When Hebrews Weren’t Funny

The post title takes inspiration from a recent documentary we saw about Greatest Generation Jewish comics and what made Jewish Americans funny. What’s not funny is the way that Joseph Pearce leaves the Israelites and the Old Testament out of his attempt to pull Christianity out of the pagan philosophical hat:

Classical paganism brought forth the golden age of philosophy in which giants, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, mused upon the meaning of the cosmos and the meaning of life within it. This pagan philosophy, once she had been impregnated with the truths revealed by the Bridegroom, brought forth a new generation of Christian philosophy, her children including such giants as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

It would be a sin of omission, however, to celebrate the golden age of pagan philosophy without also celebrating the golden age of pagan literature, which, preceding the philosophical golden age by several centuries, brought forth the genius of Homer, whose creative brilliance is unsurpassed in the whole history of human letters, with the possible and arguable exception of Dante and Shakespeare.

But if Jesus and Paul are more important to understanding Christianity than philosophers like Augustine and Aquinas, then isn’t the Jewish background to the Word incarnate (who was Jewish) and the apostles (who were also Jewish) way more important to the church and the gospel than anything Plato or Aristotle read. After all, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews seems not to have received the memo about the Greeks as forerunners of the gospel:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”?

Or again,

“I will be to him a father,
and he shall be to me a son”?

And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,

“Let all God’s angels worship him.”

Of the angels he says,

“He makes his angels winds,
and his ministers a flame of fire.”

But of the Son he says,

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”


“You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment,
like a robe you will roll them up,
like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will have no end.”

And to which of the angels has he ever said,

“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?

Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation? (Hebrews 1 ESV)

By the way, all those quotes in Hebrews 1 are not from the Loeb Classical Library.

Of course, if you want a religion that is civilizational in scope, and one ready to underwrite Europe (read Christendom), then leaving out the Hebrews and writing in the Greeks and Romans makes sense. But if you take special revelation seriously, you may want to do a little more with the Hebrews than Pearce does.

Come to think of it, if the Mass, a ritual that points to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, a death that only makes sense after reading about all those sacrifices in Jerusalem’s Temple, then you may want to spend more time with the Hebrews than the Greeks. If you want a pagan inflected version of Christianity, that’s on you.

If C. S. Lewis Had Died Only Three Years Later

He would have gone to meet his maker a separated brother instead of a heretic thanks to the reclassification of Protestants by bishops consulting at Vatican II. Joseph Pearce remembers the coincidence of Lewis’ death and John F. Kennedy’s assassination, but forgets the simultaneous meeting of the council in Rome:

Lewis in his life was outside the Church but looking towards it and leading numerous others towards it also. He has played a significant part in the conversion of countless people to the Catholic Church, the present author and the aforementioned Peter Kreeft included. He not only believed in purgatory, he believed that he was going there. Shortly before his death, he asked his friend, Sister Penelope, to visit him in purgatory, if visits from heaven were allowed.

Is Lewis in purgatory? It is not for us to say, but surely it is inconceivable that one who loved Christ so much and led so many others to Christ and His Church could be in hell.

Is John F. Kennedy in purgatory? Again, it is not for us to say. It is true, however, that he was a cafeteria “Catholic,” like his latter-day “Catholic” counterparts Nancy Pelosi and Melinda Gates, who had turned away from the Church, preferring to serve the zeitgeist to the Heilige Geist, the spirit of the age to the Holy Spirit. There has to be a price to pay for those “Catholics” who have led so many others away from the Church in their open defiance of Rome and their scarcely concealed contempt for Her teaching. There is little doubt that Dante would have consigned JFK to hell. We should hesitate to do likewise.

Where are Lewis and John F. Kennedy now? Let’s just say that purgatory leads to heaven and that heresy and apostasy leads to hell.

Would Pearce have written it that way in 1963 before he learned that Protestants were separated brothers? And what of all the Christians that Lewis led into the church that Henry VIII liberated from the papacy?

But in an age of ecumenism, despite the insistence of Bryan and the Jasons, the idea of no salvation outside the church has vanished along with the Berlin Wall. Pearce is not alone:

Jack’s memories of religious instruction as a child were of attendances during his boarding school years at an Anglo-Catholic church. Although impressed by the dedication of the priests he disliked what appeared to be the copying of “Roman rituals”. Anti-Catholic slogans had sometimes been chalked on the walls of the family home during Jack’s early years in view of the fact that the cook and the housemaid employed by the family were Catholic. One read: “Send the dirty papists back to the Devil where they belong.” Jack’s nurse, Lizzie Endicott, taught him as a young child to stamp in puddles and “kill all the little popes”.

Jack was, of course, far too intelligent and perceptive to have allowed these early incidents to form his later opinions. Nevertheless, he is said to have been annoyed, in 1931, that a “papist” publisher had handled one of his books, The Pilgrim’s Regress. Of course, if Jack had converted to Catholicism, his marriage to Joy Davidman, a divorced woman, would have been unthinkable and it is unlikely that the huge literary output that she inspired in him would ever have been written.

It is perhaps understandable that with his dislike of Protestant fundamentalism, superstition and extremes of emotion, Jack chose to take a middle path, although his aim was always to help the cause of reunion or at least make it clear why we ought to be reunited. For him, the essence of Christianity was exemplified by Thomas à Kempis in his Imitation of Christ, with its emphasis on self discipline, humility and love. In following this, Jack was a true disciple and a strong ambassador for Christianity.

Is Anyone Reliable?

First the light show at the Vatican.

Then the statement that evangelism of Jews is out.

Now some of the Roman Catholic intelligentsia say that Muslims and Christians worship the same God (even though they gather on different days of the week and one prays in Jesus’ name, along with Mary). Francis Beckwith, former head of the Evangelical Theological Society, squishes:

So the fact that Christians may call God “Yahweh” and Muslims call God “Allah” makes no difference if both “Gods” have identical properties. In fact, what is known as classical theism was embraced by the greatest thinkers of the Abrahamic religions: St. Thomas Aquinas (Christian), Moses Maimonides (Jewish), and Avicenna (Muslim). Because, according to the classical theist, there can only in principle be one God, Christians, Jews, and Muslims who embrace classical theism must be worshipping the same God. It simply cannot be otherwise.

But doesn’t Christianity affirm that God is a Trinity while Muslims deny it? Wouldn’t this mean that they indeed worship different “Gods”? Not necessarily. Consider this example. Imagine that Fred believes that the evidence is convincing that Thomas Jefferson (TJ) sired several children with his slave Sally Hemings (SH), and thus Fred believes that TJ has the property of “being a father to several of SHs children.” On the other hand, suppose Bob does not find the evidence convincing and thus believes that TJ does not have the property of “being a father to several of SHs children.”

Would it follow from this that Fred and Bob do not believe that the Third President of the United States was the same man? Of course not.

Paul Moses at Commonweal writes that Wheaton College, in putting on administrative leave, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, has succumbed to anti-Muslim bigotry because Miroslav Volf has written (noting looking to a Protestant for support):

Muslims and Christians who embrace the normative traditions of their faith refer to the same object, to the same Being, when they pray, when they worship, when they talk about God. The referent is the same.

But it wasn’t so long ago that some Roman Catholics were saying that Islam was not a religion of peace (which would seem to make it a different religion from Christianity even though I demurred). Wasn’t it Joseph Pearce who wrote:

The fate of the liberals in the future Eurabia does not look good. May the God in whom they do not believe help them. And may he forgive my own irresistible sense of schadenfreude at the whole pathetic scenario. As for me, I’m with Mrs. Burrows against the world and all the fallacious “peace” it has to offer. With Shakespeare’s Mercutio, I end with a note of defiance to Islam and its liberal enemy: A plague a’ both houses!

And didn’t Fr. James Schall also highlight the distance between Islam and Christianity?

What has to be faced by everyone is not the ‘violence’ of Islam, but its truth. We may not ‘like’ a jihadist view of the Quran. But we denigrate the dignity of ISIS and other violent strains in both Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam that clearly see that their interpretation of Islam has legitimate roots in the Quran, in Islamic history and in the judgment of many authoritative commentators.

So I’m left wondering. Do Roman Catholics celebrate the victory of Christendom at the Battle of Lepanto or not?

P.S. And Jerry Falwell Jr. is beyond the pale?

Civilization Goes Better with Christ

That is yet again the message of Joseph Pearce after the trial of Britain’s first Muslim mayor, Lutfur Rahman, “who is accused of ‘subverting democracy,’ running a ‘den of iniquity’ and ‘systematically stealing votes’ as he turned the London borough of Tower Hamlets into his own private fiefdom.” But it turns out that the abuses of which Rahman is apparently guilty are no worse than those of the “hell-hole” into which British society has descended (cue David Robertson):

I see nothing worse about Islam than I do about modern Britain. It is a choice between false gods and godlessness. It is akin to choosing between the arrogant stupidity of the Montagues and the arrogant stupidity of the Capulets. Asked to make such a choice, we should echo the words of Mercutio and call down a plague on both their houses.

And as Mr. Pearce is wont, the origins of the descent are the abandonment of Roman Catholicism:

Heresy has not been a sin in Britain for almost five hundred years, ever since the days of Tudor “savagery” that she rightly condemns. What has been a sin ever since the time of Henry VIII is not heresy but orthodoxy. [Allison Pearson] does not mention, and probably does not know, that Catholic priests were hanged, drawn, and quartered in Britain for a period of 150 years. Without going into the gory details, it could certainly be argued that this form of execution carried out by the secular state against its Catholic victims was as slow and tortuous as being burned alive. And while it is true that we do not burn people alive in Britain any more, we do threaten to imprison them for the public expression of traditional views on marriage and sexuality. It is no doubt a mark of our “civilized” times that it is now considered a hate crime to suggest in public that there is nothing gay about being “gay.” And, of course, there is the question of the millions of unborn babies being slaughtered in the womb, an abominably barbaric practice that would never have been condoned by our “savage” ancestors.

Pearce adds:

Need we remind Ms. Pearson of Chesterton’s quip that when people stop believing in God they do not believe in nothing but in anything? Need we remind her that the replacement of God with godlessness has led to the Guillotine, the Gas Chamber, and the Gulag Archipelago? Do we need to remind her that the last century, the most godless in human history, was also the bloodiest and most barbaric? What, one wonders, would Ms. Pearson call the horrors of trench warfare or the development of poison gas? What about Blitzkrieg, the Holocaust, or Hiroshima? Perhaps these deplorably modern things, unknown to our ancestors, are examples of “the slow, patient development of what we call civilization.”

Cherry picking alert. How civilized were the Crusades? Maybe you can justify that by lower numbers or just-war theory, but then what do you do with European explorers and settlers of South and North America? For whatever reason, western Christians, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, assumed a kind of superiority that allowed them to conquer the planet and make civilization global. From the first encounter during the fifteenth century of native Americans, to the carving up of the world after World War II, Europeans — with all sorts of encouragement from the global pretensions of both Rome (think papal universal jurisdiction) and Amsterdam/Washington (think w-w and seeings thing whole or some version of the universal rights of man) — have felt called to run the world often times without the consent of the people being run.

Determining how much of this owes to European self-conceit or Christian overreach is why they pay historians modest bucks. But for Mr. Pearce not to notice the problems of Christian civilization (both in thought and deed) is itself of the sort of pride that comes with the rise of thinking cult or w-w is the basis of culture.

Maybe This Explains the Appeal of Independence to the Scots


Here is what England is:

She is more than a thousand years of uninterrupted Christian faith, from St. Alban, the first English martyr, killed during the Roman occupation in the 3rd century, to the martydrom of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More in 1535. She is the hundreds of martyrs killed during the penal times following Henry VIII’s usurpation of the church in England. She is Beowulf and “The Dream of the Rood”; she is Sir Gawain and Chaucer; she is Byrd and Tallis; she is Walsingham and Glastonbury; she is Austen and Dickens, Newman and Hopkins, Chesterton and Belloc, Waugh and Wodehouse, Lewis and Tolkien. She is Shakespeare! This is the England of our dreams, and our dreams are so much more real, in any meaningful sense, than the nightmare that the modern inhabitants of England seem to prefer. This is the England to which I owe my allegiance; the England of the saints and martyrs; the England of the poets and bards; and the England of the Greatest Bard of all. I will conclude by letting the Bard wax lyrical on the England of my dreams:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in a silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

This may explain why Rod Dreher had a point:

The intellectual arrogance identified by Alan that exists within certain Catholic circles is something I once was guilty of, without realizing it. To me, as an adult convert to Catholicism, the intellectual and aesthetic riches of the Catholic faith were so blindingly obvious that I couldn’t see that the Protestant traditions were worth taking seriously, except in a political and personal sense. That is, I respected Protestants as serious Christians and good people with whom we could and should work on causes of mutual concern, but I didn’t trouble myself to take them seriously on the intellectual front. This was an example of my unearned pride. As far as I was concerned, I had joined the intellectual A team of American Christianity, and Father Neuhaus was our Joe Torre. At the time I didn’t realize it, but looking back, I can see that the only conversations I thought really mattered were between Catholics.

As I write this, I remember a professor telling me years ago at a conference that he might have left Protestantism for Catholicism, except for the fact that his Catholic convert friends were so intellectually haughty in their newfound Catholicism that they kept him away from the Roman church. What that man experienced is a constant temptation for intellectual converts to Catholicism.

Lyman Beecher was Prophetic

Anti-Catholicism is one of the most difficult topics that I teach on the history religion in the United States. Students today, most of whom were born about the time that the Dude was trying to recover his rug (i.e. the first Iraq War), have no understanding or feel for the sort of animus that Protestants in the U.S. once had for Roman Catholics. One of the most important expressions of anti-Catholicism came as late as 1949 when Paul Blanshard wrote American Freedom and Catholic Power, which was not an obscure monograph but a best-seller.

That sort of anti-Catholicism still haunted the days of my youth, despite the election in 1960 of the first Roman Catholic as president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. This anti-Catholicism was seriously deficient. It drew its animus not from a defense of the Reformation and the formal (sola Scriptura) and material (justification) principles of Protestantism. Instead, it was rooted in a very anti-2k conflation of Protestantism with liberal society (in the form of republicanism and democracy). Because Roman Catholics were subject to a foreign prince (the pope), and because the Church itself was one of the most feudal and medieval (anti-modern and anti-democractic) of institutions, followers of Rome could not be “good” Americans. They were outsiders and Protestants were insiders. That’s why Protestants had public schools and Roman Catholics needed parochial (in both senses) institutions.

Lyman Beecher put anti-Catholic notions succinctly in his book A Plea for the West where he worried about the influx of Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany (at the time a mere trickle compared to what was coming in the 1840s):

If [Roman Catholics] associated with republicans, the power of caste would wear away. If they mingled in our schools, the republican atmosphere would impregnate their minds. If they scattered, unassociated, the attrition of circumstances would wear off their predilections and aversions. If they could read the Bible, and might and did, their darkened intellect would brighten, and their bowed down mind would rise. If they dared to think for themselves, the contrast of protestant independence with their thraldom, would awaken the desire of equal privileges, and put an end to an arbitrary clerical dominion over trembling superstitious minds.

Since 1970 the old Protestant anti-Catholicism has vanished. Some of this owes to the culture wars in which evangelical Protestants have recognized Roman Catholics as some of the surest defenders of traditional morality, especially on matters sexual. Another important factor is that Roman Catholics have “gotten right” with the United States. That is, they have become some of an American way of life’s chief defenders. The process began notably with John Courtney Murray’s book, We Hold These Truths (1960). But it continues and a recent post confirms how American and modern Roman Catholics in the United States have become. Here is what Joseph Pearce has to say:

One of the truths of Christendom which lays the very foundations of freedom is the Christian insistence on the mystical equality of all people in the eyes of God and the insistence on the dignity of the human person that follows logically, inexorably and inescapably from such an insistence. If everyone is equal in the eyes of God, it doesn’t matter if people are black or white, healthy or sick, able-bodied or handicapped, or whether babies are inside the womb or out of it. It doesn’t matter that people are different, in terms of race, age or innate abilities; they are all equal in the eyes of God and, therefore, of necessity, in the eyes of Man also. This is the priceless inheritance of Christendom with which our freedoms are established and maintained. If everyone is equal in the eyes of God and Man, everyone must also be equal in the eyes of the law.

If, however, the equality of man is denied, freedom is imperiled. The belief of Nietzsche, adopted by the Nazis, that humanity consists of übermenschen and untermenschen, the “over-men” and the “under-men”, led to people being treated as subhuman, worthy of extermination and victims of genocide. The progressivist belief of Hegel, adopted by Marx and his legion of disciples, that a rationalist dialectic, mechanistically determined, governs the progress of humanity, led to the deterministic inhumanity of communism and the slaughter of those deemed to be enemies of “progress”. The French Revolution, an earlier incarnation of atheistic progressivism and the progenitor of communism, had led to the invention of the guillotine as the efficient and effective instrument of the Great Terror and its rivers of blood. The gas chamber, the Gulag and the guillotine are the direct consequence of the failure to uphold the Christian concept of human equality and the freedom it enshrines. In our own time, the same failure to accept and uphold human equality has led to babies in the womb being declared subhuman, or untermenschen, without any protection in law from their being killed at the whim of their mothers.

Apart from the connection between freedom and equality, the other aspect of freedom enshrined by Christianity is the freedom of the will and the consequences attached to it. If we are free to act and are not merely slaves to instinct as the materialists claim, we have to accept that we are responsible for our choices and for their consequences.

What is remarkable about this argument is that it is precisely the one that Protestants used to use against Roman Catholics. In other words, especially prior to Vatican II, Rome’s hierarchy was especially skeptical about republican institutions and for good reason given how the French Revolution played out for the Church in France. But now Rome seems to be fully on board with those very institutions that Protestants embraced to justify themselves to the wider world. Winthrop’s city on a hill morphed into Wilson’s war to make the world safe for democracy.

What is also important to notice is that just as Protestants had to adapt (and liberalize) their faith to underwrite the U.S. project by giving up Calvinism’s notions about divine sovereignty and human sinfulness (think Finney and Fosdick), so Roman Catholics like Pearce (anyway) have forgotten that Thomas Aquinas was a predestinarian who believed that the human soul was incapable on its own of free will. In other words, the United States first assimilated Protestants to Americanism and now it appears that it is also working its wonders with Roman Catholicism.

The only immunity appears to be two-kingdom theology. It allows you to defend republican (or sacral monarchical) ways in one realm, and divine sovereignty in the other. No muss, no fuss (if only).