The Chasm of Incomprehension

The worldview of Classical Christianity (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) is separated from what we broadly call the “modern worldview” by a vast gulf.  The gulf is not necessarily so much one of rabid hostility (though there is plenty of that), but rather, it is a chasm of incomprehension.  Those of us who have grown up in the aftermath of the Enlightenment (which is to say all of us who are currently alive) have been trained to see the world through a particular frame of reference, one that is greatly at odds with the worldview of Classical Christianity (and, for that matter, the worldviews of all the great religions).  In this age of the “New Evangelization,” any successful strategy for engagement with the ‘secular’ world needs to acknowledge the existence of this chasm if it is to have any hope at all of reaching today’s “lost sheep.”

For the purposes of this essay, I intend to focus on one particular facet of modernity [1] that has become a stumbling block vis-à-vis comprehension, namely the extent to which utilitarianism has infiltrated our intellectual atmosphere and firmly embedded itself into the superstructure of our minds (perhaps, even, the literal wiring of our brains-see my previous post).  Here I am focusing on the principle of utility, defined as follows:

The principle of utility states that actions or behaviors are right in so far as they promote happiness or pleasure, wrong as they tend to produce unhappiness or pain. Hence, utility is a teleological principle.

As an ethical theory, utilitarianism is open to criticism from multiple angles (c.f. the work of Bernard Williams [2]).  What I am interested in here, however, is deeper than merely ethical calculus.  David Bentley Hart, in The Experience of God, notes that for classical theism

ontology and ethics are one “science,” and the desire for being is inseparable from the desire for the good.

Likewise, the utilitarian worldview has ontological ramifications, although unlike classical theism, its approach is a tad schizophrenic.  But more of that anon.  First, it should be emphasized that this “chasm of incomprehension” runs through the heart of each person.  Obviously, I am here paraphrasing Vaclav Havel (“The line between good and evil does not run between ‘them’ and ‘us,’ but through each person”) and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (“The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man”).  All of us, simply by virtue of being alive in the time and place in which we are, has been infected to some degree to utilitarian thinking.  It is inescapable.  As I will also return to below, utilitarian thinking can be as much a problem inside the Church as outside.  This exhortation is directed as much at myself as anyone else.

In a nutshell, utilitarianism as a worldview asserts that maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain are ultimate goals, the summon bonum.  At its most extreme, utilitarianism envisions The Brave New World of Aldous Huxley, but the basic thought patterns of utilitarianism have become the default setting for the contemporary West.  The New Atheism, for instance, has been described as resurrecting (pardon the ironically inappropriate use of that word) Epicureanism, the forerunner of utilitarianism.  Nietzsche’s prophecy of the “last men” seems frighteningly prescient.  The irony of all of this is that utilitarianism-the darling of secularists and contemporary atheists-has effectively morphed into a “religion,” if religion is to be defined as the ultimate goal and guideline of one’s life.  Irony knows no bounds.

Utilitarianism as a worldview, however, sits in a rather uncomfortable position vis-à-vis reality as a whole.  I would like to quote, again, John Hick to make a point:

To realize this…to understand that this world, with all its “heartaches and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” an environment so manifestly not designed for the maximization of human pleasure and the minimization of human pain, may be rather well adapted to the quite different purpose of “soul-making.”

I am not so much interested in exploring Hick’s theodicy (“soul-making”) which, like any theodicy, is oversimplified and incomplete, and thus forever doomed to be nothing more than a provisional answer to the problem of evil.  Rather, I wish to emphasize how remarkably…well, obvious Hick’s observation is.  His description of the world is so axiomatic, so banal, its painful.  No one who looks at the world for longer than 5 minutes could possibly conclude that the point of reality is to facilitate human utilitarianism.  No one with even semi-active faculties of observation could possibly conclude that the universe was designed for us to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

As a “religion,” then, utilitarianism is one that is predicated on defiance of reality, living against its grain.  One could argue the opposite-that to be a utilitarian is to accept the inherent nature of reality (transitory, saturated with pain) and “make the best of it,” as it were.  Some might argue that, if anything, utilitarianism is the “best fit” for reality, consonant with evolutionary biology.  Even from a purely pragmatic perspective, as pain and pleasure are “objective measures” utilitarianism seems to be the best approach for living in accord with reality.  As compelling as this argument may be, I still think utilitarianism is better conceived as defiance.  Reality, seen with a coldly objective eye, is indifferent to us, and our own consciousness is poorly aligned with our experience.  To live as a utilitarian is not to “simply live” (that would require a lobotomy of our human consciousness) but rather entails the choice of a guiding principle and the subsequent struggle to direct life (individual and collective) towards that principle.  Utilitarianism goes against the grain of nature and thus requires as much “work”-as any other religion.

By this I merely mean that any way of being human-any religion-entails some kind of struggle with some aspects of our nature.  One could choose a path of asceticism and wrestle against the passions of the flesh, or one could opt for a path of indulgence (living “naturally”), which requires work to anesthetize one’s conscience (or, in Freudian terms, to deprogram ingrained repression)  The bottom line is that there is no easy way of being human, any religion demands that we cultivate some aspects of our humanity at the expense of others.  Utilitarianism, as an overall approach to life that exalts the principle that we are to avoid pain at all costs and maximize pleasure however we can, is no different.  There is no “simple living” for the human being, no matter which way we turn we will be acting against the grain of nature. [3]

The relationship between religion and reality, by the way, is an interesting one.  As I’ve noted, hedonism/Epicureanism/utilitarianism is founded on the supposition that reality as a whole is meaningless, and that our way of life is to “enjoy it while we can.”  Other worldviews (Stoicism for instance) posit that there is an objective order in nature that we must live in accordance with.  Here, Nietzsche had some sharp words:

“According to nature” you want to live? O you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are! Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purposes and consideration, without any mercy and justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power — how could you live according to this indifference!

In truth, the matter is altogether different: while you pretend rapturously to read the canon of your law in nature, you want something opposite, you strange actors and self-deceivers! Your pride wants to impose your morality, your ideal on nature — even on nature — and incorporate them in her; you demand that she should be nature “according to the Stoa” . . . . For all your love of truth, you have forced yourself so long, so persistently, so rigidly-hypnotically to see nature the wrong way, namely Stoically, that you are no longer able to see her differently . . . . But this is an ancient, eternal story: what formerly happened to the Stoics still happens today, too, as soon as any philosophy begins to believe in itself. It always creates the world in its own image; it cannot do otherwise.

In essence, utilitarianism-its atheistic pretensions aside-has now come to “believe in itself,” and hence exalts the principle of utility as if it were a transcendent law.  It should be pointed out that the great religions generally have a more complicated relationship with reality.  Buddhism, for instance, no less that utilitarianism grasps that reality is transitory and permeated with pain, yet-recognizing a glimmer of transcendence in Nirvana-it offers a life of asceticism, cultivating wisdom, and living compassion, rather than a primal and facile pain-avoidance strategy.  Christianity affirms belief in a natural law, but also teaches that reality as a whole is fallen, and our reason too weak to see reality for what it truly is.

Anyway, enough of this.  The chasm of incomprehension today is that we are all utilitarians by default.  And, facts presented, Classical Christianity is simply irreconcilable with the utilitarian worldview.  The Church has never accepted that the purpose of human life is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, and as a result any answer it might offer to the problem of suffering is going to fall on ears that, while not totally deaf, cannot truly hear.  Yet, Christianity is what it is.  It does not start from utilitarian premises, nor can it be forced into the framework of the utilitarian worldview.  Its claim that suffering can be taken up and redeemed is, ipso facto, a scandal to the modern mind.

As I alluded to earlier, the arena of theodicy is a dangerous one, for no theodicy can ever truly satisfy our intellect or salve the emotional and existential agony that accompanies living in a world out of joint.  In the last analysis, Christianity’s answer is the Crucified God, not a theory about “soul-making.”  One can hardly blame the world for finding that answer scandalous and offensive-it was so in biblical times (c.f. 1 Corinthians 1:23), it is so in ours.  No one should blame the “unbelievers” for taking offense at the Cross, the Cross is offensive to our human sensibilities.  The image of the crucified Nazarene is a sharp reminder of how fiercely non-utilitarian true Christianity really is.

Still, as sympathetic as I am to those who wrestle with the challenge of the Cross, I wouldn’t be if I didn’t pose some challenge to the world.  Returning to the sheer banality of Hick’s observation, I suggest that perhaps the state of the world should be enough to consider the possibility that perhaps we shouldn’t be applying utilitarian standards in our judgment of God.  After all, why should God’s Providence coincide with the utilitarian approach we find so congenial?  Why do we introduce the state of the world as evidence against God’s existence, when in our more sober moments we realize that expecting the world to measure up to our standards and expectations is ridiculous?  Is it not presumptuous to argue that because the world is not a utilitarian’s paradise, we can thereby conclude that there is no good God?  Where do we have the audacity to measure Ultimate Reality by our standards, when we dare not measure reality by our standards? [4]

It makes one pine for the honesty of Christopher Hitchens, who remarked in a debate with William Lane Craig that he (Hitchens) did not feel that if God existed, that he (Hitchens) was entitled to any explanation from God regarding the state of the world.  There is something remarkably refreshing-and raw-in that admission.  Of course, the god Hitchens was referring to is presumably not a “good” god, and hence not worthy of worship.  But still, Hitchens realized something that many of his brethren don’t: whatever Ultimate Reality is, it is incredibly naïve of us to expect that it will conform with our own utility-driven agenda.  God does not owe us an apology for failing to create a world in accordance with utilitarian expectations.

Christianity, of course, contends that God did answer our cries, albeit in a manner that no one-no one-expected or wanted.  This, however, should make us sit up and pay closer attention.  As C.S. Lewis has said (and I never tire of quoting):

Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have. So let us leave behind all these boys’ philosophies–these over simple answers. The problem is not simple and the answer is not going to be simple either.

Having said this, I would like to shift gears and say a few words about how the Church should attempt to bridge the chasm of incomprehension.  My answer is simple: the Church should revisit 1 Corinthians 1:23 and dial up the shock value of the Crucified God in preaching and proclamation, rather than toning it down.  No amount of accommodationism will bridge the chasm, the Church cannot “close” the gap without tripping over Her own feet and gutting the faith in the process.  However we move forward in the New Evangelization, I think is clear what the Church should NOT do.  As the incomparable Edward Oakes once put it:

Watered-down Christianity has only given us absurd hopes, the vision of a non-existent future, lukewarm zeal, a narcissistic ethic, in­cantatory theology, invented grievances (like the pseudo-allergy to so-called gender-biased language), and a preach­ing in which, in Dante’s harsh words, “sheep leave church, having been fed on wind.”

The point of the New Evangelization is not to make Christianity “popular.”  To quote the wise words of the Pope Emeritus:

…mass movements are not the ones that bear the promise of the future within them.  The future is made wherever people find their way to one another in life-shaping convictions.  And a good future grows wherever these convictions come from the truth and lead to it.

The 2016 presidential campaigns have given us a vivid lesson in the toxicity of populist politics.  Populist spirituality is no better.  The Church’s best course is to avoid the popular approach, and to steer towards the offensive and paradoxical figure of the God who took flesh and was crucified as a criminal, pinned up between terrorists like an insect, his arms outstretched, inviting us to join him in his agony.  It is in that offensive, unpopular, and deeply anti-utilitarian moment that Ultimate Reality made itself known to us, and invited us to taste the true purpose of human existence.  True human life is not a vapid struggle to avoid pain and seek pleasure, but rather is an an existence permeated with that kind of love that bears the most horrid forms of pain and suffering, redeeming them in the process, the kind of love that is strong enough to become weak.

The chasm of incomprehension will, I believe, remain.  But the Church should offer the world the Truth it has been given, for it is that Truth which can make us free.


  1. Another facet, I have touched on before, is the obsession with our own autonomy, particularly on matters of sex.  In fact, our autonomy is to a great extent illusory.  It is a testament to modernity’s schizophrenia that at the same time we exalt choice at every turn, the “high priests of science” (neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists in particular) insist at every turn that, in the last analysis, free will is an illusion.
  2. Commonweal has an excellent commentary on the recent film Eye in the Sky that demonstrates the weaknesses of utilitarian moral reasoning.  As the review notes, the film (which I highly recommend, it is possibly the best one this year) centers around one “dreadful utilitarian question: Does the chance to eliminate terrorists who are preparing to attack dozens of innocent victims justify killing one innocent child?”  Ivan Karamozov’s dilemma is much as a problem for secular morality as it is for Christianity, but one should note that it is utilitarianism-not Classical Christianity-that answers “Yes” to the question as to whether the death of an innocent child is necessary for some “greater good.”
  3. Interestingly, any approach to living-even living “naturally”-requires a sustained effort to “re-wire” our brains (see previous post) so that the approach we have chosen becomes ingrained in us.  The curse of being human is that we cannot “live according to nature,” for to live without conscience is “second nature” to us.  Utilitarianism, in one sense, is almost the inverse of virtue ethics (which is a polite way of saying it is oriented toward the demonic, and not the Good).
  4. The answer, of course, is that Christianity insists that God is good and loving, and has thereby opened itself to this criticism.  The tension of God’s apparent powerlessness has defined the Judeo-Christian tradition from the beginning.  As I go on to note, the only answer we have been given is the Cross.  In the words of Peter Kreeft, “the Christian God came to earth to deliberately put himself on the hook of human suffering.”

Brain Awakenings

I confess to being something of a neuroscience junkie.  Granted, my knowledge of the subject is limited to the level of what one finds in those books on the shelves of the popular science section of Barnes & Noble, or-alternately-in the articles of Discover.  In other words, my interests may be a mile wide, but my knowledge is only an inch deep.  Still, I find the brain beguiling.  I have commented on this subject before, but I think we are overdue for another excursus in “neuro-theology.”  I hesitate to do, knowing that the Internet is awash-more like drowning-in articles linking “spirituality” (usually “mindfulness”) with MRI studies and the like.  Still, this is a subject that the classical Christian ignores at her peril.

I have lost count of the number of times I have seen a meme on Facebook attributing the following gem to C.S. Lewis:

You don’t have a soul.

You are a soul.

You have a body.

Lewis, mercifully, never said any such thing.  And its a good thing too, because the truth of the matter is, we are our bodies.  Granted, we are our souls too, but we are embodied souls; the soul apart from the body is not the “real person,” not the genie freed from the bottle, but only a fragment of ourselves, unable to function apart from the body.  The truth of the matter is, classical Christianity “fits” just fine with contemporary neuroscience; better-in fact-then the worldview of the neo-Gnostics.  Also, when you think about it, it rather makes sense that there are no “second chances” after death-the soul cannot truly function as a human person without the body, cognition as we know it disappears and the separated soul relies on a divine infusion of knowledge, as the Angelic Doctor knew well. As one commentator has explained:

The separated soul no longer has cognition through the abstraction of forms from material being, nor does it have cognition solely through the forms that are retained in the passive intellect from the time of its bodily existence. Its new mode of understanding is like that of the other separated immaterial substances, coming from a participation in the divine light of God.

…Aquinas reminds us of the two modes of intellective understanding: the first is through abstraction of form from phantasms; the second is through an influx of forms directly from God in divine illumination

Those bolded lines, incidentally, wax a bit Eastern.

Anyway, I’m not interested in the soul “side” of the equation this time, but rather with the bodily “side,” and specifically with the brain.  In a certain sense it is fair to say that we are our brains.  In another sense, of course, we are not.  And it is this paradox that I am interested in here.  As embodied creatures, our neurology plays a key role in our spiritual lives.  I would like to briefly consider 3 ways in which this is the case: Induction, Transformation, and Perception.  Without further ado:


I would like to let James Alison have the first word here:

Mirror Neurons were discovered by a group of Italian scientists working at the University of Parma in 1996. They noticed that when a monkey whose brain had been wired to a neural electrode picked up a raisin, certain of the neurons in its brain fired. What astounded them was that when by chance one of the scientists himself picked up a raisin while the monkey was watching, the same brain neurons fired in the monkey as had fired when the monkey itself was performing the activity. These results were replicated across many other experiments, and so it was that the neurons which enable mimicry were identified. These neurons literally mirror the activity of another in the brain of the one watching. Thus they allow actors other than the monkey to be reproduced by and in the monkey and enable its socialization.

When it comes to humans, who are vastly more accomplished imitators than monkeys, scanners are discovering more and more areas of the brain which demonstrate this mirroring activity, suggesting that we have many more, and more widely distributed, mirror neurons than monkeys and that these are fired off from birth onwards by the activity of adults towards infants. So, for instance, within half an hour of birth a baby will stick its tongue out at an adult who sticks its tongue out at it. Within a very short time indeed a baby will be able to defer its imitation of an adult. When an adult makes a face at a baby who has a dummy, or pacifier, in its mouth, and then resumes a neutral face, the baby who is temporarily restrained from responding by the dummy will imitate the facial gesture later, when the dummy is removed.

Even more significant, from much earlier than had been thought, a baby is able to distinguish between an adult doing something (for instance, putting a rubber ring on a stick) and an adult failing to get the rubber ring on the stick, so that the baby is able to get right what the adult got “wrong”. This means that it is not merely adult activity which is being imitated, but adult intention. And so it is that we learn to desire according to the desire of the other in the phrase which is at the root of everything which my own principal teacher, René Girard has taught. And thus it is that we as humans no longer have simple instincts, for food, for sex, for safety. Rather, our very way of being in contact with our instincts is received by us through a pattern of desire which is interiorised within us through our imitation of what is prior to, and other than, the self of each one of us.

A simple related example might be that if an infant is perceived as a gift by its principal carer, then it will receive itself as a gift. If it is perceived as something frightening by its principal carer, then it will mirror the fear in the attitude towards it, and learn to hold itself in fear: it is always the eyes of the other who let me know who I am, and as I detect them perceiving me, so will I find myself to be. And of course, all of us are used to any number of variations of the mixture of love and fear in the eyes of those before whom we are vulnerable.

Here I am melding together two fields of enquiry, one concerning mirror neurons and another concerning infant imitation, fields which according to their own leading exponents are converging. What is staggering about this convergence is that it brings to an end the assumption that imitation is something “we learn how to do”, starting from something else, and which makes of imitation a secondary, and rather an undervalued, mode of interaction. Instead we discover that humans are exceptionally finely prepared imitating bodies for whom imitation, at which we can indeed improve, is the normal conduit through which we acquire language, gesture, memory and empathy and so receive ourselves as ourselves. In other words it is not the case that we reason about something or someone prior to imitating it or them. Imitation is pre-cognitive and it is as a result of the flowering of our highly developed imitative capacity that we come to know.

Now, the subject of mirror neurons is controversial, a recent book argues that there is no merit at all to the arguments Alison makes.   When I mentioned this to Alison, in a recent email correspondence, he dryly observed:

The problem is one, as you say, of the over interpretation (or under interpretation) of such data as it becomes available.  The battle between cognitivists and pre-cognitivists, one where the preconceptions of each party’s lenses dominate their explanations entirely, will, I suspect be going on long after we are food for the worms!

Incidentally, those who are curious about this particular debate, will find the works of Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky highly intriguing.  But I digress.  My point is that a significant amount of human nature is embedded in the “wiring” of our brain, and it is becoming apparent-slowly and shakily-that the brain plays a key role in our being “inducted” into being human beings.  This ties into a point that Father Freeman has made with respect to the “tradition of being human“:

The primary mode of cultural education is not choice – rather – it is tradition. Most of what and who we are is “handed down” to us (literally “traditioned”). For the most part it is an unconscious process – both for the one who delivers the tradition as well as for the one who receives it. From the smallest actions of speaking to a baby, slowly passing on language, to the highest actions of belief and understanding, the vast majority of what forms and shapes us will have come through a traditioning. Free choice is largely exercised within the tradition: chocolate and vanilla are choices but both exist within the same tradition of ice cream.

Now, the nature vs. nurture debate is a whole subject onto itself, and it is clear that there is a fixed nature (again c.f. Pinker and Chomsky), but many believe that “nature vs. nurture” is a false debate, and in any case, whatever their relationship, the brain is involved.  Tradition-that body of practices that defines classical Christianity-is of vital importance, because-as Alison tirelessly says-the Way is a path of induction.  In The Forgiving Victim Alison states:

I want to work through some notions that have had, until recently, a bad reputation. I call these elements of grammar of our escape from a mentalist world. The first is the most obvious: the notion of induction, the notion of being led by other people into something over time. And this is of course how any of us are brought into any sort of skill. Not only advanced skills like those displayed by professional musicians, but basic infantile things like being able to speak a language at all. Other people induct us into something. This is because we are animals and, as animals, we are muscled creatures. Even our brain, which is not strictly speaking a muscle, responds to stimuli as though it were — in other words it can be stretched, exercised and so forth. And the whole point of muscles is that in order to work they need to be exercised. As they get exercised so they function better and better. This means that one of the things we are inclined to despise, habits, become tremendously important. Habits are stable dispositions which you have acquired over time to be able to behave in certain ways.

Isn’t it interesting that when we hear the word “habit” we tend to supply the value “bad”, so that a habit is automatically a bad habit. And this is especially so in matters religious: if something is habitual, that tends to be a sign that it’s bad, because it’s not sincere, not felt, not authentic.

All I want to point out is that habits, which we often regard, and especially in the religious sphere, as bad things, are in fact what make excellence possible, they are what make skills work. And there is nothing new about saying this. In fact, Aristotle said it a long time ago, but we have tended to junk it since the seventeenth century. However, it is a good idea that from time to time we remember Aristotle, because in this at least his observation about how this sort of animal works is true.

The life of virtue is a life of building habits, stable dispositions that become ingrained in our neurobiology.  But that brings me to Point 2.


First, on the subject of virtue and the brain, N.T. Wright (After You Believe) will get the first word:

We move from ancient philosophy to contemporary brain science. When people consistently make choices about their patterns of behavior, physical changes take place within the brain itself. Some might regard this as common sense, but for many it will come as a fascinating and perhaps frightening reality. There is a great deal of work still to be done in this field. Neuroscience is still in comparative infancy. But already the clear indications are that significant events in your life, including significant choices you make about how you behave, create new information pathways and patterns within your brain. Neuroscientists often use the metaphor of the “wiring” of the brain, which is not inappropriate since, though of course there are no wires as such involved, information is indeed passed here and there within the brain by what are basically electric currents.

It isn’t just that new patterns of wiring are being put down all the time, corresponding to the choices we make and the behaviors we adopt— though behavior is of course massively habit-forming. Parts of the brain actually become physically enlarged when an individual’s behavior regularly exercises them. For example, violin players develop not only their left hand (I once knew a boy at school whose left hand was several glove sizes larger than his right due to playing the violin incessantly for years), but also the section of the brain that controls the left hand. “These regions [of the brain],” writes John Medina in his fascinating book Brain Rules, “are enlarged, swollen and crisscrossed with complex associations.” As Medina stresses, “The brain acts like a muscle. The more activity you do, the larger and more complex it can become.” What’s more, he says, “our brains are so sensitive to external inputs that their physical wiring depends upon the culture in which they find themselves.” As a result, “learning results in physical changes in the brain, and these changes are unique to each individual.”  In other words, as we learn to connect various things in new ways, our brain records those connections. The result is rather like a gardener’s discovery that a patch which has been dug over before is much easier to dig a second time. A particular set of associations in the brain, especially if it is connected with intense emotions or physical reactions, whether pleasurable or painful, will make it much easier for those associations to be triggered a second time. Contemporary neuroscience is thus actually able to study and map the way in which lifelong habits come to be formed.

One of the most famous instances of this phenomenon concerns the brain structure of London taxi-drivers. The work of E. A. Maguire and others has revealed some remarkable evidence.  London is not only one of the largest cities on the planet; it is also one of the most complex, with more one-way streets, twisting back alleys, curving rivers, and other traffic hazards than it’s easy to imagine. Before a cabbie is allowed to start work, he or she has to pass a rigorous examination testing mastery of what’s called “The Knowledge,” a process that involves memorizing thousands of street names and ways to get to those streets at the different times of day or night as the traffic conditions change. The result is not just that they are the most effective taxi-drivers in the world, hardly ever having to consult a map, but also that their brains have actually changed. The part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is where we do spatial reasoning (among a wide variety of other things), is typically much larger in cabbies than in the average person. Like bodybuilders who develop muscles the rest of us don’t know we’ve got, cabbies develop mental muscles most of us seldom have to exercise.

This kind of research, so far as I know, is not normally undertaken with a view to religious or moral issues, but the implications in those areas are enormous. We are all aware that we have strong memories of particular events. Some of us may have reflected on the way in which our imaginations and emotional reactions have been conditioned by particular moments of joy or shock, delight or horror, intense pleasure or intense pain. But the thought that not only these special events but millions of “ordinary” ones as well leave traces in the physical structure and “electrical wiring” of our brains comes as startling and striking news to most of us.

What Wright is referring to is neuroplasticity, the catch-all-term used to describe changes that take place in the wiring of the brain over time.  To repeat some quotes from a previous post:

the brain is the physical manifestation of the personality and sense of self.

Thoughts are an important part of your inner wisdom-and they are very powerful.  A thought held long enough and repeated often enough becomes a belief.  A belief then becomes your biology.

Again, a word of serious caution is in order.  Archbishop Lazar Puhalo (in his fascinating little book The Neurobiology of Sin) writes:

The concept of infinite changeability in human beings can cause a great deal of harm and misery. It can also prevent people from seeking professional assistance in determining the real basis of serious problems and issues. While it is true that neuroplasticity has been demonstrated and used to good effect, it is not true that every construct in human behaviour and even attitude can be changed. There are constructs that are hardwired in the human brain at birth and they cannot be changed. Insisting that these condition can be changed can, in some cases, cause psychological damage, not least of all to parents or primary caregivers.

Again, neuroplasticity is a controversial area, that has been subject to a myriad of distortions, exaggerations and exploitations by self-help gurus.  Those who are interested in fairly sober, down-to-earth commentary, should consult the works of Norman Doidge, Raymond Tallis, and Iain McGilchrist.  All of these gentleman have provoked controversy.  Still, I can’t resist quoting Tallis here:

In other words, behind the quasi-involuntary action of catching a ball, there is a huge back-story of complex actions — actions that it is very difficult to imagine happening without your deliberate intent, and that tap into great stretches of your self. You would have engaged in a vast quantity of voluntary activity in order to enable yourself to perform an action that might in isolation seem involuntary. Much of this preparatory work would have involved positioning yourself to have experience and acquire requisite knowledge — taking many intermediate steps in order to do so. So much of our life consists of this extended web of action — of acting on ourselves in order to change ourselves: from going to a pub to have a drink to cheer yourself up, to improving your ability to cut a figure in Paris by paying good money to polish your French.

If you really must be neuroscientific about it and talk about “neuroplasticity” (the research showing that there are changes in the brain when one acquires a skill), then you should be reminded that neuroplasticity is often self-driven, and that the self that does the driving cannot be understood without invoking the collective and individual transcendence that is the intentional world greatly expanded through language and culture. And we could extend the application of the term “plasticity” far beyond neuroplasticity: there is also bodily plasticity, plasticity of consciousness (including increased confidence in my abilities, which can be self-fulfilling), plasticity of the self, and plasticity of the world of selves (as when I decide to cooperate with others to ensure that one of us makes that so-important catch). It is a mistake to try to stuff all of that back into the brain and see it solely in terms of changes in synaptic connections at the microscopic level, or alterations in cortical maps at the comparatively macroscopic level. Stuffing it back in the brain, of course, is the first step to handing it all over to the no-person material world, and then tiptoeing back to determinism.

John Polkinghorne makes a similar point:

Much of the vast web of neural networking within our skulls is not genetically predetermined, but it grows epigenetically, in response to learning experiences.  It is formed by our actual encounters with reality.

The risks in speaking of neuroplasticity aside, it does seem apparent that the human brain does, indeed, ‘evolve” from its interactions with the world.  And we have at least some measure of control in that evolution.  Even Puhalo cannot resist:

We are intentionally over-simplifying our discussion for the sake of our readers. Briefly, when a stimulus enters the brain it goes to the diencephalon region of the brain (the location of the thalamus and hypothalamus). From there the signal is directed to the amygdala region. This occurs without any thought and the reason for this is that, in the face of danger, an instant reaction may be necessary without any time for reasoning. This is what the holy fathers meant when they said that this initial signal was not sin, really nothing. Next the stimulus proceeds through the regions of the neo-cortex, in which cognition and reasoning take place, and we find the order to be quite close to what the early fathers understood. While we will assert that the conscience must be brought into play in this process, we will not define the conscience at this time. At the end of this process, when the stimulus is being prepared for long-term memory potentiation in the hippocampi, we should work to train ourselves to have reference to our conscience during this process also. We can see that there is a clear neurobiological element in what we call temptation and in how we decide to respond to this temptation. This will be true of everything that we refer to as “sin.” Let us look briefly at some other common threads in this. The end of the system of development for a temptation, as expressed by the holy fathers is the prefrontal cortex and frontal lobe, particularly the medial prefrontal cortex, the seat of moral cognition and a major regulator of social cognition and the self-control of gratification instincts. This region of the brain gives us the possibility of self-control, regulating our behaviour and making it possible for us to postpone gratification. The prefrontal cortex allows us to take control of our responses to stimuli and override the immediate gratification motivation generated in the limbic region of the brain where a stimulus is first encountered. In using the prayer for the “guarding of the mind,” we are striving to give this rational area of the brain dominance over the emotional brain. Since we humans have a bidirectional communication in this area, we are capable of doing this. I would like to suggest that the early fathers had some vague notion about what we call neuroplasticity, and had an idea that the focused use of the Jesus Prayer actually helped to retrain elements of the brain. They would not have held any such concepts in these terms, but there was some understanding that certain changes could be made in the structure of thinking and awareness, or “mind.” It seems that this was forgotten by many in later times, and counting the knots on the rope became more important than what had been called by the early fathers mental work. In part this was a transference from the concept of healing to a more legalistic and ritualistic concept related to punishment.

Puhalo is not alone in recognizing the therapeutic benefits inherent in the practices of Eastern Orthodoxy (see, e.g., Erik Bohlin’s writing).  From Judaism, Jonathan Sacks gets in on the fun:

We can rephrase this a little more technically nowadays. Cain is experiencing a rush of emotion to the amygdala, the so-called reptile brain with its fight or flight reactions, including anger. God is urging him to use his prefrontal cortex, more rational and deliberative, capable of thinking beyond the immediacy of me, here, now. Neuroscience has shown us where in the brain the battle for freedom is fought, but it has not shown us freedom itself, which we can know only introspectively from within.

Sacks reminds us of our paradox: on the one hand, we are our brains; on the other-as the very idea of taking some measure of control over our neuroplasticity gives away-we are not.  The internal world-the question for freedom itself if you will-is more than the electrochemical activities of neural networks, even as it is inseparable from said electrochemical activities.  If I may be so bold as to put it in a pithy manner: To the extent that spiritual transformation is a genuine reality, it is not reducible but it is tangible.  It is that fine-razor thin-distinction that releases from the bondage of neuro-determinism.  To quote Dante’s Divine Comedy:

First he heaved a heavy sigh, which grief wrung

To a groan, and then began:

“Brother, The world is blind and indeed you come from it.

“You who are still alive assign each cause

only to the heavens, as though they drew all things along upon their necessary paths.

“If that were so, free choice would be denied you,

and there would be no justice when one feels

joy for doing good or misery for evil.

“Yes, the heavens give motion to your inclinations.

I don’t say all of them, but, even if I did,

You still possess a light to winnow good from evil,

“and you have free will. Should it bear the strain in its first struggles with the heavens,

then, rightly nurtured, it will conquer all.

“To a greater power and a better nature you, free,

are subject, and these create the mind in you

that the heavens have not in their charge.

Therefore, if the world around you goes astray,

in you is the cause and in you let it be sought.”

And Rabbi Joseph Solovetichik:

Man is born as an object, dies like an object, but possesses the ability to live like a subject, like a creator, an innovator, who can impress his own individual seal upon his life and can extricate himself from a mechanical type of existence and enter into a creative, active mode of being. Man’s task in the world is to transform fate into destiny; a passive existence into an active existence; an existence of compulsion, perplexity and muteness into an existence replete with a powerful will, with resourcefulness, daring and imagination.

There are limits, of course, but a life of virtue and prayer can transform even our brains.  The will-when directed to its proper end as Dante noted-allows us to rise above a “purely mechanical existence,” and “place a seal on our lives.”  The seal is literal, physical and neural.  Who knew.


Point 3.  The Christian Way is a paradox.  It is fiercely anti-Cartesian (we “go through the motions,” quite literally).  The soul, in one sense, follows the body.  On the other hand, the spiritual practices of the ancient were designed to instill nepsis and apatheia in the mind.  In this situation, the process is pictured in reverse: the body is “deified at the same time as the soul,” to use the Eastern expression.  The two are inseparable from one another.  And as the “physical manifestation of the mind,” the brain is an integral part of this process.  A great deal of the spiritual life is about behavioral, but an equally great deal is about perception.  Through contemplation we learn to see the world as it truly is: as a sacrament, albeit bound in the chains of the Fall.

I have stressed many times that faith is a particular form of vision (all the senses, really), and NOT the perception of the obvious.  To see the world aright requires an uncomfortable shift on our part, for we are all “blind” (in varying degrees) towards the true nature of ourselves, our world, reality.  And-returning again to the subject of neuroscience-the brain is the “organ of perception” par excellence.  The transformational process, that painful process which involves a “system reboot,” naturally entails the brain.  And the condition of one’s brain can play a hugely significant role in how this “reboot” is accomplished.

Rod Dreher addressed this subject recently.  Writing about John Elder Robison‘s fascinating experience with autism (more on that in a minute) he says:

If you were in Robison’s shoes, would you have chosen this treatment? Let me put the question more pointedly: Knowing what Robison now knows about the treatment — that it could upend your life in unpredictable ways — would you still undergo it if it could life the autism veil?

I think that’s really an impossible question to answer from a neurotypical point of view, because we neurotypicals don’t know what the world is like seen through the autism veil. Think of it this way: if you were offered a treatment that would help you experience reality much more richly, and see things that you had not been able to see before, would you take it, knowing that you could never go back to seeing the world as you do today?

Thinking back to the LSD thread we recently had here, we discussed the beneficial experience that some people who try psychedelic drugs have of feeling at one with the universe. I heard privately from a couple of people, one of them a fairly well known writer, who said that their psychedelic experience unexpectedly brought them out of depression and opened the door for them to believe in God. They both said that they believe the drug gave them a temporary view into the world as it truly is — filled with the presence of God — and that shook them out of their misery.

Now, let me put this to you: if a doctor said to you that you could take a dose of laboratory-produced LSD, and would be monitored by physicians the whole time, to prevent you from doing anything stupid, would you do it? That is, if you could be reasonably sure that nothing bad would happen to you physically from this experience, but there was no predicting what kind of emotional and psychological experience you would have, and what its lingering effects (good or ill) might be … would you do it? Why or why not?

The question is not so much “would you do drugs?” as “would you open yourself to the experience that is like having a veil lifted, and giving you an encounter of reality that is substantially different from what you’ve known all your life?” Except in Robison’s case, it wasn’t just for 12 hours, or however long a psychedelic experience lasts. It was permanent.

Put that way, it’s pretty scary to consider, isn’t it? That your entire understanding of yourself and everyone and everything around you could change — and not necessarily for the better.

I think this is one reason why people resist true religion: they fear what the world will look like if they have an experience that convinces them that the religion is true. This was certainly the case with me as a young man. I wanted the comforts of religion, and I even wanted the mystical experience of religion, but I wanted to have them from the safety of a life that I controlled. But that’s not possible. It’s like wanting to experience the ocean in a backyard swimming pool. The ocean can only be the ocean if it can encompass you. The same is true with God.

I knew someone once who was so depressed and unhappy, but who refused to get help of any kind. She was afraid of what might happen if she changed. She preferred the misery she knew to the possibility of being healed and relieved of her pain, but at the cost of changing. This is how we all are at some level, is it not? But I digress…

Indeed, this is true of all of us, on some level-we are all “blind” when it comes to truly seeing the world as it is.  Those with autism have a different way of seeing the world, but even as they are impaired in some respects (reading emotions) they have remarkably heightened perception in other respects (as Robison has eloquently noted).  When it comes the God question, however, we are all born living in the dark.  Our perception of God (through the noetic organ the Orthodox call the nous) is impaired.  We don’t see the world as we should.

The thread Rod alludes to regarding drugs may be found here.  There he writes:

Now, what does this have to do with the Book of Genesis? I’ve been thinking of how the experiences reported by LSD users closely resemble rare mystical experiences a relatively small number of religious practitioners report — particularly the sense of the ego dissolving into a general oneness with Creation, and a sense that Creation itself is alive, and mystically unified, harmonious.

This is the portrait of the prelapsarian world of Genesis. Adam and Eve live in harmony with God and with Creation. The Fall occurred when the two individuated themselves — that is, became aware of themselves as discrete individuals with the power to turn away from God. They lost that intimate fellowship with him, and with Creation, that they had once had.

Dreher is not the first to make such speculations-Huston Smith wrote about this vividly in Cleansing the Doors of Perception, and Smith was channeling Aldus Huxley.  Today even Sam Harris is getting in on the act.  For myself, while I am content to remain agnostic on whether LSD can confer spiritual awareness on those who consume it, I think Dreher is making a valid point, one worth consideration.

Vis-à-vis autism, I have noted previously that my younger brother is autistic and the neuroscience of autism has been a particular interest of mine.  Those who are intrigued by Robison’s story of being treated with transcranial magnetic stimulation as a real life version of Flowers for Algernon can learn more here and here.  I add one note to supplement Dreher’s commentary: “cleansing the doors of perception” is a painful process (which is where I think the LSD line of thought breaks down).  When his TMS treatments vested him with a newfound sensitivity to sense emotions, Robison learned the hard way some ugly truths about human nature.  The spiritual awakening of Christianity (I’ll wax Protestant and refer to it as being “born again”) is likewise painful, for it entails a heightened awareness of one’s owns sins, and of the power of Sin over the world.  The Fall, as I have noted before, is often seen only in the “rearview mirror,” through the lens of the Resurrection and the spiritual awakenings that follow in its wake.  To be a Christian means to awake to many hard and painful truths, though always remembering that this bad news is wrapped in the Good News of the Gospel.

One more parallel from neurology, this one from the 1990 movie Awakenings, starring Robert de Niro and Robin Williams (based on a book of the same name by Oliver Sacks).  The film chronicled Sacks’s clinical trial that awakened a number of patients who had been in a catatonic state for decades.  The patients were survivors of the nightmarish encephalitis lethargica (“sleepy sickness”) epidemic which came hot on the heels of the 1918 influenza pandemic (you can learn more here and here).  Temporarily awakened from their encephalitic prison by Sack’s administration of L-Dopa, these patients too discovered how jarring an awakening can be.  Many were “aware” but unable to move, and their awakening entailed more than learning to see again, but learning to live again.

What is the point of all this?  On the one hand, these examples are metaphorical.  Autism and encephalitis lethargica are analogies of a spiritual awakening (before God we are all autistic, without grace we are all paralyzed).  On the other hand, these examples are also a reminder that in all things humans do as humans we are embodied.  Our perceptions and actions are inescapably tied to what goes on in our brains.  And to that extent, many among us have experienced-quite literally in the flesh-what it is like awaken.

That has been the overall point of this essay.  To speak of “neuro-theology” is not a contradiction in terms.  Rather, I say simply: how could we not speak of a “neuro-theology”?  We are human, after all.

Monotheism: NOT “arrested mysticism”

A few posts back I mentioned in an offhanded way that Huston Smith had once articulated a view of monotheism that was subordinate to mysticism, and that this view was the “inverse” of Christianity, as explained by Pope Emeritus Benedict in Truth and Tolerance.  In that book, the Pope Emeritus (Cardinal Ratzinger at the time) noted that it is characteristic of some forms of Hinduism to see monotheism as a form of “arrested mysticism,” a view that he-correctly in my view-sees as inimical with Christianity.  I’d like to flesh this out a bit more.

First, what was it Smith himself said?  I would like to quote from Chapter 15 of his book Why Religion Matters (“Spirituality Personality Types”):

I have become convinced that there is a deeper set of differences that cuts across these institutional lines.  In every sizable community one finds atheists who think that there is no God, polytheists who acknowledge many gods, monotheists who believe in a single God, and mystics who say that there is only God.

What demarcates the four types is the size of the world that each inhabits.  Beginning with the smallest, the atheists’ world houses nothing but matter and the subjective experiences of biological organisms.  Polytheists add spirits to the foregoing-this is the realm of folk religion, which is much the same the world over.  Monotheists place all of the above under the aegis of a supreme being who creates and orchestrates everything.  Having nothing further to add to the foregoing, mystics double back over the terrain to find God everywhere.

…we can think of the lines that separate the four-levels of reality as one-way mirrors.  For someone looking upward from the center, the lines are mirrors.  One sees nothing above them; what one sees in looking at them is reflections of things on one’s own plane.  From the other side, however, they are plate glass.  Things on the levels below the glass are in plain view.

While I admit that I adore Smith, and I generally find Why Religion Matters to be a wonderful book, I find the particularly typology that Smith is setting out here to be inordinately sloppy.  This is true  from the perspective of philosophy-Smith’s description of monotheism is oversimplified-for Aquinas, God was not the “supreme being” but “being itself,” and as many have pointed out, monotheism, properly understood, is not mathematical in nature at all.  In the words of Father Freeman:

Christians don’t actually believe in one supreme being. If this startles you, then read further.

Christians do not believe in “one supreme being,” first because we do not believe in one of anything (or one of something). There is not a class called “supreme beings” to which the God who created everything belongs. There is no class of anything to which He belongs. The God of the Christians is in no way similar to the “gods” of the ancients. Indeed, Zeus, Hera, et al., are actually creatures – they each had a beginning – and the stories of their beginnings are important. They were considered powerful by those who worshiped them, but they were part of the creation itself, in some manner “similar” to all other created things.

The God of the Christians is uncreated. There is nothing to which He belongs.

The word “One,” when used in connection with the God of the Christians, has no mathematical meaning. He is not one in the sense that there could be two or more. He is not one such that He could be counted, multiplied, divided or subtracted. He is One in that He encompasses all that is, but is not defined by anything. He isOone, in that He cannot be divided (and thus be two). He is One, in that to know the One is to know the Whole (though we cannot truly know the One).

I also find Smith’s typology inadequate from a sociological perspective.  For instance, Smith contends that polytheism is found with institutionalized churches.  His example?

The people of these towns [in southern Italy] take it for granted that they are good Catholics, and yet operatively, in what matters to them, their Catholicism revolves more around icons and the local patron saint, than around the triune God who seems remote by comparison.

Now, I understand what Smith is getting at here-the existence of “folk religion” with Catholicism (I’ve written of this before).  While he makes a legitimate point, his explanation and cavalier use of the word “polytheist” misses the boat.  Anyway, my real critique with Smith’s typology comes later.  He goes on to say:

Each successive echelon includes what is in the preceding ones and places it in a larger landscape.  In the last resort, spirituality personality types are functions of how much each type perceives.

After a foray for monotheism, in which he commendably emphasizes love and relationship-Smith finally turns to mysticism:

In the monotheist’s world these dualities [good and evil] remain.  In the mystic’s world evil drops from the picture and only good remains.  There is only God.

Secularists see only the veil; those with religious sensibilities glimpse God through the veil; mystics see only God, because they realize that the veil is necessary to God’s being God and therefore is a part of God.

What permeates the typology Smith uses is the notion that mysticism is superior to monotheism, that-in the last analysis-the mystic sees what the monotheist (burdened by dualistic thinking) cannot.  In Chapter 16 (“Spirit”) he expresses his preference for the mystics’ view for merging with the Godhead, rather than the monotheists’ preference for the Beatific Vision.  Though Smith is charitable to the monotheistic view throughout, one can detect a faint hint of pity in his writing.  The monotheists are still locked into a false dualism, not quite as evolved as their mystical brethren.  In short, monotheism is incomplete, arrested mysticism.  Monotheism is judged by the standards of, and relativized by, mysticism.

For those who think Smith’s view is irreconcilable with Christianity…well, they would be right I think.  Smith repeatedly appeals to Meister Eckhart in support of his view that the personal God is a relative form of the absolute transpersonal Godhead, but it is unclear to me whether this is an accurate understanding of what Eckhart himself believed.  Many contend that, his somewhat unorthodox manner of speaking aside, Eckhart himself was actually quite orthodox in his beliefs.  As Rowan Williams put it:

Incidentally, the idea that “God” designates a kind of life rather than being the name of an individual is a good medieval scholastic doctrine: Eckhart is just using the less technical vernacular to shock us into thinking harder.

Denys Turner adds:

Anyone who has had the least acquaintance with the writings of Thomas Aquinas and of Meister Eckhart will be struck by how it is that the writings ings of these two Dominicans, educated as both were (albeit some forty years apart) in the same priory at Cologne, and possibly taught by the same Albert the Great, could differ so starkly in rhetorical `feel’. It would be easy to put these differences down to a relatively superficial matter of style and imagery, dictated by differences of intellectual temperament, if it were not for the fact that those differences of style and imagery derive from a difference of another kind, more fundamental than the first, which indicates what would appear to be a difference of theological strategy of a wider significance, which is historical and more than merely personal. For what is distinctive in Eckhart exhibits an important development in late thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century theology, a marked shift towards a more conscious cultivation of a distinctive theological rhetoric.

At any rate, the superficial differences between Thomas and Eckhart in style and imagery are obvious…I confess that I used to think that perhaps in the end Eckhart differs from Thomas on a point of very fundamental theological principle: that Eckhart cannot trust creatures to proclaim God and so mistrusts the ordinariness, the demotic character, of theological speech as Thomas conceives of it…

But in fact Eckhart’s rhetorical devices have a strictly theological purpose, pose, and one which, after all, is not at odds with any purpose Thomas envisaged for theology, howsoever obvious may be the differences of rhetoric. For after all, if with Eckhart as with Thomas, all theology must begin in, be mediated by, and end in the darkness of unknowing; and if, that being so, all creation in some way speaks God as irreducibly `other’ than it, why should not our language itself, being the natural expression of human rationality in its created materiality, speak God as unutterably other, not only in what we say in it, but also in the manner in which we say it, in its rhetorical forms themselves? That Thomas rarely exploits these rhetorical possibilities himself is neither here nor there, for Eckhart’s enthusiastic exploitation of them is perfectly consistent with Thomas’s theology.

In any case, Eckhart’s distinction between the personal God and impersonal “Godhead” is one that has not been accepted by mainstream Christianity as a whole.  In Christian theology, the “personal God” is not merely an avatar, or relative hypostasis, of some completely unfathomable Absolute.  Of course, there is a great Mystery to God-apophatic theology has always been present to remind us of this.  However, believing this does not entail that the personal be relativized by the transpersonal.  In its classical “both/and” approach, Christianity insists that God is BOTH personal AND a Mystery.  In fact, as Kallistos Ware notes, to recognize God as personal increases the Mystery:

Faith, then, signifies a personal relationship with God; a relationship as yet incomplete and faltering, yet none the less real. It is to know God not as a theory or an abstract principle, but as a person. To know a person is far more than to know facts about that person. To know a person is essentially to love him or her; there can be no true awareness of other persons without mutual love. We do not have any genuine knowledge of those whom we hate. Here, then, are the two least misleading ways of speaking about the God who surpasses our understanding: he is personal, and he is love. And these are basically two ways of saying the same thing. Our way of entry into the mystery of God is through personal love. As The Cloud of Unknowing says, “He may well be loved, but not thought. By love can he be caught and held, but by thinking never.”

Smith’s typology fails to account for this.

Enter the Pope Emeritus, writing in Truth and Tolerance.  Ratzinger (I will vacillate here between “Pope Emeritus” and Ratzinger) uses a different typology, suggesting that “mystical religions” emerged from primitive experiences, and that in turn there are three distinct ways of moving beyond myth: monotheism, mysticism, and enlightenment.  He writes:

We have further found that setting up an absolute value is not, as is usually assumed, peculiar to the “monotheistic” way alone but is characteristic of all three ways in which man has left myths behind him. Just as “monotheism” maintains the absolute value of the divine call that it hears, so mysticism starts from the absolute value of the “spiritual experience”, as being the only real thing in religion, beside which it sets down everything that can be said and formulated as being secondary and replaceable symbolic forms. This is where the actual point of misunderstanding lies between Christianity and those people caught up today by the theology of identity of spiritualizing mysticism.

At this point a more precise explanation of what is meant in this context by “mysticism” is no doubt required. It should have become clear, in what has already been said, that we are not referring simply to a form of religious practice that can also find its place in the Christian faith. “Mysticism” is here understood in a more radical sense, as one path in the history of religion, as an attitude that does not tolerate any other element superior to itself; rather, it regards the imageless, unmetaphorical, and mysterious experience of the mystic as the only determinative and ultimate reality in the realm of religion.15 This attitude is just as characteristic of Buddha as of the great religious thinkers of the Hindu group of religions, even if they hold to positions so firmly opposed to each other as that of Shankara on one side and Ramanuja on the other.16 This is the way that constitutes, amid multifarious derivations, the unified background to Asiatic higher religion. What is characteristic for this mysticism is the experience of identity: the mystic sinks down into the ocean of the all-one, irrespective of whether this is portrayed, with emphatic theologia negativa, as “nothingness” or, in a positive sense, as “everything”.

The dogmatic presupposition of the assertion that all religions are equal, with which the Western man of today has so much sympathy, is revealed here as the claim that God and the world, the Divinity and the depths of the soul, are identical. At the same time it becomes clear why, for Asian religious sensibility, the person is not an ultimate reality, and hence God is not conceived of in personal terms: the person, the contrast between I and Thou, belongs to the sphere of distinctions; in the all-is-one experience of the mystic, these boundaries that separate I from Thou are absorbed, are revealed as provisional.

The model in which the monotheistic revolution is embodied, on the contrary, is not the mystic but the prophet. For him, the decisive thing is, not identifying with, but standing over against the God who calls and who commands. Thereby we can finally explain why we have thus far continually talked about a monotheistic “revolution” whenever we wished to contrast this with the way of mysticism in terms of the history of religions. Not every form of so-called monotheism can be contrasted with mysticism as belonging to an independent stepping forth from the confines of myth. We have rather at this point, from the start, to exclude two forms of monotheism: on one hand, the various forms of belief in a single god that may be found in the primitive sphere and that are not part of the historical dynamic of higher religion; and, on the other, that kind of evolutionary monotheism that has, for instance, developed more and more strongly in India since the Middle Ages. Monotheism in India is different from that of Israel in two ways: firstly, it is directed toward mysticism, that is to say, it is open to monistic development and thus may appear as a mere preliminary stage to something of more permanence, that is, the experiencing of identity. Secondly, it arose, not through a revolution, as in Israel, but through an evolution; in consequence, the gods were never overthrown; rather a peaceful balance between varying forms came about, as between God and the gods, between monotheistic and polytheistic beliefs.

Ultimately it is a question of whether the divine “God” stands over against us, so that religion, being human, is in the last resort a relationship—love—that becomes a union (“God is all in all”: I Cor 15:28) but that does not do away with the opposition of I and Thou; or, whether the divine lies beyond personality, and the final aim of man is to become one with, and dissolve in, the All-One.

Bluntly, Ratzinger explains:

What we have said has also dealt with the objection that monotheism is basically only an arrested form of mysticism or an arrested form of enlightenment, in which people have forgotten to include one figure in the overthrow of the myths: the figure of the one and only God. In reality (and also in the phenomenology of religion) “God” is something different from the gods, and in reality, as we have shown, there is a completely different structure of concepts from that of ”mysticism”: the experience of the activity and the personal nature of God is based on a quite different overall relationship to reality from the mystic’s concept of identity and the reduction of the person to the impersonal state that is bound up with it. The “monotheist” holds that the absolutely contrary reduction is correct: the reduction of everything impersonal to persons. As we said, we will not discuss here which of these positions is right; it has just been a matter of demonstrating that they are quite independent of one another and quite different. Recent analyses of mystical experience, of course, believe they are able to show the exact opposite of the previous objection (that monotheism is arrested mysticism): that the experience of identity is only the first stage on the way of mysticism, although of course few get beyond it, so that that becomes the real temptation in mysticism; not until that stage is past comes the far more painful step of separating from oneself and of passing beyond into real transcendence. This step demands of man the crucifixion of being torn free from himself and being left without a place, the state in which no earthly support remains, yet only this can bring man before the true face of God, so that when it is given him to journey forth into this mystery of darkness and of faith, all the previous mystery of light and of vision seems to him but an insignificant prelude, which he—not suspecting the depth of God—was earlier tempted to take for the ultimate reality, for the whole. It should be clear that the best way forward for a fruitful dialogue between the two ways is opened up by reflections of this kind, a dialogue that would make it possible to get beyond the unsatisfactory duality of “monotheism” and “mysticism” without monotheism being absorbed into an unfruitful mystical syncretism or, contrariwise, making the religions devoted to mysticism subject to a false and petty absolutism on the part of Western historical forms. But for that, a great deal of patience, tact, and integrity in their religious seeking will be needed on both sides.

I include that last sentence, by the way, as a rebuke to those who pompously assert that the Pope Emeritus was preaching a rigorous theology of intolerance.  He was doing nothing of the kind, as a careful read of Truth and Tolerance makes clear.  Neither, by the way, is his analysis perfect.  As Duke Divinity School theologian Paul Griffiths notes:

many of his particular statements about Buddhism and Hinduism are marked by a superficiality and generality he would himself criticize in comparable remarks about Christianity.

Still, Ratzinger accurately understands that there is a certain understanding of mysticism afoot today, one that owes a far greater debt to certain currents of Indian thought than anything authentically found in the West.  There is something of a bitter irony here, as Boston University religious studies scholar Stephen Prothero has noted:

Much later in the twentieth century, the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner would use the term “anonymous Christian” for practitioners of other religious traditions who in his view were nonetheless saved by the grace of God and the death of Christ. Non-Christians who did not cotton to his condescension rightly took him to task. Yet Trigunatita was no less presumptuous in seeing all true seekers as anonymous Hindus: “No matter by what way, by what method you carryon your religious culture— be you a Christian, be you a Mohammedan, be you a Buddhist— so long as you area sincere seeker after truth, you area great Vedantist, you belong to Hinduism,” he wrote. “Hinduism is your religion.”

In any case, I find Ratzinger’s analysis far more prescient than Smith’s, as Ratzinger grasps that the divergence between “monotheism” and “mysticism” (in the terms that both men use in more or less the same way) is both real and deep.  Moreover, as he notes, true monotheism is not “arrested mysticism” at all, but something much deeper and more interesting than that.

I’d like to return to Ratzinger’s hopeful statements about a way forward when it comes to dialogue, one that breaks past the unhealthy duality between “mysticism” and “monotheism.”  I cannot point to a better contemporary example of what the Pope Emeritus was hoping for than the work of the late James Arraj, whose wonderful book Christianity in the Crucible of East-West Dialogue is a true treasure (the whole book is available online).  Arraj writes helpfully:

Whether ultimate reality is personal or impersonal goes to the very heart of the Buddhist-Christian or Hindu-Christian dialogue. Christianity is fundamentally and intrinsically personal. There is certainly a whole nuanced tradition which tries to explain how God is beyond all the names that are applied to God. But in final analysis, God is affirmed as a person, even a communion of persons, and the Incarnation is supremely personal. To imagine that this I-Thou relationship which is so rooted in Christian thought and which is expressed throughout the Christian life of prayer and contemplation must, in some way, yield to a higher impersonal stage is, I fear, to seriously misread both the Christian mystical and theological traditions. Even a John of the Cross who is so insistent on us leaving all things behind will sing in his Spiritual Canticle, as we saw, “Where have you hidden yourself, my Beloved?” In short, while there is a very strong Christian apophatic tradition that cannot be neglected, it is hard to see how the personal nature of Christianity can give way to some impersonal absolute without Christianity losing its identity. Another way of putting it is that a relational love mysticism is at the very center of Christianity.

Masao Abe suggests that: “Most Buddhist thinkers have rather strong convictions that Buddhism is deeper than Christianity as a religion, both spiritually and intellectually.”  It is hard to see how this impression will be overcome if Christians are not bringing their deepest metaphysical, theological and mystical traditions to the table of dialogue, but rather, are confirming this impression by coming to the conclusion that Christianity, itself, is at heart another example of Buddhist skillful means, and another nonduality, and therefore something that the East knows far more about than Christians.

Having drawn this line in the stand, however, Arraj delves into the work of Jacques Maritain and puts Zen mysticism in dialogue with Thomistic metaphysics, producing a fascinating, original, creative, and thoroughly enjoyable book in the process.  His work, in my view, is immensely helpful in pointing the way forward in East-West dialogue.  In particular, he highlights something that the Pope Emeritus referenced above-that the experience of identity is but the first stage of mysticism.  Channeling Maritain, Arraj suggests:

Just what then is the mysticism of the Self seen from the Christian metaphysical point of view? It is a natural mystical experience of God in and through the existence of the soul, in a non-conceptual manner that makes it difficult to distinguish the human self from the divine Self. We can find a common mysticism of the Self in things as apparently diverse as the advaitan Vedanta, and those traditions that deny the existence of any self.

To call this a natural mysticism is an attempt to distinguish it from a relational love mysticism that comes about through grace in which the presence of God who is Existence, itself, is revealed as a loving Thou. This does not imply that those who pursue the mysticism of the Self are not in the context of this loving union that comes about by grace. They are. Further, their efforts to reach the goal of natural mystical experience can be means of growing in this loving union. But that, in turn, does not mean that these two kinds of mysticism aim at the same goal in the same way, and use the same means to arrive there.

The intuition of being in the wide sense of the term embraces both the philosophical intuition of being and the experience of nonduality, and it represents a foretaste of our ultimate natural human destiny which is a union with God by knowledge and love through our very existence. This is why people who experience it often characterize it as an ultimate experience, and then want to see relational love mysticism as a preliminary stage on the way to it. But relational love mysticism is not something that takes place outside the mysticism of the Self, but rather it is this Self, or Emptiness, making itself known to us in a loving and intimate way.

I also recommend Arraj’s analysis of a Zen parable in Thomistic terms, which can be found in another book here.  The bottom line is that Arraj and Ratzinger (and, for that matter, the entire Christian tradition) inverts the worldview of Huston Smith.  Enlightenment is accepted, in a sense, but the “mysticism of identity” that characterizes the East is regarded as a step towards a relationship with the God of love, rather than a step beyond.  Put another way, the personal God of monotheism relativizes mysticism, not the other way around.  The view articulated by Smith (and most popular spiritual writers today) is turned entirely on its head.

I add, again, that I have always held Smith in high esteem, and this essay should not be taken as sharply critical of the man’s work.  However, I also believe his view cannot be squared with Christianity, and that the Pope Emeritus was right when he noted that monotheism is not merely “arrested mysticism.”  The Truth has a way of surprising us.

Mysterianism and Through the Glass Darkly

Several times on this blog I have invoked the concept of “mysterianism” in discussing classical-and perennial-“problems” of theology (evil, suffering, how an Almighty God can exercise power in weakness).  I’d like to say just a bit more about the subject here.  When I use the word “mysterianism” I am invoking a word applied by the philosopher Colin McGinn with respect to the “hard problem of consciousness” (the original use of the word goes back to Noam Chomsky). To further explain this so-called “new mysterianism” I would like to quote (again) from something H. Allen Orr has written on this subject:

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).

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.

I quote Orr here to emphasize something that those who read McGinn too quickly might miss: mysterianism is a naturalist position.  McGinn indeed theorizes that the problem of consciousness can’t be adequately explained by materialism, but his theory is not one that should warm the hearts of theists.  As he has noted in interviews with Robert Lawrence Kuhn on Closer to Truth (e.g. here for instance) McGinn himself is an atheist, who is hardly sympathetic to religious interpretations of consciousness and even considers himself a materialist.  Interestingly, McGinn refers to a “broader sense” of materialism that effectively includes everything that exists (even what we can’t understand), which strikes me as so broad it is vacuous, but that isn’t my point here.

My point is rather that mysterianism-by which I mean the acknowledgment that there are some truths about reality that we simply cannot understand due to the limitations of our nature-is a perfectly sound naturalist view.  Even atheists who are inclined towards materialism (a la McGinn) understand that there are limits to what human reason can wrap its arms around.  Indeed, such a view is-or should be-quite congenial to the contemporary atheist.  After all, as Orr notes, the alternative is downright unbiological.  There is nothing inherently supernaturalistic in contending that there are cognitive borders to human reason, that some problems may elude us due to our own limited nature. All well and good.

Why, then, is this epistemological modesty granted no standing in the realm of religion?  The same basic idea behind mysterianism-a sober and reasonable idea-lies behind the longstanding traditional belief that the problem of evil lies beyond the ability of human cognition to fully understand.  We do not understand God’s apparent powerlessness, we cannot find any reason that satisfies us as to why God (apparently) does nothing to relieve great suffering.  We cannot even to begin to think of a reason as to why God is not more “obvious in our world.”  These are genuine dilemmas and should not be dismissed or trivialized (to its credit, Christianity has never done-c.f. the Book of Job).

Yet, the idea that there may be a reason for why God acts as He does, and that we can’t understand the reason due to the simple fact that our own finitude cannot hold the infinite perspective of God.  Most of the time we can’t even fathom it.  I use the qualifier because mystical experiences occasionally seem to relieve us of our own cognitive limitations, as the Pope Emeritus points out:

Nevertheless, the encounters with the risen Lord are not the same as mystical experiences, in which the human spirit is momentarily drawn aloft out of itself and perceives the realm of the divine and eternal, only to return then to the normal horizon of its existence. Mystical experience is a temporary removal of the soul’s spatial and cognitive limitations.

Generally, however, we are denied God’s perspective for the simple reason that He is infinite, and we are finite.  To invoke a certain mysterianism vis-à-vis the problem of evil and-for that matter-the Christian Mysteries in general-is as reasonable as the mysterian recognition that human percipience is cognitively bounded.  Why, then, is this “defense” of God (which strikes me as eminently reasonable) treated as inadmissible, even ridiculed, by many atheists?

No doubt, because so many Christians have thrown around the phrase “God’s ways are not our ways” in a trite, even grossly insensitive, manner.  There is a point at which the use of the word “mystery” indeed comes across as a cop-out.  A respondent to Tim Keller’s 2008 talk at Google (see 42:10-45 of the video) asserted that this assertion, if taken to its logical extreme, would leave us unable to say anything God, or at least that we could say nothing about His goodness because it would be so different from ours.  As it happens, I think that is simply false.  As C.S. Lewis put it in The Problem of Pain:

Any consideration of the goodness of God at once threatens us with the following dilemma.  On the one hand, if God is wiser than we His judgment must differ from ours on many things, and not least on good and evil. What seems to us good may therefore not be good in His eyes, and what seems to us evil may not be evil.  On the other hand, if God’s moral judgment differs from ours so that our ‘black’ may be His ‘white,’ we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say ‘God is good,’ while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say ‘God is we know not what.’ And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying Him. If He is not (in our sense) ‘good’ we shall obey, if at all, only through fear – and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend. The doctrine of Total Depravity – where the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing – may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship.

Anyway, it drives me crazy that those who make a living ridiculing Christianity cannot even extend the courtesy to admit that perhaps mysterianism-a sound naturalist view-might be even “truerer” (mea culpa) when applied to the Uncreated and Infinite One who abides beyond the cognitive limits of our percipience.  That, however, as I alluded to above, is an intellectual conundrum.  For the person who endures great suffering, and is asked to place their faith in a God who is ostensibly omnipotent and omnibenevolent, yet also omniabsent (to make up yet another word) mysterianism, intellectually satisfying though it may be, does nothing to salve the soul.

I’d like to offer a thought on this, but first I think it might be helpful to hear something about the place of mystery in the Church.  I give the floor to Father Freeman:

To know is not the equivalent of mastering facts. Knowledge, in the New Testament, is equated with salvation itself (Jn. 17:3). But what kind of knowing is itself salvific? In the simplest terms, it is knowledge as participation.

Christ is by no means speaking of knowledge as information. Instead, it is knowledge that “dwells” in them. Such knowledge cannot be gained by the simple sharing of information nor by the acquisition of a system of ideas. It is experiential, on the one hand, but in a manner that is itself transformative.

We experience things all the time. It is possible to say that we are changed by experience. But it is another thing to say that the experience itself now dwells in you and communicates a new life to you. At its very heart, this is the nature of revelation. And this is key within the life of Orthodoxy. What dwells in us as “knowledge,” is, in fact, Christ Himself as knowledge. Christ Himself is the revealer, the revealing and what is revealed.

The Orthodox faith is a making-known-of-the-mystery. And this is utterly essential. The Orthodox faith is not static content, but the dynamic reality of the living Christ. It is, properly, a revealed faith, and cannot be had in any other manner. And strangely, the mystery is as essential as the knowing. Only that which is hidden can be revealed.

Paradox and contradiction, hiddenness and mystery are all inherent means of saving knowledge. Their presence within Scripture and the liturgical tradition are not mere styles of communication. They provide an access into a form a knowledge that cannot be communicated in any other manner. They are not mere screens shielding wonderful knowledge from our view, a knowledge that once revealed can then be shared without reference to the mystery. Because the kind of knowledge that is saving knowledge both causes and requires an inner transformation, it cannot be shared in a manner other than that through which it was first acquired.

This understanding of knowledge underscores the importance of Tradition.  According to Dei Verbum tradition is the way in which the Church “perpetuates and transmits to all generations all that it is and all that it believes.” Tradition consists not simply of words (“oral tradition”) but also of ways of living and acting.  Christianity does not step with the assertion that human reason has its limits.  Instead, it recognizes that reason is only one way of knowing, and it is not true knowing.  True knowing-saving knowledge-is experiential, participatory.  It can only be gained through living, through acting, through a set of practices.  Such is the nature of the Way of a Christianity, a Way that is borne in and by Tradition.

There is no intellectual response to the problem of evil, or the problem of God’s apparent powerlessness, at least not one that can truly satisfy our reason and allow us to live.  There is, however, a Way of life that will allow us to know God, and to gain understanding that our discursive reason simply can’t handle.  One online commentator spoke of God with this simple and beautiful phrase:

The Otherworldly Love we can not understand but can participate in.

There is a way forward, a way beyond the boundaries of finite human reason.  Only love-concrete, embodied, lived, practiced-can take us into that frontier.

A final thought.  There is another, equally mysterian, analogy to be applied here: human relationships.  Frederica Mathews-Green, reflecting on Loving a Child with Autism, writes:

The silence is what hurts. Parents don’t only love their children, they also crave to know their children. I’ve heard moms in the delivery room say to their newborns, “Open your eyes so I can see you!”—though they can see every inch of the baby but his eyeballs. A baby is a present you can’t unwrap all at once. It takes years of reading his eyes, learning what makes him laugh, watching him run and tumble with friends, hearing his bedside prayers. But with an autistic child much of this can be impossible.

When you think about it, language is a pretty tricky operation. It’s the thing that allows us to communicate, but also the thing that makes communication frustrating. The speaker must hike down to his scrambled storehouse of words and pick out ones that fit, more or less; then he hauls them back up and tips the bucket into the empty air between him and the hearer. The hearer receives the words sequentially, as each pebble hits the ground. He must gather them up and cart them back down to his own dictionary-storehouse; there they will jostle meanings and associations unanticipated by the speaker.

The problem that autists have with other people is just an extreme form of the alienation that troubles us all. Autists have a bad case of the Human Condition.

Parents of autists may feel: if even the best human relationships are sadly limited, what hope is there for my child? A tragedy some years ago gave me unexpected light on another way—the only effective way—to be deeply connected with those we love.

When my father died in a car accident, I was 29. Our relationship still had lots of knots and tensions from my teen years—a different kind of communication difficulty than parents of autistic children have, but still a sad example of the pain that all humans who try to love each other know. But as I listened to the prayers and Scriptures at his funeral, it hit me that, from his perspective, all the confusion was over. He was standing in the searching light of God, where all things are made clear and all truth is known. That meant that, from his perspective, our relationship was for the first time perfect and whole, in a way it could never have been on earth.

Though I don’t yet have that perspective, I can still grasp its truth. The only place I can ever meet my father again is in the presence of God, who understands us both, perfectly—much better than we can understand ourselves. And even though he sees right through us, his response is endless love.

When we’re bewildered, lonely or hurt, when the futility of efforts to connect is too painfully obvious, we can relinquish our confusion to the Lord. He knows every heart from the inside, and “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). His love is the life streaming through all Creation. So even in this life we are connected with those we love through God, something we can barely grasp now, but which will one day flood our awareness.

Parents are pained by their inability to reach an autistic child; he’s only a few feet away, at the other end of the sofa, but might as well be circling the dark reaches of space. But he is known by God. He is transparent to the light of God, who shines through us all, who understands us and our children, and everyone we know, and everyone we don’t. Only in him will we one day love each other the way we want to, the way he already does. St. Paul writes, “Then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (I Corinthians 13:12). We have been fully understood, even the least explicable among us, and one day we will rest in tranquil full communion.

I found this particular deeply moving, as my younger brother has autism.  As Frederica notes, autism is simply a particular acute case of something that ails ALL human relationships.  There is a degree of “mysterianism” inherent in our lives as humans-we struggle to know other people, to connect, to communicate.  In the words of N.T. Wright:

Relationship was part of the way in which we were meant to be fully human, not for our own sake, but as part of a much larger scheme of things. And our failures in human relationship are thereby woven into our failures in the other large projects of which we know in our bones that we are part: our failure to put the world to rights in systems of justice, and our failure to maintain and develop that spirituality which, at its heart, involves a relationship of trust and love with the Creator.

We live in a world in which both our relationship with God, and our relationship with each other, must be carried out through an opaque veil.  This is not, by the way, a denigration of matter (see my previous post on that subject).  It is simply meant to point out that there is a dimension of mystery-a great one-when it comes to other persons-and in Christianity, God Himself is the Person par excellence.  We do not know Him.  Our relationship is broken.  No amount of information (the kind of conceptual material our discursive reason thrives on) can fix that.

In the last analysis, we live and move and have our being in mystery.  We are even mysteries to ourselves (c.f. Romans 7:15).  That we cannot put together a satisfying theory about God’s governance of the world is no strike against God.  And while it no doubt grieves us, Christianity is founded on the premise that it is possible to come to know God, in trust and in love.  Faith is done in love, with an eye toward hope.


A Few Thoughts


A few thoughts for a Monday morning, stimulated by some things I have read on the Internets:

#1: The Problem of Abortion and the Place of Feelings in Epistemology

Courtesy of The New York Post.  The key language:

Emotionally, that’s how it works for many, perhaps most, people. When a woman wants to keep her baby, it becomes a baby long before it’s born. No father speaks to a belly full of “uterine contents,” and no mother thumbs through a book of baby names for a fetus she is going to dispose of anyway.

That’s how a lot of public policy works, too. Under federal law and many state laws, if you murder a pregnant woman, you can be charged with two homicides.

The White House is asking for a lot of money to fight the Zika virus. “I think Democrats and Republicans in Congress are interested in making sure that pregnant women and unborn children in this country can be properly protected,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in February.

Unborn children? Yes, both parties want to protect unborn children from disease-carrying mosquitoes. But that bipartisanship falls apart when it comes to Planned Parenthood.

This emotional parsing is understandable. The problem is that emotion isn’t the best foundation for law. In the past, emotion led lots of Americans to think blacks weren’t persons either.

Logic, science and, finally, moral reasoning said otherwise. If over here an unborn child is a person but over there it isn’t, and the only thing distinguishing the two is someone’s feelings, we’ve got a problem. And it’s not just a problem of language.

Yes, indeed.

On a related note, there is a rather another vexed question that demands some careful reflection: the relationship of emotions to epistemology, or, if you prefer, feelings to thinking.  I read an article recently (I can’t remember where, although I believe it may have been on that contended that at least some of the time our emotions can be a guide to the truth, that “feeling” and “thinking” aren’t entirely separate spheres.  This isn’t wrong, of course.  As the ever-helpful Frederica Mathews-Green has put it:

That little word, “feelings,” contributes to our confusion. We expect it to stretch over two divergent concepts, and don’t notice when we switch from one meaning to the other. This was evident, for example, in the “Star Wars” series. The soon-to-be bad guy, Anakin Skywalker, was warned not to be ruled by his “feelings,” his impulses of anger and vengeance. But the good guy, Luke, was encouraged to put more trust in his “feelings;” in that case, it meant his sense of connection with the Force.

The first kind of “feelings,” that is, emotional reactions, is something we can understand pretty well. We know what it’s like to be elated or furious, generous or spiteful. This kind of “feelings” arises as a response to something we perceive.

But then there’s the process of perception, and, confusingly, we use the word “feelings” here too. We can feel that autumn is coming, by some combination of our physical senses. We feel a change in the mood of a gathering, by a yet more subtle means. We are registering “feelings” all the time, through mind and body and an agile combination that seems to need a name of its own. Though many perceptions flow through us unnoticed, we can learn by discipline to raise them to awareness. Luke was urged to feel the presence of the Force-to gather his scattered senses and focus them on something just under the surface, something he had no prior experience of perceiving. He had to learn to recognize the Force, through concentrated attention. He had to trust his “feelings.”

This isn’t “feelings” in the emotional sense; these feelings aren’t reactions, but perceptions. (Luke may have felt emotional toward the Force, but that was after he felt the Force itself.) This second kind of “feelings” isn’t well-defined. Is it intuition? Is it a sixth sense? Is it new-age woo-woo flakiness?

Part of our problem is that we think people are solely made up of two equal-and-opposite faculties, reason and emotion. Reason is thought to be objective while emotion is subjective. So if God cannot be proven by reason, belief in him must be a private party. It must be an impulse that arises from emotion, powerful but untrustworthy, and applicable to nobody else. This is why religious people are regularly admonished that their beliefs are “true for you, but not for everybody.”

In a sense, yes, we can know things-or, perhaps if you like, sense things-without thinking about them in a discursive manner.  Moreover, as Frederica has noted elsewhere thinking and feeling are not actually separable from one another:

Emotions and reason are not, in reality, two separate things, but two aspects of the same inner process.  Our emotions are always caused by thoughts; whenever you’re feeling an emotion, it’s because of something you’re thinking (possibly something quite rational).  And everyone knows how our reasoning can be influenced by our emotions.  These aren’t two equal-and-opposite functions, but a single integrated process.

Eastern Orthodoxy, perhaps not surprisingly, has largely managed to avoid what Bishop Robert Barron has called the “bias toward the subjective”  (Bishop Barron has written on this subject quite well in The Priority of Christ).  The Pope Emeritus summarizes the issue:

So it was that, after the end of the Enlightenment, being aware of how religion is indispensable, people sought for a new sphere for religion, within which it might be able to continue to exist, beyond the assaults of the progress of rational knowledge, upon some unattainable planet, so to speak, where this posed no threat.  That is why “feeling” was assigned to it as its own domain within human existence.  Schleiermacher was the great theorist of this new concept of religion.  “Action is art, speculation is science, religion is the science and the taste for the infinite” was his definition.  Faust’s reply to Gretchen’s question about religion has become proverbial: “Feeling is all.  The name is just smoke and noise.”

In any case, in the words of Janet Radcliffe Richards, strong feelings, on their own, should not be taken as a guide to truth.  The New York Post aptly illustrates the irrationality and cognitive dissonance surrounding our culture’s present view on the personhood of the unborn.  Feelings must be understood in the context of the whole human being, and the subjective in relationship with the objective.

#2: A Point of Contact with Feminism

I do not particularly care to read online commentary from the “social justice” perspective-reading about micro-aggressions has no particular appeal for me.  Still, during my efforts to track the everyday feminism article I referred to above, I spent a fair amount of time reading articles on the site.  I must admit, I was rather moved by what I read.  I found myself nodding in agreement, for instance, with the idea that automatically referring to all disabled people as “inspirational” is a form of objectification (this was something I had never given a thought to before).

What really struck me about the site, however, was the number of articles emphasizing (from one POV or another) that there are more important things in human relationships than sex.  Granted, there were many perspectives on sexuality on the site, but still, more than a few writers seemed to grasp with startling clarity that sexual reductionism is an unhealthy way of being human, and that a way forward is needed.  It seems to me there is a point of contact in this post-modern, post-sexual revolution world for Catholic teaching on sexuality.  Though many seem unwilling to openly admit it, it is becoming apparent that simply getting a lot of sex does not lead to the level of human flourishing many once believed it would.

Mind you, I’m not naïve.  The word “chastity” is never spoken in such circles, and the Church will struggle to gain a hearing for all the obvious reasons.  Moreover, there are still major points of divergence (in spite of the fact that I recognize valid points in many of the articles I’ve read, the overall tone still gives me heartburn).  Still.  Chastity clearly has something to offer to a world that remains shackled in the prison of sexual reductionism.  The crisis is not so much one of sexual ethics, but of anthropology.  In our day, many are looking for a way to be human that is not shaped by orgasms.  Chastity points toward the fullness of Catholic humanism, and, for that reason alone, I think we shouldn’t give up on it.

#3: Good Articles

First, an excellent reflection from Luma Simms on First Things on Amoris Laetitia:

Pope Francis is concerned for the divorced and civilly remarried; he wants to offer us mercy. This is as it should be for Christ’s vicar on earth. God offers grace to every sinner—that is each and every one of us. No one is beyond God’s mercy. And although we have all fallen short of the glory of God, redemption is always available to us through Jesus Christ. And that’s it right there. It is so simple that our Holy Father misses it. If redemption is through Jesus and his merits, which the Holy Father confesses that it is, then it means all the ways back to Jesus come by the means Jesus, and his Body the Church, have given.

Pope Francis’s desire to give the Eucharist to the divorced and civilly remarried is admirable. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice,” the prophet Isaiah said of the coming Messiah. And I am grateful that our Holy Father desires to walk in the foot steps of our Lord. But I submit, that this is not the way to heal us bruised reeds.

One of the first things I learned from the Catechism of the Catholic Church was paragraph 1257: “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”

This means that the Church abides by the sacraments as given to her by her Lord, she can do no other. But God is not bound. Pope Francis is right to note that there are times when a second marriage which is objectively adulterous shows signs of rich spiritual fruit in the life of the family. This can be confusing. It was for us. In the beginning we couldn’t understand how we could be experiencing such grace and spiritual blessing in our family if we were living in a persistent state of adultery. But we know from CCC 1257 and the Scriptures that God is not bound by his sacraments: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion,” Romans 9:15. Of course we are not to presume upon God’s grace. Knowing this helped explain our experience and drove us to greater love for God. Yet part of a deeper love of God is a desire to live a life in conformity to what Christ through his Church calls his disciples.

I want complete healing for my fellow brethren; this abbreviated version will not bring it. In the end it may even bring a despising of the Eucharist by the very people who are now vying for it. If I must spend the rest of my apostolate convincing Bishops and the lay faithful of this, then so be it. In the end, this is not about conservative Catholics versus liberal Catholics. It is about real and palpable healing for the divorced and civilly remarried. But lasting healing, and true mercy, only comes through obedience, albeit imperfect and painful obedience at times, to the penitential path the Church has always offered—the path through the annulment process. I know, I lived through it.

Second, James Alison writes on failure and perfection:

I share all this since I hope it explains why I have a high positive regard for perfection. For those who have never seriously failed, perfection, when it is not an addiction (and therefore obviously a pathology), is so often an irritant: an enemy of the ordinary good, bringing with it a gnawing sense of insatisfaction at every endeavour and, often enough, envy at others’ successes. When those who have yet to undergo failure discuss perfection philosophically it becomes, frankly, a bit of a bore, leading to definitions of what things, or experiences, should be, with little reference to what they are, or who the people really are who are supposed to be having them.

From the gateway, however, that is opened up to us by serious failure—for instance, of career, or marriage, or even a reputation-destroying moral lapse—perfection is indeed something rather wonderful: a dynamic sense that comes towards us from other-than-ourselves, something given that cannot be grasped and in which we can rest and delight; in short, a hint of God giving God-self away.

I think that this goes straight back to what is most basic in Christianity, which is that, out of love for us, God came among us as a failure. The image of God-self, by which God wished to let us know what God is like, was that of an apparent failure: One who was not rescued from failure, but whose very failure was shown to the apostolic witnesses to have been the true shape of what God’s power and wisdom looked like. In John’s Gospel, the last word Jesus says on the Cross, τετέλεσται (tetelestai), is usually translated as “it is finished” or “it is accomplished,” though it could just as well be translated “it is perfected” or, simply, as an expression of something perceived or achieved: “perfection!” The Epistle to the Hebrews picks this up when it points out that Jesus was perfected in going to his death: “he was made perfect by the things he underwent” (2:10; cf 5:8–9). The same Epistle also points out that he did this joyfully: “for the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross, despised the shame, and is seated at the right hand of God” (12:2).

The shocking thing about the Apostolic Witness to the perfection of Jesus’ failure and what it means for us is that it explodes that picture for good. For it was the goodness, the beauty, and the order of this world, which seemed so stable, so fine, and so much like God, which was turned on its head by the realisation that all the goodness, the beauty, the power, the wisdom, and, yes, the perfection of God had shown itself to us in the misery, pain, sorrow, shame, and death of one accused of blasphemy and sedition.

What this means is that God’s perfection is always, always, going to appear to us as more of a rupture than a continuation of any of our senses of perfection—and that entering into that rupture in order to experience a re-creation is not the preserve of “bad people,” whom we call failures, but a necessity for all of us. For the very goodness to which we cling—our much-prized virtues and the stability that they seem to bring to our social life—is at least as much of an obstacle, if not more, to our finding ourselves on the inside of the great adventure of new creation, as anything bad we may do—the sorts of thing which might land us in shame, failure, loss of face, and reputation. And the weakness that comes with failure is the place within which the power and dynamic of the new creation most fruitfully dwells, and from which the line to perfection is most straightforwardly drawn. This is what St. Paul tells us himself in 2 Corinthians 12:9: “but [the Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”

One of the most difficult things for any of us who try to live, and to share, the Christian story is to be faithful to two apparently contradictory pulls. On the one hand, there is the hugeness of the rupture between what might seem perfect to us and what we are astounded to discover are the sort of moments of perfection which are only available to us when we are at the end of our tether, or beyond it. And, on the other hand, there is the sense that we are loved just as we are, that we are safe, that all is well, that there is a certain contentment and satisfaction with what is. The tension is between the relaxation which we experience through the gift of faith and the sense of being stretched beyond ourselves which we experience through the gift of hope; a tension which can only be inhabited with love.

Simply beautiful.

#4: Good Quotes

Last, some good quotes:

  • God is good and is not controlled by passions. He does not change. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind. St. Anthony
  • It is possible to take popular piety and direct it to the Gospel – Paraphrase of Fr. Karl Josef Wallner, writing on the example of Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort .  A beautiful, and helpful, reminder.

Retrograde Intransigence and Reality

Back to the Pope.  Writer Damon Linker has written a piece entitled The retrograde intransigence of conservative Catholics.  He says:

A straightforward reformer of the church seeks to change its doctrines. A stealth reformer like Francis, on the other hand, keeps the doctrines intact but invokes such concepts as mercy, conscience, and pastoral discernment to show priests that it’s perfectly acceptable to circumvent and disregard those doctrines in specific cases. A doctrine officially unenforced will soon lose its authority as a doctrine. Where once it was a commandment sanctioned by God, now it becomes an “ideal” from which we’re expected to fall short. Before long it may be treated as a suggestion. Eventually, repealing it is no longer controversial — or perhaps even necessary.

Stealth reform ultimately achieves the same reformist goal, but without inspiring the intense opposition that would follow from attempting to change the doctrine outright.

For the conservative Catholic writers I most admire, this is deeply distressing.

I understand why. Yet reading their intensely negative reactions shows me just how far I have come from the outlook that first led me to join the Catholic Church 16 years ago. The things that once moved me about Catholicism — the very same things that Catholic conservatives feel that Pope Francis is betraying — now stand in the way of me taking the church seriously as an institution.

I became a Catholic (from secular Judaism) in the midst of a personal crisis. I longed to find an absolute moral Truth and craved a sense of belonging with others who recognized and ordered their lives according to that Truth. Catholicism is perfect for people with such yearnings. It tells them that the Roman Catholic Church is the church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time. Its magisterial authority can be traced back to St. Peter and the rest of Christ’s original apostles. It publishes a 900-page Catechism filled with elaborate, absolute rules laying out in minute detail how God wants us to live. It governs itself according to an intricate code of Canon Law that first began to be formulated nearly two millennia ago.

For someone who feels troubled by a culture in a constant state of instability and change, the Catholic Church can feel like a rock in a stormy, windswept sea. Finally, something is steady, permanent, unchangeable, fixed, immobile. The church’s very stability can end up looking like the strongest sign and confirmation of its divinity. Everything changes! But not God and his church.

For someone drawn to Catholicism by the promise of order and stability, any sign of change in the church will be unwelcome, threatening. The fact that social and cultural mores shift and develop around it is an argument for retrenchment and improved outreach to a world tempted by sin in new ways. It certainly isn’t a sign that the church should adjust its teachings on faith and morals, accommodating them to the latest trends. Any such adjustment would risk diluting the Truth, and (perhaps just as bad) serve as a potentially fatal concession that the church’s teachings can be fallible. Once that door has been opened, there may be no way to close it. Remove even a single brick from the foundation, and the whole edifice could come crashing down.

My traditionalist Catholic colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty appears to take something like this position, accurately pointing out that the pews in American churches are filled with people who have committed sins that should preclude them from taking part in the sacrament of communion unless they have first availed themselves of the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) and made a sincere attempt to amend their ways. And yet most parishioners don’t do this. They show up to Sunday Mass (when they don’t skip it — another transgression) and present themselves for communion in a state of persistent sin. This means that the rules are being broken, disregarded, flouted — and that the priests who go along and say nothing are complicit in it.

I still find something admirable in that — above all, its strictness and consistency. I used to work with people who thought that way, and I once found solace in at least trying to think that way myself.

But I can’t do it anymore. In my own case, at least, it’s come to feel more like an expression of a personal (and unhealthy) psychological need than a genuine response to and requirement of divinely revealed Truth.

The Catholic conservative doesn’t want to live spiritually within a debating society or an ongoing, open-ended conversation. He wants matters to be definitive — done, settled, fixed for all time. Even if, considered objectively, the teachings of another authoritative Christian tradition in one area of doctrine appear more humane and less prone to alienating millions of parishioners. Because that’s just not the way Catholics do it. We had that debate. It’s over. End of discussion.

I once wanted that, too — the Catholic Church serving as the final, infallible guardian and guarantor of timeless, immutable Truth — though I never really believed it. Now I don’t even want to believe it. (I have no wish to be taken in by a lie, no matter how beautiful.)

The Catholic Church is like any other human institution: admirable in many ways, deeply flawed in others. Its need for reform is incontestable. As the great mathematician and Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal put it in the mid-17th century, “It is an appalling thing that the discipline of the church today is portrayed to us as so excellent that to want to change it is treated as a crime. In former times it was infallibly excellent, and yet we find that it could be changed without committing a sin. But now, such as it is at present, can we not even want to see it changed?”

It is a very good thing that our current pope recognizes the need for change. If stealth reforms are the most he feels he can reasonably and responsibly accomplish, we should be grateful for his efforts and hope they come to fruition in the years and decades to come.

Whether or not the Holy Father really is a “stealth reformer,” Linker does not offer an example of when such “steal reform” has been successfully implemented in the past.  Arguably, one could contend that the Church’s position on the death penalty, usury, and religious freedom, are such shifts,  but for those who have the patience to sit down and study these ‘changes’ closely, one will see they are far from flat-out reversals.  From the archives of First Things, see Avery Dulles on capital punishment, Dulles again critiquing John Noon on usury, slavery and religious freedom; and Thomas Pink on religious freedom.  It is true, I grant, that the nuances here seem to be beyond most people, “trad” and “prog” alike, and to the “naked eye” of most people it does seem that the Church has simply reversed itself.  Yet, for those willing to look, the ‘change’ is much more complex than that.

Anyway, Linker’s article certainly piqued my interest.  I am not so naïve as to argue with him that certainly many people have a psychological craving for order and stability, and that any hint of “change” or “concession” is enough to topple the entire edifice of one’s faith.  Plenty of people-myself included to some degree-do yearn for things to be settled, definitive and fixed.  And I can attest that there is a certain…ahem, ineptness, in the statement “The Church has never changed” (to quote my conservative seminarian friend).  To return to a quote from Peter Steinfels, that I cited a few years ago:

Almost from the start, some Christian thinkers suggested that the church, guided by the Spirit that Jesus had promised his followers, gradually progressed in its understanding of a “deposit of faith” inherited from apostolic days…debates about the development of doctrine continue but about the manner and extent of development and not the fact.  Is it a process of relatively seamless unfolding of the church’s understanding of the original revelation, each phase of development enlarging or elaborating but not contradicting precious ones?  Or is it a much more conflict-ridden process, involving reversals of positions as well as augmentation?  The latter seems truer to the historical reality, but theologically it is much more problematic.  It raises questions about the guidance of the Spirit during times when the church taught things it later rejected.  More pointedly, it raises questions what could possibly be changed in the near or far future.  Change, of course, can be for the worse as far as the better; that was what always drove reformers to demand return to primitive Christianity.  The basic challenge, then, is to distinguish between faithful change and unfaithful change.

Part of the answer to this dilemma, as I noted above, is that the development of doctrine is complex and demands an appreciation for nuance (something that, to put it mildly, is missing in our time).  Another part of the answer is to avoid absolutizing certain past expressions of Catholicism.  After the passing of Cardinal Francis George, Father Barron wrote this:

One of Cardinal George’s most memorable remarks is that liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project. It is important that we parse his words here carefully. By “liberal Catholicism” he means an approach to the Catholic faith that takes seriously the positive achievements of the modern culture. In this sense, Lacordaire, Lord Acton, Lamennais, von Dollinger, and Newman were all liberal Catholics—and their successors would include De Lubac, Rahner, Guardini, Ratzinger, and Congar. One of the permanent achievements of the liberal Catholic project, in Cardinal George’s judgment, is “restoring to the center of the Church’s consciousness the Gospel’s assertion that Christ has set us free, but also for the insight and analysis that enabled the Church herself to break free of the conservative social structures in which she had become imprisoned.” In the 1950’s Hans Urs von Balthasar called, in a similar vein, for a “razing of the bastions,” behind which the church had been crouching, in order to let out the life that she had preserved. And this is very much in line with Vatican II’s limited accommodation to modernity in service of the evangelical mission. Liberal Catholicism also took into account the second great achievement of modernity, stressing that certain doctrinal formulations and Biblical interpretations had to be reassessed in light of the findings of modern science. One thinks in this context of the vociferous interventions, made by a number of bishops on the Council floor at Vatican II, concerning certain naïvely literalistic readings of the Old Testament.

All of this assimilation of the best of the modern represents the permanent achievement of Catholic liberalism, and this is why Cardinal George never argued that liberalism is simply a failed or useless project. He said it was an exhausted project, parasitical on a substance that no longer exists. What are the signs of exhaustion? The Cardinal explains that the liberal project has gone off the rails inasmuch as it “seems to interpret the Council as a mandate to change whatever in the Church clashes with modern society,” as though, in the words of the notorious slogan from the 1960’s, “the world sets the agenda for the Church.” If the Church only provides vaguely religious motivation for the mission and work of the secular society, then the Church has lost its soul, devolving into a cheerleader for modernity. The other principal sign of the exhaustion of the liberal project is its hyper-stress on freedom as self-assertion and self-definition. In Cardinal George’s words: “the cultural fault line lies in a willingness to sacrifice even the Gospel truth in order to safeguard personal freedom construed as choice.” We might suggest that another shadow side of Catholic liberalism is a tendency to accept the scientific vision of reality as so normative that the properly supernatural is called into question. We see this both in a reduction of religion to ethics and the building of the kingdom on earth, as well as in extreme forms of historical critical biblical interpretation that rule out the supernatural as a matter of principle.

What is too often overlooked—especially in liberal circles—is that Cardinal George was just as impatient with certain forms of conservative Catholicism. Correctly perceiving that authentic Catholicism clashes with key elements of modern culture, some conservatives instinctively reached back to earlier cultural instantiations of Catholicism and absolutized them. They failed thereby to realize that robust Catholicism is, in Cardinal George’s words, “radical in its critique of any society,” be it second-century Rome, eighteenth-century France, or the America of the 1950’s. What he proposed, finally, was neither liberal nor conservative Catholicism, but “simply Catholicism,” by which he meant the faith in its fullness, mediated through the successors of the Apostles.

Again, Catholicism in its fullness is not captured by either trads or progs.  I do add, by the way, that some fine responses have been offered to Amoris Laetitia that do grasp the complexity of reality quite well.  See Mats Wahlberg on First Things (which includes a very helpful exposition on how to analyze mortal sin), and Antonio Livi at the National Catholic Register.  Livi points out that the Pope’s use of ambiguous language has opened the door to “malevolent interpretation” and abuse.  On this point, I agree completely with Livi-those with progressive agendas can twist almost anything (in the Diocese of Rochester one has a front-row seat to that kind of thing).  Still, this reality aside, sometimes ambiguous language is the better approach.  As Wahlberg puts it:

It is understandable, however, that the Pope wants to avoid harsh language when he speaks about irregular marriage situations. His strategy—which in itself is very commendable—is to meet people where they are, in order to gently lead them in the right direction. Pointing out the sinfulness of certain situations too often and too clearly might counteract this strategy. So I am prepared to cut the Holy Father some pastoral slack in this respect.

Anyway, back to the psychology issue raised by Linker.  Rod Dreher has some moving commentary on this:

In my case, one big reason I was attracted to Catholicism myself had to do with its being a solid rock in a tumultuous sea of relativism. In particular, it was Rome’s teachings on the meaning of sex and marriage that appealed to me, precisely because I was convicted of the disorder in my own pre-conversion life. Rome offered a deep and comprehensive way to understand sex and sexuality, one that was uncompromising, Biblically sound, and because of that, merciful. Chastity was the hard teaching that I did not want to accept, but I had enough intellectual honesty back then to know that it was not an option, not for Christians who were serious about faith. The Bible, and the continuous witness of the historic Christian church, was uncontestable on this point. The world does not want to hear this, and neither did I. But the Catholic Church — particularly in the person of Pope John Paul II — proclaimed this truth.

When I finally wanted God more than I wanted myself and my own will, I submitted. It was a miserable time, dying to myself in that way. There is nothing in our popular culture to support doing what I had undertaken; in fact, exactly the opposite. The thing I did not really understand until I became Catholic is that there is very little within the culture of ordinary American Catholicism to support it either.

Now, if that’s not been your experience, count yourself lucky. It was my experience in a number of parishes and places. For example, my bride-to-be and I were committed to being faithful Catholics and observing Natural Family Planning. She found a teacher in Austin, Texas, where she was finishing her degree, and I looked for one in the Archdiocese of Miami, where I was then living. I had trouble finding one, and when I finally did locate a teaching couple, they told me that they had been forbidden from teaching NFP in a number of area parishes. The parishes simply did not want to deal with presenting an unpopular teaching.

On two different occasions I got into an argument in the confessional with the priest on the other side of the screen over what’s a sin regarding sexual morality. In one case, the priest and I agreed to drop it, he said the absolution, and let me go. But it wasn’t even close to being an honest dispute. The priest flat-out rejected authoritative, binding Roman Catholic teaching. In the other case, a priest in the confessional at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC advised me to use contraception in my marriage. I challenged him, and he gave a sigh that said oh, one of those, absolved me, and sent me on my way.

Those are some brief examples, fairly outrageous ones, from an orthodox Catholic point of view. Mostly, Catholic priests and parishes don’t even talk about this at all. Their silence says everything. What it says to Catholics like I once was, both as a single man and as a married man, struggling with chastity (= rightly ordering the gift of sexuality): You’re on your own, pal. 

Speaking only for myself here, that was enough. I knew the Egypt that had once been my dwelling place, and I preferred the desert to returning there. Still, the desert was a dry and difficult land, a place to wander all alone. In my case, I never felt all that inclined to judge fellow sinners who attempted to live by the Church’s teachings and failed. So did I! Thank God for the sacrament of confession, which was a great mercy to me. What made me really angry — really angry — was the way so many priests and lay leaders within the Church either explicitly or implicitly denied the Church’s teachings. It was one thing to deny Catholics like me the help we needed to live out the Church’s teaching. It was another to spit in our faces and call us fools for trying to do the right thing.

Interestingly, neither Linker nor Dreher note what strikes me as the most salient point in this disucssion: the psychology behind one’s yearning for Truth is irrelevant to the question of what the Truth itself actually is. Truth As Dreher notes, there are benefits to believing in Truth-it has a genuine liberating power. In the words of Huston Smith, absolutism has the power to get drunkards out of ditches. However, Truth itself is serenely detached from the psychological benefits and detriments of believing in Truth.

Linker, it seems to me, takes it for granted that either there is no such thing as Truth, or else, if there is, it is unknowable and hence irrelevant. If the question of Truth is off the table, we are left with pragmatism and psychology. Now, pragmatism and psychology have their place (I’ll get to that in a moment), but first I must reiterate-as I tirelessly do-that Catholicism is founded on the recognition that Truth exists and is knowable. There is no guarantee that the Truth will be congenial to one’s psychology-more than a few of us struggle with Catholic teaching, which is to be expected. In the words of Karl Adam:

Furthermore, the special character of Catholicism gives rise to a conflict between the claims of personality and those of the community. The Church is primarily a community, it is that unity of redemption-needing mankind which is established in the person of the Incarnate God. But she is at the very same time a community of persons. The Church shows herself to be the living Body of Christ only in so far as she realizes herself in living persons. Both these things, therefore, both community and personality, are of the substance of the Church, and neither can subsist without the other. From out of the community of faith and of love the personality draws its new life. And the new-born personality in its turn gives the community the best that it has, the awakening and enkindling power of its faith and of its love, and thereby gives the community fruitfulness and growth. But a community implies a common life, and therefore there must be a definite norm for the community, a creed and a law. And the individual must willingly accept this norm, in dogma, morals, law and worship. Here is the point where conflict is possible. Individuals are too rich and variously made-being each a unique historical creation, each the result of a separate and special word of God-to be able to adapt themselves always and everywhere, fully and without friction, to the community. There are bound to be interior difficulties and obstacles, and the process calls for self-sacrifice and devoted self-denying love. And the richer a personality is, the more does it suffer from the community, especially from that average level of life and its requirements which go necessarily with a common organization.

Linker does not really account for this-missing from his essay is the notion that, yes, individuals will struggle greatly, and that, yes, they are asked to make considerable self-sacrifice. Moreover, Linker misses the boat when he says that conservative Catholics don’t wish to live in a “debating society” or “ongoing, open-ended conservation.” It is true, many of us don’t, and it is true there may be psychological reasons involved (there always are). Still, Truth is a stubborn thing. It is hardly unreasonable to believe that some things are what they are. Some things, bluntly, are not open to further debate. If spiritual Truth exists, I’d be willing to bet that in at least some sense it has more in common with the law of gravity-it is fixed, objective, unyielding reality-than it does with warm feelings and psychological comfort. I have said before, and gladly again, to use “good feelings” as the evaluative standard of Truth is borderline insane.

Linker makes no allowances for this, but he is hardly alone. In most respects, his view is essentially that of most people today-spiritual reality, if it exists, can never really be known for sure, and hence we must always be open, always rethinking, always debating, etc. Any yearning for stability must be psychologically deconstructed, and resisted (after all, it leads to intolerance). In other words, same old, same old. Against this relativist softsoap, the Church still asserts (often weakly, as Dreher notes, but She asserts the same) the audacity of answers.

Two final points. First, Linker does not seem to realize that psychology works BOTH ways. A friend on Facebook, for instance, posted Linker’s article, with the comment that “it exposes the constant need many of us have for the security of a certitude that may not exist.” He went on refer to how “conservative Catholics” need an “infallible Church,” “conservative Eastern Orthodox” need an “infallible Tradition,” and “conservative Protestants” need an “infallible Bible.” His predictable conclusion was that all three are “unable to allow for growth and development without undermining their respective presuppositions upon which their security of certitude rests” and therefore “certitude is really a kind of idolatry.”

There is a remarkable ignorance in all of this-quite a bit of growth and development has taken place in the Catholic Church (again, see the Dulles and Pink articles above). Belief in infallibility does not inhibit progress, nor does it shut down all discussion and exploration. It rules out certain things, of course, and that is too much for some people. The comments on my friend’s post were fairly predictable:

  • There is a smugness and pride-fulness in certitude that negates humility.
  • I personally believe that dogma is man-made. Dogmatism is an attitude that says what I believe is absolute truth and what you believe is just wrong.

There is a grain of truth in the second comment (as Huston Smith has noted, dogmatism is a personality disorder-one can affirm belief in absolute truth without condemning others). Still, this conversation indicates that just as there may be a psychological yearning for certitude, there is also a psychological resistance to dogma and a desire to “think freely” that is just as deeply ingrained as its opposite bookend. Why subject one to rigorous critique and not the other? “Freethinkers” who despise dogma and exalt doubt have just as much reason to be suspicious of their own psychology as those who yearn for certainty.

Final point. I noted earlier that pragmatism and psychology have their place, and that place is the pastoral dimension (pardon the plethora of ‘Ps’). This is where the Holy Father’s emphasis on mercy comes in. Unyielding, objective reality must be incarnated in the lives of actual people, in all their glorious subjectivity and messiness. I agree with Linker that conservatism has an issue when it comes to applying doctrine to humanity. I disagree that the answer is to do away with the notion of the objective altogether.

As Wahlberg notes, Amoris Laetitia takes for granted that there is an objective reality, a mercy-driven pastoral strategy presupposes that. As Adam noted, there will always be conflicts as individuals struggle to live the way the Church asks them too. The Pope’s point-which is open to legitimate critique as illustrated by the articles cited above-is to deal mercifully with those who are struggling.  This will play out in time.

Until then, I suggest that those who dismiss their brethren who yearn for certainty examine their own motivations.  They may just be surprised.

Consciousness in the Continuum

In a recent First Things article, David Bentley Hart takes the idea of pansychism to task in the delightful way that only he can:

…I read that the Japan Science and Technology Agency had awarded a grant of $3.4 million to a group of Japanese and American researchers in “evolutionary science and technology” for a project to be conducted at Monash University, the ultimate aim of which is to determine—based on models provided by Integrated Information Theory (IIT)—whether it is possible to create “artificial consciousness.” It seemed to me, to be frank, a rather exorbitant amount of money to be squandered on a simple category error occasioned by a beguiling homonymy. Then again, the business of academic research endowments, especially in fields as conceptually confused as artificial intelligence or cognitive science, really is all about exploiting the credulity of wealthy foundations and corporations and private donors (sometimes with devious cynicism, sometimes in deluded innocence). If, however, the JST would like to save some of that money for other equally plausible endeavors—communicating with extraterrestrials by way of séances, discovering a mathematical theorem that can spontaneously generate new universes, proving that the color blue has opinions, or what have you—I would be quite happy, on a very modest retainer, to provide them the results of the Monash project in advance.

IIT, I should note, is quite in vogue these days. Invented by the physician and accidental mystic Giulio Tononi, it has won the support of a great many prominent ­scientists. Max Tegmark has become one of its most robust promoters. It has even made a convert out of the famed neuroscientist Christof Koch, and persuaded him to abandon his long arduous quest for the origins of consciousness through the ganglial forests of the cerebral cortex. At the heart of IIT is the radical conjecture that “information” and hence “consciousness” is ubiquitous and that, therefore, consciousness can be measured quantitatively by the variety and degree of information that exists in particular integrated systems of interdependent functions. The name that Tononi has given the quantum of consciousness he claims can be measured is “Phi,” and he has proposed ways of objectively determining how much “Phi” any composite system possesses. Moreover, it is his argument that any truly integrated system—a brain, a computer, the Internet, but also a barometer, a photodiode, a geranium, a sheet of paper—has some calculable Phi value; consciousness is qualitatively the same in all things, but in terms of intensity and capacity it increases along with the complexity, “synergy,” and ordering of cognitive information in organized wholes, and along with the richness of the information it integrates in “holographic” or “crystallized” conceptual structures. This means also, perhaps, that many integrated systems are modular or concrescent totalities, and hence a mind (for instance) might comprise smaller integral unities that are, so to speak, smaller minds.

Actually, the various indices of Phi that Tononi and others have advanced—what constitutes a particular integrated unit, what the principle of unity is, what the mathematical description of this supposedly objective quantum is, what the calculus of information values or integration are, and so forth—are uniformly gibberish, and the quasi-mathematical technical jargon that has sprung up around IIT, when subjected to any serious analysis of premises and applications, soon dissolves into a gauzy mist of empty assertions. But that is not the true scandal. What is most amusing about IIT (and the JST funders ought to have noticed this before reaching for the checkbook) is that it is not a theory of consciousness at all. Rather it openly presumes the metaphysical fantasy of material “panpsychism,” the notion that consciousness is a universal “property,” existing from the subatomic level upward, not produced by matter but rather constituting the subjective side of every material reality. Consciousness does not emerge from matter, because everything is conscious already; what is emergent is merely the complexity of systems of interaction.

I have to say, while there are various idealist forms of panpsychism that make sense to me, my every encounter with the materialist version of the idea makes me feel rather as if I have stepped through the looking-glass and am listening to Kant’s second and third Critiques being expounded by Humpty-Dumpty. For one thing, the basic paradox of the presence of mind within a mechanistic universe remains unchanged. It has simply been moved to a more basic level: One and the same atom possesses two utterly contradictory aspects, the nomological and the pathological (to misuse the Kantian terms)—the one objective, deterministic, mechanical, and empirical, the other subjective, intentional, teleological, and transcendental. And the interaction between them is no less mysterious for having been atomized.

Hart is not the only person to ridicule the idea of panpsychism.  Colin McGinn observes the same problem from a different angle:

The cool thing about panpsychism is that it offers a seductively silky explanation of emergence. How does mind emerge from matter? Why – by virtue of the pre-existence of mind in matter. Mind is all around, so we don’t need a magic mechanism to spirit it into existence from nowhere – it was already present at the time of the Big Bang, simmering away. (What did the hydrogen atom say to the carbon atom at the time of the Big Bang? My ears are ringing.)

The trouble with panpsychism is that there just isn’t any evidence of the universal distribution of consciousness in the material world. Atoms don’t act conscious; they act unconscious. And also, what precisely is on their microscopic minds – little atomic concerns? What does it mean to say that atoms have consciousness in some primitive form (often called “proto-consciousness”)? They either have real sensations and thoughts or they don’t. What is a tiny quantity of consciousness like, exactly? Panpsychism looks a lot like preformationism in biology: we try to explain the emergence of organic life by supposing that it already exists in microscopic form in the pre-life world – as if the just-fertilised egg has a little, fully formed baby curled up in it waiting to expand during gestation.

Still, Hart has noted that he finds some versions of panpsychism quite attractive, which has made me wonder if there may not be something to the idea.  Variants on the idea do seem to have a venerable history.  Huston Smith notes that in the religious worldview of Native peoples:

…even the line between animate and “inanimate” is perforated.  Rocks are alive.  Under certain conditions they are believed to be able to talk, and at times-as in the case of Ayers Rock in Australia-they are considered divine…all beings, not overlooking heavenly bodies and the elements of wind and rain, are brothers and sisters.  Everything is alive, and each depends in ways on all the others.

This idea has a biblical parallel, as noted by Father Freeman:

The ancient Greeks, beginning with Aristotle, differentiated between things with a soul (animate) and things without a soul (inanimate). Bear in mind, that the word “animus” means “soul.” This differentiation is commonly used within the Fathers as well, though, as our earlier quote noted, there is a recognition that trees, rocks, everything – must be seen as “alive” – in at least some manner. I am not certain that “alive” is the word that we want to use, but for the moment I will stay with it.

Our friend Justin rightly cites some of the numerous passages in Scripture in which creation (trees, rocks, wind, water) are described in very animate terms. They sing, clap their hands, obey and do His will. Are these mere metaphors? Are the writers of Scripture engaging in simple hyperbole? The answer takes us into the hidden world described in various forms of allegory within the Scriptures. The testimony of great saints such as the Elder Porphyrios (who is not at all alone) points to a reality reflected in the language of Scripture. Trees, rocks, wind and water, are all things that “do His will.”

We take existence far too much for granted. To describe anything that has being and existence as “inanimate” does existence and being a disservice. We speak of things existing as though it were a complete given and not extraordinary, while, in truth, everything that exists shimmers with wonder as the Divine will sustains it in existence. What our normal way of thinking does is to reckon that being and existence have nothing necessarily to do with God, while the opposite is true.

The Biblical and patristic witness that speaks of rocks and trees in very animate terms are also rightly understood to point towards the kind of existence shared by all things. The whole of creation, we are told, “groans together until now” (Romans 8). Such statements are meaningless if treated in a manner that makes them mere figures of speech. The gift of existence carries something of an animate form, such that all creation speaks, obeys and yearns for its Creator.

Granted, this view is not really what contemporary philosophers like David Chalmers mean by panpsychism, though there is nonetheless a hint of overlap.  A stranger example is offered by Jewish physicist Gerald Schroeder in his book God According to God, in a chapter with the intriguing title of “Nature Rebels”:

“And God said let the earth sprout vegetation, herbs yielding seed, fruit trees yielding fruit each after its own kind with its seed in it…” (Gen. 1:11).  That verse is the statement of the Divine command for the earth to produce the first forms of life.  The description of nature’s execution of the command follows in the next verse: “And the earth brought forth vegetation, herbs yielding seeds of its kind, and trees yielding fruit with its seed in it after its kind…” (1:12).  The execution of the command seems essentially the same as the command itself.  Seems the same, that is, until we read the words more closely with the help of Rashi’s decisive ancient commentary.  God’s command asked for “fruit trees yielding fruit” but the earth produced “trees yielding fruit.”

A minuscule, seemingly insignificant divergence, but an astonishing implication is revealed to us by Rashi.  Fruit trees yielding fruit has a superfluous adjective, the word “fruit” modifying trees.  The text might have simply stated “trees yielding fruit” or, equally descriptive, “fruit trees.”  That would have been sufficient to indicate the directive for the earth to produce trees bearing fruit.  The ancient commentaries, upon which I am basing the intention of the biblical text, accepted that seemingly superfluous words, especially when presented or omitted in successive verses such as here in 11-12, come to bring one of the “golden apples in the silver dish” of the Bible.  Rashi wrote that the earth was commanded to produce fruit trees yielding fruit in order that the taste of the tree or its bark as well as the fruit that hung from its branches would have the taste of a fruit.  But the earth did not comply.  The earth rebelled.  Instead, the earth brought forth trees bearing fruit, not fruit trees bearing fruit, the wood or bark of which would also have been a fruit.

The Bible in these verses tells us an almost incomprehensible fact.  nature, purportedly bound by unbending “laws of nature,” which were themselves created by God, somehow was able to do the unimaginable.  Nature was able to go against God’s explicit command.  Nature rebelled.

Admittedly, this is a somewhat curious piece of exegesis.  I note parenthetically that God According to God is a fascinating book to read, but one that should be taken with a grain or two of salt (Rashi was a medieval commentator, not “ancient,” and Richard Elliott Friedman has contended in the past that Schroeder himself has a poor grasp of Biblical Hebrew).  In any case, Schroeder next jumps to quantum physics (what else?) to suggest that nature does indeed have a mind of its own. He quotes Sir James Jeans, then states that “something akin to mind exists throughout all of nature,” and that this is what allowed the earth to rebel. He then writes:

To what level of existence does mind, and all of the implications of what mind brings, including a level of self-awareness, extend? Humans of course have it. What about dogs and cats?

What about other forms of life? Do they have mind?

Schroeder goes on to cite studies suggesting that a wide range of animals possess self-awareness and episodic memory, and then even suggests that microbes “meaningfully transfer information.” He quotes neurosurgeon Frank Vertosick, Jr. as saying that

physicians like myself enter into the competitive arena and do battle with supposedly unintelligent beasts like bacteria and cancer cells…for those of us who stare into the shining eyes of the world’s predators, we know how cunning they are at what they do.

Schroeder ties these observations back to exegesis, equating “information” with the Biblical concept of “wisdom,” and concluding that this wisdom is the “inherent essence of all existence,” meaning that not only humans possess the ability to rebel. In traditional Jewish fashion, he contains that human beings were charged with the responsibility to “repair the errors brought about by the vicissitudes of nature.” He concludes with a invoking the Kabbalistic idea of tzimtzum, and contends that multiple tzimtzums occur during creation. After the initial tzimtzum of the physical creation, he contends that another occurs with the creation of the nefash, the soul of animal life. He then states:

The creation of Adam, recorded on the sixth day, involves the neshama, the soul of human life. The neshama attempts to change fundamentally the drives of the human animal. The neshama realizes that a spiritual unity pervades and unities all existennce…apprehends this ultimate message. Each prson has a window of choice from within which he or she decides.

Whether, according to the Bible or science, there is an actual consciousness of “choice” at the level of complexity of the earth or a tree is moot. We don’t speak the language of soil or plants. The autonomy inherent at the physical level of the quantum, while not providing the existence of free will, opens the possibility for the concept of choice even in the assumed inanimate world of atoms and molecules. After all, it is the same protons, neutrons, and electrons in different combinations that make up all material existence from earth to Adam. At some point along this gradation of complexity, manifest consciousness has emerged. The question is not “if” self-awareness can arise from a particular mix of these seemingly inanimate subatomic particles. We are living proof that it can and did. The problem is to identify at what level of complexity sentience and choice and mind come quantifiably online. By the time we reach the third of the creations, that of the neshama of humans, our free will is at such an advanced level that the Divine leeway of tzimtzum has actually granted us license to choose between life and death, that of others and even of our own.

Now, I am not endorsing Schroeder’s view wholesale. He appears to confuse consciousness (in the sense of subjective awareness) with “information” (in the objective sense noted by Hart above), and it is difficult to get a handle on his philosophy, which seems to vacillate from idealism to materialism and back again. Nonetheless, there is something intriguing in his approach. His idea of a “gradation” bears resemblance to the traditionalist Thomist “hierarchy of souls” (vegetative, animal, rational). The hierarchy of souls is not (properly at least) a question of primitive science (which would prompt interesting questions such as whether other life forms like viruses and protozoa have souls), but rather a metaphysical commentary on the gradation that Schroeder is writing about.

The same general idea appears in the Aristotelian view of teleology that Thomism. Edward Feser (The Last Superstition) explains:

Most people, including many contemporary philosophers, deeply misunderstand what Aristotle means by this. They sometimes suppose, for example, that he is making the quite absurd claim that the moon is consciously trying to go around the sun, or that fire wants to produce heat…But Aristotle never said or thought any such things. His whole point, in fact, is that there is a kind of goal-directedness that exists even apart from conscious thought processes and intentions. For Aristotle, our conscious thought processes are really but a special case of the more general natural phenomenon of goal-directedness or final causality, which exists in the natural world in a way that is mostly totally divorced from any conscious mind or intelligence.

Feser then applies this to contemporary biology, noting the rampant use of teleological language, despite the vociferous protests that said language is strictly “metaphorical”:

But no one believes that DNA molecules literally have minds or consciously represent or think about anything at all…what modern biology reveals to us is the existence of a physical structure that “points to” or “aims at” something beyond itself and yet is entirely unconscious. Where have we heard that before? Why, in Aristotle, of course.

Feser than quotes physicist Paul Davies to make a point:

Might purpose be a genuine property of nature right down to the cellular or even the subcellular level?

Juxtaposing Schroeder and Feser together gives us a hint as how a certain form of panpsychism may indeed be true. While self-awareness does not pervade all of existence (as McGinn and Hart both noted, consciousness cannot be broken into component pieces), intentionality DOES pervade all of reality, and exists along a gradation, with rational awareness and choice occupying a “higher” state than what we consider “inanimate” matter. It is possible that in some sense of “choice” may pervade all existence as well, but this is a very murky area and I am inclined to speak with far less confidence than Schroeder on this point. What can be said, quite fairly I think, is that even from a strictly scientific point of view matter itself is a great mystery, a point acknowledged by McGinn:

Latterly, I have come to think that mystery is quite pervasive, even in the hardest of sciences. Physics is a hotbed of mystery: space, time, matter and motion – none of it is free of mysterious elements. The puzzles of quantum theory are just a symptom of this widespread lack of understanding (I discuss this in my latest book, Basic Structures of Reality). The human intellect grasps the natural world obliquely and glancingly, using mathematics to construct abstract representations of concrete phenomena, but what the ultimate nature of things really is remains obscure and hidden.

In short, panpsychism-of a sort-may well be true. It does not resolve the question of consciousness, at least per se-the existence of subjective awareness is not explained by any of this. Still, the Thomist hierarchy of souls is a valuable way for understanding the context of consciousness and human rationality. While not reducible to the material, neither consciousness, nor rationality, is alien to the world, as Cartesianism implies (thus creating the materialist problem outlined by McGinn). Human consciousness is not “out of place,” to the contrary it fits within the created order, at a key point on a continuum.

Having sorted this out, I remain intrigued by Hart’s question as to whether the color blue has opinions…