What Is a Christian?

Belief and Unbelief: A Philosophy of Self-Knowledge

by Michael Novak
Macmillan, 223 pp., $4.95

The Christian Intellectual

by Jaroslav Pelikan
Harper & Row, 151 pp., $3.75

They Call Us Dead Men

by Daniel Berrigan S.J.
Macmillan, 192 pp., $4.95

What shall I do to be saved? All men can give a sense to the question that made Bunyan’s pilgrim forsake his family and his city for a journey the end of which could be believed in and hoped for, not known. It would be a mistake, sometimes a terrible one, to conceive of salvation on the analogy of a piece of candy given to a child for good behavior. Certainly, good behavior deserves a piece of candy and we find it a deficiency in the world that candy is distributed to or withdrawn from the just and the unjust without regard for merit. But the question of salvation arises seriously when a man is faced with a decision that has nothing to do with the calculation of advantages and disadvantages in the ordinary sense, for what matters is what a man makes of himself apart from all calculation. Of course, we can wonder if there could be such a decision, for we have the feeling that only if the world has a certain character, so that decisions of this kind can be given a sense and a description, can we dare to think there are such decisions: and, in consequence, that there is something we have to do if we are to be “saved.” That the world might not have such a character is a mere speculative possibility, for to maintain this would be to maintain that the descriptions “being a scoundrel” and “being a hero,” “hating the goddamned niggers” and “having compassion on the multitude” were in effect equivalent. To deny that salvation has a sense and is a possibility is an academic pose.

What content we give to the notion of salvation depends not only on a feeling, hard to analyze, that the world must have a certain character, a character, as it were, of such a kind that it sustains the decision made apart from all calculation, but also on those beliefs of which a crisper account can be given. These beliefs are in a loose sense all of them religious, for even Marxism makes unconditional demands and has an eschatology. Often, in our culture, they are still Christian, though it is perhaps a mark of our period that highly educated men are less and less disposed to take Christian belief (or any other religious belief) seriously. Christians would not necessarily find this a difficulty, for they have been warned by Saint Paul that their faith would appear foolish to “the Greeks.” But for a variety of reasons, literary and historical, few educated men are without a vestigial interest in Christian belief, as having at least the bitter-sweet flavor of a lost childhood or the plausible logic of a dream. Consequently, anyone may find some interest in Dr. Pelikan’s account of how he as a theologian in the Lutheran tradition sees the situation of the Christian intellectual; in Mr. Novak’s philosophical inquiry into belief; and in Father Berrigan’s exposition of what, in …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.