A Party I was Late to…

If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know. – CS Lewis (The Weight of Glory)

Had someone told me as recently as a year and a half ago that I would identify myself as a traditionalist Catholic I would have told them they were nuts.  Today, however, it sometimes feels that I am sounding and thinking more like a traditionalist Catholic with each passing day.  As time passes the process seems to become more organic and more natural.  I still have trouble with certain Church teachings (I’d be lying if I didn’t), and in some respects I still think a liberal, but I am finding my cognitive dissonance dimishing the more that I come to understand the Catholic worldview.  I am beginning to understand Father Barron’s response to Father James Martin on the “hot button” issues.  In a nutshell, Father Barron states:

  • Look at fundamental questions and convictions before hot button issues;
  • Become drawn in to in the life of the Church;
  • Only through these disciplines can you get at the hot button issues.

I still  have a lot to do so far as entering into the life of the Church goes, but generally speaking I can absolutely attest that Father Barron is right, there is a process to understanding the worldview of Catholicism.  A lynchpin of that process is the fundamental question of whether Catholicism/Christianity/religion is presenting us with something Objective, or is merely a subjective vehicle.  Who, Rev. Rutledge asks ad nauseum, is the subject of the verb: Ourselves?  Or God?  In his book Crunchy Cons Rod Dreher explains the contrast best:

…religion doesn’t state an opinion about how the world is…it is an accurate guide to factual reality.

No religion that gives you the freedom to make up your own mind about things, particularly matters as powerful as sex, is going to have the power to bind, and to command loyalty.

I don’t think it is possible to be authentically religious without being in some fashion an orthodox traditionalist…the orthodox side believes in transcendent, revealed truth to which believers must submit, while the progressives believe that religious and moral truth tends to be relative to personal experience and that…it is permissible to “resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life.”

In short, if one’s religion is to mean anything, if it is to last, it has to stand outside of time and place.  Its truths have to be transcendent.  And thought we moderns have to find a way to make the tradition livable in our own situations, we must never forget that we don’t judge the religion; the religion judges us.  To be a blunt, a god that is no bigger than our desires is not God at all, but a divinized rationalization for self-worship.

In discussing the question of women’s ordination, Peter Kreeft provocatively suggests that the fact that the Church offends some 20th (now 21st) Century norms is proof of its legitimacy; for the Gospel should be expected to offend someone in every age.  In his book Catholic Christianity Kreeft writes

We should not expect the Church’s teachings to coincide with the “wisdom of the world” (1 Cor 1:20) in any age or culture, for her teachings do not come from this but from heaven, not from man but from God.

I realize this makes me sound like a fire-breathing fundamentalist, and it shocks me that I can write such words in an affirmative manner.  Even so, there is a certain degree of logic to it I can’t get away from: Reality is recalcitrant to our prejudices and biases, and has an irritating way of offending everyone, goring everyone’s oxen, in some manner at some point.  Moreover, the basic cornerstone of orthodox Christianity is the notion that God spoke, revealed himself.  Yes, this still leaves the subjective dimension of acceptance and decipering the revelation (more on that anon) but if religion is something real it can’t amount to an endless game of triangulation between different ideologies to find something that appeals to everyone.

I am to some degree a reluctant traditionalist, like most people I’d rather define reality on my own terms and as a product of my own generation I’m not wild about the Church’s sexual ethic.  That being said, I’m having a harder and harder time critiquing the logic behind the Church’s teachings-the more I understand it I’m finding Catholic morality to be the finest system of ethics ever articulated.  And I’m also understanding the wisdom that the Christian vision of ascestic self-restraint is actually a very liberating approach to life, that brings with it numerous practical benefits in many areas (good for the environment, more holistic/organic lifestyle, etc), along with a sense of inner peace.  This is quite true in the area of sex.  It doesn’t make the teachings easier, but it does cast them in a new light.

I still balk at accepting the label “conservative”…I’ll take the traditionalist label gladly but I resent being boxed into a right-wing caricature.  I still don’t believe one needs to be on the frontlines of the right-wing in the culture war to be a good Catholic, and I have no problem arguing that the sociopolitical vision of the Church should not labeled “liberal” or “conservative” but “simply Catholic.”  From the other angle, to be pro-life (for instance) does not make one an “archconservative Catholic”, they are simply “Catholic.”  This is not a matter of rigid ideology (which Pope Francis has properly castigated) but of the proper deference to that which simply is, an effort to live in accordance with reality even when it offends us.  CS Lewis’s quote above is the perfect summary of the proper mentality.

Nor do I understand Catholicism to be a matter of rote compliance with dead traditions.  Tradition is a living thing in both Catholic and Orthodox theology, and great figures from Karl Adam to John Henry Newman have emphasized the organic nature of the evolving Church.  Nonetheless, the plant has roots, the oak tree its acorn, and in the “democracy of the dead” the Church is not at liberty to create the Church de novo (or ex nihilo if you prefer).  We are binding ourselves to something much bigger and older than ourselves; to something that-as Dreher put it-stands outside of any particular epoch.  This understanding, by the way, can have “liberal” as well as “conservative” implications-the Church is not bound to a Medieval mindest for instance, and on matters such as modesty (which has set the Internet a-Twitter these days) the Catechism itself notes the faith is more flexible than we give it credit for.  All Catholics must be traditionalists.  But we need not be right-wing reactionaries.

Two recent discussions I’ve had with friends got me thinking on this subject.  In December I had dinner with a friend who had been raised Catholic but no longer practiced (a member of what Jack Spong calls the “Church Alumni Association”).  She remarked to me that she respected her upbringing and missed parts of the Church, but at the same time she disagreed with key teachings (she didn’t name them but I could easily guess).  There is something to be said for that attitude I think, and in the name of intellectual honesty I must admit that I myself still dislike certain teachings.  The question, of course, is what one does when they find themselves in such a situation.  Leave?  Stay and “work for change”?  Pretend there is no problem?  Or is it possible there is another option?

The other discussion was with another good friend of mine who presently attends the Episcopal Church.  This friend is a highly intelligent individual but also one who seems unable to get beyond stereotypes and clichés in criticizing Catholicism (he’s one of those who thinks whipping out the name of Galileo is enough to clinch any discussion).  We’ve known each other for years, and ironically in college we argued politics all the time, he from the right and I from the left.  Years later, the roles have been reversed, or so he claims.  As I explained to him, however, the gap is not that he is a liberal and I a conservative, but rather that I am a traditionalist and he is a modernist.  When he asked for clarification I told him he had made social liberalism the standard by which he measured Christianity,  which-somewhat surprisingly-he bristled at.  We went on to discus ecclesiology (we didn’t use the term), during which time my friend critiqued various teachings of the Church and asked where exactly we would find them in the words of Jesus.

My friend was raised Wesleyan and still thinks like a Protestant, insofar as he believes if something can’t be found in the black-and-white (or should I say red) letters of Jesus then it is ipso facto problematic.  The problem with this line of reasoning is…well, that it is Protestant reasoning.  If I had to pick a particular theological topic for attention in evangelization and catechesis it would easily be ecclesiology.  If one does not understand the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church one does not understand Catholic Christianity.  As Karl Adam explained in The Spirit of Catholicism pure egalitarianism and “primitive Christianity” are not hallmarks of the Church.  That so many progressives fail to grasp this basic fact is indicative that some educatin’ is necessary before questions about “change” in the Church are even brought up.

Incidentally, of course, we do contend that there is “Biblical Evidence for Catholicism“, and we do see in the “red letter” words the investiture of authority in the Body of Christ-the Spirit guiding into complete Truth, binding on earth as in heaven, etc.  As noted before the Church does, in a real sense, evolve (Fr. Barron, explicating the thought of John Henry Newman, notes that against modern subjectivism Catholic Christianity is a communal and inter-subjective affair, a play of lively minds and not a private affair).  And of course the Church is compromised of sinful human beings who do dreadful things.  All human beings are sinners, God has no other material with which to work.  The temptation to Donatism is alive and well today, and embraced in different ways by both the right and the left.  To seek such “purity”, however, is foolishness.  As Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:

I must admit that to me this unholy holiness of the Church has in itself something infinitely comforting about it.  Would not one bound to despair in face of a holiness that was spotless and could only operate on us by judging us and consuming us by fire?…it is part of being a Christian to accept the impossibility of autonomy and the weakness of one’s own resources.  At bottom there is always hidden pride at work when criticism of the Church adopts that tone of rancorous bitterness which today is already beginning to become a fashionable habit.  Unfortunately it is accompanied only too often by a spiritual emptiness in which the specific nature of the Church as a whole is no longer seen, in which she is regarded only as a political instrument, whose organization is felt to be pitiable or brutal, as if the real function of the Church did not lie beyond organization, in the comfort of the Word and the sacraments that she provides in good and bad days alike.

The failure of progressive Catholicism/Christianity/religion, in my view, is that it has long lost a sense of the faith as something objective, and with it any sense of the Church as being objective.  To some degree, I think, the roots go deeper still: No longer do we have any sense that the “Fear of the Lord” is the beginning of wisdom.  God has been tamed, domesticated, reduced to a sort of heavenly marshmallow as one priest once put it.  This was part of the root problem with what I saw in my years at Spiritus, and the same thing writ-large seem to be happening in ECUSA.  I recognize that such an approach has its virtues-it is inclusive and compassionate, which are both very good things.  But inclusion is not an end in itself, and compassion unchecked is reduced to a blind and impotent sentimentality.  Traditionalist Catholicism does need to learn a few things about bringing faith into contact with people in what we today would call their “real lives” if we are to have any hope of sanctifying said “real lives”.  To some degree this means learning to speaking in terms other than a narrow ecclesiastical vocabulary.

This does not mean (God forbid) that we embrace every trendy trend (that’s not a typo, just a deliberately irritating pleonasm) that comes along.  Likewise while we have many matters to work out as we go forward in terms of ecclesiastical “housekeeping”, but this does not provide a warrant for embracing a demolition approach to tradition.  If there is one thing that truly baffles and upsets me about progressives it is their not-uncommon tendency to demand something (say women’s ordination), with the thinly veiled goal of using it as a Trojan horse to, for all intents and purposes, destroy the faith from within.  This sounds like an unfair, even paranoid charge, but I’ve spent enough time at CTA conferences to know that the words “change”, “reform” and “modernize” usually mean something much more significant.

I have yet to figure out why some women demand ordination-from ordained bishops-and then turn around and deny the further need for bishops and a set-aside priesthood in favor of pure egalitarianism (I’ve heard such things said).  I can’t help but see something pernicious in somehow demanding the legitimacy of approval within their Church while at the same time rejecting every aspect of that Church (doctrine, worship, morality) that they claim to love.  The psychology behind such doublethink would be a fascinating study for whoever has the time (mercifully I do not).  I can’t help but think that at least one factor has to be a failure of catechesis, particularly when it comes to ecclesiology.  If one cannot grasp the basics, I don’t think entering into any kind of dialogue would be remotely productive.

In any case, I must bring this tome to a close, and I shall do so with a final thought: In the cacophony of voices on religion today (see Beliefnet and Patheos) there is something immensely comforting about the rational, compassionate, inclusive to the point of being contradictory, open yet deeply rooted and evolving yet rock solid Roman Catholic Church.  A monk friend told me that that the final decision to return to Holy Mother Church brings with it relief and a sense of freedom.  And so it does.  This is a party I came I came late too, but happily I still arrived in time.

The Soul

I have periodically alluded to my thoughts on the soul on this blog, though I have not laid out my thoughts on this subject in much detail.  In that spirit (pun intended) I thought I would do that here.  I’ll start with a reference I made two posts back-the book The Soul, the Body and Death by OCA Archbishop Lazar Puhalo.  I realize Puhalo is a somewhat controversial figure, and that some of his ideas have not been well received in some Orthodox circles (his intense criticism of Father Seraphim Rose is of particular interest but well beyond what I can go into here).  Interestingly, this particular book took some heat because within Puhalo allegedly promotes the idea of “soul-sleep” (which I think is a blatant misreading but again that’s more than I can go into here).  What Puahlo does say, that I think is quite important, is this:

…the soul is created and therefore, like all matter and energy, belongs to the realm of the creaturely…the soul is created by God, and thus is part of the material world.

I have read this big idea affirmed in other sources.  Alexander Kalomiros, for instance, observes:

Man has nothing divine in his nature, regardless of all the pagan myths that try to make us believe man’s soul has a divine nature. In his own nature, body and soul, man is dust of the earth. Only by the grace of God and the economy of the Incarnation of the Word, man becomes what we have seen above. Man does not have self-existence. He is totally dependent upon God His Creator.

We Christians know we have nothing in our being that is by nature immortal, whether it be the body, or the mind, or the spirit, or the soul, or whatever we may call it. It is why we have enormous gratitude in our heart to our Maker and Creator Who promised to keep us in existence eternally a’>d joined us to Himself through the Incarnation, the becoming man, of His Son and Word. We also have humility, because we know that in our nature we are soil, we are nothing.

A few other references may help: John Romanides writes:

It is also important to bear in mind that the Greek Fathers of the Church maintain that the soul of man is part of material creation, although a high form of it, and by nature mortal.

And Nikolaos Loudovikos affirms:

Where are “person” or “freedom” seated inside man?  Inside his soul?  And what is the soul, when in fact the Hellenic Patristic tradition has rejected every metaphysical notion of “soul” and has regarded it as material in essence?

In short, the Greek tradition asserts that what humanity calls the “soul” is in fact part of creation and therefore-in a sense-material.  Both Puhalo and Kalomiros note that the Church Fathers do sometimes appear to use dualistic language.  Puhalo makes the interesting observation that the human soul is not “pure spirit” as God is pure spirit-”God is completely other than what man is” he goes on to note.  This reminds me somewhat of the Kabbalistic idea that God is the creator of both matter AND spirit, an observation that should not be foreign to those familiar with the Nicene Creed (“maker of all that is, visible and invisible”).  Acknowledging the “immaterial” dimension of creation is simply the observation that there may be more to heaven and earth than were dreamt of in Horatio’s philosophy (and that of Richard Dawkins for that matter).

What does this mean in practical terms?  Well, as Richard Oden, in Classic Christianity writes

In the absolute sense, God alone is immortal…God is the only one who has immortality as a necessary attribute.

One of Archbishop Puhalo’s favorite phrases is that we are “immortal by grace and not by nature.”  This is not a point of obtuse theology, but rather than an extremely important (and very basic) component of the Christian worldview.  Christianity stands athwart the all-too popular view on the ground today that humans are merely bodies that encompass souls, and it is the latter/inner component that is who we “really are”.  One sees it over and over again-in the book/film What Dreams May Come (where Cuba Gooding Jr. explained to Robin Williams “You live in your house but that doesn’t mean you ARE your house-the house falls down you get up and walk away”) to the copious writings of contemporary psychics like the recently departed Sylvia Browne and James van Praagh.  This view, which is essentially a modified form of Platonism (though today influenced by bits and pieces of Eastern religions) has greatly infiltrated contemporary Christianity.

For instance, when my Grandpa Gene died I was told that his soul had “gone to heaven” and because he was a “good person” he very well could become “an angel”.  By most accounts I don’t think stories such as these are by any means unique, nor am I ‘blaming’ anyone for them.  The fact of the matter is this neo-Platonic understanding has deeply infiltrated our cultural thinking today so deeply it is almost inescapable.  Having said that, however, this immensely popular (and perhaps comforting) view fails two critical tests.  First, the view is not Biblical.  The Bible knows human beings as “animated bodies” and not “imprisoned souls”; Scripture only knows us as psychosomatic unities (or psychophysical organisms if you prefer).  This view has been well covered by others and therefore I will not review it here.

Secondly, however, the cultural default view is incongruent with contemporary neuroscience.  I recall Sam Harris once saying in an interview that science would have no problem studying the soul if one could somehow show that the soul is a “form of ectoplasm running on the brain like software on a computer.”  Setting aside the snarky tone and the fact that Christianity (mercifully) does not say a word about “ectoplasm”, much of what Harris says is essentially correct-the human mind is intimately bound up with the brain and damage or injury to the brain always carries with it damage to the mind (though Harris seems ignorant that CS Lewis had observed long before him that rational thought “wanes when the brain decays” and “vanishes when the brain ceases to function”-see Miracles).  Nothing in modern science, apart from the anecdotal and poorly verified realm of Near Death Experiences (NDEs), do we find anything to support the cultural view of the soul.

None of this should alarm the Christian, especially those who take seriously the Greek patristic understanding of the soul as part of creation vs. some kind of naturally immortal substance “injected” into the material realm at some point.  In fact, pace Harris, once can even approach the question of the soul from a scientific perspective.  John Polkinghorne’s idea of “dual-aspect monism” (the mental and material being two sides of the same coin, yet indeed distinct) and of the soul being the “information-bearing pattern” of the body, strikes me as immensely helpful here.  As Polkinghorne himself has stressed, his idea is essentially restating Aquinas’s observation that the soul is the “form” of the body.  The idea that the soul is a form of “active information” is congenial with ideas such as “mind uploading” that are kicked around today.  This doesn’t mean, by the way, that such things are possible, but merely notes there is no fundamental incompatibility.

However, there is one objection here that still bothers me.  Does not this view of the soul run afoul of Roman Catholic teaching?  I can freshly appreciate the idea of Christian mortalism, which I once mocked, but has not the Magisterium aggressively taken the stance the human soul is immortal and thus any idea of mortalism is a heresy?  In a word, no.  Pardon my legalistic thinking (I’m a lawyer, sue me) but if one understands immortal to mean by grace and not by nature the entire problem evaporates.  Moreover, the actual language of the Catechism (# 366) is rather nuanced:

The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God – it is not “produced” by the parents – and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.

I will be the first to admit this language does come a bit uncomfortably close to arguing that human souls are immortal of their own nature, but the text itself does not actually state this, it merely observes that the soul does not perish with the body.  In his commentary on the Catechism (Catholic Christianity) Peter Kreeft argues that the soul must be created because “matter cannot make spirit” and the soul must be immortal because it cannot be reduced to component parts (Father Robert Spitzer and Ed Feser have made similar arguments).  Due respect to Kreeft, I do not find these arguments terribly persuasive.  I affirm that the soul is directly created by God, but as Denis Edwards noted in his book The God of Evolution such an idea need not be ready in an interventionist matter, because the creation of each person “occurs through God’s one continuous act of ongoing creation” (emphasis in the original).

I would also not go so far as to divorce evolution entirely from the soul-Edwards and another contemporary theologian, Dermot Lane, have both stressed the idea of matter transcending itself in the human spirit, a theme that one finds strongly in the works of Karl Rahner.  Rowan Williams has made a similar point, even noting parallels in Greek patristic writings.  And-just to throw in another bedfellow-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote essentially the same thing in Introduction to Christianity, observing that

matter and its evolution form the prehistory of spirit or mind…matter represents a moment in the history of spirit.

One can find here, perhaps, a vague hint of panpsychism in this collective observation (David Bentley Hart suggests that some forms of this may indeed be compatible with Christianity, and Gerald Schroeder made a similar point in his book God According to God).  Regardless, however, the observations made by Kreeft and Feser (non-dissolvability, access to the transcendental virtues, etc) do arguably point towards the immortality of the soul, but it must be stressed that such immortality is only by the grace of God and not by our own nature.  Polkinghorne speaks of the faithfulness of God who preserves us in the ‘Divine Memory’ after death.  Again, in a surprising twist, Ratzinger essentially says the same thing:

Immortality as conceived by the Bible proceeds, not from the intrinsic power of what is in itself indestructible, but from being drawn into dialogue with the Creator; that is why it must be called awakening…the biblical formula through awakening means to convey a collective and dialogic conception of immortality: the essential part of man, the person, remains; that which has ripened in the course of this earthly existence…goes on existing in a different fashion. It goes on existing because it lives in God’s memory.

One can detect here clear echoes of the Eastern Orthodox idea that

Adam received an ontological proposition by God for the transcending of death (and not a proposition to make a moral choice); Adam is the being that is defined existentially (we could say) by that very proposition by God, that it be the one through which the Uncreated enters the created, of its own free will.

One final observation to tie everything back together.  Puhalo took some heat for grazing soul-sleep in his argument that after death the soul no longer “perceives” as we understand the term.  In point of fact, to me at least, this observation seems intuitively correct: We are psychophysical organisms and the with the death of the body consciousness as we know it would logically dissolve as well (see Fr. Freeman on this point).  The idea also fits with the thought of Aquinas, who wisely noted that there is “nothing in the mind not first in the senses” (Keith Ward contends that for Aquinas a soul that exist without a body “does so by a special act of God”).  Admittedly, Puhalo does go a bit to an extreme here in his emphasis on negative language, but his underlying point strikes me as completely correct: We simply do not know what awaits us in the hereafter-nor can we, for we have no good analogy for postmortem existence.

If life after death is essentially incomprehensible it is perhaps no surprise why Scripture is reticent to discuss the subject in any real depth.  The Church has used richly symbolic language over the years to describe the afterlife, but in the phrase of N.T. Wright such language is really just a series of signposts pointing to that which we cannot yet fathom.  The truly important takeaway here is that to have faith in eternal life we must trust in God, and in the promise of the Resurrection.  To search the realm of psychics, NDEs, a latter-day cultural neoPlatonism and the like for hope is, quite simply, to search for the living among the dead.  Hope does not lie in our own soul, however understood, but only in the God who called us forth from non-existence.

NOTES:

  1. To simplify matters I’ve largely ignored the question of reincarnation, which is rather popular in the West today, in this post.  I admit to being a bit sympathetic with the idea-it seems to offer a sort of “second chance” (or infinite number of chances) to get it right.  Nonetheless, Catholicism has definitively rejected reincarnation and in my view there are considerable problems with the concept however conceived (Hinduism and Buddhism conceive reincarnation quite differently and the popular modern view is different from both).  Moreover, the idea is quite hostile to classical Christian anthropology.  As one wise person put it, our future with God is as persons and not as souls.
  2. I’ve also, for the sake of simplicity, avoiding referencing the tripartite viewpoint of the human person.  The idea that human beings consist of body, soul and spirit has been subject to considerable confusion because the terms seem to mean slightly different things depending on who is speaking (e.g. is the soul the mind or is the spirit?).  Kallistos Ware describes the tripartite view as the most accurate, whereas Olivier Clement and Rowan Williams (among others) have minimized the distinction.  For myself, I think Keith Ward neatly summarized the distinction by suggesting that the spirit is not a third “piece” but rather the human’s openness to transcendence.  Though Ward may not have known it he was essentially articulating the view of the Catechism (# 367): “Sometimes the soul is distinguished from the spirit: St. Paul for instance prays that God may sanctify his people “wholly”, with “spirit and soul and body” kept sound and blameless at the Lord’s coming.236 The Church teaches that this distinction does not introduce a duality into the soul.237 “Spirit” signifies that from creation man is ordered to a supernatural end and that his soul can gratuitously be raised beyond all it deserves to communion with God.
  3. The question of consciousness is another subject that I only touch on briefly here.  Philosophy of mind is a rather hot arena these days, however, and there is plenty of material to keep the intrigued man busy.  I recommend David Bentley Hart’s chapter on consciousness in The Experience of God as a staring point, along with Ed Feser’s copious writings on the subject.  Thomas Nagel, Colin McGinn and John Searle (atheists all) have also written much valuable commentary in this arena.  From a theological POV Richard Beck’s writings on post-Cartesian theology are provoking, though not terribly original in my view (I’d prefer to take authentic “pre-Cartesian” theology myself).
  4. Finally, just a brief word on mind-uploading…Robert Wright, interviewing Daniel Dennett, brought up Polkinghorne’s idea of the information-bearing pattern and Dennett essentially seemed to agree.  This not universally shared (some vehemently dislike talk of patterns because the notion comes too close to the idea of the soul), but this is still an intriguing point of agreement.  [Dennett also essentially agrees with Polkinghorne's idea that humans discovered mathematics and possibly ethics, rather than inventing them-an even more intriguing point of agreement]

 

The Natural and the Supernatural

I recently watched the documentary Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer (highly recommended by the way).  Learning about the mysteries and sometimes ethereal world of the Eastern monastics, and about saints of both the East and West, one can be struck by the amount of supernatural activity that occurs in such stories: Levitation, bilocation, “soul-readers”, the radiation of light (perhaps the uncreated Light of Tabor?), perfumes of sanctity, indedia, etc.  And in the Protestant realm (to a limited degree Catholicism also) one is struck by the reports coming from Pentecostal and Charismatic circles of spiritual healings, glossolia, etc.  The plethora of reports from South America suggest that something is going on, that there is some undeniable and objective reality that must be confronted-be it a delusion or a genuine spiritual phenomena.

I am largely an agnostic when it comes to supernatural activity in the world-I am far too much of a skeptic to accept such reports uncritically, and I have never seen anything that remotely meets the threshold of scientific proof.  Moreover I’ve never had any such experience myself-I myself have never had the luck (be it good or bad) to have heard locutions, seen a vision, or been present when anything I’d call a miracle has taken place.  There is one possible exception to this that I alluded to in my last post-when my Grandma Barb died I had an unusual dream a few weeks later.  In the dream I was dreaming and in this inner dream, from what little I could remember on waking up, I ‘spoke’ to my Grandma Barb.  Then and now I can recall nothing of the conversation other than that she asked me how my grandfather was doing.

Ordinarily I would dismissed this as “just” a dream (Harry Potter fans take note of Dumbledore’s statement in the 7th book about things taking place inside your head and you’ll see why I quote the qualifier).  However I have never forgotten the palpable feeling (and it was palpable) when I woke up that I really had spoken to my Grandmother, that what little I was remembering was in fact a real memory of a real conversation that had taken place…somehow.  I’ve never been quite able to shake that feeling.  This is not the only such story in my family either-my father had a similar dream after my uncle died.  And, it seems to me, why shouldn’t it be possible for a lost loved one to give some kind of a signal from beyond the grave?

This isn’t to say it is possible-some (Lazar Puhalo again) bristle at any suggestion, and my Grandmother herself, when we talked about this before her death, remarked that she wasn’t sure that she would be “allowed”-though she did promise she would send a sign to my Grandfather, and my Grandfather believed to his dying day that a robin he say on the wintery afternoon of my Grandmother’s passing was that sign.  In any case, when I told this story to a monk friend of mine, he helpfully added that of course it was possible I had received a genuine contact-but it was also possible my brain/subconscious mind, in a state of grief, had produced the whole thing (maybe it was both-again see Dumbedore’s statement).  And, he added, supernatural experiences are a troubling thing, because in the Christian context they demand responses, which can be quite burdensome.

So I am hardly a committed “supernaturalist” when it comes to Christianity, but at the same time I am ill-impressed by both the scientific and the theological cases sometimes laid out against such “interventions” from the “other” world.  The fact that such experiences are frequently anecdotal, private, individualized or what have you, and thus not susceptible to the scientific method is hardly conclusive.  Science studies the repeatable, the predictable, the universal.  Miracles and other supernatural activity, by definition, fall outside of this scope.  The fact that science cannot study such experiences does not mean they are a priori impossible, it simply tautologically notes that they are not scientific.  [Objections such as those raised by David Hume are properly classified as philosophical, not scientific as such]

In fairness of course this doesn’t prove or establish the veracity of anecdotal experiences, and as they say, the plural of anecdotes is not evidence.  But again-one cannot (and probably should not) attempt to produce scientific evidence for such experiences, which renders the whole question moot as far as I’m concerned.  Father Barron, in Catholicism, suggests that our scientific age has predisposed us to be skeptics.  That is certainly true of me-I am a product of my age.  To a degree, anything that challenges unhealthy supernaturalism is a good thing as far as I’m concerned.  [Back?] to hell with the occult.  Nonetheless, again the qualifier (unhealthy) is significant.  Supernatural experiences, Fr. Barron says are not the heart of the faith by any means, but neither are they peripheral.  One can make both too much of them and too little.

Turning to the theological case, liberal Protestantism has largely taken a line against supernatural interventions by appealing to the authority of modern science (which strikes me as blatantly nonsensical as described above) or out of an effort to resolve the undemocratic nature of such experiences.  Marcus Borg, for instance, considers the idea of a literal Exodus impossible because it violates the rule of “divine consistency” (which by his definition is basically the sentiment that God should act the same in all times and places-or not at all-because its self-evident that is how it should be-and yes that was one big circle).  On another note, Jurgen Moltmann noted in his book Coming of God that liberal Protestantism augmented the thought of Schleiermacher in the arena of death by concluding there is a sharp distinction between “person” and “nature”-which is consistent with what Father Barron has described as “Religiousness A”-a subjectivist, quasi-Cartesian approach to matters of God.

Pope Emeritus Benedict repeatedly rebuked such an approach.  In particular he was sharply critical of the idea that

God is “allowed” to act in ideas and thoughts, in the spiritual domain-but not in the material.  That is shocking.  He does not belong there.  But that is precisely the point: God is God and he does not operate merely at the level of ideas.  In that sense, what is at stake…is God’s very godhead.  The question…is: does matter also belong to him?

In no small degree, the sacramental spirituality and piety of Roman Catholicism is a sharp rebuke to the trends of modern religion.  In his book The Catholic Imagination Andrew Greeley candidly admitted that this approach “created problems from which Catholicism has never been freed-superstition, folk religion, idolatry.”  Greeley also acknowledged that there is a legitimacy to the starker, more dialectical approach of Protestantism (which reached a bit of an extreme in Paul Tillich).  Nonetheless, Greeley insists, Catholic spirituality is what it is precisely because it recognizes God’s presence and activity in the material world-the corollary of such a belief is the notion that the Way must be, as Fr. Barron has repeatedly stressed, fully embodied in all aspects of life.  Yes a spiritualized corporeality is subject to corruptions-but abusus non tollit usum (the abuse of a thing does not tell against its proper use).

Nor, by the way, is the general concept of a “spiritualized corporeality” entirely foreign to the New Atheists.  Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens have all used the terms “spiritual” or “numinous” in discussing the awe one feels through scientific inquiry of the universe.  Dawkins has even gone as far as calling pantheism a “sexed up atheism” (who knew).  None of this should surprise the believer.  Francis Collins reminds us that the God of the genome is the God of Scripture; Albert Einstein expressed awe at the greater Mind he saw at work in the universe (Krauss and Michio Kaku do not seem vehemently opposed to such an idea), and it was Fr. Greeley who commented that “There may well be a theoretical opposition between enchantment and science, though such scientific phenomena such as black holes, dark space, the nonlocality of particles, big bang inflation, and the great attractor suggest that that science may have an enchantment of its own.”

Incidentally, during a recent trip to NYC a couple of friends and I attended a show at the planetarium of the Museum of Natural History hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.  The show discussed dark matter, dark energy and the expansion of the universe.  At the end both of my friends concluded that the show struck them as more speculative than anything else.  One of them, who is a rather committed agnostic and once told me he saw no reason he couldn’t see any reason for not concocting his own religion where your soul goes to a garage in Buffalo for eternity (presumably a non-heated garage stocked with Keystone beers is the very definition of Hell), went as far as to say it reminded him of religion.  Getting coffee after the movie I mentioned the mathematical structures of the universe, to which he suggested that perhaps we are merely imposing mathematics on the universe.  I am not generally hostile to agnosticism, but my friend’s general attitude is too close to the attitude that so frustrated the Pope Emeritus: An almost willful insistence that one really, in the last analysis, can’t know…anything.  That’s a rather sad state to remain in.

In any case, to quote Wernher Von Braun, “Why should religion and science oppose each other?  Religion preoccupies itself with the Creator and science with Creation.”  Indeed, science is a rather critical part of the human vocation.  The Pope Emeritus, in his book Introduction to Christianity, and Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement, have both spoken of the need for humanity to become a “single Adam” or a “Collective Messiah”-that in the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is to be God’s “junior partner” in completing creation.  Father Barron describing this mission as the “Eden-izing” of nature; Sergius Bulgakov spoke of the Church eventually encompassing the entire cosmos.  C.S. Lewis suggested in one essay that the events on earth might be a mere prologue of extraterrestrial adventures to come.

This magnificent vision dwarfs, in my mind, anything that “physicalist” eschatology has produced (in minds like Frank Tipler or Ray Kurzweil), though one should note Ratzinger wasn’t afraid to suggest technology may offer a glimpse of things to come.  Nonetheless this vision is not central to most Christians, except perhaps to minds like Teilhard (intriguingly Ratzinger cites Teilhard rather copiously on this matter).  For the time being, we live in a fallen world and the more immediate mission of Christianity, to use Orthodox terminology, is to clean the darkened nous of each individual and help restore people to true communion…absent that the idea of the idea of a Collective Messiah is but a mere pipe dream, no different than other utopian visions.

One final thought to bring this somewhat unwieldy post to a close.  Sam Harris is known for more or less drooling over some aspects of Buddhism.  In strictly naturalist terms he believes the dissolution of the self that occurs in Buddhist contemplation and the attendant focus on compassion are real phenomena-and perhaps valuable.  Buddhism can at times be quite open to science-see the Dalai Lama’s The Universe in a Single Atom.  Indeed, today, Buddhist atheism has become a thing…see, for instance, Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs and Confession of a Buddhist AtheistKatrina Firlik, a prominent neurosurgeon, described Buddhism as a religion fit for a scientific skeptic who believes “we are our brains”, such as herself.

Now, the influence of Eastern thought on American religion is a messy affair-see the writings of Stephen Prothero and Philip Goldberg for an idea.  Too many people who are fascinated with Eastern insights rewrite their own traditions in the process.  It was Chesterton who quipped that some people are “always insisting that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism.”  Even the great Thomas Merton became a little sloppy in this arena, and in the arena of science John Polkinghorne speaks for many of us in noting that most comparisons between Eastern metaphysics and quantum physics have come from the West rather than from Eastern sources themselves.  Anyone who wishes to traverse these waters while remaining faithful to the Christian Tradition has their work cut out for them.

And yet, I do not think it is impossible.  The Buddha was a respected figure amongst the Church Fathers, Peter Kreeft called him a “great psychologist”, and even the Orthodox can acknowledge the (admittedly) incomplete truth of Buddhism.  One could begin, if they wished, with certain parallels in Mahayna Buddhism and Christian theology and see perhaps a “foreshadowing” there.  Clement acknowledged this, seemingly channeling Lewis’s idea of “good dreams” in the Pagan world outside Christianity.  I, however, see a potentially more fruitful bath in beginning with the Sam Harris approach: Recognizing the empirical, and hence quite natural, nature of the Buddhist path.  This strikes me as being grounded in reality, unlike the supercilious syncretism one sees so often, and more immediately relevant than possible foreshadowing on the devotional ground.

I would contend some groundwork has already been laid.  Sam Harris, meet James Arraj.  In his books Christianity in the Crucible of East-West Dialogue and God, Zen and the Intuition of Being Arraj explores unexpected parallels between Thomist metaphysics and Zen.  In particular, he channels Jacques Maritain in suggesting a distinction between “natural mysticism” and “supernatural mysticism”-the latter being a rather cosmic or impersonal mysticism; the latter an interpersonal/relational love mysticism.  Natural/Zen mysticism is a sort of preliminary or incomplete step, wherein one experiences the “Void” or the “Absolute”, whereas in Christian mysticism the Void makes itself known to us (a la Theresa of Avila).

There is much more to Arraj’s thesis that I cannot go into here-for instance, drawing from Zen sources he contends that one can experience a sense of unity with all things and indeed a dissolution of the Self-but that this experience is temporary and properly succeeded by again recognizing distinctions.  He also notes that philosophical emphases must be taken into account (Buddhism, for instance, is more practically oriented towards liberation than it is a deep exercise in ontology) and that Buddhist presuppositions affect the Eastern interpretation of such experiences.  Nonetheless, Arraj takes seriously that such experiences are real and by no means necessarily demonic.  His thought is immensely fruitful and worthy of serious reflection.

In summation, Christianity can, should and must encompass both the natural and the supernatural.  And I have no doubts, whatsoever, that it is fully capable of doing so.

ADDENDUM ON BUDDHISM:

  1. “Buddhist atheism”, as I understand it, largely concerns itself with the Buddha’s own teachings and avoids much of the later philosophical speculations that appear in the Mahayana schools (positioning it closer to the Therevad tradition).  Whether the Buddha’s overall outlook can be fairly treated in this matter, is of course, debatable.  My only point here is that I see no harm in viewing it in a “natural” context.  [Also, some contend that in spite of what many think today, the Buddha can be seen as a “conservative”-judge for yourself).
  2. Catholicism has no problem recognizing that the universe is just that-a UNIverse.  So experiencing some sense of unity with all-what Fr. Barron poetically calls our “ontological siblings” (i.e. everything else that exists)-is perfectly consonant with tradition-it just must be relativized.  Also, unlike Buddhism, Christianity zeroes in on personhood-Clement calls humanity the cosmos personified; Moltmann uses the more technical language of humans as being a “hypostasis of creation”; but in either case the importance of the person cannot be neglected.
  3. The Orthodox, as always, are most helpful: “So we acknowledge the eastern seeker through his ascesis or contemplative methodologies may experience deep levels of created beauty, or created being (through self-contemplation), para-normal dimensions, or even the “quantum field” that modern physics has revealed! However, it is only in the Eastern Orthodox Church and through its deifying mysteries that the seeker will be introduced to the province of Uncreated Divine Life.”

The Faith of the Grandparents

I consider myself blessed beyond words to have known and enjoyed close relationships with my grandparents.  My maternal (step) grandfather, Gene, doted on me as a young boy and it still grieves me deeply that he died when I was only six (my maternal grandfather Henry died before my parents were married).  My maternal grandmother, Dorothy, was one of the strongest and funniest women I have ever known.  She came to live with my family in the twilight years of her life, and when Our Lord called her home in 2009 I was cut deep to the heart.  My paternal grandmother Bette is one of the most remarkable women I have ever known-a retired Catholic high school English teacher who has spent her years in retirement-among many other things-tutoring adult students from other countries in English.  She is my confirmation sponsor, and one of the deepest sources of inspiration in my life.

A week ago, on March 19th, she became my last surviving grandparent.  My paternal grandfather, William “Bill” Geen, quietly succumbed to pneumonia.  Age 80, he had spent a month in hospice as the bladder cancer with which he had suffered for the past 6 years moved into its final stages.  By any account my Grandfather was a medical marvel-he had survived several major heart surgeries and numerous other medical problems that would have taken down almost anyone else.  Moreover he never complained in his last years, even though the pain was no doubt excruciating.  I have trouble applying the word stoic, but it is as appropriate as any other.  His end, mercifully, was peaceful and without pain, and our entire family was gathered around his bed when he took his last breath.  We quietly recited the Lord’s Prayer as, in the words of the Song of Farewell, Christ who had called him arrived to take him home.

Exactly 10 years before my step-grandmother, Barbara, heard the same call.  My Grandma Barb was and is one of the deepest influences on my spiritual life.  She was a devout Catholic (of a semi-liberal bent but fiercely pro-life) who nurtured my interests in religion as an adolescent by providing me with books by CS Lewis (I still have one of her notes tucked inside my copy of Mere Christianity).  I had begun my drift towards a more liberal faith in my senior year of high school, but when Grandma Barb was admitted to the hospital with terminal cancer I had my first glimpse of the true power of faith as it stared into the jaws of death.  In one of my last conversations with her before she slipped away into the terminal sedation that narcotics can offer those in the grip of indescribable pain she told me she was ready to meet her Lord.  The only thing she worried about was my Grandfather.  I promised her I would be there for him.  My Grandmother confided in me that she doubted he would outlive her more than a year.

My Grandma Barb took her last breath on March 18th of 2004 (I believe she spoke to me in a dream not long thereafter but that is another story), and a full decade and one day later my grandfather joined her in the Communion of Saints (the extra day was the last bit of his tenacious hold on life).  Unlike Grandma Barb, Grandpa Bill was hardly a devout Catholic, though he had certainly been one in his younger years.  Like many of his time he harbored his share of bitterness toward the human corruptions of the Church.  When my grandmother died he stopped attending church altogether. His spirituality late in life bore little resemblance to the rigors and rhythms of organized religion.

And yet, his spirituality bore no resemblance at all to the sentimental, wishy-washy tripe of our so-called New Age.  His quiet acceptance of suffering was deeply rooted in the best of the Catholic tradition-the kind Christopher Hitchens got so badly wrong in his scathing attacks on Mother Teresa.  Intuitively he always understand that the Creator could not be domesticated, and he recognized that the insights of Catholic moral theology-particularly on the 7 Deadly Sins-were indeed divine revelation, even if they were entrusted to an institution riddled with corruption and hypocrisy.  Above all else, my Grandfather grasped the core of the Gospel-that it was a message for sinners, a healing mercy for those human beings (all of us) who had fallen short of the glory intended for us by the Creator.

Grandpa Bill had fallen prisoner to alcoholism in his life, and as it has for so many others, alcohol cost him a marriage, family relationships and, arguably, his true self.  Nonetheless, he embraced AA and would go on to maintain sobriety for the last 40 years of his life, during which time he dedicated himself to being a sponsor and mentor for many others, not all of whom were as fortunate as he.  The Twelve Steps permanently shaped his outlook on life, and he often kept with him an 11 x 8 sheet of maxims and sayings from AA.  I now have one of these sheets myself,  and regularly carry it with me.  My Grandfather loved the Serenity Prayer (perhaps more than any other it was the one he strove to live by) and he wrote numerous compositions on spiritual topics that I have collected (he was also a gifted writer of short stories).

It cannot be said of him that he attained saintliness in this life, except in one important aspect: My Grandfather knew that he was imperfect, knew that he was a sinner, and knew the meaning of the word repentance.  He understood the idea of humility before God; in one of his last writings that he gave me he noted simply “the Creator seems to manage very well without any suggestions from me!”  For all his eccentricities, for all his quirks and sins and baggage (of which all of us carry), beneath those roiling waters my Grandfather carried the wisdom of the world, and in the decade that separated his death from my Grandmother’s I was fortunate enough able to soak some of it in.

I don’t know how well I lived up to the promise I made to my Grandma Barb, but I would not have traded those years for anything.  My Grandfather once told me that wisdom was the best thing that he could pass onto me and though I didn’t quite appreciate it at the time he was right.  As a man who was the very opposite of materialistic Grandpa Bill had managed to cultivate something much more worthwhile in his life.  He never did make peace with the Church; declining to accept spiritual counseling from a monk (noting, as he always did, that the monks he admired were given a supernatural grace he was not) and the Anointing of the Sick.  In fact, he didn’t even want a funeral; instead humorously suggesting to my Aunt “Throw me into the ocean…it worked for Osama bin laden!”

Some of my brethren in the Catholic Church would shudder with fear for my Grandfather’s immortal soul, regarding his defiance as a final collusion with his own damnation.  I do not.  Death, to me, was and is one of the greatest mysteries of the human condition.  I admit that like my Grandfather I am not generally a sentimental person and I am increasingly ill-impressed by many of the books written today about Near Death Experiences and by psychics who present a sugary sweet vision of the great beyond devoid of judgment or any truly meaningful rectification of this life.  While my family was gathered in the hospice I didn’t pick up one of those books from the hospice’s small library but rather How We Die, by Sherwin Nuland-a no holds barred look at the biological processes of death (somewhat in the vein of John Paul II’s courageousness at the end of his life).  Dr. Nuland, it should be noted, rejected the idea of a dignified death as a fantasy that most people failed to attain (mercifully Grandpa Bill was one of the exceptions).

I must pause briefly to note two things-one sad, one amusing.  In a rather sad and ironic twist of fate, I learned recently that Dr. Nuland himself had died a few weeks earlier, on March 3rd.  Dr. Nuland had become something of an intellectual hero to me, for his ability to embrace both the messiness of reality revealed to us by science (he called himself a skeptic) and a much richer picture of the human spirit (as opposed to the reductionism that defines most skepticism today).  In more than a few respects he reminded me of my Grandfather, and I can imagine the two of them having a most productive conversation.  Perhaps they are now.  The second, amusing anecdote, concerns my cousin (also named Bill), who upon seeing the title of the book asked if I was “making sure we were doing it right.”  Sarcasm, evidently, runs deep in my family.

In terms of theology I think we must treat the nature of life after death as a mystery that can only be spoken about in the vaguest of terms.  The Eastern Orthodox tradition (neatly summarized by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo) insists that reticence is the only appropriate response, given that we can’t even begin to comprehend the purely noetic existence of a soul without a body.  In the end, silence must have the last word.  And on another theological note, in a world that, to quote Miroslav Volf, is so manifestly drenched in evil that we all contribute towards one can, I think, appreciate the more solemn Requiem Masses of old.  No one would find Libera me Domine sung in Gregorian chant “inspiring” in the sentimental sense we usually use today.  Nonetheless there is something about the older approach that is lacking today-if nothing else it takes the reality of death, and of accountability before God, with the utmost seriousness.  Not only silence but humility is appropriate at the end of life.

Tomorrow my family will convene for my Grandfather’s funeral Mass.  This will NOT be one of the “older” Masses, but rather a Novus Ordo, complete with modern hymns that make some traditionalists nauseated (no surprises here-Be Not Afraid, I am the Bread of Life, and-of course-On Eagle’s Wings, a staple of Catholic funerals).  Nonetheless I hardly find this irreverent.  My Grandfather, even if he didn’t practice traditional Catholic piety, had long embodied in his life and thought the very lessons that the traditionalist rites were pointing to.  He approached his mortality with seriousness and grace, accepting his sinfulness and praying for repentance.  If it is true that judgment is what happens when we are forced to see ourselves truly in the Light of God than few were better prepared.

I myself am still too young to be entirely sanguine about death, but I have taken long walks in Rochester’s iconic Mt. Hope Cemetery, where it is hard not to ponder one’s own mortality, and even from a relatively isolated position within the hospital I have come closer to death than most.  I am fascinated and bemused by frantic attempts today to avoid death-whether by “mind uploading” or  so called anti-aging science.  A month or so ago I shared these latest delusions of the Fountain of Youth with my Grandfather, who smiled dryly and shook his head.  Among the wisdom he bequeathed to me was a refusal to turn away from the omnipresent reality of Death.  In light of this, Grandpa Bill said, it does not matter what you think about God-it matters what He thinks about you.

The faith of my Grandparents will be, and is forever, a part of who I am.  My Grandfather may not have reconciled with the Church before he entrusted himself to Our Lord, but his legacy, in a sense, will be through me.  A monk friend of mine told me, the day of Grandpa Bill’s passing, “For ourselves we grieve but for him we rejoice. His struggles are over, his battles won. No doubt he’s a lot happier than we are just now. May the Lord grant him the fullness of eternal life.”  It is in that spirit, with full confidence in the Lord, that I entrust in His hands the life and soul of William Geen…grandfather, father, husband, friend, mentor, sinner and saint.  May he enjoy the fullness of life everlasting in the palm of God’s hand, until we meet again.

Amen.

More on Philosophy…

…from Father Robert Barron:

Incidentally, I’ve read bits of Jurgen Moltmann, Andrew Greeley, Ron Rolheiser and Keith Ward in the last few weeks that remind me a great deal of Orthodox thinking.  It seems to me the gap between the East and West truly is not so wide…

Musings on East and West

I recently finished two extremely interesting books.  The first was New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy by Jesuit physicist-priest Robert J. Spitzer.  I have to confess that more than half of the book was above my pay grade (a surprising number of equations and many multi-layered proofs).  Nonetheless, the book is still a fascinating read.  It is of particular interest given that reportedly we now have actual evidence of the multiverse.  I remain skeptical myself-concentric circles on background radiation doesn’t wow me and I can’t help but think we may be projecting a bit, but at least one Catholic source besides Father Spitzer has reacted calmly, so I’m in good company for not panicking.

The other book was The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism by philosopher Edward Feser.  This book was a delight to read-it is an intellectual romp and a veritable tour de force in explaining Aristotelian Thomism.  The book is intensely polemical-more so than David Bentley Hart’s commentary which I didn’t think was possible.  In fairness, of course, Feser is writing in response to the New Atheists who aren’t exactly known for being uncontroversial and charitable.  In any case, Feser doesn’t directly discuss Catholicism or Christianity in the book (he grazes it), instead confining himself to how Aristotelian thought peaked in the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas.  I must admit that I was exceedingly impressed by the case Feser made for AT, for which I’ve expressed measured skepticism in the past.

Nonetheless, I remain unpersuaded that AT is an essential corollary of the Gospel.  As impressive as this philosophical approach is I can’t help but echo Keith Ward in noting that brilliant philosophers will reach different conclusions-such disagreement is simply the nature of the beast.  And I must confess that I am very Easternly minded when it comes to the use of philosophy.  Abstract theologizing by way of syllogisms carries certain inherent risks-as Frederica Mathews-Green has noted one cannot talk about God as if He’s somehow out of the room.  For a good summary of the Orthodox position one should read Father Thomas Hopko’s commentary.  Fr. Hopko quotes Gregory the Theologian (a Doctor of the Roman Church) as saying that the Christian speaks “according to the fishermen and not according to Aristotle.”  Touche.

The Orthodox position, in a nutshell, is that philosophy is at most a subordinate tool, useful for translated the Gospel into a particular worldview-as the Fathers used Greek philosophy-but not to circumscribe the Gospel.  Clark Carlton, for instance, has argued that one should never attempt to set limits on what God can do based on philosophical categories.  Rev. Dr. John Anthony McGukin also lays out a similar argument in his tribute to Vladimir Lossky (the 2014 Fr. Alexander Schmemann Lecture at St. Vladimir’s Seminary).  While all of these are quite good I must add, in fairness, that I think Fr. Hopko misread Fides et Ratio, which-while granting a primacy to the work of the Angelic Doctor-also states “The Church has no philosophy of her own nor does she canonize any one particular philosophy in preference to others” (also note that the encyclical states “the Church has been justified in consistently proposing Saint Thomas as a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology“-emphasis added-which hardly equates to stating that philosophical approaches other than AT are antithetical to the Gospel).  It seems to me that at least on one level the Orthodox-Catholic dispute on this point is an argument where the parties apparently actually agree…which happens frequently and is quite irritating!

[Fr. Hopko's rejection of the Magisterium and his summary of Patristic thought as the Fathers "fighting it out" is also an interesting thought but I'll leave that for the time being]

Another matter for consideration here is that Christianity not only made use of philosophy it also altered philosophy in the process.  In his book After You Believe NT Wright explores how St. Paul’s approach to virtue ethics augments and expands Aristotle’s.  And there is a different school of Thomisim, the existential approach (that of Jacques Maritain and later James Arraj) that zeroes in on areas where Aquinas broke with Aristotelian thinking.  And it has frequently been pointed out by others that while Patristic writings make use of philosophy (Pope Emeritus Benedict notes it was in philosophy that the Fathers sought and found the seeds of the Word) the philosophical concepts were transformed in the process.

Now, I love Aquinas and I think philosophy is immensely important to ‘doing theology’ correctly.  In fact it is in that spirit that I have chosen to adopt the name Matteo (for Matteo Ricci) as my confirmation name, in recognition of the fact that the philosophical insights of others can be adopted by the Church.  While Ricci is not a saint yet it seems clear to me that this is his trajectory.  Indeed, I’d posit that Matteo would make an excellent patron saint for the New Evangelization (the Pope might just agree).  And the synthesis of reason and faith still survives, as Ross Douthat recently noted.  Nonetheless, like Arraj, George Weigel and Fr. Barron I can’t help but recognize that latter-day Scholasticism had entered into a decadent phase that justifiably frustrated the Orthodox.  And von Balthasar was as frustrated as any Orthodox in recognizing the separation of mysticism/spirituality/holiness from the intellectual pursuit of theology.

In short, I do not think the East and West are incompatible on the question of where philosophy belongs in the grand scheme of things.  It has been said that the root of heresy is “zooming in” to focus on particular aspects of the faith to he exclusion of others.  This can produce rather bizarre ideas even in Judaism, where an unbalanced focus on Kabbalah leads to notions of “non-dual Judaism” that are out of step with the tradition as a whole.  On the other hand, as Fr. Barron observes different branches of Christianity tend to place their emphasis on different places-Protestantism, for instance, excels when it comes to recognizing the power of Scripture and the centrality of the Cross.  To avoid the undue emphases that lead to heresy I find helpful the thought of Panagiotes Nellas in seeing Protestantism as describing one (very important) axis of the Christian faith, while Orthodoxy focuses on a different (larger) one.  While conceding that perhaps Protestantism “gets” one axis better, I’d like to close with the magnificent vision that the Christian East can offer the West:

On the axis of Creation-Deification, which is not antithetical, but unifying and catholic, the chasm between Church and world is shown to be ontologically non-existent.  The problem which has been the scourge of the West for centuries, and for us Easterners in our century, is demonstrated to be, in essence, a pseudo-problem. It remains solely as a moral problem.  Turning to the truncated, radically antithetical axis of Sin-Redemption, here the world is understood within the Fall, and the Church can only function as a religious institution, stronger or weaker according to the circumstances, which tries to impose itself and, when it cannot, to compromise with the world. Correspondingly, if the Church gives the impression that its sole purpose is the redemption of the world from sin, the world declines this offer, not understanding even what sin is, and sees the Church as one ideology among others, with its own religious presuppositions and aims. It is a fact for historians that this point marks the birth of atheism. But if the Church sees the world as God’s creation and helps it to correct its orientation and the distortions that evil causes for it, to find its true way of functioning which is fitting to its real nature, and to achieve completeness in Christ, if Christ is presented not as the leader of the Christian faction or of the ideology of Christianity, but as the purpose towards which the world tends—then the attitude of the world may be different. It was the axis of Creation-Transfiguration of creation, or grafting of all created realities into the Body of Christ, or Deification, that the Fathers of the Church took as their basis; and they achieved the magnificent task of taking up the elements of their age and building up the Church with the same materials that their age offered them, and thus revealed God as truly incarnate within their actual world, as Savior not only of souls but also of bodies, in other words, Savior of life.

This hardly excludes Protestant insights or AT for that matter.  But it does relativize them.  The best of human insights, in the end, must be put in their place before God.

Maxims I Live By…

I rarely do this, but the following list of 9 maxims give some insight into my thought process:

  1. Truth cannot endanger truth.  This particular line comes from Bishop Christopher Butler, but the idea is deeply ingrained in Catholicism.  In the words of the Pope Emeritus, “The 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.
  2. One should strive to live in accordance with reality/Reality.  This, as Peter Kreeft has noted, is the definition of both sanity and sanctity.
  3. Differences in emphasis and nuances in language can create the appearance of greater divides than actually exist.  I believe much of the “divide” between Eastern and Western Christianity has to do with where the respective parts of the Body of Christ place their emphasis.  And while I advise caution in this arena, when one screens language for nuances and cultural differences, one may discover similarities one did not anticipate.
  4. Christ died for the UNgodly.  Rev. Fleming Rutledge, in her wonderful expositions on St. Paul, taught me this.  The very heart of the Gospel.
  5. It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.  As Abraham Joshua Heschel memorably put it “God is not nice.  God is not an uncle.  God is an earthquake.”  James Alison remarked to me that the beauty of the Catholic faith is that it is bigger than ourselves, a reminder that God than cannot be domesticated to our tastes.  It is a sharp rebuke to narcissism.
  6. The Judge of All the Earth Shall Do Right.  I no longer claim to be a universalist, but in the spirit of Genesis 18:25 I trust completely that the Lord shall do what is right in the end and longer loose sleep over this matter.
  7. Penitence is the key to liberation.  In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks “A penitential culture is the opposite of a blame culture. Odd though it may seem, there is something profoundly liberating about the idea of penitence. It lies in the fact that when we suffer there are two questions we can ask: ‘Why did this happen to me?’ and ‘What then shall I do?’ The first focuses on the past, the second on the future. Asking the first makes one see oneself as an object, the …second as a subject. The first is passive, the second active. Rather than search for someone to blame accept responsibility and with that profound human dignity. A penitential culture is where the instinctive response to suffering is to say ‘Dear God, I accuse no one but myself. Forgive me. Accept my broken heart. Then give me strength to change.”
  8. Sentimentality has its place but must be circumscribed.  Pop psychology and pop religion irritate me to no end, and I am at the stage now where I’d rather listen to John Piper than Norman Vincent Peale (that it isn’t exactly a victory but still).  I have always liked demotivators for a reason.  Now, I will add-emotion has an important role to play in faith, but left to itself it deteriorates into wishful thinking, narcissism and a squishy spirituality that relies far too much on denial.
  9. Never forget humor.  David Bentley Hart notes that humor can derive either from intimacy or contempt, and in my case it is the former.  Andrew Greeley once remarked that the film Dogma was “St. Augustine mediated through 15 year old boys in a Jesuit locker room” (i.e. the “vulgar late adolescent rhetoric of Kevin Smith’s own generation”).  Similarly I have called George Carlin the “prophet of nihilism” and regularly cited South Park on this blog.  Though these represent extremes, I do so in fidelity to the faith I have at long last claimed as my own.