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Confusion among Christians

Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American Power

by Rosemary Radford Ruether
Paulist Press, 194 pp., $3.95

The Seduction of the Spirit: The Use and Misuse of People's Religion

by Harvey Cox
Simon and Schuster, 352 pp., $8.95 (publication date delayed until September 10)

When George Eliot died it was urged upon Dean Stanley that she should be buried in Westminster Abbey. T.H. Huxley argued that the Abbey was not a Pantheon.

George Eliot is known not only as a great writer, but as a person whose life and opinions were in notorious antagonism to Christian practice in regard to marriage, and Christian theory in regard to dogma. How am I to tell the Dean…to do that which, if I were in his place, I should most emphatically refuse to do? One cannot eat one’s cake and have it too.

The spiritual atmosphere in which this kind of thing can be said is crystalline. It is as though every building, every monument, every image has sharp edges, each casts its own distinct shadow, the spatial relations are grasped in a single act of vision. The clarity of the scene belongs in part to Huxley’s own vision, though he had men of similar perceptions among his opponents. From other points of view the edges may blur and the general scene may be darker and more confused. It is a piece of historical irony that one source of George Eliot’s power in fiction, above all in Adam Bede, is Feuerbach, whose Essence of Christianity she translated. Feuerbach may serve as the happiest model possible of one who wishes to have his cake and eat it: the substance of religion is to be enjoyed on atheist terms.

We may suspect, too, that Stanley would have yielded had the pressure been a bit greater. But Huxley’s comment shows that on the great speculative matters then thought to be in dispute between Christianity and its critics it was possible to know where one stood and to define the frontier to the satisfaction of friends and enemies.

It is pointless to argue that for many in our society such matters, speculative and practical, are no longer clear. The books under review, very different from each other and not belonging to the same school of thought, internally and in relation to each other bring out the lack of clarity. Father Gutierrez’s theology is quite traditional; it is rooted in the work of such robust thinkers as Congar, Chenu, Cullmann. But he extends the traditional theology of the Catholic schools to the institutional relations between men in the countries of South America and to the relations between these countries and the economic and political imperialism of the United States; and defends and recommends social revolution as a way out for them. The features of the revolution are necessarily not clear, but Gutierrez thinks socialism in some form the only kind of order that will serve justice and human development.

Mrs. Ruether’s collection of essays on diverse topics—black theology, celibacy, Judaism, anti-Semitism, ecological problems, and others—attacks most established theological traditions and commends fashionably iconoclastic attitudes. Harvey Cox is now enormously interested in religion, and tempers, if he does not withdraw, recent theses about secularization; but he would have seemed to Huxley or to Newman irresponsibly eclectic. Professor Ahlstrom’s splendid history of religion among the Americans, neither a success story nor used as theme for satire, chronicles increasing confusion among Christians over matters of belief and over the implications for private and public living of such things as they do believe.

The story of American Protestantism, as Ahlstrom tells it, is all the same in one way a success story, at least down to the 1950s. Men have believed, fervently, desperately, that Christianity within a Protestant tradition not too strictly defined was uniquely society’s cement and the state’s prop; and a means of separating off what was authentically American from those Latin, Slav, and Jewish presences that filled the nightmares of native Protestants. President McKinley confided to a Methodist meeting that he sought nightly guidance from God on the conduct of the war with Spain.

And one night late it came to me in this way…. There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos and uplift and civilize and Christianize them and by God’s grace to do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.

“The cross will follow the flag…. The clock of the ages is striking,” cried out the Pacific Advocate on the same occasion. Such were some of the flattering unctions of American Protestantism. The tradition is not dead. Conservative evangelicalism still has weight as shaping a social mood, one represented at the highest level by the astonishing presence of Billy Graham at the White House court. Mr. Nixon is perhaps the only president of recent years who can be imagined as entering with sympathy into the mental processes of McKinley. President Eisenhower would, one can be confident, have shrunk from McKinley’s coarse use of the doctrine of the Atonement. In the years of religious prosperity among the comfortable suburban classes Eisenhower’s contribution to the theology of politics was: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply religious faith—and I don’t care what it is.” But consider for how many today the following passage still would be found to speak to their condition:

Nordic Americans for the last generation have found themselves increasingly uncomfortable and finally deeply distressed. There appeared first confusion in thought and opinion, a groping hesitancy about national affairs and private life alike, in sharp contrast to the clear, straightforward purposes of our earlier years. There was futility in religion, too, which was in many ways even more distressing…. Finally came the moral breakdown that has been going on for two decades. One by one all our traditional moral standards went by the boards, or were so disregarded that they ceased to be binding. The sacredness of our Sabbath, of our homes, of chastity, and finally even of our right to teach our own children in our own schools fundamental facts and truths were torn away from us…. So the Nordic American today is a stranger in large parts of the land his fathers gave him.

Thus the Imperial Wizard of the Klan in the 1920s. Here the Puritan doctrine of election comes to a squalid end.

It seems surprising, but perhaps it isn’t really so, that North American Catholics, once put together with Jews and Negroes in the demonology of nativist Protestantism, should on the whole, at least up to the day before yesterday, have slipped so easily into the American consensus. In the wars with Mexico and Spain Catholic opinion as orchestrated by the bishops didn’t swerve from the attitudes established by the Protestant majority. The predominant drive of North American Catholicism, and its great achievement, was to Americanize the immigrant Catholics on the foundation of the use of the English language and the practice of the Protestant virtues.

It is clear from Ahlstrom’s history that there was at one time a possibility that the Catholic Church in the United States would have been divided into ethnically and culturally distinct compartments. On the whole, this didn’t happen. In the struggle to fight off the more exteme consequences of ethnic diversity the leadership came from the Irish bishops and clergy; and in the long run their use of the English language was more important than their Irishness. This perhaps made for a gain in social peace. But the price paid was high. Crudely, it meant abandoning just those elements in the tradition of European Catholicism that might, had they been carried over, have liberalized American society.

As Ahlstrom shows, Spanish and Portuguese policies in Central and South America were brutal enough, but they were culturally more open than anything in North America. Above all, miscegenation was common and not thought scandalous, though it would be a mistake to suppose that racial feeling was absent. But on such questions United States Catholics had no distinctive word to say, not to the native peoples, not to the blacks, not even to the important groups of Spanish-speaking Catholics brought by conquest or by the demands of the labor market within the frontiers of the republic.

Until recently, then, Catholics and Protestants shared many social attitudes, and their theological presuppositions were not too far apart. They believed in a transcendent God and in a providential ordering of events, in survival after death and future rewards and punishments, in the central significance of a historical revelation founded upon the Scriptures as interpreted—not too diversely—in the various ecclesiastical traditions. Socially both traditions were predominantly conservative, the Catholics perhaps less so, for they had more of the wretched of the American earth among them, and protected and encouraged the growth of the trade unions. In such matters, as Ahlstrom notes, the American bishops acted honorably and with courage, pursued and tormented as they continually were by Roman suspicions.

Protestant Christianity shades off and disappears into what Ahlstrom happily calls “harmonial religion.” North American religion is not synonymous with Christianity. Apart from the obvious exception of Judaism, there are the Mormons, the Christian Scientists, and a wild and rich variety of cults that commend “those forms of piety and belief in which spiritual composure, physical health, and even economic well-being are understood to flow from a person’s rapport with the cosmos.” Ralph Waldo Trine’s In Tune with the Infinite (1897), supine in its leatherette cover on many a parlor table, is a moment in a continuous history represented in our own day by the cults of Teilhard de Chardin, of the Maharishi, and of other sages. Harmonial religion has its influence within Christianity. In particular the connection between being religiously enlightened and being prosperous in worldly ways meets and blends with powerful traditions in the conservative Protestant churches.

Rosemary Ruether and Harvey Cox represent an understanding of American Christianity greatly different from anything that has been taken to be Christianity in the past. I do not refer to their social radicalism: for this there are ample historical precedents and even precedents in American Catholic history. It seems possible that the ritual burning of draft cards and libations of blood poured over government records would not have happened but for the sustained, quiet witness of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker circle. They saved the soul of American Catholicism during the dry years and are wonderful examples of what can be done without the command of the media, without much vogue in university circles, without shrillness and theatricality. Dorothy Day’s prose, with its plainness, its concern for reality, its rejection of the modish and meretricious, is a sign of spiritual power. She knows that good and evil, the possibility of tragedy and the possibility of redemption, are there in the world and that if we give our attention to this world our flesh will creep, where this response is appropriate, without rhetorical assistance.

Rosemary Ruether could have learned a lesson from the columns of the Catholic Worker. This collection of her occasional pieces contains much interesting material as well as a good deal of wild generalization. But she offers a model of how not to write on religion, politics, society. Here is an example.

…a culture and a society originally antithetical to the messianic hope of Judaism, from whose loins Christianity sprung, became the historical vehicle of the Church, and Christianity was used to sanctify and perpetuate the hierarchical society and world view of classical culture. Yet, despite this Constantinian co-optation of the Church, Christianity nevertheless inserted into the stream of human history the seeds of dissolution of this hierarchical pattern of classical sacral societies. Its messianic impulse rose to the surface again and again in European history in a series of revolutionary upheavals which progressively shattered the classical ontocratic pattern of society and substituted instead a dynamic, historical view of human social existence, emancipated from static orders and open to the revolutionary demands of future hope.

This (entirely typical) piece of writing could be used as a classroom example of what happens to you when you rely upon tired metaphors and stale clichés. Seeds inserted into a stream (why aren’t they thrown in?) commonly float. But they are “seeds of dissolution” and they dissolve hierarchical patterns, so we must conclude the metaphor is mixed or dead. And that dear old “sprang from the loins”—how it brings back “came to the throne,” “took up his pen,” “spread like wildfire,” even “anarchy was the order of the day.” To like or dislike writing of this sort is not a question of taste; moral questions, questions about truth and about fidelity, have to be asked.

Mrs. Ruether is also very careless. There is a horrible misquotation of a poem by Yates (sic); Theodore Roszak is turned into Walter Roszak; Clara Maria Henning is laughably said to be “one of the few Roman Catholic canon lawyers in the world.” She writes: “For Plato the authentic soul is incarnated as a male.” She should look at Republic 451-456, which must surely be the governing text on this issue. In discussing the supposed victory, in Christianity, of a dualism of body and spirit over the view held in the Old Testament tradition, she passes straight from an account of the neo-Platonic and Augustinian tradition to Descartes, as though there had never been an Aristotelian period in theology, with its emphasis on the theory that the soul is the form of the body. “My soul is not I,” said Aquinas.

The Seduction of the Spirit is charming, witty, itself seductive. Harvey Cox writes directly and with a fine sense of people, institutions, milieus. He begins with his childhood in Malvern, Pennsylvania, a small town he had left behind with relief when he wrote The Secular City, a place to which he now returns for spiritual refreshment and with a sense that it is here, in the house situated, with an almost unbearable appropriateness, between the romanesque Saint Patrick’s and the large brown Baptist church, that he will find both the life that nourished his vocation as a theological writer and teacher and also, perhaps, the key of the kingdom.

After a rich account of his childhood he goes on to study the religious scene in the world and the moral and political concerns that animate the “new wave” of religious thinkers, Catholic and Protestant. It is a book impossible to summarize and a critical discussion of its theses isn’t possible here. What I propose to do is to take two passages, one from his book and one from Mrs. Ruether’s, and consider what difference they make, if we think them to be in any way symptomatic of how avant-garde Christians are thinking today, to that understanding of Christianity which was so clear not only to Huxley and his Christian opponents but also to many now no more than middle-aged up to—shall we say?—the second Vatican Council.

Cox’s characterization of the Christian message is straightforward and uncontroversial. Christianity is a message “crucial for the health and even for the ‘salvation’ of man. [Salvation] means the ‘making-whole,’ the healing and reconciling, not only of man to man, but of man to God and to the natural cosmos.” Now, it is also true that Christianity, as we find it in the preaching recorded in the New Testament, is wholly Jewish in its refusal to go in for any kind of syncretism and wholly itself in its insistence upon the absolute and indispensable message that “the folly of the cross,” disgusting nonsense to the educated, impious nonsense to conservative Judaism, is the sole sign of salvation for all men. But Cox adopts the view that it is part of his vocation as a theologian today not simply to understand a variety of religious traditions but in a sense to inhabit them.

I will not let the Catholics keep St. Theresa or the Unitarians have Michael Servetus or the Jews have Martin Buber or the Hindus have the Lord Krishna all for themselves…. Within a span of weeks I have sensed the presence of the holy at an Apollo temple in Delphi, a Toltec pyramid in Xochicalco, and a Moslem mosque on the island of Rhodes. What would an anthropologist from Mars make of our family’s rituals and the cultic objects in our house? We celebrate a Seder at Passover. We often attend Catholic Masses, never missing on Christmas Eve. A straw Mexican Indian crucifix blesses our living room and a Jewish Mazuzah enclosing a text of the Torah stands watch at our doorway. A serene Buddha gazes down from just over the inside windowsill of our front room. Nearby stands Ganesha, the elephant god, who is the Hindu patron of sagacity and worldly wisdom.

Here is a complementary piece by Mrs. Ruether. The break with the traditional Christianity is plainer. She argues that the rejection by Christianity of the Judaism of the diaspora with its distinctive understanding—I think she simplifies this a bit—of the Messianic idea demands

…nothing less than a fundamental rethinking of the meaning of the basic proposition of Christian faith that “Jesus is the Christ.” A Christian assertation that Jesus is the “Messiah of Israel,” which contradicts the fundamental meaning of what Israel means by “Messiah,” is and always has been fundamentally questionable…. This demands a relativizing of the identification of Jesus as the Christ. Contextually we can speak of Jesus as the “messianic experience for us,” but that way of speaking doesn’t make this experience self-enclosed, but points beyond itself to a liberation still to come. Both the original roots of Christian faith and the dilemma of modern Christology [it isn’t made clear what this dilemma is] will make it evident that such an affirmation of the messianic event in Jesus in a contextual and open-ended, rather than a “once for all” and absolutistic way, is demanded by the exigencies of Christian theology itself.

What is perhaps in the end playful—a term he would take as a tribute—in Harvey Cox is deadly serious in Mrs. Ruether. The difficulty is that the preaching of the New Testament understood in a “relativized” form is no longer the same preaching. Living as an intelligent man and a Hebrew of the Hebrews in the midst of the Hellenistic world, the apostle Paul was perfectly well aware of the possibility of relativizing the preaching. He didn’t do so because of what he understood the Christian proclamation to be. Even if we were to demythologize Paul’s preaching according to the latest prescriptions this point would be left untouched.

The question then arises whether or not the historical criteria we use to identify Christianity and to distinguish it from other religions permit us to bring a relativized understanding of the proclamation under the same description. It would seem implausible to identify as Marxism a social doctrine that, with whatever other continuities, discarded the class struggle; psychoanalysis without the Unconscious and Platonism without the forms would offer the same difficulty. “Everything is what it is and not another thing,” said Bishop Butler. This seems as good a maxim in theology as in any other field.

I suspect Mrs. Ruether will think I lack a feeling for dialectics. She thinks so well of dialectics that she tells us the fact that “the United States is locked in South East Asia is largely due to our inability to understand the dialectics of the revolutionary process.” This is the queerest explanation of American policy I have yet come across. It occurs to me that the makers of this policy do understand the revolutionary process very well and have chosen the thesis—or the antithesis: I’m not clear how the model is supposed to work—knowing what they are doing.

Harvey Cox’s playfulness is attractive; but in the end his proposals for new work in theology may imply a redefinition of Christianity as great as Rosemary Ruether’s. He thinks the theologian must learn from the shamans and the gurus how to lead us into “vast solar systems of reality” of which we are now ignorant. Only if the theologian becomes a man of many spiritual appetites “can he learn how to guide others.” I think there may be something a trifle exalted about his fancy that the authentic theologian is a spiritual guide. And the story that there are strange realms of being with which the shamans and the gurus are acquainted is only supported by remarks about archetypes in the unconscious and about forms of consciousness “older, richer and more complex than ours.” We seem to be back in the swamp of harmonial religion. This makes me want to summon the ghost of David Hume. Perhaps the Old Testament will do. “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?”

Father Gutierrez begins from what cannot any longer be concealed. “Five years ago who would have thought that in our continent priests would be murdered, Christians persecuted, priests deported, the Catholic press silenced and attacked, ecclesiastical premises searched, etc.?” This is indeed a surprising state of affairs, for until recently the Catholic Church in South America seemed to be firmly linked to the state and to the governing classes. Not all the reasons for this change are clear. Vatican II loosened old patterns of thought and practice there as elsewhere; and whereas in Europe and North America the first impulses to reform were directed inward, to the existing Catholic communities, in Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, and elsewhere the pressures of poverty and injustice were so painfully felt that a reassessment of Catholic life was necessarily a reassessment of the social mission of the Church.

At any rate, a substantial number of the faithful and of the clergy and even the bishops in several of the Latin American countries push programs of social reform so hard that here and there the Catholic commitment to radical reform is in effect a commitment to revolution. The question of the legitimacy of the use of force to bring about reforms opposed by governments is now a serious issue. Catholic moral theology has for many centuries discussed the legitimacy of the use of force in war and of tyrannicide; now the same principles are being applied to a social situation in which organized power resists reform by every means of state violence.

A Theology of Liberation is a serious attempt to apply traditional principles to this new situation. Gutierrez sees that this brings about a convergence with some elements in Marxism—this perhaps goes back to John XXIII. He doesn’t let himself be captivated by all the revolutionary actions. Many of them, he thinks, “are ambiguous, romantic, or careless.” He quotes another Latin American writer, Borrat:

…the Church is going to pay a very heavy price for the revolutionary novitiate of some of its members…. It is easy to foresee that during the ’70s no other social group will be as vulnerable as the Church to the mechanisms of repression. There are few so naïvely stubborn as certain groups of the vanguard within the Church. They publicize their “subversion,” they profess their violence before exercising it, they hand themselves over freely to their political adversaries.

Gutierrez has written an optimistic book. The situation is now perhaps less encouraging than when he wrote. Aside from the large problem presented by United States policy according to which the Latin American states are to Washington what Hungary and Czechoslovakia are to Moscow, there are signs that many of those bishops who were earlier committed to reform have hesitated and relapsed into an attitude of passivity and a reliance upon statements asking the governing classes to change their hearts.

The story of Brazil, where at one time it seemed as though a majority of the bishops were moving toward a confrontation with the state, is especially sad.1 Dom Helder Camara is increasingly an isolated figure. Only the other day a Papal inspector, escorted by armed police (he himself may have had no responsibility for this), arrived to inquire into the doings of the remarkable Bishop Proano of Riobamba in Ecuador.2 It would be easy for such men as Gutierrez to fall into despair. That this won’t happen is clear from the spirit of his book and his deep faith. He can afford to treat his own work with a proper irony. He writes:

…we can say that all the political theologies, the theologies of hope, of revolution, and of liberation, are not worth one act of genuine solidarity with exploited social classes. They are not worth one act of faith, love, and hope, committed…in active participation to liberate man from everything that dehumanizes him and prevents him from living according to the will of the Father.

Letters

Heretical about Heresy September 20, 1973

  1. 1

    A fine study of the situation in Brazil by a French priest, Father Charles Antoine, is Church and Power in Brazil (Orbis, $4.95). 

  2. 2

    The Tablet (London), April 21, 1973.