Volume > Issue > Letters to the Editor: July-August 1985

Letters to the Editor: July-August 1985

Crippling Absolutist Mania

Peter Kreeft’s article “Be­yond ‘Left’ and ‘Right’” (April) shows us no route beyond left and right because he doesn’t ex­amine how liberals and conserva­tives work their principles into programs. He chides opposing political factions for practicing “selective idealism” without tell­ing us why they are selectively idealistic. Instead, he indulges in rhetorical ornament and poetic contrasts for effect — e.g., his comparison of “the Arctic air of logical thought” with “the steamy jungles of political ideol­ogy.” A breath of Arctic air might frost over Kreeft’s elabo­rate flowers and prompt him to briefer and more careful descrip­tions of the conflict he intends to ameliorate.

Unfortunately, he launches into ethical discussion after pre­senting us with a gallery of cari­catures of liberal and conserva­tive thought. The caricatures have secondary relevance; where are their originals? Nowhere in Kreeft’s article, I’m afraid. Con­sequently, his moral prescription is as distorted as his description.

That prescription begins with the axiom that logical thought and philosophical histo­ry show that there are “only two clear and consistent positions” in ethics. With this standard, he demonstrates disjunction in the guiding principles of right and left; each side pleads now expe­diency, now principle. This is dis­agreeable to his philosophic de­corum.

But selective idealism is en­demic to moral thinking; which is why people take different po­sitions and arrive at different so­lutions. Relativity and absolut­ism operate in all our decisions. We feel the pull of expediency and principle equally. Kreeft be­lieves that only the poles, an eternal moral absolute and a tem­poral moral chaos, are real, and that the complexity is a mistake; but it’s the poles that are fanta­sies and abstractions, and the middle ground which is real. Moral responsibility exists only between the poles in the same way that physical life exists only between Arctic and Antarctic. Logical thought’s arctic air is arc­tic indeed: no one can really re­side in it and live without artifi­cial support.

In actuality, we’re relative relativists, who recognize the im­perative for norms of some sort, and relative absolutists, who know, even when we don’t con­fess it, that fluidity, contingency, and perspective change the way we employ our principles; in fact, they shape the principles themselves. Outside the fluid, contingent, and perspectival, the absolutes don’t even exist.

But in binding himself to absolute Absolutism, Kreeft binds himself to the same solu­tion every absolutist reaches: that those who don’t consistent­ly apply “logical” ethical truths must be ignorant, or sinful, or both; in Kreeft’s colloquial phrase, “We’re all dummies.” We’re “severely handicapped people, severely retarded peo­ple”; if we’re so hampered, how can we live in the scorchingly cold air at all? How can we think as excruciatingly and exhaustingly as Kreeft believes we must? I suppose this leaves us in the posi­tion of cripples who have to strain every muscle just to raise an arm; though it may be that Kreeft has simply crippled him­self with absolutist mania. Anything is acceptable that obscures the fact that the absolute itself causes the conflict; that the ab­solute itself is contradictory.

Church history itself shows that a single altar, even God Him­self, doesn’t create unity and constancy within a group of het­erogeneous human beings. Broad­er and freer areas may occasion­ally permit looser unities, but in the sharper moral conflicts, those unities become forbidden. The individual perceives distinct val­ues from within a distinct moral and experiential situation; this background, though contingent, becomes an absolute condition and context for our moral under­standings. Because the back­ground differs from soul to soul, we make valuations differently. Even unity in Church teaching doesn’t change this, because the decision to accept the teaching, and the way in which we accept it, still involves subjective valua­tion; so that we remain in con­flict.

Like many other industri­ous Christian scholars and jour­nalists, Kreeft is very worried about the gulf between different Christian consciences, and hopes to persuade us that this is a mis­take, ethical, logical, spiritual, or all of them together, that can be corrected through proper think­ing and proper praying. Every crack must be mortared, every split sewn together. The desire for a moral “seamless garment” overrides every consideration that might get in the way.

But the “seamless garment” is imaginable only in an abstract world, one of false generalities, where anti-abortionists and peace marchers must all hang together or all hang separately. Yet the thoughts, tendencies, and actions engraved in our individuality not only make this unlikely; they al­so make it impossible. We can lis­ten to those who urge us to don the seamless garment; but if someone believes that the peace movement is a greater invitation to suicide than nuclear weapons and that abortion is actual soci­etal suicide, he would be dishon­est if he agreed to wear it. If an­other, after all due consideration, believed the danger of destruc­tion of all existing lives and fu­ture generations much more ur­gent than the cutting off of em­bryonic, undeveloped selves, how will we demand that he change his conscience? Either type may conceivably come to agree with Kreeft; but they are also un­bound, free, and are not forced, in principle, to agree.

While the “seamless gar­ment” has the attraction of overt consistency and simplicity, an­other metaphor warns us away from arguments and systems “cut from whole cloth,” which is the only conceivable method of making such a garment. Once we try to take it from the two-di­mensional rack into the partial, layered, tangled traffic of moral life, we shouldn’t be too surpris­ed if we hear voices crying as we go, “But he has no clothes on!” Human beings, even redeemed human beings, can’t wear mere air.

J.R. Hochstedt Jr.

Scottsdale, Arizona

Double Standards

I read Peter Kreeft’s piece “Beyond ‘Left’ and ‘Right’” (April) with its stern but wise words about picking and choos­ing what one will be moral about. Often my husband and I have talked about just that, and also about how easy it is to fall into doing so oneself, despite the best of intentions.

Recently there have been “divestment” demonstrations on the University of California at Berkeley campus. There they were — staff, students, faculty, just plain folks — putting them­selves on the line for the blacks in South Africa, saying that apar­theid is such a moral evil that they wanted their university to rid itself of investments in companies that do business with the government that perpetrates it. Unlike the “good (or bad) old days” of the 60s and 70s, there was almost no violence; I strolled through campus with my infant with no hesitation. But like earlier times, there was a great sense of moral indignation and an ur­gency that something be done to stop apartheid.

On April 26 I had just fin­ished reading the front page Daily Californian article about the latest anti-apartheid arrests, when an item on page three caught my attention. “Students storm showing of anti-abortion film,” said the headline. Not sur­prising in Berkeley, I thought. But I was hardly prepared for what followed. “Fifty demon­strators abandoned the steps of Sproul Hall at seven o’clock Wed­nesday night in order to protest the anti-abortion film ‘Silent Scream.’” The rest of the piece detailed how the demonstrators had torn up the sign announcing the film, unplugged the projec­tor, and (according to the Maranatha Christian Fellowship, which sponsored the showing) stolen part of the film cassette and damaged the cassette deck. The police came, and one dem­onstrator claimed that an officer had used a chokehold on another demonstrator (a charge denied by the police), but no arrests were made because “the protes­tors were not violating any law by going to the public film show­ing,” according to a police officer. The article concluded with a quote from a protestor: “We set out to shut the film down and we did it.”

In the days since, I have thought often about this. How many of the protestors, I won­der, have seen The Silent Scream? Do they know about the violence it portrays? We’ve all seen the horrifying reports on conditions in South Africa; who could doubt the justice of being concerned for all those souls and bodies halfway around the world, in a foreign nation, on the most foreign of continents? And yet some million and a half (and more) bodies (their souls being, thank God, indestructible) are al­lowed to perish each year, some of them within walking distance of the Sproul Hall steps. The same students who want no part of their payments to the Univer­sity used to support South Afri­can investment are quite silent on the topic of part of their fees being used to finance abortions through the Student Health Ser­vice.

Is the violence done to the human spirit — individual and collective — any greater when it is done on the grounds of skin color than when it is done on the basis of convenience, women’s rights, viability, or whatever line the “pro-choicers” wish to ar­gue? “Any man’s death diminish­es me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” I doubt if Dr. Donne would draw a distinction between oppressed South Africans and aborted babies.

Kathryn Klar Mealiffe

Visiting Lecturer, University of California

Berkeley, California

From a “Prisoner of Conscience”

On Easter morning, 1984, seven friends and I — the Persh­ing Plowshares — entered Martin Marietta’s weapons factory in Or­lando, Florida, used hammers to symbolically disarm Pershing II and Patriot missile system equip­ment and poured our own blood as a reminder of the consequenc­es of the use of such weapons. After a week-long “trial” we were convicted on two felony counts in federal court and sen­tenced to three years in prison. These, then, are the bare facts of our case. What I hope to share is the meaning and value of our act.

I wish to convey, over all, how right our disarmament ac­tion felt and continues to feel, how much it seemed for me a sharing in both the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus: The Crucifixion because we had struggled over several months of discussion and prayer to come to that point, to the willingness to offer our liberty, and possibly our lives (we worried about get­ting shot by security) for love of our neighbors and in order to choose life. The Resurrection be­cause of the enduring sense of victory which has carried us through our jailing, trial, and sentencing, and which nourishes us still in prison.

That sense was present in the yard of Martin’s war plant when we were discovered on Easter morning. We had spent a relatively short time actually hammering on the weapon sys­tem components and had been singing and praying for nearly an hour when we were confronted by a security guard. Imagine our delighted surprise when the growing number of police arriv­ing on the scene seemed to treat the circle in which we sat with a kind of reverence, interrupting us almost apologetically between prayers and songs. This ensued for another two hours. Again and again over that summer and since, instances of remarkable grace confirmed the presence of a special spirit that went with us and permitted us to bear witness to the truth about the mortal sin­fulness of the nuclear arms race.

We felt it necessary to carry out such an action because the arms race had undeniably be­come more treacherous than ev­er. Specifically, we chose to con­front the Pershing II missile, for which Martin is the sole manufacturer. Pershing II is a key weapon in the U.S. first strike ar­senal. Its deployment in West Germany in late 1983 had pre­cipitated the Soviet departure from arms control talks in Eu­rope, and increased deployment of Soviet missile-carrying subma­rines off the U.S. coast. In addi­tion, the well-respected Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists had as­sessed the implications of the 1983 deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles by moving their “doomsday clock” to three minutes to midnight, closer to disaster than it had been in 30 years. (I might add that it has be­come clear that the situation is even worse now: the U.S. de­ploys a new Pershing II every week, the Soviets are apparently adding even more SS-20s and new SS-22s to the European scene, and have announced sub­marine and bomber deployment of long range cruise missiles.) We, for our part, felt deeply our re­sponsibility to respond seriously to such a threat to our world.

We found our most ade­quate response in the prophet Isaiah’s injunction to “beat swords into plowshares.” Indeed, the struggle against nuclear weap­ons is more than political, though peace politics must be learned. It is more than moral, though we should hope that peo­ple understand their urgent mor­al responsibility to banish such weapons. It is for me and, I believe, for humanity, a struggle of faith. Do we believe in the bibli­cal God of life or in these idola­trous gods of death? We cannot serve two masters.

I have also spoken of our sense of victory, which may seem peculiar. After all, what is victor­ious about being arrested, brand­ed “FELON,” and sentenced to three years in prison? Yet I main­tain that we do participate here, in the “folly of the cross,” wherein “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.”

With such a consolation, then — with such a true victory — the eight of us presently sit in federal prison, along with many other peacemakers imprisoned for other actions.

Yet I cannot help but feel that our sacrifices are, in the broader perspective, small ones. Christin Schmidt of our group re­fers to our situation as “pillow torture” for its relative easiness compared to the barbarity others must endure for justice’s sake in such places as Central America, Russia, and southern Africa. Be­fore our trial we had the oppor­tunity to visit the grave of Salvadoran martyr Jean Donovan in Sarasota, Florida. When faced with such a witness as hers, what is our small offering here but pil­low torture indeed!

Paul Magno Jr.

Allenwood, Pennsylvania


Your last few issues were terrific! The great variety of au­thors makes the NOR lively and truly unpredictable. Indeed, you could be called “The New Re­public of Christian magazines.”

Steven Hayward

Claremont, California

Thomas Howard Crosses the Tiber

I thought the extended fam­ily of the New Oxford Re­view would be interested to hear that Thomas Howard, for some years a columnist for the NOR, was received into the Ro­man Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil on April 6, 1985. As is customary, Tom was confirm­ed at Mass on the following Sat­urday. Tom’s pilgrimage toward Rome has been a 20-year pro­cess. Beginning with a sound evangelical upbringing in the faith, he was led by the Incarnational and sacramental visions of writers like C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. Cardinal New­man and many others showed to him the provision Christ has made for the preservation, devel­opment, and unfolding of the Gospel through the Church. And finally writers like Guardini gave him access to the riches of Cath­olic piety. The way in which God has been leading him has been evident in his writing for many years; indeed, the Church has fi­nally confirmed one of the most methodical of conversions.

A Professor of English at evangelical Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, for the past 16 years, Tom’s conversion forced him to decide on the propriety of retaining his position. Al­though Gordon has more of a broad, Christian humanist tradi­tion than most evangelical schools, Tom saw that his con­version might still create substan­tial controversy. As Gordon is not some kind of ecumenical body charged with healing the centuries-old schism, but a school with its own task, Tom thought it best not to involve Gordon in sorting out these old and divisive questions. He has therefore resigned.

Tom’s plans are at this point indefinite. I, for one, think his best writing is ahead of him.

Harold Fickett

Newburyport, Massachusetts

Ed. Note: It might also be noted that (some months earlier) Helen Hull Hitchcock, an NOR staff ar­tist, also crossed the Tiber.

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