Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Church and the External Good

The fact that evil exists in the world and, more specifically, in the Church, has never posed much of an intellectual stumbling block for me. I say an intellectual stumbling block, because I suppose if I had suffered evil at the hands of a member of the Church, say a perverted priest, it might pose a significant practical stumbling block. But I haven't, so I am left with only the possible intellectual stumbling block.

The test for the true Church, it seems to me, is not so much the extent to which it excludes evil from itself, but the extent to which it avoids excluding good. All that is good has its ultimate source in God, and so a Church that excludes good is, to that extent, excluding God. We cannot expect the Church to be the sole source of good in the world, for God is larger than the Church even if the Church really is God's true Church. The true Church must therefore be open to the good that has its origin in the world external to it, since such work must finally be a work of God. I don't agree with Catholic apologists who feel they must trace the origin of everything good to Catholicism; it is historically false and philosophically unnecessary. John Paul II, typically, had it right when he acknowledged that the Enlightenment introduced some positive changes into history, among them modern liberal democracy, that have since been acknowledged by the Church. It's no insult to Catholicism that it absorbs good things it did not originate; in fact, the consistency with which it has done this over 2,000 years is powerful evidence of its peculiar and unprecedented origin, for I know of no other institution with a similar record. This goes all way back to the allegedly devastating skeptical point that Christmas is just a pagan holiday taken over by the Church. Yes, Dec. 25 was a pagan holiday, and the Church took it over because pagan holidays are good things, not bad things. The Church takes over what is good in the pagan world and renews it in Jesus Christ, so that it is the same yet reborn. New wine in new wineskins, but the wineskins are still recognizably similar to the old pagan wineskins.

The genius of the Catholic Church, and the reason the gates of Hell will never prevail against it, is that it absorbs whatever is good in its enemies (while, alas, sometimes absorbing their evil as well.) Evil in itself has no power; what is evil has power only the extent that it is good. The enemies of the Church are powerful only to the extent that they are good. The Roman Empire was originally an enemy of the Church, and was also the greatest human institution the world had ever seen. The Church defeated the Empire, not by crushing it, but by transforming it in its spirit, and in the process absorbing the good elements of the Empire - including its language, elements of the old pagan worship, and its hierarchical structure. The Pope is a Roman Emperor transformed in light of the Kingdom of God, and Bishops are Procurators. The Roman Empire is long gone but what was good in it survives in the Church. The Church performs a kind of spiritual jiu-jitsu, taking her enemies' strengths and making them her own, winning  the war without apparently fighting. 

The intellectual analog of the absorption of pagan worship and political structures was the absorption of pagan philosophy, first that of Plato and later that of Aristotle, and in this century, some Eastern philosophies as well (I am thinking of Thomas Merton and Zen Buddhism.) It takes tremendous confidence and faith for an institution to be open to new philosophies, for there is always the danger that it is the philosophy that will transform the institution rather than vice versa. This seems to be the more or less explicit aim of the many modern philosophical "innovators." Yet the success the Church has seen in absorbing Platonic philosophy and later Aristotelian philosophy is shown not merely in the fact that it remained itself after these exposures, but became more of itself in the process.

I find that the rivals to the Church, religious or secular, disqualify themselves by excluding some aspect of the good. The Mennonites of Pennsylvania, for example, live an admirable life of simplicity, and it is a good life, but it isn't the only good life. The life of the engineer and scientist can also be a good life. So while I admire the Mennonites, I do not think that their religion can constitute the fullness of faith. Secular philosophies that worship science and technology make the same mistake in the opposite direction. The true philosophy will find a way to embrace both alternatives, unifying them in a transcendent truth.  G.K. Chesterton:

"It is true that the Church told some men to fight and others not to fight; and it is true that those who fought were like thunderbolts and those who did not fight were like statues. All this simply means that the Church preferred to use its Supermen and to use its Tolstoyans. There must be some good in the life of battle, for so many good men have enjoyed being soldiers. There must be some good in the idea of non-resistance, for so many good men seem to enjoy being Quakers. All that the Church did (so far as that goes) was to prevent either of these good things from ousting the other. They existed side by side. The Tolstoyans, having all the scruples of monks, simple became monks. The Quakers became a club instead of a sect." 

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Man, Nature and Religion

Man is a question that nature poses but does not answer.

This is the origin of religion and mythology. Religion and mythology are universal across human culture because nature is universal, and so the question of man is universally put. The more naive secularists miss this point. They think that religion poses the question that it answers, so if you rid the world of religion, you rid the world of the question to which religion is an answer. But it is nature, not religion, that poses the question of man, and it is for this reason that religion is ineradicable.

Even the most primitive mythology is truer than the modern scientistic, materialist understanding of man. For mythology faces the truth that man is an anomaly, an "outlier", a being whose nature demands an account different in kind from everything else in the universe. Modern man prides himself on his universalism, but it was really ancient man who was universal, for he universally agreed on the nature of the question of himself. The ancient pagan could construct a pantheon with doors that were always open to new Gods, for he was certain of the question but not the finality of the answer.

Modern conflict has an inhuman aspect to it that pre-modern conflict lacked. Pre-modern man universally agreed on the "first nature" of man, that is, that the question of man has no immediate answer in nature.*  A bear or a bee can be understood directly as an immediate part of nature. The "first nature" of bears and bees is the nature of bears and bees complete. But the immediate nature of man is a question that points beyond nature; on this pre-modern man universally agreed. The "second nature" of man, the nature found in mythology and religion that answers the question of the first nature, was the pre-modern basis of disagreement. The Moslem and the Christian, battling for Jerusalem in the twelfth century, fought over whether the Koran or the New Testament was the true account of the second nature of man, but this conflict hid their more basic agreement on the first nature of man. In the first nature of man the Moslem and the Christian recognized each other's humanity. The proof of this is that the Moslem and the Christian could make his enemy his friend by the simple act of converting to his enemy's faith. 

The modern world may be defined as the attempt to "naturalize" man. Since history shows that man cannot agree on his second nature, perhaps there is no second nature, and man is really just a creature with a first nature like every other animal. Or so modern man has thought. The various modern ideologies are the variety of attempts to reveal the true first nature of man that is complete in itself, rather than a question that points to a second nature. But this means that ideological disagreements are no longer disagreements about the second nature of man grounded in a shared understanding of man's first nature, but disagreements about man's first nature itself. An ideological enemy is, then, in his very being, on the wrong side of human nature and history, and there is no way for him to get on the right side. A Jew could save himself from the Crusader by converting to Christianity, or from the Saracen by converting to Islam, but he could never save himself from the Nazi by converting to Nazism, for the Nazi views the Jew as an enemy in his first nature. He does not recognize humanity in the Jew the way Moslems and Christians recognized humanity in each other, despite the atrocities they committed against each other. Neither could the French nobleman save himself from the guillotine by converting to the Revolution, for he is by first nature an enemy of the Revolution, or the kulak save himself from the Red Army by converting to Leninism. This is why the modern attempt to rid the world of religion, the alleged source of conflict, has led to wars of a ferocity and inhumanity that was unimaginable to ancient man, for it turned conflicts over second nature into conflicts over first nature, or, in other words, it eliminated what had been the universally recognizable human.

Modern thought attempts to naturalize man through a theoretical reconstruction of him. Of course the project is absurd because what makes something "natural" is the fact that its nature is immediately available to the intellect, and therefore needs no theoretical reconstruction to be known. Bees and bears can be understood directly by observing bees and bears; no theoretical mediation is required. We don't need to hypothesize a grizzly bear "state of nature" that is somehow more fundamental to the bear than its manifest nature, or a class history of bees, to understand either. The bear we immediately see is in the state of nature (the circus and the zoo not withstanding) and the class distinction between queen and worker bees is a simple manifestation of the nature of bees. Dian Fossey could thoroughly understand gorillas by living among them as a gorilla because gorillas are directly knowable. But the evolutionist can only understand man by reconstructing his evolutionary past, and interpreting the present in light of that historical reconstruction. He cannot simply live as a man among men and understand him - or so the modern thinking goes. 

Marx reconstructed man in terms of his theoretical economic history. Nazism reconstructed man in terms of a theoretical racial history. The goal of both was to reveal the first nature of man in such a way that he is completely naturalized. This means that the first nature of man is simply knowable, and not a question that points to a second nature of man. Ideology does not answer the question of man but eliminates the question itself. The attempt cannot succeed, and the question of man persists, posing a scandal to ideology. Ideology cannot respond to the scandal by answering the question of man, for an answer concedes that the question is legitimate in the first place; the only alternative is to eliminate the question by destroying the questioner, and here we have the origin of the horrors of modern totalitarianism, horrors unknown to pre-modern man for the simple reason that he could not imagine them. John Paul II, incidentally, understood that merely posing the question of man constitutes a mortal threat to secular ideologies, and he used that weakness to bring down Communism in Eastern Europe.

Darwinian evolution, whatever its empirical merits, is an attempt to theoretically reconstruct man through the organic, and thereby naturalize him. The evolution of the lower creatures is really incidental to the point of evolutionary theory because every creature but man can be understood directly. Spiders are understood by studying spiders, not by puzzling out a theoretical organic history of pre-spiderian creatures culminating in the spider. Were man truly a natural creature like all other animals, no one would be interested in evolutionary history or see any point in thinking about it.

The evolutionary past is the medium in which present organisms are reconstructed in terms of present organisms. More to the point, the evolutionary past is the medium in which man is reconstructed in terms of present organisms. Since there is very little evidence beyond a few bone fragments concerning mans pre-human and quasi-human ancestors, and we certainly have no experience of such creatures, in whatever ways those creatures were unlike present organisms we can know absolutely nothing about them. In a similar way, the alien creatures in science fiction always bear some similarity to terrestrial creatures (e.g. the monster in Alien is a kind of giant bug), since we can't possibly imagine creatures utterly unlike any we have experienced. So our pre-human ancestors are imagined in terms of present creatures, as quasi-chimps or quasi-bears or a compromise between chimps and man. Man is then reconstructed in terms of these hypothetical ancestors, completing the return to his present nature, the ancestors serving merely as the medium of reconstruction. Again, the very attempt at the evolutionary reconstruction of man is proof that man is not natural like other creatures, since natural creatures stand in no need of reconstruction.

John Paul II, as he did with Communism, went right to the philosophical heart of evolution by granting Darwinism all the empirical laurels it wished - "The convergence in the results of these independent studies - which was neither planned nor sought - constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory" - but denied the only prize Darwinists have ever really wanted, which is the final elimination of the question of man: "Theories of evolution, which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man."

* The terms "first nature" and "second nature" typically refer to, first, man's uneducated nature and, secondly, man's nature after it has been educated into virtue and/or remade through divine grace. I am using the same terms with a different meaning. Here, "first nature" means man's nature as immediately known, and "second nature" means the hidden nature of man as revealed by the answer to the question posed by man's first nature.