Letters to the Editor: June 1985
Disbelief in Absolutes Not Absolute
Peter Kreeft is correct in his statement (in “Beyond ‘Left’ & ‘Right,’” April) regarding “profound and idealistic” philosophers being “totalitarian or even fascistic in their politics,” since he confines his examples to Plato, Hegel, and Heidegger. But does he regard Dewey, Charles Pierce, Sidney Hook, George Meade, and Jean-Paul Sartre as lacking in profundity or idealism? (I use the term in the manner Kreeft does, that is, loosely.) Of course, I have loaded my list to suit my purposes just as Kreeft did to suit his.
Then Kreeft goes on to list recent popes, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton, and C.S. Lewis, among others, as people he thinks highly of. Okay. I like Tom Paine, liberation theologians, Allende, Gov. Altgeld, Eugene V. Debs, et al. My list would be considered liberal. Kreeft is right when he says that (most) liberals do not believe in absolutes, but neither do they disbelieve. Kreeft is wrong, I think, when he claims that the lack of belief is an absolute. Humanists and others say that they do not know of any absolutes, but they will withhold pronouncements on the subject until there is some good evidence one way or the other.
Prof. Emer. Lewis B. Hilton
Dept. of Music, Washington University
St. Louis, Missouri
Peter Kreeft & Prolife Consistency
Like a nomad seeking water in the desert, I look forward eagerly to each issue of the NOR, and I’m never disappointed.
Many times I have been at the point of writing a letter because a particular article or editorial hit the nail right on the head, but as is often the case, after the initial enthusiasm has subsided, other things get in the way.
However, I have just now finished reading Peter Kreeft’s “Beyond ‘Left’ and ‘Right’” (April). It has performed too valuable a service to go unheralded by me. After reading and rereading it (I find myself frequently greedily devouring my NOR and then rereading and slowly digesting it), many questions I had about nuclear weaponry were brought clearly into perspective, as Kreeft reminded me of the need to be consistently in favor of life in all circumstances. Anything less is a sham, and a farce of the entire prolife position.
I do not recall how much of my present subscription is left, so I enclose a check to cover an additional year, plus some extra. The extra will, I hope, help in some way to defray your increased postage and printing costs. Your magazine is too important an antidote to today’s secularistic and hedonistic environment not to warrant its readers doing all they can to keep it going. Best wishes and prayers for a long life for the NOR.
Mary J. Feerick
San Francisco, California
Unfair to Raymond Brown
It would be a pity if NOR readers were to gather from Sheldon Vanauken’s vituperations (letter, March) that Fr. Raymond E. Brown was a writer of dubious Catholic orthodoxy and were consequently to avoid reading for themselves those admirable books of his. Vanauken might have chosen a more appropriate target than Brown, a priest whose books bear the episcopal imprimatur and censor’s nihil obstat, who has been commended by Pope Paul for his loyalty to the Magisterium of the Church, and who has stated: “When it is a quest on of doctrinal teaching, it is the Church through its various organs of teaching and belief that gives the answer.” The historical critical method he and most other exegetes employ today is not the only approach to biblical scholarship, but it is, as Edith Black points out (letter, Nov.), the exegetical method most appropriate to our age. Would Vanauken prefer that scriptural study of this type be left entirely in the hands of nonbelievers?
In a letter I can only briefly take up some of Vanauken’s points:
(1) Fr. Brown was not consulted about Fr. Laurentin’s book and made no attempt to block its publication.
(2) Brown nowhere denies the virginal conception of Jesus. (And it is only a rare and unusual Catholic exegete who does.) I can only refer the reader to Brown’s discussion of the question in The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus. As for Vanauken’s apparent disapproval of the term “virginal conception,” used in preference to “virgin birth” by Brown and other theologians, a moment’s reflection will make it clear that the former is a precise statement of the Mystery, the latter at best a misleading ellipsis.
(3) I am not second to Vanauken in admiration for C.S. Lewis and I too value his essay “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism.” Lewis there deplores “a theology which denies the historicity of nearly everything in the gospels” — clearly not Brown’s position, as every reader of his books is aware. Let it be noted, by the way — since some have a false impression — that Lewis, who knew a few things about literary texts, certainly did not decry biblical scholarship. Precisely in that essay he states: “We are not fundamentalists” and makes it clear that he approves of responsible textual criticism.
(4) Vanauken seems to suggest that there are as strong scholarly grounds for the priority of Matthew as for Mark — he adduces a scholar at Downside Abbey — but this is like saying that there are those who hold that Shakespeare wrote the plays but on the other hand there are some who say Bacon did. The overwhelming majority of scholars for a century may be wrong in affirming the priority of Mark, but it is foolish not to recognize that they are the overwhelming majority and the burden of proof rests with their opponents.
(5) I am sorry that Vanauken is miffed that Brown chose not to prolong a correspondence with him. I can think of several reasons why this might be so, one being that when a man spends years laboring over books dealing with Vanauken’s question — what has modern biblical criticism established? — he hardly feels inclined to go over in private correspondence everything that can be found in those books.
In conclusion, though of course it can hardly be argued in a letter, I must disagree with Vanauken that a century and a half of biblical criticism has established little. It has, in fact, deepened our understanding of Sacred Scripture and eliminated many false problems that unnecessarily disturbed believers in the past — though, I agree, it can be disquieting at times. If indeed it were a fact that all who undertook biblical criticism (and the historical critical method) abandoned their faith, this would be significant and of course one would have to choose. But happily this is not the case, infinitely less so in 1985 than in 1885.
Christians are not forced to choose between their faith and the scholarly study of Scripture. Brown has been in the forefront of this study for 30 years and thoughtful Christians are the richer for his work. I would urge those NOR readers who have not yet read Brown not to be put off by Vanauken’s misleading letter but to take up for themselves those lucidly written books (beginning, I suggest, with New Testament Essays), books well suited for intelligent laymen, “little ones,” including those who sell cars.
New York, New York
SHELDON VANAUKEN REPLIES:
As to the Laurentin book: Fr. Brown’s friends attempted to block its publication. As to the Virginal Conception, if Brown does not deny it, he certainly leaves it and the reader in doubt: “an unresolved problem.” With respect to the order of the Gospels, I suggest nothing about which is first, I merely say that it is possible for honest and reputable scholars to disagree with the “Mark-is-first position.” Therefore the position is not established. As I in fact said. No one doubts that Milton wrote Milton.
But the main question I put to Fr. Brown was not what the historico-critical method has established, but what is the effect of the expressed inconclusive doubts on the “little ones.” Brown did not reply to that. Neither does Mr. Tetreault. It appears to me, in conclusion, that the historico-critical scholars are able to master a difficult scholarly method, but not able enough — wise enough — to understand its inadequacies.
Books for Poland
I am sending the enclosed appeal in the hope that your readers may be able to help. It concerns books for Poland.
I met the man who wrote the appeal. Professor Mroczkowski, when he came to speak at my university. He is a distinguished medievalist (he is just now finishing his translation of The Knight’s Tale into Polish) and a Chesterton scholar (he has written The Medievalism of G.K.C.).
The appeal is worthy of our support. If any students today are capable of understanding and preserving the “permanent things,” surely Polish students are (the wonderful article by Raymond T. Gawronski in your March issue convinces me even more of this).
What follows here is the substance of the appeal from Dr. Przemyslaw Mroczkowski, professor of English at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow:
“This appeal is for the benefit of the library of our English Department. Scholarly editions of classics, criticism, and outstanding pieces of fiction — often abundant and even superfluous in an educated English-speaking home or institution — would prove most useful. Caution: this should not be identified with quite elementary items. A high school edition of Charles Dickens or Shakespeare would probably prove redundant. Follow your sense of educational standards. In cases of doubt, decide in the positive; a supererogatory volume can be passed on to other centers.
“Two persons in New York are organizing the shipping of books for Poland. They are: Dr. Adam Rudzki and Dr. Jean Szczypien. They act on behalf of the Kosciuszko Foundation.
“If you would prefer sending a check instead of or alongside actual books, please contact the Foundation. If you can enlist a friend who would be interested in helping, contact him and send his address to one of the above addresses.”
North Hollywood, California
I would like you to know how much I appreciate the fine article by Raymond T. Gawronski, “Pilgrimage to Poland & Byelorussia” (March). It was reassurance to me that the Holy Spirit is not contained or excluded by any form of repressive government. It is heartening to learn of the strength, supported by the Spirit, of those who suffer so much.
Mary E. Alexander
Hanging in There
Sorry I am late with my subscription renewal. However, I was involved in a very nasty accident in October, which occasioned some bruising to my brain and had me in a coma for three weeks.
Since I am not working as yet I can only afford a one-year subscription. However, I just cannot get by without the New Oxford Review.
Only a Half Inch
I have to write to say “Alleluia” for the NOR’s existence! I’m delighted to know you. Over the last few months, since I’ve been subscribing, I have experienced a great deal of growth-filled joy in “consuming” all the delicious material you present.
How did you know I was searching for a magazine like the NOR? It sickens me to read “Christian” publications that offer the latest recipe or fashions or “how to” worldly advice. I’m glad you don’t waste your precious space with that stuff. I can get that from hundreds of secular books and periodicals.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a rubber stamp. On occasion I have not agreed, or felt the NOR was a half inch to the left or right of where I think you should be. But you are so beautiful!
Regarding Paul’s Horse
In her letter “Paul Not Knocked Off a Horse” (April), Laurie L. Hibbett observes that the Book of Acts does not specify how Paul traveled along the road to Damascus, protests the widespread assumption that at his conversion he was struck off a horse and onto the ground, and asks who started the idea of Paul on horseback.
That conception is traceable at least as far back as the medieval custom of symbolizing Pride by an arrogant horseman, while conversely the fall of Pride (recall especially Prov. 16:18) was represented by a rider thrown from his mount. Such imagery was frequent in cycles of the virtues and vices, whether conveyed in words or pictures, may be found in many churches in Europe, and the motif was associated with Paul so many centuries ago that there can be no “scotching” it now.
The most famous painting of the Damascus Road conversion, horse and all, is by Michelangelo, in the Paoline chapel at the Vatican. Doctrinally, that horse fits in beautifully.
Prof. Roland Mushat Frye
Dept. of English, University of Pennsylvania
Robert Coles’s column alone is worth the price of the NOR.
Christopher P. Fotos
Staten Island, New York