Being Anti-Utilitarian

I am continually impressed by how deeply utilitarian thought patterns have infiltrated our mindset.  Actually, what I really mean to say is not “our” mindset as if there were some kind of “collective brain” (based on the traffic I drove through this morning I don’t buy that), but rather how often my thinking is utilitarian.  This way of thinking seems to me subconscious and involuntary-the kind of thing that, if left unexamined, I would never give a second thought to.  Now that I am gradually wading into the deep end of the Catholic pool, however, I am constantly reminded how anti-utilitarian Classical Christianity really is.  As such, I find a constant need to question my way of thinking.  While demanding, this is an absolutely critical activity for Catholics.

The Catholic Church has definitively rejected consequentialism as a basis for ethics, and in doing so is essentially spitting in the face of all moral philosophy since the Enlightenment (well there is that Kantian-categorical wrinkle but few people today are “openly Kantian” in their ethics).  The magisterium, thanks in no small part to St. John Paul II, has also embraced a rich philosophical and theological “personalism” that is an integral part of Catholic moral teaching.  The entire superstructure of Catholic ethics rests on a different foundation than utilitarian ethics, and as such, to truly understanding Catholicism on this point, one must be prepared to enter into an entirely different worldview.  That being the case, I’m going to briefly summarize what I think are the key features of Catholic moral teaching, before giving a few personal examples.

First, here is what the Church has to say vis-à-vis basic moral reasoning:

1750 The morality of human acts depends on: – the object chosen; – the end in view or the intention; – the circumstances of the action. The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the “sources,” or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts.

1751 The object chosen is a good toward which the will deliberately directs itself. It is the matter of a human act. the object chosen morally specifies the act of the will, insofar as reason recognizes and judges it to be or not to be in conformity with the true good. Objective norms of morality express the rational order of good and evil, attested to by conscience.

1752 In contrast to the object, the intention resides in the acting subject. Because it lies at the voluntary source of an action and determines it by its end, intention is an element essential to the moral evaluation of an action. the end is the first goal of the intention and indicates the purpose pursued in the action. the intention is a movement of the will toward the end: it is concerned with the goal of the activity. It aims at the good anticipated from the action undertaken. Intention is not limited to directing individual actions, but can guide several actions toward one and the same purpose; it can orient one’s whole life toward its ultimate end. For example, a service done with the end of helping one’s neighbor can at the same time be inspired by the love of God as the ultimate end of all our actions. One and the same action can also be inspired by several intentions, such as performing a service in order to obtain a favor or to boast about it.

1753 A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. the end does not justify the means. Thus the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation. On the other hand, an added bad intention (such as vainglory) makes an act evil that, in and of itself, can be good (such as almsgiving).39

1754 The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act. They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent’s responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil.

Catholic moral teaching is remarkably holistic, much more than utilitarian reasoning.  It is both firmly objective (there is a staunch moral realism to Catholicism) and subjective (intention and circumstances do in fact matter).  As Peter Kreeft explains:

Each of three common oversimplified moralities focuses on only one of the three factors and ignores the other two.  Legalism focuses only on the objective act itself, as specified by the moral law.  Subjectivism focuses only on the subjective intention.  And “situation ethics”, or moral relativism, focuses only on changing situations or circumstances.  Catholic morality is more complete, realistic, and balanced.

The objective dimension is often the hardest to swallow in this day and age, no doubt because-as Catholicism sensibly realizes-it entails recognizing that good intentions can never make a bad act good (that is simply what objective means).  Interestingly, however, a surprising number of contemporary atheists, including Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett, seem at least open to the possibility of moral realism (e.g. to the idea that there is an a priori, quasi-Platonic, dimension to morality).  In any case, St. John Paul II made an invaluable contribution to the Church’s magisterium in this area by complementing the Church’s firmly objectivist Thomism with personalism.  Cardinal Avery Dulles outlines how the Pope approached Thomism:

In his early years as a professor of ethics at the University of Lublin in Poland, Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, like other members of the philosophical faculty, identified himself as a Thomist. While enthusiastically affirming the teaching of Thomas Aquinas on most points, he took note of one weakness. St. Thomas paid too little attention to the human person as experienced from within. In a paper on “Thomistic Personalism” delivered in 1961 he declared:

[w]hen it comes to analyzing consciousness and self-consciousness—there seems to be no place for it in St. Thomas’ objectivistic view of reality. In any case, that in which the person’s subjectivity is most apparent is presented by St. Thomas in an exclusively—or almost exclusively—objective way. He shows us the particular faculties, both spiritual and sensory, thanks to which the whole of human consciousness and self-consciousness—the human personality in the psychological and moral sense—takes shape, but that is also where he stops. Thus St. Thomas gives us an excellent view of the objective existence and activity of the person, but it would be difficult to speak in his view of the lived experiences of the person.

Wojtyla was satisfied that St. Thomas correctly situated the human person in terms of the general categories of being, as an individual subsisting in an intellectual nature. But he wished to enrich Thomas’s doctrine of the person by reference to our experience of ourselves as unique ineffable subjects. Each person is an “I,” an original source of free and responsible activity.

The Oxford professor Oliver O’Donovan objects that the pope seems overindebted to the idealist tradition, which “understands the rationality of the moral law as something grounded in the human mind.” But in his work as a professor, Karol Wojtyla anticipated this objection and sought to answer it. In an essay on “The Human Person and Natural Law,” he firmly rejected the view of Kant and the idealists, who would allow reason to impose its own categories on reality. For Wojtyla reason discerns and affirms an objective order of reality and value that is prior to reason itself. The freedom of the human person is not to be understood indeterministically, as though it meant emancipation from all constraints. Although the mind must conform to the real order, law as a moral obligation is not something merely mechanical or biological. It presupposes a subject with personal consciousness.

Speaking on Fides et Ratio, Cardinal Dulles adds:

Even if John Paul II had done nothing more than to sort out what is and is not acceptable in the earlier positions, his encyclical would be sufficient to establish a new state of the question. But he also takes a positive step forward. In Fides et Ratio and in several of his unofficial writings before and after he became Pope, he expresses his view that personalist anthropology must stand at the center of Christian philosophy today. The philosophy of consciousness, developed according to phenomenological method, can throw new light on the subjectivity of the person, which stands at the basis of culture, civilization, and politics. Biblical revelation has taught Christian philosophers such as Gabriel Marcel and Jewish philosophers such as Martin Buber and Emmanuel Lévinas that the whole of human existence is a coexistence in dialogue, and that the primary dialogue partner is the God of our faith.
Personalist phenomenology, practiced according to the principles of the Lublin school of Thomism, can contribute to a much needed renewal of metaphysics (83).

This, incidentally, is a prime example of authentic development in the Church.  Still, St. John Paul II was not all that radical.  The new emphasis on personalism dovetails quite nicely with virtue ethics, the ethical approach long favored by Classical Christianity.  While normally associated with Aristotle, N.T. Wright has pointed out (After You Believe) that there is rich Biblical support this virtue ethics as well.  Some of the superb contemporary Christian “moralists”-Alasdair MacIntyre, Samuel Wells and Stanley Hauerwas to name but 3-are all virtue ethicists.  Hauerwas compares the development of virtue to apprenticeship, which is to say that character and goodness are cultivated through a set of practices, by induction into way of life.  Sound familiar?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church outlines the nature of virtue:

1804 Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. the virtuous man is he who freely practices the good.
The moral virtues are acquired by human effort. They are the fruit and seed of morally good acts; they dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love.

Note the bolded language-there is a reciprocal relationship between specific actions and virtues.  The objective goodness of the moral law and the subjective goodness of the person come together in the practice and growth of virtue.  It should be clear by now that in Catholicism goodness is not justified by its usefulness, or by how many people it benefits, or by any other approach to utility.  Instead it rests on the foundation that there is an objective reality to the question of the good (morality and ontology are “one science”), and only through lived experience, through the formation of persons, can that goodness be incarnated here in the real world.

Here, I think, a brief word is in order regarding the use of the word “morality.”  Some contemporary Orthodox writers-among them Archbishop Lazar Puhalo and Father Stephen Freeman-have suggested that the word moral is very flawed, as it associated with a legalistic approach to reality and adherence to a rigid moral code.  Their point, of course, is well taken.  Still, rather than repudiate the use of the word “moral” I would prefer to recapture it, its broad, full-throated, ontological meaning.  That approach, as I’ve sketched above, is in fact what the Catholic Church teaches (it is the whole point of virtue ethics).  Again, Kreeft:

One of the main reasons we fail to practice our morality well is that we fail to understand it well.  We fail to understand that it is not just a way of behaving but a way of being; not simply “living a good life” but becoming “a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17), becoming “a little Christ”.

Catholicism and Orthodoxy actually dovetail quite nicely.  Consider David Bentley Hart’s thoughts on JPII’s Theology of the Body:

Rather, it enunciates with extraordinary fullness a complete vision of the spiritual and corporeal life of the human being; that vision is a self-sufficient totality, which one is free to embrace or reject as a whole. To one who holds to John Paul’s Christian understanding of the body, and so believes that each human being, from the very first moment of existence, emerges from and is called towards eternity, there are no negotiable or even very perplexing issues regarding our moral obligations before the mystery of life. Not only is every abortion performed an act of murder, but so is the destruction of every “superfluous” embryo created in fertility clinics or every embryo produced for the purposes of embryonic stem cell research. The fabrication of clones, the invention of “chimeras” through the miscegenation of human and animal DNA, and of course the termination of supernumerary, dispensable, or defective specimens that such experimentation inevitably entails are in every case irredeemably evil. Even if, say, research on embryonic stem cells could produce therapies that would heal the lame, or reverse senility, or repair a damaged brain, or prolong life, this would in no measure alter the moral calculus of the situation: human life is an infinite good, never an instrumental resource; human life is possessed of an absolute sanctity, and no benefit (real or supposed) can justify its destruction.

In a wider sense, though, I would want to argue that it is precisely this “irrelevance” that makes John Paul’s theology truly relevant (in another sense) to contemporary bioethics. I must say that what I, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, find most exhilarating about the Theology of the Body is not simply that it is perfectly consonant with the Orthodox understanding of the origins and ends of human nature (as indeed it is), but that from beginning to end it is a text awash in the clear bright light of uncompromising conviction. There is about it something of that sublime indifference to the banal pieties and prejudices of modernity that characterizes Eastern Orthodoxy at its best. It simply restates the ancient Christian understanding of man, albeit in the somewhat phenomenological idiom for which John Paul had so marked a penchant, and invites the reader to enter into the world it describes. And at the heart of its anthropology is a complete rejection — or, one might almost say, ignorance — of any dualism between flesh and spirit.

John Paul’s anthropology is what a certain sort of Orthodox theologian might call a “theandric” humanism. “Life in the Spirit,” the most impressive of the texts collected in the Theology of the Body, is to a large extent an attempt to descry the true form of man by looking to the end towards which he is called, so that the glory of his eschatological horizon, so to speak, might cast its radiance back upon the life he lives in via here below. Thus, for John Paul, the earthly body in all its frailty and indigence and limitation is always already on the way to the glorious body of resurrection of which Paul speaks; the mortal body is already the seed of the divinized and immortal body of the Kingdom; the weakness of the flesh is already, potentially, the strength of “the body full of power”; the earthly Adam is already joined to the glory of the last Adam, the risen and living Christ. For the late pope, divine humanity is not something that in a simple sense lies beyond the human; it does not reside in some future, post-human race to which the good of the present must be offered up; it is instead a glory hidden in the depths of every person, even the least of us — even “defectives” and “morons” and “genetic inferiors,” if you will — waiting to be revealed, a beauty and dignity and power of such magnificence and splendor that, could we see it now, it would move us either to worship or to terror.

For the Christian to whom John Paul speaks, however, one can truly aspire to the divine only through the charitable cultivation of glory in the flesh, the practice of holiness, the love of God and neighbor; and, in so doing, one seeks not to take leave of one’s humanity, but to fathom it in its ultimate depth, to be joined to the Godman who would remake us in himself, and so to become simul divinus et creatura. This is a pure antithesis. For those who, on the one hand, believe that life is merely an accidental economy of matter that should be weighed by a utilitarian calculus of means and ends and those who, on the other, believe that life is a supernatural gift oriented towards eternal glory, every moment of existence has a different significance and holds a different promise. To the one, a Down syndrome child (for instance) is a genetic scandal, one who should probably be destroyed in the womb as a kind of oblation offered up to the social good and, of course, to some immeasurably remote future; to the other, that same child is potentially (and thus far already) a being so resplendent in his majesty, so mighty, so beautiful that we could scarcely hope to look upon him with the sinful eyes of this life and not be consumed.

Note that personalism, and its overdue focus on the subjectivity of persons and their intentionality, is not the same thing as a dualism that defines human beings by their consciousness.  On this, Father Freeman adds a bit more:

But note that we are not “actual humans” unless we have consciousness, self-awareness and an interest in the future. By such criteria, my dog is probably a human being. And, of course, the professor is deeply naive in thinking that the Roman Catholic Church shares his definition of humanity. The Classical Christian world (Orthodox and Catholic) has a far more profound understanding of the human person.

I have stated previously that the modern project defines the human as: autonomous centers of consciousness whose choices and decisions bring about their self-actualization. As such, we are psychological events. It is an understanding that works, perhaps, in a science fiction movie (Star Trek comes to mind). In such a setting, we can take Spock’s consciousness and place it in an orb, and later put it somewhere else. His body is only important because we have to put his consciousness back into it before the end of the show. But this is nowhere close to a serious philosophical account of human existence.

The teaching of Classical Christianity grounds its understanding of human beings (and of all things) in their ontology, their very being and the nature of their being. God, the “only truly existing God,” brought us into being and with that gives us our humanity. Our personhood is an expression of our being and not its cause.

A human life in the womb is possessed with dignity and worth and its humanity, because it is, and not because of its consciousness, self-awareness and interest in the future. The modern “discount” humanity renders the body to be a mere vehicle, a locus of potentiality, able to be discarded when the “actuality” has been exhausted (or not yet realized).

To know ourselves as we are created is to enter into human life as gift, not as potential, nor future interest. The deepest and most disturbing part of the modern project and its tendency to redefine and discount our humanity, is that it does so in the name of something other than our humanity. Economic need, pain, psychological distress trump our existence. And in the end, the answer is death. It is the modern project’s alliance with death that is most revealing of its true nature and origin.

May God have mercy and deliver our children from the hands of modern philosophers!

Elsewhere he notes simply:

There is a long history of moral reasoning that is called “Utilitarianism.” It simply means, “What is useful.” It is a way of asking questions about certain actions. It’s reasoning is best expressed as “the greatest good for the greatest number.” It sounds eminently practical and is often employed in political and social thought. However, it is also fatally flawed. First, it fails to define the meaning of “good.” The greatest “good” cannot be described in practical terms. Often Utilitarian arguments are used to justify whatever some power group wishes to do. Whoever gets to define the “good” gets to make the rules.

Thus, those who find justifiable reasons for abortion always turn towards some form of utility. Abortion is certainly “useful” for the person who is burdened by the presence of this new life. But it is already an existing life and cannot be destroyed without sin. No amount of “useful” side-effects, such as providing fetal tissue for medical research and the like, can make the reality of the death go away, nor can they make killing into a good thing.

This reasoning is also a proper way to think about other things in our daily lives. The Christian life is not static and unchanging. It is dynamic, a movement towards a goal. That movement is described by the Fathers as one from simple being, towards well-being, and finally eternal-being. Sin is a moving in a contrary direction. Repentance is a change of direction, a return to the proper trajectory of our life.

I think you get the picture.  Turning now to a more personal reflection, while abortion and euthanasia tend to be the most significant issues at play here, there are other areas where I sometimes find myself lapsing into utilitarian thinking without intending too.  One is when it comes to people with developmental disabilities.  While on retreat last weekend I spent some time reading Jean Vanier’s Becoming Human, which I found deeply moving.  What Vanier discovered is that humans are not meant to be utilitarian calculators, our true humanity goes much deeper:

Having occupied important posts in the Navy and in a number of universities, he then set out to live in a modest house in Trosly with two or three people with intellectual disabilities. As external witnesses, we should’nt think that this radical change of life was guarantieed to be fruitful. In the face of people with disabilities, we instinctively turn aside from a way of being and of communicating that seems foreign to us. We count our blessings that we received genes that have made us so-called “normal” people. The feeling precedes reflection on it; it’s a reflex that can drive us either to indifference toward their lot, or to a misplaced over-protectiveness (that results in isolation or segregation and a denial of their human needs) or, in the worst case, to a rejection that manifests itself in contempt, mockery, violence, or exclusion. To live with them is to learn “a mysterious wisdom” —such has been Jean Vanier’s experience over the years—for “[people with intellectual disabilities] grow in maturity.” To learn, to listen, to accept that they become teachers who speak to our hearts and push us to see our own deficiencies and to expose our most human feelings; it’s a painful journey …

In daily life with his new companions, Jean Vanier, highly educated and well-read, discovered a kind of humanity that went beyond reason and rationality. They inspired him to write Becoming Human, which is as much about his own “becoming human” as about that of the people with whom he now shared a life, as he recounts in Our Life Together: “[It is] an encounter that liberates new energies, that allow us to break the chains of egotism and open ourselves in love to others.” He makes the point in a variety of ways in all his writings: Intelligence or reason is not the only way that people —who are still categorized as “deficient” in some countries— may express themselves. Deficient: The dictionary defines it as a moral or physical inadequacy. Curiously, in French, the opposite of the word deficient has a pejorative sense. The word is suffisant, and it carries the connotation of being self-satisfied and smug; it describes someone who is arrogant and feels completely self-sufficient. Such a sense is actually the sign of an inadequacy far deeper than that of someone who is disabled, because it robs the person, who is in love with the idea of his or her own self-sufficiency, of the human experience of relationships with others.

Jean Vanier tells us that, when we allow ourselves to be open to vulnerable people, we discover just how deficient we are—how much we lack the qualities of the heart they have, their sensitivity, their joie de vivre when they feel they are understood. We have to become pupils in their school, “learning to unlearn,” as a friend who is seriously physically disabled put it. An apprenticeship that cannot be accomplished without a painful but essential review of our own shortcomings and deficiencies …

I have mentioned in the past that I have a younger brother who is autistic.  One would think that this would have made me far more aware, smart and sensitive, when it comes to people with disabilities, but the truth is even here I find my mind sometimes wanders down the utilitarian road.  A friend of mine has openly admitted to wrestling with this issue, pointing out the inevitable economic issues that accompany the inclusion of people with disabilities.  He has complained, for instances, of the costs of ADA compliance, and of employing those with disabilities when the work really isn’t it necessary.  This is a prime example of utilitarian thinking.

My friend is not a bad person, and I can’t blame him too harshly for this, because the same thoughts sometimes occur to me.  We have been ‘programmed’ to think in terms of economic and societal usefulness, to define humanity by their ability to “contribute” and their “usefulness”-and of course, by their ability to consciously choose.  Modernity as a whole, it seems to me, is hopelessly confused on this issue.  We talk today of “ableism” and critique the “objectification” of people with disabilities (I think, incidentally, it is indeed objectification to automatically call someone in a wheelchair an “inspiration”).  As N.T. Wright has said:

Recent years have witnesses extravagant examples of human actions that have outraged our sense of justice.  People sometimes talk as if the last fifty years have seen a decline in morality.  But actually these have been some of the most morally sensitive, indeed moralistic, times in recorded history. People care, and care passionately, about the places where the world needs putting to rights.

In short, the moral “spark” is still in us.  The problem is that utilitarianism smothers the spark, for true humanity is greater than the strictures utilitarianism imposes.  Usefulness is not an appropriate category, but the most severely disabled humans are for something-they have a teleology, a destiny in God.  There is much we can learn from them, as Vanier reminds us.  There are burdens, it is true.  I have seen firsthand how overwhelming parenting can be in these contexts-as the saying goes, one will soon lose sight of the days for the years.  I also still contend some measure of “expectation management” is necessary-denial and unrealistic hopes help no one.  The answer, it seems to me, is release from the bondage of the utilitarian vision of the human person.  We must see that the value of a person is not, and never can be measured by utility.  We must learn to widen our vision again.

The teaching of the Church gives us a clue as to how this should happen, and the primary responsibility rests with the family.  As the Catechism puts it:

2208 The family should live in such a way that its members learn to care and take responsibility for the young, the old, the sick, the handicapped, and the poor. There are many families who are at times incapable of providing this help. It devolves then on other persons, other families, and, in a subsidiary way, society to provide for their needs: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”12

2218 The fourth commandment reminds grown children of their responsibilities toward their parents. As much as they can, they must give them material and moral support in old age and in times of illness, loneliness, or distress. Jesus recalls this duty of gratitude.23

For the Lord honored the father above the children, and he confirmed the right of the mother over her sons. Whoever honors his father atones for sins, and whoever glorifies his mother is like one who lays up treasure. Whoever honors his father will be gladdened by his own children, and when he prays he will be heard. Whoever glorifies his father will have long life, and whoever obeys the Lord will refresh his mother.24

O son, help your father in his old age, and do not grieve him as long as he lives; even if he is lacking in understanding, show forbearance; in all your strength do not despise him. . . . Whoever forsakes his father is like a blasphemer, and whoever angers his mother is cursed by the Lord.25

2276 Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible.

This leads to my other personal reflection.  My secretary mentioned to me yesterday that she has been living the struggle of caring for her mother, who is in assisted living and suffering from dementia.  We talked for a bit about my own grandmother, who also suffered from a (much more moderate) dementia in her last few years, and how she had come to live with us, and how my mother had “risen to the occasion.”  These conversations are heartbreaking, given that we live in a society where the elderly are essentially written off.  The manner in which so many children shirk their responsibilities to their parents is a mark of great shame on our culture.  A friend (the same friend above) attempted to blame this on economics (“No one has the money to take care of their parents,” but I could tell he didn’t believe a word of it.

Last year Pope Francis lashed out on this issue:

The biblical commandment that requires us to honour our parents, understood broadly, reminds us of the honour we must show to all elderly people. God associates a double promise with this commandment: “that you may have a long life” (Ex 20:12) and, the other, “that you might prosper” (Dt 5:16). Faithfulness to the fourth commandment assures us not only of the gifts of the earth, but especially of the possibility of enjoying them. In fact, the wisdom that makes us recognize the value of the elderly person and that brings us to honour them, is the same wisdom that allows us to appreciate the numerous gifts that we receive every day from the providential hand of the Father, and to be happy. The precept reveals to us fundamental pedagogical relationship between parents and children, between the elderly and the young, with regard to the preservation and transmission of the teachings of religion and wisdom to future generations. To honour this teaching and those who pass it on is the source of life and blessing.

On the contrary, the Bible reserves a severe warning for those who neglect or mistreat their parents (cf. Ex 21:17; Lv 20:9). The same judgement applies today when parents, having become older and less useful, are marginalized to the point of abandonment. And there are so many examples!

The Word of God is always living, and we see well how the commandment proves topical for contemporary society, where the logic of utility takes precedence over that of solidarity and gratitude, even within families. Let us hear, then, with docile hearts, the word of God that comes to us from the commandments – which, let us always remember, are not bonds that imprison us, but are words of life.

It appears that the “progressive” Holy Father was not somehow rewriting Church teaching to make mistreatment of the elderly a “new” mortal sin, as some articles implied, but was actually taking a sharp whack at utilitarian reasoning.  He was also, of course, channeling, the Catechism on caring for the elderly.  To speak of a “throwaway culture” is indictment of utilitarianism by another name.  Frederica Mathewes-Green has a beautiful reflection on the Dormition, one that literally moved me to tears.  She says:

The Gospel of John tells us, the next line is, “From that hour, the disciple took her to his own home.” So this adoption of him taking Mary as his mother was something that began on the day of the crucifixion and continued through the end of her life. As I was saying, if you picture what it’s like to care for an elderly person, this requirement that the Lord laid on John was more than just being hospitable. In taking on the duty of a son to the Virgin Mary, John assumed whatever burdens might come, as well as the blessings. Some cultures have even permitted adult children to abandon or even end the life of an elderly parent. But the tradition in the Hebrew scriptures and of course in the Christian Tradition as well is that the elderly must be treated with respect, they must be respected, they must be care for to the very end.

It takes a strong command to guarantee that kind of care, because eruptions of frustration and disgust and the obvious question, “What am I getting out of this?” are going to push natural inclinations the other way. A grown child, in fact, might get more out of a parent’s death than his continuing life, if the child calculates that lingering, ugly old age is the only thing standing in the way of an inheritance. So when John took Mary to his own home, along with the wonderful blessing of having the light of her life in his own home, he was also accepting anything that might come at the end, any dementia, any physical weaknesses. Whatever it took, he was going to care for her to the end of her life. It’s a solemn obligation.

A solemn obligation indeed.  Though she doesn’t use the word, Frederica once again points to the specter of utilitarianism, which is embedded in the question “What am I getting out of this?”  She also makes an ominous point about natural inclinations.  Wright has stressed that virtue ethics is designed to make good character second nature for us (and of course the teaching of the Church is that we are fallen and out of sync with our true nature).  The point is that becoming truly human is a process, of growth and discipline, that requires certain inclinations be kept firmly in line.  Utilitarian reasoning, by contrast, pushes these inclinations the other way.

In summation, Catholics should realize that this is not simply an abstract question of philosophy; our moral frame of reference affects our entire life, and-quite literally-is a matter of life and death.  We are all affected by utilitarian thinking, even as we are firmly called in the opposite direction.  This is a tension we must live with, understand, and confront.  Stand up and, proudly, declare yourself an anti-utilitarian.

Existential Despair

David Bentley Hart, that master of the English language, has written on what he calls “metaphysical boredom”-here is what he says:

Boredom is the death of civilization.

But really, anywhere throughout the autumnal world of old and dying Christendom, there are instants (however fleeting) when one cannot help but feel (however imprecisely) that something vital has perished, a cultural confidence or a spiritual aspiration, and it is obviously something inseparable from the faith that shaped and animated European civilization for nearly two millennia. Hence the almost prophetic “fittingness” of that rail station: once religious imagination and yearning have departed from a culture, the lowest, grimmest, most tedious level of material existence becomes not just one of reality’s unpleasant aspects, but in some sense the limit that marks out the “truth” of things.

This is an inexcusably impressionistic way of thinking, I know, but it seems to me at least to suggest a larger cause for the remarkable willful infertility of the native European peoples: not simply general affluence, high taxes, sybaritism, working women, or historical exhaustion, but a vast metaphysical boredom.

Unless one grants credence to the small but fashionable set that has of late been predicting a reviviscence of Christianity in Europe (in gay defiance of all tangible evidence), it seems certain that Europe will continue to sink into its demographic twilight and increasingly to look like the land of the “last men” that Nietzsche prophesied would follow the “death of God”: a realm of sanctimony, petty, sensualisms, pettier rationalisms, and a vaguely euthanasiac addiction to comfort. For, stated simply, against the withering boredom that descends upon a culture no longer invaded by visions of eternal order, no civilization can endure.

It is fairly obvious that there is some direct, indissoluble bond between faith and the will to a future, or between the desire for a future and the imagination of eternity. And I think this is why post-Christian Europe seems to lack not only the moral and imaginative resources for sustaining its civilization, but even any good reason for continuing to reproduce.

A culture–a civilization–is only as great as the religious ideas that animate it; the magnitude of a people’s cultural achievements is determined by the height of its spiritual aspirations. One need only turn one’s gaze back to the frozen mires and fetid marshes of modern Europe, where once the greatest of human civilizations resided, to grasp how devastating and omnivorous a power metaphysical boredom is. The eye of faith presumes to see something miraculous within the ordinariness of the moment, mysterious hints of an intelligible order calling out for translation into artifacts, institutions, ideas, and great deeds, but boredom’s disenchantment renders the imagination inert and desire torpid.

How…provocative.  Regardless of whether one agrees with Hart or not (and in broad strokes I do) he is onto something here.  A deep paralysis, a form of cultural guillain-barré syndrome, seems to have set in.  I have noted before that we do seem to be living in the time of Nietzsche’s last men, and Lord knows, we live in a society with a “euthanasiac addiction to comfort” as Hart puts it.  Moreover, there is no secret that boredom can be a dangerous thing.  Rabbi Shmuley Boteach argues:

I would argue that the greatest evil stalking the earth and sucking out the quality of our lives is pervasive boredom.  In a world where labor-saving machines and high-paying jobs leave us with more free time than we need, we are confounded by what to do with it.  Instead of a blessing, our free time has become a curse for us.  Here, then, is the greatest argument for religion in the modern age.  The purpose of religion is to challenge man to rid pain from the world, increase love, discover wisdom, and come to know his Creator.  Religion is the clarion call to man, beckoning him to devote his energies to a higher purpose.

Despite the dramatic rise in urban crime, I do not believe that a wave of evil has pervaded our planet.  Rather, in our incessant search for excitement and a cure to our boredom, we have sunk to the depths of depravity.  We will try almost anything to bring some passion into our lives.  When the very soul of Britain was rocked a decade ago with the gruesome murder of Jamie Bulger by two ten-year-old boys who kidnapped and tortured him, leaving him to be mutilated on train tracks, a wave of clerics spoke of the hidden evil in our midst ready to rear its head at any time.  But this is nonsense!  Does anyone really believe that ten-year-old boys are evil?  Was it the devil who grabbed the hands of the teenage students in Columbine High School in Colorado who opened fire on their teachers and classmates?  Or rather was it the search for excitement, revenge, a quick thrill, and an outlet for their anger?  Teenagers today will watch the most inane TV shows to escape their boredom.  And since the only example of excitement they have is watching Bruce Willis pump lead into bad guys, did this not become their model of an intense emotional rush?  Children today are bored in school and bored at home.  And as the Talmud says, when one has nothing to do, one ends up doing what one ought not to do.  What is the teenage drug craze other than an attempt to experiment with that which is forbidden?  Had someone offered these children a ride on the Space Shuttle the night before they carried out their murders, would they have rejected the offer in favor of killing children instead?  Had we somehow engaged their higher imagination, found a healthier outlet to their anger and frustration, would they still have resorted to violence?

Possessed of limitless energies, man must be preoccupied with good if he is not to find a greater emotional rush in evil.  And religion’s high purpose is to afford man a holy and redeeming channel to direct his talents and gifts.

Again, provocative as all get-out.  For the record, I do not completely agree with Rabbi Boteach-I believe that there is such a thing as evil, and that the brutal murder of a two-year old child cannot (and certainly should not) be reduced or explained away in terms of boredom.  However, that isn’t my objective here.  In broad strokes, and in different ways, Hart and Rabbi Boteach are drawing attention to something that is fundamentally wrong with our world, something that can certainly be described as “metaphysical boredom” or “existential boredom”-or, perhaps “existential despair.”  Modernity has created a social/collective emptiness where transcendent purpose once stood, and this has had delirious effects in our own time.

The attitude captured by Mr. Peanutbutter (a character on the Netflix series Bojack Horseman) sums up how many today feel about life:

The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning. It’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead.

As Hart insinuates, our own success and prosperity is partially responsible for getting us into this mess.  The argument one frequently hears from libertarians, that we are “better off” than any other time in history (see the Cato Institute’s, and we only think otherwise because our perception is skewed, is not entirely wrong.  Still, these arguments often miss the point.  Economic and material successes aside, there is another kind of poverty, an existential (read spiritual) one.  Religion, in its classical forms, filled this void, and it has left behind an absence, that is making itself known, both individually and collectively.  And the human being knows almost no bounds when it come to the creativity of trying to fill the void.

As Rabbi Boteach suggested, the spike in drug use in recent years appears to be an attempt to fill the existential void, the new distraction of choice.  I will be the first to admit that I am not a supporter of the “War in Drugs,” which has become an orgy of police state insanity.  The most wicked effects of the drug trade owe as much to draconian laws as they do to the dangers of the drugs themselves, and a nation that has imprisoned hundreds of non-violent offenders is a horrid example of injustice.  Pushing the envelope further, while I do not engage in recreational marijuana use myself, I favor its legalization.  Delusions fostered by anti-drug propaganda should not be our guiding lights in this arena.

Still, having said all of that, do not mistake for an ardent proponent of drug legalization.  I am against drug use-and do not imbibe myself-precisely because recreational drug use is meant as an escape from reality.  There is something about the need to obtain greater-than normal stimulation from a substance, quite possibly at great risk, and in some cases even to enter hallucinatory states, that I find deeply worrying.  Setting aside the question of whether drugs can open one to transcendent states (a view promoted by Huston Smith and Sam Harris-strange bedfellows), a question I have no real interest in, there is something deeply concerning about the need to live in a perennial state of addiction to non-reality.  The whole thing reeks of existential despair.  The need may be real, but the solution is clearly not right.

All of this is something Catholicism has always taught (“Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee”).  Still, the actual picture is considerably more complicated that saying that boredom drives the idle to do wicked things, and the well-off to engage in petty distractions, while committing demographic suicide (no one, by the way, is arguing that anyone is consciously engage in such behavior).  Prosperity may have helped make our cultural guillain-barré syndrome possible, but is it the whole story?  What of those who have been left behind by the gravy train?  Rod Dreher has recently been commenting on this (see here, here, and here).  He (and his readers) make the following observations:

No amount of money is going to fix these problems, and you can’t just throw God at these people either. It’s a process. It’s like trying to teach feral cats to first trust you and then trying to train them to successfully live indoors. You can tell they “get it” that your house is different, but they don’t really get it. There’s a stability they want, but they don’t know how to internalize the conditions that lead to it, since they’ve never had it. Those who haven’t been in that chaos think these people are a lot closer to being good than they really are, and those who need the help deep down don’t really believe they’re worth it or have any hope so they sabotage themselves.

Without giving too much away, I work every single day with dirt poor white and minority Americans living in the heartland. These are people “living off the government dole” so to speak. I know more about abject poverty, government dependence, drug abuse, drug overdoses and disintegrated family systems, and what these things do to people, than your average middle-class or upper-class American by far (I would call myself upper-middle-class). This is an extraordinarily difficult population to work with. You try to look past their unfortunate circumstances and their poor choices to retain some sense of their basic humanity. When you try to help them see the sense in making better choices in the hopes of improving their miserable lot in life even a little bit, a great many of them resist you at almost every turn. It’s like they’re stuck in a negative feedback loop. The more you try to help them avoid making more poor choices which will only dig them into a deeper hole, the more they think you’re looking down your nose at them and acting all uppity and superior–so they tell you to piss off. The more you try to help, the more they resent you for being a “privileged” person who’s in a position to help in the first place.

A genuine spirit of charity is now a thing to be scorned and spit on instead of welcomed. It’s a bit like cursing God for sending you a Savior instead of appointing you as one. It’s the most insane thing you can imagine. It defies the simplest definition of reason.

The complacency of generations of parents, placing blind trust in the motivations of the bureaucrats of the kid factories is at least partially to blame. The decline and abandonment in rural areas has been the thread which tied these posts together, but the underlying disease is shot throughout the entire body of our nation as well as most of the western world.

And it’s not just unstable homes. I have relatives and friends in one of the wealthiest suburbs of the country who have moved back in with their parents: not from economic need, but from total social and emotional collapse. They were raised without limits, without adequate self control, and they’ve been broken by it. They suffer anxiety, depression, manic disorders. They can barely hold down a service job for a few weeks before it’s over and back to the basement for more bizarre social media antics and binge-watching. What is going to happen to them? What happens when their parents pass? It is heart-breaking and terrifying.

Unacknowledged existential despair, a consequence of our metaphysical void, has given birth not only to boredom, but to complacency, a passive acceptance of existence.  This way of being can infect everyone-not simply the well-off.  With no transcendent summons calling forth the deep dignity of all people, parents will raise children without limits, not instilling the virtues our faith tells us they are responsible for:

2222 Parents must regard their children as children of God and respect them as human persons. Showing themselves obedient to the will of the Father in heaven, they educate their children to fulfill God’s law.

2223 Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery – the preconditions of all true freedom. Parents should teach their children to subordinate the “material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones.”31 Parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children. By knowing how to acknowledge their own failings to their children, parents will be better able to guide and correct them:

He who loves his son will not spare the rod. . . . He who disciplines his son will profit by him.32Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.33

2224 The home is the natural environment for initiating a human being into solidarity and communal responsibilities. Parents should teach children to avoid the compromising and degrading influences which threaten human societies.

The result is not pretty: a vicious cycle that ensnares entire families, indeed entire generations, in chaos, poverty, drug abuse, despair-and this in the midst of great abundance.  I know people in this position myself, and I can relate to the comments above.  It is truly gut-wrenching.  It makes one realize that the Church’s teachings on the family are not incidental, they are as central to the faith as anyone else.  The responsibilities of parents are sacred.  Parenting itself is suffused with transcendence (nor is this limited to Christianity, c.f. Confucianism).  And the expulsion of transcendence from the realm of the family, and the subsequent dissolution of the family itself as a result, have real world consequences, that can be overshadowed by the buoyant statistics cited by the libertarians and Steven Pinkers of the world.

There is something else the simplistic narrative of progress and abundance does not capture. Our present culture, you might say, has collectively entered into drug-induced state and shielded itself from reality at almost every turn.  Father Freeman puts it thusly:

Our contemporary life is often deeply removed from reality. We eat like royalty, travel like magicians, taking everything for granted. In 1991, I was serving in a parish (Anglican) that sponsored a Russian family for immigration. The Soviet Union had fallen, but little had changed in their homeland. I recall taking them to their first visit to an American grocery store with their translator. It was like a dream to them. Their first question startled me, “Is all of this for sale?” They had an idea that it might just be “for show.” I was humbled as I realized how much I took for granted.

In my recent trip to England I was struck by the amount of farmland. Everywhere outside of villages, the land was given to farming. The wheat fields in particular were “white for the harvest.” America has seen the shrinking of its farmland over the entire course of its history. Recent decades have been especially hard. It is possible for children to grow up with no awareness of farms or where the food they eat comes from. There is clearly a diminishment of our humanity in all of this.

Elsewhere, he writes:

The human relationship with time is a strange thing. The upright stones of neo-lithic human communities stand as silent reminders of our long interest in seasons and the movement of the heavens. Today our light-polluted skies shield many of us from the brilliant display of the night sky and rob us of the stars. The modern world is not only shielded from the stars, but from many aspects of time itself. Artificial lighting has made the setting of the sun into an unremarkable event and extended daylight into whatever hour we might wish. And though the seasons are worth noting, it is primarily their effect on clothing choices that seem important – foods have become omni-seasonal (for a price).

Huston Smith once dryly observed:

I have no way of determining what life on average feels like even today.  Who do we include in our sample?  AIDS-ridden Africans?  New Zealand shepherds?  Affluent CEOs who enjoy salaries four hundred times the wages of their employees?  Inner-city African Americans and the homeless of all sorts?  Mix all of these, shake well, and what quality of life emerges?

Such a collective delusion is not indefinitely sustainable; a day of reckoning will come.  A commentator on Rod’s blog made the following observation:

Hey, most of the world lives in conditions that today’s well-off Americans find unthinkable. Therefore, another term for “apocalypse” is “regression to the mean.” What we are calling apocalypse is not all that surprising or unlikely. The world will keep going. But the world you are so fond of will be gone. And enormous numbers of people will be suffering. That’s a prospect that should give anyone pause.

I’ve lived (briefly) in the third world–not as some first world princeling on tour, but as one among equals. To me this should all be viewed as an unearned blessing, which means it would be sad but not surprising to see it go. Life will go on, but you should take care to distinguish between the better and worse forms of it.

I also think people underestimate the fragility of civilization. It’s very natural. But it’s a conservative’s job to remind them of its fragility. What do you think Germans in the late nineteenth century felt? They had reached the greatest heights of progress and civilization of any people on the earth up to that point. They were the most advanced, the most impressive, the most cultured, the most scientific. What do you think they would have said if someone told them that, in a few decades, they would introduce the world to the greatest depths of barbarism that it had ever seen?

What I am getting at here is this: metaphysical boredom is also metaphysical blindness.  To stave off despair and keep ourselves distracted from a meaningless universe, we embraced an entire way of life that is several degrees removed from reality.  We take everything for granted.  We believe we are invincible.  We have forgotten that human civilization, indeed, is a fragile thing.  In our complacency, we believe that the bubble we live in is all.  Even if one only believes there is meaningless chaos, and not transcendent order, beyond the bubble, living in a collective state of delusion can only have negative consequences.  The day of reckoning, when it comes-and it will-shall not be a pleasant experience.

One more point.  In my essay on Nietzsche I observed that in addition to those who take the “passive” response to life (the “Last Men”) there are also those who “take the bull by the horns” as it were (the would-be “Overmen”).  Transhumanism is worth mentioning here.  A friend of mine repeatedly posts articles on Facebook about the progress of technology, how soon it will relive us of our need to work (see Rabbi Boteach above), how artificial intelligence will elevate to new heights, how we shall soon enter into a glorious posthuman epoch.  That much of this is probably nonsense should go without saying it (though I remain respectfully agnostic on the kinds of things that future technologies may be able to achieve).

What I am more concerned with is that transhumanism itself is ultimately another delusion.  Stephen Hawking, no fool, believes there may be grave dangers in proceeding down the road of artificial intelligence.  Yet, this warning is idly brushed aside.  Bored with the state of the world as it is, recognizing the need to fill a transcendental void, transhumanists believe that if there is no objective transcendence summoning us forth, we might as well make our own.  One cannot accuse these folks of falling into a state of malaise, though one can certainly call them out for the same sin of their passive brethren: choosing delusion over reality.  Lazar Puhalo understands what is at stake here:

The Archbishop, wisely, observes that the ideologies and ideas of the transhumanists essentially amount to playing with robots, while millions of their fellow humans die of starvation and dehydration.  In fairness, there is something of a “cheap shot” here-technology is an essential part of the solution to these problems.  Still, Puhalo’s point cannot be ignored-transhumanism very easily loses sight of the reality that is, in its desperate attempt to grab the will-o-the-wisp that is self-made transcendence.  Such grasping will eventually lead one over a cliff.

What to say in summation?  Someone, I forget who-I think it was Peter Kreeft but am not sure-once observed that he would take the existential angst of a Tolstoy or a Camus any day of the week, because these individuals had the cohones to actually face the emptiness of a reality, and to really own their existential despair, rather than to bury it beneath distractions.  These atheists did not surrender to complacency, nor trade reality for delusion.  They faced reality, bringing them into the fine company of Qohleleth.  I would suggest that all of us-Christian, atheist, whatever-spend a little time reading those folks, and meditating over it.  We cannot eradicate existential despair.  We can attempt to paper over it or we can attempt to fill it.  Christianity offers us an answer to this question, but the answer will only make sense until we have faced the question: What do can we do with our existential despair?

A blurb on blogology

Here’s an interesting one.  Progressive Christian stalwarts Rachel Held Evans and Richard Beck had a conversation in 201, in which they discussed blogging.  Links:

I must admit, watching this conversation has made me reflect a bit on Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.  In a way, I almost feel guilty.  As I have often said, I write more for my own stimulation than anything else (though I confess having a small but loyal fan base is pretty cool).  To date, I haven’t really given much thought to any “contributions” that I am making-or could be making-to the blogosphere.  That being the case, it was very interesting to listen to Dr. Beck and Held Evans discuss the challenges that they have faced in this “brave new world.”  I have to tip my hat to them for what by any account appears to be a genuine willingness to create a “safe space” (ugh I cannot believe I just typed that!) on the Internet, and generate a real conversation.

There is some irony in saying this.  I have been quite critical of progressive Christianity (c.f. my previous post) and Rachel Held Evans in particular.  The criticism really isn’t personal; to co-opt something Held Evans says in the talk, I have never met her or any of my other “targets.”  My disdain is largely directed towards what I see as major weaknesses in progressive Christianity itself, though it is mixed with plenty of irritation at those who engage in passive-aggressive behavior; and/or the overuse of rhetorical questions and buzzwords (e.g. “free-thinking”).  Part of the problem is I see the whole landscape differently than RHE and others.  I am all about “objectivity” (again, see previous post), which inevitably makes me more “conservative” in temperament.  Similarly, my legal background has given me a particular take on religion, which differs substantially than, say, Dr. Beck (who approaches things from the perspective of the social sciences).

Objectivity aside, there is room for different perspectives.  As a Catholic, I would insist that the dialogue must always respect certain objective givens, and that it take place under the watchful eye of the Magisterium.  I wouldn’t allow certain contemporary concerns vis-à-vis the “patriarchal” nature of the Magisterium, to resolve disputes.  At the end of the day, belief in an objective revelation means that there are things that trump contemporary social concerns (e.g. egalitarianism).  I can understand the frustrations of progressives.  As Frederica Mathewes-Green has humorously noted:

Talk about patriarchal-my church has actually got patriarchs.

Still, I’m not about to yield.  With my Church I affirm, to quote Kallistos Ware, that:

it remains a fact of our Christian experience that God has set his seal upon certain symbols and not upon others.  The symbols are not chosen by us but revealed and given.

Objectivity again.  My point is that pace my sarcasm, polemicism and seeming retrograde intransigence, I actually do have some sympathy for those who struggle and wrestle with Classical Christianity.  I was a member of Spiritus Christi, after all.  At the end of the day, though, I’m too committed to the notion that Catholicism concerns objective realities (I think if one is prepared to take religion seriously, this is the only appropriate attitude) to let sympathy dictate my views.  In general, I have found that progressive Christians (Catholics and otherwise) are driven by contemporary sociological concerns; as Rev. Rutledge would say, their focus is anthropological and not (properly speaking) theological.  They have not made their case.

What I do respect, however, and this come across very clearly with respect to both Dr. Beck and Held Evans, is their genuine effort to treat people as people, to be (if I can put it rather lamely) “human” (or “pastoral,” to use a word that is much abused these days).  I have repeatedly vented here that my problem with “traditionalism” (the imprecision of these words drives me nuts) is that its adherents often seem to forget that they are dealing with complex human beings.  Catholicism, at its best, holds firmly to objective truth, while simultaneously engaging people as people. Yet again, I quote Karl Adam who “nailed it” on this point:

But so soon as it is a question, not of the conflict between idea and idea, but of living men, of our judgment on this or that non-Catholic, then the theologian becomes a psychologist, the dogmatist a pastor of souls.  He draws attention to the fact that the living man is very rarely the embodiment of an idea, that the conceptual world and mentality of the individual are so multifarious and complicated, that he cannot be reduced to a single formula…what we actually have before us is living men, with their fundamental outlook on life influenced or dominated by this or that erroneous idea.

Obviously, this wouldn’t be acceptable to many progressives, who would challenge whether concepts should be used at all, or would accuse us of “mainsplaining,” or what have you.  Still, I am trying to be magnanimous here, and there is something to be said for folks like Held Evans who sincerely wish to engage people as people.  That is deeply admirable (and very Christian).  Though I find it a shame that so many feel that they have to jettison objectivity in the process, I am not above giving them credit where credit is due.

Moreover, Dr. Beck and Held Evans really provoked me to think.  Held Evans, in particular, stressed her desire to welcome a diversity of perspectives on her blog (which, to her credit, she truly does), and to try and engage her readers.  At one point she noted that she made a mistake early on by writing blog entries that were too long (uh oh), and also emphasized that one should not disable the comments feature on their blog, lest it make one appear arrogant and like you “don’t want to talk to people.”  Both acknowledged the difficulty in managing conversations in the comments field (anyone who believes people are “basically good” should spend some time following online exchanges).

I think Held Evans is absolutely right in what she says, but in full-throated honesty, I really don’t care to engage with people online.  I’ve had enough experience with the Internet to be convinced that it is a terrible forum for deep conversations about religion, politics, and other “unmentionables.”  I do allow comments, but I am also blunt in stating that I don’t particularly care about feedback.  Again, there always exceptions-I’ve had some great dialogue in the comments here.  In general, though, I simply am not looking for conversations online, and I am really not interested in moderating any.  I’m not the model blogger.

Part of the reason is limitations on time.  Like many folks in my generation, I can get sucked into spending hours on the Internet, which I regard as unhealthy, and as I don’t do this for a living (a word on that in a moment) I can’t commit to the kind of long-term engagement model blogging demands (yes, actually, there is such a thing).  When I was writing my previous post I found myself that thinking that it would probably be better for me to stop writing so much, and actually spend more time praying and working on loving my enemies and forgiving others.  Blogging-writing in general-can be hazardous for one’s spiritual health.

What I will say in my defense, however, is that I write as I do primarily because I can’t write on these topics in any other way.  Moreover, my blog is a protest against the way most people think about theology these days-in the forms of memes, bumper stickers, clichés, and short comments.  I have the benefit of catharsis by writing as I do, and the satisfaction of knowing that at least a handful of people get something out of it.  I also hope that my writing will force some people to think a little deeper.  I have no desire to take part in the “dumbing down of discourse,” and by expelling some of my thoughts into the ether, maybe I can help provoke some improvement.

That said, I don’t really care to facilitate discussions about what I’ve written.  My writing is an acquired taste, and my general attitude is that people can either read what I’ve written or not; enjoy it or not; engage it or not.  I’m no good at shameless self-promotion, and while I monitor my stats, I don’t stress about them.  My following was larger in my more “liberal” days (it was high enough that I actually received a few free books from a publisher in exchange for reviews), but I would much rather write honestly than spend time deliberately trying to recapture lost readership and get my numbers up again.  So there you are.  If you wish to comment please do-if you are really interested, and say something that catches my attention, a real dialogue might start.  I have hope such dialogues may spill over from the Internet into real life, maybe begetting some friendships along the way.

Back to that enigmatic comment about blogging for a living.  I would love to write (though not necessarily blog) for a living, and I admit to being envious of Held Evans on this point.  At the moment, I am not actively working towards doing so.  I have also given some thought as to whether I may have a vocation in the Catholic Church (priesthood and religious have both occurred to me), but again, my circumstances being what they are, I am in the very early stages of discernment.  I have not written about this, apart from alluding to it once in awhile, and I haven’t really discussed it in “real life” either.  Again, this forum is simply not ideal at this point.

At some point, I may write a book.  I’ve started some a few times but never finished, mostly due to discipline issues.  Actually, I have begun thinking that my way of writing my blog  is a form of “warm-up exercise” for writing an actual book later.  We’ll see.  At this time I don’t have anything (title, theme, outline) in the works.  Wezel see.

I have also considered whether I might launch a blog on another forum, such as Patheos or Beliefnet.  At the moment I have no plans to do so, and am not sure I would even if invited.  As it happens, I have received no such invitations anyway, so the question is moot (I have been invited to participate in Mike Morrell‘s SpeakEasy network, but declined).  I would give serious consideration if invited to blog at the National Catholic Register or First Things, but given my idiosyncratic tone, I think it is highly unlikely I would be invited.  Candidly, I rather like being free to run my own show here and be as idiosyncratic as I like.  Of course, that could change.  Obedience is a virtue.  We’ll see.

In short, my future is wide open, and it is up to the Lord to direct my steps.  In the meantime, I’ll keep blogging.  Thanks to Dr. Beck and Held Evans for their contributions and model example, and for spurring me to think.  In the spirit of thoughtful blogging, I’d like to offer a thought from Rowan Williams in conclusion:

Theology is a matter of life and death, because in it I find my own sense and direction, however vaguely and inarticulately.  If we were not hurt by the dismissive remarks of others, we should not be caring enough.  At least conflict is a sign of life, dead people don’t bleed.

The wounds caused by hasty and dismissive words about other people’s theologies or spiritualities are too deep to be ignored by any us, and the obvious has to be said from time to time.  Yes, we have to all shed at least a little blood or sweat over our beliefs; yes, our integrity is at issue; and yes, truth matters and doctrinal indifference is abhorrent.  So these pains won’t go away, and the hurts may be deep when our creed is assaulted-or worse-just dismissed.  We cannot get around it just by adopting the other person’s point of view: too much of ourselves is involved for that.  But theology must bring us to penitence and contemplation, just as it must arise out of trust-trust in the abiding objectivity of the one in whom we have believed, trust that (in Augustine’s words) “our home will not fall down just because we are away.”

The Christ we both see, however, is the one who instructs us to love our enemies, to love even what may seem the pale shadow of his face in other people’s minds, because compared with the light of his glory all our thoughts are shadows.  He is the truth we shall never own; we can only hope to be owned by him.

The (intellectual) sins of “progressive Christianity”

I try not to beat up on progressive Christianity too much these days (actually I try to ignore it as much as possible), but I do have to vent once in awhile.  Here’s my gripe today (and this is nothing new).  Progressive Christians insist that it is a mistake to put too much emphasis on “concepts” or “propositions.”  Many of them have openly embraced a postmodern epistemology.  Consider this gem: in June of 2014 (when I was buried up to my chin in studying for the bar exam), Rachel Held Evans invited Brian McLaren to respond to some questions on her blog.  Here is part of the exchange:

From Daneen: I love Brian’s books! They have been water for my parched soul. I want to ask him about an idea I’ve seen recently via a friend [Ryan Bell of the “Year Without God” project] who used to be a progressive Adventist pastor, but is now exploring atheism. Recently he posted that he thinks progressive Christianity is just a slower way to admit that there isn’t a God. It got a huge amount of response from others who agreed and said that had been their path to atheism. I guess that’s my question, and I’m sure he’s thought of this. How would he respond to that idea that progressive Christianity is just a slower path to non-theism altogether? 

Daneen, get ready for a super-long answer. I couldn’t be briefer because this question is so big, important, and timely.

I think it’s worthwhile to note that when the early Christians favored God as revealed in Christ over the Roman pantheon, they were called atheists. The only gods that counted were the Roman gods, so anyone who didn’t believe in those gods was an atheist. Similarly, at the time of the Reformation, I can imagine Roman Catholics saying that Protestantism was a first step toward atheism … and then when Protestant intellectuals like David Hume and others more or less embraced atheism, Catholic warnings must have seemed prescient.

Both of these examples suggest that atheism often means “disbelief in the God of the establishment,” since those in power typically define the God who is supposed to be believed in. Every new conception of God necessarily requires doubting or rejecting the prevailing conception of God. So you could say that theism only evolves through atheism. I think there’s a kind of yin-yang between the two.

To put it starkly, Jesus must disbelieve in the God who loves our friends and hates our enemies in order to envision a God who manifests a compassionate perfection toward “the just and the unjust” as he does in the Sermon on the Mount.

Rachel’s first book and this remarkable blogspace she has created are surfacing what my work is also surfacing: there are lots of people who are losing faith in the gods of the establishments (of which there are many). For many, the process is like peeling an onion. First they lose faith in the 6-day creationist god, then in the bible-dictation god, then in the male-supremacy god, then in the european-supremacy/western-civilization/colonialist god, then in the anti-gay god, then in the pro-war god, then in the American-exceptionalism/manifest-destiny god, then in the anti-palestinian god, then in the controller-of-everything-that-happens god, then in the design-engineer god, then in the penal-substitutionary-atonement god, and so on. Of course the detail and order of events may vary, but eventually, every layer of the onion is peeled away and one is left with nothing … but maybe some tears.

The fear of being left with nothing leaves many people desperately afraid to question anything, which might be a good definition of fundamentalism. You mentioned Ryan Bell, whom I know and like a lot. I haven’t followed Ryan Bell’s blog as closely as I wish I could, but I check in when I can and I was impressed by this remark he made in passing recently: “For Christians, generally speaking, faith is the virtue that makes them impervious to new evidence.” I think that’s an accurate – and tragic – statement, generally speaking. But I especially agreed with what Ryan said next: “But none of us have anything to fear from the truth. And even when fear is an appropriate response, I would rather confront a fearful truth than be comforted by a lie.”

The establishment understandings of God are indeed under assault, and open-minded believers are forced to grapple with “new evidence” of unprecedented magnitude, as the recent photograph from the Hubble telescope made amazingly clear.

To believe in God as creator of a cosmos of billions of galaxies that have developed over 13.82 (or whatever) billion years requires disbelieving the God who was creator of one world in the center of one crystalline sphere that was made 6-10,000 years ago.

And of course, it’s not just cosmology. Neurobiology … anthropology … psychology … sociology … history … semiotics … nearly every field challenges the conventional packages of concepts that are associated with the word God, whoever is speaking it.

The question, I think, is this: what happens after one peels away the onion and faces the possibility that there is nothing left? Will any concept of meaning, purpose, value, direction, and value come back? As my friend Steve McIntosh asked me earlier this year, “Can we get God back at a higher level?”

I think Ryan Bell is grappling with this challenge. In order to get God back at a higher level, we have to be willing to let the lower level conceptions of God go. Peter Rollins has been another courageous thinker in this regard. The process isn’t easy. The outcomes aren’t guaranteed. We have to make room for one another to be at different places, in different “time zones” if you will, which is hard for many people to do – and nearly impossible for some churches to allow, sad to say.

I have tended to do this kind of deconstructive questioning in private, and then write about the positive conclusions I’ve reached. But the deconstructive work must also be written about. Maybe my approach has been more pastoral, and Ryan’s and Peter’s more philosophical … but both are needed.

A philosopher who has engaged with this process in a very helpful way for me is Richard Kearney. The title of his book Anatheism suggests the recovery of God after atheism – not old theism, not atheism, but a new search for God after one has lost his or her old faith. Here are a few choice quotes from Anatheism:

  • So much depends, of course, on what we mean by God. If transcendence is indeed a surplus of meaning, it requires a process of endless interpretation…. The absolute requires pluralism to avoid absolutism. (xiv)
  • If the Word was in the beginning, so was hermeneutics. There is no God’s-eye view of things available to us. For we are not Gods, and history tells us that attempts to become so lead to intellectual and political catastrophe. Hermeneutics is a lesson in humility (we all speak from finite situations) as well as imagination (we fill in the gaps between available and ulterior meanings). Hermeneutics remind us that the holiest of books are works of interpretation – for authors no less than readers. Moses smashed the written tablets; Jesus never wrote a single word (only a scribble in the sand to prevent a woman being stoned); and Muhammad spoke, after much hesitation, but left writing to others. (xv)
  • And that is, I think, a grace of philosophy. It opens a space for the questioning of God where theists and atheists may converse. It invites us to revise old interpretations and reimagine new ones. (xvii)
  • The figural saves God from the literal. For faith is not just the art of the impossible but an art of endless hermeneutics. (14)
  • … the absolute can never be understood absolutely by any single person or religion. (16)
  • The great stories of Israel are, I am suggesting, testaments to the paradoxical origins of religion in both violent conflict and peaceful embrace. This, in effect, makes every dramatic encounter between the human and the divine into a radical hermeneutic wager: compassion or murder. You either welcome or refuse the stranger. Monotheism is the history of this wager. (22)

Obviously, I could go on and on. But I want to mention two other quotes from Kearney that intersect with my own work.

First, Kearney asks, “So what exactly did Bonhoeffer mean when he advocated an ‘irreligious Christianity?’ … Religion was but a ‘garment’ tailored to the needs of different historical epochs over two thousand years. So the real question for us today is What kind of God could be the Lord of a nonreligious Christianity? .. Bohoeffer’s postreligious Christianity took the form of an atheistic rejection of the metaphysical God combined with a belief in the suffering God. (66-67)”

I haven’t spoken of this much, but this insight was very much behind my book Naked Spirituality. We need a spirituality that allows us to strip away old conceptions and welcome new ones … a faith that is (to evoke my new title) a road, not a warehouse or parking lot. A flexible (or naked) spirituality carries us, I think, when our bolted-down theology falls apart on us.

Second, Kearney says, “…one must, I suggest, abandon the old God of sovereignty and theodicy. That Master God must die so that the God of inteconfessional hospitality can be born. And, insofar as religious dogma has often served as vehicle of infantile fear and dependency, the interreligious God may be described as a postdogmatic God. That is why anatheism appreciates a rigorous atheistic critique of the theistic perversions of religion.” (52)

Obviously, this was a big part of my last book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? In my new book, We Make the Road by Walking, I read the Bible not as a static revelation of God in a system, but as a dynamic narrative of human discovery as old conceptions of God die and new conceptions are born in the vacuum. To be a believer is not to stop or freeze the quest for bigger and better and deeper and truer conceptions of what is ultimate and true and beautiful and valuable, but to join it.

So … to get back to your question: Some forms of atheism, like some forms of religion, are also parking lots or warehouses. They mark the end of questioning, search, wondering, imagining, hoping, dreaming, opening. But I trust that for many, atheism is more like taking off of a suit of clothes that no longer fits. It is scary to be naked … especially when there are accusatory and mocking inquisitors out there ready to pounce, mock, criticize, and so on, motivated by the kind of fear that Ryan wrote about.

So, Daneen, we might say that good faith is at heart not becoming “impervious to new evidence,” but rather the reverse: a vulnerability to new evidence and possibilities, a nakedness of the kind we experience at birth or when we go to the doctor or when we make love, a confession that “I haven’t yet arrived, but am still on the road, still seeking, still on the quest.” Whatever God is, God must not be smaller than our questions! So for me, one of the meanings of the resurrection is that just after you think God has died, a surprise is in store. I would hope that whatever progressive/emergence/etc. Christianity is … it makes room both for the questioning and the surprise.

In other words-yes, apparently progressive Christianity is the halfway house on the way to non-theism.  But seriously-holy postmodernism Batman!  We can detect here another trait of progressive Christianity-disdain towards the very notion of objectivity.  Consider what Held Evans has written on this point:

Brueggemann recently displayed his trademark humility in acknowledging, “Until the middle of the twentieth century scripture study was essentially white males. And white males –including myself — always walked under the flag of objectivity. ‘We are objective scholars!’ Now what we are discovering in the presence of many other voices is that what we thought was objectivity is simply white-male-experience.”

Even Walter Brueggemann….WALTER BRUEGGEMANN, PEOPLE… knows he doesn’t know everything. Even Walter Brueggemann values the insights and perspectives of other people, especially those whose gender, race, or socioeconomic status means they see Scripture differently than he.

Then there is the Catholic writer Carl McColman, who dismisses historical arguments as ultimately irrelevant, and perhaps even an unhelpful distraction from the “really” important things (contemplation, kindness, etc.).  Oy vey.  I quite enjoyed McColman’s Christian Mysticism, but his recent writings have made me question his commitment to Christianity.  For instance, McColman wrote a touching tribute to Marcus Borg, but it is quite clear in that tribute that McColman has joined the postmodern camp.

Starting in reverse, McColman is right to stress the value of contemplative prayer, but way off base to insinuate (he never quite says directly) that history is purely incidental.  Avery Dulles has an excellent rejoinder to McColman’s dismissal of the importance of history:

revelation is not in the first instance propositional. It comes predominantly through historical events, interpreted in the light of faith. Still, these events are facts that can be described in words…A non-propositional understanding of revelation contradicts the tenor of Holy Scripture and the earliest confessions of faith, which describe particular historical events of crucial importance for faith…It is unacceptable to say that revelation does not contain any factual information. Anyone who denies that the events of salvation history truly occurred would be contradicting the faith.

Moving on.  No reasonable person should deny that the invocation of objectivity is open to abuse.  Consider something that Fr. Freeman has written:

The radical claims of the postmodern critique (such as those of the “Antifoundationalists“), are, it would seem, correct. There is no absolute objectivity. We have no where to stand outside the world in order to observe the world. But this radical critique is only suitable as a refutation of a radical claim. If the modern world does not make claims to absolute objectivity, but an objectivity that is reasonable and mutually-agreed, then the critique becomes little more than an artifact of philosophical logic. After all, reasonable and mutually-agreed forms of objectivity have successfully landed men on the moon. It may not be perfect, but it demonstrates its power outside the realm of philosophy.

I imagine Antifoundationalist scientists (if there were any) shaking their heads and saying, “A man on the moon? We can’t even agree on where the moon is!”

Modern Christianity has often adopted the model of “reasonable and mutually-agreed” forms of inquiry. Some of these efforts were monumental. The philosopher Emmanuel Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone is perhaps one of the watershed moments in modern religion. Despite such works of genius, the story of modern Christianity is one of continual fragmentation of the faith with ever-shrinking areas of agreement. Within religion, the modern project has failed.

It is this failure that lends strength to the postmodern critique of religious knowledge. It is this same failure that amplifies the place of Orthodoxy in the modern world. The Orthodox faith with its grounding in a pre-modern world, has never subjected itself to the constraints of modern rationalism. There has always been a recognition that the life of the Church is a reality, rooted in the very existence of God and His love for humanity, transcending our comprehension. There is nowhere to stand “outside” God in order to subject Him and His actions to rational analysis. We stand within His grace, His life, at all times. “For within Him we live, and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Orthodoxy contends that the faith cannot be understood from outside the living reality of the Church itself. This creates problems for the habits of modernity. Our modern habits want to consider claims, make comparisons and judgments, and weigh the options before we conclude anything. We want to subject our world to the habits of mutually agreed rationality. Orthodoxy can, of course, be studied in such a manner, and it’s claims concerning itself hold-up reasonably well. Historically, the Orthodox Church has continuity with itself going back to the earliest point of the Church’s beginning. The Roman Catholic Church (or the Oriental Orthodox) can, more or less, say the same. Orthodoxy continues to preach and teach and liturgize in a manner that is consistent with that continuity.

But claims concerning the “fullness of the faith” cannot be examined on the grounds of mutually agreed rationality. Such a reality (fullness) transcends rationality. More than this, the reality that is Orthodoxy, particularly as a “way of life,” does not function under the rubrics of a mutually-agreed rationality. Thus, how Orthodoxy understands God, how it reads the Scriptures, how it regulates its life and communicates the gospel (indeed the very gospel that it preaches) are not items for rational consideration. Here the kinship with postmodern thought is most apparent.

The understanding and knowledge of God, the reading of Scripture and such things cannot be seen or known from the outside. There is no adequate description for the nature of this life. The New Testament has a name for this life: the Church. The Church is not an organization or a movement. Despite the institutional aspects of its life that can be described and analyzed – its life remains opaque to those outside it. History has ravaged the institutional aspects associated with the Church. It’s buildings have been sporadically closed, gutted and turned into profane or heterodox structures; its members have been tortured and decimated; its hierarchy has at times been martyred and at times wooed by political leaders who sought to use them. There have been saints, heroes, martyrs, scoundrels, thieves and betrayers – the whole mix of humanity. But the inner life of the Church abides. Nothing has happened that so disrupted Orthodoxy that it became something other than itself. Life in the monasteries of Mt. Athos is not unlike the life there a millennium before.

To clarify, when I use the word “objectivity” to describe Catholicism, I use it in a somewhat broader sense.  What I mean is no more and no less than that reality-and Reality-exist independent of our desires, delusions, prejudices, and preferences, and-with the use of our reason we can speak reliably of reality (and Reality).  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it:

34 The world, and man, attest that they contain within themselves neither their first principle nor their final end, but rather that they participate in Being itself, which alone is without origin or end. Thus, in different ways, man can come to know that there exists a reality which is the first cause and final end of all things, a reality “that everyone calls God”.10

36 “Our holy mother, the Church, holds and teaches that God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason.”11 Without this capacity, man would not be able to welcome God’s revelation. Man has this capacity because he is created “in the image of God”.12

39 In defending the ability of human reason to know God, the Church is expressing her confidence in the possibility of speaking about him to all men and with all men, and therefore of dialogue with other religions, with philosophy and science, as well as with unbelievers and atheists.

The First Vatican Council went so far as to quite literally anathematize those who denied the capability of reason to know God.  Of course, the Church also recognizes that reason is limited.  Again, the Catechism:

37 In the historical conditions in which he finds himself, however, man experiences many difficulties in coming to know God by the light of reason alone:

Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation. the human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful.13

38 This is why man stands in need of being enlightened by God’s revelation, not only about those things that exceed his understanding, but also “about those religious and moral truths which of themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason, so that even in the present condition of the human race, they can be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error”.14


35 Man’s faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God. But for man to be able to enter into real intimacy with him, God willed both to reveal himself to man, and to give him the grace of being able to welcome this revelation in faith.(so) the proofs of God’s existence, however, can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason.

Reason may point us toward the existence of that reality that “everyone calls God” but that reality is a Great Mystery (hat tip to Fr. Kimel for his fine summary of Aquinas on this point).  Actually, as Catholics we believe that reason can go a tad further; by it we can know that God is personal.  In the words of Peter Kreeft:

How much does this argument prove? Not all that the Christian means by God, of course—no argument can do that. But it proves a pretty thick slice of God: some designing intelligence great enough to account for all the design in the universe and the human mind.

And also Matthew Levering:

BRANDON: Many people dismiss proofs like these because they attempt to prove only a thin slice of God, the God of “classical theism” or the so-called “God of the philosophers.” But do some of the arguments prove more?

DR. LEVERING: To know rationally ‘that God is’—namely that an infinite cause and source of all things exists, that sheer infinite To Be (something we cannot conceive) is at the root of everything finite—is to know the ‘God of the philosophers’. This God is testified to in Scripture both in Wisdom 13 and Romans 1. In this sense, the ‘God of the philosophers’ is biblically attested. There is nothing wrong with knowing even a very little about God. It is actually quite exciting. So I wouldn’t say that the demonstrations reach only a ‘thin slice of God’. They reach the living God, since if there were a ‘God’ who is not infinite To Be (pure, unrestricted, simple actuality), such a ‘God’ would merely be another finite thing in the cosmos or multiverse of finite things.

The arguments do not establish a personal relationship between us and God, and so in this regard they are tantalizing but far from enough. If we knew that God existed but this God never reached out to us, never personally acted so as to make himself intimately known, we could only be in a state of deep frustration.

Fortunately, there is no reason to think that the ‘God of the philosophers’ is not also the living God who has revealed himself as supreme love and supreme mercy.

Thin slice or thick slice, reason is not impotent.  Still, as Dr. Levering points out, knowing that a personal God exists and knowing God are two quite different things.  Moreover, the Catechism is not at all shy in recognizing the limited (e.g. fallen) condition of reason.  It is an ugly truth that the human is not a creature ruled by reason.  Our reason is fragile and fickle, as John Gray has put it, we are “only ever partly and intermittently rational.”  There are plenty of articles online these days (from secular sources, such as BigThink and that remind us at every turn how our emotions and “lizard brain” have a way of countermanding our reason.  This is not to diminish the significance of reason (I quite agree with Steven Pinker on this point-we ), it is merely to note that we are not as reasonable as we fancy ourselves.  To be human is to be a “frustrated rational animal,” and knowing that should make us a little humble.

Anyway, this excursus leads me back to the points Fr. Freeman has made.  Orthodoxy understands quite well the limits of human reason, and, rather than putting emphasis on logic and rational proofs, focuses on actually knowing God, in what we typically call an “experiential manner.”  This experience is cultivated by a set of practices, indeed by an entire Way of life, and this indeed transcends “mutual rationality.”  It is true that we cannot “stand outside” God and subject Him to rational analysis.  Still, I would hesitate to overdraw the distinction.  Catholicism, no less than Orthodoxy (and Calvinism for that matter), recognizes the limits of human reason, as the above passages show.

Moreover, the Catholic Church agrees that truly knowing God demands the fullness of faith, and that faith is a Way of life, demanding a person’s whole being.  For Catholicism, no less than for Orthodoxy, faith is a set of practices.  The first section of the Catechism (belief) is inseparable from those that follow.  One would do well to bear in mind Sarah Coakley’s observation that

everything depends on how ‘practices’ and their attendant meaning-systems unfold through a sustained narrative of commitment.

Catholicism recognizes that “practices” and “reason” are mutually implicative (Orthodoxy, of course, does as well, but its emphasis is considerably different).  Again, the Catechism:

1692 The Symbol of the faith confesses the greatness of God’s gifts to man in his work of creation, and even more in redemption and sanctification. What faith confesses, the sacraments communicate: by the sacraments of rebirth, Christians have become “children of God,”2 “partakers of the divine nature.”3 Coming to see in the faith their new dignity, Christians are called to lead henceforth a life “worthy of the gospel of Christ.”4 They are made capable of doing so by the grace of Christ and the gifts of his Spirit, which they receive through the sacraments and through prayer.

1693 Christ Jesus always did what was pleasing to the Father,5 and always lived in perfect communion with him. Likewise Christ’s disciples are invited to live in the sight of the Father “who sees in secret,”6 in order to become “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”7

1694 Incorporated into Christ by Baptism, Christians are “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” and so participate in the life of the Risen Lord.8 Following Christ and united with him,9 Christians can strive to be “imitators of God as beloved children, and walk in love”10 by conforming their thoughts, words and actions to the “mind . . . which is yours in Christ Jesus,”11 and by following his example.12

1695 “Justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God,”13 “sanctified . . . [and] called to be saints,”14 Christians have become the temple of the Holy Spirit.15 This “Spirit of the Son” teaches them to pray to the Father16 and, having become their life, prompts them to act so as to bear “the fruit of the Spirit”17 by charity in action. Healing the wounds of sin, the Holy Spirit renews us interiorly through a spiritual transformation.18 He enlightens and strengthens us to live as “children of light” through “all that is good and right and true.”19

1696 The way of Christ “leads to life”; a contrary way “leads to destruction.” The Gospel parable of the two ways remains ever present in the catechesis of the Church; it shows the importance of moral decisions for our salvation: “There are two ways, the one of life, the other of death; but between the two, there is a great difference.”21

What, then, of the suggestion that there is convergence here with postmodernism?  Well there is, but it is overdrawn.  You see, even in Eastern Orthodoxy the nature of the faith is ultimately concerned with objectivity: in entering into union with Christ one is encountering a Reality beyond oneself.  Interestingly, several Orthodox writers believe there are parallels between science and the spiritual path.  Lazar Puhalo, for instance, considers theology and modern physics as comparable empirical processes.  Noting that Orthodox theology is “based upon existential and empirical foundations,” he states:

The two kinds of theoria…pertain to the ascertaining of dogma…and the more ordinary kind which is inate in the processes of modern physics…In the Orthodox context, theoria presupposes the action of divine grace.  In physics, the process is experimental, and theoria is informed contemplation of the results of experiments.  Its guidelines are quantum and relativity theory.  In Orthodoxy, the process is experiential…Its guidelines are Scripture and the sacred tradition of the faith.

Fr. George Metallinos has written something similar:

Supernatural-theological knowledge is understood Orthodoxically as “pathos” or an experiencing; as a participation and communion with the transcendental personal Truth, and not as a mere lesson. Thus, the Christian faith is not a theoretical (abstract) acceptance of “metaphysical” truths, but is rather an empirical communion with the Uncreated God, through one’s spiritual labours.

In short, what Orthodoxy is proposing-an “empirical” spiritual path if you will-is as far from postmodern as one could get.  One is encountering another Reality, and only by immersion in a tradition.  Only by yielding to something bigger than ourselves can one walk the experiential path.  And for the Christian, that “yielding to something bigger than oneself” means being inducted into the Church.  The bottom line is clear: Catholic or Orthodox, reason or experience, Classical Christianity is all about objectivity.

Firmly committed to the defense of objectivity as being at the core of the Christian faith, let me turn back to McLaren and Held Evans.  It is quite true, of course, that where one “stands” in life will affect one’s insights and perceptions.  No argument from this corner.  Still, the impact of this is overdrawn by progressive Christians.  For one, basic Christian orthodoxy is not reducible to “white-male experience.”  In the words of Avery Dulles:

A second line of objection, very widespread in our time, may be called relativism. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of “the dictatorship of relativism” in a homily delivered on the day he entered the conclave in April 2005. Relativism takes two forms: historical and cultural.

Historical relativism was one of the driving forces behind the Modernist movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. Alfred Loisy, one of the leaders of that movement, held that propositions are always conditioned by the circumstances in which they are uttered. When first uttered, he granted, they were true because they corresponded to the religious consciousness of the time. But at the price of becoming false, they must submit to revision. The creeds and dogmatic definitions, Loisy contended, must be continually updated and transformed to keep pace with human progress and to meet the emergent needs of thought and knowledge.

Loisy and his associates were quite properly condemned by Church authorities, but their position contained a grain of truth. The dogmatic formulations of the Church, we may concede, bear the signature of the age in which they are composed.

To communicate the revealed truth, the Church uses the concepts and language that are available in the culture. She has no other conceptual and linguistic tools for making herself understood. Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council therefore recognized that doctrine, while remaining certain and unchangeable in itself, “has to be explored and presented in a way that is demanded by our times. One thing is the deposit of faith, which consists of the truths contained in sacred doctrine; another thing is the manner of presentation, always however with the same meaning and signification.” In adding this last phrase, the pope made it clear that he was not accepting the idea that truth changes with the times.

The other form of relativism, cultural relativism, claims that what we perceive as truth is inevitably a function of our own culture. Thus, for example, the Protestant philosopher of religion Ernst Troeltsch, before his death in 1923, came to the conclusion that although God’s revelation in Christ was final and unconditional for Westerners, it was possible for people in other cultures to experience the divine in altogether different ways, which were valid for them. Each religion can therefore have its own system of dogmas, reflecting the adherents’ own religious experience. The Christian dogmas, valid though they be for Christians, are not for export to other cultural spheres.

To relativism in both its forms we must reply that any dogmatic assertion” for example, the doctrine that God is tripersonal or that the Second Person of the Trinity became man for the sake of our redemption” is objectively either true or false. It cannot be true for the people of one culture and false for those of another. Truth by its nature is universal and permanent. If a statement is true at any time and place, it must be true always and everywhere. This principle of universalism holds for all truth, whether scientific, historical, metaphysical, or religious.

Cultural factors can, of course, color people’s perception of the truth or prevent them from recognizing what others can see. Some might be incapable of recognizing that the earth is round, but such difficulties do not affect the truth of the statement. So likewise, some might be wedded to an idea of God that would exclude the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. But cultural limitations are not insuperable, and they do not affect the truth of the doctrine that they cloak. Every culture can enrich and purify itself by learning to appreciate the truths and values carried in other cultures.

The points Cardinal Dulles makes can equally be applied to gender, socioeconomic status, etc.  The core propositions that underwrite Christian orthodoxy are either objectively true or not, but they cannot simply be dismissed as relative to one’s identity-perception.  A parallel from science may help.  Very few people (except a handful of postmodernists and feminists) charge that the truths discovered by science are culturally relative.  And through science, as Fr. White noted in the video in my previous post, we have learned that there is a deep, objective, rationality to nature.  While these claims can-and likely will-be revised with new information, perhaps incorporated into more complete theories (as Newton was subsumed under Einstein), their truth stands on its own, apart from one’s perception.  Science, at its best, transcends such boundaries.  Creedal Christianity is like science in this regard as well.

Then, of course, there is the fact that Christianity is inescapably particular.  The whole scandal of particularity thing is a tough pill to swallow.  I get that.  But such is the nature of reality.  To be human is to be bound by space and time.  Our Scriptures are particular texts.  Different perspectives, indeed, will draw different things from the texts.  But this does not make the text infinitely malleable, as postmodernism comes dangerously close to implying.  Actually, the explosion of “contextual theologies” tears the carpet out from under its own feet.  The very notion of “contextual theology” implies that there is an objective Revelation that can be perceived from different angles and vantage points.  Once again, objectivity worms its way back into the picture.

The point of this lengthy screed is that McLaren’s blustering about “gods of the establishment” and rejecting certain “conceptions” ultimately means very little, especially to Catholics.  To be Christian is to acknowledge belief in a Creator, to believe that a tribe of desert nomads had an intimate relationship with that Creator, and that that Creator became incarnate in a particular person born within that tribe of desert nomads.  To be a Christian means to accept some things, such as these, as givens, and not as fodder for endless “deconstruction.”  McLaren raises some interesting points, I readily grant that, but his statement above essentially admits that nothing is safe from deconstruction.  Even insisting on using Jesus as an epistemological standard, as McLaren has done elsewhere, cannot redeem this approach, for Jesus Himself becomes unintelligible if subject to endless deconstruction.

In fairness, I can’t be too hard on McLaren.  Consider the following:

 Universalism believes that God is the Creator, the Source, of all that is. Consider the huge size and scope of creation-a universe of incredible vastness, with innumerable galaxies, solar systems, planets. Quantum mechanics suggests increasingly there are many dimensions of the universe-indeed there could be many universes existing within reality (the “multiverse“). This is on top of however many spiritual realms may exist, and however many planets may have intelligent life. Our own planet has been here for billions of years-there have been hundreds cultures, billions upon billions of people have walked, lived and died during the relatively brief history of human civilization. Bottom line: Reality is huge, humanity just as broad.

Why is this relevant? Allow me to quote Jabez Sunderland, a classical Unitarian preacher, in his article The Divine Incarnation: “If God is to incarnate himself, will it be likely to take place in manner different from anything else in nature—in a corner, in some one special age, in some single special land, in a little special town in that land, in some one human being born in an unusual and exceptional way? Is that according to the manner of God’s great works and ways? I think we must say that at least the presumption is against an incarnation in such a special, limited, and unnatural manner.” Liberal Universalists, such as myself, cannot accept the notion that God would reveal Himself in such a limited manner-signing a Covenant exclusively with one culture, incarnating in one man. The limitations of human culture are problematic enough, but it strikes us as odd that the Creator of all Reality, the Source of All Being, would choose such a limited fashion to approach humanity. This is tied into our belief in the inherent value of all people. If God revealed Himself exclusively in one religion or culture, than the rest of humanity (most of human history) has essentially served as nothing more than scenic backdrop (the same for the universe itself). If God was working through the Jews does this mean the millions of people who lived in the East, the Native Americans, the Eskimos, were completely out of the divine loop? What meaning do they have? Religion is a very binding animal-in any form it is bound by cultural limitations, local customs and myths. The notion that the Sacred could be limited to one tradition-or the Spirit would voluntarily limit divine revelation-does not make sense to the Universalist.

In case you haven’t guessed, I wrote those words, back in 2009.  Since writing them, however, I have come to understand that the “Universalism” I was espousing back then is an entirely vacuous abstraction, a generic spirituality almost entirely devoid of substantive content (and what substantive content there was I had borrowed from Christianity).  Once I delved into orthodox Christianity I figured out that it actually makes more sense for a “universal God” to deal with reality, which is inescapably particular, in a particular way.  A true incarnation, as Thomas Oden has pointed out, demands acceptance of true human limitations:

No individual person experiences everything that all human individuals experience.  To say that Jesus shared our humanity does not imply that he experienced every possible human experience…neither could anyone else, if they were truly human, sharing in our human condition.  Such a thought is absurd, and would be nothing like our own temporally placed humanity.  For to be human is to be limited in time and space.

And, as C.S. Lewis put it:

if a thing is to begin at all, it must begin at a particular time and place; and any time and place raises the question ‘Why just then and just there?

The point is this: there is nothing inherently illogical about particularity in religion.  Offensive to our postmodern sensibilities, perhaps, but nothing illogical.  In any case, such particularity by no means renders Christianity “impervious to new evidence.”  Christianity began as a small movement involving a small group of people in Palestine, but it has since circled the globe, encompassing people from “every tribe and tongue,” baptizing a myriad of cultures along the way.  Properly understood, classical Christian theology has no problem with scientific discoveries (again see Fr. White’s talk in the previous video).  Classical Christian theology is a jumping off point, not a limitation.  One more time, the Catechism:

158 “Faith seeks understanding“:33 it is intrinsic to faith that a believer desires to know better the One in whom he has put his faith, and to understand better what He has revealed; a more penetrating knowledge will in turn call forth a greater faith, increasingly set afire by love. The grace of faith opens “the eyes of your hearts”34 to a lively understanding of the contents of Revelation: that is, of the totality of God’s plan and the mysteries of faith, of their connection with each other and with Christ, the center of the revealed mystery. “The same Holy Spirit constantly perfects faith by his gifts, so that Revelation may be more and more profoundly understood.”35 In the words of St. Augustine, “I believe, in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe.”36

159 Faith and science: “Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.”37 “Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.”38

To quote George Weigel:

Throughout the Western Catholic world, Evangelical Catholicism inspires genuine creativity in the intellectual life. And it does so in no small part because the faith is understood from the outset as a precious, revealed gift to be appreciated through the arts of reason, rather than an object to be dissected according to postmodern canons of skepticism and incoherence.

In short, McLaren can cool it with his bluster that the “establishment gods” are falling one by one as new “evidence” rolls in. Similarly, Richard Beck can stop insisting that we need a “post-Cartesian theology“-actually our pre-Cartesian metaphysics can absorb “new evidence” from psychology and neuroscience just fine.  My point is this: if one sees Christian revelation as a revealed gift, as an objective given, one also sees it as the beginning of intellectual growth, a springboard for human flourishing, a seed from which a mighty tree will grow, a tree upon which the good, the true and the beautiful in all discoveries, insights and perspectives from all cultures, can find an abode.

You see, in the last analysis, Catholicism and progressive Christianity are simply inimical to each other. I end up with a simple plea: don’t follow the facile and lazy ways of progressive Christianity.  Challenge yourself instead with the depth and demands of Catholicism.  Reality is a heck of a lot more interesting when you approach it on its own terms.

Abbey 2016

I have somewhat less to report on my retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee this year than in years past (2013 and 2015-apparently I didn’t write one in 2014).  It was, as always a peaceful few days.  My takeaways are as follows:

#1: A monk-priest (actually the former abbot of the monastery) gave a talk on the first night, expounding on a verse from the Song of Songs.  Regretfully, I cannot remember the verse in question (I didn’t have a notepad with me at the time), but it concerned the desire that God has for Israel, and Israel’s desire for God.  Fr. John reminded us that God does not need us, but that he wants us, and went to note that the denizens of the Abbey were in very different places spiritually.  This, he observed, made things “interesting.”  He went on to note that no one has a simple, straight, upward journey towards God, but our spiritual lives are always in flux, moving up and down, forward and backward at any given time.

#2: I successfully made it to Vigils (2:25 AM!) on Saturday morning, though my plans return for Lauds (6 AM) were a bust.  During a meeting with one of the monks who functions as my de facto spiritual director the next afternoon (Fr. Jerome) I mentioned this, and Fr. Jerome reminded me that the monastic schedule only works if you retire early (as in no later than 8-I had been up until almost 11 on Friday night).  In any case, the ‘night watch’ reading was from Tobit, and was rather disorienting, as it involved a demon and magical potions to ward said demon away.  I must confess, that part of the way through the reading I found myself thinking “I got up for this?”

I brought this up to Fr. Jerome, who reminded me of other things that appear in the Book of Tobit (bird excrement in the eyes) and how he had sardonically brought that story up to an ophthalmologist.  “You have to have a sense of humor at times with Scripture,” he explained, also noting that the deuterocanonical books can be quite “fun.”

#3: Prior to going to Vigils I spent a few minutes in the chapel at the retreat house, alternating my gaze between the tabernacle and a large icon of the Christ of Sinai on the wall (I have noted in the past that I am drawn more towards than icons than Eucharistic Adoration).  At the time I was in chapel (~ 10 PM), sitting in the very front, was a young man who I recognized as a seminarian from the Diocese of Rochester.  He was clearly deep intro prayer, and I would be willing to bet he never noticed me sitting in the back.  As someone who has constantly struggled with praying, I was struck-momentarily-by (of all things!) envy.  Envy that prayer, apparently, came so easily to someone else, while for me it was and is a great struggle.

#4: As always, I read voraciously while on retreat.  This time I happened to be reading Prayer and Common Sense, by the wonderful Jesuit writer-and Rochester native-Thomas H. Green (I have mentioned in the past how influential When the Well Runs Dry has been for me).  In this book, Fr. Green noted how-early in seminary-the disciplines of prayer appeared to come so easily for some of his classmates, while for him it was a constant struggle.  As time went on, however, and a number of the “star athletes” dropped out, Fr. Green learned that it is not so easy to measure the “success” of another’s prayer life.  As he put it in When the Well Runs Dry:

My reflections were labored and the labor produced very little water of devotion.  Worse still, as I looked around me the others seemed to have discovered some inner spring of ecstasy which was totally alien to me.  Worst of all, one of the novices (now a fine priest and a good friend) always seemed to be writing down some profound insight or feeling in his journal.  His apparent success made me feel all the more wretched.  I hated him and all the rest of him!  What had they found that was forever out of my reach?

As I was to learn years later, most of them hadn’t found anything.  They were thinking the same thoughts I was and to them I looked the one who had found the secrete of it all!  I have told this story many times over the years, and the type of laughter it evoked made clear that my hearers knew from their own experience what I was talking about.  The happy part of the story is that they also knew the sequel: if we persevere in this strange venture, the day finally comes when we discover for ourselves what it is all about.

I suspect Providence may have guide that one into my hands.

#5: On Saturday night, I attended a talk by another former abbot (who was also a student of Thomas Merton and a good friend of Henri Nouwen), Fr. John Eudes Bamberger.  Reflecting on Trinity Sunday, he asked us “What is a person?”  Fr. John reminded us that scientific reductionism always fails when it comes to a person, there is always more to be said-or, more appropriately, something that must be left unsaid, because it cannot be said.  There are infinite depths in every person.

If it isn’t already clear, everything here fits together: desire for God, the complexity and depth of persons, the disorienting nature of spirituality, the inherent unevenness in our journey.  I needed each of these reminders this weekend.  Though I still live in a spiritual desert, knowing that at least the desire is there-and that said desire can be kindled-is comforting.  I was reminded to avoid envy at the apparent spiritual progress of others, to avoid taking things too seriously (being Catholic is a joy).

All in all…I’d say it was a good, “productive” (wrong word I know) weekend.  Deo gratias.


One more bonus.  I spent some time reading Co-Workers of the Truth: Meditations for Every Day of the Year, a wonderful collection of writings from the Pope Emeritus.  Here is just a small sample to whet your appetite.  Enjoy!

  • It is a thoroughly Christian impulse to combat suffering and injustice in the world.  But to imagine that men can construct a world without them by means of social reform, and the desire to do so here and now, is an error, a deep misunderstanding of human nature. For suffering does not come into the world solely because of the inequality of possessions and power.  Nor is it just a burden from which men should free themselves.  Anyone who wishes to do that must escape into the distorted world of narcotics in order thus to destroy himself and find himself in conflict with reality.  It is only by enduring himself, by freeing himself through suffering from the tyranny of egoism, that man finds himself, that he finds his truth, his joy, his happiness.  He will be all the happier the more ready he is to take upon himself the abysses of existence with all their misery.  The measure of one’s capacity for happiness depends on the measure of the premiums he has paid, on the measure of one’s readiness to accept the full passion of being human.  The crisis of our age is made very real by the fact that we would like to flee from it; that people mislead us into thinking that one can be human without overcoming oneself, without the suffering of renunciation and the hardship of self-control; that people mislead us by claiming that there is no need for the difficulty of remaining true to what one has undertaken and the patient endurance of the tension between what one ought to be and what one actually is.  An individual who has been freed from all effort and led into the fool’s paradise of his dreams loses what is most essential, himself.  There is, in fact, no other way in which one can be saved than by the Cross.  All offers that promise a less costly will founder, will prove to be false.  The hope of Christianity, the outlook of faith, ultimately rests quite simply on the fact that faith tells the truth.  The outlook of faith is the outlook of the truth that may be obscured and trampled upon, but can never perish.
  • The Enlightenment was sated with demands for morality.  It sought to reduce religion to morality.  But morality was even further reduced-this time to utilitarianism, to the concept of human well-being.  Morality was the measure of the useful, and immorality, accordingly, of the foolish…Freedom from utilitarianism can be grounded and can endure only when there is something over and above that which derives from the possessions and property of mankind, when there is the higher ownership and inalienable claim of the Godhead.
  • In the inflation that characterizes language in our day, expressions such as “We are all brothers!” have become increasingly popular.  It is considered fashionable to begin with the most comprehensive generality.  Early Christianity was more sparing in its use of such fine phrases.  It was not that the early Christians were wanting in universalism, but they plainly believed that such facile generalities were more probably an expression of self-deception than of reality.  They knew that being human is not just a statistical actuality into which one is born full-fledged, but that it includes as well the constantly recurring imperative to become human.  Consequently, they knew also that brotherhood is a duty that awaits fulfillment.  One who does not at first recognize and accept the other, the stranger, the laborer, as brother, but only as the stranger, the other, is called to discover the brother he has ignored and so to let what had been merely a possibility become a reality.  He is likewise committed by his brotherhood to open the eyes of the other, who is not yet aware of this mystical interpersonal relationship, and so to make brotherhood universal; to form, by the creative power of love, a close personal relationship that will begin, not yet as an interpersonal relationship, but as the response to a divine call.  Human realities cannot exist without humans, without the voluntary engagement of their hearts and minds.
  • The faith of simple souls merits the respect, the reverence of the preacher, who has no right simply to pit his intellectual superiority against a faith which has remained simple and which, by its simple and intuitive comprehension of the Faith as a whole, can, in some cases, understand the essence of that Faith more profoundly than is possible for a reflective faith that is fragmented by division into systems and theories.
  • Truth, by which I mean the simple, humble, patient truth of daily life, is the foundation of all the other virtues.  I am not speaking here about truth in matters of great importance, such as God, the world, and human beings, but about truth in those matters of small importance than impinge on our daily lives-but the two are not to be separated. And one who has no qualms about treading ruthlessly on the truth in small matters cannot claim to be a guarantor of the truth in greater matters.  Let us now apply this to the present.  What is our attitude to truth?  How does each of us relate to truth day after day?  Do I always speak the truth?  Have I the courage to adhere to it even when it is uncomfortable, when it disturbs my peace, when it leads to irritation or anger?  For we cannot deny that truth is often shameful.  Truth is disagreeable and can be the cause of much unpleasantness.  Truth so often interferes with what we deem useful or necessary and is so easily pushed aside.  One seems to lose so little thereby, and to gain so much.  But if we act and speak in such a way-how can we ever really trust one another?  Where truth is not present, the foundation of society is ripped from under us.  In fact, this apparently useless virtue is, in reality, the foundational virtue of society.
  • The Ascension of Christ speaks to us of greatness.  It immunizes us against the false moralism that regards mankind as beneath contempt.  It teaches us reverence and restores to us the joy of being human.  When we reflect on all this, the thought automatically presents itself that the Ascension of Christ is the canonization of a world view that has become unpopular.  It is concerned with the quality of being human, not with the strata of the universe.  It is concerned with God and the human race, with the essential worth of the human being, not with the stars in their place.  This insight should not tempt us, however, to Christianity as being entirely dissociated with the world or to turn faith into a matter of sentiment.  Beyond a doubt there exists a proper and meaningful relationship between faith and the whole created world, to which, incidentally, the discarded view of the world can be a guide.

Getting Off the Circle

The other day I was flipping through my iPod and came across a song I hadn’t heard in awhile, a song which is probably not particularly well known (I have several of those in my database: Circles, by the country group Sawyer Brown.  The refrain of the song is as follows:

I thank God for circles
For you for me for family and friends
I thank God for circles
May they go ’round and ’round and never have to end

Now, this song is not (particularly at least) concerned with a cyclical concept of time.  We have forgotten, today, that not all cultures understand the concept of time in the same way.  The atheist philosopher John N. Gray, one of my favorite authors, puts it thusly:

The modern belief in the possibility of gradual improvement goes with a view of history quite different from that of the ancient world. In Greece and Rome, India and China, for example, history was understood in cyclical terms as the rise and fall of civilisations. Advances in ethics and politics were real and worth fighting for, but they would always be lost in the course of a few generations since – while knowledge may increase over time – human beings remain much the same.

Gray contends (correctly in my view) that our perception of time-as history-owes an enormous debt to the Judeo-Christian tradition.  It was the Jews, a ragtag band of desert nomads, that introduced a new perception of history into our world, an earth-shaking change (the influence of that ragtag band of nomads is far out of proportion to the tiny size of that group).  As a reviewer of Thomas Cahill’s classic book on this subject has put it:

The Gifts of the Jews reveals the critical change that made western civilization possible. Within the matrix of ancient religions and philosophies, life was seen as part of an endless cycle of birth and death; time was like a wheel, spinning ceaselessly. Yet somehow, the ancient Jews began to see time differently. For them, time had a beginning and an end; it was a narrative, whose triumphant conclusion would come in the future. From this insight came a new conception of men and women as individuals with unique destinies–a conception that would inform the Declaration of Independence–and our hopeful belief in progress and the sense that tomorrow can be better than today. As Thomas Cahill narrates this momentous shift, he also explains the real significance of such Biblical figures as Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the Pharaoh, Joshua, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.

So, the Jewish people forever changed our perception of history and time.  Yet, the cyclical view of time-shared by the ancient Greeks and most Eastern religions in some form-is not entirely wrong, nor is foreign to Scripture.  A glimmer of the “eternal recurrence” appears in Ecclesiastes 1:9:

What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.

How can these two views-the endless “closed” cycle of the world and the promise of a triumphant future-possibly fit together?  Peter Kreeft has given us the clue:

The most ineradicable reason Solomon gives for vanity is the very nature of time itself as cyclic.  And the four great divine deeds in the Bible all break the cycle and introduce something radically new, something from without, outside time itself, something from eternity rather than from the past, therefore something radically new: Creation, Incarnation, Resurrection and Last Judgment.  Here is something new under the sun because it comes from the beyond the sun.  Here are meaning and hope, though terror too.  Here is true transcendence.

The cyclical nature of time is completely accurate.  Here, “under the sun,” that is indeed the way the world works.  If there is ever to be a break in the cycle it will require an intervention from outside.  To see history as imbued with significance demands belief in transcendence (Gray has had a field day pointing this out in many of his books).

Perhaps we could say a bit more.  Consider what the Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement says on Buddhism, contrasting it with Christianity:

We agree with the Buddhists that “this world,” as the Gospel says, lies in evil. But for Buddhists, the world is nothing more than that. It consists of transitory aggregates of matter, which are constantly being transformed and disappear, only to give birth to new aggregates, which are no less transitory. Ignorance consists in considering as substantial that which is merely apparent. For us Orthodox, under the veil of illusion which we are indeed called to remove, God’s creation has substance. It is good, good precisely because of its diversity. This world does not exhaust the reality of God’s world.

I never tire of saying that Buddhism is absolutely, 100% correct-up to a point.  It understands the nature of the world quite well.  The Buddha had the prescience to realize that neither the world, nor human beings, possess any innate capacity for transcendence.  There is transcendence of a sort (Nirvana), but this form of transcendence ultimately amounts to leaving this transitory world-and the notion of a “self”-behind.  Christianity understands this matter differently.  For the Buddhist, the world is simply that which is “under the sun”-there is no sense of a God who abides beyond the sun.  Again, not quite right, for there is Nirvana, but Nirvana does not intervene in the world below the sun.

For the Christian, the One who abides beyond the transitory and cyclical world under the sun, has descended among us, giving us a hope we could never have if all we had was the world under the sun.  Father Freeman writes helpfully on this:

The nature of our secularized worldview is to take all that we see as a presentation of reality and truth. The daily world as we experience it is considered to be the very definition of reality. This is the natural world. Any other perception or presentation of reality is thus supernatural or something other than natural. For those who accept this definition, the onus is on those who suggest that reality is in anyway different than the daily perception of the modern secularized world. To be a “sceptic” is thus not to question everything, but to question everything other than what is perceived as normal and natural.

The Scriptures suggest a different perspective: “for the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31). The world in which we live is not “solid” in the sense of permanence – it is constantly changing and “passing away.”

The same can be said even of our own egos. They vary somewhat from day to day, often tossed about by fears and anxieties, shifting themselves as they encounter the trials of existence.

The Gospel of Christ speaks of a reality that is permanent and of an existence that has something of the same reality.

Our true life – our authentic existence – is not to be found among “the things on the earth.” Our life is something that will appear with Christ when He appears. Of course, this does not restrict our true life to a manifestation at the Second Coming. The Christ who is coming, is also the Christ who is even now “in our midst.” Thus, being in Christ is also the path to our own true existence.

Speaking on the application of 1 Corinthians 7:31, Luke Timothy Johnson writes:

Christians are neither to flee the world nor to construct alternative social structures, and for the same reason: the form of this world is always passing away.

Such is the nature of life below the sun.  This world is transience, impermanence, cyclical.  If there is to be history, if there is to be a future beyond our, beyond the death of our civilization, beyond the death of our sun, beyond the inevitable death of the universe itself, that hope, and that future, will come from beyond.  It must, it simply cannot come from the world itself.  As I have written before, we are not innately immortal, there is no eternal life “within us.”  Our hope comes from beyond.

Judaism forever changed history by introducing that the idea that (to paraphrase Bonhoeffer) the Beyond had entered into our Midst and pointed us in a particular direction.  Christianity went further, asserting that this future has been, is being, and yet will be, fulfilled.  We continue to make our daily trek around the circle of life, laboring here under the sun, but with the quiet confidence that something-or rather Someone-has come amongst from beyond the sun.  Even today, it is possible to get off the circle.