Sunday, July 6, 2014

"MY KINGDOM IS NOT OF THIS WORLD." (A reflection on the relationship of the "religious" and the "secular" domains, the Catholic intellectual tradition, and the so-called "culture wars".)

Part One. A number of years ago, I had a conversation with a good friend, a bishop, who was lamenting the fact that they had just "lost" what was a hard-fought battle with the government on an issue that was so important to the church.

"We did all we could", he said. "We fought the good fight, and I suppose that's all that the Lord requires. But losing does sting; I can tell you that. I know some of the guys (he was referring to other bishops in the conference) are feeling quite down right now." 

What do you say to a "successor of the apostles" in a situation like that? Are there any words of wisdom at all that you can share with someone whom you've been taught speaks in the name of The Teacher himself? "Jesus lost too, you know," I said. The good bishop just smiled. He knew what I meant.

What's a sufficiently reflective and engaged Catholic to make of the so-called "culture wars" that have now been raging for quite some time? Must we win them? What should our attitude be if we lose? Is there really a point in speaking about "winning" or "losing"? Should we even be engaged in them? What does it mean to speak of a "culture war"? And what should a believer's attitude toward "culture" in general be?

In his book, Christ and Culture, the Protestant theologian Richard Niebuhr (whom Cardinal Avery Dulles credits in his own book, Models of the Church, for providing a point of departure for his reflections on the different ways of understanding the nature of the church), discusses five "models" or "ways" by which Christians throughout the centuries have tried to "square" a faith that asks them to "fix their gaze on heaven" with the need to concern themselves still with things of this world.

But what exactly do we mean by "culture"? In Niebuhr's work, the term is used to denote that which stands in contrast, at times, even opposition, to anything that is "of Christ". It refers to anything that belongs to the domain of the "profane" or "secular", and therefore lies outside the realm of the "sacred".  There are, according to Niebuhr, five basic ways by which the domain of the religious and the secular have been understood to interact, each way or "model" has its strengths as well as its weaknesses.

Before attempting to answer some of the questions we've listed earlier, its is perhaps helpful to, just briefly, enumerate these five models and lay out their strong as well as weak points. These models are: (i) Christ "against" culture, (ii) Christ "of" culture, (iii) Christ "above" culture, (iv) Christ and culture in a relation of "paradox", and (v) Christ, the "transformer" of culture.

Let's begin with the first model, that of "Christ against culture". 

Christ against culture 

The first model pits the religious against the secular, faith against reason, Christ against culture. As Niebuhr points out, it is the most uncompromising view towards culture which “affirms the sole authority of Christ over culture and resolutely rejects culture’s claims to loyalty”. 

We could perhaps refer to it as the "conflict model" which sees a perpetual clash between the domains of faith and the world. It sees little to no point in trying to "bridge" or even attempt to find points of contact between these two spheres. Perhaps the most radical of all the models, it is the worldview we find among religious communities that separate and even isolate themselves from the world as much as they can. The Amish are an example, though certain past ways of understanding the monastic life can also be regarded as manifesting such mindset. There is nothing salvific or even worth redeeming about the world or secular society. This is not the believer's home; and while he has to live his or her life here and now, his gaze and his mind must forever be focused on heaven and the world to come.

In 2010, a new edition of the Bible—nicknamed “the Green Bible”—was published. It’s stated aim was to “equip and encourage readers to see God’s vision for creation and help them engage in the work of healing and sustaining it. This first Bible of its kind included inspirational essays from a number of spiritual leaders, including Pope John Paul II. The aim of the edition was certainly noble and admirable.

Surprisingly though, when the Bible did hit the shelves at bookstores, the first words of critique and rejection, came not from non-believers, but from certain fundamentalist Christian groups, their main argument against the edition – that Christians are called to “flee”, “shun”, and “reject” the world as the place of evil, torment, and suffering, and should instead look to the “world to come”. Talk of care for the environment, some of them insisted, was really no more than a facade for a kind of secularism that seeks to “water down” Christianity’s rejection of the world and its coming condemnation at the end of time.

In the early Christian era, the theologian Tertullian was among those who first articulated this paradigm of "conflict", even "warfare" between faith and reason, religion and secular life. "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" he asked. What his question really meant was, "what does worldly reason have to do with revealed faith?" His answer, of course, was nothing. We believe, not because what we believe is rational or can be given sense by human reason, faith isn't faith if it doesn't hold onto what is inherently absurd. Credo quia absurdum. "I believe (precisely) because it is absurd".

Niebuhr is quick to point out that it is the radical nature of this paradigm that makes it both so admirable as well as dangerous - and in this consists both its strength as well as its weakness.

Martyrdom, for instance, is impossible without such mindset. The early Christian martyrs who so willingly shed their blood for the sake of what they believe saw no room for compromise between their belief and the demands of the world. There is no "middle-ground" between Christ and the world, and there can be neither conciliation nor cooperation. To borrow the Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard's words, faith is a case of "either-or", not "both-and". One therefore has to stand in awe at the power of conviction of those whose blood became the "seed of the Church".

What's the "downside"? For the sake of emphasizing the point, let's use a rather "extreme" case. In 2001, the 8200-feet Bamiyan Buddhas, cultural and historical possessions of all humanity, and built some 1500 years ago on the Silk Road running through the Hindu Kush of Central Afghanistan, were blown to bits by the Taliban when they took control of the country. Though different reasons were given, the bottom-line was, they were regarded as idols, impure artifacts, unacceptable in the new fundamentalist leadership's vision of building a "purer" religious society.

Now, we're not trying to compare the Amish or Catholic monastic desire to shield one's faith from the depredations of the world with radical fundamentalism, but there is something to be said about a worldview that sees nothing but evil and degradation in the world, that sees very little that is salvific or even remotely useful to religion and faith, in the domain of what is perceived to be properly secular or profane.

(A "disclaimer" is perhaps called-for at this point. While the Catholic monastic tradition has, in its history, included tendencies that suggested "flight" from the world, the tradition has itself evolved and does not, i.e. without qualification, see one's taking-leave of the world as a simple rejection of it, nor has the tradition ever regarded the realm of the secular as totally corrupt and depraved.)

The theologian, Stanley Hauwerwas has argued - and I do make it a point to emphasize this idea to my students - that whether we like it or not, there is a necessary "againstness" that is built into the very attitude that a believer must have towards the world. The two are forever in opposition with each other. This isn't the Christian's home. At the same time, to emphasize this opposition is not to say that "conflict" and "opposition" must always mark one's view of the world. There is simply no way a believer can "barricade" himself against the influence of the world.

There is no other world, after all, just this one; and one's worthiness of a hoped-for life-to-come is premised on how one lives his or her life "in this world". Rejection isn't enough, and the simple vilification of this world won't do. Moreover, as Niebuhr himself points out, the perspective itself is most inadequate in describing how a Christian ought to relate himself to the world and society, primarily because an actual separation between the world and Christianity has never actually been achieved at any time, and thus we should not think that it can ever be. It is just as hopeless as the ideal of a secular irreligious utopia.

We must resist the temptation to think that sin lies in culture, in society, and in the world alone, and that when the Christian escapes these realities, he can therefore effectively escape sin. This is certainly not the case. Finally and, perhaps, most importantly, the simple pitting of Christ against culture, faith against reason, the sacred against the secular, reveals an impoverished view of Christ and his Spirit's role in creation. As Niebuhr argues, "the rejection of culture is easily combined with a suspicion of nature and nature's God", leading ultimately to the temptation "to divide the world into a material realm governed by a principle opposed to Christ and a spiritual realm governed by a spiritual God". 

To be continued...

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)