The controversies surrounding the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family have often put me in mind of John Henry Cardinal Newman, the greatest Catholic churchman of the 19th century. Newman wrote eloquently on an extraordinary range of topics, including university education, the play between faith and reason, the nature of papal authority, and the subtle manner in which we come to assent in matters of religion. But the arguments around the Synod compel us to look at Newman’s work regarding the evolution of doctrine.When he was at mid-career and in the process of converting from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, Newman penned a masterpiece entitled On the Development of Christian Doctrine. In line with the evolutionary theories that were just emerging at that time—Hegel’s work was dominant in most European universities and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species would appear just a few years later—Newman argued that Christian doctrines are not given once for all and simply passed down unchanged from generation to generation. Rather, like seeds that unfold into plants or rivers that deepen and broaden over time, they develop, their various aspects and implications emerging in the course of lively rumination. It is assuredly not the case, for example, that the doctrine of the Trinity was delivered fully-grown into the minds of the first disciples of Jesus and then passed on like a football across the ages. On the contrary, it took hundreds of years for the seed of that teaching to grow into the mighty tree of Augustine’s formulations in the De Trinitate or Aquinas’s complex treatise in the first part of the Summa theologiae. Moreover, Newman felt that even those definitive theological achievements in turn develop and unfold as they are mused over, turned around, questioned, and argued about. He concludes: “a real idea is equivalent to the sum total of its possible aspects.” And those aspects appear only in the course of time and through the play of the lively minds that consider them. It is precisely in this context that Newman penned the most famous line of On the Development of Christian Doctrine: “In a higher world it is otherwise; but here below, to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Ideas change because they are living things.I realize that many, upon considering this view, will get nervous—as did many in Newman’s day. Does this mean that doctrine is up for grabs? Should we keep our dogmatic statements, as one cynical wag once put it, in loose-leaf binders? To get some clarity on this point, I would recommend that we delve a little further into Newman’s great book and examine the criteria that he laid out to determine the difference between a legitimate development (which makes the doctrine in question more fully itself) and a corruption (which undermines the doctrine). Newman presents seven in total, but I should like to examine just three. The first is what he calls preservation of type. A valid development preserves the essential form and structure of what came before. If that type is undermined, we are dealing with a corruption. Mind you, type can be maintained even through enormous superficial changes, as, to use Newman’s own example, “a butterfly is a development of the caterpillar but not in any sense its image.” And by the same token, superficialities can remain largely unchanged even as the type utterly morphs, as happened, say, in the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire.A second criterion is what Newman refers to as “conservative action upon its past.” An evolution that simply reverses or contradicts what came before it is necessarily a corruption and not a development. In Newman’s own words, an authentic development “is an addition that illustrates, not obscures; corroborates, not corrects the body of thought from which it proceeds.” In accord with this idea, Christianity could be seen as the development of Judaism, since it preserves the essential teachings and practices of that faith, even as it moves beyond them. Cardinal George Pell alluded to this principle when he said, during the recent Synod debates, “the Church does not do back-flips on doctrine.” So, for example, if a proposal were put forth at the Extraordinary Synod that simply contradicted the teaching of John Paul II in Familiaris consortio or Paul VI in Humanae vitae, it would certainly reflect a corruption. A third criterion that Newman puts forward is what he calls “the power of assimilation.” Just as a healthy organism can take in what it can from its environment, even as it resists what it must, so a sane and lively idea can take to itself what is best in the intellectual atmosphere, even as it throws off what is noxious. Both total accommodation to the culture and total resistance to it are usually signs of intellectual sickness.Now how does all of this apply to the Synod? Well, let’s consider the proposal made by Cardinal Walter Kasper regarding communion for the divorced and re-married. Is it an authentic development or a corruption of Catholic moral teaching and practice? Might I suggest that all of the disputants in that argument take a step back and assess the matter using Cardinal Newman’s criteria? Would Newman be opposed in principle to change in this regard? Not necessarily, for he knew that to live is to change. Would he therefore enthusiastically embrace what Cardinal Kasper has proposed? Not necessarily, for it might represent a corruption. As the conversation continues to unfold over the coming months, I think all sides would benefit from a careful reading of On the Development of Christian Doctrine.
The midterm report on the deliberations of the Synod on the Family has appeared and there is a fair amount of hysteria all around. John Thavis, a veteran Vatican reporter who should know better, has declared this statement “an earthquake, the big one that hit after months of smaller tremors.” Certain commentators on the right have been wringing their hands and bewailing a deep betrayal of the Church’s teaching. One even opined that this report is the “silliest document ever issued by the Catholic Church,” and some have said that the interim document flaunts the teaching of St. John Paul II. Meanwhile the New York Times confidently announced that the Church has moved from “condemnation of unconventional family situations and toward understanding, openness, and mercy.” I think everyone should take a deep breath. What has just appeared is not even close to a definitive, formal teaching of the Catholic Church. It is a report on what has been discussed so far in a synod of some two hundred bishops from around the world. It conveys, to be sure, a certain consensus around major themes, trends that have been evident in the conversations, dominant emphases in the debates, etc., but it decidedly does not represent “the teaching” of the Pope or the bishops. One of the great mysteries enshrined in the ecclesiology of the Catholic Church is that Christ speaks through the rather messy and unpredictable process of ecclesiastical argument. The Holy Spirit guides the process of course, but he doesn’t undermine or circumvent it. It is precisely in the long, laborious sifting of ideas across time and through disciplined conversation that the truth that God wants to communicate gradually emerges. If you want evidence of this, simply look at the accounts of the deliberations of the major councils of the Church, beginning with the so-called Council of Jerusalem in the first century right through to the Second Vatican Council of the twentieth century. In every such gathering, argument was front and center, and consensus evolved only after lengthy and often acrimonious debate among the interested parties. Read John Henry Newman’s colorful history of the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century, and you’ll find stories of riots in the streets and the mutually pulling of beards among the disputants. Or pick up Yves Congar’s very entertaining diary of his years at Vatican II, and you’ll learn of his own withering critiques of the interventions of prominent Cardinals and rival theologians. Or peruse John O’Malley’s history of the Council of Trent, and you’ll see that early draft statements on the key doctrines of original sin and justification were presented, debated, and dismissed—long before final versions were approved. Until Vatican II, these preliminary arguments and conversations were known only to the participants themselves and to certain specialist historians who eventually sifted through the records. The great teachings of the Councils became widely known and celebrated, but the process that produced them was, happily enough, consigned to the shadows. If I might quote the great Newman, who had a rather unsatisfying experience of official ecclesial life in Rome: “those who love the barque of Peter ought to stay out of the engine room!” This is a somewhat more refined version of “those who enjoy sausage ought never to watch how it is made.” The interim report on the Synod represents a very early stage of the sausage-making process and, unsurprisingly, it isn’t pretty. Two more weeks of discussion will follow; then a full year during which the findings of the Synod will be further refined, argued about, and clarified; then the Ordinary Synod on the Family will take place (the one going on now is the Extraordinary Synod), and many more arguments and counter-arguments will be made; finally, some months, perhaps even a year or so, after that, the Pope will write a post-Synodal exhortation summing up the entire process and offering a definitive take on the matter. At that point, I would suggest, something resembling edible sausage will be available for our consumption; until then, we should all be patient and refrain from bloviating.The historian and theologian Martin Marty commented that our debates today about sex and authority are analogous to the arguments in the early centuries of the Church’s life concerning Christology and to the disputes about anthropology and salvation around the time of the Reformation. Those two previous dust-ups took several centuries to resolve, and Marty suggests that we might be in the midst of another centuries long controversy. I’m glad that Pope Francis, at the outset of this Synod, urged the participating bishops to speak their minds clearly and fearlessly. He didn’t want a self-censorship that would unduly hamper the conversation and thereby prevent the truth from emerging. This does not imply for a moment that Pope Francis will agree with every point of view expressed, and indeed he can’t possibly, since many are mutually exclusive. But it does indeed mean that he has the confidence and the patience required to allow the Holy Spirit to work in his preferred fashion.
One of the unintended but happy consequences of the emergence of the new atheism is a renewed interest in the classical arguments for God’s existence. Eager to defend the faith that is so vigorously attacked today, Catholic apologists and evangelists have been recovering these rational demonstrations of the truth of God; and the atheists, just as eager to defend their position, have entered into the fray. In the process, these ancient arguments, long thought by many to be obsolete, have found a new relevance and have been brought to greater clarity through the give and take of both critics and advocates. Thomas Aquinas famously laid out five arguments for the existence of God, but he characterized one of them as “the first and more manifest way.” This is the proof from motion, which can be presented simply and schematically as follows. Things move. Since nothing moves itself, everything that is moved must be moved by another. If that which causes the motion is itself being moved, then it must be moved by another. This process cannot go on to infinity. Therefore, there must exist a first unmoved mover, which all people call God. In order to avoid misunderstanding (and it’s fair to say that this argument has been misunderstood for centuries), several observations are in order. When Aquinas speaks of motion, he means change of any kind, not simply change of location. Growth in wisdom, fluctuation in temperature, birth, death, etc. are all examples of motion, or in his more technical language, the transition from potency to actuality. Once we grasp what Aquinas means by motion, it is relatively easy to understand why he insists that nothing can move or change itself. Whatever is in motion must be in potency, while that which causes change must be in actuality, just as the one learning French doesn’t yet possess the language and the one teaching it does. Now since the same thing cannot be potential and actual at the same time in the same respect, nothing can be, simultaneously, both mover and moved. No one, strictly speaking, teaches himself French.But let us suppose that the cause which is putting something in motion is itself being put in motion; then by the same principle, its change must be prompted by another. But this chain of moved movers cannot be indefinite, since the suppression of a first element would imply the suppression of every subsequent mover and hence, finally, of the motion that is evident to our senses. In regard to the negation of this sort of infinite causal series, the twentieth century philosopher Bertrand Russell had a particularly unhelpful observation. Russell opined that Thomas Aquinas couldn’t imagine such a series, because medievals hadn’t yet come to terms with the idea of infinite sets. Nothing could be further from the truth. Aquinas had absolutely no problem imagining infinite series, since he speculated about them all the time. What he is denying is the possibility of an infinite causal series in which each element in the chain is here and now dependent upon the influence of a higher cause. Think of a pen which is here and now being moved by a hand, which is here and now being moved by muscles, which are here and now being moved by nerves, which are here and now being stimulated by the brain, which is here and now being sustained by blood and oxygen, etc. If we suppress the first element in this sort of chain, the entire causal nexus would collapse and the motion under immediate consideration would not be adequately explained. Therefore it follows that a prime mover exists, which is to say, an unactualized source of actualization, an unenergized energizer, an ultimate source of all of the change in the cosmos. Now there are many atheists and agnostics who acknowledge that this demonstration is logically airtight but who quarrel with the association that Aquinas makes, almost casually, at the very end: “and this all people call God.” There might indeed, they say, be a prime mover or uncaused principle but this first element in the causal chain might be matter or energy or some such physical element. Many point to the famous law of the conservation of energy and conclude that the fundamental stuff of the universe just undergoes continual change of form throughout time. In order to answer this objection, we have to examine the nature of the unmoved mover a bit more carefully. That which is truly the uncaused or unmoved source of energy must be fully actualized (actus purus in Aquinas’s pithy Latin), which means that it is not capable of further realization. But energy or matter is that which is capable of undergoing practically infinite change. Energy or matter is endlessly malleable and hence about as far from actus purus as can be imagined. A rather simple thought experiment shows that such primal physical elements cannot be the unmoved mover. Neither matter nor energy exists as such but always in a particular form or configuration. In regard to either, one could always ask, what color is it, at what velocity does it move, under what conditions does it exist? A given piece of matter is one color, but it could be any other color; energy is at one quantum level, but it could be at any other. Therefore, we are compelled to inquire about the cause that made it to exist this way rather than that. We can appeal, of course, to some other material cause, but then we are compelled to ask the same question about that cause, and having recourse indefinitely to similarly material movers won’t get us anywhere closer to an ultimate explanation. The philosophical dictum that sums up this state of affairs is “act precedes potency.” The first cause of change cannot be itself subject to change.The unmoved mover is that which exists in a state of pure realization, that which cannot be improved in its being, that which simply is, that which is utterly in act. Do you see now why Thomas Aquinas equated it with God?
The attendance at our daily Mundelein Seminary on Labor Day weekend was sparse. Many of the students had gone home while others were on a special tour of Chicago churches. The celebrant and preacher for the Sunday Mass was Fr. Robert Schoenstene, our veteran Old Testament professor. Fr. Schoenstene offered the best interpretation I’ve ever heard of a particularly puzzling parable of the Lord, and I wanted to make sure his reading got a wider audience.The parable in question is the one concerning the rich man who gives talents to three of his servants and then sets out on a journey. Upon his return, he assesses the situation and discovers that the servant to whom he had given five talents had invested them fruitfully and that the servant to whom he had given three talents had done the same. But he finds, to his chagrin, that the slave to whom he had entrusted one talent had simply buried the wealth and had garnered neither gain nor interest. Angered, he orders that the one talent be taken from the timid servant and given to the servant who had invested most boldly. And then comes the devastating moral lesson: “For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” The standard reading of this story—on display in thousands of sermons and fervorinos—is that the talents symbolize gifts and abilities that God has given to us and that he expects us to “spend” generously or “invest” wisely. This interpretation is supported by the fairly accidental relationship that obtains between “talent” in the ancient Biblical sense of the term and “talent” in ordinary English today. Fr. Schoenstene specified that a talent in ancient times was a measure of something particularly weighty, usually silver or gold. A single talent might represent as much as 50 pounds of precious metal and, as such, was not something that one carried around in one’s pocket. We might make a comparison between a talent and a unit of gold kept at Fort Knox, or an ingot of silver preserved in a safe deposit box. What the contemporary reader will likely miss, and what the ancient Jewish reader would have caught immediately, is the connection to heaviness: a talent was weighty, and five talents was massively heavy. Heaviness would have brought to mind the heaviest weight of all, which was the kabod of Yahweh. That term was rendered in Greek as doxa and in Latin as gloria, both of which carry the connotation of luminosity, but the basic sense of the Hebrew word is heaviness, gravitas. And this kabod Yahweh was to be found in the Jerusalem Temple, resting upon the mercy seat within the Holy of Holies. Therefore, what was heaviest (most glorious) of all was the mercy of God, which abided in infinite, inexhaustible abundance in the Holy Temple.In light of these clarifications, we can read Jesus’ parable with fresh eyes. The talents given to the three servants are not so much monetary gifts or personal capacities; they are a share in the mercy of God, a participation in the weightiness of the divine love. But since mercy is always directed to the other, these “talents” are designed to be shared. In point of fact, they will increase precisely in the measure that they are given away. The problem with the timid servant who buried his talent is not that he was an ineffective venture capitalist but that he fundamentally misunderstood the nature of what he had been given. The divine mercy—received as a pure gift—is meant to be given to others as a pure gift. Buried in the ground, that is to say, hugged tightly to oneself as one’s own possession, such a talent necessarily evanesces. And this is why the master’s seemingly harsh words should not be read as the punishment of an angry God but as an expression of spiritual physics: the divine mercy will grow in you only inasmuch as you give it to others. To “have” the kabod Yahweh is precisely not to have it in the ordinary sense of the term. What comes to mind here is the most famous of all of Jesus’ parables, namely, the story of the Prodigal Son. Using a term that also carried a monetary sense in ancient times, the younger son says, “Father give me my share of the ousia (substance or wealth) that is coming to me. Notice how in one sentence, he manages to mention himself three times! The father gives away his ousia, for that is all he knows how to do, but the foolish son squanders the money in short order. The spiritual lesson is the same: the divine ousia is a gift and it can be “had” only inasmuch as it becomes a gift for others. When we try to cling to it as a possession, it disappears.How wonderful that these ancient stories, once we unpack their spiritual significance, still sing to us today.
Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel The Giver has garnered a very wide audience over the past two decades, since it has become a standard text in middle schools and high schools across the English-speaking world. With the enormous success of the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games films, Hollywood has been busy adapting books written for the young adult audience. The most recent example is the movie version of The Giver, which was produced by Jeff Bridges and which stars Bridges and Meryl Streep. Having never even heard of the novel, I came at the film with no expectations, and I confess I was quite surprised both by the power of its societal critique and by its implicit Christian themes.The story is set in the near future, in a seemingly utopian city, where there is no conflict, no inequality, and no stress. The streets are laid out in a perfectly symmetrical grid, the domiciles and public buildings are clean, even antiseptic, and the people dress in matching outfits and ride bicycles so as not to pollute the environment. The “elders,” the leadership of the community, artificially arrange families and carefully assign vocations, all for the sake of the common good. In order to eliminate any volatile emotions that might stir up resentment or compromise the perfect equilibrium of the society, each citizen is obligated to take a daily injection of a kind of sedative. If someone’s speech veers even mildly in the direction of suggesting self-assertion or individuality, he is corrected with a gentle but firm admonition: “precision of language, please.” Most chillingly, the elderly and unacceptable children are eliminated, though the people have been conditioned not to think of this as killing but only as a peaceful transition to “Elsewhere.” The calm “sameness” of the city is maintained, above all, through the erasing of memory: no one is permitted to remember the colorful but conflictual world that preceded the present utopia. No one, that is, except the Giver, an elder who retains memories of the previous world for the sole purpose of consulting them in case an emergency arises and specialized knowledge is called for. Utopian societies, maintained through totalitarian control, have been dreamed about at least since the time of Plato, and, to be sure, many attempts have been made over the centuries to realize the dream. The twentieth century witnessed quite a few of them: Mao’s China, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Third Reich, Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Indeed, there are echoes of all of these social arrangements in The Giver’s version of utopia, but I think what The Giver’s city most readily calls to mind is modern liberalism, especially in its European incarnation. We find the fierce enforcement of politically correct speech, the manic attempt to control the environment, coldly modernist architecture, the prizing of equality as the supreme value, the rampant use of drugs, the denial of death, and the wanton exercise of both euthanasia and abortion. Will all of this produce a balanced and peaceful society? Well, it might bring about a kind of equilibrium, but at a terrible cost.The plot of The Giver centers on a young man named Jonas who was chosen by the elders to become the sole recipient of the suppressed memory of the previous world. Through a sort of telepathy, the Giver communicates to Jonas all of the richness, color, drama, and joy of the pre-Utopian society. The most beguiling image he receives is of himself sledding down a snowy hill and coming upon a cottage from which he hears emerging the strains of a song he had never heard before (in fact, both snow and music had been excluded from his world). In time, the Giver fills out the picture, communicating to the young man the pain and conflict of the previous world as well. Though at first he is horrified by that experience, Jonas realizes that the colorful world, even with its suffering, would be preferable to the bloodless and inhuman dystopia in which he had been raised. As the story moves to its climax, Jonas escapes from the city and ventures out into the forbidden wilderness. The weather turns fiercely cold and he wanders through the snow until he comes to a clearing where he spies the sled that he had previously seen in memory. Following the prompts of the recollection, he rides the sled down a snowy hill, comes to the quaint cottage, and listens to the song. It is only then that we hear that they are singing the best-known and best-loved Christmas hymn, “Silent Night.” And now we see that what makes the society in The Giver most like contemporary Europe is precisely the forgetfulness of Christianity. What the story suggests, quite rightly, is that suppression of the good news of the Incarnation is in fact what conduces to dysfunctional and dangerous totalitarianism. The source of the greatest suffering throughout human history is the attempt to deal with original sin on our own, through our political, economic, military, or cultural efforts. When we try to eliminate conflict and sin through social reform, we inevitably make matters worse. As Pascal said long ago, “He who would turn himself into an angel, turns himself into a beast.” The key to joy at the personal level and justice at the societal level is in fact the conviction that God has dealt with original sin, by taking it on himself and suffering with us and for us. This belief allows us to embrace the world in both its beauty and its tragedy, for we see salvation as God’s project, not our own. It is the Incarnation—the event celebrated by the singing of “Silent Night”—that frees us from our self-importance and gives the lie to our programs of perfectibility. I can’t help but think that the recovery of this lost memory—so key to the authentic renewal of contemporary society—is what The Giver is finally about.
One of the favorite taunts of the New Atheists is that religious people believe in an “invisible friend.” They are implying, of course, that religion is little more than a pathetic exercise in wishful thinking, a reversion to childish patterns of projection and self-protection. It is well past time, they say, for believers to grow up, leave their cherished fantasies behind, and face the real world. In offering this characterization, the New Atheists are showing themselves to be disciples of the old atheists such as Feuerbach, Marx, Comte, and Freud, all of whom made more or less similar observations.Well, I'm writing here to let atheists know that I think they’re right, at least about God being an invisible friend. Where they’re wrong is in supposing that surrendering to this unseen reality is de-humanizing or infantilizing. First, a word about invisibility. It is an extraordinary prejudice of post-Enlightenment Western thought that visible things, empirically verifiable objects and states of affairs, are the most obviously “real” things around. For centuries prior to the Enlightenment, some of the very brightest people that have ever lived thought precisely the opposite. Most famously, Plato felt that the empirical world is evanescent and contingent in the extreme, made up of unstable objects that pass in and out of existence; whereas the invisible world of forms and mathematical truths is permanent, reliable, and supremely beautiful. You can certainly see two apples combining with two oranges to make four things, but when you grasp the principle that two plus two equals four, you have moved out of the empirical realm and into a properly invisible order, which is more pure and absolute than anything that the senses could take in. Mind you, I’m not denigrating the material world, as Plato and his followers were too often wont to do; I’m simply trying to show that it is by no means obvious that the invisible can simply be equated with the fantastic or the unreal.Now to God’s invisibility. One of the most fundamental mistakes made by atheists both old and new is to suppose that God is a supreme being, an impressive item within or alongside the universe. As David Bentley Hart has argued, the gods of ancient mythology or the watchmaker God of 18th century Deism might fit such a description, but the God presented by the Bible and by classical theism has nothing to do with it. The true God is the non-contingent ground of the contingent universe, the reason there is something rather than nothing, the ultimate explanation for why the world should exist at all. Accordingly, he is not a being, but rather, as Thomas Aquinas put it, ipsum esse subsistens, the sheer act of to be itself. Thomas goes so far as to say that God cannot be placed in any genus, even in that most generic of genera, namely, being. But all of this must imply God’s invisibility. Whatever can be seen is, ipso facto, a being, a particular state of affairs, and hence something that can be placed in a genus, compared with other finite realities, etc. The visible is, by definition, conditioned—and God is the unconditioned. I hope it is clear that in affirming God’s invisibility, I am not placing limits on him, as though he were a type of being—the invisible type—over and against visible things, a ghost floating above physical objects. The invisible God is he whose reality transcends and includes whatever perfection can be found in creatures, since he himself is the source and ground of creatureliness in all its manifestations. Anything other than an invisible God would be a conditioned thing and hence utterly unworthy of worship.But is this invisible God my friend? One of the most important spiritual and metaphysical observations that can be made is this: God doesn’t need us. The sheerly unconditioned act of to be itself is in possession of every possible ontological perfection, and hence requires no completion, no improvement. He needs nothing. And yet the universe, in all of its astonishing complexity and beauty, exists. Since God could not have made it out of self-interest, it can only follow that he made it out of love, which is to say, a desire to share his goodness. Though there is always the danger that this sort of language will be misconstrued in a sentimental way, it must be said: God continually loves the universe into existence. Thus, God’s fundamental stance toward all finite things is one of friendship. Can’t we hear an overtone of this in Genesis’s insistence that the Creator, looking with infinite satisfaction on all he had made, found it “good, indeed very good”? If I might stay within the framework of the book of Genesis, the role of human beings within God’s good creation is to be the image of God, which is to say, the viceroy of the Creator, reflecting the divine goodness into the world and channeling the world’s praise back to God. In a word, human beings are meant to be the friends of God par excellence.Is any of this de-humanizing? It would be, if God were a supreme being and hence a rival to human flourishing. If you want the details on that problem, consult any of the Greek or Roman myths. But the unconditioned Creator, the invisible God, is not a rival to anything he has made. Rather, as St. Irenaeus put it so memorably, Gloria Dei homo vivens (the glory of God is a human being fully alive). So God is my invisible friend? Guilty as charged—and delightedly so.
John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars has proven to be wildly popular among young adults in the English speaking world, and the recently released film adaptation of the book has garnered both impressive reviews and a massive audience. A one-time divinity school student and Christian minister, Green is not reluctant to explore the “big” questions, though he doesn’t claim to provide anything like definitive answers. In this, he both reflects and helps to shape the inchoate, eclectic spirituality that holds sway in the teen and 20-something set today. After watching the film however, I began to wonder whether his Christian sensibility doesn’t assert itself perhaps even more clearly and strongly than he realizes.The story is narrated by Hazel Grace Lancaster, a teenager suffering from a debilitating and most likely terminal form of cancer. At her mother’s prompting, Hazel attends a support group for young cancer patients that takes place at the local Episcopal Church. The group is presided over by a well-meaning but nerdy youth minister who commences each meeting by rolling out a tapestry of Jesus displaying his Sacred Heart. “We are gathering, literally, in the heart of Jesus,” he eagerly tells the skeptical and desultory gaggle of teens. At one of these sessions, Hazel rises to share her utterly bleak, even nihilistic philosophy of life: “There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. [...] There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that's what everyone else does.” The only response that the hapless leader can muster to that outburst is, “good advice for everyone.” It would be hard to imagine a more damning commentary on the state of much of so-called Christian ministry today!At one of these meetings, Hazel meets a handsome, charming cancer-survivor named Augustus Waters, and the two fall almost immediately in love. Though they both consider the support group fairly lame, there is no denying that they were brought together over the heart of Christ. Kind, encouraging, funny, and utterly devoted, Augustus (Gus) draws Hazel out of herself and lures her into a more active engagement with life. They both love a novel called An Imperial Affliction, written by a reclusive author named Peter Van Houten. After establishing e-mail contact with Van Houten, they arrange, through a kind of “Make-A-Wish” foundation, to fly to Amsterdam to commune with their literary hero. Just before the encounter, Gus and Hazel engage in some serious conversation about God and the afterlife. Gus says that he believes in God and in some sort of life after death; otherwise, he argues, “What is the point?” Still clinging to her bleak materialism, Hazel retorts, “What if there is no point?”The next day, the young couple, filled with enthusiasm, comes to Van Houten’s home only to find that their hero is a depressed alcoholic who has no interest in talking to them. When they press him for answers about mysteries in his novel, he comments on the meaninglessness of life, effectively mirroring Hazel’s nihilism back to her. Just after this awful conversation, the two teenagers make their way to the Anne Frank house, where Hazel manages, despite her cumbersome oxygen tank and her weakened lungs, to climb to the attic where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis. In that room, evocative of both horrific, meaningless violence and real spiritual hope, Hazel and Gus passionately kiss for the first time. It is as though their love, which began in the heart of Jesus, asserted itself strongly even in the face of darkness.But we are not allowed to dwell on this hopeful moment, for Gus reveals, just before they return home, that his cancer has reasserted itself and that his condition is terminal. Not long after they return, Gus dies, at the age of eighteen, and Hazel sinks into profound sadness: “Each minute,” she says, “is worse than the previous one.” At the funeral, even as Christian prayers are uttered, Hazel just goes through the motions, pretending to find comfort, precisely for the sake of her family and friends. But some days after the funeral, she discovers that Augustus had written a note to her just before his death. It closes with the words, “Okay, Hazel Grace?” To which the young woman responds, while gazing up into the sky, “Okay.” With that word, the film ends.Pretty grim stuff? Yes…but. Does nihilism have the last word? I don’t know. The question that haunts the entire movie is how can there be meaning in the universe when two wonderful young kids are dying of cancer? As any Philosophy 101 student knows, our attempts to justify the existence of evil through abstract argumentation are a fairly useless exercise. However, a kind of answer can be found precisely where Hazel and Gus met, that is to say, in the sacred heart of Jesus. The central claim of Christianity is that God became one of us and that he shared our condition utterly, accepting even death, death on a cross. God entered into our suffering and thereby transformed it into a place of springs, a place of grace. I don’t think it is the least bit accidental that Waters (Gus’s last name) and Grace (Hazel’s middle name) met in the sacred heart of Christ and thereby, despite their shared suffering, managed to give life to one another. And is this why I think Hazel effectively repudiates her nihilism and materialism as she responds across the barrier of death to Gus’s “Okay.” I’m convinced that Hazel senses, by the end of the story, the central truth of Christian faith that real love is more powerful than death. As this film a satisfying presentation of Christianity? Hardly. But for those who are struggling to find their way to meaning and faith, it’s not an entirely bad place to start.
I don’t know what possesses me to watch “Real Time With Bill Maher,” for Maher is, without a doubt, the most annoying anti-religionist on the scene today. Though his show is purportedly about politics, it almost invariably includes some attack on religion, especially Christianity. Even during a recent interview with former President Jimmy Carter, whom Maher very much admires, the host managed to get in a sharp attack on Carter’s faith. Just last week, his program included a brief conversation with Ralph Reed, the articulate gentleman who used to run the Christian Coalition and who is now a lobbyist and activist on behalf of faith-related causes.For the first three or four minutes, Reed and Maher discussed the social science concerning children raised in stable vs. unstable families, and Reed was scoring quite a few points in favor of the traditional understanding of marriage. Sensing that he was making little headway, Maher decided to pull the religion card, and from that point on things went from bad to worse. Maher said, “Now you’re a man of faith, which means someone who consciously suspends all critical thinking and accepts things on the basis of no evidence.” Astonishingly, Reed said, “yes,” at which point, I shouted at the TV screen: “No!” Then Maher said, “And I believe that you take everything in the Bible literally,” and Reed replied, “yes,” at which point I said, “Oh God, here we go again.” Maher then did what I knew he would do: he pulled out a sheet of paper which included references to several of the more morally outrageous practices that the God of the Bible seems to approve of, including slavery. Pathetically, Reed tried to clear things up by distinguishing the chattel slavery of the American south from the slavery practiced in the classical world, which amounted to a kind of indentured servitude. “Oh I get it,” Maher responded, “God approves of the good kind of slavery.” The audience roared with laughter; Reed lowered his head; Maher smirked; and the cause of religion took still another step backward.I would like, in very brief compass, to say something simple about each of the issues that Maher raised. Faith, rightly understood, does not involve any surrender of one’s critical intellectual powers, nor is it tantamount to the acceptance of things on the basis of no evidence. What Bill Maher characterizes as “faith” is nothing but superstition or credulity or intellectual irresponsibility. It is an ersatz “knowing” that falls short of the legitimate standards of reason. Real faith is not infra-rational but rather supra-rational, that is to say, not below reason but above reason and inclusive of it. It is beyond reason precisely because it is a response to the God who has revealed himself, and God is, by definition, beyond our capacity to grasp, to see, fully to understand. It involves darkness to be sure, but the darkness that comes, not from an insufficiency of light, but from a surplus of light. If you are ever tempted to agree with Bill Maher on the nature of faith, I would invite you to read any page of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, C.S. Lewis, or G.K. Chesterton and honestly ask yourself the question, “Does this sound like someone who has suspended his critical faculties?” As for the Bible, the moment you say, as Ralph Reed did, that you take the entirety of the Scriptures literally, you are hopelessly vulnerable to the kind of critique that Bill Maher raises. In its marvelous statement on Biblical interpretation, Dei Verbum, Vatican II says that the Bible is the Word of God in the words of men. That laconic statement packs a punch, for it clarifies why the fundamentalist strategy of Scriptural interpretation is always dysfunctional. God did not dictate the Scriptures word for word to people who received the message dumbly and automatically; rather, God spoke subtly and indirectly, precisely through human agents who employed distinctive literary techniques and who were conditioned by the cultures in which they found themselves and by the audiences they addressed. Thus one of the most basic moves in Scriptural exegesis is the determination of the genre in which a given Biblical author was operating. Are we dealing with a song, a psalm, a history, a legend, a letter, a Gospel, a tall tale, an apocalypse? Therefore, to ask, “Do you take the Bible literally?” is about as helpful as asking, “Do you take the library literally?”A further implication of Dei Verbum’s statement is that there is a distinction between, as William Placher put it, “what is in the Bible and what the Bible teaches.” There are lots of things that are indeed in the pages of the Scriptures but that are not essential to the overarching message of the Scriptures, things that were in the cultural milieu of the human authors but that are not ingredient in the revelation that God intends to offer. A good example of this would be the references to slavery that Maher cited. The institution of slavery was taken for granted in most ancient cultures and is therefore it is not surprising that Biblical authors would refer to it or even praise it, but attention to the great patterns and trajectories of the Bible as a whole reveals that the justification of slavery is not something that “the Bible teaches,” which is precisely why the fight against slavery in the western culture was led by people deeply shaped by the Scriptures.There is much more, obviously, that can be said concerning these two complex areas of theology. Suffice it to say the kind of conversation that Bill Maher and Ralph Reed had is decidedly not the best way forward.
A very instructive exchange between Gary Gutting, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame, and Philip Kitcher, a philosophy professor at Columbia, just appeared in the pages of The New York Times. Kitcher describes himself as a proponent of “soft atheism,” which is to say an atheism distinct from the polemical variety espoused by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Unlike his harsher colleagues, Kitcher is willing to admit that religion can play an ethically useful role in a predominantly secular society. I won’t delve into this feature of Kitcher’s thought, for I have explored the Kantian reduction of religion to ethics elsewhere, but I would like to draw attention to one particular move made in this interview, since it shows, with remarkable clarity, one of the fundamental misunderstandings of religion common among atheists. Prompted by Gutting, Kitcher admits that he finds all religious doctrine incredible. Pressed for an explanation of this rather extreme position, he points to the fact of the extraordinary plurality of religious doctrines: Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, animists, etc. hold to radically different accounts of reality, the divine, human purpose, etc. And since all religions rely fundamentally on the same ground—some revelation offered to distant ancestors—there is no rational way to adjudicate these differences. Indeed, the only real reason that I am a Christian, he would maintain, is that I was born to Christian parents who passed the founding stories onto me. If you, as a Jew or Muslim or Hindu, have different foundational stories, there is no reasonable way I can convince you or you can convince me. It’s just your cockamamie myth against my cockamamie myth. This is, of course, a variation on the standard Enlightenment view that positive religion is untethered to reason and hence inevitably violent, force being the only way that one religion can supersede another. The fundamental problem here is that Kitcher completely overlooks the decisively important role that a religious tradition plays in the development and ratification of doctrine. It is true that religion is usually grounded in some foundational events, but those experiences are not simply passed on dumbly like a football from generation to generation. On the contrary, they are sifted and tested through a complex process of reception and assimilation. They are compared and contrasted to other similar experiences; they are analyzed rationally; they are set in dialogue with what we know of the world on other grounds; they are subjected to philosophical investigation; their layers of meaning are uncovered through conversations that have unfolded across hundreds, even thousands of years; their behavioral and ethical implications are teased out and assessed.Let us take just one example from the Bible in order to illustrate how this process happens. The book of Genesis tells us that the patriarch Jacob one night had a dream of angels ascending and descending on a great ladder that was rooted in the earth and stretched into the heavens. Upon awakening, he declared the site where he had slept holy and consecrated it with an altar. As the tradition has received this story and drawn out its implications, it has come to see a manifold of profound metaphysical and spiritual truths: that finite being and Infinite being are intimately connected to one another; that every place is potentially a place of encounter with the power that sustains the cosmos; that there is a hierarchy of created reality stretching upward to God from the earth and downward from God to the earth; that the worship of God is enlivening to human beings; etc. These conclusions are the result of the very sifting process I referenced above, and they provide the basis for something that Kitcher and his colleagues evidently find inadmissible, namely, a real argument about religious matters. It is not simply a question of pitting one ancient story against another; it is a question of analyzing, marshalling evidence, and testing against experience. And when this takes place between interlocutors from different religious traditions, provided that they are people of intelligence and good will, serious progress can be made. The conversation partners will discover, perhaps, that they hold a remarkable number of truths in common, that there are points of contact between doctrines that seem utterly at odds, and that there are some of their teachings that are indeed mutually exclusive. And in regard to the points of contention, authentic arguments can be launched from both sides. As I hinted above, what bothers me about Kitcher’s proposal is that it effectively relegates all religion to the arena of the irrational. It is interesting to note that several times in the course of his interview he compares religious experience to the experiences of people suffering from psychosis. And this shows the real danger of such a proposal, namely, that a society dominated by advocates of Kitcher’s brand of atheism might tolerate religious people for a time but will, eventually, seek to marginalize them—or even hospitalize them for insanity. If you think this last suggestion is paranoid, take a good hard look at the policy of the Soviet Union in regard to those who disagreed with its regnant ideology. In the mid-nineteenth century, John Henry Newman fought tenaciously to defend the rationality of religious claims. Kitcher’s interview—as well as the voluminous writings of his intellectual allies—convinces me that the same battle needs to be joined today.
In first century Judaism, there were many views concerning what happened to people after they died. Following a very venerable tradition, some said that death was the end, that the dead simply returned to the dust of the earth from which they came. Others maintained that the righteous dead would rise at the close of the age. Still others thought that the souls of the just went to live with God after the demise of their bodies. There were even some who believed in a kind of reincarnation.What is particularly fascinating about the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection is that none of these familiar frameworks of understanding is invoked. The first witnesses maintain that the same Jesus who had been brutally and unmistakably put to death and buried was, through the power of God, alive again. He was not vaguely “with God,” nor had his soul escaped from his body; nor had he risen in a purely symbolic or metaphorical sense. He, Jeshoua from Nazareth, the friend whom they knew, was alive again. What was expected for all the righteous dead at the end of time had happened, in time, to this one particular man, to this Jesus. It was the very novelty of the event that gave such energy and verve to the first Christian proclamation. On practically every page of the New Testament, we find a grab-you-by-the-lapels quality, for the early Christians were not trading in bland spiritual abstractions or moral bromides. They were trying to tell the whole world that something so new and astounding had happened that nothing would ever again be the same. Over the past couple of centuries, many thinkers, both inside and outside of the Christian churches, endeavored to reduce the resurrection message to the level of myth or symbol. Easter, they argued, was one more iteration of the “springtime saga” that can be found, in one form or another, in most cultures, namely, that life triumphs over death in the “resurrection” of nature after the bleak months of winter. Or it was a symbolic way of saying that the cause of Jesus lives on in his followers. But as C.S. Lewis keenly observed, those who think the resurrection story is a myth haven’t read many myths. Mythic literature deals in ahistorical archetypes, and thus it tends to speak of things that happened “once upon a time” or “in a galaxy far, far away.” But the Gospels don’t use that sort of language. In describing the resurrection, they mention particular places like Judea and Jerusalem, and they specify that the event took place when Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of the region, and they name distinct individuals—Peter, John, Thomas, etc.—who encountered Jesus after he rose from the dead. Moreover, no one dies defending mythic claims. The myths of Greece, Rome, and Egypt are powerful and illuminating indeed, but there are no martyrs to Zeus or Dionysus or Osiris. But practically all of the first heralds of the resurrection went to their deaths defending the truth of their message. Yet assuming the resurrection is true, what does it mean? It means, first, that the customary manner in which we understand the relationship between order and violence—from the Epic of Gilgamesh to “Game of Thrones”—has to be rethought. On the standard Realpolitik reading of things, order comes about through the violent imposition of strength. And if that order is lost or compromised, it must be restored through answering violence. In Jesus’ time, the great principle of order was the Empire of Rome, which maintained its hold through the exertions of its massive army and through the imposition of harsh punishment on those who opposed its purposes. The most terrible and fearsome of these punishments was, of course, the cross, a particularly brutal mode of torture that was purposely carried out in public so as to have greatest deterrent effect. It was precisely on one of these Roman crosses that Jesus of Nazareth was put to death, having been betrayed and abandoned by his friends and condemned by a corrupt tribunal of collaborators.When the risen Jesus presented himself alive to his disciples, they were, we are told, afraid. Their fear might not have been simply a function of their seeing something uncanny; it might have been grounded in the assumption that he was back for vengeance. However, after showing his wounds, the risen Jesus said to his friends, “Shalom,” Peace. The teacher who had urged his followers to turn the other cheek and to meet violence with forgiveness exemplified his own teaching in the most vivid way possible. And what he showed, thereby, was that the divine manner of establishing order has nothing to do with violence, retribution, or eye-for-an-eye retaliation. Instead, it has to do with a love which swallows up hate, with a forgiveness which triumphs over aggression. It is this great resurrection principle which, explicitly or implicitly, undergirded the liberating work of Martin Luther King, Jr. in America, of Gandhi in India, of Bishop Tutu in South Africa, and of John Paul II in Poland. Those great practitioners of non-violent resistance were able to stand athwart the received wisdom only because they had some sense that in opting for the way of love they were going with the deepest grain of reality, operating in concert with the purposes of God.Secondly, the resurrection means that God has not given up on his creation. According to the well-known account in the book of Genesis, God made the whole array of finite things—sun, moon, planets, stars, animals, plants, things that creep and crawl on the earth—and found it all good, even very good. There is not a hint of dualism or Manichaeism in the Biblical vision, no setting of the spiritual over and against the material. All that God has made reflects some aspect of his goodness, and all created things together constitute a beautiful and tightly-woven tapestry. As the Old Testament lays out the story, human sin made a wreck of God’s creation, turning the garden into a desert. But the faithful God kept sending rescue operation after rescue operation: Noah’s Ark, the prophets, the Law and the Temple, the people Israel itself. Finally, he sent his only Son, the perfect icon or incarnation of his love. In raising that Son from the dead, God definitively saved and ratified his creation, very much including the material dimension of it (which is why it matters that Jesus was raised bodily from death). Over and again, we have said no to what God has made, but God stubbornly says yes. Inspired by this divine yes, we always have a reason to hope.
Well, it’s Easter time, and that means that the mainstream media and publishing houses can be counted upon to issue de-bunking attacks on orthodox Christianity. The best-publicized of these is Bart Ehrman’s latest book How Jesus Became God. Many by now know at least the outlines of Ehrman’s biography: once a devout Bible-believing evangelical Christian, trained at Wheaton College, the alma mater of Billy Graham, he saw the light and became an agnostic scholar and is now on a mission to undermine the fundamental assumptions of Christianity. In this most recent tome, Ehrman lays out what is actually a very old thesis, going back at least to the 18th century and repeated ad nauseam in skeptical circles ever since, namely, that Jesus was a simple itinerant preacher who never claimed to be divine and whose “resurrection” was in fact an invention of his disciples who experienced hallucinations of their master after his death. Of course Ehrman, like so many of his skeptical colleagues across the centuries, breathlessly presents this thesis as though he has made a brilliant discovery. But basically, it’s the same old story. When I was a teenager, I read British Biblical scholar Hugh Schonfield’s Passover Plot, which lays out the same narrative, and just a few months ago, I read Reza Aslan’s Zealot, which pursues a very similar line, and I’m sure next Christmas or Easter I will read still another iteration of the theory. And so, once more into the breach. Ehrman’s major argument for the thesis that Jesus did not consider himself divine is that explicit statements of Jesus’ divine identity can be found only in the later fourth Gospel of John, whereas the three Synoptic Gospels, earlier and thus presumably more historically reliable, do not feature such statements from Jesus himself or the Gospel writers. This is so much nonsense. It is indeed the case that the most direct affirmations of divinity are found in John—“I and the Father are one;” “before Abraham was I am;” “He who sees me sees the Father,” etc. But equally clear statements of divinity are on clear display in the Synoptics, provided we know how to decipher a different semiotic system.For example, in Mark’s Gospel, we hear that as the apostolic band is making its way toward Jerusalem with Jesus, “they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid” (Mk. 10:32). Awe and terror are the typical reactions to the presence of Yahweh in the Old Testament. Similarly, when Matthew reports that Jesus, at the beginning of the last week of his earthly life, approached Jerusalem from the east, by way of Bethpage and Bethany and the Mount of Olives, he is implicitly affirming Ezekiel’s prophecy that the glory of the Lord, which had departed from his temple, would return from the east, by way of the Mount of Olives. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus addresses the crippled man who had been lowered through the roof of Peter’s house, saying, “My son, your sins are forgiven,” to which the bystanders respond, “Who does this man think he is? Only God can forgive sins.” What is implied there is a Christology as high as anything in John’s Gospel. And affirmations of divinity on the lips of Jesus himself positively abound in the Synoptics. When he says, in Matthew’s Gospel, “He who does not love me more than his mother or father is not worthy of me,” he is implying that he himself is the greatest possible good. When in Luke’s Gospel, he says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away,” he is identifying himself with the very Word of God. When he says in Matthew’s Gospel, in reference to himself, “But I tell you, something greater than the Temple is here,” he is affirming unambiguously that he is divine, since for first century Jews, only Yahweh himself would be greater than the Jerusalem Temple. Perhaps most remarkably, when he says, almost as a tossed-off aside at the commencement of the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard it said, but I say…” he is claiming superiority to the Torah, which was the highest possible authority for first century Jews. But the only one superior to the Torah would be the author of the Torah, namely God himself. Obviously examples such as these from the Synoptic authors could be multiplied indefinitely. The point is that the sharp demarcation between the supposedly “high” Christology of John and the “low” Christology of the Synoptics, upon which the Ehrman thesis depends, is simply wrong-headed. And now to the “hallucinations.” Most of the skeptical critics of Christianity subscribe to some version of David Hume’s account of the miraculous. Hume said that since no reasonable person could possibly believe in miracles, those who claimed to have experienced a miracle must be unreasonable. They must, then, be delusional or naïve or superstitious. Hume’s logic was circular and unconvincing in the eighteenth century, and it hasn’t improved with age. Yes, if we assume that miracles are impossible, then those who report them are, to some degree, insane, but what if we don’t make things easy for ourselves and assume the very proposition we are trying to prove? What if we keep an open mind and assume that miracles are, though rare, possible? Then we don’t have to presume without argument that those who claim to have experienced them are delusional, and we can look at their reports with unjaundiced eyes.What in fact do we find when we turn to the resurrection appearance accounts in the New Testament? We find reports of many different people who experienced Jesus alive after his death and burial: Peter, John, Mary Magdalene, the twelve, “five hundred brothers at once,” and Paul. Does it strike you as reasonable that all of these people, on different occasions, were having hallucinations of the same person? The case of Paul is especially instructive. Ehrman argued that the visions of the risen Jesus were created in the anxious brains of his grief-stricken disciples, eager to commune once more with their dead Master. But Paul wasn’t grieving for Jesus at all; in fact, he was actively persecuting Jesus’ followers. He didn’t crave communion with a dead Master; he was trying to stamp out the memory of someone he took to be a pernicious betrayer of Judaism. And yet, his experience of the risen Jesus was so powerful that it utterly transformed his life, and he went to his death defending the objectivity of it. Debunkers of orthodox Christianity have been around for a long time. In some ways, it is testimony to the enduring power of the Christian faith that the nay-sayers feel obliged to repeat their tired arguments over and over. Faithful believers have simply to declare their Christianity with confidence and, patiently but firmly, tell the critics that they’re wrong.
Darren Aronofsky’s cinematic re-telling of the story of Noah has certainly stirred people up. While quite a few reviewers, both religious and non-religious, have given the film high marks, many Christians, both Evangelical and Catholic, have registered a far less than enthusiastic reaction. One prominent Catholic blogger and movie reviewer opined that “Noah” is “embarrassingly awful” and “the stupidest film in years.” Most of the religious critics have complained that the film plays fast and loose with the Genesis account, adding all sorts of distracting and fantastic elements to the well-known story. In the midst of all of this—and no doubt in part because of it—“Noah” took in $44 million on its opening weekend. “Noah” is best interpreted, I think, as a modern cinematic midrash on the Biblical tale. The midrashim—extremely popular in ancient Israel—were imaginative elaborations of the often spare Scriptural narratives. They typically explored the psychological motivations of the major players in the stories and added creative plot lines, new characters, etc. In the midrashic manner, Aronofsky’s film presents any number of extra-Biblical elements, including a conversation between Noah and his grandfather Methuselah, an army of angry men eager to force their way onto the ark, a kind of incense that lulls the animals to sleep on the ship, and most famously (or infamously), a race of fallen angels who have become incarnate as stone monsters. These latter characters are not really as fantastic or arbitrary as they might seem at first blush. Genesis tells us that the Noah story unfolds during the time of the Nephilim, a term that literally means “the fallen” and that is usually rendered as “giants.” Moreover, in the extra-Biblical book of Enoch, the Nephilim are called “the watchers,” a usage reflected in the great hymn “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones.” In Aronofsky’s “Noah,” the stone giants are referred to by the same name.What is most important is that this contemporary midrash successfully articulates the characteristically Biblical logic of the story of Noah. First, it speaks unambiguously of God: every major character refers to “the Creator.” Secondly, this Creator God is not presented as a distant force, nor is he blandly identified with Nature. Rather, he is personal, active, provident, and intimately involved in the affairs of the world that he has made. Thirdly, human beings are portrayed as fallen with their sin producing much of the suffering in the world. Some of the religious critics of “Noah” have sniffed out a secularist and environmentalist ideology behind this supposed demonization of humanity, but Genesis itself remains pretty down on the way human beings operate—read the stories of Cain and Abel and the Tower of Babel for the details. And “Noah’s” portrayal of the rape of nature caused by industrialization is nowhere near as vivid as Tolkien’s portrayal of the same theme in “The Lord of the Rings.” Fourthly, the hero of the film consistently eschews his own comfort and personal inclination and seeks to know and follow the will of God. At the emotional climax of the movie (spoiler alert), Noah moves to kill his own granddaughters, convinced that it is God’s will that the human race be obliterated, but he relents when it becomes clear to him that God in fact wills for humanity to be renewed. What is significant is that Noah remains utterly focused throughout, not on his own freedom, but on the desire and purpose of God. God, creation, providence, sin, obedience, salvation: not bad for a major Hollywood movie!There is a minor scene in the film which depicts some members of Noah’s family administering the sleep-inducing smoke to the animals. They look, for all the world, like priests swinging thuribles of incense around a cathedral. I’m quite sure that this was far from the mind of the filmmakers, but it suggested to me the strong patristic theme that Noah’s Ark is symbolic of the Church. During a time of moral and spiritual chaos, when the primal watery chaos out of which God created the world returned with a vengeance, the Creator sent a rescue operation, a great boat on which a microcosm of God’s good order would be preserved. For the Church Fathers, this is precisely the purpose and meaning of the Church: to be a safe haven where, in the midst of a sinful world, God’s word is proclaimed, where God is properly worshipped, and where a rightly ordered humanity lives in justice and non-violence. Just as Noah’s Ark carried the seeds of a new creation, so the Church is meant to let out the life that it preserves for the renewal of the world.If Aronofsky’s “Noah” can, even subliminally, suggest this truth, it is well worth the watching.
Seth MacFarlane, well known atheist and cartoonist, is the executive producer of the remake of “Cosmos,” which recently made its national debut. The first episode featured, along with the science, an animated feature dealing with the sixteenth century Dominican friar Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake by Church officials. A brooding statue of Bruno stands today in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome on the very spot where the unfortunate friar was put to death. In MacFarlane’s cartoon, Bruno is portrayed as a hero of modern science, and Church officials are, without exception, depicted as wild-eyed fanatics and unthinking dogmatists. As I watched this piece, all I could think was…here we go again. Avatars of the modern ideology feel obligated to tell their great foundation myth over and over, and central to that narrative is that both the physical sciences and liberal political arrangements emerged only after a long twilight struggle against the reactionary forces of religion, especially the Catholic religion. Like the effigies brought out to be burned on Guy Fawkes Day, the bugbear of intolerant and violent Catholicism has to be exposed to ridicule on a regular basis.I will leave to the side for the moment the issue of liberal politics’ relation to religion, but I feel obliged, once more, to expose the dangerous silliness of the view that Catholicism and the modern sciences are implacable foes. I would first observe that it is by no means accidental that the physical sciences in their modern form emerged when and where they did, that is to say, in the Europe of the sixteenth century. The great founders of modern science—Copernicus, Galileo, Tycho Brache, Descartes, Pascal, etc.—were formed in church-sponsored universities where they learned their mathematics, astronomy, and physics. Moreover, in those same universities, all of the founders would have imbibed the two fundamentally theological assumptions that made the modern sciences possible, namely, that the world is not divine—and hence can be experimented upon rather than worshipped—and that the world is imbued with intelligibility—and hence can be understood. I say that these are theological presumptions, for they are both corollaries of the doctrine of creation. If God made the world in its entirety, then nothing in the world is divine; and if God made the world in its entirety, then every detail of the world is marked by the mind of the Creator. Without these two assumptions, the sciences as we know them will not, because they cannot, emerge. In fact, from the intelligibility of the universe, the young Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) constructed an elegant argument for the existence of God. The objective intelligibility of the finite world, he maintained, is explicable only through recourse to a subjective intelligence that thought it into being. This correspondence, in fact, is reflected in our intriguing usage of the word “recognition” (literally, to think again) to designate an act of knowledge. In employing that term, we are at least implicitly acknowledging that, in coming to know, we are re-thinking what has already been thought by the creative intelligence responsible for the world’s intelligibility. If Ratzinger is right, religion, far from being science’s enemy, is in fact its presupposition.Secularist ideologues will relentlessly marshal stories of Hypatia, Galileo, Giordano Bruno and others—all castigated or persecuted by church people who did not adequately grasp the principles I have been laying out. But to focus on these few exceptional cases is grossly to misrepresent the history of the relationship between Catholicism and the sciences.May I mention just a handful of the literally thousands of Catholic clerics who have made significant contributions to the sciences? Do you know about Fr. Jean Picard, a priest of the seventeenth century, who was the first person to determine the size of the earth to a reasonable degree of accuracy? Do you know about Fr. Giovanni Battista Riccioli, a seventeenth century Jesuit astronomer and the first person to measure the rate of acceleration of a free-falling body? Do you know about Fr. George Searle, a Paulist priest of the early twentieth century who discovered six galaxies? Do you know about Fr. Benedetto Castelli, a Benedictine monk and scientist of the sixteenth century, who was a very good friend and supporter of Galileo? Do you know about Fr. Francesco Grimaldi, a Jesuit priest who discovered the diffraction of light? Do you know about Fr. George Coyne, a contemporary Jesuit priest and astrophysicist, who for many years ran the Vatican Observatory outside of Tucson? Perhaps you know about Fr. Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian monk who virtually invented modern genetics, and about Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, a twentieth century Jesuit priest who wrote extensively on paleontology, and about Fr. Georges Lemaître, the formulator of the Big Bang theory of cosmic origins. Can we please, once and for all, dispense with the nonsense that Catholicism is the enemy of the sciences? When we do, we’ll expose the Seth MacFarlane telling of the story for what it really is: not scientific history but the basest sort of anti-Catholic propaganda.
Last week, the attention of the world was riveted to a deserted beach in northern Libya, where a group of twenty one Coptic Christians were brutally beheaded by masked operatives of the ISIS movement. In the wake of the executions, ISIS released a gruesome video entitled “A Message in Blood to the Nation of the Cross.” I suppose that for the ISIS murderers the reference to “the Nation of the Cross” had little sense beyond a generic designation for Christianity. Sadly for most Christians, too, the cross has become little more than an anodyne, a harmless symbol, a pious decoration. I would like to take the awful event on that Libyan beach, as well as the ISIS message concerning it, as an occasion to reflect on the still startling distinctiveness of the cross.In the time of Jesus, the cross was a brutal and very effective sign of Roman power. Imperial authorities effectively said, “If you cross us (pun intended), we will affix you to a dreadful instrument of torture and leave you to writhe in agonizing, literally excruciating (ex cruce, from the cross) pain until you die. Then we will make sure that your body hangs on that gibbet until it is eaten away by scavenging animals.” The cross was, basically, state-sponsored terrorism, and it did indeed terrify people. The great Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero once described a crucifixion but only through a convoluted circumlocution, for he couldn’t bring himself to characterize it directly. After putting down the great slave uprising of Spartacus, the Roman government lined the Appian Way with hundreds of crosses so as to dissuade any other would-be revolutionaries. Pontius Pilate had much the same intention when he nailed dozens of Jewish rebels to the walls of Jerusalem. That same Pilate arranged for Jesus to be crucified on Calvary Hill, a promontory situated close to one of the gates of ancient Jerusalem, guaranteeing that his horrific death would not be missed by the large Passover crowds moving in and out of the city. From the crucified Jesus, all of the disciples, save John, fled, precisely because they wanted with all their hearts to avoid his dreadful fate. After Good Friday, the friends of Jesus huddled in terror in the Upper Room, petrified that they might be nailed up on Calvary as well. The disciples on the road to Emmaus were, understandably, heading out of Jerusalem, away from danger, and they were utterly convinced that Jesus’ movement had come to naught. In a word, the cross meant the victory of the world, and the annihilation of Jesus and what he stood for. And this is why it is surpassing strange that one of the earliest Apostles and missionaries of the Christian religion could write, “I preach one thing, Christ and him crucified!” How could Paul—the passage is taken from his first letter to the Corinthians—possibly present the dreadful cross as the centerpiece of his proclamation? He could do so only because he knew that God had raised the crucified Jesus from the dead, proving thereby that God’s love and forgiveness are greater than anything in the world. This is why his exaltation of the cross is a sort of taunt to Rome and all of its brutal descendants down through the ages: “You think that scares us? God has conquered that!” And this is why, to this day, Christians boldly hold up an image of the humiliated, tortured Jesus to the world. What they are saying is, “We are not afraid.” How wonderful this is, by the way, in light of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy and the controversy over the Dutch cartoonist’s mocking depictions of the prophet Muhammad. Christians don’t fuss particularly about insults to Jesus, for we reverence a depiction of the insulted Christ as our most sacred icon. We can say, with Paul, “I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither height nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39), for we know that the world killed Jesus but God raised him from the dead.Just before their throats were cut, many of the murdered Coptic Christians could be seen mouthing the words “Jesus Christ” and “Jesus is Lord.” The first of those phrases is a rendering of the Aramaic Ieshouah Maschiach, which means “Jesus the anointed one” and which hearkens back to King David, the paradigmatic anointed figure of the Old Testament. The second phrase is one that can be traced to St. Paul’s kerygmatic cry Iesous Kyrios (Jesus Lord!), which was intended to trump a watchword of the time, Kaiser Kyrios (Caesar is Lord). In short, both declarations assert the kingship of Jesus, but what a strange kingship! The new David reigns, not from a throne, but from a cross; the one who trumps Caesar doesn’t lead an army, but embodies the divine forgiveness. The ISIS barbarians were actually quite right in entitling their video “A Message Written in Blood.” Up and down the centuries, tyrants and their lackeys have thought that they could wipe out the followers of Jesus through acts of violence. But as Tertullian observed long ago, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. And they were furthermore right in sending their message to “the Nation of the Cross.” But they should know that the cross taunts them.
A classic characterization of Jesus is that he is priest, prophet, and king. As priest, he sanctifies, that is to say, he reestablishes the lost link between divinity and humanity; as prophet, he speaks and embodies the divine truth; and as king, he leads us on the right path, giving guidance to the human project. You might say that, as priest, he is the life; as prophet, he is the truth; and as king he is the way.Not only is this munus triplex (triple office) a rich way to characterize the Lord; it is also a very good way to designate who the baptized are supposed to be. According to Catholic theology, baptism is much more than merely a symbolic sign of belonging to the church. It is the means by which a person is incorporated into Christ, becoming a member of his mystical body. Baptism, accordingly, makes the baptized an alter Christus, another Christ. This is precisely why, for example, every candidate for baptism is anointed with oil, just as, in the Old Testament, priests, prophets, and kings were anointed upon assumption of their offices. So what does this look like in practice? How does it show itself in the lives of ordinary believers? Let us look at priesthood first. A priest fosters holiness, precisely in the measure that he or she serves as a bridge between God and human beings. In ancient Roman times, the priest was described as a pontifex, bridge-builder, and this remains a valid designation in the Christian context. The reconciliation of divinity and humanity produces in human beings a wholeness or integration, a coming together of the often warring elements within the self. The same dynamic obtains on a grander scale as well: when cities, societies, cultures rediscover a link to God, they find an inner peace. And therefore baptized priests are meant, first, to embody the harmony that God wants between himself and those made in his image and likeness. They affect this through their own intense devotion to prayer, the sacraments, and the Mass. In their cultivation of a real friendship with the living Christ, they act out their priestly identity and purpose. Then, they are sent out into families, communities, places of work, the political and cultural arenas, etc. in order to carry the integration they have found like a holy contagion. If baptized priests stop praying, stop going to Mass, stop frequenting the sacraments, they will become, in short order, like salt that has lost its savor.What does it mean for the average baptized person to be a prophet? A person is a prophet in the measure that he or she bears the truth of God. G.K. Chesterton said that in an upside-down world such as ours, the prophet is the one who stands on his head so that he might see things aright. This is why, of course, prophets have always appeared more than a little insane. In fact, the Hebrew word for prophet, "nabi", has the overtone of madman. Well, of course: in a world that has lost its bearings, those who speak the divine truth will, perforce, appear unhinged. How does one cultivate this salutary madness? Baptized prophets should exercise their brains by studying philosophy, theology, spirituality, church history, and the lives of the saints. And they can’t be satisfied with reading superficial tracts designed for children. Augustine, Origen, Bernard, Thomas Aquinas, Ignatius, John Henry Newman, Chesterton, and Ratzinger beckon. If those classic authors are a bit intimidating, Fulton Sheen, C.S. Lewis, Peter Kreeft, George Weigel, and Robert Spitzer provide more accessible but still meaty fare. Having been illumined, these prophets are then sent out into their worlds as beacons of light. God knows that in our increasingly secularized society, such illumination is desperately needed, but if baptized prophets stop studying and stop speaking, they are like lamps over which a bushel basket has been placed.Finally, what does it mean for the ordinary Catholic to be a king? In the theological sense, a king is someone who orders the charisms within a community so as to direct that community toward God. In this way, he is like the general of an army or the conductor of an orchestra: he coordinates the efforts and talents of a conglomeration of people in order to help them achieve a common purpose. Thus, a Catholic parent directs her children toward the accomplishment of their God-given missions, educating them, shaping them interiorly, molding their behavior, disciplining their desires, etc. A Catholic politician appreciates the moral dimension of his work, and legislates, cajoles, and directs accordingly. A Catholic private equity investor saves a company that provides indispensable jobs in a declining neighborhood, etc. How does one grow in the capacity to exercise kingly leadership? One can do so by overcoming the cultural prejudice in favor of a privatized religion. Most of the avatars of secularism would accept religion as a personal preoccupation, something along the lines of a hobby. But such an attenuated spirituality has nothing to do with a robustly Biblical sense of religion. On the Catholic reading, religious people—the baptized—come forth boldly and publicly and are more than willing to govern, to be kings, out of religious conviction. If you are looking for examples of what I’m describing here, look no further than William Lloyd Garrison, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and Fulton Sheen. Baptized kings who refuse to reign are like a hilltop city covered in clouds.The key to the renewal of our society is a recovery of the deepest meaning of baptism, to become priestly, prophetic, and kingly people.
The Catholic Church is often criticized as rigorist, unrealistic, and unbending, especially in regard to its teaching on sexuality. How could anyone, we hear over and again, possibly live up to the Church’s demands concerning masturbation, artificial contraception, or sex outside of marriage, etc.? Moreover, every poll that comes out suggests that increasing numbers of Catholics themselves don’t subscribe to these moral demands. Few expect the Church to acquiesce to the moral laxity of the environing culture, but even many faithful Catholics think that it ought at least to soften its moral doctrine, adjust a bit to the times, become a tad more realistic. I wonder whether I might address these questions a bit obliquely, shifting the focus from the sexual arena into another area of moral concern. The Church’s teaching on just war is just as rigorist as its teaching on sexuality. In order for a war to be considered justified, a number of criteria have to be simultaneously met. These include declaration by a competent authority, a legitimating cause, proportionality between the good to be attained and the cost of the war, that military intervention is a last resort, etc. Furthermore, in the actual waging of a war, the two great criteria of proportionality and discrimination have to be met. The latter means, of course, that those engaged in the war must distinguish carefully between combatants and non-combatants, targeting only the former. If these criteria are strictly applied, it is difficult indeed to find any war that is morally justifiable. Many would hold that the Second World War met most if not all of the criteria for entering into a war, but even its most ardent moral defenders would have a difficult time justifying, in every detail, the waging of that war. For example, the carpet bombings of Dresden, Frankfurt, and Tokyo, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents, certainly violated the principles of discrimination and proportionality. Even more egregious examples of this violation, of course, were the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Catholic moral theology would characterize all of these actions as intrinsically evil, that is to say, incapable of being justified under any circumstances. In the wake of the atomic bombings in 1945, the English moral philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe made the Catholic case vociferously in a number of public debates. She went so far as to protest President Harry Truman’s reception of an honorary degree at Oxford, on the grounds that a great university should not honor a man responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents. In answer to Anscombe’s criticisms, many Americans—Catholics included—used frankly consequentialist forms of moral reasoning, arguing that the atomic bombings undoubtedly saved untold numbers of lives, both American and Japanese, and effectively brought a terrible war to an end. And I am sure that a poll of American Catholics conducted, say, in late 1945 would have revealed overwhelming support for the bombings. But does anyone really think that the Church ought to lower its standards in regard to just war? Does anyone really think that the difficulty of following the Church’s norms in this arena should conduce toward a softening of those norms? Here is the wonderful and unnerving truth: the Catholic Church’s job is to call people to sanctity and to equip them for living saintly lives. Its mission is not to produce nice people, or people with hearts of gold or people with good intentions; its mission is to produce saints, people of heroic virtue. Are the moral demands regarding warfare extravagant, over the top, or unrealistic? Well, of course they are! They are the moral norms that ought to guide those striving for real holiness. To dial down the demands because they are hard and most people have a hard time realizing them is to compromise the very meaning and purpose of the Church. Now let us move back to the Church’s sexual morality. Is it exceptionally difficult to live up to all of the demands in this arena? Do the vast majority of people fall short of realizing the ideal? Do polls of Catholics consistently reveal that many if not most Catholics would welcome a softening of sexual norms? Well, of course. But none of these data prove much of anything, beyond the fact that living a heroically virtuous life is difficult. As in regard to just war, a compromising of the ideal here would represent an abdication of the Church’s fundamental responsibility of equipping the saints. However, here is the flip-side. The Catholic Church couples its extraordinary moral demand with an extraordinarily lenient penitential system. Suppose the pilot of the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (I believe he was a Catholic) came into a confessional box and, in an attitude of sincere repentance, confessed the sin of contributing to the deaths of 100,000 innocent people. The priest would certainly give him counsel and perhaps assign a severe penance, but he would then say, “I absolve you of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And that man’s sins, before God, would be wiped away. Period. The Church calls people to be not spiritual mediocrities, but great saints, and this is why its moral ideals are so stringent. Yet the Church also mediates the infinite mercy of God to those who fail to live up to that ideal (which means practically everyone). This is why its forgiveness is so generous and so absolute. To grasp both of these extremes is to understand the Catholic approach to morality.
One of the commonest observations made by opponents of religion is that we don’t need God in order to have a coherent and integral morality. Atheists and agnostics are extremely sensitive to the charge that the rejection of God will conduce automatically to moral chaos. Consequently, they argue that a robust sense of ethics can be grounded in the consensus of the human community over time or in the intuitions and sensibilities of decent people, etc.What I would like to do is lay out, in very brief compass, the Catholic understanding of the relationship between morality and the existence of God and to show, thereby, why it is indispensably important for a society that wishes to maintain its moral integrity to maintain, at the same time, a vibrant belief in God.Why do we do the things that we do? What motivates us ethically? Right now, I am typing words on my keyboard. Why am I doing that? Well, I want to finish my weekly column. Why do I want to do that? I want to communicate the truth as I see it to an audience who might benefit from it. Why would I want that? Well, I’m convinced that the truth is good in itself. Do you see what we’ve uncovered by this simple exercise? By searching out the motivation for the act of typing words, we have come to a basic or fundamental good, a value that is worthwhile for its own sake. My acts of typing, writing, and communicating are subordinate, finally, to the intrinsic value of the truth. Take another example. Just before composing that last sentence, I took a swig of water from a plastic bottle on my desk. Why did I do that? Well, I was thirsty and wanted to slake my thirst. But why did I want to do that? Hydrating my system is healthy. Why is health important? Because it sustains my life. Why is life worth pursuing? Well, because life is good in itself. Once more, this analysis of desire has revealed a basic or irreducible good. Catholic moral philosophy recognizes, besides truth and life, other basic values, including friendship, justice, and beauty, and it sees them as the structuring elements of the moral life.When Pope Benedict XVI complained about a “dictatorship of relativism” and when Catholic philosophers worry over the triumph of the subjective in our culture, they are expressing their concerns that these irreducible values have been forgotten or occluded. In her great meditations on the sovereignty of the good, the Irish philosopher Iris Murdoch strenuously insists that the authentic good legitimately imposes itself on the human will and is not a creation of that will. At the limit, contemporary subjectivism apotheosizes the will so that it becomes the source of value, but this puffing up of our freedom is actually ruinous, for it prevents the appropriation of the objective values that will truly benefit us.This “basic goods” theory also grounds the keen Catholic sense that there are certain acts which are intrinsically evil, that is, wrong no matter the circumstances of the act or the motivations of the agent. Slavery, the sexual abuse of children, adultery, racism, murder, etc. are intrinsically evil precisely because they involve direct attacks on basic goods. The moment we unmoor a moral system from these objective values, no act can be designated as intrinsically evil and from that state of affairs moral chaos follows.So far we have determined the objectivity of the ethical enterprise, but how does God figure into the system? Couldn’t an honest secularist hold to objective moral goods but not hold to God’s existence? Let’s return to our analysis of the will in action. As we saw, the will is motivated, even in its simplest moves, by some sense, perhaps inchoate, of a moral value: truth, life, beauty, justice, etc. But having achieved some worldly good—say of writing this column, or slaking a thirst, or educating a child—the will is only incompletely satisfied. In point of fact, the achievement of some finite good tends to spur the will to want more of that good. Every scientist or philosopher knows that the answering of one question tends to open a hundred new ones; every social activist knows that righting one wrong awakens a desire to right a hundred more. Indeed, no achievement of truth, justice, life, or beauty in this world can satisfy the will, for the will is ordered to each of those goods in its properly unconditioned form. As Bernard Lonergan said, “the mind wants to know everything about everything.” And as St. Augustine said, “Lord, you have made us for yourself; therefore our heart is restless until it rests in thee.” You’ve noticed that I’ve slipped God somewhat slyly into the discussion! But I haven’t done so illegitimately, for in the Catholic philosophical tradition,“God” is the name that we give to absolute or unconditioned goodness, justice, truth, and life.Now we can see the relationship between God and the basic goods that ground the moral life: the latter are reflections of and participations in the former. As C.S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity, the moral absolutes are, therefore, signposts of God. And this is precisely why the negation of God leads by a short route to the negation of moral absolutes and finally to a crass subjectivism. Removing God is tantamount to removing the ground for the basic goods, and once the basic goods have been eliminated, all that is left is the self-legislating and self-creating will. Thus,we should be wary indeed when atheists and agnostics blithely suggest that morality can endure apart from God. Much truer is Dostoyevsky’s observation that once God is removed, anything is permissible.
An emergency tends to focus one’s mind and energies and to clarify one’s priorities. If a dangerous fire breaks out in a home, the inhabitants thereof will lay aside their quarrels, postpone their other activities, and together get to the task of putting out the flames. If a nation is invaded by an aggressor, politicians will quickly forget their internal squabbling and put off their legislative programs in order to work together for the shared purpose of repulsing the enemy.Christianity is grounded in what its earliest proponents called “good news,” euangelion. There is, therefore, something permanently fresh, startling, and urgent about the Christian faith. It is not a bland spirituality or generic philosophy; it is news about something amazing and unprecedented, namely, that a carpenter from Nazareth, who declared himself the Son of God, has been raised from the dead. This is why there is a “grab you by the lapels” quality about the early Christian witness: the authors of the New Testament are not trading in generalities and abstract principles; they are telling the world about a revolution, an earthquake, an emergency. Jesus is risen from the dead, and therefore he is the king. And because he is the king, your whole life has to be rearranged around him. This evangelical urgency, which Pope Francis gets in his bones, is the leitmotif of the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). He knows that if Catholicism leads with its doctrines, it will devolve into an intellectual debating society, and that if it leads with its moral teaching, it will appear fussy and puritanical. It should lead today as it led two thousand years ago, with the stunning news that Jesus Christ is the Lord, and the joy of that proclamation should be as evident now as it was then. The Pope helpfully draws our attention to some of the countless references to joy in the pages of the New Testament: “Rejoice!” is the angel’s greeting to Mary; in her Magnificat, the Mother of God exults, “My spirit rejoices in God my savior;” as a summation of his message and ministry, Jesus declares to his disciples, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete;” in the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that “wherever the disciples went there was great joy.” The Pope concludes with a wonderfully understated rhetorical question: “Why should we not also enter into this great stream of joy?” Why not indeed? Displaying his penchant for finding the memorable image, Pope Francis excoriates Christians who have turned “into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses,’” and whose lives “seem like Lent without Easter.”Once this basic truth is understood, the rest of the church’s life tends to fall more correctly into place. A church filled with the joy of the resurrection becomes a band of “missionary disciples,” going out to the world with the good news. Ecclesial structures, liturgical precision, theological clarity, bureaucratic meetings, etc. are accordingly relativized in the measure that they are placed in service of that more fundamental mission. The Pope loves the liturgy, but if evangelical proclamation is the urgent need of the church, “an ostentatious preoccupation with the liturgy” becomes a problem; a Jesuit, the Pope loves the life of the mind, but if evangelical proclamation is the central concern of the church, then a “narcissistic” and “authoritarian” doctrinal fussiness must be eliminated; a man of deep culture, Pope Francis loves the artistic heritage of the church, but if evangelical proclamation is the fundamental mission, then the church cannot become “a museum piece.”If there is one thing that bothers Pope Francis above all it is the endless bickering within the Catholic Church itself: “how many wars take place within the people of God and in our different communities!” Elitists on both the left and the right want to establish a church of the pure, those who hold all of the right positions on the key issues, and they are none too shy about critiquing, attacking, and excommunicating those who don’t agree with them. But the Church is meant to be a counter-sign to the divisiveness and violence of the world, a place where love, compassion, and mutual understanding hold sway. When we become but an echo of the fallen world, then we are like salt that has lost its savor, and our evangelical persuasiveness is fatally compromised. Again, keep in mind the metaphor of the emergency: when a threat or an opportunity of great moment appears, we ought to lay aside our petty (and even not so petty) differences and make common cause. Twice in the course of the Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis references the ancient principle bonum diffisivum sui (the good is diffusive of itself). When we find something that is good or beautiful or compelling—whether it is a movie, a work of art, a book or a person—we don’t keep it to ourselves. Rather, we are filled with a missionary fervor to share it. This principle applies, par excellence, to our experience of Christ Jesus risen from the dead. We want, with a reckless abandon, to give this supremely good news away. This energy, this compulsion — “woe to me if I do not evangelize” — is, for Pope Francis, the beating heart of the Church.
Two famous men died on November 22, 1963. The first did so in the most dramatic way possible, assassinated in the full glare of publicity on the streets of Dallas; the second in relative obscurity, in the upstairs bedroom of his simple home on the outskirts of Oxford, England. John F. Kennedy’s legacy has, of course, been enormous, but I wonder whether C.S. Lewis has actually, in the course of these past 50 years, had a greater impact on the culture than his counterpart. When he died at the age of 65, Lewis’s reputation was on the wane, but he has enjoyed an extraordinary posthumous vogue, as two successive generations have delighted in his literary criticism, his novels, and above all, his clever and incisive Christian apologetics.One reason why Lewis has proven so persuasive to so many is that he was compelled to undergo a transition—halting, painful, anguished—from non-belief to belief. Though he had been brought up in a Christian environment, he had lost his faith by the time he entered university. He was not someone to whom religious conviction came naturally or effortlessly; he had to work his way to it, in the face of often harsh opposition, both interior and exterior. This very personal struggle gives him credibility with the millions today who want to believe but who find ideological secularism and militant atheism enormously challenging. A second reason why Lewis was successful was that he came at Christian apologetics primarily from a literary rather than a philosophical point of view. I want to be careful not to overstate the case here: Lewis certainly understood philosophy and used it at times in his apologetics both effectively and creatively. Think, for instance, of the subtle analysis offered in his book Miracles. But Lewis was, first and foremost, a man of letters—a poet and storyteller. His area of academic specialization was the literature of the 16th century—he wrote with tremendous insight on Milton—and his first published writings were poems.This background allowed him to see something which is often overlooked in more academic and analytical presentations of the Christian faith, namely, that Christianity is, at bottom, a narrative, a story, an account of the dramatic things that God has done. Certainly doctrinal statements can be distilled from the Biblical revelation (in fact, that’s what most of formal theology does), but revelation is contained primarily in narrative form—and this matters profoundly. The Bible tells the story of how God’s good creation, sullied by sin, is restored through the return of God himself as king. This account contains many subplots and it is surrounded by a plethora of poetry, psalms, wisdom sayings, and other material that support it—but finally, the Bible is a rollicking adventure story, full of drama, reversals, adventure, and marked by a happy and triumphant ending. Throughout his career, and in a variety of works, Lewis exulted in telling and re-telling this story. Thus, in his most famous work of apologetics, Mere Christianity, he explained that the one God had to do battle with the dark spiritual power that had unjustly taken possession of his world—which is why the Christ child was obliged to arrive so surreptitiously, so clandestinely, sneaking, as it were, behind enemy lines. The very same tale is told in the Chronicles of Narnia. But in that imaginative setting, the devil becomes the White Witch, who has plunged Narnia into a 100 years of winter, and Christ becomes Aslan the lion who offers his own life in order to liberate the land. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis illustrates how the general calamity plays itself out in the life of a very ordinary Christian and the low-level devil assigned to torment him. It is precisely Lewis’s confidence in the victory of Christ that enabled him to disempower the devil through mockery. J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a great friend to and Christian fellow-traveler with Lewis, presented his own version of the Biblical tale in The Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien’s invented world, the devil appeared as Sauron the Dark Lord and Christ under the guise of Frodo the priest, Gandalf the prophet, and Aragorn, the king who returned after a great battle to take possession of his rightful kingdom. Both Lewis and Tolkien wanted to “evangelize the imagination,” to plant the seeds of the Gospel and the rhythms of the Biblical narrative in the minds of their readers. The fact that both The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings have, in recent years, been made into wildly popular films can only be characterized, therefore, as a triumph of evangelization.C.S. Lewis intuited something that has become a commonplace among postmodern philosophers, namely, that the avatar of one worldview overcomes another, not so much through argument, but through telling a more compelling story, by “out-narrating” his opponent. He knew that the Christian evangelist, despite any personal flaws he might exhibit or institutional baggage he might carry, still possessed the greatest story ever told. Lewis told that story with particular verve, bravado, intelligence, imagination, and panache—and that is why it is well and good that we should celebrate him on the 50th anniversary of his passing.
When I saw that Reza Aslan’s portrait of “Jesus, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” had risen to number one on the New York Times bestseller list, I must confess, I was both disappointed and puzzled. For the reductionistic and debunking approach that Aslan employs has been tried by dozens of commentators for at least the past 300 years, and the debunkers have been themselves debunked over and over again by serious scholars of the historical Jesus. Here is how the method works: a scholar focuses on one aspect of Jesus’ life, finds all of the Gospel passages that emphasize that aspect and declares them historically reliable, and then casually characterizes the rest of the Gospels as the non-historical musings of the evangelists and their communities. So in the course of the last three centuries, Jesus has been presented as, exclusively, an eschatological prophet, an itinerant preacher of the kingdom, a wonder-worker, a magician, a social revolutionary, an avatar of enlightened ethics, a cynic philosopher, etc. To be sure, evidence can be culled from the Gospels for all of these identities, but the problem is that these portraits invariably fail to present “Jesus in full,” the strange, beguiling, elusive, and richly complex figure that emerges from a thorough reading of the New Testament. The Jesus that Aslan wants to present is the “zealot,” which is to say, the Jewish insurrectionist intent upon challenging the Temple establishment in Jerusalem and, above all, the Roman military power that dominated the land of Israel. His principle justification for this reading is that religiously motivated revolutionaries were indeed thick on the ground in the Palestine of Jesus’ time,; that Jesus claimed to be ushering in a new Kingdom of God,; and that he ended up dying the death typically meted out to rabble-rousers who posed a threat to Roman authority. Jesus, he argues, fits neatly into the pattern set by Menahem, the heroic defender of Masada, Judas the Galilean, Simon son of Giora, Simon bar Kochba, and any number of other revolutionaries who claimed Messianic identity and who, in the end, were ground under by the Romans. On this reading, Jesus indeed died on a Roman cross, but he didn’t rise from the dead; instead, his body was probably left on the cross to be devoured by dogs or the birds of the air. Now questions immediately crowd the mind. What about Jesus’ extraordinary stress on non-violence and love of enemies (hardly the stern stuff we would expect from a zealot)? Oh, it was made up by the later Christian community that was trying to curry favor with Roman society. What about Jesus’ explicit claim that his kingdom was “not of this world”? Oh, those were words placed in his mouth by John the evangelist. What about his practically constant reference to prayer, the spiritual life, and trust in divine providence? Oh, that was pious invention. What about the stories of his outreach to the Woman at the Well, the man born blind, and Zacchaeus? What about the healing of Bartimaeus, the raising of Lazarus, and the raising of the daughter of Jairus, actions having precious little to do with anti-Roman activism? By now, you can guess the answer and I trust you see the problem: huge swaths of the Gospel and the early Christian witness have to be cut away in order to accommodate the portrait that Aslan paints.The most massive difficulty with Aslan’s interpretation is that it cannot begin to account for the stubborn fact that no one except specialist historians remembers Judas the Galilean, Menahem, or Simon bar Kochba—but everyone remembers Jesus of Nazareth. The clearest indication possible that someone was not the Messiah of Israel would have been his death at the hands of Israel’s enemies, for the Messiah was supposed to be a liberator and conqueror. And this is precisely why those failed revolutionaries were so quickly forgotten. But Christianity emerged as none other than a Messianic movement. Paul said, over and over again, Iesous Christos, simply his Greek rendering of Ieshouah Maschiach (Jesus the Messiah). How could he and the other early evangelists have declared the Messianic identity of a crucified criminal unless they knew that, despite his ignominious death, he had indeed conquered the enemies of Israel? And how could they have come to that conclusion apart from the resurrection of that crucified criminal from the dead? It turns out that the most convincing explanation, on historical grounds, of the emergence and endurance of the Christian movement is the very thing that Aslan and likeminded interpreters write off as a later concoction of the community.I would like to say just a bit more about this last point. As I’ve indicated, the favorite strategy of the Jesus reductionists is to claim that much of the Gospel material was invented, made up out of whole cloth by the developing Christian communities. Time and again, they insist that, since the earliest Gospel was written forty years after the time of Jesus, it couldn’t possibly contain more than a smattering of historically reliable material. But this is so much nonsense. Would we automatically reject as non-historical a book about the Kennedy assassination, published in 2003? Wouldn’t we naturally assume that the author had consulted historical records as well as numerous eye-witnesses to the events of November 22, 1963? Those who knew Jesus, who listened to his words and saw his great deeds, who witnessed his death and resurrection didn’t disappear en masse in 30 AD, leaving the Gospel writers with nothing to work with but their theologically informed imaginations. To give just one example: tradition holds (and there is no serious reason to doubt it) that Mark, the first evangelist, was a friend and companion of St. Peter, during the time of the great apostle’s sojourn in Rome. His Gospel was therefore grounded in the reminiscences of someone who knew Jesus intimately and who saw the Lord after his resurrection. There is absolutely no reason to doubt that the Gospel of Mark, though it was written forty years after the time of Jesus, is filled with reliable history. There are far, far better accounts of the historical Jesus than the book under consideration. I would recommend studies by E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, Richard Bauckham, Ben Witherington III, or N.T. Wright. What they will show you is that the real Jesus remains far more interesting and compelling than the superficial caricature offered by Reza Aslan.