Not a Religion of Law

In my previous post, I mentioned briefly that Christianity is not a “religion of law.”  I realize this was a rather hasty remark-we do have canon law after all, to say nothing of the natural law, the divine law, and so forth and so on.  What I meant is that Christianity does not have a body of “sacred law” as Judaism and Islam do.  Rod Dreher quotes Hugh O’Beirne as saying:

A theocracy, and any kind of comprehensive identification of individuals with an ideology, is de facto not Christian. Christianity cannot be coercive like that. It doesn’t come up with a legal system, like Islam.

Keith Ward puts it this way:

Christianity is not a religion of revealed divine law at all.

Ward is comparing Christianity with

…religions of law, of the Torah and Shari’a…

And then there is the Pope Emeritus:

That said, what is happening here is an extremely important process whose full scope was not grasped until modern times, even though the moderns at first understood it in a one-sided and false way. Concrete juridical and social forms and political arrangements are no longer treated as a sacred law that is fixed ad litteram for all times and so for all peoples. The decisive thing is the underlying communion of will with God given by Jesus. It frees men and nations to discover what aspects of political and social order accord with this communion of will and so to work out their own juridical arrangements. The absence of the whole social dimension in Jesus’ preaching, which Neusner discerningly critiques from a Jewish perspective, includes, but also conceals, an epoch-making event in world history that has not occurred as such in any other culture: The concrete political and social order is released from the directly sacred realm, from theocratic legislation, and is transferred to the freedom of man, whom Jesus has established in God’s will and taught thereby to see the right and the good.

This brings us back to the Torah of the Messiah, to the Letter to the Galatians. “You were called to freedom” (Gal 5: 13)— not to a blind and arbitrary freedom, to a freedom “understood according to the flesh,” as Paul would say, but to a “seeing” freedom, anchored in communion of will with Jesus and so with God himself. It is a freedom that, as a result of this new way of seeing, is able to build the very thing that is at the heart of the Torah— with Jesus, universalizing the essential content of the Torah and thus truly “fulfilling” it.

In our day, of course, this freedom has been totally wrenched away from any godly perspective or from communion with Jesus. Freedom for universality and so for the legitimate secularity of the state has been transformed into an absolute secularism, for which forgetfulness of God and exclusive concern with success seem to have become guiding principles. For the believing Christian, the commandments of the Torah remain a decisive point of reference, that he constantly keeps in view; for him the search for God’s will in communion with Jesus is above all a signpost for his reason, without which it is always in danger of being dazzled and blinded.

Christianity, in other words, is perfectly congenial with secularity (in a certain sense), and (properly understood) is opposed to theocracy.  That was the point I was after, and did not properly make.

Thomas More & Legalism Redux

This past Wednesday was the annual Diocese of Buffalo Red Mass.  (Although I myself reside in the Diocese of Rochester, I work in Buffalo, a mere block from the Buffalo Cathedral).  The Mass is sponsored by the Buffalo chapter of the St. Thomas More Guild, a group to which I do not belong.  I confess to a measure of ambivalence about all of this.  Not, mind you, about the Red Mass.  The practice of law is something that is shot through with spiritual potential (justice is one of the cardinal virtues after all), nor about the figure of Thomas More himself (I confess I know little about the patron saint of my profession), but rather about what his name has come to be associated with.

Let me explain.  My first year in law I joined a bible study group made up of “Christian lawyers” (I hear the snickering in the back-knock it off).  I attended the group for a few months, and even attempted to lead a session.  I say attempted, because that session-like virtually each of them-rapidly descended into talk about “religious liberty,” contemporary “persecution” of Christians, and the like.  Or, as I said to a law school friend who had joined me one day, it essentially amounted to a group of old white men bitching about the state of the state of the world.  The fact that the group was convinced that the New Atheists “know” that creationists are “right” about evolution was the icing on the cake.

That may sound like an unusual criticism from me-as a Facebook acquaintance subsequently asked, why hate on old white men?  (Particularly since I’ll be one eventually).  The fact of the matter is, though it pains me on one level to admit, the perspective of the “old white man” in America is…well, narrow.  Parochial even.  I have written before about the danger of absolutizing one’s perspective, and the point is worth reiterating again.  The kinds of concerns my compatriots were bitching about, to me at least, essentially amount to a laundry list of grievances about how much the world has changed since the 1950s.  It seems not to have occurred to these folks that. to quote Bill Maher (I’m deliberately rubbing salt in the wounds now) that the 1950s were a very bad time for quite a few people.

Catholicism itself is a worldwide religion, and in its full breadth encompasses a myriad of cultural expressions, some of which are quite far away from the enclave of 1950s white America.  As Frederica Mathewes-Green once snarkily put it, Christianity is supposed to be a “Western Religion” (that’s where it sits on the shelves of Barnes & Noble she notes), and yet the origins of Christianity lie in the Middle East, in a world so far different from our own.  In the words of the Pope Emeritus:

Christianity, as we know, originated, not in Europe, but in the Near East, in the geographical point at which the three continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe come into contact. This was never merely geographical contact; rather, it was a contact between the spiritual traditions of the three continents. In that sense, “interculturality” is part of the original shape of Christianity. And in the first centuries the missions, too, reached out just as much to the east as to the west. The heart of Christianity lay in Asia Minor, in the Near East, but Christianity soon pressed on to India; the Nestorian mission reached as far as China, and in terms of numbers Asiatic Christianity was more or less equal to European. Only the spread of Islam robbed Christianity in the Near East of much of its life and strength and, at the same time, cut of the Christian communities in India and Asia from the centers in Syria, Palestine, and Asia Minor and, thus, to a great extent brought about their disappearance.

Very well, someone might say, but from then on Christianity did become European. The response is both Yes and No. For the heritage of its origin, which developed outside Europe, remained as the taproot for the whole and, thus, remained as a standard and criticism of what was merely our own, European. And then again, what is “European” is not a monolithic mass. It is temporally and culturally extremely diverse. There is, first of all, the process of “inculturation” in the Greek and Roman world, followed by “inculturation” in the various cultural expressions of the German, Slavic, and Romance peoples. From classical times through the Middle Ages to modern times and the contemporary world, all these cultures have come a long way, in the course of which Christianity has had ever again to be reborn, so to speak, and was never simply there as a possession.

Elsewhere he notes:

Naturally, Christianity did not begin in Europe, and this means that it cannot be classified as a European religion or as the religion of the European cultural sphere. But it was precisely in Europe that Christianity took on its most efficacious cultural and intellectual form, and this is why it remains intimately linked in a very special way to Europe.

The practical takeaway of this is well explained by Bishop Barron:

The other dimension of catholicity is more outward looking. It indicates the dynamism of Jesus’s church toward the evangelization of all peoples, the gathering in of the entire human race. The author of John’s Gospel was a master of irony, and one of his most delicious twists involves the sign that Pontius Pilate placed over the cross of the dying Jesus: “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum” (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews). The Roman governor meant it as a taunt, but the sign—written out in the three major languages of that time and place, Hebrew, Latin, and Greek—in fact made Pilate, unwittingly, the first great evangelist. As we have discussed in the first chapter, the king of the Jews, on the Old Testament reading, was destined to be the king of the world—and that kingship is precisely what Pilate effectively announced. Paul’s declaration of Jesus as kyrios was simply a reiteration of Pilate’s message. Even at Calvary, where Jesus’s church had dwindled to three members, his little community was catholic for it was destined to embrace everyone. At Pentecost the disciples, gathered in the Upper Room, were filled with the Holy Spirit and, we are told, they began to preach the good news and were heard, miraculously, in the many languages of those who had gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. As the church fathers clearly saw, this phenomenon was the reversal of the curse of Babel, when the one language of the human race was divided and the people, accordingly, set against one another. Through the announcement of the Lordship of Jesus, the many languages again become one, for this message is the one that every person, across space and time, was born to hear.

The Catholic Church, at its best, has always exulted in this culture and language transcending universality. In the Middle Ages, Saint Anselm, born in Italy, could become a monk and abbot in France and finally end his life as the archbishop of Canterbury in England. And Thomas Aquinas, another Italian, could be educated in Germany and become a world-renowned professor in Paris. John Paul II embodied this spirit when he inaugurated the World Youth Days in the 1980s. The pope summoned young people from all over the world to gather together for several days of prayer and celebration, and he never wanted them to deny their national identities: the flags and songs of particular countries are a staple at World Youth Days. But he wanted to convince them that they belonged to a family that transcends their particular nationalities. He wanted them to feel in their bones their shared identity as members of Christ’s mystical body. It strikes me as altogether appropriate that the largest crowd ever gathered in human history came together around John Paul at World Youth Day in Manila in 1995 to celebrate precisely this catholicity of the church of Jesus..

This sense of breadth, of catholicity, of genuine universality (but I repeat myself!) has seemingly disappeared today.  The stereotypical “old white men” that I am clobbering right now offend me not because they are old or white or men.  What I find disappointing is the limitation of their vision, and understanding, of Christianity.  For them, the faith seems to be identified with a particular cultural expression, and-for lack of a better way to put it-cultural privilege.  For them, this is a state of “original justice” and the increasing marginalization of Christianity in the public square, coupled with the rise of multiculturalism, can only be thought as the Fall.

I admit that I’m painting with a broad brush, and being rather unfair.  Still, I don’t think my barbs are entirely inaccurate-those who fondly remember a Christian “Golden Age” in America have an exceedingly provincial understanding of history.  In his remarkably well-balanced American Gospel, Jon Meacham observed of our history:

It was an eclectic cast of characters, some in search of God, others on the prowl for mammon-and even those for whom freedom of religion was a driving force soon found themselves doing unto others what had been done to them.

As I wrote not long ago-history is really messy.  Also, I feel compelled to add that, with respect to Catholics, there is an added bitter irony in imagining Golden Ages, given the lengthy history of persecution Catholics have endured in American history.

Anyway, the point of that rather unusual liberal rant is that I don’t particularly care for the worldview associated with the practice of “Christian law”-which, bluntly, comes across to me as right-wing, triumphalist, provincialism.  Two of the organizations that bear Thomas More’s name (the Thomas More Law Center and the Thomas More Society) are quintessential examples of what we call the “Religious Right.”  I once-well, screw it, I still-regard the Religious Right with disdain.  I hasten to add I don’t view the RR with the same sense of paranoia that many folks do.  In the early 2000s there was a slew of books warning that America was on the verge of becoming a theocracy.  As David Bentley Hart once put it:

If I follow Linker’s story—stripped, that is, of its bombast—it goes rather like this: There is a group of articulate and influential thinkers in America who believe firmly in liberal democracy and free markets and things of that sort, but who also believe that the principles underlying modern democratic order are derived from a long history of European Christian thought regarding human authority. They are, moreover, convinced that the notion of the inherent dignity and worth of every human being is grounded in something older than liberal tradition. They also think that an impermeable “wall of separation” between public policy and private faith is an extra-constitutional and misguided principle. They believe that the lives of the unborn ought to be protected in law, and that the Supreme Court’s decisions pronouncing abortion a constitutional right are a collection of willful jurisprudential fictions. They regard the traditional family as a desirable institution, believe marriage to be the union of a man and a woman, and are somewhat anxious concerning the drift of modern culture towards an ever greater coarseness and ever more pronounced indifference to innocent life.

Now, whether one agrees or not, none of these convictions is, by any sane measure, “extreme”; they all fall well within one of the broad main currents of American political and social thought. Nor are any of the historical claims involved particularly fantastic (though Linker knows too little of the history of ideas to see this). Nor, surely, is it any secret that persons holding such views have supported George Bush in both of his presidential campaigns, and that some of them continue to offer him advice. Nor, as far as I can tell, has anyone among the “theocons” made any attempt to keep it a secret. If these men are in fact “radicals,” they are far and away the most unadventurous radicals ever to have appeared on our political horizon.

No, I was never that paranoid.  I admit that I once mocked the RR mercilessly.  One of my favorite books was The Sinner’s Guide to the Religious Right.  That book included a delightful glossary, which is exemplified by this entry:

Bible-believin church: A literal-minded church that believes the entire Bible, even the creepy parts.  Antonym: Facts-believin’ church.

Sentence: “We ain’t no Methodists.  We’re Bible-believin’!”

I realize, now, that there is something exceedingly unfair about this view.  As Charley Reese once put it:

Unlike many people in the political wars, I don’t condemn what the left calls the Christian Right. Most of these people are just plain Christians, and in these decadent times, simple Christian morality is certainly deemed to be an “extremist” position by the debauched secularists. To be honest, humble, faithful to one’s spouse and respectful of human life certainly strikes the far left as being “out of the mainstream,” which is exactly where decent people want to be when the mainstream connects the toilet to the cesspool.

Moreover, many of Thomas More’s heirs are working on genuinely important issues-religious liberty, the pro-life cause, etc.  I confess that I don’t have a ton of interest in these issues (I should have more) and my interest in, say, religious liberty, is probably more motivated by my libertarianism than my Catholicism.  Candidly, I rather resent the expectation that because I am a “Catholic lawyer,” I am expected to join those who fancy themselves as modern day Thomas Mores.  Much as I consider myself pro-life, much as I favor religious liberty, there is something about the…the…tone?  attitude?  image?  soul?  I can’t name the word, but there is something about that crowd that really, really doesn’t sit well with me.

As I was writing above, I think what I find more offputting than anything else is the parochialism, the tunnel vision, of the worldview that guides so many of these attorneys.  I am pro-life myself (a bit lukewarm, perhaps, but I am pro-life the same) and I would rapidly rise to the defense of Catholic hospitals being bullied in any way.  I dislike the idea of small businesses being obligated to provide non-essential services.  But for all that, I believe there is so much more to good Catholic citizenship, more to the practice of Catholic law, more to Catholicism period, than that.

Genuine concerns about religious liberties tend to be mixed with a bitter resentment that Christianity is no longer the only child at the table, and-moreso-that our cultured despisers are now sitting at the head of the table.  There is very little sense in these circles that Christianity might be better adjusting to being a “creative minority” as it once was (and still is in many parts of the world), rather than fighting a desperate and futile battle to regain a position it once lost.  No matter what George Weigel says, Obergefell isn’t being overturned any time soon.  No-fault divorce isn’t going away.  And the fact that some of my religious compatriots wish to martyr themselves for their opposition to same-sex marriage doesn’t win any admiration from me.  That isn’t a hill wish to join them on.  And yet, as an attorney, people look to me as a leader in this arena.  I may be called upon to come to the “rescue” of my brothers and sisters.  I resent that.

OK-I feel better having gotten that off of my chest.  I rarely comment on my profession here, in part because I am still working out precisely how it fits with my faith, and partly because-as I’ve been writing above-I don’t feel that there are any examples that I can look to.  The Thomas More Guild doesn’t offer me that.  Still, that doesn’t mean that I don’t find some inspiration in Thomas More himself, as an individual.  As More himself said:

I never intend, God being my good Lord, to pin my soul to another man’s back, not even the best man that I know this day living: for I know not where he may hap to carry it.


We cannot go to heaven in featherbeds.

But no matter how high in the clouds this arrow of pride may fly, and no matter how exuberant one may feel while being carried up so high, let us remember that the lightest of these arrows still has a heavy iron head. High as it may fly, therefore, it inevitably has to come down and hit the ground. And sometimes it lands in a not very clean place.

I have to work out for myself how to be a good “Catholic lawyer,” and it won’t be easy-why should it be?  It would do me good to set aside my pride, and-as always-practice a little humility.  Christianity is not a “religion of the law,” but it recognizes the sacredness of the law.  More knew this better than anyone:

Were it my father on the one side and the devil on the other, his cause being good, the devil should have his right.

To do justice is a sacred act.  Even lawyers can have souls, if they chose to accept this sacred duty.  God help me, I will learn to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God.

Saint Thomas More, pray for us.


Here we go again.  In no particular order:

1 – More Words from the Pope Emeritus

This time from Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures:

It is indeed true that a new moralism exists today.  Its key words are justice, peace, and the conservation of creation, and these are words that recall essential moral values, of which we genuinely stand in need.  But this moralism remains vague and almost inevitably remains confined to the sphere of party politics, where it is primarily a claim addressed to others, rather than a personal duty in our own life.

The claim that a mention of the Christian roots of Europe would wound the feelings of many non-Christians who live in this continent is not particularly convincing, since this basically involves a historical fact that no one can seriously deny.

Christianity must always remember that it is the religion of the Logos.  Christianity is faith in the Creator Spiritus, from whom comes everything that is real.

No one is truly capable of possessing a personal knowledge and a mastery of all those realities on which our daily life in a technological civilization is based.  We are obliged to accept an enormous number of things, in most cases putting our trust in “science”-and all the more so, because the experience we have in common sense seems a sufficient confirmation of this trust.

No one can carry out experiments on the totality of existence or its precondition.

Love this man.

2- A Great Piece from Denys Turner

Courtesy of Eclectic Orthodoxy.  A few snippets:

God could not be both the creator of all things visible and invisible and one of things created, an additional something, not even a unique additional something: for there cannot be a kind of thing such that logically there can be only one of them.

The minimum the theologian cannot deny is tht the world is created. ‘Out of nothing.’ And you get to say that by entertaining a question which the assertion ‘God exists’ answers to.  It is a question about the world.  It is a logically odd question about the world, but still a question with an intelligible sense: it is the question with which, in one or other version, each of Thomas’ five ways: ‘Why is there anything at all, rather than nothing at all?’, for it is the legitimacy of the question which those arguments purport to demonstrate, by which I meant that, being a fair question, it is has to have an answer.  It is not the purpose of those arguments to place in our hands some knowable answer to it.

For my part, I think it is an intelligible question, one the answer to which would bear the name ‘God’.

Awesome paper.  Check it out.

3 – David Bentley Hart Gets Provocative

This time writing for Commonweal.  I’ve noticed that Hart has been rather quiet at First Things as of late…I wonder what that’s about.  Perhaps a…”transition” is underway.  In any case:

Here, however, my more than two years laboring in the vineyards of the koine Greek had rendered me immune to the reasonable view of things. For, while Gregg had common sense on his side, I had the actual biblical texts on mine, and they are so unambiguous that it is almost comical that anyone can doubt their import. Admittedly, many translations down the centuries have had an emollient effect on a few of the New Testament’s severer pronouncements. But this is an old story. Clement of Alexandria may have been the first—back when the faith had just begun to spread widely among the more comfortably situated classes in the empire—to apply a reassuring gloss to the raw rhetoric of scripture on wealth and poverty. He distinguished the poverty that matters (humility, renunciation, spiritual purity, generosity) from the poverty that does not (actual material indigence), and assured propertied Christians that, so long as they cultivated the former, they need never submit to the latter. And throughout Christian history, even among the few who bothered to consult scripture on the matter, this has generally been the tacit interpretation of Christ’s (and Paul’s and James’s) condemnations of the wealthy and acquisitive. In the early modern period came the Reformation, and this—whatever else it may have been—was a movement toward a form of Christianity well suited to the needs of the emerging middle class, and to the spiritual complacency that a culture of increasing material security dearly required of its religion. Now all moral anxiety became a kind of spiritual pathology, the heresy of “works righteousness,” sheer Pelagianism. Grace set us free not only from works of the Law, but from the spiritual agony of seeking to become holy by our deeds. In a sense, the good news announced by Scripture was that Christ had come to save us from the burden of Christianity.
Perhaps that is a bit unfair. It is, at any rate, impossible not to be moved by the Protestant sanctification of the ordinary. There is something delightful in discovering, as Kierkegaard did, the figure of the “Knight of Faith” in a plump, contented burgher happily strolling home, his mind set upon nothing but the roast beef awaiting him there. This spiritual heroism of the everyday is so attractive an idea that it may constitute Protestantism’s single greatest imaginative contribution to Christian culture as a whole. Even for a modern Catholic like G. K. Chesterton, one of the greatest spiritual advantages of “the faith” over the creeds of other peoples was its robust appetite for “beef and beer”—a sentiment that, on the surface, has a kind of merry medievalism about it, but that few medieval Christians would have found intelligible. I certainly find it deeply appealing. But if, as its proponents insist, it is indeed a genuine unfolding of some logic implicit in the Gospel, it was a logic utterly invisible to those who wrote the Christian scriptures. Because one thing in remarkably short supply in the New Testament is common sense. The Gospels, the epistles, Acts, Revelation—all of them are relentless torrents of exorbitance and extremism: commands to become as perfect as God in his heaven and to live as insouciantly as lilies in their field; condemnations of a roving eye as equivalent to adultery and of evil thoughts toward another as equivalent to murder; injunctions to sell all one’s possessions and to give the proceeds to the poor, and demands that one hate one’s parents for the Kingdom’s sake and leave the dead to bury the dead. This extremism is not merely an occasional hyperbolic presence in the texts; it is their entire cultural and spiritual atmosphere. The New Testament emerges from a cosmos ruled by malign celestial principalities (conquered by Christ but powerful to the end) and torn between spirit and flesh (the one, according to Paul, longing for God, the other opposing him utterly). There are no comfortable medians in these latitudes, no areas of shade. Everything is cast in the harsh light of final judgment, and that judgment is absolute. In regard to all these texts, the qualified, moderate, common-sense interpretation is always false.
WHICH BRINGS ME back to where I began. I confess I do not really know what to make of these observations, or how to deal with the more onerous prescriptions and harsher judgments of the New Testament. Most of us in the modern West, by comparison to other peoples and times, might well think of ourselves as rich. Nor can I pretend ever to have embraced poverty myself—except in the sense that an unguarded jaw might be said to embrace the fist that strikes it. I do know, however, that I have no good grounds for treating those prescriptions and judgments as mere hortatory hyperbole.
Throughout the history of the church, Christians have keenly desired to believe that the New Testament affirms the kind of people we are, rather than—as is actually the case—the kind of people we are not, and really would not want to be. The first, perhaps most crucial thing to understand about the earliest generations of Christians is that they were a company of extremists, radical in their rejection of the values and priorities of society not only at its most degenerate, but often at its most reasonable and decent. They were rabble. They lightly cast off all their prior loyalties and attachments: religion, empire, nation, tribe, even family. In fact, far from teaching “family values,” Christ was remarkably dismissive of the family. And decent civic order, like social respectability, was apparently of no importance to him. Not only did he not promise his followers worldly success (even success in making things better for others); he told them to hope for a Kingdom not of this world, and promised them that in this world they would win only rejection, persecution, tribulation, and failure. Yet he instructed them also to take no thought for the morrow.
This was the pattern of life the early Christians believed had been given them by Christ. As I say, I doubt we would think highly of their kind if we met them today. Fortunately for us, those who have tried to be like them have always been few. Clement of Alexandria may have been making an honest attempt to accommodate the gospel to the realities of a Christian empire, but it was those other Egyptians, the Desert Fathers, who took the Gospel at its word. But how many of us can live like that? Who can imitate that obstinacy and perversity? To live as the New Testament requires, we should have to become strangers and sojourners on the earth, to have here no enduring city, to belong to a Kingdom truly not of this world.

That one will take some to chew over.  In the meantime, the Acton Institute is gonna have a field day with this one.

4 – On Richard Swinburne

Oy vey.  Ed Feser explains for us:

Richard Swinburne, emeritus professor of philosophy at Oxford University, author of many highly influential books, and among the most eminent of contemporary Christian thinkers, recently gave the keynote address at a meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP).  In his talk, which was on the theme of sexual morality, he defended the view that homosexual acts are disordered – a view that has historically been commonly held within Christianity and the other major world religions, has been defended by philosophers like Plato, Aquinas, and Kant, and is defended to this day by various natural law theorists.  So, it would seem a perfectly suitable topic of discussion and debate for a meeting of Christian philosophers of religion.  Of course, that view is highly controversial today.  Even some contemporary Christian philosophers disagree with Swinburne.  I wasn’t there, but apparently his talk generated some criticism.   Fair enough.  That’s what meetings of philosophers are about – the free and vigorous exchange of ideas and arguments.  Yet for some reason, Michael Rea, president of the SCP, posted the following statement on his Facebook page over the weekend:

I want to express my regret regarding the hurt caused by the recent Midwest meeting of the Society for Christian Philosophers. The views expressed in Professor Swinburne’s keynote are not those of the SCP itself. Though our membership is broadly united by way of religious faith, the views of our members are otherwise diverse. As President of the SCP, I am committed to promoting the intellectual life of our philosophical community. Consequently (among other reasons), I am committed to the values of diversity and inclusion. As an organization, we have fallen short of those ideals before, and surely we will again. Nonetheless, I will strive for them going forward. If you have thoughts or feedback you would like to share with me, I would welcome hearing from you via email or private message.

End quote.  Rea’s statement has received a lot of feedback on Facebook – both positive and negative – and has gotten attention elsewhere online as well (such as at Rod Dreher’s column at The American Conservative).

I don’t particularly care to step into this kerfuffle, but I have to quote one of the points Feser makes verbatim:

Third, what is this business about the “hurt” Swinburne’s views allegedly caused?  Philosophers discuss and defend all sorts of ideas that some people are bound to find offensive.  So what?  If, to take just one example, a philosopher defends the moral legitimacy of abortion, he may well offend those who regard abortion as a species of murder; whereas if he argues instead that abortion is a species of murder, he may well offend those who have had abortions.  Still, philosophers discuss and debate abortion all the time, and no one regards this as noteworthy or in need of some disclaimer.  So why are things different in the case of Swinburne’s chosen topic?

Perhaps Rea is worried that some will be offended by Swinburne’s specific way of arguing.  Swinburne holds that a homosexual orientation is a kind of “disability” (a view he put forward in the Revelation book).  No doubt some will be offended by such language.  But again, people are bound to be offended by all sorts of things philosophers say.  Again, an argument for either side of the abortion debate is bound to be offensive to some people who come down on the other side.  So what?  If the arguments for the side you disagree with in the abortion debate are not good arguments, then that is what you should be trying to show.  Going on about hurt feelings doesn’t add anything at all to the philosophical critique.  On the other hand, if the arguments for the side you disagree with are good arguments, then you should stop disagreeing with them and stop being offended by them.  In either case, hurt feelings are neither here nor there.  And every philosopher knows this where other topics are concerned.  Why are things any different in Swinburne’s case?

I am inclined to care in the first instance whether something is true, and then assess whether it is truthful.  Reality is not, after all, under any obligation to be palatable to us.

5 – Interesting Thoughts on Infallibility

Courtesy of First Things.  A few snippets:

The basic principles of the Church’s doctrine of infallibility provide substantive guidance here. First and foremost, the Petrine ministry participates in the infallibility of the deposit of Revelation. This is crucial to hold in view, because Revelation is ultimately the criterion of truth. The special, divine assistance of infallibility is a privilege attached to the Holy Father as the center of unity of the Church, yet this privilege is always given for the entire Church. Besides the infallibility attached to the Pope’s pronouncements taught with the fullness of his supreme authority (the “extraordinary magisterium”), the “ordinary magisterium” can also be a source of infallible teaching, when it concerns de fide doctrine (concerning faith and morals), when it is marked by unity and unanimity, and when it is proposed to be definitive and absolute teaching. Not every teaching of the ordinary magisterium, however, fulfills these criteria. Some teachings of the ordinary magisterium can be fallible, and do not command interior assent of mind and will, if such teachings are clearly contrary to reason, or to the natural law, or to the divine positive law.

And in all of this one must keep ever in mind that the charism of infallibility is one of assistance and not of inspiration. In other words, the Holy Father cannot create doctrine, but can only explain the deposit of the faith more clearly. This consideration of assistance versus inspiration raises another question, namely, what is to be done when a direct contradiction appears between one pontificate and another, or between pontifical documents? Cardinal Schönborn suggests that in such cases the older pronouncements must yield to the newer. The Cardinal said that we read Nicaea in light of Constantinople I, and Vatican I in light of Vatican II. But the Church’s longstanding practice is precisely the contrary. It emphasizes that which is prior, that is, the Church’s tradition, over and against that which is posterior and, therefore, untested. Thus, the typical hermeneutic of the Church is to read Vatican II in light of Vatican I, Vatican I in light of Trent, Trent in light of what has preceded it and so on. In other words, tradition is always privileged as the remote rule of faith.

Responding faithfully to the trans-temporal magisterium of the Church (and not simply to the magisterium of one’s own times) requires holding in view two other principles of interpretation. First, “the minor must give way to the major.” Second, the “one must give way to the many.” Taking the first principle: If there is question of conflict between two pontifical documents, the privilege must be given to the document that bears higher magisterial authority. For example, an apostolic exhortation of one pontificate does not possess more authority than an encyclical of a prior papacy. Thus, Amoris Laetitia cannot supersede the encyclical Veritatis Splendor. Now, when the documents are of the same authoritative rank, the second principle comes into play: One must privilege the harmony of the many pontificates in union with each other, and their unanimity with the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, over the one seemingly dissonant voice. This concept was famously expressed over 1,500 years ago in the Canon of St. Vincent of Lerins: “Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” Although Amoris Laetitia and St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio are both apostolic exhortations, this principle would justify privileging John Paul’s document, because it seems to be more harmonious with prior magisterial teaching, both extraordinary and ordinary.

Ultimately, however, this level of discernment cannot be a matter of private judgment, but of magisterial decision. In case of real conflict between the teaching of various popes or between the teaching of one pontificate and natural or divine positive law, only the magisterium bears the obligation and authority to clarify any errors publicly.

St Symeon the New Theologian and the Quest of the Historical Jesus

Fantastic article! Well worth the read!

Eclectic Orthodoxy

by John Stamps

You might ask yourself, what possibly could an 11th century Byzantine monk (949-1022) have to say that is the least bit relevant to the Quest of the Historical Jesus?

In a nutshell, the Quest of the Historical Jesus repeatedly tried to disentangle the 1st century Jesus of History from the Christ of Faith. Starting with the British Deists in the late 1600’s—John Toland, Matthew Tindal, William Wollaston, Anthony Collins, and Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury, yes, George Herbert’s agnostic brother—the Questers up to the present day all wanted to remove the encrusted layers of dogma and tradition that the Church had dishonestly applied to the earthly Jesus and hopefully recover the “real” Jesus. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) famously documented this Quest as a great historical feat of German intellectual history that Herman Samuel Reimarus had inaugurated—Schweitzer conveniently ignored the British Deists because, well, they weren’t German. And according…

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Narrating your life

A follow-up to my previous post, from a more personal angle.  We (our species) search not only for a narrative for History (big picture, hence the capital-H) but also for our own history, for our own lives.  The two are not unconnected-John Gray has noted how odd it is, historically speaking, that many of us seek to find some meaning in our lives by situating it within a historical narrative.  Even apart from that, though, we all desperately yearn for a teleos for our own lives.  We cling tenaciously to the belief that “all things happen for a reason,” we can’t let go of the hope that the chaos of our lives somehow ultimately falls into a pattern, and a picture.  We desperately want to believe that we can tell the story of our lives with a narrative.

One thinks-or at least I do-of the TV series The Wonder Years, where Fred Savage’s chaotic adolescence is narrated by the seemingly calm and detached voice of Daniel Stern.  One might think, at first blush, that the point of the narrator is to show how the chaos of youth ultimately falls into place, fitting into the context of a full life.  Everything will eventually make sense-or at least we can see how everything fits together in the full story.  Yet, if you take the time to watch and listen more closely, you will see this isn’t the case at all.  More than once the adult Kevin Arnold admits that growing older hasn’t made life any more intelligible.  The pains and mysteries of adolescence remain pains and mysteries years later.  The chaos of adolescence (which I realize now is redundant) doesn’t somehow get added up, canceled out, or resolved in any mathematical way, simply by growing up.  We mature (or not), we learn some lessons (or not), but the clear-cut narrative we seek remains elusive.

Father Freeman puts it thusly:

For though there is some inner drive at work within us that wants to order things and make sense of them, the randomness of the day works in the opposite direction. I have often thought that movies (and novels) fail to rightly represent this aspect of our existence. These narratives always show the wonder of a beginning and an end. The story moves from one point in the text to another and finds its crisis, climax and denouement. A good movie leaves us with a feeling of resolve. But life is not like that. Just before the incredible job interview that would have opened a new chapter in life and provided the capstone for a personal story, the real-world protagonist has a heart-attack and dies. And that’s just it. The film breaks and the images flutter on the screen and render the entire work of art that is a life-time little more than meaningless tatters. And this happens every day. Many people do not die at the “end” of their lives. Their narratives are interrupted messes that frequently leave loose ends and deep, unresolved problems.

He adds:

Our lives will be better if only we master the messiness. The myth of success only works if the world agrees to be predictable and manageable, yielding itself to our efforts to make it behave.

The problem, though, is the world just won’t yield.  We can throw tantrums-as I frequently do when I get stuck in morning rush traffic hour.  But the tantrums ultimately do no good.  Reality remains intractable.  And-if we are honest with ourselves-we will see that our efforts to make coherent narratives of our lives rarely work.  Sometimes they do, or at least seem to.  But for many of us, there is no clear “climax” or “apex” to our lives.  Life is up and down, backward and forward, side to side, with no clear resolution.  The teleos remains elusive.

As before, I would suggest that our desire to “write our own biographies” (so to speak) is mistaken.  We cannot step outside of ourselves, we cannot control the reality in which we live.  We simply cannot have the clear-cut narrative we so desperately want.  This does not mean that we cannot have meaning in our lives, or that we are condemned to live without purpose.  No, those things we shall have, and we shall have them in spades.  Again, Father Freeman:

Our lives, however, are just lives. They begin and end and have time in between. Our lives have value because they are the gift of God, not because they have cultural, economic or social benefit. We do not have to justify our existence to anyone. Existence is a gift.

One of the first and major flaws of relying on the power of choice is our inability to know how and what to choose. We may obviously make plans, but things almost never turn out exactly as we plan. It is a rare life that has a straight trajectory. This does not mean that we make no plans, only that they will serve miserably as a purpose for our lives.

This is where I believe it is important to consider “where we live.” We do not live in the fix, or the plan, or in the choice. We live in the present moment. It is a commandment of the Lord: “Take no thought for the morrow.”


Meaning is something that is always larger than ourselves. It is the-self-in-relation-to-everything. Thus, to create one’s own meaning puts forward the arrogance of defining everything else as well. It is like taking a piece of wood and declaring it to be our God.

The classical Christian life is born of humility and thanksgiving. It is an acknowledgement that we belong to something greater than ourselves and not of our own making.

Let go of the need to narrate your own life.  Instead, live it.  Live it in love and truth.  Follow the commandments.  Pray with thanksgiving.  And leave the narration to God.

Narrating history

I have long had an interest in the relationship between Christianity and history.  After all, the Judeo-Christian tradition is based on (supposedly) historical events.  History matters to us.  And yet, we have issues making sense of history.  There is a great temptation in the contemporary West-shared by atheists and many Christians alike-to interpret history by way of narrative.  What many refer to as the “Myth of Progress” is an Enlightenment-based myth, in which human history is seen as “progressing” (ethically, technologically) out of the “dark ages” of our species’ youth and moving towards…well, whatever.  For now, I think the Singularity is the current Destination Utopia.

The problem, of course, is that history-by any honest account-is too convoluted to be squeezed neatly into any narrative, be it Progress or anything else.  Not long ago, I slapped A.C. Grayling on this point:

Grayling also seems not to be able to process that the Enlightenment owes at least some debt to Christianity (c.f. Tom Woods)-but then again, in his worldview, there are only cardboard cut-outs and archetypal abstractions.  Reality is just too messy and complicated for someone who sees the world through the eyes of a three-year old.

What I meant by this comment is that anyone who approaches history thinking “Christianity bad, Enlightenment good”-or vice versa-is reading history in an exceedingly simple (read stupid) way.  Criticizing John Gray, Grayling wrote:

The chief of them is that he is against the progressivist ambitions of the secular Enlightenment, and he hopes to annoy its proponents by giving it Christianity for a father and – that weary old canard – Nazism and Stalinism for offspring.

What Grayling seems to have missed is the mere fact that the Enlightenment is sandwiched “between” Christianity and the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century should be a clue to any thinking person that the Enlightenment probably has something to do both-for better or for worse-both with what came before it and with what followed.  The absurd alternative, that the Enlightenment “just happened,” springing for like Athena from the head of Zeus, makes no sense on any level.  Even the Christian, who believes that there was indeed a radical “break” in history (from Outside), believes that the “break” is only intelligible in the context of the history of Israel.  Whatever the truth of history, we can be sure that there are plenty of overlaps and connections between these “eras”-if, in fact, history can even neatly be divided into “eras.”

That’s Step 1.  Step 2 is that it is equally dimwitted to assert that the Enlightenment “caused” Nazism and Stalinism, and to insist in a knee-jerk way that these evils had nothing to do with the Enlightenment.  Indeed, I would posit it is a great mistake to read history as a narrative of good and evil, where the Enlightenment is seen either as “liberation” from the powers of darkness, or, alternatively, as a disastrous mistake.  Any serious study of history makes a mockery of such efforts.  It should not be so difficult for an intellectual honest atheist to admit that Christianity is not as wicked as many believe, and that, indeed, many of the “good elements” in the modern world have Christian roots.  Thomas Woods made that case in the linked article above, Rodney Stark made the case in a recent book, and at least some atheists will grant the basic point.  And, of course, David Bentley Hart also made this case in Atheist Delusions, though, as I’ve conceded, his rhetorical overreach somewhat undermines his argument.

Moreover, the Enlightenment wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns.  As Hart explained in reviewing Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature:

For him, modern culture’s moral advances were born from the sudden and fortuitous advent of the “Age of Reason,” which” aided by the printing press-produced a “coherent philosophy” called “Enlightenment humanism,” distilled from the ideas of “Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and John Stuart Mill.” We know what he means: not the dark side of the “Enlightenment” and the printing press—“scientific racism,” state absolutism, Jacobinism, the rise of murderous ideologies, and so on—but the nice Enlightenment of “perpetual peace,” the “rights of man,” and so on.

In point of fact, the Enlightenment did not belch up a coherent philosophy at all. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it:

Alasdair MacIntyre’s point in After Virtue is that the Enlightenment project – a morality constructed on rational grounds with no reference to religion or tradition – simply failed, not because it came up with no answers but because it gave too many of them. Kant’s ethics are incompatible with Hume’s, which are irreconcilable with Bentham’s, which are anathema to Schopenhauer. The philosopher’s slide rule does more sliding than ruling, and we are left bewildered and confused.

The white man’s burden, Voltaire’s anti-Semitism, these too are part of the Enlightenment.  Grayling’s simplistic narrative paves right over these distinctions.  Again: any thinking person should know-simply by virtue of being alive-that real life is never that simple.  As Carl Olson noted in a rebuke to Grayling:

Grayling admitted in later comments that his column “was of course brief, conversational, rhetorical and polemical only.” Fair enough, but it is readily apparent where he is coming from and what he thinks of Christianity: it is an intolerant and despondent mythology that thrives on ignorance, oppression, and the suppression of knowledge.

Grayling describes himself as a “humanist” and an adherent of what he calls “secular, free-thinking, classically rooted inheritance.” He is an heir to the Enlightenment and thrives on the sort of anti-Christian polemics and dubious historical assertions that became the rage among many intellectuals during the Enlightenment era, so much so that he seems to be nearly entombed in a dusty (dare I say “old-fashioned”) form of simplistic skepticism that was in style many decades ago.

So, for example, his description of early Christianity as “an amalgam of dying and resurrecting god myths and myths”, has far more in common (nearly everything) with the pseudo-scholarship of The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors, written in 1875 by freethinker and anti-Christian Kersey Graves, than it does with the sober historical, textual, and biblical research done by over the last several decades by men such as Jean Danielou, N.T. Wright, Richard Bauckham, Raymond Brown, Luke Timothy Johnson, John Fitzmyer, Bruce Metzger, John P. Meier, Larry W. Hurtado, and many others. Writing over fifty years ago, Henri Fehner (then a professor at Russian College, Meudon, France), observed that prior to the end of the eighteenth century “nowhere at any time had there ever been any doubt about the historical existence of Christ.”1 The point here is not to launch an extended apologetic discussion on this topic, but to point out that Grayling’s position is, ironically enough, antiquated and out of step with the best scholarship.

He goes on:

Which is not to suggest that the history of Christianity from the fourth century until the twelfth century was one of steady and unhampered progress and success. Not at all. As Dawson and other historians readily point out, there were difficult, even dark, moments throughout, including the fall of Rome, disease and famine, various assaults by barbarians and, later, by Muslims. Nor is it to deny that there have been Christian despots, corrupt clergy, and lax laity. Yet Grayling apparently thinks that any mention of positive achievements on the part of Christianity is a naïve denial of any failures–as though any admission of Christian achievement is tantamount to kissing the hand of the Pope and begging entrance into the Catholic Church.

On the other hand, there are plenty of Christians who could benefit from a reminder that the Enlightenment is not all evil.  Olson notes:

Later, in the same work, Ratzinger asks the rhetorical question about his critique of the Enlightenment: “Does this amount to simple rejection of the Enlightenment and modernity? Certainly not!” He then notes that Christianity is rational, philosophical, universal, trans-political, trans-cultural, pro-man, and pro-life. “In this sense,” he writes, “the Enlightenment has a Christian origin, and it is not by chance that it was born specifically and exclusively within the sphere of the Christian faith, in places where Christianity, contrary to its own nature, had unfortunately become mere tradition and the religion of the state”. 14 Obviously, Grayling disagrees. But note that Ratzinger has no problem acknowledging whatever is good and true in the Enlightenment and in modernity. Compare that to Grayling’s refusal to admit–despite much historical evidence to the contrary–that anything good has come from Christianity.

Whether in the realms of theology and philosophy (as Ratzinger demonstrates) or the realms of science and technology (as Stark argues), Catholicism has shown a remarkable ability to assess, incorporate, assimilate, and appreciate what is good and truthful in other religions and belief systems.

I rather like the approach of Fr. Rolheiser on this issue:

A third group has a more nuanced approach: Persons such as Charles Taylor, Louis Dupre, Kathleen Norris, and, a generation earlier, Karl Rahner, see secularity as a mixed bag, a culture of both life and death, a culture that in some ways is a progression in and a purification of moral and religious values, even as it is losing ground morally and religiously in other ways. Of major importance in this view is the idea that secular culture, secularity, is the child of Judaism and Christianity. Judeo-Christianity, at least for the most part, gave birth to Rene Descartes, the principles of the Enlightenment, the French revolution, the Scottish revolution, the America revolution, and thus to democracy, the separation of church and state, and the principle that so much undergirds secularity, namely, that we agree to organize public life on the principle of rational consensus rather than on the basis of divine authority (allowing, of course, for divine authority to influence rational consensus).

Viewing secularity from this perspective, it is equally important to highlight both the moral and religious ground that has been lost in secularity as well as the moral and religious ground that has been gained. Both can be seen, for example, by looking a highly secularized culture like the Netherlands: On the hand, it is very weak in church attendance and in explicit Christian practice. Along with this there is the tolerance and legalization of abortion, drugs, prostitution, and pornography. On the other hand, they are a society that takes care of its poor better than any other society in the world and one that is recognized for its emphasis on generosity, peace, and the equality of women. These are not minor religious and moral achievements.

Where do I stand? Mostly with this third group and its belief that secularity is not our enemy but our child and that it carries inside itself both highly generative streams of life and asphyxiating rivulets of death. On the one hand, I draw a lot of my life and joy from its creativity, color, exuberance, and generative energy, often times against my own Germanic-propensity for greyness and acedia. I am also uplifted on a regular basis by the real generosity and genuine goodness that I find in most people I meet. Importantly too, I reap its stunning benefits – freedom, protection of my rights, privacy, opportunity for education, wonderful medical care, information technology, access to information, wide cultural and recreational opportunities, clean water, plentiful food, and, not least, the freedom to practice my faith and religion.

On the negative side, I recognize too its elements of death: The tolerance of abortion, the marginalization of the poor, the itch for euthanasia, lingering racism, widespread sexual irresponsibility, a growing addiction to pornography, and an ever-growing trivialization and superficiality. As reality television becomes more indicative of our culture, I begin to despair more for its depth.

As an adult child of Rene Descartes, I breathe in secularity, a very mixed air, pure and polluted; and I find myself torn between hope and fear, comfortable but uneasy, defending secularity even as I am critical of it.

Anyway, my point is that we should admit that reality is complex and stop trying to read through history through the lens of ideology.  Indeed, we would do well to stop trying to frame history in a narrative sense.  John Gray has been much maligned for his criticism of “progress,” but what Gray is really criticizing is the human tendency to mythologize our own history.  Gray suggests-and I agree with him-that our history is simply too messy to be neatly captured in narrative form.

This admission doesn’t diminish the Christian sense of “salvation history” one iota, but it does force us to revisit precisely what we mean by this.  To believe that God is at work in history-that the Divine Economy is made manifest in actual lives and actual events-is not the same thing as affirming that we can “read” the writing of God on history.  To use an overused phrase today, God’s actions in history are often “at the margins,” off the radar of the world.  A commentator on Father Freeman’s blog (this post) puts it this way:

Archaeologically, only recent has even a shred of evidence regarding the historical existence of David as King been discovered, and even that shred is disputed. Secular histories vary on whether David was an insignificant tribal leader in the southern part of Palestine, or never existed at all. From the perspective of the God who reveals Himself in the Scriptures, however, David is easily the most important king to ever reign over Israel or Judah, and page after page of the Old Testament Scriptures describe his life, his reign, and then use him as a symbol of repentance that leads to salvation on one hand, and of the Christ to come on the other.

Meanwhile, archaeologically, the Omride Dynasty, and particularly Omri himself, are far and away the most important kings to rule over the northern kingdom of Israel. Not only did he have huge military victories, territorial expansions, and building projects, not only did he open trade relations with all of Israel’s neighbors resulting in a massive boom economy, not only did he found the capital city of that kingdom upon buying the hill that became Samaria, but the nation of Israel was historically referred to by neighboring nations as the ‘House of Omri’ for centuries. In the Scriptures, however, Omri is mentioned in III Kingdoms (I Kings) 16 and receives 8 verses dedicated to him that describe him becoming king, buying the hill of Samaria, being evil, dying, and being buried.

The historical books of the Old Testament do not give us history in the sense of modern historiography. More importantly, they do not claim to. It is not that they are attempting to do modern history and somehow failing. They are succeeding perfectly in their task of revealing the divine significance of certain events. From God’s perspective, Omri is insignificant, and David is of great importance. From the perspective of the world’s history, just the opposite.

This is why these books in the Scriptures tell us again and again, as here about Omri, “Now the rest of the acts of Omri which he did, and the might that he showed, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel?” If you want the world’s history, the world has written it. The Scriptures are here to reveal to us what we could otherwise never know, and that is the real spiritual significance of these people’s lives and experiences millennia ago in the Near East, through which we are led to Christ, and can begin to understand the spiritual significance of our own lives, and the events unfolding in our own times.

I had a similar conversation this past Easter with my Mom.  We were at the Vigil Mass at St. Anne Church in Rochester, where, behind the alter, is a picture of the Blessed Mother and St. Anne (God’s grandmother).  My Mom looked at the painting and commented that it didn’t strike her as historically accurate.  I forget what my response was, but I remember my Mom’s response to me: “Oh, so that’s how God sees it.”  Whatever I said, I got that one right.

To close, some more good thoughts from Father Freeman on the (lack of) a Christian Theory of History:

Historical consciousness (an awareness of time’s passing, of one’s place within it, and an internal sense of direction through time) is a hallmark of modern human beings. We are easily persuaded to make present-tense sacrifices for the promise of a rewarded future. Even secularized persons, perhaps more than most, have an intense interiorized faith in a direction-driven history. It gives the individual a sense of place and purpose apart from God. We are building a better world.

This historical consciousness, born of a distortion of the gospel, has now come full circle and been taken up by the mind of modern Christians. For many, history is the scene of Christian development, a movement within time directed by God. It is therefore not surprising to see believers thinking of spiritual progress, or of progress in the Church or movement towards certain historical goals.

Classical Christianity, particularly in its Orthodox form, utterly rejects (or should) such foreign propositions. The Church is not a movement within history. It is the abiding presence of God-with-us as His Body. It is not the product of cause and effect (John 1:13). It is that place where the End of all things is made present to us at this time.

Progress is not a measurement within the Kingdom of God. It is a word that is not only foreign to the gospel, it is a word of quite recent coinage. Faithfulness is the more appropriate standard within the Christian life. We are not progressing.

The Christian need not obsess about trying to make history conform to a neat narrative.  History matters-and will always matter-to us.  It is incumbent upon us to confront those who attempt to read history through the lens of a three-year old (e.g. Grayling).  But is equally incumbent upon us to avoid the same mistake.  History is messy, and we cannot make it fit neatly into any kind of narrative.  Good and evil run through the whole bit.  The beauty of it all, however, is that we have no obligation to make everything fit into a simplistic narrative.  God doesn’t need one to do His work, and there is no need on our part to insist on one.


A few randoms tonight.

First, Dr. Brett Salkeld, Archdiocesan Theologian for the Archdiocese of Regina, writes an excellent piece called “Conscience or Church Teaching?”  Snippets:

As usual, a good starting point for us is the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Anyone seriously interested in this question should read the entire relevant section, paragraphs 1776-1802.  Here I will quote only the paragraph (1790) which seems to me to be the at the heart of Frank’s question:

A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.  If he were to deliberately act against it, he would condemn himself.  Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and make erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

So, we can see that Father Miller and Bishop de Roo are not in error when they highlight the primacy of conscience in Catholic teaching.  A Catholic (or anyone else, for that matter) must always follow his or her conscience.  This can be formulated in another way to help make the point clearer: it is always wrong to do what you think is wrong (even if you’re wrong).  The heart of Church teaching on conscience is that a person can never do what one believes to be evil.  The fundamental moral imperative at the heart of each person is to “do good and avoid evil.”  We cannot force a person to overrule this imperative that God has given to each of us.

On the other hand, what is often not stressed when the primacy of conscience is mentioned is that conscience can be, however sincerely believed, in error.  I was not able to see Bishop de Roo’s talk, but I was at Father Miller’s talk.  His comments about conscience came during the Q & A session following his talk.  He qualified his comments by noting that conscience is complicated and would deserve a much more thorough treatment than he was about to give it, but he did not mention this important factor.

So, yes, a person must follow a certain conscience on a given question, even if that conscience is in error!

Why is this the case?

A look at the alternative makes the logic of Church teaching clear.  Could the Church actually go about insisting that people must do certain things that they sincerely believe to be wrong?

Of course not!*

To better understand this, we need to carefully analyze such a circumstance.  If a person’s conscience erroneously tells them that they must commit a certain evil action they must do so, not because the Church thinks that in this case evil is good, but because they are already in a situation where there are no options that do not involve doing evil.  The options left to the person at this stage are a) follow your conscience and do an evil act or b) do what you are (however erroneously) certain is evil, which is itself evil.

Given these two options, the Church insists that the person follow their conscience.

Incidentally, I also heard Bishop de Roo speak, at a Call-to-Action conference a few years back.  In any case, this is probably the clearest articulation of Catholic teaching on conscience I have read yet.  Elsewhere, Brett has some good thoughts on mortal sin:

Indeed, it is even possible that people who miss Mass do not sin even venially should they have absolutely no knowledge or absolutely no freedom.  We find here a strange inversion of our normal way of talking:  what is “objectively” sin may not be real sin at all, but only what is “subjectively” sin is, in reality, sin.  Real sin, like real love, requires knowledge and freedom.  It requires subjectivity.

If we reverse the order of our requirements, putting gravity in the last place, we can catch a glimpse of the real difference between mortal and venial sin.  A venial sin is something that, even done with full knowledge and full consent, cannot be used to completely reject God.  Someone looking to break their relationship with God would have to be considered half-hearted in their attempt if they tried to do it by stealing a gumball or muttering some small calumny under their breath.  In fact, the person would know that they weren’t really trying because they would know that the matter was not grave.

A mortal sin is any act which, when done with full knowledge and consent, can be used to break off one’s relationship with God.  Under such a rubric it is much easier to see how missing Mass could be a mortal sin.  Because Mass is where we renew our communion with God, someone could use such an omission precisely to break that communion.  It is not a matter of missing Mass always being as harmful to oneself and others as murder or rape.  It is a matter of the potential way in which missing Mass could be used to say something definitive about one’s relationship with God.

The category of mortal sin does not exist to indicate some tipping point between less and more serious sins, as would be the case if only its first requirement was relevant.  Rather, it exists as an affirmation that our actions have the ability to manifest our relationship with God, something upon which the New Testament is insistent.  It says that there are things we can do to deliberately break communion.  And the category of venial sin indicates that such things take some effort.


Second, an intriguing rumination by Nathan O’Halloran, “Does Original Sin “Cause” Hurricane Sandy?”  Snippets:

God could not/did not create a perfect world.  God created a world that could only become perfect by changing.  This change implies a movement from imperfect to more perfect.  In the process of change, things, since the first moment of the Big Bang “die:” stars die, plants die, animals die.  All of that imperfection, analogically speaking, can be called “original sin.”  Analogically speaking, since “sin” is only properly so-called when freedom enters the scene.

So in this larger cosmological sense, original sin “causes” Sandy.   Original sin as the “law of imperfection” is at work in the world as the shadow side of contingent being, and so hurricanes will happen.  Of course, with human beings and freedom, sin and evil become explicit.  They are now chosen, and so take on a new dimension.  They become “sin” and “evil” proper in the world.  They become “chosen imperfection.”  But original sin was present before in an analogical sense – as the law of imperfection necessary to a contingently created universe.

According to this picture, nothing changes in the world ontologically after the Fall.  The groaning of which Paul speaks in Romans 8:22 refers not so much to the contingent status of creation – though to that as well – as it does to the ways that the freely chosen imperfection of human beings has added to the suffering of the world.  Many natural disasters are caused by human foolishness or greed.  But human sin does not cause all natural disasters per se.  It only exacerbates them.

Second, original sin “causes” Hurricane Sandy in the sense that, because of original sin, human beings now perceive and experience hurricanes and other natural disasters as “evil” in some sense rather than simply being.  This is a more indirect sense in which original sin “causes” a hurricane.  By this I mean that it “causes” a hurricane as an evil when before it would have not been perceived as such.  According to this perspective, hurricanes and natural disasters always existed, but the first self-conscious beings may not have experienced them as evil.  They may have experienced them as most animals still do: simply as being.  This has a certain historical appeal to it, since the first rational humans may have only experienced a tiny glimmer of separation from their hominid relatives.  However with sin comes suspicion, and just as Adam and Eve realized that they were naked, maybe they also realized that the world was naked.  They experienced its imperfections now as evil.  Hence, in this sense, original sin “causes” the evil of Sandy.

The discussion in the combox, by the way, is excellent (particularly when Satan appears in the discussion).  A few more great pieces from Nathan O’Halloran:  “Did Jesus Save Aliens?”  and “Why the Incarnation Matters for Our Pets (and subatomic particles)

Third, another piece from Vox Nova (guess where I’ve been on the web tonight??), this time from Henry Karlson: “On Multiple Worlds and Multiple Incarnations: Some Speculation Following St Thomas Aquinas and C.S. Lewis” Snippets:

C.S. Lewis in his Narnia series has provided to us a different way to understand the question. Here we see the Son of God has incarnated himself in the form of a lion. In Narnia, it is his form, that of the king of beasts. The children who came to help Narnia saw him as Aslan, but also learned that it was not his only form – in our world, of course, it is that of the God-man Jesus Christ. Because the form Aslan was known in Narnia was that of a lion, the children saw him, with the rest of the Narnians, as a lion. Yet, at the end of The Last Battle Lewis tells us that, after the end of Narnia, in the afterlife, the children were to see him in a new form: “And as he spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but things that begin to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them down.”[13] This occurred only after they found Narnia and our world were joined together in the eschaton, so that the two, and other worlds, merged in eternity.[14] What we have here is multiple incarnations, where one experiences the form of the Son of God according to their disposition and expectations: for Narnians, they see him as a lion, for humans, they see him as Christ.

Here we have a way to understand multiple incarnations without the need for a multitude of bodies. The incarnation can be experienced and seen differently, even though it is one and the same body which is being encountered. The normal way to see him would be according to one’s nature, though other factors could change that experience, so that one could see him and encounter him in other forms.[15] Understanding this will also help us appreciate the eucharist, which gives us Christ in the form of bread (though no longer of the nature of bread, so there is a distinction here which must not be left unacknowledged).

What is being said here is that our own experiences, past, and means by which we interpret the world, the construction of the world we create for ourselves, becomes the means by which we interpret and understand the incarnate God. We can be freed from such constructions, and see him in other, greater forms, once we are open to them through his grace – the transfiguration, for example, was one such manifestation for Peter, James and John.


If there are multiple incarnations, it would be as “one person clothed with multiple garments,” but the garment which we see and experience would be based upon the spiritual and mental condition we bring to us in that meeting. For most of us, that would mean, Christ as human, or Christ glorified in his humanity; but, if we encounter and find other forms of intelligent life, we might find ourselves open to, and experiencing, Christ in those forms as well.

A key takeaway from several of these articles is that our faith ancestors, long before us, contemplated the possibility of other, nonhuman, forms of “rational life”-both “out there” in the Great Beyond and here below.  Ditto for evolution.  We need a strong dose of humility when it comes to believing we are the first to consider big, expansive ideas-chronological snobbery does that to us.

Incidentally, on the subject of Narnia, Lewis himself instead his works were not “fiction” but “suppositional.”  As Lewis wrote to one Mrs. Hook in 1958:

If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair [a character in The Pilgrim’s Progress] represents despair, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality, he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like, if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?’ This is not allegory at all.[

Fourth, and lastly, all of these big picture theological reflections are great fun, but I feel compelled to return to earth for a moment.  Check out this video below from Brene Brown.  I first heard of Brown through a friend of mine who is…let’s just say, activist.  And, I will confess, I wasn’t much impressed with Brown at first.  However, after listening to this talk, and reading a bit of her work, I was exceedingly impressed at how…well, traditional she is.  She reminds me, in a sense, of Henri Nouwen or Jean Vanier-someone who sounds non-traditional, but presents a traditional message.  Substantively, she doesn’t sound all that far off from Father Freeman (though, of course, she does not speak theologically).

Her thoughts here are quite beautiful, practical, and worth bearing in mind.