This is a page that focuses on religious and theological issues, as well as providing comprehensive teaching from a classic Catholic perspective. As you read the articles, it is my hope they will educate and bless you.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Adverse Metaphysics Makes For a Decline in Orthodoxy

This is my first post of the new year, and the very first post I am making from our new home in Hagerstown, MD.  Although I had planned on continuing a series of studies, transitions from moving and an increase of responsibilities with parish work (I am now the Pastoral Administrative Assistant to our priest at our new parish in Frederick, MD) have precluded me from doing so, although that is a project definitely slated for the near future.  Today, I want to focus on something we have been discussing in a Philosophy class I have this semester, as it brings to light some very interesting points.
The impetus for this discussion is based on an article we read for the class by Michael Baker entitled "The Loss of Metaphysics."  Baker's premise is that what is called the via moderna, or in contemporary terms modernism, has in essence stripped from theology the metaphysical dimension that ensures orthodoxy and orthopraxis both, and in doing so it has caused theology to in essence become "dumbed down."   The result of this loss, as Baker argues, is that knowledge has been in essence hijacked by subjectivism as opposed to true objectivity, and the focus has become more naturalistic and less on the supernatural.  Dr. Bergsma, who teaches Bible courses at Franciscan University of Steubenville where I am currently pursuing my Master's, noted in a class lecture that the effects of the via moderna (a term he didn't use but that I do here) have in essence misplaced Biblical hermeneutics and theological scholarship in the academy rather than in the Church where they rightfully belong.  As a result, as Bergsma also asserts and on which I fully agree, the Bible is now being seen from a secular scholastic lens that totally denies its historicity.  In other words, Bergsma and Baker would concur that the metaphysical dimension of sacred studies has been compromised by naturalism.  I saw this first-hand when I attended briefly my alma mater (an institution affilliated with a major Pentecostal denomination) a few years back when I initially wanted to go back there to pursue my graduate studies (I eventually, thanks be to God, transferred to Steubenville).  It is a problem though with deep roots in Enlightenment thinking, and a steady diet of this stuff can be seen originating with people such as Descartes and Machiavelli, proceeding to Kant, and then in the early 20th century is evident in the influence upon theology of such secular philosophers as Heidegger and Derrida.  Divorcing the supernatural and historical from the Bible, and also the study of Scriptures from the Church, is comparable to separating flour from bread - it loses its substance, in other words.  As St. Augustine wrote in his classic De Doctrina Christiana, he almost waxes prophetically as he states the following:  "Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all." (D.W. Robertson Jr., Trans. On Christian Doctrine - St. Augustine. Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Prentice Hall, 1958. p. 30).  In our traditional Anglo-Catholic Mass as contained in the 1928 American Book of Common Prayer, this is what is called "The Summary of the Law," and it summarizes one of the "Four Pillars of Catechesis," namely the Decalogue (Ten Commandments).  In the context St. Augustine speaks of however, what it discerns is that a student of Scripture must be intimate with the Source of Scripture, which is God Himself - this requires reading Scripture prayerfully and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as well as under the direction of the Church which Christ established as the custodian of doctrine and truth.  This therefore means that the student of Scripture must also be open to its transformative power, something that many secular-minded academics often lack (even those claiming to identify with a certain Christian tradition or calling themselves Bible scholars or theologians). Many self-styled "Bible scholars" today, taking their cue from Descartes or Heidegger, resort to a mechanical, rationalistic reading of Scripture which in essence ignores or dismisses its supernatural dimension, and in doing so it becomes easy for them to discount all Scripture as mere "myth" or "morality tales." As Hahn and Wiker point out in their excellent study Politicizing the Bible (New York:  Herder and Herder, 2013) on page 272, the aim of Descartes in particular (with groundwork laid by Ockham and Machiavelli before him) was to undo the Genesis narrative and create an earthly Eden that focuses on the mastery of nature rather than on contemplating nature's wonders, and thus a sort of "kingdom-now" eschatology of sorts which is totally naturalistic evolves and in time even is propagated by liberal Protestant theologians such as Jurgen Moltmann in his so-called "Theology of Hope" eschatological scheme.  It divorces God from His creation, and in essence creates a false contradiction between Nature and Revelation which is in rebellion against the fundamental principles of the Law of Non-Contradiction (something cannot be both true and untrue at once) and the Principle of Sufficient Reason (every real being has sufficient reason for its existence either in itself or another).  Both of these principles define classic metaphysics, but they don't fit the via moderna because the latter is based on change and evolution and not on established and eternal truth.  Hence, the problem.

Philosophy and Theology are both important and necessary, and we all possess both to some degree.  Philosophy entails what we think about the world around us, while Theology entails what we believe about our origins and our destiny (in practice, Theology then is expressed as Religion).  Taken together, they consist of what is called our world view.  For Christians, God is the ultimate source of truth, and therefore God is indeed the sufficient reason and primary cause for our own existence.  Therefore, in a Christian theological framework, our philosophy follows suit in that what we perceive of the world around us must be shaped by Who we place our faith in, as indeed our faith shapes how we think about politics and everything else.  When this is tampered with by the via moderna, God is diminished and a idolatrous cult of individualism takes over, and instead of understanding our worldview in light of a Creator God, we seek to replace it with something else which defines everything by the way we perceive it rather than the way God created it in the natural order.  As a result, defining language is then at the whims and mercies of the one defining the terms, and because one sets their own standard instead of following something more concrete, even obvious things - in recent years, gender identity being one of those - are radically redefined to fit the whims of the individual.  Therefore, if a man thinks he is a woman, he then says he's a woman and in his eyes this becomes his truth.  The problem with this sort of thinking though is that there are actually perceivable, universal truths that cannot be altered, and no redefinition can change that fact.  For instance, on the subject of gender identity, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the way to determine whether one is male or female requires a simple test - all one has to do is stand in front of a full-length mirror, drop their drawers, and what is "under the hood" will pretty much determine who one is!  To deny something so physically obvious also creates a theological problem - a transgendered person may call himself (if he is a biological male) a woman, but in doing so it is essentially denying a fundamental attribute of God's - God created all human beings as He designed them, and He doesn't make mistakes.  The transgendered person thus is calling God a liar then - that is some shaky spiritual ground to be treading!  Admittedly, some people struggling with gender identity issues have psychological problems which manifest such attitudes, and therefore it is healing and restoration which should be sought for such a person.  The problem with the via moderna is that it does violence against the personhood of such an individual by the sin of relativism, and thus the modernist is in essence compelling a person who is struggling with real issues to accept themselves as "normal" when they really are not.  Embracing a disorder or a sin for that matter is not an acceptable or logical way of addressing an issue, but rather it reinforces wrong mindsets and psychological illnesses in some cases.  It is out of that mindset that so-called "political correctness" we read of today evolved, and Baker specifically makes that connection in his article.  This made for some interesting discussion in the class where this issue was covered, and I want to note some observations now.

One of my classmates is a guy named Josh, and although Josh is a devout Catholic Christian and in reality doesn't espouse modernism, like so many of us he unfortunately has been indirectly influenced by it as evidenced by the discussion he had with myself and several other classmates. Josh in essence in the discussion blamed not so much what we and Baker were saying - as a matter of fact, he affirmed he agreed and was on the same page - but he centered on a discussion of semantics.  His basic argument was this - we cannot use such terms as "modernism," "political correctness," etc. because they are, as he put in his own words, "stereotypical" and "archaic."  By trying to "church-up" the language though, my colleague Josh has unintentionally caved into the mindset we are addressing, and that can also be problematic. Oddly, his disagreement with the terms also makes him disagree with many of the great thinkers of his own Church (Roman Catholic) - namely, St. Maxmilian Kolbe, Pope Leo XIII, and even Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.  They all used those terms quite frequently to describe these attitudes, and as far as I know they are still relevant terms for today. In responding to some of his discussion, I noted the example of a cancer patient - you don't just call a cancer a "disorder" because using the term cancer is somehow stereotypical; on the contrary, a good physician diagnoses exactly what it is, identifies it for what it is, and then is able to treat it.  Therefore, while alleviating the suffering of the cancer patient with compassion, the malignancy is also targeted and either removed or destroyed as completely as possible so as not to further disable or kill the patient.  So it is with terminology - you don't call a cockroach a ladybug when you call an exterminator either just because the name "cockroach" is too "icky" or not socially acceptable.  You call it what it is so it can be addressed and corrected.  Therefore, the semantics game often can do more harm than good, and for Josh as an example to deny the terminology "political correctness" in essence makes him a participant in political correctness for wanting to radically redefine terminology, whether intentional or not.  In short, also related to this, you don't feed the disease, but rather seek to cure it.

That moves us onto another thought in this discourse.   The cure for an epidemic or a serious disease may not always be palatable, and no one says it has to in order to be effective.  Take, for instance, a common remedy for constipation many of us over 40 are familiar with called castor oil.  Honestly, for those of us who had the "privilege" of having it administered to us by our parents or a doctor, it was the nastiest substance we had ever encountered, but it did what it needed to do.  Likewise, in society, the cure for a bad philosophy, theology, or other social issue may not be exactly popular, but it may be what saves the life of a given society.  To use another example from my West Virginia roots, at around the time I am writing this (early April) many folks in my family who still live near and around my home town of Parsons, WV, often go out in the woods to harvest a small plant which is a cousin to the onion called a ramp.  For those of us from West Virginia, ramps are a pretty common thing this time of year, and they are consumed in bushels at festivals and suppers in social clubs, churches, and fire halls throughout the region.  However, also knowing about this plant, I can tell you it stinks to high heaven too!  Ramps are so pungent that if you want to make enemies, they are a sure-fire way to do it - they impart a funk on your breath for days, and even come out in your perspiration to the degree that back in the day teachers used to sit students who ate them out in the hall during class because they can be overpowering.  Yet, God created that stinky little delicacy for a purpose - it is valued as a "spring tonic," and by perspiring the noxious sweat out of your pores, you may be in effect expelling toxins that have built up in your system over the long winter months.  In the same way, God's grace may at times work on us as well - grace tends to convict us of sin to bring us to repentance and restoration, and that conviction may not be a pretty thing to experience for us.  Yet, the fruit of responding to that conviction allows the supernatural grace of God to transform us into the person He made us to be, and thus its necessity for us.  In society at large, this grace is manifest often as well in the direct address of those things which are harming a society - "political correctness" is one such ill - and calling them out for what they are.  When confronting these things head-on like that, this manifestation of grace has the same effect upon a society that ramps have upon a body - it detoxes, and the reaction against it can be violent and unpleasant, but necessary.  Therefore, unlike my colleague Josh's opinion, we can't "church-up" something to gloss it over and expect it to go away - rather, a stiff dose of medicine is necessary, and only when the medicine takes effect can healing take place.

In another part of this whole discussion, the analogy of an umbrella came up.  My colleague Josh used the illustration of rain, noting an illustration he took from Pope St. John Paul II regarding rain - instead of avoiding the rain, in this context, one should experience the wetness.  I countered this reasoning (which was his interpretation of the late Pontiff's analogy) by noting that often it is not the wetness that needs to be experienced, but rather the necessity of an umbrella to keep us dry so that we don't catch pneumonia in the rain.  If you see rain, you don't have to "experience" it to know it is wet - water is liquid, and basic third-grade physics knowledge has established the wetness of water.  However, basic biology also tells us that exposure to certain conditions can be harmful, and maybe the best idea is to shield against the rain to prevent a virus.  The purpose of the umbrella then is to shield against the wetness - likewise, we need "umbrellas" to shield us against the "wetness" of adverse worldviews which seek to undermine our faith, and the greatest umbrella a Catholic Christian can have is the Eucharist, as Jesus Himself saves, delivers, and heals us with His very Body and Blood as we receive it in humility and with joyful gratitude.   This is also a reason why effective discipleship and catechesis are important, for if one knows the truth it makes it easier to discern and avoid error.  Effective discipleship and catechesis then serve as a sort of "umbrella" against the torrents of the via moderna, and we then can be as the Gospels document, a "house built on solid ground."

The decline in metaphysics has indeed impacted theology, and what has stepped into that void in recent decades is a mindset of secularism that has it roots in Enlightenment thinking of figures such as Descartes and Kant, and when the evils of social Darwinism, so-called "higher literary criticism" of Sacred Scripture, and the waning influence of orthodox Christianity in Western civilization get thrown into the mix, it is the reason why certain things that were once universally understood to be wrong are now "socially acceptable" and "politically correct."  It is, as Scripture foretold in Isaiah 5:20, calling evil "good" and good "evil."  And, it is being perpetrated by a class of elitists - some of whom bear the name "Christian" and tout themselves as "theologians" and "scholars" - whom Romans identifies as "professing themselves wise, they became fools." (Romans 1:22).   That is why, as II Timothy 2:15 exhorts us, we as informed Christians who actively live out our faith need to "study to show ourselves approved," and always be prepared to give a defense (apologia) to anyone who questions our faith (I Peter 3:15).  Why is this important?  As leaders in the Church, we are also called to "earnestly contend for the faith which was once for all entrusted to God's holy people." (Jude 1:3).  We, the Church, are "God's Holy People," and therefore this is a mandate we are charged with taking seriously.  We cannot afford to compromise or back down on any issue, and "watering-down" and "churching-up" language will do more harm than good.  It is time we as Christians - forgive me for saying it this way! - grow some cojones and do what we are called to do.  When we begin to do just that, then orthodox faith and a proper metaphysical understanding might be restored.  Thank you until next time.