Joe Sobran, Apologist

Joseph Sobran (1946-2010) was an American public intellectual and conservative thinker who spent more than twenty years of his life on the staff of National Review before being unceremoniously dumped from that esteemed publication. It seems he wandered too far off the reservation of its neoconservative editorial policy. Having been raised by fallen-way Catholics who neither baptized him nor taught him the religion, Joe was drawn to the Church at the tender age of fourteen and, resisting the pleas of one of his public school teachers who tried to talk him out of it, was baptized at fifteen.

It was my pleasure to meet Joe Sobran at a conference in the mid 1990s, and then to host him here at Saint Benedict Center in 2001, when he gave a talk at our annual conference: “How the Constitution Was Stolen”. After the conference, I sat with him at one of our picnic tables and found him in a very mellow mood, reciting from memory lengthy passages from Shakespeare in his sonorous baritone while drinking a cocktail of Tanqueray gin and Welsh’s white grape juice. It’s an encounter I won’t ever get out of my mind as long as I have one, nor can I forget what he drank; anyone who knows the teetotaling Protestant origins of Welsh’s Grape Juice — originally “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine” — will see the poetic justice of putting gin in the stuff. Sobran’s recitation had me truly spellbound, and I am not easily spellbound. (If the reader is wondering, the answer is: No, I wasn’t drinking.)

Joe Sobran beautifully plied the art of wordcraft, which he no doubt learned from the many and diverse authors whose works he devoured, including G.K. Chesterton and H.L. Mencken (he has been compared to both); P.G. Wodehouse, who he once called “my favorite writer”; and, of course William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare! Or should we say the Earl of Oxford? Whether one agrees with Sobran’s opinion concerning the true identity of the Bard, there can be no gainsaying his knowledge of and love for Shakespeare’s work. In a satyrical mood, he once penned an essay consisting mostly of Shakespeare’s words (probably all memorized: remember the Tanqueray and Welsh’s episode), inviting his audience to see if Shakespeare was as good a writer as he (Sobran) was. After arranging one hundred and three quotes from Shakespeare’s oeuvre into nine paragraphs, he concluded the essay, appropriately named, “You Be the Judge,” with an invitation to his readers to say who’s the better writer, Sobran or Shakespeare: “Well, there you have it. A fair sampling, I think. Please don’t judge him too harshly.”

Like Chesterton, Sobran was master of light satire and could playfully undertake a serious critique of someone else’s thought in a way that might make its adherent chuckle; for example: “Psychoanalysts tell us that humor is a form of aggression. My own view is that psychoanalysis is a form of aggression for humorless people.” The man truly had a light touch — and was right besides.

In order to introduce (or reintroduce) my readers to Sobran, I’ve chosen a handful of motifs found in his writings, letting the man speak for himself with illustrative excerpts. I begin with the theme, the hatred of Christ as an argument in favor of Christ. In the essay, The Man They Still Hate,” our man gets to the point right at the start:

The world has long since forgiven Julius Caesar. Nobody today finds Socrates or Cicero irritating. Few of us resent Alexander the Great or his tutor, Aristotle.

No, only one man in the ancient world is still hated after two millennia: Jesus Christ.

This does not in itself prove the divinity of Christ, but it does show that his words and example haven’t dated. They still have an amazing power to provoke hatred as well as adoration. [Emphasis added throughout.]

One may profitably meditate on that last sentence. The rest of the essay gives reasons why people hate Christ, which, for Sobran, are reasons to love and adore Him. This motif, together with the next one, reminds me of Brother Francis’ frequent insistence that the Catholic Faith is and must remain a challenge to human nature. If Jesus Christ and His Church do not perpetually challenge fallen men to aim higher, then we’ve diluted the religion and have done no favors to mankind. For this reason, Brother called his little treasury of meditations, The Challenge of Faith.”

Just as Our Lord is hated, so is the Church — which leads me to the next theme: hatred of the Church as an argument in her favor. In “The Catholic Position,” Sobran marvels over how, given her present weakness as a force for social change, the Church’s enemies simply cannot leave her alone:

You’d think that by now people who reject Catholicism would calmly ignore its teachings as old and irrelevant superstitions. After all, the Church has none of her old political power, adherence is now totally voluntary, and she has enough trouble getting her own children to listen to her.

But Catholicism still has a strange moral authority, and many people are unable to achieve a calm and assured disbelief. They are still driven to discredit the Church — perhaps for the same reason so many of us believe in her.

After praising the coherence of Catholic moral teaching, much of which used to be shared by mainstream Protestant denominations but has recently become a reason to hate the Church, he writes:

What had long been a consensus became censured as a “Catholic position.” We now see the same process well under way with abortion and homosexuality.

If cannibalism ever becomes popular, and the rest of the world, led by its progressive-minded intellectuals, decides that anthropophagy is a basic constitutional right, opposing cannibalism will become a “Catholic position” too. Catholics will once more be accused of wanting to “impose” their “views” on everyone else (even when they are far too weak to do so), and the reformers will cry, “Let’s keep government out of the kitchen!”

I don’t defend the Church’s morality because I am a Catholic. I became and remain a Catholic because the Church maintains a consistent morality — while the rest of the world keeps veering off into moral fads. My conviction that she is right is only strengthened by the world’s strident demand that she change along with it, as if it were a sort of moral duty to change one’s principles, like underwear, with reasonable frequency.

It is not only non-Catholics who demand that the Church change; that raucous chorus includes some of the Church’s own children. Most often, the changes insisted upon pertain to specific “pet vices —contraception, sodomy, same-sex marriage, and all the rest.” Sobran continues:

Notice that the proposed reforms usually have to do with sex. When the Church refuses to change, she is accused of being “obsessed” with sex, when it’s really her critics who are obsessed with it. Catholic morality recognizes seven deadly sins, of which lust is only one; but this happens to be the one the modern world can’t stop thinking about. Nobody demands that the Church “change its outdated teachings against sloth.”

At any rate, the Church can’t change. She can no more change her teaching about lust than her equally emphatic teachings about pride, gluttony, and sloth, because God has made the world as it is and no human will can repeal its moral order. These aren’t the Pope’s personal opinions; they are objective truths.

My penultimate Sobranian theme is the unassailable uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Noting that His detractors often contemptuously dismiss Christ as an unoriginal religious figure with an unexceptional doctrine, Sobran asserts Christ’s uniqueness (against Richard Dawkins, et al.) in “Happy Easter”:

Jesus was just like a lot of other religious leaders? Such as? Do other religions have prayers like the Our Father? Did the ancient Greeks ask Zeus to “forgive us as we forgive others”? Did the Aztecs pray like that? How many other religions command their votaries to rejoice, be of good cheer, have no fear? (“Trust in Poseidon”?)

And many other religious figures, we are told, have performed miracles every bit as impressive as those attributed to Jesus. Really? Did they cure blind men and cripples while assuring them that their sins were forgiven?

And did they, even after they had died (and risen again, it goes without saying), make converts who would die for what they had taught? Did any of them ever give a speech like the Sermon on the Mount? If so, where can I find a copy?

In “The Optional Jesus,” this theme of Our Lord’s unassailable uniqueness stands out in contrast to the fruitless efforts of modern scholars to distill “the Jesus of history” out of the “Christ of Faith”:

Since the only documents we have attest a life of miraculous deeds, supernatural orientation, and eschatological purpose, the belief that a stripped-down “natural” life of Jesus can be reconstructed is totally at odds with the records.

But the futility of their task does not stop the enemies of religion from trying to recreate an uncreated Person to their own image and likeness, with unsurprising results:

We have found the historical Jesus, and he is us! He agrees with us, thinks like us, and votes like us. Best of all, he imposes no obligations on us. … Since the historical Jesus is progressive almost by definition, anything in the Gospels that makes Jesus seem reactionary must have been interpolated by his reactionary followers. (The question then becomes why he attracted such a reactionary following, but never mind.)

…[T]he historical Jesus is based on several modern dogmas: it presupposes that Jesus wasn’t divine, didn’t do miracles, didn’t foresee the Crucifixion, and didn’t rise from the dead. He just left a lot of wise sayings. Maybe he wasn’t divine, but he’s awfully quotable. And you can edit out the quotations you don’t like: they’re all optional.

This brings me to my final theme: the words of Christ as literary and moral “miracles.” Sobran thought them on a par with healing the blind and cripples, and raising people from the dead; like these corporeal miracles, His words reveal Our Lord’s unassailable uniqueness. Joe’s encounter with the Faith was very literary, given his deep appreciation of words, so he had a profound reverence for Our Lord’s sacred utterances, those verba Verbi — “words of the Word” — as they are sometimes called.

Addressing the aforementioned dismissal of Our Lord as one of many historical religious leaders, Sobran asks, in “Happy Easter,”

[D]id any of these impressive religious teachers, who seem to have been very numerous, match Jesus in what has been called his “command of the moment,” making memorable retorts, still quoted centuries later, to enemies trying to trap them with trick questions? Have any of their reported ad libs endured as permanent moral teachings, like “Whoever among you is without sin, let him cast the first stone”?

Jesus is hated because of His unique and challenging words, words He never even bothered to write down, but which still “carried,” as Sobran argues in The Man They Still Hate”:

To a writer’s eyes… the sheer power of Jesus’ sayings (which the poet Tennyson called “his greatest miracle”) are almost enough to prove his claim. Physical miracles might be feigned, but not these verbal miracles. Yet he apparently never wrote them down; he spoke them, often off the cuff, trusting them to “carry” by their inherent power.

Most writers are flattered if their words are remembered at all. But the spiritually demanding words of Jesus — which condemn even looking at a woman with lust — are still carried in the hearts of millions after 2000 years, even though we know them only in translations from translations. …

Even conveyed to us so indirectly, those words have “carried” like no others in all history, because so many people have found them true and compelling. The durability of those words is all the more striking when you consider that they are always out of fashion, as the secular world goes through its successive fads and crazes.

Methinks that last sentence is worthy of Chesterton, both in content and expression.

In my estimation, one of the tragedies of Joe Sobran’s career as an intellectual is that he was a conservative political thinker who was also a serious Catholic, rather than a serious Catholic political thinker. (That’s not a slight against conservatism, but an affirmation of what’s worth conserving.) This flaw is not a rarity in the Anglosphere, where Protestant and Enlightenment ideas have largely eclipsed traditional Catholic social thought. Had Sobran been steeped in the latter, as articulated by the popes and the great Continental political thinkers, he would perhaps have been spared identifying himself in later life as a libertarian (albeit of the “paleo-” stripe). Had he done so, he probably would have been canned from National Review earlier, too.

But I love the man no less for this fault, and I owe a debt of gratitude to John Beaumont for reminding me what a treasure we have in the writings of the great Joe Sobran, which I highly recommend to my readers.

Rest in peace, Joe!