In a few days, Pope Benedict XVI will embark on a four-day visit to Portugal, where, newspapers carrying the story have remarked, he will be engaged in a “battle against secularism.” This is true enough. The return of an agnostic Europe to its Christian roots is one of the driving desires of Benedict’s pontificate, while an impending legalization of same-sex marriage and a collapse of the national profit-driven economy in Portugal will also provide two timely, though very different, incarnations of the secularism he may address next week. But as John Allen points out in a typically excellent analysis, the secular-religious dichotomy will fail in Portugal in one crucial regard. The centerpiece of Benedict’s journey will be a visit to the shrine of Fatima, whose famous 1917 apparition is not the kind of Catholic devotion close to the heart of this resolutely down-to-earth pope:
Ever the rational academic, Benedict XVI has never really embraced the florid visions or private devotions that swirl around Marian sacntuaries such as Fatima, La Salette, or Medjugorje. His interest in Fatima has always been less mystical than theological — seeing it primarily as a reminder of Mary’s role in salvation history as the one who introduces Christ to the world.
…[T]he best window onto Benedict’s attitude towards Fatima comes in his comments back in 2000, when he put the publication of the “Third Secret” into theological context. On that occasion, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger played down the significance of the secret, saying that “no great mystery is revealed” and that “the veil of the future isn’t lifted.”
…While acknowledging that Fatima has been approved by the church, he suggested that some of the more famous claims associated with the three seers may have been “interior signs” rather than something belonging to “our normal sensible world.” Not every detail of the visions has meaning, he warned, and altogether they represent a “symbolic language” requiring interpretation by the church.
When Benedict visited the Shroud of Turin a few days ago, his reaction was similar: rather than endorsing the fabric’s much-contested claim to be the real burial cloth of Christ, he cautiously described it as an “icon written in blood” — that is, something more akin to a work of art than to an authentic historical relic.
With so many of the Church’s teachings and practices regarded as retrogressive, and even paleolithic, it’s a relief to have evidence for a skeptical public that the current Pope at least doesn’t go in for mawkish superstitions. More profoundly than that, though, this question of the mystical appartenances of Roman Catholicism, in which the otherworldly personality of Pope John Paul II was steeped, is a truly vexing one for the Church in its efforts to speak to the modern world. It is difficult enough to dialogue with a haughty culture that places belief in God on the level of belief in Santa Claus simply on account of a lack of “proof”; having to rationalize saints that people pray to when they’ve lost their car keys, and rosaries they say on certain days of the year to elude X amount of time in Purgatory, sometimes seems a nigh impossible task.
If there is one major point on which I disagree with Pope Benedict, it is in fact a central tenet of his thought: Benedict holds that the modern world is in the thrall of relativism, and has lost interest in the search for objective truth. In the human sciences — anthropology, philosophy — with which the Pope is personally most familiar, there is something to this claim. At the same time, the permissiveness of modern culture concerning, most visibly, sexual and familial ethics does not seem to me to issue from an abandonment of truth; it represents, instead, a redefinition of truth along basically liberal or libertarian lines. For many, an expanded vision of tolerance is not the same thing as relativism. Contrary to what many clerics will charge, when a so-called “modern” criticizes the Church’s uptightness, she isn’t contradicting herself by hewing to a universal moral standard she’s said to have disavowed; she’s merely turning the tables on the reigning pieties, and proclaiming that truth, which does exist, nonetheless has more to do with freedom than with seemingly arbitrary behavioral restrictions or with a supposed, and scientifically naive, “natural law.” Indeed, the Church is in for trouble if it doesn’t recognize that the modern world remains wedded to a notion of truth: only, its notions about moral propriety follow from a conviction that the best standard for all truth claims is scientific, and its idea is that the Church, and not relativists, have betrayed the truth by persisting in a belief in silly things like limbo and talking snakes.
Of course, the Catechism doesn’t advocate Biblical literalism or claim to have any idea what happens to children who die unbaptized; but even if we distinguish, more carefully than Christianity’s critics do, noisy evangelical Protestantism from magisterial Catholicism, we’ll still be forced to admit that nuanced hermeneutical methods have not always reached the level of the pews. The question of evolution and creationism, held up by the media as the crux of the science-religion debate because it’s involved in the writing of public school curricula, is actually a red herring. There’s a whole gamut of difficult questions which the Church, wittingly or not, avoids every time it insists that it does accept the Big Bang, does accept some form of natural selection, and does accept the fossil record. Do cutting-edge studies of reflexes prove that free will is an illusion? If higher intelligence is discovered elsewhere in the universe, will it dash to shreds our belief in the divinity of Christ? Will transhumanist advances in biotechnology prove definitively that what we understand as intrinsic to humanity is merely provisional, and not something to base a religious anthropology on? Even more fundamentally, once we’ve quieted all doubts that the two creation myths in Genesis are meant to be taken figuratively, and permitted ourselves to believe that Adam and Eve didn’t really exist, can we still claim that the question of the unique ensoulment of homo sapiens is a no-brainer when evidence exists that members of our own species mated and reproduced with “primitive” Neanderthals?
These are incredibly difficult questions. The conventional wisdom is that science deals with that which is empirically observable, whereas theology deals with the invisible meaning of Love, yet the divide between disciplines is not as impermeable as that. To read modern science with integrity demands that we ask ourselves, honestly, what Love has to do with the human species, in the first place; and a Church that refuses to answer those questions (out of modesty) because it isn’t an “expert” on science, and then prattles on about indulgences and miracles, is, on some level, shirking an important responsibility. (Hence my ardent admiration for someone like Teilhard de Chardin, the maverick philosopher-paleontologist, a discoverer of the Peking Man and a Jesuit priest, who’s perhaps the only prominent Christian to have constructed an entire systematic theology on lessons learned from evolutionary biology.)
I’ve had the chance to interrogate, on a very modest level, the relationship of believing communities to science and reason here at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish, where the question of syncretism has often reared its head. Many times in my encounters with people in the social services office, I’ve been told that if you are pregnant and don’t wear a belt around your stomach during a full moon, your child will be born deformed. I’ve also met too many people with stories like that of the woman who came in to my office yesterday morning. “The doctors have been using their chemo to treat my cancer for seven years, and they still haven’t cured me!” she pronounced contemptuously. Before I could fully process this, she leaned back in her chair and smiled. “So, now? I’m taking herbs instead.”
There’s also a rumor going around that if you distribute seven stacks of seven copies of a given prayer to St. Jude to seven different churches, God will grant whatever you wish for. This has not been known to fail!! screams the promise at the bottom of the photocopied sheet, which keeps cropping up (in multiples of seven) in the foyer of the church. Our associate pastor — who, it must be said, is a member of the mystically inclined Marian movement of priests and so cannot easily be pigeon-holed into the “skeptical and scientifically minded” category — is routinely purging the foyer of these arcane prayer sheets. One day he decided that enough was enough, and gave a forceful homily decrying the pernicious effects of paganism and belief in the occult in the barrio. “If you own a Oujia board, brothers and sisters,” he implored, “throw it away. If you own a set of Tarot cards, burn them. If you’ve ever participated in a seance, come to Confession. These simply are not things of God.”
The reaction to his homily was vicious. People stormed out of the church and were waiting for Father outside on the steps. Many of my housemates took an extremely negative view of the sermon, considering it brusque, Eurocentric, and condescending. At the same time, I couldn’t help but admire this priest for speaking what I believe to have been the truth. It is really very difficult to have much patience for superstitions like those ones when you have people coming into your office in tears because the curtains have been moving in the baby’s room and they believe that there are demons a-prowl. “They say if you get holy water from seven churches,” people will explain to me, breathlessly [it is always seven!], “and sprinkle it on the doorway, the ghosts can’t enter. Do you have any holy water?” I usually hand them an application for the San Antonio energy company’s home weatherization program so that they can seal up their draughty walls.
It’s not as simple, of course, as a battle against paganism. The form of these superstitious beliefs is often Christian. Holy water is a Catholic sacramental, whether its use in the above circumstance is Catholic or not. I’m deeply sympathetic to scientific critiques of Christian superstitions, and when I talk about the sociology of belief, I’ve come to use the phrase “ideal religion” — to imply how aware I am that the varieties of religious experience include some that are insane. Still, for everyone who rightly thinks my criticism of superstition should include Christian superstitions, there are also representatives of a third ideological camp, some of whom are Christian and some of whom are not, who seem to feel that an insistence on intellectual rigor is mean-spirited and has no place; who am I to criticize people’s “beliefs”?
They don’t always use the word “beliefs,” for beliefs are in fact fairly easy to criticize; they often speak instead about “culture.” Yet I know that myths like that story of the ghosts instill fear into people’s hearts, and lead people away from an understanding of God as love (and of modern medicine as efficacious). Culture, quite simply, can hurt people. It is in speaking with this camp that I find myself drawing on the Pope’s message about relativism: our metaphysical ideas are not irrelevant to the way we live our daily lives, and we have a moral responsibility to submit them to the honest critique of informed reason. If some religious conservatives are guilty of anti-scientific credulity, some liberal humanists are still guilty of permissive, kneejerk relativism, which doesn’t fulfill its responsibility towards the truth any better than Biblical literalism does.
For all this, I am not arguing for positivism or materialism. I believe, more and more each day, that religious belief needs to be purified by the flame of science, but I also believe in a God that is the ground of all existence and in an indwelling Holy Spirit that orients us towards that ground. In less Rahnerian terms, I believe that Love has a great deal to do with who we are and what we (are to) do. It’s also true that liberal rejections of religion still need to justify the perceptible beauty of our existence and often do so in intellectually untenable ways. Regardless how indicative he may or may not be of twenty-first century iterations of this problem, Auguste Comte, the nineteenth century sociologist and founder of positivism, is nonetheless an interesting fellow to look back on…and not just because he went off the deep end and tried to create an actual ecclesiological structure for his new “religion”: naming himself “pope,” appointing scientists as priests, and trying to convert to the new “positive religion” all the Catholic bishops of France.
Famously, Comte identified three stages of belief which he claimed every individual’s and every society’s great ideas would pass through; though in his discussion of the three stages in his book The Drama of Atheist Humanism, Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac cautions that, realistically, they are better understood as “three coexistent modes of thought” than as “three successive states.” The states are theological, metaphysical, and physical, and de Lubac adds that true progress consists not in an advance from the theological to the physical, but in “an increasingly clear distinction between these three aspects, at first perceived in a kind of chaotic unity.” De Lubac continues, “If, then, it is true to say that ‘physics’ (in the sense of the whole of science) began by being theological, it would be just as true to say that theology began by being physical, and the law of evolution does not tend to expel theology any more than science, but to ‘purify’ both by differentiating them.”
What is meant by the physical and what is meant by the theological can be pretty accurately guessed in the context of the rest of my discussion; it is the intermediary, “metaphysical” state which is the most complicated, and the most interesting (to me), and which contains the crux of Comte’s disagreement with de Lubac. For Comte, metaphysics is a “purely critical” disposition, which derides the excesses of polytheism and attempts to straightjacket religious belief, containing it with a series of “no”s. It leaves no room, he claims, for “honest sentiment,” which — and this is telling — is what Comtian positivism tries to rescue from primitive theology. We shouldn’t be forced to choose between science and emotion, in Comte’s mind; rather, positivism as a study of humanity, unencumbered by thoughts of the unseen God (to whose actual existence Comte was agnostic and indifferent), places everything about humanity, including its emotions, center stage, and exalts the whole package. This may be the most telling lesson we have to learn from Comte; liberal modern rejections of religion often try to sacralize humanity on its own terms. They, too, at heart, want to believe in Love. We may be reminded of the wonderful scene in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in which Alyosha visits Mitya in prison, and Mitya says:
“On the whole, I am sorry to lose God, I must say.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just fancy. In our heads, that is to say, in our brains, there are nerves…These nerves have fibers and when they begin to vibrate…You see, I look at something, like this, and they vibrate, these fibers…and, as soon as they vibrate, an image is formed, not immediately but after a second, and an impulse is born…no, what am I talking about? not an impulse but an object or an action…that is how perception happens. Then comes thought…because I have fibers and not because I have a soul and was created in God’s image, what nonsense! Mikhail explained that to me only yesterday. That fired me. what a wonderful thing science is, Alyosha! Man is undergoing transformation, I quite see that…And yet, I am sorry to lose God!”
“That’s something, anyway,” said Alyosha.
“That I regret God? Chemistry, brother, chemistry! A thousand apologies, your Reverence, would you mind stepping aside, chemistry is passing by!”
Comte will also claim that metaphysics, and monotheism, are “theologically arbitrary” — that they substitute fantasy and magic (“miracles”) at the expense of human emotion, which he calls the only authentic “religious spirit”: “Since the decrease in religious spirit, one has consequently had to create naturally the notion of miracle, properly speaking, in order to characterize exceptional events, those attributed to a special divine intervention. In the beginning, and while the theological philosophy was fully dominant, there were no miracles, since everything seemed equally marvelous. Minerva intervened to pick up the whip of a warrior in simple military games as well as to protect against a whole army…”
De Lubac, however, does not conceive of the metaphysical attitude as purely critical. He constructs an analogy, whereby theology is to myth what physics is to materialism and what metaphysics is to mystery. We might pun on positivism; the metaphysician, alone, is honest, because he isn’t “positive” about anything he has no reason to be positive about. He admits that the meaning of life transcends him, and accepts a spiritual orientation towards that mystery. Furthermore, we might say, in theological terms and against the Comtian accusation, that the reduction of the pantheon to a sole God (the work of metaphysics) is not a negative or an arbitrary movement; it allows the substance of the one God to permeate everywhere. De Lubac quotes Renan, who puts it nicely in the Cahiers de Jeunesse:
In his infancy, man and humanity does not conceive of the law of nature…He sees everywhere a supernatural action, God everywhere. In his second state, he observes the law through observation and induction, then he drives God out of the world, for he believes he no longer has need of him; from there, we have atheist philosophy…In his third state, he preserves the result acquired in the second, which is true; only he connects the laws themselves to God, the universal cause and true effector. From there, we have true, complete science…Instinct sees God everywhere and sees him nowhere; observation sees the law everywhere (hence its mocking, proud tone) and God nowhere. True philosophy sees God everywhere, acting freely through invariable laws because they are perfect.
We see in these musings a glimmer of Christianity’s light: it represents a marriage of fides et ratio, faith and reason, orientation towards the mystical and mysterious ground of our own existence without accepting just any cockamamie explanation for bizarre happenings. The Popes’ embrace of evolution, for instance, fits into this schema as well as does Jesus’ own pronouncement on the collapse of the Tower of Siloam (Luke 13:4). If only the sort of preacher in whose vocabulary the words “sacred mystery” do not exist — and who finds it, then, a lot easier to blame September 11 and Hurricane Katrina on Jews and homosexuals — had stumbled upon this page of the inerrant Scripture: “Those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them: do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means!”
The “metaphysical” view, which orients itself towards mystery, thus has this advantage over the “theological” view: it is mature enough, and secure enough, in its basic existential convictions that it neither loses faith nor retreats into radical extremism when the authority of modern science shows it the error of one or two of its beliefs or practices.
Still, the metaphysical view’s advantages over the physical, or positivist, view are equally great — not least that it admits to the existence of a category of realities unseen, realities which in my experience are the salvific ones. I’ve met murderers and rapists and victims of rape, and men and women struggling to free themselves from the ravages of addiction, who have come into my office and told me what it was that got them to reform their lives, and what it is that keeps them going through the horrible suffering of their days. It’s not membership in the Democratic party, it’s not a devotion to Flaubert and Hugo, and it’s not a firm grasp of the principles of Darwinian evolution; it’s grace, and it’s faith, and it’s God. That’s it. I invite any atheist to come up with a close and workable approximation; my mind, anyway, can’t conceive of one. When I stare into the abyss of my clients’ chaos, completely at a loss for words that will relativize their pain or offer a way out of their drama, the empty consolations of materialism become manifest. The happy ones, the ones that survive without resorting to violence, are the ones with God’s name on their lips; only reference to an ultimate meaning, which eludes us for now except for its capacity to make us feel loved, can put earthly meaninglessness into perspective.
I could give a hundred specific, real-life examples of this experience of mine, but it’s also true on the grander scale of the history of ideas. Freeing ourselves of the weight of God sounds wonderful, but it also deprives us of a shield against the meaninglessness of human existence that stares us in the face every time we look honestly at cosmic history. Levi-Strauss observed in Tristes Tropiques that “the world began without the human race, and will certainly end without it,” a statement whose melancholy is a symptom of the attitude Gabriel Marcel describes in the following analysis by de Lubac:
The “objective” world, in its most restrictive sense, is taken to be the totality of what is real, which constitutes a first impoverishment; and human reality is treated like the most inert of these “objects” to which it is assimilated. In this adolescent crisis, the essential new searches for the interior man are repulsed for a time, confused as they are with subjectivist maladies and distortions of interiority. At the same time, the intoxication of the future causes the loss of that sense of being to which one philosopher recently tried, with so much reason, to lead us. “Western man,” said Gabriel Marcel, “behaves officially more and more as if what I have called the higher soul were a survival, the useless relic of a fossil species.”
The perpetual yet ultimately weak remark that looking up at the stars and finding them beautiful — finding them, even, a sign of God’s creative genius — is proof that Christian spirituality can be “scientific” is no longer a sufficient rejoinder to the hard claims of modern science. More damningly for the Christian, though, it is not even enough to justify his own theological hopes, given that the universe stares back at him from the perspective of Voyager 1 and sees little more than the pale, blue dot famously described by Carl Sagan. For people in my office, it is often enough to have any Christianity at all, to supplant and purify with reason the naive superstitions they’ve grown up with. For human history, though, a far sharper and more rarefied Christianity needs to emerge. If popular theology doesn’t step up to the plate and address modern science, shrewdly, in its own language and on its own terms — even if that means admitting where theology has gone wrong — then I fear that an apocalyptic funk submerged beneath the surface of the positivist venture will bubble up and spread over all modernity like oil over the Gulf.