Confessions (of a sort)

I rarely comment on my own personal “spirituality” on this blog, if-for no other reason-my story is decidedly boring compared to that of many others.  By “boring” I mean two things: First, my spiritual biography is utterly devoid of any supernatural interventions.  My conversion to Catholicism was not prompted by locutions, visions or even the feeling of a divine presence.  Similarly, as I’ll discuss below, I’m rather lousy when it comes to praying.  The concept of a “personal relationship” strikes me as strange; the idea of mystical union makes sense theoretically but theory is not reality.  At the end of the day, I simply have trouble praying.  What comes naturally to others (or so they claim at least!) I struggle with.

The other, and interrelated, reason my spiritual journey is boring is that it has largely been a quiet, interior (if you will) intellectual journey.  It has involved a number of ongoing conversations with many people over the years, but nothing along the lines of the various stories one finds in, say, Surprised by Truth (more of that anon).  I am acutely aware of the dangers of this-a faith that is confined primarily to the intellect and that has some trouble stepping outside the mind into the rest of life.  Not for nothing did Father Stephen Freeman’s post “Get Out of Your Mind” hit close to home!

I recently returned from my annual retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee, which I had (attempted) to use this year as an attempt to examine my spirituality a little more closely.  In no particular order here are a few observations and reflections from this year’s retreat:

I have virtually no sense of the supernatural.

As noted above, I’ve never had an experience in my own life that I felt was definitively any kind of supernatural intervention, with two possible exceptions.  The first was a dream I had over a decade ago from which I awoke unable to shake the impression I had just had a “real” conversation with my recently deceased grandmother; and the second I’ll discuss below.  Otherwise I simply have nothing to add.  I have no problem believing in miracles or the supernatural as such, but I cannot myself vouch for the existence of a dimension beyond this one.

This wouldn’t be much of an issue for me, were it not for the fact that I find myself often at a loss for words when talking to others.  For example, someone I know was recently describing to me an experience she described as “spiritual warfare.” I listened politely, and with genuine interest, but I found I really had nothing to say in response. I mentioned this in a conversation with a priest-monk this weekend, who said simply “Trust me, spiritual warfare is real.  Be grateful you do not know it firsthand.”

This priest also suggested that perhaps my “tone-deafness” to the supernatural was not something to be feared. Did not, he said, God become a human being in the Incarnation?  The essence of Christianity is to rejoice in becoming fully human-not in striving to become an angel. I must confess, this was a point of view I had not considered-though I had heard it articulated before by Orthodox writer Clark Carlton. Carlton remarked that though the essence of the Christian path is theosis (e.g. divinization) it is more important that one concentrate first on being a good human before developing an interest in the supernatural:

Yes, we are all creatures with orders to become God, as St. Basil says, but to do that we must first come to terms with what it means to be a creature in the first place.

Speaking of the saints, Carlton wryly noted

It’s all too easy for us to get caught up in reading ascetical literature and thinking about things like clairvoyance or bi-location. Frankly, I think the last thing anyone would want is for me to be in more than one place at once. What we need to focus on is the cultivation of the natural virtues and feelings.

From another angle, Br. Anthony (my longtime, if somewhat informal, spiritual director) had told me that supernatural experiences tend to impose rather severe burdens on those who receive them and are not something one should seek out. Wisdom there.

[Incidentally, I also have found James Arraj’s reflections on the proliferation of Marian apparitions, exorcisms and visions since Vatican II in his excellent book The Church, the Council and the Unconscious to be worth reading-while I don’t find his Jungian lens helpful he nonetheless makes many valid points. In any case, that is a subject for another day).

My prayer life is rather…Spartan.

During my meetings at the Abbey I remarked that my own prayer life is rather thin. Indeed, I feel a certain resonance with the piety of the Christian East, which is considerably less ornate than its Western counterpart. Clark Carlton dryly observed that Orthodox piety is more like that of the Baptists than the Roman Catholics-the latter having, in his words, “the Immaculate Heart of this and the Sacred Heart of that.” Along those lines I have not found the devotional life of Roman Catholicism particularly enriching. In one particular respect I have a very hard time wrapping my arms around the practice of Eucharistic Adoration-which, I hasten to add, is not in the a la Richard McBrien sense of disdain for those who practice it, but simply the fact that it awakens nothing within me.

On the other hand, I have found great value in the use of icons, in particular the Christ of Sinai (Christ Pantocrator), which I will return to below. Even then, however, I find spontaneous prayer-by which I mean prayer from the heart-an exceedingly difficult thing in the absence of any kind of supernatural “hint” that God is there. I finished Mother Teresa’s Come Be My Light not long ago, and I can relate quite easily to her sense of emptiness (albeit without having “begun with a bang”, so to speak). Rev. Rutledge has had some interesting thoughts on this:

With regard to Mother Teresa…she had not lost her faith. What she had lost was her youthful sense of the intimate presence of God. Those are two very different things. There is something important here for future generations of Christians. It is a mistake to encourage people to expect to feel God’s presence in their lives. Indeed, what we feel as the presence of God may be something else altogether. In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis wittily shows how the devil exploits expectations of high levels of religious feeling.

In recent decades, partly as a reaction against late 60s activism in the church, there has been a tremendous increase in teaching about “spirituality,” somewhat to the dismay of those (like me) who do not feel at all “spiritual” according to the prescribed modes and have never felt the presence of God. This current enthusiasm for spiritual exercises and disciplines mirrors the practice of the church of the first centuries, but — and this is crucial — it does not mirror the New Testament church. There is nothing in the New Testament about “spiritual journeys” or “faith journeys.” Prayer and fasting are indeed called for by our Lord, but not as a means of personal development. Jesus himself withdrew often, but this can be interpreted as his own uniquely Messianic, eschatological warfare. Paul does not recommend such a practice when writing to his churches, and the Epistles in general say remarkably little about such “spiritual” withdrawal. It is hard to imagine any of the apostles keeping a “spiritual journal.” Far more central to the New Testament is the work of evangelism and the stance of “watchfulness”—both of which suggest an alertly outward-looking, world-observing stance in which the Christian community discerns the signs of the times, rather than focusing inward on personal spiritual growth.

As many have noted, Mother Teresa’s life is an illustration of James’ saying, “By my works I will show you my faith” (2:18). The fact that some deserved criticism can be, and has been, brought to bear against her works does not weigh against the pertinence of the verse for her case. She did not allow her inner struggle to cause her to cease her work. In that sense she seems not only more human but also more heroic.

If Teresa had been a child of the Reformation…she might not have suffered so much. In the Scriptures there is an “objectivity” about faith (the Church Fathers knew this too, but it is clearer in the Reformers). Faith is not a feeling. I can honestly say that I have never “felt” the presence of God. What I have relied upon all my life is the truth and trustworthiness of God’s Word. Our lives as Christians are wholly dependent on the grace that comes to us from outside ourselves, not on our own religious proficiency. This central insight of the Reformation needs to be relearned every day; the motto semper reformanda always being reformed) refers to the power of the Word of God perpetually to overtake our mistakes and correct them.

I can, of course, relate to Rev. Rutledge on the mistaken emphasis on personal spirituality today, and like her I cannot say that I have “felt the presence of God.” That being said, unlike her this does drives me towards Catholicism rather than away from it. Most significantly I need the structured prayers of the Mass, the sacraments, the Liturgy of the Hours (always the highlight of my retreats at the Abbey) and, yes, the devotions (I do sometimes pray the Rosary). The structure of Catholic prayer is no vice; without it I’m not sure I could pray at all. I am not exaggerating when I say they are an essential part of my faith. And, unlike Rev. Rutledge, God’s Word by itself is NOT enough for me; I believe a far stronger ‘objectivity’ is found in the truth and trustworthiness of the Church. I don’t, by the way, see that as exclusive with a commitment to ongoing reformation-but then again, neither did Avery Dulles.

Contemplative prayer terrifies me.

What, then, about contemplative prayer? David Bentley Hart, in his delightful castigations of the New Atheists, has repeatedly remarked that if one really wishes to find the Living God then one should seek Him where is to be found. In Christian tradition (as in several others as Hart has noted) that is the pathway of contemplative prayer. Here, I must confess, my sense is not one of frustration but rather terror. Not long ago, while praying the Rosary, I experienced for the first time what I can only describe as an empty mind. The prayer had apparently done its job and vacated the mind. And it was absolutely terrifying. It lasted no more than a few seconds, but the experience was so utterly foreign I couldn’t shake it for quite a while.

While at the Abbey I spent a little time praying before a large icon of the Christ of Sinai, Rosary in hand. Rather than praying the Rosary, however, I was reciting the Jesus prayer (there is that Eastern bent I described). Again, my mind began to go dark. And staring into the famously asymmetrical eyes of the icon I was again overcome by a sense of terror. Indeed, for a few moments, I could have sworn the eyes of the icon were actually moving, that the outstretched hand of the icon disappeared before a moment. I was more than a little rattled by the experience.

This was my second “maybe supernatural” experience and the following day I was far from convinced it was anything of the kind. The room was dimly lit and I was tired, which-coupled with the exceptional uniqueness of the icon-could very easily make for an optical illusion. Even so, I still couldn’t shake the fact that the experience generated was not the sense of peace one reads about in most contemporary books today-but one of terror. I described this to the priest I was meeting with, who (I was actually relieved to hear) immediately concurred that my reaction is the right one.

He even (gently) slapped the currently fashionable practice of “Centering Prayer” as effectively missing the point on contemplation, given how many people today talk about getting “20 minutes of CP in a day and whatnot” (paraphrased). I have defended Fr. Thomas Keating on this blog in the past, and while I am still inclined to believe that his intentions were legitimate the Centering Prayer movement has little in common with my true contemplation. True contemplation, my advisor explained, is given, one cannot summon it. Rev. Rutledge would be proud-as would James Arraj, who has gently critiqued Fr. Keating on the same grounds.

On a final note, my advisor observed that the human mind is not made to be empty, hence why I had experienced such disorientation. I was reminded of how in the Christian East the practice of Hesycha requires a significant amount of preparation, and can, indeed, be dangerous to the unitiated. My advisor remarked this in part because it may open one up to demonic influence, but could also, less dramatically but equally seriously, drive one crazy.

Catholicism is both liberation and a burden.

My final point is that Catholicism offers both a powerful sense of liberation and great comfort; and yet at the same time imposes new burdens. As I have written before, having crossed the Tiber I cannot think go back to looking at things the way I did before. I am not able to blithely dismiss or ignore those parts of the faith that I find challenging, frustrating or just downright incomprehensible (and there are still plenty of those). I have been reminded of the expression (of Spider-Man fame) “With great power comes great responsibility.” I haven’t exactly been given great power (there is no bi-location for me in the immediate future), so perhaps I can restate it this way: “For those who have been given the mind to understand, much is expected.” My Grandfather also described me as having a “spiritual sense” that was unusual for my generation. I’m not sure that it is necessarily unusual (if it is it is hardly confined to my generation), nor am I spiritual in the sense most people would recognize as I have been ranting about here (if anything it is like annoying hunger pangs I can’t easily quench).

All that said I believe my Grandfather saw something I now understand acutely: I am not the kind of person who accepts lightly what I am told, nor can I function well with the superficial spirituality that has characterized our age. To the former point I once thought this made a “free-thinker” and as such my writings attracted throngs of people who were equally repelled by pat answers. Yet, the latter point eventually became clear to me: A spirituality that amounted to little more than my own free-thoughts wasn’t worth the paper it wasn’t printed on (blogging). My faith was no bigger than own exceedingly limited imagination. I learned quickly there is no spiritual nourishment in such an approach.

And so, my boring, nondescript, interior-intellectual journey eventually took me where I thought it never would-across the Tiber. Today I find myself having to face head-on those parts of the Church I would rather ignore-be it teachings on subjects like homosexuality and contraception that confuse me as it does most people today, or simply trying to find a place in the Church where I belong. I mean this literally-last weekend I attended the first-ever “Men’s Conference” in the Rochester Diocese, which featured Tim Staples, Hector Molina and Danny Abramowicz as guest speakers.

To say that I felt out of place at the conference would be an understatement. While I readily grant that the Church in the United States has had an issue with “masculine spirituality” in recent years the hyper-masculine approach of the conference (which combined a very evangelical zeal with sports metaphors) left me wanting (at one point in “protest” I walked out and bought a book by Edith Stein from one of the vendors). Tim Staples remarked that as a youth minister his strategy had always been to pursue the “alpha-males” in youth groups and thus reel in everyone else (a strategy that would have left me in the outer darkness). If this is to be what characterizes the Catholicism of men of my generation I will be more isolated in the Church than I was outside it (my conversion to Catholicism horrified more than a few people who had adored my writing when I was a “free-thinker”, which left me without much of a network coming in).

Lest this sound like excessive lamenting, I conclude by emphasizing I in no way regret my decision to enter the Church, much less being as idiosyncratic as I am. If anything, writing has become much more fun, more stimulating, more enriching (OK you get the picture) now that I am working things out in the light of the Magisterium. There is, paradoxically, more freedom in the folds of Rome than outside. This was pointed out to me by my priest advisor over the weekend and as I was walking back to the reatreathouse I realized “By God, he’s right!” The reason, of course, is that freedom of thought is more than mental auto-eroticism (a topic I’ll explore more in the near future).

In any case, I conclude with a little parable told by Annie Dillard. A missionary and an Eskimo are engaged in conversation. Eskimo: If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell? Missionary: No. Eskimo: Then why did you tell me?

Avoiding, for now, the soteriological implications of that little parable (Karl Rahner eat your heart out) I will say I had been thinking the same thing while at the Abbey. I realize now, that though there is a heightened call to responsibility that comes with the “awareness” I’ve been blessed/cursed with (I prefer that saying I’m more “spiritual”, the whole point of this post is that I’m anything but) it is not the end of the story. The awareness and responsibility brings with it a sense of great freedom that can only be described as exhilarating.  That the journey that is the Way, the Truth and the Life should not always be easy but sometimes scary is to be expected.  Even so, I can already tell the journey is worth it and I am grateful that I have been called to make it.

Deo gratias.

Between the Church and the Abyss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES:

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

Science and a Meta-narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Dennett: Let’s talk about transcendent…

Wright: Uh-oh.

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

Wright: Sort of a Platonic thing…

Daniel Dennett: Yes yes a sort of Platonism…

Wright: We happened upon it’s truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) Why believe then?

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

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

The American Religious Experiment

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

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

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

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

Father Stephen Freeman has brilliantly described how this happened:

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

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

David Bentley Hart, in his essay Religion and America writes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Divine Revelations?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

NOTES:

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

Great minds…

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

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

I may be less insane than I thought!

A Wise Thought from C.S. Lewis

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

I hear you sir…I hear you.