Robert P. Imbelli

I have long admired Andrew J. Bacevich’s writings. His style is limpid and often eloquent. His analyses are penetrating and challenging. One does not read him without seriously reconsidering one’s own views. His recent essay “Selling Our Souls” (Commonweal, August 12) is no exception. One need not be a teacher to smile with recognition at his description of the way young people treat their mobile devices: “The smartphone has become an amulet. It is a sacred object to be held and caressed and constantly attended to.”

Yet the thrust of the essay leads less to delight than to dismay. For, drawing upon Henry Adams’s classic symbols, the Virgin and the Dynamo, Bacevich paints an altogether bleak portrait of our postmodern predicament. His depiction of the plight of advanced capitalist societies, the United States in particular, resounds like a quasi-liturgical renunciation. America’s works and pomp resemble ancient idolatries in new and more alluring vesture. The denizens of the information age “in the guise of exercising freedom…engage in a form of idolatry.”

Bacevich’s conjuring of the “ominous forces” abroad in the land seems bereft of any hope of exorcism. The church no longer provides a “bulwark against the disorders afflicting the age.” Moreover, his is no mere harangue against a “dishonored and discredited” institution. Bacevich detects a much deeper declension. The Christian tradition’s insistence upon “a moral order based on received, permanent truth” itself lies in ruins. And, moving far beyond Adams, who died in 1918, Bacevich laments the “unspeakable carnage” of World War II, culminating in the Holocaust and Hiroshima. The monstrous nature of such horrors overwhelms the credibility of any appeals to “salvation history.” Insofar as Christianity remains a presence in our civilization, it’s only as a private comfort. As Bacevich writes, echoing Adams: “Christianity as a personal ethic or as a medium through which to seek individual salvation might survive, but Christianity as a formula for ordering human affairs had breathed its last.”

One could legitimately raise a number of critical questions regarding Bacevich’s retrieval of Henry Adams. Metaphors of Virgin and Dynamo may function more effectively as rhetoric than as analysis. One might wonder whether a Manichean tendency lurks beneath Bacevich’s relentless jeremiad. And one might contrast his views with the more measured and nuanced assessment of Charles Taylor in A Secular Age. But that would be to miss the true depth of Bacevich’s challenge. For his article seems less a dispassionate analysis than a discernment of spirits. And whether it was Bacevich or an editor who came up with the essay’s title, “Selling Our Souls,” it nicely captures the depressed tenor of the piece—a genuine cri de l’âme. It poses the radical question: Do soul-healing and soul-saving remain possible for us, and, if so, under what conditions?

I raise these concerns not in order to deliver some potted response, but as tribute to the provocation Bacevich provides—a provocation that for me, and perhaps other Commonweal readers, is not so much historical as spiritual and pastoral. If he has truly discerned and named the forces operative in our culture, what implications does that have for Christians? This question concerns not only ecclesiastical “professionals” (preachers, catechists, theologians); it implicates everyone committed to gospel witness in contemporary society.

From one point of view, of course, the task is hardly new. Paul’s exhortation to the Christians in Rome—“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you might discern what is the will of God” (Rom 12:2)—has echoed through the ages in an Augustine, a Francis, a Teresa of Ávila, a Newman, a Dorothy Day. The latter two were themselves acutely sensitive to modernity’s rising tide of unbelief and the imperative for a more radical Christian commitment. However different their historical and cultural circumstances, each sought to promote a gospel vision and to articulate a pastoral strategy. For each of them, any authentic renewal of Christian witness begins with a transforming relation to the person of Jesus—not as admired and inspired figure of the past, but as living Lord of the church and the world. In Newman’s preferred terms: The perennial challenge, yesterday and today, is to pass from a merely notional assent to Jesus Christ to a real adhesion to him as branch to vine.

One cannot help noticing the absence in Bacevich’s reflection of any reference to the person of Christ, or to conversion, or to the Cross. It might be objected that his intent was purely historical and social-critical, not theological. Yet the piece is replete with theological allusions. He cites Henry Adams who, assaulted by affliction, muses that God “might be a Substance, but He could not be a Person.” And the essay concludes with a dismal either/or: God as either punisher or illusion.

It may be helpful to contrast Bacevich’s discernment of spirits with that of Pope Benedict XVI in his second encyclical, Spe salvi. For here the pope addresses the issues that preoccupy Bacevich: hope in and beyond history. Like Bacevich, Benedict expresses reservations about some of the fruits of modernity—in particular, the myth of progress. But the pope is more nuanced in his assessment, stressing the “ambiguity” of modernity’s achievements. Undoubted gains and countless possibilities for good are also accompanied by frightful new powers for evil and destruction.

Benedict challenges both the secularist mindset and the church itself to self-critique. Like Charles Taylor, he encourages the secular age to go beyond the reductionisms that too often plague it—for example, the reduction of all knowledge to the scientific and empirical. But Benedict also calls the church to move beyond a reductive notion of salvation that has tended to be excessively individualistic and otherworldly—in Bacevich’s words “a medium through which to seek individual salvation.” Drawing on Henri de Lubac’s classic study, Catholicism, Benedict highlights the intrinsically communal and social dimensions of Christian faith. This includes believers’ responsibility for fostering justice and peace in this world, with eyes ever fixed on the consummation in the world to come. One way the pope articulates this in the encyclical is by affirming the authentic “lesser hopes” that men and women pursue in their individual lives, as well as in their families and communities. But these lesser hopes receive their full due and ultimate satisfaction in light of the infinite “great hope” that alone can fulfill the “restless heart” of finite human beings.

For Christians, history does not invalidate hope because God himself has entered into history, with its myriad joys and hopes, sufferings and tragedies. By the Incarnation, all these are brought, purified, and transformed, into intimacy with God’s own life. Through Christ we know God not as some remote first cause of the universe, but as the God of love. The encyclical’s title, “In hope we were saved,” comes, of course, from chapter 8 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In the central section of Spe salvi, Benedict cites the awe-inspiring conclusion of this chapter: “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38–39). 

For the pope, the hope of salvation includes both present experience and final transfiguration. By living in the presence of the risen Christ, Savior and Judge, we gain assurance of ultimate justice. At the same time, union with Christ spurs us to sustained commitment to the common good here and now, even at the cost of suffering and failure. For the crucified and risen Savior has won the victory and led death itself captive. As the editors of this magazine put it in their comment on the encyclical (“The Gift of Hope,” December 21, 2007), “For Benedict, the reason to hope is the person of Christ, and it is our relationship with the risen Jesus that enables us to live expansive, generous lives—even in ominous times.”

Soul-saving, then, can never be a merely individualistic affair. Communion with Christ, the pope insists, is also communion with all those Christ came to save. No doubt this entails ongoing spiritual discernment, both personal and communal. Every generation must “engage anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs.” But this generous search is daily empowered and renewed by the great hope that is God’s gift in Christ: the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Bacevich’s bleak analysis recalls the description in the Letter to the Ephesians of the human condition without Christ: “having no hope and without God in the world” (2:12). Yet it may prove a salutary provocation, if it rouses Christians to consider anew their vocation to shape an ecclesial catechumenate able to inspire and sustain Christian commitment. Spe salvi provides the theological foundations for such a project—for a sense of the Christian mission that proceeds with faith and hope, but without illusion. It sets forth a salvific vision that integrates individual and community, justice and charity, action and contemplation, this good creation and the new creation to come, which has already been inaugurated in Jesus Christ.

Spe salvi reminds us that the Christian hope of salvation offers a redress of history, not an escape from it, and that salvation always implies communion: “As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: How can I save myself? We should also ask: What can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.”

(Rev.) Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the archdiocese of New York, teaches theology at Boston College.


Andrew J. Bacevich

I am grateful to Fr. Robert P. Imbelli for his generous yet thoughtfully critical response.

The nexus of our disagreement lies here: Imbelli writes “the crucified and risen Savior has won the victory and led death itself captive.” While sympathizing with that claim, I am hard-pressed to see much empirical evidence supporting it. Nearly two thousand years after Jesus Christ completed his earthly mission, his teachings endure—no small matter—but they have hardly proven victorious. The Word does not describe actually existing reality; if anything, it lingers to rebuke reality. Meanwhile, death, even if held captive in some metaphorical or eschatological sense, runs rampant in the here and now.

The Christian enterprise has failed. Or at a very minimum, it has fallen far short of the goals professed by its founder. To the extent that it survives in the so-called West, it does so on the margins, having long since been supplanted by more alluring forces. John Lennon once caused a stir by claiming that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus. The arrogance may offend, but Lennon was on to something—a secular prophet just slightly ahead of his time. 

Although popes continue to issue encyclicals, documents like Spe salvi carry less weight in shaping the way people think, behave, and situate themselves in history than do entities like Apple or Google. Walker Percy accurately diagnosed the affliction: we—by which I mean the vast majority of us—are no longer wayfarers in search of some ultimate purpose or destination. That vocation has become largely obsolete. We have instead become consumers, keen chiefly to satisfy our appetites and to avoid boredom. Maybe it shouldn’t be that way. But it is, especially in this country.

Why has Christianity failed?  Because Christians failed, or at a very minimum because they chose a path of accommodation and compromise. 

Accommodation describes the principal achievement of the Catholic Church in America. Not all that long ago, we Catholics were not especially welcome here. Just today my students considered a famous lecture on “Manifest Destiny,” delivered in 1880 by John Fiske. America stood apart from others, Fiske insisted, because it rejected “the despotic pretensions of the church,” which “sought to enthrall [people] with a tyranny far worse than that of irresponsible king or emperor.” Here Protestantism reigned supreme.

Over succeeding decades, the American Catholic Church put such bigoted fears to rest. For the Christian majority, faith ceased to define identity. Catholic Americans became all but indistinguishable from their fellow citizens, and on that basis gained full acceptance. Although my Lithuanian immigrant grandfather would not sniff at that accomplishment, let’s not kid ourselves about the price paid along the way: Catholicism has been subsumed by a culture in which Christianity per se has become largely ornamental. 

Imbelli cites Dorothy Day as personifying the “imperative for a more radical Christian commitment.” Just so: but among the things investing Day’s witness with its power is its countercultural dimension, her refusal to bend principle or just go along. Day’s witness may not be unique but it is increasingly rare. 

No doubt the Cistercian community to which my sister-in-law belongs consists of equally principled and remarkable women. But that community has perhaps fifty members, their average age probably approaching seventy. It is a sacred remnant of a vanishing past.

An encounter with Michael Baxter earlier this year led me to John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. I am neither theologian nor exegete, but I found Yoder’s interpretation persuasive. Christ was a political radical who called on his followers to change the world. We have rejected his radicalism for another course. Why pretend otherwise?

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book is Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is a longtime Commonweal contributor.

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Published in the 2011-10-21 issue: View Contents
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