Point of contact

Bruce Charlton identifies six problems for modern Christian apologists, and proposes a solution.  His remarks are all interesting, but I want to focus on the first and most fundamental of the problems he identifies, which is that the metaphysical and moral knowledge that even pagans had in the ancient world can no longer be taken for granted:

Christianity is a much bigger jump from secular modernity than from paganism.  Christianity seemed like a completion of paganism - a step or two further in the same direction and building on what was already there: souls and their survival beyond death, the intrinsic nature of sin, the activities of invisible powers and so on.  With moderns there is nothing to build on (except perhaps childhood memories or alternative realities glimpsed through art and literature).

From this problem follow several others.  Bruce continues:

Modern Christianity as experienced by converts tends to be incomplete - precisely because modern Christianity has nothing to build on.  This means that modern incomplete Christianity lacks explanatory power, seems to have little or nothing to say about what seem to be the main problems of living.  For example, modern Christianity seems to have nothing to do with politics, law, art, philosophy or science; to inhabit a tiny, shrinking realm cut-off from daily concerns.


Modern Christianity often feels shallow - it seems to rely on diktat of scripture and the Church - this is because moderns lack a basis in the spontaneous perceptions of Natural Law, animism, the sense of active supernatural power in everyday life.  Modern Christianity (after the first flush of the conversion experience) thus feels dry, abstract, legalistic, prohibitive, uninvolving, lacking in purpose. 

As they say, read the whole thing.  There is, I think, much truth in what Bruce has to say.  To be sure, I don’t for a moment think (and I take it that Bruce doesn’t think) that Christianity really is in fact “shallow,” “incomplete,” “dry,” “lacking in purpose,” devoid of “explanatory power,” with “nothing to build on” by way of common ground with secular modernity, etc.  Quite the opposite.  But I agree that it can seem that way to many modern people.  (It more or less seemed that way to me in my atheist days, before I discovered what Christianity, and in particular Catholicism, actually said -- that is to say, what its greatest representatives have actually held historically, as contrasted with the distortions of Christianity, whether liberal or fundamentalist, that have replaced it in much of the public mind.)

The problem, in part, is one of historical and cultural circumstances.  Take a simple example, the Christian description of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  To modern people this sort of talk can sound unbearably mawkish; indeed, I sometimes find it unbearably mawkish, unless the context is such as to counteract the awful cultural associations that have come to surround it.  Hence, if I’m hearing a reference to Jesus as Lord or Savior in the context of the Mass (whether the extraordinary form or the ordinary form celebrated in a dignified way), it does not bother me at all; but if I hear it uttered by a televangelist, I feel (perhaps like a Dawkins or a Hitchens would) an irresistible urge to change the channel.  

Think, though, of the associations a word like “Lord” would have to someone in the ancient or medieval world -- it would bring to mind an emperor, or an aristocrat.  Think of what “Savior” would mean in a cultural context where ancient local communities were being swallowed up by ruthless and seemingly invincible empires, and where rigorist moral systems like Stoicism and Neo-Platonism competed for the allegiance of the intelligentsia -- that is to say, where people had an ongoing sense both of being in real physical jeopardy and of continual personal moral failure.   A description of Jesus of Nazareth as “Lord” and “Savior” would have the reverse of the sentimental and effeminate connotations secularists hear in it now -- it might bring to mind a stern Constantine riding to the rescue on horseback, say, rather than a Mister Rogers with long hair and sandals, ready with a smile and a Band Aid for your spiritual boo-boos.

Combine the egalitarian politics, easy morals, and relative affluence and social stability of recent decades, and few people in the modern secular world are looking for a Lord or Savior in a sense the ancients and medievals would have understood.  Add to that the fact that “Jesus is Lord!” has become the expression of a therapeutic, emotionalistic religiosity conveyed through mass-produced T-shirts, bumper stickers, and bad music, and the whole idea is bound to the modern secularist to seem unintelligible and repulsively tacky.  (Scratch a New Atheist and you’ll often find that this is the kind of stuff he’s reacting against, and all he’s ever known of Christianity.)

So that’s part of the problem.  But that can be remedied if proponents of a muscular and intellectually rigorous form of Christianity -- that is to say, of Christianity simpliciter, as it existed historically -- rediscover their ancient heritage.  For they will thereby rediscover too the heritage of the pagan world, and find in it the resources to communicate with modern man, indeed with any man.  Aristotelians and Neo-Platonists knew that God exists, they knew that man is not a purely material creature, and they knew that good and bad are objective features of the world and that reason directs us to pursue the good.  They knew these things through philosophical arguments which have lost none of their force, arguments which were picked up and refined by Christian thinkers and which informed the great Scholastic tradition.  

As Pope Leo XIII beautifully put it in Aeterni Patris, the intellectual treasures of the pagans are like the gold and silver vessels the Israelites took out of Egypt, ready for deployment in the service of the true religion.  Thus did the Scholasticism whose revival this encyclical fostered happily adopt whatever was of value in the thought of Greeks and Romans, Jews and Arabs.  With philosophy as with art, literature, and architecture, if you want to learn what the greatest non-Christians had to offer, come to the Church, which absorbs and protects it -- honoring our divinely given nature and its products even as she raises them higher through grace.  She reminds man of what he already knows, or can know, through his own powers, before revealing to him truths he could not arrive at under his own steam.  She speaks to him in his own language -- the language of natural theology and natural law, which are in principle accessible to all, and have no “sell by” date.  Even modern secularists know this language, for they are no less human than their pagan ancestors.  The problem is that they speak it at only a grade school or even kindergarten level, whereas the greatest of the ancients at least had high school level proficiency.  But through “remedial education” they, like the ancient pagans, can be prepared for the graduate level work afforded by divine revelation.

This is, of course, the idea of what Aquinas called the praeambula fidei -- the preambles of faith, by which philosophy opens the door for revelation (where faith and revelation, keep in mind, are when rightly understood in no way contrary to reason but build on it -- I have explained how in the first half of a previous post).  But this brings us to another problem.  Like the Pharisee who scorns the sincere piety and virtue of the Samaritan, some Christians scorn natural theology and natural law as impious or at least questionable.  They either despise human nature, and with it any non-Christian understanding of God and morality, as altogether corrupt and without value; or they are willing at least verbally to affirm that nature, but only if it is effectively absorbed into the order of grace, like the Monophysite who is willing to acknowledge Christ’s human nature only if it is first completely divinized.  On the former tendency, faith alone and scripture alone must suffice to bring one to Christianity, preambles be damned.  On the latter, human nature is conceived of in a way which (to borrow a phrase from Pope Pius XII) threatens to “destroy the gratuity of the supernatural order” by taking the natural up into the supernatural, in effect treating natural theology and natural law as if only the Christian can understand them aright.  In both cases Christianity can come to seem a matter of mere diktat (as Bruce Charlton puts it) -- fideistic, inaccessible from and irrelevant to the world of the non-believer.

The first tendency, obviously, is associated with Luther and Calvin, though it is only fair to acknowledge that there are Protestants who have resisted it.  All the same, their resistance is itself often resisted by their coreligionists, as is illustrated by a famous dispute between the 20th century Protestant theologians Emil Brunner and Karl Barth.  Brunner argued that natural theology represents a “point of contact” between human nature and divine revelation, by which the former might be able to receive the latter (though even Brunner qualified his notion of “natural theology,” lest it imply the certainty of God’s existence through natural reason alone that is affirmed by Catholicism).  Barth responded angrily (in a work with the pithy title “No!”), rejecting any suggestion that human nature contributes something to the “encounter” between God and man and arguing that any needed “point of contact” was itself provided by revelation rather than human nature.  This is a little like saying that billiard ball A knocks into billiard ball B by hitting, not B’s surface, but a surface provided by A.  If intelligible at all, it only pushes the problem back a stage: How does the surface provided by A itself have any efficacy vis-à-vis B?  And how does the “point of contact” provided by revelation itself make any contact with human nature?

It is also only fair to point out that some modern Catholic thinkers have taken views which at least flirt with the second tendency I described above -- though in part under the influence of Barth.  Hans Urs von Balthasar sought to meet Barth halfway by rejecting the conception of man’s natural state developed within the Thomistic tradition and central to the Neo-Scholasticism fostered by Leo’s Aeterni Patris (a conception which I described in a recent post on original sin).  On this traditional view, the natural end of human beings is to know God, but only in a limited way.  The intimate, “face to face” knowledge of the divine nature that constitutes the beatific vision is something we are not destined for by nature, but is an entirely supernatural gift made available to us only through Christ.  In place of this doctrine, Balthasar put the teaching of his fellow Nouvelle Théologie proponent Henri de Lubac, who held that this supernatural end is something toward which we are ordered by nature.  Whether it is even coherent to maintain that a supernatural gift can be our natural end, and whether de Lubac’s teaching can ultimately be reconciled with the traditional Catholic doctrine of the “gratuity of the supernatural order” reasserted by Pius XII, have for several decades now been matters of fierce controversy.  But the apparent (even if unintended) implication of the position staked out by de Lubac and Balthasar is that there is no such thing as a human nature intelligible apart from grace and apart from Christian revelation.  And it is in that case hard to see how there could be a natural theology and natural law intelligible to someone not already convinced of the truth of that revelation.

Related to this is Etienne Gilson’s tendency to deemphasize the Aristotelian core of Aquinas’s system and to present it instead as a distinctively “Christian philosophy.”  As Ralph McInerny argued in Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers, Gilson’s position, like de Lubac’s, threatens to undermine the traditional Thomistic view that philosophy must be clearly distinguished from theology and can arrive at knowledge of God apart from revelation.  Such views thereby “unwittingly [erode] the notion of praeambula fidei” and “lead us along paths that end in something akin to fideism” (p. ix).  

McInerny’s book, along with other recent works like Lawrence Feingold’s The Natural Desire to See God according to St. Thomas Aquinas and His Interpreters and Steven A. Long’s Natura Pura, mark a long-overdue recovery within mainstream Catholic thought of an understanding of nature and grace that was once common coin, and apart from which the possibility of natural theology and natural law cannot properly be understood.  Nor, I would say, can other crucial matters properly be understood apart from it (such as original sin, as I argue in the post linked to above).  The blurring of the natural and the supernatural may also lie behind a tendency in some contemporary Catholic writing to overemphasize the distinctively theological aspects of some moral issues.  For example, an exposition of traditional sexual morality that appeals primarily to the Book of Genesis, the analogy of Christ’s love for the Church, or the relationship between the Persons of the Trinity may seem more profound than an appeal to (say) the natural end of our sexual faculties.  But the result of such a lopsided theological emphasis is that to the non-believer, Catholic morality can (again to use Bruce Charlton’s words) falsely “seem to rely on diktat of scripture and the Church” and thus appeal only to the relatively “tiny, shrinking realm” of those willing to accept such diktat.  It will fail adequately to explain to those who do not already accept the biblical presuppositions of Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body” or of a “covenant theology of human sexuality,” their merits notwithstanding, exactly how Catholic teaching is rationally grounded in human nature rather than in arbitrary divine or ecclesiastical command.  Grace doesn’t replace nature but builds on it; and an account which heavily emphasizes the former over the latter is bound to seem ungrounded.

The late pope himself realized this, whether or not all of his expositors do.  In Memory and Identity he says:

If we wish to speak rationally about good and evil, we have to return to Saint Thomas Aquinas, that is, to the philosophy of being [i.e. traditional metaphysics].  With the phenomenological method, for example, we can study experiences of morality, religion, or simply what it is to be human, and draw from them a significant enrichment of our knowledge.  Yet we must not forget that all these analyses implicitly presuppose the reality of the Absolute Being and also the reality of being human, that is, being a creature.  If we do not set out from such “realist” presuppositions, we end up in a vacuum. (p. 12)

And in Chapter V of Fides et Ratio he warned:

There are also signs [today] of a resurgence of fideism, which fails to recognize the importance of rational knowledge and philosophical discourse for the understanding of faith, indeed for the very possibility of belief in God.  One currently widespread symptom of this fideistic tendency is a “biblicism” which tends to make the reading and exegesis of Sacred Scripture the sole criterion of truth…

Other modes of latent fideism appear in the scant consideration accorded to speculative theology, and in disdain for the classical philosophy from which the terms of both the understanding of faith and the actual formulation of dogma have been drawn.  My revered Predecessor Pope Pius XII warned against such neglect of the philosophical tradition and against abandonment of the traditional terminology.

And the Catechism promulgated by Pope John Paul II, citing Pius XII, affirmed that:

human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator… (par 37)

There is a reason why the first Vatican Council, while insisting that divine revelation teaches us things that cannot be known by natural reason alone, also taught that:

The same Holy mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason…


Not only can faith and reason never be at odds with one another but they mutually support each other, for on the one hand right reason established the foundations of the faith and, illuminated by its light, develops the science of divine things…


If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema.


If anyone says that divine revelation cannot be made credible by external signs, and that therefore men and women ought to be moved to faith only by each one's internal experience or private inspiration: let him be anathema.


If anyone says… that miracles can never be known with certainty, nor can the divine origin of the Christian religion be proved from them: let him be anathema.

The point of such anathemas is not to settle by fiat the question of whether God exists or whether miracles have actually occurred; obviously, a skeptic will be moved, if at all, only by being given actual arguments for these claims, not by the mere insistence that there are such arguments.  The anathemas are directed at the fideistic, subjectivist Christian who would dismiss the atheist’s demand that faith be given an objective, rational defense, and who thereby makes of Christianity a laughingstock.  Preaching Christianity to skeptics without first setting out the praeambula fidei, and then complaining when they don’t accept it, is like yelling in English at someone who only speaks Chinese, and then dismissing him as a fool when he doesn’t understand you.  In both cases, while there is certainly a fool in the picture, it isn’t the listener.
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