Letters - Summer 2006

Response to Our Spring Issue

By Our readers | June 1, 2006

Leaving Race Behind

Kudos to Amitai Etzioni for his realistic account of the race issue in the United States (The American Scholar, Spring 2006). He has some excellent suggestions for the government and all of us to begin seeing people as people no matter their race. I especially liked, “Don’t make me define my children and myself in racial terms; don’t ‘impute’ race to me or any of the millions of Americans who feel as I  do.” Yes, let us all be Americans. We can do it if we really try. I’d bet my 50 years as a psychologist that we would be better off for it.

Kenneth Herman
Wyckoff, New Jersey

I agree with Amitai Etzioni’s proposal to eliminate racial categories on U.S. Census (and other) forms but regret that he employs the canard about racial differences being only “skin deep.” Etzioni apparently knows social but not physical or forensic anthropology, whose practitioners usually have little difficulty in identifying the dna or skeletal remains of different or mixed races. There are differences in musculature and other features that are more than skin deep, too. Nor is it a simple matter of counting genes; it is how those genes are expressed that matters. A good case need not be overstated.

Charles H. Davis
Bloomington, Indiana

I have no idea how one “practices sociology” as Professor Etzioni tells us he has been doing for half a century. When I think of sociology, what comes to mind are sets of glittering generalities, vaguely defined and broadly interpretable assertions, and rationales that seem to be constructed to fit particular conclusions. I was not dissuaded from this perception when I read Etzioni’s proposal for major reparations (a trillion dollars) to African Americans for injustices stemming from slavery and prejudice, with consideration of doing the same for Native Americans and Americans living in hardship. Slavery reparations would be spread out over 20 years and would end all claims after that.

There is no attempt to explain where this money is to come from, how to determine who is eligible, why this would be accepted as bringing closure, or how the administration and logistics of such a program might be addressed.

Leaving race behind in our national consciousness and accounting is an admirable goal, but let’s be realistic. Incremental steps such as removing all references to race from official census surveys and other government forms take us in the right direction. But race will never be laid to rest by buying our way out of it.

Bernard Elliker
Laurel, Maryland

In his otherwise well-reasoned article on race, Amitai Etzioni cites some dubious evidence of discrimination against black Americans: “A 1990 Urban Institute study found that when two people of different races applied for the same job, one in eight times the white was offered the job and an equally qualified African American was not.” Implicit in this is that the other seven times, African Americans were offered the jobs and equally qualified whites were not. Could affirmative action for blacks really have gone this far?

Barry Mackintosh
Lincoln, California


Onward, Christian Liberals

In the Spring 2006 issue of The American Scholar, Marilynne Robinson points out that liberal Christianity has a distinguished history in this country, and she expresses puzzlement that conservative Christians no longer consider liberals to be Christians at all. And yet this is a dispute that she gives away to her opponents right at the outset of her article. Her topic is personal holiness, and she announces her position on the subject as follows:

I believe in the holiness of the human person and of humanity as a phenomenon. I believe our failings, which are very great and very grave . . . are a cosmic mystery, a Luciferian disaster, the fall of the brightest angel. . . . I believe holiness is a given of our being that, essentially, we cannot add to or diminish.

This may be a stirring credo, but how can it be called Christianity? I would have sworn that Christianity teaches that God alone is holy. If she is preaching the worship of man, then her whole point that liberal Christians are the true heirs of Augustine and Calvin is made irrelevant at the outset, and all the Scriptural citations in her essay become so much window-dressing. If this is truly the heart of liberal Christianity, it is not so hard to see why other Christians have rejected it after all.

Michael K. Mills
Goleta, California

Marilynne Robinson erroneously claims that Protestantism is divided into two diametrically opposed camps: uncompassionate, sanctimonious, laissez-faire biblical literalist “fundamentalists” and generous, open-minded, egalitarian “liberals.” But not all religious conservative Protestants are “fundamentalists.” Scholars routinely divide theologically orthodox Protestants into fundamentalists and evangelicals, who sometimes differ in their attitude toward culture. Her key assertion about liberal generosity to the poor is contradicted by a 1998 study in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, which shows that evangelicals are actually slightly more generous in charitable private giving than are liberal or mainline Protestants. Voting patterns also do not match the stark dichotomy she draws between theological-political conservatism and theological-political liberalism. Black evangelicals vote overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential candidates. And more than one-third of white evangelicals are morally conservative but socially liberal. These so-called free-style evangelicals constitute between 8 and 10 percent of the electorate and tend to vote more often for Democrats. Robinson’s use of historical examples is also problematic. She claims that William Jennings Bryan was a “liberal by any standard.” But he was a prominent theological conservative and leader of the “fundamentalist” movement to defend theological orthodoxy against religious modernism. That Bryan also supported pacifism, the poor, and individual equality proves the point that Robinson refuses to acknowledge: theological and political conservatism do not always go hand in hand. Charles Finney, a social “liberal” who crusaded for abolition and women’s rights, was also a “pious” (another “fundamentalist” label Robinson disdains) theological conservative who warned against the dangers of abandoning orthodox Christian belief and squandering time “reading plays and novels, and slang in newspapers.” Though I don’t share Finney’s assumption about the specifics of personal piety, I would agree with him that theological orthodoxy and personal piety are compatible with social justice.

Dave Neumann
Long Beach, California


What Jesus Did

I have long admired the scholarship of Garry Wills, but I must protest his article in the Scholar (Spring 2006) taken from his new book.

He is in good company in seeking to forget the historical Jesus. The process began very early with Paul of Tarsus, who invented his own Jesus, never having met the real one. It continued with the writers of the Gospels who managed to ignore Jesus’ brother James of Jeru­sa­lem, who led the earliest Christians. The Church eventually considered those who knew Jesus best as heretical. Marcion also knew nothing about Jesus but thought he was not the Jew others thought he was. This anti or non-Jewish Jesus continued right up to Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who found Jesus to have been an Aryan, and to Hitler, who said Jesus came to destroy Jewish capitalism.

Norman Ravitch
Savannah, Georgia

One of the most difficult tasks for Christian thinkers and theologians through the ages has been to define the dual nature of Jesus. They seek to define both his humanity and his deity in a manner credible to Christians and understandable to outsiders.

The solution defended by theologians is that in the kneosis or emptying out involved in the Incarnation, as quoted by Garry Wills from Philippians 2:7, the powers of God are given up in order to be fully human. This is essential if Jesus is to be perceived as a guide, teacher, and role model for other humans. As the writer of the book of Hebrews insists, he was like us in every way except he was without sin. This Jesus was not omniscient but one who had to grow, study, and learn.

Popular piety has preferred to consider Jesus to be the result of a mating between a human and a god. This results in a superman with godlike knowledge and power. In the Gospels, this view is most clearly expressed by the tempter in the wilderness and the mockers at the cross. There was ample precedent for this concept in Greek mythology and a cryptic allusion in a Hebrew myth, Genesis 6:1–4. This view when fully developed becomes Docetism from the Greek dokein, which means to seem or to appear. To the Docetists, Jesus was a god who appeared to be or seemed to be a human, or, as Wills says, “he is not like us, he has higher rights and powers.”

Docetism was deemed a heresy by the early church because it eliminates Jesus as a role model and guide. Wills agrees with the Docetists; since Jesus is “a divine mystery walking among men,” it would be futile and foolish to try to be like him—“the only way we can directly imitate him is to act as if we were gods ourselves.”

Wills ought to confer with theologians and New Testament scholars. To present Jesus as Superman does not enhance Christian credibility.

Gordon E. Maxwell
Salina, Kansas

Garry Wills asserts that to answer the question “What would Jesus do?” it’s helpful to understand that Jesus was an iconoclast of the lower hoi polloi; “faith” in a supernatural (deified) Jesus is essential for “knowing” what he would do in a given situation; and so-called fundamentalism, like that associated with the Jesus Seminar, lacks sufficient “faith” because it, like Thomas Jefferson’s deism, doesn’t advocate Jesus’ divinity. I’ll affirm Wills’s first condition, but the latter two are problematic.

As for a supernatural Jesus, Wills relies upon St. Paul’s proclamation, “For this God has exalted him, favored his name over other names,” extracted from Philippians 2:6–11.  The logical problem with Wills’s attempted edification is that the word “him” in the text is a reference to Jesus; a Jesus that a reasonable reader would take to be someone other than the aforementioned deity, “God,” who is said to exalt Jesus and favor Jesus’ name over other names. “Exalted” and “favored” truly connote praiseworthiness, but “deified” or “supernatural” are poor synonyms for those words.

Then there’s the matter of Wills’s unconventional use of the term fundamentalism.  The fundamentalism of the Jesus Seminar, as described by Wills, is not the typical variety associated with Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, George W. Bush, and so many others.

Wills casts the Jesus Seminar as Jeffersonian, deistic, possibly reformist, and essentially the opposite of Christian fundamentalism. I concur with Wills that fundamentalism doesn’t have much to do with Jesus; it’s apparent that the Christian fundamentalism that worries me (as it would Jefferson) is not the one that concerns Wills.

In his famous letter to his friend Benjamin Rush, Jefferson cited Christian efforts in 1800 to violate the First Amendment and effectively establish a form of Christianity as the country’s official religion. Given the catastrophic force that political Christianity is currently wielding, perhaps a better way to handle the growing list of national problems is to encourage the reading of our third president’s beautifully distilled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth and repeatedly ask, “What would Jefferson do?”

Ivan Smason
Los Angeles, California

As one whose biblical and religious scholarship is apocryphal, I was delighted by the articles “Onward Christian Liberals” and “What Jesus Did” in the spring issue. Both confirm my conviction that Christian faith is primarily about the teachings of Jesus; those who preach family values, worldly conformity, or the power of positive thinking are in error, since these things lessen the independence of religion. The divine law can only be enforced by love, which is voluntary. But the separation of government and religion doesn’t preclude teaching about religion as part of history.

Arthur H. King Jr.
Audubon, New Jersey


Shouldn’t There be a Word?

In regards to Barbara Wallraff’s essay “Shouldn’t there be a word . . . ?” in the Spring issue, there is a wonderful word in Hebrew that is not needed in the Holy Land, but is needed here, in North America. The word is Shalechet.  It describes leaves falling from trees. But in cities like Jerusalem or Tel Aviv there are not enough trees to justify this word, whereas in my  city, Milwaukee, we are knee-deep in leaves every fall. Why would the Hebrew language have such a word, and the English not? The word Shalechet is beautiful, appearing in song and poetry. Sadly, we have nothing to match.

Egon H. E. Lass
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

I believe I am as fond of words as the growing band of those who want to fill a gap in the current English vocabulary. Indeed, my devotion is so great that I want the newcomers to be of good quality and in such active demand that they will immediately feel at home.

I therefore began reading the article by  Barbara Wallraff in the Spring issue of the Scholar with high expectations—a start was under way and it promised thoughtfulness and system instead of—or at least besides—the haphazard coining of journalists and public speakers.

My hope was misplaced. Two flaws damaged the proposed vocables: they would add to the already excessive number of double-barreled compounds of Greek, Latin, and English roots, and they were badly formed. One of the candidates is profanitype. But the rule for compounding is that the link is o, except when the second element is a regular English ending and begins with a vowel. In the first case we have: thermostat, plutocrat, acrobat; in the second: valedictorian, bassoonist, amphibious.

Another danger looms for the inexperienced coiner. We are now hopelessly stuck with morph to mean turn into, a misreading of metamorphosis, in which it is meta that means change. Morph means form.

The second test, which is need, is almost always ignored. It is a modern fad to think that every situation or behavior needs a special word. Aquadextrous, which Wallraff explains as “possessing the ability to turn on the faucet with his toes” is a pleasant notion for a parlor game but is neither apt nor needed. The same is true of whatever would be made up for what is supposedly begging to be named: “food that perhaps should be thrown out, but one isn’t sure.” We really mustn’t forget to use the words we have—overripe and dubious—or be afraid to write a phrase or a sentence.

The model to bear in mind is blurb, which has the three virtues of being short, not cobbled from scraps of Greek and Latin, and suggestive of its domain by the vague echo of babble.

Jacques Barzun
San Antonio, Texas


Erratum

F. W. Myers’s quote “the words of God, Immorality, and Duty” in Paula Marantz Cohen’s essay “Why Read George Eliot?” (page 129 of the Spring 2006 issue)  should be corrected to read “the words of God, Immortality, and Duty.”

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