We Are Moderns, and We Have No Choice

The Catholic Church is the place I believe I belong, for reasons that are often hard to articulate.  But that doesn't mean that it is, or is going to be, smooth sailing.  You can talk about specific points of disagreement, but I think those points of disagreement are all the product of something more fundamental.  And it was in rereading Elizabeth Bruenig's piece on Pope Francis that this underlying issue started to become clear to me.  I've talked before about Ross Douthat's commentary on some of Bruenig's claims, but Douthat's complaints don't touch on the really explosive core of Bruenig's piece, which is her discussion of the past.

My review of A Defence of War, which I presented to John some time later, focused on the role of property in conflict. This seemed a stretch, but I couldn’t think of any other way of doing it. He took his time reading my paper, settled, as he often did, in a high-backed chair near an empty fireplace in his office. His glasses rose on his thin nose as he began to smile: “You focused on Augustine,” he said. I had come up with a rather critical Augustinian reading of Biggar’s book, while Biggar had equally rooted his argument in Augustinian arguments for just war. As it turned out, this was the goal of the assignment: to reveal to me the vastly different interpretations that can issue from ostensibly identical classical frameworks. The point was so simple it is still distilling in my mind. When you go digging in the past, you always find what you’re looking for. . . .

--Elizabeth S. Brueing, "Francis Agonistes"

The standard way that debates in Catholicism are conducted is in relation to the past.  Take Douthat's defense of his ironclad position on allowing divorced and remarried people (without an annulment) to receive communion.  Douthat states explicitly that his belief in the Catholic Church is premised on the degree to which it is unchanging continuation from the time of Jesus to the present.  If the Catholic Church were to compromise on the question of communion for the non-annulled, his faith in that quality of the Catholic Church, and thus his faith in the Church itself, would be compromised.

Or, take Cardinal Burke's long and provocative interview with the hard-right Lifesite News.  The headline grabber was where he compared the divorced and remarried (and gays getting married) to murderers.  But look deeper, and you see again and again his use of the magic word "constant," usually paired with some variation of "teaching" or "doctrine."  For Cardinal Burke, one can look to the past to find something that is timeless and unchanging.  All we have to do is follow that fixed star.

Even Catholic liberals rely on the past.  Appeals to "Vatican II," 50 years after the end of the Council, are no less a reliance on the past than that of Douthat or Burke.  Burke and the liberals are relying on a different history, a different set of canonical events, but they are in fundamental agreement that the solutions to the present are to be found in the past.

Bruenig breaks through this approach with what for some will be seen as a radical proposal.  There is no fixed star, there is no constant teaching that can be gleaned from the past.  We can't rely simply on our history because there is no definitive history to be found.  Which is not to say we won't find something that looks very much like a fixed star when we go looking in the past.  On the contrary, we will always find such a fixed star when we go hunting for it.  And that's why we can't rely on it.

The past, whatever we make of it, is in some permanent but elusive way unknowable to us. We have texts, reconstructions, artifacts, stories—all things that add up to less than a single human memory. The difficulty of the historical record, burdened as it is with the attitudes and interpretations of those who have come before us, is only the beginning of the troubles one encounters when it comes to appropriating the past. Indeed, as philosopher and Brown University professor Charles Larmore reminds us in his 2008 book The Autonomy of Morality, even reasoning itself “bears the mark of our time and place.”

To turn to the past with explicitly political motives—say, to attempt to discover a traditional or old-fashioned approach to a problem—is to saddle history with the task of solving our modern problems, and our own interests can therefore subtly color our understanding of the history we encounter. . . . 

This is the heart of the disconnect that I have some, maybe even a majority, of people within the Catholic fold.  They want saddle up the past to solve modern problems.  Like Bruenig, it's not so much that I don't agree with the conclusions that this process produces (though, often, I don't); it's that I don't think this process is legitimate.  I don't think the past is a strong enough peg to hang a set of solutions on to.  The past will always be covered in the cloud of unknowing of which Bruenig speaks.

But it's worse than that.  When we look to the past and try to cut through that cloud of unknowing, rather than breaking through we substitute our own biases, prejudices, and secret outcomes to fill in the gaps of the thing we cannot see clearly.  So, when Douthat and Burke look at the past, what they are really doing is constructing justifications for the positions that they have already formed; just as the Vatican II types are doing the same with regard to their own pre-existing positions.

The instinct to return to the modes of thinking dominant in the past is a purely modern one. In that case, the conservative disposition is embattled by nature: While it desires to make use of all worthy inheritance, it actually invents what it inherits. Perhaps this is what Rimbaud meant when he wrote, at the end of A Season in Hell, “One must be absolutely modern.” It is not so much a choice as a fait accompli. To consider whether or not one would prefer to be modern is to be modern; the decision is already made.

None of us have any choice in the matter.
We are formed in a particular time, in a particular set of circumstances.  That's not to say that looking beyond our own situation is impossible or useless.  We can try to engage the past, but we must always keep in mind that we are doing so through a fundamentally modern, contingent lens.  We are not accessing anything like a pure experience of the past, and we should not pretend that we are.

It is very much like the people who talk about how this or that position is a product of capitulation to "the culture" (or "secular culture" or "secular values" or whatever).  This accusation is based on the assumption that there is some sort of neutral, non-cultural position on which one can stand, providing an alternative to the position that is defined by "the culture."  That neutral position, at least in the conservative Christian formulation of this idea, is the authentically Christian one, coming from a place where Christianity is not tainted or influenced by "the world."

But there is no such place, and there never has been such a place.  Christianity came into existence in two very specific, intertwined cultural contexts--the tail end of Second Temple Judaism as it moved toward its doomed, destructive conflict with the hegemonic Roman Empire at the peak of its power and ideological coherency.  It is true that early Christianity opposes and acts as an ideological critique of both of those cultural constructs, but that doesn't change the fact that the Christianity is indelibly imprinted by those cultures and their ideas.  Early Christianity is an urban, cosmopolitan religion, which requires the urban, cosmopolitan infrastructure provided by Rome.  In fact, the moment Christianity spreads to a place outside of the bounds of the Roman Empire, Ireland, it quickly takes on a very different form.  That's not surprising or problematic--that's inevitable.

There is no pure experience of Christianity out there to be found, untouched by culture.  And, since we don't have any direct access to previous cultural constructs, we have no choice but to access Christianity through the lens of our current cultural experience.  Even if we are using Christianity as a reason to reject everything in the culture, the culture is defining the things that we are looking to Christianity to reject.  In a sense, the person who is rejecting the culture in toto is the one who is the most influenced by the culture, as the culture is defining in a negative way everything he or she things is important.

We are moderns, and we have no choice.  The only choice is whether we are going to accept that fact, or are we going to engage in the fantasy that we can stand on some unmoving rock from the past, free of the messy "cultural" trappings of the present.

Pope Francis approaches the past with dialogue, not mere deference, in mind. He knows that the only useful approach to the past is to recognize it as a work in progress. This has the effect of imbuing accumulated tradition with no special authority over current conclusions. The present and the past must speak as equals, as both are works of human effort. 

Douthat would suggest that, if the past really is incorporeal, then there is no hope and no future for Catholicism.  But if Bruenig and I are right, our time is no different than any other time in the history of the Church.  The past has always been a moving target.  If the Church survived this movement before, there is no reason that it cannot survive now and in the future.  While specific concrete facts have changed, the overall situation of the Church is, and must be, the same.

Here's the best analogy I can come up with.  Conservative Catholics think that the Church is a house, anchored to a foundation.  The notion of a house getting up and moving to some place else is crazy--it can't be done, and it will destroy the house in the process of trying.  Vatican II-style, old school liberal Catholics agree that the Church is a house, but it's more like a mobile home.  As such, they argue that you can, and should, pick it up and move it to some other lot in a better neighborhood if you can.  Thus, the debate between the two is over the structural integrity of the house, different methods of moving it, etc.

But I don't think the Church is a house at all.  I think it is a raft, floating down a river.  The raft is big enough that, unless you are really paying attention, you don't notice that it is moving,  As a result, if I don't actively paddle the raft, I might be able to convince myself that I am not moving, that I am holding some sort of fixed position.  But that's a self-delusion--even without paddling, the current of history and changed circumstances is moving me constantly from place to place.  To actually keep a fixed position, I have to drive a spike into the river bottom or drop some kind of anchor.  And if I do that, I risk capsizing the raft, or having it flood with the water carried by the current that has no place to go except into my raft.  I can't really prevent the raft from moving forever, and more importantly, I shouldn't really try.

Conversely, once I free myself of the notion of staying still, the idea of paddling a little to one side or the other to avoid exposed rocks or rapids now seems prudent and sensible, as opposed to radical and scary.  My goal no longer is to stay in one place, which is impossible, but to maintain the integrity of raft and make sure that no one is thrown overboard and swept away in the current.  I don't need the sorts of radical movements that the old-school liberals suggest, because I can use the current of the river to help me get to where I want to go.

Most importantly, where I was, where I am, and where I am going are all part of one continuous path.  Looking ahead to what rocks or whirlpools are coming up, and thinking of ways to correct for them, does not in any way imply a rejection of what came before.  Just because I need to move to the right side of the river to avoid a particular rock doesn't mean that was I was wrong to stay on the left side to handle the previous rock.  Those two choices are contradictory only to the extent I ignore the fact that I am in a different place now than I was before.  Insisting that the raft stay on the left side of the river out of a "hermaneutic of continuity" is going to wreck my raft on the rocks and spill everyone out the side.  What's the point of that?

All of this is another way of articulating Bruenig's point about the past being in dialogue with the present (and, in an important sense, the future as well).  Francis's job is not to preserve some fixed immovable structure, but to keep the raft afloat and pilot it safely down the river.  Maintaining structural integrity is important in both visions, but rafts have a different kind of structural integrity than houses, and different techniques for maintaining them.  Oh, and while he is at it, Francis is trying to make sure people aren't being thrown off the raft.  That requires looking backward, but it also requires looking forward and sideways as well.

If I have discovered anything in the wake of my grief, it is that the past cannot be recovered, but only shabbily reconstructed. It is most useful when considered an open matter. This is true of the past in our lives, of the past in politics, of the past in the Church: Dialogue is the most we can make of it.

And that is enough.

The Catholic Church is facing great changes.  That is not, or should not be, a particularly controversial statement, because it is true of every period of time throughout its entire history.  But the Catholic Church has a historical temptation to pretend that it can weather changes by locking into to some account of the past.  It has, at various points in time, tried to drive a stake into the river in order to keep the raft from moving.  Those attempts have all failed, because they must fail, and in doing so they have caused water to get into the raft.  Inevitably, someone comes along and pulls up the stake and gets to work bailing out the raft.  Sometimes they don't make a big production of pulling up the stake, which allows those who wish to do so to keep pretending they are not moving.  But, make no mistake--the stake gets pulled up, and the water gets bailed out.

The question is not whether we are going to float down the river.  The question is whether we are going to steer the raft as we float.  Steering requires us to look backward, look forward, and look to the side, in order to determine the best course. To break out of the metaphor, it requires us to enter into dialogue with the past, present and future.

If all we do is look backward, all we are going to do is hit the rocks.


Mike McG... said…
Excellent post, Mike. I think that the raft analogy is powerful one and I hope that you build it out in future posts. I would ask you to address two concerns as you do so. The first is pastoral and it engages the capacity of believers to 'manage' the implications of living in a raft church when we are so much more accustomed to living in a house church.

I know that when you say, "We are All Moderns" that you don't mean we seven billion but I think that must be stated unambiguously. I submit that only a tiny fraction of we seven billion have the tolerance for ambiguity required to inhabit a worldview as contingent, as self-consciously socially constructed as the one you and Brunei envision. And that tiny fraction hails from a WEIRD place: Western, Education, Industrial, Rich and Democratic. (See Joe Henrich et al, "The Weirdest People in the World" for build-out.) What if formulations that 'work' for folks like us actually deconstruct structures of thought that make belief accessible and plausible to others?

I would also ask you to give more 'credit' to the suspicions of Douthat and others have of the zeitgeist as a force for radical deconstruction. This isn't only about conceptualization; it is perhaps even more about psychology. Michael Garvey captures my concerns for the real life tensions between Tradition and Modernity.

“Before we can get a sense about the right claims being made by the traditionalist and modernist sides here, it is important to see what is wrong with both of them…To lean too much on a scriptural defense…or upon a continuous church tradition, could lead us to ignore or to downplay those situations in which we have in fact decided, not only as individuals but over time as a community, to ignore passages of scripture or areas of tradition that we do not accept the way our ancestors did.

“At the same time, tradition is an important voice – or better, a harmony of voices, a consensus – that should make us critical of merely contemporary understandings. Its strength is that it is, as Chesterton said, ‘the democracy of the dead.’ To think that the common opinion of people whose perspective is blinkered by the zeitgeist of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is wiser than the agreed wisdom of the previous two thousand years is, maybe, a little arrogant.

Still, for many contemporary Christians, when traditional understanding meets the zeitgeist, the zeitgeist wins. It is assumed to be the correct, enlightened view.” John Garvey, Commonweal, January 16, 2004.

And that's the rub. Christianity/Catholicism has been, in my judgment, a powerful force in my life and the lives of my ancestors notwithstanding its 'anchoring' in claims about continuity however deconstructable they may have been all along. Now deconstructed, however, this powerful force is entirely absent from the lives of my sons who have jettisoned the house and have no interest in the raft. I think we moderns can be forgiven our fears for the implications of our disillusionment and that the most progressive among us are far too hard on those who say so out loud.
Michael Boyle said…
Mike McG,

Thank you for the comment.

I appreciate where you are coming from and your concerns, but I want to push back a little bit. The Garvey quote is premised on the idea that there is a thing called "the traditional understanding" that we can clearly define and embrace in opposition to "the zeitgeist." Bruenig's point is that the "traditional understanding" is really just a particular variation of "the zeitgeist."

Every possible variation of what Pope Francis (or anyone else) is going to do as the head of the Church is going to be some application of what has come before to the modern situation. Now, there are lots of arguments to be had about which applications are the most prudent. But framing the debate--as Douthat does--between "following the past" and "doing something new" is a false one. We are always, by definition, doing both.

You suggest that this rhetoric of the past might serve as a kind of "noble lie"--it's not really true, but it is useful to keep folks on board the raft. I disagree strongly. I think it is a prison that prevents people from responsible stewardship of the raft--the "politics of certainty" I have talked about in previous posts. We need to tell the truth and face what is in front of us.

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