That’s So Second Millennium
Post Christian: “Selfism”

Post Christian: “Selfism”

February 9, 2019

I am filing this under "Post Christian," but in a way, it would make more sense as "Post... Everything, Really."

I just listened to the latest Word on Fire podcast with Bishop R. Barron (http://wordonfireshow.com/episode165/) in which Brandon Vogt basically reads to him the entire opinion piece by David Brooks with the corny subtitle "The Gospel of St. You."

I was pretty troubled by the episode. I might try to sum my troubles up by noting that I did not hear the word "grace" or any reference to the concept in the entire interview. The interview and article sounded to me like an airy condemnation of people struggling to make their way through the postmodern world, with all of the transcendent hopes humanity has ever held finally demolished and left in smoking ashes by the baby boomers.

The thing about it is, and this is the whole point of what I'm trying to say in these Post Christian entries, that there was a lot wrong with the world in 1960, or 1900, or 1700, or 1500. The cultural thermonuclear holocaust of constant revolution that we continue to put ourselves through is an overreaction and a misreaction, but it's a misreaction to real problems.

Take the first point Brooks implicitly makes in his sarcastic tirade. We should aspire to be like great human beings of the past--out of the vast panoply of human excellence, he plucks Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa. But instead, Brooks claims, we reject "external standards of moral excellence, [because] they often make you feel judged. These people [promoting these standards] make you feel sad because you may not live up to this standard."

The problem is that if you have a gram of self-knowledge, and no sense of connection to God, you know very well that you can't live up to such standards. You have at least two options in that scenario. Option A is to reject the standard as irrelevant to your life under some true or false rationalization. An honest "I can't possibly live up to that, because I couldn't live without X comforts and Y attitudes and Z structures supporting my false sense of self" is rare, so false rationalizations abound, but in this case they support a pretty legitimate concern. I'd recommend Option A over Option B, limping along, trying to pretend that you're trying to live up to the standard and hating yourself every day for failing, having tried Option B for at least 17 years.

The whole point of Christianity, and why it's still Good News for people in the third millennium after Jesus of Nazareth, is that it opens up Option C: tap into the power of Someone capable of making you capable of living up to high moral standards, and willing to forgive you and pick you back up when you sin or make mistakes or experience pain.

The Post Christian meditations address the larger question, "Why do people believe science and the Catholic, Christian faith are mutually contradictory?" by considering the background reasons why people in the modern West desire to punish the faith of their ancestors and deny it credibility, apart from any cogent reasons to reject its actual dogmas and teachings.

Post Christian: Intellectual Triumphalism

Post Christian: Intellectual Triumphalism

February 2, 2019

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw a massive change in economics and intellectual culture, centered on Europe, but rapidly affecting the entire world.

A significant part of that massive change was the fact that it was centered on Europe, a point that I thought was well made by Donald Herreld in his Great Courses lectures on economic history. At no time in prior world history had Europe come to stand in such a position of dominance. By the end of the period, the European states--fractured and warring states, in no way unified in their goals--were unquestionably the military and scientific rulers of the planet. It had never been that way before. In prior centuries, India, China, the Muslim states, or pre-Muslim Persia and Egypt had been peers or obvious superiors to any European state, even unified Rome.

The effects of this on Christian thought should not be understated. In the early centuries, Christian thinkers were continuously occupied with apologetics, the laying out of arguments for the intellectual credibility of Christianity as opposed to the other philosophical traditions at large in the Mediterranean and wider world. Even after Constantine, pagan thought gave ground only slowly. Persian thought remained non-Christian, and Persia remained a political and intellectual rival to Rome, all the way up to the Muslim explosion of the seventh century.

In the medieval era, Christians were in constant tension with Muslims, intellectually as well as politically and in the most basic tenets of faith in God. Thomas Aquinas was hardly alone in dedicating considerable time to his Contra Gentiles, a set of arguments for an intellectual outlook fully consistent with orthodox, catholic Christianity as opposed to the intellectual traditions forged from ancient philosophy within the culture of the early centuries of Islam.

Yet by the thirteenth century, things were already changing. The Crusades marked the beginning of the military counterattack by Christendom against Muslim states, as uneven as that would be. Although the Turks remained dangerous foes into the seventeenth century, and came close in the sixteenth to wreaking tremendous havoc in the Mediterranean, they were no longer serious intellectual rivals of Italians, Spaniards, and Northern Europeans.

Precisely because there were no longer perceived to be serious intellectual rivals to European, Christian thinkers, I would propose that various ridiculous ideas reached the height of fashionability, and have left distorted schools of Christian thought in their wake down to the present. They did not start in the sixteenth or even fifteenth century, nor did they completely rule the scene even in that period, but they flourished and bore the largest share of their bad fruit then. I mean ideas like:

  • The Christian scriptures are to be taken as literally [read: simplistically] as possible.
  • God's will is entirely "sovereign" [read: arbitrary] and people are chosen for salvation or damnation essentially at random.
  • Human beings are entirely corrupt and hateful...
    • ...except for a very few people who actually respond to God's grace, or
    • ...entirely, and "salvation" is just a matter of God choosing to ignore this fact for certain people.
    • In any case, everyone outside the Christian Church is definitely a moral zero.
  • God is basically interested in the public statement of adherence to some doctrine of salvation through Jesus of Nazareth and not in human beings choosing to do good for one another.

I am certainly a Roman Catholic, and I look with horror back at many of the doctrines of the first Protestants, but it is most assuredly true that many Catholics at the time followed them or even led them down these very paths. I think that other Catholics felt driven to express themselves in similar language or else risk losing their audience.

In the centuries since, members of these same Christian societies began to be so scandalized by these ideas that they rebelled against Christianity--really, the distorted version of it where these ideas are so prominent, but in their minds, that was all Christianity was.

The Post Christian meditations address the larger question, "Why do people believe science and the Catholic, Christian faith are mutually contradictory?" by considering the background reasons why people in the modern West desire to punish the faith of their ancestors and deny it credibility, apart from any cogent reasons to reject its actual dogmas and teachings.

Post Christian: Legends

Post Christian: Legends

January 26, 2019

It came as something of a shock, when I was writing that first post in this series, to see that idea slide into place: I shoved so much stuff, over so many years, that I knew was fiction into my cortex that it crowded out faith. I think the elements were present in disparate parts of my awareness for a long time. They may even have gotten together and made out one evening, a long time ago. I couldn't say for sure.

I picked up the Lord of the Rings when I was eleven, as I traditionally estimate. It was before we moved out of the old house, for I can remember sitting in a chair before those thick brown drapes over those nine foot windows some summer evening and reading. I had seen the books on the shelves for years, and had worked up to them. I must have read the Swiss Family Robinson six times. Still, the Lord of the Rings was three books that size... a major investment of time.

Over the years I probably read the Lord of the Rings fifteen times; the last time was probably almost twenty years ago. I hardly need to read them again. I've watched the movies, and I could sit with you and explain every detail that was changed between the books and the films and its significance to the arcs of the characters involved. I read the Silmarillion three or four times; the Unfinished Tales, some of them another ten to twenty times, some less.

I was obsessed. I had to know every detail, watch the progress of Tolkien's whole subcreation from beginning to the end, where it tried to merge into the real world... an interesting trick.

I think Tolkien is at the near end of a bridge back into the former age. Go back further, and the exercise of storytelling clearly "starts" to follow a different set of norms from those of today. Today, every writer and reader knows they are making something up. In the past, it seemed oddly necessary to at least keep up the appearance of speaking of the real world, that one's tales really happened long ago. I wonder how often classical writers ever believed they were writing fiction at all.

The other side of that sense is that ancient and medieval and early modern writers chose only to write things that they at least thought could really have happened. Vergil did not sit down to use his prodigious skill on a fictional tale; he pulled out a strand of putative Roman history to spin into his tapestry. Even the writer of Judith, who seems pretty clearly to have had no actual historical event to serve as the core of his story, has nevertheless woven several recognizable real world elements (Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon, the geography of Judea) into his morality play.

This whole complex of ideas cannot help but be the subject of hundreds and thousands of doctoral dissertations at this point. I only mention it to place my own experience in perspective. No one in the centuries before Christ, or most of the centuries after, spent time filling his or her head with tales obviously spun out of whole cloth about galaxies long, long ago and far, far away. Now we live in cultures where tens of percent of the population do, I prominently among them. I have even brewed up my own such tales away in secret where almost no one has yet seen them.

What will come of it all?

The Post Christian meditations address the larger question, "Why do people believe science and the Catholic, Christian faith are mutually contradictory?" by considering the background reasons why people in the modern West desire to punish the faith of their ancestors and deny it credibility, apart from any cogent reasons to reject its actual dogmas and teachings.

Post Christian: State and Religion

Post Christian: State and Religion

January 19, 2019

The "Post Christian" series will continue the line of thought that I started in "Why Do Westerners Really Think Science and Faith Are Opposed?" To sum up my hunches from that post in a few lines, I would say that this perceived opposition derives partly from misguided attempts at intellectual piety in the late medieval and early modern period whose aftereffects are still with us today. However, I really think it is more a displaced form of punishment of the Church for the sins of its clergy and its ostensible allies in secular political power, in the present and in the past, for being such massive hypocrites and living in such obvious contrast with the example and teaching of Jesus Christ and his apostles, their early followers, and those who still answer that call today.

 

I noted in my first post that it was surprising that the Constantinian experiment of making Christianity a state religion lasted as long as it did. That's true from the perspective of the New Testament and the early Church. It could hardly be more obvious, from the canonical books of the N.T., that the movement Jesus of Nazareth started was never intended to be allied with a state. Jesus in the Gospel of John deliberately dodges secular kingship. When Pilate confronts him about being the Messiah and therefore claiming kingship, Jesus comments that his kingdom is not here, in this life. Luke and Paul pick up most particularly on this Jesus' concern for the poor and his habit of hanging about with them rather than the movers and shakers of political life, and they recommend this behavior as an example to those who follow him.

 

Of course, the very word "secular" comes from the Latin "saeculum" and we inherit it from Catholic thought, distinguishing the "saeculum" or this age from the more important concerns of eternity. The union of Church and state was always precarious, even in its arguable golden and silver ages of the fourth century and the high medieval period. The question is why this union was attempted at all.

 

The answer, it seems to me, is an enormously strong human tendency toward seeing service to the gods and service to the community or state as merely two sides of the same smooth round inseparable concept. Seen from this perspective, it was inevitable that if Christianity gathered enough of a following, states would grow up where the experiment of bridging the unbridgeable chasm would be tried.

 

I tend to assume everyone has read the same things I have. Perhaps it's that dash of Asperger's syndrome I have long wondered about... In any case, let me draw out a few parallels just for the sake of reminders about how differently ancient societies worked:

 

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey shaped the ancient Hellenistic and Roman imagination in pervasive ways. In the Iliad, of course, the gods are all completely preoccupied with the political struggle unfolding on the shore of Asia Minor, intervening in messy and violent ways on behalf of their clients. Human and divine affairs are sewn together very tightly.

 

In ancient Rome, among the many elected offices that successful men of means pursued on the cursus honorum were any number of niche priesthoods. As a contemporary Catholic this sounds quite bizarre, but perhaps my Protestant brethren do not find it quite so odd. In any case, these priests were clearly part of the political establishment and had their bureaucratic functions, and conversely the praetors and consuls and censors had their own priestly functions.

 

A casual read of some of the Chinese classics, such as the writings of Confucius, Mencius, and even Lao Tzu, makes it clear that the Chinese mind was formed by thinkers who expended considerable effort seeking understanding of how best to govern. Spiritual affairs and the matters of the gods are all subjected toward that end in Confucianism, and even the more inward and mystical Taoism had no shortage of adages to guide the statesman. (It is no wonder that Chinese governments down to this very day seem to have no idea what a religious movement not rigidly controlled by state bureaucrats could even be, aside from a rebellion.)

 

I could go on endlessly, of course. Politics so easily dominates the human mind that if something is excluded from political process, as religion has been in the West, it inevitably leaves the awareness of many people. By the same token, if something begins to loom large in public consciousness, it begins to be debated in the halls of power whether it needs or wants to be or not.

 

Such, broadly speaking, has been the fate of Christianity.

 

The Post Christian meditations address the larger question, "Why do people believe science and the Catholic, Christian faith are mutually contradictory?" by considering the background reasons why people in the modern West desire to punish the faith of their ancestors and deny it credibility, apart from any cogent reasons to reject its actual dogmas and teachings.

Why Do Westerners Really Think Science and Faith Are Opposed?

Why Do Westerners Really Think Science and Faith Are Opposed?

December 29, 2018

This is Paul. Welcome to the first regular blog post for That's So Second Millennium. For 2019 I'm going to be supplementing the podcast with a series of weekend blog posts.

Let's start out with this question: Can we hope to get a broad enough picture of why so many people in Western cultures think religion and science are unavoidably opposed to do justice to the reality?

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