Under-specifying the truth: A case study of inefficiency

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 24, 2015

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of First Things magazine. It’s published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life as a broadly ecumenical project pooling the best ideas of those who take religion seriously, especially as an important factor in shaping the social order. It is mostly Christian, tilting toward Catholicism, but includes a strong Jewish presence, and an occasional Muslim voice.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven (Eccl 3:1). But for other matters and seasons, the approach of First Things introduces staggering inefficiencies. This is because any ecumenical enterprise deliberately underspecifies the truth. I don’t mean that the participants underspecify the truth as they see it, certainly not the Catholic writers, who are never afraid to be fully Catholic. But the bar for contributing articles is necessarily lowered from what Catholics understand to be the full truth.

This is more obvious in some issues of the magazine than in others. Unfortunately, it is particularly obvious in the current issue (October 2015, Number 256). In this one issue we have the following major articles:

  • Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptism Convention, argues that, unlike many other Christians, “Evangelicals Won’t Cave”—that is, they will not surrender their conception of nature and of God to the sexual revolution. But the last paragraph gives the game away: “I don’t think American Evangelicals will fold on our sexual ethic. But if we do….” There is, after all, no guarantee of orthodoxy anywhere in the Protestant tradition.
  • John Axumah, an African minister of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, who teaches World Christianity and Islam at Columbia Theological Seminary, explores the new American consensus on sexuality “Through African Eyes”. He points out that, while Africa has its own problems, the inability to see that homosexuality is contrary both to nature and to Christ is not one of them. Indeed, there is no rewriting of the obvious sense of the Bible on this question in Africa. That is good, of course, but it tells us nothing about how any group of Christians can be sure they’ve got it right.
  • Carl R. Trueman, who is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, offers readers “Newman for Protestants”. He finds that Newman has opened him to the great questions which one simply must address as a Christian in the modern world. He is therefore happy to recommend Newman to other Protestants. But in the end he cannot accept Newman’s answers to these great questions, the answers that led him inexorably to Rome. Trueman asserts, then, that all Christians must answer these great questions, but he does not propose than there are any correct answers.
  • Finally, on the “The Back Page”, there is "Saint Origen" by editor David Bentley Hart, who explores the controversy over universal salvation within the Orthodoxy tradition. From this we learn that “Orthodoxy’s entire dogmatic deposit resides in the canons of the seven ecumenical councils—everything else in Orthodox tradition, be it ever so venerable, beautiful, or spiritually nourishing, can possess at most the authority of accepted custom, licit conjecture, or fruitful practice….” But one seeks in vain for the logic of such a position, which Orthodoxy simply takes for granted without any Revelatory evidence.

It is always interesting to see how different religious thinkers approach the fundamental requirements of Christianity, and it is very fruitful to be exposed to the often superior insights each one may offer on this or that question. But there remains this dreadful inefficiency, which on occasion encourages the careful reader to tear out his hair. For each author is more than willing to share his perception of the meaning and mission of Jesus Christ. But apparently only Catholics are willing to take on the question of how we know any of these perceptions are true.

How do we separate broken and isolated branches from the living tree? What does it take for a particular Christian tradition, when it is pushed, to justify itself? To proceed without answers to these questions is to waste an inordinate amount of time.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 28, 2015 5:07 PM ET USA

    bkmajer3729: Certainly, in ecumenical discussions, one must accept people where they are and exchange ideas. But a monthly magazine is not really a dialogue so much as a shared space, and Catholics who read it will inescapably experience the downside of the project--the need to sift through a certain percentage of articles which actually obscure the realities they hope to illuminate, or at least offer less clarity than the Catholic reader already possesses. That was my only point. It is an excellent magazine, but I suspect many Catholic readers of First Things have experienced this frustration from time to time.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Sep. 27, 2015 9:44 AM ET USA

    Your article is about First Things & how an Ecuemical publication must accept perspectives less than the full Catholic position. Fair enough. The last sentence leaves me a bit confused. Do we not have to proceed at least in dialogue to more fully understand & work to heal? Did I miss your point? Without proceeding in dialogue how can we ever reach the answers to the 2 questions posed?

  • Posted by: Dennis Olden - Sep. 25, 2015 7:54 PM ET USA

    Well said, and very helpful to this reader of First Things.