Volume > Issue > Briefly: June 1992

June 1992

Culture Wars

By James Davi­son Hunter

Publisher: Basic

Pages: 416

Price: $25

Review Author: Ronald Austin

“We are in a civil war of values and the prize to the victor is the next generation — our children and grandchil­dren.” Such is the scope of America’s cultural war, so passionately engaged in on all sides as to approach despera­tion, a battle being constantly fought on many fronts over countless issues — education, sexual morality, abortion, art funding, pop music. It is not just a power struggle between the religious Right and secular humanism, for it has produced bitter enmity inside Christian and Jewish communities.

James Davison Hunter’s book is a sensible and useful guide through the combat zones, and a valuable contribu­tion to understanding what the fight is all about. It is clearly written, the rare and telling at­tribute of an author who knows his own mind. Hunter’s thesis is that the American people have evolved different, competing, and seemingly in­compatible systems of moral understanding, and that the “culture war” is a battle for the high ground of moral authority.

This deep-seated conflict has been obscured by a di­minished common vocabulary and the opportunistic hype of the media and politicians. The result is an increasing polariza­tion of impulses, strongly felt but poorly articulated.

Hunter traces the history of American pluralism, which, while always plagued with strife, was sustained by a prevailing Protestant “Biblical Theism.” Americans, however diluted their theology, could always “fall back” on the Commandments and the Gold­en Rule. By the 1960s, howev­er, fundamental and structural changes in American society eroded, if not shattered, that consensus. Family life was (and remains) in crisis, with institutional authority widely questioned. The transformation into an “information society” has provoked a struggle among ambitious elites who now compete for nothing less than the “power to define reality.”

Hunter points to core re­ligious and theological disputes which have raged for over a hundred years. At the heart of culture is faith, he asserts, and so we ultimately confront the competing truth claims of two different approaches to religion in general, and Christianity in particular. The first, traditional or orthodox (and several “or­thodoxies” are described), tends to find moral guidance from external, definable, and transcendental authority (reve­lation, the Magisterium). The other, termed “Progressivism,” is engaged in the “resym­bolizing” of faith according to the prevailing assumptions of the modern world.

Hunter proposes some sensible steps in the direction of changing the “environment of public discourse.” Reconcili­ation between traditionalists and progressives will have to be sought in arenas other than politics and the courts — and television, which tempts partic­ipants into “rhetorical excess.” Different venues are needed. Hunter urges both sides to recognize the dangers of their positions. The progressives’ problem is a “radical subjectiv­ism” and a refusal to set limits or boundaries, which puts our sense of community and moral order at risk. Many debates over censorship, for instance, display this tendency to refuse to recognize responsibilities as well as rights. Traditionalists need to recognize that laws and rules must be based on popular consent, and that the central task is to cultivate vir­tue, not pass laws or win elec­tions. This may require new ways to “enact ideals”; which, in turn, create rather than assume communitas.

It is beyond the scope of Hunter’s book to engage in the underlying theological debates, but his persuasive analysis clearly points in those direc­tions. It seems that the smoke that is choking American dis­course drifts from still raging sacred fires.

The Great Dissent: John Henry Newman and the Liberal Heresy

By Robert Pattison

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 231

Price: $29.95

Review Author: Paul J. Weithman

Robert Pattison claims that Newman achieved greatness as a critic of his age and of all that it believed. Newman’s in­tellectual counterparts are Len­in and Nietzsche, Pattison boldly declares, for only they could match the virulence of his criticism. Liberalism was the dominant intellectual and political movement of 19th-century England; against it Newman registered the great dissent that gives this book its name, a book written to con­vey the force, scope, and logic of that dissent.

The liberal whom Newman attacked with greatest ferocity was Renn Dickson Hampden, professor of divinity at the Ox­ford of Newman’s day, and part of The Great Dissent is de­voted to their controversies. This is a surprising argumenta­tive strategy on the part of Pattison. How, we might wonder, could Newman achieve intellectual parity with Nietz­sche by controverting a now­ forgotten Victorian divine? Part of Pattison’s answer is that Hampden richly merits an honored place in the history of English philosophy. Pattison claims, incredibly, that Hamp­den belongs in “the company of Locke, Hume, Mill and Russell.”

Pattison’s thesis also suf­fers from an initial air of im­plausibility. He claims that Newman became a great critic of the modern world by criti­cizing liberalism. But an attack on liberalism seems futile unless its particular form is clear­ly specified. Mill’s liberalism differs significantly from Kant’s; an attack on one might well leave the other unscathed. Moreover, liberalism is but one “ism” of modernity. We might therefore wonder how New­man could attack “liberalism,” or could attack all of modernity by doing so.

Pattison characterizes liber­alism so broadly that it is sometimes hard to see what it does not include. Liberalism is variously equated with or said to imply skepticism, anti-dog­matism, positivism, relativism, “the separation of belief from action,” state supremacy over the church, and commitments to freedom of thought, free­dom of markets, and the rule of law. At one point Pattison even suggests that Marxism takes liberalism to its logical conclusion — this despite the implacable opposition to liber­alism Marx expressed in “On the Jewish Question.” Indeed, one of the book’s greatest frustrations is that the word “liberalism” and its cognates appear on virtually every page but are never clearly defined.

Perhaps Pattison’s ambigu­ous use of the word “liber­alism” is intended to reflect the imprecision of Newman’s own thought. In fact, Pattison im­plies, Newman would have re­garded distinctions among the various forms of liberalism as intellectual trifles. Newman seems to have divided the world, including all thinkers living and dead, into two camps — the liberal and the orthodox.

The foundations of the lib­eral camp, Newman argued, were laid in the fourth century by the heretic Arius, who de­nied that the Father and the Son are one in being. The Arian heresy depends upon theses about divine ineffability and the utter inadequacy of language to express what is fundamental to reality. The central theses of Arianism, Newman thought, seeped into Western culture. From Arian views sprang the liberalism — theological, political, and phil­osophical — that Newman so despised.

Orthodoxy, Newman thought, was committed to a different set of beliefs, which Athanasius, a contemporary and opponent of Arius, defend­ed. Newman seems to have thought that to understand Arianism is to understand the most basic beliefs of the mod­ern world. To understand Athanasian thought is to un­derstand how those beliefs can be rebutted and modernity defeated. Thus the Arian presuppositions of all modernity, and not the doctrines of 19th­-century English liberals, were Newman’s primary target. The Great Dissent contains lengthy discussions of Arianism and Athanasianism, and of the philosophical views Newman developed from the latter.

This would, however, be a far better book if the exposition of Newman’s philosophical views were more critical. That Newman believed all moderni­ty sprang from a fourth-cen­tury heresy does not make it so.

Exploration of Newman’s views would profit from com­parison with those of another great Christian of whom there is no systematic discussion. Augustine, like Newman, di­vided rational creation, both the living and the dead, into two camps — not the liberal and the orthodox, but the City of Man and the City of God. Newman’s two camps were divided by their beliefs, Au­gustine’s by their loves. Citizens of the City of God love God most of all and love all created things for His sake. Citizens of the City of Man attach greatest value to them­selves and to sexual pleasure, money, and temporal power.

Pattison portrays Newman as a thoroughgoing critic of modernity who preferred the orthodoxy of the fourth cen­tury. Augustine was a man born in that century whose life spilled into the first quarter of the next. He despised and critiqued the moral pretensions of classical culture in favor of the orthodox Catholicism Newman later championed. Critical comparisons of New­man and Augustine on epistemology, philosophy of lan­guage, psychology, and histo­riography would greatly im­prove this book, and underline and clarify Newman’s status as a Christian critic.

The Great Dissent is engag­ingly written and thoroughly researched. Those who dislike liberalism in all its incarnations will no doubt enjoy the book. Those who want to study liberalism closely to see what must be saved and what can be harmonized with orthodox Christianity will no doubt be less pleased.

Systematic Theology, Volume I

By Wolfhart Pannenberg

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 473

Price: $39.95

Review Author: David Hartman

Recall the old Indian prov­erb of the five blind mendi­cants who encounter their first elephant: One holds the trunk and says an elephant is like a snake. “No,” says the second, wrapping his arm around a leg, “an elephant is like a tree.” “No,” responds the third, touching the point of a tusk, “an elephant is like a sword.” “Wrong,” calls out the fourth, twisting the tail, “an elephant is like a rope.” “You’re all mistaken,” cries out the fifth, who is patting a flank. “An elephant is like a wall.”

The point, of course, is that even though each mendi­cant correctly describes an ele­phant as far as his limited per­spective permits, none comes close to discerning its fullness. This parable bears recalling when contemplating the cease­less fragmenting of liberal Protestant theology, which may now have reached its predes­tined atomization. Against it stands the perduring edifice of orthodox Christianity. In this, the first volume of his project­ed multi-part Systematic Theolo­gy, Wolfhart Pannenberg eluci­dates and defends the ortho­dox understanding of God, starting with the truth claims of Christian doctrine and con­cluding with the attributes of God’s love. No Protestant living today could have under­taken such a consequential task with more depth, insight, and intellect. While thousands of lesser lights grope and scrabble about, mistaking minutiae for essentia, Pannenberg knows that in Christianity there is a whole elephant.

It is the great and endur­ing legacy of the Scholastics to have reclaimed from the ruins of Greece the intellectual lega­cy of reason, and to have ap­plied it to the truths of revela­tion. Centuries later, in no small part because of churchly excesses, Enlightenment think­ers like Adam Smith, David Hume, and Voltaire sundered reason from revelation. The precepts of the Enlightenment dominated Western thinking, and few Christian apologists possessed the will to challenge them. But in yielding the field of public philosophy, many Christians were led to conclude that reason and revelation, instead of both bearing witness to an indivisible truth, occu­pied totally separate realms. The logical conclusion of such a division, of course, is the divorce of religion from public discourse, except when the state wants a blessing. The consequences are baleful: Reli­gion either retreats into priva­tism or advances into jingoism, and society, in either event, loses its moral ballast.

Throughout his distinguishe­d career, Pannenberg has la­bored to restate Christian or­thodoxy’s heritage of reasoned discourse and its rightful place in the intellectual and public realms. In this volume he combines an encyclopedic knowledge of theologians pres­ent and past with an astonish­ing grasp of biblical scholar­ship. This skillful work en­compasses models of revela­tion; the truths and history of religion; prolegomena and dogmatics; the majesty, infini­ty, and love of God; and much more. All topics are dealt with thoroughly, if not exhaustively, and his chapters on the Trinity are beyond praise. I do not know how many volumes this project will reach before completion, but if he lives long (Pannenberg is 63), it should rival Karl Barth’s Church Dog­matics in both depth and range, while avoiding Barth’s crabby and circumscribed world view.

One caution: This is no beach book. While the prose is lucid enough, anecdotes are in short supply and whimsy is nonexistent.

One final note: The last serious book I read before this one (not counting Silence of the Lambs) was Avery Dulles’s Models of Revelation. This was no beach book either. But I was struck by how similar in tone, outlook, and doctrine these two profoundly orthodox Christians are. In fact, on the jacket of Pannenberg’s volume, Dulles hails Pannenberg for “command of the biblical materials, mastery of the Chris­tian tradition, and philosophi­cal acumen.” One is a Catho­lic, the other a Lutheran. Had I not known beforehand when reading their books, I could not have easily discerned which was which. Perhaps one can say Dulles is an ecumeni­cal Catholic, and Pannenberg a catholic Ecumenical — is this the future of Christianity?

In any case, orthodox Christianity lives. There is an elephant.

The Winding Passage

By Daniel Bell

Publisher: Transaction

Pages: 370

Price: $22.95

Review Author:

Daniel Bell is a Renais­sance man, an intellectual’s in­tellectual — one of the last of a seemingly dying breed, for the polymath has given way to the technician, the esotericist, the propagandist, and the career­ist. Among graduate students a generation ago, the name of Daniel Bell was weighty, even magical, although sometimes despised. But today few seem to be reading him. Theirs is the loss.

A morally and politically committed man of ideas, Bell nonetheless defies easy classifi­cation. A social democrat, he has been a sharp critic of the Left (not unlike George Or­welb~ An early, nuanced neoconservative, he would break with the neocon mafia, refuse to run with the pack. A Jew, he watched so many others make the tortuous, now tren­dy, trek from Jewish radicalism to Jewish nationalism while himself embracing neither. He is a keen and sympathetic stu­dent of religion, but, sadly, belief somehow continues to elude him.

Why read Daniel Bell? Not necessarily to find confirmation of one’s point of view, but simply to learn. One cannot dip into Bell without a sense of discovery, or delight, for he has that rare gift of bringing together substance and nuance and style to the subjects he discusses. Bell is a master.

The Winding Passage was first printed in 1980 and has now been reissued, with a not very helpful Foreword by Irving Louis Horowitz. The book collects some of Bell’s finest essays, most notably “The Return of the Sacred” (itself worth the price of the book). A sample gem: “if reli­gion was once the opium of the people, that place has been taken by pornotopia, where the straight and narrow have become kinky and twisted.” Also especially notable are “Beyond Modernism, Beyond Self” (which enlarges upon his The Cultural Contradictions of Capital­ism), “The End of American Exceptionalism,” and “The New Class: A Muddled Con­cept.”

In a book full of insights — sociological, theological, and otherwise — there is one to which American Catholics should pay special heed: “The antinomian individual, in modern times, appears with the Protestant Reformation. Antinomianism is the assertion of the conscience of the indi­vidual against institutions (the Church) or the Law. It is the basis of individualism. It is also the basis of the ‘self’ that becomes unrestrained and seeks the lineaments of its own desires as the touchstone of sensibility and even of moral judgments. The burdens of the Law are always evident…. But…when heresy becomes a la mode, orthodoxy, paradoxically, is the stronger standpoint for criticism of society. Antinomi­anism sanctions all forms of challenge and experiment, so that in the end, nothing is sacred.” Cardinal Ratzinger couldn’t have said it better.

The Sea Remains

By Jean Sulivan

Publisher: Crossroad

Pages: 118

Price: $13.95

Review Author:

The Sea Remains is the first of Jean Sulivan’s 22 books to be translated from the French, and it is no exaggeration on the part of the publisher to call Sulivan another Georges Ber­nanos, because the penetration into the life of a priest and life of faith in Diary of a Country Priest reaches new depths in Sulivan’s prize-winning story of the retirement years of ca­reer churchman Ramon Cardi­nal Rimaz.

Hardly eventful, a younger person might say; but those on the other side of 40 have to school their imaginations to fix a hopeful gaze upon their end­ings, which for the Christian are marked by the immensely significant events of letting go and summing up and dying. And Rimaz’s final years are marked by happenings that an­ticipate John Cheever’s Falconer and make some sense of the still mysterious death of Jean Cardinal Danielou.

Elie Wiesel calls us to “lis­ten to the voice of Jean Sulivan — you will be enriched by its poignant quest for beauty and humanity.” The voice, yes; but what is really captivating is Sulivan’s use of a painter’s palette and a motion picture maker’s techniques to express visually and aurally what goes on interiorly.

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