A few, short, vignettes as I prepare for “re-entry” into the “Real World” following vacation:
#1 – A WORD FROM THE POPE EMERITUS
Only recently saw the following gems in Introduction to Christianity:
Man is a being who himself does not live forever but is necessarily delivered up to death. For him, since he has no continuance in himself, survival, from a purely human point of view, can only become possible through his continuing to exist in another. The statements of Scripture about the connection between sin and death are to be understood from this angle. For it now becomes clear that man’s attempt “to be like God”, his striving for autonomy, through which he wishes to stand on his own feet alone, means his death, for he just cannot stand on his own. If man—and this is the real nature of sin—nevertheless refuses to recognize his own limits and tries to be completely self-sufficient, then precisely by adopting this attitude he delivers himself up to death.
Holiness in the Church begins with forbearance and leads to bearing up; where there is no more forbearing, there is no more bearing up either, and existence, lacking support, can only sink into the void. People may well say that such words express a sickly existence—but it is part of being a Christian to accept the impossibility of autonomy and the weakness of one’s own resources.
Kinda harsh words, in our culture at least, but the Pope Emeritus speaks truth here, and a valuable one we would do well to heed. As I have been saying constantly, “autonomy” is really an illusion at the end of the day, and a rather pernicious one.
#2 – A WORD FROM THOMAS NAGEL
More from Mind and Cosmos:
But I have alluded to the fact that human consciousness is not merely passive but is permeated, both in action and in cognition, with intentionality, the capacity of the mind to represent the world and its own aims.
Consciousness presents a problem for evolutionary reductionism because of its irreducibly subjective character. This is true even of the most primitive forms of sensory consciousness, such as those presumably found in all animals. The problem that I want to take up now concerns mental functions such as thought, reasoning, and evaluation that are limited to humans, though their beginnings may be found in a few other species. These are the functions that have enabled us to transcend the perspective of the immediate life-world given to us by our senses and instincts, and to explore the larger objective reality of nature and value.
It is not merely the subjectivity of thought but its capacity to transcend subjectivity and to discover what is objectively the case that presents a problem.
Nagel suggests that the subjectivity of consciousness (the qualia problem), as interesting and nettlesome as it is, is not the really hard problem, the really hard problem is the ability of subjective consciousness to grasp objective reality. In this regard he sounds a bit like an (unconscious) Thomist. I’ve noted before that while the Thomistic “hierarchy of souls” does not explain consciousness or subjectivity per se, it does eliminate the problem of trying to reduce subjectivity to matter in motion. Against materialism (and with Nagel), Thomism-as I understand-recognizes a continuum of consciousness as being as much a part of the fabric of reality as matter. In other words, reality consists of both what physics can explain and “irreducible mental states” (hat tip to Colin McGinn). Whether you call it hylomorphism (Aristotle) or dual-aspect monism (John Polkinghorne), reality as multiple “flavors” to it. Even Sean Carroll (in a different way) makes that point, by suggesting that we can “tell the story of reality in different ways.”
Nagel also-inadvertently-invokes the Thomistic understanding of “rational souls” by recognizing that the intellect’s capacity to “transcend” (I hate that word!!) mere subjectivity is distinct from subjectivity itself. This is (obviously) a key distinction in Thomism. Not that subjectivity is irrelevant-the existence of subjective experience remains a thorn in the side of materialism (or should anyway), and is an essential part of anthropology as taught by the Catholic Church. Francis Cardinal George, of Blessed Memory, notes:
By participation in moments of self-transcendence, the person acquires specific fulfillment and identity.
Because we are made in Gods image and likeness, to be human means to be infinite in our inspired reach even though always finite in our own means. People are able, when they realize their limitations, to turn to God and accept infinity itself, eternity itself, as pure gift. Human subjectivity, which is the locus of our coming to awareness of who we are as people with infinite desires and finite means, is bound up in self-consciousness that is able to discern the spiritual at work in the temporal.
The capacity for self-consciousness that defines us as human beings is related to the self-giving that brings us genuine freedom…every human being is a person who is capable, although not necessarily very fully, of self-knowledge and self-possession, and therefore capable of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons.
Cardinal George explained St. Pope John Paul II’s thinking on this subject thusly:
In the future pope’s analysis of the acting person and of the persons in community, we find a project designed, first of all, to heal the modern split between subject and object. This split has opened chasms between subjective persons and objective society, between subjective faith and public life. To restore human persons, both their subjective wholeness and concrete totality, Wojtyla begins with the phenomenon of “I-act.” In acting, the human self comes to self-possession through conscious self-determination; and acting in the world reveals the “I,” and subject, as related. Self-consciousness becomes deeper and more integrated as action brings a person into ever wider fields of experience.
Once again, the power of subjectivity to know the objective is key.
3 – A WORD ON ORIGINAL JUSTICE
Bishop Barron’s commentary on Rev. Rutledge’s The Crucifixion continues. There are some interesting comments on the latest article over at Word on Fire:
As an somewhat skeptical naturalist, I see nothing fundamentally wrong with existence or human behavior—it’s precisely how I would expect an extremely clever mammal, with unprecedented ability to influence its environment and itself, would behave. Violence, conflict, decadence, agony, territorial war—we find all these and more in the animal kingdom, in species other than our own. I don’t “feel in my bones,” as Rutledge does, a sense that something has gone deeply wrong here. What are you comparing it to? What universe do you know of where things have “gone right”? It’s really pure speculation. Things do go “wrong” relative to an entity or ecosystem. Stars burn out and some explode. Whole species disappear because of catastrophic disasters, some extraterrestrial, some environmental. Human behavior, given that we are animals, like every other organism, living in a finite world with finite resources and many vulnerabilities and deficiencies (cognitive, biological, psychological, etc), means that conflict and violence is unavoidable, or at least completely understandable, rather than evidence that something has gone terribly wrong in nature. If evolutionary theory is true, we should expect to see what we do see in human history, and residues of that history among our closest primate relatives. They deal with conflict, reproductive necessity and environmental threats, just as we do. Since this sense that “things have gone wrong” is intuitive, emotional—and essential for Christianity to even get off the ground—I think this is a real problem for a person outside the religion looking in. Christ doesn’t make sense without this “feeling in our bones.” But investigating the nonhuman natural world puts a lot of strain on the idea that certain human behavior (which you call “sin”) is not something that appears out of nowhere or without strong genetic and evolutionary preconditions, all of which predate “sin” itself! I find it hard to believe an omniscient god would design *this* particular universe and then be surprised when humans act selfishly, or for the good of the clan, protecting others in it and fighting against other species for precious, limited resources.
I meant to say it puts strain on the idea that “[sin] appears out of nowhere or without strong genetic and evolutionary preconditions,” that it challenges the idea that we are an exception in our biological environment, such that “sin” is not evolutionarily surprising. It seem we have the desire to make of ourselves an exception within nature. Our sin has the ability to touch creation itself, apparently, and once again we find ourselves at the center of things, if only in thinking our behavior has deep, cosmic relevance.
These are important comments, and something that Catholics should take careful notice of (I also recall Christopher Hitchens making this point some time ago). Evolutionary biology does seem to pose significant problems for any account of sin, and I would agree that if there is no sin-if something hasn’t “gone deeply wrong”-then we do indeed have a serious problem vis-à-vis Christianity. So what do we say here?
Well, to a degree, I accept the skeptic’s terms. Many people throughout human history have had a sense that something in the world is “off,” and there is a frequently recurring theme in many cultures and traditions of a “lost golden age,” a “primordial memory,” if you will. Virtually all the world’s religions agree something is wrong (though they don’t agree on what the problem or the solution is) and many do indeed contain the “primordial memory” of “another time.” Granted, these recurring themes do not prove anything; they could explained away as evolutionary hangovers, and it could well be that our sense that “something is off” is intuitive, emotional-and wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time in our human experience.
It is the contention of the Catholic Church, however, that this recurring “feeling in our bones” is not an evolutionary hangover, but is telling us something true about reality. The Catholic “take” on the primordial memory goes by the term “original justice.” In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
374 The first man was not only created good, but was also established in friendship with his Creator and in harmony with himself and with the creation around him, in a state that would be surpassed only by the glory of the new creation in Christ.
375 The Church, interpreting the symbolism of biblical language in an authentic way, in the light of the New Testament and Tradition, teaches that our first parents, Adam and Eve, were constituted in an original “state of holiness and justice”.250 This grace of original holiness was “to share in. . .divine life”.251
376 By the radiance of this grace all dimensions of man’s life were confirmed. As long as he remained in the divine intimacy, man would not have to suffer or die.252 The inner harmony of the human person, the harmony between man and woman,253 and finally the harmony between the first couple and all creation, comprised the state called “original justice”.
377 The “mastery” over the world that God offered man from the beginning was realized above all within man himself: mastery of self. The first man was unimpaired and ordered in his whole being because he was free from the triple concupiscence254 that subjugates him to the pleasures of the senses, covetousness for earthly goods, and self-assertion, contrary to the dictates of reason.
378 The sign of man’s familiarity with God is that God places him in the garden.255 There he lives “to till it and keep it”. Work is not yet a burden,256 but rather the collaboration of man and woman with God in perfecting the visible creation.
400 The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination.282 Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man.283 Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”.284 Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will “return to the ground”,285 for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history.286
None of this, I realize, will impress the skeptic, but it is important to sort out the Church’s narrative on original justice to truly understand the teaching. The Church does not mandate a “literal” reading of Genesis, and the most common view today (as I understand it) is that at some point in history human beings enjoyed the state of original justice and then fell from that state. Mind you, this is not merely a mytho-poetic reading of dawning of self-consciousness, the Church teaches that there actually was an Adam, and the Fall “really happened,” but the actual details are lost to us. C.S. Lewis offered a take on this in The Problem of Pain, that I expounded on previously. In essence, we “fell back” into the “merely natural,” after initially (again details unknown) enjoying the state of original justice.
(Admittedly, not everyone in the Church shares this view-some contend the Fall took place in a different “dimension” of reality.)
The point is that for us the “primordial memory” is not simply a vestigial coping mechanism, but points to something that is “really real.” That this is a matter of faith and interpretation of the world, and not something self-evident, is a given. I would not say that the idea of a “universe gone right” is no more than pure speculation, and-though this is somewhat clichéd-I think the human sense of moral obligation is our “clue” in that department. No one-not even and perhaps least of all-the skeptic who understands that violence and misery are “natural” in evolutionary terms accepts that reality as it is, we are all drawn to something better. The mere fact that we can imagine a better world, in and of itself, is remarkably compelling. Lewis’s explanation of the Moral Law, in Mere Christianity, may be out of fashion, but it is hardly out of date. We are drawn to what should be, which makes it possible for us to be horrified at the state of what is. The conflict of is-ought is an unavoidable part of being human.
I want to add one more word about the Fall. I noted above that the idea of the Fall is not merely a nice little parable of the birth of self-consciousness, though that idea is not entirely wrong (see #2 above). Incidentally, we shouldn’t use the phrase “fall upwards” (hence why I use the expression “fall back”). Lewis mocked the positive framing delightfully in Miracles:
They say that the story of the Fall in Genesis is not literal; and then go on to say (I have heard them myself) that it was really a fall upwards—which is like saying that because ‘My heart is broken’ contains a metaphor, it therefore means ‘I feel very cheerful’.
The commentator above is skeptical that our behavior has “deep cosmic relevance.” In point of fact, many theologians have suggested just that-contemporary Orthodox theologians most vividly (c.f. Olivier Clement). As it happens, however, there is a diversity of opinion here. Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli explain:
There are three ways of explaining how this may have happened. The first and simplest is that the “thorns and thistles” were there before the Fall but they only hurt afterward. The second is that fallen angels had already corrupted the earth, but God protected Adam and Eve in a special garden; they abandoned this protection when they abandoned God the protector. (This theory was held by some of the church fathers; we wonder where there is any good theological or scientific disproof of it, or if it is just unfashionable to take seriously the work of demons). The third is that Adam was the priest of the world, and the Fall was like saying a Black Mass, perverting everything. The bottom line is, of course, that we do not know and can only speculate about how it happened.
Some have suggested that quantum physics supports the third option (of course), given that everything in reality is interconnected, and may even have had a retroactive effect on cosmic time. It is possible that Teilhard de Chardin held this view. Alexandre Kalomiros articulates this position in The Six Days of Creation:
Before the appearance of man on earth, all living things, even the stars of the universe, were dying because of man, in a period when man did not yet exist. Mollusks and fish were dying in the oceans in the first days of creation, not only before man appeared on the sixth day, but much earlier than the appearance of the first reptiles on land on the fifth day. Why were they dying before the existence of man if not because they were connected with him ontologically? If man was not to come from them, why were the fish in the oceans, the reptiles, and the birds of the fifth day eating one another because of the fall? Why would nature have to suffer from the beginning, to groan and travail, if not because of the free action of the last creature to appear on the earth, if not because all creatures were connected one with the other in an unbroken natural bond? And what natural bond exists in nature other than genealogy, the fact that we are born one from the other?
Man’s revolt against God not only had consequences from the appearance of man and after it; it had the same consequences for everyone and everything that lived before it, long before it. It was because of the ontological unity in creation, which is not contingent upon the course of time. Of course, it was not because of some kind of revenge by God. The will of God was nothing but a prescription for life, and man’s revolt against it brought corruptibility and death upon creation for the simple reason that it separated man from the source of life and immortality, which is God. It was man and not God who raised up a wall that separated him from his Creator. And it was this separation that brought corruptibility and death, since life and incorruptibility are God.
Again, this a theological opinion (not dogma), and I am not sure I believe it myself, but I am certainly willing to grant the possibility. Incidentally, on the subject of evolution, Kalmoiros has a brilliant rebuke to those (like Tom Woods) who consider it an insult that Christ may have been “descended from animals”:
What are we in ourselves but “soil of the earth?” Why are we scandalized by the fact that we are animals that descend from other, lower animals, and that they came from the “soil of the earth?” We must have truly lost touch with Orthodox Christian teaching to be so scandalized by the truth that is thunderously shouted by Holy Scripture, the hymnology of the Church and her teachers and fathers? Our Orthodox Christian faith is a faith of humility. We Orthodox Christians know that according to our nature we are nothing, a zero that God brought into being from nonbeing. And rather than letting it fall into non-existence again from whence it came, He elevated it and made it the throne of God and more honorable than Cherubim and more glorious than the Seraphim. The glory we acquired is God’s and not our own. We are Christians, we are not idolaters.
Anyway, as I have said, I do not expect this will persuade any unbeliever, I offer it merely as how the Church sees the world. The rest of the comments on the Word on Fire article also make good points that should not be casually dismissed. In particular, the comment that humans have an obsession with setting themselves apart from nature is worth a whole reflection in itself. Part of the problem with this one is few people really believe that there is no distinction (most people can see that our self-consciousness is a bit of an issue), and it is difficult to be logically consistent on this subject (John Gray and Stephen Jay Gould are probably the best from the atheist camp).
What about the comments vis-à-vis human suffering, delayed redemption and so forth? Again, good comments, very valid concerns. I have written about such things before, and would only say here that I am not so quick to comment on what God (good, omniscient, omnipotent), can, should, would or must do under any particular circumstances. Yes, it is odd that Almighty power is exercised in weakness, and yes most of us think we could do a better job (though I’m far from convinced of that). In the end however, reality is stubborn and unpredictable, and I take great comfort in belonging to a Church that is quite open about this apparent incongruence, and still preaches it without shame.