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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good behavior deserves a piece of candy and we find it a deficiency in the world that candy is distributed to or withdrawn from the just and the unjust without regard for merit.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 terms of conduct, Christian belief requires of a man in contemporary America.

THE BOOKS by Pelikan and Berrigan may at first strike us as primarily of domestic interest to Christians. Pelikan commends to educated Christians, as a means of coming to terms with their vocation as persons within the world of learning, a somewhat refined version of Luther’s account of faith. Luther is in some respects so much a late medieval thinker (as compared with Calvin) that refinement, perhaps of a Barthian kind, may be the only way of dealing with him: but Pelikan’s Luther is a trifle more ghostly than he need be; losing the grossness and the extravagance, we risk losing the humanity. If we ask why it is that Luther should be thought a suitable patron of the renewal of Christian intellectual life, rather than, say, Erasmus or Thomas More, then the answer is that under all that is grotesque in his thought, all that belongs peculiarly to his own time, Luther’s thought is steadfastly Biblical. Pelikan thinks highly of technical equipment and wants the Christian scholar to have all that can be had; but he sees the great danger to the Christian scholar as being a certain disposition, evidence since the rise of rationalism, to see in every fashionable movement a means of getting back into the main stream of science, philosophy, and letters. Only a theology of some weight can avert the tendency for all this to dissolve into idleness and frivolity. Berrigan’s personal witness to his faith is, as all the world now knows, costly to himself. It is good to have from him words that, if they were read, would surely, we feel, destroy the complacency of the ordinary middle-class Christian in the western world. But why should any man engage in the Sisyphean labor of converting Christians to a revolutionary Christianity unless there is more to be said for Christianity than for Marxism? We fall back, therefore, on Novak, who has religious belief. If Novak is able to convince us (so the argument might go), than we shall find something of interest in Pelikan’s reflections and we shall look upon Berrigan as more than a confused revolutionary.

It is a philosophical prejudice to suppose that whatever can be said can be said clearly, though it seems reasonable to require that whatever can be said should be said as clearly as possible. In this respect Novak’s book offers serious difficulties to the reader. It is rhetorical in the pejorative sense; it goes in for a certain amount of mystification in the styles of Reinhold Niebuhr and Teilhard de Chardin: and it is eclectic in a curious way, for the many philosophers cited—Lonergan, Polanyi, Wittgenstein, Anscombe, Hampshire, to mention only some of the contemporaries—are used to supply proof-texts or philosophical mottoes to adorn theses that some of them would certainly not accept. In some cases it is not at all clear how Novak can both have read a given philosopher and maintain his own philosophical thesis.

A prime example of this is Novak’s account of what it is to know something. Knowing and “awareness” are for Novak experiences. The only way this could make sense would be to stipulate that every report of what I know is to be taken as a report of an experience. But this would be to make the claim that knowing was an experience analytic and therefore trivial. Otherwise, the claim that knowing is an experience is simply false. If I claim to have an experience and do not have it, then I have made a false claim and I am lying. But I can claim to know that such and such is the case when it is not the case; but in making such a claim I am not lying if I do not know that what I claim to be the case is not the case. Knowing, then, cannot be an experience. Perhaps Novak is confusing “knowing” with “feeling sure.” Again, Novak would certainly want to say that knowing is an introspectible experience, at least, if one introspects very hard. But this is impossible. Let us suppose that three persons are all set the same problem in arithmetic and all come up with the same—and the right—answer. They are also instructed to furnish introspective reports of what goes on in them when they come up with the answer. There is no reason why they should not offer three distinct introspective reports; but we have the best possible reasons for thinking that the absence of identical reports is irrelevant to their knowing that a given answer is the correct one. But perhaps Novak is concerned not with knowing that something is the case, but with knowing something in the sense of being acquainted with it; this would be consistent with his running together of knowing and awareness as “cognitive experiences.” Here again we find ourselves on a wild-goose chase after some mysterious core experience lying behind various cases in which we could properly be said to be acquainted with something: John or Mary, the taste of coffee, red patches, the look of the sky. Novak has or betrays a suspicion that there is something a little strange about his doctrine that awareness is an experience, for he exclaims that “it is difficult to describe in words.” Yes, indeed.

NOVAK BECOMES ENTANGLED in a thicket of questions which a more attentive reading of Wittgenstein would have enabled him to avoid or to be more sophisticated about, because fundamentally his approach is Cartesian. “To justify a theory about what knowing is, one must have a theory about the knower. i.e., the ‘self.’ No one can decide whether or not he believes in God until he decides what his understanding is and can do.” (It can scarcely be supposed that Novak really means this, for this would imply that belief in God depends upon going through some prior philosophical exercise; this seems a bit rough on, e.g., the Hebrew prophets.) “Who am I? At least this: I am a self, conscious and alert.” “Inevitably, men understand the universe in terms of cognitional theory by which they understand themselves.” The Cartesian provenance of such observations is plain enough. It is not therefore surprising that Novak’s argument for God’s existence is a queer version of the ontological argument. “We name [God] as the goal towards which our unlimited drive to understand is aimed.” “Belief in God is rooted in reflection upon one’s own intelligent subjectivity.” Of course, unlike Descartes, Novak does not think there is a knock-down proof of God’s existence; he offers us an ontological persuasive, rather than an ontological argument.

Nevertheless it should be added that Novak’s book, philosophically confused though it may be, is in many ways a moving and perceptive account of the difficulties of a Christian in the present climate of opinion. Nothing less was to be expected of the author of the best book, in English, on the second Vatican Council. It expresses, without mitigating, the perplexities of those Christians—roughly, the “progressives” in any Christian establishment—who are faintly astonished to find themselves closer to unbelievers than to their believing fellows on a variety of crucial moral issues, typically today those concerned with civil rights and warfare. He is over-impressed by the pseudo-profundities of fashionable theologians who love to generate a certain hysteria that, let us confess it, we do not find altogether displeasing. Talk about the depths of being, “frontier” situations, and what have you is not always out of place, but it is mostly idle chatter and serves as a substitute for, say, crime fiction. One wishes that Novak would simply look at the surviving records of the apostolic preaching and give us a report on what he finds in Paul and Mark and the rest. Philosophical reflection is no more a necessary preparation for this task—and it is this task that the Christian intellectual of our day so often sets aside, as not requiring his attention until something else has been done—than it is for a treatise on engineering or the report of a murder. Indeed, what Novak fails to see is that he is duplicating the precise error of that theology, sometimes, though mistakenly, called traditional, against which he is in revolt: the belief that Christianity requires philosophical foundations, as though what God says to man in Christ requires the Imprimatur of a committee of philosophers before it can be taken to be authentic.

ONE WHO WISHES to know what an authentically Christian response to the questions of our time is like would be wise to listen to Father Berrigan. It is the work of a free man, rooted in the Biblical view of the world and yet detached from those human traditions that have hidden its power. He makes a sharp distinction between “cultural Catholicism” and “universal Catholicism.” The man immersed in the former “remains a foreigner to all incarnations of humanism, creativity, or redomption that are not in his hometown handbook. The handbook is nothing so mysterious or exigent as the gospels or a sense of the mystery of man. It is, rather, a scrapbook of local mores or morals, of national folklore, of ways of thought that have cut Christ and man down to manipulable size.” The man of universal Catholicism—John XXIII or, we may add, Daniel Berrigan—presents so radical a challenge to middle-class Christianity that he will be feared and slandered while he is alive and canonized after he is dead. That the prophets should be despised and persecuted is nothing new in the history of the world and seems to be almost a matter of sociological law. But even the men of the world concerned with the things of the world would show the highest worldly prudence if they were to listen and take to heart Berrigan’s message.

A climate of war creates its own horizons, its own justification and method. Subjected to such an atmosphere for a long period of time, men come to accept it as normal and self-evident; they create a logic that suits their state of soul. They create tools of violence as entirely normal methods of dealing with “the enemy”; once created, the tools are used with ever-increasing ease. Peaceableness, communication with others, discussion, public candor—these are less and less trusted as methods of dealing with human differences…In such an atmosphere, men gradually come to accept a totally different version of human life…Such men live in the dreamworld of the schizoid or the adolescent…The stranger becomes the enemy; the enemy is everywhere…And almost inevitably, as the complexities of human relationships merge into the single image of the enemy, a complementary image of ourselves arises. We become the beleaguered defenders of all that is good and noble in life, the society…whose interventions are always governed by superior wisdom, whose military might serves only the good of humanity.

One sees why Berrigan was sent into exile. It is good to know that his exile is over and that he is once more at work in the United States. His voice is one that should not be missing from the public debate over all the questions concerning war and peace and the future shape of American society that press hard upon consciences today. That his voice should have been feared rather than welcomed vividly illustrates that madness of our time he describes with such sober accuracy.

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