Letters to the Editor: July-August 1986
Thomas Molnar’s observations on European conservatism (May) remind us that no universal pattern of politics exists or can exist. The political tag “The Right,” derived from French parliamentary arrangements of a century and a half ago, always has been meaningless in the United States — fond of it though newspapermen have been in recent decades. And the “democratic capitalism” preached nowadays by Michael Novak (an absurd term, as John C. Cort remarks in your same number) cannot really do duty as a substitute for the old conservative understanding of social order, here in the United States.
The term conservative signifies various attitudes in various lands: a great party, a coalition of older parties, in Britain; in Spain, the adherents of tradition; in Switzerland, the politics of Catholics; in German-speaking countries, the parties and factions of the landed interest; in the United States, the opponents of centralization and collectivism; etc. It may be said truly enough, nevertheless, that there can be discerned in every country a conservative mentality or impulse, attached to what Eliot called “the permanent things.” Conservatism is no ideology, but rather a way of regarding the civil social order; so we are not to expect to find its manifestations identical among every people and in every era.
Rather oddly, Molnar does not mention that the terms “conservative” and “conservatism” are of French origin, in the years immediately following the fall of Napoleon; they passed into British politics in the 1820s, and into American political contests in the 1840s. For a succinct account of the word and the concept, one may turn to Robert A. Nisbet’s Conservatism: Dream and Reality, just published by the University of Minnesota Press.
Intellectually Shabby, Untruthful, Spiritually Tacky, Etc.
Virtually everything I have read in the NOR after three issues is intellectually shabby. What prompts this missive, however, is the article “Is Christianity the Same as Buddhism Underneath?” (May). In almost 70 years of living and reading I have never encountered as much intellectual drivel, spiritual hubris, or (Byzantine — in both senses of the word) Catholic self-righteousness as Thomas W. Case managed to spew out in the short space of his article — not to mention his glaring historical illiteracy.
Some years ago Arnold Toynbee published a book titled Christianity Among the Religions of the World, and somewhere out there is an article by Paul Tillich on the same theme. Comes now Thomas Case to join these two men, who despite their profuse verbosity, essentially say, in a not-so-adult version of the children’s protestations, “Mine’s better than yours, mine’s better than yours.” Three men, all professing Christians, come to the remarkable conclusion that theirs is better than somebody else’s religion. Surprise! Case’s argument, beyond being merely intellectually shabby — and untruthful — is also spiritually tacky.
Case seems to have dabbled among the literature of some of the world’s religions, then decided on Catholic Christianity. Gollllleeeee! I could comment, sentence by sentence, on his opinionated remarks, but will limit myself to commenting on only a few of his more puerile statements.
Case criticizes Buddhism because “it is short on salvific grace.” There is an injunction in the Old Testament that reads: “Thou shalt not have in thy house divers measures, a great and a small.” One is to use the same scales whether buying or selling. And in evaluating and ranking competing religions, maybe? Case indicated that it would be wrong to condemn an ordinary race horse because it isn’t Pegasus — then in blithe indifference to his own caveat proceeds to use “divers measures” to compare Buddhism with Christianity, measuring his religion, to which he has made a commitment, by its own internal standards, then measuring Buddhism by a set of external standards. He evaluates Christianity by what he perceives it to be, and Buddhism by what it neither is nor claims to be. Oh! that he had been around to guide and counsel the Buddha.
A Buddhist could — but doesn’t — evaluate and reject Christianity because it isn’t Buddhism. He could say, for example, that whereas Buddhism places the responsibility for one’s destiny squarely on each individual’s shoulders, what Christianity offers is a totally irresponsible stance of free salvationism: “Jesus paid it all.” Which is precisely the point George Bernard Shaw makes in the Preface to St. Joan. There used to be a pop Buddhist (Zen) saying: “If you should meet the Buddha, kill him.” No irreverence was intended; instead, the statement exquisitely summarizes the attitude that one does not go whining to anybody, not even the devoutly revered Buddha, to do what responsible individuals should do for themselves.
Years ago when I wrote a weekly column for the religion section of the Saturday edition of The Arizona Republic, a Phoenix daily newspaper, the managing editor told me that the best person to write such a column would be one who is not committed to any religion, therefore devoid of bias toward or against any specific religion. But Christians look at their religion and others either in the sophomoric way Case does, or even in the (presumptively) more sophisticated ways of Toynbee or Tillich, and come to the remarkable conclusion: “Mine’s better than yours.” Like Hamlet, Case seems to be “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,” his “thought” being somewhat wide as a result of his dabbling in religions other than Christianity, and maybe an inch deep — on a good day.
It is not surprising that Case should turn to G.K. Chesterton to bolster his flimsy arguments by pointing out that Chesterton “makes a case” for Christian intolerance and intransigence “toward all the hodgepodge of cult and syncretism…as ensuring the victory of the real thing.” Now Case’s “real thing” wouldn’t by any chance be Catholic Christianity, would it? Such bigotry requires no comment; it furnishes its own.
Carried to its logical conclusion, which has been done frequently throughout history, Case’s infantile conclusion — mine’s better than yours, I’m right and you’re wrong, and God has called me to point out the error of your ways — is what we have in the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the murder of thousands of South American natives in Christian love, a slave trader, Sir James Hawkins, transporting his captives in a ship named “Jesus,” Sir Walter Raleigh’s plundering, looting, and murdering native Peruvians as he cruised up and down the shore in a ship named “Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception,” the Ku Klux Klan and numerous other white supremacy movements, the Salem witch trials — and so many other Christian atrocities. No Christian’s education is complete without reading Europe and the Jews: The Foot of Pride. This was written by Malcolm Hay, a devout Scotch Catholic, and after meticulous research, he pointed out that all the Catholic Christian atrocities can be traced to the scribblings of St. Paul in the New Testament. Whenever popes lusted to murder Jews, they quoted St. Paul. Such are the historical results of the not-so-adult game “Mine’s better than yours,” when Catholic popes and Christian despots like John Calvin in Geneva decide to take the game seriously, “in Jesus’ dear name.”
There is a story about the native in South America who, given the choice between conversion to Christianity and having his head lopped off, asked the priest who offered him this loving either/or whether there would be anybody other than Christians in heaven. Upon being told that there would not, he offered himself for decapitation. I, too, feel that a fate worse than death would be for the two-bit deity Case seems to have swallowed hook, line, and sinker to condemn me to heaven to endure eternally Case’s self-righteousness — not to mention Jerry Falwell and others of his Protestant ilk.
Case conjures up a Siberian shaman who lived 10,000 years ago and is reborn in today’s world. Case’s shaman “would note that the pope is the only religious leader to have the attention of the whole world.” The shaman would, therefore, join Case in becoming a Byzantine Catholic. Such arrogance! Has Case made it to divinity school without hearing of Billy Graham? Even if Case’s statement were true, it would prove only that “the pope is the only religious leader to have the attention of the whole world.” Period. Any other assumption is just that: a wholly unwarranted leap to a predetermined conclusion. Seemingly, Case would reduce his faith to a cosmic numbers racket. “Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong”? They not only can, they have been. Would someone please tell Case that Winston Churchill once said that, “You can’t cure cancer by majority vote,” and explain to him what this statement means?
Case should go back to undergraduate studies and take Logic 101, in which he would at least be exposed to the fallacy of leaping to unwarranted conclusions; Psychology 101, in which he would hear about the difference between reasoning and rationalizing; and perhaps even a course in Epistemology, in which he might discover something about the sources of knowledge.
Enough already. I, too, was once a Christian, a Methodist minister, even. I knew during the three years I attended Candler School of Theology that what I was being offered didn’t remotely resemble education, but rather indoctrination and brainwashing — which is what religious education is and always has been.
If what I have seen in your magazine so far is, as it seems to be, typical of your stance, you would really love seeing the 100 percent, genuine, certified nonsense I wrote and sometimes published when I, too, was a believer. But six years out of seminary I left the ministry, went straight, and became a commission salesman. So thus endeth the longer, latter epistle of the not-so-saintly….
Jesse J. Roberson
THOMAS W. CASE REPLIES:
I would indeed take Logic 101, except that I taught logic at a local university a couple years ago. I would feel it worth my while to take a course in Epistemology, except that I already know that the source of knowledge is Reality. I would take Psychology 101, except that the best psychology I have ever read is in a book by Chogyam Trungpa, Rimpoche, called Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.
I highly recommend this book to you since it is the source of my knowledge of Buddhism, that and sitting meditation for some two years under the auspices of said Rimpoche.
As for Billy Graham, I do think my hypothetical shaman has the perspicacity to tell the difference between an enduring Truth and a flash-in-the-pan.
As for Sir John (not James) Hawkins, et al., I don’t think they were the best examples of Christianity in action. But I have heard tell of Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, pagans, agnostics, and atheists who also were not exemplars of their respective religions or points of view. So what? I don’t judge a religion by its worst practitioners.
And by the way, “Mine is better than yours,” if yours is the embattled and despairing skepticism portrayed in your letter.
The Ugly Side of Buddhism
Thomas W. Case, in his article “Is Christianity the Same as Buddhism Underneath?” (May), is wrong when he says “In the ‘underneath’ area of radical ethics, Christianity is the same as Buddhism.” He asserts of Buddhism that the loss of the “myth of the self” results in “a kind of unlimited generosity…. called compassion,” which is “a prescription for carrying out the command to love your neighbor as yourself, at least in its outward result of compassionate behavior.” He has failed to look at the content of Buddhist “compassionate behavior.”
To begin with, Case has not distinguishhed the two major branches of Buddhism, one of which retains the (probably) original fundamental teaching of non-harm to living beings in any and all circumstances. The other type of Buddhism, however, abandoned this via negativa and developed the idea and practice, called “compassion,” of actively intervening in the lives of others for their own good. Those qualified to intervene, who presumably know themselves to be such, are permitted to murder a living being — for the victim’s own good, of course. Scriptures of this branch of Buddhism justify murder in several different ways and even go so far as to affirm that a murderer is not really a murderer because there is no soul or permanent self that can be murdered.
Is it remarkable that Buddhist monks in Japan felt free to form standing armies and to engage in warfare? Is it surprising that Buddhist leaders in Red China quoted these scriptures when giving approval to the communist regime’s slaughter of “counter-revolutionaries”?
Murdering someone for his “own good” is contrary to all Christian principles. Buddhists of the “compassionate” branch of Buddhism, however, may murder out of “compassion,” and they have done so. This act is justified by their scriptures, most of which, though very important, are available only in Chinese. Perhaps if Case had read these writings as I did — unprepared for their explicit sanction of murder, unaware of their deadly applications, and wallowing in fuzzy feelings about “Buddhist compassion” — he, too, might have been filled with horror and disgust. An especial horror is that some of those same arguments for “compassionate murder” are currently being used to advocate abortion, euthanasia, and violent revolution.
If Case wishes to have references I shall be happy to supply them.
THOMAS W. CASE REPLIES:
I am indeed unaware of those Chinese scriptures and the uses to which they may have been put. However, I do not consider such writings “orthodox” in either the Hinayana or Mahayana branches of Buddhism as developed in India and Tibet. Also, I do not judge a religion by either its worst practitioners or by possibly deviant pockets of development within those religions.
A Case of Courage
NOR is to be commended for publishing Thomas W. Case’s “Is Christianity the Same as Buddhism Underneath?” (May). The article sheds enriching light on what, for some of us, is an obscure subject; but far more important, it sends Catholics on a mission.
The mission is evangelization. No, Case says, Buddhism is not the same underneath as Christianity. But, yes, he also says, there are points of confluence that beckon Christians to go to work.
It is one of the great mysteries of salvation history why God permitted the missionary career of St. Francis Xavier to be cut short in Hong Kong harbor, just within reach of the Chinese Buddhists. As chief patron of the missions now, Francis Xavier will surely welcome the initiative and courage of Thomas Case.
L. Brent Bozell
For Capital Punishment
I agree with Sheldon Vanauken that the issue of capital punishment cannot be treated in the same way as the issue of abortion. There are fundamental differences which must not be confused. There are profoundly biblical reasons for capital punishment, reasons which Vanauken’s critics (letters, April) fail even to consider.
God thought the matter important enough to lay down a guideline for His people even before He gave them the two tables of His covenant law. In Genesis 9:6, the Lord tells us that, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (my italics). Here in this one verse we are given both the reason for capital punishment and the instrument through which it shall be meted out. Those who support an absolutist pacifism will be hard pressed to find a way around this passage. It is not enough to make appeals to a Jesus whom one imagines would never sentence someone to death. The fact is, God (Jesus) does pass sentence on those who are guilty of shedding blood. And He has given the state (civil servants) the authority to wield the sword for just such occasions (see Rom. 13).
Capital punishment is a sobering and extreme measure, one which ought to be carried out only when guilt has been established “beyond a reasonable doubt.” We should always be filled with sorrow at the loss of human life, whether it takes place in an abortion clinic or at the hands of an armed criminal. I oppose abortion for the same reason I support capital punishment: we are made in God’s image, and for that reason, the man who sheds the blood of another person shall forfeit his own life. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed….”
John A. Pummell
St. Louis, Missouri
The Man Behind The Articles
Thanks to the NOR Speakers Bureau, my wife and I had the opportunity of meeting James J. Thompson Jr., the man behind many of the articles we have been enjoying for several years in the NOR.
Jim delivered a powerful and poignant speech to our college community. Folks, ranging from freshmen to the college president, were full of compliments for his message and his presence here. The spirit of the NOR carries quite well in rural west Tennessee.
William P. Anderson Jr.
Chairman, Division of Business Administration & Economics, Lambuth College
I especially enjoy Robert Coles’s column. He has been the most inspiring of my professors here at Harvard. Keep the inspiration coming!
No Smelly Ideologies
The NOR is absolutely essential to discussion within the Christian community today. Even though there are other fine journals which are important reading, the NOR is the only one that does not reek of ideology.
Steven F. Hayward
I was disappointed to read your movie reviewer Robert E. Lauder wax enthusiastic over Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (April) with no comment on his mocking of Christ crucified. During one scene following Allen’s smirky quest for Christianity, he returns from a store, dumping a crucifix out of his shopping bag prominently accompanied by a package of Wonder Bread. Very funny! In other ways, this is an anti-Christian movie, and it saddened me to see it recommended in your Christian publication.
F.D. Foley, M.D.
San Antonio, Texas
Emerging, too Quickly
I am a Baptist minister who is regarded with suspicion and worse by a church that is only slowly emerging from its very fundamentalist stance. I guess I have moved much too quickly.
I want you to know how I deeply appreciate your ministry. I love your genuine attempt to integrate the Gospel with the real world, and my heart responds to the devotion to Christ which is so evident in your pages. Lest I become fulsome in my praise, I will add that I deeply disagree with you on many issues — e.g., feminism. But unlike many other periodicals, you make me think.
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