There are no grounds for accusing Sheldon Vanauken (“Choosing a Church,” April 1993) of “pompous gloating and smug triumphalism” (R. Raymond Lang’s letter, June 1993) or of consigning “all Christians to second-class citizenship” (David Nicholson’s letter, June 1993). No one who has read Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy could seriously maintain that he would regard non-Catholics (e.g., his wife, Davy, or C.S. Lewis) as second-class citizens, and even a cursory reading of his other works would reveal a deep gratitude to the Anglican Church in particular.
George D. Wignall
Oak Ridge, Tennessee
Let's Be Literal
As a scholar of both the Bible and Semitic languages, I must oppose the misinterpretation of Matthew 16:18 defended by Earl H. Byleen in his letter (June 1993) opposing Sheldon Vanauken (April 1993). Byleen writes, “With Jesus’ delightful play on words, Petros and petra in the Greek New Testament, it seems obvious that Christ is referring to Peter’s confession, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.'” Byleen comes from a tradition (Baptist) that is supposed to base itself on the literal interpretation of Scripture. The literal interpretation of this passage, however, is just as Vanauken suggests. As we know from other places in the New Testament (e.g., John 1:42), the name Jesus gave Simon bar-Jonah was Kepha (Aramaic = Rock). Jesus said, then, “You are Kepha and on this Kepha I will build my Church.” This is not so much a play on words as it is the use of one word twice. The referents are thus being identified with each other. The second Kepha only describes a further attribute of the first Kepha (having the Church built upon it). Jesus did not say, “What you said earlier, Simon, is Kepha.” Rather, the first Kepha is clearly identified, “You [Simon bar-Jonah] are Kepha.”
Keith A.J. Massey
Peter, the High Priest
In his letter (June 1993) replying to Sheldon Vanauken (April 1993), Earl Byleen relies on “You are Petros and on this petra I will build my Church” (Mt. 16:18). This passage is, however, a translation, and not the language Jesus actually used. Jesus spoke Aramaic, and what he said was, “You are Kepha and on this Kepha I will build my Church.” From then on, Jesus’ principal Apostle, Simon bar-Jonah, was known to the early Christians not as Petros but as Kephas (the Greek form of Kepha), or Cephas, as it is usually spelled in English.
Interestingly, Kephas may also be spelled as Kaiphas, the name of the Jewish high priest at the period in question.
Therefore, one may say that, in his play on words, Jesus not only gave Simon the name of Rock but that, even more profoundly, he was saying, “You are Kephas, my high priest, and on this rock I will build my Church.”
Los Angeles, California
The Merits of the Case
I am moved to defend Sheldon Vanauken’s “Choosing a Church” (April 1993), which seems to have generated a largely negative response (letters, June and Jul.-Aug. 1993).
Why is it that so many these days venerate an endless process of seeking and resent a person’s claim to have found? And why does this resentment rarely appear if the “find” is Buddhism, Hinduism, or some esoteric sect? Apparently, cultural relativists’ tolerance stops where Western civilization begins.
I too am a convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism (and some esoteric detours therefrom), although not yet confirmed. A tremendous passion for history — particularly the early Church, her saints, martyrs, and the heresies she fought and survived — has been a strong factor in my decision. What the Catholic Church encompasses in faith, morals, history, philosophy, art, music, architecture, and so on, is infinitely broader and more interesting than the “smelly little orthodoxies of the Zeitgeist” (Neuhaus). Taking the long view, Protestantism does indeed look like an abbreviated religion.
I agree with Vanauken in his letter (Jul.-Aug. 1993) that a Catholic is one who accepts the teaching of the Church on faith and morals. Acceptance does not always or automatically equal understanding, or obliterate all remaining questions (if it did, how many doctrinal controversies would remain unresolved!), but indicates a willingness to accept that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit over the centuries and that perhaps each of us is not the equal of an Augustine, Aquinas,. et al.
John Schwane’s letter (Jul.-Aug. 1993) regarding the unworthiness and fallibility of Peter misstates the case. Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek. The Aramaic word for rock is kepha, and unlike the Greek (petra, Petros), the ending does not change. “Thou art Kepha, and upon this Kepha I will build my Church.” Recall that Christ had previously renamed Simon the fisherman Peter (“Rock”), and that among the Jews such names were reserved for God. Surely not a meaningless gesture on Christ’s part? Of course Peter was a fallible, unworthy human being. The Church is guided by the Holy Spirit to make infallible pronouncements only on matters of faith and morals. This infallibility does not produce sinless popes or extend to matters of discipline, history, political dominion, and so forth.
Many people think that the Church’s moral teachings are out of date. (This is laughable in light of pagan history. We have not yet regressed to the infant sacrifices of the Carthaginians, but the warning signs are posted.) I would urge them to look a little closer, to read those teachings and make an honest attempt to understand them in the context of today’s moral chaos. They might be surprised out of their reflexive, complacent, “modern” attitudes. I was — particularly on abortion, contraception, and euthanasia.
Moreover, let us argue the merits of the case and not resort to ad hominem attacks that wrongly impute meanness, intolerance, or base motives to Vanauken. Zeal for and joy in the “fullness of the Faith,” in the presence of charity and tolerance, is hardly sinful.
In his letter (June 1993) responding to Sheldon Vanauken (April 1993), the Rev. Timothy Lincoln says that Martin Luther “was excommunicated from the Catholic Church; he did not choose to leave it.” This is like saying that a felon was sent to prison and did not choose to go there.
In his Letter (June 1993) complaining about Vanauken, David Nicholson says he was misled by the NOR’s ads into believing it was “a forum for the discussion of ideas that matter”; rather, he finds it to be “a platform for Roman Catholic triumphalism.” The fact that you printed his letter, plus Lincoln’s and others critical of Vanauken, offers evidence that he was not misled.
San Antonio, Texas
A Convert's Reminder
After reading the anti-Sheldon Vanauken letters in the June 1993 issue, I reread his article and came away with the same reaction I’d had on first reading: What a refreshingly direct statement of Catholic belief! In an age of Catholic ecumenism that has mostly sounded like a lot of mea culpas, it’s nice to hear a Catholic take the point of view Vanauken seems unafraid to express. I have spent periods away from the Church, both because of spiritual doubts and burnout caused by an overactive parish life. Yet I keep coming back to her. For all her numerous faults, the Catholic Church is still one founded by Jesus. Those of us born into practicing Catholic families should thank converts like Vanauken for reminding us of that truth.
It Just Doesn't Work
With respect to the antagonistic letters (June and Jul.-Aug. 1993) anent my “Choosing a Church” (April 1993): Far from looking down on Protestants, I continue, after over a decade as a Catholic, to attend Mattins in the local Episcopal parish, and truly love it best for beauty and friendliness. In my article I only wished to say what impelled me, reluctantly, to become Catholic. Earl Byleen (June 1993) and John Schwane (Jul.-Aug. 1993) raise the notion that when Jesus says in Matthew 16 that Simon is from now on Peter (Rock), on which He will build His Church, He means He will build it on Peter’s confession, which is the Rock. How was it, then, that Simon, not his confession, was thereafter called Peter? And let us note that our Lord was not speaking Greek, with its distinction between feminine petra and masculine Petros, but Aramaic, which has no such distinction. The name Jesus gave him was Cephas (Rock).
So, giving him the name Rock, Jesus says that on this Rock He will build His Church. And He says I will give you the keys of the Kingdom and what you forbid shall be forbidden in Heaven. Is He giving the Keys to Peter’s confession? And telling the confession that what it forbids shall be forbidden in Heaven? No, it just doesn’t work, does it? He’s talking to Peter himself — and the other disciples standing there could not interpret what he says in any other way. As to Schwane’s point that Peter was unworthy, who among us isn’t?
George Kennan’s “American Addictions” (June 1993) was great. And true. Nothing can undo the ruin wrought by the internal combustion engine or the mind damage caused by television, but we could, if we have the will, fight our addiction and begin to spare our children. Let me tell four tiny stories.
(1) Although I have never had a television, a decade or more ago I asked about a quarter of the liberal-arts faculty of the college where I taught history this question, individually: If you could press a button that would totally kill television, would you press? They all sought to mediate: some of it, but not all. “No,” I said. “All or nothing. Would you press it?” In the end, all said: “Yes!”
(2) Television not only leads to the passivity (if not deadness) of mind that Kennan points out, it has another tragic result for the young who spend thousands of hours watching it. All experience, all beautiful and far places that are so thrilling to see with young, fresh eyes, are instead seen with a sense of déjà vu. London, Oxford, Rome, Peking, Hawaii…already old hat.
(3) On the Great Bay (Chesapeake) it was a bright, sparkling morning. I swung our schooner — my wife and me — into a little cove where a man I needed to see lived. A pleasant house with wide verandas, alongside a wood to go adventuring in. Small boats danced at their moorings. A big welcoming dog. The man’s wife led me through a darkened room where four children huddled round a television. “They spend all their time in here,” she said apologetically. And the bright morning and wood and dog and boats outside.
(4) Magdalene College, Cambridge, where I was visiting C.S. Lewis: After dining in the Senior Combination Room, the talk turned to the ravages of the motor car to town and country, the choked motorways, the choked towns — every little, charming, “lost” village sooner or later “discovered,” and then its narrow streets choked with cars full of bored, gaping trippers, and the village corrupted by a new commercialism. An elderly don ended the evening with a witticism full of a deadly bitterness: “All power,” he said, “tends to corrupt; horsepower corrupts absolutely.”
Most of us have been taught that the Great Divide in Western History was the Fall of Rome, Greco-Roman civilization, along with the Christianizing of Europe. Not so, says C.S. Lewis in his Cambridge Inaugural, “De Descriptions Temporum“: The greatest of Great Divides occurred about the time of Jane Austen — the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th. It was the coming of the machine and the beginning of the de-Christianizing of Europe. I say “Western History” but, as with Hellenism hundreds of years before Christ, the dynamic West is the tail that wags the world dog. The whole world wants what the West has. And Kennan’s article talks of ills that Old Western Man — Socrates and Vergil, Shakespeare and Dr. Johnson and George Washington — could not have imagined, ills so new that we have no idea how to cope with them, and that may destroy us unless we do cope.
Regarding George Kennan’s “American Addictions” (June 1993): America’s chronic addiction to television will only be heightened by technological advances: HDTV, Virtual Reality, and 3-D television. Government could, but surely won’t, limit broadcasting hours, because commercial interests are too strong. Ironically, the majority of Americans does not have the intellectual capability — largely because of overindulgence in television — to recognize that the linguistic and logical nature of mental development is more important than the visual. The linguistically trained and disciplined thinker — i.e., the reader and writer — now belongs to a rapidly dwindling subculture. The ultimate irony is that if government were to try to decrease television viewing, it would have to communicate with people through the medium itself.
B. Anthony Gannon
Cedar Lake, Indiana
Jesus & Judaism
I read with great interest John Warwick Montgomery’s “When is a Jew Not a Jew?” (June 1993). I would like to clarify and amplify his statement that “almost all first-generation Christians were Jews.” The first followers of Jesus after the crucifixion were Jews, not “Christians.” The best account I am aware of can be found in The First Coming by Thomas Sheehan: “Faith in Jesus began as, and for a long time remained, a movement within Judaism. The first disciples saw themselves not as belonging to a new religion, not even as an exclusive sect within Judaism, but rather as orthodox Jews who were proclaiming what Israel had always awaited but only now had attained: the fullness of Yahweh’s presence.”
The Israeli Supreme Court has displayed its ignorance of both history and theology. It seeks to deny the essential Judaism of Jesus as well as that of His Apostles and followers — because of the great harm and injustice done to the Jewish people as a result of Christian theology over its 2,000-year history. Only now in the latter part of the 20th century have that harm and injustice at last been perceived by Catholics and Protestants and some attempts been made to correct them. However, 2,000 years of injustice do not theologically deprive any Jew of the right to believe in the Messiahship of Jesus and to remain a Jew, just as his ancestors did for 40 years following the death of Jesus.
Bruce M. Bogin
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