Western rationalism vs. the commitment of the whole person to God
Not long ago a Jesuit priest posted a reflection about the Catholic approach to truth in his personal blog. I am not going to quote, and I am not going to identify the Jesuit. It was an off-the-cuff sort of reflection (always a grave risk when blogging), and I have no desire to hold him to the bizarre conclusions he expressed. But he was reflecting on the Western habit of formulating religious commitments in terms of rational principles, principles that can be debated. Apparently this was triggered by a Japanese bishop who once gently chided him for this cultural tendency to make of everything an intellectual problem.
Almost out of the blue, Fr. Blogger’s ruminations led him on to the criticism suffered by Georgetown University theologian Fr. Peter Phan. Fr. Blogger speculated that the problem with Phan was not so much that he was wrong as that he had reached the right destination ahead of the rest of us. The right destination, apparently, involved denying several teachings of the Church, rejecting the unique and indispensable role of the Catholic Church in salvation, and generally confusing Just About Everything in favor of some generalized thirst for God—which could mean anything or nothing. In late 2007, the US Bishops issued a warning that the work of Fr. Phan contained “pervading ambiguities and equivocations that could easily confuse or mislead the faithful.” His book Being Religious Interreligiously also prompted inquiries from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
I say this came “almost out of the blue”, but not quite. You can see how this fits with Fr. Blogger’s theme. If we Westerners are too concerned about intellectual systems, this must mean that we are too concerned about truth. As the gentle barb of the Japanese bishop suggests, there is no need to go on and on in this idiosyncratic way, and much of the rest of the world doesn’t. So Fr. Blogger commends Fr. Phan for having achieved something special by, in effect, bypassing the head and allowing the heart to rule.
But Fr. Phan (and presumably Fr. Blogger with him) has apparently dismissed Revelation from both the heart and the head. This would put him not somewhere ahead of those who listen to God, but somewhere behind. Perhaps that is why, when I read the subtle critique of the Japanese bishop, I assumed something very different than did Fr. Blogger. I assumed the bishop was suggesting that the weakness of the Western tendency to systematize is not that it values truth but that it makes an intellectual game out of it.
The Key to Personal Response
Let’s run with this possibility for a moment. The West boasts a very strong intellectual tradition. Many wonderful achievements have followed from this tradition. But it also resulted in the rise of highly-systematized schools of thought which tended to insist that the truth had to be understood within a particular intellectual framework. As time went on, there was a growing tendency for people to insist that the truth must, in fact, be understood within my own intellectual framework. There was an ever-present danger, frequently realized, of altering the truth to fit the framework, rather than altering the framework to fit the truth. Over time, especially as the initial excitement about Revelation diminished, most of the frameworks became rooted in understandings of the human person which were tied more to the peculiarities of the respective thinkers and their culture than to the holistic vision of the human person derived from natural law and Revelation.
Zip bang boom. Differing schools of theology and philosophy engaged in bitter feuds. The Jesuits fell into casuistry. All kinds of thinkers began by figuring out what they wanted to prove, and then finding a convoluted way to prove it. Ultimately Modernism came along to root every system in our cultural consciousness, divorcing everything from any sort of transcendent or objective reality. But ultimately this simply meant rooting everything in the will, and it rapidly turned the intellect into an elaborate rationalization machine. The result, it seems to me, is that we Westerners have developed a marvelous intellectual process for justifying our decision to renege on Faith commitments, to revoke our total personal response to Jesus Christ, and to do it with what we have come to call “plausible deniability”. Hey presto! We can think, say and do whatever we want, totally immune from the nefarious demands of “orthodoxy”.
But orthodoxy is rooted in the authority of God revealing. That is why the best, most brilliant and most faithful theologians of the twentieth century insisted that theology return to its sources in Scripture, the Fathers and the Magisterium. And that is also why I very much suspect that the whole point of the gentle jab of the Japanese bishop was to express something deeper, something I have also seen, for example, in every African priest I have ever heard preach. The Japanese bishop very likely recognized that the deeper problem is not that we value truth too much, but that we value it too little. Instead of making a personal commitment to the way, the truth and the life, a commitment which progressively transforms every aspect of our being, we devise self-serving intellectual systems to justify holding ourselves aloof through a continuous argument about the truth.
Is it too much to ask why so many modern Western theologians, including a huge percentage of Jesuits, have spent their professional lives devising arcane arguments to prove that Revelation as safeguarded, understood and articulated by the Magisterium of the Church doesn’t matter? Why has this effort required so many long books, highly-developed courses, and scholarly societies? Is it possible that this is how Westerners salve their consciences when they go off in the very directions their own worldliness has already predetermined that they should go? How often do scholars step back from the Word of God to reconsider morality within abstruse systems of thought based on faulty first principles, making the truth a point of argument? How often is the real goal simply to find a clever way to get off the Revelational hook?
The New Evangelization
The New Evangelization is bringing this to a head in very interesting ways. Committed Catholics are increasingly determined to preach and teach to the whole person, eliciting a deep interior commitment to Christ. Pope Francis has especially made a point of drawing our attention to this necessity. Unfortunately, some who seem not to value Catholic doctrine feel vindicated by Pope Francis, and some who pride themselves on orthodoxy feel betrayed. In reality, both are adversely affected by their broken past; they are victims of what has sadly degenerated into the Western game of truth.
You see, back in the Dark Ages (I mean the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s), something that sounded frighteningly similar to this turned out to be mere cant. The real goal was to free people from “outworn doctrines” so they could embrace the satisfying liberation of following their own noses. The emphasis was almost entirely on the rejection of truth as a kind of intellectual impediment to commitment. This came out of the Modernist academies, where over a fifty-year period it had been carefully formulated in a highly systematized intellectual framework. It then blasted into popular culture as the last vestiges of the West’s social shell of religiosity and propriety fragmented and fell away.
But today something very different is going on. The fresh emphasis on the whole person, perhaps most obviously exemplified by Pope Francis but increasingly stressed in evangelization and catechetical efforts worldwide, is focused on following Another, on making a personal commitment to Jesus Christ in His Church. The emphasis is on giving up our own paltry rationalizations in order to find true liberation by living according to the actual structure of reality, though the acceptance of the truth which God Himself gives us as a gift. “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:31-32).
Alas, our Jesuit blogger is so deeply confused that, when we encounter such confusion, we hardly know where to begin. But this confusion arises from the artificial use of our minds to make a game of God. There is a way to cut through it, and I have tried to trace that healing way here. It is the path of deep, integrated, total commitment and conversion to Jesus Christ, who can be fully known only in and through the Church He founded to make Him present until the end of time.
When we give ourselves to Jesus Christ, we find that no legitimate concern for truth is lost. It is only our reservations that fall away, and with them our intricately-designed, self-serving systems. This is, or ought to be, the real reason why some Japanese bishops find our Western attachment to systematic conceptualization and argument so distressingly peculiar. We need to recover what our culture has lost, and what some other cultures have now found. It is a matter of holding nothing back, of committing as whole persons. When this happens, everything changes. No more compartments. No more rationalizations. No more sterility.
Fr. Blogger concluded his reflections by trying to reformulate Our Lord’s self-description as “the way, the truth, and the life” in a manner that gave precedence to “the way”—happily demoting “the truth”. But when we make our own complete commitment, what we find is that the way, the truth and the life are one.
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