• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print