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.
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?
I am watching somelectures 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Just a few points for your own meditation on this Good Friday, and through the Easter season.
Covering and uncovering of flesh is an important theme in Scripture. Here is a very quick glimpse:
Genesis 3:21 – The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.
Amos 2:16 – And the most stouthearted of warriors shall flee naked on that day, says the LORD…
John 20: 5-7 He bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.
Romans 13:14 – Instead, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.
The removal of a garment implies vulnerability, putting one on implies protection. Adam and Eve are strong in their “weakness” before the Fall, as they are constituted in a special state of grace. When they lose their innocence, blood is spilled for the first time in Scripture… Their own meager attempt at clothing themselves with leaves will not do. Instead, something has to die in order to cover them up. A brute animal will work – there is nothing better, for the moment.
We ourselves have just been in the Garden with the Lord – not Eden, but Gethsemane, its antithesis – and soon we will see Him in another garden. Moments before entering Gethsemane, He had taken off His outer garment in order to wash the feet of the disciples, the entire process of which was a catechesis on the kerygma… He rises up from the throne of the Godhead, removes the outer glory which is rightly His, takes on human nature as its servant, has mercy, puts on his outer glory again, and then returns to His throne. Finally, He commissions them to imitate Him. This is the whole Life of Christ.
Then in Mark we read of a man who runs away naked (14:51-52)… Perhaps it is Mark, perhaps it is Lazarus, perhaps it is some other person whose identity needed protection. Whoever it is, instead of leaving everything to follow Christ, this poor soul leaves everything in order to run away. No doubt he had high hopes of the advent of an Israel more like a New Rome than the New Jerusalem of Jesus, which would be won with swords and clubs by zealous warriors like Simon Peter. Instead, this Yeshua does not go about expelling the pagans as the old one did when he led the Israelites into Canaan, with violence of His own. Instead, this one makes himself vulnerable to violence, and eventually is stripped naked and put on a cross to die. How unlike the Joshua of old! Perhaps the rebellious murderer Barabbas would give the Jews the kind of Christ they wanted…
The Lord is dying, and the Temple’s own “garment” is ripped, as if to let God loose from the Holy of Holies, out into the Nations, to save the Gentiles. Meanwhile, the soldiers divide Jesus’ clothing among them, casting lots for the outer garment. Relics of a famous criminal, artifacts of a failed rebellion, prized items of curiosity which would one day certainly make for good conversation pieces. “This was Jesus of Nazareth’s cloak – do you remember him?” That cloak which held no seams, in which Christ could hide nothing to keep for Himself, which had been the instrument of healing, which protected the human dignity of God incarnate, was now itself given to the world, almost as if to pay respect to that command of the Baptist: Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none… (Luke 3:11) He is willing to give away not only His Divine dignity but also His human dignity in order to save us.
A day comes, a night comes, and then in the morning we see the Lord again, alive, but He does not look the same… He is changed in the flesh, mysteriously. He has become in His humanity something more suited to His Divinity, and yet His humanity is the same, even with His Body having the same wounds. His Flesh is perfected, becoming the completed New Adam, the fullest expression of all that humanity can be. In this Garden of the Resurrection, where He meets the Magdalene, He is the champion of death, having willingly gone under the knife as that animal in Eden did unwillingly to clothe our first parents. Now He will clothe us with His own Flesh and Blood, with His own Love, with His own Life which has now sprung up from the Earth, like a seed that dies to give forth its fruit… Changed, yet the same. He has left the old garment behind.
SOS. No, I’m not crying for help, that last one stands for Sword of the Spirit, a group which has indeed made people cry for help. Before we begin our superficial case studies of two Maryland-based covenant communities gone haywire, I want the readership to know of my own personal connections with one of them (LOG). I have close connections with people who were involved, I have been to their school, I have talked with people affected by the community’s activity and fallout, and I have met their former leader. Let me be clear: I mostly don’t want to talk about people… I really want to talk about the community. Communities are more than the sum of their parts. So this is not a post about people who were involved (save for one), but the way that people interacted with one another in a certain context. So if a WOG-er, LOG-er, or MOG-er is reading this – and I think that is likely to happen – please don’t feel personally judged. You are not the community. And you are free to disagree with my assessment… I think that such freedom is important, don’t you?
The three acronyms in the title stand for Word of God, Mother of God, and Lamb of God. The first is the covenant community which was (until 1990) immediately operated by Sword of the Spirit, the Ann Arbor-based ecumenical super-community. The second is a D.C./Gaithersburg group which was radically reorganized in the late-90’s by Cdl. Hickey and still operates today. (You might be familiar with the publication that came out of the group, called “The Word Among Us.”) The last group was begun in the Greater Baltimore area in the late 70’s and ran into the mid-90’s when it was effectively dissolved by Cdl. Keeler.
I won’t go into all the problems of these groups (especially WOG, which I don’t know much about). I will provide links to caches of documents on MOG (here) and LOG (here) and make a few observations about commonalities among covenant communities, those two in particular. Then I will talk a bit more about LOG, and I will talk about its new incarnation.
First observation: the so-called Charismatic Renewal is a common theme. It seems that where there is a covenant community, there is the Charismatic Renewal. (See this article on the downfall of the Steubenville covenant community, Servants of Christ the King, for another example. Steubenville is, of course, an epicenter of the Renewal.) There is something that tends to unhinge “members” of the Renewal from normal ecclesial life. Perhaps it is because they often see themselves as “members” of a renewal – that is, special, set apart, even “chosen.” (Not all, but many… most… enough.) This is then combined with an inordinate expectation of God’s use of emotions and experiences in prayer and community to drive one toward or away from some action or idea. There is no need to dive into these problems here… I think the point is clear enough: if one feels spiritually powerful because of a direct and “personal” relationship with the Holy Spirit, confirmed by others in the same elite group, the importance of the Church as such diminishes. Interested readers might check out this online book on covenant communities by a Notre Dame professor (who was dismissed from the People of Praise in South Bend, IN) which explores this topic and loads more.
Second observation: the word “obedience” is a red flag. If the covenant one signs says anything about obeying the leadership, one can expect trouble… And if you don’t see the trouble, you are probably part of the problem. This is due in no small part to the fact that leadership will seldom if ever rotate unless a leader dies. An opaque chain of command will almost inevitably be established which monitors and controls lower-level members (psychologically, socially, financially, etc.). It will be done in the name of “pastoral care,” or for the sake of “integrity,” or some such thing. Of course, it is simply manipulation which frequently ends in grave harm to psyches, friendships, and even marriages. Real confidentiality among members, under a covenant with an “obedience clause,” will not exist. It will get so bad that even to breathe a word of gentle criticism against the leadership or the community’s direction will be “corrected.” See an example of a covenant document, from the Alleluia Community in Augusta, GA, here, and do scroll through the comments from former members.
Third observation: Language in general will also slowly become special or equivocal within the group, as the insular nature of the community can only lead to. Taking this together with the previous reality of monitoring members, the word Orwellian comes to mind.
When members start talking about “repentance” or “fellowship” or “spirit” or “discernment” in ways that seem a bit off to an outsider, it is probably a function of spending too much time around each other in an overly intense context of ordered socialization run by people who don’t know theology.
Fourth observation: The sense of being an alternative Church, or a Church within the Church. Covenant communities are the ultimate “safe space” – and how dreadful it would be to get cast into the outer darkness! “They are screwed up out there, unlike us. They’ll get you… they’ll get your kids… they’ll use you to infiltrate the community and try to tear it down…” This creates tons of fear which keeps people in line. The threat of spiritual danger can be just as effective, or even more effective, than the threat of physical danger. And the thing is, depending on how one interprets “out there,” it is true. Western society, and even many pockets within the Church, are incredibly dangerous. Ironically, covenant communities tend to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Training people to mistrust the Church, or even to avoid the sacraments, is deadly rather than life-giving. It is an idol.
Fifth observation: A lot of people get hurt, and a lot of people would be hurt if they allowed themselves to feel and think naturally. This should be obvious. The number of damaged minds, broken marriages, and even apostasies that come from covenant communities should be enough evidence to show that something is gravely wrong with the model.
Sixth observation: A driving force is religious novelty. A “new community.” An “emerging leadership.” Prayer “in the Spirit.” A “different way of life.” Leaders with “prophecies.” These sorts of fascinations are hallmarks of beginners in the spiritual life, not mature leaders. Religious novelty is one of the major themes of the Old Testament: God is spiritual, we are not, and so we will tend to go after lesser things to make God more tangible like ourselves. We want experiences, things we can see and feel and hear, things we feel immediately controlled by and can immediately control. The most superficial study of the Carmelite doctors will convince one of how stupid – and dangerous – this kind of thinking is. St. Teresa frequently saw Christ in plain human form… To her it was rather secondary, almost trivial. She would tell her confessor about what happened, and then she would forget about it. She certainly would not follow commands from such visions without permission from her director… After all, what if it was actually the Devil? A thorough study of the lives of the saints will reveal that this is a pattern: holy men and women do not trust their own spiritual experiences to guide them. They ask someone disinterested to show them the right path.
As I noted above, I have some tangential experience with a covenant community, Lamb of God. The echoes of the community, some 20 years later, are quite loud – there are still damaged relationships and suspicions around Catonsville, there are still some attempts at a common life among former members and their friends, there is still a school, and the old leader of the group is still around. He has, however, moved on to a “new project.”
I have also had some limited active experience with this project, called ChristLife. Just as I could not give you an ecclesiology of an “intentional Christian community” or a “covenant community,” I cannot really describe what this entity is, only what it does. There is an evangelization series which it sponsors in parishes (which is basically sound and useful, if not a bit elementary), there is a young adult group (in which I have several friends), and there is a company which somehow also involves itself in broader international mission work. There seem to be many more interior checks and balances on ChristLife than on LOG, and there is certainly more diocesan oversight. However, old dogs don’t learn new tricks. It concerns me greatly that the leader of what essentially turned into a cult (good intentions notwithstanding) immediately became the director (and after some 20 years, has been the only director) of an evangelization program within the exact same local church. Someone will have to explain to me how that is prudent… How might people be being manipulated? What attitudes and mindsets have been carried over from LOG into ChristLife, by the leader and by former members who involve themselves? Who else might be pulling strings that aren’t publicly known to be involved? Etc.
I don’t doubt the good intentions. I do doubt the means.
In the final installment, I will propose a different vision for how a “covenant community” might work. Stay tuned, and be sure to subscribe…
“Sola Scriptura” means “only Scripture,” as in “Scripture alone is the authority for Christian doctrine.” It is one of the foundations of Protestant theology… It rejects the teaching authority of the Church as such. Given that this day marks the dreadfully unhappy 500th Anniversary of the beginning of Protestantism, shall we examine this idea and expose it?
I submit that there are at least 7 massive problems with Sola Scriptura.
First: Sola Scriptura is anarchic. This is evident from the endless multiplication of divergent theologies and denominations within Protestantism. Without a unifying voice, namely, a bishop, pope, or something similar, one becomes his own definitive authority on the meaning of Scripture. Perhaps a pastor or teacher can help one form ideas, but it is I and I alone who am responsible for determining the true meaning of any given passage. Of course, I might say that the Holy Spirit is giving me the truth – which would mean that everyone must actually listen to me. In Protestantism, everyone is their own little pope. This same “bottom-up” approach to God existed once before, at the Tower of Babel. And there too did the languages multiply endlessly unto chaos, just as we see within Protestantism now, where there is splinter after splinter. Pentecost was the opposite – God came down to us (the Church as such, as represented by the Apostles and Mary in the Upper Room) and gave us a principle of unity from which to adapt to the many situations and needs of the day. Without a visible, living Pentecost among us, there can be no public unity around Christ. From the mere fact that there can be morally, liturgically, or doctrinally significant disagreement about the meaning of the same Biblical passage, it is evident that Scripture does not fit the bill of the “visible and living Pentecost”… Remember, the Devil knows Scripture too! (Mt. 4: 1-11) Unless one speaks about Scripture with the very authority of Christ, there is no end to disputation. As Peter says, interpreting Scripture can be very difficult and sometimes it ends badly, especially with Paul’s letters! (2 Pt. 3: 16) Would God really leave us orphans in this way? Did the Word really in practice just become more Words?
Second: Sola Scriptura is innovative. It did not exist until 500 years ago when Luther came up with it. Protestants often complain about “man-made traditions” infecting Christianity – well, Sola Scriptura is one of them. Would we not expect a Christian “God-made tradition” to have existed long before the 16th century? It sounds quite a bit like one of those “winds of doctrine” which Paul warned about (Eph. 4: 14). Of course, Scripture has been treated as authoritative throughout the ages, but it was not treated – or attempted to be treated – as the only authority until relatively recently. Did God let Sola Scriptura remain an obscure but correct practice and then even fall out of existence for centuries until Luther was inspired to revive it? This does not sound like the God of Christianity, does it… It sounds like a God Who did not remain among us but Who left us orphans instead – not only with no definitive interpreter of Scripture (see #1), but without the right doctrine about what Scripture is. And to think, He only left the children of Jacob in Egypt for 400 years…
Third: Sola Scriptura is historically impractical. This is not primarily due to illiteracy (though one might also wonder if that would be an impediment to being a good Protestant), it is due to the fact that for many years there simply was no such thing as Christian Scripture, let alone a collection of texts organized into “the Bible.” When Thomas the Apostle went to India, he did not bring with him the Gospel of Luke. When Peter went to Antioch, he did not bring Paul’s letters with him. When Matthew went to Alexandria, he did not bring the Johannine corpus with him. We can note that Paul in his missionary journeys, based on the whole Book of Acts and his own letters, is not using anything but Jewish Scripture in his disputations and preaching. How then could there be Christians in the wake of these evangelists? Doesn’t a Christian need a Bible? Obviously not. There were local churches set up in many places across the globe for a long time with little to no Christian Scriptures available, relying on the oral tradition and the authority of the Church as such, and it took even longer to form a real, authoritative canon (viz. “the Bible”) which allowed people to know what Scripture consisted of… Which brings us to the next problem.
Four: Sola Scriptura is conceptually impossible. We must know what actually is Scripture in order to use “Scripture alone,” yes? But how do we know what really counts and what doesn’t? The truth is that Scripture was defined by the Church, finally confirmed in a special way at the Council of Trent in response to the preaching and teaching of Luther, who wanted to throw out a few books which he didn’t think were really Scripture, but which most others did. Without descending into the minutiae of the history of the so-called “deuterocanon,” we can simply note that it was indeed widely regarded as Scripture from an early time, even though there was some controversy surrounding it. A Protestant response might be to fall back on the principle of St. Vincent of Lérins, that the faith is that “which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” (Never mind that this was about faith in “the Catholic Church,” as Vincent says, nor that he only holds it out as a general rule for finding heresy rather than as a specific rule for formulating a biblical canon.) Universal acclamation of texts as Scriptural does not really work on its own… If there is a little disagreement, which there certainly was about non-deuterocanon, then one must begin to wonder, “How universal is universal enough?” There is no good answer. Instead, an authority must decide what is Scripture and what is not. Yes to 2 Peter, no to 1 Clement. Yes to Revelation, no to The Shepherd of Hermas. Etc. The New Testament itself does not and cannot provide a guide – nor does the New Testament provide a list of what belongs in the Old Testament. So the very existence of an authoritative canon which does not assemble itself or fall from the sky necessitates an authoritative compiler. That is the Church itself, which therefore must have its own special authority to speak for God. This guarantees the texts of Scripture are actually the ones which God inspired. (Let’s not even get into the bizarre and self-refuting theory that the Bible is a fallible collection of infallible texts…)
Five: Sola Scriptura is arbitrary. Of course, it makes sense that a revealed religion would involve a sacred text which has authority, but it is conceivable that it would not. And there is, therefore, no a priori need for “Scripture” as an authority at all, let alone as the sole authority. Let me be clear: I am not saying the Bible is not an authority, I am saying it is not clear that it automatically must be… And anyone who says that it is an authority has to appeal to something outside of Scripture. An appeal to Scripture to prove the authority of Scripture is perfectly circular. Why is Scripture an authority? Why not “Sola Papa” (the Pope Alone)? Why not “Sola Ego” (I Alone)? Why not “Sola Luther” (Luther Alone)? There must be an authority which supports Scripture as an authority, and that authority must derive from God. Seeing as Christ did not give us a biblical canon, He must have somehow given authority to mere human beings to decide what texts God actually inspired. In the end, men must cooperate in the governance of the Church, at least in this way. This brings us to problem #6…
Six: Sola Scriptura is self-contradictory. It is a teaching of Martin Luther, a mere man, and by those following him: also mere men. By obeying those who teach Sola Scriptura, the very doctrine is violated. To practice it on one’s own is also a violation, as one must listen to one’s own interpretation of passages (especially in cases of controversy), or one must say that the Holy Spirit is interpreting – Who is clearly not Scripture. And let us also note that Sola Scriptura is not taught by Scripture… So finally, we have the last and most problematic issue for the doctrine…
Seven: Sola Scriptura contradicts Scripture. The Bible does not teach Sola Scriptura, but it does teach the importance of the oral tradition which is not written down. Scripture also teaches the authority of the Church as such. Two verses will suffice. The first is 2 Thessalonians 2: 15 – “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” (Other translations render παραδόσεις “traditions” instead of “teachings.”) This is enough to show that at least Paul thought that more than Scripture might be necessary for safeguarding Christian doctrine. What might the mechanism be? He describes it in the second verse for our examination, 1 Timothy 3: 15 – “…if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” How can “the church” be a “pillar” for the truth unless it functions as a means of connection to God, whereby false doctrines are corrected with good authority? The truth is tied at least to this pillar, “the church.” And how can it also be the “foundation” for truth unless it has a special means of holding up truth in a special way? What else could be the foundation of truth except that which is first in announcing it in the world? The guarantee of truth – infallibility – rests upon “the church.” God corrects error and announces truth through “the church.” This is how the Catholic Church understands its role in condemning heresies and defining doctrines (including what is Scripture and what is not).
There we have it… 7 fatal flaws with Sola Scriptura. Protestant readers (if there are any) might object with many verses of Scripture (especially 2 Timothy 3: 16, which simply insists that Scripture is indeed important – I do not deny this!)… However, in so doing they will no doubt demonstrate the points above.
You might consider sharing this post with any Protestant friends and see what they say. Tell them that no, God did not abandon us, leaving only a special book behind… That is a bleak doctrine indeed.
(This is the inaugural post in a year-long series for LutherFest500. Please subscribe to receive posts by email!)
Main image: “The Tower of Babel,” Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563
I recently prepared third graders for their First Holy Communion. Going through the story of the Last Supper several times, I noticed that they had a fascination with a certain Apostle… You guessed it – Judas. A fascination with such a character is understandable, as it seems rather out of place in a story which one would think is supposed to be exclusively upholding models of virtue. This is not unlike the very grown-up temptation to expect moral perfection from Catholic clergy. After all, they are supposed to be models of virtue, right?
Yes, they certainly are, and extra scrutiny is rightly deserved because we do indeed have the fullness of truth and grace available to us. But here are the facts. Our Lord chose losers, dummies, and wicked sinners as the foundation of His Church. Of the original Twelve, ten were ambitious cowards. One of those ten was also arrogant (Peter). The eleventh was just ambitious (John). And the twelfth one was a greedy traitor. (Later on He would also call a terrorist to this elite group.)
The place to start looking at the failure of any priesthood is a comparison with the first four failed priesthoods, and the first successful one: Adam, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and Melchizedek, respectively. (Others such as Abel and Noah and Abraham offered sacrifices, like priests, but they were not called by the name “priest.” More could be said about their sacrifices as well.)
Adam was the high priest of nature, called to guard and serve the Garden of Eden and his wife Eve at his own expense. He ought to have put himself in front of her and the serpent, but he shrinks away from his duty. He stands next to her (as Eve “turned to her husband” to give him the fruit) and watches this calamity take place. The serpent goes after Eve first, because he knows that she is easier to trick and that she might be able to trick her husband. When confronted by God, Eve blames the serpent, and Adam blames Eve: there is no responsibility taken.
The Devil often seeks to harm God’s priests through the very people they are called to protect. In this case, Adam’s own fear and self-interest allow his beloved to fall, and then she takes him with her – for what husband would want to have a wife estranged from him, as Eve surely would have been without Adam following her into sin? And yet they become estranged from each other anyway, needing to hide themselves with the flesh of animals… The first time blood is shed in Scripture, it is to cover up the sins of our first parents. A sign of things to come, for sure.
The next failed priesthood is Aaron’s. While Moses is busy with spiritual matters on Mount Sinai, the people grumble against him. The patience required to receive the Covenant is too spiritual for them, and so they threaten to leave the mountain in protest. Aaron is concerned about such a loss of numbers – he is afraid of what Moses will think. He has the people give him their gold, and he makes for them an idol which provides them with the experience of God they wanted: an unchallenging, unspiritual, ungodly experience. But the people are happy, and they stay put for a while, high on their own erroneous ideas about the worship of God. Aaron saved the day. When Moses returns with righteous fury, Aaron explains, like Adam did before God, that it was not his fault – it was the people’s and the furnace’s. More shirking of responsibility. (Moses gives them the proper experience of the god Aaron made for them when he ground it down, threw it in the water, and made the people drink. Like a good priest, he teaches them that a dead god gives even less life than water: it cannot save.)
Unlike Adam, Aaron’s ambitions were totally worldly. Instead of trying to become like God as a direct opponent, he simply wants to be the hero of God’s chosen people. Aaron wants just a little bit too much of their attention… He is not really after the gold, but what lies behind the gold – the esteem of men. That is what gives gold its value, after all.
Nadab and Abihu were Aaron’s sons. They violated the code of the Lord’s sanctuary by bringing unholy fire into the Tent of Meeting. This strange fire was deeply repugnant to the Lord, and so He slew them where they stood. Our Lord will only have sacred heat and light dwell within His holy place. Though profane fire may sustain bodily life, only sacred fire can sustain the life of grace.
The first successful priesthood is that of Melchizedek, whom Abraham meets after his battles. His is a totally spiritual and eternal priesthood, offering bread and wine and accepting the tithes owed to him for his work. He does not ask for money, he simply receives it. He is a priest not because of his family stock, like the Levites, but because of his charity. He gives to God first, then he receives what is rightfully his from men. He does not go looking for greatness: he simply is great.
Judas wraps up all of the failures of earlier priests in himself and makes them even worse. He is unwilling to do the work of a priest, putting himself in the place of Christ over and over again for the salvation of souls, standing in the way of the Devil’s reach of the weak, even though he would not have been alone in this task, unlike Adam. He trades the incarnate Lord not for the esteem of men, but for money itself. The purifying fires of the grace welling up in the Eucharistic Lord are traded for the fires of the foundry which purified the silver he would take as payment for his betrayal and would later throw into the Temple to try to buy back that grace. He takes into his body the blessed fruits of that very first celebration of Holy Mass which he was simultaneously endowed with the awesome power himself to perpetuate, as a recapitulation and elevation of Melchizedek’s priesthood, and then invites in the Devil to contradict it all. Though the accidents of bread and wine sustained Judas’ bodily life, the spirit within him died because of the rejection of the grace within the Lord’s Body and Blood – true food and true drink which preserve from everlasting death.
What greater human evil is there than the evil found in Judas on Holy Thursday? And yet that very night, Our Lord bowed before him to wash his feet, and He even personally called him “friend.” It is not unfair to say that, in a way, God loved Judas more than anyone else in human history, for there has never been a fouler human being to love. In the midst of this supreme wretchedness, Christ left us a memorial of His own greatness.
We know how the human story turns out. Judas despairs of the very mercy he was shortly supposed to be empowered to bring to others in the sacrament of confession. He attempts to slay himself (though perhaps did not succeed, and received even more time to repent), as if the death of the Lord had not been enough payment for his sin… No, Judas saw himself as so great that he believed his sin was unforgivable. “What a fool I have been,” he uttered. Yet this foolish failure brought about the culmination of our very redemption. Without Judas, there is no Passion, Death, or Resurrection. There is also not the greatest condescension of love ever shown by God. Deicide is not therefore justified, but God’s choice to allow a bad priest to exist in the Church is.
Meanwhile, Peter weeps in contrition and makes amends with “the man” he denied knowing, within earshot and within hours of having heard this prophesied. He left that “strange fire” in the courtyard, from where he watched the Lord shiver in the cold and dark of the prison cell, and he leaves the slave girl before whom he cowered in fear. Behold, the Prince of Apostles, who would eventually learn that taking up the sword is better left to those who persecute Christ than those who defend Him, and who would finally end his life as a willing victim upon a cross. The priesthood of Peter was in as sorry a state as the priesthood of Judas; the difference was repentance. Yet again, Our Lord shows his greatness through the failures of one of His hand-picked dispensers of grace.
The Church on Earth is institutional and hierarchical by nature, because human beings require such an order so as to avoid repeating the tragic error of the men of Babel who tried by their own powers to cooperate to reach up to Heaven. The Church on Earth is also sinful by nature, because it is populated by human beings – even in its hierarchy. It has been so from the moment of its inception, and this is by design. No, God does not want bad clergy in the same way He wants good clergy, but He does want to permit them to exist for now. He knew Judas would betray Him, and He knew all the clerical pedophiles, heretics, and antinomians of our own day would do the same. While they betray the Lord by selling Him for popularity or money, as they shrink from their duty to stand in front of Satan and then blame the weak or the natural insufficiency of their means, as they profane the Eucharist through indifference toward it, they repeatedly show the power of Christ in His Church: even through all this, there is victory waiting.
There has always been a crack in the foundation, there has always been chaff in the wheat, and yet there has always been grace available through these men nonetheless, as it is God’s own power which is the source of their priesthood and thus the source of their power to give grace – “ex opere operato.” God shows His majesty in the midst of this weakness and wretchedness. And sometimes He even brings these men out of their shameful disgrace and elevates them to the profoundest heights of sanctity, a feat which must be marveled at. There is true hope of Heaven for every bad priest in this world. Christ calls each of them “friend.”
Perspective is important. “There is nothing new under the sun,” as Qoheleth reminds us. We would do well to recall more frequently the beginnings of the Church to understand Her challenges today. (A reading of the disturbing history of ancient Israel would help too.) Whatever cleric is the object of concern – parish priest, celebrity priest, local bishop, curial official, pope… If there really is sin there, realize that it is just business as usual. The Barque of Peter has always leaked in the storm while the inept crew runs about helplessly, and yet it continues to float safely toward the harbor. Our Lord can guide it even in His sleep.
Let’s pray and fast for all priests, especially those who need it most.
Our Lady, Queen of the Clergy, pray for us!
Main image: Pope John XII, who was killed in the act of adultery by a vengeful husband
I would like you to imagine the classic love story. You know the one: The daring knight rescues the damsel in distress from the fiery dragon. The details really don’t matter. All the story needs, seemingly, is a knight, a dragon, and a princess. However, it seems that there is one other element needed in the story, and that is the element of danger. For the story to work, the knight must triumph in the end, but only after a battle in which he might have lost. And this seems to be true, not just from our perspective, but from the perspective of the princess as well.
I mean, if the story is to be believed, the princess loves her knight, and love seems to include a desire for the beloved to be safe from harm. Yet, imagine how the princess would feel if the daring knight, instead of facing the dragon in hand to hand combat, camped a mile away from the castle with a sniper rifle, killed the dragon from a safe distance, and then waltzed in to pick up the princess. A bit anticlimactic isn’t it? Don’t we all feel, as much as we might not like to admit it, that if we were the princess, we’d prefer our beloved risking it all to save us? Don’t we, in a secret place in our heart, want our knight to be scarred?
Now, I’m not going to try to understand the motivation for this desire. I don’t know where it comes from, I only know that it seems true that we have it. But, I do think it has to do with what comes after the knight’s daring rescue. While the knight and princess gallop away on a snow white stallion, isn’t there already a natural bond forged by their shared experience of the dragon? If the knight had faced no danger and suffered no injury in his battle with the dragon, wouldn’t the princess, as much as she loves her knight, feel estranged from him? Wouldn’t she ask herself, “Does he understand what the dragon did to me?”
I have often had that question about my relationship with God. Knowing how much my sin has hurt me and made me despicable to myself, and reflecting on the glory and perfection of God, I sometimes have asked myself, “Does He understand what sin did to me?” The answer God gave me at the cross, and continues to give me every day in the Mass is, “Yes, because sin has done it to me too.” There seems to be a deep psychological reason that the bread and wine are consecrated separately in the mass: We want a God who knows what it feels like to have his blood separated from his body, in the same way that we have spilled our blood living in a broken world. Of course, we want a God who is all-powerful, who triumphs over sin and death, no denying that, but we also want a God who bleeds in the process. We want our God to carry the same scars we do.
That is “the grotesqueness of the mass.” In the mass, as a continuation of the eternal sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God makes himself vulnerable to us, so that He can share in our weakness. Our suffering becomes the point of encounter with God. In the mass, God enters our brokenness, our loneliness, our anger, our numbness. That is the horrible beauty of the Mass and the cross: that the hour of good’s triumph over evil is when good is weakest. It is when God looks most like a man. God suffers with us, in order to make Himself capable of being understood by His creatures who have so long suffered under sin, that they are unable to comprehend a life of love without suffering.
And yet, we know that this is not the end. God chose to suffer not just to meet us in our suffering, but to bring us out of it. We have hope that there is a love that transcends suffering, and though, in our broken human condition, we can’t experience it now, (or at least, our experience of it is limited,) our hope in God is that some day we will. That is why the problem of evil (Why does a good God allow suffering in the world) is not so much a problem as it is a recognition of our broken selves. As fallen men and women, our experience of our own brokenness makes us want others to have experienced our suffering. This is not because we are evil and sadistically want others to suffer, but because we want to know we are not alone. The cross not only gives us that reality, but also the hope for something more: something we cannot fully comprehend now, but something we know we’ve been missing. Evil exists because in our broken state, we need evil to help us recognize the good. In the evil of the cross, we see the ultimate good, and that ultimate good gives us hope for a good without evil, a love without pain, a final victory over sin.
Post by: Niko Wentworth
Main image: The Deposition from the Cross, Bl. Francis Angelico, 1434
Having examined the first part of the “postmodern manifesto,” which is scientistic, we now turn to the second part, which is existentialist. Here it is again:
Real knowledge is only of irreducible information about the material world, and I can manipulate that same material world however I want in order to express myself and fulfill my desires.
The imposition of a spirit onto its flesh and the world is our object of investigation today.
After the Kantian revolution proposed a deontological moralism as a replacement for metaphysics, Schopenhauer took up the reins and ran with the theme: the will reigns supreme over the intellect. This doctrine recalls those first rumblings present in Ockham, Abelard, Scotus, and even St. Bonaventure. (Who could forget Dante’s depiction of Bonaventure and Thomas circling around each other in Heaven debating the primacy of the intellect and will?) Then came Soren Kierkegaard’s deep anxiety over life together with a suspicion of some kind of opposition between faith and reason. Heidegger, of course, was riddled with anxiety as well, over being and nothingness, and he had an obsession with freedom and authenticity: all characteristic of what was to come. There was no more dramatic precursor to the French existentialists than Nietzsche, who sought to free the world of its nihilism and empower it with the liberation of the will: the ubermensch, or “super man,” would embody a new kind of magnanimity with no regard for the welfare of others or some abstract Aristotelian “flourishing.” Nietzsche apparently couldn’t do it himself and went insane, finally cracking after seeing a horse being mercilessly beaten in a street in Turin. (Here we might pause and recall Durkheim’s observation about happiness and the subjection of the will to a pre-defined role in society… Those who have a life already set up for them tend to kill themselves less often.) The penultimate step to mature existentialism came with Michel Foucault, the forbearer of the “rainbow flag” and a staunch opponent of confining the mentally insane. After all, maybe they are just “different,” you know?
Finally, we come to the main event: a Parisian socialite, his lover, and a journalist-turned-philosopher raised on the soccer fields of French Algeria.
The core of the teaching of Jean-Paul Sartre can be summed up in three words: existence precedes essence. In other words, there really is no human nature, only a human condition which must be figured out and made into something of one’s own. He cites Descartes’ cogito in support of this theory, being an “anti-materialist,” and he claims that this is the only dignified vision of man, as this doctrine alone is capable of acknowledging his true power and freedom – which are apparently the characteristics of dignity. Man must go beyond himself to create himself, quite in contrast to the Comtean humanist religion, where humanity is good “just because.” For Sartre, man is nothing without making something of himself. (This would later become the basic teaching of Ayn Rand as well.) Freedom is to choose and conquer resistance present in one’s situation, and one must exercise this freedom according to his authentic self. But what is the “self” without a human nature? It is unclear.
Sartre’s intermittent lover, Simone De Beauvoir, with whom he would frequently seduce unwitting female students for sexual exploitation, held similar ideas and became the first “feminist.” It is from De Beauvoir that we get the now infamous gender-sex distinction: “One is not born but becomes a woman.” The woman is defined socially – and in classical A-T anthropology – in relation to man and therefore does not have her own identity. This is an existential problem for the woman, who must go out and create herself. To postmodern ears, however, it would sound insane to contradict the sense of De Beauvoir’s complaint; and yet we have St. Paul teaching that some kind of superiority of men is rooted in nature and of necessity must flow into ecclesial life (1 Cor. 11: 3-16, Eph. 5: 21-33, Col. 3: 18-19). The Christian must not be a feminist of the De Beauvoir variety. Our friends the Cathars had women clergy; they anticipated the existentialists in their justification for this choice. We will return to that in a future post.
Then we have our Algerian friend. Albert Camus’ most famous contribution to Western thought was the that the only serious question a person has to ask himself is whether to end his own life. After all, life is absurd, and if one can find no meaning for himself, then it is better that it end on one’s own terms, rather than in something meaningless like a car crash (which, ironically, was exactly how Camus was killed). Despite explicitly denying the existentialist label and preferring to be an “absurdist” instead, Camus is nonetheless the crystallization of the movement – his interpretation of the Greek myth of Sisyphus, claiming that man must accept his existence as an absurdity in order to find peace, or the anguish of the main character of “The Stranger” over the meaningless of his life and what has happened to bring about his execution, for example, provides a fitting capstone to the existentialist project because it shows its end: senselessness. When human nature is removed, purpose is removed. And the frantic search for a self-assigned basic purpose can only end badly, even if it doesn’t feel that way to a “successful existentialist.”
Certainly, more can and should be said about the French existentialists. But this brief and rude treatment suffices to bring to light the critical themes of our own day which were present in the movement, namely: a rejection of human nature as such; a perceived need to define one’s own role to make up for such an absence; and an obsession with “gender” equality.
We have already noted in PART I of this series the shocking fact that the existentialist doctrine on human nature as such has been enshrined in U.S. law by the Supreme Court. That should be enough to show there is a deep-seated existentialist current plaguing the West, but when coupled with the wide diffusion of the watered down scientistic-positivism we explored in the last post, disdain for classical Aristotelico-Thomistic anthropology has become its own unspoken rule. It is not unspoken in the way one doesn’t talk about Fight Club, it is unspoken in the way one doesn’t talk about red being a color… it’s just a given.
If there is any admittance of a “human nature” it is a passing nod to the truth that what we call human beings usually have certain kinds of physical characteristics which normally produce certain kinds of effects. The classical meaning of “nature,” however, is alien to this vague and platitudinous physicalism, as there can be no teleology (in-built purpose) for what is merely a random collection of stuff onto which we slap a name. This, I suggest, is the final fruit of Ockham’s Nominalism which we have discussed previously.
Of course, most postmodernists dimly realize their godless worldview poses the “existential problem,” viz., a lack of inherent meaning and purpose in their life, and they seek to solve it through the recommended process of “self-definition.” We are not here critiquing a healthy ambition to “do what one can” or to avoid idleness; rather, the issue is the desperate and necessarily futile attempt to provide altogether one’s own meaning for existing in the first place. There are also many people, who are not quite full-blown postmodernists, who seek to correct this same inner anxiety with DIY spirituality (moralistic therapeutic deism, usually); this is particularly dangerous as it nominally acknowledges something greater than oneself as a grounds for directing one’s life, but it is really the imposition of one’s own ideas onto a divine mouthpiece.
The existentialist paradigm helps make sense of the postmodern millennial’s take on the issues: the life issues, the gender issues, and the sex issues. Since a person’s meaning is basically self-derivative, and that meaning is predicated upon desires and the ability to fulfill them, then the unborn and the elderly are without their own meaning. Having a certain kind of body which has certain powers does not force one to accept that embodied reality as a given identity and direction either within a social framework or even within a physical framework, provided there is a surgeon available. Much less does this God-given engendered bodily existence, constitutive of unique powers with lasting social consequences and everlasting spiritual consequences, provide an individual with rules for how to engage in the use of the organs which are the seat of that power. You must choose to become something. Alternatively, you may disappear into oblivion – either irrelevance, or death. Before it was the American Dream™ it was the French philosophical anthropology.
The current of this thought has bored a hole so deep into the subconscious of postmodern America (and many parts of Europe) that it has become impolite, if not outright illegal, to tell a person that he is a he, she is a she, that “No, I will not serve cake at your wedding,” or anything that might emotionally hurt that person, so long as that self-given identity or meaning does not result in “harmful” behavior. Harmful behavior, remember, is reduced to emotional, physical, or financial pain or loss – for those who can already “will to power” and aren’t entirely reliant on help from other people for existence, that is.
The video above, while admittedly a bit cherry-picked, demonstrates nonetheless the existentialist current of millennial postmodernity with breathtaking frankness. No doubt such an experiment could be replicated across the global West with some success, at least in supposedly “elite” institutions of higher education. Note again the criterion of “harm” as constituting the core of the normative ethics for postmodern millennials – as if a person with a wildly erroneous self-perception is doing no real harm. You can tell that these kids become more and more uncomfortable as they are forced by their own premises and sense of political correctness to the affirmation that what is obviously “real” truth is being denied by this person, but that since “it’s not ‘harming’ anyone,” it must be okay and therefore good to support. It is the lack of an awareness that such a departure from the truth of one’s natural constitution as “man,” “white,” etc., does indeed cause harm to that person and therefore also to society at least inasmuch as that person’s self-perception is related to his or her function in society, is probably why it doesn’t “bother” the people interviewed. There used to be a word for the self-deception which is being coddled as healthy and normal: mental illness. Now it requires university sponsored trigger warnings and safe spaces, international awareness campaigns, and even protective laws. All of this finally ends in a kind of laissez-faire utilitarian relativism, which we might call the postmodernist ethics. “The more a behavior harms the people or things that I like, the more immoral the behavior is, and the more a behavior does good to the people or things that I like, the better the behavior is.” In this normative ethics, I can never do anything wrong, except inasmuch as I might unthinkingly do something harmful to my own cause. Another person is irrelevant insofar as he doesn’t harm my own mostly arbitrary and narrow values. This must also be understood as occurring within the materialistic framework – both harm and good are all temporal and experiential. (Unless, that is, a little DIY spirituality comes into play… Then all bets are off.) Without a firm understanding of unchanging human nature, and the belief in its authority and power to provide a normative ethics, we are left to define our own values based on whatever we would like to do or become as individuals or collectively as a society.
“Existence precedes essence.” Human beings are now human doings.
Yet clearly, “Some are more equal than others.” Why are some people or things valued over others? The connection to the expression of self and fulfillment predicated upon it are the foci around which postmodern value is measured: money, physical pleasure, convenience, emotional pleasure, diversity, equality, progress. Each goal is vaguer – and more dangerous – than the last. If you are not contributing one of these goods to society, how can you be valuable? Maybe you are a “good person,” but you are no longer useful and are therefore of no account. In other words, we may kill you if we would like to… and one day we might realize that we ought to kill you: because you are not capable of doing the kind of things we value, your own existence offers you “no benefit.” It is now charitable to destroy a life that can’t “create itself.” Beyond the obvious cases of killing the unborn and physically sick, Camus’ dilemma is being answered for the mentally ill and elderly in Europe in “assisted suicides” which are a little too assisted.
It has become popular these days to remark on “the science” behind why transgenderism or same-sex marriage or whatever is “bad.” While taking note of the psychological and physical processes and results of these experiments is not irrelevant to forming a right opinion on their goodness (like studying the average harm done to children by “gay parenting”), there is no need, and in fact no possibility, for “science” to provide the answer to the foundational moral questions whose answers are found in a study of the soul and body’s basic purposes which are widely known to all, as St. Paul reminds the Romans (Rm. 1:18-32). You really don’t need an expert biologist to give kids “the talk.” You do need something other than mere biology to infer that deviating from the natural order is wrong, and the obsession with the minutest details of the “is” to justify the “ought” belies at least a touch of the intellectual illness diagnosed in Part II of this series, namely, a weak form of positivism called scientism.
Given that existentialism is historically opposed to the materialistic worldview which positivism relies on, how can the postmodern manifesto combine both elements? For example, how can a person support transgender surgery as an effective means of “expressing the real self” while claiming that there is no such thing as a soul because it’s not an object of scientific observation? We might say it is a simple lack of reflection which allows this cognitive dissonance, and this is indeed true. The deeper problem, however, is that ideology is serving passion, rather than the other way around. This is part of what makes millennials so difficult to reason with: they will shift from one part of the manifesto to the other for the sake of whatever person or group or behavior they feel good about, not realizing that each pole is at least a mild affront to the other. What they tend to sense is that their scientism forces one to create his own meaning since there is no predefined role by a true authority (God, revealed religion, a family or government invested with God-given authority), and that the quest to create meaning for oneself is determined only by what is able to be perceived by oneself, the greatest authority. The poles point back toward each other in this way, even though real positivists would reject the idea that a person can “mean something” at all, and real existentialists are not even attached to the doctrine that there is a real material world in the first place. The details of theory are lost in the practice of the unfortunate and unwitting inheritors of these worldviews.
Whether the French existentialists would be on board with the hashtag gender activists of today is not entirely clear. Sartre would perhaps call transgenderism “bad faith,” that is, a fake expression of oneself wherein one “tries too hard” to be something he or she really is not. This is not “authentic” to Sartre. (How there could be such a thing as the “self” independent of one’s sincere desires begins to strike the central nerve of the existentialist project, however; if one can act in bad faith, then there must be something more to one’s identity than his desires which those desires can be in line with… which sounds an awful lot like an essence preceding existence, so to speak.) Camus might call such people to account as failing to accept that life just does not make sense, and that the only way to be happy is to accept this: providing a physical answer to a spiritual problem is vain, but there is no spiritual answer either, so one must simply be content with madness.
Existentialism is likely to remind the attentive reader of Sacred Scripture of Ecclesiastes. Was Qoheleth the first existentialist? The first absurdist? He does claim that the acceptance of life as vain and meaningless in itself is a condition for peace, like Camus. (Truly, Qoheleth is right – there is nothing new under the sun!) But Qoheleth, despite all of his despair, believes that everyone’s life means something to God, and that there are objective measures of morality by which that God will somehow judge us. That his idea of final judgment is fuzzy can seem odd given this, but in his intellectual humility he did not grasp for what he had not already been given. He knew we would die and that God would somehow render justice, but he will not say more.
Postmodernists avoid the topic of death because it would force them out of their watered down existentialism – protected by a million distractions – into the disquieting bluntness of Camus, which few can stomach: your life really is fundamentally meaningless, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so just get comfortable with that fact like a happy Sisyphus. The suicidal dilemma is also “too harsh” for sensitive millennial minds – let that question be left to poor Hamlet and Hannah Baker.
Next time, we will directly investigate the relationship between the trends of our current culture and the doctrine and praxis of the Cathars, finally making good on the title of this series.
Post by: Eamonn Clark
Main image: Simone De Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Che Guevara; Cuba, 1960