Perennial Philosophy & Traditionalism

Those who have followed my blog for any length of time will note that I have had an on-again/off-again flirtation with the Perennial Philosophy, particularly as articulated in the Traditionalist School of metaphysics, whose greatest proponents have been Frithjof Schuon, Rene Guenon and Ananda Coomaraswamy.  Other names associated with this school have included Titus Burckhardt, William Stoddart, Martin Lings, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, William Chittick, and various others.  On a more popular level this form of traditionalism has influenced Huston Smith, though it should not be confused with Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy.  My first real exposure came through the works of James Cutsinger, an Eastern Orthodox religious studies professor in South Carolina, and a leading authority on the works of Frithjof Schuon.

My sometimes contradictory statements over the last few years on this blog are largely a result of the fact that I never completely made up my mind on where I stood on this matter.  I have read a great deal of the material on the website World Wisdom (a valuable resource) and own a few books by Nasr, Burckhardt and Schuon (the last being edited by Cutsinger).  I have been impressed and drawn to this metaphysical vision and have found a great deal of wisdom in these sources-hence why I have favorably quoted Nasr and Schuon somewhat copiously in the past.  I regularly corresponded with a reader on this blog (Chris) on this topic, and more recently received several responses from a respondent named Kevin, which has prompted me to go back and revisit this subject.  In the spirit of clarification, this is where I presently stand.

I am NOT a Proponent of the Traditionalist School

Actually, I can’t say that I ever really was (I certainly admit to being drawn to it but I never wholeheartedly adopted or accepted it).  There are a few reasons why, and in no particular order I’d make the following observations:

First, as a general note, I fail to see anything particularly profound in Traditionalist metaphysics.  I readily admit the fault may be mine (“He who has eyes…”) but I simply don’t see, as our British brethren would say, what all the hullabaloo is about.  The Traditionalist writings I have read are rarely distinguishable from the metaphysics of the East (in particular Vedanta).  Peter Kreeft, in his Handbook of Christian Apologetics, remarked that Schuon’s approach essentially amounts to an “easternizing” of Christianity.  I do not find the repeatedly invoked exoteric-esoteric distinction at all helpful here, because-as Kreeft contends-the esoteric/exoteric distinction itself is essentially Eastern and not recognized as such in the West.  [1]   Kreeft also raises the point that Traditionalism seems to posit two “levels” of spirituality-a mystical/gnostic approach for the enlightened and the exoteric confessions for the masses.  This distinction (which is now quite pronounced in liberal circles) has been widely noted in recent years and has been addressed by far more intelligent persons than myself (C.S. Lewis rebukes it in Letters to Malcolm; the Pope Emeritus addressed the subject in Truth and Tolerance, and it was also a favorite subject of Jim Arraj’s).

Second, I find many aspects of Traditionalism as it is actually practiced, to be somewhat troubling.  I’ve referenced an Orthodox discussion on this topic before that sketches out some of these concerns-in a nutshell, they include a tendency towards syncretism in practice even if ostensibly denied, and an unhealthy personality cult and guru-like tendencies (towards Schuon in particular).  The question of whether there is such a thing as a Christian ‘gnosis’ is one that has preoccupied some folks, such as my regular interlocutor Chris.  I don’t have a particularly profound response to this, other than to reaffirm the Orthodox point that those who progress along the Christian Way will certainly deepen their understanding.  If one wishes to call this ‘gnosis I certainly have no objection, but this doesn’t amount to transcending the exoteric borders of Christianity towards some esoteric primordial unity.

Third, and rather intriguingly, many of the most prominent Traditionalists have been Muslims.  There are exceptions of course-Cutsinger and Phillip Sherrard were Orthodox Christians, and Rama Coomaraswamy (the son of Ananda) was a Catholic, albeit a sedevacantist.  I’ve noted before that Judaism is under-represented in the ranks of Traditionalist metaphysicians, though an exception should be noted for Leo Schaya-I have read his numerous writings on Kabbalah on World Wisdom before and they are by any measure powerful.  Even so, it does strike me as rather telling that very, very Christians are Traditionalists.

In the last analysis, I simply do not see Traditionalist metaphysics as being compatible with orthodox Christianity.  The constant invocation of metaphysics, it so often seems to me, is really an attempt to have things both ways-e.g. Christianity is 100% correct in its dogmatic claims (including the exclusivist ones) but so are the other great religions.  Metaphysical intellectualism cannot dispense neatly with these distinctions simply speaking of a “transcendent unity of religions” or a “human atmosphere” and “divine stratosphere”.  Though it may sound a bit uncharitable I can’t help but think that C.S. Lewis’s rebuke to pantheists who see no distinction between good and evil comes in a bit handy here as well: Don’t talk damned nonsense.

This doesn’t deny that there are primordial truths that transcend religious boundaries-the mystics of their various faiths clearly seem to be sharing the same experience, the Tao and the Logos do seem to be the same thing, etc.  But Christianity is grounded firmly in the Incarnation, a fiercely particularist doctrine.  The Incarnation is not simply reducible to questions of metaphysics (such as Schuon’s comment that the Incarnation was “Atman became Maya”).  It may be that I am afflicted with a “confessional bias” here, but the particularity and specificity of Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ-Event is constitutive of Christianity; indeed it IS Christianity.  I repeat: That the transcendent and incomprehensible Absolute was definitely and finally revealed in the person of a 1st Century Jew is Christianity.  This person-what Ratzinger called a single straw in the seas of history-is the qualitatively and categorically unique revelation of God.  As St. Paul put it in the Areopagus the Unknown God has become known.

This does not mean Christianity must adopt an imperialist attitude toward other faiths.  It doesn’t even mean that it must deny the Sophia Perennis-Fr. Robert Barron has noted that the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges the Perennial Philosophy in some sense (see here and here)-note that Fr. Barron here is speaking of the Perennial Philosophy more generically, not the Traditionalist School specifically.  Fr. Barron alludes to what seems to me to be the authentic Christian approach-one that Cardinal Newman called “assimilation”.  The Church sees the seeds of the word (logoi spermatikoi, semina verbi) and can assimilate all that is good and true to itself.  As Scott Hahn once put it, all truth belongs to Christ.

Other Comments

A few more points.  I have casually mentioned on the blog in the past that Traditionalist metaphysics might be helpful in creating a sort of roadmap for a “universal grammar” of the Great Traditions, to use Huston Smith’s term.  Of course, Schuon and the others would not have seen it that way (then again neither would the Buddha, Confucius or the prophets of ancient Israel have seen themselves as precursors to Christ).  Again, that the Perennial Philosophy is a sort of distillate (to use Fr. Barron’s term) of universal truths strikes me as obvious.  Christianity, however, asserts that the truth has to become known to us in a human person (Christ)-the “Face of God” has been revealed (Ratzinger has written well on this) and therefore the Perennial Philosophy has been surpassed/transcended/fulfilled (take your pick).

Also, on the subject of evolution: I am not a “follower” of Teilhard de Chardin, except insofar as I accept some of his insights as helpful (particularly as mediated through Henri du Lubac and Ratzinger).  That evolution takes place in the biological realm is a fact-the evidence is incontrovertible, and one gains nothing by denying factual reality other than the ridicule the ridiculous deserve (I’m thinking of young earth creationists, but per the Moynihan Rule nobody gets their own facts).  The reality of biological evolution has not bothered giants like C.S. Lewis or Cardinal Newman; there is no reason it should bother me.  Truth cannot contradict truth, and if one’s metaphysics are contradicting physics than one should go back and think through their metaphysics again.

That being said, there is a massive distinction between evolution as a biological theorem and a “universal evolutionism”, which is a philosophical interpretation of those facts (one thinks of the absurd thesis by Dennett and Dawkins that evolution can explain everything-even Stephen Jay Gould recoiled from that one, being smart enough to see the real limits of science).  This is where the true battleground lies.  Exactly how evolution fits into the scheme of Christian theology is an open question, though Lewis always stressed that the Christian worldview is capable of accommodating any scientific theory.  I rather like Olivier Clement’s description of evolution as an “inversion”, e.g. it is the “side” of creation that science is able to access in our fallen world (he discusses this topic in The Roots of Christian Mysticism and in On Human Being, even quoting an early and reportedly more orthodox quote from Teilhard in the latter).  [2]

Finally, regarding the New Atheists.  I adhere quite strongly to the notion that one must seek truth wherever it may be found, and that Maimonides was right when he said truth must be accepted regardless of its source.  Catholic apologist Scott Hahn has approvingly noted that the New Atheists insist on objective truth, which is a far better foundation than the wishy-washiness of much contemporary “spirituality”.  Moreover, Dawkins (at least) is a superb writer on the subject of science.  And modernity as a whole inherited its best features from the Christian worldview-Fr. Barron’s use of Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find as a metaphor to describe the relationship between late medieval Christianity and modernity is particularly powerful on this point.  [3]

I readily concede that spiritual blindness and a lack of discernment are the true crisis of our time. We live in an age that for all its material abundances and technological progress (at least for a few) has become blind to the wisdom of the ages.  That being said, if the light of truth is ever to shine again it will come from those equipped with the weapons of humility and charity (it is one of the great contributions of Christianity to see that those wielding the weapons are bound by original sin themselves, hence leading to an emphasis on grace and divine initiative).  I have always been impressed that Huston Smith, while admittedly an intellectual lightweight compared to Schuon, has always possessed a spirit of good cheer and good humor, no matter how depressing the modern world could be.  As Rowan Williams once put it, truth makes love possible; love makes truth bearable.

A sage observation if there ever was any.

Notes:

  1. As Luke Timothy Johnson helpfully noted the two really are not separate from one another, and as one Orthodox commentator remarked online “The reason why Orthodoxy does not fit with Perennialism is simply that Orthodoxy does not recognize the esoteric/ exoteric distinction. It makes no sense in an Orthodox context. I’ve tried to point this out to occultists before and they generally don’t get it. They think this just means that we have lost our esoteric content. Our “esotericism” is inextricably bound up with the “exoteric” dogmas and one leads to the other. Difference in dogma results in difference of spiritual experience. Our theology and worship are inherently mystical and there is no hidden interpretation which is reserved for initiates, except in the sense that those further on the path of deification will grow deeper in their understanding of the revelation“).  In fairness, I would add that Schuon’s thoughts on exoterism and esoterism in the Christian context (as outlined in The Fullness of God edited by Cutsinger) sound very much like what the Orthodox commentator above stated.  Also, the “occultist” comment does not strick me as entirely out of line-I have been struck at how Schuon’s language sometimes sounds reminiscent of the New Age (reading that line again I’m struck by how strange it sounds).  I remember in of his writings he used the phrase “cosmic cycle” which, in Sesame Street lingo, is “not like the other ones.”  It may be disingenuous of me to point to random snippets of his work, but that such an idea cannot be reconciled with Christianity should go without saying.
  2. Lewis had expressed similar ideas along these lines, see, e.g., his essay The Funeral of a Grand Myth.
  3. See the introduction to his book The Priority of Christ.

Liberal Church, Conservative Church

After a lengthy hiatus I am delighted to say that I am still alive and have been struck with the necessary inspiration to write (both of these being necessary requirements).  On a personal note my hiatus was due to the fact that I was studying for the bar exam through the end of July; taking the exam the 29th & 30th; and in recovery thereafter.  I am also starting my first legal job in a week, which is likely to limit the number of posts in the future.  All that said, at least for the moment, I’m back!

I recently read two articles on the Vatican’s “war” against American nuns.  The first concerns Fordham theologian Elizabeth Johnson; the second discusses Johnson along with the broader problems surrounding LCWR.  The latter was written by Angela Bonavoglia, author of the book Good Catholic Girls.  I do not know Ms. Bonavoglia personally, but I am familiar with her book, as one of the chapters concerned Rev. Mary Ramerman and Spiritus Christi Church (a subject I am, of course, intimately familiar with).  In comparison to some other figures on the Catholic Left Bonavoglia speaks in a relatively measured tone, but I still found this article troubling in a few respects.  For instance:

  • Her quoting of Peter Steinfels is a bit disingenuous.  His quote about revising religion in light of female quality is provocative yes, but in its original context in A People Adrift it follows extremely well articulated concerns about feminist theology.  I have quoted it before but it bears repeating: “Today Catholic feminist theology remains fluid, amorphous, and unfixed. That is significant because it would be disingenuous to ignore the radical nature of some feminist theology and the difficulty of reconciling it with anything remotely continuous with Catholicism and maybe of Christianity, too. Much Catholic feminist thought is relatively uninterested in the whole question of differentiating what is compatible with Catholic Christianity from what is not, and at present under-equipped to do so. To many feminists, that question seems at the very least premature, if not a downright preemptive move to quash threatening ideas. Their energy has gone into exposing the feminism-adverse elements in Catholicism, not the Catholicism-adverse elements in feminism.”  Odd how Bonavoglia didn’t feel that part was worth including.
  • She is extremely dismissive of Sister Laurie Brink’s 2007 address to the LCWR, in which she [Brink] suggested that it might be time to move “beyond Christ.”  Bonavoglia calls this the “most frightening frontier in feminist theology” (ain’t that the truth!), but she ridicules the response of the ‘hierarchy’, which appears in its usual stock-villain guise as a collective patriarchial bully, responding with excruciating condescion.
  • Finally, she writes (with honesty) “Feminist theologians have re-envisioned God. They reject the one-time, one-place, men-only view of revelation.”

It might be worth pointing out that Catholicism does not hold to a men-only view of revelation (it would be quite the shock to St. Teresa of Avila, to say nothing of Our Lady).  However, it has often seemed to me that whatever catechesis most feminist theologians received evidently didn’t take the first time, and may prove fruitless the second time.  Moreover, the “one-time, one-place” line poses problems of its own.  It is a bit oversimplified, but like it or not the ‘scandal of particularity’ is a cornerstone of both Judaism and Christianity.  There is no “going beyond” Jesus.  The very point of Christianity is its affirmation that in him-this one particular man from a particular people in a particular time and place-the fullness of the Deity dwells bodily (Colossians 2:9).

This simply reiterates a longstanding concern I have with feminist theology and the broader enterprise of progressive Catholicism: What we are really seeing her is a quest for a different religion.  One could be concerned with progressive trendiness (one need only attend the annual Call-to-Action conference to see experimentalism gone awry), or its saccharine sentimentality (pardon the redundancy; its just my writing style).  I am, however, much more concerned with the movement’s obsession with openness.  Sister Brink’s open-mindedness is troubling.  More troubling still is Sister Nancy Schreck’s comment “We need every creative interpretation of looking of Jesus that we can get.”  Why does this trouble me so?

Before answering that, I’d like to quote C.S. Lewis:

The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles.

Incidentally it really is true that there is a Lewis quote for everything-I was rereading Mere Christianity not long ago and discovered that, just like me, Lewis considers determinism a self-fulfilling prophecy.  But that’s a subject for another day.  Back to business.  The point in the above quote is that endless “openness” is self-defeating; one eventually has to get the bottom of something.  Christianity asserts that in Jesus we have reached bottom (I realize that sounds bad but unfortunately it makes my point).  Brink’s assertion that to move beyond Jesus is to move into the “heart of God” is a stab into the very point of Christianity, which is that in Jesus the heart of God came out-bled-for us.

There’s another concern here though, and it has to do with the obsession with creativity.  The Easter Orthodox have long viewed Western theology with suspicion, because too often it seems like a neurotic dialectical exercise rather than a serious quest for God.  It is difficult to argue that point when discussing contemporary progressive theologians.  Progressive Catholic theology is ill at ease when it comes to the objectivity of revelation, and-it seems to me-cares little for questions of truth.  Their views contrast sharply when one considers that many traditional Catholic theologians considered their work circumscribed (to say the least).  For instance, the great Thomist theologian Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (I just read his Reality: A Synthesis of Thomist Thought and it is superb) wrote

The eternal notion of truth, conformity of though with reality, impels us to say: This displeases me and annoys me, but is nonetheless true. Still, human interests are so strong that Pilate’s question often reappears: What is truth?”

Similarly, Karl Adam wisely wrote

…there is that conflict between authority and human liberty which necessarily results from the Catholic doctrine of authority. This conflict may be seen whenever the human ego runs up against alien, rigid and inexorable facts, against laws and ordinances which seem to crib and confine the free movement of the mind.

More recently, Cardinal Avery Dulles (love him or loathe him the man had a well deserved reputation for intellectual honesty, measured judgment, and charity) wrote piercingly that

The mind is not given to us for the purpose of self-assertion. As an organ of truth, it is intended to conform itself to what is real.

What bothers me, more than anything in progressive Catholic theology-feminist or otherwise-is that what was once understood as a commonsensical limitation has been all but obliterated; indeed as Steinfels noted and the articles illustrate, any effort on the part of the Magisterium (the “hierarchy”) to remind theologians of this is greeted with howls that the Inquisition has been revived.  Yet, by removing this fundamental limitation theology does become a free-floating dialectical exercise, that rebels against the entire tradition which it claims to represent and in doing so saws off the branch on which it sits.  Again-this is a call for a new religion.

Yet, lest I come across as a fire-breathing traditionalist, I am not much comforted by the response of most traditionalist Catholics.  If progressive Catholicism chooses to ignore questions of Truth, traditionalism uses the idea of Truth as a weapon.  It is worth pointing out here that Cardinal Ratzinger, his rottweiler reputation notwithstanding, typically approached his work in a dispassionate and carefully reflective way.  No one who actually reads his books will mistake him as a fire-breathing ideologue.  One can be deeply committed to the truths of Catholicism; and still be compassionate, charitable, even (gasp!) tolerant or open-minded.  Indeed, to be true to Christianity one must be both.  Humility, however, too often takes a back seat to a reactionary viciousness that borders on slander.

A recent illustration of this is the uproar that surround Father Timothy Radcliffe’s 2014 address to the Divine Mercy Conference in Ireland.  One may read about it here, here, and here.  For those who have the time, the first half of Father Timothy’s address at the conference is here-the “protest” occurs between 5:40 and 7:10; later at 38:32 Fr. Timothy briefly alludes to the controversy.  I’ll turn to the actual question of homosexuality momentarily, but I feel compelled to say something in response to the ad nauseum repetition of the word dissent.  Where I think Father Timothy is coming from-as is, I think, Canadian Orthodox Archbishop Lazar Puhalo (who has reportedly been silenced by the OCA Synod of Bishops), and (I can say with certainty) myself-is not obstinate and flippant dissension.  It is a genuine struggle over what for us is a problematic teaching of the Church.  It would be impossible for me to enthusiastically defend the Church’s teaching on homosexuality; it is a teaching I struggle greatly in assenting to.

Incidentally, if one is curious, I think the matter of human sexual identity in general has not been subjected to anywhere near the degree of critical reflection it deserves.  I myself hold a position that is unlikely to make anyone happy-I believe that human sexuality is more complex and more fluid in general than most people are comfortable admitting.  This is not to say Freud was right when he argued all people are bisexual deep down, or that the Kinsey scale is an accurate barometer, but simply that the matter is less open and shut than most people would like (I have my own reasons for believing this).  I myself continue to support gay civil rights, but I must admit the continuing multiplication of alphabet soup identity labels in the LGBT community, as well as more open challenges to the “binary gender system”, have really troubled me.  I cannot bring myself to affirm vacous statements such as “it’s all about love” or “love knows no gender.”

More to the point, I agree with the Church that for someone to identify with their sexuality is an unhealthy reductionism; someone’s personhood is distinct from their sexuality whatever it may be.  For this reason, I have to admit that I was not much moved by a gay friend’s comment that Pope Francis is throwing him “scraps of human dignity” or that the Church challenges his “self-worth”.  I also agree with the tradition’s broader assertion that gender complementarity is deep-rooted, both in nature and in Gensis (the criticisms of gay theologians like Tobias Haller and Stephen Lovatt notwithstanding-such responses strike me as an almost desperate attempt to make the text say something other than what it clearly says).  For these reasons, among others, I cannot add my voice to the simplistic chorus of condemnation raised against the Church today.

And yet…and yet.  Traditional Catholic blogs and groups seem to have a certain antipathy for gays that I find more baffling than anything else.  Any debates on human sexuality it seems to me must abide by the “Moynihan Rule”: No one is entitled to their own facts.  It does seem to me that, in spite of the general gray nature of human sexuality, there is what James Alison calls a non-pathological minority variant in human nature that we commonly call “homosexuality”.  Admittedly this is known more by intuition than by hard science as yet.  Yet, it does seem to me, that if this does in fact prove to be true than the Church will be facing some questions.

Not questions over the sacrament of marriage-I hold the traditional line there.  But I do think there could be some openness to the Church adopting a more “open” stance on this issue.  Alison has suggested this is because if homosexuality really is a recurring variant in nature than the Church’s present teaching simply doesn’t address it.  Development of doctrine is akin to laws and sausages in that the process is better kept out of the public eye, and, regretfully, I concur with Ross Douthat that the Church has lost its present battle in the United States over the public policy aspects of this issue.  In doing so she missed her moment to faciliate a healthier public dialogue on human sexuality, and-I’d contend-set back the development that is necessary here.

In any case, setting aside my personal thoughts on human sexuality, Alison stands out in being the only theologian I know of who has applied traditional Catholic methodology (Thomism, natural law) to this question, and-above all-for being driven by a solid commitment to Truth.  Superficial and primarily secular language about “rights” and “equality” is of no value here.  The ultimate question, the only question of any real value, as Alison knows so well, is simply Is it true?  I myself-and probably Radcliffe and Puahlo though I cannot speak for them-are sympathetic to our gay brethren.  At the same time, however, our deepest commitment is to the truth, and as Karl Adam once pointed out the Church reckons in centuries and millenia.  This matter will not be resolved tomorrow.

A final thought.  Some traditionalists seem to be seeking an ideological purity on the part of anyone who speaks for the Church-no hesitation, no sympathy for dissenters, not a toe out of line is to be tolerated.  Aside from the fact that this seems to be revival of the Donatist heresy of old, I think this response fails to account for-well, for lack of a better way to put it, the humanness of human beings.  Anyone who reads Karl Adam’s Spirit of Catholicism will be struck by the great theologian’s unmistakable pastoral sensitivity and his grasp of the complexities of human psychology, which are inseparably entwined with his commitment to Catholic dogma.  Adam wrote

…the living man is very rarely the embodiment of an idea, that the conceptual world and the mentality of the individual are so multifarious and complicated, that he cannot be reduced to a single formula.  In other words the heretic, the Jew and the pagan seldom exist in a pure state.

This same sentiment has been echoed more recently by Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, who remarked in one of his books that all human beings are a mixture of believer and unbeliever.  Note, this is not to say that open and defiant dissenters should be allowed to speak for the Church; it is simply a reminder that human nature prevents many of us from being as “hardcore”, if you will, on matters of ideological purity as many traditionalists would like.  I suspect that there are many of us who humbly seek the Truth in charity, striving to remain loyal to the Church even when it causes us pain.

Such is the Kingdom of Heaven.

NOTES:

  • None of this is to deny that the Catholic Church has a genuine problem with patriarchy, or that some of the concerns raised by the LCWR or Sister Johnson are legitimate.  Many of their criticisms are legitimate, and I do think there is a place at the table for feminist theology, albeit one that is not founded on a complete rebellion against Catholicism.  However, their arguments strike me as too shallow to be of much help.  They do not seem to understand the “Sense of the Faithful” (the laity have a role to play-the Orthodox know this perhaps better than we do-but this does not simply translate into a democratic vote); and their “Hierarchy vs. the People” dichotomy is too simple.  More than a few lay Catholics stand far to the right of the Papacy-as numerous blogs illustrate.
  • In the interest of full disclosure have corresponded in the past-and periodically continue to do so-with both Fr. Timothy Radcliffe and James Alison.  I hold both of them in very high esteem.
  • Aside from Alison’s work, I highly recommend The End of Sexual Identity by Jennell Williams-Paris, which I think is one of very books to take this subject seriously.  On reductionism, I found it interesting that many of my peers at Spiritus Christi would insist that we are “not who are married/attracted to” and we are “not our behavior”-a viewpoint that is rather hard to reconcile with seeing human sexuality as fundamental to one’s identity.  I will add that I do think one’s sexual identity matters, immensely, but the final question of identity for the Christian is centered on Christ.
  • It is also worth noting that our age seems to consider any critique of an idea-no matter how well measured-to be a personal attack.  That this distinction, which matters a great deal to Karl Adam, has been lost is part of the great poverty of our time.  Of course the Christian worldview in general is quite foreign to many today-very little about Christianity can be understood until one’s vision is adjusted.  The Eastern Orthodox seem to understand this better than we do, as Fr. Freeman’s magnificent blog illustrates.

Superb Videos

Three great videos and one good audio talk.  First, one that discusses the overlap between futurism and faith (a long standing interest of mine).  This is a discussion between N.T. Wright and Peter Thiel.  Brought to you courtesy of the Veritas Forum and is hosted by Ross Douthat.  This is a long video-but well worth it.

Second, a short snippet of David Bentley Hart commenting on William Lane Craig.  This is a rather intriguing defense of classical theism against the “theistic personalism” articulated by Craig, Alvin Plantinga and (interestingly) Richard Swinbourne.  I was skimming through Moltmann’s classic The Crucified God just the other day, and musing on whether Moltmann’s thoughts are compatible with classical theism.  I think they are, at least moreso than Craig’s, but that subject could fill a book.  Aside from his thoughts on philosophical theology Moltmann confuses me in other ways-his writing is sometimes unclear, and on politics he seems to vacillate a bit (he presents Jesus as standing against all political systems on one page but seems to revert towards favoring socialism on the next).  In any case, I digress.  Here’s the video:

Third, a multi-part discussion with John Lennox, Keith Ward and Alister McGrath.  Good stuff.  Here is the link.

Finally, Jonathan Rauch-one of my favorite political columnists-delivered an interesting talk in 2008 called Why We Have God.  It is largely a response to a book by Catholic theologian Michael Novak.  Rauch is an atheist, but his talk is extremely well done.

Nature’s God

For a brief time in college I considered myself a deist.  I think it had more to do with my general spiritual rebelliousness at that time then anything else, but I do recall being rather enamored with the elegant idea of “Nature’s God”-a temptation that can be found in some older posts on this blog where I comment on the mathematics of the universe.  Nonetheless, as time has gone by and the volume of my reading materials has increased, I am increasingly convinced that the very concept of Nature’s God is superfluous at best and downright harmful at worst.  I now find the idea of “natural religion” to be generally unworkable (the qualifier is necessary because one can argue that Buddhism and Taoism are forms of natural religion and I would contend that both of these religions do provide workable paths in life-though I’d also add neither includes any variant of “Nature’s God”).

I am not entirely opposed to natural theology-in other words I am not a Barthian in this regard.  I have found John Polkinghorne’s thoughts in this arena quite helpful-natural theology and revelation balance each other out, with the former being a means of keeping theology from barricading itself into an intellectual ghetto.  It is extremely valuable for people like myself who cannot believe in open defiance of the facts (religion is of course more than facts, it is not reducible to facts, but in good Catholic fashion faith and reason can never be implacably opposed).  And as Fr. Barron has written, natural theology and revelation exist on the same ‘axis’, with the latter being best understood as an intensification of the latter.

Yet, there is more to say here than this.  David Bentley Hart, noting that the cosmos is “obviously a closed economy of life and death” asks a very important question:

So, then, what sort of God should a purely “natural” theology invite us to see?

Hart then proposes an interesting answer to this question:

…perhaps a God of the purest sublimity…creator and destroyer at once, as in Arjuna’s vision of Vishnu on the Kuru plain…an image of God as sacrifice, as life and death at once, peace and violence, the creative source and consuming end of all things.  That glorious theophany in the Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the supreme expression of the religious genius of Hinduism, is as perfect and devout a vision of God as the Absolute as any faith has ever produced (not that this is all the Gita has to say about God).

Hart goes on to note that the Christian metaphysical definition is “of a different order”, but he is not the only one to have turned to Hinduism in his quest to identify Nature’s God.  In his Faith of a Physicist Polkinghorne notes that biologists could fear that the God discerned in this field could well be Shiva.  Shiva, one could say, is the “other Lord of the Dance”, a rather fearsome figure who is associated with crematoria.  That hasn’t stopped some prominent Christian theologians from referring to Shiva.  Rowan Williams, for instance, who writes:

If we lose sight of the beauty and terror of dancing Shiva or Job’s God in the whirlwind, we are taming the vision to the scope of what we can cope with, pretending that our language has caught up and that we no longer need paradoxes of confusion and subtlety to speak of it.

Elsewhere, he writes:

The Hindu analogue should not cause us too much anxiety.  To recognize in dancing Shiva an echo of the ‘dancing day’ of the second person of the Trinity is not to attempt some synthesis of Christian and Hindu faith, simply to note how the Shiva image gives forceful expression to much of what the Christian wants to say about the eternal Word’s involvement in the world.  The dance of Shiva is above all an image speaking of trust and of peace in the midst of what seems a profoundly menacing and hurtful world.  Shiva, notoriously, is the god who combines sharp contradictions in his person…the whirlpool of reality has a still centre, the terrible God of instability and ceaseless motion points us to stillness and greets us in peace.

As valuable as Williams’s reflections are, I still find myself returning to Hart’s comments that Christian metaphysics are of a different order than the Hindu, and the problems posed by a purely natural theology.  What, precisely, do we learn about God from nature?  On at least one level Richard Dawkins can answer that question:

…nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent.  This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn.  We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, nor cruel nor kind, but simply callous-indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.

Dawkins, who has long critiqued the idea that humans have  “purpose on the brain” (he doesn’t mean that in a good way) has indeed drawn a conclusion from these observations of nature:

…the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

There are two points to be made in response here.  First, Dawkins isn’t entirely wrong in his observations but he draws the wrong conclusions from them. Hart helps us here.  Commenting on how modern science no longer concerns itself with 2 of the 4 causes recognized by Aristotle he says of Dawkins’s conclusion that “the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design” that it is

in keeping with his frequently reiterated assertion that what we find when we look at the evidence of biological evolution is precisely what we should expect to find if we assume that the entire process is governed by nothing but random chance.  But, in fact, while the latter claim is true, the former is only a false inference drawn from it.  It is, after all, one’s prior expectations that are always at issue.  For what one sees when one looks at the evidence of evolution is also what one might expect to find if one assumes that the entire process is the consequence of a transcendent intelligence drawing all things from nothingness and endowing them with form according to an internally coherent sequence of causes and a collection of magnificently intricate mathematical laws.

You see, the issue here is not with scientific data but over the philosophical interpretation of the data.  As James Arraj notes:

…scientific discourse sometimes becomes encrusted with the philosophical and religious inclinations of the scientists.

Ed Feser puts the matter more bluntly:

…the elimination of purpose and meaning from the modern conception of the material universe was not and is not a “result” or “discovery” of modern science, but rather a philosophical interpretation of the results of modern science which owes more to earlier secularist philosophers like Hobbes and Hume…than it does to the great scientists of the last few centuries.

Hart dryly notes that folks like Daniel Dennett belong to “that parasitic subcategory of analytic philosophy that serves simply as a sort of adjunct to the hard sciences”-one may not care for his polemical attitude but his observation that much philosophy today is a sort of adjunct to the hard sciences (he dryly suggests that this is “no longer really philosophy”) is hard to argue with.  In any case, none of this is to argue that science can prove God’s existence, it is rather to argue that science cannot disprove God’s existence, for the real debate here is in the realm of philosophy and not science itself.  [For more, I highly recommend Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins' Case Against God by Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker; as well as the aptly titled Why Science Does Not Disprove God by Amir Aczel]

That’s the first response.  The second response is more pithy: There is nothing “new” about the New Atheism in this regard (incidentally I think the whole ‘new’ meme is already old-we’ve put the word “new” or the prefix ‘neo’ in front of practically everything these days and its rather tiring).  The question of whether the universe is meaningful or meaningless is perennial and one can find the latter position abundantly depicted in the thought of ancient Greece, as has been noted by Hahn, N.T. Wright, Jonathan Sacks and Timothy Keller in their recent books.  Modern science has not suddenly thrust on us these problems-it was Stephen Jay Gould who noted that we are asking the same questions that the Psalmist (“What is man that thou art mindful of him?”) and Job (why bad things happen to good people) many, many moons ago.  One can find precursors of Dawkins and Hitchens in Epicureanism, which as Wright notes is more or less the same as modern deism.  Polkinghorne once noted that we all need metaphysics, and it is perhaps no surprise at all that the same metaphysical attitudes repeatedly reappear.  After all, as Ecclesiastes puts it, there is nothing new under the sun.

And this brings me to my point.  The fact that a simple objective review of reality suggests a great expanse of meaningless is not remotely new.  One finds it in, of all places, the Bible itself.  In his magnificent Three Philosophies of Life Peter Kreeft engages the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, and in particular what he calls conventional religion.  Kreeft summarizes it:

God, like the universe does not seem to give a damn…observation of nature shows no divine preference for the good guys…such a religion is as dull as the world.  It is superfluous…for Solomon’s epistemology is purely naturalistic and nature is only God’s back.  But Scripture is God’s mouth, and Jesus is God’s face.

The key word here is “superfluous”.  Nature’s God is indifferent to human affairs, redundant to anything that we can learn from the great observations of science.  This is not “religion” in any meaningful sense of the idea, it is nothing more than a superfluous idea about the order of reality.  And how could it be anything else?  One cannot build any kind of meaningful life based on observations of nature unless one is exceedingly selective.  Nietzsche critiqued Stoicism along these lines:

“According to nature” you want to live?  O you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are!  Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purpose and consideration, without mercy and justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power-how could you live according to this indifference.

How ironic.  In the shadowland where all we have is Nature’s God, Dawkins is quite right that we are left with nothing but indifference.  The archbishop of atheism may be wrong that science has disproved the Creator, but he and the communion of atheists, past and present, are quite right about how the name of the game in the end is indifference.  Qoholeth’s observations of the world in Ecclesiastes is the best that natural theology can do.  Nature’s God has, to put it bluntly, nothing to offer us.  We are ultimately left in the same place as atheism.

Things look rather different, of course, through Christian eyes.  The Pope Emeritus, as just one example, can speak of the apparent wastefulness Nietzsche mentioned as being of theological significance (see Introduction to Christianity) and the lens of faith can even see purpose in evolution (though the fact that we and in some sense the universe are fallen cannot be ignored).  Of course, reason is not entirely useless here-Catholic philosophy can give us a foundation for reflecting on, and seeing our existence and consciousness as pointers toward the Good, the True and the Beautiful.  But even this gets us no further than a sort of Platonism, which, as the Pope Emeritus observed, amounts to little more than idea.  Karl Adam, perhaps a bit more optimistic than Peter Kreeft, says

But natural reason only leads me so far, only to God as the principle and meaning of all things.  It leads me to a natural worship of the Most High, but it does not lead me to a supernatural commerce of life and love with this God, nor can it tell me about whether such a living intercourse is possible.  It is true that creation gives testimony to God’s omnipotence, wisdom and goodness; but it does so only so far as these attributes are mirrored in natural things.  It does not give us testimony to the fullness of His creative love, it does not let us see into the heart of God.  Is God only the Creator and Supporter of my being?  Or is He more than that, and would He be more than that?

Sean Carroll, the atheist, once dismissed all such talk as crazy talk.  And it is-if we are discussing Nature’s God.  The question remains, however-can God be more to us than an abstraction?  If we limit ourselves to natural theology, no.  But if we are prepared to accept that perhaps God can intervene in the real world, in our souls, in our own lives, in history-in short, if we accept the idea of revelation-than the very nature of the game has changed.  Kreeft alluded to how Jesus is the face of God.  This is a theme that has occurred repeatedly in the writings of the Pope Emeritus, and the idea of God hiding his face has been noted in Judaism as well (see, for instance, Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Hidden Face of God which is a very thought-provoking reflection on the same topic, though obviously lacking the resolution given by the Pope Emeritus and Kreeft).

If we are to know Nature’s God, so that Nature’s God will in fact become our God, no longer an idea but the Living God Himself (in Pascal’s idiom the God of the Philosophers must become the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob).  It is a shame, a real shame, that in this day and age we have become squeamish about the idea of revelation.  It is quite discouraging that so many people today do not have the honesty of Qoheleth-esque honesty of Dawkins to face what serious observations of the world reveal (indifference) but instead to bury ourselves in sentimental auto-eroticism.  In the immortal words of Flannery O’Connor:

One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into…therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so and that religion is our own sweet invention.

If we do in fact surrender to the idea of an impotent God who cannot reveal Himself to us, we are left with a spirituality that truly is nothing more than an opiate of the people and might as well as be ditched.  For if we all we have is Nature’s God than we are left with no more than our delusions, whether they be of sentimental divinity, our own grandeur or a Stoic indifference that simply refuses to think too deeply about the world.  We are left alone, and whether it is with the Alone or not, makes little difference.

POSTSCRIPT THOUGHTS:

  • I do not wish to be too harsh towards the “cosmic religiosity” that is popular these days-Dawkins himself has expressed sympathy with it, as did Albert Einstein (who believed in Spinoza’s God) and I myself (who does not!) am tempted to it.  Nonetheless, I find it ultimately unsatisfactory.  CS Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, noted that feelings of the numinous themselves are highly ambiguous; and in Mere Christianity he noted that theology functions as a map to put personal experiences in context.  While not directly on point, they are helpful in outlining why a quite understandable sense of cosmic awe is in and of itself limited and ambiguous.
  • It is by no means accidental that Christianity speaks of bringing all knowledge before Christ (Fleming Rutledge) or enabling people to understand that truths of whatever source “ultimately toward the one truth” (George Weigel).  What is gleaned through science is not to be feared, but again to paraphrase Lewis, this is to say that by the Risen Sun we see everything else in a new Light.  Absent this, we are left in the shadowlands of indifference.

Some Musings on Traditionalism

Every now and then I wander into the conservative Catholic blogosphere, where I am reminded quickly that however much I may see or feel to be a traditionalist Catholic I can still end up looking like a member of Call-to-Action compared to some of the other folks on the Internets.  It can be, to say the least, a bit disconcerting.  Recently, for instance, I’ve come across a few sites (here, here, and here) where I found myself spending far more time than I usually do reading the thoughts and insights of my more conservative Catholic brethren.  Part of the reason is I feel a bit hypocritical in constantly harping on about how religion is about truth and not feelings, while at the same time being overly dismissive of my traditionalist brethren.  And, the other reason is-well, candidly having taken the time to actually really read some of these blogs I find them genuinely fascinating.

This doesn’t mean that I’m moving in that direction myself-I’m far too ecumenical far that.  (Speaking of which I just finished to listening to a series called Questioning Christianity conducted by Tim Keller that I found extremely well done and worth the time).  What I am really trying hard to do is to not hate on traditionalists.  After all, even Fr. Greeley shared some of their frustrations, and as I mentioned above it is hard to beat their genuineness in seeing Catholicism as something objective to which the individual must yield.  Moreover there is a certain vitality (virility even) among more conservative Catholics that is missing amongst their more progressive brethren.  All of this strongly suggests that such perspectives deserve, at a minimum, a fair hearing.  My commitment these days is to try and give them that.

There is another, more theological reason, as well.  I’ve been fascinated with the idea in Eastern Orthodoxy that the laity are called to act as guardians of the faith, and are seeing as having their own role to play in holding their pastors and hierarchy accountable.  In the words of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware “The proclamation of the truth is not the same as the stewardship of the truth: all the people are stewards of the truth, but it is the bishop’s particular office to proclaim it.”  As I understand it, this idea is not far from some of the ideas articulated by John Henry Newman.  And interestingly, a centralized hierarchy does not necessarily guarantee true unity.  More than a few Orthodox have observed that the East possesses a greater unity than does the West, even though the latter as the Papacy.  [1]  Having noted this, I feel compelled to take seriously those lay Catholics who it as their mission to act as stewards of the truth-it seems to me they are right.

Several posts on these blogs piqued my interest.  Among them:

  • The historicity of certain Scripture passages, in particular the difficult ones.  I remain unpersuaded by this, at least insofar as I do not take much of the Old Testament to be literal history (that many of the Fathers presumably did I do not take as dispositive of the matter, this does not answer the question as to whether the events really happened).  Similarly I remain unconvinced that belief in Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch is essential to the Catholic faith (I find the scholarship on the documentary hypothesis too persuasive to ignore).  Nonetheless, I do grant that these arguments are well presented, and they certainly beat the rather odd recent phenomena of “Catholic fundamentalism” (who knew).  [2]
  • The issue summarized in the title of Ralph Martin’s recent book Will Many Be Saved? Here a substantial portion of the discussion centered on the theological method of Hans Urs Von Balthasar.  Von Balthasar is a fascinating figure-he is a favorite of Fr. Barron’s, and the Pope Emeritus commented at his funeral “What the pope intended to express by this mark of distinction [i.e., elevation to the cardinalate], and of honor, remains valid, no longer only private individuals but the Church itself, in its official responsibility, tells us that he is right in what he teaches of the faith.”  Nonetheless, there seems to be some validity to the debate over Von Baltasar’s use of Patristic sources.  This isn’t a new criticism, and it may reflect nothing more than the fact that while the great theologians of the Vatican II era had the right intentions of returning to Patristic sources they lacked the understanding to do it (I’m thinking in particular of Vladimir Lossky’s sharp critique of Yves Congar-though ironically Lossky had his own critics, and John Anthony McGuckin has suggested that Lossky’s vision isn’t exactly derived from a straightforward reading of the Fathers).  In reality, that debate is above my paygrade, and I can’t help but think it eventually becomes tiringly circular (I’ve noted before the debate over the use of Patristic sources in the evolution debate).
  • More to the point, on the issue of universal salvation neither Fr. Barron for Von Balthasar himself (that I can see) actually articulated universalism as such (it is hard to tell whether anyone, even in Origen, in church history really did).  I skimmed Walter Kasper’s book Mercy while in Barnes & Noble the other day, and Kasper’s analysis of this issue was very pointed.  There are problems with any straightforward claims to universal salvation, and Kasper observes that too often a sort of implicit universalism is assumed and taken for granted today, which has deleterious effects on the faith (this is coming from a “liberal”).  As Olivier Clement once noted, the language of Hell should never become something we talk blithely about with others, but is best reserved to the language of “I and Thou”.  The proper response is to entrust souls to God, and to pray-as we say in the Fatima prayer-that the Lord will lead “all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.”  [3]
  • Finally, I came across a delightful forum on Catholic Answers discussing the “Biggest Myths About Traditional Catholics“-it is long but worth the read.  There are some very interesting thoughts here about how progressive Catholicism sometimes has its own peculiar sense of Catholic Antiquarianism.  This is normally associated with traditional Catholicism (George Weigel contrasts it with the liberal propensity for Catholic Presentis.  Nonetheless progressivism has its own antiquarian streak, generally expressed in the desire to return to the simplistic teachings of Jesus (what Karl Rahner dubbed ‘Jesuism‘).  This was a point that Karl Adam took on head-on in his classic The Spirit of Catholicism.  Adam quotes Cardinal Newman here: “Let others ever be hunting for a fabulous primitive simplicity, we repose in Catholic fullness.”  The forum’s discussion about the aggressive efforts to simplify the liturgy being a misguided antiquarianism strike me as rather compelling (as another poster noted, however, the Catholic Church does not have a liturgy but rather several-the Eastern Rites and the Anglican use-the latter a personal favorite-being as valid as the Novus Ordo and the Extraordinary Form).  The forum also includes some intriguing comments on the legitimacy of RCIA and papal authority, which are worth the time to read.  [4]

As a way of summarizing this, I recently read a powerful article of a conversion story that while quite different from my own still resonated with me.  I was driven to Catholicism in search of Truth, and like many before me I have found it here.  Even now I still see Truth as something very wide, and as a matter to be approached with humility and charity rather than overconfidence.  As Karl Adam explained the Church welcomes those who do not “with obstinate self-assurance shut out all better knowledge, but seek the truth simply and loyally.”  After all, “no seed of truth is vainly sowed in the field of the Church.  The spirit of truth will bring every seed to maturity, when its time has come.  And therefore, the faithful Catholic scholar can never lose faith in his Church, since his confidence in the complete triumph of truth in the Church is unlimited and unshakeable.”  I must admit that I draw great comfort from these words (as perhaps Congar did before me) and I strive to maintain this spirit.

In the end, then, despite my disagreements and frustrations with traditionalists, they are my brethren and I thank God for them.  I share the frustrations of Rod Dreher, who left Catholicism in part because the ethos of the American Church has turned to sentimentality and self-satisfaction, treating amazing grace as a common courtesy and providing psychological comforts of religion without sacrifice.  I see these criticisms lived out far too often-not only the schismatic church I abandoned but in my own parish.  This too makes me appreciate the valuable role traditionalists play in the Church.

In the end, I have nowhere else to go, but to the Church that has the words of eternal life.  Where better to be, but in the barque of St. Peter?

NOTES:

  1. For instance, David Bentley Hart writes “After all, under the capacious canopy of the papal office, so many disparate things find common shelter…to Orthodox Christians it often appears as if, from the Catholic side, so long as the Pope’s supremacy is acknowledged, all else is irrelevant ornament.  Which yields the sad irony that the more the Catholic Church strives to accommodate Orthodox concerns, the more disposed many Orthodox are to see in this merely the advance embassy of an omnivorous ecclesial empire.”  This is of course an over-simplification, but it contains within itself a valid warning about not oversimplifying the dialogue between East and West.
  2. It is not my place to assess the hearts and souls of Catholic fundamentalists, but it does seem to me their position goes strongly against the grain of Catholicism.  The Pope Emeritus, of all people, has strongly repudiated fundamentalism (see for instance his thoughts on the Septuagint and his commentThe Catholic Tradition, from the outset, rejected the so-called “fideism”, which is the desire to believe against reason. Credo quia absurdum (I believe because it is absurd) is not a formula that interprets the Catholic faith.” (I grant that fideism and fundamentalism are not necessarily interchangeable but the latter has a remarkable way of bringing the former along with it-see Ralph Reed’s recent appearance on Bill Maher).
  3. Who says traditional language can’t be immensely fruitful?
  4. The question of papal authority seems an almost daily issue now with Pope Francis’s frequent comments on economics generating sharp responses from folks like Tom Woods and Andrew Napolitano.  A simple-but rather helpful-response to these responses can be found here.  In terms of antiquarianism, I am still a bit puzzled by the rabid insistence in some quarters that the Church never changes and the fear this brings with it.  I must admit this is something I am still working through myself.

More on “Neuro-theology”

Came across a few interesting articles on a friend’s Facebook today, all of which are hosted by the website The Mind Unleashed:

All of these articles are what one could call “New Age”, and frankly I’m somewhat skeptical that they have a particularly strong scientific pedigree.  I had just read another article 10 Scientific Ideas that scientists wished we would stop using, and shockingly quantum theory was on the list (this was a point that had long irritated Jim Arraj).  Nonetheless, that meditation has a positive benefit for the brain can scarcely be argued with (even Sam Harris has conceded that, and there reports now about the benefits of so-called mindfulness meditation) and the importance of neuroplasticity for virtue ethics (e.g. hardwiring good habits into the brain) has been noted by many contemporary theologians, among them N.T. Wright and James Alison.  There is much truth here to be appropriated.  The real question, though, is how to do so in a manner that is authentically Christian and not a surrender to the New Age?

The blog Orthodox Way of Life has frequently made references to this (search ‘meditation’ and ‘brain’), and one post in particular really captured my interest because it points us in the right direction to move forward.  Therefore, I shamelessly quote:

What is involved in the practice of meditation and how does is differ from what the Church Fathers teach us?  The article answers the question about what to meditators do in the following way: It [meditation] is hard work, because you have to make a constant mental effort. It challenges the brain by demanding greater attention which is especially helpful for maintaining cognitive health as one ages.  It is a discipline that improves your ability to focus and concentrate.  It’s a way of exercising your cognitive muscles.  

There are many forms of meditation but they all are centered on an exercise which demands a focus of attention.  For some it on a mantra, for others a focus on the breath.  Others have you focus on a spiritual saying.  They ask you to engage in this meditation for 30minutes each day to gain the beneficial results.  They also ask you to have a special place, to sit in a special way, to use incense, light a candle and to use differing forms of visualization to gain  a relaxed orientation.  They often avoid the mention of God, but when they do they put it like Sri Chimmoy: Self-realisation is God-realisation, for God is nothing other than the Divinity that is deep inside each one of us, waiting to be discovered and revealed. We may also refer to God as the Inner Pilot or the Supreme. But no matter which term we use, we mean the Highest within us, that which is the ultimate goal of our spiritual quest.” 

This is quite a different view of God than we know as Christians where God is the Creator of All. A God who came down from heaven taking on human flesh, who taught, was crucified, and then arose from the dead only to send to us the Holy Spirit and establishing the sacramental life of the Church.  This Spirit we receive when we are baptized and it transforms us so we have within our heart the capacity to join in union with God, to continually receive His grace for living His teachings, the virtues, and eternal life in His kingdom.  As Christians we seek not “self-realization” or “God-realization” of a God buried within our on being, but we seek the Holy Spirit of a transcendent God who is through the Spirit active within us, enabling us to join with God’s will and carry out His work.  We surrender our own will to join with His through ascetic practices and participation in the sacramental life of the Church.  This surrender is called humility which is essential for us to receive the grace of God which transforms and saves us.

As we used to say in the 90s…boom, there it is.

Collection of Random Thoughts

Another post of random theological musings (appropriate for post #200-whoot!!).  Here they are:

MYTH BECOME FACT:

It has long been a frustration of mine that Biblical interpretation is often presented as an either/or choice between a strictly literalistic approach or a stricty metaphorical approach.  To this I offer the following 3 rebuttals that emphasize the importance of nuance.  First, David Bentley Hart:

…the problem with Tillich’s approach is that it does not actually clarify but merely reduces.  This starkly stated alternative between thoroughgoing demythologization and thoroughgoing literalization looks altogether too much like simple critical indolence; one must at least feel for the difference between as openly fabulous – placed in illo tempore – as the narrative of Eden and a story as concrete as Christ’s resurrection, which makes a disorienting (and scandalous) claim to historical actuality; with repercussions that can be described in terms and places.  Tillich’s method lacks the interpretive acuity that permits this absolutely necessary distinction.

Next, Fleming Rutledge:

And so we need to see Adam and Eve not so much as historical individuals, but rather as primal representatives of humanity.  The story of what happened to them is not a past fact having occurred at an identifiable moment in time (unlike the story of Jesus, who “suffered under Pontius Pilate”).  Rather, the narrative is speaking of a primeval happening beyond the realm of our experience.  The story is not told as propositional truth, not as doctrine, but as a story-as, in fact, all the Bible is a story, not a series of propositions.

(Incidentally, Rev. Rutledge’s position seems to but up against Catholic teaching, and as I understand it Catholicism does assert that in some sense Adam and Eve were historical individuals.  But a careful reflection on # 390 of the Catechism suggests to me that she is not in fundamental disagreement with the Church on this point).

Finally, of course, I quote C.S. Lewis:

The earliest stratum of the Old Testament contains many truths in a form which I take to be legendary, or even mythical—hanging in the clouds, but gradually the truth condenses, becomes more and more historical. From things like Noah’s Ark or the sun standing still upon Ajalon, you come down to the court memoirs of King David. Finally you reach the New Testament and history reigns supreme, and the Truth is incarnate. And “incarnate” here is more than a metaphor. It is not an accidental resemblance that what, from the point of view of being, is stated in the form “God became Man,” should involve, from the point of view of human knowledge, the statement “Myth became Fact.”

Nuances, yo, nuances!

SPIRITUALIZING THE WORLD:

In Introduction to Christianity the Pope Emeritus spoke of what he called an “earthly existence of corporeal spirituality and spiritualized corporeality.”  What does this mean, exactly?  Well, I have a few thoughts.  First, from Orthodox Way of Life:

So in the broadest sense the soul is the inbreathing of God into our being to give us life. The soul is how the material world is connected to God. Body and soul were created at the same time creating a unity of body and soul. There are two principles that come together, spirit and earth. The soul makes the material element become conscious and capable of willful actions. With a soul in the body, spirit can meet the world…we are created in this way to bring the created material world into union with the eternal principles of the world God created. This involves a dialogue and a collaboration with God.  Our soul provides these capabilities. By this means God makes the world spiritual and does so though mankind. Through the soul, humankind brings about the spiritualization of the entire world.

Lazar Puhalo amplifies this a bit:

Orthodoxy is sharply different from all religions based on mysticism; first because God has become incarnate and revealed Himself to us; second, because the incarnation of God and the possession of Christ by both natures (divine and human) has made possible what was previously impossible: it has reconciled the material with the immaterial in a certain way and shown us that physical, material things can be grace-bearing.

There is, of course, much to be said for Eastern Orthodoxy’s approach to Christianity-as a spiritual path that could be described equally accurate as existentialist, ontological or therapeutic.  Yet, Orthodoxy itself is echoing something that Judaism knew long ago.  The human vocation in the Jewish worldview was articulated by Schmuley Bouteach as the mission to

cause God to dwell here on earth…[to] sanctify the world and make it fit for God’s presence…so that the Almighty is manifest in every atom of his creation.

That Christianity is rediscovering this powerful sense of the human vocation is cause for great rejoicing.

[On another note, this sense of the human vocation also explains why as Luke Timothy Johnson explains, we cannot not divorce the exoteric from the esoteric, pace the Perennialists]

CREATED VS. UNCREATED SPIRIT:

This is a rather interesting topic to me.  On the hand, Judaism (particularly though not exclusively in Kabbalah) considers God to be neither matter, nor spirit but in fact the Creator of both and thus beyond both (see here and here for examples).  On the other hand, consider Lazar Puahlo’s thoughts on the human soul:

This is not to say that the human soul is pure spirit as God is pure spirit.  The soul is created by God and thus part of the material world…the soul is not a spirit in the same manner that God is a spirit, for God is completely other than what man is.

In point of fact, these two positions are saying the same thing, which is of course echoed in the Nicene Creed, namely that God is the maker of heaven AND earth, all things visible AND invisible.  Having said that, there are a few more interesting points on this matter.  First, Fr. Michael Butler says of this most important distinction:

We understand that there is a clear distinction between the uncreated God and the created world and everything that is created, be they angels, humans, dust motes or cosmic clouds. All things that are created are contingent created beings, fundamentally unlike our uncreated God. Failure to recognize that the world is a creature of God, a failure to recognize the transcendence of God over the created world is what allows people to deify nature itself.

From a Protestant perspective Thomas Oden says:

In scripture, “everything which is not a solid body is in a general way called spirit.”  Both angelic and demonic powers are referred to in this sense as spirit.  The human person constantly participates in the unseen world of spirit.  God the Holy Spirit differs from all these created forms of spirit, being God “who beholds the beginning of the world, and knows the end.”

Note the overlap between Oden’s comments and the references above to the human soul being a means of spiritualizing the world.  And, finally, in regards to Puhalo’s comments about the spirit being part of the material world, I think Father Barron can help us here, when he speaks of Heaven and spiritual beings as a

higher level of existence, one that is not less real but more real, more complete, than ours…they exist more fully, more intensely, and more completely than we do.

Heaven is a symbol for a higher dimensional system that contains the dimensions with which we are familiar but also elevates them and situates them in a richer context.  Mary, who exists now in this other world, is not so much somewhere else but somehow else.

Fr. Barron’s reference to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary is echoed beautifully by Stephen Lovatt, who says of the Assumption

The Mother of God is “divine” in that She has “come to share in the Divine Nature” as Saint Peter tells us is the destiny of all God’s friends.  This is why she stands on the Left side of the Royal Doors of the Iconostasis, mirroring the position of Her Son on the right. The Eternal Son became human so that we (and in particular, His human mother) might become divine. The icon of Our Lord might be replaced, as a symbol, by an arrow pointing down from Heaven to Earth and that of Our Lady by an arrow pointing up, from Earth to Heaven.

Lastly, Vladimir Lossky, the great Russian Orthodox theologian, made the case in his book Orthodox Theology: An Introduction that it is incorrect to speak of angels as being “incorporeal.”  Though the terminologies differ here, I think all of these folks are acknowledging the same thing: The and the incorporeal/differently corporeal worlds are more alike than either is similar to God.

[Incidentally, Lossky also made an intriguing comparison in that book between angels and mathematics-a point also made by James Arraj and by the Kabbalist writer Rabbi David Cooper-a bit intriguing to think that the mathematical world may be the "side" of the angels that we can know by reason?]

HEBRAIC VS. HELLENISTIC THEOLOGY

Finally, I’ve been noting the parallels between Judaism and Christian thought on some of these topics, and this calls to mind the question of the relationship between a Hebraic approach to theology (the more biblical approach of, say, NT Wright) and the more “Hellenestic” approach that Catholicism has long been beaten up for.  To that, I offer the following rejoinders:

First, from Cardinal Ratzinger (God is Near Us, a wonderful book on the Eucharist):

Those attempts to tell us that we should “get back” to a simple profane meal, to multipurpose areas and so on, are only in appearance a return to the origins. In reality, they are a step back behind the turning point of the Cross and the Resurrection, that is, behind the essentials that are the basis for Christianity in all its novelty. This is not restoring the original state, but abandoning the mystery of Easter and, thereby, the very center of the mystery of Christ.

I believe the Pope Emeritus went on to state that those who seek a return to the pure Hebraic misunderstand the very nature of Christianity, but alas I do not have book handy at the moment.

Next, I quote Lossky’s Orthodox Theology: An Introduction  again, where he speaks of

…a somewhat “structured” biblicism which wishes to oppose the Hebrew tradition to Greek philosophy to “Greek philosophy” and attempts to remake theology in purely Semitic categories.  But theology must be of universal expression.  It is not by accident that God has placed the Fathers of the Church in a Greek setting; the demands for lucidity in philosophy and profundity in gnosis have forced them to purify and to sanctify the language of the philosophers and of the mystics, to give to the message message, which includes but goes beyond Israel, all its universal reach.”) – Christianity a scandal to both Jews and Greeks but “accomplishes the best of Israel and the best of other religions or metaphysics, not as a cultural synthesis but in Christ and through Christ.

And lastly, another quote from David Bentley Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite:

Too often modern theologians erect a disastrous partition between “biblical” faith and theology’s chronic “Hellenism,” as if the Bible were never speculative or as if Hellenized Judaism did not provide the New Testament with much of its idiom; Hellenism is part of the scriptural texture of revelation, and theology without its particular metaphysics is impossible.

Incidentally, Catholic theologian Matthew Levering has written a book, Jesus and the Demise of Death, which integrates NT Wright’s immensely valuable thoughts into a Catholic context.  Levering’s books, in general, are very helpful in this arena.