Hallraum_TU_Dresden_2009-06-21There was a time in Christianity when approval could be gotten for free, when repeating X orthodox arguments against y heretics would, no matter how pandering to existing consensus or intellectually unoriginal, garner adulation. I think back to poor Tigranes, the Armenian king who was facing attack from the Romans in the first century. A messenger warned him and was killed, so subsequent messengers brought only assurances, and they spent several weeks in a nice, Armenian echo chamber. All voices concurred and dissent punished by exile or death (back to the RC church now), and this singleness of mind, leading to out-of-touchness with reality, helped lead to the 16th-century breaking point – the Reformation – which, along with the Peace of Augsburg (a politically-sanctioned, limited pluralism), was a landmark event in creating the primacy of individual opinion in its current form.

Christianity long served as a master-discipline, the “queen of the sciences”, and there are a few characteristic advantages which go with such a title. First, a master-discipline assigns other fields of study their places: politics for administering the inbreaking kingdom of God (or administering the city of man in the saeculum), history as a study of progression towards some spiritual telos, science as the study of creation (Rm 1:20), etc. Second, it trumps other disciplines: if the insights of Copernicus conflict with the terrocentrism implicit in Joshua’s making the sun stand still, then Copernicus is wrong. And third, it requires no justification beyond itself, no conditions for its insights to be effective. The Bible seems to say X – QED.

It is frequently the duty of those in power to graciously share its benefits with those less powerful. Christianity often failed in this, naively supposing that inquisitions and witch-hunts could put a lid on heresy, could allow the medieval Catholic consensus (or the Constantinian or 50s American Protestant one, as it were) to last indefinitely, for all the long time before the coming of Christ. Now that Christianity no longer trumps other areas of discourse or tells them what to do, there’s been an understandable backlash. It took too long to accept the principle of every action producing an equal and opposite reaction, and here we are. Church resentments abound, and it’s almost entirely the Church’s fault. This reaction is an understandable and natural one.


Which is why I was so happy to learn that Mr. James Carroll, a skeptical Catholic and former priest, still goes to church – doing so can be difficult. In a recent column for THE NY Times, he wrote a beautiful opening sentence and closing one, and sandwiched between them was the sin, not against the Holy Spirit, but against originality:

The intruding voice in my head keeps asking, for example, why has Francis, too, joined in the denigration of American nuns?

Why is the culture of clerical immunity that unleashed a legion of priest-rapists being protected instead of dismantled?

Why in the world beatify, or advance toward sainthood, Pope Paul VI? With his solemn reiteration, in 1968, of the ban on contraception, that pontiff, whatever counterbalancing virtues he displayed, single-handedly made Roman Catholicism a church of bad conscience.

No one cares whether one bent man in a back pew, like me, throws in the altar cloth at last, but the religious disenchantment of the secular age puts the question even more broadly: Why the church at all? Yet as soon as the voice in my head forces the question, I know the answer, although it’s hard to explain. Unlike many Protestants, Catholics have long put their practical faith more in the community of belief than in the person around whom that community gathers.

Italian Baroque 3

Certain articles have no point, and this is probably one of them. The arguments are old and so hashed-out. Francis has not abated the Vatican’s campaign to put pressure on some American nuns to sound more orthodox (by Vatican standards, of course). Analysis has found no significant difference between proportion of priests who molest and proportion of general population, though we can all agree the cover-up was indefensible. They’re going on with Paul VI’s beatification because they still believe what he did about contraception. Francis’s change in tone for the Church is welcome and good; he hasn’t changed its dogmatic content and has shown no signs of doing so. Any other obvious statement that need making to gratify Carroll’s incredulity? The rest isn’t worth quoting: maybe Christ’s divinity just means that being human is majestic! Jesus was a Jew. Maybe we can pare back the historical layers and found a faith on Jesus’ personality! Christ is a moral example. Catholicism “only a means to a larger communion not just with fellow Jesus people, but with humans everywhere”!

The desire to place Christianity in a context more resonant to modern ears strikes me as commendable, and Christian Wiman and Francis Spufford do, among others, a marvelous job of aggiornamento in a sympathetic and intellectually engaging way. But some of the specifics above are dicey at best. An entire generation of brilliant German Protestants spent the bulk of their time and energy recovering the ‘original’ Jesus, purified of institutional dross and historical accretions. A subsequent generation, of course, dismantled them. As nice as it would feel to reinterpret Chalcedon as a statement of human majesty, it’s simply impossible to do so and continue to call one’s religion a Christian one. People don’t like Peter Abelard. And so forth. It’s a shame when the voices trying to breathe in new life sound so, well, old – almost to the point of banality.

The most interesting part about the editorial is, to me, that little bit about the Church being a ‘only’ (editors, cut that word!) a means to a larger communion. Community requires “common objects of love”, as O’Donovan titled a short book on the topic, and simply cannot exist as an end in itself. Sociology, or more properly, zeitgeisty social feeling, has become the queen of the sciences. Its goals and conclusions require no conditions or referent beyond themselves, and theology is duly asked to reinterpret itself, form and content, to fit what’s basically an upper-class, well-educated set of modern American sensibilities. And finally, the repetition: it is only when a worldview has become entirely self-assured and utterly hermetic that, within the echo chamber, a scattered and nonsubstantive articulation of an orthodoxy sounds groundbreaking.


I would recommend Elizabeth Johnson, Emile Durkheim, and portrait-of-Jesus theologians to anyone – they’re well-thought-out, engaging, and most importantly, engaged: they know the tradition, know potential problems with their writing, objections, and so forth. The theologians trying to reinterpret Christianity to fit a modern sensibility deserve their due, but we’re seeing a fantastic proliferation of people playing Ayn Rand to their Nietzsche – none of the nuance, but far more marketability, at least to those who already essentially know what they’re hearing. It’s certainly depressing that this kind of thing passes for good religious conversation to editors and readers at the country’s best-regarded newspaper.

If there’s anything to learn from the Catholic Church’s relative decline over the centuries, it’s that echo chambers isolate their criers. And at a more fundamental level, eisegesis (reading-in) is a sin precisely because it remakes that which would speak to us in an image we already know. Christians have received the extraordinary gift of having their echo chamber torn down. Those who have done so in the name of dialogue should resist building one of their own.