Thomas Merton's Contemplative Struggle:
Bridging the Abyss to Find Freedom
by George A. Kilcourse, Jr.

Thirty years after his death, how does one gauge Thomas Merton's continuing appeal? On October 4, 1998, his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, achieved the status of a modern classic, still in print on its fiftieth anniversary and available in a handful of translations. Dozens of his other books reappear in new printings. Most recently, HarperSanFrancisco published seven volumes of Merton's complete journals, the bulk of them previously restricted material. Only a decade ago, five volumes of his correspondence provided a strikingly honest and revealing supplement both to the Merton canon and to his public persona. Scores of his conferences for the novices at the Abbey of Gethsemani are available on audio tapes.

Thomas Merton's audience does not compete with the multiple millions who read M. Scott Peck's spiritual best-sellers. Nor do Merton book sales rival the phenomenal appeal of Kathleen Norris's books and their monastic ethos. Even Henri Nouwen's popular and highly personal writings occupy a successful niche of spirituality quite distinct from Merton's -- although Nouwen's The Genesee Diary was a Merton look-alike. Anthony de Mello's voice, still attractive to a wide readership after his death, differs markedly from that of the Kentucky Trappist (Cistercian) monk. But Merton has been around for a long time. What explains his unique appeal and staying-power? Perhaps he personifies, as no one else in the second half of the twentieth century, the integrity of being rooted in religious tradition while restlessly seeking dialog. Merton's appeal grows, I think, from a Catholic genius for embracing the truth no matter where he found it.

In an early review of Merton's poetry, Robert Lowell puzzled over the fact that "the poet would appear to be more phenomenal than the poetry."(1) This mystique of Merton-the-cloistered-monk lingers. Yet it proves ironic because few late twentieth-century monks did more to redefine the monastic vocation or to banish the romantic paradigm of the hooded recluse leaving the world in contempt and scorn. It was a caricature to which the young Merton had contributed but one that he conscientiously (and bluntly) came to reject.

I have myself become a sort of stereotype of the world-denying contemplative -- the man who spurned New York, spat on Chicago, and tromped on Louisville, heading for the woods with Thoreau in one pocket, John of the Cross in another, and holding the Bible open at the Apocalypse. This personal stereotype is probably my own fault, and it is something I have tried to demolish on occasion.(2)

Forty years ago Merton recorded a visionary insight at the bustling downtown Louisville corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets. It gauged the distance he had traveled since his entrance into the monastery and reoriented his readers to appreciate his writings and his life during the final decade. Merton observed how the context had changed. "[W]earing a special costume and following a quaint observance," he argued, might now mean "I am dedicating my life to an illusion." It was virtually the eve of the election of Pope John XXIII, and Merton himself was prescient about the impulse for renewal in the Catholic tradition:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people. . . . even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness. . . The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. . . Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of "separation from the world" that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion. . .(3)

In 1965, as Merton began living full-time in the hermitage at Gethsemani, he wrote more freely about his deepening contemplative life. He had changed his voice, insisting that "I speak not as the author of The Seven Storey Mountain, which seemingly a lot of people have read, but as the author of more recent essays and poems which," he lamented, "apparently very few people have read." He claimed that it was unfair to caricature him as a "petulant, modern [St.] Jerome" hiding out in his cave and never getting over "the fact that he could give up beer."

"I drink beer whenever I can get my hands on any," Merton confessed. "I love beer, and by that very fact, the world." But even in the hermitage, Merton struggled with other people's infatuation with his hermit identity.

In an age where there is much talk about "being yourself" I reserve to myself the right to forget about being myself, since in any case there is very little chance of my being anybody else. Rather, it seems to me that when one is too intent on "being himself" he runs the risk of impersonating a shadow. . . I am accused of living in the woods like Thoreau instead of living in the desert like St. John the Baptist. All I can answer is that I am not living "like anybody." Or "unlike anybody." We all live somehow or other, and that's that. It is a compelling necessity for me to be free to embrace the necessity of my own nature.(4)

Merton's monastic vocation unfolded in ways that manifested a deeper, more assured and authentic monastic sensibility. That mature sensibility prompted him to embrace the hermit life and finally to seek kindred spirits by traveling to dialogue with distant Buddhist monks in Asia. As his journals chronicle, he found more and more fault with the purely juridical contemplatives who lived a devout regimen in the monastery but reduced the charism to purely external observances. His writing too would mature and change in subtle and sometimes dramatic ways.

If ever a line of Merton's writing captured the appeal of his spirituality, it would be a sentence in his "Introduction" to the anthology, A Thomas Merton Reader: "Those who continue to struggle are at peace."(5) The genius and enduring attraction of Thomas Merton's dynamic faith radiate from that paradoxical conviction. Merton's readers found a spiritual writer who was neither reticent about his own experience of the multiple layers of personal struggle, nor superficial in sharing the arduous task of integrating his life around the transcendent mystery of the Christ and salvation. Perhaps it is his honest and, at times, perplexing struggle that brings him closer to us.


Early in The Seven Storey Mountain Merton writes metaphorically about the common experience of his circle of Columbia University graduate students in the late 1930s, the years immediately preceding America's entry into World War II:

In those days one of the things we had most in common, although perhaps we did not talk about it so much, was the abyss that walked around in front of our feet everywhere we went. . . I had my imaginary abyss, which broadened immeasurably and became ten times dizzier when I had a hangover.(6)

There is an archetypal quality in this metaphor of chaos. Echoes of the opening of Genesis reverberated in his primal fear: ". . . . [T]he earth was a formless wasteland and darkness covered the abyss. . ." For over two decades Thomas Merton the spiritual writer succeeded in coaxing readers to cultivate the interior life as a bridge to traverse this abyss. Augustine's recognition that "God is more intimate to me than I am to myself" finds a contemporary analogue in this Cistercian monk's reminder: The most significant voyage of discovery is "to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves."(7)

One posthumously published "book" chronicles Merton's continuous effort to articulate and understand his experience as a contemplative. Whether he speaks of the illusions that seduce us, or the disguises and masks we wear, or the temptation to live as a superficial false self, Merton always counterpoints the obstacles of our ego with the possibility of experiencing our "true self": "[W]hen a person appears to know his own name, it is still no guarantee that he is aware of the name as representing a real person. On the contrary, it may be the name of a fictitious character occupied in very active self-impersonation in the world of business, of politics, of scholarship or of religion."(8)

In 1967, the year before his accidental electrocution in Thailand, Merton ventured something unprecedented. In an interview with Thomas McDonnell, he offered a uniquely candid retrospective on his own work. When asked about beginning with The Seven Storey Mountain, he conceded that it was a fair way to initiate the interview but suggested that they move on immediately because his autobiography had been too "black and white." Merton explained: "I was dealing in a crude theology that I had learned as a novice: a clean-cut division between the natural and supernatural, God and the world, sacred and secular, with boundary lines that were supposed to be quite evident."(9) He confessed that the world was not as simple as it had once appeared in The Seven Storey Mountain.

Whenever Thomas Merton narrated and reflected on the turmoil and failures of his own ordinary, everyday experience (albeit in the habitat of the monastery), he had few peers in naming the same abyss that threatened to swallow the generations of post-World War II America. The depth of his desire for the God more intimate to us than we are to ourselves awakened his Catholic (and other ecumenically adventurous) readers who were stranded on the shoals of the pre-Vatican II devotional literature and caught in the inertia of lethargic liturgy. Flannery O'Connor, a contemporary of Merton whom he lionized as a modern-day Sophocles,(10) described this epoch and the predicament: "The American [Catholics] seem just to be producing pamphlets for the back of the Church (to be avoided at all costs) and installing heating systems."(11)

Readers still discover in Merton more than a vicarious experience of stereotypical holiness. His struggles against illusion and self-impersonation -- symbolized by the abyss -- are a paradigm for their own modern struggles. It is not unfair to say that Thomas Merton's achievement was made possible by the spiritual vacuum in America following World War II. Sin, tragedy, and terror had confronted the world (on a scale previously unimaginable) in the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Neo-Orthodox theologians revised the systems of Reformation Christian thought with new existential formulations in order to reclaim a foothold. In American Catholic circles, Thomas Merton the "convert"-monk blazed a new trail. He had immersed himself in the roots of the tradition of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in patristic literature, and in the biblical texts. As a result he retrieved and popularized the monastic therapy as a way to restore what Bernard calls our "lost likeness" to God. With his gifts as a poet and narrator he penetrated the American illusion of peace and prosperity and continues to touch America's deeper woundedness of spirit and psyche. As he said in concluding Part One of his autobiography: "The wounds within me were, I suppose, enough. . . [T]he very anguish and helplessness of my position was something to which I rapidly succumbed. And it was my defeat that was to be the occasion of my rescue."(12)

In retrospect it becomes easier to track the restlessness that cautiously peeked from behind the pages of his early books. It initially played out in his first published journal, The Sign of Jonas,(13) where he quarreled with himself about the compatibility of monastic life and a writer's work. But there was more than met the eye in the metaphor of Jonah, the reluctant prophet who came to discover (and to proclaim) the unimaginable and universal mercy of God. It was because America imagined itself Christian that Merton discovered how he, like Jonah, had an obligation to help others in his adopted homeland experience this same mercy, and not to exclude anyone.(14)

The orbit of Merton's restlessness proved to be ever wider. In 1958 he began a correspondence with Boris Pasternak that unwittingly placed the Russian writer in some political jeopardy. He initiated correspondence with the Polish literary critic and poet Czeslaw Milosz early in 1960 and with the Zen scholar and master Daisetz Suzuki in 1959. His reading returned to imaginative literature, to the fiction and poetry of his university studies and his abandoned doctoral dissertation on Gerard Manley Hopkins. A novice at Gethsemani in the late 1950s, Ernesto Cardenal, became his conduit to the works of a new generation of Latin American and South American literary artists. Merton read -- literally immersed himself in -- the fiction of Albert Camus, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, James Baldwin, Walker Percy, and others. He introduced his novices to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, William Blake, John Milton, Edwin Muir, and Shakespeare. At one point he concluded that the literary artists were especially gifted to awaken us to the spiritual threat of our being satisfied with a makeshift identity. He credits them as being most aware of the spiritual crisis, but adds that they are ironically "for that very reason the closest to despair."(15) His sensitivity to the existential predicament echoed the metaphor of the "abyss that walked around in front of our feet everywhere we went."

Merton recognized this quandary because his own life continually flirted with despair. His journals regularly voiced desperation as an element of his temperament; in the wake of such outbursts, he invariably reminded himself of the grace to be found in the equilibrium and roots of his monastic identity, especially in his vocation to be a hermit. When his readers came upon his definition of this great sin in New Seeds of Contemplation, they found themselves holding a mirror to their own distorted and grotesque visage. "Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love," he emphasized. "Despair is the ultimate development of a pride so great and so stiff-necked that it selects the absolute misery of damnation rather than accept happiness from the hands of God and thereby acknowledge that [God] is above us."(16)

At this juncture another dialogue partner came in contact with the restless Merton and encouraged him in the struggle with the status quo of the Catholic Church. Abraham Joshua Heschel and Merton first exchanged letters in late 1960. Already in Merton's first letter (December 17, 1960), we find a keen solidarity in confronting the illusions that menace religion: "There are many voices heard today asserting one should 'have religion' or 'believe,' but all they mean is that one should associate himself, 'sign up' with some religious group. Stand up and be counted. As if religion were somehow primarily a matter of gregariousness. Alas, we have too much gregarious stress of the wrong kind. . . The gregariousness even of some believers is a huddling together against God rather than adoration of His true transcendent holiness."(17)

The contemplative monk could not follow the fraudulent path of gregariousness. Heschel's mention of his forthcoming book on the prophets reminded Merton that he had recently taught the Book of Amos to his novices. In a 1963 letter Merton also noted how the prophets revealed "the challenging questions"; although during Advent Isaiah was being read daily, the divine promises "which are so infinitely serious,. . . . are so lightly taken."(18) Heschel's definition of prophecy provides a hermeneutic for their friendship, and also, I suggest, for understanding the crux of Merton's appeal to his readers. This Jew descended from Hasidic roots described prophecy as "an exegesis of existence from a divine perspective." He insisted on a subtle corrective congenial to Merton: prophecy was "an understanding of an understanding rather than an understanding of knowledge."(19)

When Heschel visited with Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani on July 13, 1964, their conversation went on until late in the night, described by Merton as "an amazing and fruitful evening."(20) One can only conjecture about the content of their conversation. A subsequent letter from Merton to Cardinal Bea (and copied to Heschel) about the Second Vatican Council's discussions and draft statement on the church's relationship to the Jews hints that they spent considerable time lamenting the reactionary Catholic resistance, but cultivating a more constructive grounds for their own relationship. A passage from Heschel's volume, Israel: An Echo of Eternity, perhaps best connects their contemplative kinship: "Well-adjusted people think that faith is an answer to all human problems. In truth, however, faith is a challenge to all human persons. To have faith is to be in labor."(21)

In an uncanny way, Merton's "Introduction" to selections from his journals in the early 1960s, entitled Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, had insisted that "a man is better known by his questions than by his answers. To make known one's question is to come out in the open oneself."(22) Faith and dialogue for Merton meant more a sharing of questions and the honest exploration of our human situation than delivering answers. This interrogative voice was more important to him than what he called "the ready-made, wholesale answers" offered by the seemingly most progressive voices.(23) Thus Merton's voice was in perfect harmony with Heschel's insistence that faith was not an easy answer but a challenge to narrow-mindedness.

Merton's alert response to Catholic-Jewish dialogue has been eclipsed by commentators who find more exotic his study and conversation with Buddhism, and to a lesser degree, with Islam and Hinduism. He phrased this theological initiative carefully in his November 4, 1964, journals: "I am more and more convinced that Romans 9-11 (the chapters on the election of Israel) are the key to everything today. This is the point where we have to look, and press and search and listen to the word."(24) This struggle with his identity rooted in Judaism and his restless seeking for a reconciliation between the traditions has proved to be an enduring paradigm.

His interrogative voice also explains why Merton's forte was the essay. His books came into being as collections of loosely arranged essays and not as systematic or sustained studies of a topic. The very genre of the essay lent itself to Merton's restlessness. At the risk of oversimplifying, I would venture to say that one pair of essays is emblematic of Merton's appeal. "The Unbelief of Believers" and "Apologies to an Unbeliever," from his 1968 collection Faith and Violence, offer an ironic and compelling rereading of our era. There he alertly pointed out how we no longer faced the seductions of nineteenth-century atheism but today were tempted by a secular indifference to God's presence. In retrospect, one reads Merton's diagnosis in parallel with the cautions raised by a generation of American theologians who warned that the belief in success, prosperity, individualism, the Puritan ethic, nationalism, and blind capitalism was nothing more than "civil religion." The abyss still threatened to swallow us, and the hermit-monk reached out from where he had found a foothold. Through these twin essays Merton joined Martin Marty in respecting those who courageously resisted and struggled with their loneliness, dread, and risk.(25)

"Apologies to an Unbeliever" gauges Merton's ability to reach out from the center of his Catholic tradition and engage in dialogue with other restless Catholics, Christians, and people of other faiths or no formal faith. He had begun to use the term "post-Christian" to characterize our world. (It could be enlarged to read "post-religious" in his later writings.) So he admitted that the title of this essay was intended to "scandalize" some Christians. He confessed embarrassment for the inadequate, impertinent falsifications of religion that had been inflicted upon people. He was grateful that the conscientious ones had refused its arrogance. There is a not a patronizing syllable in this Merton essay. He even corrected the label "unbeliever" and suggests that "non-believer" would be a more honest and accurate description of contemporaries who neither accepted nor rejected religious belief. He recognized their frailty and perplexity and distanced himself from what he called a kind of "religious vaudeville" that trivialized religion. He embraced Karl Rahner's diaspora model for the survival of Christianity in a secular, non-believing world.

Merton's Catholic optimism chose to identify the contemplative potential in the non-believers: "One must first be able to listen to the inscrutable ground of his own being, and who am I to say that your reservations about religious commitment do not protect, in you, this kind of listening."(26) What recommends this essay is the nature of the dialogue it represents, its "compassionate respect" for the restlessness of those who share a "common predicament," echoing Heschel's reminder: "To have faith is to be in labor." Merton put it in lyric prose-poetry:

My own peculiar task in my Church and in my world has been that of the solitary explorer who. . . . is bound to search the existential depths of faith in its silences, its ambiguities, and in the certainties which lie deeper than the bottom of anxiety. In these depths there are no easy answers, no pat solutions to anything. It is a kind of submarine life in which faith sometimes mysteriously takes on the aspect of doubt when, in fact, one has to doubt and reject conventional and superstitious surrogates that have taken the place of faith. On this level, the divisions between Believer and Unbeliever cease to be so crystal clear. It is not that some are all right and others are all wrong: all are bound to seek in honest perplexity. Everybody is an Unbeliever more or less! Only when this fact is fully experienced, accepted, and lived with, does one become fit to hear the simple message of the Gospel -- or of any other religious teaching.(27)

The metaphor of the abyss reappeared when Merton pointed to the weakness of our Christian language. With a contemplative's eye he saw how easily faith could be separated from the rest of life; he complained that "the job of bridging this abyss has been left to ethics" -- with unsatisfactory results when our morality remains negatively stated and superficial.(28) For that very reason, Merton's recovery of the Christian contemplative grounds for a religious ethic attracted perhaps his largest readership during the middle and late 1960s. When he addressed racism in America through his penetrating essay entitled "Letters to a White Liberal," he reminded readers how self-righteous political stances could mask the false self we refused to acknowledge. Merton insisted that the liberation of blacks in the United States -- economically, socially, and politically -- offered a kairos moment for both the oppressors and the oppressed.(29) In the same vein, his prolific writings on war and peacemaking(30) galvanized a generation of selective conscientious objectors and political activists who opposed America's invasion of Southeast Asia. He shared their impatience with a moral system that had abdicated responsibility for renewing the Christian tradition vis-a-vis the destructive capability of modern warfare. From the hermitage his contemplative voice refused to become an accomplice: "Because we live in a womb of collective illusion, our freedom remains abortive. Our capacities for joy, peace, and truth are never liberated. They can never be used. We are prisoners of a process. . . . and real deceptions ending in futility."(31)

When Merton reached beyond the roots of his own Christian tradition, his overtures to those outside the Judaeo-Christian culture again offered a new paradigm for dialogue. The conversation within religious pluralism, half of which he described as a listening process, deserved a contemplative grounding as its initiative. When he wrote to his Muslim friend Abdul Aziz, a Sufi Master, he again appealed to the existential threat of the abyss and their mutual rejection of all that it symbolized:

[God] alone is Real, and we have our reality only as a gift from Him at every moment. And at every moment it is our joy to be realized by Him over an abyss of nothingness: but the world has turned to the abyss and away from Him Who Is. That is why we live in dreadful times, and we must be brothers in prayer and worship no matter what may be the doctrinal differences that separate our minds.(32)

In the final analysis it is Merton's ability to help his Christian readers bridge the abyss between their Christian faith life and the rest of their life that characterizes his remarkable appeal even thirty years after his death. He insisted that the problem did not lie so much with the Bible or our theology as it did within ourselves. He advised us not to discard all the symbols of biblical revelation or the traditional terminology of our faith "in order to substitute them for a pseudo-scientific jargon that would be valid at best for the next ten years." Perhaps this also explains why Merton's shelf-life will extend into the third millennium. "What is required of Christians," he reminded, "is that they develop a completely modern and contemporary consciousness in which their experience as [persons] in our century is integrated with their experience as children of God redeemed by Christ."(33)

Thomas Merton brought his rootedness in the Catholic contemplative tradition to bear upon his own restlessness and that of generations of American readers. His unfailing ability to point to the nature of the real struggle captured their imagination: "What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery. . ."(34) In one of his posthumously published essays entitled "The Identity Crisis," Merton returned to this metaphor, reminding us that our identity is more than having a name or a face. "Identity in this deep sense is something that one must create for [oneself] by choices that are significant and that require courageous commitment in the face of anguish and risk," he reassured. For that reason he never shied away from the importance of having a belief one stands by, a certain definite way of responding to life, and loving God and neighbor.(35) From his own rooted yet restless story, Thomas Merton still encourages readers to discover their own freedom and intimacy with God.

GEORGE A. KILCOURSE, JR., is Professor of Theology at Bellarmine College, Louisville, and author of Ace of Freedoms: Thomas Merton's Christ (University of Notre Dame Press).


1. [Back to text]  Robert Lowell, "The Verses of Thomas Merton," Commonweal 42 (1945): 240.

2. [Back to text]  "Is the World a Problem?" Thomas Merton, Spiritual Master, ed. Lawrence S. Cunningham (New York: Paulist, 1994) 376.

3. [Back to text]  Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Doubleday, 1965), 156-57.

4. [Back to text]  "Day of a Stranger," Thomas Merton, Spiritual Master, 215.

5. [Back to text]  "First and Last Thoughts," A Thomas Merton Reader, ed. Thomas P. McDonnell (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1974), 18.

6. [Back to text]  The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1948), 181.

7. [Back to text]  The Wisdom of the Desert (New York, New Directions).

8. [Back to text]  "The Inner Experience," Thomas Merton, Spiritual Master, 295-96. Because Merton's will prohibited the publication of this text as a book, it was first published in serial form in Cistercian Studies 18 and 19, nos. 1-4.

9. [Back to text]  Thomas P. McDonnell, "An Interview with Thomas Merton," Motive 27 (1967): 32-41.

10. [Back to text]  "Flannery O'Connor: A Prose Elegy," Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1965), 42.

11. [Back to text]  Flannery O'Connor, Collected Works (New York: Library of America, 1988), 1038. This excerpt is from a letter to Cecil Dawkins, July 16, 1957.

12. [Back to text]  The Seven Storey Mountain, 165.

13. [Back to text]  New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1953.

14. [Back to text]  See my Ace of Freedoms: Thomas Merton's Christ ((Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993), 114, where I quote from Merton's working notebooks for 1965 his reaction to reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics. He admits to cultivating his own pessimism "in the name of 'spirituality' " but admits the need "to come to terms completely with the world in which I live and of which I am a part, because this is the world redeemed by Christ -- even the world of Auschwitz. . ."

15. [Back to text]  "Symbolism: Communication or Communion?" Love and Living (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979), 79.

16. [Back to text]  New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1961), 180.

17. [Back to text]  The Hidden Ground of Love (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985), 430-31.

18. [Back to text]  Ibid., 431. The letter is dated January 26, 1963.

19. [Back to text]  Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), xviii.

20. [Back to text]  The Hidden Ground of Love, 430.

21. [Back to text]  Abraham Joshua Heschel, Israel: An Echo of God (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), 224.

22. [Back to text]  Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 5.

23. [Back to text]  Ibid.

24. [Back to text]  Dancing in the Water of Life, 162.

25. [Back to text]  Faith and Violence (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968) 199-204.

26. [Back to text]  Ibid., 206-9.

27. [Back to text]  Ibid., 211-13.

28. [Back to text]  Ibid., 278-79.

29. [Back to text]  See my "Merton's 'Letter to a White Liberal' Revisited," in Your Heart Is My Hermitage, ed. Danny Sullivan and Iam Thompson (London: The Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1996), 155-63.

30. [Back to text]  Thomas Merton, Passion for Peace, ed. William H. Shannon (New York: Crossroad, 1995).

31. [Back to text]  "Rain and the Rhinoceros," Raids on the Unspeakable, 66.

32. [Back to text]  The Hidden Ground of Love, 49. The letter is dated May 13, 1961.

33. [Back to text]  Faith and Violence, 278-79.

34. [Back to text]  The Wisdom of the Desert, 11.

35. [Back to text]  Contemplation in a World of Action (New York: Doubleday, 1973), 78.


Does the Papacy Have a Future?
by Jean François Nothomb

Gary MacEoin's book (The Papacy and the People of God, New York: Orbis, 1998, $12.95 [paper]) is a major resource for anyone thinking seriously about the possibilities of the papacy in the next millennium. Before discussing the book, however, I want to stress the importance of John Paul II's encyclical Ut Unum Sint (May 25, 1995). In the present climate of relations between the Christian churches, it is difficult to emphasize adequately the pope's courage in daring for the first time to place in doubt the dogma of 1870, "not its substance, but in its application" (no. 95). In no. 96 he appeals to the church leaders of our separated brothers to aid him in this delicate task, an appeal which in general was very favorably received. Can John Paul II doubt that, in offering this encyclical, he has begun a process whose result he cannot foresee with certitude? The Papacy and the People of God may help us anticipate its consequences.

The book contains eleven essays by informed observers from several continents. Three deserve special attention because their subject matter goes beyond purely ecclesiastical themes: Joan Chittister's "Women in the Church," Pablo Richard's "The South Will Judge the North: The Church Between Globalization and Inculturation," and Francis X. Murphy's "Jubilee 2000 and the Quality of Life."

Chittister states an elementary truth: "The scientific revolution, once the very bastion of the male control of nature, has in our lifetime put the lie to male autonomy. . . ., to the notion that the world was made for disposal of man. . . Males were made in the image of God. Women made in the image of man. Women were 'natural' by virtue of a physiology designed for birthing rather than thinking" (6, 7). As a commentary, let me cite Maria Teresa Porcile Santiso, a young Uruguayan liberation theologian, who points out that

society will be fully human only when the two fundamental "modalities" of being human, male and female, contribute their specific qualities. Today, as for centuries, we are acting out a caricature of God's creation by tacitly accepting that "man" means "male." That is why it is indispensable. It is equally necessary for men to discover their own profound identity, which is still unknown to them because during all these centuries of patriarchal culture they have believed that "human" meant accepting the masculine as norm. The challenge of such a change poses itself in terms of creativity and creation; its protagonists are man and woman, united and distinct, in complete participation and otherness. (La mujer, espacio de salvación [Montevideo, Ediciones Trilce), 144)

For the Church there is much research to be done in this domain. The moving meditation of John Paul II, Mulierem Dignitatis, marked a point of no return. With the exception of paragraph 27, where, in the name of the Christ-Church (man-woman) symbolism, it categorically rejects the possibility of priesthood for women, this letter makes a clean sweep of all the ready-made cliches which Roman Catholic and Orthodox hierarchs have been repeating for generations and proves that the evolution of the role of women in modern public life has brought about changes in the church's mentality.

As Joan Chittister puts it: "The next papacy will be required to demonstrate a clear appearance of the equality of women or the credibility of the church in a world awakening to equality will be severely, if not mortally, compromised. . . Women must be included in that same theological debate with that same sincerity or the work of the church is only half finished" (10, 11). "We need a Pentecost papacy in the next millennium," she concludes, "that can hear the many voices of women -- each speaking in her own tongue -- and understand them" (14).

I found Pablo Richard's essay (131-143) especially moving because it reminded me of what I had learned during the eight years I spent with my yecuanas and yonomamis friends in Venezuela. Citing John Paul II's 1984 homily at Namao, Canada -- "In the light of the words of Christ, this poor South will judge the opulent North" -- he presents the paradigmatic colonial scorn and disdain of whites for the "savage": Man, Adult, Human, Soul, Reason (Spaniards) over Woman, Child, Animal, Body, Appetite (indigenous people). Why, for example, was Bartolomé de Las Casas not canonized by John Paul II in 1992, as many Latin American bishops had requested? Las Casas, after all, was the father of liberation theology and an advocate for human rights. Richard states emphatically: "The church has to choose between inculturation and globalization. The church is universal and catholic if it chooses inculturation. The universality of the church can only be established in defense of the life, spirit, and culture of the peoples who are oppressed and excluded by Western globalization. . . Globalization is ecclesial, Eurocentric, patriarchal, authoritarian and hostile to the body" (134). He echoes many of Chittister's themes: "The intellectual training, the obligatory celibacy, and the exclusion of women all follow the same logic, which is also the logic that excludes the indigenous, people of African descent, and the poor in general. The Third World church, which opts not for power but for the poor, enjoys, in this world, an overwhelming power that is specific to it: the power of the Spirit, of the Word, and of Theology" (138).

It is from this vision of a church that shares the lot of the despised of our world -- especially those of Asia and the South -- that the sufferings of the poor, united to those of Jesus on the cross, became a forceful dynamic for change. These churches of the Third World will be the cornerstone of a new way of living Christianity "in which the participation of all women and men -- especially the outcasts of society -- is possible and basic" (135).

The paper by Francis X. Murphy, C.S.S.R., "Jubilee 2000 and the Quality of Life" (90-101), touches on the cultural problem the churches -- and all of us -- have to confront. "New values had begun to emerge, such as the supremacy of human reason and the sacredness of human freedom. Amid the fierce political tensions of the age, people were beginning to suspect that God was yielding his place to man as the center of gravity. Instinctively, the church began to feel that the long-overlooked laity were the key to the situation. . . ." (95). Murphy emphasizes the influence of The Divine Milieu of Teilhard de Chardin and its importance for the council of John XXIII.

Like Chittister and Richard, he makes clear that the church has to rediscover the language of ordinary people, in order to understand them, and in order to be understood when she speaks.

All the authors who collaborated in The Papacy and the People of God echo, in one way or another, the criticisms Archbishop John R. Quinn put forth in his well-known conference at Oxford in 1996. The late Bernard Häring, for example, speaks of the letdown after the hopes aroused by the election of John Paul II in 1978: "The past two decades. . . . have disillusioned me" (16). John Wilkins shows that there cannot be a true reform of the church without a reform of the papacy. Such a reform has not occurred. After the parenthesis of Vatican II, the absolute monarchy already in place before the council of Trent restored world Catholicism, at least in governance, to a monolithic bloc more solid than in the time of Pius XII. Paul Collins remarks that "John Paul II has achieved a centralization of papal power unmatched in history" (22). Wilkins observes that "John Paul II towers over the church" (123).

What a contradiction there is between the open-minded perspectives toward those outside the church expressed in Ut Unum Sint and the tightening of discipline within the church! The episcopal collegiality rediscovered by Vatican II has remained ineffective. The pope is, indeed, a man apart. The personality cult which surrounds the sovereign Pontiff, not just in Rome but in the whole Catholic world, is expressed in the second great prayer of Good Friday which is for the pope alone. There is no way to convince the ordinary Catholic faithful and the other Christian confessions that the church is above all the people of God, as Vatican II defined it. This solitude of the pope even appears in Ut Unum Sint (n. 95): "I am convinced that I have a special responsibility in this regard, above all when I hear the request which is addressed to me.. . . ." A pope convinced of the necessity of episcopal collegiality would never speak like that. Giancarlo Zizola calls attention to this "inhumane" solitude: "It is necessary to reduce the physical and psychic overload to which the pope is subjected. . . . so as not to exceed the limits of fatigue a human being can tolerate" (53, citing Cardinal Koenig of Vienna). If we rightly admire the ecumenical openness of the pope, we also have the right to ask why this openness does not extend first of all to the episcopal college and to those of the Catholic laity who have affirmed that "we are the church" and have expressed themselves on a national level in "appeals of the people of God." The adult laity should have their word to say in questions which are of vital interest to them.

The fact remains that John Paul II is the author of Ut Unum Sint, a remarkable document which seems to me to be the culmination of the work of the World Council of Churches which has been spearheading the search for Christian unity for the last half-century. What I have never understood is why the Catholic Church is still not a full member of the World Council, especially after the recent "Copernican revolution" in ecumenism. We have gone from a "catholicocentric" perspective to a "christocentic" perspective; today each of the Christian confessions gives to the others all that is positive in its special charisma, as suggested in 1 Cor. 12:1-30. As John Paul II said, "The gifts of each should develop for the unity and advantage of all" (Beyond the Threshold of Hope, c. 23). Christian unity should be rebuilt, starting from the mutual schism of 1054 and the sixteenth-century rupture of Latin Christianity. Let's finish once and for all with this idea of a "return" to the one true church which possesses the truth!

Essential to this search for unity is the role of the petrine ministry of communion and service, which includes infallibility and circumscribes the different primacies. The dogma of infallibility, as it was defined by Vatican I, is the stumbling block between the Catholic Church and the other Christian churches and should have been treated more extensively in The Papacy and the People of God. Had the Eastern churches participated in the councils that we Latins qualify as "ecumenical," and which took place after the rupture of the undivided church, the definition of infallibility would obviously have been quite different. For non-Catholic Christians these "ecumenical" councils are only local councils -- important, to be sure, but "western" and not binding as far as they are concerned. On this point I think it is significant that Paul VI, on the occasion of the seventh centennial of the council of Lyon, very deliberately referred to it as the "second general council of Lyon" and then, more explicitly still, as the "sixth of the general synods held in the West" (letter addressed to Cardinal Willebrands in 1974 and read publicly in the cathedral of Lyon that year). Paul VI opened up a road which should be followed. As Msgr. Elias Zoghby, retired bishop of Baalbeck, Lebanon has said: "Infallibility depends on ecumenicity" (Il Regno-Attualità, 14/96, col. 422).

MacEoin and his collaborators should have treated the Great Schism of 1054 with the same attention it gave to the councils which were held after the rupture. Did Rome or Constantinople have the authority to declare the other party schismatic? It seems evident that neither party had such authority, nor did either party have authority to convoke an ecumenical council and thus "define a truth of the faith," as did Vatican I. While the East accepted this situation, the West did not; witness the three "dogmas" of 1854, 1870, and 1950.

It is thus necessary that the Catholic Church muster the courage to review a so-called "dogmatic," irrevocable decision defined "ex cathedra" by only one of the parties concerned. Olivier Clement, the French Orthodox theologian, is optimistic: "At the horizon of the year 2000 -- or a bit later -- there will be a truly ecumenical council (where the Protestants will also be present, since Rome and its Reform cannot be separated) which will be able to examine, in the light of Apostolic Tradition and the Communion of the Saints, what each has defined separately. We shall then understand that the aged bishop of Rome desirous, in his very weakness, to bring his pontificate to a fulfillment in a different manner has, by his appeal to unity, truly become servus servitorum Dei" (Contacts, no. 170, p. 158).

At this point it may be asked whether the Western church is not caught in a vicious circle by defining the dogma of infallibility in such a way that the Latin church alone justifies it. By qualifying realities which are not explicitly revealed as "irreformable," it closes the door to any type of evolution, whether historical or cultural. We have already had, in 1896, the case of Anglican orders judged invalid by the Bull Apostolicae Curae, of Leo XIII; numerous Catholic theologians have requested that the subject be reconsidered, but they have been impeded from proceeding further by this "forever" attached to a question which is not part of revealed doctrine.

The 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, on the ordination of women, declared that this teaching belonged to the deposit of faith but was not a dogmatic definition. Archbishop Weakland commented: "The church has two options: a first is to slam the door on all discussion about the ordination of women and accept the consequences which ensue. The other is to leave the door open to discussion and to continue a very important dialogue, painful as it might be, between the tradition of the church and the currents of modern society." Olivier Clement, for his part, wrote: "I doubt that this letter, pathetic in its desire to impose a definitive position, will interrupt the reflection under way within the Christian world, the Catholic Church included. The risk for the Catholic Church, perhaps, will be to divide itself into a militant minority which will consider every declaration of the pope as quasi-infallible and a rather uncertain majority which will envisage its adhesion to the church in a different manner -- or no longer envisage it at all. It seems to me that neither of these attitudes corresponds to the authentic Tradition, which is life in the spirit in the Body of Christ and always marked by the search for communion" (La Croix, Paris, 6/1/94).

This decision is an example of the harshness of the Apostolic See -- actually, of the Roman Curia -- negating the breakthrough of John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint. Unfortunately, we need to point out three other cases where there is the same negation of views proposed in that document. First, there is the recent Instruction on the Role of the Laity in the Pastoral Mission (Aug. 15, 1997), which caused a genuine stupefaction and led to protests by many bishops whose dioceses are acutely in need of priests. Cardinal Koenig is quoted as stating: "The bureaucratic apparatus of the Vatican has developed its own life to such a level as to take on (de facto, not de jure) functions which are proper to collegiality" (53). It is no surprise that the tone of this Curia document is extremely juridical; the closer John Paul's pontificate comes to its conclusion, the bolder it becomes. When John Paul II is away from Rome, he is relaxed and content -- for example, during his recent visit to Cuba, where the freshness of his message astonished everyone. At Rome, however, he returns to the control of the ultra-conservative Curia. Fr. Bernard Sesboue, S.J., points out the paradox of a pontificate inspired, from its very first day, by the leitmotif, "be not afraid," generating a document like this in which fear is the dominating theme: fear that there be confusion between the priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood, for example. "Eight Roman congregations cooperated in producing this text, which is a slap at episcopal collegiality in so far as it is addressed to the bishops as though they were under suspicion of not carrying out their episcopal obligations" (Il Regno-Attualità, 2/98, col. 13).

This intolerable situation cannot continue, and it is the pope -- or a council -- that should put an end to it. As things stand, the 4,600 functionaries of the Roman Curia (cf. Zizola, 52) form a totally masculine power, without any other preoccupations or responsibilities, so that they can devote themselves full time to playing a quasi-papal role! People of God makes this point. As Paul Collins writes: "There is a sense in which the papacy of John Paul II is the natural result of all that was decided in 1870"; it is what Alain Woodrow calls creeping infallibility (78).

The excommunication -- and its revocation a year later -- of the Sri Lankan theologian, Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, is another example of this tendency. How could Rome, which is always calling for the inculturation of the church's theology and liturgy, cut the feet out from under the research undertaken by one of its most courageous theologians? Nevertheless, the revocation of the sentence is a positive sign which proves that the vehement protests of bishops and other personalities can finally have some impact. The church in Asia, in Africa -- even in Latin America -- is far from being in communion with the deep-rooted local cultures of these continents. As an example of this I recommend the last novel of the Japanese author Shusaku Endo, Deep River.

A text prepared by the Japanese bishops before the Asian synod illustrates this problem: "In order to give a new visage to the relations between the Holy See and the churches which are in Asia, it is necessary to consider a new system of relations no longer based on 'centralization' but on 'collegiality.' We ask that Rome recognize a just autonomy for the local churches. It is strange, for example, that the Holy See has to approve a Japanese translation of liturgical and catechetical texts which the bishops' conference has already approved. For the evangelization of our peoples, for the encouragement of inculturation, for the construction of an authentic collegiality among the churches of Asia, there must be confidence in the local churches and their independence must be respected in everything which concerns administration and all other matters" (Adista, 20/98, 5).

The removal of Jacques Gaillot from his episcopal see of Evreux (France) in 1995 was another instance of this indifference to collegiality. The French Episcopal Conference could and should have resisted the pressures of the Roman Curia. Earlier (1983), the Vatican had forced the resignation of Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo of Luanda (Zambia), because he had acquired too much influence through his exorcisms (cf. Matt. 10:1 and 10:8) and was threatening the authority of the President of the Republic, M. Kaunda. More recently, the Vatican wanted to force the retirement of Dom Samuel Ruiz, the bishop of San Cristobal de Las Casas, in Mexico -- the responsibility of the nuncio in this case is enormous. He was "saved" because he was the only mediator acceptable to the Zapatist Front of National Liberation. The Holy See, however, named a coadjutor bishop with full powers alongside Bishop Ruiz. This backfired, however, when the coadjutor quickly became "converted" to the struggle of the poor peasants of Chiapas -- something like what happened to Archbishop Romero.

Episcopal collegiality is a wonderful ideal, but what is it in reality? "Above all, the popes (Paul VI and John Paul II) finally refused to give the synod of bishops any real decisional power, such as, for example, the election of the pope, preferring what they called "affective" collegiality to an authentic episcopal force that might threaten papal prerogatives. . ." (Alain Woodrow, 82).

Reflection on The Papacy and the People of God only supports the statement of Paolo Ricca, pastor of the Vaudian church in Italy: "John Paul II should be aware that the papacy, such as it is understood now, has no realistic chance. If it is to have a chance it must change. But only a pope can change the papacy. By writing Ut Unum Sint John Paul II has begun the process. . ." (Irenikon, 97/1, 31).

JEAN FRANÇOIS NOTHOMB, who worked for many years with the Indians in the Amazon as a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, lives in Rome, where he is an editor for the International Maritain Institute.

Converting to Religion after Its Demise:
Thoughts on Marcel Gauchet and His American Reception
by Steven Englund

A superb English translation of (most of) Marcel Gauchet's thirteen-year-old classic of political and social thought that rocked France, The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion, has recently appeared in Princeton University Press's praiseworthy "New French Thought" series.(1) It is introduced with a fine essay by Charles Taylor. This is a brilliant -- original and piercing -- book that deserves far more attention, and certainly more understanding, than it has gotten. For this lack of attention, Gauchet has partly himself to blame. His abstruse style is, for whole stretches, virtually impenetrable to mortal readers. It need not be. What the French philosopher has to say is both important and understandable.

Gauchet is, in some ways, a cordial and appreciative analyst of Christianity. His book makes religion into something like the historical fons et origo of human society. Religion -- in our case, Christianity -- has long since succeeded in totally suffusing our social language, values, and institutions. This thesis, a welcome relief from studies that have ignored religion's importance in building society, has endeared Gauchet to some, leading them overlook in him the percipient and remorseless atheist whose view of religion is that of the Enlightenment and of Feuerbach. Religion is "the embodiment of social man's negative relation to himself into social forms. . . [It is] a way of institutionalizing humans against themselves. . . The central noteworthy feature of the religious is precisely that this constitutive power of negation has been given the task of disguising itself. . ." These ideas, and many like them in these pages, should confront believers -- and have, in France -- with some painful observations, analyses, and objections about religion.

Situating himself in the grand social theory tradition of Weber and Durkheim -- one that presupposes an immense interdisciplinary learning and a taste for high generalization rare in our time -- Gauchet argues that the world has reached the end of its long religious day. Although religion formed and still deeply permeates modern society, society has long since evolved beyond the gods and sacralized itself, the organic community, the nation-state. Gauchet's most original and penetrating analysis shows how Christianity, in particular, is "the religion of the end of religion." Christianity has done itself out of existence. The 'problem' inscribed at the heart of the twin foundational Christian doctrines of the infinite worth of the individual soul and the utter transcendence of God is that they led to the undermining of the Christian belief system itself, exposing it to dissidence and instability at the center. Christianity's radical removal of "the Other" (God) from the world led, as day follows night, to the decline in social human's dependence on the divine. In brief, Christianity gave rise to a faith that gradually turned against the ideological self-subjugation that all religion classically is. The Christian God liberated men and women from the ancient world's omnipresent gods, but the growth in freedom led to the modern state of affairs wherein religion as the great refusal (of freedom) has itself been refused. Expressed in Gauchet's turgid but effective prose: "[T]he greater the gods, the freer humans are, the degree of human obligation toward the law given to them from outside is, contrary to appearances, inversely related to the degree of concentration of, and separate from, the divine. . . Transcendence separates reason and faith. . . There is no intellectual access to a God radically separated from the world, so humans are now on their own. . ."

(Gauchet's analysis of Catholic ecclesiology and its "necessary" religious consequences could only be called protestant. The history of the Church turns on a "major ambiguity," he believes. On the one hand, its "prevailing language is one of mediation. . . . between living beings and the spiritual realm," but on the other hand, the Church's centralized institutions and articulated dogmas signify "the opposite: the impossibility of mediation, the irreversible fracture between the human city and the kingdom of the absolute." The result was that the organized Church ever more insistently established itself as the idol to be rejected -- by believers as well as nonbelievers. The Reformation simply got the jump on the rest of modern history.)

As religion receded from co-extensiveness with society, society famously developed secular values, institutions, rites, etc. Remorselessly, Gauchet demonstrates that any attempt to stop or reverse "the divine's inexorable withdrawal [from society] is futile." It is futile because it fails to grasp the logic at work both in religion and in society. Perhaps Gauchet's most original analysis is the one for which the book is subtitled. He offers a close historical explication of the critical role of the state in effecting humankind's departure from religion. In this view, the state first challenged, then replaced, religious authority, rites, and institutions. Social power did not so much become secularized as the sacred saw itself reassigned from the clerical to the political form -- in Gauchet's words, the "Nation came to personify immortality." All of this is a very French experience and analysis, but it is not necessarily inapplicable to Anglo-American history. The Durkheimian insight that society, in Gauchet's user-unfriendly language, "realizes the collective body's internal self-congruence," stands.

Adept at historical analysis, Gauchet has a no-less sure hand for the present. In his view, the high, arid, over-oxygenated plain onto which we moderns have debouched from our five-thousand-year trek through "religion" is at once a painful, disequilibrating, and exhilarating place to be. The "autonomous self" we now are inhabits a world that is no longer "presented" but must be "constituted." It is a world, let us be clear, that is not one whit less post-religious for being "in continuity with religious man." Again, it is best to give Gauchet's words, for they are far from lacking poignancy: "From now on we are destined to live openly and in the anguish from which the gods had spared us. . . Perhaps we will never find a true balance between self-love that wishes to exclude all else and the desire to abolish the self, between absolute being and being-as-nothingness. Such is the daily throbbing pain that no sacral opiate can blot out: the merciless contradictory desire inherent in the very reality of being a subject."

More specifically, the "daily throbbing pain" ensues from humanity's insertion in what Gauchet calls a "new structure of social time," a world which refers for its "legitimation" to the unknowable and ever-changing future, not the immutable, mythical past. But this plunges us moderns into a kind of headlong pitch forward (une fuite en avant, in French) that is highly destabilizing. In Gauchet's words, "the less possible it is for us to consider the future an object of superstition and worship, the more apparent it becomes that the future will be other than we imagine. The more we accept ourselves as authors of history, the only remaining enigma is we ourselves."

Yet baffling and anxious enigmas we are. Constituting our individual identity when it is no longer imparted to us by the social collectivity is a problematic experience. Gauchet is curious about how we moderns tote the barge of our autonomy. We do it variously and inconsistently, he argues. We create consuming political ideologies (fascism, communism, etc.); we expand our taste for the aesthetic experience ("the continuation of the sacred by other means"); and paradoxically, we choose to "bask in a nondifferentiated residue of religion."

Here, we come to one of Marcel Gauchet's more under-appreciated but profound observations: the characteristic social phenomena of our time that sees some people turn to religious conversion as a response to the disequilibrating experience of freedom in a pluralist world. This is where Gauchet's distinction between religion as personal faith and religion as the ideological creator and designer of society stands him in brilliant stead. The two things -- faith and religion -- are not the same, any more than are the questions of the objective truth-value of religious myths (Gauchet thinks they have none) and religion's social valence, its power to form and inform the collectivity. Individual pockets of faith may indeed postdate the decline of religion as a major social player. In Gauchet's words: "We can imagine the extreme of a society comprised entirely of believers, yet beyond the religious."

It is a matter of choice. Some, says Gauchet, may elect generalized spirituality, some a particular religious practice, just as they may "de-accession" it and go on to another, or move around the "cafeteria" of one tradition. Gauchet personally recommends Taoism or Buddhism to the reader because "these spiritualities contain no theistic implications. . . The void or nothing they conjure up is thus better placed than Christianity's customary theological categories to express the pure experience of thought." That said, however, he has no problem with anyone's choices. He is not your classic French anticlerical exponent of laïcisme. The only serious mistake on Gauchet's telling would be to confuse this flitting among religions and spiritualities with living in or returning to a world structured by religion. The oak, as John Noonan puts it in his splendid new book (The Lustre of Our Country: The American Experience of Religious Freedom), cannot go back to the acorn.


Reactions to Gauchet among orthodox Christians have been curiously favorable. Their gratitude to him for bringing religion front and center leads them to overlook his announcement of its supersession. Thus, Brian Anderson, in the journal First Things (June/July 1998), after painting a loving and useful portrait of this book's contents, waits until his short coda to demur on the issue of religion's "truth-value." Anderson allows as how "Christianity might be true." In the same issue, Richard John Neuhaus signals another study of post-religious secularization, Manuel Castells' The Rise of the Network Society, which, like Gauchet's book, descries within contemporary society's 'religious revival' the total disenchantment of the world in its social organization. To this, Neuhaus's thoughtful response is: "Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. . . We are witnessing the re-enchantment of the world," he asserts, and cites, in support, Gerard Manly Hopkins: "the world is charged with the grandeur of God."

Now one sympathizes with these men -- including the philosopher Charles Taylor who, in his helpful introduction to Gauchet's volume, suggests that "God" may "really exist." Frankly, my own first reaction when I read Gauchet was to make a similar statement. The reader will thus, I hope, see that I intend no disrespect for my intellectual betters when I opine that this is all quite beside the point. Gauchet has made systematic assertions for religion's retirement as a formative social force from human history. The argument, and indeed the state of affairs, that asks to be refuted is this: the world, for all that it may be reverential toward religion, is no longer referential to religion in its social organization. This, not the possibility or desirability of personal religious faith, is what Gauchet is talking about when he writes, "Religion was initially a general shaping of humans' material, social, and mental life. All that remains of it today are individual experiences and belief systems, while actions affecting things, and the link between beings and the mind's organizing categories contradict the logic of dependence that initially governed them. This constitutes our departure from the age of religions."

No small irony resides in a state of affairs where Gauchet's points are perhaps best driven home by a recent work of Christian apologetics. Patrick Glynn's God: The Evidence. The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular World is a slim volume that has received kudos from sources as diverse as Andrew Greeley and Michael Novak, Hans Küng and Robert Bork. It opens with the story of the author's conversion to Christianity. Glynn is a Harvard-trained philosopher who worked for the Reagan Administration in arms control. The turning point in his conversion from intellectual atheism was falling in love with a woman who was "a believer. . . . a strong spiritual Christian." The book's main task is to adduce evidence for why the "ugly" conclusion, "we are on our own," is no longer plausible, no longer where the smart money is going.

Glynn's "evidence" comes from two realms: the scientific and the psychological. The latter is the data accumulated about near-death experiences and the therapeutic uses of prayer and church-going. The former is the author's rather tendentious account of some of the latest speculations in theoretical physics -- notably "the Anthropic Principle," a view held by a Cambridge cosmologist who argues that the cosmos is not random in its origin, as has been thought, but contains certain "mysterious coincidences" that may, and indeed should, be interpreted as constituting a telos for humankind's existence. The theory, in other words, bids fare to up-end the Copernican revolution and return homo sapiens to the center of the natural order.

The point of Glynn's compilation of 'evidence' -- his piling Ossian onto Pella, if you will -- is not to conclude that a person may reason his way to God (the gift of grace remains decisive, he insists) but to shift the burden of proof back onto the shoulders of the religious skeptics. This, Glynn believes he has done. He also goes further and makes social-historical statements. He sees Christianity virtually everywhere. He writes, "The reason we admire what we admire in the modern polity is precisely that the values Jesus put forward in the New Testament are the central human values. . ." He notes, not without ironic chuckles, that "the leading American postmodern philosopher," Richard Rorty, readily grants that Christianity is the source of most secular values. Glynn, in fact, cannot contain himself: "The day, I believe, is soon coming when skepticism, unbelief, is going to be the minority position, not just among the populace at large, but even among intellectuals."

Well, perhaps, but we should pause a moment before we usher modernity or postmodernity (depending on your definition) out history's back door. Marcel Gauchet would not for a second contest much of what Glynn asserts nor try to refute his "evidence," although he might smile at the American's breathless announcement, made in the absence of any sociological, philosophical, or historical argumentation whatever, that "post-modernism is post-secularism waiting to be reborn."

The point is, Gauchet's book makes allowance for a Glynn; Glynn's does not for a Gauchet. Glynn's appeal in faith to faith illustrates Gauchet's theme that the modern human is free to do anything he likes, including invoke "the anthropological prop" that is religion. When Glynn recounts his conversion, he, in Gauchet's words "testifies to [his] faithfulness to [God's] law," but he does so "individually, from within [his] instituting freedom," and not as an individual in response to society's formation. The confiteor of the lonely vertical pronoun ("I") merely buttresses Gauchet's case that "if we have surpassed the religious, it has not left us, and perhaps never will, even though its historical effectiveness is finished. . . We have gone from being within religion to being outside it, and this to-ing and fro-ing and unstable compromise between belonging and withdrawal, between worshiping the problematic and choosing the solution, defines our age's specific religiosity -- and is perhaps the best way for the religious to survive in a world without religion." Glynn lambastes those darlings of the Zeitgeist, which he denotes as "caprice," "aesthetic obsession," "private project," "the spirit of self-creation"; yet, what is his book but an exercise in "self-creation," the winsome telling of the story of his own private project, his own wrestling with the problem of his identity?

In sum, "the departure from religion," as Gauchet affirms and reaffirms, has neither been fortuitous or coincidental, nor has it happened because "lots of people" lost their faith; nor will it be undone because lots of people -- including some very smart and distinguished ones -- reassert their faith or the possibility of it. Gauchet is not being supercilious or disdainful, he is simply being methodical, when he writes, "there are very good reasons for humans to convert to religion after its demise." But he adds, "there are even better reasons for these conversions not to be profound or long-lasting, since humans cannot abandon the reasons that caused them to convert."

One has the impression that Glynn -- like Anderson, Neuhaus, and even Charles Taylor -- fails to grasp the meaning and implications of the analysis here offered. They "have reached bedrock and their spade is turned," as the philosopher Thomas Nagel might put it, but, I would add, they do not appear to know it. The very fact that none of these men has attacked The Disenchantment of the World is telling and indeed poignant. The book has not been assailed, I would propose, both because its author has not attacked faith (that would provoke neuralgia and anxiety) and because he has stipulated to religion's -- more especially, to Catholicism's -- claim on the beauty part in Western history. That Gauchet has also, very politely and brilliantly, limned the end of religion as a public force, while demonstrating how Christianity contained within itself the seeds of its own supersession, therefore hurts little, for he shows appreciation both of a convert's new-found faith and pride in his religious tradition.

The recent flourishing of apologists like Glynn, with their proclaimed successful quests for certainty and (in Neuhaus's case) their deep concern for orthodoxy and papal authority, are further signs that Gauchet's analysis is accurate. The presupposition of their furious advocacy is precisely his point that the Church is no longer co-extensive with society and has not been a dispositive social force for years. In a way, Glynn and Neuhaus should be glad. If Glynn's predictions of religion's return to cultural-intellectual hegemony were accurate, he and his cohorts would lose their enjoyable posture of hard-pressed, misunderstood minority and would be seen to be speaking platitudes. In a religiously formed society, they would have no clout or audience.

They need not worry.


Teaching a confirmation class (CCD) of select high school juniors and seniors, as I have for a decade, has shown me in spades how alive and well is "the autonomous self," even in a rural Wisconsin town. Catholic Waupaca is, without making a fuss over it, decades into post-religiosity, as Gauchet understands it. A few of my kids' grandparents have lively memories of active corporate Catholicism, but fully fifty percent of my Wednesday-night flock does not live in families that go to Mass even once for every change of liturgical color. You readily see the results in their children's "Alzheimer's" approach to religious ed: after ten to twelve years of CCD, the kids (and mine always include valedictorians and salutatorians) learn something -- a biblical quote, a definition, a prayer, etc. -- only to forget it the next hour and learn it again in the next year's CCD class, then forget it, and relearn it, and so on. If they are beyond more than superficial embarrassment at this state of affairs, it is because none of it ties in to anything they live by and with. Precisely the social-collective aspects of religion -- e.g., the Mass -- are what they least feel the power of or can least be got across to them.

More to Gauchet's immediate point, a CCD teacher soon realizes that even if she leads her wards to accepting confirmation, their decisions for the sacrament are "secularly" arrived at and framed; they are options exercised for now, expressions of personal freedom and opinion, none of it a matter of life or death, all quite unrooted in the rest of what is going on around them. The one tactic I have happened upon that sparks their interest is Pascal's wager, but that is because they interpret it as a wise choice, a good bet that speaks well for the wagerer's intelligence. The few kids each year who exercise other options -- opting for (Protestant) sects, fashioning individual melds of far Eastern and/or New Age spirituality, etc. -- rarely stick with them. But then, neither do their more numerous Catholic counterparts, who, from the outset, make no promise, individual or corporate, to join the communitas.

Nor are my kids religious in their broader moral foundations and values. Their sense of good and bad is not, even if you push them, tied to God or Church, but to secular values and institutions (often the faux or feckless protest values of rock and/or rap music and lyrics). It used to be that morality was anchored in religion; now, the reverse holds true. Our sore-pressed pastor does his homiletic best to tie in Catholicism to his flock's pre-established (secular) ethics and morality. The world my kids join is a post-religious society drenched in religious history and references that are little known and less cared about. "San Francisco" is a word that raises many images for them, but none that is remotely likely to put them in mind of the Assisi friar. The concepts that describe their Catholicism are echt-Gauchetian: "live and let live," "private religion," "cafeteria Catholicism," "relativism," "opinionism." I do not say this in anger, still less in surprise or pleasure; I note it. It is as irreversible a fact of life up here as divorce, contraception, or the automobile.


A man who understands both what Gauchet is saying and what Glynn is doing is the sociologist, Peter Berger. In a recent article in The Christian Century, Berger accepts the central thesis, advanced by Gauchet, about the permanent end of co-extensiveness between society and religion. He essays a radically different case from Glynn's, one that is modest in tone and accepting of cognitive pluralism, in substance. Unlike Glynn, he holds that faith has little to do with scientific or, still less, with therapeutic evidence.(2) Indeed, faith, for Berger, is not about knowing but about believing, in the absence of proof. In the face of the current cultural spectrum of competing and incompatible forms of meaning, Berger advocates "epistemological modesty."(3) Championing the principle of the ecclesia semper reformanda, he makes the most of the present social reality of "weak churches" (weak in organization and membership). He speaks a most helpful and, I would say, powerful, word on behalf of the Christian strength of weakness, of the "self-emptying Jesus," of believers "unsure of themselves, groping for a few glimpses of truth to hold onto."

On the other hand, Berger has no response to make to Gauchet's central argument about the self-inflicted disappearance of Christianity as a formative social reality. None of the above should imply that I think there are no replies to be made to Gauchet, perhaps even on his own ground, but it is to say that I, for one, cannot think of any. More to the point, I especially think no effective reply will be made by readers who ignore the gravamen of Gauchet's analysis. The functional approach to religion may not be the last word, but, in the Frenchman's hands, it is a profound analysis, dangerous to ignore, misunderstand, or underrate. When Gauchet writes that "it is not the reality of [the religion] phenomenon that is in question, but its nature and role"; we must not permit our relief at the former part of the statement to make us forget the power of the latter, "nature and role."

On that thought, and in closing, we might do well to ponder some big words by Henri de Lubac, S.J., a most orthodox thinker (except when he was not). During the Second World War, the future cardinal found time and reason to ponder an even greater atheist than Marcel Gauchet -- indeed an "anti-theist": Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the mid-nineteenth century socialist thinker whom Karl Marx strongly disapproved of.(4) The more business-like and academic Gauchet displays none of Proudhon's anger and unrelenting, tormented fascination with Christianity. Lubac was in turn fascinated by Proudhon's torment and fascination.

Lubac isolates one observation of Proudhon's: "A religion's hour has come when a troubled conscience puts to itself the question, not whether that religion is true: doubts about dogma are not sufficient for the down-fall of a religion; -- nor whether it needs to be reformed: reforms in matters of faith are proof of religious vitality; -- but whether, that religion, so long reputed to be the protector and the mainstay of morals, is equal to its task, or what I might put in other words, whether it really has a moral code." And Lubac writes -- not without some fear and trembling, one suspects -- "That objection is the only one, it seems to me, which is worth anything. It is the only one which gets to the bottom of things."

The Jesuit, I submit, 'got it,' and unless that hard lesson of Proudhon's, now Gauchet's, is truly assimilated, then the sorts of confessions and disclaimers proffered by a Glynn sound -- to me, anyway -- like a dead person's insisting, "well, my finger nails are still growing." I, too, love the Hopkins line Neuhaus quoted (above), but I would suggest that Wallace Stevens is a poet the modern believer might also profitably contemplate: "The final belief is to believe in a fiction which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing other." Joseph Schumpeter, the Harvard economist, put the thought with more prosaic eloquence: "To realize the relative validity of one's convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian."

STEVEN ENGLUND is completing a study of the political significance of the idea of "La Nation" in French history.


I would like to thank Peter Ochs, Vincent Curcio, Patrick Jordan, and Paul Bauman for their suggestions.

1. [Back to text]  Translated by Oscar Burge. Published as Le desenchantement du monde, une histoire politique de la religion (Paris: Gallimard, 1985). Gauchet is professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.

2. [Back to text]  Favorably reviewing God: The Evidence for First Things, Edward Oakes, S.J. nevertheless concedes he is made uncomfortable by Glynn's "feel good" arguments in favor of the religion of Christ. Granting similarities more apparent than real between Glynn and Pascal, Oakes adds mordantly, "we must be content with the apologists our age deserves."

3. [Back to text]  Berger asks, "How long can institutions based on an alleged certainty survive in the pluralistic situation that constantly challenges that certainty?" Thinking, perhaps, of a Glynn, he replies, "I think the answer must be that they too can survive -- and perhaps for a long time, but with very great difficulty."

4. [Back to text]  The Un-Marxian Socialist: A Study of Proudhon. Translated by R. E. Scantlebury. London: Sheed & Ward, 1948. Re-issued by Octagon Books, 1978. The book originally appeared in 1945 (Seuil) as Proudhon et le christianisme. See also Philip Rieff, "A Jesuit Looks at Proudhon: Competition in Damnation," The Modern Review 3, no. 2 (January 1950): 166-71.


Queering Church, Churching Queers
by Robin Hawley Gorsline

The debates about Christianity and sexuality rage everywhere today. Among many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people -- those I'm calling queer -- inside the church, the conventional wisdom is that the loudest voices are those which claim to speak with complete doctrinal and biblical authority in condemnation of sexual variety, and especially against the morality of homosexuality. On those occasions when the story of an individual queer within the church becomes public it is usually over the matter of same-sex unions or ordination, and the focus is often on the struggle between, on the one side, the "orthodox" claiming to uphold the Bible and the tradition, against, on the other, straight liberals (also claiming to be within the tradition) and their gay allies, each struggling to prove the other wrong.

Queers outside the church often cite these media portrayals of the church as proof that it is the most homophobic institution in our society, and as support for their view that the sooner queers get out of church, and the sooner it loses its remaining power to shape sexual morality, the better. These critics often exhibit impatience with queer Christians, sometimes going so far as to assert that remaining in the church is a sign of deep-seated internalized homophobia. Sometimes this connection between religious belief and internalized homophobia is accurate.

There is more to the story than these media-based views would suggest, however. Indeed, there are distinctively queer voices within the church, and two recent books go far in showing the creativity now energizing queers within Christianity. In the process, they also offer views of Christianity which differ in important -- dare we say fundamental -- respects from those who oppose a queer presence in the church, as well as those who argue for Christian tolerance of queers. Neither work is without significant limitations, but each offers important resources for queer Christians and those among their allies who are willing to entertain the possibility of a Christianity not only tolerant of the sexually different but also a Christianity changed, indeed made better and more whole, by the contributions of queers.

Kathy Rudy, an assistant professor in women's studies at Duke University, offers the more daring book. Her Sex and the Church: Gender, Homosexuality, and the Transformation of Christian Ethics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999, 240pp., $22.00 [cloth]) offers several arresting arguments which can help the reader think carefully about several kinds of religious orthodoxy, both the Christian right-wing variety and its liberal, tolerance-based relation. The first argument, namely that for the Christian Right gender is the first organizing principle of theology, is not exactly radical, having been articulated by many feminist theologians, but it grounds the entire book. From here, Rudy describes the contemporary right's reliance on the traditional family, its resulting fervent opposition to alternative visions of family, and the deleterious effects of both. She also shows how liberal Christians, and other promoters of tolerance, fail to combat this insidiously genderized theological vision and, indeed, reiterate it themselves.

Rudy is consciously sex-positive, a position sure to earn her the enmity of the Right (and probably others). She argues that "sex is ethical when it opens God's world to others." In her view, the way to evaluate sexual acts is not whether they are based on same-sex or other-sex attraction and activity (she is very critical of genitally based sexual ethics) but rather whether they are based on hospitality and what she calls "unitivity" -- i.e., how much they help us "welcome the stranger into our church and into our life with God."

Thus, unlike most Christian observers, including many queer and feminist theologians, she refuses to interpret non-monogamous queer sex practices -- activities which, especially among men in pre-AIDS days, took place in bathhouses, public rest rooms, and parks, and today find expression in sex clubs and house sex parties -- as merely desperate attempts at sexual gratification in a hostile world. Instead, she contends that these activities are often, although not always, essential elements in community building and that at least some queer practices of "communal sex" may be pleasing to God.

Even more daringly, she makes an explicit connection between these communitarian activities and the traditional Christian emphasis on building up the Body of Christ, contending that the church could learn much from a group of people who, because they are so often without family support, base their social and emotional existence on membership in community. In this regard, her critique of the heterosexist model of family as a privatizing, anti-communitarian institution is particularly acute.

Despite her pro-sex attitudes, however, Rudy will not please many queer Christians with her argument that identities such as "gay" or "lesbian" or "queer" -- even "male" or "female" -- should be cast aside. "Our primary identification is and ought to be Christian; any identification that takes precedence over our baptism is to be avoided." She bases this contention on an insight most clearly articulated by queer theorists, namely their critique of the categories "gay" and "straight" -- and even "bisexual" -- as natural and fixed. By siding with queer theory in this regard, she stakes out a position at odds with that argued by other queer Christians and their friends within mainline Protestantism and liberal Catholicism -- namely that these categories are ordained by God. Accepting the fluidity of sexual categories and identities advanced within queer theory, Rudy argues that Christians are first and foremost called to be people of God -- to eschew, following Jesus and Paul, the labels and histories which divide us -- and take on, through baptism, new life in Christ, to become "new people, with a new and radically different ontology."

Rudy would have done well to develop her themes more fully, but she has achieved much in these pages. Especially valuable is her continuing critique of the narrowness of theological worldviews based on gender. Further, her positive view of queer "communal sex" is an important addition to a generally one-sided debate about the morality of non-monogamous sex practices. However, she fails to account for the many queer men who do not find their communally based sex lives emotionally or spiritually satisfying. At the same time, her claims about the need to jettison all identities save that of Christian appear not only unrealistic but even counter-intuitive in the present age. Certainly, the Right would like queers to stop talking about sexuality, to stop practicing same-sex sex, and indeed simply to go out of existence. Rudy's proposal could easily be transformed into a denial of human difference instead of her desired outcome of greater hospitality. One can almost hear the eerie echoes of many critics of early "gay liberation" who decried the fact that the love that dared not speak its name seemed unable to shut up. Further, by failing to consider the impact of her anti-identity theory on the victims of U.S. white supremacy, she has perpetuated the racial myopia of much queer theory.

The contributors to the other book, Religion Is a Queer Thing: A Guide to the Christian Faith for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered People, edited by Elizabeth Stuart (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1998, 152pp., $15.95 [paper]), don't recommend giving up queer identity. Theirs is a collection of short essays unapologetically determined to help queer Christians find our own theological voice -- a voice which, in the words of Elizabeth Stuart, will "destabilize the notion of what constitutes Christianity and a Christian by refusing to accept on trust that a white, straight, male Christianity is the sole Christian truth."

Stuart and her four colleagues, all from Great Britain, ground their essays in the traditions of liberation theology and especially in feminist theology, although they do not do so uncritically. The short essays touch on a wide variety of theoretical and practical matters. No scholar will find new facts or interpretations here, but nearly anyone with an interest in theological queer liberation would be buoyed by the authors' commitment to liberation and optimism about its achievement, even in the face of intransigent opposition from the Christian Right and often lackluster support from Christian moderates and liberals.

I said above that Rudy's book is the more daring, but no one ought to deny the courage of the essays offered by Stuart and her colleagues. In fact, its best use would be as a sourcebook for a Christian adult education series on queer theology -- and that would take considerable courage in most churches on a Sunday morning!

Both works reveal a theological sophistication within queer Christian circles that moves us well beyond the important early works of John McNeill and others who argued, from a necessarily defensive posture at the time, for tolerance of gay men and lesbian women. Now, instead of tolerance, these authors are talking about how the growth of a distinctively queer theological sensibility is changing the church and the world. Regrettably, both books largely ignore racial and class divisions among queers, a reflection of the white supremacy which continues to contaminate queer politics and theory. At the same time, the carefully reasoned critiques of salient points in the theological work of Carter Heyward, Gary Comstock, and Robert Goss show that theologizing within the queer communities is gaining maturity and impact.

That most church leaders, and certainly the religious and mainstream secular media, have not yet registered the changes happening within queer Christendom -- indeed that there is a queer Christendom, perhaps one could say, a "Queendom of God" -- is yet one more sign that insurgencies often achieve a great deal before those supposedly in charge even notice. These two books help us to continue to "act up" theologically.

ROBIN HAWLEY GORSLINE is completing his doctoral dissertation on the life and work of James Baldwin and Audre Lorde for anti-racist, pro-same-sex theologizing (at Union Theological Seminary [New York]).


The Bible as a Site for Struggle:
Rethinking Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza
by Marie Sabin

The title of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's new book, Sharing Her Word: Feminist Biblical Interpretation in Context (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998. 232pp. $23.00 [paper]) alludes to a speech by Wisdom's suitor who seeks, among other benefits, "renown in sharing her words" (Wis. Sol. 8:17-18). The occasion for its writing is the twenty-fifth anniversary of two inaugurating events of feminist studies in religion. Both title and occasion are carefully chosen to achieve two of Schüssler Fiorenza's underlying purposes: first, to establish her own position as one of the founding mothers of feminist theology; second, to utilize biblical texts and traditions as tools for empowerment.

In respect to the first purpose, the book is largely a retrospective; Schüssler Fiorenza recapitulates many of her earlier themes and theories, refining definitions as she does so, and pointing out the ways in which she feels she has been misunderstood. Over and against a younger generation of postmodern scholars, for example, who consider the term "religious feminist" to be an oxymoron, she insists that "for millions of wo/men [the spelling is intended to include marginalized men as well as all women] religion still provides a framework of meaning that is not just alienating or oppressive but also self-affirming and liberating" (27). This theme, which has been central to Schüssler Fiorenza's work from the start, is given new urgency here because it is directed not only at the postbiblical feminists of the past, but at her current critics.


As she has done before, Schüssler Fiorenza defends the biblical texts as a potentially liberating force by stressing their ambiguity. Repeating much of the argument and language of her Discipleship of Equals (New York: Crossroad, 1993), she notes first how both the gospels and the prophets are sources of her own vision of a liberated humanity. She states that "well-being and inclusiveness are the hallmarks of the gospel" (114); she finds in the gospels "a challenge to relinquish all claims to the power of domination over others" (115). She finds behind the Jesus movements "a radical Jewish democratic vision. It is the vision of the basileia, of G*d's alternative society and world that is free of domination and does not exclude anyone" [[The spelling is intended "to visibly destabilize our way of thinking and speaking about G*d."] (115).

Yet Schüssler Fiorenza also sees biblical texts as sources legitimating oppression, and for that reason she would separate herself from those religious feminists who, she thinks, simply excuse antifeminist statements in the Bible by calling them " 'time-conditioned,' a misuse of scripture, or a false way of quoting the Bible" (52). She thinks they overlook the fact that some texts "were originally written with the intention of inculcating kyriarchal relations of domination ['kyriarchal' is her word for all oppressive relationships] and to legitimate these relations as ordained by God" (52). As a way of recognizing that the Bible works both for and against liberation, she suggests using a method of "dialectical engagement with the biblical heritage" (53).


Schüssler Fiorenza thus places herself in a highly tensed position, on the one hand defending the Bible against the postmodernists, and on the other hand refusing to identify herself with those she calls biblical "apologists." In reacting to the latter, she declares that while her vision of emancipation is rooted in the Bible and not the Enlightenment (81), her immediate framework does not come from the Bible but from human experience: "The notion of wo/men's emancipatory struggles for dignity, authority, and self-respect are the key to the epistemological/hermeneutical frame of meaning that determines my work" (79). By way of further nuance, she distinguishes her "critical feminist interpretation for liberation" from an academic "gender studies" approach (79) because she is intent on not merely understanding the biblical text, but on using it.

Although Schüssler Fiorenza deplores any division between the women's movement and the academy (13-14), she makes it unmistakably clear that she does not identify with the contemplative focus of the academic, but rather with the advocacy stance of the social activist. She positions her work within the paradigm of liberation theologies, noting that along with them, she seeks a change in the task of interpretation: "the task of interpretation is not just to understand biblical texts and traditions but to change Western idealist hermeneutical frameworks, individualist practices, and sociopolitical relations" (78). The change she sets as the ultimate aim of interpretation is no less than the re-creation of the political world, the creation of an "ekklesia of wo/men" [i.e., a fully democratic gathering of all marginalized people]. "The notion of the ekklesia of wo/men seeks to embody the diverse feminist-democratic struggles to overcome kyriarchal oppression traversed by racism, class exploitation, hetero-sexism, and colonialist militarism, and to claim these struggles as the political ecclesial site from which to speak" (131). Specifically she states that her own work "has attempted to reconceptualize the act of biblical interpretation as a moment in the global praxis for liberation" (76).

Locating her hermeneutical lens "within wo/men's struggles for survival," she posits scripture not as a norm but as "a site of struggle over religious meaning and/or theological authority" (160). It is in keeping with this notion of the Bible as a place where political battles are fought, that she proposes various hermeneutical methods designed to foster a double-sided approach of deconstruction and reconstruction. Particularly in the second half of her book, she proposes some hermeneutical models and applies her theory.

To show what she means by "a hermeneutics of indeterminacy," Schüssler Fiorenza summarizes a variety of interpretations that have been given to Mark's presentation of the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30). Not intending, however, to validate "an endless play of meaning in which each reading has equal standing," she moves on to "the need for a hermeneutics of evaluation" (130). The criteria she chooses for making her evaluation are those of political change: "Diverse interpretations must be evaluated as to whether they advocate kyriarchal or liberationist values and whether they reinscribe patterns of prejudice and discrimination or other, emancipatory visions of transformation" (130).

Schüssler Fiorenza further relates this process of evaluation to her idea of an "ekklesia of wo/men" who "must present interpretive 'cases,' strategies and their ramifications as well as evaluative principles and theoretical models for public discussion, deliberation, and debate" (134). While she may be assuming here only women who agree with her, I take her description as a kind of open invitation to other women to speak, and in response, I feel obligated -- indeed compelled -- to express my questions and disagreements, and my dismay with where her approach to the Bible is taking us.

Let me note at the outset that my criticisms do not proceed from a context that is markedly different from Schüssler Fiorenza's own: I speak as a Catholic woman who is also a biblical scholar, and as a human being concerned for the well-being of all people. I share, moreover, her biblically inspired vision of an inclusively just society. I value her insistence that the Bible should be a liberating force, and I quite agree with her premise that the Bible should not be read in a fundamentalist way. I do not fall, I think, into any of the categories of her usual critics, and I did not open this book with any prior hostility. Indeed, I hoped to be stimulated by it as I have by other writings of hers in the past. The dismay I felt upon completing it sent me back to her earlier books to make sure that it was she, and not I, who had changed.


Returning first to In Memory of Her, I found that it did in fact contain some seeds of her present theory, but not of her present form of exegesis. In her first book, for example, she also spoke of a "hermeneutics of suspicion"; but there her "suspicion" was that women had played a substantial role at the beginning of Christianity; the hermeneutic was aimed at recovering this history. Now Fiorenza specifically states that "a hermeneutics of suspicion does not have the task of unearthing or uncovering historical or theological truth but of disentangling the ideological workings of andro-kyriocentric language" (90). In short, she has moved from crediting the text with some intrinsic worth that should be respected, to seeing it only as a set of politically charged words which she is free to remold and manipulate as she pleases.

The ultimate point of disagreement between us, I suspect, is how we regard the Bible as a sacred text. But more immediate to my concerns is how we regard the sacredness of any text -- i.e., whether or not it is appropriate, in reading any document, to dismiss the relevancy of historic context, authorial purpose, and the rhetorical elements of genre, and simply impose one's own meaning. Schüssler Fiorenza implies such an imposition when she approvingly cites Alicia Suskin Ostriker's "hermeneutics of desire," and defines it as meaning that "you see what you want to see" (106). It is here I need to protest: if that indeed is to be your stance, then why bother with the text at all? If "reader-response" theory -- the notion that the reader in some way completes the text -- is not modified by some acknowledgment of value in both writer and text, is not serial monologue the logical outcome?

It is particularly that kind of monological result that I find dismaying in Schüssler Fiorenza's present exegesis. A striking example is provided in the contrast between her current reading of the Syrophoenician episode and her earlier one (which she herself recounts). In In Memory of Her, she employed a "tradition-historical reading" in which she "proposed that the story's controversy is best situated historically in Galilean missionary beginnings. Although the Syrophoenician respects the primacy of the children of Israel, she nevertheless makes a theological argument against limiting the Jesuanic inclusive table-community to Israel alone. That such a historical argument is placed in the mouth of a wo/man gives us a clue to the historical leadership of wo/men in opening up the Jesus movement to gentiles" (127). While such a reading does not consider the rhetorical aspects of irony and wit and playful tone (all of which I think are at work in Mark's construction of this scene), it is nonetheless one which wrestles with the original meaning of the text. The contextualization suggests a theological purpose to the Markan dialogue. Now, however, while Schüssler Fiorenza does not entirely disown her earlier view, she has chosen to make the modern idea of a liberated woman her only lens for seeing, and so she can complain: "Although this is one of the few gospel stories in which a female character is accorded 'voice,' the final promise. . . . gives the last word to Jesus and underscores that the authority of these texts rests with the 'master' voice of Jesus" (123-24).

I am not sure if I understand the ultimate implications of this statement: that the woman should have the last word, that Jesus should not be so "masterful," that the gospel should be written about women rather than Jesus? Schüssler Fiorenza herself says later that she hopes to have shown "that a critical evaluative process of interpretation for liberation does not reduce the historical and textual richness of the Bible in general and of the story of the Syrophoenician in particular to abstract theological or ethical principles, timeless norms, or ontologically immutable archetypes" (129) -- but what could be more reductive than a repetitive insistence that every passage say the same thing?

This repetitiveness is unmistakably apparent in her treatment of five parables in Luke. She deals first with the parable of the persistent widow whose perseverance ultimately prevails upon even an unjust judge to give her justice (Luke 18:1-8). She first explains: "The meaning of the story in the Gospel of Luke is quite clear: it is a parable about the practice of persistent prayer, similar to Luke's stories of the importunate neighbor in Luke 11:5-8 and of the Pharisee and the toll collector in Luke 18:9--14. In its Lukan form, the judge becomes a G*d figure and the parable reasons from the lesser (the judge) to the greater (G*d): if the judge reacts to the pestering of the widow, how much more will G*d respond to the prayers and outcries of G*d's people" (154). Nonetheless, in spite of her understanding of the parable in the context of Luke's theology, she chooses to read it differently: "When read in a situation of violence against wo/men, the Lukan version does not empower wo/men to resist such violence but encourages them to pray harder so that G*d will come to their rescue. It fosters a spirituality of quietism that accepts violence and in 'typically feminine' fashion waits for the 'all-powerful man' to come to the rescue" (154).

While I am aware that other feminists have criticized the Bible on these terms, I am surprised to find Schüssler Fiorenza accepting their arguments. Her basic critique of biblical "apologists" is that they try to defend texts which were explicitly designed to foster relationships of domination; the implied corollary, I thought, was that she only objected to a defense which blurred the original function. Moreover, she also critiques the postmodernists on the grounds that they have overlooked the ways in which the Bible has been, and can be, liberating. From those premises I expected her to focus her negative criticism on passages which explicitly promote a hierarchical order or exclusivity. It is surprising to me that she consistently chooses to object to passages (like this one and the Syrophoenician woman) in which a woman in fact comes out ahead. I am surprised, too, by her insistence that the unjust judge represents God, despite Luke's clear distinction between them. Finally, I am appalled by the suggestion that prayer to God somehow precludes resistance to evil. Luke's gospel -- never mind the psalmists, the prophets, and in fact most of both the Jewish and Christian scriptures -- shows the usual coincidence of both. It requires a willful muting of biblical tradition to confuse prayer with passivity.

Schüssler Fiorenza concludes her book by offering a "reconstruction" of this parable along with three others, all deliberately chosen because they "have wo/men as their central agents and characters" (181). All are presented, moreover, as "Wisdom" stories, with Wisdom understood as "the Goddess Sophia." In this superimposed framework, every story is forced into being an allegory about women and justice. The judge "embodies a corrupt justice system," and the persistent widow is the image of "Divine Wisdom as a strong woman who insistently works for justice" (182). Luke's suffering widow, in other words, is changed here into a good divine power who triumphs over an evil male power. Is that not "reinscribing gender dualism?" Luke's emphasis on prayer is simply discarded.

The parable of the leaven (Matt. 13:33; Luke 13:20--21) "images the basileia. . . .as being brought about by the 'fomenting' and 'corrupting' activity of Divine Sophia who is at work still today in and through feminist theologies" (181). Here Schüssler Fiorenza ignores Luke's original usage: the woman baker as an image of God, and the leaven as a metaphor for the subtle, hidden manner of God's grace. She simply imposes her own notions in their place and although she speaks of "imagery," she in fact replaces Luke's images with her own theory and abstractions.


She similarly translates the parable of the woman sweeping her house for a lost coin (Luke 15:8--10) into her preferred message: it becomes a story about a woman searching for Divine Wisdom whose celebration upon finding it "alludes to the joy of recovering lost emancipatory Christian traditions of wo/men's agency and struggle" (181). Luke's original meaning, in which the lost coin stands for the sinner, and the joyful finder for God, has been totally obliterated.

Finally, she sums up the point of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1-13) as a warning "to those who engage in movements and struggles against injustice to plan for the long haul" (182). Certainly Matthew's parable implies the need for faithful perseverance, but precisely because it is a parable and not a prose statement, it is far more suggestive than a simple warning.

These four examples attest that to Schüssler Fiorenza, "reconstruction" of the text means replacement of its original meaning with another. The replacement, moreover, adheres to a previously determined system of ideas. Instead of functioning the way she herself says a parable should -- "to puzzle and startle hearers" (181) -- these parables are reduced to a single message which could just as readily be stated apart from the text. Advocacy has crowded out critical nuance, and the full rich complexity of the texts has been totally lost. One can only be reminded of that wise adage of Abraham Maslow: "To the one who has only a hammer, all the world looks like a nail."


The reductive effect of this mode of reading is taken to its most extreme in Schüssler Fiorenza's reading of 1 Corinthians 13, where she challenges the value of Paul's encomium of love. In this chapter (which is subtitled "Love Endures Everything -- Or Does It?") Schüssler Fiorenza states that she is not interested in the original meaning or function of the text, but only in "how the central Christian principle of love can serve to sustain wo/men's internalized oppression today although the text in its original context may not have done so at all" (139). She critiques Paul's words accordingly: "Traditional Christian preaching on love tends to reinforce this [modern] cultural ethos of romantic love, feminine calling, and sacrificial service. . . This conflation of traditional notions of submission and headship with modern notions of romantic heterosexual love is at the heart of patriarchal-kyriarchal relations of oppression today. Domestic violence against wo/men and their children is the logical outcome" (140). In addition to wondering if we inhabit the same modern world (where is the culture calling to "sacrificial service?"), one has to wonder if we are reading the same words: "Love is patient; love is kind. . . It does not insist on its own way." To say that these words foster violence is surely to stand the text on its head!

Schüssler Fiorenza justifies her reading because of the ways she believes the text has been abused: "When preached to wo/men and subordinated men, central Christian values such as love and forgiveness help to sustain relations of domination and to foster the acceptance of domestic and sexual violence" (151). Once again I am aware that Schüssler Fiorenza is not the originator of this idea that the preaching of biblical love has, in certain circumstances, caused women to suffer. Nor do I doubt that such cases exist. Nor would I ever condone them. But there seems to be a terrible and tragic illogic at work here when the clear misuse of a text is made the basis for judging it. Obviously the words are aimed at every human being, and if they were taken to heart, no man could use them to justify a hostile act against a woman (or anyone else, for that matter). If one can take words which exhort to loving forbearance and twist them into words which foster its opposite, then language has lost all power to communicate. If it is argued back that this is precisely what has happened, then should not the task be to correct the abuse, not throw out the text? Is this not an instance in which Schüssler Fiorenza should be pointing to the text's potential power to create an inclusively loving community? It is not Paul or his text that are abusive here, but those who have used it perversely.

The dimensions of this perversity are not only hermeneutical but theological. Following the logic of her argument, Schüssler Fiorenza also objects to "ritualizing the suffering and death of Jesus" (151). Again her lens is limited to that of the person who has been abused because of an abusive reading of the texts: "If one extols the silent and freely chosen suffering of Christ who was 'obedient to the point of death' (Phil. 2:8) as an example to be imitated by those suffering from domestic and sexual abuse, one does not simply legitimate but one also facilitates violence against wo/men and children" (151). [The italics are mine, to emphasize that they were never intended to be so used.] It requires a substantial effort, I think, to distort the biblical image of Jesus' unjust death into practical support for the perpetrators of human injustice. Those who do so seem to overlook both Christian theology and practical piety. To the ordinary Christian, Jesus' death does not teach that suffering is desirable, much less that it is permissible to cause it. On the contrary, among its many facets of meaning, it teaches what Abraham Heschel calls "the pathos" of God -- namely, that when we are in pain, God shares it. In addition, it is important to bear in mind that in Christian tradition, Jesus' death is never mentioned without his resurrection; the two are inseparably linked. What the Christian is called to imitate is not acquiescence to evil (Jesus' suffering is never that), but trust in God's will to goodness. When Schüssler Fiorenza calls upon the Christian Church to "repent" for having taught "unconditional love" (152), she seems to me to have crossed a line from hermeneutical reductiveness to theological emptiness.

At the heart of these destructive positions, I think, is a serious ethical lapse as well: the failure to accord to the words of one's neighbor the respect one would like for one's own. Such respect does not, of course, require agreement, but it does insist that one try to respond to the other in terms of that person's self-understanding. To predetermine meaning -- "to see what you want to see" -- is to arrogate to oneself all truth and refuse to allow for the possibility of learning from another. But the practice of justice surely includes "doing justice" to someone else's text.


Observing that principle would not allow one to ride roughshod over what Hans Gadamer has called "the meaning behind the text" -- its original context and purpose and rhetorical thrust. If one then wants to consider "the meaning in front of the text" -- its relevance for today -- one does so with full awareness and respect for its primary meaning. David Tracy, applying Gadamer's "game of conversation" to the reading of scripture (A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, Fortress, 1984), suggests that it must involve a risk-taking exchange between reader and text. He adds, "It is not only our present answers but also our questions which are risked when we enter a conversation with a classic text. There is no way, prior to the conversation itself, to determine the 'correct' theological interpretation of the biblical text" (173).

That basic principle of risk-taking dialogue would serve the biblical interpreter well, I believe, for it would open the eyes of the reader to the wide range of perspectives which jostle each other within the bound book we call "scripture," voices which speak to one another through direct and indirect allusion, sometimes in harmony and sometimes in discord, but never in isolation and always in relationship. So perceived, the Bible itself becomes a model for the kind of "dialectical engagement" Schüssler Fiorenza seeks; in itself it already models the space for spiritual nuance and theological argument she dreams of in her imagined "ekklesia." As such, it is indeed a "site for struggle," but not one, as she would have it, between sterile ancient formulas and contemporary experience, or between an ancient male elite and the modern displaced person. No matter who in fact composed its individual passages, the Bible taken as a whole is an abundant creation, allowing for a whole range of human voices (including those of women and the marginalized) to speak to each other about their respective experiences of the divine presence. I thus see the Bible as sacred in style as well as in source: inspired by multiple and various experiences of the one God, it takes its shape as a respectful (if not always concurring) dialogue between neighbors.

I would like to maintain my own respect for Schüssler Fiorenza's work. I cannot help but admire her passion for justice, which she concedes is biblically rooted. In short, I support her cause but deplore her mode of imposing it on the biblical texts. I would like to confront her with a memory of her earlier self -- which, somewhat in the manner of Jewish midrash, was intent on searching out and retrieving hidden meanings in scripture and illumining their relevance for our own time. In that enterprise I found her to be a fresh voice in the great conversation which the Bible still inspires. I would gladly hear that voice again.

MARIE SABIN is an independent scholar whose most recent article in Cross Currents was "Women Transformed: The Ending of Mark Is the Beginning of Wisdom," Summer 1998.

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Source: Cross Currents, Winter 1998-99, Vol. 49 Issue 1.