Wright vs. Rutledge

Well, this is interesting.  N.T. Wright has a new book coming out on the crucifixion, The Day the Revolution Began.  Here’s the preview:

The renowned scholar, Anglican bishop, and bestselling author widely considered to be the heir to C. S. Lewis contemplates the central event at the heart of the Christian faith—Jesus’ crucifixion—arguing that the Protestant Reformation did not go far enough in transforming our understanding of its meaning.

In The Day the Revolution Began, N. T. Wright once again challenges commonly held Christian beliefs as he did in his acclaimed Surprised by Hope. Demonstrating the rigorous intellect and breathtaking knowledge that have long defined his work, Wright argues that Jesus’ death on the cross was not only to absolve us of our sins; it was actually the beginning of a revolution commissioning the Christian faithful to a new vocation—a royal priesthood responsible for restoring and reconciling all of God’s creation.

Wright argues that Jesus’ crucifixion must be understood within the much larger story of God’s purposes to bring heaven and earth together. The Day the Revolution Began offers a grand picture of Jesus’ sacrifice and its full significance for the Christian faith, inspiring believers with a renewed sense of mission, purpose, and hope, and reminding them of the crucial role the Christian faith must play in protecting and shaping the future of the world.

I must admit I am of two minds when it comes to Wright.  On the one hand, I love and deeply appreciate his contributions to ancient history and biblical theology.  Who wouldn’t?  His views-say on the New Perspective on Paul-may scandalize his Reformed brethren (though Wright has described his theology as owing a great debt to the Reformers)-but they are quite congenial with Catholicism.  And yet, on the other hand, I am getting a bit weary of Wright’s constant calls for overturning and reconsidering every element in Christendom.  Not that that is a new thing for him-as Richard John Neuhaus put it in his review of Surprised by Hope:

As he is also on target when he insists that the resurrection “is not the story of a happy ending but of a new beginning.” But his argument is grievously marred by his heaping of scorn on centuries of Christian piety revolving around the hope of “going to heaven,” and his repeated and unseemly suggestion that he is the first to have understood the New Testament correctly, or at least the first since a few thinkers in the patristic era got part of the gospel right.

Closer to the gravamen of his new book, Wright debunks traditional ideas of heaven by noting that Jesus could not have been referring to heaven when he said that the good thief would be with him today in paradise because Jesus still had to descend to hell and be resurrected and therefore was not himself in heaven on that day. Gotcha. Now why didn’t Thomas Aquinas and all those other smart theologians think of that? Here and elsewhere, N.T. Wright is as literalistic as the staunchest of fundamentalists.

Further exchange between Neuahaus and Wright can be seen here.

Anyway, I have something else on my mind here.  Wright may be on a collision course with Rev. Rutledge, who also just published a book about the crucifixion.  Rev. Rutledge has long been associated with the apocalyptic school of theology, which she describes thusly:

In the light of the impending eschaton all present arrangements are provisional. The Christian lives according to the lights of the Age to Come. The new state of affairs set in motion by the crucifixion and resurrection evokes a response from us. Our response will be based on the new reality, a witness undermining everything that used to make sense in the old kosmos. “Be not conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2). “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (II Corinthians 5:17); “Since we belong to the day, let us be sober” (I Thessalonians 5:8); “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).

When the cross is understood as apocalyptic sign, the Christian community understands that its location is at the frontier of what God is doing in the world, and that the household of God is first to stand before the judgment seat (I Peter 4:17) on behalf of the world. The sign of victory on this frontier is not victory as this world understands victory. The sign of the cross is the “powerful weakness” of Christ; “the new creation is the community of those who…are conformed to the crucified one for the sake of others.”

Wright is not particularly fond of this view, and has taken some shots at it in another book, Paul and His Recent Interpreters.  There, Wright takes aim at translating justification as “rectification” (which Rev. Rutledge is want to do).

For her part, Rev. Rutledge is not terribly fond of Wright’s approach.  She writes in her book:

N.T. Wright is a particularly notable example of a contemporary New Testament scholar whose perspective is more that of salvation history, leading him to be antagonistic toward apocalyptic theology (some would say unnecessarily so).  I go a long way with Wright in his interpretation of the New Testament.  He is very exciting in his emphasis on the political dimensions of the gospel and the indissolubility of the Old Testament covenant with Israel, among other interpretive issues that he clarifies.  The difficulty, from the perspective of the views expressed here, lies with his penchant for projecting irreconcilable disagreements onto other scholars instead of seeking constructive dialogue.  It is particularly disappointing that he continues to emphasize forgiveness without entertaining the larger concept of rectification.

N.T. Wright is very good on the subject of the Lordship of the Kurios over the empires of the world with its consequences for geopolitics and social action.  Some readers may wonder why I have not made more use of his work on dikaiosis, since there is so much to support, admire and celebrate in his position.  In particular, he argues forcefully against the individualized, spiritualized, depoliticized presentation of Christ’s work on the cross that carried the day in Protestant circles for hundreds of years, and often still does.  Throughout these pages we have sought to correct this misdirected view of atonement and reconciliation.  However, Wright de-radicalizes Paul by excluding the narrative of the captivity of the entire created order under the rule of Sin and Death.  In his wish to recontextualize Jesus in the milieu of Second Temple Judaism (a subject opened up by E.P. Sanders), Wright underestimates the wholesale degree to which Paul proclaims the crucifixion of all existing worlds, including religious worlds (Gal. 6:14-15).  I do not wish to devalue Wright’s work and influence, much of which has been very helpful to the church.  However, he does not work in the dimension of imagination that has enabled the apocalyptic theologians (whose work he greatly dislikes) to give us a vastly expanded understanding of the cosmic vision of Paul.  Indeed, the vehemence with which Wright rejects apocalyptic weakens his position.

On the New Perspective Rev. Rutledge adds:

[Wright is] right to warn us against caricaturing the Second Temple Judaism of Jesus’ time as though it were the medieval Roman Catholic Church of Luther’s time.

Now, I admit to being somewhat out of my depth on this.  I am not intimately familiar with apocalyptic theology, and I have only a rudimentary perspective on the New Perspective on Paul.  From briefly skimming Wright’s commentary, he does indeed seem to have something of a vehemence towards those who favor the apocalyptic view.  In any case, as a Catholic, I don’t really have a dog in this fight, and suppose I needn’t bother with at all.  That said, I tend to side with Rev. Rutledge, only because Wright does seem to operate with “tunnel vision” from time-to-time.  I have found Rev. Rutledge’s writings quite compelling, and they do seem to call forth something which is missing in Wright’s work.

That said, I offer in closing the words New Testament scholar David Gorman made in response to Rev. Rutledge’s book:

Professor Michael Gorman joined Richter in affirming Rutledge’s consistently Trinitarian approach. He highlighted her attempt to take seriously the wrath of God as a manifestation of God’s just character. It all depends on what outrages you, he said. To be outraged on behalf of the powerless and oppressed is to participate in God’s work.

Gorman also suggested that Rutledge could maintain her commitment to an apocalyptic approach while also giving greater emphasis to Jesus as the Jewish messiah. She is not so far distant from the vision of N. T. Wright as she supposes, Gorman said.

We shall see.

Mind Uploading Redux

Topic I haven’t hit on in awhile.  In the past, I have ruminated on the implications of “mind uploading,” the idea that we can upload our consciousness (self) into an electronic domain and thus attain a form of immortality.  This idea has become quite popular in recent years-it is a recurring theme in Ray Kurzweil’s writings on the “Singularity” and Michio Kaku also seems to think it’s possible.  Mind uploading was the primary theme of the 2014 film Transcendence (my thoughts on that here).  Obviously, the idea has become common currency among today’s trans-humanists, who are obsessed with finding a way for humanity to escape the bondage of biology and finitude, and achieve a form of immortality.

Perhaps surprisingly to some, I am something of an agnostic on whether mind uploading is actually possible.  I am highly skeptical, primarily because I rather doubt that consciousness will turn out to be an the kind of thing that one can simply “download” from the brain and then “upload” somewhere else.  In the words of Robert Epstein:

In his book In Our Own Image (2015), the artificial intelligence expert George Zarkadakis describes six different metaphors people have employed over the past 2,000 years to try to explain human intelligence.

In the earliest one, eventually preserved in the Bible, humans were formed from clay or dirt, which an intelligent god then infused with its spirit. That spirit ‘explained’ our intelligence – grammatically, at least.

The invention of hydraulic engineering in the 3rd century BCE led to the popularity of a hydraulic model of human intelligence, the idea that the flow of different fluids in the body – the ‘humours’ – accounted for both our physical and mental functioning. The hydraulic metaphor persisted for more than 1,600 years, handicapping medical practice all the while.

By the 1500s, automata powered by springs and gears had been devised, eventually inspiring leading thinkers such as René Descartes to assert that humans are complex machines. In the 1600s, the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested that thinking arose from small mechanical motions in the brain. By the 1700s, discoveries about electricity and chemistry led to new theories of human intelligence – again, largely metaphorical in nature. In the mid-1800s, inspired by recent advances in communications, the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz compared the brain to a telegraph.

Each metaphor reflected the most advanced thinking of the era that spawned it. Predictably, just a few years after the dawn of computer technology in the 1940s, the brain was said to operate like a computer, with the role of physical hardware played by the brain itself and our thoughts serving as software. The landmark event that launched what is now broadly called ‘cognitive science’ was the publication of Language and Communication (1951) by the psychologist George Miller. Miller proposed that the mental world could be studied rigorously using concepts from information theory, computation and linguistics.

The information processing (IP) metaphor of human intelligence now dominates human thinking, both on the street and in the sciences. There is virtually no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour that proceeds without employing this metaphor, just as no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour could proceed in certain eras and cultures without reference to a spirit or deity. The validity of the IP metaphor in today’s world is generally assumed without question.

But the IP metaphor is, after all, just another metaphor – a story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand. And like all the metaphors that preceded it, it will certainly be cast aside at some point – either replaced by another metaphor or, in the end, replaced by actual knowledge.

Even if one could (in theory) duplicate all of the electrical activity in the human brain, it does not follow that one could reconstruct the interior, subjective, conscious states associated with those electrical patterns.  As John Searle has put it, this is rather like simulating a rain storm and expecting to get wet.

Setting aside these objections, however, there is another point here that is worth chewing on.  Consider Mark Gubrud’s thoughts:

Now comes Patrick Hopkins, a transhumanist and professor of philosophy at Millsaps College in Mississippi, to break the bad news: Uploading just won’t work. As he explains in his abstract for the upcoming H+ conference, uploading

will not preserve personal identity. Transhumanist hopes for such transfer ironically rely on treating the mind dualistically — and inconsistently with materialism — as the functional equivalent of a soul, as is evidenced by a carefully examination [sic] of the language used to describe and defend uploading. In this sense, transhumanist thought unwittingly contains remnants of dualistic and religious categories.

Or, as I put it in my 2003 paper:

Arguments for identity transfer cannot be stated without invoking nonphysical entities, and lead to absurdities that cannot be avoided without introducing arbitrary rules…. Dualism is built into the language that Moravec uses throughout, and that we use on a daily basis, “my brain, my body,” as if brain and body were distinguishable from “me,” the true “me” — the soul…. Moravec does not use the word “soul,” but he uses words which are effectively synonymous.

Transhumanists maintain that they do not believe in anything supernatural; they usually abjure belief in God and in an immortal soul. Yet every explanation of and argument for the idea of having your brain scanned and disassembled, bit by bit, so that some kind of copy can be made by some kind of Xerox machine, contains some word whose function and meaning, in this context, are the same as those of that venerable word, and the ancient idea it stands for: the soul.
In the traditional understanding, the soul — dual of the body, and separable from it — carries or constitutes the true identity of the human person. The soul is what we feel in a person’s presence, what we see when we look into a person’s eyes, and it remains steadily in place as a person’s body changes over the years — despite the constant exchange of mere atoms with the environment. The soul, not the brain, is what is conscious, as no mere material thing can be. It is connected to that transcendent world of pure spirit, where, perhaps, all will be understood. In some accounts, the soul endures after death and goes to Heaven, or to Hell, or else hangs around in graveyards and abandoned houses. A voodoo priest can capture a soul and imprison it in a doll — more or less what the proponents of uploading hope to do by means of technology.

Even though transhumanists generally do not admit to believing in an immaterial “soul,” proponents of uploading continually invent or repurpose technical-sounding terms as stand-ins for that forbidden noun. Thus Moravec advances a theory of

pattern-identity … [which] defines the essence of a person, say myself, as the pattern and the process going on in my head and body, not the machinery supporting that process. If the process is preserved, I am preserved. The rest is mere jelly.

Not only has Moravec introduced “pattern” as a stand-in for “soul,” but in order to define it he has referred to another stand-in, “the essence of a person.” But he seems aware of the inadequacy of “pattern,” and tries to cover it up with another word, “process.” So now we have a pattern and a process, separable from the “mere jelly.” Is this some kind of trinity? Or is the “mere jelly,” once appropriately patterned and undergoing the processes of life, what real human beings are made of — that and nothing else that is known to science?

Similarly, Kurzweil argues that

we should not associate our fundamental identity with a specific set of particles, but rather the pattern of matter and energy that we represent.

If taken literally, this carelessly worded statement suggests that we are not our true selves, but mere representations of our true selves! But note again that Kurzweil points to the assumed existence of a “fundamental identity” which is distinct from the body. In other words, he is referencing the idea of the soul, and manipulating the dualism that is embedded in our way of thinking about people.

So it goes with every author who advocates the idea of uploading as a route to immortality and transcendence. They must always introduce some term as a stand-in for “the soul” and argue that by whatever process they propose, this object will be moved from the old brain to the new one. Otherwise, they would have to describe their proposal not as transferring “you” (your soul) to a new body, but as making some kind of copy — perhaps an “identical” copy, structured the same way at the molecular level, or perhaps a mere functional copy, “instantiated” in some different kind of “substrate” (as one might copy an Old Master’s painting to some pattern of ink dots on paperboard).

In other words, the bizarre paradox of mind-uploading is that it only works if one acknowledges a certain form of dualism.  The self has to be distinguished from the body, mind or consciousness, or “information-bearing pattern,” becomes a stand-in for the soul.  Heck, the metaphors we use (software running on hardware, program running on platform) are inherently dualistic metaphors.  In a rather bizarre twist, Daniel Dennett more or less admitted to essentially agreeing with John Polkinghorne on this point in an interview with Robert Wright:

Wright: Yea. And as you may be alarmed to know, I don’t know, but an actual theologian that I interviewed, John Polkinghorn, used this very type of scenario to assert that it is possible to believe in an afterlife even now. In other words, granting that the physical body dies, we’d be saying that the essence of the body itself is a configuration of information then for all we know…

Daniel Dennett: Yes. There’s a non-supernatural way you can believe in the afterlife. That’s the path to immortality if that’s what you really want.

Brief timeout.  Does the Catholic Church conceive of the soul as the “information-bearing pattern” of the body?  So far as I can understand it…sort-of.  The Catechism states:

363 In Sacred Scripture the term “soul” often refers to human life or the entire human person.230 But “soul” also refers to the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him,231 that by which he is most especially in God’s image: “soul” signifies the spiritual principle in man.

365 The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body:234 i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.

367 Sometimes the soul is distinguished from the spirit: St. Paul for instance prays that God may sanctify his people “wholly”, with “spirit and soul and body” kept sound and blameless at the Lord’s coming.236 The Church teaches that this distinction does not introduce a duality into the soul.237 “Spirit” signifies that from creation man is ordered to a supernatural end and that his soul can gratuitously be raised beyond all it deserves to communion with God.238

To speak of the soul as the “form” of the body is kinda patternish.  In fact, Polkinghorne has explicitly referenced this point in his writings on the subject, describing “matter and information” as an updated take on Aristotle’s “matter and form.”  Whether or not this is true (and I think it is an at least some sense), the soul isn’t reducible to a pattern of information.  It is also the “life” of the body, a final cause that cannot be conceived in images at all (even conjectural patterns).  And the Church teaches that the soul is spiritual, which refers to a deeper capacity to know God (and hence the tripartite imagery of body, soul and spirit).  The soul is more than simply “information”-or consciousness for that matter.

Gubrud alludes to this:

What is this thing, the “mind,” that Moravec claims can be “removed” and “transferred”? What exactly is it made of? Some say “information,” and that sounds appropriately scientific, but information has no existence, so far as we know, without the physical “substrate” used to “represent it.” When we speak of “information transfer” from one thing to another, we usually mean that some physical agent makes some physical measurement of the first thing and imposes related physical changes on the second thing. Pure information, completely separated from any physical matter or energy, would be something whose existence could not be distinguished from its nonexistence.

Unless of course one accepts the possibility of immortal souls.  But that is a subject for another day.

Anyway, setting aside all of this, I am willing to grant that-at least in theory-it is possible that human consciousness could be “transferred” from the brain.  I am open to the possibility that the organic matter in the brain could gradually be replaced, neuron by neuron, with artificial material.  This Ship of Theseus type of thought experiment actually isn’t that hard to conceive; the material that composes our body is always being changed out.  In C.S. Lewis’s terms, we are curves in a waterfall (which, again, suggest that there is something to this pattern idea).  Still, this doesn’t necessarily mean we will attain immortality, much less that “we” will be the “same” after the “operation.”

What I mean by this is that the human person is not reducible to his or her consciousness.  Much of who we are is unconsciousness, and our consciousness is deeply dependent on the body-not just on neurons, but also hormones and any number of other metabolic processes.  Our bodies, to a great extent, make us who and what we are.  As atheist PZ Meyers put it:

He’s [Kurzweil] guilty of a very weird form of reductionism that considers a human life can be reduced to patterns in a computer. I have no stock in spiritualism or dualism, but we are very much a product of our crude and messy biology — we perceive the world through imprecise chemical reactions, our brains send signals by shuffling ions in salt water, our attitudes and reactions are shaped by chemicals secreted by glands in our guts. Replicating the lightning while ignoring the clouds and rain and pressure changes will not give you a copy of the storm. It will give you something different, which would be interesting still, but it’s not the same.

John Gray takes a similar POV:

In short, I’m inclined to think that whatever “mind uploading” turns out to be in reality, it won’t be what we think it is.  I like Gray’s summary: it will be a “one dimensional cartoon,” a mere shadow of our former self.  Which, interestingly, is rather like the images of the shades in Hades one found among both the ancient Greeks and Hebrews. Catholicism-as always-straddles a divide here, acknowledging both our dependence on the body and the fact that the soul-whatever it is, we can’t and shouldn’t try to picture it-transcends it.

In any case, I will say without hesitation that I would decline the opportunity to have my “mind uploaded” in the offer were presented to me.  In terms of the potential theological implications of mind uploading, Jim Arraj writes:

In Resurrection: Theological and Scientific Assessments,Robert John Russell makes the important point that despite the extensive dialogue going on today between science and religion, the topic of the resurrection has seldom been discussed.58 Unfortunately, this collection of essays does not significantly change that situation. This failure cannot be charged to the account of theologians alone, and their lack of knowledge of scientific matters. Noreen Herzfeld, in an essay in this volume “Cybernetic Immortality versus Christian Resurrection,” illustrates how far some members of the scientific community are from a Christian understanding of the resurrection and the immortality of the soul. They are advancing an out and out materialism which they feel should replace them. These views take a variety of form: the replacement of our biological parts by mechanical ones, or an uploading of our memories and other neuronal configurations into a computer so we die in the flesh, but live on in the computer. Such views are so alien from Christian ones that it is no wonder that the dialogue breaks down.



  1. For a response to Gubrud, see this article.
  2. I have noted before that the paradox of dualism can be seen in other contexts-e.g. when pro-choice advocates identify the human person with self-consciousness.  A certain degree of dualism is inescapable when it comes to human language and conceptualization.
  3. Another bizarre attempt at  achieving “immortality” can be found in the idea of head transplants.  A semi-successful operation was carried out in 2001 on a monkey by a neurosurgeon named Robert White-who, oddly, was a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and provided care to St. Pope John Paul II.  Very strange.  (There are rumors that the procedure may be performed on a human soon, but the possibility has been dismissed as “fantasy” by others).

The sensus divinitatis

I frequently have the experience of speaking or writing about something in a circumlocutory way to describe something, only to belatedly discover that there is in fact a word for the concept I was gesticulating towards.  I recently had the glorious experience of discovering that there is in fact a word for what I meant last year by the “gift of faith.”  At that time, I mused on whether the “gift of faith” was in fact given to all people, and dryly noted that Rev. Fleming Rutledge was articulating a “Nice Calvinism” by suggesting that unbelief has a purpose in God’s Providence.  It turns out, the concept I was really after was indeed a Calvinist one: the sensus divinitatis (literally “sense of divinity”).  In a nutshell, the term-coined by Calvin himself-refers to an innate “God-dar” in human beings.  Contemporary philosopher Alvin Plantinga has suggested that the sensus divinitatis doesn’t work correctly in all human beings, due to the damaging effects of original sin.

Intriguingly, the sensus divinitatis has generated significant discussion in some Protestant circles.  These include “Reformed epistemology” and “presuppositional apologetics,” both of which essentially boil down to saying that belief in God is a “given” and need not be proven by appeal to other authority.  Presuppositional apologetics even insists, rather brazenly, that Christian faith by itself is a suitable basis for rational thought.  This is not really anything new; Reformed theology has always been rather jittery about appealing to reason to justify belief in God (c.f. Karl Barth).  What is interesting to me is that the sensus divinitatis seems to have returned with a vengeance in Protestant circles-both among philosophers (Plantinga) and preachers (Tim Keller is enamored with the presuppositional approach).

It isn’t entirely clear to me at this point whether the sensus divinitatis is congenial with Catholicism or not.  CatholicCulture featured an article by evangelical writer Steven Cowan, who contended:

The Reformed-epistemology apologist will not necessarily eschew making positive arguments in defense of Christianity, but he will argue that such arguments are not necessary for rational faith. If Calvin is right that human beings are born with an innate sensus divinitatis (sense of the divine), then people rightly and rationally may come to have a belief in God immediately without the aid of evidence. Moreover, through the “internal witness of the Holy Spirit,” a person may be prompted rightfully to accept the specific truths of Christianity without the aid of apologetic arguments.

Though the five apologetic methods discussed above do not constitute an exhaustive list of apologetic approaches, they do represent the most well known strategies in the Evangelical apologetic community. It is also important to mention that the advocates of these various methods, though they have significant differences, all agree on the importance of offering a rational defense of the Christian faith. And it might be said with some force that many of the differences in these various methods are more matters of emphasis than differences in substance. In any case, the Evangelical community has a rich and varied tradition of apologetics that provides multiple ways in which the faith once-for-all-delivered to the saints may be defended.

Evidently, at least some Catholics seem to think we can learn a thing or two from the evangelicals here.  I’m not so sure, given that the approaches highlighted in this article still seem to have retained the Barthian allergy to natural theology.  Consider again the Catechism of the Catholic Church on these points:

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.

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

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

The Catholic position, as always, is decidedly both/and.  On the one hand, the Church went so far as to anathematize those who denied the human capacity to conclude that God exists on the basis of reason (Vatican I).  On the other hand, the Church clearly teaches the necessity of revelation-we simply could not know God by reason alone.  Reason can postulate the existence of a greater (metaphysical) Reality, but it can’t bring us into a relationship with that reality.  Interestingly, the Catechism invokes reason again in the context of revelation, this time in a post hoc way:

156 What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe “because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived”.28 So “that the submission of our faith might nevertheless be in accordance with reason, God willed that external proofs of his Revelation should be joined to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit.”29 Thus the miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church’s growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability “are the most certain signs of divine Revelation, adapted to the intelligence of all”; they are “motives of credibility” (motiva credibilitatis), which show that the assent of faith is “by no means a blind impulse of the mind”.30

It seems to me that the Church hasn’t completely repudiated the Calvinist sense of the sensus divinitatis, but-intriguingly-it seems to conceive of the sensus in terms of the capacity of human reason to discern the existence of God, rather than an a clear “sixth sense” if you will.  As the Catechism 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

Note that this “reality” at which reason arrives.  Indeed, tGod’s existence is not self-evident, as the Angelic Doctor knew:

On the contrary, No one can mentally admit the opposite of what is self-evident; as the Philosopher (Metaph. iv, lect. vi) states concerning the first principles of demonstration. But the opposite of the proposition “God is” can be mentally admitted: “The fool said in his heart, There is no God” (Psalm 52:1). Therefore, that God exists is not self-evident.

I answer that, A thing can be self-evident in either of two ways: on the one hand, self-evident in itself, though not to us; on the other, self-evident in itself, and to us. A proposition is self-evident because the predicate is included in the essence of the subject, as “Man is an animal,” for animal is contained in the essence of man. If, therefore the essence of the predicate and subject be known to all, the proposition will be self-evident to all; as is clear with regard to the first principles of demonstration, the terms of which are common things that no one is ignorant of, such as being and non-being, whole and part, and such like. If, however, there are some to whom the essence of the predicate and subject is unknown, the proposition will be self-evident in itself, but not to those who do not know the meaning of the predicate and subject of the proposition. Therefore, it happens, as Boethius says (Hebdom., the title of which is: “Whether all that is, is good”), “that there are some mental concepts self-evident only to the learned, as that incorporeal substances are not in space.” Therefore I say that this proposition, “God exists,” of itself is self-evident, for the predicate is the same as the subject, because God is His own existence as will be hereafter shown (3, 4). Now because we do not know the essence of God, the proposition is not self-evident to us; but needs to be demonstrated by things that are more known to us, though less known in their nature — namely, by effects.

Reply to Objection 1. To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude. For man naturally desires happiness, and what is naturally desired by man must be naturally known to him. This, however, is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching; for many there are who imagine that man’s perfect good which is happiness, consists in riches, and others in pleasures, and others in something else.

Reply to Objection 2. Perhaps not everyone who hears this word “God” understands it to signify something than which nothing greater can be thought, seeing that some have believed God to be a body. Yet, granted that everyone understands that by this word “God” is signified something than which nothing greater can be thought, nevertheless, it does not therefore follow that he understands that what the word signifies exists actually, but only that it exists mentally. Nor can it be argued that it actually exists, unless it be admitted that there actually exists something than which nothing greater can be thought; and this precisely is not admitted by those who hold that God does not exist.

Reply to Objection 3. The existence of truth in general is self-evident but the existence of a Primal Truth is not self-evident to us.

To quote Father Freeman, faith is not the “perception of the obvious.”  Whatever the sensus divinitatis means, it does not mean that we can observe that God exists simply by looking (apologies to Yogi Berra).

Shifting gears for a moment, I find my analysis of this question enriched by considering the innate religiosity of human beings, a theme I’ve been harping on lately.  Again, the Catechism:

27 The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for:

The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator.1

28 In many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behavior: in their prayers, sacrifices, rituals, meditations, and so forth. These forms of religious expression, despite the ambiguities they often bring with them, are so universal that one may well call man a religious being:

From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “in him we live and move and have our being.”2

29 But this “intimate and vital bond of man to God” (GS 19 § 1) can be forgotten, overlooked, or even explicitly rejected by man.3 Such attitudes can have different causes: revolt against evil in the world; religious ignorance or indifference; the cares and riches of this world; the scandal of bad example on the part of believers; currents of thought hostile to religion; finally, that attitude of sinful man which makes him hide from God out of fear and flee his call.4

30 “Let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.”5 Although man can forget God or reject him, He never ceases to call every man to seek him, so as to find life and happiness. But this search for God demands of man every effort of intellect, a sound will, “an upright heart”, as well as the witness of others who teach him to seek God.

You are great, O Lord, and greatly to be praised: great is your power and your wisdom is without measure. And man, so small a part of your creation, wants to praise you: this man, though clothed with mortality and bearing the evidence of sin and the proof that you withstand the proud. Despite everything, man, though but a small a part of your creation, wants to praise you. You yourself encourage him to delight in your praise, for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.6

Two brief points here as an aside.  First, the Catechism notes that the human “search for God” is ubiquitous, but this does not mean that all “paths are equally valid.”  In the words of the Pope Emeritus:

He [Jesus] has brought the God who formerly unveiled his countenance gradually, first to Abraham, then to Moses and the Prophets, and then in the Wisdom Literature-the God who revealed his face only in Israel, even through he was also honored among the pagans in various shadowy guises.

One may speak, as Joseph Campbell did, of the “masks of God,” but Catholic teaching asserts there is a difference between man’s search for God and God’s search for man, and that the latter is bound up with the scandal of particularity.  The second point is that even though we are innately “religious beings” we can overlook-even bury-our natural inclination to God, and that even when we are looking for God, we need to make some effort to perceive correctly (upright heart and all that).  I’ll return to that in a moment.

There is another way to approach the question of innate religiosity, and that is from the scientific angle.  One can consider the human predisposition to religion in-dare I say it-“naturalist” terms.  By this, of course, I mean the application of evolutionary psychology to religious studies.  I see no danger in this approach, which dovetails nicely with Thomistic metaphysics, as Ed Feser has noted:

In other words, without cultivation by way of careful philosophical analysis and argumentation, the knowledge of God we have naturally will remain at a very crude level — “general and confused,” as Aquinas says, like knowing that someone is approaching but not knowing who — just as even natural drawing ability or musical ability will result in crude work if not cultivated.

Moreover, few people have the leisure or ability to carry out the philosophical reasoning required, and even the best minds are liable to get some of the details wrong.  This, in Aquinas’s view, is why for most people divine revelation is practically necessary if they are to acquire knowledge even of those theological truths which are in principle accessible via purely philosophical argumentation…

Now, these theses—that an inclination to believe in God is natural to us, but that without cultivation it results only in a general and confused conception of God — are empirically well supported.  Belief in a deity or deities of some sort is more or less a cultural universal, and is absent only where some effort is made to resist it (about which effort I’ll say something in a moment).  But the content of this belief varies fairly widely, and takes on a sophisticated and systematic form only when refined by philosophers and theologians.

Even an atheist could agree with this much.  Indeed, I believe Jeff Lowder would more or less agree with it.  In the post linked to above, he opines that his fellow atheists need to answer the arguments of religious apologists rather than ignoring them because:

“The scientific evidence suggests that humans have a widespread tendency to form beliefs about invisible agents, including gods… I can think of no reason to think such tendencies will go away with a contemptuous sneer.”

Now, Jeff’s basis for this claim lies at least in part in evolutionary psychology rather than Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophical anthropology.  (It wouldn’t be the first time that the two approaches led to similar conclusions.)  But the bottom line is for present purposes the same: The belief toward which we are inclined is inchoate (“invisible agents, including gods”), but the inclination is a natural one.  Indeed, the inclination goes deep enough in our nature that it takes some argumentation to overcome it (rather than the mere “contemptuous sneer” of the New Atheist).

Whether one approaches the question of human religiosity from above (in theological terms) or below (empirical), it is beyond question that human beings are  innately religious creatures.  In this sense, I think we can speak legitimately of a sensus divinitatis.  Nonetheless, as Feser notes, the Reformed approach is vastly oversimplified.  Our natural inclination is inchoate, and leads to disparate ends.  Even granting that the religious inclination can never be entirely suppressed (as I’ve noted one can gut religious thinking of the supernatural but the thought patterns remain), I would not go so far as to suggest that there are “no genuine atheists.”  The matter is just not that simple.

Of course, true knowledge of God goes deeper than reason, but as I’ve just noted, the Church also accepts that because of original sin there is no natural direct communion between ourselves and God.  That was lost with original justice.  In Eastern Orthodox terms, the nous is darkened and turned in on itself.  It takes God’s grace, and then spiritual disciplines, to reopen that road to two-way traffic.  Intriguingly, while I think that for all the bickering back and forth over semantics the Catholic and Reformed views of the sensus divinitatis are or more less congenial with one another, I find this conclusion rather anticlimactic.  Those of who have faith still must deepen our own understanding, and still must find a way to dialogue with those who don’t have faith.  And for these purposes, I still find the Reformed approaches wanting.  Reason can’t do its two-fold job (assessing the existence of God and deepening faith) unless it has some legitimate grounds of its own, a point that St. Pope John Paul II made in Fides et Ratio:

14. From the teaching of the two Vatican Councils there also emerges a genuinely novel consideration for philosophical learning. Revelation has set within history a point of reference which cannot be ignored if the mystery of human life is to be known. Yet this knowledge refers back constantly to the mystery of God which the human mind cannot exhaust but can only receive and embrace in faith. Between these two poles, reason has its own specific field in which it can enquire and understand, restricted only by its finiteness before the infinite mystery of God.

(Again the matter is not so simple-Bishop Robert Barron noted in The Priority of Christ that such “natural reasoning” is still a participation in the Logos, and is just as Christocentic as revelation but “less intense.”  The point here is that reason can arrive at certain conclusions from other starting points-observation of reality for instance-and not only with certain explicitly Christian presuppositions.)

One last point.  Let us consider the case of Thomas Nagel:

A confirmed atheist, he [Nagel] lacks what he calls the sensus divinitatis that leads some people to embrace the numinous.

In a recent review in the New York Review of Books of Where the Conflict Really Lies, by the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, Nagel told how instinctively he recoils from theism, and how hungry he is for a reasonable alternative. “If I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true,” he wrote, “the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith.” He admits that he finds the evident failure of materialism as a worldview alarming – precisely because the alternative is, for a secular intellectual, unthinkable. He calls this intellectual tic “fear of religion.”

“I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear,” he wrote not long ago in an essay called “Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion.” “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Nagel believes this “cosmic authority problem” is widely shared among intellectuals, and I believe him. It accounts for the stubbornness with which they cling to materialism – and for the hostility that greets an intellectual who starts to wander off from the herd. Materialism must be true because it “liberates us from religion.” The positive mission Nagel undertakes in Mind and Cosmos is to outline, cautiously, a possible Third Way between theism and materialism, given that the first is unacceptable – emotionally, if not intellectually – and the second is untenable. Perhaps matter itself has a bias toward producing conscious creatures. Nature in that case would be “teleological” – not random, not fully subject to chance, but tending toward a particular end. Our mental life would be accounted for – phew! – without reference to God.

Nagel is a rather sharp demonstration of paragraph # 29 of the Catechism, namely that some human beings can consciously rebel against the sensus divinitatis.  They are ultimately unsuccessful of course-Nagel’s own arguments essentially amount to a (perhaps unconscious) restatement of the teleological worldview of Aristotle, which is of course part and parcel of classical theism.  Any  attempt at a “Third Way” (consider another example-“Information Philosophy“) seems to stumble inadvertently back in the same direction where the Church’s classical reasoning has always pointed.

To move forward any further requires acceptance of revelation, and therefore requires faith.  This returns me to the mystery I was considering previously: are all human beings given faith?  It seems apparent we all have the sensus divinitatis, but by itself that doesn’t get us very far, and people can choose to rage against it rather than accept it.  All of this makes sense.  Yet, I admit, I still struggle with the question of whether all who do so are really rejecting the gift of faith, or are truly marshalling their will against it.  What of the person who wants to belief but cannot?  A simplistic approach to the sensus divinitatis that collapses these two questions (as Calvinism does) is of no help in answering this.  My initial question remains.

And so, the journey goes on…

Our Strange and Demanding Faith

A little juxtaposition…

First, Rev. Rutledge:

The Old Testament is startlingly worldly compared to other faiths. In the Creed, we say that Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate.” Surely this is very strange. Why would a statement of religious faith go out of its way to enshrine the name of an obscure provincial Roman official? It has long been recognized that this peculiarity is of central importance for understanding Christianity. The birth, death, and resurrection of God’s Son “for us and for our salvation” was not a cyclical happening that recurred every year with the seasons. It was the climactic occurrence of God’s entrance into history at a specific time and place that we can reliably identify and date. Christianity did not arise out of the mystery religions of the ancient Near East. Christianity emerged out of Judaism with its unique character: historical (not mythological), linear (not cyclical), materialistic (not world-denying). Without the Exodus from Egypt and the Incarnation of Jesus, the history of world religion would look totally different. The acting subject is not humanity with its longings, needs, wishes, and hopes. The acting subject is God. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

Besides this world-historical significance of Jesus, however, there are other contradictory features about his story and, especially, his death. We might be able to accept the martyrdom of a famous person; indeed, such martyrdoms usually enhance the stature of such a person we need only think of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. Heroic figures, however, are not usually associated with disgrace, shame, and humiliation. Certainly this is true of religious personages. We want our objects of worship to be effulgent and serene, welcoming and uncomplicated. The most compelling argument for the truth of Christianity as the Newsweek article suggests is the undisputed historical fact of the crucified Messiah, a scandalous happening that runs counter to everything that the human religious imagination has ever produced. That’s why St. Paul calls the Cross a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks (i Corinthians 1:23); we can paraphrase this by saying that the Crucifixion is “a very painful image,” offensive to religious people and secular people alike.

Second, Father Thomas H. Green:

This need to be purified is difficult for humans to accept in every age. Especially today, people want a religion of joy, fellowship, and camaraderie— no hell, no pain, no penance. But the gospel knows nothing of such a painless faith. The grain of wheat must die before bringing forth a rich harvest. The hundredfold can be possessed only by those who leave everything to follow Jesus. In Baptism, the old man or woman must be crucified, that he may rise to a new life in Christ2. It is not a popular way today, and it never has been, but it is the only way.

Every pray-er must learn, as the apostles did, that God is a very different savior from what they naturally expect. The sons of Zebedee sought glory and he offered them the cross (Mt 20: 20– 23). Peter wanted to remain on Tabor, but Jesus led him to Calvary (Mk 9: 4– 9). At the very end of his earthly sojourning among them, they expected a political revolution to liberate Israel, but Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father and left them, for a time, alone (Acts 1: 6– 9). The God they learned to love was far different from the God they wanted to love! So it must be with us.

How quickly we forget how truly strange our own faith is…that ours is a creed that names a provincial Roman official for crying out loud.  How we must learn to accept a reality that is not as we would have it, a reality that is revealed in the scandal of a Crucified Messiah.  Strange, yes.  Demanding, yes.  But that is and has always been the Christian Way.

Charity vs. Justice

Another thought worth keeping in mind this election season.  The relationship between charity and justice in Christian life has been shifting a bit in recent years.  Many progressive Christians believe-quite strongly-that the latter “trumps” the former.  One proponent of this particular perspective (alliteration…I know, I know…) was the late Marcus Borg.  In The Heart of Christianity Borg wrote:

Beyond the church, the practice of compassion means both charity and justice.  The distinction between the two is important.  About a hundred years ago, a Christian activist and author named Vida Scudder listed three ways that Christians can respond to growing awareness of human suffering: direct philanthropy, social reform, and social transformation.  Director philanthropy means giving directly to those who are suffering, social reform means creating and supporting organizations for their care, and social transformation is about justice-changing society so that the structures do not privilege some and cause suffering for others.

The first two are about charity, the third is about justice.  All three are important.  Charity is always good and will always be necessary, but historically Christians have always been long on the first two and short on the third.  One reason is that charity never offends; a passion for justice often does.  To paraphrase Roman Catholic bishop Dom Helder Camara from Brazil: “When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint; when I asked why there were so many poor, they called me a communist.”

Charity means helping the victims.  Justice asks, “Why are there so many victims?” and then seeks to change the causes of victimization, that is, the way the system is structured.  Justice is not about Caesar increasingly his charitable giving or Pilate increasing his tithe.  Justice is about social transformation.  Talking the political vision of the Bible seriously means the practice of social transformation.

Now, I do not wish to speak ill of the dead, and there was a time I deeply cherished Borg’s writings.  In a sense, he kept me from leaving Christianity.  I saw him speak at a Call-to-Action conference (in 2011) and I continue to think of him rather fondly.  That being said, his argument here has always deeply annoyed me.  Borg, along with many progressives, clearly views justice as being superior to charity, his statement to the contrary notwithstanding.  One senses in his quote from Bishop Camara a sense of disdain towards charity as a practice that is a poor substitute for justice advocacy (it amounts to little more than putting band aids on artery wounds) and downright enabling of injustice at worst.

It was this perspective that prompted critics of Mother Teresa to write an article entitled “Mother, Why Are They Poor?”  The authors of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Catholicism (which is a rather liberal compendium that ultimately advocates for something called “quantum Catholicism”-yikes!) put it this way:

Inside the Church, there were concerns that Mother Tersa did not bother to examine the social causes of poverty, but instead to chose to direct her attention to bandaging up the victims of an unquestionably oppressive system of economics and politics.

In her defense, Mother Teresa did not see that it was her job to ask “Why?”  Her spirituality was based in charity and love rather than politics.

Once again, one can detect more than a faint a hint of contempt here.  Still, there is something worth chewing on-what does it means to have a spirituality based on charity and love, rather than on politics?  Which is the proper, or superior if you prefer, expression of Christianity?  Or are the two supposed to be completely equal to one another?  The Catholic answer to the question, as hinted at above, sidesteps and transcends the dilemma created by Borg.  Both are deeply and firmly Christian, but the two are expressed in different ways and different spheres.  Let’s elaborate a bit on this.

First, it goes without saying that Catholic social teaching is a veritable treasure trove of social justice.  The Church has an entire book on this subject (the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church), and the Catechism has a few unambiguous words too.  Here is just a smattering:

1928 Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.

1938 There exist also sinful inequalities that affect millions of men and women. These are in open contradiction of the Gospel:

Their equal dignity as persons demands that we strive for fairer and more humane conditions. Excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples of the one human race is a source of scandal and militates against social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social and international peace.44

And, contrary to what some may think, Catholicism does call upon to ask why so many are hungry, and so many are poor:

2448 “In its various forms – material deprivation, unjust oppression, physical and psychological illness and death – human misery is the obvious sign of the inherited condition of frailty and need for salvation in which man finds himself as a consequence of original sin. This misery elicited the compassion of Christ the Savior, who willingly took it upon himself and identified himself with the least of his brethren. Hence, those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church which, since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defense, and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere.”248

One thing that needs to be made clear, however, is that social justice is not the raison d’etre of the Church, as many progressives mistakenly believe.  This section of the Catechism is one component of a much larger section discussing the human vocation and the human person, and these teachings become unintelligible if severed from this context.  Social justice is indeed an integral part of the Church’s teachings, which form a coherent whole, but they are derivative and inseparable from other more fundamental teachings.  We need to make that point quite clear.

Moreover, while the magisterium does speak of “social sin,” the concept cannot be divorced from good ‘ole fashioned personal sins.  Again, the Catechism:

1869 Thus sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. “Structures of sin” are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn. In an analogous sense, they constitute a “social sin.”144

As I have noted before, social sin is essentially a “negative feedback loop” created by, and dependent on, many individuals.  In the words of St. Pope John Paul II:

In addition to all this, the sins of individuals strengthen those forms of social sin which are actually the fruit of an accumulation of many personal sins. Obviously the real responsibility lies with individuals, given that the social structure as such is not the subject of moral acts. As the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia recalls:  “Whenever the Church speaks of situations of sin, or when she condemns as social sins certain situations or the collective behaviour of certain social groups, big or small, or even of whole nations and blocs of nations, she knows and she proclaims that such cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins…. The real responsibility, then, lies with individuals” (n. 16).

This was another point that Borg, remarkably, got quite wrong in his exegesis.  In another book (The God We Never Knew) Borg wrote:

The passion for social justice we see in the prophets is a protest against system evil.  Systemic evil is an important notion: it refers to the injustice built into the structures of the system itself.  Embedded in oppressive and exploitative social structures, systemic evil is a major source (perhaps the single greatest cause) of human suffering.

Importantly, the issue is not the goodness or wickedness of elite individuals.  Elites can be good people: devout, responsible, courageous, kind, gentle, charming, intelligent, committed to family, loyal to friends, and so forth.  Moreover, systemic evil is not necessarily intended even by some who benefit from it.  So the issue is not character flaws among the elites.  The issue, rather, is a system in which some people sleep on beds made of ivory while others end up being sold for the price of a pair of sandals.

Thus the passion for social justice does not focus on individual change but on structural change.  Of course, individual persons can be converted to a passion for justice (and such conversion is important), but when they are, their concern is not to maximize charitable giving within the existing structures but to change the structures themselves.  The prophets were not simply saying to the elites, “Be good people, more charitable to the poor, and worship the right God.”  They said, in Amos’s words, “Seek justice, and live.”  The problem was not individual sinfulness but a social system in which the poor of the land were brought to ruin.

Due respect to Borg, this exegesis is pretty much FUBAR (Google it).  The criticism of the prophets is unleashed precisely at individuals.  I grant that Borg is correct that the individuals in question (the elites) are being called to do more than increase tithes, but Borg’s insistence that the target was not individual sinfulness is remarkably wide of the mark.  To contend that the prophets were out to target social structures, as we use the term today, is a thoroughly anachronistic claim.  Ross Douthat, in Bad Religion, quotes the following gem from Saint Basil the Great:

The bread that you possess belongs to the hungry.  The clothes that you store in boxes, belong to the naked.  The shoes rotting by you, belong to the bare-foot.  The money that you hide belongs to anyone in need.  You wrong as many people as you could help.

Douthat then adds:

Note that Basil isn’t arguing for a slightly higher marginal tax rate to fund modest improvements in public service.  He’s passing judgment on individual sins and calling for individual repentance.

One who wishes to understand the Classical Christian understanding of what “individual repentance” means in this context could hardly do better than studying the works of St. John Chrysostom.  It is worth noting, by the way, that the saint did not favor wealth redistribution as some might think:

Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm.

Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold from the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first – and then they will joyfully share their wealth.

This position is in accordance with the prophets.  Borg’s vigorous insistence that “good” individuals are puppets of an evil “system” is not the Classical Christian position.  Classical Christianity asserts that all people are a mixture of good and evil, and that we cannot change the world unless hearts and minds are changed first.

What, then, IS the proper relationship between justice and charity according to the Church?  Here, I yield the floor to the Pope Emeritus, who discussed this subject in some detail in Deus Caritas Est. Here are the key snippets you need to know:

26. Since the nineteenth century, an objection has been raised to the Church’s charitable activity, subsequently developed with particular insistence by Marxism: the poor, it is claimed, do not need charity but justice. Works of charity—almsgiving—are in effect a way for the rich to shirk their obligation to work for justice and a means of soothing their consciences, while preserving their own status and robbing the poor of their rights. Instead of contributing through individual works of charity to maintaining the status quo, we need to build a just social order in which all receive their share of the world’s goods and no longer have to depend on charity. There is admittedly some truth to this argument, but also much that is mistaken. It is true that the pursuit of justice must be a fundamental norm of the State and that the aim of a just social order is to guarantee to each person, according to the principle of subsidiarity, his share of the community’s goods. This has always been emphasized by Christian teaching on the State and by the Church’s social doctrine. Historically, the issue of the just ordering of the collectivity had taken a new dimension with the industrialization of society in the nineteenth century. The rise of modern industry caused the old social structures to collapse, while the growth of a class of salaried workers provoked radical changes in the fabric of society. The relationship between capital and labour now became the decisive issue—an issue which in that form was previously unknown. Capital and the means of production were now the new source of power which, concentrated in the hands of a few, led to the suppression of the rights of the working classes, against which they had to rebel.

28. In order to define more accurately the relationship between the necessary commitment to justice and the ministry of charity, two fundamental situations need to be considered:

a) The just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics. As Augustine once said, a State which is not governed according to justice would be just a bunch of thieves: “Remota itaque iustitia quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia?”.[18] Fundamental to Christianity is the distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God (cf. Mt 22:21), in other words, the distinction between Church and State, or, as the Second Vatican Council puts it, the autonomy of the temporal sphere.[19] The State may not impose religion, yet it must guarantee religious freedom and harmony between the followers of different religions. For her part, the Church, as the social expression of Christian faith, has a proper independence and is structured on the basis of her faith as a community which the State must recognize. The two spheres are distinct, yet always interrelated.

Justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics. Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life: its origin and its goal are found in justice, which by its very nature has to do with ethics. The State must inevitably face the question of how justice can be achieved here and now. But this presupposes an even more radical question: what is justice? The problem is one of practical reason; but if reason is to be exercised properly, it must undergo constant purification, since it can never be completely free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests.

Here politics and faith meet. Faith by its specific nature is an encounter with the living God—an encounter opening up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason. But it is also a purifying force for reason itself. From God’s standpoint, faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly. This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.

The Church’s social teaching argues on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being. It recognizes that it is not the Church’s responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life. Rather, the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest. Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task which every generation must take up anew. As a political task, this cannot be the Church’s immediate responsibility. Yet, since it is also a most important human responsibility, the Church is duty-bound to offer, through the purification of reason and through ethical formation, her own specific contribution towards understanding the requirements of justice and achieving them politically.

The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.

b) Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable.[20] The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support. In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live “by bread alone” (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.

29. We can now determine more precisely, in the life of the Church, the relationship between commitment to the just ordering of the State and society on the one hand, and organized charitable activity on the other. We have seen that the formation of just structures is not directly the duty of the Church, but belongs to the world of politics, the sphere of the autonomous use of reason. The Church has an indirect duty here, in that she is called to contribute to the purification of reason and to the reawakening of those moral forces without which just structures are neither established nor prove effective in the long run.

The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society, on the other hand, is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity. So they cannot relinquish their participation “in the many different economic, social, legislative, administrative and cultural areas, which are intended to promote organically and institutionally the common good.” [21] The mission of the lay faithful is therefore to configure social life correctly, respecting its legitimate autonomy and cooperating with other citizens according to their respective competences and fulfilling their own responsibility.[22] Even if the specific expressions of ecclesial charity can never be confused with the activity of the State, it still remains true that charity must animate the entire lives of the lay faithful and therefore also their political activity, lived as “social charity”.[23]

The Church’s charitable organizations, on the other hand, constitute an opus proprium, a task agreeable to her, in which she does not cooperate collaterally, but acts as a subject with direct responsibility, doing what corresponds to her nature. The Church can never be exempted from practising charity as an organized activity of believers, and on the other hand, there will never be a situation where the charity of each individual Christian is unnecessary, because in addition to justice man needs, and will always need, love.

Collapsed into a pithy summary, the answer is this: the Church enunciates general teachings about what justice is, but the implementation (incarnation) of justice is a task for the laity, in the world of politics.  The Church Herself does not engage in justice advocacy, per se.  C.S. Lewis hit on this subject in Mere Christianity:

The second thing to get clear is that Christianity has not, and does not profess to have, a detailed political programme for applying “Do as you would be done by” to a particular society at a particular moment. It could not have. It is meant for all men at all times, and the particular programme which suited one place or time would not suit another. And, anyhow, that is not how Christianity works. When it tells you to feed the hungry it does not give you lessons in cookery. When it tells you to read the Scriptures it does not give you lessons in Hebrew and Greek, or even in English grammar. It was never intended to replace or supersede the ordinary human arts and sciences; it is rather a director which will set them all to the right jobs, and a source of energy which will give them all new life, if only they will put themselves at its disposal.

People say, “The Church ought to give us a lead.” That is true if they mean it in the right way, but false if the mean it in the wrong way. By the Church they ought to mean the whole body of practicing Christians. And when they say that the Church should give us a lead, they ought to mean that some Christians–those who happen to have the right talents — should be economists and statesmen, and that all economists and statesmen should be Christians, and that their whole efforts in politics and economics should be directed to putting “Do as you would be done by” in to action. If that happened, and if we others were really ready to take it, then we should find the Christian solution for our own social problems pretty quickly. But, of course, when they ask for a lead from the Church most people mean they want the clergy to put out a political programme. That is silly. The clergy are those particular people within the whole Church who have been specially trained and set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live forever: and we are asking them to do a quite different job for which they have not been trained. The job is really on us, on the laymen. The application of Christian principles, say, to trade unionism and education, must come from Christian trade unionists and Christian schoolmasters; just as Christian literature comes from Christian novelists and dramatists–not from the bench of bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels in their spare time.

Charity and justice are both thoroughly sacred and thoroughly Christian.  But they belong to different spheres, and the former occupies a special “place” in the Church that the latter does not.  Again, Pope Emeritus Benedict:

25. Thus far, two essential facts have emerged from our reflections:

a) The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable. For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.[17]

This three-fold responsibility of the Church is also acknowledged by the Catechism:

1070 In the New Testament the word “liturgy” refers not only to the celebration of divine worship but also to the proclamation of the Gospel and to active charity.6 In all of these situations it is a question of the service of God and neighbor. In a liturgical celebration the Church is servant in the image of her Lord, the one “leitourgos“;7 she shares in Christ’s priesthood (worship), which is both prophetic (proclamation) and kingly (service of charity):

Pace Borg & Co., charity stands “above” justice.  Charity is liturgy.  Then again, justice is a cardinal virtue and charity a theological virtue, so this really shouldn’t be news to anybody.  Charity participates in a special way in Christ that justice advocacy does not.  One more word from the Pope Emeritus:

a) Following the example given in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christian charity is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison, etc.

b) Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs.

The message of Classical Christianity is a tad jarring to us.  Yes, it is true, we are summoned to liberate the oppressed.  This task is incumbent on all of us who deal in the political process.  Yet, as noble as the quest for justice is, it plays second banana to charity, which is the practice of love in concrete situations (which are often unpleasant-in the words of Dorothy Day, the poor are ungrateful and smelly), and a special participation in the life of God.  We are not asked to choose between charity and justice (nor can we), but we must remember that love transcends and goes beyond mere justice, into the very heart of God.


The summary of this essay is that while justice advocacy is neither optional, nor incidental, it is not central to, nor is it the teleos of, the faith.  A sense of where it falls in the order of things can be found in the words of St. Augustine:

The turbulent have to be corrected, the faint-hearted cheered up, the weak supported; the Gospel’s opponents need to be refuted, its insidious enemies guarded against; the unlearned need to be taught, the indolent stirred up, the argumentative checked; the proud must be put in their place, the desperate set on their feet, those engaged in quarrels reconciled; the needy have to be helped, the oppressed to be liberated, the good to be encouraged, the bad to be tolerated; all must be loved.

Such is the Christian life.

Reblog: An honest and heartfelt exchange with a friend who feels that I’ve changed

From Mark Shea.  Worth a read.

Source: An honest and heartfelt exchange with a friend who feels that I’ve changed

NOTE: I offer this piece not as an endorsement of Shea’s self-defense, but rather to illustrate that anger, even when justified, can spiral out of control.  It is one thing, in Flannery O’Connor’s words, to shout to the “almost deaf,” but another to rage in futility.  One can, fairly easily, be consumed by the same anger they abhor.  I am not one for facile niceness, but I try hard to remain in the bounds of playful polemics and not be devoured by rage.  Hence, this is a cautionary tale.  “There but for the grace of God…”