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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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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