The Faith for Realists

A good friend of mine, reviewing my recent post on whether we are “here to help,” posed a sharp question to me:

You have spoken on your use for religion only in so much as it tells you about reality.  This of course is a reactionary statement…[however] religion as a worldview has crept into your blog as a suitable understanding.  Perhaps a better phrasing is, “reality examination tool,” or “basis set for understanding reality,” in my physical-mathematical understanding.

My friend, incidentally, is a physicist.  He goes on to say:

In the image and likeness of God man was man.  Man then asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  If this religion of Jesus is true, we are here to help, not like Karl (I agree), but like Clavier, who saw more than the body such to preach repentance to the dying captives while still giving the little comfort he could as it was due to that made in the image and likeness of love.

Now, I must make the obligatory statement that-as is the case with most authors-hyperbole is one of my favorite tools.  So, the fact that I sometimes appear to take extreme positions (thus prompting “reactionary” questions like this) is unavoidable.  Now, that being said there is a response to my friend’s question.  The short, pointed response is simply “God is love” (cf. 1 John 4:8).  However, that answer will not due-in part because it is not self-explanatory (this is a concealed dig at Sola Scriptura-look closely you’ll see it) and partially because I cannot response to any question or statement with anything less than another essay.  So, without further ado, here we go.

What is religion/Christianity?

My friends asks whether religion is fundamentally a “reality examination tool.”  My answer to that is a qualified, equivocal “Yes” and therefore requires a bit of parsing.  If one wishes to understand what religion is, its teleos if you will, I have often found that the most helpful image is Trinitarian, or, in my own preferred terminology, the “Troika Model” of the faith.  This basic understanding has a longstanding pedigree.  First, I quote Karl Adam:

This supernatural being of the Church expresses itself chiefly in her most primary creations, in dogma, morals and worship.

Her dogma aims at being nought else than the truths of Christ’s revelation presented to our belief by her infallible authority, the glad tidings of all that precious reality, and all that abounding life which have entered this our actual world along with the Uncreated Word. The dogmas of Christology, in the narrower sense, delineate the Person of the God-man and describe the radiation of the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus. The dogmas of Soteriology set forth His redemptive activity in His life, passion and death, and at the right hand of the Father. The dogmas that concern the Trinity lead us to the fundamental source of this divine life, to the bosom of the Father, and join the actual manifestation of Jesus to the eternal processions of the inner life of the Trinity. The dogmas of Mariology describe the bodily and natural relations of the Humanity of Jesus and His redemptive work to His own blessed Mother. The dogmas of Grace secure the character of the redemption as unmerited and due wholly to God, and fix the new basic mood of the redeemed, namely, love, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost. The dogmas that deal with the Church, the sacraments and the sacramentals, show how the new life that welled up in Christ is communicated to the men of all times and places. The dogmas of the Last Things set forth Jesus as the Judge and Fulfiller, and show how, when His redemptive work is complete, He gives back His lordship to the Father, that “God may be all in all.”

Thus all the dogmas of the Catholic Church are stamped with the name of Christ; they would express each and every aspect of His teaching, they would bring the living, redeeming, ruling, judging Christ before our eyes according to all the dimensions of His historical manifestation.

And not otherwise is it with the Church’s morality and with her worship. The fundamental object of all her educative work, of all her instruction, preaching and discipline, is to make the Christian a second Christ, an “alter Christus,” to make him, as the Fathers express it, “Christ-like.” This one highest aim of its endeavor gives Christian morality its inner unity. There is no two-fold morality in the Church, since there is but one Christ to be formed. But the ways and manners in which men strive towards this goal are infinitely various, as various as the human personalities which have to mature and grow up to the stature of Christ. Very many of the faithful will be able to form the image of Christ in themselves only in very vague and general outline. Yet, just as nature at times sees fit to give of her best and to manifest her superabundant power in some perfect types, even so the fullness of Christ which works in the Church breaks out ever and again in this or that saintly figure into brilliant radiance, in marvels of self- surrender, love, purity, humility and devotion. Professor Merkle’s book may provide even outsiders with some insight into the deep earnestness and heroic strength with which the Church in every century of her existence has striven after the realization of the image of Christ, after the translation of His spirit into terms of flesh and blood, after the incarnation of Jesus in the individual man.

And the worship of the Church breathes the same spirit, and is as much interwoven with Christ and full of Christ as is her morality. Just as every particular prayer of the liturgy ends with the ancient Christian formula: “Per Christum Dominum nostrum,” so is every single act of worship, from the Mass down to the least prayer, a memorial of Christ, an “anamnesis Christou”. Nay, more, the worship of the Church is not merely a filial remembrance of Christ, but a continual participation by visible mysterious signs in Jesus and His redemptive might, a refreshing touching of the hem of His garment, a liberating handling of His sacred Wounds. That is the deepest purpose of the liturgy, namely, to make the redeeming grace of Christ present, visible and fruitful as a sacred and potent reality that fills the whole life of the Christian. In the sacrament of Baptism—so the believer holds—the sacrificial blood of Christ flows into the soul, purifies it from all the infirmity of original sin and permeates it with its own sacred strength, in order that a new man may be born thereof, the re-born man, the man who is an adopted son of God. In the sacrament of Confirmation, Jesus sends His “Comforter,” the Spirit of constancy and divine faith, to the awakening religious consciousness, in order to form the child of God into a soldier of God. In the sacrament of Penance Jesus as the merciful Savior consoles the afflicted soul with the word of peace: Go thy way, thy sins are forgiven thee. In the sacrament of the Last Anointing the compassionate Samaritan approaches the sick-bed and pours new courage and resignation into the sore heart. In the sacrament of Marriage He engrafts the love of man and wife on His own profound love for His people, for the community, for the Church, on His own faithfulness unto death. And in the priestly consecration by the imposition of hands, He transmits His messianic might, the power of His mission, to the disciples whom He calls, in order that He may by their means pursue without interruption His work of raising the new men, the children of God, out of the kingdom of death.

Therefore dogma, morality and worship are primary witnesses to the consciousness of the Church that she is of supernatural stock, that she is the Body of Christ.

More recently, Peter Kreeft employs the “Troika Model” in his catechism, Catholic Christianity:

The word “religion” comes from religare in Latin and means “relationship”—relationship with God.

All religions have three aspects: creed, code, and cult; words, works, and worship; theology, morality, and liturgy.

Thus there are three parts to this study of the Catholic religion: (1) what Catholics believe, (2) how Catholics live, and (3) how Catholics worship.

These are also the three parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (The Catechism divides the third part into two: public worship and private prayer; thus it has four parts.)

The whole of religion stems from faith. The Creed is a summary of the faith. Morality is living the faith. Liturgy is the celebration of the faith. Prayer is what faith does.

They correspond to the three powers of every human soul: mind, will, and heart. All three are equally central to being a Catholic.

The three parts do not come separately but simultaneously. Catholics do not first decide what to believe, then begin to live morally after that, and then move on to prayer and worship after that. In fact, the order is sometimes the reverse; for the most usual source of a loss of faith is an immoral life, and the most powerful source of a moral life is prayer and the sacraments. The more prayer, the more virtue; the more virtue, the more faith.

The three parts are like the three legs of a tripod. The legs’ may be weak or strong, long or short, but if all three are not there, it is not a tripod. A person is not a Catholic without belief in the essence of what the Church teaches as God’s revealed truth or without a sincere effort to obey what the Church teaches as God’s commandments or without facing God in prayer as the Church does. To refuse to believe, to obey, and to pray is to be a non-Catholic; to believe, obey, and pray weakly is to be a weak Catholic; to believe, obey and pray well is to be a strong Catholic. God alone can know whether anyone is a weak Catholic or a strong Catholic; but you can and should know whether you are a Catholic or not.

These three parts of the Catholic religion—faith, works, and worship—are three aspects or dimensions of the same single reality, like the three dimensions of space. The reality we confess in the Creed is the same reality we obey in the commandments and participate in in the sacraments. That one reality is the life of Christ. Not imitating the life of Christ, but that life itself; not trying to copy its imagined essence, but continuing its real existence; not merely “What would Jesus do?” but “What is Jesus doing?”

Others have invoked similar imagery.  Consider, in a slightly different vein, John Polkinghorne:

In these noetic realms of rational skill, moral imperative and aesthetic delight-of encounter with the true, the good and the beautiful-other forces are at work to draw out and enhance distinctive human potentialities.

The rational, moral and aesthetic contexts within which hominid capacities began to develop are essential and abiding dimensions of created reality.

Nor is the Troika Model limited to Catholics-Frederica Mathewes-Green invokes “doctrine, worship and values” in one of her summaries of Eastern Orthodoxy.  And the recurring imagery of the Good, the True and the Beautiful is a favorite of Bishop Robert Barron:

The pattern is more or less as follows:  first the beautiful (how wonderful!), then the good (I want to participate!) and finally the true (now I understand!).

The Troika Model is not the only imagery for understanding Christianity of course, but it is one with a venerable pedigree and-Providentially-happens to be Trinitarian, so it is the one I prefer.  The Troika Model takes with full seriousness that Christianity is a Way of Life that leads to Truth (see what I did there?), and so integrates prayer and the sacraments seamlessly with doctrine and morality.  Properly understood, “morality” in the true Catholic sense is far more than a behavioral code.  Part Three of the Catechism appropriately refers to this dimension as “Life in Christ,” and its contents-the dignity of the human person, Beatitude, the Passions, grace and justification, virtue, etc.-illustrate that what Catholicism means by “morality” really could be translated as “anthropology properly understood” or “theological anthropology” if you prefer.  This, by the way, is why I believe that pace folks like Lazar Puhalo Catholics should boldly re-appropriate the word “morality.”

In any case, this dimension-the “moral” arm of the Troika-only truly makes sense in the context of the other two arms.  Having set the stage in this way, I turn to my friend’s first point: whether Christianity is a “reality examination tool.”

Faith as Seeing Reality

The short answer, bluntly, is yes, though it is not just that-faith is also a tool for living in light of reality once it has been examined.  Nonetheless, as I repeat ad nauseum in my writing,  religion is at its core fundamentally a claim about reality.  As such Christianity, is inescapably a means, an optic if you will, of properly seeing reality.  I will invoke Alister McGrath to help make this point, with McGrath in turn invoking C.S. Lewis:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else” (C. S. Lewis).  These carefully crafted words express Lewis’s core belief in the rationality of the Christian faith. Lewis (1898–1963) came to believe in God partly through his deepening conviction that God was to be compared to an intellectual sun which illuminated the landscape of reality. The Christian faith was, for Lewis, like a lens which allowed things to be seen in sharp focus. Its capacity to illuminate and make sense of reality was, he argued, an indication (but not a proof) of its truth. Not every enigma was resolved; for Lewis, the question of suffering would remain a major cause of intellectual discomfort, particularly in later life.  Yet his faith in God offered him an Archimedean point from which he could make sense of the riddles and puzzles of the world.

In speaking of believing in Christianity as being analogous to believing that the sun has risen, Lewis makes two quite different, though related, points. First, it makes sense to believe in God. Head and heart, reason and imagination—all point us towards their goal in God. They may not take us all the way to faith, but they point us in the right direction. Second, Lewis argues that belief in God gives us a way of framing the world, allowing it to be seen properly. Faith in God is the lens that brings reality into sharp focus, the sun that lights up the world so that it may be seen more fully and clearly. Belief in God makes sense in itself and makes sense of everything else—including the success and limits of the natural sciences.

Yet an objection might be raised here. Christians talk about salvation rather than explanation. They speak about worshipping God or praying to God, rather than thinking of God as some sort of cosmic reference handbook. The idea of God making sense of things seems to play a smaller role in everyday Christian thinking than Lewis appears to suggest. Earlier we noted Terry Eagleton’s incisive statement that “Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place.”

It is true that there is more to Christianity than trying to make sense of things. The gospel is not so much about explanation as about salvation: the transformation of human existence through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Nevertheless, though the emphasis of the Christian proclamation may not be on explaining the world, it also offers a distinctive way of looking at things which, at least in principle, enables us to see things in different ways and thus leads us to act in ways consistent with this. Christianity involves believing that certain things are true, that they may be relied upon, and that they illuminate our perceptions, decisions, and actions.

Lewis’s argument is that Christianity provides a framework, a way of thinking, which makes more sense of the world than its alternatives, including his own former atheism. To put this somewhat formally: Christianity is characterized at one and the same time by its intra-systemic elegance and its extra-systemic fecundity. The Christian vision of reality possesses an internal coherence and consistency which is at least matched by its remarkable ability to make sense of what we observe and experience. Christian theology has a conceptual spaciousness which allows it to accommodate the natural sciences, art, morality, and other religious traditions. Christianity has the capacity to make sense of the world, simultaneously reinforcing the intellectual case for the existence of God while offering a way of “seeing nature” that enables us to appreciate and respect it in ways that would otherwise not be possible.

Seeing nature—we must linger momentarily on that highly significant phrase. Lewis declares that the Christian faith allows us to see things as they really are. Yet we are unable to see things as they actually are unless we are helped to see them properly. The British moral philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch (1919–99) pointed out that “by opening our eyes we do not necessarily see what confronts us.… Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world.” This veil needs to be removed so that we can see properly. The gospel allows this veil to be drawn aside so that we can see things clearly for what they really are.

The Christian faith offers a framework of meaning which is deeply embedded in the order of things and ultimately originates from and expresses the character of God. The world may indeed seem meaningless and pointless. What is needed, however, is a lens or a conceptual framework which brings things into focus. The world may seem meaningless; yet this is because we do not see it in the right way. If it seems hopelessly out of focus and disorganized, it is because we have yet to find the key to bringing it into focus and weaving its seemingly disconnected and unrelated threads together into a tapestry of meaning. Christianity provides a framework of meaning which illuminates the shadowlands of reality, brings our observations of the world into focus, and weaves the threads of our experience into a pattern. C. S. Lewis summed it up well in a well-turned statement we noted earlier: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”

To borrow a phrase from Aldus Huxley, Christianity is a means of “cleansing the doors of perception,” so as to truly see reality (and Reality) as it is.  There is, of course, an intellectual dimension to this-the capacious intellectual framework of which McGrath so eloquently speaks.  Another author, David Skeel, has recently contended that Christianity is a means of making sense of the world’s complexities, and-moreover-that this rather brazen claim is inescapable if one is to take Christianity seriously:

Any religion or system of thought that purports to be true needs to make sense of a world that is filled with these and other complexities. It may not have answers for every possible question now. After all, human understanding is sufficiently limited that some philosophers suspect there are some things we will never fully understand, such as the nature of human consciousness. But the capacity to provide explanations for some of the complexities of life as we actually experience it is a key test of any religion or system of thought that claims to offer a comprehensive account of our place in the universe.

This does not mean, incidentally, that Christianity is in the business of establishing its own “forms” of doing science or anything else (one thinks of Lewis’s pointed remark that the injunction “Feed the hungry!” does not amount to lessons in cookery).  The theologian Denys Turner, reflecting on the thought of Thomas Aquinas, notes:

For him, to say that the world is created adds nothing at all to our information about the kind of world we have got. As Thomas said, who thought the world is created – it amounts to his reply to Aristotle, who thought that it is not – the difference between a created and an uncreated world is no difference at all so far as concerns how you describe it; any more, as later Kant said, the difference between an existent and a non-existent 100 Thaler bill can make a difference to how a 100 Thaler bill is described.’ As we have seen, for Thomas, the logic of’. . . is created’ is the same as the logic of’. . . exists’: an uncreated x and a created x cannot differ in respect of what an x is, and so to say that the world is created makes not the least difference to how you do your science, or your history, or read your literatures; it does not make that kind of particular difference to anything. The only difference it makes is all the difference to everything.

This, by the way, is the literal definition of “metaphysics”-a framework for the whole of reality.

In any case, this sense of seeing reality is not entirely, or even primarily, an intellectual affair.  Eastern Christian spirituality puts an immense emphasis on purifying the heart (in the Biblical sense) so that one may see reality correctly.  The proper way of seeing reality, as the East understands it, is through the eyes of love-a “compassionate heart inflamed with love for all creatures” in the words of St. Isaac the Syrian.  Learning to see through the eye of love gives one, in a sense, a “God’s Eye View” of reality.  And, I think this point is obvious, it is a near perfect illustration of the Troika model: Seeing reality is seamlessly and inseparably integrated with prayer and the Church’s sacramental life on the one hand and the rest of life (what we call “morality”) on the other.  The intellectual/rational optic of Christianity that McGrath expounds upon, and the “heart inflamed with love,” are not mutually exclusive, they are but two sides of the same coin.

Providentially/coincidentally Father Freeman has recently offered some helpful imagery on this:

Faith is not a matter of “belief,” an act of intellectual willing. Faith is a perception of things that do not necessarily appear obvious. In the language of Scripture – “faith is the evidence of things not seen.” But the perception of faith is similar to the perception of objects beneath the surface of a lake. If the surface is disturbed, the objects disappear. The objects do not go away – but we can no longer perceive them.

There is a recurring theme in both McGrath’s words and Father Freeman’s thoughts: the perception of faith is not our default perception of the world, it is not (if I may use a truly painful phrase) the observation of the obvious.  Meaning is not visible on the surface-as Peter Kreeft wrote in his wonderful book Three Philosophies of Life one whose view of life is limited to the surface can go no further than the viewpoint of Ecclesiastes and its superfluous notion of “Nature’s God” in seeing reality (and that is assuming one looks at the surface honestly).  Learning to see with the eyes of faith, of course, entails a measure of spiritual discipline.  Father Freeman explains that for the East this discipline is largely a matter of cultivating simplicity, a great challenge for neurotic intellectuals like myself.  As a practical tip he suggests:

1. Quit caring so much. The world does not depend on you getting the right answer to life’s questions. Answers often come when we learn to wait patiently for them.

2. Quit comparison shopping. Truth is not a commodity. You don’t want the “better” one. You want the right one.

3. Quit thinking so much. If thinking would solve the problem and make things less complicated, you’d be through by now.

In other words, one will never cultivate the vision of faith if one treats it as an intellectual problem.  The vision of faith, and its attendant rational/intellectual/metaphysical framework, only works when integrated with the set of practices and traditions that compromises the Way.  Neurotic questioning and obsessive thinking will not give one the eyes of faith.  Only the Way can do that.  I make the obligatory exceptions for those to whom God grants the eye of faith-faith is a supernaturally infused virtue after all.  Nonetheless, it is still a virtue that requires some cultivation-read some work-on our part.

A final part on this matter of truth.  Classical Christianity has a longstanding affiliation of the “correspondence theory of truth” (such as, for instance, Aquinas’s “Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus”).  As Father Freeman has also recently explained, Truth for the classical Christian is something discovered, or-more appropriately-received.  He notes:

Discovery is an aspect of tradition, the experience we have when we confront that which is handed down or given to us. And it is worth noting, that this is simply part of how the world actually is. Its givenness is its primary quality and our discovery of its givenness is a primary quality of our sanity.

Discovery is a matter of the heart as well as the mind.  It is a perception of what is outside us, and can be shared. It can be perceived by others. As a matter of the heart it is an openness to what has been given, a willingness to receive.

This sense of discovery as receiving Truth is properly cultivated only by the spiritual discipline Father Freeman had previously remarked upon-and thus the Troika comes full circle yet again.

Faith as Co-Suffering Love

I turn, now, to a particular dimension of Christianity as it is lived, namely the sense of entering into the suffering of others.  Lazar Puhalo calls this a “co-suffering” love and this is a term I will gladly appropriate from it.  As I noted not long ago, the power of co-suffering love was beautifully articulated by the Pope Emeritus, though I must admit that if there is one thing I find disappointing about the Catechism is that the primary summary of the Catholic faith says almost nothing this topic (an omission I find both glaring and grating).  In any case, however, true Christianity is not a faith that is afraid to confront suffering.  True Christianity is not concerned with helping people attain “happiness” in the bourgeois sense that term is used by most Americans today and as the term is thrown around in most “spiritual” circles today.  Classical Christianity is deep enough to drown the unwary, the New Age is too shallow to absorb true suffering.

No, true Christianity stares into the darkness of life directly.  Indeed, the Way of Christianity is about entering into that darkness, alongside and for others.  In doing so one emulates-no, not emulates, participates-in the very activity of God Himself, who in Christ.  The entire Christ-Event, the key lesson of the Cross (and, indeed, the Incarnation as well), is that God entered into the miseries of existence for our sake.  How easily, how quickly, do we forget that ours is the faith in the Crucified God.  As Timothy Keller has put it:

…philosophizing does not get the Christian God ‘off the hook’ for the world’s evil and suffering!” In response the philosopher Peter Kreeft points out that the Christian God came to earth to deliberately put himself on the hook of human suffering. In Jesus Christ, God experienced the greatest depths of pain. Therefore, though Christianity does not provide the reason for each experience of pain, it provides deep resources for actually facing suffering with hope and courage rather than bitterness and despair.

True Christianity, Christianity for adults, is a raw, mature faith, a faith that is tough as nails, a faith that does not shrink back from the darkness of life.  It is a “realist” faith if there ever was one, a faith for the “wretched of the earth.”  The true faith is not naïve, but rather demands a deep engagement with life and reality.  It is not for the faint of heart, much less a tool for attaining the shallow happiness that we call the American dream.  To be a Christian is to suffer-and not to suffer in some abstract sense, but to suffer for and with Christ, to suffer for and with the members of His Body, indeed in some inexplicable sense for all humanity and all creation.

This is not, incidentally, an abstract rumination.  I write very hesitantly on the subject of suffering, for truth be told I have suffered very little in my life.  I have been blessed inordinately, and cannot claim that mine is a life of pain and misery.  Yet, my greatest spiritual influences are those who have and those who, chief among them my late Grandfather.  Their perspective is one that I take seriously-for it demands to be taken seriously, in ways that the spirituality of bourgeois happiness simply does not.  This played out recently in two conversations-one with a co-worker, who (after a few glasses of wine) told me blithely that “God just wants you to be happy”; the other with my aunt, in which we recalled memories of my Grandfather and agreed that life is very miserable for many people.  Both of these women, incidentally, have various objections with the Church but it is the former who is a churchgoing Catholic.

Several recent experiences have led me to reflect more deeply on the notion of co-suffering love.  One has been a struggle with my own tendencies to impulsive and self-destructive sexual behavior; the other has been my friendship with a woman in an abusive relationship.  The former, which has included working with a clinical psychologist, has given me a deep appreciation for Romans 7:19 (which, incidentally, is why Rev. Rutledge’s preaching moved me so deeply) and a sense of solidarity with those who wrestle with addictions and impulses that we would rather do without.  The latter has entailed a measure of vicarious suffering alongside someone whom I love (I am one of those human beings who is cursed with being an empath) and the revelation of what co-suffering love is and why it is so important.  As my friend (the same one who has prompted this essay) clarified for me, the suffering of the Body of Christ is relational.

There are many fine writings on the interplay of suffering and happiness (the writings of Peter Kreeft, Fr. Robert Spitzer and Philip Yancey are of particular value), but the one which has moved me the most recently was a meditation by Sister Peter Lilian DiMaria, a gerontologist and advocate for palliative care, who was a speaker at a Catholic conference on assisted suicide that I attended this past weekend.  In her meditation, Sister Peter states:

In the Emmaus story, we see that as Cleopas and his companion walk along the road from Jerusalem, they talk about all the things that had happened. During their conversation, we find them to be honest and emotional, and, all of a sudden, a stranger joins them. This stranger, the Lord, listens intently.

What our Lord does is accompany them. No matter what age we are, we need someone to walk with us. Accompaniment is always something very gently filled with empathy. As we accompany someone, communion is gradually built up, and mutual trust and desire for the truth increase over time. In all of our lives, at one time or another, we find it hard to look at the reality of the suffering we are experiencing. The one who accompanies has to wait patiently for just the right moment to help the sufferer accept reality.

The Emmaus story shows us what true ministry is all about. It means to walk with people patiently and compassionately, to be present for them, to listen — really listen — and to be nonjudgmental. These are the essential good works of our day; they show the goodness of God, who makes all our experiences — sufferings, joys, successes, failures — come together in the most surprising of ways. All any one of us ever has to do is go to God in complete trust and to understand that all experiences seen through the eyes of faith bring us peace and hope.

We have no better teacher than Jesus when it comes to easing another’s suffering. Throughout the Scriptures, we see why the Lord heals and the importance of presence. Jesus teaches us how to “be with” a person who is suffering. His journey through the Stations of the Cross is a reflection in spiritual suffering.

The condemnation of Jesus to death is unjust, and his followers go into hiding, for they are fearful and do not understand. Jesus felt abandoned by his companions. His journey begins where he feels very much alone and misunderstood. In reflecting on the stations, we know that Jesus’ journey does not end with the crucifixion. Rather, his “purpose” in life begins with the crucifixion and is revealed in the resurrection.

When people receive their diagnosis, they may feel condemned and alone. As they receive their cross, they begin to walk their stations and along the way, they may fall. Their caregivers are near to walk the journey with them — the Veronicas to wipe the face, the Simons to help carry the cross, the women who weep for them — help them and encourage them. Their loved ones are nearby, approaching them, allowing them to walk through their journey, not alone, but with those who are called to serve those who suffer.

We know that Jesus accepts his suffering for the sake of his brothers and sisters. He understands that the will of his Father is to be done in order for him to proclaim God’s glory. Jesus’ life does not end on the cross, but rather it continues through his resurrection. It is not until we hear the Emmaus story that his suffering begins to make sense.

My own experiences of accompanying others in their suffering, even an attenuated way, has led me to see the truth of Sister Peter’s words.  The essence of the Christian Way, the deepest and most authentic practice of the faith, is co-suffering love.  And co-suffering love entails the deepest form of realism possible-entering into the darkness of one’s own heart, the darkness of the world, and the darkness of the pain of others.

A final thought on co-suffering love comes from Simone Weil, who is quoted approvingly by Sister Peter:

The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering but a supernatural use of it.

To this I simply add that the transfiguration of suffering is not a solo effort.  It is relational.

Faith Fundamentally About Reality

What, then, is my point in all of this?  I reiterate that religion, at its core, is about reality.  On one level, Christianity is a way to make sense of the world-a Way that requires discipline and prayer.  On another level, Christianity is about entering into the sufferings of others, which requires running headlong into reality.  Authentic Christianity is realism through and through.  Indeed, I view Christianity with the same intensity that the New Atheists view science: it offers the Truth and the closest we can get to pure objectivity.

Of course, Truth and Love (compassion) are equally important “prongs” of Christianity, but the fact of the matter is these two cannot be separated.  As justice and mercy are one in God (and, indeed, are all the virtues) so Truth and Love are permanently conjoined for the Christian.  Love derives its power because it is True; Truth, which as hard as nails, becomes a Way of Life-becomes human-through Love.  And, returning to 1 John 4:8, Christianity rests on the Truth that God is Love.  It is that fundamental reality that makes love, especially co-suffering love, possible.  Reality and love are, in the last analysis, the same.

And that, my friend, is my answer.


  1. My repeated use of the word “bourgeois” is at least partially because I am currently reading David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise (a delightful book, incidentally, that I highly recommend).
  2. There can be no doubt that the “prescription” offered by classical Christianity for a happy life can be excruciatingly difficult to swallow.  It is worth noting that the medicine offered by our Tradition is a scandal not only to the shallow spirituality of the bourgeois (which, I have repeatedly stressed is a spirituality cooked up by white, affluent Americans and of little use to most people alive today and through virtually all of history), but also to those, Christians and otherwise, who insist that the question of happiness is inseparable from political activism.  Liberation of the oppressed is important, of course, but Christianity has another goal.
  3. The cultivation of faith is where I’m currently at on another question I posed a few months ago.  Faith is, of course, a gift, but it is still incumbent upon us to nurture it.
  4. Turner’s remark is, among other things, a rebuke against so-called Intelligent Design.  This is not to say that one cannot see the mathematics of the universe as indicative of Mind, but this is a metaphysical interpretation of the general intelligibility of the world, not an alternative method of doing science.
  5. Both Carl Sagan and (more recently) Neil deGrasse Tyson, have stated that they cannot reconcile belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God with the nature of the universe, which is indifferent-if not hostile-to humans.  This is not a new discovery: the Psalmist and the author of Job knew this as well as we, in our technocratic arrogance, do.  More to the point it is a reminder that faith has always been about more than mere observation of the world, and that its deepest practice, co-suffering love, is how True Reality is made manifest in the midst of what seems like indifferent, hostile reality.  There is more to the grain of the universe than what we can simply observe, and we can only know this through living the Way.

More on the Perils of Academic Theology

A brief roundup:

Best of all (and right up my alley) Rod Dreher has another post how there is a “theologian” on the faculty at Villanova who is a proponent of transhumanism.  Sister Ilia Delio has written the following:

It is interesting that a male, hierarchical church shares common ground with the male aims of science and technology. Could it be that science and religion are instilled with the same utopian ideal, the restoration of Adam to his divine perfection? Is it possible that each area is focused on the same goal and thus can respectfully keep one another at arm’s length? After all, what would be the point of the church embracing modern science and thus opening up to evolution and gender complementarity, if evolution points to an unknown future thus transcending the myth of Adam? Similarly, if science opened up to the values of religion what would motivate scientific and technological development beyond the myth of Adam? In other words, does the Adam myth constrain a new synthesis between science and religion?

To bring science and religion together into a new unity requires a new level of consciousness, a new type of person, one who is free of the Adam myth and its corresponding misogyny. This is where transhumanism can play a profound role. To guide my thoughts, I turn to the social philosopher Donna Haraway who, in 1990, wrote a cyborg manifesto in which she saw a way forward for gender equality through technology. A cyborg is a hybrid of biology and machine and can range from humans with pacemakers and prostheses to robo-humans. Haraway uses the hybridization of the cyborg as a symbol of overcoming the dualisms of Western thought, including patriarchy, colonialism, essentialism and naturalism. According to Haraway, the cyborg symbolizes a reconstruction of gender, moving away from Western patriarchal essentialism and toward “the utopian dream of the hope for a world without gender,” a world where gender is not defining of identity but transcended by lines of affinity. The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world; it has no origin story such as original perfection, bliss, falleness and death and is free from the defining limits of nature. Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. According to Haraway, cyborgs can now construct their own identity by choice and not fear.

Transhuman technology signifies that reality is a process constituted by a drive for transcendence. Nature, in a sense, is never satisfied with itself; it always presses to be more and for novelty. When we participate in this drive for new possibilities, we participate also in God. This is the dimension of holiness in technology. When we are immersed in the drive for transcendence, we share in the ultimate depths of reality we call God. The myth of Adam has created enormous divisions in science and religion and has stifled human evolution. Transhumanist technologies, symbolized by the cyborg, provide hope for a more unified world ahead – if we develop and create technologies with this aim in mind.

In other words, the Over-man (woman in this case) has infiltrated the Catholic academy.  As Rod eloquently puts it, one can practically hear the hiss in the grass.

One more thing.  Lest it seems I have been unfairly harsh on academic theology, David Bentley Hart reminds us in his essay Theology as Knowledge that this is indeed a real discipline:

After al, theology is-if scrupulously pursued-a complex and pitilessly demanding discipline concerning an immense, profoundly sophisticated legacy of hermeneutics, dialectics, and logic; it deals in minute detail with a vast variety of concrete historical data; over the centuries it has incubated speculative systems of extraordinary rigor and intricacy, many of whose questions and methods continue to inform contemporary philosophy; and it does, when all I said and done, constitute the single intellectual, moral, spiritual, and cultural tradition uniting the classical, mediavel, and early modern worlds.  Even if one entirely avoids considering what metaphysical content one should attach to the word “God,” one can still plausibly argue that theology is no more lacking in a substantial field of inquiry than are history, philosophy, the study of literature, or any of the other genuinely respectable human sciences; and that neither is its object of study anywhere near so chimerical, nor its rules anywhere near so impressionistic, as are those proper to certain of the fields more recently admitted to the humanities.

It is perhaps worth considering, moreover, that theology requires a far greater scholarly range than does any other humane science.  The properly trained Christian theologian, perfectly in command of his materials, should be a proficient linguist, with a mastery of several ancient and modern tongues, should have a complete formation in the subtleties of the whole Christian dogmatic tradition, should possess a considerable knowledge of the texts and arguments produced in every period of the Church, should be a good historian, should be thoroughly trained in philosophy, ancient, mediaval and modern, should have a fairly broad grasp of liturgical practice in every culture and age of the Christian world, should (ideally) possess considerable knowledge of literature, music, and the plastic arts, should have an intelligent interest in the effects of theological discourse in areas such as law and economics, and so on and so forth.  This is not to say that one cannot practice theology without all these attainments; but such an education remains the scholarly ideal of the guild.

It should be added, however, that in this essay Hart also warns of the dangers of academic theologians falling to pray to the politics of the academy.  His conclusion is the same as Dreher’s:

Christians should embrace and celebrate truth wherever they find it, undoubtedly; but it is not natural to theology that it should function as one discipline among others, attempting to make its “contribution” to some larger conversation; as soon as it consents to become a “perspective” among the human sciences, rather than the final cause and consummation of all paths of knowledge, it has ceased to be theology and has become precisely what its detractors have long suspected it of being: willful opinion, emotion, and cant.



“Theology” and Political Correctness

I have never been the type of person who has been mistake as politically correct.  Indeed, more than a few people have quipped that I need diversity training.  Not that I’m mean-spirited, mind you.  I simply have no patience-zilch-for that neurotic approach where one trips over themselves in a desperate attempt to avoid giving offense.  And-I must confess-I am not much impressed by those who insist on being nice purely for the sake of being nice.  Kindness, of course, is indeed a good thing.  Most regard me as a “nice guy” and-usually at least-I am.  But I am also a polemicist, an instigator, whose native tongue is sarcasm and who would generally prefer truth over facile niceness.  So far, at least, I am fairly representative of self-described “orthodox” or “traditionalist” Catholics.  However, I go a few steps further than my brethren.

What I mean is that I have always had something of a vulgar tongue (a “potty mouth” as one of my friends charitably described it).  I am “that guy” who finds the logoi spermitakoi on the lips of comedians like George Carlin and secretly (oops) yearns to write The Gospel According to South Park.  To saw that I am “out of sync” on these grounds would be an understatement (Carlin and South Park have both exhibited more than a fair amount of hostility towards Catholicism after all).  Nonetheless, I find something deeply refreshing about blue comedy-its rawness, its lack of restraint, allows the truth to flow freely.  The truth flows more aggressively, of course, after having broken through the dam of political correctness, and it goes without saying the energy in the water has to be siphoned out from the torrent (as I write this I am watching huge waves on Lake Erie-forgive the metaphor).  That isn’t new-the wheat and weeds grow together, the kernel and the chaff must be separated.  But truth must be accepted, no matter its source.

There are actually two frustrations I am venting here.  One is against contemporary liberalism, which has developed an almost comical allergy to non-PC language (to the point it has become a parody of itself as I will address below).  The other is an internal critique, directed at those whose purity and piety have made them-in my view-exceedingly squeamish about dealing with “the world” (this was the point of my recent quoting of Ron Rolheiser).  Rod Dreher has also touched on this-he calls it, appropriately, the problem of the “separation of church and life” (which he describes as a form of nominalism).  In own idiosyncratic and unorthodox way I am making the same point.  Real life, as lived, is quite raw for many people.  To use another random example, I am a huge fan of the TV show Six Feet Under.  HBO succeeds in capturing the nature of life for most people in a way that-again in my view-most Catholics have been rather squeamish about.

So my genuine enjoyment, and tacit endorsement, of blue comedy should not be read by any means as a whole-hearted embrace of that worldview.  When I comment that there is something prophetic about comedians, such as Carlin reminding us of the nature of original sin and exhibiting nihilism for us, it does not mean that I am approving Carlin’s entire worldview (obviously I differ with him on religion).  I can appreciate that his vulgar tongue and non-holds-barred polemical tone do not represent “Christian discourse”-but even so, they are authentically real and garner attention (shock value always does) in ways that I appreciate equally as much.  My intent is not to give scandal-but it is to provoke.  [Incidentally, my appreciation for blue comedy does not extend to black comedy-but that is a subject for another day]

In any case, those who follow religious news may be aware that there has recently been a backlash against my boy Ross Douthat from a number of Catholic theologians.  The letter is available here; with excellent commentaries from Rod Dreher here, here, here and hereFirst Things also got in on the act with a delightful parody of the letter, and-I am told-the twits have hit the fan (I don’t use Twitter myself and am thus relying on secondhand information).  And-this should surprise no one-Jesuit priest Father James Martin has written a defense of the theologians in an America article entitled “Theology and Hate” (“hatey-hatey-hate-hate” as Dreher characterizes it).  Forgive me for the plethora of links-a Google search would yield many more no doubt-but I would prefer to dedicate this post to an assessment of the issue rather than retelling the story.  In a nutshell, Douthat has been accused of speaking out of turn on theology (he has no PhD on the subject after all) and throwing the term “heretic” (so mean!) around freely.  One can only imagine the stake-burnings such behavior could lead to after all.

In the interest of fairness, I will grant the “liberals” in this debate one point.  Assertions of heresy made against individuals is indeed a serious charge, if not slanderous, and there are proper channels for such matters to be addressed insofar as they pertain to theologians ‘licensed’ by the Church.  Having offered this small concession on the one hand, however, I am going to effectively take it back with the other.  Father Martin argues in his article that these accusations are more than personal attacks on one’s faith, they are “career-enders” for theologians.  Respectfully, this is over-the-top whining.  Academic theologians in the United States seem to be able to say more or less whatever they want-as Dreher illustrates in reviewing the work of one of the signatories to the letter (the theologian in question has suggested, among other things, that rapper Tupac was a theologian-which, in fairness, may not be far off from my own use of the term “prophet” to describe George Carlin).

Heresy, as defined in Canon Law # 751, has both an objective and subjective dimension.  True heresy is the “obstinate rejection” or “obstinate doubt” of “some truth” that is to believed as part of the Catholic faith.  In fairness to Fr. Martin & Co. the assessment of whether someone is guilty of such “obstinate rejection” is a deeply subjective matter that can only be properly assessed on a case-by-case basis.  But, the public rejection of teachings of the Magisterium is something quite obvious.  Douthat himself brilliantly demonstrated in his book Bad Religion that contemporary Christianity in the United States today is heretical, not in the full sense as defined by Canon Law, but simply in that it is a rejection of Catholic teaching.  One does not need to be a rocket scientist, nor hold credentials in academic theology, to figure this out.

In case it is not obvious, I am quite disgusted with Father Martin, for reasons I will discuss below.  First, however, I need to fire an Exocet missile at the guild of contemporary academic theology (I can hear the cries of pain and hurt already from the use of that metaphor).  Most contemporary academic theology is a joke.  It has lost all sense of the perspective (kept alive and well in the Christian East) that true theology can never be divorced from prayer and the spiritual life, that knowing God is not at all the same as knowing about God.  In point of fact, the Orthodox Church holds that only 3 individuals were “theologians” in the true sense of the word and has a well-justified suspicion that treating theology as an academic discipline results in playing dialectical games and engaging in mental auto-eroticism (Frederica has written an amusing article on this).  Whether one agrees with the Orthodox or not, this perspective (which reemerged as a force Catholicism in the Second Vatican Council after the long twilight of Scholasticism) it deserves mention.  Predictably, Father Martin has nothing to say on that subject.

There is also the fact that much of contemporary “theology” is in fact anthropology, as explained by Rev. Rutedge:

The Christian community has no independent existence. It must be perpetually renewed and refashioned by the power of God. “Constant recourse to the Bible” is indeed the “characteristic and significant practice” of the Church when it is receiving its life theologically and not anthropologically. Anthropology as an academic discipline is a noble field of study, but it does not get us very far along in the Christian life because it is solipsistic; it goes round and round on itself. Thus, when visiting museums of anthropology, one reads label after label saying, “The Inuit believe that…”, “the Old Norse religion was…”, “this amulet was thought to…”. There is no sense whatsoever than any of this is founded in any sort of reality beyond anthropological practice. The museum-goer is implicitly invited to respect all these different beliefs while at the same  time subtly distancing herself from them. In contrast, the Scripture states with a shocking lack of tact, “I am the Lord, there is no other.” When the community receives this Word in faith, the transforming power of God shapes our consequent actions theologically, according to the theos who speaks. For this reason the Church’s true witness can never be simply imitations of trends in the culture and indistinguishable from them.

Missing, Rev. Rutledge says over and again, in our contemporary spirituality is the Biblical understanding that “God is the Subject of the verb.”  Theology, for better or for worse, has shifted into the human sphere of human affairs, as indicated by interest in race, gender and the like amongst contemporary theologians.  The topics are not unimportant, necessarily.  But they are only “theological” in the most attenuated sense.

There is a much deeper issue here, however, and this has to do with Father Martin’s incessant prattling on about “hatey-hatey-hate-hate.”  One can detect from him-and numerous other ‘liberal’ commentators-that the whole essence of Christianity is to be “nice” all the time, that we should have no use for the polemical, and that any invocation of the word heresy (even if used merely in a descriptive and not pejorative sense) must be carefully avoided, lest it cause offense and hurt someone’s feelings.  I apologize for the use of what are admittedly somewhat crude caricatures here, but I truly have grown very weary of this butchered understanding of Christianity.  Father Martin likes to quote Jesus in defense of this kindness-driven approach (see here for instance) but such quoting is inevitably selectness (Our Lord could be quite harsh when necessary-just ask the Pharisees).  The incessant whining about being nice and not hating is, at best, oversimplified.  C.S. Lewis would call it a religion for boys.

Now, this is not to say that the politically correct crowd is always wrong (though, pace Fr. Rolheiser, I don’t see it as being useful in the sense of civilizing discourse).  My real frustration is that the “liberals” elevate kindness and niceness (in their lexicon “acting like Jesus”) over any sense of the objectivity of the faith, which effectively makes niceness the arbitrator of what is true (which as ludicrous an approach as the MTD criterion of what makes us as feel as good as indicative of spiritual reality).  Father Martin, seemingly channeling Rachel Held Evans, argues that theology that is done in a hateful manner is not true theology.  Fair enough.  But theology that refuses to cross politically correct boundaries established by the modern culture and that refuses to hurt feelings, provoke or give offense (except to certain predetermined targets) is not true theology either.  True theology, as noted above, begins in deference to God and can only be rightly done in striving to truly know God’s reality.  The “theology” of Father Martin and Ms. Held Evans has very little room for this.

Indeed, as Damon Linker has noted and Dreher has affirmed, liberals and conservatives may as well be speaking entirely different languages.  Dreher notes it perfectly:

doctrine and “rules” are not ends in themselves, but signposts that direct us to God. Doctrine is not about right order alone, but primarily about Truth. It is far from loving and merciful to tell someone that a lie is actually the truth, only so that they can feel good about themselves, and affirmed. This, at best, is what the conservatives stand for — not mindless rule-following.

you can cite the Catechism and authoritative Church documents to progressive Catholics all the livelong day, and they just do not care. They’re determined to believe what they want to believe, and call it Catholic. They think that the word “Catholic” does not describe an objective reality that entails affirming certain propositions, but rather expresses their inner conviction about themselves.

These competing visions are irreconcilable.  One cannot be faithful to Catholicism and simultaneously insist on filtering the faith through the anthropological approach of political correctness.  Not even selective quotations from Our Lord can make that work.

I offer, in conclusion, some thoughts from the great Catholic theologian Karl Adam that I think aptly demonstrates the true balance needed here.  I also add, parenthetically, that these thoughts come from his classic Spirit of Catholicism-published in 1924, well before the “Spirit Vatican II.”  Enjoy.

As the authorized preacher of the truth, the Church will never cease to give her authoritative witness to it and to oblige all consciences to accept it.  Yet she does not speak to overpower conscience, but to convince it.  She seeks internal, not merely external, assent.  And when a man cannot give this internal assent, she leaves his conscience to the mercy of God and sets him free.  That is not fanaticism or severity, but a service to truth and sincerity.  For the Church cannot and may not endure that there should be some among her members who are Catholics only in name.  She requires that all such men should draw the logical consequences from their new state of conscience and leave her communion.  And in this she protects the sincerity of their consciences as much as she guards the sincerity of her own being.  The Church does not injury to “liberal” laymen or theologians when she excludes them from communion with her children.  On the contrary such people do an injury to the Church if they remain in her communion when they have lost her faith.

The faithful Catholic is distressed by the “servile” forms which disfigured the Church in certain periods of the Middle Ages.  He is distressed, today, more than ever, by the medieval inquisition and by the auto-da-fe.  However much he knows that these contrivances are explained by the boundless zeal with which the medieval man, in his utterly objective attitude, willed to protect the stern reality and sublime dignity of supernatural truth; and however much he appreciates the intimate inter-connection of Church and state in the medieval period: yet he cannot but grieve that zeal for objective values in religion and society  should have sometimes weakened men’s understanding of personal values, especially of the rights and dignity of conscience, albeit erroneous.  He cannot but grieve that pure logic restricted the power of psychological sympathy, so that men sometimes were blind to several of the most luminous teachings of the Gospel, as for instance to the teaching that the Kingdom of God is not of this world and is not a kingdom of the sword, that a man should forgive his offending brother seventy times seven times, and that fire should not be invoked from heaven upon unbelieving cities.


  1. Not touched on in this post is the ongoing saga of comedians being greeted frostily on college campuses.  Steven Pinker, with whom I sometimes agree, has some interesting thoughts on this subject.
  2. Speaking of Pinker, one can only imagine how the New Atheists are enjoying the current “discourse” between liberal and conservative Catholics.  My impression has been that these individuals have long viewed liberal theologians with disdain, and that his moment in history is likely to provoke more self-congratulatory comments from the unbelievers that theology really is a useless enterprise.
  3. True theology must be lived, as Father Freeman writes in his story of leaving the academy to do theology (of the parish).
  4. Adam’s quote notes, presciently, that there is a danger in becoming too zealous on behalf of the objective and letting logic swallow the personal.  The irony, as I’ve noted in previous posts, is our present age has all but inverted this problem of the past.  Though many would be baffled by this, it was the medieval that actually had a better sense of reason, our present culture is largely ruled by sentiment, especially in matters spiritual.
  5. I owe one more hat tip to Rod Dreher, who writes in his book How Dante Can Save Your Life that he turned away from the biting sarcasm in his early writing after realizing that we are held accountable by God for the use our talents and that indulging in verbal cruelty for the sake of cleverness is no virtue.  He says “All writers want audiences, and all of us want to make money.  These are not bad things if they are the fruit of having written in service to the truth.  But if they are only to serve your own reputation, you abuse your gift and corrupt your graft.  The remembrance of bitchy slanders I wrote early in my career as a film critic, when I wanted to impress the world with my caustic wit, pains me to this day.”  That I’ve read those words is no doubt an act of Providence.  God help me to remember this.
  6. Lastly, this season of South Park has featured a multiple-episode story arc that is skewering political correctness.  The videos below are from the most recent episode.  They do include profanity (be warned) but nonetheless I think quite a few people will appreciate them.  Enjoy.


Are We Here to Help?

The various religions of humanity have taken widely divergent views on the teleos (purpose) of what I’ll broadly (and inappropriately) call “spirituality” in this post.  Virtually all of the great religions understood themselves as means to a greater end.  One famously thinks of Buddha’s description of his own teachings and way of life (whether he would call that Buddhism is debatable) as a raft to reach the “far shore” of Nirvana.  Whether religion is meant to deliver one from the bondage of self, or to alleviate guilt and fear of death, to bring one into union with God or back into peaceful integration with the cyclical ways of nature, there has always been a sense that religion is for something.  It isn’t like pottery, which is to say it isn’t for kiln time (sorry).  Religion, properly understood, is a way of life that is ordered towards something.

For the great religions, that “something” was virtually always understood to be transcendent.  Though Nagarjuna would later muddy the waters a bit the Buddha certainly seemed to understand Nirvana as something transcendent of the ebb and flow of the world.  [1]  Confucius saw the Will of Heaven as something transcendent to our world.  It is true, of course, that religion itself has always been very much enmeshed with life in this world.  Indeed, as Karen Armstrong has helpfully noted in her newest book, Fields of Blood, for most of human history “religion” cannot be isolated as something discrete and distinct from the rest of human life-the culture-in which it exists.  Perhaps one could say that “religion” was once the vitalism-the life force-of the human life, while itself reaching out to that which lay beyond the ebb and flow of the world.

Today, however, spirituality-the descendent of religion-is very different.  Spirituality is still a means to an end, but the teleos of one’s spirituality today is more likely to be immanent than transcendent.  Spirituality today may help one be mindful in the workplace, may promote better health or inner peace, or simply be a distraction for the bored.  Whatever the case may be, however, the spiritual eyes of today are far less inclined than in the past to “look beyond” the ebb and flow of this world.  Pragmatism has triumphed: if spirituality, if religion, is to continue to exist today it must justify that existence.  It must do something practical.  It must yield tangible, positive benefits.  The teleos of spirituality today no longer looks “up” but around for guidance.

There is a bitter irony in this, for religion has increasingly little to offer the world on such pragmatic grounds.  As Jonathan Sacks has wryly observed:

Religion has lost many of the functions it once had. To explain the world, we have science. To control it, we have technology. To negotiate power, we have democratic politics. To achieve prosperity, we have a market economy. If we are ill, we go to a doctor, not a priest. If we feel guilty, we can go to a psychotherapist; we have no need of a confessor. If we are depressed, we can take Prozac; we do not need the book of Psalms. Schools and welfare services are provided by the state, not by the church. And if we seek salvation, we can visit the new cathedrals – the shopping malls – at which the consumer society pays homage to its gods.

Having observed faith’s redundancy, Sacks goes on to observe that the real value of religion-as traditionally understood-pertains to meaning and purpose.  Of course-traditionally understood-meaning and purpose were views as something given to us, not as something we create for ourselves.  To understand meaning and purpose as something received, rather than as something self-asserted, necessarily requires seeing meaning and purpose as transcendent to the world.  Even the New Atheists admit as much-Dawkins once commented to Sacks that he would accept religion’s legitimate claim to speak on meaning and purpose, but only if one could confirm meaning and purpose by legitimate means-which is to say scientifically.  The recognition that meaning and purpose are not scientifically discoverable, rather than legitimizing transcendence however, is now used to undermine it.  If science cannot detect such things, they cannot exist in a transcendent manner.  And so we must discover them for ourselves.

Large swaths of Christianity seem to lack the stomach for challenging the interlocutors of religion over this point.  Instead of zealously defending the integrity of faith in the transcendent more than a few movements in Christianity have gotten caught up in trying to prove that Christianity is still relevant to the world, that it still has something practical or beneficial to offer, that it can still do something-at least, as the world defines “do.”  Many of these movements focus on alleviating human suffering, ending poverty, or other humanitarian and social justice goals.  Liberation theology is one such example.  Spiritus Christi, the exiled Catholic community I attended for several years, is another.  Spirituality, rather than being an exercise in narcissism as the examples I rattled off above, is seen primarily as the necessary “fuel” for doing the good works needed to change the world.

There is, on the one hand, something beautiful about this.  We all need periodic reminders that religion is about people and not abstractions (something Pope Francis understands well) and that it is meant to impinge on real life, lest it become another-different-exercise in narcissism.  And yet, a religion that has washed its hands of the transcendent in favor of the pragmatic has, it seems to me, signed its own death warrant in the process.  Sacks is quite right to point out that every practical function religion fulfills can be carried out just as easily by others, without any pretense to religion.  Indeed, secular humanism is quite capable of a devout commitment to social justice without the transcendent (the intellectual legitimacy of that position is a subject for another day).  One online commentator (I forget where online) observed that when Pope Francis embraced a severely disfigured man in 2013 what he [the commentator] saw was not a Christian or Catholic act, but simply a human act, something that he thought was often missing from those who called themselves Catholic.  I must admit-I agree with this commentator.

There is another sense in which turning toward the pragmatic is an unwise idea.  Marcus Borg inadvertently revealed this in one of his books when-reflecting on the afterlife I believe-he noted that we know that in time (quite a long time but still) our sun will one day go nova and destroy the earth.  It is hot that after excoriating his readers of the important of justice and humanitarian action, Borg slipped in this nugget and followed with a remarkably weak comment on the afterlife.  To do good is, of course, vitally important.  But one rather undermines their case by pointing out the eventually assured annihilation of one’s planet while simultaneously trying to reorient one’s spirituality to improving the world around us.  Scientific cosmology paints a rather bleak picture of the totality of things, that relativizes humanism at best and completely eviscerates at worst, as a recent meme illustrates well:

LivesIt is hard, for me at least, to see what exactly a social justice-oriented “religion” offers in the face of such cosmic futility.  One can always resort to “creating” meaning or purpose, but at that point one is no longer talking about religion.  A onetime interlocutor of mine, John Gaston, also has some thoughts on this subject.  Bemoaning the state of Unitarian Universalism, he writes:

Where are our Karl Rahners, our Rudolf Bultmanns, or our Wolfhart Pannenbergs?  Does anyone in Unitarianism remember systematic theology or meaningful liturgy? Accordingly, I fondly recall a sermon in the mid-1960s by the distinguished Unitarian minister, James Madison Barr, who remarked that our clergy had forsaken their pulpits for social protest, while abrogating their mission to administer to the entreating soul.  He remarked that when every person had two chickens in every pot and two cars in every garage, the core questions about life and its meaning would still remain unanswered, and there would be no one left in our pulpits to hear the pleas of those who sought answers about them.  I believe his thirty-six year-old prophesy has come true, at least in most of the UU Churches and fellowships I  visit (almost one-hundred in forty-five years).  A few New England Unitarian ministers are still concerned with soteriology, eschatology and their  gravitas to the seeking Christian, Theist, or Deist; nevertheless, in Unitarianism many feed the body, but few feed the spirit.

Another critic of pragmatic religion is rather surprising (to some)-Huston Smith, who states bluntly:

I don’t want to justify religion in terms of its benefits to us. I believe that, on balance, it does a lot of bad things, too — a tremendous amount. But I don’t think that the final justification of religion is the good it does for people. I think the final justification is that it’s true, and truth takes priority over consequences. Religion helps us deal with what is most important to the human spirit: values, meaning, purpose, and quality.

Historically, religion has given people another world to live in, a world more adaptive to the human spirit. As a student of world religions, I see religion as the winnower of the wisdom of the human race. Of course, not everything about these religions is wise. Their social patterns, for example — master-slave, caste, and gender relations — have been adopted from the mores of their time. But in their view of the nature of reality, there is nothing in either modernity or postmodernity that rivals them.

In the words of Father Timothy Radcliffe:

If Christianity is true, then it does not have a point other than to point to God who is the point of everything. If one asks about the point of doing anything, then ultimately, if one pushes the question far enough and if it is a serious enough matter, then one will come to the point of everything, the ultimate goal and purpose of our lives, and that is what religions are about. A religion that tries to market itself as useful for some other purpose – because it helps you to live a stable life, because it gets rid of stress or makes you wealthy – is shooting itself in the foot. If it has to justify itself by serving some other end, then it cannot be a religion that one could take seriously. The point of any religion is to point us to God who is the point of everything. That is why it makes no sense to ask whether belief in God is ‘relevant’, because God is the measure of all relevance.

In short, then, I stand athwart the Spiritus Christi approach, which reduces the spiritual down to a vehicle for attaining humanitarian ends that-no matter how noble-are simply not the point of religion.  At the same time, however, I admit to being made uneasy by the fact that some become almost gleeful in insisting that religion is “useless” as understood by society, and that-in colloquial terms-it isn’t here to help.  The fact that religion is “useless” is quite true if one sees its function in strictly pragmatic terms (Terry Eagleton and Fr. Robert Barron, among others, have observed this).  [2]  There, are however, others who asserted with stronger force that religion is “not here to help.”  Frithjof Schuon, for instance, writes:

Certain highly secular moralists who prefer man to God, if indeed they do not replace God with man, are often astonished or indignant over the indifference that saints— both Western and Eastern— have sometimes seemed to show toward the human miseries of the world where they lived. There is a twofold reason for this indifference. In the first place many of the miseries in the body of a traditional world must be regarded as “lesser evils”— as necessary channels for calamities that are themselves inevitable but that can be reduced to a minimum; this is a point of view modern people have never understood, for they fail to realize that there are things in the cosmos that cannot at any price be avoided, the apparent and artificial suppression of which only causes even more “massive” cosmic reactions; 8 second, the indifference of spiritual people with regard to these contingencies is explained by their desire to deal with evil at its root and to help the world, not by dissipating energies in fragmentary and indeed illusory efforts, but by returning directly to the very source of the Good. The abuses one finds in all ancient civilizations are more or less inevitable, for suffering— since it is implied by Existence itself— is inherent in everything and cannot but express itself in one way or another; it might be possible to eliminate some of these abuses— those for example that have taken root in the Hindu caste system, and action to this end has been undertaken already— but only if one proceeds from within the civilization in question and on the basis of its spiritual content. In the majority of cases, however, this would require a return of the collectivity itself to this living spring; in the present cyclical circumstances this would mean returning to the golden age pure and simple, which is unfortunately not possible.

Though he stops a bit shy of explicitly endorsing indifference, Schuon’s words come uncomfortably close to concluding that spiritual growth can be neatly divorced from the material miseries of the world.  And again, from Father Alexander Schmemann, as recently quoted by Father Freeman:

For the surrender consists not in giving up creeds, traditions, symbols and customs (of all this the secular man, tired of his functional office, is sometimes extremely fond), but in accepting the very function of religion in terms of promoting the secular value of help, be it help in character building, peace of mind, or assurance of eternal salvation. It is in this “key” that religion is preached to, and accepted by, millions and millions of average believers today. And it is really amazing how little difference exists in the religious self-consciousness of members of confessions whose dogmas seem to stand in radical opposition to one another. For even if a man changes religion, it is usually because he finds the one he accepts as offering him “more help”—not more truth.

What must be pointed out here-with great bluntness-is that the Church is not here to “help” in the sense that we normally use the word.  The raison d’etre of the Church is the salvation of souls (as the traditional Roman Catholic lexicon would have it), which is to say bringing people to union with God in Christ (the traditional Orthodox lexicon, though can detect hints of this in Catholic works as well).  The world, on its own accord, cannot “return to the golden age” as Schuon put it.  Pursuing ideological programs driven by grandiose abstract visions-those Miss America-esque visions of the eradication of hunger, of poverty, even suffering itself-will fail.  The true root of the human condition lies within, and any failure to acknowledge this leads almost inevitably to violence as the most well meaning of visions are darkened in their implementation.  These are simply the facts-the data of history (Steven Pinker’s protests notwithstanding) show that the human animal inevitably just “gets sh*t dead wrong” (in Bill Maher’s periodically helpful words).  There is something of an irony vis a vis the faith we place in progress, as the Pope Emeritus observed:

The most impressive attempt so far to incorporate the attitude of “belief” into the attitude of practical knowledge is to be found in Marxism. For here the faciendum, the future that we ourselves are to create, simultaneously represents the purpose or meaning of man, so that the bestowal of meaning, which in itself is accomplished or assumed in belief, seems to be transposed onto the plane of what can be made. Thereby the logical outcome of modern thinking is unquestionably reached: it looks as if a successful effort has been made to absorb the meaning of man completely into the practicable, to equate one with the other. However, if one looks more closely, it becomes clear that not even Marxism has succeeded in squaring the circle. For not even Marxism can turn the idea of the “makable” as the purpose of life into something that can be known; it can only promise that such is the case and leave the decision to belief. What makes this Marxist belief seem so attractive today and so immediately accessible is the impression it evokes of harmony with practical knowledge.

One here, of course, can vociferously protest that Roman Catholicism has much to say about social justice, humanitarian action and-for lack of a better word-helping the world.  Indeed, the Church has been more aggressive than any other institution in calling the human conscience to account for the treatment of the poor and the care of the suffering than any other institution in history.  The Magisterium, since Pope Leo XIII, has had a particularly strong interest in social issues, which has resulted (as liberal theologians tirelessly remind us) in a massive body of “social teaching,” that is at least partially codified in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.  An acquaintance of mine, who is a seminarian, has even bemoaned recent magisterial statements as “too worldly.”

Again I must confess my bias-I find this body of social teaching to be a great advantage of Roman Catholicism against Eastern Orthodoxy (the late writer George Maloney once speculated that the reunion of the West and East would bring the latter’s social consciousness together with the East’s “existential dynamism” and “mystical prayer”).  However, it is worth bearing in mind that the Church’s social teaching does not exist in isolation.  It appears in Part Three of the Catechism, but that Part is entitled “Life in Christ” and discussions of social justice appear surrounded by reflections on conscience, freedom, moral reasoning, virtue, grace and justification, the moral law, and the Passions.  Specific social teachings are treated as extensions and explications of the 10 Commandments.  In short, the social doctrine is not an “abstract,” it is not “generic,” it is simply the lived-out dimension-the ripple effects-of the Christian Way.  The entire body of social teaching is rooted in Christian anthropology and understandings of morality and virtue.

In conclusion, I offer a few words from Raniero Cantalamessa, which I hope will set the stage for further reflection on this topic.  In his words:

The righteousness God requires of human beings is summarized in the dual precept of love of God and love of neighbor (see Matthew 22:37–40). It is love of neighbor, then, that should motivate those who hunger for righteousness to care for those who hunger for bread. This is the great principle by which the gospel operates in the sphere of social action. Liberal theology has been correct on this point, as we can see in the words of one of its most illustrious representatives, Adolph von Harnack:

“[T]he Gospel nowhere teaches that our relations to the brethren should be characterized by a holy indifference. Such indifference expresses rather what the individual soul should feel towards the world with all its weal and woe. Whenever it is a question of one’s neighbour, the Gospel will not hear of this indifference, but, on the contrary, preaches always love and mercy. Further, the Gospel regards as absolutely inseparable the temporal and spiritual needs of the brethren.”

The gospel does not encourage the hungry to get justice or to rise up on their own because in Jesus’ time—although not the case today—they had no theoretical or practical means to do so. The gospel does not ask them for the useless sacrifice of getting themselves killed by following some zealous rabble-rouser or homegrown Spartacus. Jesus challenges the strong, not the weak. He himself confronts the ire and the sarcasm of the rich with his “woes” (see Luke 16:14–15) and does not leave that for the victims to do.

To try to find in the Gospels, no matter how, models and explicit invitations to the poor and the hungry to reverse their situation themselves is fruitless and anachronistic, and it loses sight of the real contribution that the Gospels can bring to their cause. Rudolf Bultmann is right about this when he writes, “Christianity is quite uninterested in making the world a better place, it has no proposals for political or social reform”7—even though his statement needs qualification.

The beatitudes are not the only way of confronting the problem of wealth and poverty, of hunger and satisfaction. There are other ways due to the development of a social consciousness that has emerged during the course of history, not necessarily from faith. Christians rightly give their support to these other ways, and the church in its social teaching supports them with its discernment.

In summation: Are we here to help?  No.  And yet, even so, we do.


  1. As Rowan Williams noted (my emphasis added), “Nagarjuna, by identifying nirvana with the world of appearance (i.e., by denying that they are two separable states for `reality’ to exist in, or that there is something beyond the phenomenal universe) makes it clear that `voidness’ is to be understood as the total interdependence of contingent phenomena: we cannot ever isolate a nondependent stable individual substance.”  From my admittedly superficial knowledge of Buddhism this appears to be a step beyond the Buddha’s own teaching.
  2. Father Barron’s observation appears in Catholicism, when he approvingly quotes Aristotle’s observation that the most important things in life are the most useless in his description of the Mass.



Lonergan on Knowledge

Thoroughly understand what it is to understand, and not only will you understand the broad lines of all there is to be understood, but also you will possess a fixed base, an invariant pattern, opening upon all further developments of understanding.

For the appropriation of one’s own rational self-consciousness…is not an end in itself, but rather a beginning.  It is a necessary beginning, for unless one breaks the duality in one’s knowing, one doubts that understanding correctly is knowing.  Under the pressure of that doubt, either one will sink into the bog of a knowing that is without understanding, or else one will cling to understanding but sacrifice knowing on the alter of an immanentism, an idealism, a relativism.  From the horns of that dilemma one escapes only through the discovery-and one has not made it yet if one has no clear memory of its startling strangeness-that there are two quite different realisms, that there is an incoherent realism, half animal and half human, that posses as a halfway house between materialism and idealism and, on the other hand, there is an intelligent and reasonable realism between which and materialism the halfway house is idealism.

These words, which appear in Bernard Lonergan’s Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, a long and (I am told) magnificent book, are a powerful reminder that the Catholic philosophical has a great deal to say on human consciousness and its attendant functions of cognition and understanding (another voice in the tradition who has value to add is St. Edith Stein).

The quote here is merely meant to whet your appetite as much as it whets mine, but I admit to being particularly moved by Lonergan’s comment that the “appropriation of one’s rational self-consciousness” is but the beginning of human understanding-a striking thing in an age when we take our rational self-consciousness for granted-and as if the primary purpose of rational self-awareness is self-assertion.

Lonergan also has no truck with the pervasive postmodern agnosticism which has settled over us.  By understanding our understanding we gain a genuine confidence that we can truly know, even understand reality.  Lonergan’s next words from the introduction are equally powerful.  I leave you with them:

The beginning, then, is not only self-knowledge and self-appropriation, but also a criterion of the real.  If to convince oneself that knowing is understanding, that one ascertains that knowing of mathematics is understanding and knowing science is understanding and the knowledge of common sense is understanding, one ends up not only with a detailed account of understanding but also with a plan of what there is to be known.  The many sciences lose their isolation from one another; the chasm between science and common sense is bridged; the structure of the universe proportionate to man’s intellect is revealed; and as that revealed structure provides an object for a metaphysics, so the initial self-criticism provides a method for explaining how metaphysical and antimetaphysical affirmations arise, for selecting those that are accurate and for eliminating those that spring from a lack of accurate self-knowledge.  Further, as a metaphysics is derived from the known structure of one’s knowing, so an ethics results from the knowledge of compound structure of one’s knowing and  doing; and as the metaphysics, so too the ethics prolongs the initial self-criticism into an explanation of the origin of all ethical positions and into a criterion for passing judgment on each one of them.  Nor is this all.  Still further questions press upon one.  They might be ignored if knowing were not understanding or if understanding were compatible with the obscurantism that arbitrarily brushes questions aside.  But knowing is understanding and understanding is incompatible with the obscurantism that arbitrarily brushes questions aside.  The issue of transcendent knowledge has to be faced.  Can man know more than the intelligibility immanent in the world of possible experiences?  If he can, how can he conceive it?  If he can conceive it, how can he reconcile that affirmation with the evil that tortures too many human bodies, darkens too many human minds, hardens too many human hearts?

As I have stressed repeatedly: we must not give up on Truth.

Nietzsche’s Religious Twins and the Prison of the Modern Age

I begin with a confession: my experience of Friedrich Nietzsche has largely been vicarious, which is to say I have read almost none of the man’s own work.  My knowledge of Nietzsche has largely been limited to a few quotes of his work, expanded by summaries and analyses written by others.  Having gotten that out of the way, I believe I understand Nietzsche well enough to grasp the gist of the man’s message and-more to the point-what a remarkably prophetic figure he was.  It is all the more ironic that his name is rarely uttered in contemporary discourse (if one could call it that) concerning belief and unbelief.  As John Gray has observed:

The new atheists rarely mention Friedrich Nietzsche, and when they do it is usually to dismiss him. This can’t be because Nietzsche’s ideas are said to have inspired the Nazi cult of racial inequality – an unlikely tale, given that the Nazis claimed their racism was based in science. The reason Nietzsche has been excluded from the mainstream of contemporary atheist thinking is that he exposed the problem atheism has with morality. It’s not that atheists can’t be moral – the subject of so many mawkish debates. The question is which morality an atheist should serve.

The fact that Nietzsche clarifies atheism’s real “morality problem” is but one of many reasons why we should continue to take a careful interest in the man.  Another is that Nietzsche’s nihilism has deeply infiltrated the milieu we call modernity-his influence runs deeper than most of us realize, even if we have never heard his name.  And, I would like to posit, Nietzsche is a pivotal figure for understanding the rise of two contemporary “religions” that have become deeply influential in the contemporary West: Moral therapeutic deism and transhumanism.  The former is the faith of those Nietzsche called the “last men;” the latter the faith of those who yearn to be the “Over-man.”  David Bentley Hart summarizes for us:

Nietzsche was not, however, entirely sanguine in his prognostications for a future without God.  He feared that, in the absence of any higher aspiration, humanity might degenerate into those he called the ‘Last Men’ (die lezten Menschen), an insect-like race of vapid narcissists, sunk in petty satisfactions.  But he hoped that humanity might rouse itself from the stupor induced by two millennia of Christianity to will ‘that which is beyond the merely human’: the “Overman’ (der Ubermensch), that inspiring but indefinable hero or artist or leader to whose advent humanity might yet aspire, if it still had the strength to affirm earthly life rather than succumb to an ultimate nihilism.

I will also let Nietzsche himself speak on the subject:

 “I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?
All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment…
Behold, I teach you the overman. The overman is the meaning of the earth.Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.
Once the sin against God was the greatest sin; but God died, and these sinners died with him. To sin against the earth is now the most dreadful thing, and to esteem the entrails of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth…
What is the greatest experience you can have? It is the hour of the great contempt. The hour when your happiness, too, arouses your disgust, and even your reason and your virtue.
The hour when you say, ‘What matters my happiness? It is poverty and filth and wretched contentment. But my happiness ought to justify existence itself.’
The hour when you say, ‘What matters my reason? Does it crave knowledge as the lion his food? It is poverty and filth and wretched contentment.’
The hour when you say, ‘What matters my virtue? As yet it has not made me rage. How weary I am of my good and my evil! All that is poverty and filth and wretched contentment.’

Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman–a rope over an abyss…
What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under

     “I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves.
Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself. Behold, I show you the last man.
‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’ thus asks the last man, and blinks.
The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea; the last man lives longest.
‘We have invented happiness,’say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth…
One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion. Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion.
No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.
‘Formerly, all the world was mad,’ say the most refined, and they blink…
One has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health.
‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.”

It is hard not read these words and feel a chill.  A brief survey of contemporary culture after reading Nietzsche’s description of the Last Man is enough to make one shudder.  Hart writes of this:

At least, when one considers our culture’s devotion to acquisition, celebrity, distraction, and therapy, it is hard not to think that perhaps our vision as a people has narrowed to the smaller preoccupations and desires of individual selves, and that our whole political, social, and economic existence is oriented toward that reality.  On the other hand, perhaps that is simply what happens when human beings are liberated from want and worry, and we should therefore gratefully embrace the triviality of a world that revolves around television, shopping, and the Internet as a kind of blessedness that our ancestors, oppressed by miseries we can scarcely now imagine, never even hoped to enjoy in this world.

Either way, we have reason to worry.  There are more than a few days when I look in the mirror and see one of the Last Men staring back at me.  A few months ago I attended a talk by Miroslav Volf, who quoted the passage above regarding the Last Men and their incessant blinking.  Volf stressed one cannot understand the contemporary state of the West without digesting carefully Nietzsche’s fears of a human species sunk permanently into a state of nihilistic narcissism.  This is not, of course, the full picture of the contemporary West-but more of that anon.

I would like to pause for a moment and muse on the deeply paradoxical nature of what we call modernity.  We like in a time that fancies itself to be deeply rational, but in point of fact is ruled by sentimentality.  I will let Father Freeman speak on this matter, as he has many times.


The mind is a noisy place – for some the noise is an artifact of brain dysfunction. But for everyone, the noise seems to increase with our involvement in the modern lifestyle. As consumers we are constantly prodded one way or another, towards one desire or another. And the consuming model extends into almost every area of our lives. Christians consume their religion (how do you like your church/priest/congregation, etc.?). We also consume one another and the ideas that float through our world. The 24/7 news cycle shuttles hours of “talking-heads” (and arguing panels) on any subject that can hold our attention. And as soon as one topic fades, another is found to take its place. “How do you feel about…” has become the word of the moment.

The message which is not so subtle, is that we should feel something about everything. An informed person (thus an “intelligent, discerning person”) will have an informed opinion (feeling) about any topic at hand. We are being trained to feel.

What journalists call “feelings,” the faith calls “passions.”

The fact that we can use the word “feeling” for an “opinion” does much to explain its passionate character. The thoughts that are saving thoughts – thoughts that are of benefit to the soul and its salvation – generally need no level of feeling in order to bolster their value. But our culture, driven by consumerism, majors in the means of motivation. Advertisers and politicians, the shapers of public opinion, learned long ago that reasoning based on the facts is the least reliable motivator. Getting someone to feel that they are reasoning based on the facts is much better – but getting them to feel is the key.

Passions are also described as habits – they are addictions of the soul and body. In service to its own economic interests, the culture has found it useful for people to be addicted to feelings. They are easily the most malleable aspect of the soul, particularly vulnerable to manipulation. The addiction to feelings is a hallmark of the modern soul. We think that we are our feelings, or that they somehow express something important. In truth, our feelings are so distorted through addiction and manipulation that they are generally only barometers of the cultural pressures that surround us.


Our culture’s fascination with material things has almost nothing to do with a particular view of materiality. Video games can be just as satisfying as material events. What we find interesting about material things is precisely what we find interesting about all things: how they make us feel. It is our feelings and sentiments (thoughts experienced as feelings) that are the foundation of modern culture.

This phenomenon of sentiment applies to ideas (politics, sports, etc.) as well as material things. It is often a primary driving force behind the religious affiliation of modern believers. The constant barrage of polling and marketing samples that surround us are based on this phenomenon. Polls measure how people “feel” about things – not what they “think.” Thoughts are relatively stable – but feelings change with the wind.

Sentiment has become a way of life to which no one living in our modern world is immune. Indeed, most are not only infected with its presence, but think it is normal and important.

To say that our culture is governed by sentiment is not at all the same thing as saying it is overly rational. There was a time when Western civilization was marked by a high degree of rationalism, but that time has long since passed. Sentiment has little, if anything, to do with rationality, or with conscious thought. Sentiment is a product of the passions.

The passions are passive and reactive in nature. They are not the result of consideration or rational process. They are more accurately described as how we “feel” about something rather than what we “think.” The fact that “think” and “feel” are today used almost interchangeably is a result of sentimentality replacing rationality.

Thomas Sowell, the libertarian economist has dryly remarked that

The problem isn’t that Johnny can’t read. The problem isn’t even that Johnny can’t think. The problem is that Johnny doesn’t know what thinking is; he confuses it with feeling.

There are deeper, Nietzschean, implications stemming from a culture that has confused rationality with sentiment.  Fr. Freeman explains:

Of course, our struggles today are not with the rationalists of the late 18th or 19th centuries. For today, reason itself has become suspect. There has been a shift in popular consciousness in which the will has triumphed over reason (something that was inevitable). Today, what is true is what we want to be true. It is the final victory for consumers. Not only are we able to choose anything we want, but we are also able to will what is.

Justice Anthony Kennedy articulated this with great succinctness in 1992 in the opinion he wrote for Planned Parenthood vs. Casey:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

That “liberty” now justifies fundamental realities such as the relations between male and female to be subject to change, because some want it. Reality has become plastic and subject to redefinition. This is an anti-science and an anti-math, just as it is anti-reason.

The “will gone wild” is in no small part the result of our modern refusal to acknowledge the nature of reality and, more specifically, human nature:

There has, however, been a number of historic rebellions against this mathematical treatment of reason. Very prominent among them has been a “turn towards the self” and the exaltation of a perceived inner set of needs as rationale for individuals. This meshed well with the growing field of psychology in the 20th century, and was quickly embraced by a burgeoning consumer culture that encouraged individuals to indulge and explore their various “needs” and desires. Individuals are now deeply in the throws of this consumerism while the technology of a distorted rationality creates ever more “pleasing” choices. Any “need” you can imagine quickly becomes a “right.”

True reason for Christians should be understood in its proper, classical sense. It is the nous. The nous is our capacity for knowing and perceiving God. It is also our capacity for perceiving all things in their true significance and meaning. The substitution of modern definitions for reason has deadened the human ability to perceive the nous itself. We have been taught to ask the wrong questions.

The thought process of modernity can be described as an abstraction that seeks to shape reality. The nous does not shape reality – it simply perceives it, and in so doing, even learns to perceive God.

The fact of the matter is, we live in a time when sentiment and indulgence of the will have come dominate our understanding of reality and the meaning of life, to a degree that we take for granted.  I have said several conversations in recent months my cousin (who I affectionately refer to as a “liberal hipster,” a label she resists).  My cousin has is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an uncaring or unintelligent person.  She is far and away one of the more aware and most caring people I know.  Yet, I have found it almost impossible to point out to her the most basic and pervasive aspects of our worldview: our confusion of thought and feeling, our resistance to acknowledge realities to which we must yield, etc.  Indeed, I am hardly immune to such things myself.  Being intelligent (if I may set aside my modesty for a moment) does not provide immunity against insanity.  The will, nurtured in today’s culture, is too strong.

Back to my thesis.  Nietzsche’s division of humanity into the “Last Man” and the “Over-man” can be understood as two different manifestations of the untethered human will in an age of nihilism.  The Last Man is the passive response: the human being who sinks into a state of bourgeois content and allows him or herself to be swept along in a neural current of dopamine nurtured by the culture.  This represents, I think the majority of us, Hollywood on down.  The Over-man, by contrast,  is the active response: the human being who is not content to merely feed the will, but to use the will to dominate-and reshape if need be-reality itself.  The Over-man does not wish to remain merely human.  And he intends that his wish to transcend himself be translated into a command.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that in spite of the fact that we live in an ostensibly post-Christian age our species has not become less religious, we have merely translated our religious impulse into forms that are more palatable for our modern selves.  Nietzsche thought the departure of God meant the end of higher (transcendent) aspirations.  Ironically, as it has turned out, for the majority of our species we have allowed higher aspirations to depart and kept God.  The god we have kept-on a leash so to speak-is not of course God at all.  The “religion” concocted by and for the Last Men is Moral Therapeutic Deism.  The term was coined by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton to describe the “actual, tacit, de facto” religion of American teenagers (though Smith and Denton readily concede that their findings apply equally as much to adults).  I have commented on Moral Therapeutic Deism before, so here I will confine myself to a few excerpts from a paper by Smith that outlines the findings.   Smith notes that MTD is essentially codified in 5 principles:

1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.

2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.

5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Numerous quotes from teenagers who took part in the study explicate what this means:

“I believe in, well, my whole religion is where you try to be good and, ah, if you’re not good then you should just try to get better, that’s all.”

“Just don’t be an asshole, that’s all.”

“Morals play a large part in religion; morals are good if they’re healthy for society. Like Christianity, which is all I know, the values you get from like the Ten Commandments. I think every religion is important in its own respect. You know, if you’re Muslim, then Islam is the way for you. If you’re Jewish, well, that’s great too. If you’re Christian, well, good for you. It’s just whatever makes you feel good about you.”

“God is like someone who is always there for you; I don’t know, it’s like God is God. He’s just like somebody that’ll always help you go through whatever you’re going through. When I became a Christian I was just praying, and it always made me feel better.”

“I guess for me Judaism is more about how you live your life. Part of the guidelines are like how to live and I guess be happy with who you are, cause if you’re out there helping someone, you’re gonna feel good about yourself, you know?”

“When I pray, it makes me feel good afterward.”

“Religion is very important, because when you have no one else to talk to about stuff, you can just get it off your chest, you just talk [to God].  It’s good.”

“God is like an entity that decides when, if, he wants to intervene with a lot of things. To me God is pretty much like intervention, like extreme luck. Say you’re $50 away from something and you find $50 on the floor, then that’s probably God’s intervention or something like that. But other than that it just seems like he’s monitoring. He just kind of stays back and watches, like he’s watching a play, like he’s a producer. He makes the play all possible and then he watches it, and if there’s something he doesn’t like, he changes it.”

“I believe there’s a God, so sometimes when I’m in trouble or in danger, then I’ll start thinking about that.”

“Cause God made us and if you ask him for something I believe he gives it to you. Yeah, he hasn’t let me down yet. [So what is God like?] God is a spirit that grants you anything you want, but not anything bad.”

“God’s all around you, all the time. He believes in forgiving people and whatnot, and he’s there to guide us, for somebody to talk to and help us through our problems. Of course, he doesn’t talk back.”

“God is an overall ruler who controls everything, so like, if I’m depressed or something and things aren’t going my way, I blame it on him. I don’t know why.”

Yes, these quotes are from teenagers, so it is no coincidence that they sound comically adolescent.  But the fact of the matter is this adolescent view of the Divine is not confined to teenagers.  As Smith writes:

We are also not saying than anyone has founded an official religion by the name of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, nor that most U.S. teenagers have abandoned their religious denominations and congregations to practice it elsewhere or under another name. Rather, it seems that the latter is simply colonizing many established religious traditions and congregations in the United States, that it is merely becoming the new spirit living within the old body. Its typical embrace and practice is de facto, functional, practical, and tacit—not formal or acknowledged as a distinctive religion. Furthermore, we are not suggesting that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a religious faith limited to teenage adherents in the United States. To the contrary, it seems that it is also a widespread, popular faith among very many U.S. adults. Our religiously conventional adolescents seem to be merely absorbing and reflecting religiously what the adult world is routinely modeling for and inculcating in its youth.

Smith concludes by pointing out what Fr. Freeman has already told:

In short, our teen interview transcripts reveal clearly that the language that dominates U.S. adolescent interests and thinking about life—including religious and spiritual life—is primarily about personally feeling good and being happy. That is what defines the dominant epistemological framework and evaluative standard for most contemporary U.S. teenagers—and probably for most of their baby-boomer parents.

In short, MTD is what happens when the “dominant epistemological framework and evaluative standard” for discerning spiritual reality becomes that which makes us feel good.  This is the religion of the Last Men.  The very idea of such an epistemological framework would have struck our ancestors, in almost any of the great religious traditions, as abhorrent and, indeed, insane.  In what universe does it make sense that spiritual reality accords with what makes us feel good?  What data is that based on?  Certainly an empirical observation of history and nature doesn’t yield such a ridiculous conclusion.  It certainly is not the product of reason.  The New Atheists, God Bless them, haven’t come up with nonsense on stilts like this.  And yet, a frighteningly large percentage of people believe this today.  We are a nation of spiritual adolescents.

Again, however, this makes sense when one realizes that MTD is a product of the Last Men.  It is the most “spirituality” that a culture of vapid narcissists can handle.  Nietzsche described the Last Men as those who have lost the ability to “despise themselves.”  Indeed.  It should be no surprise that the Last Men take solace in a religion of endless self-affirmation.

As it happens, however, there are some among us who have not forgotten how to despise our humanity and these folks too have concocted their own religion: transhumanism.  Transhumanism has indeed left God behind, but instead has substituted a new deity: A humanity that transcends itself.  The November issue of First Things includes an excellent article on the intellectual genesis of transhumanism (“Humanity 4.5“).  I believe the article is accessible only to subscribers, so I can merely whet your appetite with a few quotes (it is worth paying for).  Author Mark Shiffman writes:

Although it styles itself a philosophy, transhumanism is really a religious movement with a twenty-first-century marketing campaign (under the brand “H+”). Like their prophet Descartes, transhumanists think of the human being as a consciousness hosted in a body, and of the body as a machine that the will can manipulate by means of reason. Transhumanism adds a new technological claim: Computing advances are on the verge of bringing about the “singularity,” a convergence of artificial, computer-based intelligence and human, brain-based intelligence. This convergence will allow us to transfer ourselves out of the “wetware” of the brain and into super-sophisticated hardware, thus enhancing our powers and possibly securing a kind of immortality. We are on the brink of transcending the bodily limits that have previously constrained humanity, thereby becoming transhuman.

…this agenda is driven by the same inspiration that is the source of all religion. This is the human capacity for self-transcendence…the foundation of our human dignity.

Our zeal for scientific self-transcendence is shaped by a widely shared modern vision of the human relationship to the divine and to nature.

Shiffman’s article includes some fascinating reflections on Descartes, Gnosticism, Duns Scotus’s use of univocal language (I have long had the sense that the charges made against Scotus by Thomists on this point are unfair but alas I have not taken the time to research more thoroughly) and political libertarianism.  Overall, he argues clearly and cogently that transhumanism is the logical outgrowth of modern thinking.  He spends relatively time on Nietzsche, but one cannot of course miss the shadow of the Over-man that lies over the entire project and narrative of trans-humanism.

There is something of a bitter irony-the human yearning for self-transcendence is an integral part of humanity.  All the great religions know this, just as well as Nietzsche did and his intellectual descendants do.  Transhumanism is a modern, scientistic, way to fill this particular need.  Of course, the transhumanist mission rests on the triumph of the human will-Shiffman, channeling Father Freeman, notes that its vision places the will above reason, which becomes nothing more than a tool for self-transcendence.  The will, with its manipulation of reason-and through reason reality-is what will allow man to become Over-man.  There is an extraordinary arrogance in this field-some brazenly assert that we will one day manipulate gravity and save the universe.

Charitably, there are faint glimmers here of Messianism and perhaps even the Jewish sense of tikkun olam (though the glimmers are very faint).  The fact of the matter is, humanity is incapable of getting out of its own way.  Transhumanism will fail because human beings are ontologically incapable of transcending ourselves under our own steam.  John Gray understands this and has written on it well, speaking of the “divided nature of the human animal itself.”  No doubt many transhumanists know this well and loathe it.  Yet, they seem unable to grasp that the human will cannot overcome nature, not even with reason (especially when reason is deliberately made subservient to the human will).

The warning shots fired by Aldus Huxley in Brave New World and C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man can be read as a reminder that transhumanists, their yearnings aside, are still human, sharing the same limitations and weaknesses as the rest of us, including a vulnerability to grandiose visions that quickly turn lethal.  Nazism attempted to call forth the Over-man and what it received in response was Adolf Hitler.  Transnhumanism, the religion of the would-be Over-men, seems to me to be far smaller in strength than the lazy, blissful contentment of MTD.  Yet, the path of the few can pose great dangers to the many.  At its extreme, one thinks of the literal division of humanity into the Eloi and the Morlocks described in lurid detail by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine.  The paternalism that modern liberalism and socialism are so comfortable with can easily fall into this trap.

What I have been trying to make clear throughout this essay is that the core problem we are wrestling with today is one of worldview.  I have always been a “big picture person,” and frankly, haggling over various hot-button issues (abortion, for instance) is pointless if we cannot pull back and see the big picture.  The modern world has effectively accepted that the human will is what counts, whether it be a largely passive existence of self-indulgence or a more aggressive existence of asserting the will.  These are but two sides of the same coin-whether Nietzsche foresaw it or not, the Last Man and the Over-man are brothers.  Most importantly of all, religion itself can-and has-been co-opted by the Last Man and the Over-man.  The landscape today is quite hostile to the views of a traditional Christianity (or religion period).

This does not mean that all humanity is lost.  Our species may be moribund, denuded and beleaguered, but the image of God still survives in us.  Moral Therapeutic Deism and Transhumanism both demonstrate that the human longing for communion with the Divine, for self-transcendence, still lives in us.  The path classical Christianity offers is one that sounds ever more foreign to the contemporary world.  Instead of indulgence it offers asceticism and self-discipline; instead of despising our humanity it calls us to ground ourselves more deeply in it.  Rather than playing down the hardness of the Christian path, I would encourage the Church to “dial it up” a notch.  Our species still has ears to hear, even if they are clogged.   Now is the time to stress that while what we offer is not easy, it is the Truth.  And only the Truth can set one free.


  1. Moral Therapeutic Deism is also, of course, an example of wishful thinking par excellence.  Freud’s critique of Christianity on the grounds of wishful thinking is far more applicable to MTD than it is to classical Christianity.  In the words of Scott Hahn:

I don’t know what you’re like, but I know what I’m like.  And I know what God is like-at least the God I say I believe in.  That God is infinite; and He’s all-wise, so He knows everything about me.  He’s all-good, too, and all righteous, and perfectly holy.  And He commands me to be perfectly holy, too.  Since He’s all-wise, he knows exactly when I’m not very holy or good, and He judges me based on what He knows.  Oh, and He’s immutable too, so He’ll never change.  He’ll always be the way He is now; so He’ll always hold the same standards; and He’s always going to judge me by every idle word I utter.

I have to admit, that that kind of God threatens my present state of existence and my lifestyle.  If I were going to invent a god, I’d probably make one more congenial to my whims.  And if I didn’t have the sense to invent him that way in the first place, I’d at least invent a god who could simply change his mind.

2. The Pope Emeritus neatly explains why humanity cannot transcend himself by the miracle of engineering:

We see that human beings can never retreat into the realm of what they are capable of.  In everything that they do, they constitute themselves.

Put another way, we put ourselves into everything that we make (a point that Stephen Hawking seems to have recognized, if his recent comments on computer viruses and AI are any clue).  We cannot simply will or engineer ourselves to a higher state of being.

3. It goes without saying that the duality Nietzsche is describing reflects archetypes more than persons.  In reality, the Last Man and the Over-man overlap-a bit of each exists in each of us.  And it makes sense to speak of a “spectrum” of the degree to which these impulses manifest themselves.  As noted above, even our “lost generation” still bears the imago Dei, we too have a strong moral sense even if it is frequently misdirected.  On a related note, I have largely avoided the New Atheists on this topic.  Their voices, while loud, add little the conversation-several of them are quite skeptical of trans-humanism and (I would gather) are less than impressed with the Last Men.  Lacking an overall philosophical vision, however, it is difficult to know where to place them on my aforementioned spectrum, or how to address them (their poorly-articulated views strike me as a sort of modern Epicureanism, which is frankly more desirable than the Nietzschean twins I’ve berated here).

4. I haven’t commented much here on the role Gnosticism plays in all this, though a recent post outlines my thoughts on that subject.  See also Fr. Ron Rolheiser’s latest.

5. Many people (David Bentley Hart and Richard Elliott Friedman to give two examples) have noted there are several parallels between Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche.  The two made the same observations, but came up with dramatically different answers.

6. In terms of what kind of “shock tactics” may be appropriate for pointing out the absurdities of the modern worldview-and thereby demonstrating the traditionalist one as a viable alternative-I have found pointing out the arguably “conservative” nature of true Buddhism (as opposed to its New Age incarnation) to be surprisingly effective.  In the words of an American Conservative article, which-if nothing else-will start an interesting conversation:

The Buddha was indeed a revolutionary, but his was an inner revolution. If he appeared on the scene today, he’d be spurned as a relic.
This is because virtue and self-discipline are anachronisms, to be ridiculed and discarded with yesterday’s trash. Faith is unpopular because it requires that we do the unthinkable: be answerable to forces other than ourselves. 
The Buddha taught that humans cannot escape the vicissitudes of a human life. But liberals try to shield themselves, like the Buddha’s father did. They concoct an elaborate charade to obscure reality.
The Left finds endless excuses for bad behavior: “He was a poor minority.” “She was a victim of homophobia.” But in the end, no one is let off the hook. Every one of us, weak or powerful, rich or poor, will be held accountable for our actions.
The Buddha imparted a simple fact of life — that everyone suffers. Accusations of “white privilege” are foolish because the Grim Reaper will knock on every door. Like the young mother learned, no mustard seed exists from a house without sorrow.


A few things for today.

First, it appears that Huston Smith is in hospice care (based on a posting on his official website).  In the near future I intend to post a reflection on the influence of this great man, but for the moment a quote from his Why Religion Matters will have to do:

I myself regularly receive letters both from doomsday prophets who see us going down the drain like Rome, and from their opposite numbers, bright-eyed bushy-tailed New Agers, who sound as if they expect a mutation of consciousness to reopen the gates of Eden for two-way traffic any day now.  I wish I could readdress each letter, unopened, to one of its opposite numbers.  Let them figure it out while I hold their jackets.

Incidentally, I was recently rereading this particular book, and was struck at how powerful, and timely, it still is.

Second, following up on yesterday’s post, here are some related thoughts from Miroslav Volf (Exclusion & Embrace):

Though God knows the way things were and will one day say it out aloud, human beings know only partially and can only say it inadequately.  There is no way to climb up to God’s judgment seat to make infallible pronouncements, so to speak, in God’s stead as God’s vicars on earth.  Christians know God, but they do not know all that God knows-at least not yet, though Thomas Aquinas believed one day they will.  We know only something of what God knows-as much as and as little as God has revealed…our belief in an all-knowing God notwithstanding, we are left on our own to search for “what was the case,” sustained by the persuasion that there is an eternal truth, one not skewed by particular standpoints, because there is an everlasting and universal God.

The belief in an all-knowing God should inspire the search for truth; the awareness of our human limitations should make us modest about the claims that we have found it.  We “know in part” (1 Corinthians 13:12) because we are finite beings.  As Thomas Nagel put it, “even if each of us possesses a large dormant capacity for objective self-transcendence, our knowledge of the world will always be fragmentary, however much we extend it.”

In The View From Nowhere Nagel suggest that in order to know the world adequately we must “step outside of ourselves” and ask “what the world must be like from no point of view.”  When we distance ourselves from ourselves “each of us…in addition to being an ordinary person, is a particular objective self, the subject of a perspectiveless conception of reality.”  Nagel is aware that we can never quite succeed in leaving the “ordinary person” behind: “However often we may try to step outside of ourselves, something will have to stay behind the lens, something in us will determine the resulting picture.”

I suggest that we keep the double vision, but that, at least when it comes to knowing the social world, we replace “the view from nowhere” with “the view from here
“…instead of seeing the self and the other or the two cultures and their common history from no perspective we should try to see them from both perspectives, both “from here” and “from there.”

Ideally, of course, we should see things from everywhere (which is what Nagel may have at least partly in mind when talks about “the perspectiveless subject”).  “From everywhere” is how God sees human beings, I would argue.  God does not simply see from outside, but also from within, not abstracting from peculiarities of individual histories, but concretely, not disinterestedly but seeking the good of all creation.  God’s truth is eternal, but it is emphatically not “nonlocal,” as Nagel suggests the truth of philosophy should be-both eternal and nonlocal.  God’s truth is panlocal to follow Nagel’s idiom.  That is why God’s truth is not simply one among many perspectives, but the truth about each and all perspectives.

In a creaturely way we should try to emulate God’s way of knowing.  Not that we can crawl inside the mind of God and see things from God’s panlocal perspective.  But we can try to see the other concretely rather than abstractly, from within rather than simply from without.  What human way of seeing best corresponds to God’s seeing “from everywhere”?  Seeing both “from here” and “from there.”

…what does it take to see “from there,” from the perspective of others?  First, we step outside ourselves-a move which in no way entails a denial of human creatureliness and situatedness in the name of an illusory absolute self-transcendence, but is “a constitutive part of that specific mode of insertion into a world which we call human.”

Third, I absolutely loved Ron Rolheiser’s newest column (“Innocence, Complexity and Sanity“).  He writes:

…as if being religious means that you are unable to handle the earthiness and beat of rock music, as if church and earthy celebration are in opposition to each other, as if sanctity demands an elemental innocence the precludes human complexity, and as if full-blood and religion are best kept separate.

But that’s an attitude within most people, however unexpressed. The idea is that God and human complexity do not go together. Ironically that attitude is particularly prevalent among the over-pious and those most negative towards religion. For the both the over-pious and the militant-impious, God and robust life cannot go together. And that’s also basically true for the rest of us as is evident in our inability to attribute complexity, earthiness, and temptation to Jesus, to the Virgin Mary, to the saints, and to other publicly-recognized religious figures such as Mother Theresa.  It seems that we can only picture holiness as linked to a certain naiveté. For us, holiness needs to be sheltered and protected like a young child. As a result we then project such an over-idealization of innocence and simplicity onto Jesus, Mary, and our religious exemplars that it becomes impossible for us to ever really identify with them. We can give them admiration, but very little else.

For example, the Virgin Mary of our piety could not have written the Magnificat. She lacks the complexity to write such a prayer because we have projected on to her such an innocence, delicacy, and childlikeness so as to leave her less than fully adult and fully intelligent. Ultimately this has a negative effect religiously. To identify an unrealistic innocence and simplicity with holiness sets out an unattainable ideal that has too many people believe that their own red blood, with its restless stirrings, makes them bad candidates for the church and sanctity.

The task in spirituality is not to try to emulate the naive innocence and non-complexity of our childhood. That’s an exercise in denial and a formula for rationalization. The task is rather to move towards a second-naiveté, a post-sophistication which has already taken into account the full complexity of our lives. Only then will we have again the innocent joy of children, even as we are able to stand steady inside the rawness of rock music, the power and complexity of human sexuality, the concupiscent tendencies of the human heart, and the uncanny and wily maneuverings innate inside the human spirit. From there we can write the Magnificat.

Fifth, I have refrained from saying much about the recent Papal visit, but I recommend recent articles (here and here) on First Things.  Also, on a somewhat related noted, this excellent article tearing down Bill Nye’s viral embarassment.