Christian Realism

I received an email about my last post.  The writer of the email took me to task for failing to take the conservative Anglicans at face value.  The author felt that I was dismissive of their positions and their arguments.  That I was being "a culture warrior."

He is right, in a sense.  I am finding it increasingly difficult to find common ground with the more conservative members of my own religious tradition, whether conceived of more narrowly as "Catholicism" or more broadly as "Christianity."  I am slowly losing the willingness to "see things from their point of view."  And, there is a definitely a part of me that wonders whether this does stem from a lack of perspective, a lack of charity, a lack of balance.

But, I don't think so.  And the reason I don't think so is well expressed in this essay by James Alison, one of his best among his many great writings.  The essay, on its face, relates to the issue of in the inclusion of LGBT people in the Catholic Church, but it is really about something much broader and much more fundamental--what does it mean, at the end of the day, to be Catholic?  Lots of people will give lots of answers to that question, but the only one that has any worth is that "something that is Catholic is something that is true."

That's a good definition, but it is one that has unfortunately become confused in various ways by various agendas and schemes, and can in the wrong hands turn into a kind of totalitarian exercise in thought control.  What I mean is what Aquinas meant when he said “All that is true, by whomsoever it has been said, has its origin in the Spirit.”  What that means, at its heart, is that anything that is true, anything that is really real, ultimately comes to us from God.  And, by extension, things that are not true, things that do not reflect reality as it actually is are not in fact from God.  They are, instead, derived from our flawed and mistaken understanding of who God is and how the world actually is.

If you believe that we are capable of learning new things about the world, then it follows from that that we, in a sense, can learn new things about God.  Or, to use an old analogy, to touch new spots on the infinite elephant that is God in the course of our blind wanderings.  But that also means that we may not have understood the old places very well at all.  And that has significant consequences for doctrine:

[T]he only way a teaching can genuinely be Catholic is if it is bringing to mind something that really is the case about the human beings in question. Thus, the moment it becomes clear that what used to seem like an accurate description of who we are, a description which imagined that it sought our good, is not in fact accurate, but quite simply mistaken, then at that very moment it ceases to be possible to maintain that the teaching that flows from that description is Catholic. For the Catholic teaching follows the discovery of what the Creator shows us really is.

It is critically important, I think, to keep our eyes focused on what "really is."
Because Christianity has a temptation within it toward a kind of otherworldliness.  There are a number of variations of this otherworldliness, but all of them begin from a starting point that the world we experience, the world that "really is," is either not really there or not important.  Perhaps the most common version reduces Christianity exclusively to "getting to heaven" and how to do that, while neglecting any significant concern for what is going on around us.

But there is a modern Catholic version of otherworldliness which is more subtle, but is ubiquitous in all of the discussions involving the controversial pelvic issues.  The move here is to propose a set of propositions that appear to be statements about the world as it "really is."  And, in fact, the proponents will assert with great force that these propositions are absolutely statements about how the world "really is."  But if you scratch the surface, they are not actually empirical claims; instead they are products of philosophical commitments (almost always derived from Plato or Aristotle) which make certain predictions about the way the world is.  It is not "the world is this way"; it's "the world must be this way, because my philosophical system says that the world is this way."

This is what "natural law," at least in its modern incarnation (I have serious doubts that this is what Aquinas meant by it), really means--an assertion that the world must be a certain way in order to preserve and justify our philosophy.  It's worth pointing out that none of this has anything to do with Jesus or the Gospel, unless you take the position that Jesus and Plato are a package deal (see, e.g., Radical Orthodoxy).

But the more fundamental problem, which Alison points to, is that these natural law claims are simply not true.  And we shouldn't be particularly surprised by this--after all, many of these claims about the world are 2,500 years old.  No matter how smart or how ahead of their time Plato and Aristotle and their interpreters were (and they absolutely were), we just know more things about the world now that they did.  Moreover, we know that we are capable of learning things that were previously unknown.

I know I harp on this, but a perfect example can be found in the area of reproductive biology.  Aristotle believed, along with all of his contemporaries, that the male provided the entirety of the genetic material (of course he didn't think of it in those terms) for the new baby, while the woman was an entirely passive incubator.  That's not an insane or ridiculous idea, but it turns out to be a false idea.  It's just not true.  And the entirety of Christian reflection on reproduction, until very recently, presupposes that Aristotle was right.. And he was not.

Faced with this reality, there are only three choices.  You can go the Ken Ham/creationism route and simply claim that science is wrong and black is white.  Or, you can go the otherworldliness route, and attempt to create an alternate reality in which your philosophical propositions are unchallenged.  But, as Alison points out, that is just as problematic:

These people wish to say something like “Well yes, we see that there has been a problem with how the Church has handled gay people in the past. And none of us want to continue with that. However the Church has a right, in tolerant, multicultural societies not to allow itself to be defined by what is in fact true about human beings. Instead we insist on the right to be able to keep alive our own, pious ways of doing things without interference.”

But here’s the trouble: the moment people head down that path they are refusing Catholicity and creating a Church in their own image. Because they are turning the Catholic Church into a group defined by certain house rules, which are independent of reality. In other words, they are recreating a form of holiness that is over against others considered to be impure or profane. This is a regression to Second-Temple Judaism. At the very moment people do this, they automatically exclude themselves from the Catholicity of the Church, for they are seeking to turn it not into God’s sign of God’s longing for all humans to be reconciled with God through Jesus, but instead into their own sign of their own longing for a particular group with a strong group identity and carefully defined boundaries concerning who is in and who is out.

So, all that remains is a kind of Christian realism--we must accept the way things are, and then try to see where God is in that truth.  If Plato and Aristotle are wrong about how things are, then they are wrong, and they have to be pitched to the side.  If traditional Catholic philosophical systems produce conclusions about the world, and especially about other people, that don't line up with reality, then they need to be pitched to the side as well.  We can't live our faith in the netherworld of pseudo-truths and nostalgia.

That's what's at stake with these discussions.  Are we going to be Christian realists, to be truly Catholic?  Or are we going to retreat into the comforting arms of a new holiness code?  That's the choice.  That's why this matters.


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