Science and a Meta-narrative

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than rehash the argument here, suffice it to say Krauss pointed out that the astrobiology relied upon by Metaxas was out of date, and he also, quite deftly, poked a gaping hole in the Anthropic argument.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Dennett: Let’s talk about transcendent…

Wright: Uh-oh.

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

Wright: Sort of a Platonic thing…

Daniel Dennett: Yes yes a sort of Platonism…

Wright: We happened upon it’s truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) Why believe then?

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

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

The American Religious Experiment

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

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

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

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

Father Stephen Freeman has brilliantly described how this happened:

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

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

David Bentley Hart, in his essay Religion and America writes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Divine Revelations?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

NOTES:

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

Great minds…

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

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

I may be less insane than I thought!

A Wise Thought from C.S. Lewis

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

I hear you sir…I hear you.

Perennial Philosophy & Traditionalism

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

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

I am NOT a Proponent of the Traditionalist School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Comments

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

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

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

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

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

A sage observation if there ever was any.

Notes:

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

Liberal Church, Conservative Church

After a lengthy hiatus I am delighted to say that I am still alive and have been struck with the necessary inspiration to write (both of these being necessary requirements).  On a personal note my hiatus was due to the fact that I was studying for the bar exam through the end of July; taking the exam the 29th & 30th; and in recovery thereafter.  I am also starting my first legal job in a week, which is likely to limit the number of posts in the future.  All that said, at least for the moment, I’m back!

I recently read two articles on the Vatican’s “war” against American nuns.  The first concerns Fordham theologian Elizabeth Johnson; the second discusses Johnson along with the broader problems surrounding LCWR.  The latter was written by Angela Bonavoglia, author of the book Good Catholic Girls.  I do not know Ms. Bonavoglia personally, but I am familiar with her book, as one of the chapters concerned Rev. Mary Ramerman and Spiritus Christi Church (a subject I am, of course, intimately familiar with).  In comparison to some other figures on the Catholic Left Bonavoglia speaks in a relatively measured tone, but I still found this article troubling in a few respects.  For instance:

  • Her quoting of Peter Steinfels is a bit disingenuous.  His quote about revising religion in light of female quality is provocative yes, but in its original context in A People Adrift it follows extremely well articulated concerns about feminist theology.  I have quoted it before but it bears repeating: “Today Catholic feminist theology remains fluid, amorphous, and unfixed. That is significant because it would be disingenuous to ignore the radical nature of some feminist theology and the difficulty of reconciling it with anything remotely continuous with Catholicism and maybe of Christianity, too. Much Catholic feminist thought is relatively uninterested in the whole question of differentiating what is compatible with Catholic Christianity from what is not, and at present under-equipped to do so. To many feminists, that question seems at the very least premature, if not a downright preemptive move to quash threatening ideas. Their energy has gone into exposing the feminism-adverse elements in Catholicism, not the Catholicism-adverse elements in feminism.”  Odd how Bonavoglia didn’t feel that part was worth including.
  • She is extremely dismissive of Sister Laurie Brink’s 2007 address to the LCWR, in which she [Brink] suggested that it might be time to move “beyond Christ.”  Bonavoglia calls this the “most frightening frontier in feminist theology” (ain’t that the truth!), but she ridicules the response of the ‘hierarchy’, which appears in its usual stock-villain guise as a collective patriarchial bully, responding with excruciating condescion.
  • Finally, she writes (with honesty) “Feminist theologians have re-envisioned God. They reject the one-time, one-place, men-only view of revelation.”

It might be worth pointing out that Catholicism does not hold to a men-only view of revelation (it would be quite the shock to St. Teresa of Avila, to say nothing of Our Lady).  However, it has often seemed to me that whatever catechesis most feminist theologians received evidently didn’t take the first time, and may prove fruitless the second time.  Moreover, the “one-time, one-place” line poses problems of its own.  It is a bit oversimplified, but like it or not the ‘scandal of particularity’ is a cornerstone of both Judaism and Christianity.  There is no “going beyond” Jesus.  The very point of Christianity is its affirmation that in him-this one particular man from a particular people in a particular time and place-the fullness of the Deity dwells bodily (Colossians 2:9).

This simply reiterates a longstanding concern I have with feminist theology and the broader enterprise of progressive Catholicism: What we are really seeing her is a quest for a different religion.  One could be concerned with progressive trendiness (one need only attend the annual Call-to-Action conference to see experimentalism gone awry), or its saccharine sentimentality (pardon the redundancy; its just my writing style).  I am, however, much more concerned with the movement’s obsession with openness.  Sister Brink’s open-mindedness is troubling.  More troubling still is Sister Nancy Schreck’s comment “We need every creative interpretation of looking of Jesus that we can get.”  Why does this trouble me so?

Before answering that, I’d like to quote C.S. Lewis:

The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles.

Incidentally it really is true that there is a Lewis quote for everything-I was rereading Mere Christianity not long ago and discovered that, just like me, Lewis considers determinism a self-fulfilling prophecy.  But that’s a subject for another day.  Back to business.  The point in the above quote is that endless “openness” is self-defeating; one eventually has to get the bottom of something.  Christianity asserts that in Jesus we have reached bottom (I realize that sounds bad but unfortunately it makes my point).  Brink’s assertion that to move beyond Jesus is to move into the “heart of God” is a stab into the very point of Christianity, which is that in Jesus the heart of God came out-bled-for us.

There’s another concern here though, and it has to do with the obsession with creativity.  The Easter Orthodox have long viewed Western theology with suspicion, because too often it seems like a neurotic dialectical exercise rather than a serious quest for God.  It is difficult to argue that point when discussing contemporary progressive theologians.  Progressive Catholic theology is ill at ease when it comes to the objectivity of revelation, and-it seems to me-cares little for questions of truth.  Their views contrast sharply when one considers that many traditional Catholic theologians considered their work circumscribed (to say the least).  For instance, the great Thomist theologian Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (I just read his Reality: A Synthesis of Thomist Thought and it is superb) wrote

The eternal notion of truth, conformity of though with reality, impels us to say: This displeases me and annoys me, but is nonetheless true. Still, human interests are so strong that Pilate’s question often reappears: What is truth?”

Similarly, Karl Adam wisely wrote

…there is that conflict between authority and human liberty which necessarily results from the Catholic doctrine of authority. This conflict may be seen whenever the human ego runs up against alien, rigid and inexorable facts, against laws and ordinances which seem to crib and confine the free movement of the mind.

More recently, Cardinal Avery Dulles (love him or loathe him the man had a well deserved reputation for intellectual honesty, measured judgment, and charity) wrote piercingly that

The mind is not given to us for the purpose of self-assertion. As an organ of truth, it is intended to conform itself to what is real.

What bothers me, more than anything in progressive Catholic theology-feminist or otherwise-is that what was once understood as a commonsensical limitation has been all but obliterated; indeed as Steinfels noted and the articles illustrate, any effort on the part of the Magisterium (the “hierarchy”) to remind theologians of this is greeted with howls that the Inquisition has been revived.  Yet, by removing this fundamental limitation theology does become a free-floating dialectical exercise, that rebels against the entire tradition which it claims to represent and in doing so saws off the branch on which it sits.  Again-this is a call for a new religion.

Yet, lest I come across as a fire-breathing traditionalist, I am not much comforted by the response of most traditionalist Catholics.  If progressive Catholicism chooses to ignore questions of Truth, traditionalism uses the idea of Truth as a weapon.  It is worth pointing out here that Cardinal Ratzinger, his rottweiler reputation notwithstanding, typically approached his work in a dispassionate and carefully reflective way.  No one who actually reads his books will mistake him as a fire-breathing ideologue.  One can be deeply committed to the truths of Catholicism; and still be compassionate, charitable, even (gasp!) tolerant or open-minded.  Indeed, to be true to Christianity one must be both.  Humility, however, too often takes a back seat to a reactionary viciousness that borders on slander.

A recent illustration of this is the uproar that surround Father Timothy Radcliffe’s 2014 address to the Divine Mercy Conference in Ireland.  One may read about it here, here, and here.  For those who have the time, the first half of Father Timothy’s address at the conference is here-the “protest” occurs between 5:40 and 7:10; later at 38:32 Fr. Timothy briefly alludes to the controversy.  I’ll turn to the actual question of homosexuality momentarily, but I feel compelled to say something in response to the ad nauseum repetition of the word dissent.  Where I think Father Timothy is coming from-as is, I think, Canadian Orthodox Archbishop Lazar Puhalo (who has reportedly been silenced by the OCA Synod of Bishops), and (I can say with certainty) myself-is not obstinate and flippant dissension.  It is a genuine struggle over what for us is a problematic teaching of the Church.  It would be impossible for me to enthusiastically defend the Church’s teaching on homosexuality; it is a teaching I struggle greatly in assenting to.

Incidentally, if one is curious, I think the matter of human sexual identity in general has not been subjected to anywhere near the degree of critical reflection it deserves.  I myself hold a position that is unlikely to make anyone happy-I believe that human sexuality is more complex and more fluid in general than most people are comfortable admitting.  This is not to say Freud was right when he argued all people are bisexual deep down, or that the Kinsey scale is an accurate barometer, but simply that the matter is less open and shut than most people would like (I have my own reasons for believing this).  I myself continue to support gay civil rights, but I must admit the continuing multiplication of alphabet soup identity labels in the LGBT community, as well as more open challenges to the “binary gender system”, have really troubled me.  I cannot bring myself to affirm vacous statements such as “it’s all about love” or “love knows no gender.”

More to the point, I agree with the Church that for someone to identify with their sexuality is an unhealthy reductionism; someone’s personhood is distinct from their sexuality whatever it may be.  For this reason, I have to admit that I was not much moved by a gay friend’s comment that Pope Francis is throwing him “scraps of human dignity” or that the Church challenges his “self-worth”.  I also agree with the tradition’s broader assertion that gender complementarity is deep-rooted, both in nature and in Gensis (the criticisms of gay theologians like Tobias Haller and Stephen Lovatt notwithstanding-such responses strike me as an almost desperate attempt to make the text say something other than what it clearly says).  For these reasons, among others, I cannot add my voice to the simplistic chorus of condemnation raised against the Church today.

And yet…and yet.  Traditional Catholic blogs and groups seem to have a certain antipathy for gays that I find more baffling than anything else.  Any debates on human sexuality it seems to me must abide by the “Moynihan Rule”: No one is entitled to their own facts.  It does seem to me that, in spite of the general gray nature of human sexuality, there is what James Alison calls a non-pathological minority variant in human nature that we commonly call “homosexuality”.  Admittedly this is known more by intuition than by hard science as yet.  Yet, it does seem to me, that if this does in fact prove to be true than the Church will be facing some questions.

Not questions over the sacrament of marriage-I hold the traditional line there.  But I do think there could be some openness to the Church adopting a more “open” stance on this issue.  Alison has suggested this is because if homosexuality really is a recurring variant in nature than the Church’s present teaching simply doesn’t address it.  Development of doctrine is akin to laws and sausages in that the process is better kept out of the public eye, and, regretfully, I concur with Ross Douthat that the Church has lost its present battle in the United States over the public policy aspects of this issue.  In doing so she missed her moment to faciliate a healthier public dialogue on human sexuality, and-I’d contend-set back the development that is necessary here.

In any case, setting aside my personal thoughts on human sexuality, Alison stands out in being the only theologian I know of who has applied traditional Catholic methodology (Thomism, natural law) to this question, and-above all-for being driven by a solid commitment to Truth.  Superficial and primarily secular language about “rights” and “equality” is of no value here.  The ultimate question, the only question of any real value, as Alison knows so well, is simply Is it true?  I myself-and probably Radcliffe and Puahlo though I cannot speak for them-are sympathetic to our gay brethren.  At the same time, however, our deepest commitment is to the truth, and as Karl Adam once pointed out the Church reckons in centuries and millenia.  This matter will not be resolved tomorrow.

A final thought.  Some traditionalists seem to be seeking an ideological purity on the part of anyone who speaks for the Church-no hesitation, no sympathy for dissenters, not a toe out of line is to be tolerated.  Aside from the fact that this seems to be revival of the Donatist heresy of old, I think this response fails to account for-well, for lack of a better way to put it, the humanness of human beings.  Anyone who reads Karl Adam’s Spirit of Catholicism will be struck by the great theologian’s unmistakable pastoral sensitivity and his grasp of the complexities of human psychology, which are inseparably entwined with his commitment to Catholic dogma.  Adam wrote

…the living man is very rarely the embodiment of an idea, that the conceptual world and the mentality of the individual are so multifarious and complicated, that he cannot be reduced to a single formula.  In other words the heretic, the Jew and the pagan seldom exist in a pure state.

This same sentiment has been echoed more recently by Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, who remarked in one of his books that all human beings are a mixture of believer and unbeliever.  Note, this is not to say that open and defiant dissenters should be allowed to speak for the Church; it is simply a reminder that human nature prevents many of us from being as “hardcore”, if you will, on matters of ideological purity as many traditionalists would like.  I suspect that there are many of us who humbly seek the Truth in charity, striving to remain loyal to the Church even when it causes us pain.

Such is the Kingdom of Heaven.

NOTES:

  • None of this is to deny that the Catholic Church has a genuine problem with patriarchy, or that some of the concerns raised by the LCWR or Sister Johnson are legitimate.  Many of their criticisms are legitimate, and I do think there is a place at the table for feminist theology, albeit one that is not founded on a complete rebellion against Catholicism.  However, their arguments strike me as too shallow to be of much help.  They do not seem to understand the “Sense of the Faithful” (the laity have a role to play-the Orthodox know this perhaps better than we do-but this does not simply translate into a democratic vote); and their “Hierarchy vs. the People” dichotomy is too simple.  More than a few lay Catholics stand far to the right of the Papacy-as numerous blogs illustrate.
  • In the interest of full disclosure have corresponded in the past-and periodically continue to do so-with both Fr. Timothy Radcliffe and James Alison.  I hold both of them in very high esteem.
  • Aside from Alison’s work, I highly recommend The End of Sexual Identity by Jennell Williams-Paris, which I think is one of very books to take this subject seriously.  On reductionism, I found it interesting that many of my peers at Spiritus Christi would insist that we are “not who are married/attracted to” and we are “not our behavior”-a viewpoint that is rather hard to reconcile with seeing human sexuality as fundamental to one’s identity.  I will add that I do think one’s sexual identity matters, immensely, but the final question of identity for the Christian is centered on Christ.
  • It is also worth noting that our age seems to consider any critique of an idea-no matter how well measured-to be a personal attack.  That this distinction, which matters a great deal to Karl Adam, has been lost is part of the great poverty of our time.  Of course the Christian worldview in general is quite foreign to many today-very little about Christianity can be understood until one’s vision is adjusted.  The Eastern Orthodox seem to understand this better than we do, as Fr. Freeman’s magnificent blog illustrates.