, and my purpose is to enlist the Church and its theology in service to that political vision. What is one to say? I can only say again—I hope not in tones too defensive—that I am first and foremost and always a Christian and a priest. What I do at the altar and in the confessional and in the pulpit is of immeasurably greater significance than anything I do in the public arena. For me, the Real Presence of the crucified and risen Lord in the Eucharist is the axis mundi upon which turns all that is or ever will be; it is, as Dante saw, the love that moves the sun and all the other stars.
In the premier issue of this journal of religion and public life, we declared our editorial purpose, asserting that "the first thing to be said about public life is that public life is not the first thing." That means that politics—whether of the left or of the right or of stripes unspecifiable—is not the first thing. The only politics that can ultimately claim our allegiance is the authentically new politics, the right ordering of all things, in the promised rule of God. What, then, is the difference between Hauerwas & Co. and myself? More important than any difference, and yet inseparably related to our difference, is our agreement that the second century Letter to Diognetus got it right in describing the awkward circumstance of Christians in any earthly polis: "Though they are residents at home in their own countries, their behavior there is more like that of transients; they take their full part as citizens, but they also submit to anything and everything as if they were aliens. For them, any foreign country is a homeland, and any homeland a foreign country."
We are alien citizens, and my difference with some others who assert that with equal urgency is that I believe both words must be underscored. I, too, hang my harp on the willows and weep by the rivers of Babylon, asking, "How can we sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land?" But we do sing them. Unlike some who sing the songs of Zion, I do not desire countercultural confrontation, and have no appetite for jousting with a Liberalism that exists chiefly in the intellectual backwater that is the contemporary academy. I want to make the best of our unsatisfactory circumstance, knowing that all circumstances are unsatisfactory short of the Kingdom. I discern in liberal democracy and in the American version of it a foreign country where one can be more at home, however provisionally, than in other homelands that are away from home. All in all and considering the alternatives, this American experiment is worthy of our devotion. It is a devotion sharply qualified by the awareness that this is not home. And by the awareness that it is a nation "under God," which means, first of all, a nation under judgment.
Jeremiah had it right: "Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." I don’t think it serves any useful purpose to keep announcing to our fellow citizens that we are aliens and exiles, that we don’t really belong here, and that we hold their city in contempt. Moreover, it is unseemly for Christians to be rudely saying such things while, at the same time, we enjoy all the rights and benefits of the city. It is our city as much as it is their city, and we should, as in second-century Rome, take our full part as citizens—all the time telling our fellow citizens that they, too, are exiles, that they, too, have another and an infinitely better home.
True, it may happen, as has so often happened in history, that the city will turn against us. Then we must be prepared for resistance and, ultimately, for martyrdom. It could, God forbid, happen in this foreign country and homeland that is America. The judicial usurpation of politics is an ominous sign that it may be happening here. If it comes to that, however, it must never be by our choice. It is also the case that the city can turn against us in more insidious ways, especially a city so rich and splendid in appearance as this. It can seduce us into thinking that this really is our home. Therefore we must always keep our countercultural witness honed, even as we seek the welfare of the city, and precisely because that witness serves the welfare of the city. Being alien citizens is an exceedingly awkward and complicated business, and Christians will likely never get it entirely right until our exile is ended, and then we won’t have to worry about it any more.
Along the way to that final homecoming, there will continue to be controversies great and small, such as that over Baxter and First Things. Please don’t get me wrong: Scott Moore’s analysis of these controversies is intelligent and clearly intended to be sympathetic. But the "extraordinary politics" to which he refers is ever so much more extraordinary than his article suggests. It is the politics of the Kingdom in judgment and support of this and every earthly polis. He speaks of the end of the stereotypes of "liberal" and "conservative," but the importance he attributes to that reflects another stereotype, namely, that terms such as "liberal" and "conservative" have defined the significant differences among Christians who write about public affairs. For many people those are no doubt the terms that matter most. Too bad for them.
Prof. Moore is mistaken in thinking they are terms that have mattered much to me. In saying this I am not adopting the posture of "beyond liberal and conservative," which is a common rhetorical ploy employed by both right and left and is a sneaky claim to that neutrality of which upper-case Liberalism falsely boasts. No, in my defense of the liberal tradition I generally find myself these days in the company of those who call themselves conservative, and for the most part it is very good company, even if some of them think I am an unreliable ally, what with all this talk about moral truth, natural law, and even, would you believe it, the coming rule of God. They will just have to get used to it. The Christians and, for that matter, the believing Jews are not going to go away. We have nowhere to go, except home; and the timing of that transition is not under our control.
But it is a stereotype of a stereotype to think, as Scott Moore does, that the significance of the current controversies is that they move us beyond the stereotypes of liberal and conservative. In addressing specific issues and arguments, we will continue to find ourselves allied with those who agree, and it is inevitable that people will put names on these alliances. But live long enough and you learn that all such alliances and labels are contingent and temporary. It is true that for many people "liberalism" or "conservatism" (or variations thereon) is the name of their church, which is a pity. For those who have the Church that is not the case, for by faith’s anticipation the Church really is home away from home, a community of exiles who are eager to serve the earthly city, and in no way serve it better than in reminding it that it is not the final destination, that it is not the City of God.
Here are a few little items retrieved from the cutting room floor, as it were, that didn’t make it into my article on "The Cuban Revolutions" in the last issue. • At several points the Pope underscored that Cuba is part of Latin America, and other Latin American countries have a special obligation to help out a country of "the same Christian heritage and the same language." The unity of Latin America, counterbalancing the colossus of the North, was also a not-so-subliminal point at the Synod for America held in Rome at the end of 1997, on which I am now writing a book. This theme may ruffle U.S. sensibilities, but it is understandable and probably healthy in a world so dominated by one country. • In his "Message to Youth" issued in Cuba, John Paul urged young people not to succumb to "alcoholism, drugs, sexual irresponsibility, and prostitution, the constant pursuit of new experiences." Then he added, "Do not take refuge in sects, alienating spiritualist cults, or groups that are completely foreign to the culture and tradition of your country." The synod in Rome had proposed that other Christian groups no longer be called "sects," and the Pope had a most cordial meeting with such groups while in Cuba, so he probably didn’t have them in mind. "Spiritualist cults" might refer to Santeria, but Santeria is far from being "completely foreign to the culture and tradition" of Cuba. Santeria is a complex mix of Christianity and African religions in which the Blessed Virgin and other saints have their counterparts in the gods and goddesses of rivers, fertility, iron, and the such. The Santeria priests, or babalaos, were for a time favored by the Castro regime against the Catholics. Some say a majority of Catholics in Cuba also practice Santeria, but a bishop tells me that is greatly exaggerated. Babalaos complained that Santeria had no formal part in the Pope’s visit and that they were not invited to the "ecumenical encounter" on the final day. Jaime Cardinal Ortega of Havana explained: "They are baptized Christians, and we cannot engage in ecumenism with a part of the Catholic Church itself. The Church has always integrated popular religiosity, never excluded it, and this would be a way of excluding it." The official word for such integration is "inculturation," and in Cuba inculturation gives new meaning to James Joyce’s observation that the Catholic Church is "here comes everybody." • A regular part of the Pope’s pastoral visits is time spent with the sick and suffering. This time it was at St. Lazarus Hospice in Havana, which is run by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. "I come as a pilgrim of truth and hope to this Shrine of St. Lazarus," he said, "as one who experiences in his own flesh the meaning and value which suffering can have when it is accepted by drawing near in trust to God who is rich in mercy." The theme of participating with others in the redemptive suffering of Christ has become more pronounced in John Paul’s statements of recent years. • A choral group of about twenty young people attended a Mass said by Cardinal Law of Boston and one evening he invited them back to the sumptuous Cohiba Hotel for soft drinks and dinner. This was a world they had never seen and, with youthful exuberance, they took over the large bar area and then the dining room, belting out hymns, including, in Spanish, a jubilant "Hallelujah Chorus." The choir director was an elderly nun who had lived through the decades of oppression and defection from the Church. "The children!" she exclaimed with tears in her eyes. "I prayed and I knew it would happen. It is a miracle!" Laughter and tears were general in that memorable moment. • One afternoon an evangelical minister, a Baptist, tells me about the oldline groups in Cuba, such as the Methodists. "They have very few people, but for a long time they were the only religious people Fidel would talk with. Maybe some of them went too far in cooperating in our oppression, but they had the connections, also in the U.S. God can use them, too." He adds that it used to be the evangelicals who were stronger in resisting the regime, "But now it is the Catholics. And especially now with the Pope coming. But it makes no difference who gets the credit. It is all for the gospel of Jesus, and I don’t think things can go back to the way they were for any of us." • Back home there were other things happening around the Pope’s visit, apart from the shameful debacle of the American presidency. The National Council of Churches, United Methodists, and Presbyterian Church (USA) joined in a coalition with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to lobby for a complete lifting of sanctions against the Castro regime. The coalition’s statement at the time of the visit blamed the U.S. for bad relations with Cuba and made no mention of the regime’s suppression of religious, political, and civil rights, which is perhaps understandable in the case of the Chamber of Commerce. The Wall Street Journal, of course, has long opposed the embargo. The advocacy brings together an interesting mix of left-leaning religionists and business leadership. Christians in Cuba worry that simply lifting the sanctions without any quid pro quo will economically strengthen Castro, providing him resources to pay the military enforcers of his police state. The Cuban people, they fear, would become cheap labor for the Yanqui capitalists, with the regime taking the money and paying off workers with soap, toothpaste, and other necessities in short supply. On a smaller scale, it would be a deal similar to that struck between U.S. business and the regime in China. But then, the National Council and its member churches are marvelously insouciant about the denial of religious, political, and civil rights in China as well. • And this should be mentioned: Neither I nor the others in our company encountered even one Cuban who had a bad word for America. This is remarkable when one considers that for nearly forty years they have been incessantly indoctrinated in hatred for the United States. Their admiration for America and things American may be in part the "consumerist obsession" against which the Holy Father rightly warns. But people who are hungry for both bread and freedom, and maybe a circus or two to relieve the doldrums of decades, should be cut some slack. A modicum of material well-being is not consumerism, and the desire for it is not an obsession. After the passing of the Marxist madness, the task will be to bring the Cuban people into "the circle of productivity and exchange" (Centesimus Annus) in the hope that they will one day be fortunate enough to face the moral challenge of the consumer society. The Pope is certainly right to alert them to that challenge in advance. For the foreseeable future, however, consumerism—understood as inordinate concern for things material—will be driven by extreme deprivation. • I also didn’t get into that article the sad news about cigars. My friends and I checked them out, as any sensible person who is even an occasional cigar smoker would. Some of the more expensive were so-so, and a box of more moderately priced specimens were so tightly packed as to be totally unsmokeable. After Fidel’s conquest, Cuban seed was taken to the Dominican Republic and elsewhere, producing cigars that are better and more reasonably priced, and readily available in the U.S. At least that is the conclusion of our avid, albeit unscientific, research. I suppose some will count that as one less reason for lifting the embargo. • Given the political disarray in this country, it seems little will be done about the embargo any time soon. More important and immediate than the embargo question, I was impressed by the way that U.S. pilgrims to Cuba—including cardinals, bishops, and many priests—evinced a sense of urgency about ongoing and very practical work with the Cuban Church. Of course that bonding, as it is called, between North American and Latin American bishops was evident also at the synod in Rome, but Latin America is an impossibly big and diffuse reality. Despite the oppressive state, Cuba seems more manageable, a place where little things could make a large difference. Already people are planning return visits and creating new channels of aid and cooperation. That, too, is a difference made by the visit of John Paul II. • There are other items on the cutting room floor, but enough. As I said in last month’s article, the real revolution in Cuba is now just beginning.
Time magazine celebrated its 75th birthday with a spectacular bash at Radio City Music Hall. According to our local paper, it seemed everyone was there except the Pope and Queen Elizabeth, both of whom had been invited. The stars of the occasion, apart from the magazine itself, were all the people who had ever been on the cover of Time, which does not include me. Although Claire Boothe Luce did once tell me, "It’s so sad Harry isn’t here. He would have put you on the cover just as he did for Father Murray." She was referring to John Courtney Murray, of course, and, even if she didn’t mean it, it was nice of her to say it. Many years ago, Malcolm Muggeridge referred to the cover of Time as "the most coveted stained glass window of contemporary culture."
That was a long time ago. When I was in college in the late fifties, Time was a major point of reference. I recall that a young prof at that Texas institution learned that I read Time every week, and cover to cover. He was mightily impressed. It established my reputation as the resident intellectual. Even in the seventies, editors and writers and academics frequently talked about what Time said about this or that. That was a long time ago.
Time has been radically dumbed down, and has cut back on the "grey matter," meaning actual text, that interrupts the flow of advertisements. It now seems more or less indistinguishable from People and hundreds of other magazines on the racks, many of them generated by the publishing empire that Time became. I am occasionally faxed Charles Krauthammer’s excellent columns that still appear there. No doubt there are other good things that appear from time to time. But nobody mentions them, and in this business, for better or worse, what gets mentioned is generally thought worthy of mention. Of general interest publications, for instance, must reading includes the New York Times, above all, then Commentary, National Review, The New Republic, the Weekly Standard, probably the New York Review of Books, and from there one moves on to more specialized, and generally more interesting, things.
But back to Time’s birthday party. The picture in the Times caught Raquel Welch and Dr. Jack Kevorkian being most convivial. Henry Kissinger was there, as were General William Westmoreland, Robert McNamara, John F. Kennedy, Jr., and of course Bill Clinton. Gorbachev flew in from Vienna. Other participants: Joe DiMaggio, Louis Farrakhan, Anita Hill, Imelda Marcos, and Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi propagandist. John Kennedy toasted McNamara for admitting he was wrong about Vietnam and thus helping him, Kennedy, bear the tragic burdens of life. The toast does not bear close parsing. The Rev. Jerry Falwell was pressing the flesh of thousands, and Muhammad Ali had a few gracious words of benediction. And so it went.
The editors of Time are not in the business of making, as they say, value judgments. I wonder if they invited Saddam Hussein. I was impressed by the feting of "Dr. Death" Kevorkian. Had history turned out somewhat differently, one could imagine the presence of Wilhelm Himmler, chancellor of Germany and grandson of the other Himmler who, as Time might put it, was the mastermind of Germany’s "controversial population policy in the 1940s." But how could they not have invited Dr. Kevorkian if they were going to invite the Rev. Falwell? After all, Kevorkian’s approval ratings in the country are higher than Falwell’s. Inviting one and not the other would have required (gasp) a moral judgment. But the invitation list, as I understand it, included everyone who made the cover. I am told that Adolf Hitler once made it. My hunch is that Henry Luce, who was not averse to moral judgment, would not have invited him. Mrs. Luce was right: It is sad that Harry isn’t here. Not because I might have been on the cover of Time. Although that would be a kick, and even more of a kick to decline the dubious honor and refuse to cooperate with the writing of the cover story. And not because Henry Luce was right about everything, which he wasn’t. But because he knew it is an editor’s job to make moral judgments, which includes deciding what, and who, is beyond the pale. On the other hand, the President of these United States pronounced the party a "swell affair," and who am I to disagree with the President?
When anyone asks who is doing really interesting work in theology these days, the name of Robert Jenson of St. Olaf College in Minnesota is always on the short list. He is a frequent contributor to these pages, and his article "How the World Lost Its Story" (October 1993) is, in my judgment, one of the finest pieces of theology we’ve published. Now the first volume of his systematic theology is out, and I am somewhat late in drawing attention to it (Systematic Theology: The Triune God, Oxford University Press, 244 pp., $49.95). It is a relatively short book of a projected two-volume work, as distinct from the three volumes that is usual for systematic theologies. It is also very tightly packed, a demanding read for the specialist and nonspecialist alike. But it very much rewards the effort.
I have often found that the reading of rigorous theology is a much richer devotional experience than the reading of books intended to be devotional. That is even more the case with the explosion of pap "spiritualities" in recent years. Jenson is nothing if not rigorous, although his elliptical style frequently leaves the reader groping for connections. They are there to be found, however. Jenson has a fine grasp of the biblical and patristic materials, and he is solidly situated within the history of modern theology, with figures such as Schleiermacher, Barth, and Pannenberg playing featured roles. Unusual for contemporary theologians, he is much influenced by the eighteenth-century Jonathan Edwards, and some readers will discern a strong affinity with Hans Urs von Balthasar. Jenson is a Lutheran of the evangelical catholic variety, although some Lutheran theologians think, with justice, that he is more Catholic than Lutheran.
This first volume is divided into three parts: "Prolegomena," "The Triune Identity," and "The Triune Character." The first part is a splendid statement of what theology is about and a critique of its current practice. "Theology is the Church’s enterprise of thought and the only Church conceivably in question is the unique and unitary Church of the creeds," Jenson writes. As the titles of the second two parts indicate, the God in theology is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who is also—and this is crucially important to his argument—the God of Israel. In a footnote (many of his most incisive statements are in footnotes) the connection is underscored: "There is no reason for the Church to think that contemporary Judaism has a prior right to the use or interpretation of the Old Testament. Some of our difficulty arises from the supposition that the Church once ‘appropriated’ or ‘adopted’ Israel’s Scriptures; since the origin of the Church depended on these Scriptures, such an event can never have happened. Moreover, since what is now called Judaism and the Church appeared simultaneously within Israel, neither can have a prior claim; even from a strictly historical point of view, the one is as immediate and direct a continuation of canonical Israel as the other."
Central to Jenson’s brief is that, in Christian theology, the doctrine of God is inescapably trinitarian. That may seem obvious, but he rightly notes that many theologians first attend to the doctrine of God and then move on to the question of the Trinity. This, he contends, is to get everything backwards. It results in establishing a philosophical and essentially non-Christian notion of deity to which Christian particularities, such as the Triune Identity, must then be fitted. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and vice versa. Thus, unlike most systematic theologies, the first volume includes the doctrine of Christ (Christology) and of the Holy Spirit (Pneumatology) under the doctrine of God. While greatly indebted to Karl Barth (as any contemporary theologian almost has to be), Jenson cannot easily be dismissed as an anti-philosophical "Barthian." In fact, he insists that Barth was not an enemy of philosophy but simply wanted to do philosophy as a Christian. While he is at it, Jenson tries to make the case that worthies such as Thomas Aquinas shared his (and Barth’s) belief that there is no knowledge of God apart from the Triune Identity. It will be interesting to see what scholars of Thomas make of that effort.
There are many pieces to Jenson’s argument, many of them suggestive, and some clearly intended to be provocative. At the epicenter of the book is the claim that time and eternity are not antithetical, that time is of the very being of the eternal God. Here he respectfully takes issue with the great Augustine. "It is hard to see," Augustine wrote, "how God creates temporal things and events without temporal movement in himself." But there is temporal movement within himself, Jenson contends. That is the whole point of God as Trinity. Augustine’s "misstep," he believes, is that, in trying to square Greek metaphysics with biblical narrative, he finally opted for the timeless deity of the Greeks. "With the hindsight of our position in history," Jenson writes, "we are here faced with a straightforward theological choice. At this precise point, the Western tradition must simply be corrected" (emphasis in original). The Christian God of movement and temporality is most aptly understood in analogy with music. There are three singers who each take their part, as in a fugue. Especially striking in his discussion of the interaction among the three Persons of the Trinity is the reflection on the Holy Spirit’s offering and the Father accepting the death of the Son. Here the echoes of Balthasar are especially strong.
This is an ambitious book. Some might say it is a presumptuous book, so frontal is its assault on some conventional ways of thinking. But Jenson would insist that we should not equate orthodoxy with the conventional. His intention is determinedly orthodox. He does not understand himself as a maverick but as a faithful servant of the Church attending to its task of thinking. He acknowledges that, if the Church is to defend its scripture and tradition from maverick interpretations, there must be an authoritative voice that can speak for and to the Church, and he does not hesitate to call this voice a "magisterium." He then adds, "To affirm this, we need not yet commit ourselves about a mandated or appropriate location of teaching authority." Those who attend to Jenson and his enterprise will no doubt make a note of that "not yet." Meanwhile, Systematic Theology: The Triune God is that rare gift, an exercise in theological thought that is both adventuresome and rigorous. And wonderfully devotional.
For more than four centuries, many Protestants have contended that the question dividing them from Roman Catholics is justification by grace through faith. Such Protestants have typically described that formulation as "the article by which the Church stands or falls." After years of work under the auspices of the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, Catholic and Lutheran theologians have produced a Joint Declaration on Justification. The Declaration is strongly supported by Rome and has been generally well received by the member churches of the LWF. It was overwhelmingly approved by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) at its 1997 assembly. At the beginning of this year, however, 150 German theologians, some of them very prominent, issued a statement asserting that the Declaration does not represent the consensus that is claimed. I asked the distinguished Lutheran theologian, Professor Wolfhart Pannenberg of the University of Munich, to comment on these developments. Readers will recognize that this discussion has a bearing also on developments here, such as the statement "The Gift of Salvation" published in our January issue. Let me add the caution that Prof. Pannenberg’s comment is very tightly packed and may present some difficulty for readers unfamiliar with the Joint Declaration and the full critique of the German theologians.
For a long time, opposition to Roman Catholicism functioned in the minds of many Protestants as a mark of identity of their faith. In the ecumenical climate after Vatican II that seemed to recede to a past age. But the statement of some 150 German theologians rejecting the Joint Declaration on Justification proposed by the LWF and the Vatican Council on Unity indicates that the past is not yet dead.
The second of seven articles of the statement opposes the claim that a consensus has been obtained in fundamental points of the doctrine. According to the statement, there is no consensus on justification through the word of God and "by faith alone," no consensus on the certitude of faith concerning our salvation, no consensus on the continuing sinfulness of the justified, nor on the importance of good works for our salvation, nor on the function of the doctrine of justification as criterion of the entire life and doctrine of the church. With regard to the relationship of Law and Gospel the obtained consensus is said to be defective. Are these negative judgments substantial?
The Joint Declaration, with Paul, calls the gospel a message that conveys justification (e.g.. Romans 3:21-31). It affirms that justification is obtained through faith in the Gospel of the Son of God. We are justified through Christ alone, when we receive salvation in faith. How can it be said, then, that there is no consensus on justification as obtained through the Word and through faith?
A consensus on justification by faith alone is said to be missing. The Joint Declaration emphasizes, however, that God accepts us by grace alone through faith in Christ’s saving deed and not on the basis of our merit. Does the word "alone" in this phrase refer only to grace and not also to faith? In any event, the Declaration here says without any restriction that the sinner is justified through faith in God’s saving action in Christ. In this sentence, faith is characterized in a quite comprehensive way as the one medium for receiving justification. This is remarkably different from certain earlier formulations of the Roman Catholic doctrine on this point, where faith was considered only the beginning and root of justification. It is true that the explicit formula "by faith alone" is characterized in the next paragraph as the specifically Lutheran expression of this doctrine, but there is no intimation of any substantial difference with what was stated just before. To the contrary, the Joint Declaration obviously intends that the Lutheran formula expresses the same doctrine. After all, Paul himself did not explicitly use the word "alone" in Romans 3:28, though Luther was certainly correct in affirming that this was the implication of Paul’s words.
What about the certainty of salvation? The Council of Trent rejected the doctrine of the Reformation at this point, because it took it as claiming certainty about one’s personal state of grace. The Reformation doctrine, however, did not intend an assessment of our human situation, but focused on the certainty of God’s promise. This being generally acknowledged now, the Joint Declaration says that believers can rely on God’s effective promise in word and sacrament and thus be certain of his grace. On behalf of Roman Catholic doctrine, too, it is said to be impossible to believe firmly in God while at the same time doubting his promises. Where, then, is the remaining controversy in this matter?
The statement of the 150 German theologians also denies a consensus on faith and works. The Joint Declaration says on this issue that good works "follow" from justification. This was never denied by the Reformation. One has to distinguish, but must not separate, good works from justification. Both sides agree that nothing preceding or following the "free gift of faith" merits justification. This being said, the fact that Catholics retain the traditional designation of "merit" regarding the biblically attested "reward" of our good works by God becomes a matter of language only, not of doctrinal disagreement.
With regard to all these issues that were hotly debated at the time of the Reformation, the Joint Declaration not only claims, but explicitly formulates, a doctrinal consensus. The statement of the 150 offers no argument why the consensus on these points is defective or even nonexistent. It simply says that there is no real consensus on these issues. But in the absence of any argument, how can serious theologians, after carefully reading the Joint Declaration, subscribe to its rejection? Under these circumstances, is that not simply testimony to unreconciled prejudice?
It is true that there are some other points where differences remain, contrary to the claims of the Joint Declaration. The first of these is the unfortunate expression introduced in the last revision of the document on the function of the doctrine on justification as "criterion" of all other doctrine and of the life of the church itself. Note 18 now says that for Lutherans it is the only such criterion, while Catholics are said to be also bound by other criteria. What are these other criteria? If it were the confession of Nicea in a.d. 325 to the substantial unity of the Son with the Father, there need not be much dispute. But in the absence of any indication concerning the content of those additional criteria, suspicions easily arise. If, e.g., papal infallibility were to be claimed as one such criterion, agreement would become difficult.
Another point of continuing disagreement concerns the presence of sin in those who have received justification by faith and baptism. Here the Catholic side simply reiterates the claim of Trent that concupiscence in the baptized Christian is no longer sin in the full sense of the word, which is hard to reconcile with the authority of Paul and of Augustine. On the other hand, the Lutheran formula of the believer to be righteous and sinner at the same time is not to be found in Paul either. At this point, then, the need for further dialogue is obvious.
The remaining differences, however, should not obscure the fact that agreement has been obtained on some of the most hotly debated issues in the doctrine on justification, especially concerning the role of faith and concerning the certitude of salvation as based on God’s promise. The agreement on these issues should be gratefully accepted by the churches. It is an encouragement to proceed further through similar agreements on the Eucharist and on the ministry of the church. The recent German statement expresses Protestant anxieties that such an ecumenical agenda may end up in Lutheranism being swallowed completely into the "hierarchical structure" of the Roman Catholic Church. But the declared aim of the ecumenical process is rather communion among churches, or, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has phrased it, "remaining churches while becoming one church."
News reports of the last several months freshly impress upon the mind the bright prospects for the human future now that science, greed, and justice have joined forces against the wickedness of the cigarette industry. Documents recently released powerfully reinforce the allegation that the millions of dollars spent on advertising by R. J. Reynolds had the clear purpose of increasing sales. Not only that, but increased sales now have been definitely linked to the actual use of the product. Moreover, recent studies indicate decisively that most users also inhale. The evidence against the tobacco companies does not stop there. Internal memos have come to light showing that tobacco executives have conspired to make a product that is more attractive to the customer. Of course the industry denies any intention to give customers what they want or to encourage a demand for its product.
Members of Congress have declared themselves shocked by revelations that the industry, not content with having sold trillions of cigarettes in the past, is clearly planning to maintain and even expand its market in the future. A whistle-blower in the industry has leaked to the House Committee on Protecting People from Themselves conclusive documentation that the tobacco companies have engaged in market research, which is paid for by profits made from selling cigarettes. It is now revealed that the strategy of the tobacco giants is premised upon the finding that younger people have, on average, a longer future than older people. There is no doubt, say members of the committee, that the industry’s market plans for the future are geared to the people who are more likely to be around in the future. Said committee chairperson Elsa Comstock, "This new evidence provides the smoking gun we’ve been looking for. The industry’s strategy is to give people a choice, and then hope they will choose to buy its products. In all my years in Congress, I have never seen such a flagrant attempt to stay in business."
New legislation is almost certain to require the manufacturers to include in their advertising stronger messages discouraging the purchase or use of their product. Support for such legislation is reinforced by scientific research of recent years showing that cigarette smoking is unhealthy. This is a dramatic change from the widespread assumption of the past hundred years or more that smoking cigarettes is a remedy for respiratory problems and one of the surest ways to extend life expectancy. In the view of scientific experts, the recent findings vindicate what used to be the minority opinion of those who referred to cigarettes as "coffin nails" and who otherwise challenged what were commonly viewed as the health benefits of smoking. "Seldom in history," said former nanny general Dr. Ever Kook, "have we witnessed the power of science to so radically reverse a popular misperception."
The recent negotiated settlement with the tobacco companies, now being considered by Congress, has put the industry on the defensive. Some antismoking legislators have expressed concern that the industry’s future profits may be in jeopardy, thus imperiling the settlement’s requirement that the companies pay anti-tobacco lawyers and state governments more than $500 billion over the next twenty years. With that concern in mind, Vice President Albert Bore has proposed that the domestic price of a pack of cigarettes be quadrupled, which, it is acknowledged, would pose no deterrent to the affluent but, in the words of Representative Comstock, "would punish the poor for their filthy habit."
The proposed legislation would also secure the interests of lawyers and state politicians by providing trade incentives for the marketing of cigarettes abroad. "There are more than five billion suckers out there," noted Vice President Bore, "and, fortunately, American brands, thanks to our technological edge, are the smoke of choice." Prospects are especially bright in poor countries where life expectancy is not so high in any case. The Vice President also observed that their smoking is less a threat to the ecosystem than "the danger of their becoming rich and wasteful like the rest of us." I. M. Swindler, who receives $15 million per year as chairman of Lawyers for Social Justice, says his group strongly backs the proposed measures as "an eminently fair arrangement for all the parties who matter."