Between the Church and the Abyss

In his magisterial book The Introduction to Christianity Cardinal Ratzinger wrote the following:

What is belief really?  We can now reply like this: It is a human way of taking up a stand in the totality of reality, a way that cannot be reduced to knowledge and is commensurable with knowledge; it is the bestowal of meaning without which the totality of man would remain homeless, on which man’s calculations and actions are based, and without which in the last resort he could not calculate and act, because he can only do this in the context of a meaning that bears him up.  For in fact man does not live on the bread of practicality alone; he lives as man and, precisely in the intrinsically human part of his being, on the word, on love, on meaning.  Meaning is the bread on which man, in the intrinsically human part of his being, subsists.  Without the word, without meaning, without love he falls into the situation of no longer being able to live, even when earthly comfort is present in abudance.  Everyone knows how sharply this situation of “not being able to go on anymore” can arise in the midst of outward abundance.  But meaning is not derived from knowledge.  To try to manufacture it in this way, that is, out of the provable knowledge of what can be made, would resemble Baron Munchausen’s absurd attempt to pull himself up out of the bog by his own hair.

I believe that the absurdity of this story mirrors very accurately the basic situation of man.  No one can pull himself out of the bog of uncertainty, of not being able to live, by his own exertions; nor can we pull ourselves up, as Descarate still thought we could, by a cogito ergo sum, by a series of intellectual deductions.  Meaning that is self-made is in the last analysis no meaning.  Meaning, that is, the ground on which our existence as a totality can stand and live, cannot be made but only received.

I first read these words a little over 2 years ago.  I have mentioned numerous times before that this particular book was set me on the road to Rome.  These words, in particular, sent chills down my spine.  As I read and reread the bolded words at the end I was struck by a very simple and very clear thought: That’s it.  This is what it comes down to.  The choice between objective meaning and subjective meaning.

Sometime later I read another book, Crunch Cons, by columnist Rod Dreher.  I have quoted him before, but this bears repeating:

That is, he [the “Crunchy Con”] cannot separate his essential religious vision from metaphysics.  That is, he believes his religion doesn’t state an opinion about how the world is; he believes it is an accurate guide to factual reality. I do not think it is possible to be authentically religious without being in some fashion an orthodox traditionalist.

Dreher goes on to discuss the psychological and sociological distinctions between orthodox and progressive views of religion, and emphasizes that tradition in religion is essential to keep religion being reduced to “divinized rationalization for self-worship.”  In doing so he is giving flesh to the point Ratzinger stressed so strongly in Introduction Christianity: If meaning is to be real it cannot be created.  It can only be received.  Nor am I by any means the only person to make this point.  Pastor Tim Keller has hammered on it numerous times, most recently in a talk given in January.  The entire talk is excellent, but I’d particularly highlight what he says at 22:00-23:00.  Reflecting on Tolstoy’s A Confession Keller summarizes the great Russian’s thought as essentially boiling down to “As long as I didn’t think, as long as I wasn’t too rational, so long as I didn’t think about the implications of what I believed about the world, I could handle it.”

Keller stresses that the heart of the issue comes down to the implications of one’s worldview.  Using Tolstoy as his case study he notes that the woman (I figured I’d switch pronouns lest anyone think the above paints me as a sexist) who doesn’t think through-or at least think too much-about what she believes, who stands back from the “big questions”, can get through life just fine on self-made meaning.  Of course, as Tolstoy said so eloquently, “One can only live while one is intoxicated with life.”  When “sobriety” hits one will collide into the question “What will come of my whole life?” as if with a brick wall.  Keller notes dryly that one will soon realize there is “no point to the points” we often make of our life.  Family and relationships, loving others, improving the world, are all wonderful things.  But can they stand against the nature of existence?

Existence is marked, of course, by transcience, what the Buddha called “impermanence”.  On a philosophical level one may look at the nature of the universe and conclude-not unfairly-that the whole thing is “pointless” as physicist Steven Weinberg did.  One could even go further and conclude the whole thing is shot through with futility.  Nature, in theological terms, is bound by Death.  Everything dies.  Of course we will die, as all living organisms will.  So will our family lineage.  So will our civilization.  So will our species. The sun will die (as all stars do) and take out our planet with it when it does.  And-though I grant the physics is unresolved-the entire universe appears to be mortal and will one day die as well.  In this big picture, everything we are, everything we do, ultimately disappears, swallowed-so to speak-by the apparent nature of existence. What does one do with this “big picture” of a cosmos destined for death, with no meaning?  Is the proper solution to face this fact like an adult and then make our own meaning from there on in?

Most atheists today would say that is exactly what we should do.  A friend of mine recently posted a link on his Facebook to a Patheos blogpost entitled Where Does an Atheist Find Purpose?  (I realize meaning and purpose are not necessarily the same thing but here for the sake of simplicity I am conflating the two).  Neil Carter, the blogger, presents a typical-if quite well written-summary of the atheist position: Religion is a fantasy designed to address our deepest longings but that in no way validates its veracity (apologies for the alliteration); meaning is a man-made fabrication, sometimes based on genuine optical illusions, that all human beings engage in (Carter doesn’t mention evolution but presumably his view is that we owe this tendency to evolutionary conditioning); it is more mature and properly human to set aside this illusion; and we can find purpose thereafter by finding ways to matter to another person, moving around and contributing the progress of the species as a whole.

Carter makes several valid points, in particular his brief critique of C.S. Lewis.  He states “the existence of our need for meaning does not automatically validate the ways we were taught to meet that need“, which is a fair point.  For the record, I’ve never found Lewis’s statement that this world’s inability to satisfy us as suggesting we were made for another world as being in any sense a “proof.”  It as, at most, a compelling question: Is our hunger for transcendence really an evolutionary vestige like our appendix or is it more?  It is an invitation to dive deeper, a pointer to God, but not in any meaningful sense of the word “proof” of anything.

I was particularly intrigued by Carter’s point “The theist’s life purpose is just as made up by us as is the atheist’s.”  Not, mind you, the point that religion is wish-fulfillment.  As good a writer as Carter is he can’t hold a candle to Freud in that regard.  No just the opposite-the unhesitating admission that the purpose of the atheist is in fact made up, that it is a fiction, a projection and nothing more.  There is something almost touching about Carter’s admission that all people are in the same boat when it comes to our need our fictions and projections.  This is followed, however, by a rather interesting paragraph in which Carter notes some people are more prone to brooding and introspection, and it is often the “most intelligent” who are able to unplug themselves from the Matrix and see the world as it really is.  While one could see a touch of Dennett-style elitism in his words (only atheists, the “Brights”, are smart enough to see the world as it really is) it also seems to me Carter is simply approaching the same thing Keller observed in Tolstoy but from the other direction: the existentialist ramifications of objective meaninglessness are serious and make an immense impact on how one lives their life.  This is an intriguing admission, and-tellingly?-Carter does not really offer much of a solution to those people who can’t just “get over” the meaninglessness of the world.

The Christian narrative is not, of course, the only one on the market for dealing with this market.  Buddhism was specifically designed to address the meaninglessness of the world by allowing us to detach ourselves from it and live serenely, indeed with great compassion, until we escaped the world. Ancient Greek philosophy, particularly in Stoicism and Epicureanism, was designed to help the human being live in light of a universe that simply doesn’t give a shit about its inhabitants.  Nonetheless, the form of “self-made meaning” that is presently popular today is a far cry from these ancient forms.  The modern form is cut from the same cloth as the cliche “Life isn’t about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself.”  Modernity as a whole, as has been pointed out many times, has no worldview to offer whatsoever.  It delegates that task to the individual.  And in spite of our protestations to the contary, the individual cannot very well create him or herself from scratch.

Indeed, we are far more shaped by our culture-which today is consumeristic, narcissistic and shallow-than we realize.  No one can create themselves ex nihilo.  No, the modern form of self-made meaning is precisely what one would expect from the culture of post/modern Western civilization: Compared to what the Greeks had to say it is flippant.  Of course there are parallels-as Jonathan Sacks has noted the changing social mores on abortion and suicide are not far from the views of the ancient Greeks.  And of course there are some atheists who are wise and hold a worldview closer to that of Plato.  But the average person?  Not really.  Self-made meaning in post/modern terms amounts to little more than pursue pleasure, avoid pain, act on your desires, and assert yourself to your heart’s content, so long as you don’t hurt anybody and your are halfway nice.  That this worldview is a synthesis of views articulated by long-dead philosophers doesn’t occur to the average American.  Much less do we realize that the flippant approach we often take is a luxury that belongs to those with the wealth and comforts of middle and upper class America-something denied to most people who have lived in history and the majority of the world’s population today.

None of this, of course, validates the Christian story, nor is it intended to.  It is rather a commentary on a cultural paralysis that has reduced the fullness of humanity to something that is now within spitting distance of Huxley’s A Brave New World.  Maclin “Mac” Horton, a Catholic blogger interviewed by Dreher in Crunchy Cons, notes that many contemporary Americans look disturbingly like the Eloi in  Wells’s The Time Machine.  Ratzinger was dead right: Something instrinsically human has been lost.  And as the Pope Emeritus stated so well, the problem cannot be solved by scientism.  Perhaps it can for Richard Dawkins.  But more than a few people who confront the existential emptiness of the universe will find themselves little comforted by marveling at the wonders of the universe when their own lives carry no inherent meaning.  Some can be anesthestized by the creature comforts of our modern society, at least for awhile.  But in the end, the problem of confronting the existential emptiness does not go away.  Even Carter’s excellent summary could not deny this.

What, then, has religion to say on the matter, if anything?  I am not interested for the moment in engaging in apologetics or philosophical arguments about the veracity of Christianity.  That is a subject for another day.  I am rather more interested in a different question: If one choses religion, what guides the choice?  That religion is so often just another coping mechanism to avoid dealing with the meaninglessness of reality is a point I’d concur on vigorously with Carter and others.  A spirituality of bumper sticker sayigns and cliches offers nothing of substance.  This is Flannery O’Connors electric blanket, the fictional life purpose castigated by the atheists.  Here I rather agree with the atheist’s point: Such a faith is nothing more than what David Bentley Hart calls a “religion of consolation”, a therapy, mere sentiment.  Again to quote O’Connor, I say to hell with that.  Mere belief in God in some abstract sense is of no help either, as Peter Kreeft so aptly demonstrates in his powerful commentary on Ecclesiastes (Three Philosophies of Life).

This, at last, brings me to the point of this rambling essay.  Mac Horton tells Dreher in Crunchy Cons that he stays Catholic because “It’s quite simple: there isn’t anything else.  It’s Catholicism or Nihilism for me.”  And, I confess, I am now in the same boat.  As far as I can see it there are really only two options on the  market.  Dreher also interviews an Orthodox Jew, Tikva Crolius, who says something that resonates equally with me:

Everyone comes to faith in their own way.  I didn’t have a eureka moment, but I let the normal status quo convince me that as glorious as Western civilization has been, it has brought us to a point where it will destroy itself if we give in to it.  When you see that the world as presented by pop culture can’t add up to anything worthwhile, the logical next step is to look into the wealth of a religious tradition.  And you know what? It might as well be a real one.

It might as well be a real one.  When I abandoned Spiritus Christi and gave up a short-lived almost foray into Anglicanism I had come to see liberal religion as a dead-end.  I was tired of writing my own “theology” (it was nothing of the kind).  I wanted the depths of a real tradition.  Again Dreher seemed to be reading my mind: I wanted authenticity, the “Permanent Things.”  I came to share with Mac and Tikva the fundamental conviction that ultimate truth or falsity is knowable and matters more than anything else.  With Dreher I decided that I wanted to belong to a tradition that demanding something of me rather than the other way around.  Those who prefer to worship the Zeitgeist rather than the Holy Ghost persist in a perpetual agnosticism.  I wanted more.  I wanted objective meaning.

Why are the alternatives so stark for me?  I am one of those individuals who has no patience for self-created fictions, be they in the sentimental pieties that masquerade as spirituality today, nor the narrative from contemporary atheists that self-made meaning is something that just anyone can achieve and get by with.  Were I an atheist I could never keep my mind from turning to the ultimate meaninglessness of all things.  I might not be driven to commit suicide over it, but the brand of Nihilism I would be forced to accept would not be a happy one.

Why did I choose the Catholic worldview?  It isn’t out of any prior commitment to Catholicism.  For years (2000-2013 to be exact) my relationship with Catholicism was love-hate.  I was both enamored and repelled.  Even now, I still struggle with more than a few aspects of Church teaching.  Yet, like St. Peter before me there is nowhere else for me to turn now, for the Church has the words of eternal life.  A wise Trappist monk who has served as my de facto spiritual director told me that I can expect the rest of my life to be a journey of getting acquainted with Holy Mother Church.  I have found in Catholicism a worldview that is existentially satisfying and rationally coherent, beautiful and challenging, able to coexist with science and human flourishing.  It is the Way of Truth that leads to Life; the path to freedom and happiness.

This should not be taken as disdain for other religions.  At one time-and frankly even now-I still much of Buddhism to be compelling.  Indeed Buddhist and Thomist teachings more or less agree on the nature of existence-that is transient, consisting of various aggregates always falling apart and coming together again.  Yet the Buddha, who offered a path of remarkable wisdom for coming to terms with this nature of the world-did not contemplate the possibility of an Uncreated Existence beyond the shifting aggregates, nor the possibility that this Uncreated might enter into transience and become the Crucified God so as to redeem the world from its bondage to dark powers.  Christian philosophy and theology have made it impossible for me to be Buddhist now.

In the last analysis, I chose Catholicism because I hungered for an objective meaning.  I wanted to receive a meaning on which my humanity could truly stand.  Liberal religion offered me nothing; I needed the full tradition in all of its depth and orthodox fullness.  For all my struggles with Catholicism I now know beyond a doubt where I stand: Between the Church and the inescapable abyss of a nihilism that sees the world without God for what it truly is: A meaningless void that can yield fleeting moments of pleasure and beauty, but is in the last analysis a tale of futility that only delusion can hide.  Self-made meaning is nothing more than our own collusion with the collective delusions of our species, be they evolutionary or cultural.  And upon such a weak foundation, a true humanity-a true human being-simply cannot be.

NOTES:

  1. There is one other observation worth noting.  Huston Smith has observed that real religious conviction-the kind normally associated with conservatives-has the power to, as Smith eloquently puts it, get drunkards out of ditches.  Again this does not prove the veracity of the conviction.  It merely goes to the heart of Tikva’s point: If one is going to turn to a spiritual tradition one should expect it to be a real one and act accordingly.  The conviction that accompanies someone who believes their tradition is speaking Truth carries with it the power to truly transform and sustain lives in a way that self-made meaning simply cannot do.
  2. This post also helps illustrate why despite my great frustrations with traditionalist Catholicism (whether on Biblical exegesis, evolution or the liturgy) I cannot help but admire the fact that traditionalists approach their tradition as it should be treated: As the bearer of an objective Truth, a Revelation we are not free to revise as we see fit.  That attitude, it seems to me, is the only appropriate one.  That I do not always reach the same conclusion does not take away from this very important shared conviction.

Science and a Meta-narrative

Not long ago the Internet was set a-Twitter by a letter to the editor in The Wall Street Journal by Eric Metaxas that brazenly asserted that “science increasingly makes the case for God” (Metaxas, lest anyone be surprised, is not himself a scientist of any kind).  The article made use of the Anthropic Principle, fine-tuning and some (dated) astrobiology to assert that the universe bore the traces of a supernatural Creator.  Lawrence Krauss, who has secured a coveted (and lucrative) seat amongst the leadership of the New Atheists was having none of it.  He fired back a response that effectively eviscerated the arguments made by Metaxas (a longer version of this is available on The New Yorker).  Rather than rehash the argument here, suffice it to say Krauss pointed out that the astrobiology relied upon by Metaxas was out of date, and he also, quite deftly, poked a gaping hole in the Anthropic argument.

This whole exchange struck me as more amusing than anything else.  I am no fan of Mr. Krauss-not because he is merely polemical (he is that but then again so am I), but rather because he is a world class, grade-A [insert expletive].  That being said, Krauss knows his science and has roundly defeated most of the apologists he has debated.  I’ve noted before that John Lennox did extremely poorly in a debate against Krauss (others responded to points made by Krauss better than Lennox himself did), and as far as I’m concerned Krauss utterly trounced William Lane Craig (Craig’s response was too little too late).  In each case-Lennox, Craig, Metaxas-it seems to me the problem is the same: The apologist makes the mistake of attempting to invoke science he simply does not understand.

In the case of “The Wall Street Journal Skirmish”, as far as I’m concerned, the beating that Metaxas took was well deserved.  It makes an extraordinarily sharp contrast with the far more scientifically literate (and humble) approach of Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit and astronomer with the Vatican Observatory and author of the book Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? Br. Consolmagno displays a humility that seems to be lacking amongst both Christian and New Atheist apologists (for instance, in one talk, he repeatedly stresses we cannot draw conclusions when we don’t know what we don’t know).  Incidentally, the possibility of alien life should not be at all threatening to the Christian.  Those interested in the potential theological implications of that issue should read the always calm and restrained thoughts of C.S. Lewis (specifically his essays Religion and Rocketry and The Seeing Eye).

In any case, I attempting to use science to “prove” the existence of God is a perilous matter.  In his book A Universe from Nothing Krauss quite accurately recounts the exchange between George Lemaitre, the Belgian-priest physicist who helped develop the standard Big Bang theory, and Pope Pius XII.  Lemaitre was livid when the Pontiff attempted to appropriate the theory as scientific evidence for the creation of the universe, and proceeded to (privately) give the Holy Father a dressing-drown.  It seems to me that if the standard Big Bang theory turns out to be true-and that space and time did indeed have an absolute beginning and came from “nothing” (Lennox and Krauss somehow spent almost 10 minutes debating the meaning of the word) then, to quote none other than Stephen Hawking, it seems there would clearly be some religious implications.  Father Robert Spitzer explains this position further in New Proofs for the Existence of God.

The problem, of course, is that we do NOT know-not yet at least-if the standard version of the Big Bang theory is true.  A variety of theories are making the rounds today, many of which postulate the existence of something “before” the Big Bang.  Incidentally, Fr. Spitzer argues that most of these theories still seem to point towards some kind of absolute true beginning that, for lack of a better way to put it, predates physicality (this position seems to be shared by the eminent physicist Alexander Vilenkin).  With these competing theories of the Big Bang, and the possibility that the “eternal universe” of Aristotle appears to be hovering in the background prepared to return should one of these competing theories prove correct, it would be wise to avoid being hasty on drawing theological conclusions from cosmology (incidentally neither Maimonides nor Thomas Aquinas was intimidated by the idea of an eternal universe).

Is this, then, the same thing as saying that science leaves no room for God?  Has modern theoretical cosmology completely obliterated the need for a Creator?  Here I would like to cite an article by another atheist physicist Sean Carroll, simply and appropriately entitled, Does the Universe Need God?  Carroll makes the by now predictable argument that science can arrive at a perfectly coherent understanding of the universe that leaves no room for a supernatural Creator.  The essay explains quite well the emerging theories of the Big Bang I referenced above, as well as a critique of the Anthropic argument.  I highly recommend reading this essay, not only for what is an excellent scientific summary, but because Carroll sets forth with unusual clarity the real battleground and the real point of divergence, when he writes the following:

For convenience I am brutally lumping together quite different arguments, but hopefully the underlying point of similarity is clear. These ideas all arise from a conviction that, in various contexts, it is insufficient to fully understand what happens; we must also provide an explanation for why it happens – what might be called a “meta-explanatory” account.

It can be difficult to respond to this kind of argument. Not because the arguments are especially persuasive, but because the ultimate answer to “We need to understand why the universe exists/continues to exist/exhibits regularities/came to be” is essentially “No we don’t.” That is unlikely to be considered a worthwhile comeback to anyone who was persuaded by the need for a meta-explanatory understanding in the first place.

Granted, it is always nice to be able to provide reasons why something is the case. Most scientists, however, suspect that the search for ultimate explanations eventually terminates in some final theory of the world, along with the phrase “and that’s just how it is.” It is certainly conceivable that the ultimate explanation is to be found in God; but a compelling argument to that effect would consist of a demonstration that God provides a better explanation (for whatever reason) than a purely materialist picture, not an a priori insistence that a purely materialist picture is unsatisfying.

Why are some people so convinced of the need for a meta-explanatory account, while others are perfectly happy without one? I would suggest that the impetus to provide such an account comes from our experiences within the world, while the suspicion that there is no need comes from treating the entire universe as something unique, something for which a different set of standards is appropriate.

One could not ask for a clearer delineation separating the Christian/theistic/religious POV from that of scientific naturalism.  The issue is not one of physics, but of metaphysics.  The argument is over whether the truths of science fit into a larger “meta-narrative” (or “meta-theory” as Carroll would say) of the world, or if we are content to say “That’s just the way it is”.  This is hardly a new divide by the way, Bertrand Russell said it long before Krauss and Carroll came on the scene.  It is also shared by other physicists, including Brian Greene who has remarked “… if you don’t view God as the reservoir of temporary answers to issues we haven’t solved scientifically, but rather as some overarching structure within which science takes place, and if that makes you happy and satisfied, so be it. I don’t see the need for that; others do”; and the British physicist Jim al-Khalili, who says “For me the universe is just there.”

The essence of the debate, then, is not really scientific, it is philosophical.  It is not a debate about this or that piece of data, or any particular scientific analysis (pace the efforts of the Intelligent Design community) but rather a question of how the data is interpreted, whether it is to be understood as part of a wider framework.  James Arraj, as he so often does, nails the problem:

…scientific discourse sometimes becomes encrusted with the philosophical and religious inclinations of the scientists.

There should be nothing shocking about this observation, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have both noted that there really is no such thing as “pure science” uncontaminated by some form of philosophy.  One can get a particularly intriguing glimpse of this in the debate over consciousness-as James Alison remarked to me recently “The battle between cognitivists and pre-cognitivists, one where the preconceptions of each party’s lenses dominate their explanations entirely, will, I suspect be going on long after we are food for the worms!”  Indeed.

Now, back to Sean Carroll for a moment.  Carroll argues that historically God has been seen-in some sense-as an explanation for the universe, after all we speak of God as Creator.  Again, Carroll is not wrong.  Here I’d like to quote the Pope Emeritus from a homily in his book In the Beginning,

A mere “first cause,” which is effective only in nature and never reveals itself to humans, which abandons humans-has to abandon them-to a realm completely beyond its own sphere of influence, such a first cause is no longer God but a scientific hypothesis.  On the other hand, a God who has nothing to do with the rationality of creation, but is effective only in the inner world of piety, is also no longer God; he becomes devoid of reality and ultimately meaningless.  Only when creation and covenant come together can either creation or covenant be realistically discussed-the one presupposes the other.

Incidentally, the twin parallels of creation and covenant are Biblical as well, as N.T. Wright has written.  The bottom line, however, is that Carroll is correct, the idea of God as Creator is indeed central to us.  But to again quote the Pope Emeritus, this does not mean that belief in creation concerns “information about the external processes by which the cosmos and man himself comes into being.”  Rather,

 Faith in the Creator Spirit is an essential part of the Christian creed.  The fact that matter has a mathematical structure, is spirit-filled, is the basis of the modern natural sciences.

It is only because matter is structured intelligently that our mind can interpret and actively refashion it.  The fact that this intelligible structure came from the Creator Spirit who also gave us our own spirit, brings with it both a duty and a responsibility.

For the Pope Emeritus, as for me, the overall intelligibility-the rationality, the mathematical structure of the universe-cries out for explanation, and the idea of a “Mind Behind it All” is far more palatable than the atheist notion that the universe is “just there.”  And intriguingly, I sometimes catch glimpses of a metaphysics in the New Atheists that is not as far from the Catholic worldview as some may think.  For instance:

  • Keith Ward, in a talk on his newest book, remarks that Peter Atkins once told him (Ward) that he (Atkins) is not a materialist, given the primacy that he (Atkins) gives to the laws of nature;
  • Steven Pinker has denied that scientism is “the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise”;
  • Daniel Dennett, in an interview with Robert Wright, the following telling exchange took place:

Wright: I guess the question is: You don’t see belief in God or even belief in any kind of higher power or even a belief in a transcendent foundation for morality? You don’t see any of that as really necessary as far as creating good behavior

Daniel Dennett: Let’s talk about transcendent…

Wright: Uh-oh.

Daniel Dennett: … and morality. One of the things that we have evolved to discover on this planet is arithmetic. We didn’t invent it, we didn’t make it. We found it. It is eternal. A priori. True. It’s this great stuff and it’s true everywhere in the universe. It’s true anywhere in any universe. There’s only one arithmetic. Is that transcendent, I would say yes. I don’t know for sure what you mean by transcendent …

Wright: Sort of a Platonic thing…

Daniel Dennett: Yes yes a sort of Platonism…

Wright: We happened upon it’s truth.

Daniel Dennett: We discovered it and it’s true. Could there be a sort of similarly Platonic ethics? Could we find the universal principles of good behavior for intelligent beings? I’m agnostic about that. I don’t see why we couldn’t. I don’t see that the parochialism of our concerns would necessarily stand in the way of … we can ask … we can ask the same question about ethics that we ask about antithetic. If we went to another planet, if the search for intelligent life, for extraterrestrial life was intelligence, if this paid off if we discovered another civilization somewhere in the galaxy that was intelligent… What would they share with us? We’d certainly share arithmetic. Maybe not base 10 arithmetic that’s anybodies guess. It might be base 12 or base 16 or base 8. Who knows? That’s an accident. But it would still be arithmetic. Now, we can say and would it share ethical principles with us? And I think in some regards yes it would. I now does that make those principles transcendent. Yes. It’s not might makes right. And it’s not this is what our grandfathers did so this is what we’re going to do. It’s not just historical accident. I think that there could be a truly universal basis for ethics.

Mathematical Platonism?  A Platonic set of ethics?  This recognition that there is a “transcendental” dimension to nature is, though the New Atheists themselves would bristle at this, a great step towards the Christian worldview.  It was none other than John Polkinghorne who argues that the Good, the True and the Beautiful are transcendentals discovered by human beings, not things made up.  The mathematical structure of reality, the “Moral Law”, true beauty, are all cut from the same cloth.  Polkinghorne rejects materialism, idealism and dualism as all being found wanting, and instead speaks of “dual-aspect monism”, the notion that creation is defined by complementary material and non-material poles.  Those on the transcendent end can be known by all.

Again, of course, this isn’t proof.  That the intelligibility of the world demands an Intelligence behind it, a Mind, is something Polkinghorne and Benedict (and myself) concur on, but it fails to impress Pinker or Krauss.  Even this, remains at the last, a question of meta-narrative and not something that all intelligent people will agree on.  But between the “it’s just the way it is” explanation, and the possibility that a Mind lies behind the world in its material and non-material dimensions, I’d gladly bet on the latter any day of the week.

A few more thoughts, which I’ll pose as questions:

1: Do I believe there is any “scientific proof” of God’s existence?

Not really.  Again, there is the mathematical character of reality, which points to intelligence.  And as Stephen Jay Gould noted in his essay Mind and Supermind (included in the anthology The Flamingo’s Smile) I think it is fair to consider the Anthropic principle a possible interpretation of the evidence.  I also would posit that Something had to “breathe fire in the equations” to make a universe for them to describe, but that’s another matter.

But broadly speaking, no, I do not think God can be “proven” by science.

2) Do I believe there is a “good” atheist argument against God out there?

Sort of.  Victor Stengar, in his posthumously published God and the Multiverse, asks (rhetorically) “Why should non-being, rather than being, be the default state of existence?”  Again, this is hardly a new question, it is simply the eternal universe popping up again (which, incidentally, just came up in another article).  Nonetheless, I will grant that this is a fair question.  Even so it doesn’t persuade me.  As David Bentley Hart repeatedly hammered in his book The Experience of God, existence is not a brute fact.  Like DBH I think naturalism as a philosophy is logically untenable, but again this comes down to a philosophical debate and the argument one finds most persuasive.  As provoking as Stengar’s question is, the sheer sense of wonder at existence, coupled with DBH’s arguments, overpowers it.

3) Why believe then?

For me, it is the power of religion as a force in history (in particular the survival of Judaism and its contribution to Western civilization far disproportionate to its size), as well as the extraordinary possibility of the resurrection of Christ in history (I’m eternally grateful to the work of N.T. Wright on this subject).  It is also seeing Christianity-Tradition, the Church-as a living and integrated force in history.  There are the countless lives touched and transformed by God, the Risen Christ, who are nourished and shaped by and within that system.  This Revelation complements and completes the natural theology I’ve discussed above.  Natural theology alone is superfluous in science as Carroll noted (interestingly both Krauss and Dawkins have signaled at various points that they are not opposed to Deism) and simply pointless otherwise.

A final thought.  In a debate between Jonathan Sacks and Richard Dawkins the former argued that science addresses “how” questions, whereas religion is concerned with “why”.  Dawkins, intriguingly, responded that he would accept this dichotomy but only if there was some scientific reason to accept “why” questions as valid.  One could not ask for a better example of scientism, which is a rejection of all other forms of knowledge.  I am afraid that for one who demands scientific proof for something which is simply not scientific, there is no answer to be given.  That impasse cannot be bridged.  We are left, then, with the clash of the meta-narratives.

The American Religious Experiment

During a recent “Stewardship Council” meeting at my parish I brought up the point that religion in our modern age has largely become subjected to the terms of consumerism.  One can see this above all else in the rise of the “Spiritual But Not Religious”-the devotees of A Course in Miracles and Eat Pray Love, who regard “organized religion” as an instrument of oppression and a morning among the trees as a far more effective way to get closer to God than anything we find in church (personally I think the “walk in the woods” spirituality, with apologies to Bill Bryson, has more in common with The Lorax than it does with the Holy Spirit).  The bottom line is that in our modern age we want spirituality on our terms, preferably with some practical benefits (be it stress management techniques or a cheap fix for the refrigerator), “take up your cross” simply does not sell.

At the same time, however, there is something more at work here than the late 20th and early 21st Century consumerism that has become the principality of our age.  If I can borrow a metaphor from Pope Paul VI, the smoke of Satan had already Christendom well before the industrial revolution had made modern consumerism possible.  Long before “SBNR” had become a thing, long before the Internet would spread gems like “Why are millennials leaving the church?” and “Why I hate religion but love Jesus”, long before Barnes & Noble’s shelves groaned under the weight of wishful thinking and long before vacuous generic spiritual clichés had entered the public consciousness (I could go on but you get the idea) Christianity had already been upset from within.  Or rather, more accurately, Protestant Christianity had been weakened from within.  The culprit?  In a word?  America.

More than a few Catholics and Orthodox would argue that Protestantism already contained the seeds of its own destruction, and in a sense I agree with yes.  Yet classical Christianity has been well preserved in many Protestant churches (think of the fabulous work of Thomas Oden and Timothy Keller), there is nothing inherently heretical about the evangelicalism as such, and as the Pope Emeritus once put it, the Reformers made some genuine theological breakthroughs when it came to the Cross.  I have no problem granting a Protestantism that is faithful to Nicene Christianity (even if only implicitly) a seat at the table.  Moreover, I think there is much in Protestantism that can and should be re-appropriated and re-integrated within Catholicism (such as a renewed emphasis on Scripture, personal conversion and the like).  Again, I’m not alone there.

Yet something has gone awry in the United States.  It was here that both magisterial and free Protestant churches splintered into a bewildering number of denominations, non-denominational churches, parachurch movements, and eventually (as Ross Douthat demonstrated in his Bad Religion) into full-blown heresies.  The creed was out, charisma was in.  Protestant in America begat both “post-Protestantism” (beginning with the Unitarianism Jefferson predicted would eventually dominate the nation) and eventually a whole slew of new movements that we frequently label as cults-the Adventists, the Christian Scientists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and above all the Mormons (along with other groups that rejected large swaths of Classical Christianity-the Christadelphians, the Oneness Pentecostals, etc).  Though in time virtually all of these developments/corruptions would be exported abroad, they were virtually all “born and bred” America-homegrown Christianity(ies) as it were.

Father Stephen Freeman has brilliantly described how this happened:

The Second Great Awakening was largely a para-church movement. It did not take place within denominational structures – if anything it created more denominations. It was the single most entrepreneurial moment in all of Christian history: anybody could have his own denomination!

A Christianity that is largely without doctrine and sacrament is a Christianity of slogan and extravaganza. A “Churchless” Christianity is simply, a heresy. It is a strange reading of the New Testament with conclusions as novel as they are effective. It is also destructive of the long term health of the Christian faith. Many who grow tired of its slogans and extravaganza do not turn elsewhere – they turn nowhere. The fastest growing religious group in America is the unchurched.

David Bentley Hart, in his essay Religion and America writes

If the vestigial Christianity of the old world presents one with the pathetic spectacle of shape without energy, the quite robust Christianity of the new world often presents one with the disturbing spectacle of energy without shape. It is not particularly original to observe that, in the dissolution of Christendom, Europe retained the body while America inherited the spirit, but one sometimes wonders whether for “spirit” it would not be better to say “poltergeist.”

The special genius of American religion (if that is what it is) is an inchoate, irrepressibly fissiparous force, a peregrine spirit of beginnings and endings (always re-founding the church and preparing for Armageddon), without any middle in which to come to rest.

Though the churches of the magisterial reformation, the Church of England, and Catholicism found America fertile soil (as every, religion does), the atmosphere in which they flourished was one permeated by a religious consciousness little bound to tradition, creed, hierarchy, or historical memory, but certain of its spiritual liberty and special election.

One should read this entire essay to appreciate it, but I simply must quote Hart’s crowning moment-his indictment of contemporary “born again” Christianity as having become-of all things-Gnostic:

One could scarcely conceive of a more “gnostic” concept of redemption: liberation through private illumination, a spiritual security won only in the deepest soundings of the soul, a moment of awakening that lifts the soul above the darkness of this world into a realm of spiritual liberty beyond even the reach of the moral law, and an immediate intimacy with the divine whose medium is one of purest subjectivity.

In short, the American spirit-individualist, entrepreneurial-which was spawned at least in part from Protestantism ultimately turned on its parent and classical, orthodox, Nicene Christianity died the death of a thousand developments (corruptions).  I have to add the “in part” qualifier because it isn’t clear (at least to me) exactly what the relationship was between Classical Protestantism and the Enlightenment in the birth of our nation.  The question of the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers remains a perennial debate (it seems neither Deism, nor orthodox Christianity appears entirely correct, Jefferson famously declared he was “a sect unto myself”, a label I shamelessly borrowed for my previous blog).  Indeed, early American Christianity itself contained competing impulses that historian Garry Wills has called “head and “heart” (I don’t recommend Wills as a reliable source on Catholicism but his thoughts on this subject are helpful).

Another contemporary scholar who has written well on this subject is Stephen Prothero, Professor of Religious Studies at Boston University.  Prothero’s book American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Iconoffers a fascinating walkthrough of the many incarnations (!) that Jesus has assumed in the United States.  In addition to retelling the splintering (which is to say “meltdown”) of Protestantism, in which he illustrates well the patterns under which American Christianity evolved, Prothero also reviews how Jesus has consistently been retroactively adopted into the context of Eastern religions (whether as an avatar in Hinduism or as a bodhisattva in Buddhism).  After castigating Rahner for his “anonymous Christianity” Prothero goes on to say “Yet Trigunatita was no less presumptuous in seeing all seekers as anonymous Hindus.”  Prothero has commented elsewhere on what he sees as the “Hinduization” of America, which was the subject of another recent book American Vedas (though as Alister McGrath noted modern America seems little interested in the ascetic dimensions of Indian religion).

It appears that there are virtually no limits as to where religion in America has gone or may yet go.  Newman once remarked that to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant, and this brief review of admittedly very recent history has aptly illustrated to me why this is the case (all the more so when looks further back in history).  To some degree, it also makes me indifferent to a lot of the “Christian disputes” that interest the media today-the controversies of Rob Bell and Brian McLaren, for instance, or Rachel Held Evans vs. John Piper.  I find these debates by and large are really debates within evangelical Protestantism, that simply don’t interest me very much as a Catholic.  Christianity covers so much more than the last two centuries of American Protestantism and its mutant pseudo-Christian progeny.

A final thought-it does not surprise me in the least that old heresies have reappeared in America, albeit under new names.  There really aren’t any new ideas.  As a preacher far wiser than I once explained, there is nothing new under the sun. Perhaps this, more than anything else, is the conclusion of the American religious experiment.

Other Divine Revelations?

I have recently been mulling over the question of whether other religions are also “divine revelations”.  Cardinal Avery Dulles remarked in his 2008 essay Who Can Be Saved? that

Vatican II left open the question whether non-Christian religions contain revelation and are means that can lead their adherents to salvation.

As it appears the question is still an open one, I have a few thoughts on the subject.

First, in some situations, I think the question is nonsensical.  In what sense, for instance, is Buddhism to be conceived as “divine revelation”?  Buddhists themselves certainly would contest that description, and the Buddha himself did not claim to have received divine revelation.  He claimed Enlightenment, and that Enlightenment was a product of his own efforts.  In other words, the truths of Buddhism are a discovery, a human achievement, which is a bit antithetical to the idea of revelation (something akin to grace appears in Mahayana Buddhism, but even there it is rather difficult there isn’t really an understanding of transcendent Reality revealing itself).  Buddhism, in essence, is a human discovery about reality-a discovery that I think is extraordinarily perceptive and true, so far as it goes (my point being it doesn’t go far enough).  Buddhism did not contemplate the existence of the Uncreated, and as such its “discovery” was but the first step on a journey to truth (I grant Buddhists would vigorously contest this).

Something similar could be said of Taoism, and by extension, Confucianism.  Taoism speaks of a Tao that “cannot be named”, and relies on intuition/observation when speaking of the Tao that can be named.  There is no real hint that the Tao reveals itself, certainly not in personal terms.  Taoism, again, is brilliant insight and true so far as it goes-it is the Eastern discovery of the Logos, as Father Damascene has argued.  Again, however, this discovery is but the first step, and remains to completed in the revelation of Christ.  I have less to say on Confucianism, which has a more anthropological focus than Taoism-one could see it as a aligning oneself with transcendent, almost Platonic, ethics.  As Matteo Ricci aptly demonstrates, this too can be seen as a provisional step towards Catholicism.

In short I think it is a mistake to speak of “divine revelation” in the context of Buddhism, Taoism or Confucianism.  In doing so, one is in essence comparing apples and oranges-or, if you prefer, “natural religions” vs. “revealed religions” (that distinction is a bit simplistic but here at least I think it works).  This does not mean that there isn’t capital-T Truth in these religions-of course there is, they are feeling parts of the same elephant (if Truth is Truth they must be).  But (forgive my chauvinistic Catholic bent) these religions are still, in a sense, blind.  They contain rays of Truth that must be pursued more fully, more deeply, for true vision.

What of other faiths?  The primal religions one finds among the Native peoples of the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific present a somewhat unique challenge in that while not “revealed religions” they are hardly “natural religions” in the sense Buddhism or Taoism is.  The “religion” of the Native Americans, for instance, is suffused with and virtually indistinguishable from, the entire way of life by which peoples lived.Prof. Custinger has something interesting to say about these peoples and their religion:

Some people go even further and suggest that what we find among primal peoples may be a dim vestige or remnant of the way people lived before the Fall…the historical religions are also agreed that man has “fallen” away from the early perfection of those early times and is now in a state of ignorance (Hinduism and Buddhism), or of imbalance (Taoism), or of rebellion (Islam). It has seemed to some writers that what we discover as we study the life of primal people bears a remarkable resemblance to the descriptions we find of this Golden Age. But even if you think this notion too far-fetched or Romantic, it’s certainly true that primal cultures have a great deal to teach us about a simpler, more natural kind of life. For these are people whom history passed by.

What Prof. Cutsinger likely has in mind is what the Franciscan friar Geronimo de Mendieta called the “genus angelicum”-the idea that the Native Americans were, in Huston Smith’s words, “an isolated fragment of the human race that had retained the primordial innocence, simplicity and purity that Adam and Eve had known in the Garden of Eden.”  Father Damascene adds to this

Of all the primordial people, save the Hebrews, the Chinese-together with their racial cousins the native North Americans — retained the purest understanding of the One God, the Supreme Being.

Setting aside the rather odd comment that the native North Americans and the Chinese are “racial cousins” (aren’t we all…?), one finds the same sentiment Prof. Custinger is describing.  If it is true that primal religions are a “remnant of Eden” (and the idea may not be that radical, consider C.S. Lewis’s description of “savages” in The Problem of Pain) these primal religions can be described as pre-revelation.  It is a purer spirituality, one integrated with all of life and creation.  Of course (and again the investable chauvinism comes in) this “pre-revelation religion” is still in a rather “infantile” state (think of St. Irenaeus describing Adam and Eve as little children), and thus is still in need of completion, of growing up (biblical theology begins in a garden and ends in a city).

I have been unable to come up with anything particularly profound to say about Hinduism (which seems to me to be a bit of a hybrid between the “natural religion” of Buddhism and the “revealed religions” of the West, though it tiltsrather strongly towards the former).  Michael Novak (Tell Me Why) and C.S. Lewis (God in the Dock) both remarked that they considered Hinduism to be the only real “rival” to Christianity, in that it was the only other truly “universal” religion.  This is an interesting argument, though also (grossly) oversimplified.

This leaves Judaism and Islam.  Judaism, of course, poses no problems, for it is in a class by itself.  As Peter Kreeft put it,

The only “other” religion Christianity accepts as wholly true is biblical Judaism for the simple reason that this is not an “other” religion at all, but the foundation of Christianity…Christians believe everything Jews believe and more, just as Catholics believe everything orthodox, biblical Protestants believe and more.  Modern Jews fault Christians for believing too many things, just as Protestants fault Catholics for believing too many things.

This really should surprise no one.  James Alison uses a delightful phrase in The Forgiving Victim when he describes Catholicism as the “universalization of Judaism”.  In fairness, there is a hiccup here too-Christianity is the fulfillment of biblical Judaism and Judaism itself has since ‘evolved’ (Michael Voris took some heat a few years back for calling modern Judaism a “man-made religion”).  Alison also notes that rabbinic Judaism and nascent Christianity emerged more or less as alternatives to each other (and just to make things more interesting, modern Judaism is descended entirely from the Pharisees; the other sects that existed in the Second Temple era-Zealots, Essenes, Sadducee’s-disappeared into the sands of history).

I do not wish to get into the subjects of supersessionism or whether the Jewish people still have an eternal Covenant here.  I’d recommend those interested to read Fleming Rutledge’s sermons on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (her book Not Ashamed of the Gospel), as well as the writings of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI on this subject.  Avery Dulles also wrote an excellent essay in 2005, “The Covenant with Israel”, that is worth a read (anything is better, IMO, than a Voris tirade, but Dulles was an amazing writer who whose calm, measured, erudite and well-researched thoughts contrast sharply with The Vortex).

Finally, then, we turn to Islam (I consider Islam the last of the truly great world religions, those that have appeared since-Sikhism and Ba’hai-really don’t add anything new to the conversation).  As the last great religion to appear after Christianity, and another religion claiming lineage to Abraham to boot, Islam poses a unique problem to the question of revelation.  Lewis and Kreeft, among others, viewed Islam as a “Christian heresy” or “simplified” version of Christianity (or, in the words of Ed Rice, as a slightly heathen relative).  In my view, this description is wide of the mark.  Seyyed Hossein Nassr, in The Heart of Islam, offers a better explanation:

In certain domains Judaism is closer to Islam than it is to Christianity; it has a sacred language, Hebrew, like Arabic in Islam, and it has a sacred law, the Halakhah, corresponding to the Shari’ah.  Furthermore, they share an opposition to all forms of idolatry and to the creation of iconic sacred art, which would allow an image of the Divinity to be painted or sculpted.  In certain other respects, Islam is closer to Christianity: both emphasize the immortality of the soul, eschatological realities, and the accent on the inner life.

It seems to me, Islam is most accurately characterized as a second attempt to universalize Judaism (a third if one insists on a distinction between biblical and rabbinic Judaism).  Islam perceives itself as the final expression of Abrahamic monotheism, a claim Christianity cannot except.  Nonetheless, I think it is still possible to see Islam as having a legitimate place at the Abrahamic table, and not simply dismissed as some kind of demonic imposter.  It had occurred to me that Islam might be the fulfillment of the line of Ishmael.  I mentioned this in an e-mail to Catholic theologian Gavin D’Costa, who wrote back to me saying:

Fulfillment is not a chronological category but a theological one, so Islam’s later coming on the scene is irrelevant. In a technical sense Vatican II puts it second to Judaism viz. its closeness…your Ishmael idea is central to the great Catholic Islamist Louis Massignon who coined the term the ‘Abrahamic faiths’ in modern Catholic thought.   Great minds think alike.

(For more on D’Costa check out his excellent talk here).  Wikipedia offers a few observations on Massignon that I think are most illuminating.  Massignon thought of Islam as resulting from Muhammad’s “genuine inspiration” (which is perhaps different from revelation); that Islam was a return to the “natural religion” (!) of the Patriarchs; and-like the continuing presence of Judaism-as presenting a special challenge to Christians.  In short, Islam is not a “further revelation” or completion of Christianity, but neither is it simply a heretical corruption.  Instead, the Islamic tradition has its own role to play in the Abrahamic lineage.

Massignon took some heat for (in the eyes of some) focusing too much on Sufism and not enough on Islamic legalism.  There is an interesting lesson here as well: Other religions are not monolithic, much less should they be seen as embodying Truth in their entirety.  Father Damascene, for instance, distinguished between religious Taoism and philosophical Taoism, putting emphasis on the latter.  The idea of the Semina verbi/logoi spermatikoi sees “Seeds of the Word” in other religions to be taken up, but not a religion in its entirety.  And this makes perfect sense-Buddhism’s indifference to the Uncreated and Islam’s self-understanding as the final expression of Abrahamic monotheism, are incompatible with Christianity.  Within Islam, Sufism is indeed much closer to Christianity than Islamic legalism (contrary to popular misconception, Christianity has no divinely revealed body of law).

In any case, having run through the major world religions, I do not generally see the question of whether there is “revelation” in other world religions to be a particularly helpful question.  There is Truth in other religions, and-it seems-some ambiguity regarding whether God revealed Himself in Hinduism and Islam.  Cardinal Ratzinger wrote eloquently that God was honored in many places but only revealed Himself in one.  This, it seems to me, is an inescapable conclusion if one takes Christianity seriously.  And if one takes Christianity seriously, one must also accept what I’ve referred to half-seriously in this post as “Catholic chauvinism”, which is simply to say the finality of Christian revelation.

I would like, in that spirit, to give the final words to the Pope Emeritus:

To speak of the unique and universal Mediator of salvation, Jesus Christ, in no way implies disdain for other religions; but it is decidedly opposed to the resignation of those who say that man is incapable of truth and to the convenient inaction of letting everything continue as before.

Amen.

NOTES:

  • There is, I must admit, a world of difference between the Islam presented by Nasr and the forms of Islam described by, among others, Bruce Bawer-a divergence perhaps inadvertently captured by the title of another Nasr’s books, Ideals and Realities of Islam.  On another note, I think the Traditionalist School of the Perennial Philosophy is arguably very close to, perhaps even a legitimate development of, Koranic teaching on religious pluralism, which may explain why so many of its proponents were Muslims.  That, though, is another subject.
  • C.S. Lewis memorably suggests in Mere Christianity that religions are mixtures of truth and error, with some coming much closer to the Truth than others.  He speaks, interestingly, of Buddhists who place emphasis on Buddhist teachings on mercy are drawing closer to Christianity.  Lewis is also famous for seeing “good dreams” in other religions that are fulfilled in the historical realities of Christianity.  There is something immensely compelling in this ideas that I cannot ignore.
  • I’ve noted before that it is all too common today to make Eastern religions the final measure of religious truth.  Huston Smith, sadly, falls into this trap-in his book Why Religion Matters he concludes by essentially relativizing Western religion by the Eastern, when he describes mysticism as superior to monotheism.  The authentic Catholic response is simply to invert this conclusion-Eastern religions are indeed true, so far as they go, but are ultimately relativized by Christ.  The nameless Void is given a Face and a Name (to use biblical terms) in Christ.  God is not an anthropomorphic illusion to be absorbed in mystical unity, but rather the unknowable ‘condescends’ to our level in revelation.  This is perhaps even more radical than the more prevalent idea expressed by Smith.  James Arraj wrote well on this subject, as has Peter Kreeft.

Great minds…

I’m not calling myself a great mind.  Butttt…

  1. Prof. Cutsinger (or, more accurately, Fritjof Schuon) has channeled me (almost perfectly) on where Sikhism stands if Islam is the last world religion.
  2. I’ve stated before that the Catholic process of development of doctrine is something that, like the process by which laws and sausages made, is sometimes best kept out of sight.  Father Robert Barron just referenced the same metaphor.

I may be less insane than I thought!

A Wise Thought from C.S. Lewis

I must add that my own work has suffered very much from the incurable intellectualism of my approach.  The simple, emotional appeal (“Come to Jesus”) is still often successful.  But those who, like myself, lack the gift for making it, had better not attempt it.God in the Dock

I hear you sir…I hear you.

Perennial Philosophy & Traditionalism

Those who have followed my blog for any length of time will note that I have had an on-again/off-again flirtation with the Perennial Philosophy, particularly as articulated in the Traditionalist School of metaphysics, whose greatest proponents have been Frithjof Schuon, Rene Guenon and Ananda Coomaraswamy.  Other names associated with this school have included Titus Burckhardt, William Stoddart, Martin Lings, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, William Chittick, and various others.  On a more popular level this form of traditionalism has influenced Huston Smith, though it should not be confused with Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy.  My first real exposure came through the works of James Cutsinger, an Eastern Orthodox religious studies professor in South Carolina, and a leading authority on the works of Frithjof Schuon.

My sometimes contradictory statements over the last few years on this blog are largely a result of the fact that I never completely made up my mind on where I stood on this matter.  I have read a great deal of the material on the website World Wisdom (a valuable resource) and own a few books by Nasr, Burckhardt and Schuon (the last being edited by Cutsinger).  I have been impressed and drawn to this metaphysical vision and have found a great deal of wisdom in these sources-hence why I have favorably quoted Nasr and Schuon somewhat copiously in the past.  I regularly corresponded with a reader on this blog (Chris) on this topic, and more recently received several responses from a respondent named Kevin, which has prompted me to go back and revisit this subject.  In the spirit of clarification, this is where I presently stand.

I am NOT a Proponent of the Traditionalist School

Actually, I can’t say that I ever really was (I certainly admit to being drawn to it but I never wholeheartedly adopted or accepted it).  There are a few reasons why, and in no particular order I’d make the following observations:

First, as a general note, I fail to see anything particularly profound in Traditionalist metaphysics.  I readily admit the fault may be mine (“He who has eyes…”) but I simply don’t see, as our British brethren would say, what all the hullabaloo is about.  The Traditionalist writings I have read are rarely distinguishable from the metaphysics of the East (in particular Vedanta).  Peter Kreeft, in his Handbook of Christian Apologetics, remarked that Schuon’s approach essentially amounts to an “easternizing” of Christianity.  I do not find the repeatedly invoked exoteric-esoteric distinction at all helpful here, because-as Kreeft contends-the esoteric/exoteric distinction itself is essentially Eastern and not recognized as such in the West.  [1]   Kreeft also raises the point that Traditionalism seems to posit two “levels” of spirituality-a mystical/gnostic approach for the enlightened and the exoteric confessions for the masses.  This distinction (which is now quite pronounced in liberal circles) has been widely noted in recent years and has been addressed by far more intelligent persons than myself (C.S. Lewis rebukes it in Letters to Malcolm; the Pope Emeritus addressed the subject in Truth and Tolerance, and it was also a favorite subject of Jim Arraj’s).

Second, I find many aspects of Traditionalism as it is actually practiced, to be somewhat troubling.  I’ve referenced an Orthodox discussion on this topic before that sketches out some of these concerns-in a nutshell, they include a tendency towards syncretism in practice even if ostensibly denied, and an unhealthy personality cult and guru-like tendencies (towards Schuon in particular).  The question of whether there is such a thing as a Christian ‘gnosis’ is one that has preoccupied some folks, such as my regular interlocutor Chris.  I don’t have a particularly profound response to this, other than to reaffirm the Orthodox point that those who progress along the Christian Way will certainly deepen their understanding.  If one wishes to call this ‘gnosis I certainly have no objection, but this doesn’t amount to transcending the exoteric borders of Christianity towards some esoteric primordial unity.

Third, and rather intriguingly, many of the most prominent Traditionalists have been Muslims.  There are exceptions of course-Cutsinger and Phillip Sherrard were Orthodox Christians, and Rama Coomaraswamy (the son of Ananda) was a Catholic, albeit a sedevacantist.  I’ve noted before that Judaism is under-represented in the ranks of Traditionalist metaphysicians, though an exception should be noted for Leo Schaya-I have read his numerous writings on Kabbalah on World Wisdom before and they are by any measure powerful.  Even so, it does strike me as rather telling that very, very Christians are Traditionalists.

In the last analysis, I simply do not see Traditionalist metaphysics as being compatible with orthodox Christianity.  The constant invocation of metaphysics, it so often seems to me, is really an attempt to have things both ways-e.g. Christianity is 100% correct in its dogmatic claims (including the exclusivist ones) but so are the other great religions.  Metaphysical intellectualism cannot dispense neatly with these distinctions simply speaking of a “transcendent unity of religions” or a “human atmosphere” and “divine stratosphere”.  Though it may sound a bit uncharitable I can’t help but think that C.S. Lewis’s rebuke to pantheists who see no distinction between good and evil comes in a bit handy here as well: Don’t talk damned nonsense.

This doesn’t deny that there are primordial truths that transcend religious boundaries-the mystics of their various faiths clearly seem to be sharing the same experience, the Tao and the Logos do seem to be the same thing, etc.  But Christianity is grounded firmly in the Incarnation, a fiercely particularist doctrine.  The Incarnation is not simply reducible to questions of metaphysics (such as Schuon’s comment that the Incarnation was “Atman became Maya”).  It may be that I am afflicted with a “confessional bias” here, but the particularity and specificity of Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ-Event is constitutive of Christianity; indeed it IS Christianity.  I repeat: That the transcendent and incomprehensible Absolute was definitely and finally revealed in the person of a 1st Century Jew is Christianity.  This person-what Ratzinger called a single straw in the seas of history-is the qualitatively and categorically unique revelation of God.  As St. Paul put it in the Areopagus the Unknown God has become known.

This does not mean Christianity must adopt an imperialist attitude toward other faiths.  It doesn’t even mean that it must deny the Sophia Perennis-Fr. Robert Barron has noted that the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges the Perennial Philosophy in some sense (see here and here)-note that Fr. Barron here is speaking of the Perennial Philosophy more generically, not the Traditionalist School specifically.  Fr. Barron alludes to what seems to me to be the authentic Christian approach-one that Cardinal Newman called “assimilation”.  The Church sees the seeds of the word (logoi spermatikoi, semina verbi) and can assimilate all that is good and true to itself.  As Scott Hahn once put it, all truth belongs to Christ.

Other Comments

A few more points.  I have casually mentioned on the blog in the past that Traditionalist metaphysics might be helpful in creating a sort of roadmap for a “universal grammar” of the Great Traditions, to use Huston Smith’s term.  Of course, Schuon and the others would not have seen it that way (then again neither would the Buddha, Confucius or the prophets of ancient Israel have seen themselves as precursors to Christ).  Again, that the Perennial Philosophy is a sort of distillate (to use Fr. Barron’s term) of universal truths strikes me as obvious.  Christianity, however, asserts that the truth has to become known to us in a human person (Christ)-the “Face of God” has been revealed (Ratzinger has written well on this) and therefore the Perennial Philosophy has been surpassed/transcended/fulfilled (take your pick).

Also, on the subject of evolution: I am not a “follower” of Teilhard de Chardin, except insofar as I accept some of his insights as helpful (particularly as mediated through Henri du Lubac and Ratzinger).  That evolution takes place in the biological realm is a fact-the evidence is incontrovertible, and one gains nothing by denying factual reality other than the ridicule the ridiculous deserve (I’m thinking of young earth creationists, but per the Moynihan Rule nobody gets their own facts).  The reality of biological evolution has not bothered giants like C.S. Lewis or Cardinal Newman; there is no reason it should bother me.  Truth cannot contradict truth, and if one’s metaphysics are contradicting physics than one should go back and think through their metaphysics again.

That being said, there is a massive distinction between evolution as a biological theorem and a “universal evolutionism”, which is a philosophical interpretation of those facts (one thinks of the absurd thesis by Dennett and Dawkins that evolution can explain everything-even Stephen Jay Gould recoiled from that one, being smart enough to see the real limits of science).  This is where the true battleground lies.  Exactly how evolution fits into the scheme of Christian theology is an open question, though Lewis always stressed that the Christian worldview is capable of accommodating any scientific theory.  I rather like Olivier Clement’s description of evolution as an “inversion”, e.g. it is the “side” of creation that science is able to access in our fallen world (he discusses this topic in The Roots of Christian Mysticism and in On Human Being, even quoting an early and reportedly more orthodox quote from Teilhard in the latter).  [2]

Finally, regarding the New Atheists.  I adhere quite strongly to the notion that one must seek truth wherever it may be found, and that Maimonides was right when he said truth must be accepted regardless of its source.  Catholic apologist Scott Hahn has approvingly noted that the New Atheists insist on objective truth, which is a far better foundation than the wishy-washiness of much contemporary “spirituality”.  Moreover, Dawkins (at least) is a superb writer on the subject of science.  And modernity as a whole inherited its best features from the Christian worldview-Fr. Barron’s use of Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find as a metaphor to describe the relationship between late medieval Christianity and modernity is particularly powerful on this point.  [3]

I readily concede that spiritual blindness and a lack of discernment are the true crisis of our time. We live in an age that for all its material abundances and technological progress (at least for a few) has become blind to the wisdom of the ages.  That being said, if the light of truth is ever to shine again it will come from those equipped with the weapons of humility and charity (it is one of the great contributions of Christianity to see that those wielding the weapons are bound by original sin themselves, hence leading to an emphasis on grace and divine initiative).  I have always been impressed that Huston Smith, while admittedly an intellectual lightweight compared to Schuon, has always possessed a spirit of good cheer and good humor, no matter how depressing the modern world could be.  As Rowan Williams once put it, truth makes love possible; love makes truth bearable.

A sage observation if there ever was any.

Notes:

  1. As Luke Timothy Johnson helpfully noted the two really are not separate from one another, and as one Orthodox commentator remarked online “The reason why Orthodoxy does not fit with Perennialism is simply that Orthodoxy does not recognize the esoteric/ exoteric distinction. It makes no sense in an Orthodox context. I’ve tried to point this out to occultists before and they generally don’t get it. They think this just means that we have lost our esoteric content. Our “esotericism” is inextricably bound up with the “exoteric” dogmas and one leads to the other. Difference in dogma results in difference of spiritual experience. Our theology and worship are inherently mystical and there is no hidden interpretation which is reserved for initiates, except in the sense that those further on the path of deification will grow deeper in their understanding of the revelation“).  In fairness, I would add that Schuon’s thoughts on exoterism and esoterism in the Christian context (as outlined in The Fullness of God edited by Cutsinger) sound very much like what the Orthodox commentator above stated.  Also, the “occultist” comment does not strick me as entirely out of line-I have been struck at how Schuon’s language sometimes sounds reminiscent of the New Age (reading that line again I’m struck by how strange it sounds).  I remember in of his writings he used the phrase “cosmic cycle” which, in Sesame Street lingo, is “not like the other ones.”  It may be disingenuous of me to point to random snippets of his work, but that such an idea cannot be reconciled with Christianity should go without saying.
  2. Lewis had expressed similar ideas along these lines, see, e.g., his essay The Funeral of a Grand Myth.
  3. See the introduction to his book The Priority of Christ.