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Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

Book Review: By Knowledge & By Love

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By Knowledge & By Love

Throughout Christian history certain theological dichotomies tend to dominate the backdrop, such as the contrast between: nature vs. grace, faith vs. works, or freedom vs. Divine sovereignty. Though their influence is often imperceptible, the force of these clashes move like theological seismic plates along the landscape of the Christian globe, where the collision between these meta-themes, even if unfelt to some, invariably form the landscape’s very features. From time to time, a veritable subduction-zone occurs, one extreme dominates its opposite, one pole of a theological clash eclipses the other, and the both/and balance of classic Catholic thought is compromised. It is Fr. Michael Sherwin’s conviction that something very similar has happened in the 20th century field of Catholic morals. 

 

The book is titled By Knowledge and By Love: Charity and Knowledge in the Moral Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, and the struggle the book addresses is the classic conflict between the role of intellect and will in human action. Sherwin begins by recognizing that, where traditional moral theology has always assumed a balance between these powers of the soul in the execution of the moral act, mid-twentieth century theology did not. According to Sherwin, certain thinkers, in a well-intentioned attempt to answer the Second Vatican Council’s call for a renewal of moral theology, returned to the sources of the science – to those that preceded the casuist manuals, to the fathers, and to St. Thomas himself – and began to reconstruct a theory of moral value they believed more fitting for contemporary moral analysis. As well-intentioned as this goal might have been, Sherwin insists that this reconstruction, far from being a more faithful representation of St. Thomas’s true thought, was actually a radical departure from it. Far from illuminating the true sources of moral freedom, it rather obscured them. This obscuring of morals is a danger that Sherwin’s book confronts.

 

To summarize the problem, certain theologians of the 20th century downgraded the role of knowledge and the act of the intellect in the moral act, and saw rather the act of the will, simplex voluntas, as providing human action with the totality of its moral value. According to these theologians, what one knows is of lesser value, or no value, compared with what one wills. Simply put, as long as one intends to do good, that is, as long as one wills some ultimate good through his actions, by that fact the action must be judged good regardless of the knowledge or intellectual content therein. This notion can be seen at work in the contemporary opinion that, as long as one intends good, or is sincere, or means well, then, by virtue of this sincerity, no further moral growth is needed. By virtue of these good intentions, any further moral formation on the intellectual front would be superfluous. Immortalized in popular song lyrics of the time, these theologians insist that, in morals “all you need is love.”

 

As the “and” in title might already suggest, By Knowledge and By Love is a shattering critique of this one-sided shift in moral theology. Providing a masterful analysis of the role of knowing and willing (knowledge and love) in human action, Sherwin brilliantly illustrates the various errors of these modern theologians. Where some suggest that charity’s act exists only on a transcendental level -- within some “fundamental option” toward God made before any categorical determination of action -- Sherwin shows rather that the execution of the virtue of charity exists at every level of the human act; not only in a precognitive velle free from intellectual determination, but more thoroughly in intention, judgment, choice, command, and use. Sherwin also appeals to St. Thomas’s famed distinction between specification and exercise, in illustrating how, where modern theologians might insist that moral value is derived from a naked act of the will free from the specifying role of intellect, intellect and will are rather interconnected at every level of human action. There is no act of the will (save the will’s first act, which is by nature), Sherwin explains, that is not influenced by the directing and specifying priority of the intellect. In like manner, there is no act of the intellect that is not commanded by the exercising priority of the will. Both knowledge and love inform the moral act. Both knowledge and love invest human action with the freedom and dynamism of self-direction that render it morally good.

 

The anthropological import of the book must also be noted. Sherwin’s presentation of the intellect and will working together in the moral act reminds modern students of St. Thomas that the human soul, although containing multiple powers, is still a unity where the full engagement of the whole human person is required for the execution of a moral act. The faculty psychology of Aristotle and the scholastics, as essential a model as it is for anthropological analysis, often tempts the theologian to think of the powers of the soul in isolation, where each is hermetically sealed from the influence of the others. Sherwin’s work is free from this trap. Where students are so often in danger of seeing the acts of intellect and will as independent, Sherwin’s book presents them again as a wedded pair. Where textbook analysis of the moral act tends to picture intellect and will as two parallel lines between which human action oscillates like a bouncing ball, Sherwin instead pictures these two lines as intertwined, in a sense, wrapping around each other like a double helix between which the very genetic code of moral action is carried and hinged to both at every stage. 

 

This reclaiming of a balanced understanding of knowledge and love is preceded by a stunning historical analysis of St. Thomas’ very notion of love itself. Before presenting the relation between knowledge and love in human action, Sherwin first reveals a development from St. Thomas’ earlier description of love in his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard to his later descriptions of love in the Summa Theologiae and Quaestiones Disputatio de Malo. In his earlier writings, St. Thomas described love with the language of form; he understood love to be, like intellection, a type of adequatio, a type of reception within the lover of the form of the thing loved. As helpful as this understanding was for St. Thomas’ earlier analysis and as faithful to tradition as it might have been, Sherwin shows how it failed to sufficiently distinguish the act of love from the act of knowledge and, consequently, failed to provide the correct moving parts by which the actions of both could reciprocally coordinate. However, in his later writings, St. Thomas abandons the language of form and speaks of love solely as an appetitive movement, a tending outward towards that which is presented as good and perfective. Sherwin explains how this streamlined understanding of love solely as an appetitive movement proved to be the final tool needed for St. Thomas to synchronize both knowledge and love as two mutually intertwined movements. From this point of view, nothing can be loved as good and perfective, until it is first known, and nothing can be known as perfective, until the will exercises its command toward the aspect of goodness.

 

These aspects of the book place By Knowledge and By Love as undoubtedly one of the great works of moral theology in modern times. It is a great gift to the Church -- a clearing of the obscurities that cloud the air of modern moral discourse. It is an even greater gift to students of Catholic morals, particularly those of the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, providing a systematic, precise, and balanced answer to complex and nuanced problems. As all students of St. Thomas know, a small error in the beginning leads to a great error in the end. From time to time, the Catholic world wakes up to a consciousness that one of these great errors is upon her. At these moments in history, it is the role and duty of her disciplined theologians, who are also her loyal children, to exercise their skills of faithfully examining where, when, why, and how such small errors might have occurred in the beginning. Fr. Michael Sherwin’s By Knowledge and By Love is a shining example of one of these faithful sons of the Church exercising this duty with the highest degree of skill and erudition. It will be a crowning addition to any theological library.

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

Theology in Paint

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In the medieval convent of San Marco in Florence lived one of the Dominican Order's greatest evangelists. He was not a master of the spoken word, an expounder of sacred scripture, nor an expert rhetorician; rather he was a simple artist. This friar was none other than Blessed Fra Angelico, who was able to craft images that both illustrated profound theological themes while also raising the mind to the sublime contemplation of God. Below is the second video in the DSPT Lenten reflection series in which Fr. Michael Morris, O.P., reflects upon one of Fra Angelico's most famous images of St. Dominic at the foot of the cross. Check it out and have a blessed Lent.

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

The Nature of Freedom

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Recently the brothers and I were engaged in a conversation about the nature of human liberty. We were reflecting on the stark difference between freedom as the modern world would present it, and the true freedom to which our Catholic faith teaches that all men are called.

When most people consider the concept of human freedom or liberty, they generally consider, not the presence of a positive reality within the soul rendering it capable of free action, but rather the absence of realities outside the soul that serve as limits or boundaries to choice. Freedom is said to exist when all the various impediments to external movement or choice are removed; this is the notion of “freedom as license” that is so very common today. Given this understanding, a ball rolling down a hill -- where the mere pull of gravity rules its motion -- would be dubbed “free” if it simply has no obstacles in its path. Yet in this scenario, the ball’s fall is not something that it is “doing,” as much as it is something “being done to it.” The ball is not self-directed, not moved from within. The ball is not dominus sui (Lord of itself), but rather is lorded over by external forces outside of its control. This is not freedom.

True human freedom consists not in the absence of external impediments to action, but rather in the internal principle by which self-directed action towards an intended good is taken. This inner strength or virtus, by which one intentionally chooses the good and thus moves himself to a greater fulfillment of his human nature, is where human freedom lies.

Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

The Bible in Jerusalem

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Basilica of St. StephenCan you imagine a better place to study Scripture than in the Holy City of Jerusalem? Earlier this January I had the chance to spend a few days there, at St. Stephen Priory (located on the site where tradition says St. Stephen was martyred), attending "The Bible in Jerusalem," a conference for new and upcoming Dominican Scripture scholars. St. Stephen's is the Dominican priory associated with the École Biblique et Archeologique Francaise de Jerusalem, a Dominican school of scripture and archaeology founded by Fr. Marie-Joseph Lagrange, O.P. in 1890. This gathering was the first of what we plan to make an annual event, the purpose being to promote and foster collaboration and fraternity among young Dominicans pursuing Scripture scholarship, all for the sake of the Order's mission of preaching the gospel for the salvation of souls.

Between January 3rd-5th, more than 15 friars participated from around the world (e.g., France, Poland, Ireland, England, Ukraine, Croatia, Mexico, the United States, and the Phillipines), most of whom have begun or recently completed doctoral work related to Scripture; I hope to begin doing so in a few years. We handled this first meeting with a two-pronged approach: (1) to provide individual friars with an opportunity to present their current research topics and interests; and (2) to have some focused exegetical discussions about the relation between intra-biblical and patristic exegesis. This second part focused on Luke 4:19-30.

Our sense of fraternity and devotion to studying, exploring, and proclaiming the written Word of God was very tangible. I presented a synopsis of my MA Philosophy thesis on "Truth and Hermeneutics," and all the presentations led to some very lively discussions. We spoke of how to collaborate with each other and with the École in our work of Scripture study, and how our way of life as Dominicans makes us uniquely suited to study, mediate upon, and preach from the Scriptures. The tradition of the Order of Preachers, and the work of the Ecole and its founder, offers us the opportunity to pursue a Thomistic approach to biblical exegesis, one that is both scientifically and academically rigorous, yet inspired by faith and thus theological.

I also found our exegetical discussions about Luke 4 to be very engaging and stimulating. We all agreed that such collective work and dialogue is something we would like to continue; and we proposed a theme of "The Word," and the text of Sirach 24, for our next meeting in January of 2016.

Fr. Olivier-Thomas Venard, O.P., the director of "The Bible in its Traditions" project, presented some of the purpose and structure of this ambitious, and decades-long project of the École to produce a wide-ranging exegetical tool and commentary on all of Scripture, to be made available online (examples can be found here). You can also read more about it on its blog here. He hoped we would be able to collaborate in this project, and we thought that we should use the "BEST" website (the French acronym for the project) as part of our annual meetings and preparation.

In spite of spending about 60 hours of travel time in 5 days, the visit was very worthwhile, and left me, and I believe the other friars who participated, hopeful for the future of biblical scholarship in the Order. This being my second trip to Jerusalem, it was no less poignant to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher again and to pray there, as well as at the Cenacle (the site of our Lord's Last Supper). Being physically present at "Mt. Zion, true pole of the earth," (Ps. 48:3) and in the very places in which our Redeemer lived and won for us a share in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), gives a whole new dimension and meaning to praying the Psalms everyday and reading the Scriptures! I look forward to further visits and time spent in Jerusalem and at the École Biblique.

Many thanks to the friars of the École Biblique and St. Etienne, especially Fr. Marcel Sigrist, O.P., the director of the school, and Fr. Guy Tardivy, O.P., the prior of St. Stephen's, for welcoming us and encouraging us in our collaboration for the renewal of Scripture studies in the Order. And to our own New Testament scholar, Fr. Gregory Tatum, O.P., who lives, studies, and teaches at the Ecole Biblique; he was kind enough to take me to the aiport early in the morning on my last day. Thank you, Fr. Gregory! May God bless the work of the École Biblique and all those pursuing Scripture studies, that by their work, the Word of God Himself might more fully illumine not only our Order, but the world with His Wisdom, His Truth, and His Grace!

Fr. Gabriel Mosher, O.P.'s picture

My Soul is Thirsting for You

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What does it mean to thirst for God? This question is, I believe, at the heart of many questions surrounding what some people suggest is the chasm between doctrine and discipline. Put another way, it's suggested that the practical application of the faith differs--sometimes in kind, not just degree--from the doctrines of the faith. I suggest that this is a false dichotomy.

Anyone who has been involved, in any way, with pastoral ministry (heck, anybody who has normal human relationships) knows that none of us are perfect. We are all at different stages of moral development, based on any number of circumstances that have had an effect on us. This should, I hope, be a given. It's the role of the moral guide to assist a person in developing their conscience, so that they may grow towards moral perfection. It would be a terrible burden to expect someone on the road to perfection to already be perfect. However, to not have any expectations would be just as terrible.

When one sets off for a hike it's necessary to prepare. One must reflect on what's needed to successfully complete the hike. He must first plan, then procure, and then pack. He should place these things in his pack and strap them on his back before taking a single step on the trail. This journey (pilgrimage, if you will) is analogous to developing as a Christian. We all desire God, so the destination is easily chosen. We consult others about the journey and the journey's end. We take in all this information and then set off on the journey. But, how do you know that you've packed the right supplies and chosen the right path?

A good guide will check the hiker's pack to make sure that everything is included, so the hiker won't become stranded or die on the trail. Likewise, a good pastor of souls will make sure that a person has everything he needs at each step of his conversion towards moral perfection. On the trail, some things are less important than others. Similarly, in the moral life some things merit less grace than others. However, if you forget food or water in your pack, that's a gigantic oversight. If you don't have the requisites to start on the path in the moral life, that is also a huge problem. These impediments to successfully completing the journey must be addressed first. So, while one may truly desire to reach the destination, it's impossible to reach the goal without first addressing those primary essentials--those grave matters.

So, let's say a person suffers from habitual solitary sexual sin. This can be fixed along the journey. It's not something so grave that it disqualifies the person from growing in moral development. However, let's consider the state of cohabitation. This is far more serious. This state is always present no matter what a person is doing, thinking, not doing, or not thinking. This state is compunded by any other particular sin that may occur while in this state, such as fornication. In this case, it will become necessary for this state to end before a person (or persons, in this scenario) can continue on the journey of moral perfection.

These states that we sometimes find ourselves in are like brambles on a path. They hold us back from proper moral development. Before we advance in the moral life we must clear away the brambles. Until those brambles are cleared away, it will be impossible to proceed further down the road of moral development. Because of this, it is important that those entrusted with the care of souls not ignore the brambles. They must help the person who is tangled in them to escape from them. He must not tell the person that it's okay to be stuck in the brambles, and that desiring the end of the journey is enough. It's not enough. This is not true pastoral care. The care of souls is not about making people feel good about their sinful states. Rather, it is about comforting people, challenging people, and helping people overcome those states. Sometimes this requires telling people that they aren't ready for the journey. Sometimes it means being tough on someone who is satisfied being stuck in the brambles. It is, however, never about neglecting the doctrine of the faith to accommodate it to one's sinful state. Rather, it is about helping that person accommodate himself to the truths of the faith. It is about us converting to the faith, not the other way around.

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Br. Thomas Aquinas Pickett, O.P.'s picture

The Virtue of Religion Part 1

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Many times when I mention St. Thomas' "virtue of religion" in conversations, I get winced stares of utter confusion. On the one hand, this makes me excited because I am most fain to share what I have learned from my studies of St. Thomas (my brothers are probably getting pretty bored with my rants on religion); but on the other hand, it makes me a little sad because the virtue of religion is such an important and integral part of living the Christian life. With the help and inspiration of Br. Brad, our videographer, several videos will be put out explaining Aquinas' teaching on the virtue of religion.

Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

Scripture Study for Catholics

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"Sacred Scripture is the soul of theology," says the Second Vatican Council document Dei Verbum. What does this mean? What principles does the Church give Catholic exegetes for interpreting the Sacred Text. In this first of a series on interpreting Sacred Scripture in an ecclesial conext, I lay out the basic principles the Church sets forth for understanding and interpreting the written Word of God...

 

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Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

Aquinas on Virtue (Part 1)

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"Morality" and "moral rules" tend to bring up hot topics in our current culture. Thomas Aquinas, though, highlights the role of "virtue" in the moral life as the key to happiness. In this series of instructional videos, I will explore, question by question, St. Thomas's treatises on the virtues in the Summa Theologiae that lay out the basic foundations for Aquinas's notion of virtue. The first installment centers on the first question in the treatise, which deals with the definition of virtue. I explain how St. Thomas uses Aristotle's "four causes" to flesh out the essential notion of what a virtue is. As we will see throughout the series, practicing virtue does involve our feelings and emotions, but only insofar as they are ordered by the mind and our reason...

 

Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

Bad Religion, Good Read

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Though Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Simon & Schuster, 2012) was published almost two years agoBad Religion (Douthat) now, I just got around to reading it over Christmas. It is one of those books I could hardly recommend more to sincere Christians who are trying to sort out the role of Christianity in the public square today. Douthat is an op-ed writer for the New York Times (one of the two token conservatives on staff), whose first two books and multitudinous articles have established him—young as he is—as a prominent cultural critic and observer. Douthat has been praised especially for his balance, which is on rather remarkable display in his most recent book. He sets forth his own positions incisively and with an engaging writing style, while mindful of the weaknesses within the groups he represents; yet is also able to see the strengths and potential good in his opponents' positions. In other words, he betrays a genuinely Catholic sensibility.

Every Christian in America today is aware, on some level, of the ideological battles that rage between and within different communions, the various camps often (and unhelpfully) drawing their vocabulary, attitudes, and posture towards the world, from the clunky categories of the American political scene. As a Generation X convert to the Catholic faith myself, I often have to work very hard to figure out how battles that were fought in the 1960s and '70s—over, say, formal or informal liturgy, abandoning or sticking to traditional theological vocabulary, whether clerics should wear distinctively religious attire or not—are still relevant today. Many have noticed that these post-Vatican II battles, or at least the language and set of cultural assumptions within which they emerged, seem even more remote to the generation following mine, the "Millenials."

The first great service of Douthat's book is to familiarize someone like myself with the "world" of 1950s American Christianity, then the various historical and social forces that, in the ensuing decades, led to the quite complex and varied situation we have today. This is the burden of the first half of the book. The second half goes on to detail a set of "American heresies" Douthat sees operative in the minds and hearts of most average American Christians today. The first half, though, begins by drawing off political trends, social scientific data, theological movements, and broader cultural features, to paint a picture of what Douthat calls the "Lost World" of the 1950s. It is not a lament for a pristine era—to my mind the author is careful not to fall prey to false idealization, despite what some reviewers have said. Rather he sets forth, for the sake of comparison, a broad array of features that characterized the American Christian scene circa 1960.

He points out, for example, that in the 1950s Christianity had a—startling to even utter—strong public presence in the United States that was, on the whole, respected by politicians and intellectuals alike. Having grown up myself in the 1980s in what is known as the "mainline" (as opposed to evangelical) wing of American Protestantism, I was astonished to see that the mainline denominations—Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.—actually experienced growth in the post-WWII years. (Since the 1960s they have experienced an almost universal decline in numbers.) The public prominence of such figures as Fulton Sheen, Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr., bore witness to a Christianity that was, though confessionally varied, intellectually respectable, politically engaged, and strong enough to wield significant cultural influence. Thinkers, writers, and scholars forged within a Christian worldview abounded, able both to engage and win respect from the highest levels of academia, as well as assert a public presence that shaped Christian thinking and consciousness: W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and Flannery O'Connor, from the literary side; Christopher Dawson and Arnold Toynbee as historians; John Courtney Murray and Jacques Maritain as theological-philosophical minds who summoned their impressive abilities to political influence.

And then came the '60s. Douthat suggests five factors that, taken together, contributed to the deep fractures American Christianity experienced in the ensuing decades: (1) political polarization, and an increasing politicization of religion; (2) the sexual revolution; (3) globalization; (4) the religious consequences of increased wealth; and (5) class. Politically, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement sparked generational conflicts between an older Eisenhower-era generation in favor of change, but the slow and gradual type; and the younger leftward-leaning generation who demanded more confrontational "shake things up" tactics. Religion within this atmoshpere became increasingly wedded to political agendas, a trend Douthat illuminates by contrasting two pairs of leaders, one from the "old" and the other from the "new" order. In the 1950s and '60s, Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr., though coming out of politically opposite constituencies, managed to transcend their political affiliations, and remain effective Christian witnesses. Graham grew to respect and eventually support King's work; and King would have been, as much as Graham, recognized as a Christian clergyman of public import. By the 1980s, on the other hand, an unseemly picture emerges: Pat Robertson, in a Billly Graham & MLK, Author-Billy Graham (www.billygraham.org); Source-Wikimedia Commonsmanner the heir of Graham's largely white, conservative constituency, intentionally allying himself with the Republican Party vis-à-vis the Christian Coalition; and Jesse Jackson, on the left, summoning his religious clout to the full support of the Democratic Party platform. Each makes a bid for the 1988 Presidential election, a spectacle almost inconceivable for their 1950s and '60s forbears, who seem to have come out of a less-partisan, and hence relatively more united, Christian milieu.

In turn, the sexual revolution, globalization, and a burgeoning post-War middle-class, confronted America's Christian leadership with a juggernaut of issues it could hardly have foreseen, and had little idea how to effectively address. From the radical shift in sexual ethics and moral reflection brought on by the availability of contraception; to the seeming relativization of Christianity's uniqueness in light of a "global world" that seemed to draw Asia and alternative religious experiences nearer; to the slough of problems the gospel associates with wealth flooding into an upwardly mobile Baby Boomer generation; to theologians like Harvey Cox and James Pike who seemed altogether cheery about Christianity's capitulation to, and merging with, the rising secular state: all these amounted to a perfect storm for America's Christian leadership, who found themselves increasingly on the outs with the trends and direction of mainstream culture.

Douthat classes the responses to these challenges into two broad categories: accommodation and resistance. In the accommodationist camp one found men like Cox and Pike (mentioned above), along with Protestant mainline, and the lion's share of influential Catholic thinkers and bishops. If the world is speaking of progress and political action, and is tired of "old fashioned" ways of doing things, then, well, the Church ought to abandon these old ways as much as possible, since modern man finds them so displeasing. Jesus was interested in social justice and challenging the existing authorities; so ought we be. Jesus met people where they were at; so we ought to be less concerned about formality in liturgy, and adopt a more folksy guitar and tambourine approach, in line with what young people are "really" interested in. One very interesting section along these lines draws comparisons between the language of men like Cox and Pike—who came to positively and unashamedly deny central Christian truths—and the language of the 2nd Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes, whose optimism about the possibilities of the "City of Man" often seems, at best, anachronistic, and at worst, almost incoherent. Exemplary of his detachment, though, Douthat reminds someone like myself—who, in the year 2014, finds himself on most points in favor of re-implementing in a new context, the "more traditional" ways—that in 1965 the accommodationist approach was altogether arguable, reasonable, and even compelling. Christianity faced an array of issues that were unprecedented in Christian history. Why not tinker with the way doctrine is couched, and the manner liturgy is done, in order to draw more souls to Christ? The real effects of accommodationism, needless to say, were another question. Douthat quotes James Hitchcock to summarize (107):

"Progressive clergy shed their vestments on the sacristy floor, threw their incense in the trash, and sold their golden vessels to antique dealers, only to discover that somehow the puritanical young men and women who had marched with them on the picket lines had got hold of all these discards and more besides—tarot cards, Ouija boards, Tibetan prayer wheels, and temple gongs. The Latin had been eliminated from the Mass so the young could comprehend it, but they preferred instead to chant in Sanskrit. Campus chaplains had ceased trying to sell prayer and were selling social action instead, but their former constituents were hunting up Hindu gurus and undertaking systematic regimens of meditation and fasting. Some clergy lectured the Church severely about the evil of sacral liturgies which are "escapes from life," but the young increasingly preferred drug-induced euphoria and hallucinations."

The fruits of accommodationism were increasingly smaller congregations, who seemed increasingly less committed to traditional Christian truths, from the theology of God, who now was to be "nearer" to me and so grow and change and learn things like me; to moral and sexual issues, which on any number of points contemporary Christians were either indifferent to or positively rejected; to recognizing any substantial need for "institutional religion" at all.

First Things Cover, Author-JoeCarter888; Source, Wikimedia CommonsOn the other side was the "resistance" approach of evangelicalism and a smaller group of Catholics, who found themselves unlikely allies in an emerging "culture war" against the rising tide of secularism. The journal First Things came out of this improbable alliance (first issue, Spring 1994), as did the increasingly politically aligned pro-life movement. Though generating a significant amount of internal strength and sense of purpose, and doing what no other post-1960 Christian community seemed capable of, winning converts, weaknesses emerged almost in lock-step with the growth. A certain strain of anti-intellectualism emerged in debates over evolution and biblical inerrancy, and an often too-close-for-comfort political association with "old time Reagan republicanism" made the claims of the emerging "Christian right" less credible. Their culminating victory almost became the defining defeat. With the election of George W. Bush to the White House, a convinced and assertive evangelical had finally made his way into the Oval Office. Yet Bush's administration was hardly against using government power to effect cultural change (a supposedly forbidden practice for conservatives), and the unfolding debacle of American intervention in Iraq, whatever the original intentions, dealt repeated blows to the American Exceptionalist camp's vision for a Judeo-Christian America, and a Representatively Democratic World. "Among young people, in particular," Douthat writes, "Evangelicalism's appeal waxed among Generation X...but then waned as the Xers gave way to the Millennial Generation. A quarter of Americans under thirty identified as Evangelical in the middle 1980s, but by the election of Barack Obama in 2008, that number was below 20 percent and dropping" (138).

The Resistance movement, particularly its Evangelical base, tended to thrive on a "para-church" approach that rejected the establishment institutions and sustained itself through high-profile personalities and leaders: from Billy Graham to Chuck Colson to Francis Schaeffer to Jerry Falwell. But, Douthat writes,

"[T]hough the 'para' groups were immensely successful at religious mobilization, they weren't as effective at sustaining commitment across a life span or across generations. They were institutions for an anti-institutional faith...organized around personalities and causes and rarely created the sense of a comprehensive, intergenerational community that both Mainline churches and Catholicism had traditionally offered. You couldn't spend your whole life in Campus Crusade for Christ, or raise your daughter as a Promise Keeper, or count on groups like the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition to sustain your belief system beyond the next election cycle. For that kind of staying power your needed a confessional tradition, a church, an institution capable of outlasting its charismatic founders. Instead, Evangelicalism became dominated by empire-building megachurch pastors whose ministries often burned brightly and then just as quickly burned out."

One could find, I would further assert, parallel trends in the Catholic neo-conservative cluster that defined themselves against the mainstream Catholic leadership: effective in important ways at gaining adherents and martialing forces, yet ultimately with little to show in culturally-shaping influence.

The first half of Bad Religion gives an important, even vital, context to Christians today seeking a place to move forward. But the second half of the book is even more rewarding, and more practical. Douthat's thesis here is that, contrary to popular belief, we do not live in an un-religious or absolutely un-Christian America. Rather, any number of social scientific studies and other cultural indicators show that Americans are more religious now than they have ever been. Instead, Douthat argues, we live in an age of Christian Heresy. If a "mere Christianity" (to borrow Lewis' phrase) is conceivable, a Christianity whose fundamental affirmations Christians through history would recognize—be they Protestant or Catholic—fewer and fewer Christians today believe in it. The heresies Douthat pinpoints, in turn, are:

(1) the historical Jesus heresy, which explains away the historicity of the Gospels, while holding up pseudo and Gnostic versions of the Nazarene as somehow more to be reverenced; it is the Christianity of Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, and John Dominic Crossan, on the scholarly side, and Dan Brown on the popular side;

(2) the prosperity Gospel of preachers like Joel Osteen, whose pervasiveness Douthat sets forth in frightening terms—who knew there were so many, or how much influence they have?—Douthat actually points to authors who have argued, almost convincingly, however far-fetched, that the housing bubble of recent years was virtually caused by prosperity preachers (!);

(3) the "God-within" heresy of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, where God becomes identified with my own inner-feelings and primordial instincts, whose Divine Voice might tell me to abandon my marriage vows (as Gilbert claims the Voice told her), and go on a spiritually narcissistic romp through Italy, India, and Indonesia in search of "self-actualization"; it is the god which denies original sin, and identifies the Deity with human nature, as well as trees, rocks, streams, sentimental romantic flings, and good Italian espresso;

(4) the "City on a Hill" heresy of American Exceptionalism; it is the God of, on the right, Glenn Beck, Michael Novak, and R.J. Rushdoony, who would see America as the culmination of God's divine plan for the human race; and, on the left, of the secular messianists of the Woodrow Wilson stamp, who believe America to be the standard-bearer for all things properly good, progressive and democratic, as the Lord of Heaven rightly wills it, and wills it inevitably for the whole world.

Douthat concludes with four possible options for the Christian world of contemporary America, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses: (1) the "postmodern opportunity," which exploits the cultural breakup of recent years to fashion "emerging churches" and "para-" groups that seek change society from the "ground up"; their temptation is to simply become, as Douthat puts it, "warmed over accommodationism"; (2) the "Benedict option," named after the monk and saint, which operates on the principle that Christianity must contract—if necessary into sub-cultures that retreat from the mainstream—before it grows; the danger here is to risk "paranoia, crankishness, and all the other pathologies of the religious ghetto...effectively giving up on those co-believers who aren't capable of opting out" of mainstream social engagement; (3) the "Next Christendom," which recognizes and builds on the strong emerging presence of Christianity in the "global south," reckoning within the borders of the United States with the continued influx of immigrant populations from the developing world; here Douthat makes the understandable observation that "not every form of cross-pollination is healthy," for the newly arrived representatives of Christianity from outside America's borders may import as many faults as positive and fresh emphases; and (4) to simply lower expectations as to the possibilities for Christian public and cultural influence.


By any reckoning, Bad Religion is an impressive and formidable effort. It would make excellent study material for a parish group. For sheer breadth, it's one of those books that is an education in itself, drawing together statistics, names, and social and cultural trends, into a richly informative overview of the state of Christianity in the United States in 2012 anno domini. What is more, Douthat manages to articulate—as I mentioned at the outset—highly controversial and complex social, political, and ecclesial trends in a manner both accessible and balanced, giving the reader much to mull over, whatever his or her personal ideological posture. I came to agree with almost everything Douthat argues in Bad Religion. Where I disagreed it tended to be a matter of emphasis here or there, or where I wanted him to better explain some unstated assumptions (e.g. the existence of a "mere Christianity," or the concept of "heresy," apart from the Catholic Church); assumptions of which I knew he was aware, but which lay outside the purview of the book. In any case, for the Catholic, Christian, non-believer, and everything in between, Bad Religion is worth the time, and is sure to reward the interested reader with much fruit for reflection, discussion, and debate.

Br. Clement Lepak, OP's picture

A Mirror Among the Stars: Science is Ordered by Wisdom

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A reflection on Feast of St. Albert the Great, Patron Saint of Scientists.

Image de la galaxie spirale, NGC 4414, hubblesite.org, NASA (available through Wikimedia Commons)

A white hole is thought to be a source of light and matter that is radiating into our universe from an unknown and unapproachable source. Unlike a black hole, which pulls in unceasingly all that approaches it, a white hole is thought to have such a thrust that nothing can enter into it. This speculative model describes an event which spews out energy, light and matter, but which may be highly unstable, collapsing upon itself and then exploding. Some theorists posit a "cosmic counterpoint" to black holes, so that there would be a cosmic balancing, a supernal yin-yang of light, matter and energy. There is no firm evidence that they actually exist, but the concept of a white hole, an unceasing font of waves, vibration and spectra, makes for a marvelous model of contemplation.

As created beings, we can identify the subsistence of all substances at any moment, and reflect that all created things are unceasingly supported and upheld by Being. Unlike the concept of the white hole for which we have found no positive confirmation, when it comes to the source of being, we do stand on evidence: it’s called reality. You’re touching it now. And yes, it’s really real.

Adding another level of intelligibility to this vital sustaining process, we could speak of the other transcendentals such as the good and the true, as well as the related realities of beauty, communicability and love. The leap that allows one to move from the basic physical speculative model of the white hole to the awareness of the font-of-life as emanating from within us, is grounded in the principle that all creation may serve as the springboard towards contemplation. It is wisdom that allows us to order our experience and reason thus, from effects to their cause. Through creation, God ceaselessly offers endless paths for contemplating Him. Man-made artifacts show their wear and begin to age as soon as they are constructed. The table I am writing at shows its age by the exposure of the composite material underneath the varnished surface, which has been rubbed away by constant use over the years. In the brickwork opposite me, visible through the window, I see white lines of more recent mortar that has been used to fill in cracks caused by tremors, weather, shifting. From these artifacts and all others we can come to the conclusion that ‘stuff’ doesn’t last: it wears away, it deteriorates, and if it is living, it dies.

Even great stellar events, such as white holes, stars, and galaxies are limited and in a state of transition but their vastness and abundance of years gives them a fabled, quasi-infinite authority. Yet beyond them, not in size and age, but in mode of being, in perfection, and in goodness, shines the source of all, who even now is in our presence and closer to us than our very self. It has been said that, “The wise man will dominate the stars.” The truth of that statement does not rest in warp drives, time travel or harnessing the energy potential of stars. It rather lies in this: that we will be lords of the stars to the extent that we are lords of our own hearts ordered to the praise of God. In the wondrous signs of creation, and the speculative thought of the sciences, we are afforded manifold opportunities to contemplate the depths and the riches and the knowledge of God. May devotion and knowledge increase hand-in-hand, as God's holy people walk through the darkness of this world into the light with joy, understanding and song.

O, Font of Life and Wisdom, Holy Trinity, God beyond all praise! Amen.

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