Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 87 (November 1998): 2-6.
I liked J. Budziszewskis emphasis on conscience as an active, rather than passive, force ("The Revenge of Conscience," June/July). I want to take issue, though, with one point he makes early on concerning Pauls so- called reference to natural law in Romans 2:14-15.
Romans 2:14-15 is the only scriptural passage that Christians use to buttress the idea of natural law. If we eliminate it we are left with a Bible that is silent on this issue. If natural law exists, if every individual has some kind of innate ability to discern Gods basic moral requirements, this is crucial for understanding man kind. But why is the Bible so empty of references? The Bible has so much to say about the nature of man; certainly it should speak to this. As it is, the ancient Hebrews are silent.
In the Bible, law has only two sources: It is either spoken by God to people such as Adam, Noah, or Moses, or it is written by God on the heart of the individual person. Professor Budziszewski refers to the commands given to Noah and a rabbinic tradition that sees this as some kind of law for all humanity. But there is no mention of this in the Genesis passage itself, and Prof. Budziszewski refrains from the next step of making these commands some kind of innate moral compass. Maybe he thinks innateness is implied simply because the commands are supposedly universal. But the crucial point is that in the Bible there is no law independent of Gods voice or action. To separate law from God Himself and make it a part of nature, we have to go outside the Scriptures. It is significant that Prof. Budziszewski reaches for tradition when linking Noah with natural lawthese syntheses of the philosophical and the scriptural usually occur under the banner of tradition.
While reading J. Budziszewskis remarkable essay "The Revenge of Conscience" I kept thinking of a remark of Aristotle to the effect that the moral person already knows what is moral. Meaning, the moral philosophers task is not to establish what is moral or immoral but to illuminate judgments we are already capable of making without the ministrations of the professional philoso pher. (This view, by the way, exactly parallels his epistemology, which does not seek to ground or justify our knowledge, as if what we know would remain pure opinion without the aid of the philosopher.)
Similarly for Professor Bud zis zewski, conscience seems to function somewhat the way
grammar does: one need not have a theoretical grasp of grammar to speak coherently, nor
need one have a theoretical grasp of ethics to hear the voice of conscience; indeed to
follow the injunctions of contemporary ethics is often, as the author shrewdly points out,
to fall prey to the nemesis of a mistaken conscience. Thus in our civilization of massive
ethical confusion, what remains as the fixed point is the integrity of conscience, just as
cacophony of political and philosophical convictions still gets expressed in an identical grammar.
If this is an accurate statement of the gist of his article, my question for Prof. Budziszewski is this: can conscience change? Is it, in other words, more analogous (to use Noam Chomskys terminology) to the surface grammars of the different languages of the world or is it better compared to the deep, universal grammar that all languages have in common?
This question occurred to me precisely because of the example of Aristotle: although his analysis of ethics is still far superior to most of his modern competitors, there can be no question that the conscience of mankind has changed since Aristotles day, most notoriously on the question of slavery and the equality of women. Simply put, can this evolution in the conscience of the human race be accounted for under the rubric of Prof. Budziszewskis remarkably lucid essay?
Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
J. Budziszewskis analysis of our present moral degradation and how we got to our present situation is without doubt the finest analysis I have ever read. The results of our abandonment of the natural law are so clear that the only question is whether we can ever make our way back as a culture and as a civilization. We have gone from a civilization that was penetrated through and through with the values of Judeo-Christianity and natural law foundations (the killing of the innocent, the nature of perversion, the definition of marriage, etc.) to the very opposite of these elements of natural law as the foundation of this society (abortion as right, perversion as respect, divorce as freedom, killing of the innocent as obligation). My only questionis there any way back?
If Malraux was correct when he said that "the twenty- first century will be a religious century or it will be nothing at all," then our only hope is a Christian religious conversion which alone has the strength, discipline, and power to return us to virtue and the demands of natural law. The pragmatists, naturalists, relativists, and rationalists are doomed to disappear because they have no roots and reasons for existence. In the West, our only hope resides here.
Peter J. Riga
I think I understand why Tom Odeski believes we disagree more than we really do. Because I speak of a "natural" law, he reads into my discussion the pagan view of nature as self- existent and independent of God. On the contrary, I affirm the biblical view of nature as completely dependent upon its Creator but partially expressive of His purposes. It is true that extra- biblical revelation is insufficient for salvation and can be adequately understood only in the light of biblical revelation, but the Bible itself contradicts Mr. Odeskis view that there is no revelation outside the Bible.
According to Scripture, extra- biblical moral revelation comes in at least four modes. There is the fact that we are made in the image of God, which not only gives us rational and moral capacities, but also tells us of an unknown Holy One who is different from our idols (Genesis 1:26- 27, Acts 17:22- 23). There are the facts of our physical and emotional design, in which a variety of Gods purposes are plainly manifest (Romans 1:26- 27). There is the principle of the harvest, which teaches us by linking every sin with consequences (Proverbs 1:31, Jeremiah 17:10). Finally there is the mode on which I focusedthe law of conscience, known inwardly (Romans 2:14-15).
Mr. Odeski is silent about the first three modes, but takes me to task for the fourth. But conscience is presupposed throughout the Scriptures. How can Abraham know about justice before the Sinaitic code (Genesis 18:25)? How can Israel admire the Sinaitic code unless it already knows about justice (Deuteronomy 4:8)? And finally, how can God hold gentiles accountable for their sins if they have never received a moral law at all (Romans 2:1-16)? The answer in each case is the same: Because there is a law written on the heart.
Edward T. Oakes asks an intriguing question that already contains the germs of a reply. Like grammar, conscience has both an unchanging deep structure and a changing surface structure. The great Scholastic thinkers recognized this, speaking of both synderesis, which cannot err, and conscientia, which can. A phenomenon they knew about but did not analyze is that conscientia cannot only err but rationalize; we can either try to come to terms with first principles, or play tricks with them instead. Just as Father Oakes suggests, the conscientia of a society can either advance or regress, depending on which of these responses it chooses to make. The focus of my article is the perverse tribute that our rationalizations pay to the very principles they deny.
Peter J. Rigas question is fitting and his answer, I think, correct; I have only to thank him for giving them voice.
Deepest thanks to all three correspondents for their thoughtful remarks.
Gilbert Meilaender ("Affirming Ourselves to Death," June/July) is quite right in his statement that "feeling it necessary to affirm every person . . . we find it difficult to state and adhere to any standard of conduct." One might expect (but deplore) this in secular society, but the greatest tragedy is that it has so permeated our Christian churches.
I suggested that my Catholic parish put a decorated crib in the foyer on Mothers Day to collect donations of baby clothes for a local Catholic agency helping women with problem pregnancies. I was told that we shouldnt do that because it would make women in the parish who had had abortions feel bad.
I have heard from a number of Catholics that going to confession is not advisable because it is hard on self- esteem. They oppose the "Lord I am not worthy" prayer before communion for the same reason. As a pastoral minister said, "Who is the priest to tell us that were not worthy!"
"Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all." Or, as Professor Meilaender says, "Compassion taken alone . . . kills morality."
Mary Theresa Anderson
South St. Cloud, MN
As an elder and pastor in the United Methodist Church, I feel compelled to share some thoughts on William J. Abrahams "United Methodists at the End of the Mainline" (June/July).
I find it sad that "conservative or classical Methodists" like myself, as Professor Abraham calls us, are being accused of "splitting the church" over the theological and ethical crisis in which we find ourselves. May I remind everyone of what John Wesley said? "It is dangerous to depart from Scripture. . . . Most of the controversies which have disturbed the church have arisen from people wanting to be wise above what is written, not contented with what God has plainly revealed there."
Prof. Abrahams solution to the current crisis is "to stimulate conversation toward the emergence of a new theological consensus that might command the allegiance of a majority in the church at large." May I suggest a good place to start: Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls (Jeremiah 6:16).
The Lord spoke these words through Jeremiah in the midst of a situation of theological and ethical compromise, much like the compromise we see in the United Methodist Church today. These words dont ask us to look at the crossroads for ways to accommodate ourselves to the world around us. They simply encourage us to ask for the ancient paths, the right way plainly revealed in Scripture, and to follow them. For it is here, and only here, that we as a church will find rest for our souls.
(The Rev.) Mark A. Rains
William J. Abraham missed one supremely important factor keeping the United Methodist Church together: denominational ownership of all church property.
If this were not the case, by now untold numbers of local churches would have been long gone. Long, long gone.
(The Rev.) Ron Steltzlani
Mondovi- Gilmanton Charge
One is hard pressed about what to make of Preston Jones essay "More Scandals of the Evangelical Mind" (June/July).
The conclusion seems to argue for at least tolerance of fundamentalists. Their "young people have some familiarity with the Bible," "they give more (of their finances) away," without them "the pro- life cause would be in more desperate straits" and the "American family would be an even greater disaster." Consequently, he says, holding them in contempt "should be resist[ed]." However, holding them in "contempt" is precisely what the first 80 percent of his essay does through words of others, with himself concluding that fundamentalists dont have "all that much to give in the first place." Is he truly trying to temper criticism of fundamentalists, or to plead for tolerance while actually damning them with faint praise?
It is worth noting that while the intelligentsia pontificate on arcane matters, it is the "great unwashed" (Jones term), of all religious persuasions, that are manning drug rehab centers, food kitchens, crisis pregnancy centers, homeless shelters, hospice organizations, jail ministries, and similar outreaches. Arcane matters may not be trivial, but throughout the Bible, as in Matthew 25: 34- 36, Gods interest is inand He blessesthose who go, give, provide, visit, and servenot intellectuals who attain a superior education and pontificate.
Forrest H. Scott
Many thanks to Mr. Scott for his letter. He seems to have read my essay too literally, allowing no quarter for irony, humor, and (my wife requires me to add) sarcasm. For instance, he construes my poking fun at fundamentalists as "contempt." But a good bit of that poking was aimed at myself, my own family, and folks whose memories I cherish. Otherwise I dont see that he and I have any disagreements.
Until I realized that Jerry L. Walls was a Southern Baptist, I wondered how a reasonably reflective Christian could write his portion of "Must Truth Offend? An Exchange" (June/July).
J. A. DiNoia undoubtedly sets the matter straight in a scholarly and gentle manner. Nonetheless, allow me to join the conversation where Walls affirms "that if a religious seeker of good will was properly informed of the teachings of Christianity, of the evidences for it, and likewise with respect to other religions, and was not influenced by cultural biases (assuming for the sake of argument this could be the case), then that seeker would believe Christianity. If he would not, he would not be a person of good will." That, I submit, reflects an arrogance that brings Christianity into disrepute. Consider the following.
First, salvation is Gods business, not mans, including Christian mans.
Second, revelation requires faith for revelation to be revelation, as parent requires child in order to be parent. Faith is total gift. No one dare impute moral culpability of any degree to one who does not accept Jesus Christ for reasons known only to God.
Third, public history and cosmic success are assured in the real ontological order in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The private history and personal appropriation of this reality is known only to the living God. As Augustine said centuries ago, "Many whom God has the Church does not have; many whom the Church has God does not have."
Our task as Christians, whether in pastoral work or missionary work, is to witness to Christ, not to convert others to Christ. Conversion is a highly personal matter between the human being and the unique mysterious figure of Jesus Christ. The act of faith that engages the whole person, mind and will and heart, is nevertheless impossible without the gift of grace, which enlightens the mind, strengthens the will, and delivers the heart to the beloved Father. No one dare enter the personal sanctuary of this holy secret intercourse between the Holy Trinity and each individual human being. As Bernanos dying country priest uttered, "All is grace." We with the great gift of this faith have indeed the duty and hope and joy to pray that all the world believe, that all the world be one. But our task is not to convert others to Christ but to witness to Christ in our own daily lives. We cannot and should not seek to manipulate Gods gift of the grace of faith. We must not judge others who cannot or do not accept Jesus Christ.
I want to thank Mr. Dehler for his response to my article. It is noteworthy, however, that his attributing arrogance to me confirms my central thesis, namely, that basic religious disagreement inevitably comes down at some point to judgments of moral culpability. He did not, I take it, intend the charge of arrogance as a moral compliment. Mr. Dehler is surely right that salvation is Gods business and none of us are in a positon to judge with certainty the faith or salvation of another. But the notion that belief in Christ is essential for final salvation is hardly a negotiable matter for Christian theology. The passages in Pascal I cited which judge unbelief to be culpable reflect a long tradition in Christian teaching that goes all the way back to the Athanasian Creed and even to Christ himself.
In the same vein, Mr. Dehler is mistaken in his claim that revelation requires faith in order to be revelation, properly speaking. Surely revelation requires faith in order to be appropriated in a saving way. But revelation can also be met by willful unbelief and rejection. It is no less revelation for that. Indeed, it is precisely because it remains revelation even when rejected that makes such rejection culpable. Mr. Dehler is also correct that conversion is Gods work and not ours. But Christian conversion is surely not a personal matter only between individuals and God. Christians are called to give public witness to their faith by way of confession, baptism, and regular participation in the means of grace. For the record, I am a United Methodist, not a Southern Baptist. But given the current doctrinal indifference of oldline Protestant denominations, the confusion is understandable. I do not mind being identified with the Baptists on these matters just as I am sure I would never be accused of being a Methodist for arguing that essential orthodox belief really is important.
In "Ecumenical Anxieties" (Public Square, June/July), Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, at Father Neuhaus invitation, comments on the recent statement by 150 German theologians which asserts that the Lutheran- Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification does not represent the consensus that is claimed. Professor Pannenberg intuits that this 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," he rejoins, "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."
To be sure, the restoration of full ecclesial communion does not require melding the separated churches into a megachurch. The Catholic Church is a communion of distinct churchesindeed, a communion of communionshaving a diversity of liturgical rites, canonical disciplines, spiritual and theological traditions (within the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy), and even (to some degree) systems of outward organization. Theoretically, then, establishing full communion between Catholics and Lutherans need not entail "Lutheranism being swallowed completely into the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church."
On this point it is crucial to clarify terms. Lutherans need not enter the Roman Catholic Church, if by "Roman" is meant, not the Catholic Church in general, but the particular church of Rome (as distinct from, say, the Maronite Church in union with Rome). Lutherans could in theory remain a distinct entity within the family of sister churches that comprises the Catholic Church whose center is Rome. But, as Pope John Paul II reaffirmed in Ut Unum Sint, Catholic ecumenism cannot settle for any kind of reunion that does not entail hierarchical communion with the Roman See. For Catholics, the principle of "reunion without absorption" is acceptable, provided it includes visible unity with Peters successor. In his book Called to Communion, Cardinal Ratzinger points out that "both neighborly solicitude and living relation with Rome pertain to the catholicity of a bishop [and, a fortiori, of his church] as ways of giving and receiving in the great communion of the one Church."
With that important qualifier, the question remains: Once full agreement in doctrine between Lutherans and Catholics has been reached and intercommunion becomes possible, should Lutherans (or any of the Reformation churches, for that matter) retain a corporate identity at all? Is the Lutheran communion, like the Eastern- rite Catholic churches, sufficiently distinct in its rites, its spirituality, its discipline, and its articulation of the gospel to warrant remaining a distinct body within the one Church? Incorporating Lutherans into the Roman church seems sensible to me, given our common (i.e., Western) cultural, theological, and liturgical patrimony, as well as the adaptability of the modern Roman rite to particular "usages" (e.g. Anglican and Zairean).
The name of the ecumenical game, so to speak, may indeed be "remaining churches while becoming one Church." I merely question the advisability of this approach in every instance, especially with regard to the separated Western bodies. Absorption ought not always be regarded as a dirty word.
(The Rev.) Thomas M. Kocik
St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church
With a mixture of amusement and irritation I read the report in While Were At It (June/July) on Baptists and Seventh- day Adventists rushing to the defense of Luthers doctrine of justification, and in the process demolishing Luthers sacramental theology.
It does need clearly to be understood that there are orthodox Lutherans, both here and elsewhere, who believe that Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) is an inadequate articulation of the doctrine upon which we firmly believe the church stands or falls: the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christs work alone.
This is all well and good. Healthy, honest, sober- minded debate over the doctrine of justification can only prove helpful to the cause of true and genuine unity in the Faith. Who knows? Such honest dialogue may even catch on in ecumenical circles. But then the World Council of Churches might have to go out of business, and with it, its local franchise, the National Council of Churches USA.
But with the Southern Baptists and Seventhday Adventists "helping" us Lutherans, as apparently they are attempting to do, one cant help but recall the old adage, "With friends like these . . ."
(The Rev.) Paul T. McCain
Assistant to the President
Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod
St. Louis, MO
So, James Nuechterlein has outed me. In his essay "The Weird World of Sports" (This Time, June/July, he says, "My colleague Matt Berke . . . is a monomaniacal sports nut. He likes only one sport, baseball, and only one team, the New York Yankees. Which of these is the more unfathomable is hard to say." Well, Im certainly honored, after all these years, to be described as the archetype of something; but when my friend characterizes this mania as "unfathomable," I need to explain.
First, true baseball fans are not narrow- minded sports fans; often they are not sports fans at all but simply baseball fanswho may or may not have a casual interest in other games. (I dont.) Baseball, however, is the only game deserving of serious attention or devotion: football, basketball, boxing, etc. may be symbolic reenactments of war but only baseball is a reenactment of life (including war). However, this is not the place for yet another hymn to "the national pastime," so Ill leave it at that.
As for the Yankees, this loyalty is not unfathomable at all. They were the only local team when I was six years old, the Dodgers and Giants having left for California and the Mets still on the drawing board. Had I grown up in the Boston area, I would have been a fierce Red Sox fan, and probably by now utterly broken in spirit. It was simply luck, I suppose, that the home team happened to be filled with certifiable heroes: Mickey, Whitey, Yogi, Moose, Elston, and a newcomer named Roger Maris whom a lot of people didnt like even though (really because) he broke Babe Ruths home run record, and whether he was wearing his trademark insouciant grin or his sad, hang- dog look Maris always had a little curl at the lip that reminded me of Elvis Presley. And of course, the Yankees represented Tradition, with an apostolic succession that ran from Ruth to Gehrig to DiMaggio to Mantle. Rooting for them was not, as envious detractors frequently say, like rooting for U.S. Steel, much less (as Mr. Nuechterlein suggests) like being for Germany against Poland in 1939; I dont think I ever rooted for the Germans in any war, except maybe in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, and perhaps not even then.
New York, NY