The Inversion of Sacrifice

One of the small, and somewhat perverse, pleasures in my life is reading propaganda.  There is something about the the almost limitless capacity of the human mind to for self-deception that genuinely fascinates me.  In a way, this the only true source of human originality.  One source of such material that never disappoints are those tracts put out by the vehemently anti-Catholic Jack Chick.  Whether Mr. Chick actually exists or not is apparently something of an open question, and while some see value in his tracts (including, apparently, Frederica Mathewes-Green) I find him to represent that segment of evangelical/fundamentalist Protestantism that is vile, amusing, pitiable and contemptible in almost equal measure.  As I see it, the best response to the Chick tracts is a website that parodies his work by replacing Chick’s language with…well, let’s just say, the other end of the spectrum.

In one such parody, Dead to Rights, Chick’s cartoon avatar confronts God in the afterlife and is given a dressing down on Christian doctrine of the substitutionary atonement/penal substitution:


I must confess, for more than a few years I absolutely relished this line.  What could possibly be more insane than a belief that God sacrificed Himself to Himself, all so He could change a rule that He made Himself?  To call such a belief stark raving mad would be an understatement.  In case it isn’t apparent, the concept of substitutionary atonement has been a longtime problem area for me-along with the scandal of particularity and the magisterium it was one of the most difficult pills for me to swallow in my embrace of Catholicism.

And, ironically, I still agree with the Chick parody: The belief that the doctrine of the Atonement is the aforementioned idea that God sacrifices Himself to Himself out of an apparent pathological commitment to self-consistency is a very daft idea.  Indeed, it is believed by many Christians today, in various forms.  However, the actual teaching of classical Christianity on the atonement is far more complex, and far less crazy, than the Chickian summary.  In this rather long essay I intend to take a somewhat unusual angle on the atonement, primarily by emphasizing that the Christian concept effectively turns the Chickian view-the stereotypical view of penal substitution-completely on its head.  The Cross is the inversion of what we normally think of as sacrifice.  Once we see this the radicalism of the Gospel becomes ever more apparent.

Let us begin.


First, I am going to offer a few, somewhat unrelated, quotes on the atonement so as to dispel the uglier aspects of the Chickian view.  First, I will let Frederica redeem herself from her earlier defense of Chick (that was about 95% a joke):

Christ is also a sacrificial offering to the Father. The author of Hebrews tells how Christ’s sacrifice completed and replaced the temple sacrifices of bulls and goats. The earlier covenant, between God and his people under Moses, was “ratified” by an offering of blood. Moses sprinkled the tent, the worship implements, and the people with “the blood of the covenant which God commanded you” (Heb. 9: 20). The author of Hebrews goes on, “Under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9: 22).

But, he continues, this was not effective, and never could be: “It is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (Heb. 10: 4). Then he ascribes to Christ the words in Psalm 39/ 40: 6– 8:

Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,

But a body you have prepared for me;

In burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.

Then I said, “See, God, I have come to do your will, O God

(in the scroll of the book it is written of me).” (NRSV)*

When Christ enters the body his Father prepared for him, the futile, repetitive shedding of animal blood is brought to an end. “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10: 10).

Christ’s death on the cross was an offering to the Father— but it wasn’t a payment. This is a distinction we don’t usually catch, because we don’t make sacrifices anymore. But it was never the case that the Father needed animal blood before he could forgive his people. Rather, the people needed to offer it.

Sinners needed to make a costly gift as evidence to themselves and everyone that they were sincere; they really were sorry for their sin, and truly desired to renounce it. The offered blood “ratified” the covenant; it demonstrated the human partners’ commitment to that covenant. It was a gift, the kind given to heal a relationship.

Walter Kasper, in his book Mercy, adds:

Here what matters most of all is to understand correctly the idea of proxy and substitutionary atonement.  That is not easy, especially for us today.  For the idea of a proxy appears to contradict a person’s responsibility for his or her own actions.  How, it is asked, is another supposed to be able to act a proxy for us, unless we have explicitly commissioned him for this purpose?  It appears completely incomprehensible-in fact, it amounts to a serious offense-that, according to this view, God wanted to sacrifice his own son for the redemption of the world.  What kind of God is that, it is further asked, who walks over a corpse, over the corpse of his own son?  For many people today these questions count as a moral reproach and a fundamental argument against Christianity.

For this reason, liberal theology attempted to interpret the idea of substitutionary atonement in terms of the idea of Jesus’ solidarity with humanity, especially his partisanship on behalf of the oppressed and disadvantaged; and it sought to replace the former idea with the latter.  Some representatives of more recent Catholic theology have also taken this path.  This “soft” interpretation, however, does not do justice to the profundity and force of the biblical statements.  The potency and intensity of the biblical testimony is revealed only when one considers the full depth and gravity of not only the social, but also the metaphysical misery-and, concomitantly, the total alienation and complete loss of well-being-into which we humans have fallen through sin.

According to the biblical understanding, sinners have forfeited their life and deserve death by virtue of their sin.  The wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23).  According to the Bible’s communal or “corporate” understanding of the human race, this wretchedness affects not only individuals, but also the people or all of humankind…the idea of substitutionary atonement can be understood only in the context of this corporate understanding.  On the basis of this common entanglement in sin and common subjection to death, no individual can brag about being able to pull him or herself out of the morass with his or her own power.  We can only be freed from sin and death when God, who is Lord over life and death, wills, in his mercy, not death, but rather life, when he again gives life a chance and makes life possible anew.  No human being, but God alone, can deliver us from our deepest adversity, the affliction of death.

With the idea of substitutionary atonement, it is not-as a prevalent misunderstanding suggests-a matter of a vengeful God needing a victim so that his wrath can be assuaged.  On the contrary, by willing the death of his son on account of his mercy, God takes back his wrath and provides space for his mercy and thereby also for life.  By taking our place through his son, he takes the life-destroying effects of sin upon himself in order to bestow upon us life anew.

Keep the general themes of Cardinal Kasper’s words in mind.  We will return to theme.  Next, I offer a few words from James Alison:

Here I want to make a little aside: normally, in the theory understanding of substitutionary atonement, we understand the substitution to work as follows: God was angry with humanity; Jesus says, “Here am I”; God needed to loose a lightning rod, so Jesus said, “You can loose it on me”, substituting himself for us. Boom: lightning rod here: sacrifice: God happy. “Got my blood-lust out of the way!”

The interesting thing is that it worked in an entirely different way: what Jesus was doing was substitute himself for a series of substitutions. The human sacrificial system typically works in the following way: the most primitive forms of sacrifice are human sacrifices. After people begin to become aware of what they are doing this gets transferred to animal sacrifices. After all it’s easier to sacrifice animals because they don’t fight back so much; whereas if you have to run a sacrificial system that requires you to keep getting victims, usually you have to run a war machine in order to provide enough victims to keep the system going; or you have to keep the pet “pharmakons” around the place – convenient people to sacrifice, who live in splendour, and have a thoroughly good time, until a time of crisis when you need people to sacrifice, and then you sacrifice them. But this is an ugly thing, and people are, after all, human; and so animals began to be sacrificed instead. And in some cultures from animals you get to more symbolic forms of sacrifice, like bread and wine. You can find any variation on the theme of sacrificial substitution.

The interesting thing is that Jesus takes exactly the inverse route; and he explains to us that he is going in the inverse route. “The night before he was betrayed…” what did he do? He said, “Instead of the bread and the wine, this is the lamb, and the lamb is a human being.” In other words he substituted a human being back into the centre of the sacrificial system as the priest, thus showing what the sacrificial system was really about, and so bringing it to an end.

Next, Fleming Rutledge:

This is the background of the Incarnation and mission of Jesus, the Lamb of God.  He comes into a world full of religion, full of sacrifice, full of ritual as old as the race itself.  In all these sacrifices, even including the ones that were instituted by the Holy One of Israel himself, there was a built-in problem.

In the sacrifices of the old covenant, precisely because they are offered over and over again, there is a daily reminder that sin continues.  All over the world, throughout the history of humankind, sacrifices of all conceivable kinds have been offered to the gods -everything from flowers thrown into the sea to the blood of animals to human flesh.  All over the world, throughout the history of mankind, there has been a sense that something was not right, something was missing, somebody wanted more, further compensation or propiation or expiation had to be attempted.  And then it would have to be attempted again the week after, and the week after that…What sort of sacrifice would be efficacious once and for all?

Finally, I offer the following thoughts from the Pope Emeritus (Introduction to Christianity):

Many devotional texts actually force one to think that Christian faith in the Cross imagines a God whose unrelenting righteousness demanded a human sacrifice, the sacrifice of his own Son, and one turns away in horror from a righteousness whose sinister wrath makes the message of love incredible.

This is as false as it is widespread.  In the Bible the Cross does not appear as part of a mechanism of injured right; on the contrary, in the Bible the Cross is quite the reverse: it is the expression of the radical nature of the love that gives itself completely, of the process in which one is what one does and does what one is; it is the expression of a life that is completely being for others.  To anyone who looks more closely, the scriptural theology of the Cross represents a real revolution as compared with the notions of expiation and redemption entertained by non-Christian religions, though it certainly cannot be denied that in the later Christian consciousness this revolution was largely neutralized and its whole scope seldom recognized.  In other world religions, expiation usually means the restoration of the damaged relationship with God by means of expiatory actions on the part of men.  Almost all religions center around the problem of expiation: they arise out of man’s knowledge of his guilt before God and signify the attempt to remove this feeling of guilt, to surmount the guilt through conciliatory actions offered up to God.  The expiatory activity by which men hope to conciliate the Divinity and to put him in a gracious mood stands at the heart of the history of religion.

In the New Testament the situation is almost completely reversed.  It is not man who goes to God with a compensatory gift, but God who comes to man, in order to give to him.  He restores disturbed right on the initiative of his own power to love, by making unjust man just again, the dead living again, through his own creative mercy.  His righteousness is grace; it is active righteousness, which sets crooked man right, that is, bends him straight, makes him correct.  Here we stand before the twist that Christianity put into the history of religion.  The New Testament does not say that men conciliate God, as we really ought to expect, since, after all, it is they who have failed, not God.  It says, on the contrary, that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19).  This is truly something new, something unheard of-the starting point of Christian existence and the center of New Testament theology of the Cross: God does not wait until the guilty come to be reconciled; he goes to meet them and reconciles them.  Here we can see the true direction of the Incarnation, of the Cross.

What all of these quotes demonstrate is that there is something quite different-quite radical-about the Cross.  Christianity is not a typical story of a sacrifice being made to the gods.  On the contrary: In Christianity the initiative, the sacrifice, is made by God, in a demonstration of love (self-sacrifice, we learn, is the very essence of love).  The Cross was intended to end blood sacrifice once and for all, though perhaps not sacrifice altogether (more of that anon).  Most provocatively of all, classical Christianity makes clear that the sacrifice of the Cross is not for God’s benefit, much less is it necessary to meet some “need” on the Divine side.  Sacrifice is a human need, in fact a defining anthropological feature.  In fact, as we will see, sacrifice goes even deeper than anthropology.  Suffice it to say, in Christianity God’s initiative, for our salvation, exploits our religio-sacrificial systems and blows them apart from the inside.  This is far deeper, far more profound, than most of us realize.


Next, I’d like to reflect a bit on what our concept of sacrifice is.  To make this point, I will turn to a rather surprising source: The (atheist) philosopher John Gray.  Gray is one of relatively few contemporary atheists who understands that the concept of “progress” is as mythical as any religion, and without some sense of transcendence we can only understand human beings as a species of animal for which barbarism is inevitable.  In his latest book, The Soul of the Marionette, Gray muses on human freedom and barbarism.  He writes:

In order to feel a lack of freedom you must be a self-conscious being.  But a puppet is a thing of wood and cloth, a human artifact without feeling or consciousness.  A puppet has no soul.  As a result, it cannot know it is unfree.

Humans cannot endure the grace of being such an animal.  Neither the beast, nor the puppet, is cursed with self-reflective thought.

How could a puppet-a mechanical device without any trace of conscious awareness-be freer than a human being?  Is it not this very awareness that marks us off from the rest of the world and enables us to choose our own path in life?  …the automatism of the puppet is far from being a condition of slavery.  Compared with that of humans, the life of the marionette looks more like an enviable state of freedom.

For the Aztecs the gods were forces of havoc in the world.  Forever at risk of disruption, order was a thin veil stretched over chaos.  No increase of knowledge or understanding could deliver human life from primordial disorder.

A belief in underlying chaos underpinned order through Aztec society.  The violence of the state mirrored that of the cosmos and the gods.  The Aztecs felt no shame in making a spectacle of killing.  The population rejoiced ‘in the lines of the victims dragged or driven up the wide steps of the pyramids to meet the waiting priests…feted through the streets, to dance and die before the deities they represented…The killings, whether large or small, were frequent: part of the pulse of living.’

Such practices cannot help evoking horror.  A way of life based on human slaughter can only be a type of barbarism.  But barbarians may have something to teach those who think themselves civilized, and in this case they show how tenuous are the assumptions on which western thinkers based their hopes of peace.  Even the greatest realists among these thinkers base their account of order in society an account of human motivation that is far removed from reality.

Gray lucidly points out two things about humanity that are important for understanding our religio-sacrifical systems: Our consciousness is cursed with a burdensome self-reflectiveness that has alienated us from the ebb and flow of nature, and some of the most barbaric practices of sacrifice (the human sacrifices of the Aztecs) were in fact closer to nature (both human and otherwise) than us moderns are comfortable admitting (though, of course, the prophets of modernity are no less willing to make sacrifices of their own).  Gray’s observation is hardly unique-intellectual lightweights like John Shelby Spong have made the same observation (I can think of no more charitable way to put it-Spong’s weak “theology” essentially amounts to saying that religion was a mechanism we invented to deal with our realization of impending death and no more).

David Bentley Hart draws out in further detail what Gray is describing.  In his book The Doors of the Sea he acknowledges the beauty of the world, but adds

But at the same time, all the splendid loveliness of the natural world is everywhere attended-and indeed preserved-by death.  All life feeds on life, each creature must yield its place in time to another, and at the heart of nature is a perpetual struggle to survive and increase at the expense of other beings.  It is as if the entire cosmos were somehow predatory, a single great organism nourishing itself upon the death of everything to which it gives birth, creating and devouring all things with a terrible and impressive majesty.  Nature squanders us with such magnificent prodigality that it is hard not to think that something hideous and abysmal must abide in the depths of life.

However one chooses to interpret it, the cosmos as we know it is obviously a closed economy of life and death.

To put the matter starkly, nature is a cycle of sacrifice, and religion has often been no more than an attempt to reconcile us to this reality.  As rational beings, we are conscious of a certain spiritual dignity or freedom or abnormality in our nature that has estranged us from this unbroken cosmic circle, that has made us historical beings, that has burdened us with an awareness of past and future, so with apprehension and grief; often sacrificial ceremonies and myths merely soothe the anguish of that estrangement by seeming to unite us again to the perennial order of all things.

In the Beauty of the Infinite he adds:

Totality is, of necessity, an economy, a circulation of substance, credit, power, and debt, a closed cycle of violence, a perpetual oscillation between order and chaos, form and indeterminacy.  The myth of the cosmos as a precarious equilibrium of countervailing forces, an island of order amidst an infinite ocean of violent energy…belongs principally to a sacral order that seeks to contain nature’s violence with the stabilizing forms of a more orderly kind of violence: the sheer waste and destructiveness of the cosmos must be held at bay and controlled, by a motion at once apotropaic-repelling chaos by appeasing its chthonian energies, and rationalizing them in structures of Apollonian order-and economic-recuperating what is lost or sacrificed in the form of a transcendent credit, a numinous power reinforcing the regime that sacrifice serves.

The notion that the natural world has a “sacrificial” or “violent” character to it, while not something that we often reflect on today, is in fact quite obvious once we look a bit deeper.  In his book Virus X Dr. Frank Ryan notes that the very essence of nature is “violent”:

The universe is surely not benign.  The night sky, so seemingly peaceful, is permeated by unimaginable scenes of violence, where stars explode into supernovas and galaxies collide.  We cannot forsake our future to chance, for the roulette wheel is the red tooth and claw of evolution.

Setting aside Dr. Ryan’s characteristically modern optimism about being able to beat the “roulette wheel” of evolution (I expect Gray would reply by saying that the game is rigged and the house will win), we must contend with the fact that there is a certain dreadful barbarism in nature.  On at least some level, we recoil in horror.  Annie Dillard makes this point humorously in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

This [natural] world running on chance and death, careening blindly from nowhere to nowhere, somehow produced wonderful us.  I came from the world, I crawled out of a set of amino acids, and now I must whirl around and shake my fist at that sea and cry Shame!…Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I am a freak…There is not a person in the world that behaves as badly as praying mantises.  But wait, you say, there is no right or wrong in nature; right or wrong is a human concept!  Precisely!  We are moral creatures in an amoral world…Or consider the alternative…It is only human feeling that is freakishly amiss…All right then-it is our emotions that are amiss.  We are freaks, the world is fine, and let us all go have lobotomies to restore us to a natural state.  We can leave…lobotomized, go back to the creek, and live on its banks as untroubled as any muskrat or reed.  You first.

Of course, what this picture leaves out is that human nature is hardly a glowing beacon of moral light in an amoral tempest, there is as much chaos and violence within us as outside of us.  In Hart’s words:

…humanity is no less a part of the natural order than earthquakes and floods, and the human propensity for malice should be no less a scandal to the conscience of the metaphysical optimist than the most violent convulsions of the physical world.  What else human evil is, it is-considered apart from any religious doctrine-a cosmic constant, ceaselessly pouring forth from hidden springs of brute impulse and aimless will, driven by some deep prompting of nature as we know it, and so it raises all the same questions concerning the world and its maker that are raised by natural disasters.

What a curse, indeed, it is to be human.  What a curse to be burdened with a level of consciousness that makes acutely aware of the violence of nature, of the violence latent within ourselves.  What a curse to be burdened with the awareness of death.  It is on this foundation, Hart insists, that we must understand religio-sacrificial thinking.  The essence of sacrifice, in no small part, is nothing more than an observation of how nature works and an effort to anesthetize the curse of our consciousness so that we can again re-enter the rhythms of the world.

It is no surprise, therefore, that so much of ancient religion was barbaric, for the simple reason that nature is barbaric.  Gray, more than most atheists of our day, understands the futility of a modernism that denies, minimizes or insists we can transcend of our own volition, the barbarism of nature.  The ancients understood, far better than the prophets of post-Enlightenment thinking, the problems that accompany being human in this world.  There is, of course, a third way between the resigned barbarism of the ancients and the willful blindness of us moderns, when it comes to this problem.  That way is the Way of the Cross.


Christianity, at its roots, asserts two things about reality that are somewhat paradoxical (well, we assert much there than two).  The two assertions here, however, are these.  First, there is a sacrificial character to reality that is a good thing.  And second, we live in a fallen world-both our consciousness, and the nature that surrounds us, are in, for all intents and purposes broken.  I have previously mentioned that C.S. Lewis had spoken of a principle that he called “vicariousness.”  Quoting from Miracles, I will let Lewis elaborate on what we calls

 …a principle very deep-rooted in Christianity: what may be called the principle of Vicariousness.  The Sinless Man suffers for the sinful, and, in their degree, all good men for all bad men. And this Vicariousness—no less than Death and Rebirth or Selectiveness—is also a characteristic of Nature. Self-sufficiency, living on one’s own resources, is a thing impossible in her realm. Everything is indebted to everything else, sacrificed to everything else, dependent on everything else. And here too we must recognize that the principle is in itself neither good nor bad. The cat lives on the mouse in a way I think bad: the bees and the flowers live on one another in a more pleasing manner. The parasite lives on its ‘host’: but so also the unborn child on its mother. In social life without Vicariousness there would be no exploitation or oppression; but also no kindness or gratitude. It is a fountain both of love and hatred, both of misery and happiness. When we have understood this we shall no longer think that the depraved examples of Vicariousness in Nature forbid us to suppose that the principle itself is of divine origin.

Throughout this doctrine it is, of course, implied that Nature is infested with evil. Those great key-principles which exist as modes of goodness in the Divine Life, take on, in her operations, not merely a less perfect form (that we should, on any view, expect) but forms which I have been driven to describe as morbid or depraved. And this depravity could not be totally removed without the drastic remaking of Nature. Complete human virtue could indeed banish from human life all the evils that now arise in it from Vicariousness and Selectiveness and retain only the good: but the wastefulness and painfulness of nonhuman Nature would remain—and would, of course, continue to infect human life in the form of disease. And the destiny which Christianity promises to man clearly involves a ‘redemption’ or ‘remaking’ of Nature which could not stop at Man, or even at this planet. We are told that ‘the whole creation’ is in travail, and that Man’s rebirth will be the signal for hers. This gives rise to several problems, the discussion of which puts the whole doctrine of the Incarnation in a clearer light.

In the first place, we ask how the Nature created by a good God comes to be in this condition? By which question we may mean either how she comes to be imperfect—to leave ‘room for improvement’ as the schoolmasters say in their reports—or else, how she comes to be positively depraved. If we ask the question in the first sense, the Christian answer (I think) is that God, from the first, created her such as to reach her perfection by a process in time. He made an Earth at first ‘without form and void’ and brought it by degrees to its perfection. In this, as elsewhere, we see the familiar pattern—descent from God to the formless Earth and reascent from the formless to the finished. In that sense a certain degree of ‘evolutionism’ or ‘developmentalism’ is inherent in Christianity. So much for Nature’s imperfection; her positive depravity calls for a very different explanation. According to the Christians this is all due to sin: the sin both of men and of powerful, non-human beings, super-natural but created. The unpopularity of this doctrine arises from the widespread Naturalism of our age—the belief that nothing but Nature exists and that if anything else did she is protected from it by a Maginot Line—and will disappear as this error is corrected. To be sure, the morbid inquisitiveness about such beings which led our ancestors to a pseudo-science of Demonology, is to be sternly discouraged: our attitude should be that of the sensible citizen in wartime who believes that there are enemy spies in our midst but disbelieves nearly every particular spy story. We must limit ourselves to the general statement that beings in a different, and higher ‘Nature’ which is partially interlocked with ours have, like men, fallen and have tampered with things inside our frontier. The doctrine, besides proving itself fruitful of good in each man’s spiritual life, helps to protect us from shallowly optimistic or pessimistic views of Nature. To call her either ‘good’ or ‘evil’ is boys’ philosophy. We find ourselves in a world of transporting pleasures, ravishing beauties, and tantalising possibilities, but all constantly being destroyed, all coming to nothing. Nature has all the air of a good thing spoiled.

I included the quotations at the end about demonic influence on the universe, because I myself actually believe that the universe has been under the influence of dark, unseen powers (something that would utterly shock many people who know me).  That, however, is not the point here (by the way what Lewis describes as “developmentalism” is perfectly compatible with paragraph # 310 of the Catechism).  Whether one likes the language of demonology or not, Lewis has explained well the classical Christian assessment of nature: It is a good thing gone bad.  The sense that our consciousness is out of place in this world, according to classical Christianity, is 100% correct.

With this understanding we must see the idea of sacrifice, and with it the Cross, in a new light.  As I so often do, I yield the floor to the Pope Emeritus (Introduction to Christianity):

Being a Christian means essentially changing over from being for oneself to being for one another.

John expressed the whole thing in an image borrowed from nature…the horizon widens out beyond anthropology and salvation to include the cosmic: what is here called the basic structure of Christian life already represents, at bottom, the stamp of the creation itself.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24).  Even on the cosmic plane the law holds good that life comes only through death, through loss of self.  What is thus hinted at in the creation is fulfilled in man and finally in the man par excellence, Jesus Christ: by embracing the fate of the grain of wheat, by going through the process of being sacrificed, by letting himself be broken down and by losing himself, he opens up access to true life.  The findings of the history of religion, which precisely at this point approach very close to the testimony of the Bible, would also justify one in saying that the world lives on sacrifice.  Those great myths that assert that the cosmos was built up out of an original sacrifice and that the cosmos only goes on existing through self-sacrifice, that it is dependent on sacrifice, are her confirmed as true and valid.

What Ratzinger is describing here is what Catholics refer to as “grace perfecting nature.”  Put another way, on one level the Cross works with the grain of the universe, embracing the principle of vicariousness (note how close Ratzinger and Lewis are in their verbiage).  Ratzinger channels Lewis in speaking of the “good dreams” of those ancient religions-those religions burdened with barbaric understandings of sacrifice nonetheless had an understanding of the nature of reality that was foreshadowing the Cross.

But the Cross is not merely an affirmation of the nature we know.  Far from it.  Even in embracing the way of sacrifice, Christ was also taking on a fallen and depraved nature at its very roots.  Hart, in The Doors of the Sea, explains:

The cross of Christ is not, after all, simply an eternal validation of pain and death, but their overthrow. If all the tribulations of this world were to be written off as calculably necessary contributions to redemption – part of the great “balance” of things – then Christ’s sacrifice would not be a unique saving act so much as the metaphysical ground for a universe of “sacrifice;’ wherein suffering and death are part of the sublime and inevitable fabric of finitude; and divine providence would be indistinguishable from fate.

…how radically we must understand the sacrifice of Christ on the cross not as an act of divine impotence but of divine power. The cross most definitely is not an instance of God submitting himself to an irresistible force so as to define himself in his struggle with nothingness or so as to be “rescued” from his impassibility by becoming our fellow sufferer; but neither is it a vehicle whereby God reconciles either himself or us to death. Rather, he subverts death, and makes a way through it to a new life. The cross is thus a triumph of divine apatheia, limitless and immutable love sweeping us up into itself, taking all suffering and death upon itself without being changed, modified, or defined by it, and so destroying its power and making us, by participation in Christ, “more than conquerors” (Rom. 8:37). God does not simply submit himself to the cycle of natural necessity or to the dialectic of historical necessity but shatters the power of both, and thereby overthrows the ancient principalities, the immemorial empire of death. Easter utterly confounds the “rulers of this age” (i Cor. 2:8), and in fact reverses the verdict they have pronounced upon Christ, thereby revealing ing that the cosmic, sacred, political, and civic powers of all who condemn Christ have become tyranny, falsehood, and injustice. Easter is an act of “rebellion” against all false necessity and all illegitimate or misused authority, all cruelty and heartless chance. It liberates us from servitude to and terror before the “elements:” It emancipates us from fate. It overcomes the “world:’ Easter should make rebels of us all.

The Cross, in other words, subverts and destroys the barbaric economy of sacrifice that simply “goes along with” the fallen world.  Our understanding of sacrifice is blown to bits from the inside.  God has used the fallen nature of the world, and our own flawed systems of sacrifice, to open the way of salvation.  Indeed, it should make rebels of us all.  Ratzinger and Hart, in other words, are each speaking to the opposite poles of the paradox that Lewis describes.


What is it like, then, to live the Christian Way, where the Cross is seen as using and subverting our notions of religio-sacrifice to point the way beyond the vagaries of this fallen world?  Well, it changes religion for one (blood sacrifices come to an end).  For another, to use the words of James Alison, we are faced with

…a real anthropological event, something which has had definitive effects in the sphere of being human, one which has not left everything the same.

I offer, in summation, two thoughts on what this new way of being of human entails.  First, it is a path guided by what the Bible calls Wisdom.  Rowan Williams offers us some valuable insight:

One of the paradoxes of what is called the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament is that it returns constantly to the idea of wisdom’s inaccessibility. It can’t be bought; it can’t be discovered lying around; it can’t even be unearthed by effort and skill. The book of Job presents the most ironic conclusion of all— the wisdom of God is seen only in the full range of the world’s variety, including its arbitrariness, its senselessness. The wise Creator savagely boasts to Job of the lack of moral order in things, when Job has demanded evidence of justice. The very literature that celebrates the perception of harmony in things ends up subverting its own language. The more you train yourself to look for the order of things, the more the arbitrariness of the world strikes painfully. When you have been disciplined to look for order, the savagery of the world, the empty pointlessness of phenomena, however regular and describable, come into more merciless focus.

Is “wisdom” then precisely this double perception— not merely the identifying of an order in things but the clear awareness of an absence, a question, an unsettlement about the moral import of what we see? Perhaps the point of studying the world to find its harmonies is to discover where harmony is an inappropriate and useless category, as if, when you set side by side the structure of the DNA molecule and the death of a child from famine, you will at least understand that explanation is not the way to respond to the latter. When a death has been explained— by the analysis of the biology of starvation or disease, by economics, by history— it remains, or should remain, unassimilable, a bruise, a challenge. The more we see what is involved in the material rationality of the world, the more we see it is that kind of rationality that is lacking in the moral world, the world where we ask about making sense of the fate of persons, subjects like ourselves.

The order of things that wisdom presses toward is not a static pattern that can be safely contemplated from a distance, but a continual bringing forth of life: it is not possible to look for explanation in the moral world, but it may be possible to hope for a future. If, as we look at a morally disordered world, we ask not “What is its explanation? How do we make a pattern of this?” but “What is its future? What is to be made of this?”, we begin to address a challenge to ourselves. Wisdom leads toward that question poised between the theoretical and the practical. “What may we hope for?” a question which inevitably turns into the question of how I as a person make contact with the generative resource, the grace of reality. It becomes a question about my own transformation— my conversion, if you will. “To depart from evil is understanding.”

This is the Wisdom by which the “rebels of Easter” live their lives.  Second, Miroslav Volf gives us a fine summary of how we rebels embrace the world around us:

There is a profound wisdom about the nature of our world in the simple credo of the early church “that Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15: 3). At the core of Christian faith lies the claim that God entered history and died on the cross in the person of Jesus Christ for an unjust and deceitful world. In taking upon himself the sin of the world, God told the truth about the deceitful world and enthroned justice in an unjust world. When God was made sin in Christ (2 Corinthians 5: 21), the world of deceit and injustice was set aright. Sins were atoned for. The cry of the innocent blood was attended to. Since the new world has become reality in the crucified and resurrected Christ (2 Corinthians 5: 17) it is possible to live the new world in the midst of the old in an act of gratuitous forgiveness without giving up the struggle for truth and justice. One can embrace perpetrators in forgiveness because God has embraced them through atonement. In the wake of Girard’s theory of scapegoating, James G. Williams has argued in The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred that in the biblical texts” sacrificial language is used, necessarily, in order to break out of a sacrificial view of the world” (Williams 1991, 224); I believe, instead, that the biblical texts narrate how God has necessarily used the sacrificial mechanism to remake the world into a place in which the need to sacrifice others could be eschewed-a new world of self-giving grace, a world of embrace.

We are a million miles away from the loathsome parody of atonement, vigorously affirmed by the Jack Chicks of the world, in which God sacrifices Himself to Himself, a view that remains trapped in simple and barbaric views of sacrifice.  The classical Christian view inverts everything we know about sacrifice.  One can never possibly overstate its radicality.


  1. I am not denying that the Atonement was necessary because we are sinners, much less trying to avoid the idea that we are responsible for our actions or the depths of the sacrifice that occurred at Calvary (God forbid).  What I am stressing is that the picture is far bigger and more complex than the Chickian picture.  Admittedly here I am placing my emphasis on some unusual spots, but again, none of this denies the centrality of sin.
  2. David Bentley Hart expounds on his comments in The Doors of the Sea more extensively in this video.
  3. I had wanted to address Rene Girard’s concept of the scapegoating mechanism and the “Forgiving Victim” (a concept beautifully expounded on by James Alison) but could not find a way to work it in here (plus the essay would be even longer than the monstrosity it is).  Volf makes a slight dig at Girard in the end and Hart was rather sharply critical of Girard in Beauty of the Infinite.  For my part, I believe that Girard’s take is an invaluable contribution to both anthropology and theology, and is an essential component of understanding the Christ-Event.  I would daresay it is reconcilable with, and complementary to, everything I have suggested here.  I would posit there is only a problem if Girard is taken to be a “fifth evangelist” or an indispensable lens for the Gospel.  His contribution, valuable as it is, does not exhaust the Gospel.  (I also had wanted to quote Moltmann’s The Crucified God here as well, but space did not permit).
  4. In case it is not obvious, I consider John Gray’s views to be both an accurate assessment of the world and a far more logically consistent assessment of the human condition that most atheists are willing to give.  Among other things, Gray also understands that the human obsession with meaning cannot be written off as easily as many of the New Atheists would like (in his words “Alone among the animals, human seek meaning in their lives by killing and dying for the sake of nonsensical dreams”).   His views, accurate as they may be, are relativized by Christianity.  As Williams stated above, only the Resurrection can ultimately give true grounds for Hope.
  5. For those worried that I am bordering on the heretical, I offer in final-final summation Fr. Barron’s thoughts on the nature of sacrifice in the Eucharist:

A fundamental biblical principle is that in a world gone wrong there is no communion without sacrifice. This is true because sin has twisted us out of shape, and therefore intimacy with God will involve a twisting back into shape, a painful realignment, a sacrifice. And this is why, on a biblical reading, covenant is almost invariably associated with sacrifice. God chooses Abraham and establishes a covenant with him—and then he asks him to offer animals as a holocaust; he chooses Moses and through him sets up the Sinai covenant—and then he asks him to slaughter oxen and splash their blood on the altar and on the people; he cuts (the typical biblical word) a covenant with David and then sets up the Jerusalem Temple where hundreds of thousands of animals were, for many centuries, offered up. Mind you, God has no need of these sacrifices; he’s no pagan deity somehow mollified by our liturgical rites. As we have seen in chapter three, the true God has no need of anything at all. The point is that we need sacrifice in order to reorder us and thereby restore communion with God. God is said to be pleased with our sacrifice precisely to the extent that it makes us more fully alive. In an animal sacrifice, a person took one small aspect of God’s creation and returned it to its source in order to signal his gratitude for the gift of his own existence and indeed the existence of the world. This acknowledgment of God’s primacy is not easy for a sinner, and therefore it is entirely appropriate that sacrifice involves blood and death. The one who performs the sacrifice sees acted out in the suffering of the animal his own suffering; he is vicariously being twisted back into right relation with the source of his existence. All of this corresponds to what John Paul II termed “the law of the gift,” the spiritual principle that one’s being increases in the measure that one gives it away. What is given back to God, sacrificed to him, breaks against the rock of the divine self-sufficiency and returns for the benefit of the one who has made the offering. Sacrifice produces communion. This is the distinctive logic that undergirds the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Wesley Hill on Classical Theism

Thoughts for a Monday from Wesley Hill.

First he says:

Almost three decades ago, theologian Ronald Goetz spoke of the rise of a “new orthodoxy” in Christian thought. He was referring to twentieth-century theology’s enthrallment with the theme of the suffering of God.

By the time Goetz wrote, that theme—of God hanging there on the gallows with the innocent sufferer, in the timeless image Elie Wiesel offered in his book Night—had come to dominate many forms of Protestant theology. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had written from a Nazi prison that “only the suffering God can help.” Jürgen Moltmann, in the wake of the revelation of the full extent of the Holocaust, had authored a book called The Crucified God. And figures as diverse as the process theologian Alfred North Whitehead, who characterized God as “the fellow-sufferer who understands,” and the Japanese Lutheran Kazoh Kitamori, who spoke of “the pain of God,” had ushered in a way of thinking about divine majesty and power as God’s ability and will to share in human misery. Across the spectrum, from both pulpits and pews, the “new orthodoxy” came to reign: God suffers in God’s own nature.

What do we gain, though, if we set aside the “new orthodoxy” of divine suffering and return to an older one? I can think of at least three potential benefits.

In the first place, we may become better attuned to the ways that older, seemingly irrelevant or even harmful bits of the Christian tradition may be worth preserving, even if their strengths aren’t immediately obvious in late modernity.

One of the rallying cries for post-Holocaust theology has been that a stoic, unchangeable God, impervious to human desolation, is no God at all. Consequently, according to Moltmann and others, the only God we can believe in now is a God who suffers, and the ancient Christian doctrines of divine simplicity, immutability, and impassibility must be discarded. But notice what happens when we question that conclusion. Driven back to the early Christian writings themselves, we may become freshly attentive to how those allegedly dangerous doctrines functioned in their original setting. Asking ourselves whether the Church Fathers intended to promote a distant, detached deity, we may become newly sensitive to the complex trajectories and repercussions of early Christian theologies.

And what do we find with that newly awakened textual sensitivity? Just this: that, far from being unconcerned about the human plight, the Church Fathers were motivated by their theology of salvation in upholding doctrines of divine immutability and impassibility (God’s transcendence of human suffering and passions). Their doctrines of salvation prompted their—allegedly aloof and insensitive—understandings of God.

“God’s Logos is by nature immortal and incorruptible and Life and Life-giver,” wrote Cyril. Only so is God able, through sharing our human flesh in the Incarnation, to impart eternal life to that flesh, rather than succumbing to our death and being extinguished by it. When it comes to rescuing us from death, and not merely enduring death along with us, only the impassible God can help.

Second, in returning to the older Christian consensus on God’s transcendent impassibility, we may find that fresh pathways are opened up for Jewish-Christian dialogue. This point may seem counterintuitive at first, since one of the main claims of the “new orthodoxy” is that it can offer a better reading of the Hebrew Bible. The God of Israel is passionate, dynamic, responsive, we were often told in twentieth-century scholarship. The biblical prophets herald a God who is involved with his people and therefore a God who suffers, not the impassible God of the Church Fathers.

Yet, as many Christian exegetes are now recognizing, this reading may, if left unqualified, lead readers to overlook or downplay those places in the Old Testament that emphasize the Creator’s irreducible difference from creation. And this recent Christian concern, in turn, may open the door to new conversations with Jewish readers of those same passages in the Hebrew Bible. In a fascinating twist, as theologian Michael Allen has observed, recent Jewish interpreters—for instance, Michael Fishbane in his book Text and Texture—have interpreted texts like Exodus 3 and Isaiah 40–55, with their high doctrines of divine freedom and sovereignty, “in much the same way that Augustine and Christian tradition has: God’s Naming demonstrates God’s transcendence, necessitates analogical discussion of God, [and] negatively qualifies any claim to speak of God.” Perhaps paradoxically, reaching back to an older Christian orthodoxy paves the way for a forward-looking interreligious dialogue.

Third, in returning to an older orthodoxy at this particular juncture in Western cultural life, we may remind ourselves that the early Church had its reasons for turning its back on the dynamic, vulnerable, passionate pantheon of pagan deities. Not only did the Church believe that these gods had been shown up as shadows and parodies in light of the true God’s self-revelation. The Church also believed that these gods, for all their bluster and ongoing involvement in human affairs, could not answer the deepest human need: deliverance from our enslavement to sin and death, not mere solidarity and fellowship in the midst of that enslavement.

It is one thing to confess that God has seen and known firsthand what life is like in our prison cell. To be sure, there is a certain comfort in that confession. It is another thing, however, to know—as the early Church did—that in entering that cell, God brandished the key to unlock its door and lead us out. For the latter to happen, we needed not only a fellow-sufferer who understands but a Creator and Redeemer whose deity is made manifest in and through his humanity, whose power is revealed in his death and resurrection.

Later, in response to critics he adds:

First, I want to suggest that whether impassibility is a “metaphysical a priori”—a conviction brought to Scripture from somewhere else—is precisely what’s up for debate in recent theology. To say that the doctrine is not “self-evident in Scripture, nor necessary in order to hold a fully biblical . . . understanding of God” is to state one side of the argument, not an agreed-upon conclusion. The recent biblical and patristic work I gestured toward in my column—the work of folks like Michael Allen, Paul Gavrilyuk, Matthew Levering, and Kevin Vanhoozer, to which I’d add names like Donald Gowan, David Bentley Hart, Janet Martin Soskice, and Scott Swain, among others—is aimed at showing that impassibility is an entailment of specifically biblical affirmations.

Their argument, in brief, is this. It is, chiefly, the biblical doctrine of creation—that God is responsible for anything existing at all (Acts 17:24-25; cf. Isaiah 42:5; Wisdom of Solomon 13-15)—that requires us to speak of God as categorically different from creatures. Doctrines like simplicity, immutability, impassibility, and the like are attempts to unpack that qualitative Creator-creature distinction.

Parenthetically, it must be said that Hill is an evangelical Protestant.  His thoughts on this subject are most welcome.  Classical theism has become something of a punching bag for many contemporary theologians, a fact which saddens me greatly.  I hasten to add I appreciate the contributions of many contemporary theologians-Moltmann’s The Crucified God is an incredibly important book-which makes it all the more painful.

For those who would like the Catholic POV, I offer the following thoughts from Raniero Cantalamessa.  Speaking of theologies of the suffering God he says

These new developments in Trinitarian theology had a historical impetus.  People wondered, How do we still speak of God after Auschwitz?  Where was God then?  The answer that was given from a rereading of the Bible and from certain voices buried in tradition was that God is with people in their suffering.  God is not unfeeling; in a mysterious way he suffers for human beings and with them: “God the Father suffers the suffering of love.”

The International Theological Commission pronounced a substantially positive judgment on this new direction, and, with all the required clarifications and cautions, it was favorably received by John Paul II in his encyclical Dominum et vivificantem.  I was able to recognize in my own preaching ministry the extraordinary fruit that this proclamation brought forth in people: it touched people, it helped overcome seemingly unanswerable objections, and it gave new significance to the affirmation that God is Father.

Recently, however, I have become convinced that something was left out, and that to continue to present without a strong corrective can be risky.  On a pastoral level, it is not enough to respond to human suffering by proclaiming that God suffers too. People do not want God only as a companion in their suffering, they are looking to him as the guarantor of joy itself.  Otherwise, there is the danger of falling back into the ancient pagan tragic belief that there is a power stronger than God himself, to which he is also subject the ananke, harsh Necessity and Fate.  Augustine wrote “When I seek you, my God, what I am seeking is a life of happiness,” and that is true for everyone.

The weakness in the doctrine of Trinitarian suffering in certain authors is that it is based on the “crucified God” and does not adequately take into account the resurrection, that is, the victory already accomplished over suffering and death.  According to them, the resurrection of Christ would not have any real intersection point with life in the present-day world.  It would also serve to guarantee to us that in the end there will be a redemption and a reversal in the eschatological fulfillment, when the Son will definitively hand over the Kingdom to the Father-in other words when all the redeemed rise from the dead.  It is only the long shadow of the cross-not yet illuminated by the light of the resurrection (except in an anticipatory way as a promise)-that stretches out over our present life.


Let Us Not Give Up on Truth

Recently I have asserted that Catholicism struggles to gain a hearing today in no small part because of its audacity to claim that it has answers to the “big questions.”  In an age which is less than enthusiastic about authority in matters spiritual (if that won’t win me the Understatement of the Year award nothing will) this is enough to immediately discredit the Church.  It has become rather fashionable in these post-modern times to assert that the very concept of truth is ridiculous and nothing more than a power ploy.  This daft, self-refuting view, has even tried to worm its way into science, much to the annoyance of Richard Dawkins (see herehere and here – I must admit I grinned approvingly when, in the second video, he snarled “Gravity is not a version of the truth, it is the truth, and anybody who doubts it, is invited to jump out of a 10th story window”).

Radical post-modern skepticism of this type is exceedingly difficult to interact with because of its wobbliness on objective reality (it is a testament to my traditionalist Catholic leanings that I have been somewhat baffled by contemporary theologians who speak approvingly of postmodernism-as I see it postmodernism’s sole benefit has been to shake the foundations of Enlightenment arrogance, but the inanity of postmodern thinking is, IMO, too high a price a to pay).  In any case, Scott Hahn is quite helpful here:

Some people, for example, describe themselves as materialists, objectivists, or empiricists. These tendencies need not be obstacles to dialogue, even though they seem to banish all things spiritual from discourse. In fact, it’s far easier to dialogue with these people than with more radical skeptics, like those who doubt the very notion of reality. With the former group, we can at least agree on the importance of material reality, objective reality, and empirical reality. Christians are at ease in creation, because our Father God created the world and all that’s in it.

As for those who do not believe that reality exists outside the mind—well, what can you say, if you yourself are just part of the illusion? The philosopher George Berkeley tried to argue for the nonexistence of matter. Samuel Johnson kicked a stone and said: “Thus I refute thee.” Johnson was demonstrating the general reliability of sense perception. Or more dramatically, there’s the character in one of Hilaire Belloc’s novels. After hearing a self-absorbed skeptic at a pub drone on far too long, he threw a beer in his face and shouted, “I baptize thee in the name of the five senses!” It’s all well and good to say that reality exists only in one’s mind, but those who believe it should still look both ways before crossing the street.

In any case, there is another set of objections to the idea that truth is knowable, and these come from the materialists/objectivists/empiricists that Hahn refers to.  In one of his talks above Dawkins, rather humbly acknowledging his own lack of knowledge on quantum physics, makes a reference to how “Darwinian natural selection designed our brains” (designed, of course, being strictly metaphorical).  This is what I have somewhat sarcastically described as “Evolutionary Epistemological Deficit Disorder,” a view that in its more restrained form merely postulates that human consciousness and reasoning capability is circumscribed by evolutionary conditioning and thus subject to very strict limits.  In and of itself, such an assertion is not particularly problematic.  After all, most of the New Atheists who espouse the view that the human brain was “designed” for survival on the African savannah nonetheless grant the brain has, to at least some degree, transcended its evolutionary programming.  Dawkins, for instances, has famously asserted that “we alone on earth can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”  Psychologist Paul Bloom even states that the “fact that people don’t act to spread their genes isn’t some striking discovery; it’s an obvious fact of everyday life.”  Q.E.D.

The exact reason why the human brain has been able to transcend itself has been something of a dispute amongst scientists.  Stephen Jay Gould considered human consciousness, with its ‘transcendent character’, to be an amalgam of other evolutionary traits-in his words, a “spandrel” that itself did not evolve for a particular purpose” but was merely a byproduct of various genuine adaptations.  Lucky us.  Gould’s explanation was not well received by those evolutionary biologists committed to “adaptationism”-Daniel Dennett skewered Gould for it, though frankly I find the debate to essentially be a distinction without a difference (Dawkins, for instance, has stated natural selection “blundered into its own negation” when we rebelled against the tyranny of the selfish replicators).  Besides, unless one is going to let teleology in the back door, all this talk of “purposes” is strictly metaphorical.

[This is not to deny that there are very real disagreements in science with neo-Darwinian thinking-the “Darwin Wars” between Gould and Dawkins revealed deep disagreements over the centrality of natural selection, the role genes play in evolution, gradualism vs. punctuated equilibrium, whether evolutionary psychology makes any sense, and so on. Suffice it to say, I have generally found Gould’s more restrained approach the more persuasive of the two, though I grant I lack the scientific  wherewithal to really assess the debate]

Nonetheless, EEDD is a problematic argument because it can very easily be used to support the argument that we are simply unable to grasp the truth and are thereby left in an intellectual lurch, a sort of perpetual agnosticism.  This view is not that different from the post-modern skepticism Dawkins deplores.  Listening to some proponents of EEDD one can’t help but think that these folks are in constant danger of pulling the rug out from under their own feet.  Here are a few examples.

David Skeel writes

Some materialists suggest that our idea-making capacity doesn’t have a purpose at all-or at least that our mental capacities have far outstripped the most important benefits.  Some features of the outsized human brain were essential to early survival.  Our facility with language, for instance, enabled us to coordinate and plan.  But the species would have done just fine, these materialists suggest, if we never had developed the capacity to devise and debate elaborate systems of morality.

Steven Pinker sums up nicely the notion that our idea-making capacity may be extraneous.  It is true, he acknowledges, that people in every place and time “concoct theories of the universe and their place within it.”  But to his mind, this yearning is “biologically frivolous and vain.”  He explains that “given that the mind is a product of natural selection, it should not have a miraculous ability to commune with all truths; it should have a mere ability to solve problems that are sufficiently similar to the mundane survival challenges of our ancestors.”  From this perspective, religion, philosophy and the quest to make sense of why we are here are “the application of mental tools to problems they were not designed to solve.”

Patricia Churchland is even more blunt:

The principle chore of [brains] is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive.  Improvements in sensorimotor control confer an evolutionary advantage: a fancier style of representing [the world] is advantageous so long as it…enhances the organism’s chances for survival.  truth, whatever that is, takes the hindmost.

Biologist H. Allen Orr, reviewing E.O. Wilson’s Consilience, offers a more refined view of the same perspective:

The recalcitrance of the hard problem of consciousness combined with our inability to even imagine what its solution would look like suggest a possibility that might well pull the rug out from under Wilson’s whole program: Maybe consciousness is beyond us. Maybe we are simply incapable of figuring it out. Indeed maybe there are hosts of problems that lie beyond our intellectual grasp.

Although the modern version of this idea was first articulated by Noam Chomsky, it has grown closely associated with the philosopher Colin McGinn.4 Despite McGinn’s occupation, his argument is essentially scientific, indeed evolutionary. It is this. Cat brains did not evolve to penetrate the deepest truths about nature but to get cats more or less intact from one day to the next. My cat Boris’s brain is not, therefore, infinitely adroit. It knows a lot about birds, mice, and how other cats behave, but is hopelessly lost when it comes to chess, the purpose of fax machines, or the multiplication table. Similarly our brains didn’t evolve to penetrate the deepest truths about nature but to get us from one day to the next. We have therefore no reason whatever for believing that we, Homo sapiens, have arrived at some acme of cognitive evolution, that our chimpish brains are the best that brains can be. Instead it seems far more natural to suppose that we, like every other species, are intellectually good at some things and hopelessly bad at others. In the lingo, we are likely “cognitively open” to some phenomena and theories, but “cognitively closed” to other phenomena (that are real) and theories (that are true).

This so-called “mysterian” position5 can and probably does lead to a conclusion diametrically opposite Wilson’s. True consilience, the seamless integration of all we know from ineffable aesthetic preference to hard-as-nails physics, may be extremely unlikely. It’s not just that we will suffer quantitative limits on our cognitive powers (we can’t memorize 942,921 digits). Rather, we may get hung up at key steps in our reductionist program, understanding a great deal about phenomenon A and a great deal about phenomenon B, but fated to perpetual cluelessness about the nature of their connection.6 Those brains of ours that Wilson reminds us were shaped in Paleolithic savannas did not evolve to crack, say, the master problem of consciousness. And consciousness is only the most obvious such problematic juncture. (Another might be that connecting free will, the stuff of human law, to physiochemical determinism, the stuff of natural law.)

Though McGinn and Chomsky don’t say so, a case might even be made that some, though certainly not all, of the borders between traditional intellectual disciplines represent the natural stress lines between our domains of cognitive competence. I.e., our inability to think clearly about some phenomena might underlie our tendency to draw boundaries where we do: the humanities to one side (telling me how you feel) and the sciences to the other (telling me that your brain does the feeling). If true, routine feats of reduction may be systematically easier within than between disciplines.

As an evolutionary biologist, I find it hard to see how something like the mysterian view cannot be true. The alternative–boundless percipience–seems downright unbiological. (And I’m certainly not the only biologist to reach this conclusion.7) But the news is not all bad. For while science may be consigned to permanent impotence over say, subjective feeling, it would get handed a new and likely tractable problem: feeling out the edges of our domains of cognitive capacity, a task first suggested by Chomsky.

Again, the mere observation that there are limits to our brains, and therefore our cognitive capacity, is on one level simply an observation of the obvious.  The problem lies not with the fact that there are boundaries (the Christian tradition is well acquainted with the fact that we are finite creatures after all) but rather over precisely where the border is where we must stop trusting our minds/consciousness/reason.  All of these folks bristle at the suggestion that their own science is called into question by EEDD.  At the very minimum, we have gained enough foresight to unplug ourselves from the evolutionary Matrix to enough of a degree to understand and to consciously rebel against it.  Our trust in science rests on the supposition that we are able to actually understand the world as it is, even those dimensions that are counter-intuitive (e.g. quantum physics).  If we aren’t able to gain some understanding of truth, the postmodernist critiques of science that Dawkins castigates would be legitimate.  The fact that we have the experimental verification of our theories isn’t the point; the point is that we are actually able to genuinely understand many things that go beyond the limits of what we need to survive.

I add, parenthetically, that there is a lack of appreciation here of how extraordinary it is that human consciousness has managed to knowingly transcend evolutionary limits-in the words of St. Augustine

Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.

In any case, however, it is not unreasonable to postulate that there are limits to what human knowledge can attain, as the “mysterian” position argues.  One can recognize that human consciousness has been lifted above the evolutionary process just enough to do some science without grasping everything.  Nonetheless, the application of understanding our limits is-at best-uneven.  Colin McGinn suggests we will never understand consciousness, but most philosophers of mind believe quite strongly that we can and will one day understand consciousness.

Moreover, I hear another argument, not clearly articulated as such, coming from Pinker, Churchland and Orr: Human consciousness was simply not designed for knowing ultimate truths and as such ultimate truth-in Churchland’s words whatever it may be-is permanently out of reach, because in Orr’s words we are “cognitively closed” to the Big Picture.  Pinker makes the rather banal observation that peculating on the big questions is “biologically frivolous” (unfortunately for him so is the practice of evolutionary psychology).  This is something of an interesting argument-we are actually biologically incapable of knowing anything of reality and thus the enterprise is pointless.  This is, so to speak, the “New Agnosticism.”

Of course, the standard objection of most atheist-scientists to belief in God is usually not “We are incapable of asking these questions and therefore we shouldn’t ask them.”  Most go a great deal further.  For instance, Sean Carroll articulates the standard view:

Why do the laws of physics take the form they do?  It sounds like a reasonable question, if you don’t think about it very hard. After all, we ask similar-sounding questions all the time. Why is the sky blue? Why won’t my car start? Why won’t Cindy answer my emails?

And these questions have sensible answers—the sky is blue because short wavelengths are Rayleigh-scattered by the atmosphere, your car won’t start because the battery is dead, and Cindy won’t answer your emails because she told you a dozen times already that it’s over but you just won’t listen. So, at first glance, it seems plausible that there could be a similar answer to the question of why the laws of physics take the form they do.

But there isn’t. At least, there isn’t any as far as we know, and there’s certainly no reason why there must be. The more mundane “why” questions make sense because they refer to objects and processes that are embedded in larger systems of cause and effect. The atmosphere is made of atoms, light is made of photons, and they obey the rules of atomic physics. The battery of the car provides electricity, which the engine needs to start. You and Cindy relate to each other within a structure of social interactions. In every case, our questions are being asked in the context of an explanatory framework in which it’s perfectly clear what form a sensible answer might take.

The universe (in the sense of “the entire natural world,” not only the physical region observable to us) isn’t like that. It’s not embedded in a bigger structure; it’s all there is. We are lulled into asking “why” questions about the universe by sloppily extending the way we think about local phenomena to the whole shebang. What kind of answers could we possibly be expecting?

I can think of a few possibilities. One is logical necessity: the laws of physics take the form they do because no other form is possible. But that can’t be right; it’s easy to think of other possible forms. The universe could be a gas of hard spheres interacting under the rules of Newtonian mechanics, or it could be a cellular automaton, or it could be a single point. Another possibility is external influence: the universe is not all there is, but instead is the product of some higher (supernatural?) power. That is a conceivable answer, but not a very good one, as there is neither evidence for such a power nor any need to invoke it.

The final possibility, which seems to be the right one, is:  that’s just how things are. There is a chain of explanations concerning things that happen in the universe, which ultimately reaches to the fundamental laws of nature and stops. This is a simple hypothesis that fits all the data; until it stops being consistent with what we know about the universe, the burden of proof is on any alternative idea for why the laws take the form they do.

But there is a deep-seated human urge to think otherwise. We want to believe that the universe has a purpose, just as we want to believe that our next lottery ticket will hit. Ever since ancient philosophers contemplated the cosmos, humans have sought teleological explanations for the apparently random activities all around them. There is a strong temptation to approach the universe with a demand that it make sense of itself and of our lives, rather than simply accepting it for what it is.

Part of the job of being a good scientist is to overcome that temptation. “The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational” is a deeply anti-rational statement. The laws exist however they exist, and it’s our job to figure that out, not to insist ahead of time that nature’s innermost workings conform to our predilections, or provide us with succor in the face of an unfeeling cosmos.

Paul Davies argues that “the laws should have an explanation from within the universe,” but admits that “the specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research.” This is reminiscent of Wolfgang Pauli’s postcard to George Gamow, featuring an empty rectangle: “This is to show I can paint like Titian. Only technical details are missing.” The reason why it’s hard to find an explanation for the laws of physics within the universe is that the concept makes no sense. If we were to understand the ultimate laws of nature, that particular ambitious intellectual project would be finished, and we could move on to other things. It might be amusing to contemplate how things would be different with another set of laws, but at the end of the day the laws are what they are.

Human beings have a natural tendency to look for meaning and purpose out there in the universe, but we shouldn’t elevate that tendency to a cosmic principle. Meaning and purpose are created by us, not lurking somewhere within the ultimate architecture of reality. And that’s okay. I’m happy to take the universe just as we find it; it’s the only one we have.

Jeremy Bernstein is more direct:

Paul Davies’s donnish question which he apparently tries out on the odd scientist —explain the laws of the universe—seems silly to me. Explain in terms of what?

Makes you want to bang your head against the wall doesn’t it?  In any case, these statements go much further than postulating a restrained agnosticism on the grounds our finite brains can’t get to the truth.  To the contrary, they assert that we know questions about ultimate meaning are meaningless questions and that is why they are pointless.  Another nonplussed atheist,Scott Atran, states

…on the larger issue of whether or not the universe is built according to basic mathematical laws (plus a lot of accidents) the jury is still out. Perhaps, as Newton said and Gell-Mann also believes, “Nature is very consonant and conformable to herself. ” The upshot of this for science is that it succeeds in getting closer and closer to Nature’s underlying structure because, like the successive layers of an onion, each of Nature’s layers that is mathematically peeled away by science closely conforms to the next underlying layer and mathematical theory. Evidence for this is the progressive elegance and simplification of mathematical theories and the simultaneous broadening and deepening of their empirical scope (e.g, Lorentz to Einstein, with Einstein arguing that he was driven to his theory of relativity by the lack of elegance in previous theories). The hypothesis is that with scientific discipline and mathematics, human minds are able to progressively capture Nature’s onion-like structure because that structure, which includes the structure of the mind itself, is basically mathematically regular (with lots of accidents).

There is an evolutionary just-so story (perhaps true) that may help to make sense of this hypothesis. Humans are able to count because the world contains countable things (like stars, stones, and seasons) that can be put in successive correspondence with one another, and because the mind evolved to capture what the universe contains so that the organism that carried this representational tool (the mind) could survive and reproduce. The evolution of language—of discrete relationships between sounds and meanings that refer to things in the world—likely provided the infinite discreteness required for formulating any mathematical system. Since human minds can grasp indefinitely many mathematical systems, the difficulty is in figuring out precisely which mathematical structure adequately represents which aspect of Nature. Experiments and empirical intuition help to weed out and whittle down the candidate mathematics.

Again, I have no real objection to this.  But how, precisely, how does any of this demonstrate that the “Why?” questions meaningless?  Simply because they aren’t empirically verifiable in the same manner?  It would seem so.

In the end, of course, the practical result is the same whether we boldly assert that there is nothing more to know, or that we simply cannot know (the mother of all cop-outs): Theological and philosophical speculation is pointless.  And either way, this is not a small matter.  The battle between the New Atheism and classical Christianity hinges on this point.  More to the point, whether the New Agnosticism or its more radically skeptical postmodernist cousin are ultimately intellectually credible positions hangs in the balance as well.  As Cardinal Dulles put it, Christians must vigorously contest those who insist that the “big questions”-existence of God, meaning, purpose-are ultimately unknowable.  We cannot allow EEDD be used as justification for those who wish to remain complacent in their skepticism.  What seems like a solid scientific justification for remaining in an intellectual lurch (a very odd position) is more accurately summarized by a classic Oxford quip: On the surface its profound but deep down it is superficial.

Catholicism, of course, grants that to a great degree we are in the dark and in need of revelation on many facets of truth (enough so that Karl Barth would be proud of us).  But it steadfastly refuses to concede that our consciousness is so impotent that it can’t grasp anything about God or the big questions from the use of reason.  The First Vatican Council went so far as to anathemize those who asserted otherwise.  In the words of Denys Turner

And if there were any at all prepared to take the first Vatican Council seriously on this matter – and nowadays Catholic theologians do in scarcely greater numbers or degree of enthusiasm than your average Barthian Protestant – then a contestation with excellent prospects of theological progress in view could be anticipated. Alas, hardly anyone I know of will join me in the exploration of the possibility that the bishops of the first Vatican Council were right – and, after all, they might be.

There is an argument to be had with Dawkins and Grayling about the existence of God; there is a potentiality for agreement as to what the issue is about; and there is an equality of terms between the Christian theist and the atheist as to how, in principle, the issue is to be settled – that is to say, as to the standards of argument which are to be met on either side. In short, if Christians cannot agree with atheists about the existence of God, at least there is a case for seeing the disagreement as capable of being conducted on shared rational grounds, even if it is also necessary to contest with most atheists on the nature of reason itself, as in this essay I am much exercised to do. And Christians today need to restore lines of connection with theological traditions unafraid to acknowledge the demands made on them by such standards of rationality.

I, for one, am more than happy to join Turner in this venture.  To prompt a bit more reflection I offer some thoughts from Fr. Timothy Radcliffe:

A culture which is animated by spin easily loses any sense of truth.  We spend so much of our time living in imaginary worlds that it becomes hard to distinguish between fact and fiction.  Many people believe that their heroes in soap operas are real, and that if one were to walk down Coronation Street, for example, one would meet them.  The world of virtual reality gives one the freedom to remake the world as one wishes.  People create fictional identities and then have relationships with other fictional people which are as engrossing as relationships with their flesh and blood spouses.  This atrophies the fundamental instinct of human beings for the truth.  Our society has lost confidence in the power of reason, except perhaps scientific reason.  Modern Europeans do not trust that through reflection and argument we can discover what is the meaning of human existence, and what is the purpose of our existence.  There is little debate around the big questions: Why is there anything rather than nothing?  For what am I made?  In what may I find happiness?  These questions seem beyond us.

Paradoxically, one of Christianity’s contributions at this moment may be to believe in reason.  Despite all the lunacy of the last century, all the absurdity of war and genocide, we believe that human beings are rational and made to seek the truth.  If we argue together we may attain it.

John Paul II saw Christianity as the great defender of reason.  In the Encyclical Fides et Ratio he wrote, ‘The church serves humanity with the diakonia-the service-of truth.  We are partners in humanity’s shared struggle to arrive at the truth.’ ‘We see among the men and women of our time, and not just in some philosophers, attitudes of widespread distrust of the human being’s great capacity for knowledge.  With a false modesty, people rest content with partial and provisional truths, no longer seeking to ask radical questions about the meaning and ultimate foundation of human, personal and social existence.’ ‘Life in fact can never be grounded upon doubt, uncertainty or deceit; such an existence would be threatened constantly by fear and anxiety.  One may define the human being, therefore, as the one who seeks the truth‘.

In a debate between Bertrand Russell and Frederick Copleston SJ, the question came up as to why the universe existed.  Why is there anything rather than nothing?  Russell asserted that this is a question that cannot be posed.  The universe is just there.  It was the Christian philosopher who insisted that he was giving up thinking too soon.  So part of the mission of Christianity is to insist that people go on posing the difficult question, searching for answers.  Christians do not give up on reason.

While reading these words I was struck by Fr. Radcliffe’s reference to “virtual reality,” if only because today more than a few transhumanists dream as they do precisely because they are so frustrated with the apparent limitations of human nature (it angers many of them that our brains have, for all intents and purposes, not changed at all from those of our ancestors who painted the walls of caves).  In any case, our obligation here is clear: We must revive our commitment to reason, to take it back from the artificial limits imposed upon it by the proponents of EEDD.  Nor need we have any shame in doing so.  In the words of Stephen Barr

There is a certain degree to which we must trust our experiences if we are to do any rational thinking at all, including scientific thinking. There are many things we must not regard as illusions. Among these are the external world itself; our conviction that there is an objective truth about that world; our own rationality; our belief that certain kinds of rational arguments are objectively valid; our own existence; and, in a general way, our powers of sense and memory. Our senses or memory may occasionally play tricks on us, but there must be a presumption in their favor, since if everything we sense and everything we remember, even about what happened one second ago, could be illusory, then we would have no basis for knowing anything whatsoever.

In short, we must take a great deal on-for lack of a better word-faith if we are to reason at all.  Note that here I do not mean faith as blind commitment but rather in the full-throated sense of the Great Tradition: As a trusting commitment.  Reason and faith are mutually implicative.  They must be if we are to survive and reason at all.  Remembering this foundation, we should have no shame in pushing back against the insistence of the EEDD crowd that we need not give up on our reason.

As closing thoughts, I offer some encouragement from the Pope Emeritus (Truth and Tolerance) that we would do well to remember:

Yet religion, however necessary its separation from the plane of science may be, cannot be pigeonholed in a particular area. That is what it is there for, to integrate man in his entirety, to unite feeling, understanding, and will and to mediate between them, and to offer some answer to the demand made by everything as a whole, the demands of living and dying, of society and myself, of present and future. It should not claim to be able to solve problems in areas that work by their own laws, but it must make men capable of taking those ultimate decisions in which the whole of man and of the world is always at stake. And that is precisely what we are lacking, in that nowadays we divide the world into discrete areas and are thereby able to dominate it in our thought and action in a way that could previously hardly be imagined, yet the unavoidable questions concerning truth and values, life and death, become thereby ever more unanswerable.

Can this evident truth, which at that time struck the ancient world to its depths and transformed it, be reinstated? Or is it irrevocably lost? What is standing in its way? There are many reasons for the current collapse, but I would say that the most important consists of the self-limitation of reason, which is paradoxically resting upon its laurels: the laws of method that brought it success have, through being generalized, become its prison. Natural science, which has built a new world, rests upon a philosophical foundation whose origin must be sought in Plato.  Copernicus, Galileo, and even Newton were Platonists. Their basic assumption was that the world is mathematically and rationally structured and that, starting from this assumption, we can decipher it and by experiment can make it equally comprehensible and useful. The innovation consisted in associating Platonism and an empirical approach, ideal and experiment. The experiment is based on an existing interpretative concept, which is then tried out in a practical test, corrected, and opened up to further questions. This mathematical anticipation alone can permit subsequent generalization, the recognition of laws, which then make possible appropriate action. All our ideas about natural science and all practical applications are based on the assumption that the world is ordered according to rational, spiritual laws, is imbued with rationality that can be traced out and copied by our reason. At the same time, however, our perception of it is associated with the test of experience.

Any thinking that goes beyond this connection, that tries to look at reason in itself or to see it as preceding the present world, is contrary to the discipline of scientific method and is therefore utterly rejected as being a prescientific or unscientific way of thinking. The Logos, Wisdom, about which the Greeks spoke, on the one hand, and the Israelites, on the other, has been taken back into the material world and cannot be addressed outside of it. Within the specific path followed by natural science, this limitation is necessary and right. If, however, it is declared to be the absolute and unsurpassable form of human thought, then the basis of science itself becomes contradictory; for it is both proclaiming and denying the power of reason. But above all, a self-limiting reason of that kind is an amputated reason. If man cannot use his reason to ask about the essential things in his life, where he comes from and where he is going, about what he should do and may do, about living and dying, but has to leave these decisive questions to feeling, divorced from reason, then he is not elevating reason but dishonoring it. The disintegration of man, thus brought about, results equally in a pathological form of religion and a pathological form of science. It is quite obvious today that with the detachment of religion from its responsibility to reason, pathological forms of religion are constantly increasing. But when we think of scientific projects that set no real value on man, such as cloning, the production of fetuses—that is, of people—simply in order to use their organs for developing pharmaceutical products, or indeed for any economic exploitation, or if we think of the way science is made use of to produce ever more frightful means for the destruction of men and of the world, then it is obvious that there is such a thing as science that has taken a pathological form: science becomes pathological and a threat to life when it takes leave of the moral order of human life, becomes autonomous, and no longer recognizes any standard but its own capabilities.

That means that the scope of reason must be enlarged once more. We have to come out of the prison we have built for ourselves and recognize other forms of ascertaining things, forms in which the whole of man comes into play. What we need is something like what we find in Socrates: a patient readiness, opened up and looking beyond itself. This readiness to look at things, in its time, brought together the two eyes of reason, Athens and Jerusalem, and made possible a new stage in history. We need a new readiness to seek the truth and also the humility to let ourselves be found. The strict application of methodical discipline should not mean just the pursuit of success; it should mean the pursuit of truth and the readiness to find it. That methodological strictness, which again and again lays upon us the obligation to subject ourselves to what we have found, and not just to follow our own wishes, can amount to a great school in being human and can make man capable of recognizing and appreciating truth. The humility that gives way to what has been found and does not try to manipulate it should not, however, become a false modesty that takes away our courage to recognize the truth. All the more must it oppose the pursuit of power, which is only interested in dominating the world and is no longer willing to perceive its inner logic, which sets limits to our desire to dominate. Ecological disasters could serve as a warning to us, that we may see where science is no longer at the service of truth but is destructive both of the world and of man. The ability to hear such warnings, the will to let oneself be purified by the truth, is essential. And I would add that the mystical capacity of the human mind needs to be strengthened again. The capacity to renounce oneself, a greater inner openness, the discipline to withdraw ourselves from noise and from all that presses on our attention, should once more be for all of us goals that we recognize as being among our priorities. We find Paul pleading that the inner man may be strengthened (Eph 3:16). Let us be honest about it: today there is a hypertrophy of the outer man, and his inner strength has been alarmingly weakened.

In monastic tradition, someone standing represents a man who has straightened himself up from being crouched and doubled up and is thus, not only able to stare at the earth, but he has achieved upright status and the ability to look up.18 Thus he becomes a seer. It is not the world that is narrowed down but the soul that is broadened out, being no longer absorbed in the particular, no longer looking at the trees and unable to see the wood, but now able to view the whole. Even better, he can see the whole because he is looking at it from on high, and he is able to gain this vantage point because he has grown inwardly great. We may hear an echo of the old tradition of man as a microcosm who embraces the whole world. Yet the essential point is this: man has to learn to climb up; he has to grow and broaden out. He has to stand at the window. He must gaze out. And then the light of God can touch him; he can recognize it and can gain from it the true overview. Our being planted on earth should never become so exclusive that we become incapable of ascending, of standing upright. Those great men who, by patient climbing and by the repeated purification they have received in their lives, have become seers and, therefore, pathfinders for the centuries are also relevant to us today. They show us how light may be found even in the night and how we can meet the threats that rise up from the abysses of human existence and can meet the future as men who hope.

Is there life out there?

Time for something geeky.  Is there other life out there in the universe?  And if so, what are the theological implications? Those who have time may enjoy the following “debate” between John Lennox and Paul Davies on this subject:

For those who don’t have time, Davies has written an editorial that makes the point well:

What can be said about the chances of life starting up on a habitable planet? Darwin gave us a powerful explanation of how life on Earth evolved over billions of years, but he would not be drawn out on the question of how life got going in the first place. “One might as well speculate about the origin of matter,” he quipped. In spite of intensive research, scientists are still very much in the dark about the mechanism that transformed a nonliving chemical soup into a living cell. But without knowing the process that produced life, the odds of its happening can’t be estimated.

When I was a student in the 1960s, the prevailing view among scientists was that life on Earth was a freak phenomenon, the result of a sequence of chemical accidents so rare that they would be unlikely to have happened twice in the observable universe. “Man at last knows he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he has emerged only by chance,” wrote the biologist Jacques Monod. Today the pendulum has swung dramatically, and many distinguished scientists claim that life will almost inevitably arise in Earthlike conditions. Yet this decisive shift in view is based on little more than a hunch, rather than an improved understanding of life’s origin.

The underlying problem is complexity. Even the simplest bacterium is, at the molecular level, staggeringly complex. Although we have no idea of the minimal complexity of a living organism, it is likely to be very high. It could be that some sort of complexifying principle operates in nature, serving to drive a chaotic mix of chemicals on a fast track to a primitive microbe. If so, no hint of such a principle has been found in laboratory experiments to re-create the basic building blocks of life.

On the other hand, if life arose simply by the accumulation of many specific chemical accidents in one place, it is easy to imagine that only one in, say, a trillion trillion habitable planets would ever host such a dream run. Set against a number that big — and once you decide a series of unlikely accidents is behind the creation of life, you get enormous odds very easily — it is irrelevant whether the Milky Way contains 40 billion habitable planets or just a handful. Forty billion makes hardly a dent in a trillion trillion.

“Bad Catholics” and the Church of the Future

The fuIn a recent blog post on First Things George Weigel reflects on Joseph Ratzinger’s 1969 radio talk “What Will the Future Church Look Like?”  Weigel notes that this talk has been much misunderstood and used against the Pope Emeritus:

Our soundbite world quickly reduced this vision to Ratzinger’s “proposal” for a “smaller, purer Church,” as if Pope Benedict, thirty-five years before his election, was already calling for—indeed, was looking forward to—a winnowing of the wheat and the weeds, long before the Lord’s return in glory. Echoes of this misreading can be found in certain Catholic circles today, where there seems to be a passion for writing Build-It-Yourself Catacomb manuals. Be that as it may, there’s real insight in Ratzinger’s 1969 meditations on the future, so some winnowing of the wheat from the misinterpreting chaff might be in order.

First, Pope Benedict was certainly not urging, during his pontificate, that the Church should deliberately downsize. No pope wants to shrink the Church. And in any event, the notion of the Church as a pristine, pure, unsullied community of the already-perfected is radical-Protestant, not Catholic, in character.

The full context of Ratzinger’s quote quickly demolishes such slander:

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision.

As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members. Undoubtedly she will discover new forms of ministry and will ordain to the priesthood approved Christians who pursue some profession. In many smaller congregations or in self-contained social groups, pastoral care will normally be provided in this fashion. Alongside this, the full-time ministry of the priesthood will be indispensable as formerly.

But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world. In faith and prayer she will again recognize her true center and experience the sacraments again as the worship of God and not as a subject for liturgical scholarship.

The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystalization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek.

The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism of the eve of the French Revolution—when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain—to the renewal of the nineteenth century.

But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church.

Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.

And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already with Gobel, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.

Incidentally, some have seen a foreshadowing of Pope Francis in Ratzinger’s words-which is not surprising when one considers that the Pope Emeritus at times sounded more like Francis than Francis.  But I digress.

Like Weigel, I think there is something deeply prophetic about Ratzinger’s words.  But more to the point, I think these words offer a powerful rejoinder to what is sometimes referred to as the “persecution complex” of the contemporary religious right.  As in Rachel Held Evans’s recent blog post advising Christians to drop said complex “for the sake of the Gospel.”  There is a sense in which I sympathize with Held Evans-I am too am impatient with much of the rhetoric from the religious right is distress that Christianity has lost cultural influence and Christians are no longer the only kids at the table.  Whining about what for the most part amounts to inconveniences is an insult, almost a mockery, of the genuine persecution that the Church is enduring elsewhere throughout the world, particularly those in the path of ISIS.

Nonetheless, Held Evans offers nothing profound in her essay, nor does she account for the fact that the culture is becoming increasingly hostile to Christians-a trend that is likely to continue accelerating as the number of religious “nones” grow in numbers.  In comparison to the regurgitated liberal stock response from Held Evans, Ratzinger’s 1969 vision is exactly the response the Church needs to its changing circumstances-and is the proper alternative to facile cries of persecution.  The Church’s fall from cultural prominence, Ratzinger warned, would indeed be painful.  But it would also be necessary for the Church to rediscover her true mission in the world.

What the Pope Emeritus presciently understood was that there will again come a time when the world needs us, or more accurately what we have to offer-the Way to the Lord.  The “totally planned world,” Ratzinger warned, will leave men unspeakably lonely.  Contrary to the prognostications of the Michio Kakus of the world, we can see that the future will be lonely world, gutted of transcendence, where the Church will have shrunk, been written off, left for dead.  But the Church will be needed more than ever in this world-and having been shrunk and renewed, She will emerge again from the shadows just when the world needs her most.  Another death, another resurrection.  Such is the pattern of the Christian life-something Chesterton knew well.

Likely Held Evans, it seems to me the Pope Emeritus is suggesting that there is no point in getting swept up in a persecution complex.  Such a response is futile.  But unlike Held Evans, the Pope Emeritus has his eye on the long game.  The world will need us again, and the job of the Church is to be ready when that time comes.  If anything, Ratzinger’s 1969 radio address was his own version of St. John Paul II’s “Be not afraid.”

On to the subject of “bad Catholics.”  Patheos blogger K. Albert Little, I think, grasps the heart of what Ratzinger was getting at:

We are all, at our core, bad Catholics.

But while some are striving for the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, some are simply along for the ride. Free floaters. Catholic because of culture, circumstance, or convenience.

Bad Catholics.

This, says Pope Benedict, shall pass.

And isn’t it already?

As the demands and doctrine of modern society rub up against the erudite values of the Catholic Church isn’t it already becoming difficult to hold fast in the faith?

We are living in a decidedly post-Christian reality.

No, I’m not playing the persecution card (that’s absurd) but it’s certainly true that the values I hold, as a Catholic, are increasingly unwelcome in the public square. Truly, even the fairly benign notion that family should come first or that money shouldn’t be everything can run counter-cultural.

Western zeitgeist is not in line with the Magisterium.

So? What do we do with bad Catholics?

First of all, we don’t be bad Catholics. Those of us who are in it for reals: act like it.

Second, we catechize the hell out of the Catholics in our parishes. We liven things up; teach people what it really means to be a Catholic and get them excited about it, damn it.

And, finally, we march on. We’re the Church Militant after all. We keep on keeping on.

A small Church sounds good. A devout and intentional group of believers, witnessing to the faith, hope, and love that comes to those in relationship with Jesus Christ. A Catholic Church that looks like Jesus, through and through.

Our small, beautiful, and holy group of Christians, our Church, will radiate a love that will begin—as if in the very beginning—to inexplicably attract our fellow man to live a life that conquers death.

You see, Ratzinger’s point wasn’t that we rejoice in a smaller Church so that the rest of the world can burn.  Rather, the shrinking and suffering is but a necessary for the benefit of far more people later on.  Much as the chosenness of Israel was not for the sake of the Jewish people only, but for the whole world.  Little’s call to action, as I see it, is the right one.  We are all “bad Catholics”-not just the folks who are along for the ride (of which there are fewer and fewer).  The proper response is to get more serious.  Take the faith seriously. Act like it.  Stay strong.  And catechize, catechize, catechize.  The last point is particularly important, for as Ross Douthat noted in Bad Religion:

Even if their faith is lukewarm and compromised, the undercatechized Catholic and Oprahfied Protestant are still only a good confession or an altar call away from a more authentic Christian life.  Even if America is retracting the Roman Empire’s decline, it’s worth remembering that the Christians of late antiquity didn’t just withdraw from a collapsing civilization.  They took responsibility for it as well-and for the nations and peoples that crowded into the Mediterranean world in the wake of Rome’s collapse.

Again, the devotion of Catholicism is not for own sake.  We do not withdraw into a self-enclosed religious ghetto so the world burns.  On the contrary, we do what we do for the sake of the world.  A statement from Rev. Rutledge I think captures what our true disposition should be:

…on that day [Ash Wednesday] the church goes to its knees as representative of all humankind.

So, yes, by all means drop the “persecution complex.”  But understand that the apparent death of the Church is foreshadowing a resurrection, and those of us who are called to go through the time of trial must remember it is for the sake of those-be they lukewarm Catholics or atheists-who aren’t living through the trial with us.  The Church of the Future is now.  Come along for the ride.


  1. I am not taking the position that the Church should duck out of the public square, much less that it should simply absorb every punch thrown at it.  As Peter Leithart wrote today in First Things, reviewing Phil Zuckerman’s Faith No More, we do have a responsibility for society, debates over sexuality are also debates about the soul (both individually and on a societal level).  Nonetheless, the Church’s waning social influence suggests we are unlikely to prevail in most of these debates, and-in any case-we must focus on the right horizon going forward.  What I am suggesting here is the right horizon is the sake of the “totally planned world ” that Ratzinger foresaw.
  2. The Pope Emeritus is not the only one who has been quoted out of context-think of Cardinal George’s statement “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”  The second sentence makes all the difference.

Reflections on the Daily Office

I have noted several times in the past several months that prayer does not come easy to me-a rather ironic statement coming from a man who writes a tome or two on various religious topics every other week.  I have been critical, on this blog, about those who presume to write theology while living estrange from the Church or who otherwise do not pray.  It has been said that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, and in that spirit I’ve recognized that I need to do some work myself in this arena (though as of yet I have not dared to apply the label “theologian” to myself).  I attend Mass every Sunday (and more frequently when I can) but have been in need for some type of a deeper immersion in the communal life of the Church and, for lack of a better way to put, a genuine “investment” in my spiritual life.  Writing about such things can only get one so far.

Part of my problem is that I am, to use a friend’s terminology, a “flaming intellectual,” afflicted with a rapacious and ever-unsatisfied mind.  There is a certain constant chaos simmering away in my mind, which is not to say that I am borderline unstable (at least any more or less than the average person) but rather my mind, to use a phrase of Bernard Lonergan’s, wants to “know everything about everything.”  As a result my attention span is relatively short, my mind jumps from one thing to another (what the Buddhists refer to as the “monkey mind”) and every new piece of information I take in makes me wonder if I have to reevaluate everything else that I think.  At times my overreactions to bits of information are almost comical-I listened to a TED talk by Jim Holt (whose book Why Does the World Exist? I referenced a few posts back) the other night, and thought to myself “What if he’s right about all his thoughts on different realities?!”  Eventually, of course, I calmed down (incidentally Holt’s talk is a real disappointment compared to the book).

In any case, Fr. Freeman recently wrote a powerful blog entry that may as well have been directed to me:

There is a deep nagging sense in our culture of the “need to know.” We want to know government secrets, intimate details of private lives, pretty much everything. I think this felt need is often present because we lack trust in those who are keeping secrets. We want to know what they’re up to. The secrets of other lives, however, are interesting to us, primarily out of envy and a strange curiosity. But there is another strong sense of the “need to know” that is religious in nature. It is an artifact of our Protestant heritage. The Reformation created an ethic of suspicion. All religious claims were subjected to careful critiques and the demand for an authoritative source. Confidence required a text.

For one, you begin by examining the assumptions behind the “need to know.” There is a democratization of authority within Protestant thought. Each person seeks to verify for himself what will be believed or accepted. With this comes a breakdown of authority and a shattering of spiritual relationships. The community inherently undergoes a fragmentation. What you yourself accept may not satisfy your neighbor. The ethic of suspicion infiltrates everything. As a result, contemporary Christianity is stripped bare of many traditional elements. Rock ‘n Roll in Church seems normal, while incense demands Scriptural proof.

But the entire democratization of knowledge is a false consciousness. There are any number of activities that all people engage in that involve a tradition, most often not recognized by the participants. The simple act of attending a movie in a theater involves actions and decisions that we know through our participation in a cultural tradition. We understand how to line up for tickets and wait our turn (something that is not as obvious as one might think). We understand making our way into the theater and how to find a seat. Those who ignore the social rules that are commonly practiced are seen as disruptive. No one is sorry to see them removed. And only the most alien stranger would need to ask for directions or help.

Human culture is not chaos. Despite everything, it tends towards order. We want to know what to do and how to behave. And though we are not creatures of habit, the most common activities are done repeatedly and in a repetitive manner. We do not want to think about how to sit in a chair every time the occasion arises.

What is needed, as you are finding, are real practices. It is the rhythm of such things that make life bearable. And even if you’re one of those who have great difficulty with routine, having some external practices can be very helpful.

He followed it up with more wisdom today:

Christianity should be seen not just as a set of beliefs, but as a set of practices. The simple act of generosity is essential. Vigils and fastings are mentioned by St. Paul himself and remain part of the normative practice of classical Christianity. The forgiveness of enemies and regular, even continual repentance is required. And these things are more than mental concepts – they have a manner of being practiced.

Doctrines as fundamental to the faith as the Holy Trinity are often neglected with a modernist “just Jesus” patois taking its place. These things happen not because of ill-will or rebelliousness. They are the natural outcome of a Christianity shed of its practices. As I noted in my previous article, even the Marian Feasts are essential to a right-understanding of doctrine. The Incarnation cannot be fully taught or appropriated without them.

Well, that’s quite hard to argue with.  The quelling of the need-to-know problem (which I could easily see driving someone to insanity), and real growth in faith, are linked together by practices carried on by the Church (community) under, in and through Tradition.  The Way is not a lifelong intellectual exercise (though it certainly has one, as the context of Fr. Lonergan’s quote above shows) but something much deeper, and much harder, than that.

This brings me to the Daily Office, otherwise known as the Liturgy of the Hours (those unfamiliar can find a short introduction on the USCCB website and more detail at  A few months ago I started joining a good friend on Thursday evenings to pray Night Prayer.  We have been joined by others at various times (and have had some interesting encounters with a local “Blue Army Mass,” though that is a subject for another day).  Last week my friend, who works out of the full four-volume breviary, presented me with a copy of the abbreviated Daily Office, Shorter Christian Prayer.  To say that I was delighted by this gift would be an understatement; it was and is a God-send.  For someone with a chaotic mind and an inability to pray spontaneously, the discipline of the Daily Office was just what the doctor ordered.

And yet, like all medicine, swallowing it is sometimes not so easy.  In the week since I’ve had the book I have only prayed Morning, Evening and Night Prayer on one day.  A few days I haven’t prayed the office at all.  This is not done out of deliberate neglect so much as a failure on my part to rearrange my schedule and make the time for the prayers (as the old saying has it, one will never “find” time for anything, one must make the time).  In truth, I relate very easily to Fr. Freeman’s comments above-I have more difficulty with routine than even I realized.  Yet my experiences with the prayers thus far, which indeed have a calming and soothing effect on the mind while (paradoxically) prompting far deeper reflection, has illustrated Fr. Freeman’s point well: It is in the rhythm that real faith takes shape.

The timing for this is opportune (Providential you might say), as I have also recently hired a personal trainer and working to get into another routine, namely that hellish activity called exercise (you can make me recognize the need but you can’t make me like it).  There may be a danger in juxtaposing these two activities together-in particular seeing prayer in the same category as exercise, where one achieves personal goals and feels great as a result.  This is not the purpose of the Daily Office.  One another level, however, the two work together in sync-growth, physical or spiritual, comes from disciplined routine.  My friend regularly uses the analogy of a gym, one I can particularly appreciate.  James Alison has another a phrase that I find helpful: Faith, in a sense, is “relaxing into a set of practices.”  Paradoxically, again, the metaphors of working out and relaxing are not mutually exclusive; they are mutually implicative.

Lastly, a few words about the Daily Office itself.  Pope Paul VI, in the Apostolic Constitution Laudis Canticum (promulgating the revised text of the Daily Office in 1970) makes the following observations of the Office:

To manifest this quality of our prayer more clearly, “the warm and living love for Holy Scripture”[8] that permeates the Liturgy of the Hours must come to life in all of us, so that Scripture may indeed become the chief source of all Christian prayer. In particular, the praying of the Psalms, which continually ponders and proclaims the action of God in the history of salvation, must be grasped with new warmth by the people of God. This will be achieved more readily if a deeper understanding of the Psalms, in the meaning in which they are used in the liturgy, is more diligently promoted among the clergy and communicated to all the faithful by means of appropriate catechesis. The wider range of Scripture readings provided not only in the Mass but also in the new Liturgy of the Hours will bring about a continuous meditation on the history of salvation and its continuation in the life of men.

The life of Christ in His Mystical Body also perfects and elevates the personal life of each member of the faithful. Therefore there can be no opposition between the prayer of the Church and the personal prayer of the individual; rather the relationship between them must be strengthened and enlarged by the Divine Office. Mental prayer should draw unfailing nourishment from readings, Psalms, and the other parts of the Liturgy of the Hours; and if the method and form of the celebration is chosen which most helps the persons taking part, one’s personal, living prayer must of necessity be helped. If the prayer of the Divine Office becomes genuine personal prayer, the relation between the liturgy and the whole Christian life also becomes clearer. The whole life of the faithful, hour by hour during day and night, is a kind of leitourgia or public service, in which the faithful give themselves over to the ministry of love toward God and neighbor, identifying themselves with the action of Christ, who by His life and self-offering sanctified the life of all mankind. The Liturgy of the Hours clearly expresses and effectively strengthens this sublime truth, embodied in the Christian life. For this reason the Liturgy of the Hours is recommended to all the faithful, including those who are not bound by law to their recitation.

May the praise of God re-echo in the Church of our day with greater grandeur and beauty by means of the new book for the Liturgy of the hours, which now by Apostolic authority we sanction, approve, and promulgate. May it join the praise sung by saints and angels in the courts of heaven. May the days of our earthly exile be filled more and more with that praise which throughout the ages is given “to the One who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb.”[9]

In the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours the Church adds the following:

7. There is a special and very close bond between Christ and those whom he makes members of his Body, the Church, through the sacrament of rebirth. Thus, from the Head all the riches belonging to the Son flow throughout the whole Body: the communication of the Spirit, the truth, the life, and the participation in the divine sonship that Christ manifested in all his prayer when he dwelt among us.

Christ’s priesthood is also shared by the whole Body of the Church, so that the baptized are consecrated as a spiritual temple and holy priesthood through the rebirth of baptism and the anointing by the Holy Spirit [50] and are empowered to offer the worship of the New Covenant, a worship that derives not from our own powers but from Christ’s merit and gift.

20. The liturgy of the hours, like other liturgical services, is not a private matter but belongs to the whole Body of the Church, whose life it both expresses and affects. [91]

27. Lay groups gathering for prayer, apostolic work, or any other reason are encouraged to fulfill the Church’s duty, [103] by celebrating part of the liturgy of the hours. The laity must learn above all how in the liturgy they are adoring God the Father in spirit and in truth; [104] they should bear in mind that through public worship and prayer they reach all humanity and can contribute significantly to the salvation of the whole world. [105]

In short, the Daily Office is not an empty ritual that simply has some positive side effects.  It is a meditation on salvation history, a sharing in the priesthood of Christ, an activity shared with the entire Communion of Saints, in short it is an exercise in Christian life, a microcosm of the faith if you will.  It is of immense importance, and almost limitless value, in the life of the Church and for individuals in communion with the Church.  The Daily Office, as my friend wisely observed, is made for us, not we for it.

In a sense this meditation ties together several things I have raised in my most recent posts.  The Daily Office is a tool for “silencing the nous,” as the East might say, and a method for helping discipline the questioning mind while deepening our reflections.  It is a disciplined practice allowing us to “relax into faith.”  And in doing so we enter into the depths of the Church’s Communion and Tradition.  As the kids today say, the “struggle is real”-but it is a struggle well worth the effort.

More on Universal Reason

A good friend of friend of mine, responding to my recent post on “Universal Reason,” wrote to me:

Is not the mind of God “Universal Reason?”  What a “Ghost” to give up my friend.

Perhaps you may rightly point to that this is not what you mean…even pointing to your haven of reliance on the transcendent.  But what else is reason?  In effect this makes matters worse because the problem of “the scandal of particularity” is super magnified, not just increased.

My friend is, of course, asking on a very important question.  After all, have I not been hammering on the concept that God is Universal Reason myself?  Does not my assertion above make a mockery of the very concept of reason?  Did I inadvertently pull the rug out from under my own feet?

Having given it a bit more thought, I have a few (somewhat disconnected) points to try and tie my thesis back together.

First, yes I affirm that God absolutely is Reason, though as the Pope Emeritus noted in in Introduction to Christianity He is not just reason-not “pure cosmic mathematics,” not “mere thought,” not “unfeeling idea”-but love, a person.  My friend is of course correct, and I reiterate here that my criticism of Universal Reason was in fact directed at various forms of human rationality, not at the understanding of the mind of God as Reason itself.

Second, if I can wax Eastern for a moment, the Orthodox have emphasized farther back than anybody (even Henry Hill) can remember that human reason is fallen along with the rest of humanity, which is at least partially responsible for why the Christian East has tended to take a dim view of logical proofs, or other forms of reasoning, as being central in knowing the Lord.  It is not uncommon to hear Eastern thinkers speak of the weakness of human reason in terms of the “darkening of the nous.”  I will let Frederica Mathews-Green, from her book Welcome to the Orthodox Church, explain:

When we ask the question: How do we experience God? the scriptural view would be that we do encounter him by means of our mind.  Not by our ability to reason, though; we do this by means of the listening mind.

As the old saying goes, “The Greeks had a name for it.”  In this case, they had a name for a function of the mind that is usually unnamed, and, for us English speakers, goes mostly unnoticed.

If you think about, the mind has two “gears,” forward and reverse.  Forward gear is when you are thinking some through, following a line of though, reasoning in a logical way…the mind also has a “reverse gear”: it can receive information.  This is our ability to understand, comprehend, discern or perceive.  In biblical Greek it is called the nous.

Broadly speaking, it is our capacity to encounter life firsthand, our receptive awareness.  An Orthodox post-communion prayer asks, “Enlighten the simple unity of my five senses.”  The nous unites the five senses, along with its other work.

If God were to interact with us, it would be by means of the nous, not through our emotions or our reasoning ability.  When God spoke to a prophet, he communicated by the means of the prophet’s mind-his receptive, receiving mind.

…why don’t we hear God’s voice? Because the nous is broken.  Like everything else in creation, it sustained damage as a result of the Fall.  The darkened nous doesn’t much want to hear the voice of God….because the nous is damaged, we perceive this world wrongly often enough, and misunderstand situations and other people.  Much of our misery is rooted simply in not being able to understand.  A lifetime of misperceptions bends and dents the mind, so that we don’t comprehend God, or anyone else, every accurately.

Elsewhere Frederica says more directly:

Our ability to reason is as damaged as anything else, after the Fall. I think where people get confused is that you can set up a syllogism and it makes perfect sense within its own universe. The problem is that the terms don’t correspond to reality. They omit many, many subtle factors. This is why great thinkers disagree so vehemently, when the logical sequence of their arguments makes perfect sense within their own biodome world.

Note this follows up on an comments she had previously made here and here.

Now, I do not offer these comments (which I believe are a fair representation of the Orthodox viewpoint) as a “cop-out.”  I am not articulating-and neither is Frederica-the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity.  Catholicism has always asserted that the natural aptitudes of the human being still operate even after the Fall, as explained by Karl Adam:

According to the teaching of the Church-as that was formulated at Trent against the Lutheran conception-original sin by no means destroyed the natural structure of man’s being, nor is it synonymous with what St Paul calls the law of our members, that is with concupiscence.  It is true that the understanding is darkened by it and the will weakened; but these are not the direct and immediate consequences of original sin.  They are the direct results of the loss of our original, supernatural union of life and love with God, whereby we were in our whole being diverted from our original, supernatural end.  Consequently the natural structure of our being remains fundamentally unimpaired.  Though original sin brought a weakening of nature, it did not bring as well a physical deterioration or corruption of our bodily and mental powers.

…man’s nature is not essentially damaged in its natural powers, but only by diversion from its supernatural end…

What I think is critical to see here is that Frederica and Adam actually agree here-which is to say that Catholicism and Orthodoxy, in fact, agree on the nature of the Fall.  The East’s language about the “darkening of the nous” and the West’s description of human nature being “diverted from its supernatural end” are both ways of saying the same thing-the Fall severed us from communion with God and our reasoning capability is not what it should be as a result.  It is true, I think, that Catholicism generally (and rightly) has continued to put a higher trust in human reasoning (the discursive kind) than the East has, but even so it is not blind to the limitations of human reasoning.  In the words of Frank Sheed speaks in Theology and Sanity of “keeping the intellect cleansed”:

There is…real pain for the mind as it brings its almost atrophied muscles into action without the comforting crutch of imagination.  “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”  That applies to all freedom, including the freedom of the intellect to do its own laborious housework.

Speaking of belief in God, Scott Hahn notes that

For, if the matter were left up to human reason, few people would ever attain the knowledge of God, because the majority would lack either the time, the freedom or the intellectual capacity.  Also, whatever truth they did attain would always be mixed up with error, because even the most well-endowed human reason is still imperfect.

Anyway, I have gone on long enough here.  The point is this: Human reason still works, but imperfectly.  God is of course Universal Reason and our reasoning is but a reflection of/share in His (a point made very cogently by C.S. Lewis in Miracles and by David Bentley Hart in The Experience of God), but our reason works imperfectly, and such, we do not have direct, unmediated access to the true Universal Reason (a point that my quote from Miroslav Volf in the previous post illustrates well).  And, as Rowan Williams has said multiple times, we misunderstand human nature greatly if we assume rationality is always in the driver seat.

Third, having set the stage with this background, I would like to posit that the plethora of “rationalities”-specifically in the realm of moral reasoning-can be explained theologically in Augustinian terms.  The Catholic tradition has long asserted that due to original sin we attempt to substitute created things for the Creator, which creates all kinds of headaches.  This is, of course, our futile attempt to use wealth, pleasure, power, etc. to fill what some colloquially call the “God-shaped hole” inside.  I think something analogous, however, happens with our reason even more generally.  Moral reasoning that does not focus on the transcendent will inevitably center on, and ground itself in, something lesser, and we end up with a one-sided, distorted vision-visions-of morality as a result.  Lewis vividly illustrates this in The Abolition of Man:

The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.

The various competing definitions of justice, to use an example, all acknowledge a legitimate dimension of justice but in a fixated and distorted way that excludes the broader picture, as Tim Keller explains:

Christians’ own theology should lead them to appreciate the competing views of justice that Sandel outlines in our society because they know from the Bible that they are all partly right.  The utilitarians are concerned with the common welfare.  And in the book of Proverbs, we learn that people living justly do not consider their money to belong to them alone, but also to the community around them.  Liberals are most concerned with individual rights.  And, as we have seen, the Bible gives us the strongest foundation for the idea of rights there is…sometimes Christians will side with one school of thought, other times they will side with another.  In other words, according to the Bible, virtue, rights and the common good are all crucial aspects of justice.

An important corollary to all of this is that I do not think one needs to “believe in God in order to be a good person”-few people, I think, actually believe that in that axiom.  What I do believe is that in order to have a complete and coherent morality, including a sense of justice, along with a true justification for moral obligation, one can never rely on the competing rationalizations that we find on the ground today.  The Catholic sees these rationalizations as the bits and pieces that result from the fractured view of the transcendent moral order that is itself a result of our Fallen state.  In short, one does not need to believe in God to be good, but reason that does not acknowledge the Good (capital-case ‘G’) can never articulate why the good is good, much less get a clear grip on understanding what is good.  We need a sense of transcendent moral order in order for our reason to work properly, if we focus on anything else we will inevitably diverge.

Fourth, and finally, where does this leave us on a practical level?  I have acknowledged previously that plenty of people today yearn for moral realism, including Sam Harris, and possibly Daniel Dennett (who has acknowledged the possibility of a Platonic set of ethics).  Yet, reason by itself seems impotent, unless-and here is the kicker-we are prepared to acknowledge a transcendent dimension.  One does not need to “believe in God” so to speak, but one does need to believe in the Good (of course in classical theism the Good and God are one and the same).  The sense of a transcendent moral order-the Natural Law/Lewis’s Tao-is knowable by human reason, and I am more than prepared to grant, with Lewis, that is has expressed itself in the great religious traditions.  After all, in the words of Chris, a regular interlocutor on this blog, the Perennial Philosophy didn’t get its name for nothing (though I reiterate the Perennial Philosophy is relativized by Christ, not vice versa, so it does not solve the scandal of particularity problem).

Nonetheless, this transcendent sense is all but lost today, and is unlikely to be greeted with enthusiasm by most moral philosophers.  The 2013 skirmish on First Things between David Bentley Hart and. Ed Feser over natural law illustrates this well.  In Hart’s words:

Mind you, much of the disagreement vanishes if the central question is only whether, to borrow a line, “there is common ground between all human beings, and par­ticularly between religious believers and non-believers, on which moral disagreements can be rationally adjudicated.” I am not sure I could sneak so minimalist a definition of natural law theory past, say, the piercing eyes of Russell Hittinger; but, by all means, if we are talking only about principles upon which we all agree in advance, then only details remain.

I, however, do not believe everyone agrees on those principles anymore, even when it seems they might. I think traditional moralists today will inevitably find that any “natural” terms they employ have very different meanings for their interlocutors, and invite very different conclusions. And they will find also that no philosophical arguments simply from the evident natures of things will suffice to prove the validity of their presuppositions.

Hart had previously noted that:

In abstraction from specific religious or metaphysical traditions, there really is very little that natural law theory can meaningfully say about the relative worthiness of the employments of the will. There are, of course, generally observable facts about the characteristics of our humanity (the desire for life and happiness, the capacity for allegiance and affinity, the spontaneity of affection for one’s family) and about the things that usually conduce to the fulfillment of innate human needs (health, a well-ordered family and polity, sufficient food, aesthetic bliss, a sense of spiritual mystery, leisure, and so forth); and if we all lived in a Platonic or Aristotelian or Christian intellectual world, in which everyone presumed some necessary moral analogy between the teleology of nature and the proper objects of the will, it would be fairly easy to connect these facts to moral prescriptions in ways that our society would find persuasive. We do not live in such a world, however.

It is, after all, simply a fact that many of what we take to be the plain and evident elements of universal morality are in reality artifacts of cultural traditions. Today we generally eschew cannibalism, slavery, polygamy, and wars of conquest because of a millennial process of social evolution, the gradual universalization of certain moral beliefs that entered human experience in the form not of natural intuitions but of historical events. We have come to find a great many practices abhorrent and a great many others commendable not because the former transparently offend against our nature while the latter clearly correspond to it, but because at various moments in human history we found ourselves addressed by uncanny voices that seemed to emanate from outside the totality of the perceptible natural order and its material economies.

One certainly may believe that those voices in fact awakened us to “natural” truths, but only because one’s prior supernatural convictions prompt one to do so. To try then to convince someone who rejects those convictions nevertheless to embrace those truths on purely “natural” grounds can never be much more than an exercise in suasive rhetoric (and perhaps something of a pia fraus ).

So.  Where are we then?  I offer two, somewhat at odds with each other, thoughts in conclusion.  First, I largely agree with Hart (and Lewis): Contemporary forms of moral reasoning have cut themselves off from any sense of a transcendent moral order, and as such I see no real way of reconciling them with reason.  Indeed, with Hart I think any discourse on natural law is unlikely to prove fruitful.  Though there are differences in moral teachings between the great religious traditions, there was still something a shared sense of the transcendent-the Perennial Philosophy one might say-that doesn’t exist now, Dennett’s offhanded comment about Platonic ethics notwithstanding.

At the same time, however, the Catholic cannot surrender the use of moral reason in public discourse.  In the words of George Weigel:

Evangelical Catholicism is bilingual…in addressing issues of public policy in pluralistic and typically secular societies it speaks its second language, which is the language of reason.

This use of the language of reason in pluralistic democracies is justified on several grounds.  It is a matter of good democratic manners: serious debate is the lifeblood of democracy, and those committed to the democratic project take care to observe its grammatical protocols…it is also a matter of political common sense: if you want an argument to be heard, engaged and accepted, you make it in a language that those you are seeking to persuade can understand.  It is, furthermore, a matter of calling the bluff on those who insist that the Catholic Church’s teachings on such issues as abortion, euthanasia, and marriage are “sectarian” teachings that cannot be “imposed” on a pluralistic society.  To the contrary, the arguments that evangelical Catholics make on these issues in the public square are arguments drawn from the grammar of reason, which is (or should be) accessible to all, whatever their theological location (and even, indeed, when they lack any religious conviction).

Weigel’s thoughts do not take into account the issues addressed in my previous post (competing rationalities), but these issues have already been well addressed by Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, Volf and many others-we must turn to these figures to determine how we will use the voice of reason in the public square.  We must also, as Hart noted, expect up front that we may (probably will) loose many of the debates.  This does not, however, relieve us of the obligation to enter into the fray to begin with.

We would do well, I think, to hold firm to our belief that while there is a Universal Reason above (Schuon’s “stratosphere” vs. “atmosphere” comes in handy), here below we are simply not able to definitively appeal to it, at least in the present cultural climate.  We must vigorously defend reason, but in so doing we must, to borrow language from my friend, accept that in so doing we will be enacting the scandal of particularity.  We have, however, no choice; for the “Universal Reason” postulated by the heirs of the Enlightenment is-and always has been-a myth.