Public Square

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 68 (December 1996): 48-64.


Jews for Jesus, Established A.D. 32

There are hot buttons and then there are nuclear triggers. In the latter category, it is commonly thought, is the question of evangelizing Jews. When, however, the Southern Baptist Convention last summer reaffirmed that there is a Christian mission also to Jews, the reaction from Jewish leadership was generally muted. Most Jews seemed to understand that of course that's the position of Baptists and of others who take seriously the universal mandate to share the Gospel of Christ. There were a few complaints about the Baptists "singling out" Jews for evangelistic attention, but that complaint failed to understand that the Baptists were responding to Christian theologians who had singled out Jews as being exempt from the otherwise universal need for the Gospel. If the view gained ground that Muslims, for instance, could be saved apart from Christ, one expects that the Southern Baptist Convention would formally reaffirm the Christian mission to Muslims.

The same question is again agitating our British cousins. "We're Jews, we don't have to apologize for the Holocaust," says David Brickner, international president of Jews for Jesus. His group had put up advertisements in the London Underground: "Jews for Jesus-why not? After all, Jesus is for Jews." This elicited a strong reaction from the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ), which issued a press release reporting that it "has threatened to expel any of its three thousand members who attempt missionary activity." The Archbishop of Canterbury approved, insisting that Christians "respect the integrity of other faiths." Paul Mendel, director of CCJ, declared, "You have to be either Jewish or Christian. If you try being both it doesn't go down well."

Richard Harvey, the U.K. director of Jews for Jesus, disagrees. "If you had been there at the first Easter event and had been saying the same sort of thing to the disciples, 'Hold on chaps, you must respect the integrity of Judaism as a living religion,' then the Church would never have got started in the first place." The liberal Tablet comments: "Shame and silence should overcome every Gentile at the memory of how centuries of Christian anti-Semitism finally led to the genocide of the concentration camps. But what blame can be attached to those Jews who wish, with sensitivity, to speak to their own people of their belief that Jesus (whom they call Y'shua) is indeed the longed- for Messiah?"

At the international headquarters in San Francisco, David Brickner has a plaque that reads: "Jews for Jesus, established a.d. 32, give or take a year." He defends his organization against the charge of employing offensive methods. "We don't want to be offensive, but people take offense at the message, and that we can't help. I'm controversial as soon as I say: I'm a Jew and I believe in Jesus." Brickner says the organization contacts Jews through the mail, offering a course on Christianity that takes people step by step, depending upon their interest. It is, he says, tactful, sensitive, and nonthreatening, giving people "a chance to say yes or no at each stage." The Tablet comment concludes: "Is this a mission with a hard-sell evangelical edge? Or is it responsible and respectful evangelism?"

Of course the Southern Baptist resolution is not limited to Jews evangelizing other Jews. Like the 1994 declaration "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," it assumes that Christians are to be evangelizing one another, and everybody else. There are different readings of the connections between Christian anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, but it is doubtful that Christian Gentiles, who may rightly be overcome by "shame," should also be overcome by "silence." The Jewish-Christian dialogue of the last thirty years, in which some of us have been strongly engaged, must be counted as an enormous blessing that is unprecedented in the two thousand years of tortured history shared by Jews and Christians. But such dialogue is shallow and dishonest if it is premised upon a protocol of silence about the most important difference between us, namely, our answer to the question, Who is Jesus?

Most disappointing in the reactions of some Jews and Christians to the Southern Baptist action was the claim that it violated the American understanding of religious pluralism. This is to elevate civil religion above the divine covenant that, however ambiguously, binds Jews and Christians to one another. We need always to be reminded that genuine pluralism does not mean pretending that our deepest differences make no difference. Rather, pluralism is engaging our deepest differences within the bond of civility and, above all, love. The Archbishop is right to say that Christians must "respect the integrity of other faiths." It is precisely the integrity-that is to say, the truth-of Judaism that is foundational to Christianity. In Jesus the Jew, as Pius XI declared against the Nazis, "We are all Semites." The question is whether, as Christians believe, it is through Jesus the Christ that the promise is fulfilled that Israel is to become "a light to the nations." St. Paul reflects in Romans 9-11 that this argument may go on until the End Time. It must go on-with sensitivity, with intelligence, with respect, with love. No matter how great the sense of shame or how strong the temptation to silence, faithful children of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus have not the right to terminate the argument prematurely. We cannot casually agree to disagree, for it is in the honest exploration of both our agreement and disagreement that we are most securely bound to one another.

The Real Threat to Religious Freedom

What, do you suppose, was the evil that the Founders had in mind when they adopted the First Amendment's Religion Clause with its "free exercise" and "no establishment" provisions? How you answer that question, contends Douglas Laycock of the University of Texas Law School, will largely determine where you come out on a host of church- state questions. Historically and at present, there are basically two answers to the question. The first is that the evil the Founders had in mind is that human beings suffered for their religious beliefs and practices. The second answer is that the evil is that religions imposed suffering on human beings.

In a powerfully argued article in the Minnesota Law Review, Laycock endorses the first answer, and analyzes why so many contemporary jurists assume the rightness of the second answer. He traces thought about religious freedom from the wars of religion during the Reformation era up to the present. He allows that there is some truth in both of the above answers, but the basic reality is that the threat to religious freedom was and is posed by the state. "But there is far more truth in the first account; it was the state that had the power to persecute. Religious pronouncements had no effect without the temporal power of the state. Interdicts and excommunication had no effect on those who had already repudiated the interdicting or excommunicating authority. Even under the various Inquisitions, where the church may have been most culpable, power to inflict temporal punishment was reserved to the state. This reservation of state power was often a bare formality, but it left ultimate authority in the state, so that the Inquisition was effective where the secular ruler proved cooperative. The form and vigor of the Inquisitions varied sharply over time and place, often in response to local law and politics. Sometimes the state took the lead and the restraining influence came from the church. For example, it was Ferdinand and Isabella, and not a pope, bishop, or religious order, who invigorated the Spanish Inquisition and appointed Tomas de Torquemada, the most infamous of the Inquisitors General. The Spanish Inquisition was always subject to the Crown, and only secondarily to the Pope; the Kings of Spain always appointed the Inquisitors General and had effective power to secure their resignation."

The state, Laycock notes, often engaged in religious persecution for reasons that were secular rather than religious. He draws a parallel with the reasoning of jurists today who say that it is not a persecution of religion if the burden imposed upon religionists is incidental rather than intended, as when the governmental measure in question is the result of "neutral and generally applicable laws"-laws enacted for secular reasons but with the effect of suppressing a religious practice. "One of the most famous Reformation examples might itself be described as a neutral and generally applicable law if adjudicated today under the Free Exercise Clause. In Henry's England, it was treason to question the validity of his second marriage. This prohibition was based on the strongest reason of national security. If his second marriage were invalid, the children of that marriage would be illegitimate; the claim of illegitimacy would challenge their right to the throne and threaten civil war over the succession. This particular form of treason was committed by stating a core Catholic belief, but the law applied to everyone and was stated in religiously neutral terms."

Any straightforward reading of the Religion Clause leaves no doubt that it, like the entire Bill of Rights, is intended to protect the people from the government, not the other way around. And yet so many persist in the belief that the purpose of the Religion Clause is to protect the government from citizens who are religious. Why should this be? Laycock's answer is, in my view, convincing: "In part it is because those who hold that view have misread history. They have blamed too much on the church and too little on the state. In part it is because they have thought that their preferred secular ideologies were inherently different from religion, and that religion is uniquely susceptible to the temptation to intolerance and absolutism. I think that they are wrong on each of these points. The First Amendment constrains Congress, not churches, and this is no accident. The amendment was aimed squarely at the problem the Founders sought to solve. During the Reformation and today, it was and is governments that punish people for religious beliefs and practices. The most common motives have changed, the alignment of factions has changed, but the central evil has remained the same." The Constitution was written and ratified by people who believed that the concentration of powers is necessary to effective government, and, at the same time, were keenly aware that such a concentration threatened human liberty. Therefore those powers must be divided and constrained. Therefore the Bill of Rights, and therefore, most specifically, the Religion Clause.

Protestant Regress the Formula for Catholic Progress

Writing in Commonweal, Peter Steinfels, senior religion reporter for the New York Times, describes what is now a very tired scenario: "A church that is democratic, egalitarian, open, embracing, tolerant, innovating, lay-led, diverse, and affirmative of American values is pitted against a church that is autocratic, hierarchical, dogmatic, discriminating, clerical, monolithic, and committed to a European past." This is in the course of reviewing a book from Sheed & Ward, Laity, American and Catholic: Transforming the Church, which interprets a 1993 national survey done for the National Catholic Reporter (NCR also owns Sheed & Ward).

The book's viewpoint, writes Steinfels, also "informs Call to Action, We Are Church, the Association for the Rights of Catholics, Catholics Speak Out, Corpus, and any number of other groups on the Church's left." It is also the outlook "that ripples through the American news media's approach to Catholicism." The authors of the book think things are going swimmingly for the "progressive" cause. Problems such as the pope's claim to doctrinal authority are "in tension with the American temper and the very thing the U.S. Constitution was written to restrict," but such problems, the book suggests, are passing remnants from the bad old days of Catholicism. Steinfels describes the book as "naive history in a triumphalist mode, without shadow or irony."

He is surprised that one of the authors is Dean R. Hoge, a Presbyterian sociologist at Catholic University, who has written insightfully-also in our pages-about the dramatic decline of oldline Protestantism. What Hoge sees as causes of Protestant decline he here seems to hail as signs of Catholic renewal. The study of mainline Protestants, and adult Presbyterians in particular, concludes that it is "likely that their children will be even less committed to Christianity or to the church than they themselves. . . . Few of their children will rebel, for there is little to rebel against; they are more likely to be marginally involved in church life or to drift away." Steinfels notes that the Protestants studied are in "a church that ordains married men and women; does not condemn contraception, abortion, or remarriage after divorce; is inclusive in its criteria for membership; prides itself on affirming American values; and emphasizes democratic decision making and the laity's right to participate in congregational spending, selecting pastors, and determining official church positions. In other words, a church that has long since institutionalized the kinds of concerns that Laity, American and Catholic highlights as crucial to American Catholicism's future."

Steinfels concludes his devastating critique on a note not untouched by defensiveness: "One of the drawbacks of the stark, good-guys-versus-bad- guys framework informing this book is that it encourages an atmosphere where merely to raise these qualms immediately qualifies one as a 'restorationist.' That is positively silly-and intellectually counterproductive. The historian who looks back may shake her head in wonder at how the ideological commitments that made these scholars highlight one set of very real issues became blinders that kept them-and many others in their camp-from examining so much else."

Ah, that very conservative fear of being called a conservative. A future historian may shake his (male or female) head in wonder at how a very thoughtful reporter feels it necessary to insist, in the midst of the shambles, that he is against restoration. It all depends on what is to be restored. Recall that the driving force of renewal at Vatican Council II was ressourcement, which is undoubtedly a kind of restoration. Despite the limping conclusion (he is writing for Commonweal, after all), Steinfels has nailed the mindlessness of a progressive insouciance that thinks it a good thing that, in the words of one author, younger Catholics "place a higher priority on being good Christians than they do on being good Catholics," when "good Christian" is indistinguishable from the cultural liberalism promoted by, for instance, the National Catholic Reporter.

Beyond Suspicion

Many years ago, like about thirty, some of my "Commonweal Catholic" friends were much embarrassed by the popularity of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. That many people took him to be the public face of Catholic intellectuality was deemed something of a scandal. I recall one academic deploring most particularly the bishop's television excursus on the errors of Sigmund Freud, which he concluded with the derisive declaration, "Freud is a fraud."

In those days, Freud was for almost all intellectuals and those who aspired to being intellectuals an untouchable icon of a world come of age. Today one might argue that Bishop Sheen was just a bit ahead of time. Until recently, the establishment of the allegedly avant-garde rested on the three pillars of Marx, Darwin, and Freud. Outside the cult-like corners of the prestige academy, Marx is in ruins, Freud is crumbling, and Darwin is beginning to totter. The entire modern sensibility that was built upon the "hermeneutics of suspicion" (Paul Ricoeur) is now collapsing in the face of a relentless suspicion of suspicion as the key to whatever truth is available to us mortals.

Many thinkers have contributed to the demolition of Freud and Freudianism in the past decade. Paul Vitz, a psychologist at New York University, has not received the credit he deserves for a number of studies demonstrating Freud's dependence upon, and perversion of, Christian narratives in constructing his ersatz religion. Deservedly celebrated is Frederick Crews of the University of California who, in the New York Review of Books and in his book Skeptical Engagements, has been smiting Freudians hip and thigh, no doubt putting many psychoanalysts back on the couch to dream of the days when their declining business was viewed as a science. But now comes what may be the definitive tour de force by John Farrell of Claremont McKenna College. Freud's Paranoid Quest (New York University Press, 275 pp., $34.95) is, quite simply, one of the most intellectually scintillating, persuasive, and elegantly argued books that I have read in a long time.

The book is about much more than Freud. Farrell begins with Francis Bacon and Descartes and works his way up (or down) through all the mental benchmarks of modernity, from Hume and Rousseau through Nietzsche, exposing the essentially paranoid structure of the methodology of suspicion. For many moderns, Kant was a place of refuge, but Freud, the "master of suspicion," invaded that sanctuary as well. Farrell writes, "The aim of Kant's transcendental turn was to sacrifice immediacy of knowledge of the external world for certainty within the domain of the subject. Within this transcendental domain, the subject gives its own law to nature and to its own will. It was an inward migration intended to establish an unshakable autonomy. Freud upsets this intention by introducing within the enclosed kingdom of the Kantian subject the same division and distance that separate it from the outside world. Opening this new and ungovernable territory, the unconscious, Freud established an internal Other which, as he stated, showed reason that it was not the master of its own house."

Bacon created the role of the scientist as hero, the bold adventurer who, abandoning the comforts of tradition, mythology, and, above all, religion, dared to face the naked truth. It is in that tradition of scientific heroism that Farrell locates Freud. "With the revelation of the Oedipal code, Freud becomes the final hero, the hero who could unmask himself, asserting a paranoid version of psychology in order to display his own 'narcissistic' character and to enjoy the triumph of that attractively disturbing irony. The effect was not solely one of destruction: Freud's aim was to complete the transition to modernity by reintegrating the broken fragments of tradition in a comprehensive psychological myth, with himself at the center. Freud thus gave a most convincing performance in a role which, since Rousseau, has dominated the scene of modernity: the role of the first honest man. The division between heroic analyst and pathetic analysand is fully prefigured in Rousseau: pathetic in the doing and heroic in the telling seems to be the motto of the paranoid intellectual. Freud even claimed to believe that the discovery of psychoanalysis had deprived him of his ability to lie."

In Goethe's Faust, the epitome of the modern hero declares, "In the Beginning was the Deed." In Freud's mythology, the deed was the primal crime in which the sons of the primal father liberated themselves from the idealism of narcissistic enthrallment in order to attain the reality of action. All must be destroyed and cursed in order to be free from destruction and the curse that rests upon lesser mortals. In Act One of Faust, just before entering his pact with Mephistopheles, Faust declares:

My curse I hurl on all that spangles
The mind with dazzling make-belief,
With lies and blandishments entangles
The soul within this cave of grief!
Accursed, to start, the smug delusion
Whereby the mind itself ensnares!
Cursed, brash phenomenal intrusion
That blinds the senses unawares!
Cursed, what in lying dreams assures us
Of name and glory past the grave!
Cursed, pride of ownership that lures us
Through wife and children, plow and slave!
Accursed by Mammon, when his treasure
To deeds of daring eggs us on,
For idle self-indulgent leisure
Spreads a luxurious divan!
Cursed by the balsam of the grape!
Cursed, highest prize of lovers' thrall!
A curse on faith! A curse on hope!
A curse on patience, above all!
Farrell comments: "In this famous passage, Faust again reenacts the Enlightenment's annihilation of traditional, religious, and metaphysical culture and at the same time curses the results: the mind recognizes itself as a slave of 'make-belief,' of 'smug' self-delusion; it recognizes the phenomena of the natural world as no more than a source of distraction and confusion; and, given these recognitions, heroism, family life, love, even greed and intoxication lose their allure, nor can the Christian virtues offer consolation. Such is the disenchantment of the modern world. Faust's curse does not arise out of mere psychological distress. It expresses the causes of that distress, and, indeed, it seeks to master them by embracing the impoverishment of the world with a destructive movement of the will. Its desperate hope is to set itself above destruction by a more total destruction. As Faust so Freud."

But I must stop. The problem with a book like this is that you want to quote the whole thing. Farrell's argument is the more effective because he regularly pauses to state, with generosity and fairness, the objections that might be raised to his thesis, and then proceeds to answer such objections in a way that is almost always convincing. Freud's Paranoid Quest is a remarkable achievement. The question raised is whether the entirety of the "modernity project" did not get off on the wrong foot by assuming that suspicion is the key to knowledge. The modern premise was that nothing can be accepted as true if it can reasonably be doubted. And of course everything, including the reason that doubts, can reasonably be doubted, if one is determined to doubt.

As Farrell trenchantly argues, all such reductive logic turns upon itself. The relentlessly suspicious cannot sustain their trust in suspicion. Paranoia is, among other things, a stratagem for avoiding that self-destruction by designing oneself as the grandiose hero who, against a hostile world, possesses the explanation of explanations that survives every doubt and denial. The great modern exemplar of this all- encompassing ploy is Cervante's Quixote, whom Farrell employs to brilliant effect. This paraphrase and a few quotes do not do justice to the intricacy and elegance of the argument. The only thing for it is to read the book, which, as you might have surmised by now, I warmly recommend.

While We're At It

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant.
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
And in you. And in me.

A blessed Christmas, and may the new year be filled with grace and glory for you and yours.