Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Pope Benedict and the European Intelligentsia

The German magazine Der Spiegel has an interesting special issue devoted to the "Power of Faith" - an acknowledgment that religion remains a major force in the world, if not in Western Europe. Particularly interesting is the article "Sexy for the Intellectuals", which examines the strange attraction between Pope Benedict XVI and Europe's secular intellectuals. According to the article, "The secular intelligentsia's curiosity is piqued; it is flirting with the una sancta, the 'One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.'" Benedict has struck a chord because he does not use piety to shield religion from scrutiny, but instead understands that faith and reason must walk together:
Pope John Paul was into images; Benedict is a man of words. He sympathizes with the nonbelievers. He does not say, as his predecessor did: Kneel down and say the rosary. He says: Enlightenment must be enlightened. He is an intellectual who does not replace reason with mysticism, but instead deploys it in the service of God...

Ratzinger has mulled all his life over these unequal siblings, faith and reason, which explains the leniency and interest with which German cultural critics have received this pope. He is one of us. He refuses to be defined in terms of the laical trinity, i.e. the triple threat of condoms, women priests and abortion...

Man encounters the self at the level of thought. That is why believers can communicate with non-believers. That is why the Frankfurt philosopher Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger harmonized so perfectly when they discussed the "Dialectics of Secularization" at the Catholic Academy in Munich. If the Word is a gift from God, then the theorist who champions communicative action can but nod agreement.
As the article points out, Benedict's academic style has allowed him to make some of the Church's controversial teachings intellectually respectable:
Benedict XVI knows how to maintain a level of abstraction so far removed from earthly toils that it has all the appearances of compassion. Deus caritas est, Benedict's first encyclical in January 2006, was a meditation on love - and not the widely anticipated reactionary harangue against homosexual unions, unmarried cohabitation, inchastity and other works of the Devil.

Mum was the word on all of these issues. The encyclical was a eulogy, extolling love, eroticism in marriage, and social work. He simply switched the level of abstraction and made himself more unassailable. This pope doesn't talk about condoms; he talks about exploiting people (even if it's only for a one-night stand). This pope gets to the bottom of things. This pope is a radical - another trait that makes him sexy to the intellectuals.
The intellectuals also like style, his undramatic demeanor during public appearances. "He prays with a fixed stare and barely moves his lips, like an altar boy whose thoughts are somewhere else entirely." He's a nerd, and intellectuals love their fellow nerds:
The library is the Holiest of Holies. The professor pope pens page after page: letters, sermons, speeches, epistles, books. Several hundred theological works already make him the most published pontiff in church history. He seizes every opportunity to put systematic theology into practice and into print. Benedict XVI is even capable of working a reference to fundamental theology into a letter of accreditation to the Andorran ambassador.
Importantly, the article ends on a hopeful note for those us who long to see a Christian revival in the heart of Christendom:

In October 2006, a star-studded colloquium at the University of Münster discussed "The Return of the Religions" - and identified an "ego weariness" in Germany, a post-modernist upward valuation of the concept of truth: "Man cannot survive on doubt, irony and deconstruction alone." What is left for us to believe in, if everything is open to discussion? And who is going to take us seriously? This is the fundamental question addressed in Germany by numerous bestsellers and talk-show debates on "values," "the new Kulturkampf," "the parenting challenge" and so on.

In the post-modern age, everything was somehow OK; values were relative, and we believed that was a good thing. By September 2001 at the latest, this belief was called into question. There was no more room for irony.

How can truth exist in a pluralist society? Joseph Ratzinger has pondered this question all his life. And it has never been more relevant than today.

A today that is perhaps not the hour for prayer, not the age for ritual, but rather a time for introspection, for self-examination, for thought. And in that context, the man in the Papal Palace is right for his role. Benedict XVI is not a comfortable pontiff, because he can communicate eye-to-eye with the secular world. He already sees eye-to-eye with the spiritual one.

(Final Note: While I found the article very well written, one sentence struck me as odd: "Something has happened: The country of Luther, Marx and Nietzsche has lost faith in godlessness." Why is Luther included here alongside Marx and Nietzsche? Is he "godless" simply because he disagreed with the Catholic Church of his day? Perhaps this sentence reflects the habit - common in Germany - of viewing Luther not as a religious figure but as a liberator and revolutionary. Regardless, Luther should not be blamed for the current state of godlessness in Germany).

Saturday, March 24, 2007

More about Marburg

(Note: The first part of this post can be found here). At Marburg, Zwingli felt he had a sure-fire argument against Luther’s belief in the Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Altar: If Christ’s body, after his ascension, sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven, then it cannot possibly be found on the altars of the church. It is ironic that Zwingli, who insisted upon a figurative understanding of the words “This is my body”, interpreted the phrase “the right hand of the Father” in such a literal sense. Modern Christians, of course, are more likely to understand heaven in a metaphysical sense, and thus Zwingli’s objection probably carries much less force today. But since both sides of the Marburg debate, Lutheran and Reformed, thought of heaven as a physical place where Christ’s human body resides, this was not a matter that the Lutherans could take lightly. In response, they provided an explanation of how Christ can be both in heaven and on earth – a doctrine known as “ubiquity” – that also yields compelling insights into the Incarnation and Creation.

The doctrine of ubiquity is based on a key element of Lutheran christology: the communicatio idiomatum, or exchange of attributes. This teaches that the human nature of Christ participates in God’s divine attributes (his omnipotence, omnipresence, etc.) and vice versa. Thus, Lutherans can speak of God suffering, even dying, because the divine Son of God participates in the human suffering of Jesus Christ. Moreover, because the humanity of Christ shares in God’s omnipresence, Luther could teach that “Christ can be present in heaven and on earth and in fact everywhere, not only in his divine nature but also in his perpetually human body” (Braaten, Principles of Lutheran Theology). This explains how Christ’s true body and blood can be present on the altars of the world in the sacrament.

To the Reformed, the doctrine of ubiquity has always seemed like blatant pantheism. After all, if Christ’s body is everywhere, then it’s in every piece of bread and the sacrament is meaningless. To this charge, Luther replied “that there is a difference whether Christ’s body is there or whether it is there for you; whether it is there or whether you can find it. You can find it only where Christ Himself has promised that He would be found, and that is in the sacrament” (Sasse, This is My Body).

It goes without saying that Lutheran and Reformed positions are based on two dramatically different understanding of the relationship between God and Nature. The Reformed, with their assumption that the “finite cannot carry the infinite”, conceive of God and Nature as mutually-incompatible opposites. But the Lutherans doctrine of ubiquity makes it clear that all of Creation participates in the Incarnation, since it was only through Christ that “all things were made.” Every rock, tree, and bird shares, not just in “being” or “being-itself” (to quote Tillich), but in the triune life of God. Thus, the sacrament (and the incarnation itself) should not be viewed a miraculous deviation from the natural order, but instead as the culmination and fulfillment of God’s eternal dealings with the world.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Doubt, Ignorance, and Faith

"My friend Kant needs the observations and calculations of the latest astronomers to give himself an idea of the abyss of human ignorance. The proof for this ought not to be fetched from such a distance; it lies far nearer to us." -- Johann Hamann, Letter of 4 May 1788
The concept of doubt figures prominently in the rhetoric of scientific atheists like Dennett and Dawkins, who frequently assert that scientists are comfortable with doubt, even welcoming of it, whereas religious people seek to banish all doubt through crass fideism. In this simplistic story, scientists are portrayed as humble and open-minded seekers of truth, constantly doubting their conclusions and open to any piece of contradictory evidence, while the faithful cling to their superstitious dogmas. Needless to say, philosophers of science have long since discredited this naive picture by pointing out that scientists are not so open-minded, even when they're practicing science (not to mention when they're pontificating about philosophical or theological matters). Thomas Kuhn, for instance, showed that scientists under normal circumstances strive to make their data conform to agreed-upon paradigms. They cling to these paradigms quite tenaciously, even when evidence mounts against them, and the scientific community will only switch paradigms as a last resort. The notion of a completely neutral and objective perspective from which to discern all truth - so crucial to the Enlightenment project - has been shown to be something of a myth, even in the so-called "hard sciences".

Regardless, my point here is not to dispute the importance of doubt in the scientific method, but to probe the nature of this doubt in more detail. After all, religious faith has its own form of doubt. So what is the difference between these two types of doubt? Scientific atheists would claim that they are essentially the same, as least at the beginning; that is, both doubts concern the truth of specific propositions. The only difference, then, is that scientists go on to examine the validity of these "doubtful" propositions with experimental methods, while believers simply accept them on blind faith. Viewed this way, doubt can only be the enemy of faith. But Christian theology has often regarded doubt in a positive light, seeing it as precursor or element of faith itself. So clearly the atheist notion of doubt is oversimplified, but in what way?

Johann Hamann offers an answer to this question in his Socratic Memorabilia of 1759. This little essay was written after two of Hamann's friends, including a young Immanuel Kant, staged an intervention to bring him back to Enlightenment orthodoxy (Hamann had experienced a dramatic conversion to Christianity a few years earlier). In his response, Hamann invokes the character of Socrates, who was highly regarded by the rationalists of his day. The central issue in the Socratic Memorabilia is the famed ignorance of Socrates, that is, the philosopher's confession that "I know that I know nothing." In this Socratic ignorance, the rationalists thought they detected an early form of scientific doubt - a willingness to challenge all the received truths of tradition and religion. This is the ignorance that clears the way for Reason. But for Hamann, such ignorance is merely that of sophists and skeptics, not Socratic ignorance at all:
"The ignorance of Socrates was a feeling. But there is a greater difference between a feeling and a proposition, then between a living animal and its anatomical skeleton. The old and new skeptics betray themselves by their voice and ears, no matter how they may wrap themselves in the lion-skin of Socratic ignorance. If they know nothing, does the world need a learned demonstration of it? Their deception and hypocrisy are ridiculous and shameless. Anyone who needs so much sagacity and eloquence to convince himself of his own ignorance must harbor in his heart a strong repugnance for the truth of ignorance."
Here, Hamann is pointing out that the rationalist form of ignorance is merely a preliminary stage, something to be overcome by the scientific method. For a scientist to doubt something he must first be shown why he should doubt it; he demands hard proof of his ignorance (hence Kant's interest in the astronomical findings). But the standard for evaluating this doubt is that of human reason itself, which is never doubted in the least. Thus, the ignorance of the scientist is only skin-deep, masking a much deeper certainty. In contrast, the ignorance of Socrates was a feeling, a sensibility, an existential state that went to the core of his self-knowledge. He was not skeptical - doubting this or that - he was ignorant from beginning to end. Hamann draws a parallel between this profound Socratic ignorance and Pauline theology:
"For the testimony which Socrates gave of his ignorance, therefore, I know no more honorable seal and at the same time no better key than the oracle of the great teacher of the Gentiles: 'If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if one loves God, one is known by him' (1 Cor. 8) - just as Socrates was known by Apollo to be a wise man. But how the grain of all our natural wisdom must decay, must perish in ignorance, and how the life and being of a higher knowledge must spring newly created from this death, from this nothing - as far as this the nose of a Sophist does not reach."
Socratic doubt, as understood by Hamann, is the beginning of faith; it's a form of repentance and confession before the Almighty. And it's far more radical than any rationalist conception of doubt, which confines itself only to penultimate matters and never creeps into the depths of the soul. The scientist (as scientist) may be skeptical, he may be curious, but he can never really doubt. That is reserved for those who know only as they are known, in faith.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

On Explaining Religion

D.W. Congdon has an excellent post at The Fire and the Rose concerning the recent New York Times feature, Darwin's God, which discussed scientific explanations for the origin of religion. According to the article, evolutionary biologists are currently divided on whether religion is "an evolutionary adaptation or neurological accident." Of course, the possibility that religion is a legitimate response to a preexistent reality - namely, God - is not seriously considered by Times Science section (nothing new here...).

These are matters that I've dealt with before (see here and here), but D.W. phrases the question in a very concise manner: "Is explaining religion the same thing as explaining it away?" Clearly the scientists behind this kind of research think so. They assume that if religion can be shown to arise from faulty brain chemistry or evolutionary selection, then it will lose it's strange grip on humanity. Religion will be brought into the nexus of determinative causality, and thus will have to surrender it claims to transcendence. As D.W. points out, this strategy of "explain and dismiss" has already been applied to the Bible and the church: "it is rather common nowadays to hear people speak of the political context in which, say, the Bible came into being or the institution of the Church arose—as if explaining the political climate is the same as explaining away the Bible and the church."

But explaining is not the same as understanding. Moreover, it seems to me that the "explain and dismiss" strategy is only effective if one shares the assumption - common among scientists - that historical and contingent events can never serve as the basis for absolute truth (Lessing's ditch, once again). Based on this assumpton, if the Bible (or religion itself) can be shown to have originated through a historical process, involving thousands of contingent events, then we cannot consider it a reliable source of truth. Only the "eternal truths of reason" are really true. Thus, scientists naturally think that theological truths about God, if they were to exist, would take the form of generalized theorems or equations - that is, of pure abstraction. The idea that God could reveal himself in concrete historical events and in human language is simply absurd to them, since the world and its history are considered mere objects in a closed system, incapable of carrying divine truth (interestingly, this is modern science's equivalent of the Calvinist motto: finitum non capax infiniti). By creating an artificial conflict between God's transcendence and his immanent actions, science only considers two theist positions legitimate: pantheism or deism.

But Christianity, which holds the Incarnation as its central truth, has never regarded God's immanence and transcendence as being incompatible, and thus asserts that God speaks to his creatures through his creation. David Bentley Hart makes this point in his devastating review of another attempt to explain religion in purely natural terms - Daniel Dennett's book, Breaking the Spell. Hart writes:
Of course religion is a natural phenomenon. Who would be so foolish as to deny that? Religion is ubiquitous in human culture and obviously constitutes an essential element in the evolution of society, and obviously has itself evolved. It is as natural to humanity as language or song or mating rituals. Dennett may imagine that such a suggestion is provocative and novel, and he may believe that there are legions of sincere souls out there desperately committed to the notion that religion itself is some sort of miraculous exception to the rule of nature, but, in either case, he is deceived.

For one thing, it does not logically follow that, simply because religion as such is a natural phenomenon, it cannot become the vehicle of divine truth, or that it is not in some sense oriented toward a transcendent reality. To imagine that it does so follow is to fall prey to a version of the genetic fallacy, the belief that one need only determine the causal sequence by which something comes into being in order to understand its nature, meaning, content, uses, or value....

Certainly the Christian should be undismayed by the notion that religion is natural "all the way down." Indeed, it should not matter whether religion is the result of evolutionary imperatives, or of an inclination toward belief inscribed in our genes and in the structure of our brains, or even (more fantastically) of memes that have impressed themselves on our minds and cultures and languages. All things are natural. But nature itself is created toward an end-its consummation in God-and is informed by a more eminent causality-the creative will of God-and is sustained in existence by its participation in the being that flows from God, who is the infinite wellspring of all actuality. And religion, as a part of nature, possesses an innate entelechy and is oriented like everything else toward the union of God and his creatures. Nor should the Christian expect to find any lacunae in the fabric of nature, needing to be repaired by the periodic interventions of a cosmic maintenance technician. God’s transcendence is absolute: He is cause of all things by giving existence to the whole, but nowhere need he act as a rival to any of the contingent, finite, secondary causes by which the universe lives, moves, and has its being in him.
In other words, the attempt to discredit religion by describing it as "only" a natural phenomenon rests on a dualism that is totally alien to Christianity. We need not choose between natural and revealed religion, as the Word of God is always clothed in the earthen vessels of flesh and blood, bread and wine, history and language. Truth is not to be found in a higher plane of purity and abstraction, divorced from nature and history. Instead, "truth comes before us coarse, as do the signs of nature - without actually being this way. Lies, on the contrary, are threshed and polished for the eye, as works of art." (Hamann)

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Lost Tomb and the St. Olaf Professor

The ridiculous coverage of the James Cameron's The Lost Tomb of Jesus documentary continues unabated. While some major news organizations (notably the Washington Post and Time) have expressed skepticism about the documentary's "findings", others in the mainstream media have clearly taken the bait. It appears that even the flimsiest of evidence gets a pass from reporters when the target is Christian doctrine.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, to their credit, turned to a local scholar to evaluate the case made by the Lost Tomb documentary. Unfortunately, they managed to find one of the few scholars who is even remotely supportive of Cameron's little foray into archaeological science. James Hanson, a professor of New Testament studies at St. Olaf College (a small Lutheran school in Northfield, MN), is genuninely intrigued by the Discovery Channel program, saying that it's worth a "cautious look." "You have to be a little skeptical", says Hanson, "But it's hard to completely ignore what these guys are saying." Indeed, even though most of his academic colleagues have derided the Lost Tomb as a crass publicity stunt with little merit, Hanson seems impressed by the quality of scholarship:
"I watched the news conference, and I was impressed by the caution with which their experts, some of whom are serious scholars I'm familiar with, spoke. These guys are making the most out of some intriguing scraps of evidence. But they have some strikings things here, and it's worth a look."
Strangely enough, Hanson offers this positive assessment despite the fact that he disputes many of the Lost Tomb claims: he calls the Mary Magdalene connection "a stretch", points out that previous tombs in the ossuary were found to be fraudulent, and has a hard time imagining "the circumstances in which Jesus' family would have had this kind of tomb." He's also disappointed that the results were not peer reviewed. Regardless, he says that "I don't see how we can ignore it... It's going to be fascinating one way or another."

What are we supposed to make of Hanson's contradictory comments? Clearly he's skeptical of most of the documentary's major claims, and he's unnerved by James Cameron's end-run around the scientific establishment, but he has only nice things to say about the people involved. Why didn't he give the Lost Tomb the smack-down it deserves? My theory, based on my interactions with several St. Olaf graduates, is that Hanson is simply too nice to say anything mean. Like most people affiliated with St. Olaf, he has an almost neurotic fear of offending others. Thus, he's willing to say "gee whiz, it sure will be interesting" about this shoddy piece of research, even though it threatens the integrity of his profession and his faith. A classic case of "Minnesota nice" (not to be confused with the equally common "Wisconsin drunk").

Which raises the question: does Hanson see the Lost Tomb as a threat his faith? No, he answers, but not because its findings are almost surely bogus. Instead, he isn't threatened because faith "is not based on the vicissitudes of historical discovery. If your faith rests on a literal interpretation of the Bible's description of what resurrection involves, a finding that counters that could be troublesome." Hanson fails to elaborate on what he thinks Jesus's resurrection and ascension "involved", but apparently it's consistent with him being buried in a tomb outside Jerusalem. He goes on to argue:
"What it comes down to is whether claims made by religious traditions are the same as historical claims. I'm all for learning as much as we can about the times. But faith is never going to hold up to pure historical analysis. That's not what it's about."
While there is certainly some truth to what Hanson is saying, I think it's wrong to assume that the claims made by the Jesus Tomb documentary, if true, would only be problematic for fundamentalists. Christianity, after all, is a religion rooted in the historical figure of Christ, who was not a mere phantom but flesh and bones. His resurrection and ascension are therefore not simply metaphors of spiritual truths, but events that took place in the world for its salvation. Hanson is right that historical research will never provide an adequate basis for faith, but he's misguided if he thinks that the historical claims of Christianity are only for literalists.