True Myth, Part 2: A Hidden Lesson in Eden

Eamonn Clark

Surely, there is hardly any limit to the meaning of the imagery in the opening chapters of Genesis. The dichotomy of dark and light, the details of the order of creation, the numerology… But let’s just focus in on one little part of the story.

We find Adam and Eve happy in Eden, but – the serpent tells them of something that God is holding back from them. There is special, privileged knowledge that is available through disobedience. God doesn’t want them to have it because He is afraid, jealous, selfish… They would become too much like Him.

We know how the story goes – it doesn’t work out for Adam and Eve. What is glossed over is a lesson which sought to correct some misunderstandings about divinity pervasive in the Ancient Near East (ANE).

In ANE cosmologies, the world and the pantheon were very permeable, almost the same world entirely, one might say. The gods come and go as they please, a bit like God walking in Eden and coming in the Incarnation. The difference with the ANE gods is twofold: motive, and nature.

The motives for the pantheon’s involvement were the petty kinds of endeavors we are used to seeing in myth – fear, jealousy, selfishness, and other passions common to mere human beings. The nature of these gods is that, essentially, they were created out of a realm which lies above them. Both in motive and in nature, the God of Adam and Eve is completely different. He is only concerned for the authentic good of His creatures, driven by His own totally free choice, and He is utterly transcendent, uncreated, and quite radically unlike human beings.

The lesson about motive is clear enough – the “knowledge” they gained by disobedience was truly unhelpful for Adam and Eve. It did not make them happier, that is, more authentically “like” God. It was therefore out of selfless love that God restricted them from eating from that tree. The lesson about transcendence is less clear, although even in the lesson about motive it is inherent. Because God does not think like a human being, the way the ANE gods do, He must be higher than the ANE pantheon. But that’s not all…

In the ANE, magic was commonplace. We can see how it comes from their theology: the gods are finite, they don’t love perfectly, therefore they aren’t always going to help me get what I really need to be happy. So, the thinking went, an appeal can be made to this “realm above the gods,” the place from which the pantheon comes. Magic was done by channeling the powers of that realm through some natural element, like water, rocks, blood, plants… even perhaps a fruit.

Adam and Eve were the first magicians, according to Genesis. That’s my theory.

It seems that the choice of the sacred author to use natural imagery that evokes the ANE theory of magic is to teach a clear lesson about God’s transcendent nature: there is nothing above this God. He was not created like the ANE pantheon. There is no going around Him. And because His transcendence is also a guarantee of His goodness, as we saw, we can trust Him.

No more magic.

Three Intellectual Errors in American Leftism

Eamonn Clark

Though there are many problems one might point out in present day progressive American politics, I want to point out three particularly deep-seated intellectual vices. The misunderstandings are with respect to the following: the order of charity, experience and knowledge, and the terminus a quo/ad quem paradigm. They correspond to three key issues… the mode and structure of government, the value of so-called diversity in rational discourse, and the purpose of social institutions and roles especially in relation to sex and gender.

First, the order of charity. One of the great principles of Catholic social teaching is subsidiarity, which is the preference to defer to the more local government to provide for a constituent’s needs. The chain goes something like this: individual – family – town – county – state – nation – world. To know the needs of many individuals belongs to the governor of the family, to know the needs of many families belongs to the governor of the town, and so on. It is easy to see that as we ascend the ladder the task of governance becomes increasingly complicated, as it involves increasingly many parts. This proves the need for an order of governance in the first place, as it would be unthinkable for the king of a large country to govern each town directly, not only because of the amount of time and energy such micromanagement would take but also because of the diverse needs and situations of each town which are understood best by those who actually live there. The king is only in a position to know the affairs which affect the whole country, where its largest parts are concerned in their relations with each other. Thus, subsidiarity. The more that can be delegated to smaller governments, the better. The value of this principle is taught by some of the harshest lessons of world history… When the emperor gets too powerful there is trouble ahead both for him and for his empire.

But what about the relationships as they go up the chain rather than down it, or even those relationships at the same level? For example, what should characterize the individual’s actions vis-a-vis the family, or the state, or the world? How should families or counties or nations interact with each other? Of course, the lower owes care and respect to the higher and ought to be willing to make appropriate sacrifices for the good of the whole of which he is a part, with a greater kind of love given according to the dignity of the political body. However, this good will, or charity (ideally), follows an order, just like the governance to which it relates. Because we are creatures, we can only love in concrete practice up to a certain point, and our acts of love therefore should be patterned on our proximity – physical or otherwise – to the object of that love. Just as good parents care for their own children more than their next door neighbors’ children, they would also care more about their own town than a different town, because it is their own town which is most immediately able to care for them. Furthermore, they would be more ready to sacrifice for their town than for their county, state, or nation, not because they don’t have a greater kind of love for the larger body (i.e. the nation) according to its dignity but because that body is more remote. Finally, they will exercise more diligence and care toward families in their own town or neighborhood, as they have more interest in common with each other and are more able to look out for each other precisely because they are parts of the same small community. Such care is a legitimate application of the principle of solidarity… To be in real solidarity involves real proximity, of geography, blood ties, virtues, or even goals, and that proximity also tends to give a better understanding of the situation. This is why voluntourism is generally bad, or at least not as good as it feels: it ignores the needs of one’s close neighbors to go save people far away, and it does little to no help in the end, possibly even making things worse. The Western obsession with “saving Africa” is one example of this.

This should reveal at least one major problem with two key progressive agenda items: socialism and globalism. It is simply not possible to take care of everyone by centralizing government more and making it bigger (including by weakening or removing borders). We have a duty to look after those who are more closely united with us – and so long as we are flesh and blood, occupying physical space and belonging naturally to families, there will exist this natural order of government – and charity. We are bound to love our neighbor, but we are certainly bound to love some neighbors more than others. (See Gal. 6:10, 1 Tim. 5:8, etc.)

Second, experience and knowledge. It has become an all-too-familiar rhetorical move: you don’t share my experience, therefore your position is automatically irrelevant. “How can you, a man, dictate sensible policy on abortion? You don’t know what pregnancy is like!” This kind of thinking pervades public discourse in debates on race, gender-theory, guns… It even exists in the Church. How much do we really need to “discern with” and “listen to” various people or groups in order to understand the moral and doctrinal issues at stake? Certainly, nobody is saying that acquiring knowledge of particulars is bad or even unhelpful for dealing with those particulars themselves – indeed, it is vital, as Gregory speaks about at length in the Pastoral Rule – but once the general principles are known, especially through the authority of revelation, there is no need to go on studying particulars to learn those principles. If some people want to be “accompanied” a certain way, at odds with right morals or doctrine, then it is they who need reform, not the principles. It is they who need to work to build the bridge. Thus, the first public words of the Lord were not “what do you think” or “how are you feeling,” but rather, “repent” and “believe.”

What, then, is the value of experience? It is the collection of memories which can be applied to work for a desired end through abstracting the universal principles at work. Experience can contribute to making a person more prudent if he pays attention and has a good memory, but it does not necessarily give someone all the knowledge required to make a good decision about how to reach the goal, nor does it necessarily tell a person what ends are best to seek at all. Likewise, empathy with suffering groups, which provides a kind of substitute-experience, does not give the right means or ends either. It can actually be quite blinding. For example, perhaps you feel terribly for victims of drunk driving – but you have to look at whether outlawing alcohol would result in damage far worse than the damage avoided. Everyone you govern must be considered fairly. (See above about subsidiarity!) The wisdom that comes from suffering borne well is a spiritual kind of wisdom, a sort of perspective on one’s own life and meaning, and typically that is its limit. Being a resident of a war-torn country does not make a person an expert on foreign policy, it makes him an expert at hiding from bombs and bullets. If the same person also studied international politics at university and served for decades in his nation’s diplomatic corps, these would be of greater value for prudential decision-making about foreign policy, as they both communicate more information about the relevant matters. Perhaps his experience of hiding from air raids helps to contextualize what he is learning, or helps to remind him of how important certain consequences are, but simply having experienced the wrong end of a war does not make him a good politician.

Knowledge can be gained without experience of the things learned about. This principle is easily proven by the very existence of education: we believe that we can give people information through communicating information. It is left to the individual to organize that information and make a judgment, right or wrong. Thus, a priest who has studied the Pastoral Rule, for instance, is in a much better position to preach and rule well than if he had not studied it, ceteris paribus. If experience is the sole criterion for knowledge, we would face epistemic anarchy: no two people have the exact same experience of anything, and therefore there could never be any common body of knowledge. To rectify this, there is a theory of group-based experience, codified in the doctrine of “intersectionality.” Because minorities (and women) are necessarily victims, and the victim-narrative must always be believed, the number of victim-classes to which one belongs gives greater primacy to their claims and demands. So goes the theory. But if intersectionality defines knowledge, then we should only need to find the few Black, homosexual, transgender-woman, overweight, Muslim immigrants and let them run our lives, since they are practically demigods given their high intersectionality. And even within such an elite group, there would be divisions – some grew up poor, others did not. Some have genetic diseases, some do not. Etc. And so intersectionality is also a kind of compartmentalization which tends toward epistemic anarchy. The truth is that we are not only animals, we are rational animals; we are capable of learning without experiencing, and therefore we can generally see what is good and right in public policy without having been in the exact circumstance of those to whom any given piece of legislation applies, provided we are actually informed of how that policy will affect people and be enforced (subsidiarity!)… But we don’t need to take subsidiarity so far that we actually must be part of the racial, gender, “whatever” group over which we exercise authority.

Third, the terminus a quo/ad quem paradigm. The terminus a quo is the “point from which” one goes. It stands in relation to the “terminus ad quem,” the “point to which” one goes. It behooves a person who wants “progress” to say exactly where that progress leads to, and where it stops. Not only has there been deep confusion about where exactly some kinds of “progress” are heading, but also no principled way to determine when that progress ought to stop and be conserved. Some slopes are slippery indeed.

Today’s conservatives are yesterday’s liberals, especially with regard to gender-theory and its related issues. If you need proof, well, there is an endless supply, but try this one on for size. (Yes, really, click the link. If that doesn’t drop your jaw, nothing will.) What is the endgame? What is it really all about? How far can we “progress”? Of course, the goalposts keep moving. First, mere social tolerance is the only request. Then, once acquired, it is a small legal concession here or there, nothing big. Then, the redefinition of a social institution protected by law – but surely, this is the last step… Except then it becomes domination in schools, in the workplace, in the culture at large: indoctrination of the youth, forced service to same-sex weddings, and constant positive portrayal and exposure in the media. And now that the homosexual lobby is quickly running out of room, the momentum has carried into transgender rights.

But at this point I want to ask about these intermediate steps, which, for some basically sincere people, really are seen as the “end,” the terminus ad quem. That step is the the redefinition of social institutions or roles, such as same-sex marriage on the homosexual agenda and right around “bathroom bills” on the transgender front. There is a distinct problem of intentionality for each with regard to their understanding of their terminus ad quem as such.

Everyone has heard the comparison between the civil rights battle of the 1950’s and the present-day struggle for so-called “gay rights.” There is an oppressed group which only wants equal treatment and protection under the law. Just like Blacks couldn’t use the White schools or water fountains or any number of products and services, so gays don’t (didn’t) have access to marriage, because it is limited to the heterosexuals. Because marriage is so important in public life and personally desirable for so many reasons, it is equivalent to the desire for education, transportation, etc., wherein Blacks were discriminated against. Therefore, the two movements are basically analogous.

The problem with this argument is with regard to the terminus a quo/ad quem relationship. Under Jim Crow, goods and services that were equally desirable to both Whites and Blacks were apportioned unequally and unfairly. It was unfair because it put Blacks and Whites on fundamentally different levels of human dignity, when the reality is that race does not determine basic human nature. In other words, Blacks and Whites share the same terminus a quo, since they are fundamentally equal as human beings with the same desires and therefore deserve basic equality of opportunity, but they were treated as having different termini a quo. Because they share identical desires, such as good schools, a seat on the bus, and so on, their desires themselves have an identical terminus ad quem. To sum up, Blacks were given a different terminus ad quem because it was thought they had a different terminus a quo when in reality they did not. The civil rights movement sought the right to the same terminus ad quem by trying to show the Black terminus a quo was the same as the White terminus a quo.

This is (was) not the case with the push for same-sex marriage. Here, the terminus a quo is assumed to be the same by the government, and the terminus ad quem (marriage) is available to all. There is already equality of opportunity – it’s just that the desire of homosexuals is not the terminus ad quem which was equally available. Instead of pushing to be able to use the White water fountain, this was a push to create a Black water fountain because the water from the White fountain tastes bad to some.

Consider again: in no country ever in world history were homosexuals categorically barred from marriage. It is that they typically don’t desire the “kind” of marriage available. Instead, a new kind of marriage needs to be created to suit their desires – a different terminus ad quem altogether, just with the same name. The terminus a quo is different too, not because homosexuals and heterosexuals differ in fundamental human dignity, but because the desires which define these two categories are unequally useful to the commonwealth in which they seek to be fulfilled. Unlike schools or water fountains, marriage has not historically been treated as a good or service consumed, it has been treated as an office from which services and goods are provided to the community, namely, children and care for children. Even if same-sex couples were generally able to provide equally well for adopted or surrogate children as a child’s natural parents, which seems quite obviously incorrect for several reasons, they would still be at an unequal public dignity because they need help bringing children into existence. A man and a woman do not, generally speaking, need help procreating. And because of the clear good of parents staying together, having kids, and treating those kids well, the government is right to incentivize a lifelong commitment to a monogamous heterosexual relationship with certain public benefits which are not due to even the most committed homosexual relationships. The tendency to produce children is why there is such a thing as marriage in the first place (to protect, educate, and nurture children in a balanced and stable environment), and kids are also the primary reason the government should be interested in marriage at all, as they are the future of the commonwealth. It is especially dangerous when many fatherless young men are gathered together – this is how and why gangs form in cities… the kingpin is the replacement for the father.

We could map this same twist of the terminus a quo/ad quem dynamic onto some other public function or office of nature, such as the military. Just as every society needs marriage, it also needs a military, and so there should be certain incentives or “perks” that come with taking up arms as a soldier. But what if I want those same benefits, but without joining the current version of the military? Suppose I too am patriotic, own a gun, dislike terrorists, and sometimes wear camouflage. Shouldn’t I too have equal access to the military? I do, of course – I could go sign up at any moment – but I want to do it my own way, because I don’t desire to go to the desert or live on a base. Shouldn’t military rights be extended to me, too?

Anyone can see that this is the same line of reasoning as the same-sex marriage argument, and anyone can see also that it is a patently absurd argument.

But there is a different kind of absurdity at work in the transgender activism of today… What is the terminus ad quem of a gender transition – or even of the activism in general? If gender is a social construct, as it is so often claimed today, what is the value of changing the body? Cross-dressing or surgery would make sense if one’s real gender were something inherent to the person. So is the terminus ad quem simply to be treated a certain way by other people according to the superficial notions of male and female? If gender is a social construct, then there is no “noumenal” change, it is only a “phenomenon” which changes – that is, there is only and can only ever be a change in perception rather than any objective reality in the person or the body called “gender.” This seems contradicted by the advent of the big step in transgender activism, which is, like the gay agenda, compulsion. In this case it is even worse, because it is more arbitrary. If gender were only a social construct, looking and acting sufficiently “male” or “female” would suffice, but because the meaning of those terms is sliding away into oblivion, like “marriage,” the “appropriate” way to treat a person is based solely on that person’s desire to be treated a certain way. Because there is no objective reality “male” or “female,” and either it is consistently impossible or irrelevant for transgender people to look and act sufficiently like the paragon for “male” or “female” because of their biological sex, before or after surgery, it may be necessary simply to force people to use certain pronouns that they would not normally use.

Not to do so would be “violence,” because it causes depression and social isolation which can lead to self-harm or harassment. Therefore, speech at odds with my own desire to be called “he” “she” “zhe” or whatever, to refuse me the use of any bathroom or locker room I want, to disallow me to put on my official documents whichever of an ever-growing list of genders I determine, is punishable by law… Bad, right? It’s happening in Canada already with the infamous Bill C-16. Except we are not looking at all the harm this can cause, we are looking at the terminus ad quem. What has a trans-man or trans-woman actually become? Surely, they would say a “man” or “woman,” full stop. (Never mind that this is already causing problems – for example, does a trans-woman count as a man or as a woman for the purposes of any kind of affirmative action slanted towards women? Or take the example in the link above about the “transphobia” of RuPaul!) If gender is a social construct, a gender transition is to create a perception of a person as a member of a certain gender category. But since that category is completely based on perception, in what does the transition actually consist? What is actually being changed? And if it is all about my desires anyway, wouldn’t it be easier to change my desire to match with people’s seemingly entirely empty and baseless perception rather than the other way around? If “man” and “woman” don’t really mean anything objective anyway, then why would one even want to be called or treated as one or the other? What is the motivation to depart from the terminus a quo? It seems to be a comically extreme exercise in vanity…

Hopefully I have hammered home the point. The terminus ad quem of gender transitions and the activism surrounding it is unclear at best. And where the movement in general will end is anyone’s guess, but compelled speech is likely involved. After that point, my guess is trans-humanism will be next, especially given the rapid advances being made with the ongoing development of CRISPR.

Of course, the truth is that gender dysphoria and its accompanying behavior constitute a tragic mental illness and symptoms of that illness. The desire to “become a man” or to “become a woman” is based on a fetish with the biological reality of the opposite sex and the social realities based upon it, or some similar unfortunate disposition of the mind. Something approximately the same could be said of same-sex attraction.

These three points understood rightly – the order of charity, experience in relation to knowledge, and the terminus a quo/ad quem paradigm – give us a fitting lens through which to look at mainstream American (and broader Western) politics. The ideas are firmly rooted in the Christian intellectual tradition and help to make very useful distinctions. Hopefully they can assist you in forming your own opinions and in having your own discussions. Let me know what you think in the comments – but play nice!

An Analogy for Teaching the Necessity of the Incarnation

Eamonn Clark

When I was in middle school, I wondered about many things. “Do I have a chance with this girl? (No.) Will I make the high school basketball team? (No.) What does it mean to say that Jesus died for our sins?” Though I didn’t get a satisfying answer to the third question until much later, thankfully it didn’t bother me too much. But for those of you who are looking for a way to teach kids – or even adults – the main idea of St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, here is a helpful analogy which can be elaborated or simplified according to time or audience. (Be careful not to ruin the central ideas though!)

A caveat – it is an analogy, so despite its strength it isn’t perfect. You’ve been advised.

Imagine a town with a strict but kind mayor. He lives in a large house near the local baseball field and, in his spare time, he makes incredibly ornate and unique stained glass windows, together with his son. One of his windows faces the field, and at night the light from his house shines on the field – just enough for the local little league team to practice for a while before night. The mayor knows the evening is the most fun time to play baseball… He knows all the kids on the team and wants the best for them.

One evening, the team captain steps up to the plate. He knows he is strong enough to hit it out of the park, and his friend, the pitcher, knows it too. They have been having so much fun that they have lost their good judgment… They conspire and decide to show off by going for a major home run. A friendly pitch, a hard swing, a big hit, and a crash – the ball went right through the mayor’s priceless window and shattered the whole thing. The light goes out, and the mayor comes out to yell at the players… He discovers it was really the fault of two – the pitcher and the batter both, and that the batter is in fact team captain. He is especially at fault as batter, and since he is team captain the whole thing is made even worse… Because of the town’s laws, people like team captains get to represent a whole group of people in public events, but they also get the whole group in trouble if they do something wrong publicly. To punish the team, the mayor tells them they are banned from playing on the field until the debt gets paid – they’ll have to settle for cheap imitations, like parking lots and back yards, which don’t even allow for a real game at all. The team now owes the mayor a debt of the worth of his window. It is a debt that they can’t repay and could never repay. To replace the window is a task that belongs only to the mayor and his son.

Due to his strictness, the mayor won’t simply forgive the debt to the team. It would be inconsistent and unfair. They don’t get special treatment. But because of his kindness, the mayor wants to find a way that he can let the kids play again, and so he needs to come up with a way to get the team to repay the debt.

The solution occurs to him: it is time for his son to start playing baseball. The mayor gets his son signed up for little league, and he insists that his son also become team captain. Now the mayor’s son, who can make the window again, represents the whole team.

In a short while, after some difficult work, the son has remade the window, paying the debt on behalf of the whole team. He made the window stronger this time, too, so if it gets hit again it will only break in one pane instead of shattering – easy to fix. The mayor is satisfied, and he is willing to let the team play baseball again, with their new captain, but not in the evenings anymore. Though it’s the most fun time to play, they will have to settle for the normal daylight. The light still comes through the window, but it can’t be seen clearly. The mayor says that one day, however, the team will be allowed to play in the evenings again, and the colorful, beautiful light will be brighter than ever before, and they can play as long as they like into the night.

The End.

In case it’s not obvious, the mayor is God the Father, his son is the Son, baseball is the life of virtue, the first captain is Adam, the pitcher is Eve, the evening is Eden and Heaven (with the better light), the light and the window are the operation of God’s love and grace, breaking the window and the debt incurred is original sin, the town rules are the natural and eternal law.

It has its limits, but I think it’s alright. The essential point is that the son has to join the team and become its new captain in order to pay the debt that the team couldn’t otherwise pay. What do you think? Have you used similar metaphors with any success?

True Myth, Part 1: The Fundamental Thesis

Eamonn Clark

While interest in religion and in myth are perennial, at this moment it is particularly appropriate to dive into a study of the relationship here between true religion and true myth. This is not only because of my own personal acute interest presently, but the broader culture at large seems abnormally interested as well. This is due in no small part, perhaps almost exclusively, to the success of Intellectual Dark Web numero uno, Dr. Jordan Peterson, whose meteoric rise into international superstardom has exposed many people for the first time to a serious way of thinking about religion, especially Christianity, in a way similar to the exploration which will be undertaken here. For all his ideological red-pilling, which has made him most well-known (and which I typically find incredibly satisfying  to watch), his most popular video to date is the first in his series on the Bible. With Jung for a guide, Peterson explores the Scriptures from a psychological and pragmatic point of view. (Maybe a few parts of this series will pick apart one of his lectures.) While this kind of work is useful to an extent, my own sojourn into this region of thought will emphasize not only the usefulness of religion and myth, but their usefulness specifically insofar as they are true in a realist sense. William James’s self-defeating paradigm has little to do with my project. Religions might be useful in a number of temporal ways, but clearly we want to find a “non-temporal usefulness” which is powerful in its own right, such that its object can save us from that state in which we are no longer able to act on our own. When we are dead, we are no longer pragmatists… we are helpless. So we are here investigating not merely the truly useful; we are concerned with the usefully true. We want a saving truth, as it were, which can operate on its own.

With that introduction, here is the fundamental thesis. God gave mankind in general many common desires and ideas about the universe. The myths of various profane civilizations reveal these desires and ideas in fragmented ways, and the stories of the sacred civilization of Israel reveal them more plainly. Through the Biblical narrative of salvation, God corrected, spiritualized, and completed the profane myths. This threefold action corresponds to the triple purpose of grace – to heal, to elevate, and to perfect – and also corresponds to the triple munera of Christ, the prophet, the priest, and the king. As prophet, God corrects, as priest, He spiritualizes, and as king he completes. The Biblical story is mankind’s true myth, the perfect expression of what God wants us  to believe about and to desire from ourselves, the rest of creation, and God Himself. There is no archetype left untouched, no emotion left unexplored, no space of the human mind left unsatisfied. In the Judeo-Christian narrative we will consistently find God’s threefold action on profane myth, and this action is exhaustive.

The first topic we dive into will be a little slice of the opening pages of Genesis – and the Ancient Near East mythical context which helps us make sense of some of the puzzling imagery. What is this “fruit” all about?

Being Critical of the Historical-Critical

Eamonn Clark

I am watching some lectures on Scripture which were put out by Yale’s divinity school – it is quite an interesting experience. After many years of formation in what might be called “catechetical Scripture studies,” from CCD, to a Catholic university, to seminary, to a Roman pontifical university, encountering at length the material presented at an Ivy League school is like being thrown into a tornado.

It’s not that the material is altogether new or revolutionary – although some of it is certainly quite new and interesting to me, even edifying – it is the attitude which undergirds it which strikes me as bizarre. I have known a long time that this approach is out there, especially in higher education, but it’s my first time really having meaningful exposure to it.

Without making accusations of the professors I am watching, (and I have not even come close to finishing the courses,) a few characteristics leap out at me of this way of teaching and studying Scripture. Each follows the other.

  1. It is dogmatic. The conclusions tend to guide the argument – the texts can’t be harmonized, the stories can’t be historical, the authors must be pseudonymous, etc., etc. It seems the grand conclusion which is protected by these kinds of conclusions is that God can’t really be entering into creation. Further, there is a dense wall of “scholarship” which protects these conclusions, and because this scholarship is the newest and most popular, it must be the best. It seems rather off-limits to use “traditional” sources in a serious way. In one word, it is Modernist, or at least has strong Modernist tendencies.
  2. It reverses the mysterious character of the Judeo-Christian story. By taking away the traditional positions on questions of historicity, authorship, dating, etc., a veil of mist is put over the text – “What does it mean? Who wrote it? When? Why? Where did they get their material from?” These questions occupy the student, while the mystery of the Living God presented by the text is basically ignored.
  3. It is purely didactic. There is not a further purpose to understanding the history of the Scriptures. They are merely items of curiosity – a bit like how Herod enjoyed John the Baptist, who is easily seen as the representative of the entire prophetic tradition… Interesting? Yes. Convicting enough to cause a personal conversion? No, not here. And when the call comes to sacrifice its integrity for the pleasure of the world, of the academy, or of one’s own personal life, there will perhaps be reluctance, but there will be obedience. The quest for the “historical Jesus” is no grander than the work of any historian; it is just more dangerous to discover and hold fast to the truth. Since historical-critical exegetes are, by and large, not in it for a real encounter with the God of Abraham, the danger isn’t really worth it. Not all that long ago, probably even at Yale, to enter a program of theological studies required faith. That is to say, if the school were Methodist, one had to be a Methodist in order to study theology there. Anyone else, so the thinking went, was wasting their time.

So why continue watching? Well, I enjoy knowing what the “others” are up to, so that when I meet them I know where they’re coming from. Second, there certainly are plenty of real insights presented. Third, it is better than watching cat videos.

We need to use the historical-critical method in the right way – as an aid to what might be called the “spiritual method.” For example, to know that there were other Flood narratives in the Ancient Near East (and well beyond, even into the Americas, might I add,) is probably helpful to understand the composition of the text of Genesis, but knowing the differences helps us to know something – really to know something – about how our God is different. In this case, one major difference is that Noah is saved because of his virtue rather than his cleverness or strength…

In the past few months, I have become especially interested in the world of myth and how it relates to salvation history. Therefore, I have decided to start a series on the topic, called “True Myth,” that title of Christ shared with C. S. Lewis by Tolkien. Stay tuned for more, and be sure to subscribe.

7 Reasons Why We Needed the Ascension

Eamonn Clark

Bertrand Russell, perhaps the most famously atheist man of the 20th century, was asked on his deathbed what he would say to God if he met Him when he died. Russell said, “Sir, why did you take such pains to hide yourself?” Among the many objections to the Christian Faith, and to revealed religion in general, is this: that God does not make Himself evident enough. It is an understandable difficulty – if God is so good and wants people to know Him, why does He not make Himself more openly available? Clearly, the Ascension invites this question, especially when combined with the limited appearances of the risen Christ… He appeared to the Apostles, some other close disciples, and a nondescript large group in Jerusalem. Why not to as many as possible? The Romans? The Greeks? The Native Americans? (Thus the attractiveness of the Mormon doctrine that Jesus visited the Americas.)

We can start to answer this question with another question: should Jesus have jumped off the parapet of the Temple, as the Devil had suggested? Assuredly not, simply because He did not. While Jesus responds by rejecting the proposition because it would “test” God, we ought to be struck by the fact that it was not part of God’s design that the Christ would do such open miracles as flying around for all to see. Instead, the miracles of Jesus are, for the most part, quite obscure and hidden. There is chaos in the multiplication of the loaves, there is darkness and rain in the storm when He walks on the sea, the healings and resuscitations are done “inside” the body, etc. That’s why a depiction of Jesus like this might seem a little bit “off”:

When Jesus does fly, it is in front of a small group of hand-picked men, it is not to prove His power, and it is only done for a moment before He disappears into the clouds. Why did He not do a flyover of all of Israel, or even beyond?

Most of all – why did He not just stick around? Surely, the sight of a 2,000-year-old Jesus would be a definitive sign of His power for any sane person. He could continue His public ministry, and we could have a world leader with a perfect vision of human flourishing. It would have been easier especially for the Jews, who were basically expecting this kind of “worldly” Messiah anyway.

Let’s start with Christ’s own explanation for His departure: so that the Holy Spirit can be sent. Why is the sending of the Spirit contingent on Christ’s departure? One answer that comes to mind is that it would have been confusing to have such a dynamic… Why the need for the Spirit when Christ is physically here among us? If He remained, it would have been tempting to ignore the action of the Holy Spirit which moves us towards the spiritual union with Christ, that union which is called charity… People would have insisted on seeing Christ “in person,” since He would not be omnipresent the way He is now thanks to the sending of the Spirit Who teaches us to pray, as Paul says.

This leads us to the second reason for the Ascension, which is given by St. John of the Cross – the disciples’ relationship with Jesus was too sense-based and needed to be spiritualized. “Stop holding on to me,” as He told the Magdalene, “for I have not yet ascended to My Father.” (John 20:17) The relationship with the risen Christ is going to be of a different kind: one in the Spirit. Prayer and the Sacraments make much less sense if the physical Christ remains among us – they would seem like cheap imitations of a physical encounter or a direct word to or from Christ in the flesh. The Eucharist would be especially confusing… How is it that Christ is here and is consumed, but also physically over there, where He can be directly seen? His continued physical presence would prove to be a great obstacle to the appreciation of this mystical union.

Third, the popular hope of a worldly Messiah is destroyed by the Ascension. No doubt, after the Resurrection, the Apostles were still wondering when they would start a war with Rome and bring peace to the land of Israel. Jesus had been demonstrating during His public life that this was not the plan, but the misguided hope yet lingered. For the idea of a worldly Messiah to go away, the Messiah had to go away. Christ shows us Who He is and what He is really about when He goes back to Heaven – the King of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

Another reason presents itself immediately, which Sheen offered, namely, that in order for a man to become truly great he must die. Only after the completion of one’s life can people make a judgment about how well that life was lived. As Qoheleth says, “There is no embalming like a good name left behind; man’s true birthday is the day of his death.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2) Of course, Christ does not die at the Ascension, but His public life “dies,” which suffices. Nobody is waiting for Him to make a mistake, like the Pharisees used to do.

Fifth, in the Ascension, Christ transfers responsibility onto the Apostles, and by extension, onto the whole Church, for the task of making disciples. He does this in word and in deed: in word by commanding the Apostles to preach and to baptize (the “Great Commission”), and in deed by removing His bodily presence so that nobody could defer responsibility to Christ directly in these matters. With this enormous duty comes an enormous privilege and joy: to participate in the life of God insofar as He governs, teaches, and sanctifies His people.

Next, given that Christ is “one step removed” from the normal exterior functioning of the Church, it takes a purer kind of assent to enter into the Church’s life. One must have a more resolute determination to trust in God if God is using secondary causes to do His work. In other words, the added difficulty of Christian faith presented by Christ’s physical absence – especially given the circumstances of the Resurrection appearances – redounds to our merit for believing. The low-bar is set higher, as it were, giving those who make the “leap” the winners of a greater prize than what it might have been otherwise, and those who don’t will be the recipients of milder punishments. (Why the bar is set specifically there and not at another height seems unanswerable except by an appeal to God’s wisdom.)

Finally, Christ’s Ascension points us towards our own final destiny – dwelling in the presence of the Godhead – and makes us hope for it. Unless He returns very soon, we too will die, rise, and hopefully appear before a Friend rather than a Judge, and then be brought into Heaven. Where Christ physically went, He brought our human nature with Him in His own, and so this is also a sign of our present status as ones who also currently dwell with God, albeit in a dimmer way. Furthermore, the thought of Christ’s return is particularly important in helping us to acknowledge that we are waiting for His help – resurrection and judgment are not mere promises of a King on Earth, they are promises of a Savior Who resides in the very place to which we aspire, where He is preparing a place for us with Him.

Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments below! Happy Ascension Thursday Sunday.

 

P.S. – This is CRM’s 100th post! Please, if you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing and sharing with friends and family.

 

The Life of Faith: A Case Study (Simon Peter)

Eamonn Clark

I am in the (very) remote stages of planning a book on the virtue of faith… The Biblical, scholastic, and contemporary definitions of faith, faith and the moral life, faith and the contemporary West, faith and psychology, and so on. It seems to me that such a book, specifically with a presentation of a solid pastoral praxis aimed at healing the anxious minds of millennials which is directly grounded in Biblical and Thomistic thought, is sorely needed. One chapter will be dedicated entirely to Peter as an example of the whole life of faith… its beginning, growth, crisis, rebirth, overflow, and finally its consummation in martyrdom. Allow me to present the rough draft of the very beginning of the chapter, in which I am showcasing the kind of Biblical theology which I think is sorely needed in our age – both in the academy, and in the real world of ministry.

We find Peter living a natural life, working for natural gain, by reaping the fruits of the natural world. Peter had clearly been passed up for higher studies by the rabbis who would have taught him Torah and the Prophets in his youth – otherwise, he would have certainly accepted such a great honor, an honor afforded to only the most promising of students. Instead, he is fishing. Peter had watched Jesus heal his mother-in-law a little while earlier, and the whole countryside was already talking about the public ministry. Just before having Peter go further out into the lake, Jesus had been preaching to a crowd so great that Peter provided his own boat as a pulpit to keep the people from crushing Him – what a privilege to be the steward of such a man’s ministry! What an opportunity to study the Book and even to be the disciple of a living prophet… But he will not trust this prophet that much, at least not yet, as the ensuing discussion shows. Peter echoes the unbelief and impetuosity of his forefathers in the desert when, shortly after having seen Jesus heal his mother-in-law, he begins to argue with Him about food. However, while those Jews were helpless in the desert, Peter is a professional fisherman, floating on the Sea of Galilee, which is full of fish. Though prophets may know much about the supernatural, surely a lifelong fisherman knows how to fish! Peter reluctantly, almost flippantly, gives in and acquiesces to let down his nets. (Some translations give an eisegesis here, translating “ta diktua” in the plural when Jesus asks, and in the singular when Peter responds – “let down the nets,” “I will let down the net.” But the Greek itself does not give us this.)

Jesus shows Peter that acquired skill and natural talent are no match for His word… The same voice that moved over those chaotic primordial waters in the beginning of time now brings order to the Sea of Galilee. The fish hide in the cool of the darkness, and only by being brought up into the light will they be able to be caught and sustain life; and thus it was in the beginning as well, as all the life which God brought forth came from the darkness and was made helpless before Adam.

While the amount of fish caught doesn’t quite tear the nets, it does tear Peter, who no doubt had none of the foregoing typology on his mind but was simply stunned by the show of power. For the first time, we see Peter confront his interior emptiness. Unfortunately, he does not yet know the correct response; “Depart from me,” he tells the Lord, “for I am a sinful man.” This display of the power of Jesus to control nature inspires reverence, but it does not inspire devotion… Peter feels unworthy of being in the presence of such power – evidently, he thought that it was a greater deed to control fish than to heal his mother-in-law – and so he seeks separation. He does not see that the very purpose of the coming of the “prophet” Jesus is precisely to forgive sins, a power as yet unheard of, except for God alone. And so, just as we see Peter face his interior emptiness for the first time, we see Peter reject Jesus for the first time. (Later on, the order of these phenomena will be reversed, with rejection leading to the confrontation of self.) Nevertheless, Jesus asks Peter for his discipleship, promising him that he will become “a fisher of men.”. This mysterious invitation was irresistible. Perhaps Peter hopes to follow in the footsteps of Elisha, the disciple of Elijah… One day, he might acquire a “double portion” of the spirit of the prophet Jesus!

Transubstantiation – An Analogy for Children

Eamonn Clark

As Corpus Christi approaches – and with the season for First Communions already upon us – I would like to offer a simple analogy to help explain transubstantiation to children. Or adults. Or both.

First, a note: there is no perfect analogy for the process whereby bread and wine become Our Lord (Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity), because in all other kinds of changes, either an accidental change causes the substantial change (as burning a paper changes it to ash), or the substantial change is at least followed by accidental change (as death causes the body to stop functioning as a living, unified whole). For neither of these things to happen, but for the “what” of a thing to change nonetheless, is altogether special.

That being said, we can point to the reality indirectly, by using the “via negativa” (transubstantiation is not Jesus hiding in the substances of bread and wine, it is not a destruction and replacement of the substances bread and wine and God producing an illusion of the accidents of bread and wine, etc.), or, in this case, by making an analogy of experience.

From far away, a rainbow looks like a colorful, solid, translucent band which could be touched, like a window. This corresponds to our experience of the accidents of bread and wine – it really does look, feel, taste, etc., as if bread and wine were before us, and we really do see what looks like a solid, translucent band of colors. As any keen 2nd grader knows, that’s not what a rainbow really is. A rainbow is a bunch of little bits of light that look like one big band of colors. Now, for some kids, perhaps it will come as a shock that you can’t really reach the end of a rainbow – but plenty will be able to tell you that when you move towards a rainbow, it moves away from you. The “reality” can’t be reached by looking more closely: it will always be hidden by an appearance of what it is not. Of course, one can go to the spot where such-and-such bits of light are being refracted, but then there won’t be any experience at all. In each case – chasing a rainbow, or being where a rainbow was seen from a different spot – the reality is hidden from our senses.

I have used this analogy myself with kids and have found it to be helpful. (Of course, it is really an explanation of the effects of transubstantiation – I have no idea of how to explain the change itself rather than by laying out all the doctrine and its metaphysical pieces, which would not be necessary or helpful for a 2nd grader.) I would recommend showing first that a thing doesn’t change its “being” just because its shape or color changes… This helps to give them an idea of the difference between accidents and substances/essences.

Have you found any different analogies that work well? Comment below!

Bishops and Borders

Eamonn Clark

I had endeavored to write a post some time ago when all eyes were turned to Catalonia because of the separatist fervor threatening the unity of Spain, but I never got around to it. Let this supplant it.

The recent history of the Iberian peninsula is rife with political conflict… (In fact, it is only barely out of living memory that Spain was in a war with the United States.) It should be entirely unsurprising that there are still problems… And only time will tell if Catalonia earns its independence, with violence, with voting, or with a mix of the two.

There is a singular voice in the Catalonian Church which sticks out like a sore thumb, aching to teach us an extremely important lesson about the way ecclesiastics ought to treat politics. It is St. Anthony Claret – priest of the Diocese of Vic, 3rd Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, and confessor to the Queen of Spain, Isabella II.

During his entire life and ministry, St. Anthony was surrounded by fierce political controversies and enemies of the Church, including the Carlist civil wars raging around his home, an attempt on his life in Cuba, the confiscation of the Papal States, and the dethronement and exile of the Queen. Certainly, St. Anthony’s immense tact guided him during all this – such as when he would say he was from the Diocese of Vic when questioned by Carlistas and that he was from the town of Sallent when questioned by the Isabelinos – but beyond this, two things are striking about St. Anthony’s response to political clamor.

First, he was positively and intentionally aloof from political affairs which did not directly concern the Church and the salvation of souls. This is most evident during his time in the Queen’s court, an assignment which he utterly despised, calling it a “continual martyrdom.” (Anthony Claret is one of the few saints who left us an autobiography. It is excellent.) By that time in his life, his fame was widespread, and to have the Archbishop’s approval on some matter would carry immense weight, especially with the Queen. He wanted no part – it would be alienating to those who did not agree with his decision, threatening their relationship with the Church, of which, after all, he was a steward and representative. Despite an average of a hundred letters a day asking for his help in various matters, he remained disinterested, answering none. He saw involvement in politics as an abuse of his office, as something beneath his dignity; his principal duty was the care of souls, not care of the country. When affairs did directly concern the Church or salvation of souls, such as the unification of Italy, or the anti-clerical sentiment in Spain and Cuba, he was ready and willing to act appropriately. During the Risorgimento, for instance, the Queen faced immense pressure to give her approval of the dissolution of the Papal States, but her confessor was there to warn her of the grave spiritual danger which such a move would bring… He was also there to lift the canonical penalty she incurred after having finally given her assent to Italian unification, as she sat in exile in France, disgraced and contrite.

Second, he was engaged in entirely non-partisan works as a civic leader. Given the incomprehensible amount of preaching and sacramental work which Claret performed – in his 6 years in Cuba alone, he wrote many books and pamphlets on spirituality and doctrine, validated over 9,000 marriages, confirmed some 300,000 people, and conducted 4 missions in every parish in his large and rugged diocese, always traveling by foot – one would think he would have time for little else. On the contrary, he was up to his neck in public works, such as supporting orphans, educational institutions, scientific research, agriculture, and healthcare. All of this was neutral work that no reasonable person could object to. Those who smeared him for it did so because of an animus against the Church or his own person, not because the work was partisan.

All this brings us to comments made by some bishops on illegal immigration which are only the most recent manifestation of a disturbing trend.

Unlike other so-called political issues, such as euthanasia or abortion, the Church has no teaching on the treatment of illegal immigrants as such. All we have are some basic ideas about human dignity and the authority of the state. Who could object to a preacher who says, “We should treat every human being with charity because all are made in the image and likeness of God”? It is easy, however, to imagine an objection to a preacher who says, “It is uncharitable to defend our nation from illegal immigrants,” and yet this is the kind of thing which is sometimes said, including presently. Not unlike the rhetoric which surrounds the current debate on gun-control, those of a liberal mindset accuse those of a conservative mindset of immorality prima facie – to oppose stricter gun laws is simply to care too little about people’s lives, especially children’s lives. In this case, to oppose sanctuary cities and spotty border patrol is simply to care too little about the oppressed who are fleeing from the south.

Of course, this trick could be reversed easily enough (and sometimes it is done to good effect), but making accusations of immorality due to differing prudential judgments does not make for a healthy political forum. Let me suggest that it makes for an even unhealthier ecclesiastical forum. Perhaps – or even, dare I say, probably – both sides really do care about the common good of the nation and have compassion for the suffering, but they simply have different ideas about how to reach the goal of political flourishing and the role of jurisprudential factors in border control and deportation.

Since I am not a cleric, I will go so far as to say that the past shows us that our current tolerance of illegal immigration has been extremely expensive and dangerous, the principle of subsidiarity seems to be violated by accepting a long-term responsibility for people of other countries who do not legitimately become part of our own, and that writing laws based on empathy for those who suffer is, in general, a bad idea, because it blinds one to the broader impact of that legislation.

And what good does it do for a bishop to risk scandalizing the faithful who might hold a different prudential assessment of the situation than himself by insisting that a certain position on DACA is immoral? Usually little to none; it is either ignored, is used by those who already agree as a moral sledgehammer, or simply annoys people who disagree, as they rightly sense that this is not a matter for the Church to be involved with directly. It certainly seems good for a bishop or any cleric to have a well-informed opinion on immigration policy, but it seems extremely unwise to reveal it. Perhaps the time of an ecclesiastic could be better spent by prayer, devotional and doctrinal preaching, administering the sacraments, studying theology, or building up the common good by entirely neutral means. Anything more is a waste of time at best and positively harmful at worst.

“A sacerdotes,” says St. Anthony, “must never align himself with any faction.” This is the great lesson our Catalonian saint teaches us: that a cleric is to render unto Caesar what is his by simply leaving him alone.

 

Main image: the Cathedral of Vic, where St. Anthony was ordained a priest and bishop

Consummatum Est

For your artistic edification this Good Friday: what is perhaps the best piece of music ever written.

Ave verum corpus, natum
de Maria Virgine,
vere passum, immolatum
in cruce pro homine
cuius latus perforatum
fluxit aqua et sanguine:
esto nobis praegustatum
in mortis examine.

Hail, true Body, born
of the Virgin Mary,
having truly suffered, sacrificed
on the cross for mankind,
from whose pierced side
water and blood flowed:
Be for us a foretaste [of Heaven]
in the trial of death!