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.

Thoughts on St. Augustine

Actually, I don’t have all that many thoughts of my own just yet.  This is rather a preview of coming attractions.  When I was on retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee this past May a fellow retreatant gave me a copy of The Confessions, which I have finally cracked open and started reading.  I have only read the first book, but I’ve already been reeled in.  I would like to offer some deeply moving thoughts from the book’s introduction, written by Father Harold Gardiner, SJ.  Without further ado, here they are:

He [St. Augustine] is like a transmitting station from which there pulse ceaselessly, insistently, reaching out to the antenna of the human spirit in every age, in every clime, the imperative syllables of his great discovery which becomes his greatly needed message: “Seek for yourself, O man; search for your true self.  He who seeks shall find-but, marvel and joy, he will not find himself, he will find God, or if he find himself, he will find himself in God…it is precisely because his search is the search of every man born into this world that his discovery can be that of every man.

It is sometimes a puzzle to non-Catholics (and even to Catholics who have never thought the matter out) how the greatest saints have been able, apparently without insincerity, to call themselves great sinners and why Christian asceticism urges us to remember and deliberately recall past sins.  They are to be recalled, but never in the sense of surreptitiously licking one’s chops over past shameful delights or morbidly protracting a kind of mental self-castigation.  Past sins are to be recalled because every one of them, if properly forgiven, is a certain and glorious sign of the love God has for us.  Every one is a sort of spotlight which bathes what else might be desolate ruins on the road of life with the sweet majesty of the fact that Christ came to save the sinner.  Augustine reminds us-yes even us of today’s morally cringing world-of this stark, sane, honest, lovely and magnificent fact.

A fallacy is afoot today that the search is more important than the goal.  If only a man has “integrity” enough to keep searching, to question his environment, his convictions, his thought patterns, it is said, he is a man of “good will” or a searcher for the truth.  Much is true, of course, in this attitude.  One must search, question, reject, synthesize.  But all this is a vanity of vanities unless one is utterly convinced that there is a goal to be reached, a truth to be found, a haven to welcome the weary, if intrepid, sailor.  Augustine does not, and no rational being should, glorify the search above the port.  He attained because he knew that something was not only attainable, but winning, attractive, lovable, fulfilling.  That something was God.

This introduction alone resonated deeply with me, for I too have come to know the deep fulfillment of finding rather than just seeking (and finding, by the way, is just the beginning).  And his commentary on the recollections of past sins has an immense therapeutic value, in terms of integrating one’s experiences and personality.

Gardiner also includes a quote from Augustine himself, which includes a stirring line that is a favorite of both mine and Rev. Rutledge: Thou, O Lord, bless the godly but first Thou justifieth him when ungodly.

This is gonna be good.  Bring it on.

Some Thoughts on the Trinity

In a nutshell, the doctrine of the Trinity is this: God has a life. That’s it. As in the phrase, ‘get a life’ – God has a life, and that life is entirely independent of us; in one sense it has nothing to do with us at all. God’s perfectly able to carry on having a life without us being here; creation was a purely gratuitous act by someone who had a life, and needn’t have done it! But, rather than having said ‘oh well I’ve got this sort of wart on my backside now, which is creation, which I needn’t have got’, we have been invited into the inside of that life.

-James Alison

…something which only the Christian tradition, out of the great monotheistic faiths, has explored in detail: the belief that the Creator himself contains, within himself, a multiple relationship.

-NT Wright

But if we don’t believe in a God whose life is in mutuality, the reciprocal reflection of a depth of life, it’s harder to see why the image of God in us should require that showing to one another of the truth of who we are, so that we literally can’t be truthful without the loving regard we offer each other.  Of course, even beyond Trinitarian Christianity, human law is grasped in other religious contexts as resting on the interconnection of patterns in the universe and in the mind of God.  It is simply that the Christian vision sees the interconnection itself resting in turn upon a movement and relation that is God.

-Rowan Williams