Monday, November 07, 2005

Isn't this called Modernism?

Reading this report at Pontifications, I was struck by this account, by Rev. Robert Sanders, an Episcopal priest, of the problem in the Episcopal Church (I am sure he would agree it is a problem in many other places as well--and I will say, it shows up in the Catholic Church, too):

I first became aware that something was wrong with the Episcopal Church when I went to seminary in 1973. Some of my professors taught a theology and a way of interpreting Scripture that denied the miraculous, including the fact that Jesus bodily rose from the dead. I could see at once that this teaching would seriously undermine the power of the gospel. I decided to get to the bottom of it and in 1979 went to graduate school and earned a Ph.D. in systematic theology. While in graduate school, I discovered that a powerful false teaching had invaded the churches since the early 1800’s. Only in recent decades has it made its way into the Episcopal Church.
This false teaching does not deny the authority of Scripture, or Creeds, or Prayer Book. Rather its partisans revise them from a perspective alien to the Christian faith. Among other things a number of revisionists deny the miraculous, including the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection. Others accept the miraculous, but conceive of God in mystical categories and thereby deny God the Word as the concrete, objective, verbal, and eternal revelation of God. ...


I was only one of a number of writers who clearly documented the false teaching, heresy, and apostasy found among a goodly number of priests, bishops, and seminary professors within the Episcopal Church. At the same time, I attempted to settle my differences with the revisionists....


At no point, ever, did I have any sustained engagement with those who disagreed with me. They simply did not want to talk. They were quite apt at producing trivial arguments, but once they encountered someone who could make sense of Scripture, tradition, and have reasoning powers, they simply walked away.

All my individual efforts at resolving these differences failed. Finally, about the year 2001, it became clear to me that one aspect of revisionist teaching is that language, logic, Scripture, words, doctrine, are not persuasive. Revisionists tend to believe that God is a mystical unknown and that language and doctrine are secondary. One of my most important analyses of this understanding was eventually published in Christianity Today.

The results of that insight, that doctrine and language are secondary, ultimately means that “dialogue” is impossible with revisionists. All we can do with them is share feelings and opinions. At that point I realized that my differences with revisionists could not be resolved. We live in two completely different worlds, theoretically and practically. (Emphasis added.)


Anonymous said...

I have no problem believing that Christ rose from the dead. But I do not know what is ment by physically. His risen body was certainly not made up a atoms and molecules as we know them in sciece, those things just do not apear and disapear, or walk through locked doors.

I have somewhat the same problem with the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I believe He is there in some special, real manner, but I think Thomas A's explanation limps in todays world of science.

I keep hoping that sometime soon a new Aquinas will come along and give a possible explanation of these mysteries that reconciles them with modern science as Aquinas did in his day.

Fr. Larry Gearhart said...

Of course, it's an aspect of Modernism that all witness to the miraculous is discounted, on the ground that it can't be scientifically demonstrated. Note that miracles, by definition, contradict scientific predictions. In science, however, negative evidence typically leads to questioning a scientific theory for the purpose of amending it with another scientific theory. Proving that something can't be explained by any scientific theory is comparable to trying to prove that God doesn't exist. This is an example of trying to prove a negative proposition, something that is always difficult. This is why we presume that someone is innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proving one's innocence is often much, much greater than the burden of proving guilt. When is an alibi really air tight? Yet, even this is much easier than proving that something doesn't exist.

Lots of people in the so-called enlightenment period found this problem to be too daunting to deal with. David Hume ended up with a philosophy that was so pared down that even causation was not taken for granted, and it was never taken as much more than a practical hypothesis. Kant was so disturbed by this that he developed his neo-realism that ended up being a kind of super-subjectivism -- essentially a kind of schizoid and bifurcated view of reality. It's a wonder the guy was able to sleep at night.

The problem people like this fell into was that they didn't fully appreciate how much they were jettisoning in their enthusiasm to add the appearance of rigor to their thinking. Adopting this reductionist, materialist, pragmatic perspective meant throwing away God, the human soul, and, ultimately, moral culpability. Eventually, it even meant throwing away any real coherence to the meaning and purpose of life. Pope John Paul II points this out in Evangelium Vitae. Most, so called, enlightenment theologians and philosophers, however, have not yet caught up with all of the implications of this way of thinking.

Some of them, like Nietzsche, did have a basic intuitive grasp of the implications, but, like Nietzsche, they ended up with a pretty bizarre notion of what it means to live out human existence. Mostly, it all ended up being pretty negative, because it was an attempt to grab ultimately futility by the horns and wrestle with it.

The bottom line that every reasonably bright thinker who adopts the reductionist perspective finds out is that nothing much is left, beyond, "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow, we die."

What we are facing today is an entire culture that is sitting on the fence, but without realizing that they're sitting on the fence. It's painful to look at the full implications of the underlying assumptions most people implicitly live by. The existentialists figured the answer was to accept it all courageously, but this turns out to be yet another way of dodging the full implications.

What complicates dialog beyond this is not that people are afraid to think, per se. What complicates it is that there is another, social, element that lies hidden in our culture.

Marshall McLuhan discovered this decades ago, when he spoke of the tendency of our wired generation to fragment into tribes. All of us, myself included, tend to identify with a predominant subculture, which turns out to be, in most cases, little more than a kind of sophisticated tribe. We're afraid to engage people of another tribe at any kind of a deep level because that might disturb our sense of tribal identity, our sense of belonging. What's at stake here emotionally is much deeper than grappling with academic issues.

About the only people who do not find this frightening is people, like Blessed John Henry Newman, who suffered through the pain of ejection from their tribe. When you realize that even your family and best friends, as well as all of your professional associates, can turn against you in this conflict, and the leaders of the tribe you're trying to join initially view you as an invading cancer, you begin to realize just how serious all of this is.

All of this has huge implications for priests, because we may find ourselves in one tribe, the tribe of the Magisterium, while most parishioners are in another, the tribe of Amchurch, as some have put it. The anger that people express in response to a enlightening sermon can seem to come like a bolt from the blue. Even our fellow priests can treat us like an invading cancer when their primary affiliation is with Amchurch.

The interesting thing about Rev. Robert Sanders' experience is that it is in the context of a Church whose predominant culture is to be inclusive to the point of minimizing the importance of the truth. Nothing else can explain how atheists, agnostics, fundamentalists, etc., can all get along so easily in the same Church. It hasn't been until recently that there's been an issue that's been important enough to threaten real division. God and miracles, evidently, weren't important enough issues to divide the Anglican Communion, but "gay pride" is. Perhaps that's because, even in the, ever-so-inclusive Anglican Communion, there aren't that many sub-tribes that are ready to think of themselves as taking pride in what used to be considered an abomination.

To simplify this a bit, one way to understand what's happening is that people are trying to avoid necessary pain.

As F.X. Toole wrote in "Million Dollar Baby", "Instead of running from pain, which is the natural thing in life, in boxing you step into it, get me?" The same is true in the spiritual life, if you want to grow up. It's a pity the main characters in the movie didn't "get it", but then, most people don't.

Fr. Larry Gearhart said...

I was in the middle of composing the above post when anonymous posted his comment about the physics of the resurrected Christ. I believe the point of the question about the miraculous is that in any true miracle, the laws of physics are circumvened in a way we do not fully grasp. Of course, we do not know whether Christ's resurrected body was composed of atoms. We do know, however, that if it was composed of atoms, his mind had total control over those atoms, and could will them to reassemble or move in any way he wished, in accordance with the laws of physics or not.

St. Thomas' understanding of the Eucharist, prior to his mystical experience of Christ in the Eucharist, is, of course, well documented in his works. It was obviously highly influenced by two things, the tradition of the Church (which had already settled on Transubstantiation by the time he wrote) and the theory of form and matter developed by Aristotle. It should be said, however, that the two sources do not yet admit of a fully satisfactory reconciliation, except in an analogous sense. Transubstantiation refers to the change in the essence, or nature of the species, but it says nothing about how the species would react to chemical agents. It would appear to be according to the will of Christ that the chemistry of the Eucharist is ordinarily indistinguishable from the antecedent species of bread and wine. This says nothing about the Eucharistic miracles that seem to occur from time to time, about which I am not qualified to speak.

St. Thomas' theology does not oppose or contradict anything I have said above, as far as I've been able to determine. I invite Thomistic scholars to correct me, if they find that these statements are in error.

It's important to understand, however, the distinction between Transubstantiation and Consubstantiation. The former is at least analogically accurate while the latter is not. Christ is not simply in the bread and wine, the Eucharistic species have become Christ, literally. This happens through the divine will of Christ to identify himself with the consecrated species.

It appears to me that most of the trouble people have with this is their inability to think outside of the materialistic box. This is quite understandable, since we have very little beyond that in our fund of personal experience. Christ, the Son of God, having created material reality, has no such limitation.

I would like to point out, again, to those who cannot yet think outside of the materialistic box that they cannot explain how free will is possible. Free will, by definition, is an exception to the laws of physics. If there are no exceptions, miracles and free will do not occur. Without free will there is no moral culpability. Without moral culpability being part of the meaning of being human, human beings are reduced to the status of biological automata.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Gearhart, I want to make it clear that I do believe in the resurection, and I do belive in miracles, and even believe that I have wittnessed a few. Non the less, a resurected body that does not obey God's law of physics, should be called something other than physical.

There is not only a material box that is difficult to move out of, they is another box that is just as confining called a church box. St. Thomas certainly stepped out of both of them with wonderful results for his times. Over time his work has become another box that is most difficult to escape.

I do not believe that God is a cosmic jester creating a world ment to confuse us. He gave us a physical world and set laws over it that it has to obey. As a matter of fact, as one studies quantum mechanics one observes a process that is surprising like free will in humans in that it cannot be predicted. There is also a spiritual world of some sort in which God exists. Hmmm, did He create that too? Yeah, I can see how that would work, and I believe that He set laws over that world also. I do not believe that the laws of the two worlds conflict.

I have hopes that sometime soon someone will be able to step out of both the materialistic box and the church box and form new explanations that are more in line with all of the laws that God has made.

Fr. Larry Gearhart said...

Good for you, anonymous. You obviously recognize the deep importance of these issues, and it seems likely you have some training in math and physics.

Yet, let me offer an alternative explanation that I believe hangs together. When God first placed Adam and Even in the Garden of Paradise (perhaps in a universe where the law of entropy didn't apply), Adam and Eve were declared by God to be "very good". Why? I believe it is because their spirit and their body where fully integrated, both were untainted by corruption, and the integrated whole exhibited God-like powers of untrammeled free will. By contrast, human free will today is deeply limited by ignorance, concupiscence and the deep role of habit in day-to-day living.

The resurrected Jesus inhabited, for a brief time, this continuum, which we all know is subject to entropy and other physical laws. Yet, Jesus' own body was not subject to entropy. Why? Most likely because his glorified soul was fully integrated with his body, which was also glorified. What does that mean for the physics of his glorified body? We do not know that it was not made up of atoms, albeit atoms that were themselves altered in some way so that they existed in this space-time continuum, yet were not subject to entropy.

If we were able to go back to the Garden of Eden and study its physics, we might have a better idea about Jesus' glorified condition. It seems likely to me, however, that in the economy of salvation, God may have tweaked the design of the universe only slightly to get the results he desired. In particular, that design enabled Jesus' body to appear "real" to his disciples, and in a truly physical way, it undoubtedly was real, albeit under the operation of physical and spiritual laws we don't understand.

Since I believe that free will is an exception to the operation of physics (and not simply an expression of random quantum mechanical fluctuations, no mere assemblage of which could take on moral culpability), I believe that all of us have experienced miracles directly. We simply haven't classified the routine exercise of free will in this way heretofore. By the way, are you aware that Stephen Hawking has declared on several occasions that free will is an illusion? This is an inevitable consequence of any purely physics-based attempt to explain free will. It just ain't happ'nin. You may or may not be aware that John Polkinghorne, a physicist turned Anglican minister, attempted (after dismissing quantum mechanical fluctuations as a possible explanation) to explain free will in terms of chaos theory and the so-called butterfly effect. Unfortunately for him, he didn't realize that the butterfly effect does not negate determinism, but only makes computer prediction more problematic.

It isn't God's fault that the world is so full of surprises that we frequently find it deeply puzzling. That problem lies in our human limitations. Your comment sounds rather like Einstein's dismissal of quantum mechanics, "God is subtle, but not malicious." Though he assuredly is not a cosmic jester, his heavenly court may find our attempts to understand reality amusing at times. I'm more than happy to place myself in the category of the untutored compared to those who have received the beatific vision. As St. Thomas said of his own work following a mystical enlightenment, "It's all straw." No doubt my own "straw" isn't very impressive to him about now.

Fr. Larry Gearhart said...

Then again, maybe he feels that in all this verbiage, I've been grasping at straws. Who knows, maybe you do, too. ;)